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Whiskey and Cigars

WhiskeyandCigars Apr 3rd, 2017 (edited) 3,173 Never
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  1. Whiskey and Cigars
  3. Chapter 1
  5. It was never actually warm in Damwall.
  6. Even in the Month of Seeds, when the sun shone clear and harsh in the sky and farmers planted their crops, the perpetual sweep of sea breezes cooled the air so that ponies across Quidstol bundled against the chill year-round.
  7. You are City Watch Lieutenant Solemn Rain, and unfortunately for you, it is turning out to be a particularly bitter autumn.
  8. >You step out of the drizzle falling from a leaden sky and into a guard hut, the usual stop on your rounds being a welcome refuge from the damp.
  9. >Casting a wary glance around the snug outpost, you eye the only other occupant, a stallion in the armor of a City Watch guard, gazing at a book by the dim flicker of a whale oil lamp through heavy-lidded eyes.
  10. >You stand quietly observing the guard for a while longer, wondering how long it would take him to notice the newcomer to his post.
  11. >Slumped against desk, no discernable movement of the eyes, not even a prick of the ears, you note inwardly.
  12. >Asleep on duty, then.
  13. >You clear your throat none too quietly and the guard jolts awake, slamming his book closed with a practiced efficiency which, had it not been muddled by sleep, may have prevented you from stealing a glance at the “The Young Prince of Thoroughbrydia” inscribed on the cover.
  14. “Interesting read?”
  15. >You maintain an impassive expression as he fumbles to hide the novel.
  16. >Wide-eyed, he attempts to stammer a response before deciding on a simple “Ma’am!”
  17. >Finally you afford the poor sod a small and understanding smile.
  18. “Relax, you’re not getting written up. This double duty is taking a toll on all of us, just do your best to stay awake, yeah?”
  19. >Relieved, the guard gives an enthusiastic “yes Ma’am!” in reply.
  20. >You turn to note your visit in the hut’s logbook before thinking of something else and rounding once more on the guard.
  21. “One more thing; do try and keep your guilty pleasures a little more… well, secretive.”
  22. >The guard blushes in realization, mumbling a sheepish “yes Ma’am” and finally managing to secure the item in question in a pocket.
  23. >Inscribing that nothing interesting to report had occurred between Pelham Boulevard and Halter Square, you decide to partake in a guilty pleasure of your own before venturing into the rain again.
  24. >Pulling a metal cigarette case from your jacket, you tap it a few times before selecting one, returning the case and withdrawing a cardboard matchbook.
  25. >The first match fails to light and breaks in half, damp from the water that had seeped through to your coat over the course of the evening.
  26. >Frowning with annoyance, you strike another one lightly, the head flaring bright this time.
  27. >Before you can bring it to your tobacco, however, the soaked cardboard sputters out with a puff of smoke.
  28. >”Need a light?”
  29. >You whirl about, the voice not belonging to the guard in the corner but rather coming from directly behind you, and find yourself looking into the smug face of Sergeant Silver Dust.
  30. >Surprise passing, you ease a hoof off your pistol and narrow your eyes coolly at the NCO.
  31. “You shouldn’t sneak up like that, Sergeant, you’re likely to get shot.”
  32. >“Oh come on Sol, after all we’ve been through?” Dust replied, offering a whale oil lighter and spurring its mechanism, producing a yellow flame. “I thought you’d recognize my voice.”
  33. “It’s Lieutenant or Ma’am now, sergeant.”
  34. >You reluctantly touch your cigarette to the flame before raising it to your lips and drawing deeply, the acrid flavor somewhat calming your annoyingly startled nerves.
  35. “And I did recognize your voice, just didn’t expect you on this watch tonight.”
  36. >Silver shrugged, sending a few rivulets of rainwater from his slick armor to the floor.
  37. >“Eh, you know how it is, everyone’s working twice the shifts in twice the districts nowadays,” he said, turning his lighter over in his hoof. “You really ought to get yourself one of these. You know as well as anyone they’re a damn sight better than those matches of yours.”
  38. “You know why I don’t have one.”
  39. >Your tone is quieter, and you glance at the guard in the corner.
  40. > The seated stallion didn’t hear anyway, scared into intensely reviewing the logbook by the presence of now two superiors.
  41. >The whales had changed the course of the Empire of the Isles, to be sure.
  42. >Inventions from the Academy utilizing the oil of the beasts heated homes, drove ever more powerful ships of war and commerce across the seas, and improved life in myriad other ways.
  43. >Yet the idea of slaughtering the vast animals to drive the Empire into the future never sat quite right with you.
  44. >You’re no radical, obviously, like the ones refusing to live in a flat with oil furnace heating or arrested trying to sabotage a refinery.
  45. >Those are the worst. No reasoning with them into peaceful cooperation, have to take them all down forcefully.
  46. >But the little things, like lighting your cigarettes or wearing perfumes with the creatures’ essence, you couldn’t stomach.
  47. >A particularly strong gust whips through the street, howling at the guard hut’s open door and breaking you out of your contemplation.
  48. >Silver gives an apologetic half-smile and tucks the lighter into his jacket.
  49. >“Yeah, sorry about that Sol,” he apologizes, quickly correcting himself to “Ma’am” as you glare at him.
  50. >Glancing again at the guard in the corner, who was absorbed in a particularly interesting ink stain in the log, you soften you gaze at Silver.
  51. “I’m sorry Silver.”
  52. >You were quiet enough that it was nearly lost in the tinny noise of rain hitting the roof.
  53. “I’ve got to maintain an image now in front of the enlisted. Good order and discipline, and all that.”
  54. >Silver chuckles a little. “There she is, always the straight arrow of the squad. No surprise they commissioned you, though you’d have made an excellent Overseer.”
  55. >You roll your eyes at this, not even wanting to think on the Abbey of the Everymare and making it clear to Silver not to start.
  56. >Fortunately, Silver takes the hint and straightens his uniform.
  57. >“Well, I’d best be on with my rounds, Ma’am,” he says, rendering such an impeccable salute that you knew it was part jest.
  58. >Regardless, you return your old friend’s salute and cut, sending him on his way.
  59. “Carry on, Sergeant.”
  60. >Silver disappears into the night, the sound of his hooves on cobblestone fading into the falling rain.
  61. >Suddenly aware that your own hoof feels warm, you glance down to realize that your cigarette had burned through most of its useful length.
  62. >Raising it, you take one last pull, holding it for a couple of beats and letting it heat your lungs before releasing.
  63. >You locate an ashtray on the counter and stub the cigarette out before dropping it into a waste bin and turning to the door.
  64. >Before you cross the threshold, the guard looks up from his log.
  65. >“Stay safe out there, Ma’am.” He offers, a trace of worry in his eyes.
  66. >You regard him for a moment before nodding.
  67. “You too, Corporal. Stay awake.”
  68. >Steeling yourself, you step into the street once more, cold pricks of water stabbing you lightly through your jacket.
  69. >He was right to be nervous, you think as you pass a “Wanted” poster hanging on the wall of the hut, the portrait identical to the others that dotted every street, square and alley in the city.
  70. >The watches were doubled for a reason.
  72. Chapter 2
  74. >What had started as a drizzle had strengthened into a steady downpour while you were in the guard hut.
  75. >The rain stains the grimy gray of Damwall an ugly, streaked black, the soot of a thousand chimneys washing into the gutters and forming foul puddles in the less well maintained streets.
  76. >Those streets make up more and more of the city as the year draws on, you think morosely as you cross the street to avoid one oily pool.
  77. >Public works had all but collapsed in the spring, lack of labor and fear of entering the worst parts of the city throwing a massive wrench in the gears Damwall.
  78. >You pause, hearing the characteristic whine of a public broadcast loudspeaker spooling up nearby.
  79. >”Attention Damwall citizens. All signs of sickness must be reported to the City Watch at once. Hiding signs of sickness will be considered treason against the state. Additionally, use of magic beyond basic levitation by unicorns is forbidden to all citizens, and offenders will be tried by the Abbey of the Everymare for heresy.”
  80. >The stallion’s deep voice fades away as the loudspeaker audibly winds down, leaving you staring at the ugly metal device dangling high above the street.
  81. >The things had been erected shortly after the Lord Regent assumed power.
  82. >Shortly after the Empress was… assassinated.
  83. >Looking back, it really was impressive, in a morbid sort of way, how quickly everything had gone to the Void.
  84. >Rats had always been a part of life in the city.
  85. >You cram ponies in, stacking them on top of each other in cheap apartments, putting them to work in dingy factories, and naturally you get vermin feasting on the refuse of society.
  86. >One day though, you just sort of notice that the rats look a little bigger than they usually do.
  87. >Bolder too, not scared into the dark by approaching hoofsteps.
  88. >Then they start biting.
  89. >You swear at them and chase them off, then a few days pass and you wake up sweating, head pounding.
  90. >You try to get on with your life, but the queasiness comes, the vomit and mucus.
  91. >You stagger to the hospital, only to be turned away at the door because the wards are full of ponies just like you, and the doctors don’t know how to help.
  92. >Curfew is put into, and the Watch starts making door-to-door visits, asking if anyone inside is sick.
  93. >Sometimes they leave with no one, sometimes a pony or two at sword and pistol point.
  94. >These days they usually leave with bodies.
  95. >Often they were already dead, wrapped in oilskin as much to protect the guards as to hold the corpse together until it can be disposed of.
  96. >Occasionally they came out filled with pistol shot, having gone down charging the guards madly.
  97. >The Plague affected the mind as well as the body, rotting reason and making its victims no more than incoherent, shambling messes, open sores becoming home to swarms of flies.
  98. >The muffled tinkling of distant breaking glass makes you aware that you’ve once again drifted into a careless trance.
  99. >“Stupid pony”, you think inwardly, now completely soaked from standing in the middle of the deluge.
  100. >You swivel slowly, ears doing their best through the din of rain to pick out any further disturbances as you squint through the gloom.
  101. >Seeing nothing, you shift your gaze to the upper floors of the buildings lining the narrow street.
  102. >Though not cordoned off yet, the Market District did have many now vacant neighborhoods such as the one you were standing in.
  103. >The aftermath of recent and newly zealous attempts by Lord Regent to keep the Plague out of unaffected areas, evacuating entire buildings to containment zones at the first and slightest sign or rumor of infection.
  104. >Hearing and seeing nothing, you slowly advance up the street, checking that your sword and pistol are properly positioned and reassured by their familiar weight on your harness.
  105. >You come to an alley barely a meter wide between two buildings of obviously different architecture, the result of two competing construction firms with no proper communication, no doubt.
  106. >Scanning the alley, you nearly pass it by before you see the light.
  107. >It was barely perceptible; a faint bluish glow emanating from a small window on the third floor of a shabby inn and casting itself on the brick of the adjacent structure.
  108. >You quickly whip your head up and down the street, seeing nothing, your black, braided mane falling from under your helmet.
  109. >Unconsciously you reach up with a foreleg to tuck it away again, smearing it and your collar with foul mud.
  110. >The light remained in the window, no flicker of movement or further noise reaching you.
  111. >Running for backup would take too long; the last guard hut was three blocks away, and the corporal there gave you the impression of being more skillful with pen than sword.
  112. >Not that investigating strange sights alone in the dead of night was a particularly intelligent idea either.
  113. >Double back to the hut and involve a green recruit, possibly missing an opportunity to investigate something that may well be out of his depth anyway, or go in now and face the risk on your own?
  114. >Tough decisions, Solemn, that’s what you’re an officer for now.
  115. >Your heartbeat begins to thud heavily in your ears, notifying you that you’ve been holding your breath for a little too long.
  116. >You heave a sigh and think for a second longer, then approach the stoop of the inn.
  117. >It’s boarded well and solidly shut, a sloppy red “X” condemning the building to vacancy for the indeterminate future.
  118. >Working your way around the side and into the crevice, easing your hooves through the stream rushing through it, you emerge at the back of the inn next to a well rusted fire escape ending with an unsecured door on the second floor.
  119. >You groan internally, not impressed with the structural integrity of the staircase, but place a tentative hoof on the first step.
  120. >To your surprise no squealing of stressed metal issues from it, and you gradually shift the rest of your weight onto the stairs and begin your ascent.
  121. >Arriving at the door, you inspect it carefully.
  122. >Rough holes left by nails pried from the jamb, drops of red paint on the landing, door surface brighter where boards covered it, scuffs and indentations from where it appeared to have been kicked.
  123. >Closed up like the rest of the building, but someone gained access to this place, recently.
  124. >Standing to one side, you sit back on your haunches and draw your pistol in your right hoof, cocking the action with your left before you reach across and tenderly try the doorknob.
  125. >The door swings open with no need to turn the knob, the mechanism likely destroyed by the forced entry.
  126. >Slowly and smoothly, you transition around to aim your weapon through the doorway, painting the interior with a precise arc from well outside the threshold.
  127. >The lack of functioning streetlamps in this neighborhood meant your eyes were already well adapted to the dark, and you detect no movement in the space beyond.
  128. >You step inside, muzzle swinging first to the corner opposite the door, then sharply behind it as you ease it closed behind you, the noise of the rain fading to a distant static.
  129. >You find yourself in a hallway, dim light from a window at the front of the inn seeping down it and casting long shadows with the dark electric lights along the ceiling.
  130. >A staircase to the first floor descends into darkness on your left, and its counterpart leads away to the third on your right.
  131. >Statuesque, you remain in the cover of the staircase, ears swiveling as you sniff the air delicately.
  132. >Musty, moldy.
  133. >Dank, especially dank.
  134. >All the smells of structural decay, but none of the disturbingly unique odor of putrefaction, and hopefully no Plague with it.
  135. >The doors along the hallway are all closed, and no detectable sound emanates from behind them, nor does anything filter up from the murk of the first floor.
  136. >Your fur bristles at the thought of continuing upward without clearing the rest of the building, but the sun would be up and you’d be missed at watch changeover if you tried to do so quietly.
  137. >A scuffling from above catches your breath in your throat, and a thin steam of dust emanates from the wood above you.
  138. >So, you’re still here after all.
  139. >You shift over to the upward bound stairs, gluing yourself to the inner wall, avoiding the middle of the steps like the Plague.
  140. >Heh.
  141. >No time for jokes, Sol, you stupid pony.
  142. >Testing each one before committing, your progress is painfully slow, made more complicated by your keeping the pistol trained in front of you.
  143. >It’s dark here, no windows, the faint luminescence of the whale oil cartridge in your weapon only just visible through a narrow gap in the ejection port.
  144. >Hunting the whales, extracting their oil, refining it, shooting ponies with it.
  145. >Ponies killing whales killing ponies, the absent, distant thought that crosses your mind every time you have to draw your pistol.
  146. >Eventually you run out of stairs and extend the pistol slowly, cringing at the barely audible thud as its muzzle finds the door you were expecting.
  147. >Repeating your performance at the fire escape, you press yourself against the wall next to it, feeling for a door handle.
  148. >This one feels solid so you give it a twist, just enough to unlatch it. Dim natural light filters through the crack, and you aim your pistol at it before nudging the door fully open.
  149. >Another hallway greets you, identical to the first, save one thing.
  150. >The right-side door at the far end has several chairs and nightstands pushed up against it, all identical, furniture from other rooms.
  151. >Beneath the door bleeds a pale blue glow.
  152. >No getting though the tangle of furniture in front without some serious noise, you think darkly.
  153. >Recalling the exterior of the building, you wonder about a ledge running under the windows.
  154. >Silently hoping that whoever evacuated the building hadn’t cared to lock interior doors, you move to the closest one on the right.
  155. >Mercifully, the knob turns easily and the door opens with only a miniscule creak, which nonetheless causes your ears to lay flat along your helmet.
  156. >You pause once more and look down the hall, hearing and seeing no change.
  157. >Inside the room is a bed, still neatly made, the worn but well-kept furniture all where it was left while occupied.
  158. >The only items out of place are a feather duster, laying in the middle of the floor, and box of cheap soap, crumpled on one side as if dropped suddenly.
  159. >The window is your target, and it appears big enough to fit through.
  160. >On inspection it is unsecured, apparently no real expectation for squatters to climb three floors up for refuge.
  161. >You undo the latch and swing it open, only then realizing that the rain had stopped.
  162. >Damnit.
  163. >So much for blending in with background noise.
  164. >Sure enough, there’s a stone ledge barely wide enough for your hooves side by side, running all the way to the blue-lit window at the far end.
  165. >The ledge is just as slick as it would have been in the rain, and you spare a glance at the alley.
  166. >You’re not afraid of heights.
  167. >You’re afraid of falling from heights.
  168. >Easing the action of your pistol down, you holster it and take a few calming breaths before stepping out on the ledge.
  169. >Two steps down the ledge you consider, not for the first time this night, what a stupid pony you are.
  170. >You should have left your harness in the room.
  171. >Your pistol, holstered on your left flank, scrapes along the wall, and to avoid it catching on each window frame you pass you must lean your body away from the building.
  172. >Simultaneously, your sword swings away from your right side in its scabbard, threatening to pull you down into the alley with it.
  173. >The muscles in your legs are on fire, working overtime to keep you performing the balancing act.
  174. >The blue glow edges closer, yet may as well be miles away.
  175. >Sweat mixes with rainwater to plaster your jacket to your form, the harness’ normally comforting weight feeling like an anchor, straps burrowing into your skin.
  176. >Finally, you arrive next to the window, fully realizing another mistake, the weight of your stupidity nearly collapsing the ledge beneath you.
  177. >You can’t turn around.
  178. >Desperately you scan your surroundings, furious at yourself for not thinking of this contingency.
  179. >The roof is too far away, and you’d never be able to grasp its slippery edge anyway.
  180. >The building opposite the inn is much taller, likely a warehouse of some kind, with no windows of its own.
  181. >Shit.
  182. >Only two options remain open to you: The long fall into the alley, or the occupied room that you came here to investigate.
  183. >Not ready to leave this world just yet, you opt for the window.
  184. >“Time to do my job,” you say to yourself, internal voice dripping with acid.
  185. >You peak your head around the window’s edge, just enough to glimpse the room through smudged panes.
  186. >The source of the light is immediately obvious, a collection of oil lanterns of various sizes, gathered before a small wooden table and emitting their strange glow.
  187. >An item sits in a place of reverence on the table, and you strain to make out just what it is exactly.
  188. >Before you can do so, your blood freezes in your veins.
  189. >A figure slumps before the table, silhouetted by the lanterns, sprawled in what appears to be slumber.
  190. >You can’t see its face.
  191. >You don’t need to, because you know who it is.
  192. >The reason the entire city is on high alert.
  193. >The one from the posters.
  195. Chapter 3
  197. >He had arrived a few months before the Plague, causing a stir in the city and gaining the attention of the Empress herself.
  198. >Whether that was his initial goal or not, who can be certain.
  199. >He came from the distant kingdom of Equestria, on the far side of the world, arriving via a Griffanian merchant vessel; Equestria had no real diplomatic ties to the Empire, no need for them.
  200. >They were an inward looking, shore-bound nation, and cared little for finer points of maritime commerce and statecraft; besides that, they were a land rife with heretics, practicing all sorts of magic most foul and constantly flirting with destruction by forces beyond this world.
  201. >At least, that was the official state line; isolation approved by the Abbey of the Everymare as a safeguard against heresy, the influence of…
  202. >Well, if you believe in those sorts of things.
  203. >You recall the countless newspaper headlines and rumors swirling about the Empress’ murder, how he had been found alone with her body, blood soaked and maniacal; calling him at the same time an Equestrian agent, a bloodthirsty monster, a spirit sent from the Void itself to bring about the Empire’s undoing.
  204. >And you are about to confront him.
  205. >Determined not to overlook anything else and confident that he is asleep, you scan as much of the room as you can through the window.
  206. >He lay with his back to you atop a mattress taken from the bed, curled towards the heat thrown off by the burning whale oil.
  207. >Beneath the window is a small desk, the accompanying chair wedged at an angle beneath the doorknob.
  208. >A small pile of glass jars and metal tins containing pickled vegetables and potted whale meat, among other things, is stacked near his head.
  209. >With the Plague’s drastic effect on work force and an early winter approaching, some whaling companies had made the decision to expand their oil refining operations to include packing and selling meat.
  210. >There were no laws against the consumption of meat in Damwall; before the Plague, its seaport had drawn visitors of many lands and cultures, and ambitious ponies had seen to their needs.
  211. >Perhaps these same ponies now found work alongside the whalers, and as hunger grew into a serious problem among the city’s poor, they had found new ways to continue their enterprise.
  212. >Fortunately for you, the City Watch still gets decent enough rations; enough not to starve anyway, and many in the Watch had warmed up to the new food source as a supplement to them.
  213. >You are rather short and thin for an earth pony, but have proven on more than one occasion that you can hold your own as a guard.
  214. >“Scrappy,” as Sergeant Dust had described you once.
  215. >Eyes flitting over the room once and then twice more, you see nothing more of interest, aside from the object on the makeshift shrine.
  216. >It’s white, with a few screws and strips of twine holding it together, and about hoof-sized, if a little larger.
  217. >Though, your hooves are a little small, you suppose.
  218. >The black hardened oilcloth boots covering your rear hooves and reaching up to your hocks were the smallest size available, but you still had to take them to a farrier before wearing them.
  219. >Focus, Sol.
  220. >Unable to make heads or tails of the strange object, you begin considering a plan of attack.
  221. >You’ll need a way out, first of all.
  222. >The mess of furniture outside the door leads to the conclusion that he had entered the room by the same method you were about to, after constructing the barricade.
  223. >Clever, noise would warn him of an intruder and give him plenty of time to disappear, or prepare an ambush.
  224. >Not too difficult to get out of from the inside, though; just un-wedge the chair and pull the door inward, shove the first piece of furniture out of the way and take off.
  225. >And that’s how you would do it.
  226. >You’ll have to make your way to the door undetected, remove the chair, and open the door.
  227. >Then you could level your pistol at him, give a swift kick to the nearest chair or nightstand, and be ready and waiting when he comes to.
  228. >You’d shoot him if you had to.
  229. >Wouldn’t you?
  230. >Though the occasions for drawing your weapon had been many, you’d never once had to shoot anyone.
  231. >Most suspects feared lead more than law, it seemed.
  232. >You had always been a solid performer, never assigned the penal duty of the dead counters, those sent to clear out the condemned districts.
  233. >Never had to put down a weeper, Plague victims so far gone that blood stained their cheeks in matted streams.
  234. >You grit your teeth and set your jaw, nostrils flaring as you draw a steadying breath.
  235. >You would do whatever it takes to bring him in.
  236. >This window, like the previous one, is latched, and you steady yourself against the building as you reach a foreleg to your belt, bringing out a small knife.
  237. >Its tip fits snugly between the frame and the window, and you nudge it beneath the latch, applying a gentle upward pressure.
  238. >The latch refuses your action, and you pull upward incrementally harder until…
  239. >“snick”
  240. >The nearly imperceptible sound hits you like the report of a cannon, and your knife soars upward out of the window frame, the sudden lack of resistance throwing you off balance.
  241. >You release the knife to plant your hoof on the ledge once more, wobbling as you watch the glint of metal recede into darkness and disappear with a distant splash.
  242. >Heart hammering sickly, you cringe to look back to the window, expecting the face of the Empress’ killer to greet you.
  243. >The figure hasn’t moved, crumpled on the mattress beneath a cloak.
  244. >Waiting a moment for your heart to slow, you slowly press a hoof to the window and test it.
  245. >It begins to swing open before you feel resistance and quickly back off, looking downward though the frame.
  246. >A tall, empty glass bottle is sitting on the desk beneath the window, its lip just higher than the bottom edge of the frame.
  247. >Had you gone any further, it would have tumbled from the desk.
  248. >It had to be moved, but you couldn’t risk the thing tipping over, and an idea strikes you.
  249. >You reach back underneath your helmet, pulling your braid around in front of you and regarding the silk tie holding its end together.
  250. >It was old and frayed, a gift from your mother when you had been a filly, and a reminder of happier times.
  251. >Silently promising mother you wouldn’t lose it, you pull an end loose, your mane falling around your shoulders in a fashion you normally find supremely annoying on duty.
  252. >With the help of your teeth, the tie is soon fashioned into a loose loop, easily wide enough to snag the lip of the bottle.
  253. >Taking fabric between your lips, you lower yourself on your forelegs, easing the loop through the gap at the bottom of the frame and against the side of the bottle.
  254. >Now for the hard part.
  255. >You begin maneuvering the loop with movements of your lips, trying to twist it upwards and over the top of the bottle.
  256. >You’re bad at it.
  257. >Very bad.
  258. >Vague memories of teasing at your lack of dexterity with a cherry stem float in your mind as you narrowly miss the bottle yet again, eyes flicking upward toward the prone figure in the room, the absurdity of the situation draining your self-confidence.
  259. >Finally, you snag the top of the bottle and freeze, sweat stinging your eyes despite the wind chilling your damp uniform.
  260. >Now missing the preferable knife, you draw your sword silently, angling its blade downward through the window frame to nudge the bottle.
  261. >Teeth clamped tight around the tie to hold tension on the bottle, your sword pushes it off balance and you gradually lower it on its side.
  262. >Sheathing the sword, you are ready to enter the room, and swing the window open fully.
  263. >Steadying the bottle with a hoof to prevent its rolling off the desk, you hastily stuff the silk into your jacket, lowering one leg at a time onto the desk and then, finally, the floor.
  264. >You shut the window, not willing to risk a sudden gust of cold air waking the fiend.
  265. >The first thing you notice is the hissing.
  266. >A low guttural moaning noise permeates the room, accentuated by a higher hissing, like steam escaping from a leaky valve.
  267. >Your ears swivel towards the shrine, the source of the sound.
  268. >Magic.
  269. >The noise causes fur to bristle all over your body, and you begin to wonder if some of those rumors had truth to them.
  270. >Too late to turn back now; magic or no, Void spirit or not, you had to face him.
  271. >Body lowered and hooves spread wide, you test each floorboard as you work your way around to the door, more than once having to backtrack around an unsteady, potentially noisemaking area.
  272. >You move around the perimeter of the room, keeping to the shadows and as far away as possible from the mattress, and soon you reach the door.
  273. >Sitting back, you take the wedged chair in both forehooves, lifting up and outward.
  274. >The legs scuff as the chair comes out, causing you to wince and your attention to bolt once again to the mattress.
  275. >Incredibly, he is still asleep, and you notice for the first time the soft, steady snoring emanating from the cloak, nearly hidden by the unnatural song of the shrine.
  276. >You set the chair clear of the door, twisting its handle and pulling it inward with a low squeal of the hinges.
  277. >In the hallway, a nightstand with a chair atop it is between you and a clear pathway out of the building.
  278. >Turning toward the room, you draw your pistol, its wood and steel feeling heavier than usual with the weight of what you are about to do.
  279. >You check its action, ensuring it is clean and the whale oil cartridge is seated firmly in the chamber before cocking it.
  280. >The cloak stirs at the mechanical sound and you drop into a steady shooting position, hindlegs spread wide, weight shifted forward, left foreleg bent to absorb recoil, right locked out straight towards the target.
  281. >Heart pounding, you stand wide-eyed, pistol shaking slightly as you wait.
  282. >The snoring begins again.
  283. >“Alright Sol, time to go through with it,” you think as you prepare for the single most poorly thought out moment of your brief life.
  284. >You take a half step back, tail brushing against the nightstand, and slowly raise a hindleg into kicking position.
  285. >Count of three, two, one…
  286. >You release the pent-up energy in your leg through a thunderous kick, hoof connecting with the nightstand as you hear and feel the cheap, flimsy furniture shatter backwards into the hallway.
  287. >The assassin finally jolts awake, tangled in his cloak as he turns toward you and freezes at the sight of your weapon and what you hoped was a stern, commanding expression on your face.
  288. “By order of the Lord Regent and for crimes against the Empire, you are under arrest, Anonymous!”
  290. Chapter 4
  292. >Your command is punctuated by a crash which, after all the sneaking you went through to get here, is earsplittingly loud.
  293. >Anonymous, finally snapping out of his daze, has stumbled backwards away from you.
  294. >His cloak wraps tightly around his legs, sending him careening into the desk at the window and knocking the glass bottle to the floor with a terrific shattering.
  295. “Halt! Stand fast and keep your hoov-”
  296. >Your latest command is interrupted, the murderer speaking for the first time.
  297. >“Pl, please, don’t shoot me, I swear nothing is what you think!”
  298. >Not at all what you expected from an otherworldly assassin.
  299. >You remember the standing orders included with his arrest warrant.
  300. “I am escorting you into state custody, you are to keep completely silent during this time!”
  301. >Anonymous has his… hands, you remember them being called, in the air above his head, but now brings them to a pleading motion in front of his body.
  302. >He is still standing, and you note nervously how he is easily two heads taller than even the largest ponies.
  303. >He towers over you.
  304. >But you’ve got control of the situation, you remind yourself.
  305. >“Please, you have to give me a moment to-”
  306. >Now it’s your turn to cut him off.
  307. “Shut up! And move away from that shrine!”
  308. >You flick your pistol away from the shrine before returning it to Anonymous, realizing now that you can still hear its unnerving song.
  309. >You’re just a Watch officer, it’s not your place to question things like this.
  310. >You’ve never seen or heard anything like this, however.
  311. >Parlor tricks sure, but real, tangible magic?
  312. >Besides, you’d come just a little too far tonight to just let the Abbey hide it away.
  313. >Your eyes narrow at the, admittedly pathetic looking, assassin.
  314. “What were you playing at here?”
  315. >Anonymous blinks.
  316. >“What do you mean?”
  317. >Playing dumb.
  318. “You know damn well: that shrine, that... thing on it, the song!”
  319. >His eyes widen in his haggard face at the last part of your outburst.
  320. >“You mean, you can hear it?”
  321. >You were expecting a trap, something devious from him to distract you.
  322. >What you got instead was pure surprise, something you’ve seen enough of in the Watch to recognize at a glance.
  323. “Should I not?”
  324. >Careful Sol, remember where you are, who he is, what you are supposed to be doing here…
  325. >Anonymous’ hands come lower, and you give a sharp nod upward of your weapon, returning them above his head.
  326. >“I tried to hear it, built it the way it should be, but I can’t.”
  327. >His surprise slowly fades, his face morphing in the dim blue of the room to disquieting enthusiasm.
  328. >“And you can.”
  329. >Hands still above his head, he begins to slowly circle the perimeter of the room, and before you can stop him you are between him and the shrine.
  330. “Halt!”
  331. >He does so, but the panic you were feeling was beginning to seep into your voice.
  332. >He heard it.
  333. >“I don’t mean you any harm, you have to believe me; just listen to the rune for me. What does it sound like?”
  334. “I, I said stop talking. I’m bringing you in, now put your hands behind your head!”
  335. >He refuses your order; worse still, his legs begin to move, and he slowly advances toward you.
  336. >Your trigger hoof is shaking profusely now, and your own legs begin to stumble backwards, trying to maintain distance between yourself and the looming assassin.
  337. >As you beat your slow retreat through the room, you realize something.
  338. >The song is getting louder.
  339. >What had been incomprehensible and faint now fills your ears, and you almost believe that you can make out individual words, chanting underneath the low, sad wail.
  340. >Your eyes are saucers.
  341. >Wariness had been your dominant feeling toward the killer before entering this room.
  342. >Now you are terrified.
  343. >His eyes are focused past you, however, staring at the shrine with an eagerness you’ve never seen.
  344. >Catching yours, he motions with a hand in a nearly friendly manner, inviting you to turn around and look at it too.
  345. >The song encourages you.
  346. >You still can’t make out what it’s saying, but it goes deep inside you, wrapping around your heart and squeezing so you can hardly breathe.
  347. >Chills rack your body, cold sweat matting your fur as you step to one side of the shrine, keeping Anonymous in your field of view.
  348. >You have to look.
  349. >Finally, you do.
  350. >The rune is made of whalebone, fractured in several places, and held together with strips of metal and twine.
  351. >It is flat and round, with glyphs resembling concentric circles inscribed on its center.
  352. >The song is overwhelming now, and you slowly sit down on your haunches.
  353. >What are you doing Sol.
  354. >Your left foreleg comes off the floor, rising to the tabletop.
  355. >You look back to Anonymous, fear overflowing as tears well up in your eyes.
  356. >He nods at you encouragingly.
  357. >You freeze a few inches from the rune, your head clearing, if only for a moment.
  358. >You are a guard, tasked with bringing down the most dangerous criminal in the city, now face-to-face with him and dealing with powers banned by the Empire.
  359. >And you can’t stop yourself; the rune calls to you.
  360. >Your hoof moves the rest of the way to it, feeling its smooth surface; it’s warm despite the season, comforting.
  361. >The room begins to spin, and your vision goes hazy before you can pull away.
  362. >You feel yourself falling as if from a great height, tumbling endlessly, the last sound you hear being the cracking report of a gun.
  364. Chapter 5
  366. >When you come to, it’s dark.
  367. >You feel groggy, as though you overslept and missed the better part of a day.
  368. >Blinking away the cloudiness in your mind, you look about, realizing you are still in the abandoned hotel room.
  369. >Anonymous is gone, and judging by the quiet, so is his rune.
  370. >The lamps are cold, their oil having long since burned out.
  371. >Standing up, you feel oddly light, quickly realizing why.
  372. >You are completely naked.
  373. >Your head swings rapidly one way and then the other in a futile search, the loose mane sweeping around you serving as a heartbreaking reminder that you’ve lost your mother’s silk hair tie.
  374. >You should feel worse about losing all your officers gear, being without weapons, but this small fact is like a dagger to the heart.
  375. >The sorrow wells up in your throat and you clamp your jaw down hard, trying not to let your lower lip wobble.
  376. >Guards don’t cry; officers, especially.
  377. >The tears fall anyway.
  378. >Your head sinks down, and you sit there in the dark room, hunched over in miserable contemplation of your night.
  379. >You lost your gear, your most precious possession, and the most wanted criminal in the Empire, all on one incredibly stupid decision.
  380. >You’d be out of the Watch for certain, kicked to the street; in these trying times, there was no tolerance for substandard guards.
  381. >What would you do then?
  382. >You stay like this for a while, until you feel sufficiently empty inside, then decide to make the slow trek back to your station.
  383. >You stand and move to the door, now closed, and come to a halt.
  384. >A familiar blue glow is seeping through, this time from the outside.
  385. >You look over the room again, eyes searching for something you may have missed.
  386. >Anonymous’ food is gone, as you might have expected, but the furniture has been returned to its proper places.
  387. >The window you came in through is gone.
  388. >Not missing its panes or boarded up.
  389. >Smooth wall stands where the window had been, as if it never existed.
  390. >A familiar feeling of dread begins to rise.
  391. >You turn back to the door, now the only way out of the room, and consider the door handle for a long time.
  392. >Lifting a hoof to it, you wrap it up and turn, the mechanism clicking open, and pull it in.
  393. >You are greeted by nothing.
  394. >The light is harsh at first, but even as your eyes adjust your brain refuses to believe what you see.
  395. >Outside the door, a vast blue-gray expanse, something like a cold winter sky, stretches on forever.
  396. >Where the hallway should be, a rocky ledge like a seaside cliff leads from the doorway for about a meter before dropping off.
  397. >You step through the door, hesitantly peering down over the edge.
  398. >Your stomach churns and you quickly back away.
  399. >There is no ground below, only the same infinite expanse falling away forever.
  400. >The ledge leads away around the outside wall of the room, rising like a ramp before disappearing around the corner.
  401. >The only way to go.
  402. >It’s plenty wide enough and, with no other options, you start up it.
  403. >You arrive at the top of the rocky trail, ending up on the roof, a tiny corner of a hotel floating in the…
  404. >Void.
  405. >The word comes to you, and you wish it hadn’t.
  406. >The beginning and end of all things, as the Abbey of the Everymare described it, to which the world would return at the end of days.
  407. >Are you dead?
  408. >The question didn’t really matter, you suppose; you’re here now.
  409. >And you’re not alone, you realize with a start.
  410. >A figure is seated at the far end of the roof, its back to you, legs dangling over the edge.
  411. >The shape is instantly familiar; it’s not a pony.
  412. >A human, wearing a brown jacket with short, dark hair.
  413. >Your voice quavers, any courage having left your body long ago.
  414. “Anonymous?”
  415. >“No,” comes a soft, disinterested voice that boarders on slight amusement.
  416. >“Though I suppose for you it was a fair assumption.”
  417. >It pulls its legs up from the edge, pushing up with its arms and rising to full height before turning around to face you.
  418. >A youthful, expressionless face greets you, and the strength goes out of your legs.
  419. >Solid black eyes gaze into your own, and the breath leaves your lungs in a whimper that you can scarcely put words to.
  420. “By the Outsider…”
  422. Chapter 6
  424. >The human simply regards you, not a trace of emotion showing through.
  425. >“Bravo, and in only two guesses. I’m impressed.”
  426. >The voice is dripping with sarcasm, and he folds his arms across his chest, as if expecting a response.
  427. >Your jaw opens and closes again, mouth gone dry, and it’s all you can do to stare mutely.
  428. >Finally you find your voice.
  429. “You, you’re the… the…
  430. >He confirms your fear.
  431. >“Yes, I am the Outsider. And you, Solemn, have caught my attention.”
  432. >You’ve never been a highly spiritual mare.
  433. >In recent years, as industry, Plague and assassination brought turmoil and misery to Damwall, the Abbey of the Everymare had gained far more influence than it had for centuries before.
  434. >Magic, the Abbey claimed, came from the Void and more specifically, was a mark of dealing with the Outsider.
  435. >He was said to be a demonic being, giving gifts of supernatural power to ponies, only for them to bring ruin to themselves and others.
  436. >He sought to bring the mortal world to an end through his meddling, draw it back into the crushing Void before its time.
  437. >To stem his influence, the Abbey had set in place strictures regarding daily life, which devout ponies could follow to save themselves.
  438. >At least, according to the Abbey.
  439. >Magical practices, spellbooks, even good luck charms were outlawed, and punishable by torture or death.
  440. >You had never paid it any real attention, only observing the strictures piously when it mattered, keeping on the straight and narrow as the Overseers made their rounds.
  441. >To you the Void was nonsense, as was the Outsider, a fairy tale made up as an excuse for all the sadness in the world.
  442. >Ponies here had a habit making their own hell, it seemed.
  443. >But now your beliefs are cast to the wind, and the fairy tale is talking to you again.
  444. >“You intrigue me. Alone, with a killer on the loose, you sneak up to a mysterious room in the dead of night, all because of a curious glow in the window?”
  445. >Well, when you put it that way.
  446. “I, well…”
  447. >You’re struck by the absurdity of trying to explain your actions to this being; it’d be easier to face your commanding officer, just keep a straight face and acknowledge your stupidity.
  448. >“You believed it was the right thing to do.”
  449. >The Outsiders voice is accusatory, but it speaks the truth.
  450. >”Ponies like you are few and far between in this city, Solemn, and of them, you interest me the most. That’s why I’m giving you this.”
  451. >He gestures towards your left foreleg, and it is instantly filled with excruciating pain, feeling as if someone has touched a branding iron to it.
  452. >You cry out in pain and grasp it with your right hoof, looking for the burn.
  453. >You lift your hoof from your leg, and are stunned at what is there.
  454. >On your leg, a few inches from your hoof, a glyph resembling concentric rings has appeared.
  455. >The same one that was engraved on the rune.
  456. >The mark glows like dying embers in an oven, fading to black.
  457. >You look back to the Outsider, eyes now filled with confused anger.
  458. >“A gift, to use however you see fit,” he explains.
  459. >Questions swirl around your head in a maelstrom, and you seize the first to float into reach.
  460. “How did you find me? How did you bring me here, to this place?”
  461. >“Shrines in my name dot your world, raised by those who would worship me. They carve runes with my mark, hoping to commune with me, and sometimes, I see something that I have to know more about.”
  462. >You are one of those “somethings,” you realize, feeling incredibly small and naked – well, more small and naked than you already are – before the Outsider’s gaze.
  463. >“As for bringing you here: these shrines allow those I choose to see me, and I speak to them through the shrines. Those I have marked, I will appear in their dreams, when I desire.”
  464. “I didn’t build that shrine, I didn’t search you out!”
  465. >You desperately hope this is all some terrible nightmare, not wanting to believe what you are hearing.
  466. “Anonymous did those things, why mark me and not him?”
  467. >“Torn from his own world, an outcast in this one, he goes on to seek and gain extraordinary powers. A tired story, and terribly unoriginal, wouldn’t you agree? My version is far more interesting than what he had in mind.”
  468. >The Outsider’s voice is withholding something; he’s expectant, you believe.
  469. >Expectations from you?
  470. “Why the mark? What am I supposed to do with this?”
  471. >You hold up your leg, indicating the mark.
  472. >“I already told you, use it as you see fit. Great changes are occurring in your world, changes that you may very well be a part of. I look forward to seeing what you will do.”
  473. >The Outsider turns away, striding slowly back to the edge of the roof.
  474. >Your vision begins to cloud again, and a cold wind begins to blow your unruly mane.
  475. “Wait!”
  476. >He pauses for a moment, as if considering your request.
  477. “My mother’s silk tie. I… I lost it.”
  478. >The Outsider turns to look at you, taking in the small, sad pony before him.
  479. >He strolls toward you, reaching a hand inside his jacket.
  480. >His lips turn upward in the faintest trace of a smile, the only outward emotion you’ve seen from him, as he brings forth the tie.
  481. >It shines as if brand new, the black material sleek and smooth.
  482. >“Another gift,” he says softly as he presses the tie into your hoof.”
  483. >You stare dumbfounded at the heirloom, gleaming like the morning your mother gave it to you, so many years ago.
  484. >“It’s time for you to return to your world, lest you be missed. And remember, I’ll be watching.”
  485. >He turns away again, a hazy cloud enveloping him as he disappears.
  486. >The wind blows once more, swirling around you as the world turns black.
  487. >The dark is soothing, a break from your suddenly chaotic life.
  488. >You rest for a while, and the memories of the night become distant, fading into something like dreams before being lost to the black.
  489. >Something nudges you.
  490. >You try to move, but your body refuses the command.
  491. >The nudge comes again, this time harder, something digging into your ribs.
  492. >Your eyes open, filling with a dim yellow light.
  493. >The light of whale oil lamps.
  494. >You blink a few times, the familiar shapes coming into focus.
  495. >Anonymous’ mattress and food pile, the shrine table, the lamps, now casting their normal warm glow.
  496. >You’re awake, and suddenly another sharp blow strikes your side.
  497. >Pushing your legs beneath you, you roll over to face the origin of the pain, and find yourself staring into the grim, bronze visage of an Overseer’s mask.
  499. Chapter 7
  501. >You sit up sharply, backing away from the Overseer.
  502. >He was clad in a long, dark coat, the emblem of the Abbey embroidered in gold on the cuffs of its sleeves.
  503. >A long saber hung in his harness, across from a couple of grenades and a belt box, presumably for strictures and heresy notices.
  504. >The bronze mask which obscured most of his head was fashioned in the stern likeness of Benjamin Halter, the founder of the Abbey, and his unseen eyes peered at you through its black eyeholes.
  505. >Your head throbs painfully with the sudden movement, vision swimming for a moment as you steady yourself.
  506. >A scuffing noise makes you aware that there are other ponies in the room, a Watch lieutenant whom you don’t recognize and Sergeant Silver Dust, all eyes filled with worry and focused on you.
  507. >”Good, you’re awake.”
  508. >The Overseer speaks first, his voice muffled and rendered tinny by his mask.
  509. >“Perhaps now you can assist me by answering some questions: Who was it you found here? Did you interrupt some foul act? Did you kill them or only maim them?”
  510. >Dust clears his throat, stepping between you and the eager, impatient zealot.
  511. >“Overseer… Seagate, was it? I don’t think now is the time for an interrogation. She’s in no condition, I’m sure you can see.”
  512. >Kill or maim?
  513. >You look more closely at the room, and notice your pistol lying on the floor near the shrine, now noticeably lacking in supernatural artifacts.
  514. >Across from it, where you last remember Anonymous standing, a spatter of dark blood had dried on the dusty floorboards.
  515. >Your eyes widen at the site, heart quickening a beat.
  516. >The drops lead through the door and out of sight into the hallway.
  517. >Your attention is pulled back into the room by raised voices.
  518. >The Overseer roughly shoves Silver Dust aside.
  519. >“You are not in charge here, colt,” he sneers.
  520. >“I’ve seen dozens of shrines throughout this city. Artifacts or no, this scene fits their nature, and I will not let some impudent guard stand between me and stamping out the heresy that has plagued Damwall.”
  521. >Dust bristles, looking as though he might shove the Overseer in return, before the lieutenant steps in.
  522. >“We’re not questioning your authority, Overseer. The City Watch has been ordered to cooperate fully with representatives of the Abbey, and we’re happy to do so.”
  523. >He shoots Silver Dust a silencing glare as he recites the standing order before continuing.
  524. >“However, Lieutenant Rain seems to have suffered a blow to the head. I think we should give her some time to clear her thoughts before she could be could be of any real use to you.”
  525. >The Overseer, apparently only half-listening as he jots rapid fire notes in a small logbook, seems to be assuaged by the lieutenant’s words.
  526. >He tucks the book away firmly in his jacket, finally nodding to the officer.
  527. >“Very well, Lieutenant,” he relents, only slightly less arrogant.
  528. >“But I will make my report and be in touch with Lieutenant Rain shortly, to fill in the details of this… incident.”
  529. >“Naturally,” the officer replies smoothly.
  530. >“Our captain would like to meet with you and hear your personal thoughts on the incident. He’s always appreciated the work of the Abbey, and wants to ensure that the Watch will provide any assistance necessary.”
  531. >The lieutenant and the masked pony turn for the door.
  532. >“I’d be happy to oblige him, Lieutenant. It’s good to know that some in the Watch understand the importance of our struggle,” the Overseer answers.
  533. >Before leaving, the lieutenant addresses Silver Dust.
  534. >“Sergeant, see to it that Lieutenant Rain gets back to headquarters. Smartly now.”
  535. >“Yes, Sir.”
  536. >Dust turns toward you, breathing a heavy sigh as he pulls his helmet off to run a hoof through his blonde mane.
  537. >His blue-gray coat nearly matches the faded material of his jacket, and he turns the simple, mass-produced steel helmet over in a cursory inspection before returning it to his head.
  538. >“Damnit Sol, what happened up here?”
  539. >He looks you up and down, gold eyes searching for a sign, an answer you didn’t have.
  540. >You don’t know how to begin explaining the encounter; aren’t even sure if you want to.
  541. >Finally, Dust cracks a tired smile and picks up your pistol, moving closer and holstering it for you.
  542. >“Ah, better get you home, Ma’am. You can tell me about it some other time, maybe. Can you walk?”
  543. >You nod, not really wanting to talk, and stand on all four, wobbling a little.
  544. >In a moment Dust is leaning alongside, steadying you and helping you down the hall.
  545. >The two of you make your way down to the fire escape, stepping out into the dark, early morning street.
  546. >An uncomfortable silence reigns between you as you march the familiar route to the Market District City Watch headquarters.
  547. >Dust is dying to ask questions, you can tell, but he reads you well enough to know you won’t answer.
  548. >Finally, you arrive at the gate leading to the walled off yard of the compound, floodlights bathing you in a sterile white pool.
  549. >At the sight of the two of you, the corporal at the gatehouse pulls the hinged door open.
  550. “Wait a second.”
  551. >Dust is surprised by your voice, the first words you’d uttered since waking.
  552. >You push away from him and walk unsteadily to the gatehouse, stepping inside and locating the logbook.
  553. >Shakily, you take a pencil and make your entry, moaning as you check a pocket watch on the counter and note that it’s half past three.
  554. >“Lieutenant Solemn Rain returns from evening patrol,” you pause and think for a moment before finishing “full report pending.”
  555. >You close the book and turn back to Dust, a frustrated but impressed expression on his face as he shakes his head at you.
  556. “Thank you for the assistance, Sergeant, I can make it to my room from here.”
  557. >Sergeant Dust hesitates before tossing up a salute.
  558. >“G’morning Ma’am, sleep well.”
  559. >Returning the salute, you turn towards the small junior officer’s quarters on one side of the yard as Dust heads off toward the NCO barracks on the other.
  560. >Through the main entry, you go down the hall until you reach your room, fumbling for the key in your jacket.
  561. >Exhausted, you miss the keyhole a couple of times before successfully opening the door.
  562. >Your current home lays beyond: a single bedroom with a small bathroom to one side.
  563. >Snug, but ultimately not a bad place to live, especially these days.
  564. >You enter and lock the door behind you, pulling your officer’s helmet off and letting it drop to the floor with a hollow thud, undoing the clasp on your harness and hanging it on a wall rack.
  565. >Rubbing your hindlegs together, you kick your boots off and leave them in a pile next to the small, but cozy bed.
  566. >Finally, you unbutton the blue and red officer’s jacket.
  567. >As you do so, you hear something small fall to the floor, and look down between your legs.
  568. >A bloodstained scrap of paper, formerly tucked between your chest and the jacket, lays on the floor.
  569. >Shrugging the jacket off fully, you hang it next to your harness and move back to the paper, ensuring the door is locked and the window closed.
  570. >You sit on the floorboards against the side of your bed, reaching for the slip.
  571. >You unfold it, the writing inside small and tidy despite the blood that its author had dripped on the material.
  572. >“Bulwark’s Cannery. -A.”
  573. >You know the name.
