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The Nightwatch- Monsters of Everfree

By: Gabriel LaVedier

        In the Principality of Equestria, most territories boasted their own local constabulary, run by some combination of city, county, noble house (If applicable; some had no house-bond and were legitimately free territory, only under general royal rule) or broad regional consideration. However, the whole of the land was also protected by an overarching force of constable with more training than most. Among the most elite and hardest-working were the members of the Nightwatch, who protected the land during the night hours. With the return of Princess Luna, they were, once more, under her command.

        Among the many orders of The Nightwatch, none were held in as high regard, with so much acknowledgement of the difficulty of their duties, as The Everfree Nightwatch. Those ponies patrolled both the shallow and deep Everfree Forest all night long, keeping most dangerous animals in check and maintaining the peace of Everfree-bordered communities. Because of their great skill, and their constant nocturnal nature, they had been nicknamed The Monsters of Everfree; their motto was, “The monsters that guard against what goes bump in the night.”

        Drupe Cluster was one of the Everfree Nightwatch, a peach-colored stallion with green mane and tail. He wore the standard Nightwatch bark-brown cloak and crescent moon badge at the throat. On his flank, seen under the cloak now and then, were a peach, an apricot and a cherry. During an evening patrol, as the sun was dropping and his shift starting, he saw an unfamiliar figure casually sitting on a log, staring up at the darkening sky. It was a chestnut stallion, with shiny black mane and tail. His Cutie Mark was obscured by a bark-brown cloak, and he bore a crescent moon badge on his fancy black jacket, which was worn over a ruffled shirt and black waistcoat. “Excuse me, but, just what do you think you’re doing?”

        The other stallion didn’t even look aside, just squinted his eyes as the sky darkened. “I am watching the stars come out. There’s no finer thing in the world than seeing the first dots of light piercing the dimming heavens. And if I’m lucky, these tree limbs won’t get in the way of the moon. There’s a special pleasure in seeing that.”

        “I mean… what are you doing in that outfit? I don’t remember you being on the patrol schedule.”

        “Well, I don’t remember you at all, but you don’t see me making a big fuss over it. I can assure you, I belong in this neck of the woods. Unless I’m very much mistaken this IS the Ponyville section of the Everfree forest, is it not? Shallow border territory, with the deep section encompassing the ruins of the old castle in desperate need of the Equestrian Bureau of Antiquities and Landmark Preservation? Along with one civilian, Zecora, a friendly if reclusive zebra who makes regular sorties into Ponyville for supplies.”

        Drupe Cluster was speechless for a moment, goggling in disbelief at the unknown stallion. He knew his stuff, that was for sure. And, despite being unfamiliar, certainly looked like he knew what he was doing. “Well… I guess I should at least introduce myself and take you to get checked in. My name’s Constable Drupe Cluster, Everfree Nightwatch for three months.”

        The other pony hopped off of the log and trotted over to Drupe, nodding his head. “Pleasure to meet you, Constable. The name is Badam Pome. I should warn you, my experience in night watch work is limited at best and I’m shaky on the manual. I’ve always been a better doer than a book learner. Not that I’m lacking in sense or education. Just that things slip my mind. We can’t remember ALL the dotted ‘I’s and crossed ‘T’s now, can we?”

        The peach stallion shook his head slowly, watching the caramel one approach. His swagger wasn’t the usual stealthy slink of a Nightwatch member, especially of those in Everfree. And his attire, while appropriate in the required cloak, looked more like some kind of settler-territory dandy than a staid, professional constable. “No, no you can’t. But still, you remember most of it, right?”

        “Of course, of course. This isn’t my first cotillion. I know all about constable activities. Why, I’ve been all over the face of the Principality, and I’ve worked closely with any number of other constable services. I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve even been to Canterlot seeing the ins and outs of the royal guard service.” Badam winked as he passed Drupe, trotting in towards the deeper parts of Everfree.

        “Oh. Well, we’re a little less… formal here in Everfree! I mean, we’re not quite as spit-and-polish as they can be in Canterlot. Or, at least, I hear it’s like that. I mean, I’ve never been there. But, you know, that’s ok. I was recruited out of the Fillydelphia Nightwatch. No need to go to Canterlot for a transfer.” Drupe followed close behind, feeling like a new recruit in the wake of the easy confidence and apparent experience of the mysterious new arrival.

        Not too much further into the forest from where the encounter had happened, Badam suddenly found himself faced with an encampment. It was composed mostly of tents, with a few clapboard buildings arranged in a circle in a clearing. In the center was a large fire burning brightly, with a few ponies arranged around it. All eyes turned to regard the two arriving. Badam looked around and noticed the details, deriving what he could before speaking. “If only ponies knew what we all know. It’s not just a nickname. Sometimes it just strikes me when I see it. The Everfree Nightwatch aren’t just called monsters. They have them.”

        Around the camp, there were, indeed, monsters. A trio of docile-seeming cockatrices wearing dark goggles were tended to by a brown mare with a brown mane and a pine tree on her flank. A very small, two-headed hydra lounged, nearly napping by the far edge of the camp. And, somewhat improbably, there was what appeared to be a modestly-sized Diamond Dog, looking clean and well-tended, in both a brown cloak and brown trousers, standing beside a hunter green stallion with a bark brown mane and a large pentagonal-cut green gem on his flank. Filling out the rest of the population were a gray stallion with a black mane and a saddlebag on his flank; and a dark puce unicorn mare with a curly black mane and a plum beside a stem glass on her flank.

        “Takes getting used to, that‘s for sure. I’ve been here for a while and it’s still not quite normal. We spend our lives thinking about running away from them. Now we work with them in here.” Drupe casually came into the camp behind Badam. “But that’s just one of the things you have to get over in Everfree.”

        “Constable Drupe, just who do we have here? I was not informed of any new arrivals coming tonight. Or, any night.” The puce mare stepped towards Badam and Drupe, narrowing her eyes as she considered the caramel male.

        “Oh, sorry, Chief! Forgot. I met him over at the edge of the forest. His name’s Constable Badam Pome. He’s some kind of professional law enforcement officer. He’s been all over getting experience with all the forces. He’s fresh from studying Royal Guard training in Canterlot and just came to do night watch work.”

        The mare slowly looked Badam over. “Royal Guard trainee? Feh. Sure, they take you through all the motions, but the chances that any Royal emergency will come up are slim to none, and Slim hoofed it. That Canterlot thing doesn’t impress me, much. You want any respect in the Forest, you earn it.” She nodded her head firmly. “May as well introduce you around. I’m the Section Chief Brandy Punch; you can call me Slivovitz.”

        “Slivovitz? Sadly, I never had the pleasure of visiting Konik. But I have heard it is a lovely place. And I have had some sernik at a very well-stocked Percheron restaurant. Quite delicious.” Badam nodded to the chief and gave a bright smile.

        “Very good, mister Pome. I see you’ve got some brains in that head of yours. Just what I need in my constables. This fellow next to me,” Slivovitz indicated the gray stallion, “Is Constable Pocket Change. Used to do penny pinching work, but he wanted some advancement. And you don’t advance any faster than putting in your time here.” A motion of her head indicated the mare with the cockatrices. “That’s Tree Tender. She takes care of our trained cockatrices. Last, but not least… Oh, I think I’ll let him do this one. Constable, come forward and tell this new recruit all about you.”

        The green-and-brown stallion trotted forward, along with the Diamond Dog. On closer inspection nearer to the fire, it appeared to be a female Diamond Dog. There was a certain feminine cast to her figure, and her face was made up with a touch of makeup, enough to enhance her thin canine lips, soften the sallowness of her yellow eyes, flutter the sparse eyelashes and round the cheekbones with touches of light pink. “Hello there. My name is Constable Clear Facet. And this is my… associate. She’s a Diamond Dog mare named Emerald…”

        The Diamond Dog spoke up, with a higher version of the normal strained Diamond Dog voice. “What? Mare? I am no mare! Ponies have mares! I am a Diamond Dog bi-”

        “I told you! That’s a bad word in pony lands. It’s just easier to use mare. No offense intended. Just wanted to avoid problems.” Clear smiled with a touch of strain then continued. “Emerald is technically a member of the Nightwatch. I’m her handler.”

        “Yes! Handler! He handles me very well.” Emerald made a kissy-face towards Clear and winked her eye at Badam.

        “Ah! Ahem… Well…. That’s not quite accurate. No! I mean, yes, I am her handler. In the sense that I am her trainer. Oh! No, not like that. See, it takes a certain discipline to…. Oh, well, not quite that. But, well, it’s complicated. But not complicated like….” Clear trailed off into nonsensical muttering while the rest just started at him.

        Slivovitz chuckled lightly and shook her head. “You see why I wanted him to explain? It never gets old.” She cleared her throat and nodded sternly to Badam. “Right! We’re just starting patrol tonight. Since you’re a new transfer, and I’d rather not deal with paperwork this close to active patrol time, you go with Drupe. You’ll be doing one of the edge patrols. Shallow and deep on the jurisdictional edge. No need to get fancy or exploratory, just stick to the usual trails, they all lead out and I’m sure professionals can find something trying to sneak out. Rest of the assignments as posted. Ok ponies, let’s get to work. Another night, another bit.”

        Forest Tender sat down on a log by the fire, followed by her cockatrices, while the others trotted off away from the camp. Badam followed behind Drupe, and was joined by Clear and Emerald. “Our patrol zone borders on yours. I figured we’d follow along for a while.”

        “Glad to have your company, Constable. I hope you don’t mind me saying, I don’t think I’ve seen a tame Diamond Dog. The only experience I’ve had with them was a reference from a niece of mine. They were causing some trouble, but the matter was handled long before the letter was even written.”

        “Eeeh… I wouldn’t go around using the word ‘tame’ in reference to her. She’s not a creature like a pig or a rabbit. The Legal Council of Canterlot recently had a decision approved by Princess Celestia stating that Diamond Dogs demonstrate sufficient sentience to be legally recognized as citizens. So, like zebras, griffons, buffalos and others, they have legal rights and responsibilities. That’s why she’s a Constable rookie. She just needs training.”

        “I see. Well, my apologies to you, Emerald.” Badam affected a look of chastised innocence and glanced over at the Diamond Dog.

        “No, is fine. I not very used to being with ponies. It not easy to remember all the things I must do, like stay clean and not eat sulfur and pretty spice gems.”

        “Diamond Dogs can eat gems like dragons, but they don’t need to. It’s just a treat for them. Unfortunately, their body processes the gem components in occasionally-undesirable ways. Consuming any kind of fluorite causes a Diamond Dog’s body to become mildly corrosive. We learned that the hard way. And they love it because it’s spicy to them. Consuming sulfur causes the element to leak out through the skin and mouth. It’s like concentrated garlic-body. Eating diamonds is difficult, but when done it integrates the lattice into them. It makes them stronger and stronger, but increasingly makes it harder for them to move. Regular carbon freshens her breath. Beryl varieties are pretty safe. In fact, emeralds enhance her eyes.”

        “He tells me emeralds make me pretty.” Emerald smiled broadly, showing off white, if snaggly, teeth.

        “Err, ah, what I say is that the emeralds naturally compliment her features. And enhance the color of her eyes. And that the end product is an attractive feature. But I don’t mean that in a way that would get me, you know, brought up in front of Internal Affairs on an improper commentary charge.”

        “In that case, let’s just keep it light and work-focused. Two-headed hydra and a young one. How did it hurt its neck that badly so young?” Badam directed the question fairly evenly towards Drupe and Clear.

        Drupe responded, looking back with a slight raise of his brows. “He was a barely-hatched whelp who got caught up in some entangling vines. From what they told me, they decapitated it because it was choking to death and severing the head was fastest. So, he got two heads early and imprinted on the Nightwatch here.” He looked forward again and hummed. “Not everyone knows that about hydras. I guess you really know your stuff.”

        “Give me a little credit. And those cockatrices. Have deals with the local chicken farmers and other owners of roosters?”

        “Every time a rooster lays an egg that isn’t destroyed outright, it is sent to the Nightwatch here in Everfree. We hatch it, and then raise the cockatrice with the goggles. It limits vision but prevents stoning. We eventually give them over to the Canterlot School of Advanced Thaumato-Biology for study. Though I hear they just let them wander around an enclosure.” Clear looked to the side and made a motion towards Emerald. “Our patrol route is through here. See you in the morning.”

