Swift Hooves and the Fountain of Gold
The sky above was dark as the young colt tossed and turned in his bed that night. He was shaking as the dreams crowded in around him. Darkness filtered in, and a fear gripped the foal in ways that only nightmares could induce. A flash of lightning startled the colt awake; he was shaking, and burying his face into his hooves as he tried to wish away the dreamy terrors. He couldn’t even remember what had made him so scared. Dreams were like that sometimes. A flash of lightning made the colt jump again, his eyes dashing to the window as he saw a storm raging outside.
Swift Hooves jumped from his bed and ran down the stairs as quietly as he could so as not to wake his parents. Their house was modest in size, and as he descended the stairs smiling faces from framed photo’s adorning the wall watched him as he ran to the door. He opened it and stepped out onto the fluffy clouds and round to the solid pasture at the side of the house.
The pasture was Pegasus built area, like a small miniature field. They didn’t own it, simply lived at the edge of it and the owner was kind enough to let Swift and the family use it. It came in use for the colt’s hobby and passion, training animals, and he was pretty good at it too. The pasture was green and flowery, but unfortunately open to the elements. He had forgotten to check the weather schedules and didn’t realise that a storm was set for the night. As he approached he saw his latest charges he’d been rearing since they were young, huddled together under a bush as they tried to seek shelter. There was a little tiger cub, a panther cub, a lynx and a young cheetah.
“Come on!” He called to them, running to the end of the pasture where a barn stood. He unlocked it and opened the doors, letting them run in and seek shelter from the storm. He made sure they had food and warmth and sat down on a bay of hay with a smile. “That’s good.” He looked around and realised he’d likely have to clean this place out at some point. It had recently housed a few bovines, but cows were not always very cooperative. He’d been trying to teach them how to control their milk production but they’d been a little rude to him. That and the amount they ate meant it was difficult to care for them, his mother had soon asked for him to get rid of them, and thus the barn was now empty.
There were only four pastures in Cloudsdale and all were situated along its edges. Something about the concept of farming or caring for animals most Pegasus seemed to consider a bit of a backwards Earth Pony thing to do. Swift didn’t care what they thought though, he enjoyed it. He glanced at his own rump and smiled at the sandy coloured paw-print cutie-mark. He’d gotten it two years before when he’d nursed a hurt bird back to health. He enjoyed caring for animals. But he was pretty sure his cutie-mark had two meanings. Yeah, he was good with animals, that part was pretty obvious. But he’d also always been pretty sneaky. He’d managed to care for the bird all without his parents knowing, not once did they find out until the bird was already well again. He thought it also meant he was ‘light pawed’, as in light on his hooves and pretty quiet and quick. Or at least, that’s what he liked to think.
Watching the animals feed he smiled, stroking their pelts softly before he got up and headed out, closing the barn door a bit to shield them from the rain, but allowing them to get out if they needed it. It was a sheer drop on both sides of the pasture through the clouds, and as the animals weren’t Pegasus, they couldn’t walk on said clouds. Animals were smarter than most ponies thought, they weren’t silly enough to run off the edge, never had, and he knew they never would. They’d be safe.
He flew through the and stood at the edge of the pasture, the lightning struck overhead and his mane and coat were already sodden to the core, he was shaking with the cold but didn’t seem to mind it much. Swift looked at the house; it was two stories high, small, and cramped. The three of them lived on whatever they could make with both his parents working. His mother was a vetinarian and animal carer, she taught Swift most of what he knew and he liked to help her out, while his father was a manager in a fast food chain. Neither jobs earnt much and despite wanting to get a bigger place, his mother and father knew that at this rate, that wouldn’t be possible for a long time. Sighing softly he stepped forward to head back inside when a movement caught his gaze. He wondered if the animals had decided to run in the rain, but when he turned, the lightning that struck highlighted the shape of a pony in the pasture heading towards the barn and the animals. His eyes widened and he ran towards the pony, as the figure headed towards the barn.
“Hey! Stop there!” He flew fast and landed right in front of the pony but was shocked to find himself face to face with an Earth Pony. How on Equis had an Earth Pony gotten up here?!