  574. >The factory had been closed months ago after Plague swept through its workers, the building condemned with the rest of its block and sealed off with tall metal barricades from the rest of the city.
  575. >Anonymous was hiding out in a condemned district?
  576. >Moving to your bed, you pull back the covers and move to place the note under your pillow.
  577. >Doing so, you notice something on your left foreleg.
  578. >The Outsider’s Mark.
  579. >It had been hidden by the cuff of your jacket, and you realize with a knot in your stomach that it wasn’t a dream.
  580. >Flopping gloomily onto the pillow, you pull the covers up high and curl into a ball beneath them, your neatly braided mane curling around your neck.
  581. >What.
  582. >You bring your mane in front of your eyes.
  583. >There, holding the braid tidily together, is your mother’s silk tie, gleaming in the dim glow of streetlamps filtering through the window.
  585. Chapter 8
  587. >A pounding at your door jerks you from uneasy slumber.
  588. >You sit up in bed, squinting against the pale morning sunlight filling the room.
  589. “Yes?”
  590. >“Captain wants to see you, Ma’am. Says it’s urgent,” came the voice of a guard on the other side.
  591. “I’ll be right there.”
  592. >Hoofsteps fade down the hall, and you reluctantly extract yourself from the tangled bedding.
  593. >Remembering something, you reach beneath your pillow and find the crumpled, bloody note Anonymous had presumably hidden on your body.
  594. “Bulwark’s Cannery.”
  595. >You memorize the words as you descend to the floor, the dizziness of the previous night replaced by the general misery of lack of sleep.
  596. >Making your way toward your jacket, you stretch, joints cracking as you try to shake the fog from your body.
  597. >You find your matchbook, moving to a small desk and the ashtray resting on it.
  598. >Setting the scrap in ashtray, you strike a match, letting the paper mingle with the remnants of old cigarettes, remains of nights spent awake in work or thought.
  599. >Sullenly moving between the bathroom and the bedroom, you freshen up as best as you can while getting dressed.
  600. >Before leaving, you ensure the mark on your hoof is well hidden and check yourself over in the small mirror hanging above the sink.
  601. >Tired hazel eyes in a painfully young face greet you from beneath a nearly oversized, spiked officer’s helmet.
  602. >Time for another day in the Watch.
  603. >You leave the junior officer’s building, crossing the yard to the main station.
  604. >The morning is just as cold as the previous night, but the sky is a clear slate grey, fingers of pale sunlight reaching from the east.
  605. >The station is a one-story building, and you quickly locate the captain’s office, guided in part by the sound of muffled shouting.
  606. >You approach the heavy wood door, the angry words behind it nearly intelligible.
  607. >Without warning, the tirade comes to a finale.
  608. >”GET OUT!”
  609. >The door flies open, and the lieutenant from the hotel room rushes into the hallway.
  610. >He freezes momentarily at the sight of you, his face a bewildering mix of emotions.
  611. >Surprise, regret, fear…
  612. >He starts to address you, being cut off at once by the fury within the office.
  613. >“I said get out, didn’t I? That wasn’t nearly enough hoofbeats to be gone!”
  614. >The lieutenant shrugs apologetically before bolting down the hall.
  615. >“Lieutenant Rain, get in here,” the voice has lowered a few decibels, but is still fully in “angry superior” mode.
  616. >You do as commanded, marching into the office and coming to attention before the desk.
  617. >Watch Captain Winter Gale is standing opposite, and he is, for lack of a better term, pissed.
  618. >His silver mane, usually neatly coifed, is ragged, a sure warning of rough conversation ahead.
  619. >Gray eyes glower at you from a weathered face, his mouth a hard line beneath a fierce mustache that swept along the muzzle to join his sideburns.
  620. >His good wing is extended to its full span, the remains of the other a barely perceptible bulge beneath his jacket.
  621. >He had been a sailor in his early life.
  622. >Pegasi were highly sought after in the Quidstol Navy and those of the other isles; able to serve as long range boarding parties with little danger to their own ship.
  623. >Before the recent rise of steam-driven ships, they had also been prized for their ability to create favorable weather conditions for their vessel, and playing hell with the enemy’s.
  624. >During one such action against pirates in the northern seas, Gale had taken a blast of grapeshot to the wing, sending him plunging into the black water.
  625. >Fished out by one of his comrades, he nearly froze to death on the flight back to the ship, where he nearly died on the operating table during the amputation.
  626. >Eagerly scooped up by the City Watch following a medical discharge, he had gained a reputation as an impeccable officer, skilled with a sharp blade and in possession of an even sharper mind.
  627. >His temper, counted as both a character strength and a flaw depending upon who was on the receiving end, had helped to build his notoriety throughout the Watch.
  628. >Currently, that temper is trained on you.
  629. >“Just what in the ever-living fuck was going through your head Lieutenant?”
  630. >Rank, not name: The question isn’t open to an answer.
  631. >You stand statuesque, eyes focused on a point leagues behind the captain’s head.
  632. >“I hear tell of gunshots in the middle of the night, one of my officers, MINE, knocked out next in some blasted cultist’s den, blood everywhere, and not a single damn explanation for any of it!”
  633. >A heavy silence fills the office, and you take it as your cue to speak, your mouth opening as you search for words.
  634. >Captain Gale’s hoof comes up crisply, cutting you off before you even start.
  635. >“No. You don’t get to say anything, not now.”
  636. >The hoof suddenly points at you, reigning in your thousand-yard stare, before mimicking closing a door.
  637. >You back up to the door as sharply as you can, grabbing it and pulling it shut, steeling yourself for the real yelling when you turn back around.
  638. >When you do, the captain’s livid expression has softened, looking more tired and disappointed than anything else.
  639. >Maybe now you can offer an explanation.
  640. >You try again and are stopped short in the same manner as before.
  641. >“No, Rain, I meant it. I don’t want a report, after today I never want to hear this event spoken of again.”
  642. >His voice matches his face, and you wait, confused, for him to continue.
  643. >“What matters to me is that one of my best junior officers is still alive and well. A close call, perhaps, but what happened in that room is between you and the Outsider.”
  644. >Your heart skips a beat before you recognize the commonly spoken phrase, and you manage to prevent any shock from showing through.
  645. >Gale takes a calming breath, easing his wing alongside his body and pushing his mane back.
  646. >“Besides, I didn’t call you in here for a patrol report; something else has come up. Get some grub in the mess and tidy up a little, you look like shit, then be back here in 5. You’re coming with me.”
  647. >You try to make sense of the sudden turn of events, finally addressing your captain with the first question that comes to mind.
  648. “Where are we going, Sir?”
  649. >He arches a brow at you, as if surprised you don’t already know.
  650. >“To the Office of the High Overseer, of course.”
  652. Chapter 9
  654. >You leave the captain’s office, just as terrified as you are confused.
  655. >Had the Abbey called you in for interrogation?
  656. >But then, why would Captain Gale be accompanying you?
  657. >Certainly he’s got more important things to do.
  658. >The Mark.
  659. >The Overseers would find it for sure; you’d be tortured mercilessly, not even for the sake of information but merely because that’s what happens to heretics in Damwall.
  660. >The other side of the main station was comprised of a kitchen and a small mess room for off duty guards.
  661. >You head inside, moving briskly but still a thousand miles away in thought.
  662. >The room, like everything else in the District Headquarters, is cramped.
  663. >A few plain wooden tables huddle around a central cast iron heater that hisses as water leaks periodically from the roof, courtesy of last night’s rain.
  664. >The few guards grabbing breakfast turn away from conversation and card games to look at you, obviously having been privy to the louder parts of your earlier conversation.
  665. >You realize that you’re the only officer in the room, and your face grows hot with the attention as you stride to the kitchen window to retrieve your morning rations.
  666. >“Mornin’, lassie, pleasant evening?” the cook, Cinnamon Biscuit, asks in a singsong voice loud enough for all to hear.
  667. >You give her a pleading look, and she notices that your face is performing a striking imitation of the crimson waistcoat beneath your jacket, whispering an apology as she prepares your tray.
  668. >She is an old, heavyset mare with her white mane tucked beneath a chef’s cap, the widow of a Watch pony who had died years ago breaking up a gang brawl, and a motherly figure all at the station.
  669. >Well, except for Gale.
  670. >You don’t think he ever had a mother.
  671. >“The Cap’n yells at everyone dearie, even precious little things like you. Don’t mean nothin’ by it, ‘cept that he cares.”
  672. >Cinnamon’s soothing words are off the mark on the cause of your worry, but they are welcome nonetheless.
  673. “Thanks Cinna, it means a lot. And pleasant doesn’t even begin to describe last night.”
  674. >Her smile is full of compassion, long decades around the Watch having trained her in dealing with stressed and worried ponies, and she offers a full tray to you.
  675. >A bowl of oatmeal, simple fare for hard times, and a steaming cup of black coffee, the nectar that sustains your daily existence.
  676. >You thank Cinnamon for the food and make your way to the officer’s table, set as far apart from the enlisted section as the small room would allow, sitting alone.
  677. >Testing the coffee, you manage to burn the feeling out of the tip of your tongue before opting to start with the oatmeal.
  678. >It is sweeter than usual; Cinnamon must have added one more than the authorized single scoop of brown sugar.
  679. >You’d have to find a way to repay that old mare one of these days.
  680. >Wolfing down the oatmeal, mindful of your time limit, you blow on the coffee in a desperate bid to bring it to a manageable temperature.
  681. >Tenderly holding the tin cup in both hooves, you tip it upward and drain the piping hot liquid down your throat before it has a chance to scald you again.
  682. >It burns all the way down, coming to a halt as a warm glow in your belly, and you can already feel the energy seeping into your veins.
  683. >A contended sigh bursts forth as you slam the tin down a little too enthusiastically, drawing an understanding chuckle from a few guards you hadn’t notice were still watching.
  684. >The blush returns to your cheeks as you allow a small, bashful smile, almost feeling normal while you return the tray to Cinnamon.
  685. >Doubling back down the hall, you stop for a few seconds in the lavatory to inspect your uniform in the mirror and scrub the sleep from your face.
  686. >You turn the corner to Captain Gale’s office, finding him with his harness and helmet on, studying a pocket watch in one hoof.
  687. >“30 seconds ahead of schedule,” he grunts, flipping the watch closed and stowing it in one practiced motion.
  688. >Gale rounds the desk and marches with a purpose out of the office, leaving you to close the door and quickly fall in to his left, half a step behind him.
  689. >The two of you stride across the yard, the duty corporal swinging the gate open and saluting.
  690. >Captain Gale gives a curt nod to the guard, and you start toward Halter Square.
  691. >The streets are beginning to come to life, ponies emerging from their homes as the nighttime curfew disappears with the sun, going about their business for the day.
  692. >They all have the same look about them: tired, scared, hungry.
  693. >The Plague had already taken a toll on most folks’ resolve, fear of contracting the sickness turning the markets which gave this district its name into hollow shells.
  694. >Social gatherings became a luxury for the wealthy elite, who could afford to isolate themselves from the sickly parts of Damwall.
  695. >As the city slowly crumbled, old gangs, long put down by the City Watch, had crawled out of the underbelly to flourish once again.
  696. >Finally, the Empress’s assassin escaping from prison hadn’t helped.
  697. >You think of Anonymous.
  698. >How terrified he’d been at the sight of you, how wholly… unthreatening he’d been, until he realized you could hear the song of the charm.
  699. >Even then, he’d been more excited than malicious; disturbingly so, but simply excited nonetheless.
  700. >Did he do it?
  701. >Careful Sol, you shouldn’t ask these kinds of questions, even to yourself.
  702. >Still, you can’t shake the notion.
  703. >You’d faced down ruthless gang thugs, wild anti-industry radicals, and everything in between.
  704. >The human you encountered up in that room didn’t strike you as a murderer extraordinaire.
  705. >“You’re quieter than usual, Rain. Something on your mind?” the captain asks, and you realize that you’ll soon be at your destination and have no idea why you’re going.
  706. “Sir, does this have anything to do with last night?”
  707. >Gale thinks for a moment before answering.
  708. >“Partially. I’m meeting with the High Overseer on a crime that the City Watch and the Abbey are both looking into. You’re coming along as my aide, but there’s something I need you to do.”
  709. >He casts a wary glance around the street, another vacant neighborhood, before coming to a halt and facing you.
  710. >“When we get there, I’m going to leave you in the foyer. You are going to find Overseer Seagate, his journal especially, and retrieve whatever pages he took on your little “incident” last night.”
  711. >One question answered, a dozen more introduced, and the captain is a hard pony to read.
  712. “Retrieve, Sir? What, you think he’ll just give them to me?”
  713. >“Overseers normally enter their personal reports into a collective logbook shortly after returning to the Office. I have it on good authority that he hasn’t done so yet, so if you’d rather not be strung up by your hooves and “questioned” about last night, I suggest you do exactly as I say.”
  714. >Gale is standing muzzle to muzzle with you, the intensity in his voice and eyes leaving no room for argument.
  715. “How do I convince him to give me the pages, Sir?”
  716. >“Lieutenant Porter told me there were no artifacts in the room. Tell him that if he logs an encounter with a shrine and no charms, runes, whatever, he’ll come under suspicion of having hidden them away for himself.”
  717. “That happen often enough to really scare him, Sir?”
  718. >“You’d be surprised how many Overseers become obsessed with those sorts of things, and how harshly they’re dealt with. I don’t think he’ll give you any trouble.”
  719. >You are stunned at what he’s asking of you: threatening an Overseer of the Abbey, stealing Abbey documents.
  720. >Perhaps the crime Gale is meeting the High Overseer about is cooked up as well, an excuse to get inside.
  721. >Your chin sinks and you stare at your hooves.
  722. “Captain, I… I don’t know if I can do this. It doesn’t feel right.”
  723. >A hoof meets your chin, tilting your eyes upward.
  724. >His voice is quiet, ragged and paternal.
  725. >“I know it doesn’t, Rain, I know. I just can’t stand by and let the Abbey do what they do to one of my guards. Can you understand that?”
  726. >You’ve never seen him like this.
  727. >He’s afraid, genuinely afraid for you.
  728. >The morning air feels a lot colder suddenly, as what’s really at stake hits home.
  729. >Your life is on the line, and Captain Gale is putting his own on it as well to save you.
  730. >He doesn’t know about the Mark; how much danger he’d truly be in if you failed and were found out.
  731. >He’s doing this purely for you.
  732. >Your vision goes watery and your eyes sting, partly with fear, partly at what your captain is doing for you.
  733. >“Stop your crying. I need you focused, you hear me?”
  734. >You draw a shaky breath and blink the tears away, rubbing a sleeve across your face.
  735. “Yes, Sir, I’m ready. Let’s go.”
  737. Chapter 10
  739. >You do your best to clean up your appearance on the remainder of the walk.
  740. >The closer you get to Halter Square, the more the buildings on either side seem to creep in on you, until the street abruptly ends.
  741. >A vast metal barricade, stretching several stories in height, cuts off the square from the street.
  742. >The only way through it is an open gateway flanked by two pylons, blue arcs of electricity sparking between them.
  743. >A wall of light; security technology from the Academy of Natural Philosophy, designed to vaporize anything that passed through it without being properly attuned first.
  744. >Two Overseers stand watch in front of the gate, and meet you as you approach.
  745. >“Watch Captain Winter Gale, meeting with High Overseer Cantle.”
  746. >Gale’s voice is solid, professional and all business, just a Watch officer going about his duty.
  747. >“Of course, Captain. The High Overseer is expecting you.”
  748. >The Overseers’ masks swivel towards you, and you can feel their unseen eyes appraising you.
  749. >You put on your best “bored subordinate” face, something that under normal circumstances wouldn’t be too hard to manage.
  750. >“Our schedule says nothing of additional guards, Captain,” the lead Overseer notes with a tinge of suspicion.
  751. >“Dangerous to go alone these days, isn’t it Overseer? One can never be too cautious. In any case this is my aide, Lieutenant Solemn Rain; where I go, she goes.”
  752. >Your mouth goes dry as your name is spoken, fearing that the Overseers already know exactly who you are.
  753. >“Perfectly reasonable, Captain,” the Overseer responds agreeably. “Though rest assured, we maintain the Abbey District as the most secure in Damwall. Now please, step this way and we’ll not keep the High Overseer waiting.”
  754. >The two sentries lead you to a small metal sphere on a pedestal near the gate.
  755. >Heavy cables connect the pedestal to the arcing pylons, and the sphere hums with electrical energy.
  756. >The Overseers each touch a hoof to the sphere for a few seconds, before motioning for you to do the same.
  757. >“Before we can pass through the wall of light, we must be properly attuned to it, lest there be any… well, ensure you build up a good charge.”
  758. >Gale moves to the sphere, and you decide to get it over with simultaneously, pressing your hooves to the sphere.
  759. >You can feel every hair in your coat standing on end with energy, your mane and tail floating slightly away from your body before you remove your hoof from the peculiar device.
  760. >“There now, please follow us.”
  761. >The Overseers step calmly through the gate, the arcs of blue energy bending around them.
  762. >Captain Gale gives you a wary glance before shrugging and starting after them.
  763. >The pylons crackle menacingly as you step through, and an uncomfortable metallic taste fills your mouth, but you emerge unharmed on the other side.
  764. >You realize now that if anything goes wrong, you will be trapped in Halter Square once the attunement charge wears off.
  765. >The two Overseers point you toward the main entrance of the Office before returning to the other side of the wall.
  766. >Emerging from the barricade, the Abbey’s symbol of authority in Damwall looms ahead of you.
  767. >The Office of the High Overseer is a massive stone building, centered in the plaza with two wings sweeping out to its left and right, their smooth surfaces and tall, narrow windows giving it the appearance of a fortress more than a place of salvation.
  768. >Rising in front of the building is a great marble statue of Benjamin Halter rearing on his hind legs, an open litany tome in one fore hoof, a cruel sword gripped in the other.
  769. >His head is angled downward, furious eyes judging visitors to the Office, as if to tell them of their sins.
  770. >From every corner of the Office, as well as on every streetlamp, hangs the great banners which bear the sigil of the Abbey, their bloody red magnified by the morning light.
  771. >The two of you stride beneath Halter, and you almost let yourself believe that he knows your plan.
  772. “Sir, back at the gate. Why would you tell them who I am? I thought we were trying to do this as quietly as possible?”
  773. >“I wanted to see if they knew who you were yet, if they’d try to arrest us straight-off, give us a chance to escape before we walk in here. So far so good, though they may just be waiting till we’re inside to kill us.”
  774. >The way that the captain could be so nonchalantly morbid did disturb you from time to time, though you suppose it comes with the life he’s lived.
  775. >You step up to the tall, heavy double doors of the office, pausing for a moment outside.
  776. >“Remember: Find Seagate, get the pages from the journal, and be quick about it. I don’t know exactly how long this meeting will last.”
  777. Yes Sir.
  778. >You push the door open, stepping into the high vaulted foyer.
  779. >A young mare sits at a desk in its center, her mask sitting tidily on the desktop beside her.
  780. >She looks up from a logbook at the sound of the door, smiling broadly when she sees you.
  781. >“Captain Gale! High Overseer Cantle is in her study, but I can send for her after escorting you to the meeting chamber. She’d like for you to make yourself comfortable, of course.”
  782. >“Oh, of course Overseer, but please, don’t hurry the High Overseer on my account,” Gale replies with a disarmingly handsome smile.
  783. >“Would I be all right in leaving my aide here? What the High Overseer and I have to discuss is for our ears only.”
  784. >The mare stands from her desk and pushes her bobbed mane behind one ear as she closes her logbook.
  785. >“That’d be fine, Captain, we’re always glad to have the Watch visit our wonderful Office.”
  786. >She turns toward you with an enthusiastic bounce.
  787. >“Feel free to have a look at the main hall and the memorial rooms. They inspire awe in all who gaze upon the Strictures and revere the memory of Overseers gone before!”
  788. >Oh boy.
  789. >You offer the concerningly perky mare a grateful smile, which she deems satisfactory, returning her attention to the captain.
  790. >“If you’ll follow me Captain, I’ll get you situated before the High Overseer arrives.”
  791. >The pair turns the corner into the main hall, and their fading hoofbeats leave you alone in the painfully quiet foyer.
  792. >Details, Solemn, you need details.
  793. >You glance around to ensure you are alone, moving to the now vacant desk in the center of the room.
  794. >If Seagate returned to the Office, it would probably be noted in the front desk logbook.
  795. >You flip the cover of the book open, turning to the latest entry.
  796. >“10:06, Captain Gale and guard arrive at Office for meeting with High Overseer Cantle.”
  797. >Damn, you didn’t even see her write that one down.
  798. >Your eyes rapidly skim the pages, and suddenly “Seagate” stands out.
  799. >“8:13, Overseer Seagate brought in, temporarily in Interrogation Room.”
  800. >Brought in, not arrives; less than two hours ago.
  801. >And temporarily in the interrogation room at that.
  802. >What the hell did he do?
  803. >You close the log, taking care to leave it positioned as it was originally.
  804. >Looking over the desk some more, you pull a drawer out, hoping for a floorplan.
  805. >A duty instruction book surfaces, and you rifle through it, ears pricked for any sound that isn’t you.
  806. >Floorplan, floorplan, floorplan…
  807. >There.
  808. >Interrogation Room, Second Floor, next to the Archive Room and just down the hall from the Meeting Chamber.
  809. >Hoofbeats.
  810. >You slam the book closed, dropping it back into the drawer and sliding it shut as quickly and quietly as possible before turning and marching off into the main hall.
  812. Chapter 11
  814. >A proselytizing voice echoes about the main hall, and you quickly locate its source.
  815. >An Overseer stands before a small group of ordinary ponies, hoof raised high with fervor.
  816. >“Remember, good ponies, that the Outsider surely seeks to destroy this world! But he is subtle and crafty, peddling his influence in the smallest ways, taking advantage of your compassion.”
  817. >The sermon is being held before a massive granite slab, inscribed with the Seven Strictures of the Abbey.
  818. >Wandering Gaze, Lying Tongue, Restless and Roving Hooves (the wicked twins, as the Overseers are fond of calling them), Rampant Hunger, Wanton Flesh, and the Errant Mind.
  819. >To restrict these things is to hold back the Outsider.
  820. >How many of the Strictures are you breaking right now, Solemn, in their own house?
  821. >The Overseers doesn’t notice you, too caught up in his own righteous fury to bother.
  822. >Nor does his small flock, all glued to his display through a mixture of fear and rapt awe.
  823. >On either side of the hall, doorways lead to the memorial rooms, each flanked by staircases to the upper level of the Office.
  824. >“The Outsider presents himself in many forms: a beggar in the streets, the soft flesh of a courtesan, even trusted friends may fall astray. Be ever vigilant, ready to face him when and wherever!”
  825. >You walk to the left-side memorial room, the one furthest from the preaching.
  826. >Cracking open the wood and glass door, you slip inside, the voice muffled behind you.
  827. >Busts of notable Overseers line the room, along with an unsettling number of sabers bearing ancient bloodstains.
  828. >Placards explain the significance of each; which one killed which infamous heretic, and so on.
  829. >The staircase is sealed off with a simple velvet cord, and you crane your neck to view its top.
  830. >The landing is empty, and if you remember the floorplan correctly, there should be a doorway opening next to the archive room.
  831. >Here we go.
  832. >You ease yourself over the cord, heart pounding as you struggle to stay calm and focus on your criminal mission.
  833. >Body lowered and weight spread evenly, you creep up the staircase and approach the door.
  834. >It’s dark for the time of day, the stairway lacking windows, only gloomy display lights filtering up from the memorial room below.
  835. >Voices from the hallway on the other side grow louder, and you realize you are about to be discovered.
  836. >A bookshelf sits on the landing beside the door, and you press yourself behind the far corner.
  837. >It’s not wide enough, and if the Overseers step onto the landing they’ll surely see you.
  838. >Eyes wide with fear, you look to the top of the shelf, realizing it’s just within reach.
  839. >Stupid choice, only choice.
  840. >You rear up on your hindlegs, hooking your forehooves over the top of the shelf and hauling yourself up.
  841. >Your pistol scrapes noisily against the wall, and you cringe as you lower your belly to the shelf, trying to disappear into it.
  842. >“Did you hear that, brother?”
  843. >“Yes, strange.”
  844. >This is it then.
  845. >Caught trespassing on Abbey property, tortured and executed for heresy.
  846. >Good job, Solemn, what a wonderful life it’s been.
  847. >You squeeze your eyes shut, wishing to wake up somewhere, anywhere else.
  848. >When you open them, you are surrounded by Overseers.
  849. >At least, you are surrounded by the silhouettes of Overseers.
  850. >Your vision has taken an amber tint, and when you look at the wall next to you, you can see two Overseers, their bodies painted a glowing yellow, walking the hallway on the other side.
  851. >Head swiveling, you can make out several more Overseers bent over desks in what must be the archive room, as well as a few down the hall.
  852. >What in the Void is this?
  853. >You pull your left sleeve up and look at the mark on your hoof.
  854. >It glows like smoldering charcoal in a dying fire.
  855. >“A gift, to use however you see fit,” the Outsider’s words echo in your mind.
  856. >Judging by the pace of the two now-visible Overseers on the other side of the wall, you’ve still got a few seconds before they arrive.
  857. >Just ahead of your perch atop the bookshelf, above the door, is a ventilation window, it’s hinged cover open and lying flat.
  858. >The window is wide enough, just barely, for you to fit through, but you’d need to lose a few things first.
  859. >In a swift motion you unclip your harness and lay it atop the shelf, making a mental note to come back for it.
  860. >The helmet goes next, your black braid swinging free around your neck.
  861. >Creeping forward, you ease yourself onto the window cover.
  862. >It creaks faintly, but easily supports your light frame.
  863. >You lay flat in the window sill, its upper edge just centimeters from your body, and hold your breath as you hear the doorlatch click open beneath you.
  864. >The hoofbeats stop.
  865. >“Can you believe it? Something like this, happening to one of our brothers. I swear, the vermin of this city become bolder with every passing day.”
  866. >“I’ve made the suggestion that we ensure patrols are carried out with a partner, but it’s always the same old response:  ‘any true and upstanding Overseer, when tasked with lone patrol, should have no trouble with the task so long as they remember their Strictures.’”
  867. >“Rubbish, the solitary patrols are only a result of short staffing. What we need are reinforcements from White Cliff, not implications of incompetence on our part.”
  868. >The conversation fades away as the Overseers continue down the stairway, and you heave a relieved sigh.
  869. >You blink a few times, and the strange lens that had overcome your vision disappears with it.
  870. >It came out in a tense situation; maybe you can learn to focus and bring it out again later.
  871. >Looking out the way the Overseers came, you see that you’ve arrived at the corner of two hallways.
  872. >The left leads away toward the archive room, the right stretching toward the opposite staircase.
  873. >Left it is then.
  874. >You peek into the hall, and see sturdy, wide-shaded light fixtures hanging from the ceiling at regular intervals.
  875. >Even better, hugging the wall beside the vent window is a bundle of electrical conduits, braced up on wide brackets bolted to the wall.
  876. >Shifting around and shimmying on top of the metal piping, you rise on all fours and find it to be a far more comfortable fit, now that you’ve shed the bulkier parts of your kit.
  877. >You pace along the piping for a dozen meters or so before you are stopped in your tracks by a familiar voice.
  878. >Ears swiveling to the right, you pick up the weary voice of Captain Gale rising from a vent across the hall.
  879. >You’re right beside the meeting room now, and a few snatches of conversation float up to you.
  880. >“Have you given any thought to increasing the number of Overseers assigned to patrols? In my experience, it’s far more difficult to surprise two ponies at once.”
  881. >A voice you don’t recognize responds, dripping with pride and self-confidence, and you can practically hear the smug expression you’ve imagined.
  882. >“Interestingly enough, Captain, I’ve received that very recommendation from some of the… less than stellar Overseers under my command. Such practices may suit the City Watch, but an Overseer must be capable of bearing their responsibility alone; doing so is a sign of their resolve against heresy.”
  883. >“Of course, High Overseer Cantle, I often forget that the Abbey tends to hold its members to a higher standard than the average Watch pony.”
  884. >Laying it on a little thick, aren’t you Captain?
  885. >“Please, Gale, we’re in good company are we not? Call me Talia.”
  886. >Ew.
  887. >Get a move on, Solemn.
  888. >Following the conduit around a corner, you continue toward your destination.
  889. >You come to a similar vent opening on the archive room, and take a careful glance through it to ensure you wouldn’t be seen passing by.
  890. >A few Overseers are inside, but they are absorbed in paperwork, and you move past the room with no trouble.
  891. >The interrogation room is just ahead, but unfortunately there is no vent opening onto the conduit for you to affect your entry.
  892. >The fortified door to the room stands open, however, and you position yourself above it, straining your ears for any sound within.
  893. >An exasperated sigh is the first noise that you pick up.
  894. >“I can’t make heads or tails of these rites; the hoofwriting is atrocious, and that’s putting it lightly.”
  895. >“Regardless, they must be performed before we may do anything else, even if it means we must wait for Sister Orchid to arrive.”
  896. >“What’s taking her so long anyway? Surely she’s received summons by now.”
  897. >Silence returns, indicating a question that neither party knew the answer to.
  898. >Ok, let’s try this again.
  899. >You screw your eyes shut, focusing, imagining the image of two Overseers through the wall.
  900. >The world has gone amber once more when you open them, and sure enough there are the Overseers, their bodies a vivid glow in your changed vision.
  901. >One of them is in a seated position, hunched over as if reading something and scratching the back of his neck absently.
  902. >The other is standing, head inclined as if studying something of the utmost interest in front of him.
  903. >Which one is Seagate?
  904. >More importantly, how would you get him alone?
  905. >Also, what is that smell?
  906. >Like something burning…
  907. >Just as you register the acrid odor of smoke, the earsplitting metallic screech of an alarm blares out.
  908. >The sudden noise breaks your focus, and your vision jolts back to normal.
  909. >“Outsider’s cock, fire!”
  910. >Hooves scrabble frantically on tile beneath you, and the two Overseers burst into the hallway, tumbling over each other as they race down the hall and disappear around the corner you came from.
  911. >Damnit all, now what?
  912. >The interrogation room door remains open, and you hope that Seagate left something vital in his hurry.
  913. >This high up in the hallway, the stench of the smoke has passed annoyance and is firmly in irritating territory.
  914. >You scan left and right, ensuring the hall is empty before swinging yourself down to the floor, landing lightly on your hooves.
  915. >Backing into the room, you ease the door closed to avoid any unwanted attention from passersby.
  916. >You turn around to examine the room, but your eyes come to a jarring halt on the most obvious feature.
  917. >The horrendously bloody corpse laid in oilcloth on the floor, wearing the soiled uniform of an Overseer.
  919. Chapter 12
  921. >The sound of the alarm seems to fade into the distance as you stare at the mess before you.
  922. >“8:13, Overseer Seagate brought in, temporarily in Interrogation Room,” the logbook had noted.
  923. >This must be him.
  924. “By the Outsider…”
  925. >You step closer to the body, laid on its side, bronze mask stained by blood that had seeped from the mouth.
  926. >you can see now that the Overseer’s throat was slit, a terrible gash several inches deep, turning the front of his black uniform a dark crimson.
  927. >His jacket is still buttoned up, and his harness is still strapped over it, saber in its scabbard; it doesn’t look like his comrades have touched anything about the way they found him.
  928. >It occurs to you that the alarm is still sounding; what in the Void is going on out there?
  929. >You’re either going to die in a burning building or be discovered trespassing if you stay here much longer.
  930. >Wounds never bothered you, but the thought of pilfering from a corpse is tying a knot in your stomach.
  931. >Steeling your nerves, you lean over Seagate, undoing the top two buttons of his jacket where you remember him tucking his journal away.
  932. >You force down the urge to vomit as the dried, crusty clothing audibly separates from his matted coat.
  933. >There, in an inner pocket, is the tiny book.
  934. >You lift it out and pry it open, flipping from the back through empty pages until you come across writing.
  935. >The edges of the page are stained red, but the tidy script it contains is easily legible.
  936. >“Investigated source of gunshot, found unconscious City Watch officer in upper room, Cofferdam Inn (Market Dist., Pelham Blvd., vacant).”
  937. >“Heretical shrine present in room, no artifacts, fresh bloodstains across from discharged pistol: possible fighting.”
  938. >“Suspect was roused and questioning attempted, stopped by Lt Porter and Sgt Dust, Market Dist. Watch Station (recommend contacting commanding officer about reprimand).”
  939. >“Bring suspect to Office for interrogation as soon as possible: Solemn Rain, Lieutenant, City Watch.”
  940. >“Black mane, sandy coat, gray-blue eyes.”
  941. >“Possible crimes: withholding of heretical artifacts, practice of witchcraft.”
  942. >They really were going to interrogate you.
  943. >You look around the rest of the room: A solid chair, complete with leg restraints, is bolted to the floor in its center.
  944. >Along the walls are tool benches with a staggering variety of wicked-looking instruments, and the tiled floor is stained a pale red in places.
  945. >Shuddering, you double check the journal to ensure that the single page is the only information regarding your meeting.
  946. >In fact, it appears to be the only thing of interest that happened to him last night; the previous page simply notes his departure from the Office of the High Overseer earlier that evening, along with a few stricture recitations.
  947. >You gently pull the page free from the book, careful not to leave any small edge that might raise suspicion.
  948. >Examining your work and deeming it satisfactory, you return the journal to Seagate’s pocket, buttoning up his uniform behind it.
  949. >Incriminating paper now folded securely in your own inner pocket, you return to the door, glad to still hear the alarm still blaring on the other side.
  950. >You crack the door open and peek around it, finding the hallway empty, and rear up to snag the electrical conduit once more.
  951. >The smoke is thicker up here, swirling and drawing stinging tears from your eyes.
  952. >Moving more quickly now, hoof steps masked by the commotion, you double back toward your hidden kit in the stairwell.
  953. >You round the corner by the meeting chamber and find the hall filled with Overseers, thick smoke billowing from the vent window.
  954. >The alarm, a steam driven contraption powered by a whale oil canister, stands in the corner, the partition that had hidden it having been swept away by the crowd.
  955. >Captain Gale is in there.
  956. >Or was, a few minutes ago.
  957. >You freeze only for a moment, the strangling smoke making your mind up for you to keep going.
  958. >The Overseers are hastily passing along buckets of water, forming a fire brigade stretching away toward the opposite staircase where, presumably, a pump in the backyard was furiously drawing water.
  959. >They’re too preoccupied with saving the building to bother looking up.
  960. >You pass them by, slipping through the stairwell vent window and clambering on top of the adjacent bookshelf.
  961. >Strapping up your harness and tossing your helmet on, you jump down from the shelf and approach the door.
  962. >You push it open and do your best to look terribly confused, which, given recent events, didn’t take much effort.
  963. >The nearest Overseer sees you and jerks his head toward the bucket brigade.
  964. >“Don’t just stand there; get in line will you?!”
  965. >Before you can oblige, a tremendous howling of wind punctuates the shriek of the alarm, as if a hurricane had just formed in the meeting chamber.
  966. >The smoke begins to dissipate almost immediately, and very sooty Captain Gale strides from the room, pointing a hoof at an Overseer before jerking it across his neck.
  967. >The Overseer turns to the alarm and gives a pressure valve a spin, silencing the infernal noise.
  968. >Another pony follows Gale, clad in a red velvet variant of the Overseers uniform, her mane cut in a severe, business-like fashion.
  969. >High Overseer Talia Cantle.
  970. >“The excitement has passed, brothers and sisters, you may return to your work. Meadows, I expect this room in top condition first thing tomorrow, I’m holding several important meetings.”
  971. >She is just as filthy as Gale, but still manages the prideful airs of a mare in complete control.
  972. >The Overseers file away, grumbling amongst themselves about the averted disaster.
  973. >“Your assistance was rather inspiring, Captain; that trick with your wing was quite a sight to see,” Cantle shifts to a sultry, complimentary voice.
  974. >She’s an older mare, perhaps a good decade on Gale, and you suppose it’s possible that she may have been attractive once.
  975. >Maybe it’s just the mane.
  976. >Gale shrugs and smiles easily at her.
  977. >“Not every day I encounter a situation that requires my old seafaring skills. Honestly it makes me feel young again.”
  978. >Cantle scoffs and throws a mock punch into Gale’s shoulder.
  979. >“Please, Gale, you’re more than young enough as it is.”
  980. >Here comes the vomit again.
  981. >Finally, Gale notices you looking on in horror and cuts the display short.
  982. >“Ah, here she is. I was beginning to think she’d gotten lost in your memorial rooms.”
  983. >Cantle looks you up and down, apparently unimpressed and doing a poor job of hiding it.
  984. >“If they weren’t useful on rare occasions I don’t believe I’d keep any aides myself,” she says, anger and frustration boiling up in her voice.
  985. >“I’ll certainly be having an in-depth discussion with mine on fireplace maintenance. I did so very much love that tapestry.”
  986. >Gale speaks up, eager to bring the conversation to an end.
  987. >“Well, High Overseer, you have my word that the Watch will continue to use every resource at its disposal in the search for this murderer. We can’t have scum cutting down good ponies of the Abbey in the streets.”
  988. >“Your help, as always, Captain, is most appreciated. If you find anything, don’t hesitate to visit; I’ll advise the guards to let you through any time.”
  989. >“Until then, Talia,” Gale replies.
  990. >The High Overseer actually giggles as she turns away, and you look to Gale, mind bursting with questions for the walk back to the station.
  991. >“See everything you wanted to see?”
  992. “Yes, Sir.”
  994. Chapter 13
  996. >The walk back to the station was quiet.
  997. >After leaving Halter Square and making certain you were out of earshot of any Overseers, you had attempted to speak to Captain Gale.
  998. >He shot you a silencing look, only grunting a barely audible “Do you have it?” in response.
  999. >Your nodding the affirmative was the end of that conversation, and you trotted the rest of the way with a queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach.
  1000. >The station was mostly empty when you returned, with only a couple of guards on duty at the gate.
  1001. >You follow the captain through the main building to his office, only the faint and comforting sounds of Cinnamon cleaning her kitchen disturbing the stillness.
  1002. >Gale motions for you to enter the office first before following, locking the door behind you.
  1003. >He sweeps an offering hoof toward the chair across from the desk, a piece of furniture you’d never seen used before, given his usual style of standing subordinates at attention.
  1004. >You take it, now feeling even more uneasy, if that were possible.
  1005. >You remove your helmet; it seems like the respectful thing to do when sitting with a superior, but you aren’t sure what to do with it and simply hold it awkwardly in your lap, regarding the City Watch crest on its front.
  1006. >Gale sits down heavily in his own chair, a tired sigh escaping from him as he deflates into it.
  1007. >He pulls his own helmet from his head, flopping it half-heartedly on the desk and staring at nothing in particular for a few moments before reaching to a drawer.
  1008. >He fishes around before returning with two tumblers and a bottle of whiskey: Damwall’s Finest.
  1009. >Noting your confused look, he offers an explanation.
  1010. >“For a job well done.”
  1011. >The captain unstops the bottle, pouring a dram into each glass and pushing one across the desk to you.
  1012. >Picking up the glass warily, you watch pale daylight filter through its amber depths.
  1013. >You aren’t much of a drinker.
  1014. >Captain Gale raises his own glass to you in a silent toast, tipping it up and taking a long swig before leaning back and sighing contentedly.
  1015. >Well, if it’s a celebration.
  1016. >Bottoms up.
  1017. >You bring the glass to your lips, tilting the liquid into your mouth before the potent aroma hits your nose.
  1018. >The taste and the smell hit you at the same time, about as gently as a brick lobbed by a rioter.
  1019. >You stifle a cough, then another, and another, eyes watering fiercely as your nose and throat burst into searing flame.
  1020. >Gale chuckles at your state, but you maintain enough poise to avoid spilling the rest of the drink.
  1021. >As you recover, he opens a small wooden box on the desk, retrieving one of his personal cigars and expertly slicing its tip.
  1022. >A whale oil lighter appears and he puffs the cigar to life, blue tongues of smoke curling around him and lazily wafting around the office.
  1023. >He reaches a hoof toward you, and you realize what he’s asking for, procuring the torn-out page of the Overseer’s journal.
  1024. >Gale takes the page, looking as though he is contemplating reading it, but shakes his head, holding the lighter to the paper.
  1025. >The journal entry meets the same fate as Anonymous’s note to you, crumbling into cinders in the captain’s ashtray.
  1026. >You wait patiently for him to complete the ritual, fidgeting with your glass, not entirely eager to take another drink.
  1027. >“You want to say something Rain, go ahead. It’s just you, me, and old Cinnamon here, though I don’t believe her hearing is anything to write home about.”
  1028. >You had thought long and hard about your visit to the Office of the High Overseer during the walk back, but still found it hard to give voice to those thoughts.
  1029. “Sir… the crime you met with Cantle about. It was Overseer Seagate, wasn’t it?”
  1030. >Gale’s face remains as hard and grizzled as ever, but a little light leaves his eyes at your question.
  1031. >“Overseer Seagate met an unfortunate end sometime in the small hours this morning. His grenades were missing, so the Abbey is presuming thievery and weapons dealing on the part of the black market, one gang or another.”
  1032. >How convenient for you.
  1033. >“However, with the crime happening in a vacant neighborhood, there were no witnesses, and without any of the usual gang calling cards, the Watch will have a damnable time finding the killer.”
  1034. >You look away from the captain, deciding on another sip of the fiery spirit and readying for the next round of questions.
  1035. “Before they left, Seagate and Lieutenant Porter discussed meeting with you about the incident. Did they ever make it to you?”
  1036. >Gale took a long pull of his cigar as you spoke, the tip glowing fiercely before he replied, smoky tendrils swirling between you.
  1037. >“They did. I met them in front of the station, where Seagate explained to me his suspecting you of being engaged in acts of black magic or, at the very least, hoarding heretical artifacts.”
  1038. >His brows drop menacingly and his voice lowers to a dangerous rumble as he continues, leaning over the desk until he is inches from you.
  1039. >“I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, Rain, I don’t like lying to my ponies; if you must know, it pained me deeply to keep you in the dark until now, but I had to ensure you would perform when I needed you to.”
  1040. >This isn’t happening.
  1041. >“I thanked Overseer Seagate for making me aware of his intention to call you in for interrogation, told him I’d always be glad to help the Abbey when they need it. Then I sent Porter after him. He caught up with him midway to Halter Square, on the outskirts of the Market District, and he cut Seagate’s throat open on my orders.”
  1042. >You feel lightheaded, Gale’s confession and the whiskey swirling into a dizzying combination.
  1043. >“The idiot fumbled with his grenades to make it look like a robbery, and accidentally pulled the pin on one. He tossed it up the street before it blew, then panicked that the noise would bring the Abbey down on him and bolted, without grabbing the report from the journal.”
  1044. >The captain waits for a response from you, and you throw out an arbitrary question, buying time to work your way toward the big one.
  1045. “You trusted Lieutenant Porter to… to do this?”
  1046. >“Porter is an oaf, but he’s loyal, and harbors as much distaste for the Abbey’s work as I do. His sister was taken for Overseer training when they were young. She was one of the foals that didn’t make the cut, and I don’t have to tell you what happens to them.”
  1047. >The question only threw Gale off his grim narrative for a moment.
  1048. >“An Abbey courier brought me a summons regarding an Overseer’s murder, along with what details they had gathered themselves. The Overseers believe that a body must be given last rites before it can be stripped and laid to rest, for fear that otherwise it could be used in some dark ritual. Their Administrator was out of the office for the morning, which gave us the time we needed to get inside.”
  1049. “And I suppose that was a happy coincidence as well?”
  1050. >Your voice is shaking, and it is all you can do to keep it under control.
  1051. >Gale breaks into a small, sad smile.
  1052. >“Actually, yes. The Abbey launched a raid on the Blinders’ stronghold last night. The gang gave as good as they got before retreating deeper into their territory, and Administrator Orchid has been busy all morning with the Abbey’s dead.”
  1053. >You’ve only got one question left for him.
  1054. “Why.”
  1055. >It comes out more as an accusation then a question; it’s your fault he’s dead.
  1056. >If you hadn’t climbed into that room and touched that shrine, none of this ever would have happened, and life would be the same as it always had been.
  1057. >Cold, wet and grimy, but the same.
  1058. >Gale looks smaller than you’ve ever seen him, nearly broken.
  1059. >When he returns his gaze to you, however, his eyes burn with a fierce resolve and, for the first time you’ve ever seen them, tears.
  1060. >“I was younger than you are now when I went to sea for the first time. Those were the best years of my life. I thought I could spend the rest of my days going to far off places, sailing into action against pirates, protecting good, honest ponies.”
  1061. >His cigar smolders forgotten in the ashtray, dying curls of smoke rising upward and fading away.
  1062. >“Young ponies make mistakes; it’s a fact, not an opinion. We came up windward of a pirate schooner, and I gave them a good gust astern to jibe her sails around. She spun about, looked like she’d go over but she was well crewed, so I got closer and meant to try it again.”
  1063. >Gale smiled ruefully, softly shaking his head at an age-old memory that was clearly fresh as the day it happened.
  1064. >“Well, a young buck, much younger than even I was at the time, spotted me flapping about up there, and fired off a good blast with his scattergun. Nearly took off the whole of my right wing and sent me into the drink. It was cold; by the Outsider was it bloody cold.”
  1065. >He halts, receding back into the memory, and for a second you know he’s a thousand miles away and decades younger, bleeding to death in a frigid, storm-tossed sea.
  1066. >“I remember thinking about my family, ma and da, how they’d never even get to see my body again. I don’t remember it myself, had lost too much blood and been numbed by the sea, but they say my wing commander pulled me out, carried me 10 miles back to the ship. He stayed by my side through the amputation, swore to the doc that he’d gut him if I died, sat next to my bunk for two days until I came to.”
  1067. >Gale finally looks at you again, appearing centuries older.
  1068. >“I swore to myself then and there that I’d take care of my ponies, save them from their stupid mistakes if I could. So, I hope that now you know how and why I could bring myself to do such a thing. I’m not asking for your forgiveness, I know I don’t deserve it. I’m just asking you to understand.”
  1069. >You drain the rest of your whiskey; it seems like the only thing to do after a story like that.
  1070. “I think I do, Sir.”
  1071. >Gale reclines in his chair, the ordeal obviously having taken a toll on him as well.
  1072. >“Take the rest of the day off, Rain. Come at noon tomorrow, I’ll have Porter cover your duties for today.”
  1073. >Standing, you put your helmet on, leaving the empty tumbler on the desk.
  1074. >You make for the door, but before exiting the office you turn toward the tired old captain.
  1075. “Sir… thank you.”
  1076. >He nods silently, eyes glazed over in distant thought, and you close the door behind you.
  1077. >You leave the station behind, trotting sullenly through the Market District.
  1078. >The sun is midway through its daily journey, nothing but a pale circle through gray clouds far to the south, and shop ponies are returning home for lunch.
  1079. >A tenement building looms ahead, not really rundown but faded nonetheless, like most other buildings in Damwall these days.
  1080. >You enter through the main entry and climb a worn set of wood stairs to the second floor.
  1081. >Two apartments made up this floor, and you head for the one at the front of the building, pausing before the familiar door and raising a hoof to it.
  1082. >Closing your eyes, you wait a moment to compose yourself before giving two gentle knocks.
  1083. >Soft hoofsteps approach on the other side, and you can hear scuffling as if a chair is being pushed before the door to afford a glimpse through the peephole.
  1084. >More scuffling, as if the chair is being hurriedly kicked away, followed by the clicking of a lock.
  1085. >The door swings inward, revealing a pale blue filly with a black mane, her wide golden eyes staring up at you with unbridled excitement.
  1086. >“Solemn?”
  1087. >You give her an exhausted smile, hoping your mood doesn’t show through.
  1088. >The filly turns toward the interior of the apartment, shouting gleefully.
  1089. >“Dad, Solemn is home!”
  1091. Chapter 15
  1093. >You are walking down a dark street.
  1094. >Rain falls steadily from menacing clouds swirling in the night sky.
  1095. >The only sound you can hear, however, is your own ragged breathing and the echo of your hoovesteps on cobblestone.
  1096. >Sheets of water pour noiselessly from gutters and rush by in mute streams.
  1097. >You push timidly forward, eyes darting from one dark rooftop to another, seeing nothing but ancient buildings looming over you.
  1098. >Halting, you can barely make out something lying in the street ahead.
  1099. >Your breath quickens, coming in barely controlled gasps.
  1100. >Hoovesteps resound in the narrow street once more, and you are moving forward again, approaching the crumpled form.
  1101. >It’s an Overseer: throat cut open, blood mingling with the rainwater and running away in a filthy red river.
  1102. >You reach a foreleg shakily out, feeling the cold, wet bronze of his mask.
  1103. >Lifting upward, the straps give way, and you pull the grim piece of metal from the stallion’s face.
  1104. >Living eyes greet you.
  1105. >You fall back, the mask clattering to the street with the thunder of a gunshot.
  1106. >Your legs tangle beneath you as the Overseer rises on his own.
  1107. >He shambles toward you, legs moving as if pulled by a puppeteer’s strings.
  1108. >His mouth moves silently, the sound coming a few moments later, slurred and distant, as if underwater.
  1109. >“Murderer.”
  1110. >Your eyes are wide with terror.
  1111. >Ears pasted to your skull, you stammer, desperately trying to assuage the horror in front of you.
  1112. >The words stay locked in your throat.