        “Be well ponies. Have nice night. Maybe we will too.” Emerald gave a slightly-raspy laugh as she moved along behind Clear.

        “Nice couple, no question. He seems a little uptight, thought.” Badam mildly commented to Drupe, trotting up beside him.

        “Not really a couple. Emerald’s been an insufferable tease because she knows it riles Clear up something awful. And Clear is too afraid of being brought up on charges to say anything.”

        “Yea, I’m sure that’s exactly what it is…” Badam chuckled softly, and looked between two roads diverging in the barely-visible path they had been walking. “Time to split? Better to spread out to catch anything. We can yell for each other, maybe.”

        “That’s how it works, yea. It’s not manual standard for partners, I know. But that’s how we do it here. It’s more important to just see the problem first, before it gets too far out. Let’s meet up here at midnight. If I’m not here, just go back on patrol and we’ll go back to the camp near dawn.”

        “Right. See you in a while.” Badam nodded to his new partner and then picked one of the two roads at random, trotting confidently down it with a merry hum, even as he was swallowed up by the darkness of the forest.

        The moon was bright and full again, providing a fair bit of light even through the tangle of trees. The path was intermittently illuminated, and the spillover light lit the scene in a hazy manner. But, with enough time away from the fire and a little concentration, it became sufficient to see some of the fine details.

        The forest looked as it always did; another tangle of roots and climbing vines, gnarled trees in contrast to the straight trunks of orchard stock. The canopies were lost in shadow, and the leaves were struggling to keep a hold. With no running of the leaves they fell when they wished, and never at the same time. But that was good. It meant more light, such as there was of it. The blank moon, while less interesting than before, at least had a higher albedo.

        “Is this it, then? Wandering the trails of Everfree with the moon as a light, maybe getting a lantern as it wanes? No wonder there are so few volunteers. And no wonder those that stay on are considered a hardy bunch. But, I am here for the long haul. No escaping what was taken with earnestness.” Badam spoke to himself as he checked the trees and kept his ears high, listening for any hint of movement that was not his own.

        He became aware of a gentle whisper the further he went down the path. The direction was vague, only faintly ahead of himself. The voice was indistinct, both unintelligible and lacking in any detail. No accent, no gender, no mood. Only the mutter of words that were further scrubbed by any stray breath of wind. “Hello there… Somepony? Pony? Some other being? Don’t mean to pry, but, mysterious whispers are par for the course.”

        The slow approach brought a greater volume, the voice finally resolving into a plaintive whisper. “Release me… Release me…”

        “What? Release? I didn’t know we set out traps. Then again, it would make sense. Sorry about that. Coming to get you.” Badam ran off towards the source of the voice, checking through the dim surroundings. “What kind of trap are we talking about here? Snare? Deadfall pin? Pit? Sticky stuff?”

        “Release me… And I will reward you…” The voice wavered, sounding like it belonged to some kind of disembodied creature, barely speaking though actual air.

        Badam stopped short, tilting his head a little, seeking the source of the sound, though no longer quite as eager to actually find it. “Reward, you say? What are we talking about here?”

        The voice… Seemed to smile, taking on a tone that suggested a change from elegiac to pleased. “Release me, and I will give you riches. All the coins you could wish, beyond your dreams. Gold and jewels and beautiful things to last the rest of your life. Free me and it will all be yours.”

        “Hmm, tempting. That’s certainly very tempting. I sure remember being pretty rich. We had everything. Nice clothes, carriages, a fancy house, parties, disgruntled servants and the insatiable need for more. I guess the more you have, the more you want. Thanks for the offer, but I have enough bits to cover myself. Sorry.”

        “Release me and I will give you control…” The voice had grown flat, disappointed. “You will hold sway over the important ones, the well-placed ones. Any being that passes under your presence will become your pawn. Each one will do what you command if you but meet them.”

        Badam tapped his chin, looking around the dark forest. “I see. I guess that would make things a lot easier. I could get anything I wanted done. I mean, I can anyway. But it takes effort. There’s no guarantee, but sometimes thinking on your hooves is a good thing. It takes a certain amount of panache to get it to work out right. And when others realize it, well isn’t that worth a laugh and a wink? Ah, nah. I’ll keep it the hard way. What’s life without a touch of a challenge and some reason to cheer when you win? Sorry, friend.”

        “Well…” The voice was no longer pleading, nor was it cheerful. It grew dark and deep. “Release me. Free me from this imprisonment. Unleash me into the world and I will give you power. No need for control over others. None would oppose you with such power. Magical, martial, mental. All the powers in Equestria. I would provide you with force. The power and majesty that could never be stopped. Accept this power. And free me from my prison.”

        Badam determined the direction of the voice. He was certain that he could find the speaker in the darkest parts of the area before him. He turned aside and began a new patrol route. “They put ponies in prison for a reason. I’d imagine they put you in one for a reason too. I’m shaky on how magical monsters work, but I do know that first time is tragic, twice is coincidence, and three times is a pattern. And that’s where you put an end to it. Good bye, strange voice. I’ll be sure to tell ponies about this; it’s not every day you meet a mysterious and unexplained thing.”

        “Come here! Come here! Let me out! Let me out and let me stalk!” The voice grew fainter and fainter, but more filled with rage and venom.

        “Not gonna happen, sparky.” Badam vanished into the dark of the woods, ignoring any of the cries that found him again.

- - -

        No meeting happened at midnight. Badam never made his way back to the meeting point. He wandered back into camp at the crepuscular fringe.  His attire was as perfect as it had been when he first wandered into the camp, a few dirty splotches at the sleeves notwithstanding. “Morning, everyone. Or, soon to be. Princess Celestia is punctual as ever.”

        “So much for midnight. I didn’t think you’d be the one to miss it. What happened out there?” Drupe looked at Badam with a mix of disbelief and concern.

        “I got into my patrol. I knew that I wanted to reach as far as I could before I had to go back. Cover more ground, and potentially identify more threats. Plus, I had a weird encounter with one of the mysteries of Everfree.”

        “Oh? New transfer, and suddenly you find something weird. Sounds about right. What did you run across?” Slivovitz kicked dirt onto the fire, extinguishing the embers that remained from the fire which Tree had maintained all night.

        “Whispery kind of voice in the middle of nowhere. Lots of shadows, probably not strictly natural shadows. Release me, release me. Riches, mind control, power. What I assume is the usual suite of junk that these mysterious voices promise for letting them out. Faked a good game of being humble, got mad and started being a jerk. So I left it.”

        Slivovitz stopped smothering the fire for a moment, considering what had been said. “That’s… Not normal. That’s a bit beyond the usual habit of the forest. The monsters don’t tend to be that smart. At least, not smart enough to tempt and try to lie. Still, Pocket, make a note of it. Patrol location, general idea. It’s the kind of anomaly we need to be able to recall.”

        “Right, chief.” The gray stallion took a pencil into his mouth and started scribbling notes on a piece of parchment.

        “Nothing to be concerned about. Barely heard it when I got close, as mad as it got it never sent out tendrils or streamers or whatnot to get me. So it looks like the thing is really trapped in wherever it is. It’s just another angry little thing locked up some time in history and left to rot.” Badam walked over to one of the tents, which had a picture of various fruits and gains on it. He browsed about the table of rations and nibbled on a few of the nutritious bits. “Hope no one minds. I forgot to take rations.”

        “Help yourself. Sometimes a little food in your stomach helps you sleep. You’ll have to share a tent with Drupe. We weren’t informed of another new constable so we’re one tent short.” Slivovitz levitated a few logs to the fire pit’s perimeter, looking over the dirt-covered ash pile and nodding lightly. “Get in your snacking, folks. The Princess isn’t gonna hold than sun for us. Another good night of patrols. Let’s sleep and do it again tonight.”

        All around the camp, the other Nightwatch members started moving to the rations tent. Badam filled his belly and exited, brushing past others. “Oh, yes. For the record, what was the location in more particularity? I need exactness. Accountant habit.” Pocket stopped him and took out his pencil and parchment.

        “Ahhh, right. Line-itemizers. I’ve known more than a few of you. Well, we were out in our patrol area, and we decided to split up at a pretty obvious crossroad. I just picked it at random. Frankly, I don’t remember much about it. Just another dark road. Sorry I can’t get it exactly on for you.”

        “No, no, it’s fine…” Pocket put away his tools and nodded. “It’s just for our records, after all. Not life and death. Sorry to keep out.”

        “Not at all. Get some grub going.” Badam nodded his head and trotted off, to look in at a tent. The inside looked comfortable enough, with a thick padding on the ground and a single sleeping blanket settled on the floor. The place was sealed against light, yet breathed very well. Though air circulated well within, it still smelled faintly of peaches and cherries. As if to drive home the identity of its owner, there was a picture on one of the walls, an orchard scene with three ponies standing in front of it, two stallions and a mare, the one younger stallion between the other two.

        “Here. Brought you one of the extra emergency blankets. It might be a bit musty from being stored, but it should be good enough for a day of sleep.” Drupe tossed in a brown sleeping blanket onto the empty side. “I know you’ve done it all. How was the Nightwatch?”

        “It was.” Badam shrugged and arranged the blanket out on the padded floor. “Nothing happened. So it was a walk in the woods looking up at the moon now and then.” He settled himself down on the blanket, looking over at the picture again. “An orchard. I certainly know all about that. I grew up working hard on one. Ungrateful toil. That’s why I’m where I am today.”

        Drupe settled down on his own blanket and looked over at the picture. “Yea. It was… Hard. I guess it was trouble. But that was never a problem. I like hard work. Out problem was bit. There were never many. It was hard work; we kept three crops to maximize the chances that we’d be able to get through a disaster with any one. It was brilliant. And it worked. In any normal situation, we’d have been good. But, we never had a good market. We were flooded with cheap apples from all over. Yea, I get apples are easy. But… Anyhow, the orchard is still there. My parents work it with my sister. But I had to take a job elsewhere. And this one paid best. I can send back some bits now and then to help out.”

        “That’s very big of you. Not every stallion would do something like that.”

        “Well, I figured they didn’t deserve to just fail. They put in a lot of hard work. They’re ok now. But things could always be better.” Drupe sighed and shook his head. “Anyhow… Let’s get some shuteye. We’ve got another night of the same.”

        “Right. Sleep well.” Badam settled himself down on the blanket and closed his eyes. From outside the tent he heard the faint sound of the others moving around, and the zipping of four tents.  One wasn’t in. Someone had an appetite.

- - -

        That afternoon, the whole collection arose and shuffled out to find Badam already having a bit of food, and occasionally throwing tidbits to the cockatrices and the one hydra head that was paying attention to him. The other was acting catty and aloof. Tree looked reasonably impressed. “You’ve got a way with the critters, Constable Badam. They don’t usually get that friendly that quickly.”

        “Food makes every critter agreeable. Well, most of them. I’m guessing you have a lot of trouble with that one over there.” Badam motioned over to the hydra head that kept looking at him while feigning being disinterested.

        “Ahh yea. He’s kind of a troublemaker. But never anything too dangerous. He’s been with us for a long time. They all have.” Tree trotted over and stroked two of her cockatrices. “And I’ve been tending to them. I like the critters we have out here. They actually listen if you’re kind to them. So much easier than ponies. I don’t need to worry about getting lied to.”

        “Bit unusual for a pet. But what do I know? We were encouraged to keep trees as pets when I was growing up. How about you, Drupe? Any pet trees?”

        “Lord Fuzzyleaf.” The other constables stared at Drupe, who blushed. “It was a peach tree! And I was a colt! Anyway, yea, I know the pain of it. Other foals had puppies and kittens or rabbits or even pet insects. I had a tree. Gave good peaches, though.”

        The rest of the constables settled down into the afternoon routine of eating their food and checking their equipment. Badam finally got himself a spare set of saddlebags and a surplus lantern, along with other things such as manacles sized for average creatures, bottles of oil and medical supplies. Kitted out like that, he was free to sit around the fire, which was built after the sun started dipping low, and to talk with the others.

        “I’ve always been a forester; used to run a tree farm with my parents. We cultivated the fir trees for the Winter Solstice celebrations. But, trees were never that good at bringing money. Plus… We had a lot of dishonest investors and partners. They tapped us like a maple and left us destitute. Good thing you don’t need bits when you live in the woods.” Tree Tender sighed softly, staring into the fire. “So I specialized in working with forest creatures. Eventually I got good enough for a scholarship to a Thaumato-Biology program at one of the smaller Government schools. I got a degree in Magical Creature tending, got my constable certification and now I’m here. It’s a good job, really. Pays well, good work environment. I can trust the others here.”