“Oh my,” said the stallion, chuckling. The lightning struck again and gave Swift a clear view of the gentlecolt. He was well dressed in a white shirt, and a firm hat sat upon his head. His coat was a dusty grey and his hair was dark, almost black in the night. He couldn’t tell very well. His eyes however were the most vivid grass green.
“My apologies, my name is René.” He said with an eloquent voice, the sound carrying on the wind rather easily as he spoke. “Please do forgive the intrusion, I simply meant to have a look at the animals you keep. I was considering them for purchase you see…if they are for sale that is?” He said with a friendly and sincere tone. Swift looked him up and down; he carried at his side a satchel and a broach on it that matched his cutie-mark, sort of skull. He wasn’t sure he trusted this stallion.
“They aren’t for sale.” He said truthfully. “They belong to somepony else, I take commission for rearing them.” He said hesitantly, wondering what this stallion wanted.
“Ah, well that’s too bad.” He said with a sigh. “I have an employer that is eager for some well-trained animals such as these. He was willing to pay handsomely, but I suppose if they aren’t for sale, there really is nothing I can do. Pip pip, farewell then.” He turned away and Swift almost panicked, the mention of handsome payment was too tempting, and he felt like he had to at least know more. There was no harm in asking…right?
“Wait...René, was it?” He asked, stopping the pony in his tracks. He turned and a slightly sly smile ran across the stallion’s muzzle.
“Money troubles?” He asked curiously to which Swift could only nod.
“H-how much…it would have to cover the commission for the animals and maybe more just in case things go wrong. I don’t know how much your employer can afford but-”
“Fifty thousand bits.” Mister René said softly making Swift shut up instantly and just stare at the stallion aghast. “Fifty thousand bits for the completion of their training, ready for pickup in a month.” The stallion finished and smiled as Swift tried to process the information. There was silence between them, Swift barely felt the cold now even as the rain cascaded down around them, both of them well and truly soaked. Water poured from the strange stallion’s hat as he extended a hoof.
“Do we have an accord?” He asked softly.
Swift looked the hoof over as though it were some kind of alien beast. He was going against the rules here, but that was a lot of money and they really needed it. He could help his parents get a better place; he could really make something of himself and his family with that kind of money. He gulped and reached out, taking the extended hoof, a crack of lightning flashing powerfully as they shook hooves, almost as though the heavens were sealing their deal in a fiery flash.
“You’ll have the money by tomorrow as well as training result instructions. Do not let my employer down Mister Hooves.” He said, turning away and began walking off.
“How will I know your employer?” Swift quickly shouted over the thunderous rain, thinking it was probably an important piece of information.
“He will mention me by name.” The stallion shouted back.
“René?” He asked, just making sure as the stallion laughed.
“René Caballeron!” The stallion shouted back. “Doctor René Caballeron.”
Doctor Caballeron was true to his word. They received several bags of bits the next day, all filled with golden coins that when counted out, proved that there were indeed 50,000 bits. It hadn’t been hard to convince his parents of his decision being the right one when they got hold of the money. Already they were considering what to do with it, but to clear his conscience the first thing Swift did was use some to purchase the animals from the original commissioner, giving him double what they were worth so he couldn’t complain. After that, he’d set time aside to study the instructions that had come with the money.
They worried him:
1) The animals had to be good trackers.
2) They must be extremely loyal to their master.
3) They must be taught to react to a singular loud signal.
4) They should be smart enough to wield weapons if needed.
He had no idea what uses Caballeron’s employer planned for the animals, but he worried for their safety and how benign those plans were. That being said, he didn’t refuse the money or the instructions. He didn’t like it, but the bits were really helping and he hadn’t seen his parents this happy in a long time. He smiled to himself, headed outside into the sunny day, and round to the pasture. He’d have to start now.
He only had a month to fulfil all of this training, and that in itself was going to be a challenge. He doubted he’d be getting much sleep in the coming weeks.
One Month Later
A large cloaked figured made his way via Pegasi drawn carriage towards his destination. Cloudsdale loomed above him with so much majestic splendour it almost melted the figures cold heart. Almost.
The buildings before him were towering high, some made of clouds themselves, others simply floating on the clouds via Pegasus magic. He directed the carriage away from the splendour to one of the more rural areas, and upon its borders a small house came into view beside a medium sized pasture. The carriage stopped close by, close enough for him to knock on the door.