  1113. >“Murderer!”
  1114. >The word echoes like a bell up and down the street and into infinity.
  1115. >It stares at you, into you, and you try to scamper away on your back, your hooves finding no purchase on the slick ground.
  1116. >“MURDERER.”
  1117. >The Overseer is standing over you now, and a foreleg twitches disjointedly to his harness.
  1118. >The saber scrapes out of its scabbard and the clouds break above you, a sickly full moon peering from the sky.
  1119. >Moonlight glints on the blade as it raises high.
  1120. “No…”
  1121. >Your voice is nothing but a croak.
  1122. >The saber flies downward, it’s tip howling like a maelstrom as it swings toward you.
  1123. >“MURDERER!”
  1124. “NO!”
  1125. >You are sitting up in your bed.
  1126. >Cold sweat coats your body, the covers sticking in a tangle to your hindlegs.
  1127. >Your dry throat clicks as you swallow, heart hammering as you pant heavily.
  1128. >“Solemn?”
  1129. >The small voice pulls your eyes into focus as you scan your bedroom.
  1130. >It’s dark now, the sun hours gone, and you pick out your sister in the gloom.
  1131. >She’s sitting fearfully next to your bed, forehooves clutching a piece of paper to her chest as her golden eyes stare up at you.
  1132. >“Are you okay? You were tossing around and saying things.”
  1133. >You force yourself to calm down, taking a few deep breaths before answering Mellow Drizzle.
  1134. “Fine Drizzy, it was… just a bad dream, is all.”
  1135. >“Are you sure? You don’t look very fine.”
  1136. >That’s enough on this subject.
  1137. >You point at the paper Drizzle is holding.
  1138. “What’ve you got there?”
  1139. >Her concerned eyes drift to the paper and light up, and she smiles back at you.
  1140. >“A drawing! Wanna see?”
  1141. >You nod gently, and Drizzle puts the paper on the edge of the bed before clambering up after it.
  1142. >You catch a glance of her cutie mark, a light gray cloud with the sun peeking out behind it.
  1143. >A little happier than your own: a dark raincloud, showers falling from beneath.
  1144. >Mellow nudges herself in next to you, holding the paper so you can’t see the other side.
  1145. >“Ready?”
  1146. “You gonna show me this secret or just keep asking me?”
  1147. >An eager smile fills her face, and she flips the paper over with a flourish.
  1148. >“Tada!”
  1149. >By the windowlight you can make out the drawing easily enough.
  1150. >Three simple ponies sit next to each other, as if posing for a portrait.
  1151. >The middle, a gray stallion, has a thick brown mane, his forelegs wrapped around the other two ponies.
  1152. “Nice of you to not color dad’s hair gray.”
  1153. >Drizzle giggles.
  1154. >“That’s what he said when I showed him.”
  1155. >The little filly to the stallion’s left is wearing a gold summer dress, beaming happily.
  1156. “That’s a pretty dress, where did you get the idea from?”
  1157. >“Dad took me to the shipyard one day and we passed a shop window. It was hanging there, but we didn’t have the money for it.”
  1158. >Your sister’s ears droop a little at that, and you tousle the back of her mane as you inspect the final pony.
  1159. >She wears a full Watch officer uniform; Drizzle obviously spent most of her time on this drawing getting the colors right.
  1160. >Dark blue jacket with red cuffs, red waistcoat, brown harness, black boots and helmet.
  1161. >A somber expression stares at you from beneath the helmet, your own doleful, gray-blue eyes gazing back at you.
  1162. >The only one not smiling.
  1163. >Ouch.
  1164. “I don’t always look like that, do I?”
  1165. >Well, whenever you come home you don’t really smile a whole lot anymore.”
  1166. >Drizzle turns to look at you, and you realize your eyes are glazing over.
  1167. >You blink it away and meet your sister’s eyes.
  1168. >“That’s okay though, I think you’re pretty when you’re sad too.”
  1169. >Double ouch.
  1170. >You pull Drizzle into a tight hug and feel her little hooves wrap around you in return.
  1171. “It’s a beautiful drawing, Drizzy, thank you for showing me.”
  1172. >“You can have it. I made it for you.”
  1173. >Pulling away, you give her your first genuine smile since arriving at home.
  1174. “Thanks Mellow. I’ll hang it on the wall of my room back at the station, so I can look at it every day and think of you two.”
  1175. >Mellow Drizzle’s face glows.
  1176. >“Oh, dad wanted me to tell you that dinner will be ready in an hour or so, but I think you should try to sleep some more.”
  1177. >You chuckle and rub her ears, earning a satisfied nuzzle.
  1178. “Yes, Doctor Drizzle.”
  1179. >She hops off your bed and trots to the door, pulling it gently closed behind her and leaving you alone once more.
  1180. >You hold the drawing a little longer before placing it gently on the nightstand and rolling over.
  1181. >The sweat had begun to dry and left you chilled, and you pull the slightly damp covers tightly around yourself.
  1182.  >You squeeze your eyes shut, almost afraid to return to sleep.
  1183. >Still, the dark and quiet is welcome.
  1184. >“Trouble sleeping?”
  1185. >You open your eyes, a familiar bluish light pouring through your window.
  1186. >Not again…
  1187. >Your forelegs hesitantly push the covers back, and you sit up before turning toward the room.
  1188. >The Outsider is leaning casually in the doorway, the Void stretching away forever beyond him.
  1189. >“I must say you’ve surprised me, Solemn. No easy feat, to be sure.”
  1190. >Surprise at your first meeting is long past.
  1191. >This can be a two-way conversation.
  1192. “And how is that, exactly?”
  1193. >You put a bit more venom into your voice than you had intended, and you worry inwardly how he’s going to take it.
  1194. >The Outsider’s lips twist upward in amusement.
  1195. >“Not even a day after I grant you my power, and here you are.”
  1196. >He gestures grandly.
  1197.  >“Trespassing, stealing state property, even lying to your own family about what you’ve been up to. It’s been most exciting to watch.”
  1198. >Your blood boils, partly because you’d never have had to do those things if he’d left you alone in the first place.
  1199. >Partly because he’s right.
  1200. “You set me up. If you’d never contacted me, I’d never have run into that Overseer and he’d still be alive.”
  1201. >The Outsider’s black eyes peer quizzically at you.
  1202. >“Feeling guilty, are we? Well, the Abbey of the Everymare has devoted itself to stamping out me and my influence – or rather, trying to – so I apologize if I don’t feel terribly remorseful for Overseer Seagate.”
  1203. >Sarcasm seems to be one of his default settings.
  1204. >“What’s more, I’ll let you in on a secret: I’m not omniscient, and I didn’t arrange for you to run astray of the Abbey. That was merely an interesting coincidence.”
  1205. “Interesting coincidence? I could have been tortured and killed by them if they found out about this!”
  1206. >You raise your foreleg and display the Mark engraved on it.
  1207. >The Outsider shrugs, pacing aimlessly around the room.
  1208. >“All the more intriguing in any case, although this chat of ours is becoming boringly predictable, Solemn. Do try to contribute something other than self-pity, I find it so commonplace in this world.
  1209. >You can’t help but roll your eyes at the ageless being before you, huffing with frustration.
  1210. >“By the way, how is Anonymous? Last time I saw him, he was in rather poor shape, thanks to you.”
  1211. >Thanks to you?
  1212. >Touching the rune.
  1213. >Dizziness, collapse.
  1214. >Gunshot.
  1215. >Waking up, pistol on the ground.
  1216. >Blood stains.
  1217. >The bloody note.
  1218. “I- I shot him, didn’t I?”
  1219. >“Guilt again? He even left you instructions to find him. You, a pony who, by all means, should be hunting him.”
  1220. >The Outsider looks at you one last time before strolling toward the door.
  1221. >“It almost seems rude to not pay him a visit, doesn’t it?”
  1223. Chapter 16
  1225. >You stir awake.
  1226. >There’s no blue light outside your window, only the dingy yellow of streetlamps.
  1227. >You roll over, the bed creaking softly, and notice your door is cracked open.
  1228. >A warm glow seeps into the room, accompanied by the smell of cooking.
  1229. >Your stomach loudly reminds you that a little oatmeal, coffee, and a glass of whiskey is not a balanced diet.
  1230. >Haven’t had a home-cooked meal in a while.
  1231. >Stretching your legs beneath the blanket and receiving a symphony of pops in reply, you slide out of the warmth and on to the floor.
  1232. >As you step into the pool of light by the door, you realize that the mark on your hoof is bared for all to see.
  1233. “Damnit.”
  1234. >You glance around your room, quickly moving to the small dresser across from the bed.
  1235. >Rifling through the drawers, you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror above it; well, Captain Gale is nothing if not honest.
  1236. >You do look like shit.
  1237. >Your mane is suffering simultaneously from helmet-hair and bedhead, only the braid maintaining a semblance of control.
  1238. >Your coat is frizzy from tossing around in the bed, tufts sticking out here and there.
  1239. >Returning to the search, you find what you are looking for.
  1240. >A set of gray wool socks.
  1241. >Warm, comfortable, and not at all out of place for this time of year.
  1242. >You sit back on your haunches and pull the socks onto each of your hooves, each ending at the knees and hocks.
  1243. >Suspicious heretical sigils hidden, you decide you’re ready for dinner and pad softly into the hall, hoofsteps muffled by the socks.
  1244. >The clinking of silverware and dishes grows louder as you approach the kitchen.
  1245. >The small table in the living room is set with three spoons and three napkins.
  1246. >In the kitchen, your father is stirring a large pot over the stove, while Mellow Drizzle gathers peelings from the sink into a small garbage can.
  1247. “Let me guess: potato soup?”
  1248. >Steady Mist looks to the door, taking in your haggard appearance and smiling as if to say, “sleep well?”
  1249. >“Right on the mark. Potatoes are about the only thing not being rationed right now, so I’ve gotten pretty creative with them. And you’re just in time.”
  1250. >He shifts the pot off the active burner, twisting the oil valve off and putting a hoof on your sister’s shoulder.
  1251. >“That’s clean enough honey, you ready to eat?”
  1252. >Mellow bounces happily into the dining room with you in tow.
  1253. >Just as you sit down your father appears, three bowls expertly balanced on his back.
  1254. >He shifts them to the table and distributes them to you and your sister before taking his own seat and motioning for the meal to begin.
  1255. >You dip your spoon into the soup; it’s thick, lumps of potato not entirely mashed into the broth, just the way you like it.
  1256. >It tastes just as you remembered it, savory with pepper, parsley, and carrots.
  1257. >Your eyes close as you lean back and enjoy the flavors.
  1258. >“I do good?” your father inquires, though his tone betrays that he already knows the answer.
  1259. >You nod anyway, swallowing your first mouthful and quickly tucking in to the rest of the bowl.
  1260. >The meal progresses quietly apart from Mellow’s enthusiastic slurping, earning her a brief lesson in spoon usage from Steady Mist.
  1261. >He pauses at the finer points of bring a spoon to your mouth rather than vice versa and notices your socks.
  1262. >“Cold?”
  1263. >You pause with your mouth full of soup, deciding you’d rather not explain further and simply giving a little nod.
  1264. >“Ah, they don’t feed you enough down at that station. Skin and bone as it is, and they’re trying to get rid of the skin while they’re at it.”
  1265. >You think of Cinnamon and the motherly way she runs her kitchen.
  1266. “They do the best they can, dad. Everyone’s feeling the rationing.”
  1267. >“I know sweetie, didn’t meant to offend.”
  1268. >Steady rubs a hoof over your socked foreleg.
  1269. >You don’t really have any small talk topics at the ready, and you don’t really feel like dwelling on the food shortages.
  1270. “So, how is the work situation?”
  1271. >Steady waves his spoon in disgust.
  1272. >“Ah, shipyards are all but shut down. The Navy relocated most of their big ships to the new yard at the river mouth, have their own yard workers, and most of them are rusting away at the slips. Don’t have the funding to send them out on anything more than blockade duty.”
  1273. >He pauses to scoop up another bite of soup, chewing it thoughtfully.
  1274. >“River Patrol hasn’t needed new boats in ages, they just keep buying the Navy’s old inventory and putting in just enough work to keep them from sinking each run. They call me in when something breaks that they can’t figure out and the Navy doesn’t care to send a mechanic over. It’s enough to get by, for now.”
  1275. >A gloomy mood rolls over the table like a storm cloud before your father moves to change the subject.
  1276. >“I was able to get a hold of some schoolbooks second-hoof. The schools may be shut down, but I’ve been making sure Mel gets her lessons.”
  1277. >“More like you monologuing and me listening,” Mellow adds in, her voice sleepy as one hoof stirs her spoon in an empty bowl, the other propping her head up.
  1278. >“Very good, that’s a word you wouldn’t know otherwise, see? We’ll make a scholar out of you yet,” Steady replies proudly.
  1279. >You help clean up the kitchen, the three of you making quick work of it.
  1280. >Mellow is the first to succumb to the call of her bed.
  1281. >“G’night dad,” she mumbles as she hugs your father, stifling an enormous yawn before tending to you.
  1282. >“G’night Solemn, love you.”
  1283. “Love you too Drizzy. Sleep tight, don’t let the rats bite.”
  1284. >She sticks her tongue out at you before disappearing to her room.
  1285. >You and your father stand alone in the living room.
  1286. >He looks you over before announcing his verdict.
  1287. >“You could still use a few good hours, I’d wager.”
  1288. >He pulls you into a hug, smoothing your mane to the best of his ability before standing back to inspect his work.
  1289. >Steady looks at your braid, eyes resting on the black silk tie at its end.
  1290. >A sad smile creases his face as his eyes meet yours.
  1291. >“She’d be proud of you. She always believed you’d do great things, and here you are.”
  1292. >Your eyes fall away, going a little watery.
  1293. “Yeah, here I am. We’re barely making enough between us to hold on to this place and keep from starving. If she could see where we are now…”
  1294. >A hoof goes to your chin and lifts it up, strong golden eyes meeting your own.
  1295. >“She would know we’re doing the best we can. You’re taking care of this family, Solemn, far more than me. Work in the shipyards is all but dried up. I do odd jobs here and there, but it’s nowhere near enough. You’re supporting your sister, and every day you go out in those streets you’re keeping ponies safe.”
  1296. >Tears stain your frizzy cheeks and he pulls you in again, tighter this time.
  1297. >“So yes, Solemn, your mother would be proud. Unimaginably proud of the mare you’ve become.”
  1298. >You force back a few sniffles as he strokes your mane, and sit there with your eyes closed for what feels like hours.
  1299. >Finally, you feel like you can talk without your voice catching.
  1300. “Thanks dad. I needed that.”
  1301. >“Any time sweetie.”
  1302. >You pull apart and he leaves a kiss on your forehead before heading down the hall to his room.
  1303. >Clicking the electric ceiling lamp off, you follow suit and return to your own door.
  1304. >The door closes softly behind you, and you stand quietly in the middle of the room.
  1305. >You’re not going to bed.
  1306. >You keep ponies safe.
  1307. >Right now there’s a mystery in this city, and only you know where to find it.
  1308. >The closet door is still open, and you can see your uniform and harness glinting in the dim light from the window.
  1309. >You move to the closet, pushing aside the uniform and your dress to pull out another piece of clothing.
  1310. >A snug-fitting dark gray coat, long enough to cover your flanks, with a hood to shield against Damwall’s frequent rainy days.
  1311. >You pull it on over the socks, considering your boots but ultimately deciding they’d be too noisy.
  1312. >Climbing over your bed, you gently unclasp the window and swing it inward, eyeing the comfortingly wide ledge beneath it.
  1313. >Time to go see Anonymous.
  1315. Chapter 17
  1317. >“Damwall” and “city-planning” were two phrases that didn’t go together.
  1318. >Especially as industry spread its iron girders and gantries, the city was always growing chaotically.
  1319. >Buildings were never really demolished, just renovated, and built on top of until streets were squeezed in between them as an afterthought.
  1320. >Electric rail cars, an emerging novelty before the Plague, only ran in the most regal and at least partially thought out districts.
  1321. >It had made for some interesting chases in your guard career, experience that proved its worth tonight.
  1322. >After carefully leaving your room, you make your way to the roof of the next tenement.
  1323. >With hardly a meter between each building, trotting along the rooftops and clearing the gaps between is almost second nature.
  1324. >Well, for you anyway.
  1325. >There was that one Blinder Gang member who’d split during a sting.
  1326. >That mare could run; she led you halfway across the city, 8 stories off the ground.
  1327. >She didn’t know the layout like you though, and found empty air where an explosion had recently leveled a chemical-works.
  1328. >You didn’t kill her.
  1329. >She just jumped without looking.
  1330. >You clear the thought from your head as you leap to yet another roof, slowing to a canter.
  1331. >Rutshore Waterfront, no more rooftops.
  1332. >The Roanhaven River stretches before you, its wide lazy bends cutting the city in two as it wends to the sea.
  1333. >The waters are empty beneath the cloudy night sky, save for the single dim spotlight of a River Patrol boat chugging slowly upriver.
  1334. >You’re more interested in the hulking iron monstrosity that straddles the two shores, looming in the dark like a vast skeleton.
  1335. >Coltwin’s Bridge had undergone several changes throughout its life.
  1336. >Originally a simple causeway of stone arches to link the two halves of the city, shops and apartments sprang up along its length to attract travelers as they crossed.
  1337. >More recently, the whale oil boom meant that large ships had to travel upriver to the refineries.
  1338. >The middle of the bridge, where the channel was deepest, was knocked down, and a massive mechanical drawbridge had taken its place.
  1339. >Huge gears and pulleys lifted the middle section of the street between the towers on either side of the bridge whenever the ships steamed through, and the shriek and groan of metal could be heard up and down the waterway.
  1340. >You observe the bridge from your perch atop a workhouse.
  1341. >Guards are posted at the entry to the bridge, a situation you knew, through talk within the Watch, would be mirrored on the other side.
  1342. >Patrols would certainly be making rounds along its length; curfew was heavily enforced on the bridge at night, it being one of few places to cross the river without getting wet.
  1343. >Fortunately, you know a shortcut.
  1344. >A maintenance catwalk stretches along the bridge’s underside, inaccessible until after you pass the checkpoint, and therefore, likely unguarded.
  1345. >You pick your way carefully down from the roof, finding a fire escape on an adjacent building and hopping across.
  1346. >Peering from a nearby alley, you observe the scene.
  1347. >A guard hut is positioned in the middle of the street leading onto the bridge.
  1348. >Two Watch guards stand warming themselves by an improvised barrel stove, while their officer is poring over something in the hut.
  1349. >This shouldn’t be too hard.
  1350. >After searching the alley, you peek back around at the outpost, empty liquor bottle in hoof.
  1351. >Neither guard is really keeping an eye on their surroundings, and you cross to the wall along the riverfront, gambling that they won’t look too hard left or right when you make your move.
  1352. >Edging as close to the gate as you dare, socks keeping your hooves from echoing on the broken cobblestone, you freeze and heft the bottle.
  1353. >You’re close enough to hear the guards conversing.
  1354. >One of them asks the other how old his sister is, getting his answer in the form of a hoof to the side of his helmet.
  1355. >You take the opportunity and throw the bottle high, watching it arc into the darkness across the street.
  1356. >It breaks unseen with a ringing that shatters the stagnant river air, and a cat screeches angrily.
  1357. >The two guards jump, hooves immediately going to their swords.
  1358. >“The hell?”
  1359. >“Bottle Street boys,” exclaims one, charging confidently into the gloom.
  1360. >“I told you I’d wring your damn necks if you came back ‘round here!”
  1361. >His companion eagerly joins in pursuit; obviously, they’ve some bone to pick with the nonexistent trespasser.
  1362. >Well, the trespasser is real.
  1363. >She’s just not over there.
  1364. >By now the officer, a very upset looking sub-lieutenant, has stumbled from the hut to find his squad members gone.
  1365. >“Corporal? Corporal wait it’s not –  damnit.”
  1366. >He hurries off after them, swearing and struggling to secure his harness around himself.
  1367. >You can’t quite believe if you’re lucky or if this particular squad is as fresh as their officer.
  1368. >That went better than planned; no time to question it.
  1369. >You emerge from the shadows and pass the guard hut before thinking better of it.
  1370. >Might be something useful in there.
  1371. >You grumble at yourself as you slink into the hut and make a quick search of the drawers in its desk.
  1372. >A key is buried under a stack of old logbooks and notices, with no markings to clue you in on its purpose.
  1373. >Still, you shove it hastily in a pocket and rush outside again, ducking into the shadows between a couple of closed shops.
  1374. >At the end of the alley is a gate in the bridge wall, a stone staircase leading downward along the wall.
  1375. >You make your way down the path, and it quickly turns into the metal catwalk you sought.
  1376. >A metal barrier blocks you from continuing under the bridge, and you bring out the pilfered key.
  1377. >It’s a perfect fit, and the door swings open.
  1378. >You close and lock it behind you, not wanting to leave too much of a trail, and examine the way forward.
  1379. >The catwalk hangs by metal struts reaching from the underside of the bridge.
  1380. >It looks unnervingly flimsy, and you can hear the babble of the river far below as it swirls past the bridge’s piers.
  1381. >Swallowing hard, you make your away across at a walking pace, not willing to risk anything faster.
  1382. >Fortunately your suspicions were confirmed; there are no guards down here.
  1383. >Eventually you reach the other side and find an identical door, opening it with the same ease.
  1384. >You return to street level and sneak through the alleys, looking for another bottle.
  1385. >You find one, this time a discarded wine bottle, its label suggesting the previous owner was either wealthy or a thief, and silently approach the end of the bridge.
  1386. >Again, two guards and an officer are in the way.
  1387. >The officer is currently berating one of the guards.
  1388. >Something about a sloppy uniform being a reflection of one’s character, and subsequently, that of his superiors.
  1389. >Their backs are to you, but you won’t be able to approach any further until they are distracted; a couple of streetlights bathe the checkpoint in their light.
  1390. >Getting this bottle all the way to the other side of the street is going to take a little extra oomph.
  1391. >As the grilling continues ten yards ahead of you, you step into the street and gird yourself.
  1392. >With a couple steps-worth of a running start, you heave the bottle through the air and frantically dive for cover behind the stoop of an apartment building.
  1393. >A distant crash signifies that you’ve hit the mark, and you lay your ears flat to take a peek.
  1394. >The officer has gone silent, peering intently into the darkness across from him.
  1395. >He raises a hoof and signals to the guards, a mare and a stallion, directing them to advance.
  1396. >The three walk into the street and pause, ears swiveling for sound.
  1397. >This is as good as it’s going to get, you guess.
  1398. >The gap between the seawall and the left-side guard is the largest, and you make for it, crouching and treading as quietly as you can.
  1399. >Almost there…
  1400. >You make it behind the mare and are creeping along the seawall when your blood turns to ice.
  1401. >“Hey! You, stop right there!”
  1402. >You don’t turn around to find out which one spotted you.
  1403. >You’ve never been on this end of the scenario before.
  1404. >You panic.
  1405. >Fear taking full control, your frantic eyes pick out the nearest alleyway and you lunge toward it.
  1406. >Suddenly, you are fully enclosed in darkness, the voices of the Watch ponies far behind you.
  1407. >“What in the Void?”
  1408. >“Where’d she go?”
  1409. >Now you turn around.
  1410. >You are in the alley.
  1411. >The wall you were just pressed against is a solid twenty yards behind you.
  1412. >What in the Void, indeed.
  1413. >Another one of the Outsider’s gifts?
  1414. >You rush the rest of the way down the alley, snagging a fire escape and clambering to the top, in case the guards decided to make a thorough search.
  1415. >When you reach the rooftop, you look upriver.
  1416. >Bulwark’s Cannery isn’t far now.
  1417. >You try to remember what happened in the street below.
  1418. >The extreme focus you felt as you made up your mind to bolt into that alley.
  1419. >Looking across to the adjacent roof, you focus on it, imagining yourself on the other side, and tense your muscles as if to jump.
  1420. >Your vision blurs, and when it clears you find yourself in the middle of the roof, no clattering of hooves as you land, as if you’ve been standing there all along.
  1421. >This, this could be fun.
  1423. Chapter 18
  1425. >Your left arm hurts like a motherfucker.
  1426. >The bullet had grazed you, digging a deep furrow through the upper arm and costing you a lot of blood.
  1427. >When that Watch pony had passed out, she crashed to the floor, her hoof sliding through the trigger guard of her pistol and squeezing the trigger while it was still pointed in your general direction.
  1428. >You managed a tourniquet with a strip of your cloak, one of the few human-sized garments you’d come across that fit your anatomy decently.
  1429. >Could have been worse.
  1430. >It could have killed you.
  1431. >You glance around your abode, thinking darkly that it might have been an improvement.
  1432. >Ever since you’d fled Coltridge prison, you hadn’t talked to a single being, other than that guard mare.
  1433. >From the Empress’s court to abandoned, collapsing and Plague-ridden factories.
  1434. >Fine banquets to… whatever is in the can you’re heating over your jerry-rigged fire ring.
  1435. >Whale, maybe, though from what you’d seen there were no real regulations on the burgeoning meat industry in this city.
  1436. >Something something Upton Sinclair.
  1437. >Good going, Anon, this is so much better than Equestria.
  1438. >You’ve been thinking about the events of the last day.
  1439. >Your failed attempt to communicate with the Outsider; one of countless others.
  1440. >Bits of bone weren’t hard to come by, and you’d read countless books at the Academy of Natural Philosophy on charms, runes and everything surrounding them.
  1441. >You’d even tracked down and stolen a few, wondering if perhaps you just weren’t constructing them correctly.
  1442. >But no.
  1443. >They have no song to sing to you, no heat or coolness to greet your fingers when you touch them.
  1444. >Maybe humans are just immune to their influence.
  1445. >Or maybe it really is a bunch of nonsense, like some at the Academy propose, behind closed doors and with a bit of spirits between them.
  1446. >No.
  1447. >You know it’s real.
  1448. >You saw how that mare reacted to your rune, the fear in her eyes before they rolled back in her head.
  1449. >How she collapsed at a simple touch.
  1450. >You’re still an idiot for telling her where to find you.
  1451. >She is a Watch officer, and she’ll probably be along any day now with a battalion to run you down.
  1452. >Another day, that’s all.
  1453. >Then you pack up and move.
  1454. >Again.
  1455. >A distant thud rolls through the streets below, echoing over the whistle of wind through the factory’s decrepit windows.
  1456. >Sounds like an explosion.
  1457. >You’d gotten pretty good at setting traps since your escape.
  1458. >Slow down your pursuers and notify you of their presence, give you a chance to pack up and move to a new hideout.
  1459. >Well, decently good, anyway; the mare figured out the bottle-under-the-window easily enough.
  1460. >You stand from the fire and whip an oil cloth over the top, quickly smothering it.
  1461. >You had taken to sleeping during the day, using the cover of night to eat and move about, since you’re twice the height of anyone else in the city and aren’t exactly inconspicuous.
  1462. >A pistol lifted from an inattentive guard post sits on a nearby filing cabinet, and you move to retrieve it.
  1463. >The weapon is awkward to hold, its trigger guard far too large and allowing your entire hand to rest on the oversized trigger.
  1464. >You have to hold it gingerly, as clenching into a fist seemed to be the way it was designed to be fired.
  1465. >Designed for a pony’s hoof.
  1466. >Stupid thing didn’t even have a safety.
  1467. >Otherwise your arm would probably be fine.
  1468. >You stalk to one of the windows, cocking the pistol with your bad arm before raising it beside your head.
  1469. >Somewhere in the depths of the city, a clocktower chimes twelve.
  1470. >It’s hiiiigh noon.
  1471. >Midnight, whatever.
  1472. >You press against the wall, peering carefully around the window’s edge to see what might be waiting below.
  1473. “I’ll be damned…”
  1474. >You whisper to yourself.
  1475. >Below you is a small sand-colored mare with a black mane, wrapped snuggly in a long gray jacket.
  1476. >She’s facing the building across the street, as if hesitating to go inside.
  1477. >Or pick out the best way to do so.
  1478. >The name above the entryway is still visible, though the damp air of the city had corroded the paint.
  1479. >“Bulwark’s Cannery”
  1480. >You slowly rotate into the window, bringing the pistol to bear as best you can with one arm.
  1481. >Mustering a commanding voice, you call down to the mare.
  1482. “Don’t move.”
  1483. >The mare’s ears swivel in your direction, perked and alert, but she complies.
  1484. >She’s alone, or appears to be.
  1485. “Anyone come with you?”
  1486. >“No.”
  1487. >Her soft voice betrays nothing.
  1488. “Were you followed?”
  1489. >“Not to my knowledge.”
  1490. >A little something that time.
  1491. >Sass?
  1492. >Not the answer you were hoping for, but beggars can’t be choosers.
  1493. >Neither can two-legged, freakishly tall fugitives wanted for assassination of rulers.
  1494. “Alright, turn around. Slowly.”
  1495. >The mare rotates and looks up at you, eyes flicking over the dilapidated factory that currently serves as your home.
  1496. >“Bulwark’s Cannery is across the street.”
  1497. >You shrug, wincing at the pain that shoots through your left arm and keeping the gun trained on the mare.
  1498. >She’s unarmed, or whatever the equivalent would be in pony terminology.
  1499. “Being careful never hurts. Wait there.”
  1500. >A doorway on the second floor leads to a loading platform overhanging the street.
  1501. >The winch and the pallet hanging from it were the only way into the factory from the street, once you collapsed a crate of cans in front of the main entry, and you doubt many knew about the sewer access below.
  1502. >You drop the control lever, sending the pallet down to the street as the winch squeals distressingly.
  1503. >As it thuds to the ground, you motion with your pistol for the mare to climb aboard.
  1504. >Her eyes shift back and forth between you and the pallet, and she draws a deep breath before slowly pacing onto the wooden platform.
  1505. >The winch groans again, and soon you are standing face-to-face, more or less, with the pony that nearly killed you.
  1506. >She barely comes up to your waist.
  1507. >Now what.
  1508. >The wind whistles hollowly through the street, and you shuffle your feet, keeping the gun on her.
  1509. >The pony simply stares at you with her gray-blue eyes, as if sizing you up.
  1510. >She looks equal parts nervous and confused.
  1511. “Uh, you can go inside, now. Just don’t try anything.”
  1512. >The mare nods slightly, edging past you and onto the platform before entering your hideout.
  1513. >You stay a few paces behind her, pistol ready, not really sure what comes next.
  1514. >Why the hell did you not think this out earlier?
  1515. >You suppose you were just too excited at the prospect of finding someone who could hear the runes.
  1516. >That’s as good a place as any to start.
  1517. “Grab a seat if you want, I’ll see about getting the fire restarted.”
  1518. >There’s some matches in the filing cabinet, and as the mare sits hesitantly on the floor you glance quickly to its drawers.
  1519. >Ah, there they are.
  1520. “Now, what happened when y- “
  1521. > She’s gone.
  1522. >Your gun is pointing at empty air where she was sitting a split second ago.
  1523. “Fuck.”
  1524. >A familiar mechanical click sounds behind you.
  1525. >“Just don’t try anything.”
  1526. >You freeze, having no desire to get shot again.
  1527. >“Put the pistol on the ground and take three steps forward.”
  1528. >Not much of a choice.
  1529. >You bend slowly, placing the weapon on the floor.
  1530. >You’re not exactly a bad shot, and you admittedly have seen far too many Clint Eastwood movies.
  1531. >But you are Anonymous, not the Man with No Name.
  1532. >Taking your three steps, you wait for her next command.
  1533. >A scuffing noise tells you that she’s picked up your pistol, and again there comes the sound of a weapon cocking.
  1534. >Wait a minute.
  1535. >“Turn around slowly and sit down.”
  1536. >When you come about, the pony is standing in the doorway by the platform.
  1537. >One forehoof is pointing your pistol at you, the other is just coming down from the winch lever.
  1538. >It clicks into rest from the “up” position, the winch staying silent thanks to its safety cutoff.
  1539. >God fucking damn it.
  1540. >You groan quietly as you slump to the floor, dejectedly folding your legs.
  1541. “So now what? Am I being detained?”
  1542. >The mare takes a step closer, determination now filling her gaze.
  1543. >“You’re going to tell me everything, and I mean everything, about you.”
  1545. Chapter 19
  1547. >Some time later…
  1548. >You are usually confident in your ability to read ponies.
  1549. >This is one of those times that you honestly can’t tell if someone is telling the truth or bullshitting you.
  1550. “Let me start from the top, and correct me if I get anything wrong.”
  1551. >Anonymous is still sitting on the floor, though now he’s adopted a lounging sprawl, despite the pistol you’re aiming at him.
  1552. >You begin to repeat his story, as if hearing yourself speak the words would make them easier to believe.
  1553. “You ‘appeared’ in Equestria one day, but you aren’t sure how.”
  1554. >He shrugs, still nursing his arm.
  1555. >You feel a little sorry about that.
  1556. >Still, he’s not dead, and at the present moment a high-profile fugitive.
  1557. >“Yeah, turns out we humans don’t know a whole lot about magic and shit.”
  1558. >His voice has held a level of spite ever since you began your interrogation.
  1559. >Obviously he had intended to be in your position, but from what you’ve seen of him so far, he’s not a particularly cunning criminal.
  1560. “Right, now here’s the part I’m still not understanding: you were a guest of the monarchy there, given a room in the castle and had your needs taken care of, in return for knowledge about your world.”
  1561. >“Alien shows up and the gubberment wants to know all about them. What’s so hard to understand about that?”
  1562. “I was getting to that.”
  1563. >Your harsh tone shuts him up.
  1564. >The night won’t last forever and you’ve got a long way back home.
  1565. “So after you’ve been given an easy living on a silver platter, you decide to pack up and leave, traveling to Damwall, of all places.”
  1566. >He opens his mouth to explain himself again, but you cut him off.
  1567. “All because of some kind of game you played back in your own world?”
  1568. >“Well when you put it like that, of course it isn’t going to sound like that great of an idea,” he mumbles, apparently having had the same thought before.
  1569. >His descriptions were strange.
  1570. >Games that were played not on physical tables or boards, but interacted with through something resembling a mirror.
  1571. >That part doesn’t concern you; it’s a trivial secondary detail, one that doesn’t pertain to your primary investigation.
  1572. >The world in the game he described, however, troubled you immensely.
  1573. >A world crumbling in a time of plague, an empress murdered, a hero that pulls the empire back from the edge.
  1574. >More disturbing are the names: the city of Dunwall, the nation of Gristol, even a few street names bore resemblance to those in your own world, or so he told you.
  1575. >One name sticks out above them all.
  1576. >The Outsider, a bored, indifferent demigod who enjoyed giving supernatural powers to mortals, and watch to see what they would do with them.
  1577. >You are tempted to discard it all as a ridiculous fiction, but one thing stops you.
  1578. “The Void. Tell me again what it’s like.”
  1579. >In your world, there are no descriptions of it.
  1580. >You’ve heard stories, of course; of witches performing hideous rituals in the forgotten places of the city, strange and unexplained lights spotted by ships far out at sea.
  1581. >But nopony could explain what the Void actually looks like, and if they could, then they were very tightlipped.
  1582. >Anonymous heaves a sigh as he sits up.
  1583. >“It’s strange, y’know. Floating chunks of rock, buildings, items you remember from your own world. It’s quiet, no wind or anything. Sometimes there’s whales floating way off. It’s just empty, like a winter sky in every direction.”
  1584. >Jesus Anon that was corny.
  1585. >She’s the one with the gun though, so just answer her questions and maybe you can get out of this without getting shot again.
  1586. >More likely you’ll be back in Coltridge before sunrise.
  1587. >The mare has gone quiet, and you look up at her.
  1588. >Her eyes are still locked on you, still watching you, but behind them you can tell she’s deep in thought.
  1589. >She probably doesn’t believe you.
  1590. “Look, I know this all sounds cra-”
  1591. >“What happened.”
  1592. “What?”
  1593. >“In the game. What happened in the story?”
  1594. >Okay, detective, whatever you want.
  1595. “Well, like I said the world was similar to yours, but there’s a few major differences. The game started off with the Empress being murdered and her daughter abducted.”
  1596. >“Empress Coltwin didn’t have any foals.”
  1597. “Yeah, no shit, that’s why I said there were differences.”
  1598. >The pony shoots you an icy glare, and you continue in a subdued tone.
  1599. “After that, the main character discovered that high-ranking members of the government plotted to kill the Empress, and went about eliminating them and restoring the daughter to the throne.”
  1600. >“And I suppose the Lord Regent is behind the murder of my Empress, is that right?”
  1601. >You hold up your hands in a placating posture.
  1602. “I didn’t say that. In fact, in the game he outright says it to the main character’s face during a torture session before he escapes from prison. Even put it down in a voice recording.”
  1603. >Come to think of it, why didn’t the main character just grab that recording while escaping and distribute it?
  1604. >Guess it would have made for a short game.
  1605. “Nothing like that happened to me. I got out within a couple of days and nobody said anything to me before I escaped. Anyway, after that the similarities end, and your guess is as good as mine toward what’s going on around here.”
  1606. >“So, as far as I or anyone else knows, you are the assassin.”
  1607. >This fucking mare.
  1608. “I didn’t say that I-”
  1609. >You pause to breathe deeply and collect yourself.
  1610. >Yelling isn’t going to help you here.
  1611. “Like I already told you. I was making my way through Damwall Tower’s garden, where the Empress had invited me to dinner. When I arrived at the gazebo, she was dead, stabbed. No one else in sight. A moment later, the guards arrived and arrested me.”
  1612. >“How unfortunate for you.”
  1613. >The mare doesn’t mean it, judging by her voice.
  1614. “Look, you don’t have to believe me, but this is what I’m saying. The real killer is still out there. What’s more, I think there’s something bigger than an assassination going on. No ruler is ever killed for no reason, and you tell me, what reason would I have for killing the Empress? She welcomed me, just like the princesses in Equestria. She was good to me, I had everything I wanted here. Food, shelter, unlimited access to the Academy of Natural Philosophy, even my own office there.”
  1615. >You figure you’ve talked enough.
  1616. >Now it’s her move.
  1617. >She just stands there, pointing your pistol at you, gears turning in her head.
  1618. “You going to arrest me or…”
  1619. >“Is there anyone who would want to frame you?”
  1620. >Alright, now we’re getting somewhere.
  1621. >Sort of.
  1622. >The truth is you don’t know.
  1623. >You got on well enough with the other members of the Empress’ court.
  1624. >The royal spymaster, now Lord Regent, was always polite and curious to learn more about Earth.
  1625. >The High Overseer was a bitch, but you suppose that had to do with you being an alien.
  1626. >She probably thought you were some Void demon, though she never voiced such a belief in public.
  1627. >Various nobles you’d met at banquets were always fascinated, though you got the feeling they saw you as more of a charming oddity than an equal.
  1628. >The scientists at the Academy were by far your favorite company.
  1629. >You had a decently mechanical mind, and fortunately Earth technology was leagues ahead of what these ponies were dealing with, for the most part.
  1630. >The hands didn’t hurt either.
  1631. >As a result, you were something of a genius when it came to mechanical tinkering and experimenting, resulting in you being offered an office at the Academy.
  1632. >“Well, is there?”
  1633. >You wrap up your memory and address the guard mare.
  1634. “High Overseer Cantle, maybe. She was the most openly opposed to my being in the Empress’s presence, or in the Empire altogether. In the game, it was the Lord Regent who organized the whole thing, but I never knew your world’s equivalent to disagree with the Empress. They were both at a loss as to how to put an end to the Plague.”
  1635. >The pony nods softly, and you swear you can see smoke coming out of her ears as she works her brain overtime.
  1636. >You really don’t want to spend the rest of the night at gunpoint, and try to hurry things along, gambling that you’ve said enough to stay out of state custody for now.
  1637. “Well, we going or not, cause it’s a long walk to Coltridge and my legs are cramping just sitting here.”
  1638. >The mare doesn’t seem to appreciate gallows humor, but in the withering look she shoots you, you can see something else.
  1639. >Uncertainty.
  1640. >She slowly backs toward the loading platform door, relaxing the pistol but staying wary.
  1641. “If you’re looking for leads, I’d check my office at the Academy.  I kept all of my notes and a journal in a hidden safe beneath the desk.”
  1642. >Anon, buddy, why are you telling her this?
  1643. “The combination is ‘4-2-7.’ Although if someone was interested in seeing me take the fall for this, I think the general state of the office might tell you more.”
  1644. >She’s almost out the door.
  1645. >Shit, you almost forgot.
  1646. “Wait! The shrine, the rune. What happened to you? Did you see it? You did, didn’t you, otherwise you wouldn’t be so intere-”
  1647. >“I’m not answering anything from you. But I will want more answers.”
  1648. >With that, she rounded the corner, a light clattering signaling her departure.
  1649. >You stand up and stretch – the leg cramps weren’t a joke – and shuffle over to the door.
  1650. >Laying on the platform is your pistol, and the guard mare is nowhere to been seen in the darkened street.
  1651. >Spooky.
  1652. >You pick up the pistol and tuck it under your cloak.
  1653. >You’re still a free man, and you’ll probably be safe here a while longer.
  1654. >Although you’re not entirely certain of it, you might have made an ally tonight.
  1655. >And you will want plenty of answers too.
  1657. Chapter 20
  1659. >With the help of your newfound ability, the journey back to your family apartment is far quicker than the outbound trip.
  1660. >You’ve resolved not to think about your meeting with Anonymous until you are safe at home.
  1661. >In the meantime a few limitations to “bolting,” as you’ve decided to call it, have made themselves known.
  1662. >First, it’s not true teleportation, in the manner you’ve been told trained unicorns can travel.
  1663. >While passing through one of the checkpoints on Coltwin’s Bridge, a guard had moved partially into your path as you bolted.
  1664. >You still ended up where you intended to, but the impact had knocked the breath from your lungs and sent the guard sprawling to the ground.
  1665. >Second, it is difficult to use when not focused.
  1666. >Say, while sprinting away from several now-alert guards.
  1667. >Sure, it’s still useable, but you won’t end up precisely where you want to, slamming into the edge of a rooftop and scrabbling for purchase instead of landing neatly on top of it.
  1668. >Finally, you arrive on the ledge outside your bedroom window, and glance around at the sky.
  1669. >The moon is a pale glow behind low-hanging clouds, telling you that you’ve got a few hours to sleep still.
  1670. >You ease the window open and back into it, hooves feeling the soft sanctuary of your bed.
  1671. >As you pull the window closed, the cold and wind of the streets of Damwall give way to warmth and quiet.
  1672. >“What are you doing?”
  1673. >With a jump, you turn clumsily on the bed to find Mellow Drizzle standing in the middle of your room, a quizzical expression furrowing her brow.
  1674. “Uhhhh, I. Well I was, um…”
  1675. >You never were the type to sneak out after dark, so you don’t have any stock answers on standby.
  1676. >Mellow’s golden eyes widen, and she gasps as if she’s discovered your secret.
  1677. >“Sol, do you,” she pauses, looking around as if to verify no one else is listening, “have a coltfriend?”
  1678. >Oh for the Outsider’s sake.
  1679. >Your mouth flops wordlessly for a moment, Mellow grinning smugly up at you, before you decide your course of action.
  1680. “Well, maybe. A little.”
  1681. >The noncommittal and nonsensical answer does little to quell the glee of the tiny detective before you.
  1682. >“You know you’re an adult now, Solemn. You don’t have to sneak out of windows at night to see your coltfriend anymore. Well, not that you ever had one to sneak out to before.”
  1683. >Yeah, just keep twisting that knife, Drizzy.
  1684. “Well, I guess this is just me making up for lost times and experiences then, isn’t it?”
  1685. >Mellow giggles, apparently accepting the explanation.
  1686. >“You’re funny, Sol,” she replies, before her tone shifts to somber.
  1687. >“I miss you a lot. So does dad.”
  1688. >You breathe a heavy sigh, equal parts relief and exhaustion.
  1689. “I miss you too. What are you doing in here anyway?”
  1690. >Mellow scuffs a forehoof along the floor, as if inspecting something keenly interesting.
  1691. >“Do – do you remember when we were young? And in the Month of Rain it would storm so bad I couldn’t sleep?”
  1692. “Of course. But it’s a calm night tonight, nice and quiet.”
  1693. >You think you know where she’s headed with this, but you want to hear her say it.
  1694. >“I know. But I kinda miss something about back then.”
  1695. >You smile, slightly teasing but warm all the same.
  1696. “Soooo, what are you saying?”
  1697. >“Solemn, would it be okay if – if I slept with you tonight?”
  1698. >Shrugging your coat off and hanging it over the bedframe, you skootch over and snuggle beneath the covers, making room for your little sister.
  1699. >Mellow beams and crawls up into the bed, pulling the covers over herself and instantly gravitating to your side.
  1700. >The filly’s warmth seeps into you, and the bed is soon sleep-inducingly warm.
  1701. >You nuzzle your sister’s neck, feeling her melt into your hooves a little more in return, and sink deeper into the pillow.
  1702. >“Thanks, Sol,” your sister mumbles drowsily before the beginnings of soft snoring overtake her.
  1703. >You don’t bother replying, but you decide that your troubled thoughts can wait until morning, and drift into a deep, dreamless sleep.
  1705. Chapter 21
  1707. >Light forces you to crack your eyes blearily open.
  1708. >Nice, normal sunlight, a welcome departure from the unnatural blue glow you’ve been waking up to lately.
  1709. >You stretch beneath the covers, joints popping and filling you with a warm, well rested feeling.
  1710. >Aside from you, the bed is empty; Drizzle must have gotten up already.
  1711. >Sniffing the air, you try to narrow down the delicious smell wafting in from the cracked-open bedroom door.
  1712. >Potatoes?
  1713. >Oh my…
  1714. >Potato pancakes.
  1715. >You don’t have to convince yourself to get out of bed now, the lure of a homecooked breakfast reeling you toward the kitchen.
  1716. >Before leaving your room, you head to the dresser, seeking a fresh pair of socks.
  1717. >A plain black will do, especially for when you eventually have to put your uniform back on.
  1718. >Starting with your left front hoof, you strip the worn gray sock from it, pausing to stare down at the symbol that had made your life so – interesting.
  1719. >“Morning Sol, breakfast ti-”
  1720. >In a heartbeat you slam the drawer closed.
  1721. >Your foreleg moves a heartbeat too slow, making your betrayal known with a sharp, shooting pain.
  1722. “Gah! Son of a ffffffffffffffffff-”
  1723. >You trail off, curse ending in a barely restrained mumble as you withdraw your throbbing forehoof and hide it in the other, turning towards your sister.
  1724. >Mellow Drizzle is barely restraining her own emotions, tears wavering in her eyes as a snort of laughter slips from her muzzle.
  1725. >“I thought you were a big tough guard, not scared of nothing?”
  1726. “I wasn’t scared, just startled. And it’s ‘not scared of anything.’ Don’t use double negatives.”
  1727. >“Is your hoof okay?” Drizzle asks, moving toward you.
  1728. >Before she gets too close, you slide the drawer back open and slip your forelegs inside, fumbling a sock over the left.
  1729. “It’s fine! No trouble, just gonna be a little bruised, is all.”
  1730. >Your wide, close-lipped smile only draws a raised eyebrow from Mellow.
  1731. “What were you saying about breakfast?”
  1732. >“Dad says it’s ready. Oh, also that it’s almost eleven o’ clock.”
  1733. >Ah buck, not much time for breakfast then.
  1734. >You have to be back at the station by noon.
  1735. >“Mel, a little hoof in here, please?” your father’s voice calls from the kitchen, strained as if balancing something.
  1736. >“Coming dad!” Mellow answers, hooves skittering on the floor as she rounds the corner and disappears.
  1737. >You let out your breath and hastily work the rest of the socks on before following your sister.
  1738. >The table is set and a plate stacked high with potato pancakes sits in the middle, golden brown and still steaming from the griddle.
  1739. >“Alright, now that we’re all here it’s time for the piece de resistance,” Steady Mist appears from the kitchen with a glass jar, setting it reverently on the table beside the pancakes.
  1740. >“That’s Prench for ‘look what I managed to find at the market”
  1741. >You lean in close to inspect the contents of the jar, its delicate, floral fragrance easily rising above the rather plain scent of the pancakes.
  1742. “Apple sauce? How in the Void did you get that?”
  1743. >Your father offers a smug grin.
  1744. >“The skills of a shipwright have many terrestrial uses as well, especially in a city as rainy as this,” he explains as he slips a few cakes onto each plate, topping them with a dollop of the rare commodity.
  1745. >“Shopkeepers have homes that leak too, and coin isn’t the only thing you can pay a carpenter with. Now dig in, you two, before it gets cold!”
  1746. >You grab a seat and cut into your pancakes with a fork, scooping a bit of applesauce on top before tasting.
  1747. >Again, your eyes roll back in your head as the hot food hits your tongue.
  1748. >The cool, sweet applesauce plays perfectly off the hot, lightly salted potatoes, and you chew slowly, concentrating on remembering the taste.
  1749. >“Glad you enjoy it, sleepyhead. You feeling better today? Get enough rest?”
  1750. >Before you can swallow, Mellow chimes in.
  1751. >“Oh, Solemn had a reeeeeeal good night,” she says, a fiendish look spreading across her tiny face.
  1752. >Don’t you dare.
  1753. >Your chewing slows to a halt as you narrow your eyes at her, subtly readying a spoon catapult with a scoop of pancake and aiming in her direction.
  1754. >“Welllll, I’m glad to hear it?”