        “What about you, Clear? You don’t seem like the constable type. No offense, but you’re kind of jumpy for this line of work.” Badam nibbled on a pressed oat bar and watched Clear try to ignore Emerald, who was doing her best to not touch him while sitting close.

        “I started out as a gemologist. I studied Geology at Hoofington and then Stalliongrad, specializing in gem formations. I wrote a few papers on the faceting of gemstones in natural collections and the high polish of some inclusions. I assumed I’d be like my parents, gem cutters and mine investors. But I was doing my post-graduate work when the universities were starting to work with diplomats while they started making inroads with Diamond Dogs. There was a lot of crime in Diamond Dog areas, on both sides of the Pony/Diamond Dog fence. Even after citizenship granting and the official recognition of sentience, things were rough. Seeing their passion for gems was very heartening. They really did know a lot. So I chose to change my focus to being a constable. And from there, I was drawn here. There are extensive Diamond Dog colonies in the Ponyville area.”

        “I was educated in Pony School. Did not get much chance to be educated in Diamond Dog colony. But, knew plenty of things about beautiful gems. And was very strong and fast. The constables wanted me to join and work in Everfree. So I came to Everfree and met Clear. He knows much about Diamond Dogs and is good to me.” Emerald smiled brightly over at Clear, who became, suddenly, extremely interested in the fire.

        “But only so good, because he’s not the type to be brought up on charges, eh, Clear?” Drupe chuckled softly and poked a hoof toward Clear.

        “N-never! I am an ideal constable and a perfect gentlecolt. It is not in my nature to do things that might be construed as offensive or inappropriate.”

        “More’s the pity…” Badam said with a soft chuckle.

- - -

        That night, the patrol routes were changed. Drupe and Badam were sent vaguely in the direction of the old Palace of the Royal Pony Sisters. This entailed passing several marked obstacles and recognized potential danger zones, including the territory of a manticore. However, the dangers had been cataloged and marked, and the manticore was little more than a large, friendly feline thanks to regular feeding and good socialization. Once more, the night promised to be little more than a walk in the woods.

        Drupe opted to head more towards the castle itself. He reasoned that there may be lingering spirits of darkness there, of some variety. Nightmare Moon had been defeated there, and whatever force had been empowering her might still have left itself some small spark of power.

        Badam was satisfied with this. He knew the area well enough to patrol without much effort. He even found time to walk along the shore of a modest river, which wound its way through Everfree. “Steven, you in there? Come on, it’ll be boring just wandering around not doing anything.”

        “What’s that? Who’s there? Oh!” A large, purple sea serpent burst out of the river and looked down at Badam. He was most elegant-appearing, with a fine moustache and an oddly-purple goatee. “Who are you? How do you know my name?”

        “Don’t get excited. Look at the outfit. Everfree Nightwatch. I’m a relative of a friend. She told me all about you. So, I figured I knew you at least a little bit. Seemed like a good reason to come out and talk, as long as I was in the area.”

        “Ooooh, the Nightwatch! I see you brave mares and stallions out here all the time. You know, I help out whenever I can. I tell them all about the horrible beasts and creatures that swarm through here. I like to think I serve an important role, without actually having to pass any physical tests.”

        “And the Nightwatch appreciates your efforts. Heard about any new happenings lately?”

        “Well, now that you mention it… Around noon I was resting in the river, you know, moisturizing and whatnot, when I heard this… Thing. I didn’t know what it was. All I could hear was this whispering and growling. It snarled like that big manticore, except without any of the charm. And I thought I heard some hoofbeats. But I was so scared I didn’t even bother to look.”

        “You? Scared? A big, strong serpent like you? I find that hard to believe. You didn’t happen to notice which direction it came from or where it was?”

        “Yes, I was in another area of the forest. This river is big, you know, and it meanders a lot. Oh it’s just so much fun to wiggle and wriggle through all the little twists.”

        “Fascinating. But what part of the river? Was it the far northwestern border area, near the shallow/deep divide?”

        “Yes! That was it exactly. It was a surprise because normally the only ponies that go out there are constables like you. And even then they stay in the shallow area because there’s no point in getting lost in the forest.”

        “Well now, well now… I think I’m getting into something here. Anyhow, thank you for the information. It was quite helpful. And good work on the facial hair. That is one killer moustache. The goatee is a bit unusual but I guess it’s a style.”

        “Oh this goatee is special. I got it from a simply lovely mare that passed though. Originally it replaced half of my moustache. But after that grew back, I convinced her to come back and put it on my chin. Now I look simply fabulous.”

        “That you do… You really do.” Badam started to make his way off when he saw a tremendous light burst in the sky over the forest, with a pillar of purplish radiance beneath, acting as a beacon. He could well guess what it meant.

        He dashed through the twisting paths of the forest, cutting through every narrow but accessible path he could find in the place, trying to make the most direct route possible though the tangle of trees and other plants.

        At the source of the light beacon, he found several of the other constables waiting. Slivovitz was providing the beacon, while Tree Tender and Pocket Change huddled around Clear Facet and Emerald. The Diamond Dog was on the ground, wincing, writhing and groaning in pain. Over the front of her body, several large slashes were in evidence, as though made by a creature with clawed fingers.

        “What in Luna’s name happened here?” Badam was stunned into bluntness, his face a mask of pure shock.

        “We still have no idea. The chief heard the scream, and found them like this. She summoned us from patrols the same way she got you. We were just nearer.” Tree Tender had tears in her eyes when she turned to speak to Badam, and then went back to looking down at Emerald.

        “Emerald… Emerald please, hold still. I need to clean your wounds. Somepony help me!” Clear looked around desperately, sloppily wielding a bottle of carbolic soap mixed with water and several bandages. He slopped the water around, vaguely in her direction, succeeding in splashing the disinfectant mix in approximately the right place every few splashes.

        “No! Leave me be, ponies! I do not want you here!” Emerald snarled and snapped, throwing her limbs around when none was there to hold them. She was being barely restrained by the efforts of Clear, Tree, and some portion of Slivovitz’s magical power. Without even thinking, Badam added his own body to the others, restraining a hind limb with all his might.

        “What are you saying? We’re trying to help you.” More of the carbolic water splashed onto the wounds, and a bandage was loosely applied, but could not be taped down before it slid off during a powerful thrash.

        “I don’t want your help! I hate you! Hate you all!”

To be continued…

The Nightwatch- The Smiling Dark

By: Gabriel LaVedier

        Drupe Cluster crashed into the clearing with the others, stumbling on his hooves. He looked much the worse for wear: his cloak was stained and torn, his hooves looked chipped and his body bore the welts of whipping foliage. “I came as fast as I could! What’s going on?”

        “Something attacked Emerald. Now we’re trying to clean up the mess.” Slivovitz let the beacon drop and used her new magical liberty to restrain Emerald’s limbs. “How could this have happened?”

        With the thrashing down to the barest hint, and some measure of calm back in him, Clear was able to apply the disinfectant more properly to the wounds, and to actually clean them out, rather than fumble with premature bandaging. “Emerald… I know this hurts. But we need to get them clean. Otherwise they’ll… Just, hold still…” The hunter green stallion dabbed at the wounds, wincing sharply as the Diamond Dog under his ministrations quivered in pain.

        “Nnnngh! N-no, ponies! Don’t touch me! I hate all of you. And no pony likes me. I know it. Ponies hate Diamond Dogs.”

        “That’s simply not true. I’ve undertaken many ethnographic studies of Diamond Dogs. They’re fascinating. I don’t know where you get this from.”

        “That not the same. No pony can see me like other ponies. Not the same as ponies. Do not look right, or act right. Don’t follow all your rules. And don’t get your respect” Emerald thrashed in Slivovitz’s magical grip, shuddering her body in the mystic force. “You never cared! Never!”

- - -

        Clear Facet sighed softly, and brushed nervously at his newly-made cloak. The uniform was still somewhat stiff from being tailored. At least that meant the crescent moon at his throat was still shiny and new, the silver bright as the moon. He stared into the forest with some trepidation, but still trotted forward. He had a good idea where to go, and orders freshly stamped that marked him as a new member of the Ponyville-adjacent Nightwatch of Everfree.

        After a very short trip he could smell a small fire, and some food being cooked over it. A modest hunger sent him cantering forward a little faster and into a clearing. There were a few tents around the edges of the clearing, together with a few other constables. He saw a brown-and-brown mare guarding a small, devoted clutch of cockatrices wearing dark goggles, and a hydra with two heads that seemed, simultaneously, disinterested and eager for play. Away from her was a gray stallion with a black mane, cooking an oat-and-honey griddle cake over the fire while he was spoken to in low tones by a puce unicorn with a sable mane. She stopped her conversation and turned to look at the arrival. “Well well, that was fast. But I expected as much. Old members rotate out, new blood comes flowing in. Papers, constable..?”

        “Facet. Clear Facet. Out of the academy at Canterlot. Well, from the university to the academy. I’ve got all my certifications for active constable duty. Here you are.” Clear took papers out of his saddlebag and passed them over to the puce mare.

        “Standard. Stamped and pressed and all in order. Alright, then. You’re official. My name’s Section Chief Brandy Punch, but nopony calls me that and keeps all their teeth. Slivovitz will do fine. This fellow beside me, making a little food, is my assistant and lieutenant constable Pocket Change. He used to be an accountant, but now he’s here doing a good job. And over there is our resident creature handler, constable Tree Tender. We’ve had a few transfers out, so the numbers are a bit reduced. We’ve still got one other constable coming tonight, and there’s a request in for one more, but we’re at a reasonable level, so we can last without it. Might take a few months to get a new one in. So, take a load off and have some tuck. We’ve got a bit of time before patrol.”

        Clear settled down around the fire, at the furthest point away from Tree, settling into a meal of the cold, pressed rations, pre-made and ready for consumption. He wanted to get into the swing of the hardscrabble Everfree constable life, and away from the plush life of a university stallion. “This place seems… Nice. Even the monsters are agreeable.”

        “Call them critters, new pony. They’re not monsters to me” Tree slowly reached out to stroke one of the cockatrices, who leaned in for the stroke with a contended look on its beak. “That fellow back there is a little ornery, but the other half is fine.”

        “Err… No offense intended, of course” Clear smiled brightly, with some nervous twitching and a pull at the collar of his cloak. “No need to get the official processes involved.”

        Tree snorted and looked down at the cockatrices. “Whatever. We’ll get on if you remember that.”

        Clear sighed softly and slumped a little bit, munching on his rations again. The sound of movement through the forest drew his attention again, letting him see a new arrival. A parting of foliage revealed a Diamond Dog. A female by the cast of her body. She was of the taller breed of Diamond Dog, but not the largest, a grayish female without jowls, and very well cleaned-up and lightly made-up. She was even wearing trousers and had a pack on her back. “Oh… A Diamond Dog.”

        “Right. Just what I was waiting for. Hey, over here. Got your paperwork?” Slivovitz motioned with her head over to herself, Clear and Pocket.

        “Yes! Have all my papers and am ready to work hard” she reached into the pack and pulled out a slightly-crumpled pile of papers, which she handed off to Slivovitz.

        “What’s your name there, rookie?”

        “Emerald! Was named after my eyes and favorite treat” her tail wagged as she made the statement, and fluttered her thin eyelashes.

        Slivovitz looked over the papers, nodding her head a bit. “It’s all in order. You’re fresh out of basic training, though. Pretty bold of you to come out to Everfree without any experience.”

        “Bah! I am Diamond Dog! Not afraid of anything. And all the teachers say training is enough to do any service with constables.”

        “It’s true. But you need a handler to bring you through the training period. That’ll be about a year or so. And it’s kind of an advanced course around here. Thankfully, we’ve got a gentlecolt here straight out of the academy in Canterlot. He’s got a training cert in his papers. So, constable Clear Facet, you’ve got your first long-term assignment. Emerald, this is Clear Facet, listen to him, he’ll be your partner.”

        “Oh, PARTNER! Did not know ponies had arranged marriages” Emerald let out a rasping laugh, which was joined by Slivovitz.