A knock at the door startled Swift from his meal. Neither of his parents seemed inclined to move from the table so the colt got up himself and headed for the door, opening the top half of the half-door curiously. A carriage was there, a dark figure enshrouded by a hood that had a menacing tone about him looked down at the young colt. Even though he couldn’t see the creatures eyes, Swift felt a cold shiver run down his spine as though whatever was watching him was extremely dangerous and staring at him intently.
“I am the employer of René Caballeron,” said a gravelly voice with a thick Romanian accent. “I wish to see the product.”
The sound of treading hooves appeared behind him as his parents walked up.
“Excuse me? Is something wrong?” His father asked curiously, looking the cloaked figure over.
“Nay.” The figure said softly, his voice but a whisper. “I am responsible for your current wealth. I wish to see my product. Your son is the one described to me, the administrator of the deal, and the trainer of my pets. Is he not?”
Swift’s parents looked at each other before his father cleared his throat.
“I suppose.” He said softly. “But you can deal with me, he’s just a colt.”
A long, blue, monkey like hand reached out and a single finger extended, shaking softly at the words. At a glance the fingers were stubby like a monkey’s might be, but something about them was sinister, and Swift could only too easily imagine them becoming deadly claws when this being desired it.
“I need only him.” His voice said softly and yet firmly in a fashion that spoke authority. He was not a being to be argued with. “Show me.” He said once again, his unseen gaze shifting once again to Swift. The young colt nodded and gulped, opening the door completely and stepped out onto the cloud, moving around the side of the house he spread his wings and flew the last few feet to the edge of the pasture.
“You can walk on this part, sir.” He said a little hesitantly, watching as the carriage moved closer and the being stepped out. The first step was a large blue paw that was almost tiger-like. The being stepped out bodily, the cloak covering his huge body that towered higher than the tallest of ponies. He was bigger than most griffons!
Swift gulped as he watched, the creature approaching and soon standing beside him.
“Where are they?” The thick Romanian voice asked firmly.
“I’ll call them.” Swift said, hesitantly pulling a small whistle out. The creature seemed to regard it curiously. It was shaped like a ginger cat.
“I erm, taught them to respond to a whistle, you didn’t say what kind of signal so I thought it would be easiest, and loud enough if you and they get separated.” He said bashfully. “Erm, this was the only whistle I had but they should react to others.
The whistle was suddenly taken from his hoof by a hand that snaked round his shoulder; it moved over his head and dropped the small tool into the beings palm. Swift watched as the hand that had taken the whistle disappeared back into the cloak, it was attached to what looked a little like a tail.
“It shall suit the purpose. I will take it with the animals.” He said, and Swift watched as the hood that covered the beings entire face slipped back slightly and a long almost dog like blue muzzle slipped out. The whistle placed against the creatures lips and he blew hard. There was a scampering nearby and suddenly there they were; on all sides the animals arrived, standing around both Swift and their new owner. The animals had grown strong in the last month from the training and while they were still a tad young, their cubby pudges had already been toned into sleek muscle that spoke of future strength and speed.
“Very nice.” He said with a grin. “Was any aspect of their training forgone?” He asked curiously.
Swift shook his head. “N-no, I was able to do everything you asked for.” He said feeling very intimidated by this being that took such charge.
“I am pleased.” He said softly before his muzzle widened into a grin and a chuckle sounded from him. “I think good things will come from you Mister Hooves.” He said softly as he turning away. “It was a pleasure doing business,” the being said, his words ending in something of a slight hiss as he walked away, the animals at his heel.
The creature left in his carriage, taking the pets with him. It was the strangest encounter he’d ever had and certainly one of the most intimidating. But they had gotten paid a lot. They’d already repaired the house much better, bought the pasture so they themselves owned it and had started making plans on holidays. They owned a new large clock in the hallway, and some better food was in the cupboard. He smiled and felt rather proud of himself as he headed back indoors.
It looked like their life was going to get better.
That night a shattering of glass woke the house and a clambering of hooves and things being knocked over sounded loud from downstairs. Rushing downstairs did nothing as Swift and his family turned on the lights, witnessing a mess of broken household objects around but no one in the house that they could perceive. They looked around, and it was Swift that first noticed what was missing most of all.