  1755. >Your father’s eyes shift between you and your opponent in the standoff, before Mellow casually inhales a massive bite of applesauce.
  1756. >You finally swallow your own food, demilitarizing the spoon and sampling its contents.
  1757. “Mhmm, I feel lot better with a full night’s sleep behind me. Thanks for breakfast, dad.”
  1758. >“Brunch, more like. You’d best hurry if you want to keep your job,” he replies teasingly.
  1759. >You finish off your serving quickly and excuse yourself, returning to your room to dress for the day.
  1760. >Retrieving your waistcoat and jacket from the closet, you return the gray coat hanging on the bedframe to its original location, checking it over carefully for debris from last night’s adventure.
  1761. >A minute later, you are standing in full kit, and nearly leave the room before remembering something.
  1762. >Mellow’s drawing.
  1763. >You pick it up, staring at the ponies within it, your own unsmiling likeness smiling back.
  1764. >Your sister in the unaffordable dress.
  1765. >Your father, years younger than he looks.
  1766. >What a happy family.
  1767. >“We’re making it work, Solemn”, you remind yourself.
  1768. >You fold the paper delicately and place it in an exterior pocket, where it is least likely to be damaged, before returning to the living room.
  1769. >Mellow is in the kitchen, scrubbing the griddle, and you sneak up to stealthily plant a kiss on her cheek.
  1770. “Love you sis, gotta go.”
  1771. >She leans against you in as best a hug as she can muster, both forehooves submerged in the sink.
  1772. >“Love you too, Sol. I’ll miss you.”
  1773. “And I’ll miss you too. I’ve got your drawing. It’ll be right by my bed at the station.”
  1774. >Mellow giggles, and you head for the entryway.
  1775. >Steady Mist is busy clearing the table, and you stop to wrap a hoof around his neck.
  1776. >He comes around with a bear hug, and you fight to get your goodbye out of your constricted lungs.
  1777. “I love you too, dad.”
  1778. >“Whoops, sorry sweetie,” he releases you and quickly fixes a few straps on your uniform.
  1779. >You lower your voice conspiratorially.
  1780. “Dad, you remember that dress you and mom got me?”
  1781. >“Yes, what about it?” he cocks an eyebrow.
  1782. “I’ve heard that a certain filly has her eye on a certain gold dress…”
  1783. >“I see. Well I happen to know a certain mare who spends more time in boots and uniforms than dresses these days,” he responds, catching on to your proposal.
  1784. >“You sure about this?”
  1785. “Positive, just do it quietly, and wait until I come home next to let her know. I want to see her face.”
  1786. >He smiles and pats your shoulder.
  1787. >“Sounds like a plan, sweetie.”
  1788. >You make your way to the door, pausing to grab your helmet from the hall table and don it.
  1789. >“Be safe out there, Solemn, we love you.”
  1790. “I will, dad, I promise.”
  1791. >With that, you leave the apartment, heading downstairs and into an unusually sunny late-fall day.
  1793. Chapter 22
  1794. >The walk to the station is cheerier than usual.
  1795. >The break in the clouds allows the sun to spread a little warmth, and the Market District is relatively alive with activity.
  1796. >Retracing the familiar route, you notice the shops and stalls are doing more business, with a few actual lines forming at the more popular ones.
  1797. >Some ponies are actually smiling.
  1798. >Those smiles tend to disappear as they pass you, replaced by nervous glances and curt nods, should you make eye contact.
  1799. >It’s the uniform.
  1800. >In the past, the City Watch was a symbol of peace and security.
  1801. >Legendary criminals were brought down in even more legendary raids, petty thievery was kept to a minimum, and so on.
  1802. >These days, the guards of the Watch are spread too thin to effectively keep a lid on the booming gang activity, and their recent role as dead-counters and evictors soured their status.
  1803. >You put the thought out of your mind and try to put passerby at ease with a smile, focusing on enjoying the change in atmosphere.
  1804. >The gate to the Market District Watch Station looms ahead, and you approach the guardhouse.
  1805. >Nopony greets you.
  1806. >The guardhouse is empty and quiet, the corporal of the guard conspicuously absent.
  1807. >The breach in protocol sets your heart racing with anger; somepony should always be on watch at the gate.
  1808. >Sliding through past, you storm across the yard toward the main office, certain to catch the ear of the jackass as they lounged in the mess room or emerged from the toilet.
  1809. >Briskly pushing the door open, you take a few steps down the hall before halting.
  1810. >Your own hooves on hardwood is the only sound in the building.
  1811. >The hairs of your mane stand on end; no clatter of utensils from the mess, no muffled voices from the captain’s office, not even the metallic clacking of a typewriter from the administrative room.
  1812. >What in the Void is going on?
  1813. >You slowly begin to pace forward, checking that your sword and pistol are loose and free in your harness.
  1814. >The first stop is the mess room.
  1815. >Peering around the corner, you take note of unfinished meals on the tables, benches pushed hastily away.
  1816. >The kitchen window is dark; no sign of Cinnamon.
  1817. >Something falls to the floor with a heavy thud from up the hall, your ears swiveling to the sound as you step warily back into the passageway.
  1818. >There’s only two rooms left in that direction: administration and Captain Gale’s office.
  1819. >Your hoofsteps are nearly imperceptible, and you try to slow your breathing and calm yourself as you approach the end of the hall.
  1820. >The sound of a pony approaching at a gallop pulls your attention back to the entryway.
  1821. >A moment later, a Watch private skids into view, bounding up the steps and through the door before catching sight of you.
  1822. >She stumbles to a half, doubling over and breathing raggedly.
  1823. >“Ma’am – I was – you weren’t – there’s been,” she struggles valiantly to get her message out between her panting.
  1824. “Slow down, private. What’s going on, where is everypony?”
  1825. >Drawing herself and straightening her disheveled uniform to the best of her ability, the guardsmare finally puts together a coherent report.
  1826. >“Ma’am, the Overseers are marching on the Blinders Gang again, and they’re on the warpath. The Watch has been ordered by the Lord Regent to assist the Abbey, and the entire Market District Watch battalion is joining the attack!”
  1827. “Everypony? Who’s watching the station?”
  1828. >The mare looks frantically around, seeming to realize for the first time that the station is abandoned.
  1829. >“The, um, the Bridge District was supposed to send a few guards. I, uh, I don’t know where they are. Captain Gale sent me to your apartment to notify you, but you weren’t there, so uh, I came back here as fast as I could.”
  1830. >Confused, but honest, you decide.
  1831. >Well if last night’s encounters with the Bridge District guards was any indication of their competence, this isn’t too surprising.
  1832. >You don’t like the situation, but decide to have faith that the Bridge guards would show up to their temporary post eventually.
  1833. “And we can’t wait for them, I imagine?”
  1834. >The private shakes her head excitedly, her helmet spinning slightly as she stopped.
  1835. >“No ma’am, the Watch will be meeting up with the Overseers about now, over in the Canal District.”
  1836. >You turn to look back toward the captain’s office.
  1837. >Whatever fell over hadn’t made a sound since.
  1838. >Growling lightly under your breath, you return your attention to the frantic private.
  1839. “Alright, lead on then!”
  1840. >The two of you take off at a trot through the yard, picking up to a full gallop as you reach the street and bound for the Canal District.
  1841. >It wasn’t a very long journey.
  1842. >The gradually worsening condition of the buildings surrounding you and the complete lack of civilian ponies let you know that you were coming up on the Canal District.
  1843. >Once a center of high society, where Damwall’s elite could obtain the latest fashions in countless boutiques and haberdasheries, the Plague had brought the booming Canal District to a dead halt.
  1844. >Now, it is the home of the Blinders.
  1845. >Formerly one of the most powerful gangs in Damwall, the Blinders had been nearly wiped out by Emperor Coltwin the Third’s security reforms, decades earlier.
  1846. >As Plague consumed the city, his daughter had been powerless to stop their resurgence, and that of other gangs, upstarts and old blood alike.
  1847. >Voices reach your ears from further up the gloomy street, and your guide slows to a trot, indicating a dilapidated jeweler’s shop occupying the first floor of a tall building.
  1848. >Several City Watch ponies pace the street outside of it; a makeshift command post, you surmise.
  1849. >“The officers are inside, Ma’am. Probably still debating a plan of attack,” the Watch private informs you.
  1850. >A lingering exhaustion hints that the “debate” has been ongoing since long before she fetched you.
  1851. >Joint operations between the Watch and the Abbey are increasingly common these days, but never – ever – go smoothly.
  1852. >A familiar voice is being raised as you make your way through the door, growing louder as you cross a display room that looks more like a barracks.
  1853. >Watch ponies are checking over their equipment and filling ammo pouches from supply crates stacked in the center of the room.
  1854. >Keeping to their own is a smaller group of Overseers, faceless behind their masks, talking in hushed tones and casting expressionless glances at their blue-clad counterparts.
  1855. >Your fur bristles at the sight of them, and you take a steadying breath as you approach a door labeled “Sales Office.”
  1856. >The voices on the other are shouting now, and you wait for a slight lull in the argument before pushing the door open and entering.
  1857. >Captain Gale turns toward you, giving a curt nod.
  1858. >Opposite him stand two unmasked Overseers, a short, stocky stallion with a close-shaved mane and mare with a bobbed mane.
  1859. >You recognize her as desk pony from the Office of the High Overseer, and judging by her perky smile, she recognizes you.
  1860. >“Well, now that we’re all here can we finally get this operation moving, Captain?,” the stallion asks, although it sounds more like a demand.
  1861. >“Not until I have your word, Overseer,” Gale fires back, cold eyes boring into the Overseer’s skull.
  1862. >You look between the two of them, noticing that the mare is doing the same thing, her smile gone.
  1863. >Finally, the stallion caves with an exasperated eye roll.
  1864. >“Fine. All effort will be made to apprehend criminals for imprisonment.”
  1865. >“No killing on sight?” Gale inquires, raising an eyebrow.
  1866. >“No killing on sight, if it can be avoided.”
  1867. >“Including by your ponies?” Gale pushes further.
  1868. >“Captain Gale, these good ponies of the Abbey just lost many of their brothers and sisters at the very hooves of these vermin, you can’t possibly expect all of them to -”
  1869. >“Vice Overseer?”
  1870. >“YES, including by my ponies, now let’s get on with it, before we lose what little surprise we have left!”
  1871. >Gale nods his agreement, finally securing his terms.
  1872. >Despite his demeanor, Gale has always been a by-the-book Watch pony, and detests the Abbey’s sloppy and cruel approach to police work.
  1873. >He turns once again to you.
  1874. >“Lieutenant Rain, please call Sergeants Dust and Buckle in here.”
  1875. “Yes, Sir.”
  1876. >The sound of the door opening draws the attention of every pony in the display room, eager to hear some news.
  1877. “Sergeant Dust and Sergeant Buckle, report to Captain Gale.”
  1878. >The two ponies in question make their way through the crowd, Dust giving you a friendly nod and smile as he passes through the door.
  1879. >Once everypony is accounted for, the briefing begins.
  1881. Chapter 23
  1883. >Captain Gale leads off.
  1884. >“The City Watch has been ordered to assist Vice Overseer Brindle in apprehending a known heretic, suspected of committing a number of crimes against the state.”
  1885. >“Sir, heresy is the Overseer’s thing, why not leave it to them? We’re stretched thin as it is,” Sergeant Buckle chimes in.
  1886. >You don’t know him very well, aside from his reputation as a talker.
  1887. >Silver Dust is already rolling his eyes at the quip and subtly nudging Buckle in the side as a quiet “shut up.”
  1888. >Too late.
  1889. >“If you’d kept your yap shut, Sergeant, I’d have gotten to that without the need for your stunning intellectual input.”
  1890. >A low chuckle goes through the Watch ponies in the room, met with annoyed and impatient expressions from the few unmasked Overseers.
  1891. >“Now here’s the catch. This heretic has shacked up with the Blinders; hence the Abbey’s assault on their territory yesterday morning, said experience leading them to request help from ponies who know a bit more about street fighting than they do.”
  1892. >Another round of quiet laughter is met by more dark looks from the Overseers.
  1893. >In your experience, the average Overseer put more effort into following the Strictures and maintaining a neatly pressed uniform than practice with those fancy sabers.
  1894. >Gale, you’re trotting a fine line between good-natured jest and winding up on the Abbey’s to-do list here.
  1895. >“Here’s the plan: Myself and Sergeant Buckle will take the first squad up Middleton Boulevard to this point,” Gale continued, marking the position on a large street plan of the Canal District.
  1896. >“The Blinders retreated into the old textile mill here, across from the main canal and waterworks on Farrier Street. Lieutenant Rain and Sergeant Dust will bring their squad up from behind the mill, making their way up Quidding Road after swinging wide around the mill.”
  1897. >Gale extends a hoof toward the stocky Overseer, who you assume to be Vice Overseer Brindle, announcing that the floor is now his.
  1898. >You decide that you don’t like him immediately.
  1899. >His apparent second in command, the perky mare, seems to have enough cheer for the two of them.
  1900. >Probably sucked it right out of him in some Abbey ritual, you muse.
  1901. >Brindle clears his throat and begins his part of the briefing, his voice filled with the zeal and conviction you’d expect from a sermon.
  1902. >“Thank you, Captain Gale, for that erm, revealing explanation of the situation.”
  1903. >Gale shrugs and gives a nonchalant nod of his head.
  1904. >“Now, although the City Watch will be shouldering most of the weight in this operation, each squad will be assigned three Overseers, including an officer.”
  1905. >Brindle raises a hoof to indicated Captain Gale before sweeping it towards you.
  1906. >“I will accompany Captain Gale, and Overseer Lamp Light will join Lieutenant… Rain, was it?”
  1907. >You nod the affirmative, and the mare Overseer, Lamp Light, practically bounces in place as a face splitting smile beams in your direction.
  1908. >Wonderful.
  1909. >“The purpose of this method of organization is to properly identify and apprehend the heretic,” Brindle continues.
  1910. >“Although their physical appearance is unknown to the Abbey, our Overseers are trained in methods of exposing heresy that the City Watch would otherwise be incapable of.
  1911. >Now it is the Overseers’ turn to exchange smug expressions, and the Watch ponies’ to roll their eyes.
  1912. >“The Watch will assist in the apprehension of any and all criminals they cross, and the Overseers of the Abbey shall conduct their search for this enemy of the state.”
  1913. >Silver Dust raises his hoof in questioning.
  1914. >You glance toward him from the corner of your eye, raising a brow.
  1915. >He’s always been one to want to clarify information in briefings, but the circumstances are a little different now.
  1916. >A Vice Overseer may not be very understanding of an impudent Watch sergeant.
  1917. >Still, Brindle gives him his chance to speak up.
  1918. >“Vice Overseer, what exactly has this, heretic, done that qualifies them as an enemy of the state?”
  1919. >Brindle’s eyes narrow dangerously.
  1920. >“Let’s just say that the Abbey takes any suspicion of heresy, especially those with significant evidence, very seriously, Sergeant Dust.”
  1921. >The room has gone quiet, and you silently hope that is the end of it.
  1922. >“So, if one of us Watch ponies was to run in to the heretic ourselves, how would we know it’s them, and not some random gang member?”
  1923. >Damnit Dust.
  1924. >Vice Overseer Brindle lets out a testy sigh.
  1925. >“You shouldn’t approach the heretic without an Overseer’s presence, Sergeant, unless you’d like to become their next victim. Nevertheless, they will likely attempt to flee using foul magics, and can be identified by a mark on their left foreleg. A tattoo-like marking resembling concentric circles.”
  1926. >A cold sweat breaks out beneath your jacket.
  1927. >There are more ponies with the Outsider’s Mark?
  1928. >More ponies with powers like yours?
  1929. >More importantly, you realize that your little mark is an easily recognizable brand of heresy.
  1930. >You are suddenly thankful, despite your long jacket sleeves, that you decided to leave on your dark, heavy socks.
  1931. >Gale brings the meeting to a close.
  1932. >“The Blinders have suffered heavy losses in recent days, and are off balance and on the ropes. A two-pronged attack should allow us to get into their territory and get the Abbey their suspect.”
  1933. >His voice drops in pitch and his eyebrows lower, his cue to listen closely to his next words.
  1934. >“As soon as that happens, however, or if you are ordered by myself or Lieutenant Rain to fall back, that is exactly what you will do. We will regroup at this location, no questions asked or hesitation. Am I clear?”
  1935. >A chorus of “yes sir’s” fills the room, the Overseers noticeably absent.
  1936. >You allow a tiny, almost imperceptible smirk to flicker across your face.
  1937. >For all their disdain of the Watch, they need you more than you need them.
  1938. >For now, anyway.
  1939. >“Alright then,” Gale finishes, a determined half-smile on his face, jaw set.
  1940. >“Let’s get after them.”
  1942. Chapter 24
  1944. >The sunny morning had given way to a gloomy and gray afternoon.
  1945. >You, Sergeant Silver Dust and Overseer Lamp Light are pacing slowly up Quidding Road, keeping to alleys and the cover of dilapidated awnings as best you can.
  1946. >Impossible to keep such a large group of ponies hidden, but better to try anyway.
  1947. >Behind you, a squad of six Watch ponies and two Overseers are scanning the buildings and side alleys for any sign of an attack.
  1948. >The Blinders know you are coming, that much is certain.
  1949. >You reach to a uniform pocket and pull out a small, wrinkled copy of the street plan for the Canal District.
  1950. >The abandoned mill that the gang is occupying backs onto a large canal, one of the few still full of water.
  1951. >Your plan is to follow the street alongside the canal up to the back of the stronghold waiting for Captain Gale and his squad to begin the attack before moving in on the now distracted gang.
  1952. >For now, you are doing the best you can to maintain a low profile, get as close as possible before the alarm is raised.
  1953. >A scuffing of hoof on stone up ahead snaps your ears forward, and you raise a hoof to wave the squad into cover.
  1954. >City Watch ponies and Overseers alike flatten themselves into any nook they can find.
  1955. >Most crouch in the stairwell to a boarded-up basement, while Overseer Lamp Light presses uncomfortably close to you behind your chosen dumpster.
  1956. >You slowly remove your helmet, braid falling free, and peak one eye around the corner, hoping to find the source of the noise.
  1957. >Hoofsteps grow louder and more numerous, and voices filter down the alley from the street, no more than fifteen meters away.
  1958. >At least two of them.
  1959. >Silhouetted against the relative brightness of the street, two stallions step into view.
  1960. >Even from here, you can tell that the ponies are wearing fine evening attire, long coattails dragging in the muck behind them, and gaudy top hats crooked at raucous angles atop their heads.
  1961. >Blinders.
  1962. >The two ponies start down the alley, directly towards you, still absorbed in a conversation you can’t quite make out.
  1963. >“They’re coming! We need to ready the squad to-”
  1964. >Lamp Light’s panicked whisper is muffled effectively with one forehoof pressed to her mask, while you turn around and sharply motion to the others in a “stay the buck down” manner.
  1965. >You recognize Silver Dust’s face peeking above the basement stairway, and he nods, ushering the rest of the guards under the doorway’s overhang.
  1966. >Fortunately, sunken entryway is even darker than the rest of the alley; hopefully, dark enough.
  1967. >Grabbing Lamp Light, you push her into the corner formed by the dumpster and the brick wall beside it, pressing in on top of her and flattening as much as possible.
  1968. >Can’t use your powers here, you think darkly.
  1969. >Too many witnesses, especially Overseers.
  1970. >Overseers… wait, shit.
  1971. >You turn toward Lamp Light once more.
  1972. >Even in the gloom of the alley, her mask glints like a beacon.
  1973. >In a single motion you grab the bottom of the mask and whip it off her face.
  1974. >Thankfully, her coal colored coat and dark brown mane are a subtler alternative.
  1975. >Her emerald eyes are wide as saucers, and you can feel her trembling, even through both of your uniforms.
  1976. >She’s on the verge of hyperventilating, and worried that she’ll have another outburst or pass out, you push a hoof over her mouth once more, staring intently into her eyes and mouthing a “shush.”
  1977. >The hoofsteps are nearly on top of you.
  1978. >Stay hidden, fight or die, run…
  1979. >You’ll be doing one or the other in a few seconds.
  1980. >“-shortcut, you’ll see. Not even the boss knows about it.”
  1981. >“Don’t you think the boss should know ‘bout it? Seein’ as he’s, y’know, the boss?”
  1982. >The hooftsteps halt just beyond the dumpster.
  1983. >They can’t be more than a meter away.
  1984. >You swear you can feel Overseer Lamp Light’s heart hammering through her chest.
  1985. >Or maybe it’s yours.
  1986. >“Look, Skiff, I’m telling you this because you’re an alright guy, and because I know you like the good booze as much as I do.”
  1987. >“Yeah, but-”
  1988. >“And, I’m willing to wager you like finding the good booze as much as I do.”
  1989. >“I guess, but-”
  1990. >“So here’s the way it is. I got a bit of side business going on. My supplier brings his stuff to my little shortcut, where no pony’ll ever find it, I can reach it without ever leaving the mill, and sell it off bit by bit, until my next shipment comes in. Doesn’t look suspicious, all the boys just know me as the guy that keeps them soused, you see?”
  1991. >“Fine, whatever, let’s just get going. Gotta tell the boss we see them Watch fellas movin’ out, right?”
  1992. >The two ponies start moving again, and as they pass your hiding spot, you see the taller one clap a hoof against the other’s shoulder.
  1993. >Never once did either spare a glance in your direction.
  1994. >“You know, Skiff, I could let you in on my little enterprise. For a small fee, of course…”
  1995. >The conversation fades away with the street thugs, and you slowly detach yourself from the wall.
  1996. >You wait until the thugs disappear around a corner before removing your hoof from Lamp Light’s muzzle.
  1997. >She gasps for air, one foreleg pressed unsteadily against her chest.
  1998. >“That was, well that was certainly, I mean, the way you-”
  1999. >Even in the darkness of the crumbling alley, you can make out a warm color showing through the dark fur of her cheeks.
  2000. >Is she… blushing?
  2001. >“I, ahem, what I mean to say is, well done lieutenant, that was arrous- ARTFULLY, artfully managed!”
  2002. >The prim and proper Overseer stands awkwardly before you for a moment longer, eyes darting around before she remembers something.
  2003. >Lamp Light takes a hesitant step closer to you and takes the Overseer’s mask you’d forgotten you were holding, hastily securing it over her glowing face.
  2004. >“Shall we press on then?”
  2005. >Thoroughly confused, you give her a slight nod and trot to the basement entrance.
  2006. “Sergeant, up here!”
  2007. >Silver Dust hops up from the hideout, his armor clanking softly with the motion.
  2008. >“You’ve got an idea, don’t you Ma’am.”
  2009. >It’s not a question; he’s seen this look on your face before.
  2010. >Jaw set, ears perked, eyes already twenty paces ahead.
  2011. “Keep the squad here for now. I’m going to follow those two. They were talking about a “shortcut.” Some way into the mill that only they know about.”
  2012. >Dust doesn’t object, but you can see the worry in his face.
  2013. >You might be his superior now, but before he was your sergeant, he was your friend.
  2014. “I can manage myself, Sergeant. I’ll find out where they’re going, then come back for you, understood?”
  2015. >“Aye aye, Ma’am. We’ll be right here.”
  2016. >Before leaving you head back over to Lamp Light, still getting her nerves back after the close encounter.
  2017. >She seems to be reciting something under her breath as you approach.
  2018. >“-the Sixth Stricture is your guide to wholesomeness, dear sister. Restrict the wanton – oh, lieutenant, shall we be on our way?”
  2019. “Not quite, Overseer. I’m scouting ahead. Stay here with Sergeant Dust and keep an eye out for any more Blinders.”
  2020. >“Y-you mean you’re leaving us here? Alone?”
  2021. >Her voice has gone up a few pitches and become shaky again.
  2022. >By the Outsider, has this mare ever been on patrol?
  2023. >Time to be a leader, you tell yourself.
  2024. >You feel almost inadequate, knowing that you are perhaps the youngest pony in the small group, apart from a couple of Watch privates.
  2025. >Clasping Lamp Light’s shoulders with both forehooves, you will her to stop shaking and look her in the eyes.
  2026. >Or rather, the impassable black lenses of her mask.
  2027. “Lamp Light, listen to me. I need you to stay focused. Your ponies need you. Breathe slowly, control it.”
  2028. >She does as you say, too quickly at first, but gradually coming down to something approaching normal.
  2029. “Better?”
  2030. >Her mask bobs up and down.
  2031. >“Y-yes, I think so.”
  2032. “Alright, look. We’re all afraid; it comes with the job. You can use that. It makes you hear sounds you never would have payed any mind otherwise, see small things you would have missed. Just don’t let it control you.”
  2033. >“I, I think I understand.”
  2034. >You feel the mare soften under your grip, her body becoming more relaxed, though her heart is still racing.
  2035. >Releasing her, you turn to trot away towards the Blinders.
  2036. “Just stick close to Sergeant Dust here, he’ll take good care of you, yeah?”
  2037. >In an instant, Lamp Light is glued to Dust’s side, and Dust is glaring daggers at your retreating form.
  2038. >You round the corner and cast your eyes upward.
  2039. >Where to next?
  2041. Chapter 25
  2043. >It didn’t take long to catch up with the Blinders.
  2044. >A few quick bolts and you were on the rooftops, overlooking the once decadent streets of the Canal District.
  2045. >You pick out the shape of two ponies far below.
  2046. >As they suddenly veer out of the street and into yet another vacant building, you search for a quick way down from your perch.
  2047. >That balcony across the way looks about right, if a little far away and a couple of stories below you.
  2048. >Stepping back from the edge of the roof, you give yourself enough room for a running start.
  2049. >Never tried it like this before; first time for everything, you suppose.
  2050. >You take off at a gallop for the ledge, coiling your body tight before pushing off into open air.
  2051. >An almost giddy sensation rises in your stomach as the chasm stretches out beneath you, the cobblestones a solid four stories down.
  2052. >The feeling shifts to queasiness as gravity takes hold.
  2053. >You focus on the balcony as the arc of your fall brings it closer, feeling the mark on your hoof tingle as the strange power channels through your body.
  2054. >And… Now!
  2055. >Like a pent-up spring being released, you feel yourself leap forward in midair, and suddenly the balcony is directly beneath you…
  2056. >...And the building it belongs to is directly in front of you.
  2057. >You hit the wall before your hooves reach the balcony, managing to narrowly avoid a broken muzzle.
  2058. >The impact steals the wind from your lungs and you taste copper welling up in your mouth.
  2059. >Crumpling to the floor, you wait a moment for the inevitable pang of broken bones.
  2060. >Instead, nothing but the dull throb of a solid thrashing fills your body.
  2061. >Note to self, any movement already taking place before you bolt will still be taking place after you bolt.
  2062. >Alright Solemn, lesson learned, now go get the baddies.
  2063. >You stand painfully, groaning, wiping a cuff against your muzzle and coming away with blood.
  2064. >A quick inspection with your tongue reveals no broken teeth, thankfully.
  2065. >Peering over the smooth stone edge of the balcony, you get a good look at the building the two thugs have entered.
  2066. >“Chamomile’s Fine Dresses: No better quality in all the Isles!” is inscribed in faded, flowery print across the building’s facade.
  2067. >A secret entrance hidden in a dress store, huh?
  2068. >Not bad; what gangster would spend time snooping around a place like that?
  2069. >You look carefully up and down the street, but it appears as empty as the rest of the district.
  2070. >Pulling yourself up on the balcony railing, you bolt across the street, coming up against the wall of Chamomile’s, just outside the door.
  2071. >Closing your eyes, you imagine the interior of the room before opening them to an amber tinted world.
  2072. >Through the wall of the store, the silhouettes of the two ponies glow yellow as they make their way through the front room.
  2073. >Suddenly there is a scuffing of wood as one of the figures leans over, as if pushing hard against something heavy.
  2074. >Without further ado, the two ponies are suddenly descending through the floor.
  2075. >A basement of some kind.
  2076. >The scuffing noise comes again, and the pair fades from view as they walk out of the range of your enhanced vision.
  2077. >Blinking it away, you come back to the drab gray world, peeking around the doorframe before entering the store.
  2078. >Petite mannequins stand in a disorganized rabble throughout the room, all dressed in the latest fashions: light and airy summer dresses for the Southern Isles, padded and tastefully insulated evening wear for the far North, and everything in between.
  2079. >This store must be one of the few that hasn’t been looted by the Blinders.
  2080. >The gang prides itself on dressing well – normally meaning garish combinations of whatever formal attire they can get their hooves on – but even its female members tend towards top hats and waistcoats.
  2081. >Harder to fight in a dress, you guess.
  2082. >Crossing to the main counter, you find what you are looking for.
  2083. >It must have been months since this floor was properly cleaned, and a readily visible trail in the dust shows where the counter has been rotated across it.
  2084. >Time to go get the others.
  2085. >Back outside, you take off toward the squad’s location, keeping to the street this time.
  2086. >The way back is clear enough – as you’d seen from the rooftops earlier – and while the roofs would be safer, you decide that it’s best to take the ground route before leading the squad through it.
  2087. >In no time, you are back at the alley.
  2088. “Dust! Get out here!”
  2089. >Your harsh whisper is met with a quiet flurry of movement, as Watch ponies and Overseers emerge from cover.
  2090. >Sergeant Dust jogs over to meet you, arriving just after a scampering of hooves announces the presence of Overseer Lamplight.
  2091. >“Did you find them? Where did they go? What do we do now? Oh my! Are you hurt? Your nose is bleeding, there’s blood on your jacket! Are you alri-”
  2092. “Yes, Lamp Light, I’m fine! Completely fine.”
  2093. >Your interruption shuts the mare up, and her ears flop over above her mask, going a subdued pink.
  2094. “Sergeant Dust, I’ve got us a way inside. Form the squad up on me and let’s move out.”
  2095. >A familiar echo rolls through the alley, muffled and distant, followed by several more.
  2096. >Gunfire.
  2097. >Captain Gale and his group are in action then, and there’s not a moment to lose.
  2098. >Dust raises his head to regard the faint ringing of pistol shot before turning to the rest of the Watch ponies, though they had circled close enough to overhear the conversation anyway.
  2099. >“City Watch, on the lieutenant now! Let’s go!”
  2100. >Beside you, Lamp Light clears her throat and rallies her own two Overseers.
  2101. >“Be vigilant brothers, and let us fight bravely alongside our Watch comrades!”
  2102. >Her soft, light voice manages to come loud and clear, if a little shaky.
  2103. >Her mask turns toward you, its permanently dour expression betraying the search for approval that you know lies beneath it.
  2104. >You give Lamp Light a reassuring nod, clapping a hoof on her shoulder as if to tell her it’ll turn out all right.
  2105. >You suppose she’s not a bad pony; for an Overseer, anyways.
  2106. >As you lead on at a trot, Silver Dust moves close and leans in conspiratorially.
  2107. >“It appears that you’ve got an admirer, Lieutenant…”
  2108. >Not worth an answer, you decide.
  2109. >Right now, there’s a job to do.
  2111. Chapter 26
  2113. >It is a short trip back to the abandoned dress store, and all the while the air echoes with the distant crack of gunfire.
  2114. >You didn’t encounter any more Blinders, either.
  2115. >Probably all occupied with Gale’s attack.
  2116. >If you can get your squad inside the mill, it might just throw the gang into enough chaos to finish them once and for all.
  2117. >“So where is this secret entrance, Ma’am? Secret passage in the dressing room, I take it?” Sergeant Dust quips as he glances around the deserted display floor.
  2118. >His eyes quickly fall on the deep scuffs through the dirt on the floorboards, tracing them back to the main counter, before rising to meet yours with a congratulatory smile.
  2119. >You put your shoulder to the piece of furniture, pushing in the direction the scuff marks seem to indicate it should move.
  2120. >A good deal of straining later and all you’ve accomplished is a light sweat beneath your jacket.
  2121. >Okay, so there’s gotta be a secret lever somewhere, right?
  2122. >Isn’t that how this sort of thing usually goes?
  2123. >“Could use a stallion’s touch, Ma’am, if you don’t mind my saying so,” Dust offers in a good-humored jab.
  2124. >Inside the counter, a cash register is the only reminder of the furniture’s previous purpose.
  2125. >You hit the drawer toggle with a hoof, hoping to find something revealing within.
  2126. >The drawer slides open with a cheery ding and reveals itself to be completely empty.
  2127. >Whatever coin it once contained was likely cleared out by its owner or the new residents of the Canal District.
  2128. >Huffing a small, frustrated sigh, you slam the drawer shut.
  2129. >A deep metallic thud resounds from beneath the counter, like a massive deadbolt being pulled.
  2130. >You allow yourself a smug grin directed toward Silver Dust, giving the counter a light, one-hooved push.
  2131. >The ornate wooden monstrosity rotates easily on a hidden hinge, uncovering a steep staircase descending into darkness.
  2132. >“Well I suppose that’s why you’re the lieutenant, Lieutenant,” Silver offers with an exaggerated roll of his eyes.
  2133. “I’ll take point. Sergeant, I want you bringing up the rear. Overseer Lamp Light?”
  2134. >Lamp Light had been standing in a near trance from the moment she entered the store.
  2135. >She had come to a halt only three steps through the door, her head swiveling left and right as she took in the faded decadence of the once upper crust shop.
  2136. >You don’t need to see her face to know the look on it; you’ve seen it before on your sister.
  2137. >A barely restrained awe for things of finery, held by a pony who grew up in a life where they could never imagine owning such things.
  2138. >The magnificent gowns stand in stark contrast to the Overseer’s own, austere vestments, their only concession to decoration being the Abbey’s emblem embroidered on the sleeves and the clerical collarette at her neck.
  2139. “Um, Overseer Lamp Light? Over here, if you please.”
  2140. >She shakes her head slightly, as if clearing a dizziness, quickly joining you and Silver Dust.
  2141. >“My apologies, Lieutenant. What do you require of me?”
  2142. “I’m leading us into the mill. I need you up front to help me identify the Abbey’s suspect, should we come across them.”
  2143. >She tenses up visibly, and you can see her shoulders rise and fall with a stiff breath, but she gives a stiff nod of her chin.
  2144. >“O-of course, Lieutenant. With you all the way! Shall I have my brothers lead with us?”
  2145. “Best to keep them in with the rest of the squad. If something happens to us it’d be better for a few ponies who know what to look for to stay with them.”
  2146. >“That – well, yes I suppose that does sound like a good idea.”
  2147. “Alright. Sergeant, form up on me. Stay close and watch each other’s backs down there.”
  2148. >“You heard the lieutenant!  Pairs of two abreast, no more than two meters apart. It’s going to dark and it’s going to be tight, but we’re going down anyway.”
  2149. >“S’what I told your sister last night, mate,” whispered one City Watch pony to another, earning himself a hoof to the helmet and a few nervous laughs from the small crowd.
  2150. >You swear you can even see an Overseer snorting beneath his mask.
  2151. >“Right, get your jollies now boys, then lock it down,” Dust replies before turning to you.
  2152. >“Ready when you are, Ma’am.”
  2153. >You check over your gear and snug the straps before starting down the stairs, leaving the cold afternoon light behind.
  2154. >The stairs only descend a few meters before straightening into a narrow, arched brick passageway.
  2155. >Fortunately, the passageway is lit, barely, by a series of electric lamps that flicker intermittently in the ceiling.
  2156. >Despite the tunnel being wide enough for two ponies to walk side by side in relative comfort, you can feel the bile of claustrophobia rising in your throat.
  2157. >The cause of your discomfort being the Overseer who has, for all intents and purposes, become another attachment on your harness.
  2158. “Uh, Lamp Light do you mind, maybe, moving over a bit? Please?”
  2159. >“Oh! Sorry, Lieutenant,” the Overseer bounces away from you, a little too far, bumping her head into the low arch of the ceiling with a metallic thunk.
  2160. >“Was I crowding you?” she inquires, rubbing one ear.
  2161. “Just a little.”
  2162. >The tunnel curves steadily to the right, preventing you from seeing straight to its end.
  2163. >From somewhere far ahead, a pistol shot reverberates weakly down the passageway, distant, but a sign that you are moving in the right direction.
  2164. >The entire tunnel shudders suddenly and dust sifts from the ancient bricks in the ceiling.
  2165. >A moment later, the lamps flicker one last time before going out entirely.
  2166. “Shit.”
  2167. >“Oh, oh my.”
  2168. >Immediately a familiar warmth is pressed once more against your side.
  2169. >A familiar warmth that is shaking considerably more violently than before.
  2170. >As your vision adjusts you realize that you can see, if only a little.
  2171. >A faint brightness is emanating from the far end of the tunnel, and as much as you hate the thought of leading your squad blindly into a fight, it’s the only option now.
  2172. >Turning around, you can sense the presence of the ponies behind you.
  2173. >Wait a second.
  2174. >Sense.
  2175. >You close your eyes, focus, and reopen.
  2176. >All six Watch ponies and both Overseers, along with Sergeant Dust, are painted a glowing yellow, and despite the unusual amber tint the world has taken on, you can see the tunnel just as well as before.
  2177. >Night vision in addition to seeing through walls; interesting.
  2178. “Sergeant!”
  2179. >Your whisper is met with a faint affirmative.
  2180. “Can you see that light ahead?”
  2181. >“Barely, but yes.”
  2182. “We keep moving towards it. Tighten up, and don’t lose each other.”
  2183. >You begin pacing slowly forward once more, keeping a close eye on the passage ahead.
  2184. >Every now and then you glance toward the floor, making certain you’re not about to trigger a tripwire or some other trap.
  2185. >The floor appears completely clean, however, aside from that patch of bricks directly in front of Lamp Light.
  2186. >Something is off with them; they look newer than the rest, less worn and smoothed by traffic.
  2187. >Wait, shit.
  2188. >Effectively blind, perhaps even more so with her mask on, Lamp Light trods over the strange section of flooring.
  2189. >A wet crumbling breaks the silence as the poorly cured mortar gives way, and Lamp Light’s hindlegs disappear into the gaping chasm that has opened beneath her.
  2190. >With a terrified yelp, she flails out with her forelegs for any purchase she can find.
  2191. >She finds you.
  2192. >In an instant, your legs are out from under you, and your void vision collapses as you slam into the floor and are dragged in after the falling Overseer.
  2193. >The fall is a short one, but it is quickly replaced by a jolting impact and tumbling down what feels a rocky cliff face.
  2194. >Finally, you reach the end of your journey with a surprisingly soft landing.
  2195. >Your cushion lets out a pained gasp as you knock the breath from her lungs before going limp beneath you.
  2196. >You roll off the mare and heave yourself up, battered but otherwise uninjured.
  2197. >You can’t see anything; down here there is no sunlight.
  2198. >In fact, the only sensations you are aware of is the sound of rushing water and a heavy, rhythmic metallic thudding.
  2199. “Shit. Lamp Light, can you hear me? Are you all right?”
  2200. >No response.
  2201. >Pulling her bronze mask off, you bend an ear close to the mare’s face.
  2202. >Her breathing comes lightly, but it’s there.
  2203. >You feel around behind her head, coming away with a slight trickle of blood.
  2204. >Out cold.
  2205. >Blinking your night vision back into view, you scan the pitch-black space you’ve fallen into.
  2206. >You are on a maintenance walkway next to a subterranean canal way, the foul water rushing past and into another wall.
  2207. >Another meter or so to the right, and you would have landed right in it.
  2208. >Shuddering with that thought, you cast your eyes upward and realize you must have fallen through some old ventilation shaft, haphazardly sealed up when the hidden passageway above was constructed.
  2209. >Up ahead, the walkway passes through a door, the source of the sound of thumping machinery.
  2210. >Behind you, it disappears, the rusted end of the catwalk having long since collapsed into the torrential artificial river.
  2211. >Only one way out.
  2212. >Sighing, you heft Lamp Light up as best as you can, placing her unconscious form against the slick wall of the tunnel.
  2213. >You are relieved to see her glowing, a sign that you assume means she’s alive and well.
  2214. >Creeping forward to the doorway, you peek through and realize you are not alone down here.
  2215. >The next room is dominated by a hulking electric generator, connected to a massive water wheel churned by the current in the canal.
  2216. >The thundering machine drowns out any other sound, but a bright yellow figure is hunched over in front of it.
  2217. >A pony wearing a battered waistcoat and working feverishly, blindly, at the metal guts of the generator.
  2218. >Casting an eye around the room, you realize that the Blinder is the only other pony in the room, and he’s directly in front of the opposite doorway.
  2219. >You draw your pistol, cocking the action and edging towards the thug.
  2220. >The Blinder’s own pistol is slung at his side, carelessly.
  2221. >The weapon is tucked lazily into his belt; you could easily jerk it away from him before he could turn around, making it easier to subdue if he has a mind to fight back.
  2222. >With that plan in mind, you keep your own weapon trained on him and sneak ever closer.
  2223. >Just a little further…
  2224. >With your free foreleg you stretch for the thug’s pistol.
  2225. >Almost…
  2226. >With a resounding snap, the electric lamps suddenly flicker to life.
  2227. >You blink at the sudden brightness, losing your night vision.
  2228. >The Blinder straightens up and turns around, coming face to muzzle with your pistol.
  2229. >His eyes dart between your own and the weapon.
  2230. “Don’t m-”
  2231. >Before you can blink, your right foreleg is jerked painfully to the side, the Blinder’s own foreleg sweeping upward and knocking your barrel away from him.
  2232. >Your pistol flies off into some unknown corner, and the Blinder takes a step back, fumbling for his belt.
  2233. >Wasting no time, you close the distance and spin in the same motion, coiling your hindlegs and delivering a thundering buck to the chest.
  2234. >As the Blinder crashes into the generator, you follow up with another spinning kick to his gun leg, sending his pistol clattering to the ground as well.
  2235. >In doing so, you make a mistake.
  2236. >You stay in his reach too long, and the thug capitalizes on it.
  2237. >A monstrous forehoof punch slams into your jaw, followed by another to the chest.
  2238. >The combination sends your helmet flying, brings hot blood to your mouth, and knocks the wind out of you.
  2239. >You stagger away from the thug, your chest spasming as you try desperately to suck down air, white flashes of pain crossing before your eyes.
  2240. >Heaving himself off the ground, the Blinder straightens his waistcoat before stalking toward you.
  2241. >With a sinking heart you realize just how much larger he is, towering well over a head and a half above you.
  2242. >“What’s s’matter, Miss? You gonna arrest me or not? I havn’t got all day now…”
  2243. >His eyes are cold, and full of malice.
  2244. >He’s going to enjoy killing you.
  2245. >You can’t out-muscle him.
  2246. >Certainly can’t outrun him in your current state; where would you run to, anyway?
  2247. >By the time you get your sword out he’ll be on top of you.
  2248. >On top of you…
  2249. >Your eyes scan the thug rapidly bearing down on you.
  2250. >Clipped to the front of the Blinder’s waistcoat is a small, ornate cylinder.
  2251. >A penknife.
  2252. >You’re only going to get one chance at this, Solemn.
  2253. >Here’s hoping he falls for it, then.
  2254. >Just as the massive stallion is about to reach you, you put one hoof behind another and trip, clumsily tumbling to the damp floor.
  2255. >His forehooves fall on either side of you, and he leers downward, raising one upward and positioning it slowly above your head.
  2256. >You tuck in one hindleg and let fly, sending a hoof at high speed into the Blinder’s groin.
  2257. >The stallion buckles and brings all four hooves back to the ground, narrowly missing you, lowering his face nearly to yours.
  2258. >Hacking up as much substance as you can, you spit an impressive blast of saliva and blood into the Blinder’s face, causing him to recoil, blinded if only for a moment.
  2259. >A moment is all you need.
  2260. >The thug stumbles backwards and wipes a hoof across his muzzle, hindlegs still shaking from the blow to his nether regions.
  2261. >He stares dumbly at the spot you inhabited only a second ago, suddenly feeling a weight from behind as his own knife plunges deep into the side of his throat, slicing a meaty arc as you jerk upward from your perch on his back.
  2262. >You jump aside as the stallion crumples to the ground like a rotted wood building.
  2263. >He rolls to one side, a forehoof slapping ineffectively at the gash as it seeps his life away, one eye staring plaintively up at you before losing focus.
  2264. >The Blinder’s struggles weaken and the body finally goes limp, only the din of the generator and roar of the canal persisting.
  2265. >Finally, you ease yourself into deeper breathing as the throbbing pain in your chest subsides.
  2266. >Tossing the bloody knife down next to its owner, you reclaim your pistol, rubbing your jaw and checking for loose teeth.
  2267. >Nothing serious, but eating will be painful for the next couple of days, at least.
  2268. >The doorway on the other side of the room leads to yet another tunnel, you find out, but you only take a few steps into it before freezing.
  2269. >There are voices at the other end.
  2270. >At least two.
  2271. >The conversation fades into coherence as you move silently along, and soon the tunnel opens onto another maintenance platform like the one you left Lamp Light on.
  2272. >This one is much larger, and judging by the bales of cotton and disheveled piles of spare loom parts, you realize it must be the lower level of the mill.
  2273. >Taking cover in the darkness behind a support pillar, you peer across the shadowy, crypt-like space and realize there are far more than two ponies here.
  2274. >A motley collection of Blinders gather around the side of the canal, water coming from the generator and thundering past into a runoff tunnel making them resort to shouting.
  2275. >One of them is dressed far more ornately than the others; his top hat taller, his coattails longer and his collar taller and stiffer than the rest.
  2276. >He paces around with a swagger, addressing a pony who isn’t visible from your position.
  2277. >“And now, you get to stay here and reap what you’ve sown. I gave you my protection ON YOUR WORD, that you wouldn’t be traced to me. And here we are.”
  2278. >“I paid you! More even than what we agreed on!” came the voice of another stallion.
  2279. >Young, and panicked.
  2280. >The Blinder boss rounds on its owner, who appears to be on the floor in the middle of the crowd.
  2281. >“You think I care about PAY? Because of you, too many of my ponies are dead! Good ponies! My territory is swarming with the Watch and the damned Overseers, and the center of my operation is overrun!”
  2282. >The boss puts a forehoof down on something, bringing forth a miserable cry of pain.
  2283. >“You misunderstand me, friend. I don’t give the Outsider’s ass for pay. I provide a livelihood for ponies in these troubled times. Sure we make a good living on the side, but we’re a family, you see?”
  2284. >He lets off on the unseen pony, leaving them panting with strain, and stoops to take something from him.
  2285. >In the dark, you see the glint of jewelry; a necklace, an amulet of some kind?
  2286. >“I’m going to leave now. See if your ‘pay’ is any help when the Overseers get down here.”
  2287. >The crowd of thugs begins to shuffle away toward another tunnel; likely heading toward a loading dock on the main canal.
  2288. >No doubt they have a boat waiting there.
  2289. >“WAIT! Our deal, remember our deal!”
  2290. >The boss pauses for a moment, head cocked to one side, and sends the rest of the gang ahead before turning back to the unseen pony.
  2291. >“Deal? Which one was that, remind me again?”
  2292. >There is a scuffing noise and pained sounds of a pony trying to drag themselves upright.
  2293. >“If something went wrong. If I was going to get captured. You’d send someone and take my head before that happened,” the pony hisses through clenched teeth.
  2294. >“Ohhhh, that deal. The one where I’m supposed to end it for you. You know the way I see it, that deal would only stand if you compromised yourself in a way that didn’t get me involved. Seeing as that’s not the case, I’m afraid I’ll have to say no.”
  2295. >A short-lived scuffle breaks out, and from your vantage point you watch the Blinder boss break loose and give the unseen pony another swift kick.
  2296. >“You bastard!”
  2297. >“Fraid so. Do give the High Overseer my regards.”
  2298. >A clattering from above sends you further into the shadows, and another Blinder rushes down a nearby staircase and dashes across the chamber.
  2299. >“Boss! They’re working their way through the barricade, they’ll be down any second!”
  2300. >The boss nods and pushes the thug onward before following him to the exit.
  2301. >“Best not keep the boat waiting, lad.”
  2302. >The two disappear, a hefty iron flood door slamming down over the exit and bolting from the other side.
  2303. >You break cover and draw your pistol, moving toward the edge of the canal.
  2304. >The sounds of pained whimpers and gasps grow louder, until finally you step into the unseen pony’s view.
  2305. >He’s a sad sight.
  2306. >His dull green coat is matted and greasy, his blonde mane filthy and tangled.
  2307. >At least two of his legs are broken, twisted at odd angles, and he’s been beaten within an inch of his life.
  2308. >Most importantly, he’s a unicorn; his horn broken off at the base and bleeding profusely.
  2309. >Unicorns are almost exclusively members of the nobility and upper class in Quidstol, and the few that aren’t are generally Overseers or natural philosophers.
  2310. >To find one caught up in all of… this, is highly unusual.
  2311. >The unicorn sees you and tenses up, trying to scuttle away with what strength he has left.
  2312. >You raise your pistol and level it at his chest.
  2313. “Don’t move! You are under arrest by order of the Lord Regent!”
  2314. >The battered pony freezes, pure hatred burning in eyes so bloodshot and swollen you can’t even guess their original color.
  2315. >A nearby explosion hammers the room, the shockwave pounding your eardrums, and you turn to see metal door careen down the staircase before slamming into the opposite wall.
  2316. >“Down there, go!” comes the welcome and sorely missed voice of Captain Gale.
  2317. >Another familiar voice pierces the air, high and full of terror.
  2318. >Lamp Light has limped into the room from the way you came, finally having come to.