        “Ah... I… I mean…” Clear goggled, suddenly realizing that for the next year, things were going to be… Interesting.

- - -

        “I’m your handler. Of course I care. Just calm down. We’ll get this taken care of…” Clear finally started to apply a bandage over one of the wounds. But as soon as the pad was down, a sickly black stain appeared on it, leading to its swift removal and the revelation of nothing except the wound itself. “What is this..?”

        “Hate… All I feel. All I want to feel. Because you hate me too!” Emerald snapped harshly in Clear’s direction, drool glistening on her lipstick-smeared lips.

        “N-no! I don’t! Emerald, I don’t hate you… I… I don’t… I can’t. I have…”

        “What? Reputation? Precious reputation for college pony. Cannot be seen with monster like Diamond Dog!”

        “That’s not it! Dammit, Emerald! That’s not it! You want the truth? I’m afraid of being brought up on charges! I can’t be cited and charged with harassment! Doing that means dismissal from all active service! And no Nightwatch assignments! I can’t do it because they’d take me away from you!” The last statement was screamed at the top of his lungs. Clear sucked in breaths like a thirsty colt drew in water at a spring. His eyes were wide and his body shuddering. “I can’t ever mess up, because I’d lose you. One mistake and I’d never see you again. I’d rather look like a silly fool than make a mistake.”

        “You mean..?”

        “If this is the last thing I do before I face Internal Affairs… I love you, Emerald. I never said anything because I thought you were just kidding. Diamond Dog humor is blunt, and relies on… Ah… Enough…” Clear leaned in to lay a kiss on Emerald. Their lips met, and her body went still. No more fighting the bonds, no more fury burning in her eyes. They returned to a sallow sclera, with brilliant green inside.

        The wounds steamed, issuing a greasy black smoke as they slowly closed. From the horrible open wounds made by the claws of a predatory monster, they became little more than feeble scratches, the bad fortune of an ordinary, active day.

        Slivovitz released Emerald from her grip, the Diamond Dog taking the opportunity to wrap her arms around the stallion that continued to kiss her. The contact broke after a moment longer, her canine tongue following the kiss with a lap on the lips. “Never joked. Mm, joked at first. Liked making you feel silly and uncomfortable. Diamond Dogs do these things. But you were so kind. Treated me like pony. Always made me feel good. Not hard to love you” Emerald squeezed Clear tightly to her chest, avoiding the tiny scratches left behind.

        “Constable Clear Facet…” with the situation handled, Slivovitz was back in command mode, “fraternizing with a fellow constable…”

        “I know” Clear spoke breathlessly, but never moved to get out of the squeeze. He only leaned in to get closer still.

        “Is the kind of rule I ignore. Who’s gonna know out here in the forest? It’s Everfree, we have more to worry about. Like what it was that attacked you” she finished.

        “Don’t know. Was following Clear to see his behind move. He has handsome flank” the other constables chuckled, if in a somewhat strained manner, while Clear blushed. “Heard something in the dark. Soft little voice and movement to him. Had to get in the way. Then big, dark thing hit me to ground and started scratching on chest and belly. Kept telling me, “pain, cruelty, agony.” Tore and tore, so I screamed. Clear came and it left. All I saw was the shadow. And a smile when I screamed.”

        “I’m liking this less and less. It’s not enough that the thing can speak, whatever the hay it may be. But it attacked one of my Constables. I’m not going to stand for that kind of nonsense out of ANY magical misfit” Slivovitz stamped her hoof and snorted sternly.

        “It did more than that…” Badam looked over at Emerald’s body, noting the tiny wounds on her front. “It attacked her with magic. Magic edged in emotion.”

        “What do you mean, Badam?” Drupe trotted forward slowly, to look in at the wounds as well from a better vantage point.

        “Yes, it tore her flesh, and liked it. But, the bandage soaked itself in black stuff. As well, the injuries vanished when Clear told her he loved her. Well, more or less. What we’re seeing must be the real effect of the attack. But she was filled with hate. It just made the injuries bigger and more painful.”

        “Of course…” Slivovitz started to consider, hoof against her chin. “It must be something that feeds on hate and pain. It probably just wanted to attack something. It was going after Clear, Emerald got in the way, and so it just went with it. Hacked her up but ran when somepony came to get her. As long as she let the hate ride her, she was suffering. I’ll bet it was watching the whole time. Enjoying her in pain.”

        “This is a serious matter, Chief. This is the kind of thing that needs professional intervention” Pocket sidled up beside Slivovitz and prepared a piece of parchment.

        “Of course. This is what we’re here for. Guard and deflect what we can, and recognize big threats that need a big response. Prepare a message for the Princess. We need professional guards here. Send pegasi for whatever aerial recon they can gather and plenty of the elite unicorns for a search and subdue.  Badam, you were doing Guard work before, how quickly do you think they can get here?”

        “It’s hard to say. Generally, they respond quickly to orders but deploying takes time because they have to prepare first. But with an emergency like this, I’m sure they’ll rush.”

        “Then get that message ready fast, Pocket. I want it burning and on its way as soon as possible.”

        “Regrettably, all my enchanted parchment is at the campsite.”

        “Then go to it! And burn it as soon as the last letter is written down. While he’s doing that, we’ll all spread out. Tree, with me. Badam, Drupe, the usual. Clear, Emerald, if you think you can, you join this too. Spread out, three directions, big a sweep as you can get. And no solos. Stick together close as possible. Whatever the thing is, it’s cowardly. Only hits lone critters. Let’s move. The night is young and this thing seems to like it that way” With a heavy clop of her hoof Slivovitz moved beside Tree and proceeded into the forest in the direction opposite the direction of the camp.

        “Let’s hit the way we went the other night. That’s where I first heard it. If it got out somehow, maybe we can find what imprisoned it” Badam motioned his neck in the required direction, then looked to Clear and Emerald. “You coming this way? Or are you heading back for camp?”

        “We’ll go in the other direction. We need to search too. I’ll protect her this time.” Clear stood up proudly, attempting to look heroic.

        “My strong pony! Now we can be alone together and enjoy it” Emerald let out a raspy laugh that seemed to take some of the swagger out of Clear’s sails. Though, it did not knock the smile off his face.

        “Don’t get too cozy. This is still dangerous” Drupe nodded to the other constables before setting off with Badam in tow.

- - -

        “This kind of thing never happened in Fillydelphia” Drupe looked around at the forest with a new eye, trembling a bit if the shadows moved too much. “We had criminals, of course. That’s why I was there. I mean, some of them could even get violent. Stealing things or sometimes… Hurting ponies. But they did it for a reason. They needed bits or they were crazy on gemstones or salt or booze. Something drove them to it. I never had to deal with some monster that did it because it wanted somepony in pain.”

        “Believe that such things are out there. And believe that sometimes, those monsters are ponies like you and me.” Badam followed close behind, his lantern hung on the right side of his saddlebags, giving some brightness to the gloom. “I’ve been all over, and seen plenty. Something goes wrong in a pony’s head sometimes. Too rich, too powerful, too smart, too anything. Then they get it into their heads that they’re better than every other pony. It makes them smile to see others hurt. After all, if they were better, they wouldn’t be there in the first place.”

        Drupe shuddered and shook his head “No offense, but you are something else. I’m glad I never had the opportunity to work all over. Not if it means having to see that.”

        “It’s not common. It’s very well handled. And they don’t advertise. Sometimes I think that makes it worse. You can get away with secrets for quite a long time. Sometimes I wish they were just a little more stupidly overconfident. The more games you play, the more chances you have to lose” Badam nodded his head sagely to his own remark and twisted his head about, ears twitching in an attempt to catch any stray sounds. “So, who do you think did it?”

        “Huh? Did what?”

        “Who do you think let it out? It’s all but impossible it got out on its own, or it would have attacked me first chance it had. Plus, I heard from Steven the river dragon. There was a growling, whispering voice accompanied by hoofbeats out by the river in the area where we patrolled. Somepony was there with the thing. Intentional or not, it got released on purpose.”

        “I can’t… I know you’re new but you can’t honestly suspect somepony in this patrol! That’s absurd! We’re professionals. We’d never unleash some monster onto Equestria.”

        “Somepony did. There’s no way to deny it. Now the only question is, which one?”

        “I’m gonna ask you to stop this right…”

        “I know it wasn’t you. Sure, I’ll bet the bits it promised would be nice. But you’re too honest for that. Plus, I would have heard you get up and leave. I’m a light sleeper.”

        “How about you? How do we know it wasn’t you? Like you said, it would have attacked you first.” Drupe turned on Badam suddenly, glaring at him with an accusatory eye.

        “Because if it had been me, I’d be the biggest idiot in the Principality. Even if I was trying to rely on dodging suspicion by being the most suspicious, I would never have told anypony about it. No need. I could have released it and been in an even better position, since we’d be here without any clues at all. Plus, the other day, before I dropped off, I only heard four zippers. So unless Clear and Emerald were sharing a tent, which Clear would never do, I suspect, somepony didn’t go to sleep when the others did. One pony unaccounted for.”

        Drupe stood, continuing to stare, letting his petulance carry him for a time before he looked down and sighed “I never thought this would be an option. Suspecting a fellow constable of releasing a monster.”

        “Hard things need to happen sometimes. So… We need to think of which one it might be.”

        “I guess… I can’t do this! Even if it had to be one of them, I can’t suspect them! I just… Can’t…”

        “Family is important to you, I know. These ponies, they’re family to you too. But that won’t help us at all. Think of this: One of them out there is guilty, and knows it. Which means one pair is compromised.”

        The very thought made Drupe’s blood run cold. He shivered, and sat down hard. “This is big stuff.”

        Badam extracted a small piece of parchment from his saddlebags, and a stick of graphite with a bite guard. “Let’s make a list of possibilities. It wasn’t you or me. What else do we know?” He set to work, writing something down after he had spoken.

        “It probably wasn’t Emerald. Getting herself attacked would be too over the top. I mean, it’s possible but it feels wrong.”

        “I agree. She’s out. Clear is too. He’s too afraid of breaking regulations. He’s an orderly fellow in the college mold. Not the kind to go making deals. Besides, if anything, he wants knowledge, not power or bits or such things.” More scratching as Badam recorded more thoughts.

        “Tree wants bits… I mean, her family needs bits. But I don’t think she’d ever do that. She’s been loyal and good as long as I’ve been here. All she seems to care about is taking care of the monsters and doing a good job.”

        “Maybe she thought she could handle this monster like her others. We can’t rule it out.”

        “She’s with the chief. We have to go get her!”

        “Not so fast. What about the chief? She never talked much about herself.”

        “The chief is… The chief. I heard she’s been here for years. From constable to section chief. Takes pride in her job, loves what her constables do.”

        “And maybe she didn’t want the slow way anymore. That’s another possibility” the graphite scratched away rapidly on the sheet.

        “The chief being… And they’re back there together. They’re the most likely. We have to go back and help. Just to protect one from the other.” Drupe trotted away when he saw Badam put away the graphite and heard his hoof beats behind him. “I know she said to keep searching, and this was the best place to look, but maybe the one that released it can call for it. At least we’ll be there to…” Drupe looked back and finally noticed that no light was bobbing behind him. He was alone on the path. Badam was nowhere to be found.

- - -

        The stench of smoke from his right side made Badam snort and sniffle, while he walked on through the lantern-lit forest with a careful eye. He was getting closer to the area he had heard the voice. It wasn’t going to be long until he found whatever prison had held the thing. That would tell him something about the beast. And maybe how to trap it again.

        He had to be alone. He now had a better idea of who had released the monster. And why. This was the only way to keep the others out of danger. He’d find the prison, then double back to confront the guilty party. There’d be no possibility of denial. He’d have proof, in the face of recognition that would come when he revealed the monster’s prison. The plan was foolproof. There was no time available for the one in question to build a better fool.

        As Badam approached the spot from the previous night, he saw a shadow pass just inside the reach of his bobbing lantern. His progress halted as he dodged quickly to the left, avoiding a blow from a massive shape made of moving darkness. “That’s one way to do it. Next time don’t make shadows move where there aren’t shadows.”

        “So… Think you’re a clever little pony? Feh, just lucky…” The shadowy shape resolved itself into a hulking figure of black, with slitted cat pupils and a feline cast, a predatory monster with an innocent shape. “You’d never be able to do that again.”