  2319. >“Lieutenant, watch out!” she cries, eyes showing white even at this distance.
  2320. >You instantly turn back to the unicorn.
  2321. >His good foreleg is in front of him, hoof tucked tightly beneath his jaw.
  2322. >Wrapped in it is a grenade, the faint burning of the fuse deafening in your ears.
  2324. Chapter 27
  2326. >The grenade detonates in a brilliant flash, taking most of the unicorn with it.
  2327. >Before you can even flinch the blast hits you, feeling as though a hundred hooves are laying into your body in a single moment.
  2328. >Your eardrums are slammed inward, and as you are thrown to the ground your senses are scrambled to bits.
  2329. >Up, down, left or right, none of it makes sense anymore.
  2330. >Though your blurry eyes show that you are limp on the ground, you feel as if you are free falling.
  2331. >A little like the sensation you felt in the Void, but even more sickening.
  2332. >Deafness reigns, but ever so slowly a tinny ringing rises back to your ears, along with something else.
  2333. >“—ieutenant ge—t of there!”
  2334. >It suddenly registers that the ground you are on isn’t stationary.
  2335. >The slick stone floor is crumbling at a fierce angle, taking you with it.
  2336. >Down, down to someplace noisy, almost like…
  2337. >Thunder?
  2338. >The icy water is like a jolt of electricity.
  2339. >Your faculties come rushing back in an instant, your hooves instinctively kicking against the flow, pushing your head above the roiling surface.
  2340. >Gasping for air, you only have enough time to glimpse the blasted remnants of the maintenance platform sliding past at alarming speed.
  2341. >“Rain!”
  2342. >“SOLEMN!”
  2343. >Gale and Silver Dust’s anguished voices are the last things you hear as slip towards a dark gaping maw labeled “Canal Runoff.”
  2344. >Still dazed, your legs fight weakly, unable to hold you against the vicious torrent.
  2345. >You think to draw one last breath before the channel swallows you down into pitch darkness.
  2346. >Swirling in the black, your inner ear fights futilely to tell up from down.
  2347. >The only sounds is the deafening rush of water and the frequent thuds as you are slammed against the tunnel walls.
  2348. >Every blow forces a little more air from your lungs, bubbles escaping past your mouth and nostrils despite your best efforts.
  2349. >“So this is how it ends,” is the only coherent thought you can put together as your heartbeat rises in your ears, chest tightening as your lungs begin to burn.
  2350. >Visions of your warm, cozy apartment float disjointedly in your mind; your father making dinner, your little sister rushing up for a hug when you get off shift.
  2351. >Damn it all, you are not dying here.
  2352. >Screwing your eyes shut tight, you force yourself to ignore the rising urge to breathe, and call up your night vision.
  2353. >It is blurry in the seething current, but you at least manage to orient yourself right-side up and facing in the direction of the flow.
  2354. >As the tunnel whips you through another bend, you kick off the outer wall and keep moving with it, immediately being slammed to a halt.
  2355. >The impact knocks the rest of your air out and collapses your night vision.
  2356. >Squinting in the gloom, you realize that the water is lighter here, and you are being pressed against an iron grating by the current.
  2357. >The end of the generator outflow.
  2358. >Just beyond the grating is the main canal, and the surface.
  2359. >Your forehooves scrabble frantically over the iron bars, searching for a way out.
  2360. >They find something smooth and round; the wheel to a maintenance hatch.
  2361. >Although your jaw is clamped tightly shut, a gulp of bitterly cold water forces its way in.
  2362. >Your burning lungs scream out in pain, and you cough the water out, white dots spinning in your vision.
  2363. >Grasping the wheel, you throw all of your strength into unlocking the hatch.
  2364. >All of your strength is not enough; the hatch is badly rusted from months of disuse, and your muscles are failing, forelegs clumsily struggling for purchase.
  2365. >As the blackness creeps in on the edges of your vision, you feel a tingling, searing sensation on your left forehoof.
  2366. >The mark.
  2367. >Consciousness fading, you brace yourself up on the hatch and raise your left foreleg above it, pausing for an excruciating moment, and bring it slamming down against the corroded metal.
  2368. >With a muffled thunderclap, the hatch blasts away, bent back and snapped off at the hinges.
  2369. >You follow it out, squeezed out of the high-pressure outflow tunnel.
  2370. >With a sharp jerk across the chest, you come to another halt.
  2371. >Your sword scabbard is snagged on the jagged opening in the grating.
  2372. >Just… unbuckle… harness…
  2373. >Your forehooves brush over the clasp once, twice, finally landing on it and jerking it outward.
  2374. >And just like that, you are free.
  2375. >The thundering noise of the outflow tunnel fades away, leaving you floating in a pale, murky silence.
  2376. >As your eyes flick upward and catch shafts of light filtering downward, something primordial gives you one last burst of life.
  2377. >Kicking upward with all four hooves, the light gets brighter, and brighter, until…
  2378. >Your head breaks the oily surface of the canal.
  2379. >Finally in the clear, your jaw muscles force your mouth open, and cool, fresh air leaps into your desperate lungs.
  2380. >Your vision sharpens, growing brighter, and the fog clears further from your brain with every gasp.
  2381. >You paddle weakly to the nearest bank of the canal; unable to stand yet, you drag yourself from the water on your belly.
  2382. >The putrid mud smells horrendous, but to you the squelching ground is the sweetest thing in the world.
  2383. >Rolling onto your back, you pant for a little while longer, overcome with an immense exhaustion.
  2384. >Blackness creeps in on your vision once more, and you slip into dark, dreamless sleep.
  2385. >A dream does come later.
  2386. >A dream of your mother.
  2387. >It is vague and shifting; strange that you can hardly remember what she looks like anymore, without looking at a picture of her.
  2388. >You are small again, and your mother is holding you close.
  2389. >Braiding your mane, drawing you into a gentle hug.
  2390. >Kissing you, first on the forehead, the way you remember, then the lips.
  2391. >And then…
  2392. >There is tongue.
  2393. >What the fuck.
  2394. >The dissonance jerks you partially back into consciousness, and you feel a warm weight pressing down above.
  2395. >Somepony is kissing you.
  2396. >Your eyes shoot open, and you are welcomed by the sight of Overseer Lamp Light: mane matted and sweaty, eyes screwed shut, muzzle pressed against yours and blowing air into your lungs.
  2397. >Without thinking, you bring your forelegs in and roughly shove the Overseer off, rolling her away to one side.
  2398. >She really is tiny; roughly the same size as you.
  2399. >You sit up from the mud and cough roughly, trying to clear the strange, rebreathed air from your lungs.
  2400. >“You’re alive! By the Outsider you’re alive!”
  2401. >Lamp Light would be bouncing with joy if it weren’t for the mud up to her hocks.
  2402. “Yeah, I am, thank you. What the hell was that?”
  2403. >The unmasked Overseer beams with pride, puffing her chest out.
  2404. >“Rescue breathing! The Abbey teaches it to all Overseers, especially those in cities near the water, where drowning is a greater danger. I received top marks in it during training; practiced it whenever I could with my brothers and sisters of the Abbey!”
  2405. >You stare blankly at Lamp Light, not really sure how to respond to that, but you figure it’s not worth spoiling her mood by pointing out you were alive and well already.
  2406. “How did you find me?”
  2407. >“After you fell into that tunnel, I found a map of the waterworks posted on a wall near the platform. There were a few different outlets, so our squad split up to head for each of them. Lucky for you I got here so quickly!”
  2408. >A cold wind whips through the canal, biting through your soaked jacket and sending a shudder up your spine.
  2409. >Lamp Light notices and shifts closer; her own uniform, although much drier than yours, is equally plastered with canal mud to the point of appearing more brown than black.
  2410. >“You must be freezing! We need to get you out of those wet clothes and dry before you catch something,” she remarks with genuine concern.
  2411. >She starts with the left sleeve of your uniform, and you quickly slap her hoof away, glaring at her a little more harshly than you had intended.
  2412. >Lamp Light shrinks away, ears flattening in apology.
  2413. >“Sorry, when you want to, of course.”
  2414. >Your gaze softens a little.
  2415. “It’s fine. We’re both probably going to walk out of here with five different diseases thanks to this mud anyhow.”
  2416. >The Overseer looks down at her hooves, raising one from the muck and regarding it as if it were a plague rat.
  2417. >“O-oh. I hadn’t thought of that before, actually.”
  2418. >You can’t help but let a small laugh escape at her expense.
  2419. “I was kidding, Lamp Light. I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
  2420. >A sheepish half smile crosses her muzzle, like she’s not entirely convinced.
  2421. >Well, time to get her mind off it entirely.
  2422. “So, Overseer Lamp Light, does standard procedure for rescue breathing call for the use of one’s tongue, or was that a unique adaptation?”
  2423. >The Overseer’s pupils shrink visibly as a fiery scarlet rises from her collar to her mane.
  2424. >“W-we should go find the others, don’t you think?”
  2426. Chapter 28
  2428. >The streets were quiet on the walk back to the old mill.
  2429. >They weren’t entirely empty, however.
  2430. >Lamp Light led you around to the front of the crumbling building, where the peeling paint of “Trakehner’s Textile Company” was just barely visible over the main yard gate.
  2431. >The Blinder’s had gathered their remaining numbers and fled upon the river.
  2432. >Those that hadn’t are strewn about their former holdout.
  2433. >Just inside of the reinforced gateway is the messy aftermath of an explosion.
  2434. >Overseers’ grenades, most likely.
  2435. >Rubble and considerably… wetter, debris is scattered about the yard radiating away from the gate, and the crumpled figures of several brightly costumed ponies dot the ground, run through with sword or pistol shot.
  2436. >A few Watch ponies stand guard under the fading gray light of a hidden, late autumn sun.
  2437. >Laid neatly to one side of the carnage is another group of bodies, arranged in two rows.
  2438. >Three ponies in the dark blue jackets and dull steel armor of the City Watch make up the first row.
  2439. >Two black-uniformed Overseers, bronze masks still in place, lay serenely beside them.
  2440. >Turning toward Lamp Light, you wonder how she’ll react.
  2441. >You’ve seen this before.
  2442. >Ponies die in the Watch all the time.
  2443. >It comes with the territory.
  2444. >While you’re certain the same goes for Overseers, you are curious as to how their zealous fervor affects this part of the job.
  2445. >Additionally, you’ve gotten the feeling throughout the day that this is Lamp Light’s first time on a street assignment.
  2446. >Her face is hidden, but you can see her ears droop and her breath hitch in her throat.
  2447. >The mask swivels to you, the unseen eyes behind it filled with a nearly tangible dread.
  2448. >Lamp Light starts unsteadily towards the fallen Overseers, and you follow.
  2449. >You feel it too.
  2450. >The lead weight in your stomach and the queasy light-headedness at the thought of seeing a friend, or even a passing acquaintance, on the cold cobblestones.
  2451. >As you approach, you breathe a silent sigh of relief.
  2452. >None of the Watch ponies wear sergeant’s stripes, or have the blonde mane of Silver Dust.
  2453. >Is it wrong to feel relieved?
  2454. >Relieved that someone else’s friends died, and not yours?
  2455. >You hardly recognize the three Watch ponies.
  2456. >New guards are conscripted every day to maintain order in the city, and shuffled from one post to another.
  2457. >These ones were recent transfers to the Market District, and younger than average.
  2458. >Street youths looking for a warm bed, food, and a roof over their heads.
  2459. >Not much different from those well-dressed colts over there, still lying in dried pools of their short lives.
  2460. >A sniffle brings you out of your dark thoughts and back to somber reality.
  2461. >Lamp Light is standing over the top of one of the dead Overseers, motionless aside from the shuddering of invisible and barely constrained tears.
  2462. >A mare, you can tell, by the small and light curves of the body beneath the uniform.
  2463. >Her mask is identical to Lamp Light’s, scowling even in the peace of death.
  2464. >A stained hole pierces the front of her uniform just below the neck.
  2465. >The fabric at her right shoulder blade is tattered and soaked in blood, turning her pristine white collar an impure crimson.
  2466. “A friend?”
  2467. >You try to be as unobtrusive as you can.
  2468. >“The very best,” Lamp Light responds quietly after a long while.
  2469. >Her voice is low and ragged, a world away from the singsong tone you first heard at the Office of the High Overseer.
  2470. >You open your mouth, but “I’m sorry” doesn’t come out.
  2471. >Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all.
  2472. >Instead, you let silence reign.
  2473. >“She died quickly.”
  2474. >The two of you turn to face another Overseer.
  2475. >His left foreleg is heavily bandaged and his bronze mask bears several deep nicks.
  2476. >“I am glad to hear it, brother. It’s what any loyal follower of the Abbey deserves,” Lamp Light’s voice, though still somber, has leveled back to its normal lightness.
  2477. >The wounded Overseer nods, looking over your muddy uniforms and recoiling almost imperceptibly from the smell.
  2478. >“Indeed. She was among the first in battle against this filth. Her pistol was discharged, and we found her near the body of one of the Blinders. I’m sorry sister; I know you were close to her.”
  2479. >“Don’t be. She died fighting the heresy that curses this city, as any of us should hope for the honor of doing. May her spirit fade from this world and find peace in the Void.”
  2480. >The stallion inclines his head in reverence, giving you a polite nod before turning and limping away.
  2481. >Lamp Light waits until he disappears, glancing toward the few Watch ponies nearby.
  2482. >Seemingly satisfied that no one else will approach, she raises a hoof to the chin of her mask, tilting it back on her forehead.
  2483. >You catch a glimpse of bloodshot eyes welling with water and tear-stained cheeks, fur matted where rivers have run through it.
  2484. >She rubs a cuff across her face, and after scrubbing the bothersome tears away, lowers her mask back into place.
  2485. >Lamp Light raises her head to you, appearing once more the stoic Overseer, apart from the mud.
  2486. >“Nice thing about the mask. No one can see your face, whatever you’re feeling,” she confides in you, a slight sarcasm lacing her quiet words.
  2487. “We’d best find Captain Gale.”
  2488. >“And Vice Overseer Brindle. I’m sure you’ve got plenty to tell about what happened down there,” Lamp Light responds as the two of you turn towards the looming entryway of the mill.
  2489. >“Maybe we can leave out the part where I get knocked out, though.”
  2491. Chapter 29
  2493. >The two stallions in question are deep in heated discussion when you arrive.
  2494. >“And you assured me they were ‘reeling’ from the Abbey’s attack yesterday,” Captain Gale snaps in a low, dangerous tone to the unmasked Vice Overseer.
  2495. >“They were, Captain. We had them in full retreat before they managed to pull beyond our reach,” Vice Overseer Brindle responds tersely.
  2496. >Gale rubs a hoof down his face, stroking his mustache, a sign you’ve found of a barely restrained explosion of fury.
  2497. >“Because they were falling back to a fortified position and setting up an ambush like the one we just trotted into!”
  2498. >Although the captain’s voice his held low enough to avoid unwanted eavesdropping from nearby Watch ponies and Overseers, it is shaking with rage.
  2499. >“Perhaps if you left your seminary to do more than preach and nail your heresy notices to doorways, you’d have picked up on that detail, Vice Overseer.”
  2500. >Brindle’s eyes narrow and his mouth opens in retort before he notices the two newcomers.
  2501. >“Ah, Overseer Light. I see you’ve found our missing Watch officer,” he finishes, tucking away whatever response he had for Gale.
  2502. >“Yes sir, she was near the outflow for one of the district’s electricity generators,” Lamp Light gives her report, snapping to attention despite her filthy uniform.
  2503. >Gale looks you over, the annoyance in his face seeping away and relief taking its place.
  2504. >“Good to see you in one piece, Lieutenant.”
  2505. “And you likewise, Sir.”
  2506. >Brindle speaks up, the time for greeting now apparently over.
  2507. >“Lieutenant Rain, you were the closest to the heretic when the explosion took place. I’d like to know everything you recall.”
  2508. >You clear your throat and think back to the tunnels, seemingly a lifetime away.
  2509. >In your peripherals, Lamp Light sits back on her haunches, withdrawing a notebook and pencil from her uniform and readying to transcribe your report.
  2510. “When I arrived, the Blinders were getting ready to escape to the canal front. The suspect-“
  2511. >“Heretic,” Vice Overseer Brindle corrects.
  2512. “-Heretic, had been beaten severely by the Blinders.”
  2513. >You pause for a moment, racking your brain and trying to remember the finer details of the conversation between the Blinders’ boss and the unicorn.
  2514. “They, had some kind of deal. The Blinders were providing shelter for the sus – heretic, under the condition that he not lead the authorities to suspect the gang of harboring him. That was all I was able to catch, other than that he paid them well.”
  2515. >Brindle taps his chin meditatively, eyes glazed over.
  2516. >“Him. So it was a stallion, yes?”
  2517. “That’s right, and one more thing; he was a unicorn.”
  2518. >All three pony’s heads snap upward and in your direction as Lamp Light’s pencil slows to a halt.
  2519. >After a long silence, Captain Gale quietly speaks first.
  2520. >“Are you certain?”
  2521. “Completely, Sir. His horn had been broken off nearly at the base, and it was bleeding heavily.”
  2522. >Brindle butts in without warning.
  2523. >“Possibly a head wound that you mistook for a horn, given the poor lighting in – ”
  2524. >“If Lieutenant Rain is certain she saw a unicorn, then she saw a unicorn, Vice Overseer. I’ve never known any reason to question her powers of observation.”
  2525. >Silence falls heavily over the small gathering.
  2526. >Unicorns aren’t common in Damwall, or the Isle of Quidstol in general.
  2527. >Mostly, unicorns make up the upper echelons of society: nobility, inventors and physicians, always on the cusp of new breakthroughs or enjoying the luxuries of rank.
  2528. >The few that belong to the lower rungs are mostly in positions that benefit from the skill of telekinesis, such as watchmakers, or drafted into the Abbey of the Everymare at a young age to serve as Overseers specializing in combat.
  2529. >‘To prevent the temptation of the Outsider and his foul influence, which come more naturally to unicorns than those of the other, more fortunately born races,’ is the official line of the Abbey.
  2530. >More fortunately born; and yet here are the earth ponies and pegasi, scraping a living in this decaying city while the upper crust lives in blissful ignorance.
  2531. >Vice Overseer Brindle has fallen into contemplation again, as has Captain Gale.
  2532. >Lamp Light looks between the two ranking officers, then to you, then to her idle notepad as she shifts uncomfortably on her haunches.
  2533. >“If what you say is true, then it has dire implications for the safety of this city, if not the Empire itself,” came Brindle softly.
  2534. >“He’s dead, isn’t he? Unless unicorns can rematerialize and I’m not aware of it,” Gale responds brusquely.
  2535. >Brindle looks at Gale, suddenly appearing much older than his close-cropped mane and stocky features betray.
  2536. >“The Abbey has intelligence that suggests this heretic was not the only one in the city.”
  2537. >“We do?” Lamp Light blurts out, earning herself a silencing glare from the Vice Overseer.
  2538. >She buries her muzzle in her notebook, scribbling at nothing in particular.
  2539. >“The goal of this operation was to capture and question one of what we thought was a cult of earth ponies in possession of heretical artifacts, wanted for several crimes of utmost concern,” Brindle continues.
  2540. >“We now know that at least one of them was a unicorn, capable of magic far beyond what simple charms are able to provide. The question is, how many more of them are out there?”
  2541. >“And how do we combat them?” Gale interjects.
  2542. >“The Watch is accustomed to fighting street gangs and common criminals, not these so-called ‘cultists.’ What’s more, we’re stretched thin as it is, dealing with the Plague and the Lord Regent’s indefinite martial law.”
  2543. >The Vice Overseer broods silently for a while before speaking.
  2544. >“Unicorns or no, their support from the Blinders has been scattered, and it will take them some time to reorganize. In the meantime, I must discuss matters with the High Overseer. The possibility that ponies of significant social connections, even nobility, could be involved in heresy, is most troubling.”
  2545. >Straightening his uniform and drawing himself up, the Vice Overseer concludes the meeting.
  2546. >“I will contact the River Patrol and inquire as to whether they can spare resources to search for the heretic’s remains, to confirm Lieutenant Rain’s report. Your battalion performed admirably, captain, and I will tell the High Overseer as much.”
  2547. >“Lovely,” replies Gale flatly.
  2548. >“This operation being concluded, the Market District Watch Battalion is hereby released to its original duties. Overseer Lamp Light, come along.”
  2549. >With that, the Vice Overseer strides quickly for the mill’s main doorway.
  2550. >Lamp Light hastily tucks her notebook away, pausing and looking to you.
  2551. >Her mask is impassable, whatever emotion she is hoping to convey lost on you, and she curtly turns to follow her superior.
  2552. >Gale heaves a heavy sigh, visibly seeming to crumple inward a little.
  2553. “What do you make of all of that, Sir?”
  2554. >“You mean apart from the Abbey withholding useful information, their incompetent handling of street operations, or unicorn cults loose in the city?” Gale replies, squeezing his eyes shut as if trying to clear a particularly strong headache.
  2555. >“Magic users allying with gangs; if the Abbey wasn’t on a witch hunt already, they sure as the Void will be now.”
  2556. >Drawing himself up, Gale glances around the vast, abandoned structure one more time.
  2557. >“Time to be on our way, Lieutenant.”
  2558. >You silently agree and follow the captain outside, where a steady drizzle has begun to fall from the gathering clouds.
  2559. >A small bustle of activity stirs the yard: A pair of Lower Watch stallions had appeared with a light four-wheeled wagon in tow.
  2560. >Half of the Watch ponies are busy erecting a guard hut from the prefabricated sheet metal unloaded from the wagon.
  2561. >The other half are loading the three dead ponies onto the now empty wagon.
  2562. >“Foals, the lot of them.”
  2563. >Gale’s gruff statement comes unexpectedly, and you turn to face him.
  2564. “Pardon, Sir?”
  2565. >“Freshly promoted from the Lower Watch, though I use ‘promoted’ in the loosest sense of the word.”
  2566. >The two of you watch quietly as the bodies are heaped with as much reverence as can be afforded onto the small, utilitarian cart before Gale speaks again.
  2567. “We don’t have enough ponies, plain and simple. To meet the Lord Regent’s demands, we’re pushing more and more Lower Watch ponies onto the regular beat; guarding checkpoints, and other things they’re not trained or equipped for. Which in turn means more petty criminals are being pulled out of Coltridge and more street kids are pressed into the Lower Watch.”
  2568. >He waves a hoof toward the cart as its drivers strain at the yoke, pulling the fallen guards off into the gathering darkness.
  2569. >“Then they come out here, get a bullet in their chest or a knife through their gut, and the cycle starts over. Again and again, until we run out of stupid foals or the Plague kills us all,” Gale mutters through a clenched jaw, staring through unfocused eyes after the receding wagon.
  2570. >Looking the captain over, you notice a small pool of red mixing with the rain rolling from his body.
  2571. “Sir, you’re bleeding.”
  2572. >“I know, Doctor Rain, though you could work on your subtle bedside manner.”
  2573. >You can’t help but smile a little at the unexpected stab of humor, and Gale’s eyes crinkle in a melancholy grin of his own.
  2574. >“Only a nick, I’ll see to it back at the station. Speaking of which, we should be headed that way.”
  2575. >Turning to address the remaining Watch ponies, Gale’s voice raises to its usual bark.
  2576. “City Watch, back to the station. Move out!”
  2577. >Two guards remain behind at the guard hut as the rest of you begin your journey back to the station, likely waiting until the smaller Canal District station could send ponies to replace them.
  2578. >As if on cue, Gale clarifies.
  2579. >“The Canal Station only has enough presence to patrol those waterways still in commission, so it’ll be up to us to keep an eye on this block.
  2580. >You stifle a groan; one more stop on the rounds, one more stretch of the Market Station’s limits.
  2581. >“Tomorrow I want you to reorganize the patrol schedule to include that guard post. And I mean tomorrow, Lieutenant, you’ve had quite enough action for one day. Get some rest tonight; you look like shit.”
  2582. “Well, if that’s an order, I won’t fight you too hard on it. What was that about bedside manner, Sir?”
  2583. >“Careful, Lieutenant, or you’ll be paying for your sword, pistol and helmet out of pocket,” Gale fires back, some warmth seeping back into his morose tone.
  2584. >You feel like shit.
  2585. >Your hooves feel as if an anchor holds each one to the ground, and bruises throb against your uniform in places you’d rather not be bruised.
  2586. >The missing gear hadn’t even registered until Captain Gale brought it up.
  2587. >Something else is missing.
  2588. “Where is Sergeant Silver Dust, Sir?”
  2589. >“I sent him back before the rest, to take over the station and dismiss whoever the Bridge District sent to cover it.”
  2590. >You nod silently, becoming aware of Gale’s appraising eye looking you up and down from the side.
  2591. >“He nearly didn’t go, you know. Said he wouldn’t until they found you, alive or otherwise. Almost had to do something I know I’d have regretted.”
  2592. >It feels like he has more to say, so you stay quiet and wait, his eyes still observing.
  2593. >“I know I made the right choice with your squad, promoting you over him. He’s hotheaded; tough and dependable, yes, but you’ve got a cooler temperament, better suited for an officer’s work.”
  2594. >He’s building up to something, but what it is, you can’t say.
  2595. >Without your helmet, the rain has soaked your mane thoroughly, your normally tucked away bangs hanging into your eyes.
  2596. >“That’s a good, solid friend you have, Rain. Hard to come by in these times.”
  2597. “Yes, Sir.”
  2598. >“He told you how he feels yet?”
  2599. >Your heart lurches in your chest, pausing a second before continuing its beat at a rapid pace.
  2600. >Your mouth is dry, and it takes you moment to work up a reply.
  2601. “W-what was that, Sir?”
  2602. >Gale actually chuckles; quietly so that no nearby Watch ponies overhear, but a laugh of genuine glee.
  2603. >“Come on, Rain. How long have you two known each other? You went through training together, worked alongside each other, and you haven’t noticed?”
  2604. >Your wide eyes search the Captain’s grizzled face for an answer.
  2605. >Reveling in your utter confusion, Gale’s mustache trembles with the lip beneath it and he lets out a deep, bellowing guffaw.
  2606. >Collecting himself and shooting a glare toward the questioning looks of the Watch ponies, Gale shakes his head mirthfully.
  2607. >“Outsider’s crooked cock, this is too much,” he laughs, wiping a tear from one eye despite the rain.
  2608. >“He likes you, Lieutenant, in case you didn’t notice.”
  2609. >You suddenly hate the rain; it washes away the mud coating your now glowing face, and does nothing to abate the heat rising up your collar.
  2610. “Why do you say that?”
  2611. >Stupid response, but it passes the initiative anyway, as you face forward and try to will yourself to stop blushing.
  2612. >Gale’s eyes never leave you; the old bastard is enjoying this.
  2613. >“A few reasons, really: you’re both young, and young ponies tend to do a very poor job of hiding their emotions.”
  2614. >He indicates you with a hoof.
  2615. >“Case in point. Whenever I discuss anything concerning you with him, be it patrol schedules or today’s incident, that hotheaded attitude either melts like butter or burns like whale oil. You’d have to be an Overseer to miss something like that.”
  2616. >You don’t know what to say.
  2617. >Or what to think.
  2618. >Your mouth hangs open as you stare mortified at the captain.
  2619. >“Maybe you would have been a good Overseer after all, Rain,” Gale pokes, finally starting to believe in your bewilderment.
  2620. >Why does that keep getting tossed around?
  2621. >“You honestly didn’t know?”
  2622. >Numbly, you shake your head, rivulets of water rolling from your mane and down your cheeks and neck, creeping uncomfortably into your collar.
  2623. “No, I… I guess I didn’t.”
  2624. >The thought of a special somepony never surface in your mind for more than a moment or two.
  2625. >Giving it a little attention whenever you see a couple in the market on those rare sunny days, or skimming an article in the Damwall Courier on this or that noblemare and her shady partner.
  2626. >When you aren’t working, you are mostly worrying.
  2627. >Worrying about the future, about your family.
  2628. >About the world that your sister will grow up in.
  2629. >Silver Dust used to say you worry too much when you were still a sergeant.
  2630. >Said your “brooding face” was cute, but only because he’d never seen any other expression to compare it too.
  2631. >….
  2632. >Maybe Captain Gale should have reason to question your powers of observation.
  2634. Chapter 30
  2636. >Hushed conversation filled the rest of the walk to the station.
  2637. >Mostly you trying to explain to Captain Gale your obliviousness.
  2638. >And mostly Gale becoming increasingly depressed at the state of affairs in this world.
  2639. >“I suppose I can understand where you’re coming from, Rain. There’s enough to worry about in the city without adding a relationship on top of it.”
  2640. >The gate to the Watch station is just ahead, and you never thought you’d be so relieved to see the squat, gloomy building again, and the end of conversation that it represents.
  2641. >“Still…”
  2642. >Oh for buck’s sake.
  2643. >You attempt to head Gale off at the pass.
  2644. “Sir, you’re a captain of the City Watch, renowned throughout Damwall for your exploits. You don’t have a special somepony and yet you’re still – ”
  2645. >Your voice trails off as you glance sideways and catch a flat, unconvinced glare from the captain.
  2646. “ – happy.”
  2647. >“Do I look ‘happy’ to you Lieutenant?”
  2648. “Well… sometimes.”
  2649. >“Rain, I don’t have a special somepony because I wasted the first half of my life at sea, and the second half trying to prove myself as a Watch officer with one wing. Do you know what my happiest memories are?”
  2650. >A rhetorical question that you refrain from answering, waiting for him to tell you.
  2651. >“The day I left sight of land for the first time, a wild one-night stand with a mare in Coltan, and most recently, seeing you come staggering into that mill, alive. Take a wild guess how many years passed between that night in Marely and today.”
  2652. >Gale comes to a halt before you can answer, and you realize that you are standing in the center of the station yard.
  2653. >“Solemn!”
  2654. >The shout comes from the main office doorway, and you snap your attention to see Silver Dust making his way across the yard in your direction.
  2655. >You look back to Gale, who raises his eyebrows in a nonchalant ‘have fun’ gesture.
  2656. >“You’re welcome.”
  2657. “For what?”
  2658. >“The heads up. From what you’ve told me, you needed it.”
  2659. >Gale turns and strides for his office, leaving you alone with Dust bearing down quickly.
  2660. >Shit, what do you do?
  2661. >Just act normal Solemn, you don’t want to deal with this right now.
  2662. >It’s not like he’s going to profess his feelings right here in the yard, is it?
  2663. >He’s not slowing down; going for a hug, maybe?
  2664. >Oh by the Outsider, no no no...
  2665. >Act more than normal, just to be safe.
  2666. >You turn and face Silver Dust, snapping to attention and trying to appear official despite your ruined uniform and soaked mane.
  2667. “Sergeant.”
  2668. >A neutral greeting, maybe a little harsher than it was meant to be, but it has the desired effect.
  2669. >Dust gradually slows to a halt, stopping short just in front of you.
  2670. >“Lieutenant,” he returns the greeting with a barely restrained joy.
  2671. >“How did you, I mean, I can hardly believe you’re – ”
  2672. “Let’s just say I went for a rather wet ride, no need to go too into the details.”
  2673. >You indicate the river muck still clinging to your uniform, though thankfully the rain is covering most of the stench.
  2674. “Are you all right?”
  2675. >Silver’s armor doesn’t seem to be banged up, nor does he appear hurt in any way, but you figure he’s had time to get cleaned up since the fight.
  2676. >“Yeah I’m fine. The Blinders may have repelled the Abbey the other day, but they gave as good as they got from what we found at the mill. Still, we lost a few. New transfers from the Lower Watch.”
  2677. >Dust’s helmet droops, his eyes nearly hidden in the darkness of the yard.
  2678. “Did you know them?
  2679. >“No. I mean yes, but no, not really. They weren’t assigned to my squad, but I talked with them a few times in the mess room. Seemed nice, happy to have a roof over their heads and hot food in their bowls.”
  2680. >“Anyway, after you and the Overseer fell through that rough patch of floor, we pressed on and ended up inside the mill, behind where the Blinders were holding Gale off, caught ‘em off balance, real bad. Good work on that shortcut, Sol.”
  2681. >His eyes lift to yours again, tired and worn, but filled with relief and… warmth, you think, radiating towards you.
  2682. >“Sorry, Ma’am. I’m awful glad to see you alive.”
  2683. >The rest of the Watch ponies have shuffled off to the barracks, the only sound the pattering of rain on Silver’s armor plating.
  2684. >Despite yourself, you feel the heat rising in your cheeks again as the silence stretches on, unsure of what to say.
  2685. >Just tell him you’re glad to see him alive too, Solemn, nice and simple. No one’s said anything personal yet.
  2686. “I’m glad to see you alive too Silv – Sergeant.”
  2687. >You kick yourself internally; where did that come from, Miss Good Order and Discipline?
  2688. >Just a slip up from the old days, you suppose. Too much to think about right now.
  2689. >Dust smiles a bit at the slip, but doesn’t say anything else.
  2690. “Well, I, need to get cleaned up and it’s late, so goodnight Sergeant.”
  2691. >You keep it short, beginning to turn away and hoping the yard is dark enough to conceal the color of your face.
  2692. >“Goodnight, Ma’am,” Silver responds quietly, saluting.
  2693. >You pause just long enough to return it, before crossing to the Officer’s quarters.
  2694. >Pushing your way through the door and out of the damp, you stop in the entryway and heave a deep sigh.
  2695. >Safe at last; no more gangs, Overseers, unexpected surprises.
  2696. >Until morning anyway.
  2697. >The officer’s quarters only has two bedrooms, and since Lieutenant Porter has tonight’s rounds, you have the communal washroom to yourself.
  2698. >Your room has a toilet and sink, but the bathing room sits between the two officer’s rooms.
  2699. >It’s sparse, but it suits your needs; a single tub sits in the middle of the room, with clothing and towel racks on one wall and a cabinet and water controls on the other.
  2700. >You turn the “hot” faucet to full open, and the tub begins to fill, steam rising luxuriously from the porcelain-lined iron.
  2701. >Stopping by your room to grab soap, a towel and brush, your bed calls to you temptingly from the corner.
  2702. >Not yet, old friend, not yet.
  2703. >Returning to the washroom, you hang your towel up, placing the soap and brush in a tray attached to the tub, and begin stepping out of your uniform.
  2704. >The blue jacket is solidly brown, but the red waistcoat beneath has maintained most of its cleanliness.
  2705. >You hang up the jacket for a Lower Watch pony to clean in the morning, and hear something crinkling inside.
  2706. >Fumbling with a pocket, you unbutton it and pull a stained, wrinkled and folded piece of paper from within.
  2707. >Mellow’s drawing.
  2708. “Shit.”
  2709. >Heading back to your room, you lay the slightly damp drawing flat on your desk, delicately unfolding it.
  2710. >Though the paper is now the color of weak tea, and the colors have faded and run slightly, your family still smiles out at you.
  2711. >Well, your father and sister anyway.
  2712. >Returning to the washroom, you find the tub filled to a satisfying level and shut the water off, removing your waistcoat and starting on your socks.
  2713. >You double check that the door is locked before peeling them off, the Outsider’s Mark a liquid black on your left forehoof.
  2714. >How long until you get careless and someone notices, or asks why you always wear socks?
  2715. >The cold won’t last forever.
  2716. >Maybe you run away to Thoroughbrydia, you think half seriously.
  2717. >It snow year-round up there, at the top of the Empire.
  2718. >Now suitably naked, you pull a bottle of bath salts from the washroom cabinet, sprinkling a little into the bath and relishing the soft, flowery scents that rise from the water.
  2719. >Gently you lower one hindleg into the tub, forelegs balanced on the rim.
  2720. >You hiss as your hoof makes contact with the surface.
  2721. >The water is just on the verge of scalding, but your legs quickly become accustomed to it and you begin the slow process of sinking your body into the bath.
  2722. >The liquid creeps up your flanks, closer and closer to your nethers until –
  2723. “AHAH… ahhhhh…”
  2724. >You settle the rest of the way in, muscles going lax as an incredible warmth seeps back into your body.
  2725. >All of your troubles and worries seem to melt away with the dirt, the rising steam caressing your cheeks as you close your eyes.
  2726. “Oh by the Void yes…”
  2728. Chapter 31
  2729. >After your bath, sleep came easily.
  2730. >No visits from the Outsider, no nightmares.
  2731. >Just deep, blissful sleep.
  2732. >Morning has come however, and with it, a return to your responsibilities.
  2733. >You will yourself to push the covers away, the pocket of warmth trapped underneath evaporating in the cold autumn air.
  2734. >Hoisting yourself from the bed, you stand by the cast iron heater near the door, stretching and massaging yourself, getting the blood pumping for the day.
  2735. >You can hardly find an inch of yourself that doesn’t hurt.
  2736. >Gingerly tugging your spare uniform on, you place an ear against your door and listen for a moment.
  2737. >Satisfied the hall is empty, you crack the door open and find what you are looking for.
  2738. >In front of the door are your boots, cleaned and polished to a shine during the night by some Lower Watch pony on laundry duty.
  2739. >You remember those days, and while the memories give you a faint empathy for those ponies, you don’t miss the smell of polish.
  2740. >Bringing the boots inside, you slip them on and cinch them down, flexing your hindlegs and hooves to make sure they’re snug.
  2741. >You search around the small set of drawers and find another pair of wool socks, pulling them on and tucking them tidily beneath the cuffs of your jacket.
  2742. >Almost done, now where’s that harness…
  2743. >You reach for the conspicuously empty wall hook and freeze, noting the absence of both the harness and your helmet.
  2744. >With a groan you remember that they’re at the bottom of some nameless, muddy canal, and instead strap a standard issue belt over your jacket.
  2745. >Uniform regulations allow a fair amount of modification to the standard officer’s kit, accommodating the often-haphazard supply chain of the City Watch.
  2746. >Jacket, boots, helmet and harness make up “patrol dress,” the pattern you find yourself in most often.
  2747. >Today you’re making do with “service dress”: jacket, boots and belt, minus the harness and worn with or without a helmet, depending on the situation.
  2748. >You’ll be inside today, so rain isn’t an issue anyway.
  2749. >Looking yourself over in the mirror, you gently brush your mane out to its full length, braiding it and tenderly tying it in place with your mother’s silk tie.
  2750. >Arranging the braid over one shoulder, you mentally sign off as passing inspection.
  2751. >A few small cuts still visible on your cheeks and forehead, and a dark circle under one eye, but acceptable.
  2752. >You push open your door and make your way down the hall into the yard.
  2753. >A heavy early morning mist has rolled in off the river, so thick that the other buildings on the street are invisible and even the barracks and main office are hardly in sight.
  2754. >Trudging across the yard, you allow yourself an enormous yawn, jaw popping painfully.
  2755. “Ow”
  2756. >Your long journey has come to an end, and you arrive at the main office door.
  2757. >The patrol schedule rewrite can wait, at least until you’ve had some breakfast.
  2758. >Intoxicating aromas of cooking food lure you toward the mess room.
  2759. >The usual small gathering of Watch ponies huddle over their bowls near the heater, normally cheerful conversation now subdued and somber.
  2760. >Mourning the loss of comrades, no doubt.
  2761. >The few ponies lift their heads as you enter, taking in your tidy uniform and the cuts and bruises it fails to conceal.
  2762. >A few visible wounds greet your gaze; a nicked ear here, a gashed cheek there.
  2763. >You give the guards a fraternal nod and continue to the kitchen window, where your favorite cook is busy at her stove.
  2764. “Morning, Cinnamon.”
  2765. >The old mare glances upward, her tired face melting into a warm smile at the sight of you.
  2766. >“Solemn! I’m glad ta see ya well, dearie. But my goodness what have ya done to that pretty face of yours?”
  2767. >You open your mouth to explain, and are immediately cut off by a hurricane of advice.
  2768. >“Ah! No need ta go into all the sordid details lassie, the Watch is nasty work, I know. But ya should really be careful of that little snoot,” she chirps, punctuating the comment with a sudden and unexpected boop.
  2769. >Your muzzle scrunches and your ears perk up involuntarily, and you absentmindedly rub a hoof over your nose as Cinnamon Biscuit continues.
  2770. >“Why if I was half as pretty at your age as you are, I’d not of had ta settle for Scotch Barrel, the great lummox. Charming fellow; sweet as could be and quite the cook himself, but the poor stallion was ugly as a warehouse.”
  2771. >Cinnamon pauses and her old eyes glaze over, a light smile on her lips as she recalls old memories.
  2772. >“I do miss that old sod…”
  2773. >You wait for an increasingly uncomfortable amount of time, unable to bear the smells of the kitchen and rumbling of your stomach.
  2774. “Ahem. Cinna?”
  2775. >The old cook blinks and shakes her head slightly, refocusing on you.
  2776. >“Oh! Just some happy memories dear. Anyway, I’m saying that ya really should be more careful out there. Ya don’t want to end up looking like old Gale now, do ya?”
  2777. >“What’s wrong with looking like that, precisely?”
  2778. >Shit.
  2779. >You turn your head towards the newcomer to the conversation.
  2780. >Captain Gale must have entered the mess hall at some point in Cinnamon’s rambling, and he stands with a raised eyebrow regarding you and the cook.
  2781. >Cinnamon leans close to you, as if to share a secret, shuddering theatrically.
  2782. >“Yeesh, and I thought Scotch Barrel was hard on the eyes,” she whispers, obviously loud enough for Gale to hear.”
  2783. >Beneath his mustache, you can almost see Gale’s mouth turn upward.
  2784. >“When you’re done feeding my Lieutenant, Miss Biscuit, please send her my way. I’d like a word with her.”
  2785. >“O’course, Captain. And do tell her not to beat herself up so often,” Cinnamon replies.
  2786. >Gale shakes his head wearily, a noncommittal but good-natured grunt accompanying his exit from the room.
  2787. >When you return your attention to the window, Cinnamon has placed a mouthwatering tray on the window counter.
  2788. >Hash browns, toasted to perfection, scrambled eggs and a steaming cup of coffee.
  2789. >“Eat up, dearie, ya look thinner every time I see you.”
  2790. “You say that every time I come here, Cinnamon.”
  2791. >“Only ‘cause it’s true,” she retorts with a shrug.
  2792. >You carry the tray to an empty table and tuck in, the salted hash browns setting your mouth watering in the best way.
  2793. >Eating quickly, a habit you’ve gotten used to in the Watch, you wash the eggs down with the black coffee.
  2794. >The dark liquid fills you with its warmth, caffeine seeping into your veins and burning away the fog of sleep.
  2795. >As you pile your tray with the rest of the dishes, you wonder what Gale wants to see you about.
  2796. >You suppress another yawn as you head down the hall to his office.
  2797. >Probably some personal changes he wants made to the patrol schedule, or something of that nature.
  2798. >Your knock is answered almost immediately.
  2799. >“Come in, Rain.”
  2800. >You do so, shutting the door behind you.
  2801. >Captain Gale is seated behind his desk, not bothering to look up at you but continuing to read the unfolded letter in his hooves.
  2802. >For the second time this morning you find yourself standing in awkward silence, waiting for Gale to speak.
  2803. >…
  2804. >It’s impolite to interrupt someone while they’re reading, and he knows you’re here, so –
  2805. >“I’m sorry.”
  2806. >…
  2807. >What did he say?
  2808. >Sorry about what, the wait? That’s hardly unusual, what does he mean?
  2809. >Just ask him, Solemn.
  2810. “Pardon, Sir?”
  2811. >“About yesterday,” he replies, still reading the letter intently.
  2812. >“Your private life isn’t my business, unless it interferes with your ability to carry out your Watch duties. It hasn’t.”
  2813. >Finally, Gale puts the letter down and folds his forehooves on the desk, locking eyes with you.
  2814. >“Almost losing you made me think long and hard about my own experiences over the years. How that day far out at sea made me think about my family, how I’d never see them again. Well, I never told you the rest of the story.”
  2815. >He’s slipping into another memory-driven monologue, and you resign yourself to the role of quiet listener.
  2816. >Gale looks down at the desk, as if the swirls and knots in the ancient wood hold some secret, before returning his steely gaze to you.
  2817. >“My mother and father died, while I was away on that voyage. My father was a shipyard worker, proud to service vessels like those his son sailed in. He was vaporized in a coal bunker explosion, and my mother was forced onto the streets.”
  2818. >Gale pauses for a moment, resting his chin heavily on one hoof in reflection.
  2819. >“It was winter. She came down with pneumonia and died a few months later, and I received the word at the next port we put in to.”
  2820. >“I was so scared; scared that I’d never hug my mother, or hear my father’s rough voice again, while I was tossed about in that ocean. Then I was relieved beyond belief when I finally came to in the surgeon’s bunk; knew I was going home, that I worried for nothing. And then the news came, nice and tidy on Imperial Navy letterhead.”
  2821. >The story hits you in the gut like a sledgehammer; both parents? And to get the news secondhoof, after the fact?
  2822. >Your eyes well up.
  2823. >Not enough to cry, but enough to sting at the thought.
  2824. >You open your mouth, feeling a strange urge to comfort the captain for events long past.
  2825. >Gale raises a hoof to stop you.
  2826. >“What I mean by all of this is, it’s an unfortunate business we’re in, Rain. Many of these ponies are here because they had nowhere else to go. Even you.”
  2827. >You’ve been here for so long, and with no mention of it, that you’d forgotten he knew.
  2828. >“You joined the Watch to save your family; what’s left of it, anyway.”
  2829. >Your breath hitches in your throat at that.
  2830. >Gale notices, sagging visibly.
  2831. >“My apologies, Rain, I didn’t mean it harshly.”
  2832. >“For me, the Navy was just an adventure. After I lost everything, I saw the Watch as my way of protecting ponies, making up for past failures. But things have gotten worse, much worse since then.”
  2833. >“Yesterday I had to come to grips with the fact that I can’t protect every pony under my command, not in this world. I also had to accept that we all face the same risks, regardless of what we have to lose; but not before I let my own experiences get the better of me, and intruded on your personal life.”
  2834. >He straightens up in his chair, gazing earnestly at you.
  2835. >“For that, I apologize.”
  2836. >You stand silent for a long while.
  2837. >Gale doesn’t seem to mind; he simply goes back to reading the letter.
  2838. >But neither does he dismiss you.
  2839. >How do you even respond to something like that?
  2840. >You hadn’t even thought about his comments yesterday; it just seemed like good-natured humor, driven by the almost intoxicating thrill of still being alive.
  2841. >Maybe you just hadn’t thought about it enough.
  2842. >Maybe he was overthinking it.
  2843. >And maybe the answer lies in some gray area between, as things seem to be more often these days.
  2844. >Regardless of the answer, Gale’s apology rings true and gives you many more things to think about.
  2845. “It’s all right, Sir. I think I understand.”
  2846. >He doesn’t answer, still engrossed in the piece of paper in his hooves.
  2847. “If you’ll excuse me Sir, I’ll get to work on that schedule rewrite.”
  2848. >“That won’t be necessary, Rain.”
  2849. >What?
  2850. “Sir?”
  2851. >“With the Blinders no longer a threat in the Canal District, the Watch station there is being downsized and reassigning some of their complement to the Market District, including a lieutenant,” Gale says while indicating the letter.
  2852. >The news is welcome; more ponies mean eased stress in carrying out the already overstretched duties of the Market District Watch station.
  2853. >“From what I’ve been told she’s quite green, so when she arrives today I’m going to have her start on the scheduling work. Ease her into the job.”
  2854. “Sounds like a good plan, Sir.”
  2855. >“I do occasionally have those, Lieutenant.”
  2856. >Cheeky.
  2857. >Before you can ask what you should be doing today instead, Gale changes topics.
  2858. >“There’s something else,” he begins, setting the letter aside and pulling another from one of the desk drawers.
  2859. >“An opening has come up for advancement. A position for a junior officer in the City Watch Nobility Division.”
  2860. >Gale passes the letter across the desk for your inspection.
  2861. >You take it and recognize his hoofwriting; a response to the position opening.
  2862. >‘The Market District Watch station recommends for the available position Lieutenant Solemn Rain. Lieutenant Rain is an excellent officer and consistently carries out her duties with the utmost of professionalism and courage befitting an officer of the Watch: Signed, Captain Winter Gale, City Watch.’
  2863. >You feel as if a rug has been pulled from under your hooves.
  2864. >Leave the Market District?
  2865. >Your family?
  2866. >Captain Gale?
  2867. >Silver Dust?
  2868. “I – I’m being reassigned?”
  2869. >“Not yet. It’s up to the Nobility Division to make the final decision. You’re simply to report to their headquarters in the Estate District, tomorrow at noon, for evaluation.”
  2870. >You don’t answer, a dozen thoughts whirling around your head.
  2871. >Are you not good enough for patrol duty?
  2872. >After the incident with Anon and the assault on the Blinders, does he think you’re a risk?
  2873. >“You aren’t happy, Rain,” Gale states matter-of-factly.
  2874. “Sir, the Nobility Division, it’s – ”
  2875. >“A cushy posting,” he finishes.
  2876. >“In the past it was. Rubbing shoulders with high society, guarding fine dinners and balls. With recent events, I wouldn’t be so sure.”
  2877. >“This announcement only came through this morning. If you ask me, the Abbey is trying to shake things up, get some fresh insight into their ‘upper crust unicorn cult’ theory.”
  2878. “Sir, do you think they’d even accept somepony like me? Nobility household guard assignments are normally reserved for well off ponies themselves, and I’m just a – ”
  2879. >“Lowborn, like the rest of us here. I know Rain.
  2880. >“I like to think my name still has some weight behind it in this city, and your own record is perfectly capable of standing on its own, Lieutenant. This position, it’ll pay well, keep your family safe, and is an excellent opportunity for your own advancement in the Watch.”
  2881. >Gale allows himself a small self-deprecating smile.
  2882. >“Maybe I haven’t entirely learned my lesson, and I’m still trying in vain to protect everypony, but I truly think that you’re a better fit for this position than any of those uptight types that usually get in with their family names.”
  2883. >Your cheeks warm a little at the praise, despite your uncertainty about the sudden turn of events.
  2884. “Thank you, Sir. For the opportunity, and the praise.”
  2885. >Gale waves a hoof dismissively.
  2886. >“Nonsense, you’ve earned both.”
  2887. >Now you’re fully red in the face, and eager for a chance to leave the office.
  2888. >“Take the rest of the day off to prepare for your meeting, Rain. The new lieutenant will take over your tasks in the meantime until a decision is made,” Gale orders while tucking the letter into an envelope marked with the Estate District Watch station’s seal.
  2889. >He offers the envelope to you, and you take it.
  2890. >“Show this at the checkpoints along the way. Once you get across Koltwin’s Bridge head for the Rutshore Carriage Station. There’ll be a ride waiting for prospective officers there.”
  2891. >You tuck the envelope away in a pocket, filling with filly-like excitement at the thought of a carriage ride despite yourself.
  2892. “Yes Sir, thank you.”
  2893. >“You’re welcome, now get out of here, Rain.”
  2894. Chapter 32
  2895. >You walk through the main gate of the Market District Watch station with a bewildering mixture of feelings in your heart.
  2896. >On one hoof, promotion can’t be a bad thing.
  2897. >Can it?
  2898. >On the other, you’ll be leaving the Market District.
  2899. >Of course you’ been outside the district before; going to the shipyards with Dad, watching royal processions among the crowds lining the Tower District.
  2900. >But you had always come home.
  2901. >Will you be able to do so from the Estate District?
  2902. >Time off had been scarce enough in the regular Watch these days, but you’ve heard that the Nobility Division is even shorter-staffed.
  2903. >Granted, their assignments don’t have them patrolling streets in the wee hours of the morning.
  2904. >Household guards mostly keep watch over their assigned noble’s estate, staying near and keeping unsavory characters away.
  2905. >Each household assignment can also vary wildly from another, depending on the mannerisms and personality of the charge.
  2906. >So you’ve been told, anyway.
  2907. >You break from the whirlwind in your head and realize that you’ve been mindlessly walking the path back home.
  2908. >Looking up at the sky, you can just barely make out the pale circle of the sun, low in the eastern sky and barely peeking above the smokestacks and chimneys of Damwall.
  2909. >The day has only just begun, and you remember what Anonymous told you about the Academy of Natural Philosophy.
  2910. >You didn’t promise him anything, but the mystery has been gnawing at the back of your mind ever since.
  2911. >Free time for your – less than legal adventures – might become very scarce in the near future.
  2912. >Maybe it’s time for a daylight visit to the Academy.
  2913. >You figure you’ve got enough control of your powers to make your way there unseen.
  2914. >Besides, the Academy is a place of research and study, not a military fortress.
  2915. >Once inside, staying out of sight or nondescript shouldn’t be too difficult.
  2916. >You can’t go in wearing your Watch uniform, though.
  2917. >Looking around the street, you see that it’s still early enough that the market ponies haven’t roused from their homes, and slip into a side alley.
  2918. >The alley has a fire escape on one side and a rambling collection of ventilation ducts on the other, and in a matter of seconds you bolt to the roof of a block of flats.
  2919. >A quick exploration of the roof reveals a locked and heavily bolted door leading into the building, and a pile of old, empty crates secured under a tarp.
  2920. >The roof looks as though it hasn’t been used in years, no hoofprints apart from your own in the thick soot that has settled from the smoggy air.
  2921. >You reaffirm that no nearby buildings provide a taller vantage point, from which you might be spotted in the act, before stripping your uniform and boots, tucking them away in a neat pile under the tarp.
  2922. >You leave the socks on, both to muffle your hoofsteps and hide your mark, in case you need to pass as an ordinary civilian at some point.
  2923. >Naked and feeling far more agile, you take off across the rooftops for the Academy of Natural Philosophy.
  2924. >Fortunately, the Academy is on this side of the river, which means no heavily guarded checkpoints like the bridge stand between you and it.
  2925. >You keep mental note of the streets that rush past beneath you, following the path as best you could from the rooftops.
  2926. >The journey takes a good while, but the morning fog is thankfully slow to burn off as you cross district after district.
  2927. >Finally, you arrive on – well, above – Oxblood Road, and a great, unnerving presence looms from the river mist before you.
  2928. >The Academy of Natural Philosophy is one of the oldest parts of Damwall.
  2929. >Its massive stone walls and spiraling towers are hundreds of years old, older even than the Imperial Tower.
  2930. >Despite its purpose, the Academy does resemble an ancient castle from the Empire’s long forgotten past, the kind your father read to you about from old storybooks.
  2931. >You have never been inside, of course; few ponies ever have.
  2932. >Entry is allowed only to those few promising students that are admitted every year, along with those esteemed minds who had long ago proved their worth, and had been guiding the Empire’s technological march ever since.
  2933. >Given the tight entry rules, the Academy isn’t completely unguarded, you can see.
  2934. >The vast stone building is surrounded by a wide courtyard, statues of famous alumni positioned as if standing watch over their old alma mater.
  2935. >A tall wrought iron fence, topped with imposing spikes, rings the courtyard, isolating the sterile academy from the rest of the city.
  2936. >Two City Watch officers are standing at the main gate, and several guards patrol Oxblood Street outside the fence.
  2937. >Fairly light security, and the few Walls of Light that stood between the Academy and your starting point have been bypassed by your elevated route.
  2938. >The problem is the fence.
  2939. >It’s not particularly tall, and if you were closer you’d be able to jump/bolt over it and into the courtyard rather easily.
  2940. >However, Oxblood Street is wide by Damwall standards, and your roof perch is easily a dozen meters away from the fence.
  2941. >You’ll have to find another way, and preferably one that doesn’t involve the main gate.
  2942. >You could distract the guards and sneak through, but you’d rather not alert them at all and thus make your intrusion even more difficult.
  2943. >Scanning the scene below, you squint through the hazy gloom for another option.
  2944. >A foghorn sounds nearby, the baritone rumble going through your body and vibrating in your chest, giving you an idea.
  2945. >The Academy is on the river, meaning it should have a private dock.
  2946. >As much as you don’t fancy going for another swim so soon, it is better than alerting the entire Academy guard in daylight.
  2947. >You being to circle the vast campus, the upscale apartments surrounding it providing easy, out-of-sight travel.
  2948. >Soon, however, you run out of buildings, and a brackish wind greets your face, tousling your mane.
  2949. >The Roanhaven River stretches before you, its murky gray water sliding greasily by on its way to the sea.
  2950. >You figure you’re not far from the river mouth, as hulking shapes glide slowly past in the fog.
  2951. >Whaling ships; some headed out, some returning home.
  2952. >Periodically they sound their horns, alerting each other to their presence, the chugging drone of their engines swallowed up by fog that lies heavy on the water.
  2953. >Another noise rises up, more visceral and distressing than the mechanical bellow of the whistles.
  2954. >The deep bleating pitches into a high-pitched shriek, warbling and popping, before dropping down into a plaintiff moan.
  2955. >A whale.
  2956. >You can nearly make out the form of it through the gloom, suspended in the gantry above its captor’s deck, still alive.
  2957. >In the past, whales were hunted in the old way; chased down by small boats, harpooned and lanced to death, then butchered alongside the ship.
  2958. >Methods changed with technology, however, and now the wooden vessels and their whaleboats were gone, replaced with massive iron-hulled ships.
  2959. >Powerful engines drive the huge vessels through the sea faster than a whale can swim, running them down as they surface.
  2960. >Cannons on the bow launch barbed harpoons into the whales, tangling and trapping it as it is dragged up a ramp and onto the deck.
  2961. >Careful research by the Academy of Natural Philosophy had shown that a greater yield of oil could be achieved if the whale is kept alive, and so it is strung up in a latticework of cranes and cables, sprayed with seawater by hoses as the butchers carve pieces away.
  2962. >If the whale still lives by the time the ship reaches port, it is transferred to a slaughterhouse, where workers labor day and night over the creature, and oil tanks gradually fill.
  2963. >The whale sings its tormented song again, and you shudder as bile rises in your throat.
  2964. >You turn away as the ship disappears upriver, forcing yourself to survey your objective.
  2965. >The Academy dock is well kept, and a pier large enough for a single ocean-going ship juts into the river.
  2966. >Like the landward side of the facility, it is also guarded.
  2967. >A patrol boat is tied up at the end of the pier, its bow facing into the current.
  2968. >From your roost atop a riverside apartment, you can make out two ponies in the olive uniforms of the River Patrol seated on crates on the dock, apparently looking out across the river.
  2969. >Two more are hunkered down in the cockpit of the patrol boat, and an orange light briefly flares between them; a cigarette being lit.
  2970. >Tracing the pier back to where it meets the Academy, you see no more guards, just cranes, boxes, and a vacant guard hut.
  2971. >The River Patrol is looking for smugglers or other boat-bound criminals, you surmise, not you.
  2972. >A metal stairway descends from the side of the pier facing you to the water’s surface, providing access to the dock for small boats.
  2973. >It’s at least twenty meters from the waterfront to the stairway, an easy enough swim, and the stairs are far enough away from the tip of the pier for you to climb them without arousing the River Patrol.
  2974. >You drop down the side of the building, blinking first to a fire escape, then the top of a lamp post, and finally halting in the shadows alongside it.
  2975. >The two River Patrol ponies on the dock have their backs to you, and the two in the boat are completely obscured from this angle, only the stern of their vessel remaining visible.
  2976. >As good as it’ll get.
  2977. >The water’s surface here is flat and oily, sheltered from the stiff river current by the bulk of the pier.
  2978. >You lean over the edge of the breakwater, pleased to find another stairway disappearing into the briny water.
  2979. >Carefully easing one hoof past the other, you creep down the slimy metal steps until you are standing fetlock-deep in the river.
  2980. >It is brutally cold; you’ll have to swim quickly.
  2981. >You brace yourself up with a few deep breaths before slipping all the way into the water, feeling the cleanliness from last night’s bath disappear in an instant.
  2982. >The chill steals the air from your lungs, and you have to force your chest to loosen inhale again.
  2983. >Couldn’t you have looked a little harder for another way in?
  2984. >Maybe alerting the street-side guards wouldn’t have been so bad after all.
  2985. >Kicking your hooves beneath the surface, you keep your head above the water, occasionally having to clamp your mouth shut to avoid the foul river water.
  2986. >All the while, your ears swivel for any sound other than the lapping of waves.
  2987. >They detect nothing, and soon you are alongside the pier ladder.
  2988. >Your entire body shakes as you drag yourself from the river, pausing a couple of steps up the stairs to curl into a warmth-preserving ball and shiver furiously.
  2989. >Once you’ve regained some semblance of control, you lay your ears flat for a peek above the edge of the pier.
  2990. >The River Patrol ponies haven’t moved, and snatches of conversation drift on the still morning air.
  2991. >Nothing you can make out clearly, but casual and bored-sounding.
  2992. >Likely the nighttime shift, waiting for their relief.
  2993. >Looking away and toward the Academy, you see a wide set of doors, similar to those of a riverside warehouse, set into the stone foundation.
  2994. >Above them is a series of small windows, a few curiously cracked open despite the cold weather.
  2995. >Regardless, they’re exactly what you need.
  2996. >With the River Patrol paying no attention to the landward side of their sector, you climb the rest of the way up the stairs and focus on the empty guard hut, bolting to it and slipping inside.
  2997. >The hut is spartan, a logbook and a pot of coffee simmering on a portable whale-oil stove being the only items within.
  2998. >You almost turn to leave before returning to the coffee, figuring the River Patrol wouldn’t miss a sip or two.
  2999. >Testing the rim of the pot and finding it a suitable temperature, you tilt it and bring the liquid inside to your lips.
  3000. >The near scalding blackness slides past your tongue and straight down your throat, burning as it slowly settles into your stomach.
  3001. >Better now, if only a little.
  3002. >You carefully replace the pot on its burner and peek through the hut’s windows before creeping around to the side facing the Academy.
  3003. >A few more steps brings you within easy range of the back wall, and you take a moment to choose your target.
  3004. >Taking aim at one of the high-set windows, you bolt upward, eager to be someplace warmer as your coat drips dry.
  3005. >Finally, you’re inside the Academy of Natural Philosophy and out of the cold and oh fuck, what is that smell?
  3006. >You are nearly blinded by the tears rising to your eyes, and you slap a hoof over your muzzle to force back the vomit already climbing your throat.
  3007. >Squinting through your burning eyes, you see a dimly lit storeroom stacked high with strange shapes covered in tarps.
  3008. >The dull thud of a metal door opening grabs your attention, and you realize that you are still silhouetted against the open window.
  3009. >You bolt to a ventilation duct hanging in a dark corner of the room, with just enough room between the pipe and the ceiling for you to squeeze.
  3010. >Blinking away tears, you watch as two ponies wearing goggles and respirators, clad in oilskin coats, descend from a stairway on the opposite wall.
  3011. >“You are certain the new shipment arrived last night, Mister Coin?” comes the stern voice of an older mare.
  3012. >“Yes, Doctor Salvia, one of the River Patrol came and alerted me when it was brought in.” an exasperated sounding young stallion replies.
  3013. >“Oafs, the lot of them. The sooner this pestilential Plague is over, the sooner we can send them and those City Watch colts out front away.”
  3014. >The stallion mumbles something in agreement as the two ponies make their below you and toward a covered object near the loading doors.
  3015. >Heart pounding in your ears, you allow yourself a strangled breath, the horrendous, sour odor of the room nearly making you gag.
  3016. >Glancing to the exit, you bolt to the floor and creep up the stairs, finding the door closed.
  3017. >Fortunately, it’s not locked, and you gently nudge the latch upward, wincing as it clicks.
  3018. >“Oh, Void’s sake!”
  3019. >You freeze as the mare – Doctor Salvia, you presume – cries out in anger.
  3020. >“It’s already rotten! I told those idiots at the slaughterhouse that the hearts need to be put in a formaldehyde solution BEFORE shipment to the Academy, but do they ever listen?”
  3021. >As the rant continues, you pull the door open and slip through, barely getting a look at your surroundings before ducking into an alcove behind a nearby curtain.
  3022. >Gasping heavily, you fill your lungs with fresh air, wiping your streaming eyes and regaining some composure.
  3023. >Peering from behind the curtain, you are met with a long hallway filled with similar alcoves, with glowing electric lamps casting a yellow pallor over the scene.
  3024. >The hallway takes a sharp right turn out of sight about ten meters away, and you slip out of your alcove and bolt to one closer to the end.
  3025. >A metallic groaning from behind forces you to take cover once again, pressing yourself into the darkness of the alcove and hoping the curtain obscures you from view.
  3026. >“What should we do with this heart then, Doctor?”
  3027. >“I don’t care! Have the River Patrol toss it over the pier or something. I’m going to be writing a tersely-worded letter to Rothwither about this.”
  3028. >The pair of hoofsteps pass by your hideout and fade up the hall.
  3029. >Leaning around the corner, you watch the two masked ponies ascend another flight of stairs and disappear.
  3030. >Trotting after them, you skid to a halt beside a sign bolted to the stone passageway.
  3031. >Academy of Natural Philosophy floorplan, very helpful.
  3032. >Apparently you are in one of the basements, the one closest to the river.
  3033. >Your eyes dance over the map, taking in the details as your heart sinks.
  3034. >It’s a maze, seven floors and countless laboratories, observatories, classrooms and study halls filling its passages.
  3035. >You narrow your search to the third floor, the one labeled “Tenured Faculty Offices.”
  3036. >Even then, the labyrinth of hallways and labeled rooms makes your head spin.
  3037. >Would Anonymous’s office even be labeled still?
  3038. >A plan comes to mind.
  3039. >Several of the offices are left blank, no names of professor’s or doctors filling their space.
  3040. >It’s a fair guess that one of them once belonged to Anonymous, so you take note of the numbers.
  3041. >314, 334, and 341.
  3042. >Saying the numbers several times under your breath to commit them to memory, you start up the stairs and into the Academy proper.
  3043. >The main atrium is awe inspiring.
  3044. >Its vaulted ceiling rises all the way through the Academy to the roof far above, with wrought iron skylights letting in the gray morning light.
  3045. >Weak beams of sunlight filter through the Academy’s depths, aided by the yellow glow of electric chandeliers hanging from each floor.
  3046. >The atrium appears to be a monument to the achievements of the Academy.
  3047. >Great brass telescopes and glass cases of bizarre medical equipment line its walls and dot the floor, along with old texts and their authors immortalized in stone alongside them.
  3048. >Above it all, a massive whale skeleton looms between the second and third levels, suspended by an intricate spider web of wires.
  3049. >The scene is a little overwhelming, and it takes you some time to make out a stairway between all the displays.
  3050. >The elaborate carved stairway spirals up the far end of the atrium, providing access to each floor with its well-worn steps.
  3051. >An elevator shaft rises next to the stairs, as if an afterthought to the original architecture.
  3052. >Given the age of the Academy, you realize it is one, though care has obviously been taken to match its decoration with its surroundings.
  3053. >From the relative safety of the basement doorway, you warily scan the atrium for signs of movement.
  3054. >Strangely, however, it’s quiet as a tomb.
  3055. >Shouldn’t the Academy of Natural Philosophy be a little more, academic?
  3056. >Well, you won’t get a better chance to cross the atrium unseen, so you begin to slink around the edge of the main floor, closing on the staircase.
  3057. >Suddenly, it seems as though every clock in the Academy chimes noon simultaneously.
  3058. >The sound of dozens of doors being flung open echoes around the atrium, accompanied with the murmur of dozens more voices.
  3059. >Shit, shit, shit!
  3060. >Your eyes frantically dart for a hiding place.
  3061. >No, the display cases won’t work, too much glass.
  3062. >Under a table?
  3063. >No, too much light.
  3064. >Passing over the elevator, you snap back to it.
  3065. >Above its gate is a maintenance hatch with a small platform underneath.
  3066. >You sprint into range of the hatch before bolting up to it, and not a moment too soon.
  3067. >A throng of ponies in stuffy clothes emerge from countless doorways and begin making their way to a large set of double doors labeled “Dining Hall,” and you can hear more of them flocking to the stairs above.
  3068. >Realizing you are still completely in view despite your elevated perch, you turn to the hatch and slide it open, seeing the roof of the elevator beyond.
  3069. >An easy, short-range bolt places you on top of the elevator car just as it lurches into motion, rumbling upward.
  3070. >You stay off to one side, giving the spinning gears and pulleys of the lifting mechanism a wide berth.
  3071. >The interior of the elevator shaft slides past, and you quickly pass the second and third floors with no sign of slowing.
  3072. >To your dismay, the car climbs to the very top floor before halting, its scissor gate creaking open.
  3073. >Crouching low affords you a glimpse through the roof-mounted hatch, and you watch as several elderly ponies board the elevator.
  3074. >At least two stallions and a mare, all jackets, ties, and spectacles with unkempt and wild manes.
  3075. >“This infernal contraption, I tell you,” grumbles one stallion.
  3076. >“Every blasted day it’s the same thing. Lunchtime rings, and it’s a stampede to the elevator like a herd of so many sheep. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve arrived at my table, only to find the stew has gone cold!”
  3077. >The elevator closes and jerks into motion and begins to descend.
  3078. >“Yes, but Anonymous’s sequencing device was a stroke of genius! Even if the button on every floor is pressed, the elevator goes to the top first and foremost, working its way down and picking up passengers along the way!” the mare chimes in, sounding enthusiastic in her praise of Anonymous.
  3079. >“Hush, Mayflower, you know we’re not to talk of that. I miss him as much as any of the old guard, but those uppity newcomers would be all too eager to have us shuffled off to Coltridge for sympathizing with an enemy of the state.”
  3080. >The third stallion snorts derisively as he continues.
  3081. >“How they’d love it. The great minds of the empire out of the picture, nothing to measure their own work against and find it wanting. Of course, that’s the same reason they couldn’t stand him, the hypocritical slackers. He outshone them all, and oh, did they talk behind his back.”
  3082. >As the elevator arrives at another floor, the stallion shifts the topic back to the coming meal.
  3083. >“Still, the problem could be solved altogether if the Academy didn’t insist on serving communal meals at the same time. Sure, it’s more efficient for the cooks, but this is an institute of knowledge, not a soup kitchen! What do you think, Mister Brook?”
  3084. >Mister Brook – or what you can see of him through the narrow gap in the hatch – is a younger stallion, his slicked golden mane and dusky red coat clashing with a checkered green jacket.
  3085. >“I suppose,” he replies noncommittally, barely seeming to acknowledge the older ponies as he takes his place in the elevator.
  3086. >“Suppose’, he says,” the old stallion whispers conversationally to his companions, drawing jolly chuckles from them and a sneer from Brook.
  3087. >Before the elevator starts moving again, you shift quickly to the maintenance hatch on this floor, opening it and crawling onto its platform just as the elevator sinks away beneath you.
  3088. >Communal meals, huh?
  3089. >Shouldn’t be many, if any, ponies up here then.
  3090. >You wait for the elevator to disappear to the floor below before dropping from the platform and scanning your surroundings.
  3091. >The bright halls are empty and quiet, and a pony skeleton stretched in a rearing pose dominates the foyer.
  3092. >Fifth floor, anatomical research.
  3093. >Not exactly something you’ve got the stomach to explore, you think as you round the stairs, hearing the elevator chime several levels down.
  3094. >So Anonymous had opponents even in the Academy.
  3095. >Could be useful information, maybe something to jog his memory, though they obviously kept it to themselves.
  3096. >Still, even if they didn’t like him, do you really think a few disgruntled academics could frame him for murdering the Empress?
  3097. >On top of it all, the new revelations still don’t answer who the real assassin might be, or why.
  3098. >Maybe he’s leading you on a wild goose chase, drawing the Watch off his scent while he escapes for good.
  3099. >But why would he tell you where he was hiding, then?
  3100. >You realize you’ve been standing in the open on the staircase, absorbed in your thoughts.
  3101. >Now’s not the time for this, Solemn.
  3102. >Find Anonymous’s office, get what clues you can from it, and you can think this all over later.
  3103. >Your stomach growls noisily enough for you to glance around and see if anyone else might have overheard.
  3104. >Lunch actually sounds pretty good right now.
  3105. >Sooner you find that office the sooner you can think, and eat.
  3106. >Right, to the third floor then.
  3107. >After giving the elevator enough time to pick up its passengers, you descend past the fourth floor – alchemical research, vats and decanters of strange fluids glowing behind every window – and arrive at the Tenured Faculty Offices.
  3108. >The electric lamps here have been turned to a lower power setting, casting the halls in a shadowy, yellow tinted gloom.
  3109. >313, 334, 341.
  3110. >13, 34, 41.
  3111. >On the chance that there might be some diligent mind hard at work up here, you take it slow, slinking in a lowered stance past doors and windowed offices, hugging whichever wall is most poorly lit.
  3112. >Room 313 comes up first.
  3113. >Nothing seems at all unusual about it, the wooden door blank aside from the brass number embossed on it.
  3114. >The placard on the frame indicating the room’s occupant is empty, and you try the handle.
  3115. >It clicks open easily, the door swinging inward to reveal a small, completely empty office, save the heavy desk in the middle.
  3116. >Ensuring the hallway is empty, you round the desk and make a quick search of its drawers, coming up with nothing.
  3117. >Anonymous said to check for a safe under the desk, so you look there.
  3118. >The tiled floor is bare, not even a trace of something hidden.
  3119. >Just a vacated office; on to the next one.
  3120. >The short, single hallway leading away from the elevator splits into two, wrapping around the massive central gallery.
  3121. >You take a left, heading for Room 334.
  3122. >330, 332, and…
  3123. >Oh yeah, this has to be the place.
  3124. >In addition to the simple wooden door that every other office uses, Room 334 has an additional metal barricade erected over the top.
  3125. >The barrier is hinged on one side, with an impressive padlock and chain strangling the handle.
  3126. >“Off limits, by order of the Lord Regent,” is stenciled onto the door in blood red paint, leaving little room for doubt.
  3127. >A small piece of parchment is pinned in the wooden frame beside the door, and you lean in to read the messy hoofwriting.
  3128. >‘Andrei; the Abbey is sending an Overseer later this week to investigate this office for signs of heresy. Bunch of horse apples, I know, but they’ll be coming up here with a Watch officer from the front gate, who’ll bring the key. I want you to escort them, keep them from straying into our work and out of our manes as best you can. Oh, and toss this letter once you read it.’
  3129. >Well damn it.
  3130. >No time to go all the way back to the front gate for the key; lunch will be over soon.
  3131. >You pace up and down the hallway, hoping to spot another way in.
  3132. >You try a door to the right of the barricade, sliding into the office behind it.
  3133. >The desk is buried under a mountain of papers and books, as are the walls, but your attention is drawn to the picture window at the back of the room.
  3134. >Room 334, like the others on this side of the hall, back onto atrium, large windows providing a view of the displays below.
  3135. >Unfortunately, the windows don’t open, and you’re back to square one.
  3136. >Set into the rooms’ ceiling is a ventilation grille, covering the duct recessed into the space above.
  3137. >It looks to be just big enough.
  3138. >You close the office door and climb onto the desk, careful not to rearrange the mess of documents on top of it.
  3139. >Balancing on your hindlegs, you can just reach the grille, undoing the latch and allowing it to swing down on its hinges.
  3140. >Even from here it looks like a tight squeeze, so you decide not to risk bolting into a place you might get stuck.
  3141. >Hooking your forehooves over the ledge, you hoist yourself upward.
  3142. >The ventilation duct is tiny, even for you, the tight metal walls not allowing your ribs to expand far enough to draw a full breath.
  3143. >It is also dusty, columns of light dancing from another vent grille up ahead.
  3144. >You shimmy backwards and over the open grille beneath you, grabbing and locking it in place.
  3145. >Although you’re hoping to have this wrapped up before anyone comes back, it’s better to not leave evidence anyway.
  3146. >Looking around the gloomy vent, you realize it is not connected directly to Anonymous’s room, instead leading out into the hallway, and snaking away in both directions.
  3147. >Damn.
  3148. >You crawl forward, moving slowly and testing the metal ahead before putting your weight on it.
  3149. >Two right turns will get you to Room 334.
  3150. >Just a short crawl, Solemn, nothing too bad.
  3151. >By the time you reach the hallway intersection, you are drenched in sweat.
  3152. >The heating is on apparently, thanks to the cold weather, and you can attest to its functionality.
  3153. >The corner is tight, requiring you to flip on your side to squeeze around it.
  3154. >Just a little… bit… more…
  3155. >Are those hoofsteps?
  3156. >*POP*
  3157. >The flexing of the metal is as loud as a gunshot to you, and you freeze halfway around the bend, contorted in an extremely indecent and uncomfortable position.
  3158. >The hoofsteps approach, and you glance downward through the vent just under your left cheek.
  3159. >A pony appears, dressed in a green checkered jacket.
  3160. >Mister Brook.
  3161. >Finished with lunch already, are we?
  3162. >Brook’s eyes are narrowed, and his head bobs this way and that as he scans the hallway suspiciously.
  3163. >What is he doing up here?
  3164. >You watch him unblinkingly, terrified of moving even a fraction of an inch.
  3165. >Every drop of sweat feels like a river as it trickles slowly down your body.
  3166. >Brooke doesn’t move, ears swiveling, and it is so quiet that you can hear his breathing coming slow and steady.
  3167. >Dust tickles your nostrils as you inhale, and you feel a familiar lightheadedness coming on.
  3168. >Oh shit.
  3169. >You hold your breath, the urge to sneeze neither increasing nor abating.
  3170. >Scrunching your muzzle and screwing your eyes shut, you plead with your brain not to do it.
  3171. >Mercifully, your mind steps back from the edge, the building explosion fading into nothing.
  3172. >You open your watery eyes, blinking, only to see an empty hallway beneath you.
  3173. >Out of sight, the sound of tumblers turning and the rattling of a chain echoes dully through the vent, followed by the faint squeal of hinges swinging open.
  3174. >Around the corner of the duct, in the direction of Anon’s room, you hear a quiet rifling of papers and shuffling of other small objects, interspersed with an occasional curse.
  3175. >Risking more noise, you shift around the bend and squeeze toward the light rising from the grille over Room 334.
  3176. >Below, Brook is sifting through an office that looks as though a whirlwind tore through it.
  3177. >Papers are scattered all over the floor, along with books that have been carelessly tossed, their spines cracked and torn.
  3178. >A fine looking chair is turned on its side behind a vast, ornate desk, the drawers of which are being pulled out, looked at and slammed back in by an increasingly frustrated Brook.
  3179. >The stallion finally relents, standing from the desk and pushing his bedraggled mane back with a huff of anger.
  3180. >“Those Watch morons,” he mutters to himself.
  3181. >“Tore the damned place apart looking for their precious evidence, no thought at all to preserving anything of academic worth.”
  3182. >He catches his breath for a moment before grabbing a key from the desktop, stalking angrily to the door and out of sight.
  3183. >You hear the inner door click shut, followed by the thud of the heavy metal barricade and another clinking of chains and locks.
  3184. >Through the duct behind you, you hear Brook’s hoofsteps fade into nothing.
  3185. >Waiting until you’re certain he’s gone, you reach for the grille, pushing its latch downward and dropping the grille to one side.
  3186. >You drop your rear end through first, balancing on the desk before bringing your forelegs down and relishing the ability to breathe normally.
  3187. >You crouch under the desk, pushing stray papers aside and looking for the floor safe.
  3188. >Nothing but wooden floorboards greet you, not even creases or indentations that might mark a secret panel.
  3189. >Remembering your experience at the abandoned dress shop with the Blinders’ secret passage, you put a shoulder against the desk and begin to push.
  3190. >The wooden monstrosity doesn’t even shift; it’s anchored somewhere.
  3191. >Circling the desk, you find no nails or screws holding it to the floor, and move on to the drawers.
  3192. >They are empty save for the large right-side cabinet, in which is an audiograph that appears to be a permanent feature of the desk.
  3193. >Looking on the desktop, you notice a speaker grille recessed into the surface.
  3194. >Anon must have liked music while he worked.
  3195. >You go back to the cabinet, studying the audiograph machine.
  3196. >Several knobs and levers adorn its face, controlling volume and power, and a recording card is still inserted into its slot.
  3197. >‘Traditional Tyvian folk songs’ the card reads.
  3198. >You reach in and adjust the volume knob, twisting it down to the minimum and achieving nothing.
  3199. >Going the opposite direction, the knob stops again, but this time you feel it flex a little.
  3200. >You twist a little harder, the knob giving way with a quiet click, a slightly louder one emanating from under the desk.
  3201. >There we go.
  3202. >Pressing against the desk once more, you slide it forward on a set of hidden rails, hearing papers crumpling on the other side.
  3203. >The crunching noise covers up the activation of the audiograph, and suddenly your ears are assaulted with the voices of dozens of stallions singing boisterously in Old Tyvian.
  3204. https://youtu.be/26cr_rBQu74
  3205. >You nearly jump to the ceiling, frantically, flicking the audiograph’s power lever to ‘off.’
  3206. >Nothing happens, and the Tyvians continue to sing merrily.
  3207. “Fuck!”
  3208. >The volume knob refuses to move, likely because you’ve already pushed the desk forward.
  3209. >Finally, you reach for the recording card as it slides methodically in and out of the machine, tearing the top portion off but failing to remove it entirely.
  3210. >The volume of the singing doesn’t change, but the stallions are now limited to abruptly repeating two or three words.
  3211. >Out of options, you resort to punching the machine repeatedly, and as it collapses blow by blow, the voices finally fade out into silence.
  3212. >Your ears stand forward at attention, eyes staring at the office door.
  3213. >No sound comes from the hallway, and the only sound in the room is the rapid-fire pounding of your heart.
  3214. >Best to get out of here as quickly as possible, in any case.
  3215. >Looking down, you take in the space beneath the desk.
  3216. >Sunk into the office floor is a small safe door, three number dials positioned on its right side near a handle.
  3217. “Four two seven.”
  3218. >You repeat Anon’s combination as you enter it, the safe giving a soft click as the lock disengages.
  3219. >The handle turns easily, and you lift the door open.
  3220. >Inside the safe are two small, unmarked books, each tied shut with a length of cord.
  3221. >You hastily grab the books, and lacking any pockets, tuck one away in the top of each foreleg sock.
  3222. >With that, you close the safe and pull the desk backward, switching the shattered remains of the audiograph’s volume switch to the lowest setting and hearing the desk lock firmly in place.
  3224. Chapter 33
  3226. >Some time later…
  3227. >You are Anonymous.
  3228. >Your factory hideout has a decent selection of tools, and you’ve been hard at work.
  3229. >An impressive array of tripwires and noisemakers surround the place, enough to keep most would-be intruders away.
  3230. >And enough to stave off boredom.
  3231. >With your arm healing up, and the immediate threat of arrest having passed, sitting around in this old place has been mind-numbing.
  3232. >Additionally, with the factory abandoned and power no longer running, you are left with hand – hoof – tools to conduct your work.
  3233. >Currently, you are seated at a workbench and finishing up some filing work, smoothing a few joints to fit just so.
  3234. >Although, something doesn’t feel right just now.
  3235. >The hairs on your neck prickle, right as something hefty thuds into your back.
  3236. “What the-”
  3237. >Your heartrate skyrockets as you spin around pistol in hand.
  3238. >Only an empty factory greets you, the light wind whistling through broken panes and drafty catwalks.
  3239. >“It’s just me. Can you put the gun down, please?”
  3240. >The guard mare’s voice sounds close, but you can’t see her anywhere.
  3241. >You comply, laying the pistol to one side on the bench and stooping to a small cloth sack on the ground, obviously the item that struck you.
  3242. >Undoing the laces at the top, you reach inside, coming out with two familiar books.
  3243. >Your project notes and personal journal.
  3244. >“They were in your safe, just like you said.”
  3245. >The guard mare is right next to you, no jacket this time, a pair of socks being her only concession to the chilly afternoon.
  3246. “Could you please stop sneaking up on me like that? Bad enough I have a bum arm, I don’t need a heart attack to go with it.”
  3247. >“Speaking of which,” the mare replies, motioning for you to check the sack again.
  3248. >You fish inside it once more, this time finding a package of bandages, gauze wrap and antiseptic ointment.
  3249. >“I figured it’d be better than strips of clothing and alcohol,” the mare offers, her voice coming flatly and without much remorse or apology to it.
  3250. >Best you’re gonna get, you suppose, and definitely unexpected.
  3251. “Wow, I uh, thanks.”
  3252. >The mare doesn’t respond, simply staring at you.
  3253. >She doesn’t look afraid, or worried, simply… appraising?
  3254. >It’s starting to get on your nerves.
  3255. “So um, I trust it wasn’t too difficult to find?”
  3256. >“Not particularly, though the audiograph was a bit of trouble.”
  3257. “Oh yeah, that! Worked as intended I guess. What happened to the recording card?”
  3258. >“I had to destroy it, to shut the thing up.”
  3259. >Damn.
  3260. “Huh, I had hoped to return it to Andrei someday. It was one of his favorites.”
  3261. >“What was the point of that, anyway? You’d only hear if someone was tampering with your desk if you were within a few dozen meters of the room, not particularly helpful if you’re out of earshot.”
  3262. “The reasoning was that it would alert me if I was nearby, and hopefully startle any would-be intruders into giving up and fleeing. I got the idea from car alarms back in my own world. Although, dedicated intruders would always just break in and smash the alarm anyway, kinda like what you did. Maybe it wasn’t that – never mind, what I mean is, thank you.”
  3263. >The mare nods slightly at you, and you untie your books and begin to leaf through them.
  3264. >“Did you know a pony by the name of Brook?”
  3265. “What? Oh, Brook. Hmm, yeah the name is familiar. Stallion, golden mane, kinda cunty looking?”
  3266. >You catch yourself at the end.
  3267. >Is that a swear here?
  3268. “Sorry.”
  3269. >“Yeah, ‘kinda cunty looking.’ He was snooping around your office shortly before I got there. Didn’t find anything useful, but from the look of it, he was searching for your notes.”
  3270. >The mare finishes, watching you carefully.
  3271. >She’s judging your reactions, seeing how you respond to certain memories or ponies, you can tell.
  3272. >Hooked on the mystery; that’s good.
  3273. >Maybe you really might have an ally in her.
  3274. “Well that figures, I guess. He was always a bit of a prick to me, didn’t seem to respect my work, though I caught him drinking in every detail whenever I explained something I was working on over mealtime.”
  3275. >“You think he might have a reason to frame you?” the mare inquires.
  3276. >You snort.
  3277. “What, Meadow Brook? Yeah he was a jealous coworker, but that was it. He’s a scientist. Not a very bright one, mind you, but a scientist nonetheless, from a fairly wealthy earth pony family. He hasn’t got the brains or the means to do something like that, besides, how would he pull off assassinating an empress and framing me?”
  3278. >The mare shakes her head as if to brush off your question.
  3279. >“I wasn’t implying he did, I was trying to figure out if he might have played a role somehow. Political assassinations aren’t something that a single pony just dreams up and commits, especially not against the most powerful pony in the Empire.”
  3280. “Well I’m glad you think so, could you convince the rest of the damn city of it was well?”
  3281. >Silence falls between the two of you, and you venture a little further.
  3282. “So does this mean you don’t think I’m the killer?”
  3283. >The guard mare looks you up and down once more, as if coming to a conclusion.
  3284. >“I’ve done some thinking about it. From what I’ve seen of you, and now what I’ve read as well,” she starts, pointing to your journal.
  3285. >“I’m not sure you have the ability or the motive to stab an empress to death in her own garden.”
  3286. “What a relief, glad you’re finally convinced th – wait, you read my journal?”
  3287. >“You thought I wouldn’t?”
  3288. >A hot flush rises to your face.
  3289. “What the fuck dude? A man’s journal is his sanctuary, you can’t just go nosing through it like it’s no big deal!”
  3290. >The mare takes a step toward you, her own face going a light shade of red as her eyes flash with anger.
  3291. >“As far as this city knows, you murdered the Empress! Whether you did or not, I don’t care, because the only reason I’m even here is because I thought I could get to the bottom of this whole fucking mess! So get pissy about it if you like, because I don’t give a damn!”
  3292. >The mare finishes and takes a step back, chest heaving as she breathes heavily, her ears pinned and nostrils flaring.
  3293. >You haven’t heard her this loud before, not even when she was ordering you around in the abandoned apartment.
  3294. >Taking a step back, you hold your hands out placatingly.
  3295. >Despite the anger in her eyes, you see tears welling up as well.
  3296. >She’s fucking pissed, and you get the feeling it doesn’t have anything to do with your attitude.
  3297. “Okay, so is there something else going on I should know about?”
  3298. >Your question is rewarded by the sensation of a giant haymaker slamming into your entire body, accompanied by a hurricane of wind.
  3299. >The concussion blasts you into the workbench, and you tumble over it, slamming to the floor on the far side of the room.
  3300. >Struggling to blink away the stars in your vision, you try and fail to gather your feet beneath you.
  3301. >Fucking hell!
  3302. >Your right hand brushes against something cold and smooth, and you recognize the pistol.
  3303. >Before you can wrap your fingers around it, however, a hoof swings between the two, bruising your digits and sending the weapon flying out of reach.
  3304. >“It’s all your fucking fault!”
  3305. >The mare is standing over you now, towering despite her diminutive stature.
  3306. >You roll over clumsily, scrambling away, but she follows.
  3307. >Unrestrained fury burns in her eyes, tears streaming freely down her cheeks as she explodes at you.
  3308. >“You put that stupid shrine up, prayed to that black-eyed monster, got his attention, and now he’s tearing my life apart!”
  3309. >Your back thumps into the wall, the end of your retreat, and you try to shrink into it as best you can.
  3310. >The mare struggles with her left sock, ripping it as she pulls it away to reveal a familiar glowing symbol.
  3311. >“Look at it. FUCKING LOOK AT IT! You know what it means here? What could happen to me, MY FAMILY, if anyone ever found out about it!?”
  3312. >You knew it; she was marked.
  3313. >The Outsider’s Mark glows brighter, and soon it’s burning white hot as the mare’s voice cracks under the strain of her rage.
  3314. >“And it’s all because YOU! You had it perfect back in Equestria, didn’t you? A comfy room in the palace, dinner with the royalty, anything you wanted, but it wasn’t enough! You read about some rainy little islands on the other side of the world, and their stupid folk stories, and you just had to come ‘investigate,’ as you call it.”
  3315. >You try to interject.
  3316. >You have to make her understand.
  3317. “Look, the similarities between our two worlds were too many to be simple coincidence, you can’t expect me to just – ”
  3318. >“SHUT UP! I don’t care what you were ‘investigating.’ Whatever it was, you’ve fucked with MY life now! And for what? Curiosity’s sake?”
  3319. >Her mark seems to smoke as her hoof begins to tremble, her breathing coming in short gasps, near hyperventilation.
  3320. >“I don’t know why I ever thought of helping you! What does it matter if you’re guilty or not, the Empress is dead, everything’s going to shit and – ”
  3321. “I’M SORRY, ALRIGHT?”
  3322. >You didn’t even notice that you had squeezed your eyes shut against the verbal onslaught.
  3323. >When only silence greets you, you slowly crack them open again.
  3324. >The mare’s marked hoof is pointing at you, but the Outsider’s Mark is slowly dimming, and she gradually lowers the hoof back to the floor.
  3325. >Her bloodshot eyes simply glare into your own as she tries to bring her breathing under control.
  3326. “Whatever you believe, I didn’t start all this chaos. I loved Damwall the moment I arrived. The streets, the minds at the Academy, the sense of discovery and newness to everything. I thought I could help, leave my mark on the growth. The Empress thought so too, so she gave me what I needed.”
  3327. >The mare says nothing, so you venture to continue.
  3328. “Hell, I didn’t believe in the Outsider when I got here. I read the stories, but like everyone else, never saw anything to convince me they were anything other than folk tales, aside from the Abbey, of course.
  3329. >She keeps listening, so you keep talking.
  3330. >Saying it all now, actually giving voice to the thoughts, it weighs heavy as you get to the end.
  3331. “When the Plague started, I felt so powerless. Not only was I useless in finding a cure, but it was another similarity, building towards something I saw as increasingly inevitable.”
  3332. >You remember your efforts, how they came to nothing, the bitter taste turning your mouth to a grim line as your head sags.
  3333. “I warned the Spymaster, the Empress herself, that I feared something terrible would happen. They wouldn’t listen. Well, the Spymaster did; he placed a more careful watch on me, the foreigner at court. And then… well, there she was, blood spilled all over the marble, and only me to find her.”
  3334. >You look up at the mare, praying you’re doing a good enough job at explaining it all.
  3335. “So you see, when I escaped, I was desperate. I’d lost everything I could have possibly used to help; my resources at the Academy, my connections, even my freedom. I turned to the only thing I had left, on the insane chance he would listen. And he did, just not in the way I imagined.”
  3336. >The anger has mostly subsided from the Mare’s face, replaced with tired indifference.
  3337. >Maybe she believes you, maybe she doesn’t; you can’t read her.
  3338. “I think, maybe, that you are the one. The one to solve this mystery, and bring this city out of the dark.”
  3339. >Finally, the mare responds.
  3340. >Just, not in the way you hoped.
  3341. >She takes a half-hearted step back, shaking her head almost imperceptibly.
  3342. >“I’m not some savior,” she mutters quietly.
  3343. >“I’m just a guard pony in over hear head.”
  3344. >She begins to turn away, trudging into the factory’s gloom.
  3345. “Wait.”
  3346. >She nearly doesn’t, but halts after a couple of seconds.
  3347. “I’ve uh, been working on something.”
  3348. >You look around the floor, trying to figure out where the mare’s void blast might have knocked your creation.
  3349. >Finding it, you turn it over in inspection and approach her, offering it up.
  3350. >The mare slowly reaches out, accepting the fold of cloth and metal fixings.
  3351. “I figured you might want to keep yourself a little more incognito while you’re out and about, so I put together a hood and mask. Clasps to a jacket, I thought it might look good with that one you were wearing last time.”
  3352. >The mare inspects the work, the intricate stitching and fine, sturdy metalwork, before replying.
  3353. >“Not sure if I’ll need it. I’ve done my part.”
  3354. >Shit.
  3355. “What? You’ve got powers beyond anyone else in this city, you can go anywhere, reach anyone! We can figure entire mess out!”
  3356. >The mare cuts you off.
  3357. >“You, not we,” she responds as she paces away.
  3358. “So where are you going, then?”
  3359. >“Home.”
  3360. >The answer is matter of fact, as if it was obvious.
  3361. >And you guess it was, for her, as you watch your last best hope walk out the door.
  3362. “Well, I guess you know where to find me, if you need to.”
  3363. >One last thing occurs to you before she disappears entirely.
  3364. “What do I call you?”
  3365. >The mare pauses once more, only for a second, tugging your hood on as an afterthought and pulling the mask over her muzzle, before slipping into the gathering dusk.
  3366. “Solemn. Solemn Rain.”
  3367. Chapter 34
  3368. >“Home again so soon?”
  3369. >The surprise on your father’s face is quickly replaced by a look of mock concern.
  3370. >“You didn’t get fired, did you? Clean up too much crime, get the City Watch disbanded?”
  3371. >Even with your emotions swirling darkly inside, you can’t help but smile at Steady Mist’s indomitable humor.
  3372. “No dad, nothing like that. It’s…”
  3373. >You pause for a second, sitting down heavily at the dinner table.
  3374. “I, may be getting promoted, actually.”
  3375. >Steady’s ears perk up and his face is set aglow by the news.
  3376. >“Really? That’s wonderful, Solemn!”
  3377. >Before he can say more, your little sister trots in from the kitchen, plopping a steaming bowl before you and taking her own seat, eager to begin dinner.
  3378. >The soup looks thick and hearty, smelling of cabbage and carrots.
  3379. >Mellow Drizzle glances furtively between you and the bowl, seeming as if she can barely contain herself, until you finally fix her with an inquisitively raised brow.
  3380. “What?”
  3381. >“I made it myself!” she blurts out, bouncing excitedly in her chair.
  3382. >“I mean, with a little help from dad.”
  3383. >Steady waves his spoon dismissively.
  3384. >“Nonsense, I boiled a bit of water is all.”
  3385. >You grab your own spoon and sample the meal.
  3386. >The savory stew immediately sets your mouth to watering, and you close your eyes for a moment, sighing contently.
  3387. >“So you like it?”
  3388. >You nod slowly, mumbling an affirmative through a mouthful of soup.
  3389. >“You did good, honey, and I think you were right about adding more pepper. This tastes just right,” Steady adds his own praise.
  3390. >Mellow giggles and beams with happiness before tucking in to her own bowl, and your father returns to the previous subject.
  3391. >“A promotion, you say. Any idea what kind?”
  3392. “An opening came up in the Nobility Division. Household Guard, that sort of thing.”
  3393. >Steady raises an eyebrow, his jaw dropping theatrically.
  3394. >He’s laying it on pretty thick, but you smile nonetheless.
  3395. >“My my, shall I bow and thank you for gracing us with your presence? Maybe I could have Mel announce your arrival when you visit. ‘My lords and ladies, Her ladyship, the right honorable Solemn Ra – ’
  3396. >Drizzle snorts into her spoon, covering her muzzle with one hoof as you cut your father off with a laugh.
  3397. “Dad, come on; you know Watch ponies aren’t nobility, they just guard them.  And besides, I don’t even have the job yet. I have an evaluation meeting tomorrow at noon, at the Estate District headquarters.”
  3398. >“Of course, of course, I was just having a little fun is all…”
  3399. >You return enjoying your dinner.
  3400. >“… your ladyship.”
  3401. >Your tired groan draws another giggle from Mellow, and the meal continues in silence.
  3402. >The quiet gives you time to slip in to thought, and you start running through the last couple of days’ events in your head.
  3403. >The battle with the Blinders, the Academy, and Anon’s revelations, both written and spoken.
  3404. >Was he telling the truth about his efforts to halt the plague?
  3405. >His journal entries seemed genuine, his increasing desperation felt through the words.
  3406. >What if it was just planted evidence, meant to be discovered in an investigation and prove his story?
  3407. >His reaction to your reading it seemed truthful as well, however, not at all like someone who expected it to sway beliefs.
  3408. >Even if it was true, turning to the Outsider for help?
  3409. >“Where’s your helmet and gun?”
  3410. >Mellow’s question comes unexpectedly, and you simply blink at her before answering.
  3411. “What? Oh, I um…”
  3412. >Do you really want to tell this story now?
  3413. “Left them at the station. No need for them at the meeting tomorrow.”
  3414. >Mellow studies you for a moment before deeming the answer satisfactory, finishing the rest of her soup.
  3415. >Despite having half a bowl of soup sitting in front of you, the aroma no longer stirs your growling stomach.
  3416. >“Mel, are you finished with your meal?” Steady asks your sister, his attentive eyes catching your spoon tracing aimless circles in the bowl.
  3417. >“M-hm,” Mellow replies as she slurps up the last of her broth noisily.