        “Don’t count me out. After all, I’m a constable in Everfree. Better than that, I know who let you out, and why.”

        “Oh, I doubt it. You couldn’t possibly have sifted through all the suspects and decided which one. They could all be the one. There’s no way to say they couldn’t be the one. Don’t try to bluff me, little constable.  You’re not half as smart as you think you are.”

        “Oh, you think so? I take it you don’t think much of constables. That’s to your detriment, to say the least.” Badam slowly circled the creature, watching the thing as it glared at him, looking for a way past into the deeper part of the forest where the prison waited.

        “Why would I think anything of you sorts? You’ve been wandering this forest for a long time. I could tell. I could feel and hear you. You all wandered around here but never found me. Didn’t even get close enough to hear me. Well, not at the start. I got stronger as I called out. I called you. I offered you everything you wanted. Anything you could desire. But what did you do? You laughed at me and just trotted away. But one of you had at least two brain cells to rub together and came to get me. Why would you not take this offer?”

        “I’m a wag, not a villain” Badam took his chance, galloping towards the space he could see between two trees. He dodged, but barely, a strike by the shadow, which sent him back to where he had been. “I know your liberator was not a villain either. Just a small, petty pony. The easiest mark...”

        “Don’t lie. That’s hardly becoming of a constable. You don’t really know it. So quit saying it.”

        “It’s not Chief Slivovitz. She doesn’t need to do anything to advance. I’ve seen her smile when she’s leading the others. The happiness in her voice, you can’t fake it that long or with that much passion. It wasn’t Drupe, I was intentionally sleeping by the exit from the tent, and there were no other ways out. He would have had to have stepped over me, and there would have been no way to do it without waking me. I’m a light sleeper, to say the least.

        “Emerald could have had herself attacked, to divert suspicion. But that kind of agony… I’m going to say she wasn’t the sort. But she didn’t really want anything, except to be with Clear. Clear might have been having himself attacked with a mind to throw off suspicion. But, no. He’s a college colt. He wants knowledge, not money or power. He wants only to do good things and whatnot. He wanted it so bad he denied his feelings for Emerald. Now that must have been tough. Tells me all I need to know about his chances of being the guilty party.

        “Tree Tender loves her critters. She seems to take very good care of all of them, and will probably have a good, long career after her constable career as a zookeeper or something like that. She needs money, yes. We all need bits now and then. But she hates lies. She’s been deceived and bled dry by liars and scoundrels. I doubt she’d ever let herself become the thing she hated most. By a calculated series of deductions and some use of probabilities, I think you see where my mind has gone…”

        “Think you’re clever. Well, that’s just a guess. You admitted it. And now you still don’t know which one to go back and confront.”

        “Pocket. Change.” Badam stood firm and glared hotly at the monster, whose shadowy features fell into a snarling anger. “And, a guess can get me the answer if I just watch your tells.”

        “So… Why didn’t you come back to free me? You seem bright enough…”

        “Want me to tell you how I think it happened?”

        “You’d get that wrong. I could tell you. After all… Why do you think I’d let you go, now?”

- - -

        Pocket Change checked his notes as he rapidly cantered through the day lit forest. He had little time to dally, with the sun rising up through the sky. He needed some sleep; he couldn’t afford to look guilty when he saw the others.

        At last he came to the path Badam had told him about, and picked one of the ones at random, just as Badam had said he had done. He could hear the river off in the distance, a scowl coming to his face. That river… That annoying river dragon was probably in there, moisturizing or grooming or something dainty like that. The scaly mincer was probably a serpentine Colt Cuddler. Disgusting.

        Pocket checked on the stands of trees as he went along, seeking the most thickly-grown ones. He had been told the most shadowy area was where the voice had come from. His ears rose up, open for anything beyond the distant babble of the river.

        A little further along he could hear it. A tiny voice. “I hear you. I know you’re there. I can feel you. Please, come here. Free me.”

        “Do you, do you have a deal for me? Bits, control, power? I’ll do it. But I want… I want that power. I can’t take this anymore. I can’t plod around this miserable forest putting my life on the line all night long. I was told my career could take off doing this dreary grunt work. But if this is what it takes to advance faster… I want to go back to my statistics and forms. I want to pinch more bits. I don’t want to do this miserable job anymore. I just don’t care about the ponies outside these woods. I’m not built for it.”

        There was silence for a long time. Then the voice came back, seeming submissive and meek. “Yes. I can give this to you. I have the power. I can get it all for you if you want. You’d deserve it if you did free me. You’d be very kind indeed.”

        “I mean I…I don’t really want to hurt anyone. And I mean… Helping you, that’s a good thing, right? Yea, that’s what good ponies do.” Pocket moved forward confidently, entering the shaded area with his eyes peeled for the prison holding this voice.

        Within the shaded copse of trees Pocket found a large, black monolith, in a shape that seemed somehow familiar to him. “Please, just touch my prison and move the seals aside. Please let me escape. Please…”

        Pocket looked on the monolith. There were some words etched into the base, shrouded in the shadows cast by the slanting sunlight. He shook off the foreboding sense that was brought about by the presence of the monolith and reached out for the chest of the stone figure, where there were several icons resembling certain sigils found in Canterlot’s historical districts. But he pushed aside that doubt and reached out, sliding aside the stone marks to reveal a small opening in the statue. Within was a small patch of darkness with slitted eyes that leaped out when it was revealed.

- - -

“The best worst intention. Simple greed. And laziness too. Can’t be bothered to stick it out and do his time to get to the position of a section chief. Didn’t want to stay as an accountant because it was just too slow. And this work is too hard. I have to remember to give him a buck to the face.” Badam shook his head and then looked at the shadowy creature. “He’s back there right now, in the camp, not sending the message he was told. And all the rest will think that help is on the way.”

        “All you pitiful ponies hold out so much hope all the time. I used to love it so much. It was so delicious to watch that hope fade while they suffered without mercy and with an increasing realization that no help would come for them. I could have done so much more if I hadn’t been put inside that thing.”

        “Locked away and forgotten for ages, stuffed into the Everfree forest, where decent ponies never go. A miserable relic of a savage age. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Princess Celestia herself that locked you in there, but maybe that gives you too much credit. Perhaps just the Royal College of Mages. We call them the Royal Mage Corps now. They’re part of the military.”

        “Insolent little pony…” The creature lashed out with a savage fury, swiping at air as the simple caramel stallion leaped aside. “I was so close to being the kind of monster other monsters aspire to be. I have a pestilent touch and a clever mind. But those royal fools put me away. Well, I live, and they don’t. Idiot Princess. So guilty still about sending her sister to the moon. She didn’t want her reign tainted with death. Even the death of a thing such as me. I think she was always too soft. But, that is to my benefit. For I stalk again!”

        “Yea, you do. Weak and helpless. Had to get Pocket Change to let you out, and barely had the strength to nick Emerald. Oh you talk a good game, I’ll give you that. And your fancy magic tricks look like the savage wounds of a predator. But at the end of the night, bah… Your cat scratches are little more than grooming nicks. Strip away at that hateful bile you spit into those wounds and the pain vanishes. So terrible! So mighty! A monster that can be beaten by love and care”  Badam jeered at the creature baring his teeth and even sticking out his tongue.

        The dark shape hunched as if to strike, then slowly let a feline smile spread across its sharp, dark features. “No… No, little pony. You may be good enough to move your own weak kind, but I am made of far better stuff. You won’t get me out of the way that easily.”

        “I reflect now… Why bother guarding your prison? You’re out. No sense in trying to stuff you back in without a team of mages. So what does it serve you to stand here and block me? Unless… Oh… Oh my word…”

        “Stop thinking you’re more clever than you are. I’m not falling for your tricks and tongue-twists and pitiful calculations of meaningless probability. Just because you got lucky once doesn’t mean you’ll do it again.”

        “Is it luck, or is it skill? Equestria may never know. I’ll never tell” Badam winked, and looked once more towards the path to the waiting monolith. “But it’s the truth. You don’t care about the big hunk of stone and all the runes which were keeping you in. You care about what else it was keeping in. I don’t know what it was. Your heart, if you have one; your brain, if it’s worth protecting; some piece of you that isn’t a stalking puff of smoke. Whatever it is… It must mean a lot to you. Worth quite a bit, I’d imagine.”

        The thing was taken somewhat aback, its head angling back some. “So… Are you willing to deal now? Haven’t you got cheek?”

        “”Cheek” is how I earn my bread and apple butter. Is it really such a surprise I’m willing to make a deal now? Drupe realizes I left. Now he probably thinks I was the one that let you out. He’s too smart and loyal to try and stop me by himself. He’ll go back to camp and wait for the backup that won’t arrive. He’ll tell them all that I was the one that did it, get them good and riled up. No way to go back now. And your genuine liberator can’t come back out here. His loss. I get all the reward he can’t have.”

        “How mercenary. How politic. How completely devoid of thought for any being but yourself. I was right to come for you first. Fine then, constable. Tell me your price, and I’ll pay it. I’ll send you off rich and potent and let you keep my secret.”

        “What’s my price? A laugh.”

        “A… Laugh? What kind of a joke is this?”

        “That’s my line. You really think that any amount will buy silence in matters such as this? I had to see if you would actually go for it! I make deals with the dumb all the time but this is especially pathetic! A monster like you should know that two can keep a secret as long as one of them is dead. And no money is going to change that truth.”

        “That can be arranged!” The dark figure attacked again, but did not stop after a single swipe. It snarled and shrieked in its high-pitched voice. “You think to mock me, I’ll make you regret your insolence! I’ll rip you to bloody ribbons!”

To be continued

The Nightwatch- Judged, Juried, Executed

By: Gabriel LaVedier

        Badam moved as best as he could with his pack and equipment weighing him down, his lantern jostling about with an audible clanking as he desperately dodged the attacks, “That’s it, you catty little carrot-head… Anger is so good. For me.” He twisted and danced about with a scrapper’s grace, a regular participant in little scuffles that needed only the dexterity of a pony who fights and runs away.

        “You’re not going to defy me forever. Not with that weight on your back!” The dark being slashed out at the biggest target, savage claws ripping at the canvas pack. The first casualty was the lantern, which fell to the ground of the forest, still lit but badly guttering. That was changed swiftly, the creature screaming with hate and crashing its paws down on the thing, crushing it into a tangle of glass and metal, the slick of oil igniting into a leaping fire. In the light of that uncontrolled blaze, the being saw Badam running for the entrance to his prison’s bower.

        Badam could hear the shriek of rage behind him. Like a cheated noblewoman, it rang with wounded pride and echoed with bruised hubris. Music to his ears. Without his lantern he was lighter, and grew lighter still as his pack spilled its contents. But he was also increasingly blind, relying only on the light of the moon. “If you really care, shine on. I never needed it more…”

        “YOU!” From out of the dark, the shadow waylaid the galloping pony, crashing into his body and hurling him to the ground with a heavy thud. “How dare you?! You mocked my offers of power and plenty, you came here to make light of me, and now you think you’re clever by getting me mad? You’re a third-rate scoundrel and I’ll make you pay!”

        “I doubt it!” Badam kicked out with all his strength. Though he didn’t look like much, there was surprising power in his lower legs. It was an applebucking kick, with all the force of earth pony strength coupled to unforgotten technique. “You barely had the power to attack one innocent Diamond Dog. You’re a liar and a cheat. What makes you think you can deliver?”

        The creature showed a sign of pain, grunting loudly as it sailed off of Badam and landed hard on the ground. “NGH! I have been captive for many years. My powers have waned. And in this age, there’s so little hate on which to feed. I can feel it. There is so much weakness in me, from this pathetic, pitifully peaceful era. But all that will change. Never doubt it.”

        “Seriously? You still think you can do anything? You need to guard your little stone prison. What can you possibly do to get your power back?”

        The creature attacked, slamming its inky body into Badam and viciously hammering his body with hammer-like blows “By pain! By pain and agony and hate! This is all the food I require! All the strength in my body comes from suffering and hate. I’ll scratch festering hate into my victims. And as you saw with your pitiful dog, they will scream that hate out, bleed it through their injuries. They will obey me. That was the control I promised. Pain will make any creature obey if they think you can make it stop.”

        Though Badam coughed and gasped under the savage body blows, he struggled madly and bucked away like a rodeo pony, a lucky kick catching the creature in the stomach, knocking it away and letting Badam take a shaky stand. “That’s not going to happen. Not even going to give you a chance to get one more than you did” Badam unleashed a flurry of kicking and bucking, front legs kicking out wildly and rear legs bucking away as though at a recalcitrant and gnarled apple tree.

        The blows missed more than they hit. They swept through the empty air with loud rushes of the wind created with their motion. However, their fury wasn’t entirely impotent. Every so often his hits nicked or thudded into the seemingly-indestructible feline beast. “No… I will do it. You have no clue what I will do. I will spread my hate, and spread my anger. The world will destroy itself. There will be war through the face of the world. I will make this land a barren wasteland, a blasted landscape of suffering and privation. Ponies will wander, starving and dying, trusting none, having no hope that tomorrow will even come for them. It is my only pleasure.”

        “Pleasure? You’re worse than I thought. You can actually have any enjoyment out of the suffering of others? You really are a monster that hardly deserves… AUGH!” Badam threw an ill-advised kick that went quite wide, the stalking feline twisting around and raking its claws down Badam’s side, cutting through his torn pack, his cloak and his clothes. Though the wounds were shallow, they still cut into him with a burning agony, fiery tendrils seeming to writhe out from the rake, though not proceeding very far from them.

        The creature laughed with triumph, adding to the pain by throwing in another clothing-cutting rake. It watched Badam writhe with a dark chuckle of enjoyment. “Your insolence has angered me, and you will pay. Not only will you be my first feast, but I’ll make you suffer more than you can imagine. Do you know how? Well… All you weak little ponies make so much of your connections. And you also have so many more mares than stallions. I’ll make you regret that. My preference was always to attack mares. To steal their hope.”

        “Get… On… With… This stupid threat. I can’t listen to you babble forever…” Badam gritted his teeth and snorted hard through his nose, rising shakily to his hooves, his wounds large, ugly and faintly dripping with black ichor. He swayed a bit, but planted his hooves as solidly as he could on the uneven forest ground.

        “You came from a mother. You probably have sisters. Maybe a mare-friend” The monster smiled a toothy smile, and bared its glistening claws, black and shiny like oil, “I know all their secret parts. All their tenderest flesh. Every inch that will burn with untold agony beyond any torment that could rise from any other attack. I’ll draw hate and fire over your cousins and nie-” The smile vanished from the creature’s face when Badam whipped around suddenly and bucked it right in the face, cracking the fangs and sending it flying out to crash into a tree.

        “You filled me with mindless hate! And then what did you do?” The pony charged to the fallen beast and brought his forelegs down with brutal, crushing stomps. “You gave me a TARGET!” He crushed body and head on the fallen creature, for all the good it did. “You come near my nieces or… Any other mare I know and I will feed you your own pestilent bile! Is that enough hate!?”

        Though suffering injuries of some type from the brutal assault, the creature still found the capacity to rise up and attack again. It lashed out with battery and swipes of its claws. “Yes. Feed me your fury. I’ll take that injury for more power! You can’t defeat me, but I’ll tear your flesh from your bones!” The creature added lines of angry scratches, dripping with blood and hateful ooze while also bruising flesh and coming close to breaking bones each time the thing hit Badam with its increasing power.

        Badam spit out a glob of blood, panting hard and grimacing as he fought to keep control. His black mane was disheveled beyond recognition, and his suit was more ribbons than attire. Even so, he kicked and bucked, battering the beast about. “I don’t… I don’t have to win. I just have to last. To survive! Just hold onto the tiniest spark of life…”

        “Tiny spark of life? Ha! Just clinging to your hope, like all your pitiful pony kind. Just what reason could you have to hold on to an agonized life with your veins all inflamed with my venom?”

        “Because time is all it takes for a letter to be read” His body shivered harder, struggling to be the master of the unbridled hate that burned in his veins and ripped at his mind. His body was in pain, pain with which he was not familiar. But he had a duty. To Equestria. To his family. And to… “Enchanted paper is hard to come by. It takes an official capacity. Or something more personal…”

        The smile dropped from the shadowy thing, its claws flexing as its teeth gritted in anger. “How did you get it? Did you steal it from the camp, proof that the letter was never sent from there?”

        A small laugh dropped from Badam’s lips, his wounds smoking a little bit, though still burning on the inside and seething with unbidden rancor. “I had my own. I made out a letter while Drupe thought I was weighing guilt. I burned it before I got here. So now I just have to wait.”

        The dark being looked around quickly, even glancing at the sky in case there were Pegasus guards about. But it saw nothing. Just the round moon, looking impassively down. “I think your hope has failed, as it always does. I’ll leave you here, a bloody mess. I’ll let you die here, knowing my promise holds. I’ll make your family suffer. I’ll find them through some means and bring them to such agony… Well, just think about that. Think as the hate flares and the pain burns in your flesh, while your blood pours out. Let me finish you…” It approached Badam slowly, flexing its fingers and grinning its feline grin.

        Badam attempted to work up a kick and managed a solid one at a hand. Though it drew back the other scratched out, raking thin wounds along his neck. He could tell the thing was stronger. His own righteous indignation was being basely counted as “hate” and was feeding the monster. He kicked again, and again, batting at the claws and getting only scratches back for his troubles, which were often joined by heavy blows to the face and chest. He was losing, badly. “I have hope. I have hope… Because I have…” Badam collapsed after throwing a last kick, spitting out another blob of bloody saliva.

        “No, little pony. You don’t” The creature loomed over Badam, already looking bigger and more intimidating. Its features were all the sharper, and its eyes glowed with a malevolent light. “War. Suffering. Destruction. Torture. Hopelessness. Across the face of the wasteland once called Equestria. All tender flesh will burn. All minds will be maddened with hate. No princess will be able to stand. It’s really a pity you won’t see what happens after the fall.”

        Claws moved in, aiming from Badam’s throat. Before they could reach it, however, the creature cried out loudly and swatted at the air. Three cockatrices were upon him, pecking and flapping their wings as well as battering with their tails. “Over here! It’s here!” Two hydra heads roared as the reptile burst through the trees with Tree Tender riding upon it. In her wake there galloped the other constables along with four black-furred unicorns wearing polished silver armor.

        “Because I have love…” Badam whispered, shuddering hard as his agonized fatigue fought with the maddening rage that worked through him.

        “NO! Impossible!” The creature quickly turned and leaped into the shadows, leaving the cockatrices in its wake. They clucked madly and attempted to give chase.

        “Hold on!” Tree leaped down off of the hydra and ran to Badam “There’s a more important matter.”

        “The prison is… GET AWAY! I DESPISE..! The prison has something in it the thing needs. Destroy it, you kill the thing. KILL! I hate all things…. Hate everything. Hate every… Every… This is… Unbelievably painful…” Badam went from pleading to angry and back again, though his anger lost passion quickly and was reduced to impotent attempts at a raging face.

        “Clean him up, fast. By Celestia…” Slivovitz looked on Badam with a shudder. “He looks like a punching bag that ran into a manticore. Get those pegasi in here right now! Take him to the civilian. She’s the closest apothecary we’ve got and hopefully she can keep him stable enough to last out whatever it takes to cure him.”

        Badam noticed the tumult and confusion of many hooves and other things hitting the ground, the sound of unicorn magic and the flapping of wings before the pain overpowered the mind-clearing power of rage and he dropped into darkness.

- - -

        The first thing that came to focus as the darkness cleared was the sound of chanting. It had no meaning but provided a clear focus, something to hold onto while climbing out of the depths. The foreign words were good as anything for returning some semblance of sense.

        His eyes opened next, but shut again quickly, the first flash of even the subdued light enough to sting like mad and draw a groan from his mouth. With that sound, the chanting stopped.

        “A little sound at last you make! I’m glad you’ve finally come awake.” That rhyming. Known from letters. “My fear was this, I will not lie: I was afraid that you would die.”

        “Little thirsty…” His voice was hoarse, rasping, and he was suddenly aware of how dry his mouth was.

        There was some rattling from nearby, then a pressure at his lips and the feel of wetness. “Drink not deeply from the cup. Too much too fast and you will throw up.”

        After a few small sips the stallion nodded. “I know survival situations. Thank you. How long have I been out?”

        “They brought you in raving in pain. For five days I worked to heal you again.” The cup came up again to deliver more bitter water. Clearly, there were herbs of some kind in it.

        “Five days. You must have doped me up pretty well. I don’t feel that same flaming pain.”

        “Shortly from the time you arrived, the wounds gave smoke and you no more writhed.”

        “I get it. They took care of the thing and all that was left were the real injuries. But there were a lot of them, weren’t there?” He smiled, licking his slightly-less-dry lips.

        “You bled quite a lot and nearly died. My efforts were great; how hard I tried.”

        The stallion opened his eyes slowly, the thankfully-low light still harsh, but not so bad. He looked to the striped blur beside him and smiled a bit. “Thanks for all the effort. Sorry if I was a hassle. Never my intention.”

        “Your body it was my pleasure to mend; I could do no less for a brave friend.”

        He chuckled lightly, the soreness in his body suddenly hitting him and drawing a small groan from him. “If the letters I get are any indication, and I’m reading between the lines properly, in just a few more years you won’t just be a friend, but family.”

        The blurred form pulled back a little bit, looking over the prone figure with obvious curiosity inherent in its motions. “I simply do not know what to do. I don’t remember… Do I know you?”

        “You know my family. My niece especially. The one who never knew me, but who probably still knows me. She’s a good filly. I hear she spends a lot of time here. Good. Maybe she can settle down some and concentrate on what she needs to do. It’ll be good for her. Until then, while she’s still so young… You can be the best mentor I can imagine.”

        “So you’re from this place, nearby your home. I guess that… You’re not Badam Pome?”

        “Add it to the list. I never write anything down but, add it to the list anyhow. I imagine that it’ll be a very useful name. So, now that I’m conscious, when can I leave?”

        The image grew clearer, Zecora’s striped head slowly shaking as she rose. “I am very sorry but a promise I did make…” She went to the door of the hut and opened it slowly, motioning towards the distance. She returned to the inside of the hut, followed quickly by the members of the Ponyville-area Nightwatch, conspicuously minus Pocket Change. “I swore to tell them when you were awake.”

        “Ahh, that’s ok. I know from promises. I’d imagine they were a little worried.”

        “”A little worried” he says. You seem to have a tremendous capacity for understatement.” Slivovitz stepped over to the prone stallion and looked down with a half-smile and shake of her head. “When I saw you last you were nothing but a bloody, ooze-dripping hunk of tenderized meat clinging to life by the short-and-curlies. Excuse me for having a little twinge of doubt about your future condition.”

        “Ah, hey, come on. Zecora knows her stuff. And you had serious backup. I saw some silver armor before I dropped off into la-la land. Luna’s guard. And they were mages. That means you had the serious mana power you needed to shove off that monster, just like it told me. I hope you stomped that shadowy kitty-cat into the ground. I tried my best, but… Well, I got the worst of it, even if I DID buck it in the face more than a few times. Any normal critter would have at least had the decency to have its skull crack open.”

        Drupe walked up then, nodding his head. “Yea. The mages went ahead of us, using their magic to batter the thing away from us as we went along. It was getting pretty desperate, probably because it thought it was going to win. We finally found the prison and got a lot of light on it. It was… A giant black cat statue with a hole in its chest. At the base there were a few words carved into it. “Odium. Agonium. Dolor.” The mages told us not to worry about what it meant, just ancient words that were put down to describe the prisoner. It didn’t matter. We set to it and kicked the thing to pieces. We could hear the monster screaming and raging as we did it. And then start to scream even louder when a black lump of something inky and smoking fell out of the rubble. We all crushed it, stomped it into pieces while it screamed and begged. I can’t speak for everyone, but I didn’t feel even a little sorry when it went quiet, and the mages told us there was nothing there anymore.”

        “That must have been when all the black ooze and venom burned away. Zecora was telling me that when that happened, her job got a lot easier. So, thanks on her behalf. Oh, that reminds me… How do I look? Tell the truth. Lots of scarring? Am I still bleeding, or covered in open wounds? I probably can’t tell, there are likely a lot of herbal substances running through my veins now.”

        “Actually, you look alright.” Tree Tender stepped forward, looking over the exposed body on the floor. “All the wounds look like they’re closed and there are plenty of plants on there that will prevent scarring. I don’t know what’s going on with your bones but… That’s something else altogether.”