  3418. >“Why don’t you get cleaned up for bed? I’ll be by to tuck you in in just a bit.”
  3419. >Mellow raises one little eyebrow at your father.
  3420. >“It’s my night to clean the dishes, though,” she answers, as if he is testing her.
  3421. >“Don’t worry about them, I’ll take care of the kitchen; payment for such a wonderful meal,” Steady responds with a smile.
  3422. >Mellow returns the smile, hopping down from her chair and stretching with a cavernous yawn.
  3423. >“Okay dad, love you. And you, Solemn, ‘night!”
  3424. >“Love you too, honey.”
  3425. “G’night, Drizz.”
  3426. >And here it comes…
  3427. >Mel disappears down the hall, her tiny hoofsteps growing fainter until she reaches the washroom.
  3428. >A door clicks closed, and you hear running water.
  3429. >“Would it be alright for you to tell me what really happened to your helmet and gun?”
  3430. >You give up on the soup, leaving the spoon to rest upright on one side of the bowl.
  3431. “That obvious, huh?”
  3432. >Your father shrugs, pushing his own empty bowl away.
  3433. >“Never known you to be a picky eater, seems like there’s a lot going on in that head of yours.”
  3434. >He deserves to know, doesn’t he?
  3435. >Yes, you decide, he does.
  3436. >But is it safe?
  3437. >If you get caught, if someone discovers your mark, it’s better for him and Mellow to have not known at all, isn’t it?
  3438. >Surely, they’d only drag you off to Coltridge, or the Overseer’s dungeons. Right?
  3439. >You realize that you’ve been staring into nothing again, absorbed in thought, and blink your father into focus.
  3440. >At least tell him about the battle.
  3441. >You know, your actual job.
  3442. “There was a… a raid, I guess is what I’d call it, against the Blinder’s stronghold. The Market Battalion was called up for it, and I lost my gear in the fight.”
  3443. >Your father says nothing, simply drinking in the information, but you can see the concern weighing heavy in his eyes as he waits for you to continue.
  3444. >You haven’t actually thought much about the battle until tonight.
  3445. >It was the first major action you’d had in a long time, you realize, and the images come flooding back as you relay the story to Steady Mist.
  3446. >Minus a few supernatural details, of course.
  3447. >The secret passage.
  3448. >The tunnel collapse.
  3449. >The knife fight.
  3450. >Finally, the explosion and the flood.
  3451. “We lost three, the Overseers two.”
  3452. >“Anyone you knew?”
  3453. >You wave a hoof uncertainly, your head sinking on your shoulders.
  3454. “Not well, anyway. I mean, I recognized them, saw them in the mess from time to time, but they were new recruits; had only been at the station a month or so.”
  3455. >Pausing a moment, you remember how young their faces were as they lay cold in the street.
  3456. “Just kids.”
  3457. >“So are you,” Steady reminds you, subdued by the heavy tone of your story.
  3458. >You snort quietly.
  3459. >You are young for an officer, sure, but these ponies were barely out of foalhood.
  3460. “Not like me, dad. They didn’t even have proper-fitting uniforms, just pulled from wherever and dressed up, given a sword.”
  3461. >A dreadful silence stretches out as you think over those last words.
  3462. “How bad is it, dad?”
  3463. >You raise your eyes to his, hoping for some reassurance.
  3464. “We… we don’t get much news about, about the plague, or the rest of the city. How bad is it, that they’re putting foals on the line?”
  3465. >Your father’s eyes are tired – tired and grim.
  3466. >“I…”
  3467. >He brings his forehooves to his chin, resting it heavily between them and steeling himself before continuing.
  3468. >“I heard that, the finance district was liquidated last week.”
  3469. “Liquidated?”
  3470. >“It’s the word that’s going around. If the sickness gets out of control in an area the size of a district, the Watch clears it out. The sick are quarantined, and the healthy are relocated to temporary safe zones, set up in the riverside warehouses.”
  3471. >Steady stares into the table, as if an unseen weight is crushing him into his chair.
  3472. “And what else?”
  3473. >He sighs.
  3474. >“An acquaintance of mine at the shipyard said he was upriver when it happened. He – he said that, after the healthy were moved out, the Watch evacuated the district, closed the barricades and cofferdams.
  3475. >Your heart is pounding sickly in your chest.
  3476. >The Finance District is below water level, a massive series of pumps and dams keeping the river from flooding its lower streets.
  3477. >“He heard explosions, rushing water and…”
  3478. >You hardly notice you’ve stopped breathing as your father raises his weary gaze to you.
  3479. >“Screaming. A new tactic, well suited to that area, I suppose. Drown the plague rats, and the victims, all at once.”
  3480. >You feel lightheaded, scarcely able to whisper a response to the horrifying tale.
  3481. “It’s all falling apart, isn’t it?”
  3482. >“The Finance District was the heart of Damwall’s economic power. Without it, I’m not sure how the empire can fully recover, even if the plague subsides,” Steady shakes his head.
  3483. “All those ponies, dad. How can the Lord Regent order something so terrible?”
  3484. >You don’t want to even give voice to your next fear.
  3485. “What if it happens here? What if they order Captain Gale, or the other Market ponies to do something like that? I can’t do that, and you, and Mellow, what if – ”
  3486. >Steady pulls you into a tight hug, squeezing hard and bringing your rambling to a halt.
  3487. >The hug has the additional effect of bringing all your emotions to the surface.
  3488. >Anger, with which you lashed out at Anonymous, dread, and the encroaching loneliness of hiding your most terrible secret.
  3489. >You wrap your forehooves tightly around Steady as the tears come pouring out.
  3490. >Deep sobs rack your body, and you bury your muzzle into his chest to muffle the sound.
  3491. >Your eyes quickly soak his fur, but his warmth presses in securely all around you.
  3492. >As you continue to cry, you feel a hoof stroke your mane gently.
  3493. >He says nothing, only his deep, slow breathing seeming to speak to you: “As long as we’re together, we’ll be all right.”
  3495. Chapter 35
  3496. >Pale gray light filters into your eyes as you blink them open.
  3497. >The light is blinding at first, slowly materializing into the outline of your bedroom window.
  3498. >Realizing you are on your side, you roll over and look up to find the ceiling.
  3499. >You are in your bed, tucked tightly beneath the covers.
  3500. >Dad must have put you here last night.
  3501. >Looking past the bed, you see your jacket hanging up in the closet, though you are still wearing the waistcoat.
  3502. >A bolt of panic stabs your chest as you quickly pull your forehooves from under the covers.
  3503. >Yup, still wearing socks.
  3504. >You heave a sigh of relief and sink back into the bed, recalling the previous night’s conversation.
  3505. >How could the Lord Regent order the destruction of an entire district?
  3506. >Admittedly, you have no idea what kind of pony he is.
  3507. >Formerly the Royal Spymaster, the Lord Regent had assumed power shortly after the Empress was assassinated.
  3508. >The matter of succession was complicated by the Empress’s lack of an heir, and the spymaster claimed his regency was necessary to prevent disastrous feuding amongst the nobility in the time of plague.
  3509. >Still, things haven’t gotten better in the months following the assassination.
  3510. >A quiet knock sounds at the door.
  3511. “Yes?”
  3512. >“Dad says you should wake up, Solemn,” comes Mellow’s small voice.
  3513. >“Don’t want to miss your meeting.”
  3514. >You sigh heavily, stifling a yawn.
  3515. “Alright, thanks Driz.”
  3516. >Heaving yourself up and onto the edge of the bed, you sit for a moment.
  3517. >The Watch isn’t what it used to be.
  3518. >You can handle squaring off with criminals, vicious gangs and the lot.
  3519. >What would you do if you received an order like the Finance District?
  3520. >Those Watch ponies who carried it out, what did they think?
  3521. >You’ve see the enlisted ponies these days; just glad to be off the street, with a warm bed and a few hot meals a day.
  3522. >Are you really any different?
  3523. >You were drawn from the enlisted ranks, and you only ended up in the Watch to support your family, didn’t you?
  3524. >When it comes down to it, do you think they’d throw that away for the sake of disobedience?
  3525. >And the officers: Captain Gale is a dying breed – or so you’ve heard – the last of the old guard.
  3526. >Besides the others like you, most Watch officers come from well-to-do families of Damwall.
  3527. >How much do you think they really care what happens in the crumbling parts of the city?
  3528. >The thoughts gather in your head like a thunderstorm as you cross to the closet, pulling your jacket down and sliding into it.
  3529. >It feels far crisper than yesterday; smells better too, you realize.
  3530. >You make for the door, heading down the hall towards the sounds of breakfast.
  3531. >“Morning sleepyhead! Ready for the big day?” Steady asks without turning from the stove.
  3532. “As I can be. Did you iron my jacket?”
  3533. >He shrugs.
  3534. >“Well I couldn’t let you sleep in it. And I can’t let you rub shoulders with the high-and-mighty without looking your best.”
  3535. “Thanks, dad. Anyways, what time is it? I really should be go-“
  3536. >“Half past nine,” your father cuts in with a glance at his pocket watch, conveniently placed on a nearby counter.
  3537. >Without missing a beat, he spins away from the counter with a plate in hoof, scooping his watch up in the same motion.
  3538. >“Better eat up. You know what they say, ‘if you can’t be on time, be early,’ best not to leave something like this to chance if the checkpoints hold you up.”
  3539. >It’s a light breakfast, two pieces of buttered toast with a few slices of baked apple, and you wolf it down quickly.
  3540. “Where’s Drizzle?”
  3541. >“Brushing her teeth. If, she’s not just waiting in there and faking it until I think she’s finished.”
  3542. >Steady laughs at the flicker of concern that crosses your face.
  3543. >“It was only a joke, Doctor Solemn; your sister’s oral hygiene is perfectly fine.”
  3544. >You shoot your father a half-glare before lightening up.
  3545. >Still, the weight last night’s talk hangs over the quiet kitchen.
  3546. >“Something wrong, sweetie?”
  3547. >You don’t answer at first, trying to phrase your concern carefully in your mind before giving it voice.
  3548. “Dad… this job. The Watch, it’s…”
  3549. >You close your eyes and take a steadying breath, looking at the floor as you continue.
  3550. “It’s not what it was before: fighting crime, keeping the peace. Now it’s doing the Abbey’s bidding, hunting their ‘heretics,’ containing the plague at all costs, even… what happened to the Finance District.”
  3551. >Glancing upward, your father’s eyes are tired, but compassionate.
  3552. “Am I doing the right thing, dad? Ponies used to look up to the Watch, trust them to keep everyone safe; now they don’t even look me in the eye when I go past. What do I do when I get an order like that one? What happens if I refuse, to you and Driz?”
  3553. >Steady doesn’t move, simply glancing to the floor for a long while before meeting your eyes once again.
  3554. >“I think,” he begins slowly.
  3555. >“These are trying times, damned trying; the kind that make ponies realize who they really are when it comes down to it. I’ll tell you honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it. And to be honest, I don’t know when or if it’ll ever get better.”
  3556. >A small, sad chuckle rises from his chest.
  3557. >“Maybe the Overseers are right, and it really is the end of all things. Maybe the whole world is collapsing back into the Void,” he says, seemingly to himself as much as you, before bringing his eyes up.
  3558. >They burn with determination despite his years, and pride.
  3559. >“But I know one truth. You’re a good pony, Solemn. When things get hard – and believe me they will. By the Void, they will – I know you’re going to do the right thing, even if it’s hard to know what it is. As for Drizzle and I, well, don’t worry. We’re always with you, Solemn, right here.”
  3560. >He taps your chest with one hoof, and you swear you can feel a warmth growing within.
  3561. >“And we couldn’t be more proud of the mare you’ve become.”
  3562. >You can scarcely see your father through your shimmering eyes as he envelopes you in a hug.
  3563. >Damnit, it’s too early to cry.
  3564. >Steady gives you a soft backrub as you hear a door open down the hall, and a familiar little set of hoofsteps approaching.
  3565. >Pushing back, Steady inspects your uniform, brushing a few stray crumbs away.
  3566. >“Now, you’d best be on your way, Your Ladyship.”
  3567. >You snort at the sudden title, wiping your eyes dry just as Drizzle appears.
  3568. >“Are you leaving, Solemn?”
  3569. “Fraid so, Drizzy, gotta go meet the new boss. If all goes well, anyway.”
  3570. >“Here, take this with you,” Steady cuts in as he presses something into your hoof.
  3571. >You look down in disbelief to find his pocket watch, the round silver case well-worn over the years.
  3572. “Dad, this was a gift from mom, wasn’t it? I can’t accept this.”
  3573. >Your father shrugs easily.
  3574. >“You’ve got more important things to be keeping track of than I do, now,” he adds with pride radiating from his voice.
  3575. >Unable to think of an appropriate “thank you,” you simply look between the small watch and your father.
  3576. >“Well, don’t just stand there, you’ve got a meeting to make. Chop chop!” he exclaims suddenly, clapping his forehooves together for emphasis.
  3577. “R-right, thanks dad.”
  3578. >Your voice comes light with disbelief as Mellow Drizzle leaps upward to grasp your neck.
  3579. >“Good luck, Solemn!”
  3580. “Thanks, Drizzy.”
  3581. >As you leave the apartment, your father calls once more from the kitchen.
  3582. >“Make sure to wind it every now and then!”
  3583. Chapter 36
  3584. >The walk to the bridge is as uneventful as ever.
  3585. >Cold gray streets, cold gray buildings, and ponies bundled in cold gray clothing drift past.
  3586. >A couple of guards on patrol wander by in the other direction, briefly pausing their conversation to offer you a salute.
  3587. >You nod back, turning to watch them disappear up the street, clouds of steamy breath billowing in their wake.
  3588. >Would they obey you, if you ordered them to condemn their home to abandonment, destruction?
  3589. >Trying to focus your mind on the day ahead, you silently repeat Captain Gale’s instructions, over and over.
  3590. >Coltwin’s bridge eventually looms out of the river mist ahead of you.
  3591. >It looks far less ominous, yet even more impressive in the weak daylight, its vast granite towers flying the red, black and white banners of the Lord Regent.
  3592. >You haven’t crossed the bridge under… legal, circumstances since before the assassination and establishment of martial law, and you remember the old blue and gold banners of House Coltwin fluttering in the channel’s ever-present breeze.
  3593. >They looked, nicer, you decide.
  3594. >As you approach the first checkpoint, a sergeant emerges from the hut, straightening his helmet, and rearranging his armor in a vain struggle against the chill rising from the river.
  3595. >“Bridge is closed to unauthorized hoof-traffic, Ma’am.”
  3596. “I know, Sergeant.”
  3597. >You keep your tone friendly, holding Gale’s letter out for examination.
  3598. >The Watch pony takes it in one hoof, sniffling and wiping his muzzle with the other, his eyes blinking tiredly at the paper.
  3599. “You all right?”
  3600. >The sergeant looks up at the question, trepidation filling his face.
  3601. >You cock one eyebrow, hoping you look merely concerned instead of nosey.
  3602. >“Yes Ma’am, just a bit of a cold,” he finally answers, returning to your pass.
  3603. >“Looks to be in order. Have a good day, Ma’am.”
  3604. >You thank the sergeant and take the letter back, folding it away and continuing onto the bridge, but freeze as the sergeant calls to you.
  3605. “Yes?”
  3606. >Turning, you see the stallion still standing alone in the street, fear filling his eyes beneath the steel helmet.
  3607. >“I swear, Ma’am, it’s only a cold. No one in my family, or the barracks, could have had contact with… with the…”
  3608. >The implication finally dawns on you, why he was so worried about your question.
  3609. “Oh! No, I wasn’t – I mean, I was just worried, you didn’t look too...”
  3610. >You pause and gather a coherent response.
  3611. “Nothing to worry about, Sergeant. You got a heater, or a stove in that hut?”
  3612. >The sergeant nods silently.
  3613. “Just stick close to it and keep warm, okay?”
  3614. >“Y-yes, Ma’am. Thank you,” he breathes quietly, sullenly returning to the guard hut.
  3615. >The only sound is your hoofsteps on brick and the distant gurgle of the river around the bridge’s piers as you continue further onto the span, the river fog becoming thicker and thicker.
  3616. >Soon, the crowded apartments looming on either side of the span give way as you reach the middle.
  3617. >Here the river channel is deepest, and the steel gantry of the drawbridge shoots skyward ahead of you, its highest points disappearing into the murky air.
  3618. >A massive signboard stretches across the street at the drawbridge’s entrance, reminding travelers in stern font “DO NOT CROSS WHILE ALARM IS SOUNDING.”
  3619. >The alarm in question, a huge klaxon hanging below the sign, is dormant, so you start across the drawbridge.
  3620. >Fortunately, the river seems dormant this morning, and you reach the other side of the span in silence.
  3621. >Through the fog ahead, you can see several shapes forming.
  3622. >Gradually they materialize into another guard hut, a Watch officer and two guards.
  3623. >You approach them at a casual pace, undoing your pocket to show the officer your—
  3624. >Oh shit.
  3625. >You recognize the officer.
  3626. >He’s a lieutenant, the same one that was on duty the other night.
  3627. >The one who spotted you sneaking across the bridge, before you bolted to cover.
  3628. >Will he recognize you, even in uniform?
  3629. >The three hear your hoofsteps and turn toward you, the officer stepping forward.
  3630. >Well, time to find out.
  3631. >You keep walking toward him, as he does you, until you both pause about a pony’s length apart.
  3632. >“Lieutenant,” the officer greets you neutrally, looking you up and down.
  3633. “Lieutenant.”
  3634. >Painfully conscious of your braid, hanging down over one shoulder instead of tucked beneath a helmet, you wait for the officer’s inquiry.
  3635. >“What brings you across the bridge this morning? We don’t get much traffic these days.”
  3636. >You produce  the letter and display it.
  3637. “Evaluation in the Estate District for possible transfer orders.”
  3638. >The lieutenant takes the letter and scans it closely, taking careful note of the crests and signatures.
  3639. >“Estate District, huh? Friends in high places, it seems,” the officer grunts, casting a casual glance upward at you before returning his eyes to the paper.
  3640. >Your heart seems to stop and a single drop of sweat trickles down the back of your neck as his eyes slowly lift again, narrowing slightly as they inspect you more closely.
  3641. >The two guards beyond him maintain their positions blocking the street, hooves resting idly on their weapons as they watch the interaction.
  3642. >You feign a confused, slightly uncomfortable look (well, the discomfort is real, anyway), raising your brows at the officer.
  3643. “Did I forget to do my mane today?”
  3644. >“No… it’s just, you kinda look like somepony I saw the other night,” he responds slowly, not taking his eyes off you.
  3645. >Well he certainly remembers.
  3646. >And he’s suspicious.
  3647. >You’ve got to defuse the situation.
  3648. “Was she pretty?”
  3649. >The lieutenant’s eyes widen in surprise at the question.
  3650. >“What?”
  3651. “This ‘somepony,’ you saw the other night, was she pretty? I hope reminding you of her isn’t an insult.”
  3652. >You put on a coy smile, playing dumb with a hint of flirtation thrown in for good measure.
  3653. >The lieutenant shakes his head, serious façade faltering slightly.
  3654. >“N- I wouldn’t know, I didn’t get a good look at her. It was dark.”
  3655. >Your eyebrows shoot up theatrically as you lower your voice to a taboo whisper, just loud enough for the two guards to overhear.
  3656. “Oh! So, it was that kind of meeting, eh? I—sorry, not my place to judge.”
  3657. >You are rewarded by barely restrained giggles from the guards, and a flattening and reddening of the lieutenant’s ears as his mouth flops for words.
  3658. >“No! It was not, it…”
  3659. >The officer scans your letter one last time before returning it.
  3660. >“Here, carry on.”
  3661. “Thank you, Lieutenant. I suppose I can take that as a compliment.”
  3662. >You toss in a wink before leaving the decidedly flustered stallion in your wake.
  3663. >Pausing for a moment at the end of the bridge, you look upriver.
  3664. >Anonymous isn’t far from here.
  3665. >You shake the thought from your head and follow the signposts labeled “Carriage Station.”
  3666. >Does he really believe what he told you?
  3667. >That you are the one to save the city?
  3668. >You’ve had some time to cool off since your last conversation with him, and you’re still not happy.
  3669. >Blaming him for the turn your life has taken was a step too far, perhaps, but that… nonsense, about solving the mystery?
  3670. >The assassin, if they’re alive at all, you think darkly, is long gone along with any hope of discovering their cause.
  3671. >Suddenly, the crowd of buildings widens into a small plaza, with a tall glass-and-wrought iron building occupying the side opposite you.
  3672. >The massive plate glass windows, surely brilliant on a bright day, reflect nothing but leaden gray skies.
  3673. >An illuminated sign in a modern, industrial font proudly announces the buildings purpose.
  3675. >Striding across the plaza, you see two Watch ponies flanking the main entry straighten up as you approach.
  3676. >The shorter one, a mare corporal, steps forward and greets you cheerily.
  3677. >“Good morning, Ma’am. What business do you have at the station?”
  3678. “I’m reporting to the Estate District, and I have orders to take a carriage there from this station.”
  3679. >You produce the letter as confirmation, and the corporal studies it laboriously, squinting almost comically at the signatures before beaming up at you.
  3680. >“Ah, of course! We were told there might be a few officers coming through on their way to the Estate District today, but you’re the first!”
  3681. >The mare returns your letter, stands back and continues to smile at you.
  3682. >You give her a small smile of your own, which gradually disappears as a silence stretches between the two of you.
  3683. >The corporal’s eyes dart almost imperceptibly back and forth, and her smile becomes more and more pained.
  3684. “So…”
  3685. >“Maple! The door!”, the mare snaps, whipping her head toward her partner so quickly that her helmet can scarcely keep up.
  3686. >The stallion startles, blinking, then nods rapidly.
  3687. >“Oh, right!”
  3688. >Pulling one of the double doors open, he and the corporal each draw up a salute.
  3689. >“Go right on ahead, Ma’am, our lieutenant is will be waiting at the tracks with your ride.”
  3690. “Thank you, Corporal.”
  3691. >Inside, you find yourself alone in the ticket office.
  3692. Chapter 37
  3693. >The electric chandeliers of the office are off, leaving only gray sunlight to cast its pall over the room.
  3694. >A string of posts and chains indicate the queue to a shuttered ticket window, the unlit booth behind it seeming to be empty.
  3695. >Not much business these days, you suppose.
  3696. >Faint laughter from deeper in the station reaches your ears, emanating from a half-open door labeled “RAIL PLATFORM.”
  3697. >Your hooves echo softly as you cross the tiled floor, muffled by a fine layer of dust that crunches faintly with each step.
  3698. >You slip through the doorway and emerge into the cold morning air once more.
  3699. >The platform is a small, elevated affair, built two stories above the lower street behind the station.
  3700. >A metal-framed awning hangs over the wood-decked platform, and two parallel sets of rails run off in either direction down the street, held aloft by spindly truss work and suspension cables stretched between buildings.
  3701. >A lone rail carriage is in the station, sitting idly on the far set of tracks.
  3702. >The vehicle is almost menacing in appearance: a slender, angular metal body slung low over steel wheels, with narrow slit windows lining its raked-back cabin.
  3703. >Two stallions recline laxly on one of the platform’s benches, a cigarette in each of their hooves as one elaborates on an already rather advanced story.
  3704. >“And that wasn’t even the best part! You remember how I said Curio is a lightweight, right?”
  3705. >The second stallion nods eagerly, but your presence snags his attention before he can press his colleague to continue.
  3706. >Turning toward you, the pair stands easily from the bench and affords you a glance at their uniforms.
  3707. >The silent one is dressed identically to you, with the addition of a sword and pistol harness strapped over his belt: a City Watch lieutenant.
  3708. >The storyteller, another lieutenant, is clothed similarly, but at a glance you spot the sky-blue jacket of the Nobility Division.
  3709. >“And who have we here?” the Estate District officer asks in a cheerful, somewhat sarcastic tone.
  3710. >You approach the stallion and offer your letter for his review.
  3711. “Lieutenant Solemn Rain, of the Market District, reporting for evaluation by the Nobility Division.”
  3712. >The Estate District stallion drops his cigarette and stubs it out before taking the letter, bored eyes flitting across the writing quickly.
  3713. >As he does so, you become annoyingly aware of the other stallion’s eyes making their way slowly over your body.
  3714. >“So uh, what kind of evaluation is this, exactly?”
  3715. >Heat begins to creep up your collar, but the Nobility Division officer returns the paper and speaks up before you can respond.
  3716. >“Everything appears to be in order, Lieutenant Rain. If you’re ready, I’ll take you to the Estate District at once.”
  3717. >The officer strolls to a control panel near the tracks, locating and pulling one of its levers.
  3718. >Between the tracks, a wooden gangway rises with a mechanical whir, swiveling inward to bridge the inside set of tracks, then angling to form a ramp from the platform to the railcar’s door.
  3719. >As the gangway locks in place, the Estate District officer strides out from behind the control, ascending to the railcar and sliding its door open before stooping inside and waving a welcoming hoof toward you.
  3720. >“Come along, Lieutenant Rain! We haven’t got all day now!”
  3721. >You take a hesitant step forward and onto the wooden ramp, flinching as electricity arcs with a piercing blue snap between the rails beneath you.
  3722. >Reaching the railcar, you duck your head through the low entry and find an elegantly appointed, if snug, cabin.
  3723. >Two plush velvet benches face each other from the front and rear of the car, with a set of controls sunk into the paneling beside the forward seat.
  3724. >With the Estate District guard already occupying that position, you quickly sit down in the rear of the railcar as he leans outside, calling to the lieutenant on the platform.
  3725. >“Be sure to lower the gangway, on the off chance someone comes through on the Financial District Line! Not much traffic from that direction these days, but best to be prepared anyway.”
  3726. >You see the officer making his way to the control panel before a hoof reaches across your vision, taking hold of the door and pulling it shut with an authoritative clang.
  3727. >The Estate District stallion then turns his attention to the controls, pushing a large brass lever to the floor and causing the car to shudder faintly.
  3728. >Next, he takes hold of a smaller lever, easing it towards himself.
  3729. >The railcar lurches before filling with a dull whine, wheels clattering softly over the rails as the vehicle picks up speed.
  3730. >“And we’re on our way. Next stop, Estate District!”
  3731. >You hardly hear the stallion as you peer through the narrow window beside you, watching as buildings glide silently past in the fog.
  3732. >It’s like flying, you think as the car sways gently, gradually turning this way and that as it shoots the streets faster than you’ve ever run before.
  3733. >The spurring mechanism of a whale oil lighter sounds from nearby, followed by the quiet singeing of rolling paper and aroma of burning tobacco.
  3734. >“First carriage ride?” comes an amused inquiry.
  3735. >You force yourself away from the window and turn to regard the stallion.
  3736. >He leans back in his bench, forelegs folded in front of himself as he takes another pull of his cigarette.
  3737. >The smell reminds you how long it’s been since you had one yourself, and you realize that your case is probably at the bottom of a canal with the rest of your gear.
  3738. >The Estate District officer catches your absent-minded stare and correctly interprets its object.
  3739. >“My apologies,” he adds as he smoothly produces a finely engraved tin of his own, flicking it open and holding it out to you.
  3740. >You blink before slowly reaching out and taking one of the cigarettes, inspecting it.
  3741. “Thank you.”
  3742. >Definitely finer than what you’re accustomed to.
  3743. >The lieutenant says nothing as he replaced the tin, withdrawing his lighter and igniting it once more.
  3744. >You hesitantly hold your cigarette over its flame until it catches before raising it to your lips, taking a deep drag.
  3745. >By the Outsider, that’s good.
  3746. >You lean back and close your eyes, holding the smoke in for a moment before letting it out slowly through your mouth.
  3747. >“Verdict?” comes the smooth, still amused voice.
  3748. “Good, um, yes. Very good.”
  3749. >The stallion chuckles to himself.
  3750. >“Good tobacco is hard to come by these days, but the Nobility Division has its perks,” he says as he puts the lighter away, stretching a hoof out to you.
  3751. >“Sterling Sifter, by the way.”
  3752. >You take his hoof and shake it politely.
  3753. “Solemn Rain.”
  3754. >“Well, yes, I knew that already,” Sterling replies with a smile.
  3755. >Heat rises to your cheeks.
  3756. “I, uh, figured we were doing formal introductions.”
  3757. >Sterling nods approvingly.
  3758. >“Right you are. If you end up with the job, there’ll be plenty of formalities we’ll have to catch you up on. Starting with that hoofshake.”
  3759. >Your ears droop plaintively.
  3760. “Did I do something wrong?”
  3761. >“No no, not necessarily. Just a matter of form, really, easy to fix.”
  3762. >You nod silently.
  3763. >Nabbing criminals is one thing, but high society and manners?
  3764. >Taking another pull of tobacco, you raise your eyes to Sterling.
  3765. >He’s tall. and well groomed, as you suspect most Nobility Division ponies to be.
  3766. >His slate gray mane is coifed high between his ears, and his brilliant white coat is impeccably brushed.
  3767. >The stallion’s violet eyes return your gaze quizzically, obviously anticipating a question.
  3768. “What exactly is the job, anyway?”
  3770. Chapter 38
  3771. >…
  3772. >The carriage rolls on quietly, only the click-clack of its wheels over the rails breaking the silence.
  3773. “Captain of a household guard detail?”
  3774. >“That’s right,” Sterling answers, taking a casual puff of his dwindling cigarette before nodding towards your own.
  3775. >“You may want to do something about that, before you stain your uniform.”
  3776. >You glance down and realize you’ve ignored the cigarette since Sterling began to explain the open position.
  3777. >A dangerously long stub of ash clings precariously to what little is left unburned, and you quickly tap it away into the ashtray as Sifter continues.
  3778. >“It was rather sudden, really. The previous captain was reassigned just yesterday, so you can imagine we’ve had the Outsider’s own time scrambling to organize a replacement.”
  3779. “What were they reassigned for, do you know?”
  3780. >Sterling shrugs as he finishes his cigarette, stubbing it out in the ashtray.
  3781. >“She’d put in a request some time ago, and it was being processed, though things of that sort tend to take longer these days. We simply received an answer from headquarters sooner than expected, and she happily packed her things and was on her way.”
  3782. >You acknowledge his reply with a faint nod, staring at nothing in particular through the narrow window at your side.
  3783. >The buildings were growing larger and more ornate as you went along, crowded apartments giving way to tall stone mansions and office buildings.
  3784. >You were hoping to retreat into thought, reflect on your future, but you sense that Sterling is waiting for you to speak.
  3785. >Turning away from the window, you find that his violet eyes haven’t left you.
  3786. >Their gaze betrays a quiet calculation, adding you up to a sum in his head.
  3787. >He’ll probably give a report of what he thinks of you to his commanding officer, you realize.
  3788. >“Well?”
  3789. “Well what?”
  3790. >Sterling’s lips twitch upward with the thought of laughter, but he suppresses it as he answers.
  3791. >“Well, what do you think? About the job, working in the Estate District, with the Nobility Division? That’s what.”
  3792. >What do you think?
  3793. >You think – no, you know… you think – that you aren’t ready for something like this.
  3794. >Command of a household guard unit, and all that comes with it?
  3795. >You’ve commanded squads before, sure, but that was an entirely different mission.
  3796. >And Sterling said it himself; you don’t know the first thing about the etiquette required of a posting like this!
  3797. >Besides that, what about the Mark?
  3798. >You don’t know how to get rid of it, and a position like this will draw far more attention than your place back in the Market District.
  3799. “I… I don’t know yet. It’s a lot to take in.”
  3800. >“What are you hung up on, precisely?”
  3801. >Nosy, this one.
  3802. >You gather your thoughts for a moment, deciding to start with the most obvious concern.
  3803. “I’ve been stationed in the Market District ever since I first joined the Watch. Dealing with robberies, gang violence, muggings, those sorts of things. I’m not sure I have the skill set that you’re looking for, Lieutenant Sifter.”
  3804. >Sterling cracks a wistful half smile.
  3805. >“Please, Sterling. On the contrary, Lieutenant Rain,” he pauses, putting playful emphasis on your name and rank.
  3806. >You barely conceal an eye roll as you quietly offer your correction.
  3807. “Solemn.”
  3808. >“Well, now that we’ve moved on from the formalities. It is true that in the past, the Nobility Division was little more than a ceremonial posting. Being able to stand around and look pretty was arguably as important as knowing your way around a sword or pistol.”
  3809. >Slumping into his seat a little, he continues.
  3810. >“As I’m sure you’ve noticed, however, the city isn’t what it used to be. We need hard, dedicated ponies. Ponies with sharper senses and quicker wits,” he says while motioning toward you.
  3811. >“Am I laying it on thick enough, or do I need to say that we take only the most handsome stallions and prettiest mares as well?”
  3812. >This time you can’t help but roll your eyes, scoffing but feeling your cheeks heat up nonetheless.
  3813. “No, I understand your point. The city has gone to shit in the last months.”
  3814. >You bite your tongue, realizing that crudeness is likely frowned upon among Sterling’s type.
  3815. “Sorry, language?”
  3816. >“We can work on it. Besides, it’s the truth,” he replies with a light laugh.
  3817. >Turning to the window once more, you realize the carriage is skirting near a great stone barrier, its edges smoothed by time.
  3818. >Here and there, a modern watchtower, complete with metal catwalks and spotlights, sprouts haphazardly from the ancient structure.
  3819. >“The city wall. What the Roanhaven does by water, this wall does by land. All but a few gates have been sealed up on account of the Plague.”
  3820. >Sterling leans forward, pointing out a commotion far below as it passes.
  3821. >“In fact, there is one now.”
  3822. >The massive archway set in stone is fronted by a great set of iron doors, their hinges each as wide as a pony is tall.
  3823. >In a smaller fenced-in courtyard inside the wall, City Watch ponies clad in protective masks haul heavily laden wagons in from the doors, and more guard ponies unload crates and burlap sacks onto flat-topped railcars.
  3824. “What are they doing?”
  3825. >“Making sure we don’t starve to death. Those gates are double-doored; farmers and merchants on the outside, under the supervision of the Quidstol Army, drop off their goods inside the first door before the Army closes it. We open it on our end and bring them in, scour the entry for rats or any other sign of the sickness, then close it up again.”
  3826. >You shake your head as the scene recedes into the distance, the carriage clattering onward.
  3827. “Food for the entire city? That’s incredible.”
  3828. >“They’re at it day and night. Ships also bring supplies at the harbor, though they offload them at floating platforms that the Lord Regent had specially built for the task. Too dangerous to land at the docks, can’t risk spreading the Plague to the rest of the Empire.”
  3829. >An uncomfortable silence falls in the cabin.
  3830. >All it would take is the ships to stop arriving, or the Army to simply bar the gates, and hundreds, thousands of ponies would…
  3831. >“So what else is it?”
  3832. >You face Sterling, head cocked quizzically.
  3833. “Huh?”
  3834. >“Skill set isn’t the only thing you’re worried about. What else do I need to do to sell you on this assignment?”
  3835. >Well, here’s issue number two.
  3836. >You’re a lowborn pony from a rough neighborhood; might have been a street rat, if it wasn’t for the Watch.
  3837. “I think you already know what I’m worried about, Sterling.”
  3838. >“I do?” he replies with a cocked eyebrow.
  3839. “Sure I can handle myself in a fight. I can arrange a watch rotation. But the etiquette? Hoofshakes and manners? I’m not from that world, Sterling, I’m just a – ”
  3840. >“Lowborn street pony,” he finishes for you.
  3841. >Even if he’s just giving voice to your own thoughts, to hear it spoken aloud by another still sets your heart pounding angrily.
  3842. “Yes, that.”
  3843. >Sterling sits for a moment, eyes fixed on the floor of the carriage, before reaching up with one hoof and tapping his forehead.
  3844. >“So am I, according to some.”
  3845. >Your eyes narrow slightly.
  3846. “I’m not sure I follow.”
  3847. >“Do you see a horn sprouting from my brow?”
  3848. “No, but being a unicorn isn’t a requirement in the Watch.”
  3849. >Sterling sighs quietly.
  3850. >“Things are a little different, in this part of the city. I’m told that unicorns are regarded with suspicion in your part of the city, conduits just waiting for the Outsider’s corruption.”
  3851. >You nod; as the Plague worsened, the few unicorns in the market district, watchmakers and jewelers mostly, had been receiving less and less business.
  3852. >Personally, you had responded to a break in at Messer’s Fine Timepieces; the front plate glass had been smashed and nothing stolen, but crudely painted occult symbols and foul words had been left on the walls.
  3853. >“Here in the Upper City, it’s earth ponies that are looked down upon. The Abbey doesn’t have as much influence here, so their sermons about the inherent dangers of being born a unicorn don’t hold much sway.”
  3854. >Sterling’s eyes have taken a hard set as he continues his monologue.
  3855. >“I was born into a well-off family. I never wanted for anything, nor did anyone else. The wealth didn’t mean much when it came to being singled out in school, or denied entry to the Nobility Division when I applied the first, or the second time, however.”
  3856. “Sounds tough.”
  3857. >You didn’t mean to sound so dismissive, only to offer some sort of acknowledgment to the story.
  3858. >Sterling looks up, snorting slightly and shaking his head.
  3859. >“I know it’s no life on the streets, but I only said it by way of offering my support. I had to earn the Nobility Division’s approval too. I didn’t have half the experience you bring, either. Compared to that, how hard can it be to learn which fork to use?”
  3860. >You shrug wordlessly, sitting back in the bench and folding your hooves in front of you.
  3861. >“Look, Solemn. It’s a big change, I know. But if you need anything – etiquette tips, who’s who and what’s what around here – I’m your stallion.
  3862. >Looking up, you study Sterling’s face.
  3863. >His eyes are calm, his mouth relaxed and his hooves resting laxly in his lap.
  3864. >He seems earnest.
  3865. >You open your mouth, thinking of some way to say “thank you” or otherwise acknowledge his help, when the carriage suddenly begins to slow.
  3866. >“Ah, we’re here.”
  3867. Chapter 39
  3868. >The carriage climbs a shallow hill as it continues to slow, and you peer ahead through the small window.
  3869. >A tall brick wall in the way grows steadily larger as the carriage continues on.
  3870. >Suddenly you taste the metallic tang of electricity in your mouth, and your coat stands on end as a blinding blue light flashes through the slit windows.
  3871. >You squeeze your eyes shut and duck your head, ears pressed back as your muscles tense, waiting for the stomach-churning sensation of arrival in the Void.
  3872. >There is no sensation, only a sharp crackling of voltage that quickly fades behind you as the carriage trundles along, your body swaying side to side with it.
  3873. >Slowly opening your eyes, you blink a few times, gradually sitting up and becoming aware of Sterling’s worried stare.
  3874. >“Are you alright?”
  3875. >You return his gaze, realizing your eyes are wide as saucers and your heart is thundering, ears still pinned.
  3876. >Swallowing hard, you force your dry throat to make sound.
  3877. “Y-yes. What was that?”
  3878. >“A wall of light. The carriages are insulated, so they can pass through without harming passengers inside. First time going through one?”
  3879. >You breathe a heavy sigh and slump back, remembering your trip with Captain Gale to the Abbey’s headquarters.
  3880. “No, just my first time doing it in a carriage. Didn’t know it was coming.”
  3881. >Sterling mutters something under his breath that sounds like a curse, a pained expression flitting across his face.
  3882. >“Sorry, I should have warned you.”
  3883. “No, don’t worry about it. I’m fine.”
  3884. >Your shaky voice says otherwise, but you’d rather end the conversation than continue covering for your reaction.
  3885. >The squealing of brakes announces the arrival of a station.
  3886. >A thud sounds as something is pushed against the outside of the car, and suddenly the door is unlocked and slid back, a cold wind gusting into the cabin.
  3887. >“After you,” says Sterling, motioning gracefully to the door.
  3888. >You stand up and move forward, finding a small set of stairs and a Watch mare in the light blue jacket and ornate silver armor of the Nobility Division standing at attention beside it.
  3889. >As you descend the stairs, her forehoof snaps to attention, ringing metallically against her finely buffed helmet.
  3890. >“Good morning, Ma’am. Welcome to the Estate District.”
  3891. >You notice the horn protruding from a hole in the brow of her helmet, mindful not to stare too long.
  3892. “Good morning.”
  3893. >You respond softly and move to one side as Sterling emerges from the car and returns the mare’s salute.
  3894. >Looking around, you drink in the intoxicating view.
  3895. >The carriage hasn’t stopped at a station, but rather in the middle of a wide, smoothly cobblestoned street.
  3896.  >A small platform is sunk into the stones alongside the car, with a set of controls hidden in a small guard hut in one corner.
  3897. >Just beyond, on one side of the street and standing tall behind an impressive wrought iron fence, is the Estate District Watch Station.
  3898. >Although, “station” may be a bit of an understatement.
  3899. >Brick and marble, it looks more like a mansion or palace than a police headquarters.
  3900. >A colonnade wraps in a semicircle around the front doors of the building, and two towers capped with dull bronze domes sprout from each end of the building.
  3901. >Chimneys dot the roof between the towers, billowing clouds of white smoke into the leaden sky over Damwall.
  3902. >All up and down the street, grand estates just as, or even more impressive than the watch station disappear into the fog.
  3903. >“Don’t forget to breathe,” Sterling’s voice comes from behind, and you let a steaming puff of air out through your nostrils.
  3904. >Laughing, he moves alongside and looks toward the station.
  3905. >“Let’s get inside, shall we? I haven’t scheduled an exterior tour and I’m afraid I’m a bit of a dunce when it comes to architecture anyway. Besides, it’s freezing out here!”
  3906. >As he leads off through the station’s gate, you take a moment to steady yourself before following.
  3907. >Easy now, Solemn, it’s only a job interview.
  3908. >You climb the wide stairs to the entrance, crossing from pale gray daylight into an even colder gloom as you pass beneath the colonnade.
  3909. >Two more Watch ponies, clad in heavy coats, flank the double doors to the building.
  3910. >As you approach, they move inward and swing the doors open in perfect unison, allowing you to cross into the foyer.
  3911. >The cold wind of the street halts abruptly as the doors close behind you, replaced by a near uncomfortable warmth.
  3912. >Electric lights, shrouded in tinted glass and hanging in decadent chandeliers, lend the foyer a warm glow to accompany its temperature.
  3913. >A unicorn receptionist hammers away rapidly at a typewriter, her eyes darting between the machine and a sizeable quantity of papers that are shuffling amongst themselves, suspended in the air beside her by a light pink aura.
  3914. >Sterling approaches the desk after pausing to shiver away the cold.
  3915. >Meanwhile, you simply stare at the multi-tasking marvel taking place.
  3916. >The same pink glow dances over the typewriters keys, accomplishing a pace that an earth pony or pegasus could only dream of.
  3917. >The unicorn’s horn, the source of the dance, pulsates lightly with the same light, but her expression remains one of almost bored indifference to her balancing act.
  3918. >Finally, she acknowledges Sterling’s presence, eyes shifting upward as the clickety-clack of the keys slows to a halt, the sheaf of paper gently settling into a tidy stack on the desk.
  3919. >“Lieutenant Sifter, good morning. How may I help you?” she inquires, her voice matching her neutral expression as her muzzle lifts almost imperceptibly at the stallion.
  3920. >“You can direct me to the Division Commander, please. This is Lieutenant – ” Silver begins, pausing as he turns, clearly expecting to find you beside him.
  3921. >You walk forward stiffly, halting and nodding politely to the receptionist.
  3922. “ – Rain, here for evaluation.”
  3923. >The receptionist looks slowly between you and Sterling, betraying no emotion except for the subtle yearning of a pony who feels her time is being wasted.
  3924. >“Another earth pony?” she suddenly inquires.
  3925. >“Shameful, ain’t it?” Sterling’s response comes with a disarming smile, which clearly doesn’t disarm the mare.
  3926. >“She’s upstairs. Main conference room,” the mare finally responds, resuming her rapid-fire pace on the typewriter.
  3927. >“Many thanks, though I for one hope we don’t end up with too many more earth ponies.”
  3928. >Your ears perk up at Sterling’s reply, and so do the receptionist’s.
  3929. >“Why’s that?”
  3930. >Sterling shrugs.
  3931. >“Inferior as we are, I doubt we’ll ever be able to match your impeccable typing and organizing powers.”
  3932. >The receptionist’s nostrils flare, and her cheeks go pink as she huffs at Sterling, nosing once more into her work.
  3933. >The stallion smiles, having achieved his desired effect, before turning to you.
  3934. >“Well, let’s not keep the Commander waiting, shall we?”
  3935. >The two of you pass the front desk, crossing the tiled floor to a dark wood staircase that sweeps a lazy arc to the second floor.
  3936. >Lining the walls are portraits of notable Watch ponies and depictions of famous events in the city.
  3937. >There’s the Whaler’s Revolt of 1803; sickly swirls of oil give the scene a smoky and ominous pallor, and flashes of color intersperse the haze – the blue splotches of a line of Watch ponies here, the darker jackets of rioting workers there.
  3938. >Further on, the cold gray eyes of one Commander von Sattel glare disapprovingly at you from below deeply furrowed brows.
  3939. >And this one is – oh.
  3940. >Dominating the landing at the top of the stairs, a massive portrait of the Lord Regent presides over the Foyer.
  3941. >He really doesn’t look like much: a slender, aged stallion, with a pale maroon coat and a short, wispy gray mane.
  3942. >His eyes are something else, however.
  3943. >Glinting green with flecks of gold, they are narrowed in judgement, searching you from high, bony cheeks.
  3944. >“Rather new, that one,” Sterling quips.
  3945. “What do you mean?”
  3946. >“It arrived shortly after the assassination, with orders to replace the old portrait of the Empress. That spot is always reserved for the sitting ruler, and given the current situation, I suppose it’s appropriate.”
  3947. >Under his light, nonchalant tone you can hear something else, as if he’s holding back.
  3948. “You suppose?”
  3949. >Sterling makes a clicking noise in the back of his throat, gazing up at the Lord Regent with a wistful half-smile.
  3950. >“Not the happiest looking fellow, is he? I mean, granted, that’s usually not what rulers go for in their portraits, but I rather enjoyed seeing the Empress up here.”
  3951. >Breaking himself away from the portrait, Sterling turns stiffly and continues up the stairs, and you wordlessly follow.
  3952. >The second floor is similarly decorated to the first, with finely carved wood paneling lining its halls.
  3953. >Old swords and elegantly crafted pistols hang in mountings, with polished plaques indicating their use or years of service.
  3954. >It isn’t long until you reach the conference room, long and narrow with tall frosted windows bordering the hallway.
  3955. >Sterling raps twice on the double doors, waiting beside one brass knob for a reply.
  3956. >“Yes,” comes a distant voice from within, and Sterling cracks the door just enough to reveal his face to  the room’s occupant.
  3957. >“Lieutenant Sifter reporting, Ma’am, with Lieutenant Rain of the Market District.”
  3958. >“You’re slightly early, Lieutenant. Better than late. Enter,” the mare’s voice replies.
  3959. >Sterling turns back to you, motioning to the room with a cock of his head, before pushing the door open fully and going inside.
  3960. >You take a quick breath and straighten your uniform with a few tugs, stepping forward and into a pall of cigarette smoke.
  3961. >Sitting at the far end of a long conference table, a middle-aged unicorn mare with her purple mane swept over one ear takes another drag from her cigarette, not looking up from an impressive stack of file.
  3962. >Sterling closes the door, then turns to stand at attention beside you, clearing his throat.
  3963. >“Ma’am, this is Lieutenant Rain.”
  3964. >The mare finally looks up, floating her cigarette into a nearby ashtray and letting it smolder as she stands up.
  3965. >Her uniform is similar to Sterling’s though the cuffs have significantly more braiding.
  3966. >“I see. I’m Commander Ashcliffe,” she responds, remaining at the far end of the room as her eyes survey you.
  3967. “Good Morning, Ma’am.”
  3968. >Greetings out of the way, the silence creeps onward, accentuated by the dull tick of a clock from somewhere behind you.
  3969. >The electric glow of the ceiling lights joins uncomfortably with the gray daylight from the windows, and you begin to feel claustrophobic despite yourself.
  3970. >Take it easy, Solemn, just take it –
  3971. >“I’ve reviewed her record, Lieutenant Sifter. She’ll do.”
  3972. >What?
  3973. “I – I’m sorry Ma’am?”
  3974. >Ashcliffe raises her muzzle at you.
  3975. >“Do you want the position or not, Lieutenant?”
  3976. “Well, I was hoping to learn more about the role before I –”
  3977. >“Lieutenant Sifter will fill you in. Lieutenant, please escort Miss Rain to the Galloway Estate.”
  3978. “But –”
  3979. >“That will be all, Lieutenants,” Ashcliffe cuts you off, sinking back into her chair and returning to her files.
  3980. >Your mind is racing, threatening to burst out by way of your mouth, but a light tug on your left foreleg draws your eyes away from the commander.
  3981. >Sterling already has the door open, eyes pleading for you to come with him.
  3982. >Looking once more to the commander, you shake your head and swear internally before retreating from the room.
  3983. >As the door clicks shut, you whirl about, a dozen questions ready to fly at Sterling.
  3984. >He isn’t there.
  3985. >You catch sight of his tail disappearing around the corner to the staircase and take off after him, hooves clipping noisily over the tile.
  3986. >Finally overtaking him beneath the Lord Regent, you arrest his movement, wrapping a hoof around his foreleg.
  3987. “What the hell was that?!”
  3988. >To your surprise, you find yourself pressed against the wall, and Sterling’s muzzle mere centimeters from your own.
  3989. >“I like you, Solemn, so listen to me, and listen closely,” Sterling whispers, his voice low and dangerous.
  3990. >His violet eyes are locked on your own, unmoving and deadly serious.
  3991. >“Are you listening?”
  3992. >You nod slightly, heart racing.
  3993. >What in the Void is going on?
  3994. >“Commander Ashcliffe controls everything and everypony in this district’s jurisdiction, do you understand? What she says goes, so when she says we’re going to the Galloway Estate, we are going to the Galloway Estate.”
  3995. >You narrow your eyes at the stallion, temper flaring slightly.
  3996. “I was under the impression that this was an interview for an available position.”
  3997. >Sterling nods, still unnervingly close to you.
  3998. >“Until Ashcliffe makes a decision and the position is filled. She has, and it was.”
  3999. “And I don’t get any choice in the matter, is that it?”
  4000. >The stallion’s mouth opens for another retort, but he restrains himself, releasing you and standing back.
  4001. >“Look, Solemn. If circumstances were different, you may have. Unfortunately, they are not.”
  4002. >Sterling is staring up at the Lord Regent again, mouth set in a hard line.
  4003. >“The Nobility Division is suffering the same personnel shortages as the rest of the Watch, so when a position needs to be filled it’s not so much a question of whether the replacement ‘wants to’ or not.”
  4004. “So why approve the old captain’s transfer at all, in that case?”
  4005. >The stallion flaps a foreleg in a universal gesture of bewilderment.
  4006. >“I don’t! – ” he pauses, allowing a corporal to pass up the stairs, staring after them for a few seconds before continuing in a lower tone.
  4007. >“I don’t know. You’d have to take it up with Headquarters. And one more thing; I’m already on shaky ground here as an earth pony. I cannot afford to sully my image before the Commander, and that includes allowing ponies under my guidance to talk back to her.”
  4008.  “What, do you think they’ll transfer you too? Short staffed as they are?”
  4009. >Despite his mood, Sterling chuckles.
  4010. >“If you really believe anything that goes on around here makes sense, then I’m afraid you haven’t spent enough time around unicorns. They’re petty, shallow beings that –”
  4011. >You raise an eyebrow as Sterling clamps his mouth shut, jaw grinding.
  4012. >“I’ve said enough, but suffice to say I’d rather not be sent to some backwater station to count dead or brawl with common criminals.”
  4013. “Sounds terrible.”
  4014. >Sterling winces at your deadpan response, appearing to attempt some sort of apology before giving up.
  4015. >“Fair enough, let’s just, move on.”
  4016. “Agreed. And in the meantime, you can tell me about this Barrister Galloway.”
  4017. Chapter 40
  4018. >The carriage was still waiting when you and Sterling returned to the street.
  4019. >Passing the unicorn guard mare once more, you seat yourself inside the cabin as Sterling follows suit, continuing to elaborate on your new charge.
  4020. >“Well, a barrister by trade, I suppose, but he’s long since moved on to different duties, though the title still stands.”
  4021. “Moved on.”
  4022. >“Yes. Apparently, he was a close confidant of the Empress, an advisor on all manner of legal issues. After the assassination, he was kept on by the Lord Regent in gratitude for his loyal service. The relationship hasn’t been without issues, however.”
  4023. >The carriage lurches into motion, and Sterling reaches once more for his cigarettes.
  4024. >“You see, Hockstetter Galloway is High Damwall through and through,” he begins, pausing to spur his lighter.
  4025. “Meaning he dislikes anypony who isn’t a unicorn. Or a unicorn of high enough standing. Or a unicorn of high standing whom he doesn’t like.”
  4026. >“Precisely, meaning he didn’t particularly approve of the Royal Spymaster’s ascension to the regency. Their relationship has been rocky at best these last months. Cigarette?” Sterling finishes, offering his case.
  4027. >You accept, and soon the two of you are sitting in an uncomfortable, smoky silence.
  4028. >“You partake but don’t carry a case of your own. Social smoker?”
  4029. >Not really in the mood for small talk, you answer testily while mulling over your assignment.
  4030. “I have my – well, had, my own – lost it on duty.”
  4031. >Sterling mouths a silent “ah,” as you crumple into your seat, taking a long drag.
  4032. “No grand tour to Sercoltos, is it?”
  4033. >“Beg your pardon?”
  4034. “The job, Sterling. Absolutely nothing you’ve told me about the stallion is painting this position in a good light.”
  4035. >The stallion raises his forehooves placatingly, fishing for an upside that you can already tell isn’t there.
  4036. >“So he’s a little snobbish, everypony on this side of the city is. It’s just something you get used to as the minority here. And maybe he is a choleric old noble who splits his time between bath houses and ill-tempered meetings, but it’s a well-paying position in a nice, quiet part of town.”
  4037. >You fix a thoroughly unconvinced glare on Sterling, watching his strained optimism gradually melt away.
  4038. >“Perhaps he won’t approve of you, and you’ll be returned to the Market District?”
  4039. “Perhaps, and then you get to pull somepony from some other station until you get one that fits.”
  4040. >Sterling’s mouth opens, nearly agreeing with you before he catches your tone and clamps it shut, hooves falling to his lap as he glances away to the window.
  4041. >The street clatters softly beneath you for another minute or so, before Sterling reaches for the brake and begins slowing the car.
  4042. >“Here we are,” he announces as the carriage halts, pulling the door open.
  4043. >You descend the steps to another small street platform, having arrived in another illustriously built neighborhood.
  4044. >“Galloway Estate is just up the way,” Sterling points up the sidewalk, leaving the carriage in the care of a prim-looking unicorn corporal.
  4045. >Without waiting for his lead, you start off in that direction, leaving the stallion to trot up to your side.
  4046. >“Solemn, if it’s any consolation I just want to say I’m sor—”
  4047. >You silence him with a curt look; not really anger, only frustrated resignation.
  4048. “Let’s just go.”
  4049. >Thankfully, Sterling remains silent, allowing you to take in the sights in peace.
  4050. >It’s almost staggering, the cleanliness and perfection of this place.
  4051. >As you walk, laborers, mostly earth ponies but a few unicorns here and there, push brooms or pull carts loaded with dust bins and cleaning supplies.
  4052. >A pegasus mare, rare to your eyes, flaps slowly around the garden of one mansion, keen eyes searching for errant foliage to feed the shears clasped in her forehooves.
  4053. >The fog is burning off, and a finely dressed unicorn couple strolls toward you from further up the sidewalk.
  4054. >The stallion is clad in a plush crimson overcoat, while the mare cuts a striking figure in a slim dress, with a finely patterned short jacket insulating her from the cold.
  4055. >Absorbed in some light-hearted conversation, their eyes trail ahead to you and Silver, voices falling and smiles fading.
  4056. >Their expressions sour even further as they move from the sky-blue of Sterling’s uniform to the significantly darker hue of your own.
  4057. >You sense Sterling move away from your side, and you follow suit, making room for the couple to pass.
  4058. >The two of you give a respectful half-bow as they move by, all but ignoring the gesture.
  4059. >“Earth ponies, and now Watch Regulars?” you hear the mare harrumph as their hoofsteps fade away.
  4060. “I take it a change of attire is in order?”
  4061. >“You’ll likely be tended to by one of Galloway’s servants pending the result of your meeting. I’d expect a new uniform within a day or so,” Sterling replies, leading you around a corner and coming to a stop before a large marble wall.
  4062. >A monolithic gate is set into the stone, a gleaming brass plaque proclaiming the property beyond: “Galloway Estate.”
  4063. >Stepping into the shade of the massive arch, you are immediately confronted by a Nobility Division corporal, emerging from a small shelter in the side of the gate.
  4064. >“Halt and state your business, please.”
  4065. >“Lieutenants Sifter and Rain, here to see the Barrister as scheduled,” Sterling answers the unicorn mare.
  4066. >The mare nods slightly, floating a small watch from one pocket and reminding you that your fathers was tucked away in one of yours.
  4067. >You subconsciously feel the pocket, comforted by the small bulge as the mare squints at her timepiece.
  4068. >“Hardly a quarter past noon, Sir. We weren’t expecting you for several hours.”
  4069. >“Well, when Commander Ashcliffe says go, you don’t ask when,” Sterling replies with a shrug.
  4070. >The mare replies with a knowing shrug of her own, replacing her watch.
  4071. >Her horn flares brighter, its green magic matching the aqua of her coat, and the wrought iron gate slides silently open on well-oiled hinges.
  4072. >From the other side, two mare privates step into view, eyes expectantly fixed on the corporal.
  4073. >“Private Meadowlark, pass the word for Sergeant Cuirassier. Private Whipleaf, please escort the lieutenants to Lord Galloway’s office.”
  4074. >The guards sound off with a simultaneous “Yes Corporal,” and Meadowlark trots out of sight at a brisk pace while Whipleaf takes a few steps forward, standing patiently at attention.
  4075. >“You may go, Sir,” the corporal says to Sterling, standing aside from the Gate.
  4076. >Sterling thanks the mare, turning to you with a nod before approaching Private Whipleaf.
  4077. >“Follow me, please,” the private orders with a polite smile.
  4078. >You fall in slightly behind and to the left of the mare, with Sterling mirroring you on the right, and the three of you enter cross onto the Galloway Estate proper.
  4079. >Beyond the gate, you find yourself in an awe-inspiring courtyard.
  4080. >The stone path through the middle is lined with immaculate hedges and tall spindly coniferous trees, though what kind you’re at a loss to say, and an ornate fountain bubbles quietly on each side.
  4081. >Stretching skyward before you is the manor itself.
  4082. >If the Nobility Division Headquarters was a palace, then the Galloway Estate could be a kingdom in its own right.
  4083. >The brick and granite building appears to be half-fortress, half-cathedral, and all towers, parapets, and relief sculptures.
  4084. >Grim-looking ponies gaze down at you with expressions as stony as the walls they inhabit, as if judging your gall at approaching their home.
  4085. >Despite your attention being dragged upward, you feel terrestrial eyes boring into you as well, and glance down.
  4086. >Private Whipleaf snaps her head forward, rose-colored mane becoming partially dislodged beneath her helmet.
  4087. >After a few moments, she turns hesitantly as if looking at something interesting in the courtyard, her blue eyes drifting back to you once more.
  4088. >When they meet your own, they widen and dart away for a second, and the mare winces before turning yet again towards you, the pink fur of her cheeks having darkened noticeably.
  4089. >“Apologies, Ma’am. It’s just, we don’t get many Regulars up here, especially these days.”
  4090. >You allow the private an easy nod.
  4091. “It’s fine, private, I understand.”
  4092. >Whipleaf returns her attention to the path, climbing the steps to the manor’s massive oak doors and waiting for you and Sterling to catch up.
  4093. >Your mind races as you prepare to meet this Barrister Galloway, a mental image of him having taken a decidedly nasty form in your head.
  4094. >Just need to stay calm, professional and –
  4095. >“I-is it true that they bleed from the eyes? The weepers, er, plague victims, I mean?”
  4096. >Oh for the Outsider’s sake.
  4097. Chapter 41
  4098. >Despite facing you for the entirety of your journey through the mansion, Whipleaf’s situational awareness is uncanny.
  4099. >While you explain that you’ve never actually encountered weepers yourself, only heard stories passed on by those unfortunate guards assigned to dead counter squads, she manages to lead you and Silver through the cavernous main hall and up the staircase at the far end without faltering.
  4100. >The walls are white plaster, immaculately clean and bolstered against the weight of the floors above by carved wooden columns.
  4101. >Dark stone of various types makes up the floor tiling, muffled and insulated against the cold by plush carpets of deep crimson.
  4102. >A large fireplace blazes away on one wall, casting a warm glow over a hearth that is elaborately decorated with artifacts of the past.
  4103. >Ornately framed paintings, sabers and intricately crafted rifles hang above the mantle, symbols of the Galloway family’s heritage, perhaps.
  4104. >Beside the cozy furniture before the fireplace, bookshelves filled with a dizzying collection of volumes line the room.
  4105. >“Um, Ma’am?”
  4106. >You turn to face the private, realizing that you’ve stopped on the landing and are staring back over the dim room that you’ve just traversed.
  4107. “Right. Coming.”
  4108. >Whipleaf giggles lightly, continuing upward as the stairs curve away to another landing.
  4109. >“Lord Galloway isn’t exactly one for subtlety. Then, I suppose nopony here is. Oh, maybe it’s different in your part of town! What are your charges there like?”
  4110. “We uh, don’t really have charges in the Market District. Nopony has their own guards, just the District Station.”
  4111. >The mare cocks her head at that, leading you on to the second floor and past a pair of servants in simple, dark clothing making their rounds.
  4112. >“That’s strange. What do you guard, then?”
  4113. >You suppress a sigh, not having planned on explaining the Market District Battalion’s standard day.
  4114. >Fortunately, muffled voices ahead draw Whipleaf’s attention away from your hastily formed answer.
  4115. >“Oh, hold that thought, Ma’am, we’re here! Lord Galloway is in a meeting with some of the Lord Regent’s ponies, but by the sound of things, they’re almost done.”
  4116. >The sound of things indeed.
  4117. >Two voices seem to be dueling with each other behind the tall, heavy door you’ve stopped at.
  4118. >Both belong to stallions, and though you can’t make out the words, one is appeasing and attempting to pacify the other.
  4119. >The other is having none of it, rising in a loud, but eloquently curt tone to cut off the previous voice.
  4120. >There is a pregnant pause at the end of the brief onslaught, and you and Sterling glance uncomfortably between each other while Whipleaf takes in a nearby painting in blissful ignorance.
  4121. >Finally, the appeasing voice begins again, subdued and resigned to whatever he is saying.
  4122. >A few short utterances are exchanged and a pair of hoofsteps approach the door.
  4123. >You stand back on the other side of the hall to make way, and Whipleaf is suddenly at attention by your side just as the handle clicks metallically.
  4124. >The dark wood door glides open, revealing two ponies in resplendent red uniforms.
  4125. >The cut of the cloth is almost identical to your own, although visibly better tailored, and your eyes widen as they recognize the rank of general sewn onto the leading earth stallion’s epaulettes.
  4126. >You straighten up and give a respectful bow of your head as the general strides quickly past and into the hall.
  4127. >He scarcely seems to notice you or the other occupants of the passageway, sparing only a sideways glance before storming off.
  4128. >The second red-coated pony, an earth mare, is younger and significantly lower in rank, likely an adjutant or an aide.
  4129. >She hurries away as well, hastily tucking a sheaf of papers into a pair of saddlebags strapped over her uniform in the process.
  4130. >Without further ado, Whipleaf marches crisply and disappears into the room beyond, making her presence known.
  4131. >“Lord Galloway; Lieutenant Sifter and Lieutenant Rain of the City Watch have arrived for evaluation at your convenience.”
  4132. >You don’t recall personally introducing yourself to her, and you realize she must have overheard your names from the inside of the gatehouse on arrival.
  4133. >Sharp ears, that one.
  4134. >Before you can dwell on the thought for more than a moment, a dry, high-toned voice with a commanding inflection answers the private.
  4135. >“Very well, Private, you may return to your duties.”
  4136. >Without pause the voice rises to address you.
  4137. >“And you out in the hall! Too much of my day has been wasted with ceremonial entrances, so be about your business.”
  4138. >Your heart thuds heavily as you cast a nervous glance to Sterling, but the stallion merely jerks his head towards the door, his own face showing that he is equally on edge.
  4139. >It's only a job interview, Solemn, nothing more.
  4140. >You swallow, throat clicking dryly, and force your hooves to move.
  4141. >Private Whipleaf glides past as you cross the doorway, lips curving upward at you as she trots on her way.
  4142. >It's darker than you expected; if there are any electric lights in the office, they aren't turned on, despite the severe draw of the drapes.
  4143. >The room beyond is small and unexpectedly austere compared to the rest of the manor.
  4144. >A couple of portraits adorn the plain wood-paneled walls, and a large simple oak desk resides on the far end of the office before a heavily curtained bay window, allowing only a narrow slit of daylight to enter.
  4145. >Behind the desk, a chair is turned to face the window, its occupant hidden from view by the oversized backing.
  4146. >The only apparent concessions to luxury are a meticulously woven rug, its elaborate patterns illustrating a strange story of stranger creatures, and a massive sculpted fireplace on the right side.
  4147. >Your eyes are mesmerized by the roiling flames blazing within it, the heat radiating through your uniform and warming your coat beneath as it casts your corrupted and wavering shadow on the opposite wall.
  4148. >Sterling clears his throat next to you - you hadn't even noticed his entry - and announces your presence.
  4149. >"Lieutenants - "
  4150. >"Sifter and Rain, yes, I've already been made aware. I have no desire to speak to you, Lieutenant Sifter. You may wait in the hall," the elegant voice dictates, cutting Sterling off immediately.
  4151. >You turn to the stallion, his mouth hanging open and his eyes vacant as if trying to determine what he did wrong, before he snaps to attention.
  4152. >"As you wish, my lord," he replies sharply, scarcely glancing at you as he turns on his hoof and departs, pulling the door closed behind him with a foreboding thud.
  4153. >The soft scratch of wood on wood pulls your eyes forward.
  4154. >The tall chair slides back from the narrow square of light, and a slender, wiry silhouette rises from it.
  4155. >The figure rounds the desk and approaches slowly, hooves clicking softly over tile as it enters the flickering glow cast by the fire.
  4156. >You stare at the wicked shadow rising against the back wall as the shape nears the hearth, crawling onto the ceiling and writhing in time with the cracks and pops sounding from the fire.
  4157. >Now only a few hooflengths away, two cold, gray eyes glint from the darkness and pierce your own.
  4158. >Remembering Sterling's rushed etiquette lessons, you bow deeply, sweeping your right foreleg out to one side and lowering your muzzle nearly to the floor.
  4159. "Lieutenant Solemn Rain at your service, my lord."
  4160. >You wait, staring at the intricate threadwork of the rug beneath your hooves and suddenly becoming aware of a single bead of sweat working its way down your brow.
  4161. >Blinking, your heart thunders in your ears as the seconds tick by.
  4162. >What am I doing wrong?
  4163. >"It is customary to rise once introductions have been made, Lieutenant," the voice instructs with thinly masked disdain.
  4164. >Shit.
  4165. >You do as instructed, straightening to your full height and finding it to be rather unimpressive compared to the pony before you.
  4166. >Barrister Hockstetter Galloway stands a solid head above you, his horn adding to his imposing profile.
  4167. >The unicorn stallion's coat is, as near as you can tell in this light, pale violet.
  4168. >A silvery-white mane, once surely impressive and now receded to a harsh widow's peak, is coifed around the base of the horn, and carefully trimmed sideburns stretch to the bottom of his gaunt jaw.
  4169. >Galloway remains silent, cocking one bushy brow expectantly.
  4170. "A-apologies, my lord."
  4171. >The barrister says nothing in reply, merely beginning to circle, harsh eyes raking you appraisingly.
  4172. >"I have never had an earth pony in my service as anything other than a groundskeeper or a maid, Lieutenant," his voice quips matter-of-factly from somewhere behind you.
  4173. >"In my own years I've seen many a foolish earth pony thrashed into the ground by their unicorn and pegasus equivalents. Guns may allow the City Watch to maintain their order in the streets, or the Army to give their numbers teeth, but in as solitary a position as that of household guard, I fear your kind are of no use against a determined opponent."
  4174. >Despite the heat of the room, indignance sets your cheeks and ears ablaze.
  4175. >About to snort a foul-mouthed response, you clamp your muzzle shut and remember where you are.
  4176. >The noblepony has completed his circuit, waiting with his back to you, ears swiveling.
  4177. "I've seen my share of action with the Watch, my lord."
  4178. >"Oh? I'd forgotten what fine specimens of combat prowess reside in the slums of Damwall" comes the dry, mocking tone.
  4179. >Rather than continue to endure the barrister's barrage, you try a different tack.
  4180. "If I may, Sir, who were those ponies you were meeting before me?"
  4181. >Galloway's head twists slightly in your direction, apparently surprised at the change of topic and deciding whether or not to allow it.
  4182. >"None other than General Thrush of the Quidstol Army, and judging from his news, your new master I would presume."
  4183. >Galloway turns and begins to circle you once more, talking as he goes.
  4184. >"The Lord Regent has seen fit to put the City Watch under command of the Army, in order to smooth coordination problems between the two parties in keeping the city supplied."
  4185. "What sort of problems have been coming up, my lord?"
  4186. >"The sort that I do not plan on discussing presently, Lieutenant," Galloway curtly replies.
  4187. >Well, it was worth a try.
  4188. >The unicorn continues to pace before you, finally speaking once more.
  4189. >"I don't recall the last time I saw a mare so thin outside of a bath house. Tell me, if you are the best the Watch can muster for my safety, are the streets of the lower city patrolled by skeletons in uniform?”
  4190. “No, my lord, there are plenty of tough ponies in the Watch.”
  4191. >Your answer comes through gritted teeth, heart thundering with anger.
  4192. >“And yet they send you? Perhaps the rationing situation is far direr than I am being told,” the old stallion replies quickly.
  4193. >If there is any sympathy in his voice, you don’t hear it.
  4194. “The rations are, adequate, my lord. It’s just… ”
  4195. >You trail off before finishing.
  4196. >He wouldn’t care anyway.
  4197. >“Just… what, Lieutenant?” Galloway picks up the trail, rounding to face you with bushy eyebrows drawn close.
  4198. >You sigh, resigning yourself to the answer.
  4199. “I – I don’t eat whale, my lord.”
  4200. >The rations are delivered once a week; distributed by guarded wagons throughout the city’s neighborhoods, with the district station receiving extra tins of potted whale meat to supplant the lack of once plentiful foodstuffs such as potatoes, hay, and green plants.
  4201. >A fair number of your fellow guard ponies partake in the meat to keep their energy up on patrols.
  4202. >You, however, survive on the meager supply of oats and copious amounts of thin, watery messroom coffee.
  4203. >What do you say? That you can’t stomach it? That it makes you want to vomit?
  4204. >Stupid concerns in a city on the verge of starvation, and yet…
  4205. >You can’t bring yourself to tell him, your eyes dropping to the floor and flicking back to his intermittently.
  4206. >Galloway’s brows unfurrow almost imperceptibly, and he emits a faint grunt before withdrawing to the fireplace leaving you alone in the center of the office.
  4207. >Your eyes follow the old unicorn, taking the opportunity to examine him for a change.
  4208. >Despite the heat of the room, Galloway is clad in a thick, though elegantly cut jacket, appearing more suited to a stroll through the snow then business matters.
  4209. >His eyes seem to glaze over as he stares into the flames, mouth eternally set in a frown and jaw grinding beneath his whiskers.
  4210. >Thinking better of interrupting his vigil, and not knowing what to say in any case, you merely continue to look at the barrister, trying to figure him out.
  4211. >He doesn’t like you, for starters.
  4212. >Or the Army, you gather from his tone with the two officers earlier.
  4213. >Or much of anything else, for that matter.
  4214. >“Are you a pious mare, Lieutenant?”
  4215. >You blink, the question catching you off guard as the barrister remains statuesque by the fire.
  4216. “We, do have an Abbey outpost in the Market District, my lord.”
  4217. >“That was not my question,” Galloway returns, a low, threatening current running through his voice as he rounds toward you.
  4218. >“Do you hold to the Abbey’s teachings? Keep the Strictures, lest the Void consume you, as it has the rest of this city?” the stallion prods, his voice almost mocking the tone of a lecturing Overseer.
  4219. >Your heart thunders in your constricted chest, and you fight to keep your turmoil buried.
  4220. >What is he getting at? What does he know?
  4221. “I… I do my best, my lord.”
  4222. >Galloway’s chin rises, one brow cocked inquisitorially as he towers above you.
  4223. >“When was the last time you attended a sermon, Lieutenant?”
  4224. >You stare down at the rug, memories racing for a suitable answer.
  4225. >Nothing comes to mind, other than last year’s Fugue Feast.
  4226. >Everyone takes part in the Feast, though; a meaningless answer.
  4227. >There was the sermon you overheard at the Office of the High Overseer.
  4228. >No, no one saw you among the attendees, if Galloway intends to investigate whatever angle he’s prying at.
  4229. >The cracks and pops of the dying fire only serve to punctuate your silence.
  4230. “I – I can’t remember, my lord. The Watch requires most of my time, and the remainder is spent with my family.”
  4231. >Whether the barrister is satisfied with your answer or not, you can’t tell.
  4232. >The old stallion steps slightly back, pacing around his large desk and sinking into the chair beyond, his cold eyes never leaving you.
  4233. >You stare straight ahead, silently pleading with who or whatever is listening to let the interview end.
  4234. >A short, professional knock sounds at the door; evidently someone heard you.
  4235. >“Enter,” comes Galloway’s reply, his gaze finally shifting to the far end of the room.
  4236. >You keep your eyes forward on the pale sunlight filtering through the drapes, allowing yourself to glance aside as another pony comes to a halt on your left.
  4237. >A unicorn mare, taller and more elegantly formed than yourself.
  4238. >She wears the same tunic and finely crafted breastplate as Private Whipleaf, though her head is uncovered, her lustrous blue mane kept short between her ears and ending just before her collar.
  4239. >The mare glances in your direction, her maroon eyes glinting in the firelight as she looks over your uniform, ending her inspection with a curt nod before raising her chin and facing forward.
  4240. >“Sergeant Cuirassier,” the barrister addresses her, forehooves folded on his desk.
  4241. >“Yes, my lord,” the sergeant replies, her voice deeper than you expected, with a noticeable but not entirely unpleasant coarseness.
  4242. >“This is Lieutenant Rain. She will be assuming the responsibilities of captain of my household guard, effective immediately. You are free to return to your duties as sergeant of the guard, after introducing Rain to her own.”
  4243. >Your brows raise slightly; just like that?
  4244. >Eyes flicking discretely to the sergeant, you watch for her reaction.
  4245. >You’ll be working with her it seems; best to find out what kind of mare she is early on.
  4246. >The unicorn remains statuesque, however, her strong jaw held high as she speaks.
  4247. >“Very good, my lord. Will you be requiring anything else?”
  4248. >“An afternoon free of further disturbances,” Galloway mutters, his attention already turning to a pile of correspondence tidily stacked in several boxes atop his desk, gaunt face illuminated in the sepia glow of his horn as he begins to read.
  4249. >“As you wish,” Cuirassier intones, gracefully spinning in place and gliding for the door.
  4250. >You’ve scarcely followed suit before she wraps the handle in a sapphire aura, swiftly disappearing into the hallway and leaving you to hurry after her.
  4251. >As you pause to close the door behind you, the handle glows blue once more and closes with a muffled click.
  4252. >Returning your gaze to the relatively brilliantly lit hallway, you catch a glimpse of the sergeant’s short tail disappearing around a distant corner and restrain a grumble of annoyance as you start after her.
  4253. >She is supposed to get you up to speed here, and your head is spinning with questions.
  4254. >If she would just slow down for a damned minute.
  4255. >You stalk past the top landing of the main staircase, barely acknowledging the two servants halted in conversation further down as you continue toward Sergeant Cuirassier’s last known position.
  4256. >Finally reaching the turn, you round it and screech to a halt, hooves scuffing across the wooden floor as you nearly slam into Cuirassier’s rump.
  4257. “Sergeant, if you wouldn’t mind taking a moment to – ”
  4258. >Your voice dies in your throat as your eyes widen at the scene before you.
  4259. >Sergeant Cuirassier is frozen mid-trot.
  4260. >Her legs are poised as if between steps, her tail swished permanently to one side; on closer inspection, she isn’t even breathing.
  4261. >Blinking in disbelief, you double back to the stairway.
  4262. >Sure enough, the two servants have become statues as well, one rolling her eyes as another is in the middle of saying something disagreeable.
  4263. >What in the Void is this?
  4264. >The Void… wait.
  4265. >You back away from the stairs, returning to the corner and pushing your left sleeve up to reveal the top of your sock.
  4266. >Pulling it down confirms your suspicion: the Mark is glowing, and beginning to burn as time stretches on.
  4267. >Wincing against the pain, you re-cover the Mark, gingerly favoring the hoof and grinding your teeth as the smoldering intensifies.
  4268. >Finally you slam your hoof to the floor, and are greeted by a queasy feeling of motion, as if the world had stopped turning and suddenly been shunted back into motion.
  4269. >Quick hoofsteps sound for a second or two before you and gradually come to a halt.
  4270. >You look up from the sensation quickly fading in your hoof to find Sergeant Cuirassier turning around, apparently detecting motion and seeming quite surprised to find you a mere couple meters behind.
  4271. >“Ma’am?” comes her slow reply.
  4272. >All you can do is stare blankly at the unicorn mare for a few moments before shaking your head slightly, forcing yourself back into the present.
  4273. “Ah, um, I had a few questions about the new position, Sergeant.”
  4274. Chapter 42
  4275. >Unfortunately for you, Sergeant Cuirassier quickly snapped out of her surprise and resumed her swift pace, nearly a trot for your smaller frame.
  4276. >“Barrister Galloway rises at six every morning, takes breakfast at seven, lunch at noon, dinner at five, and drinks at eight, depending on whether he has company,” she explains coolly as you awkwardly keep pace.
  4277. >“Anything in between is simply what he has decided as his schedule for the day. Your job will be to provide effective protection throughout, stationing guards at critical locations throughout the estate as you see fit.”
  4278. >Cuirassier halts abruptly and turns to face you, not quite looking down her muzzle, though it reaches to your forehead.
  4279. >“You should see the Barrister’s seamstress, Ma’am,” she nods slightly toward the door over her shoulder.
  4280. >“She will outfit you with the proper uniform.”
  4281. “I would like a little more information about the posting, Sergeant, before getting sidetracked.”
  4282. >This time you swear you can see the tall mare’s snout tip upward ever so slightly.
  4283. >“With respect, Ma’am, this is the Estate District. It would behoove you to look as though you, belong here. You may find Private Whipleaf in the guard’s quarters on the first floor when you are finished. She will inform you of the daily routine and duties expected of you. If you will excuse me, I must revise the watch schedule and make my rounds of the estate.”
  4284. >The imposing mare steps back with a nearly imperceptible nod of her head, before turning and striding quickly down the hall.
  4285. >You’ve concluded that she doesn’t like you very much, or else is an incredibly curt and busy mare.
  4286. >Go figure.
  4287. >Knocking softly on the dark wooden door, you turn the polished brass handle and enter.
  4288. >The tall, narrow room is dimly lit with electric lamps, revealing towering shelves of fabric and racks of elegant jackets, waistcoats, and even dresses.
  4289. >In the middle of it all stands an elderly unicorn mare, her mane a pale, wispy pink that compliments her lavender coat.
  4290. >The old pony blinks at you from behind a narrow pair of spectacles, moving out from behind a finely dressed mannequin full of pins.
  4291. >“Who are you? Nopony knocks in this house,” she inquires suspiciously, blue eyes narrowing.
  4292. “I’m, um, the new Captain of the Guard, Ma’am. Here for a… uniform fitting?”
  4293. >The mare cracks a wry grin accompanied by a genuine tinkle of laughter.
  4294. >“Well, new captain, you can stop your knocking and your ma’am-ing. I’m Thimbletrace, Barrister Galloway’s seamstress, nothing more. Now, step closer dear, so I can get the measure of you.
  4295. >You do so, even as a fickle spark of magic illuminates Thimbletrace’s horn and the far wall of the room erupts into pale daylight.
  4296. >Instinctively bringing a hoof up to shield your eyes, you squint against the brightness and notice that the “wall” is actually a set of tall vertical shutters, now swiveled open to reveal a massive paned window.
  4297. >“Daylight brings the smaller details of the form to discerning eyes,” Thimbletrace explains lightly, obviously amused by your reaction.
  4298. >“These are strange times we live in, but inventions and gadgets only go so far against genuine craftwork.”
  4299. >The mare approaches you, horn glowing once more as an array of measuring tapes, pins and rulers circle into her orbit.
  4300. >Suddenly she halts a mere step or two away, elderly eyes squinting confusedly at your forehead before widening in surprise.
  4301. >“Oh! Oh my…”
  4302. >Heat climbs up your collar, ears burning as they flop back, and your eyes shift around the old unicorn.
  4303. “I know, I know…”
  4304. >Your voice hitches unexpectedly, and you can feel the emotion welling up despite your best efforts.
  4305. >You can take the haughtiness and condescension from the likes of Galloway and random passerby on the street.
  4306. >Thimbletrace, however, well she could be anypony; a kindly grandmother, your favorite shopkeeper, Void’s sake, she even reminds you a little of Cinnamon Biscuit, cooking away merrily in the station kitchen.
  4307. >It’s too much, and you feel your eyes beginning to moisten.
  4308. >The old mare catches it almost immediately, her face falling to deepest regret.
  4309. >“Oh, no no no, I didn’t mean it like that, dear! It’s just, I don’t see many of your kind here. You surprised me, is all, I – you haven’t been mistreated here, have you?”
  4310. >You open your mouth to answer, to say of course not, but know that your voice will betray you.
  4311. >Thimbletrace gently sets her tools down on a nearby workbench, turning back to you and wrapping a hoof around your neck, drawing you into a firm, but soft embrace.
  4312. >“I’m sorry, sweet girl. I’m so sorry.”
  4313. >Eyes squeezed shut, you breathe as slowly and deeply as you can manage, tears forcing their way through and dripping down the fur of your cheeks.
  4314. >You want to cry more than anything, to let go and let it all come flowing out.
  4315. >You want to go home, to hug your father and sister, to take back everything that’s happened to you and that you’ve done in the past days, to know that everything will be alright.
  4316. >But you can’t; not now.
  4317. >Thimbletrace holds you for a long time, finally releasing you when she feels your breathing steady.
  4318. >Standing back, you scrub your face with the cuff of one sleeve, sniffling slightly.
  4319. >The old mare offers a small smile.
  4320. >“Now, if you would, Ma’am, could you remove your clothing, so I can take your measurements?”
  4321. >You comply, stripping the dark blue garment off and moving on to the red waistcoat beneath.
  4322. >A pang of panic shoots through your chest as you freeze at the socks.
  4323. >Thimbletrace turns from her workbench to regard you, noting your hesitance.
  4324. >“Ah, best you leave those on. Ensures I don’t make your sleeves too tight. The boots too, you’ll be wearing those, just leave them outside your room at night so one of the servants can polish them.”
  4325. >You breathe a shaky sigh of relief as subtly as you can.
  4326. >The seamstress returns to your side and envelopes you in a mesmerizing dance of instruments.
  4327. >The tape glides swiftly over your legs, wrapping around each in various places for only an instant before wicking away to be read by Thimbletrace, who deftly jots the measurement on a notepad hovering beside her.
  4328. >Next comes your neck, chest, waist and hips, and you can’t help but notice the seamstress pausing with concern at your faintly visibly ribs and the rather small circumference of your neck.
  4329. >Your mane prickles and your ears shoot up in alarm as your tail is lifted via magic, the tape measure sliding around your dock.
  4330. >“Apologies, dear, for the tail flap,” Thimbletrace offers.
  4331. >Your old Watch jacket was off the rack and already rather worn before you got it, and you’d gotten used to the slightly baggy sleeves and loose collar; you suppose a form-fitted version would be nice.
  4332. >As quickly as it began, the dance was over, and the seamstress was returning her tools to their places.
  4333. >You quickly redress, pausing at a floor-length mirror to examine yourself.
  4334. >There are deep circles beneath your eyes, made worse by tear-matted fur, and your stomach growls loudly.
  4335. >Breakfast seems like it was a lifetime ago.
  4336. >The sound of running water catches your attention, and Thimbletrace appears from a side room with a washcloth in her magic.
  4337. >She offers it to you, and you gratefully take it, wiping your face down and feeling invigorated by the hot, steamy sensation.
  4338. “Thank you, Thimbletrace. You’ve been very kind.”
  4339. >“Think nothing of it, dear. A little comfort can go a long way in times like these, and you’ll need strength for this job, believe me,” the old mare smiles at you.
  4340. >You nod your appreciation, making for the door and slipping back into the hallway as the shutters close, gloom swallowing the room once more as Thimbletrace returns to her mannequin.
  4341. >As you make for the guards’ quarters, you realize that you have no idea where it is apart from the first floor.
  4342. >Not necessarily a bad thing, you suppose; you can familiarize yourself with the estate’s layout on your way.
  4343. >From what you’ve seen so far, the second floor is primarily private office space and servant rooms, arranged around the central gallery created by the cavernous main hall below.
  4344. >You round back to the staircase and descend to the first floor, alone and suddenly mindful of the silence of the massive house.
  4345. >The fireplace still roils in its hearth.; gas, you notice now, the valves well-hidden to give the impression of a more rustic wood-fired design, and it doesn’t burn with the blue flame or stink of whale oil.
  4346. >Multiple doors lead away from the hall at on every wall, and an idea strikes you.
  4347. >You squeeze your eyes shut, blinking them open to the now familiar tea-stained world of Void-enhanced vision.
  4348. >Seeing nothing by the main entrance or right wall, your gaze sweeps upward and reveals two glowing figures.
  4349. >One is ambling in a fairly linear path, pausing now and then to rub a hoof discerningly along something.
  4350. >A caretaker inspecting their work.
  4351. >The other is slumped heavily in a seated position, one forehoof rubbing a temple gingerly while the other stretches out before them; Galloway.
  4352. >“What are you doing?”
  4353. >You flinch, vision fading back to normal as you whirl to face the disturbance.
  4354. >Private Whipleaf, now helmetless, stands in a doorway on the left wall, rose mane falling into one eye as she cocks her head curiously at you.
  4355. >“Sorry Ma’am, it’s just you were kind of staring at the ceiling, is all,” she offers with a half-smile.
  4356. “It’s alright, Private, just uh, admiring the… architecture.”
  4357. >Whipleaf nods vacantly at you, her smile persisting, but saying nothing else.
  4358. “…Actually I was looking for you. Sergeant Cuirassier said you could fill me in on my duties here.”
  4359. >The mare’s empty gaze persists for another second before her eyes widen.
  4360. >“Oh! Of course Ma’am, I was just on my way to the quarters; if you’d like, I can give you a tour of them and explain things there.”
  4361. >You accept Whipleaf’s invitation, following her as she leads you past the Main Hall and further towards the back of the estate.
  4362. >Soon, a most incredible aroma begins to fill your nostrils.
  4363. >As if on cue, Whipleaf begins her narration.
  4364. >“The kitchens are just through this door here. I’d wager they’re working on bread for dinner at the moment, seeing as they’ve already finished up lunch. Oh, lunch! Have you eaten yet, Ma’am? You got here just about noon and I imagine you didn’t have much time to do so with all the meetings you’ve been in today.”
  4365. “No, I haven’t actually, but I wouldn’t want to cause any extra hassle for the – ”
  4366. >“It won’t be any trouble, Ma’am, the cooks always have a little something going for servants and guards working all hours,” Whipleaf speedily cuts in, turning toward you with a self-satisfied smile filling her face before quickly falling away.
  4367. >“My apologies, Ma’am, I didn’t mean to cut you off so rudely. Just, wanted to assure you that you aren’t being a nuisance – I mean! – aren’t putting any undue strain on the cooks, is all.”
  4368. >You can’t help but crack a grin at the spastic, talkative mare, hoping simultaneously that doing so puts her at ease.
  4369. “No offense taken, Private. Lunch sounds wonderful, and you can continue to explain things over it.”
  4370. >After a quick stop in the kitchen, mouthwatering sights and smells torturing your stomach, the two of you settle down at the dining table in the small, but well appointed, guards’ mess.
  4371. >Lunch, as it turned out, had been hay, spinach and tomato sandwiches, of which Whipleaf had casually piled two onto your plate before carrying it for you in her magic.
  4372. >You lift the first sandwich in your forehooves, eyes fixated on the meal with poorly constrained awe.
  4373. >Bringing it to your lips, you sink your teeth into the bread, hay and spinach crunching magnificently while the tomatoes burst with tangy flavor over your tongue.
  4374. >Eyes closed, you savor the individual flavors as you chew before allowing the first bite to slide down your throat.
  4375. >“Wow.”
  4376. >You open your eyes at the breathless exclamation to find Whipleaf, seated across from you, staring awestruck.
  4377. “What?”
  4378. >The private shakes her head softly.
  4379. >I don’t think I’ve ever seen anypony enjoy a sandwich that much before.
  4380. >Your cheeks heat up a little.
  4381. “Was it that bad?”
  4382. >“Oh yeah, erm, yes Ma’am. You had your eyes closed and moaned and everything.”
  4383. >Now your cheeks are ablaze.
  4384. “I… moaned? Oh for Void’s sake.”
  4385. >Whipleaf giggles as you try to take a more constrained approach to eating your meal.
  4386. “Sorry, Private, it’s just that most of my meals these days consist of oatmeal and porridge.”
  4387. >“Oh,” Whipleaf intones, her muzzle scrunching slightly.
  4388. >“I don’t like porridge.”
  4389. >You shrug, swallowing down another mouthful.
  4390. “Neither do I.”
  4391. >“Then why eat it, Ma’am?”
  4392. >You almost fire back with something sarcastic, but Whipleaf’s quizzical expression shows that the cheeky response was entirely in earnest.
  4393. “We uh, don’t really get much fresh food, down in the Market District. The Plague.”
  4394. >The pink mare winces and her face darkens a shade.
  4395. >“Right, of course. Sorry, Ma’am.”
  4396. >Naïve, this one. Young, and with sharp ears, apparently, but naïve.
  4397. >You decide you like her better than Cuirassier.
  4398. >Hunger suitably sated, you decide it’s time to get on with business.
  4399. >Hunger suitably sated, you decide it’s time to get on with business.
  4400. >As Whipleaf explains between dainty bites of her meal, levitating her helmet to a corner of the table and revealing a messy tumble of rosy mane, the captain of a household guard is more than simply a leader for their subordinates.
  4401. >“During the day, you’ll be expected to be near Lord Galloway, ready to answer his summons and providing the most visible presence of security during business meetings, social affairs, and other events in which the Barrister is receiving guests or traveling around the city.”
  4402. “Putting on a good show, then.”
  4403. >“To an extent, yes Ma’am,” Whipleaf replies, floating a napkin to gently wipe a few crumbs from her lips.
  4404. >“However, Lord Galloway does like his privacy, so while we are tasked with ensuring his safety, he doesn’t exactly like to see guards patrolling the halls all day.”
  4405. “I see. How many guards are assigned to Galloway, precisely?”
  4406. >The private swallows hard, downing the last of her sandwich before continuing.
  4407. >“Six now, including you: Myself, Private Meadowlark, Sergeant Cuirassier and Corporal Rosebay, whom you met at the gate, and Corporal Hedera, who should be in her quarters resting,” she pauses for a moment, reconsidering.
  4408. >“Well, I suppose there’s also Shearwater.”
  4409. “Who?”
  4410. >“Lord Galloway’s messenger. Technically a guard, inasmuch as he owns a uniform. Never seen him wear it though, always the goggles and that cute little satchel,” Whipleaf breathes dreamily, eyes glazing over as she rests her chin on one hoof.
  4411. “…Right, so I take it he isn’t on the regular watch rotation.”
  4412. >The mare snaps out of her reverie, smiling sheepishly.
  4413. >“No Ma’am. I mean, yes, he isn’t on the rotation. Actually it’s quite nice that you’re here. We usually have somepony at the gate at all hours, another near Lord Galloway and one more making their rounds of the Estate. Only left two to get any rest, and even then, they’d pitch in where they could. Things can be spread a little more evenly now, I’d imagine, but Sergeant Cuirassier will see to it on the schedule, I’m sure.”
  4414. “You’re very attentive to details, Private. Thank you for taking the time to bring me up to speed.”
  4415. >Whipleaf shrugs.
  4416. >“It’s just how things work around here, Ma’am. Everypony in the Nobility Division gets trained for command, and eventually promotes into it.”
  4417. >You can’t help but cock your head at that.
  4418. “Really? That’s, certainly different from the City Watch.”
  4419. >“How so?”
  4420. “Well, a lot of the lower ranking members of the Watch are in it for the regular meals and a warm bed. Can’t think of many who are too excited about the prospect of anything more than that.”
  4421. >The private giggles a little.
  4422. >“It wasn’t a first choice for some of us up here either, but unicorn families of lower standing often see it as a way to ‘climb the ladder,’ you know? Sort of a social club, but with guns and swords.”
  4423. >Whipleaf’s smile never fades, but her words make you uneasy.
  4424. >You’d assumed the Nobility Division would be the cream of the crop, better trained and equipped than the regular Watch.
  4425. >If what Whipleaf says is true, perhaps only the latter is truly accurate.
  4426. “So, is that how you came to be in the Division?”
  4427. >“Oh no,” she quips, looking shiftily to either side before leaning across the table.
  4428. >“Between you and me, Ma’am, my family is probably the wealthiest of the guards here at the Estate.”
  4429. “Oh… So, you volunteered?”
  4430. >Whipleaf shrugs again.
  4431. >“No, my parents didn’t think I was ‘levelheaded’ enough to inherit, so they made me join the Nobility Division and began grooming my younger brother instead,” she replies nonchalantly.
  4432. >You begin to utter an apology for asking, curious at Whipleaf’s apparent indifference to her family’s snub, when hoofsteps at the door draw your attention.
  4433. >A seafoam unicorn mare with a darker, lustrously green mane steps into view from the direction of the kitchen, wearing a blue tunic minus her chest plate and helmet, a half-eaten sandwich hovering beside her as she munches dutifully.
  4434. >“Whip, there you are. You’re relieving Rosebay on gate guard in a few, remember?, she mumbles through a full mouth.
  4435. >Suddenly seeming to take notice of you, the mare’s golden eyes widen and she swallows hard, forcing the sandwich down with difficulty.
  4436. >“Sorry for the intrusion, Ma’am, I didn’t know anyone from the City Watch was visiting today.”
  4437. >“I remember, Hedy, I was just showing our new Captain of the Guard around the estate,” Whipleaf cheerfully replies to the now flushed Corporal Hedera.
  4438. >“New captain? But she’s – I mean, and I’m not dressed and – I’m sorry Ma’am, I didn’t mean any disrespect,” she stutters.
  4439. >You hold up a hoof to stop the mare.
  4440. “It’s fine, Corporal, I didn’t know I had the position myself until a short while ago, either. I won’t hold you up, Private Whipleaf, you can go about your duties.”
  4441. >“Thank you, Ma’am! A pleasure meeting you,” Whipleaf beams as she stands from the table, floating her helmet back onto her head before leaving.
  4442. >Watching her go, Corporal Hedera turns to you and clears her throat.
  4443. >“I uh, just woke up, Ma’am, but if you’d like, I can finish the tour.”
  4444. “You sure? If you have anything else to take care of, I don’t want to hold you up.”
  4445. >Hedera smiles softly, visibly relaxing.
  4446. >“Absolutely. I’m not due on watch for a while, was just a little hungry is all. Have you been to your quarters, yet?”
  4447. “No, actually, just the Barrister’s office, the kitchen and, well, here.”
  4448. “Alright, well your quarters are actually on the second floor, unlike the rest of the guards, not far from Lord Galloway’s office, in case he needs you. Would you like to see them?”
  4449. “Of course, lead on.”
  4450. >“I hope you don’t mind if we stop by mine first. Can’t go traipsing about the house dressed like this,” Hedera motions to her bare tunic while discretely scarfing down the rest of her sandwich.
  4451. “Not at all, Corporal, Hedera, right?”
  4452. >The green mare smiles over her shoulder at you as she leads you further from the kitchen and mess to a side hall, obviously meant to be off the beaten path for regular guests, but still finely appointed.
  4453. >“Yes, Ma’am. I usually go by Hedy, though Sergeant Cuirassier doesn’t like it. Not formal enough, I suppose.”
  4454. “I’ll stick to ‘Corporal Hedera,’ if it’s all the same to you, though what you go by among the enlisted is no concern of mine.”
  4455. >“Thank you, Ma’am,” Hedera replies, “anyway, here we are: guard quarters.”
  4456. >Marked by a brass plaque above the entryway saying as much, the guard quarters is a narrow hallway with three doors on each side, ending in a tall paned window stretching from the floor to the ceiling and bathing the corridor in pale gray afternoon light.
  4457. >“First on the left here is the Sergeant of the Guard’s room, which is – oh, sorry Sergeant, I didn’t know you were here.”
  4458. >The door is open and you step into view, revealing Sergeant Cuirassier seated at a tidy desk beside a comfortable looking bed, poring over small stack of calendars and other assorted documents and making corrections and adjustments with a quill.
  4459. >“No need for apologies, Corporal, though if you could please close the door on your way, I’m quite busy,” the sergeant replies coolly without glancing up from her work.
  4460. >“Yes Sergeant. By the way, this is… um…” Hedera falters, realizing she hasn’t actually learned your name in the time you’ve been talking.
  4461. >“Lieutenant, now Captain, Rain. Yes, we’ve met. Thank you Corporal,” Cuirassier finishes, quill continuing its movement uninterrupted.
  4462. >Hedera clears her throat quietly, horn flaring in a minty glow as she slowly pulls the door shut.
  4463. >“Of course, good afternoon, Sergeant.”
  4464. >“And to you, Corporal,” Cuirassier replies, sounding relieved at the impending conclusion of the intrusion.
  4465. >The door clicks softly closed, and Hedera turns to face you.
  4466. >“Well, Captain Rain, shall we continue?”
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