        “Nothing’s broken. I’ve got farmer’s bones, and there’s no casts on anything. I guess I’m doing alright.”

        “Yes. It would appear you’re doing well.” Slivovitz nodded with a sad look, then made a motion with her head. Drupe hesitated for a moment but finally went to the door of the hut and waved a hoof outside. From outside, there came a quartet of white pegasi dressed in silver armor, carrying chains and manacles with them.

        “Oh right. I guess you finally did some paperwork checking. I’m still a little surprised you’re going to do it. But, you’re a professional, and a damn good chief, so far as I saw. Alright, folks. Manacle me securely. I think I’m recovered enough to get out of these if I want to try to do so. Hope you’ve got some decent escorts.”

        “We’re your escorts. The mages too. They’ve got a big troop transport waiting, with very secure mage-controlled-locks. You can’t pick those.” She shook her head and moved aside to allow the pegasi to lock up the stallion. “Mister Bad Apple… I can say this… You were a good constable. And that’s what really mattered out in the forest.”

        Bad Apple was helped to his hooves, supported on one side by Emerald and the other by Clear. He hobbled along slowly, legs barely able to move thanks to the short lengths of the chains between the manacles locked around the lower parts of his legs. “I hope I don’t have to wait long. Holding cells are the most boring part of the lockup.”

        “You’re not going into holding. You’re going right to court. And no, you’re not going before any magistrate. You’re going to be facing her Royal Highness Princess Luna herself. You broke the law on her territory, and she wants you before her” one of the Pegasus guards, walking before Bad Apple explained the case with a neutral, clinical tone.

        “I should have known. Let’s go, then. We mustn’t hold up justice.”

- - -

        “Hear ye! This is a special court, presided over by Her Royal Highness Princess Luna, Grand Monarch of the Order of the Starry Night and head of the House of Night. Before her Royal Highness have been brought Constable Pocket Change on the charge of unleashing a dangerous monster into Equestria for the purposes of personal advancement; and Bad Apple, alias Badam Pome on the charge of impersonating a constable and undertaking constable activities” The velvet-dressed page used every ounce of lung power in his earth pony body to boom the charges across the throne room, which was empty of all non-essential personnel. Silver-armored unicorns and pegasi crowded around the two manacled ponies in question; around Bad Apple, the Ponyville Everfree Nightwatch was also present.

        Princess Luna looked down on the two prisoners with imperious neutrality. She focused her gaze first on Pocket, eyes narrowing and lips pulling back slightly in a sneer. “You… For the sake of greed and laziness you chose to take the word of an ancient monster, chose to bring darkness and suffering upon the face of this land.”

        “Mercy, Princess! Mercy please! I didn’t know! And besides, it seemed to be a good thing. Imagine an imprisoned wretch, alone in the forest, no one hearing its pleas! How could I have been aware of what would happen? Please, I did not mean any harm.”

“The crime seemed so small, and as you say, hardly like a crime, but rather a good thing. However, we may still judge and punish innocent acts that have led to terrible consequences. Involuntary manslaughter still exists as does destruction of property, even without intention. You will be punished for the crimes that nearly came about. I can judge this from what became of constable Emerald, and to your fellow prisoner.” She nodded to the guards, who closed in tighter around Pocket.

“N-no! Have mercy on me! Please don’t… Whatever it is you intend, please do not do it! I admit it! I am petty, I am weak, I am a poor constable, but I am not a monster!”

“You betrayed your nation, your fellow sentients, and your fellow constables. But even above and beyond… After a thousand years of exile, I have returned to all my old responsibilities. Now I am head of the Nightwatch once more. That means, aside from all else, you have betrayed ME!” A crack of magical energy shook the room as Princess Luna’s horn shot a purple jolt. After a short moment of panting and regaining her composure, she resumed. “You will be banished. Take him beyond the borders of the griffin kingdom. Pass through with any diplomatic passes you need, and make sure they know in the kingdom what his punishment is. They can have him in their land if they want him. But tell them we never want him back here ever again.”

        With a wave of her hoof, and a nod of her head, the guards did as they were told, dragging a pleading, screaming Pocket Change from the throne room towards a waiting transport. The page cried out, “Judgment has been decided and the punishment enacted! The case of Pocket Change is closed!”

        “As for you…” Luna’s eyes settled on Bad Apple. The caramel pony was, improbably, smiling a large, bright grin, which looked unusual amid the healing wounds and bandages holding bundles of herbs. “I have one question for you; just a single opening question that is the crux of everything: What did you think you were doing?”

        Bad Apple chuckled gently, looking up with a wink. “I think I was trying to impress you. So… Did it work?”

        Princess Luna lost her face of imperious authority and simply goggled like an awestruck filly. “The… The cheek. The insolence and amazing audacity!”

        “So, did it?” Bad Apple just continued to smile, and even popped his eyebrows a bit.

        Princess Luna sniffed and snorted in great impatience. But she looked aside and said, “Yes. I must admit… It was quite impressive. You actually managed to get a professional constable to think you were also one. You love that trick, don’t you?”

        “I use what works. So, what gave me away, really? There’s no way they’d look through paperwork while I was recovering.”

        “You think too much of your capabilities. Your fake badge was perfectly made. But your constable number was a problem. There are no repeating numbers in real badges. And besides… Four sevens? Why not just put a big sign on your head that says, “I am a card gambler”?”

        “Why would I be so obvious? I like a challenge but giving away the game is not smart at all.”

        “Yes, so I see. Rather than going back to the camp you ran off to find a monster and thought you could… I don’t know. Were you going to lock it up again? I’m struggling to understand this.”

        “I was there to keep it in place, and to show where the prison was located. I wrote out a letter to you on the paper you gave me and burned it. I knew that Pocket wasn’t going to send it. I was very glad you managed to send your guards in sufficient numbers. And so fast! Mind you, it was a scary moment when I fell down. But all I had to do was buy a little time.”

        “Looks like you did. You held down a monster of terrible power and brought the guards needed to destroy it. At considerable risk to your life. That was very admirable. It almost seems like you should get a medal.”

        “A medal? But that requires public honors and paperwork and some kind of conferring of honors for the use in heraldry or… Some other such thing that my mother would find impressive for whatever reason. Can I just get the equivalent in metal and gems?”

        “I didn’t say I was going to give you one. You might deserve one but… You impersonated a constable! That’s a felony, and a serious one at that. There’s serious consequences implied with this.”

        “Your highness, please, if I may…” Slivovitz stepped forward, head low, ears back, looking as supplicatory as possible. “I know that he violated the law. And it’s a good law, it keeps untrained and inadequate persons from doing a job that is very important, and makes sure the ones that are doing this know the rules that protect themselves and the ones they’re dealing with. But… He’s not a bad stallion, all told.”

        “So, what are you saying, Section Chief? Are you saying that he was not doing something bad?”

        “I… I just… I have to take certain things in stride. In the forest, you can’t be spit and polish. You have no time to follow every “I” and “T”. It’s not about what you are. If you want respect in the forest, you earn it. And seeing him reduced to a bloody hunk of meat just to buy time enough to bring the guards… He’s got my respect. That’s all I can say.”

        “I see, Section Chief. And what of the rest of your corps? Do any of your constables have anything to say?”

        “I have something.” Emerald stepped forward with great boldness, the Diamond Dog not awed by the princess of the night. “Monster hurt me too. My body burned and I had hate. Same monster hurt him even more. I understand pain. And he was strong. A good, strong pony. That important to Diamond Dogs.”

        “And if I may…” Clear stepped up, gently pressing against Emerald as he came beside her. “I can’t say much about what he did. It was very wrong, and I know the penalties. But I have to agree with Emerald. I can’t imagine the suffering he endured to save our lives and the land. He couldn’t let what happened to Emerald happen to anypony else. I can… Admire that.”

        “He was a good colt. I mean… The critters liked him. If they trust him, what do I care he was putting us on?” Tree Tender hung back, not daring to look up at the great princess.

        “I only spent two nights with him. One night he did his job, went back and that was it. Second night, he got to know us all, solved a mystery and got the everloving fodder beaten out of him to save all our flanks. I’ve gotta say… I could have worse partners as a constable” Drupe spoke up.

        Princess Luna nodded at the constables, stroking her chin with her fetlock and looking to Bad Apple. “You committed a serious crime. On a lark, as far as I can see, at the outset. But, the Chief brings up a good point. All of them do. You did a good job. You did something so very important that helped this land tremendously.”

        “What’s my fate, Princess? If it’s exile, make it the Savannah. I hear it’s developing nicely.”

        “No, no… You are not getting exile. You deserve a medal, and jail time. So, put them together and you cancel out the effects. You’re not completely off the hook. But you’re not getting put behind bars.”

        “Oh… That’s fair. Can I get some time with these folk? I think they’ve taken enough time off and need to get back to work. And I get the feeling I’m not going to see them for a while.”

        “Stay in the chamber. But yes, you may speak with them.”

        “Thank you…” Bad Apple bowed slightly and slowly turned around to face the collection of constables that had just spoken on his behalf. “Please hit softly. I’m still recovering. Five days don’t heal wounds.”

        “Our hitting you would be very wrong. It might be appropriate for some, but we’ve already seen you ripped into pieces and beaten into unconsciousness. So… No need to be afraid, mister Apple” Slivovitz said with a smile.

        “Oh right. Drupe, I hope this doesn’t change anything between us. I can tell you, I was an apple farmer but I got kicked out. Haven’t bucked an apple in ages. So, I’m not one of the ones flooding the market.”

        “Oh, I hadn’t even thought about it. It’s alright. From your look in the first place, I figured you weren’t a farmer at all.” Drupe chuckled softly, rubbing his forelegs together nervously.

        “This is incredibly uncomfortable, isn’t it?” The constables nodded slowly, which made Bad Apple smile. “Yea, sorry. I was going to just hang around doing the work for a week or so, as long as the paperwork wasn’t an issue. Believe me; I was going to work hard. I hope I demonstrated that.”

        “As I said, mister Apple. You earned my respect. Oh, I’m still mad you pulled on over on me, but that’s my fault. I’ll get tougher about the rules and keep a tighter ship. Well… Maybe. It’s still the forest. Our spit’s better in our mouths and polish scuffs up on moss and tree sap. But I’ll keep an eye on papers” Slivovitz answered, a grin tugging at her face.

        “That’s probably for the best. Don’t change too much, chief. You’re doing great” Bad Apple looked over at Emerald and Clear. Emerald was running her hands slowly over Clear, who was looking somewhat nervous but still nuzzling up at her. “And you two… Isn’t this better than teasing and hiding?”

        “I must admit… This is pleasant” Clear kissed the Diamond Dog on her lips, left with a little lipstick smear on her mouth.

        “Is wonderful! Glad to have Clear to hold. My handsome pony. Smart pony. Here to love me” Emerald tickled Clear under the chin and touched her nose to his.

        “For now. Constables cannot fraternize this way. And we’re not so hidden, so even the chief looking the other way can’t help us” her paramour answered, blushing.

        “You can. If you’re married. Married constables can work together, even in the same squad” Bad Apple winked at the pair.

        “Married? If we’re married? That’s all it takes?” Clear stared, dumbfounded, at Bad Apple.

        “I going to be married? To my pony? Ooh, get to be beautiful and have big wedding, with pretty dress and bridesmaids and pretty gems on cake!” Emerald took on a dreamy look, her tail waving wildly behind her.

        “By the way, before you ask, no. I cannot be your Advocate when the time comes. I already promised some family that I’d be the Advocate for them, and you know you only get one shot in your life.”

        “A-advocate? You mean for… Hybridization?” Clear looked even more gob-smacked, eyes seemingly ready to pop out of their sockets, mouth hanging agape.

        “HYBRIDIZATION! I get to be married, and have puppies with my pony!? Yes! We go get married right now!” Emerald started jumping all around, her tail going a mile a minute as the energy surged through her.

        “You’d better get her to a wedding planner before you leave Canterlot or she’ll never give you any peace” Bad Apple chuckled softly and looked to Slivovitz and Tree. “Bachelorette party time, I think. And Clear, I hope you can get a good bachelor party out of Drupe. Sadly, I can’t join you. Err, can I?” He turned, to look over at Princess Luna.

        The Princess of the Night was smiling, looking over the scene with some humor. “No, no. You must remain here, at my discretion until I think you’re ready to be let go. Put that in some official-sounding language and record it.”

        “The judgment has been decided in the case of Bad Apple! Formal charges have not been brought and formal punishments will not be imposed! However, Bad Apple is to be detained in Canterlot at her majesty’s pleasure! The case of Bad Apple is closed!” The page nodded his head and smiled. “Thus, the cases to be adjudicated have been concluded. Guards, please unshackle the prisoner to be released into her majesty’s custody.”

        Silver-armored guards stepped forward and carefully removed the shackles from around Bad Apple’s fetlocks, freeing the stallion. He shook his legs and stretched out a little bit. “Good to have those off. Err, sorry about the nudity. But my clothes were ribbons anyhow, and I needed serious medical treatment. Think I can contact a tailor?”

        “In time. In time” Luna slowly strode down from her throne to meet her prisoner “Very well. This is concluded. Please excuse us for the remainder of the night.”

        The page and guards nodded, slowly leading the group of constables out of the throne room. As they slowly walked out, Tree leaned over to Drupe and shook her head while whispering, “Poor guy. “Detained at her majesty’s pleasure.” That doesn’t sound good at all. Probably going to be thrown in the dungeon or something.”

        Drupe looked back quickly, before the doors to the throne room closed. He could see the two equines standing before one another, lips pressed together, Luna’s hoof stroking his cheek. Drupe chuckled gently and whispered back to Tree “I think he’s going to land on his hooves. He seems to be good at that.”

The End

So you want to Hybridize

An informational pamphlet provided free of charge by the Ministry of Inter-Sentient Affairs, prepared under the auspices of Their Royal Highnesses Princess Celestia and Princess Luna and under the direction of the Minister of Inter-Sentient Affairs, Peppermint Pinfeather.

Introduction: A Message from the Minister of Inter-Sentient Affairs

Section One: Hybridization- What does it mean?

Section Two: Hybridization and Equestria- The hybrid and the Principality

Section Three: The recognized Sentient Species- On their identity and status

Section Four: Hybridization or Natural Fertility- Understanding your situation

Section Five: The Hybridization or Natural Fertility Process- How it happens

Appendix One: Frequently asked questions

Appendix Two: Key Terms

A Message from the Minister of Inter-Sentient Affairs

        Greetings to you, who are reading this pamphlet. Hopefully, you are reading this with the one you love. This is a big decision, not something to be undertaken lightly. It will change your lives, for the rest of your lives.

        But that is not to say you should be afraid. Nor should you be overly concerned. We are here to help you. To transition you calmly though this period, onto the next stage in your lives. It can be rough for some. But it need not be so.

        As a hipogriff, I understand what it is to be a hybrid, and I saw how hybridizing affected my parents. In these more modern times, things are very free and equal. While pockets of resistance still exist, and sadly may persist, the vast majority of Equestria is a friendly and amenable place. And, of course, there are laws protecting hybrids and their parents. There is NO legal standing behind and hatred or prejudice. Be assured, all instances are investigated by appropriate constabulary forces and prosecutions are handled with the full force of applicable Royal law.

        So now, the decision is in your hooves or claws. Be well, love well, and please have a pleasant day.

~Peppermint Pinfeather, Minister of Inter-Sentient Affairs

Section One: Hybritization- What does it mean?

        Hybridization is the combination of two species to produce an offspring that is a combination of the two. Sometimes this is seen in regular, non-speaking animals, like tigers and lions. And various kinds of birds. This is a natural hybridization, allowed by the close relationship between the two. But these kinds of combinations are sterile. If they were not, they would not technically be species, only breeds.

        In Sentient species this is distinctly different. Some Sentient species may naturally hybridize and produce sterile offspring. And some can never combine, no matter how many times the effort is attempted. This is where the official process for hybridizing and natural fertility come into play.

Section Two: Hybridization and Equestria- The hybrid and the Principality

        Hybrids are active, vital participants in the Principality. They serve an important role of representing the diversity of Equestria, and showing the true love that exists between the sentient species of these and near lands.

        Hybrids are protected from discrimination and abuse under the amended General Order against Discrimination (Great Declaration of Rights and Freedoms, Section 5, Article 3, Paragraph B as amended by input from the Canterlot School of Bio-Thaumaturgy and the Canterlot School of Social Sciences.) Hybridizers are protected from discrimination and abuse by the same General Order.

        All social services available to single-species sentient Citizens are available to hybrids provided they meet all applicable criteria as possible for their species, with modifications for specific circumstances related to species. (Example: Hippogriffs are eligible for low-to-no cost horseshoes if they meet the criteria but receive only half the number.)

Section Three: The recognized Sentient Species- On their identity and status

        There are seven recognized non-Pony Sentient species, who are legally endowed with Citizenship by right of birth in the Principality or by Naturalization, and entitled to rights by visitation when they come from other lands. Equestria maintains diplomatic relations with all lands containing Sentient species, and as of the printing of this pamphlet they are all in good standing.

        All the mentioned Sentient species have been fully assessed by the relevant bodies and have been determined to be in possession of species-wide self-determination, higher-order thinking and the understanding of complex topics.

Buffalo- Inhabitants of the Prairie lands, the buffalo have a rich history of stampeding in unison across the vast plains. They live in loosely confederated bands each headed by a chief and consisting of many males, often with attached females related to the chief, while unrelated females live in separate groups, united to a particular male group by tradition. Interaction with ponies has traditionally been limited, but more contact has resulted from the sparce settlement of prairie land purchased from buffalos, with some border skirmishes resulting from topographical mistakes during community planning. Nevertheless, those groups who have sent representatives acknowledge Princess Celestia as a legitimate political head, though they maintain autonomy on their own land.

Cattle- Native citizens of Equestria who live in their own communities, typically sex-segregated on various farms. Females generally exchange milk and grazing services to keep grassy areas even for living space and bits, some of which are used to support male relatives whose opportunities are limited to grazing.

Diamond Dogs- The latest species to be found, vetted and certified as fully sentient, Diamond Dogs are intelligent, subterranean canine creatures living within the scope of Equestrian lands and accepted as new Equestrian citizens following diplomatic and scientific expeditions. They tend to be miners, excavating precious gems which form some portion of their diet, to a lesser degree than dragons. Because of an intentional lack of contact and sporadic appearances in more formal learning environments, their general level of education is below the normal Equestrian standard, but an influx of teachers is working to resolve the issue.

Donkeys- Native Equestrian citizens who exist as Cutie-Mark-lacking fellow equines and have for a long while. They lack the Earth Pony connection to land mana, but are known for a physical strength and endurance that can surpass the average Earth Pony.

Dragons- Independent but lately-nomadic individuals who live across the world. Long-lived, extremely large in adulthood and known for rapid development when very young, they are accorded certain rights to nesting, though are required to leave in the event that they become a hazard to health. They lack a centralized authority and live an individuals and family groups. Females of some types will donate eggs to Canterlot to give their children a Pony education and upbringing as a kind of cultural exchange program, though they have never asked for foals in return.

Griffins- Griffins occupy a Kingdom outside the Equestrian borders which consists primarily of mountainous terrain but which also encompasses some peripheral portions of the Grand Veldt. The griffin clans are united under a single king. Griffins are naturally patriarchal and polygynous, with little official tolerance for those engaged in same-gender romantic activity. Consequently, the equivalent of Filly Foolers and Colt Cuddlers emigrate to the Principality, as do hens who do not wish to be part of a group mating to a single male. However, since the acquisition of mates involves combat, smaller or less battle-ready males will also emigrate. The official position of the Principality is to treat family groups as a single entity when they immigrate en masse. (Equestrian Family Law, “On Griffins and their family ways”, as amended.)

Zebras- Zebras are equines from the Grand Veldt and sub-desert regions. They are a tribal society, and live in mixed-gender bands with a local leader who ie empowered to meet with other groups for parlays. Zebras practice limited polygyny, but may also engage in limited polyandry where the gender balance has moved in that direction. At the time of the receipt of a Cutie Mark, the young zebra is sent on a journey of self-discovery and maturation. Usually, this is a trip into a nearby land to learn about the world, which results in a return to the tribal group. Some choose to remain in the new land after the period of the journey has ended. Note that this is the only group whose members also get Cutie Marks.

Section Four: Hybridization or Natural Fertility- Understanding your situation

        Hybridization is impossible, by purely natural means, between certain species. In others, it is possible but leads to offspring who are not, themselves, fertile. Because of this, there are two options under the umbrella of hybridization: General Hybridization and Natural Fertility.

General Hybridization is the term for combining two species that normally cannot be combined through conventional methods. This involves intervention from one of the Princesses to combined the material of the parents and successfully implant the resulting new life in the mother. Fertility is default for these combinations, through the magic force involved.

Natural Fertility is the term for imparting fertility to a species that normally lacks it. This is done during the initial development of the child by one of the Princesses.

Ponies can naturally Hybridize with Donkeys, Griffins and Zebras. They require Natural Fertility. Similarly, combinations of Cattle and Buffalo require Natural Fertility. Griffins, as well, can Hybridize with Donkeys and Zebras, with less success. They, too, require Natural Fertility. All other combinations require General Hybridization.

Section Five: The Hybridization or Natural Fertility Process- How it happens

        The first step in either process is the petition. A couple, typically married and necessarily living in the Principality goes to a local Royal office. In larger communities this will likely be a specific Ministry office, while in smaller areas it may be an all-purpose Royal office. All have the necessary forms. Once these forms have been filled out they will be verified by the staff at the office and sent to Canterlot for review. This can take 2-4 weeks depending on caseload. Note: Less than 1 percent of cases are rejected.

        Once the forms have been processed, transport is arranged from the home location to Canterlot for the two parties involved and their Advocate. An Advocate is a friend or relative of one of the parties who can attest to the strength of the bond between the two and vouch for the affection and ability to care for a child. The Advocate is interviewed by members of the Ministry of Inter-Sentient Affairs prior to the final meeting with one of the Princesses.

        Those applying for Natural Fertility do not require an Advocate but one is advised for the sake of practicality and reassurance.

        Couples applying for General Hybridization are assisted at any time after their petition has been approved following the Advocate interview. Couples applying for Natural Fertility must wait until pregnancy has been confirmed by a doctor.

Appendix One: Frequently asked questions

Q. I am a citizen of Equestria and have met someone in another land with whom the Principality maintains good relations. Can I apply for hybridization or Natural Fertility if my partner is not a citizen of Equestria? Or if we are not married?

A. Any citizen may apply for either of the varieties of hybridization, married or not, so long as both parties fill-in the petition and truthfully answer all questions. Note: Marriage to an Equestrian citizen grants the ability to apply for naturalization as spouse of a citizen. Additional note: Children born to a female citizen of Equestria are automatically citizens at birth.

Q. I am a female pony currently engaged in a relationship with a male dragon. Can I apply for Hybridization?

A. Because of medical complications involved in the later birth process, females of all non-dragon species are discouraged from engaging in Hybridization with dragons.

Q. I am a Filly Fooler, and my partner is not the same species as I am. We wish to have hybrid children. Can we still apply for Hybridization or Natural Fertility?

A. The Ministry strongly suggests that before considering hybridization, because of the time and stress involved, conventional methods of reproduction be used as in normal Filly Fooler interactions. However, if this is desired, and a suitable male of the other species is selected, it can be done. It is strongly recommended that the chosen male be the Advocate, to not cause too many problems in scheduling.

Q. I was an Advocate for a relative earlier in my life. Now a friend wishes for me to be their Advocate. May I do that?

A. No. Each citizen is only allowed to be an Advocate once in their life.

Q. Is there a cost for any step of this process?

A. No. There are no costs associated with any step of the process. In fact, if fees were charged at the Royal office they were collected illegally. Please report illegal fees to any constables and apply for a refund from the Canterlot Accounting Office.

Appendix Two: Key Terms

Hybridization: The process of combining two different species to create an offspring that is a combination of the two species.

General Hybridization: An official process combining two species that cannot normally combine, so long as one is an Equestrian Citizen, using magic provided by one of the two Princesses.

Natural Fertility: An official process granting fertility to a hybrid offspring which would normally not have such.

Sentient Species: Species recognized by official sources in the Canterlot government to have a general intellect, self-awareness and capacity for self-motivation comparable to Ponies. Sentient Species are, on the whole, considered capable of informed consent.