Running out of the house into the darkness yielded no results. The burglars were gone!
The next day they went by the guard station, but no one could help them. They had no information on who had robbed them; they had nothing to offer, and no way of finding whoever had taken their money.
Their brightest hope had been given, and then snatched away.
Swift enjoyed walking the town on most days, but this time he was in the worst of moods. Despite the cheerful sun, everything looked grey to him as he walked the sidewalk thinking about the money that had been taken from them. He’d had a future with those bits; College, University and many more wondrous things that could have given him a career, and set him on the right path in life. But now they were back where they were…but worse off. Tax on the pasture land was more than they could afford, and they’d already had to sell the clock just to have enough to keep the house. The money had made them, and taking it had broken them.
His stomach grumbled softly as he walked along the cloudy streets, his gaze drawn to the floor in depression as he tried not to think of the hunger that churned his stomach. They’d barely been able to eat lately, and as his hooves followed their usual path through and into the markets, the scents around him that wafted into his nose could only make him feel worse. He looked around; fruit and delectable goodies from all nations of the world were piled in stalls and advertised by ponies from various cultures. In the last month he’d partaken in many of their delights, and now he could only stare longingly.
“Apples!” A vendor called out loudly. “Fresh apples from Sweet Apple Acres! Best apples in Equestria!” He called, and indeed Swift had tried them before. They were the juiciest and most delectable apples he’d ever tasted. Famed around Equestria, no other orchard could match their succulence. Many said it was a special magic chant done by the owner of the orchard, though some just thought she was a bit loopy and talking to the trees. Whatever the secret behind them, Swift gazed at the apples and licked his lips, his stomach churning in an almost painful manner.
“I’ll take some.” A mare said, approaching the stall. She took a few apples and left some bits, but didn’t outright leave. She began striking up a conversation with the seller about the apples, the seller was very distracted with the customer and as he watched a twitch ran down Swift’s body as his mind ran with ideas. It was wrong wasn’t it? It was against the law…but he was starving...it was okay if you were starving right…right?
He got home and closed the door, sneaking his way into the kitchen he opened up the pantry and opened his bag.
“Where have you been?” His mother asked him from the doorway, her sudden appearance making him jump and several apples fly from his bag with the motion. “Apples?” She asked curiously, looking down at the fruit as it rolled over the floor. “Where did you get apples?”
“F-from the market.” He said, trying to be as honest as possible, picking them up and not looking her in the eyes. Whether that was to hide her from seeing the truth on his face, or an act of shame, he couldn’t quite guess.
“And how did you get them?” She asked, the sound of suspicion in her voice that had the colt sweating.
“I…erm…a nice mare heard about what happened. And she…erm…she bought them for us.” He smiled still avoiding her gaze as he put the apples away. “It was really nice of her too.” He said, trying to sound convincing as he smiled to himself, happy about the story he’d come up with. He could even get away with this if he just sold it well enough. His mother eyed him suspiciously, and when his eyes finally found hers he no longer felt so confident. She didn’t believe him…he could tell. He tried to will it, tried to concentrate on selling it, thinking and chanting in his head ‘believe me’ over and over again until her glare spread itself into a kind smile.
“Well that was very nice of her. You will have to point her out sometime in the market so we can repay her.” She said almost sweetly, hugging him and walking away, taking an apple with her and chewing happily.
Swift closed the cupboard, and put his back to it, leaning against it panting softly. He felt clammy, he felt a bit dirty but…he also felt GOOD! He’d gotten away with it. He’d been able to do it. He’d seen the apples, took the chance and took what he needed! And he‘d gotten AWAY WITH IT!
The colts mind was galloping a million miles a second as he grinned to himself. This was such a rush, and he knew he could get more. He HAD to get more…maybe he could do it with the other vendors too?
The next day he chewed on an apple gratefully as he walked through the marketplace, a satchel bag straddling his back as he looked over the vendors, gazing at each one in turn, looking for those that were particularly wrapped up in their customers and not paying enough attention to their products.
It was almost too easy!
A slight of hoof here, a laugh and joke with the stall owner there, and a customer walks up to take the attention away, a smiling farewell as he left and the vendor happy and waving him off, not realising how stuffed the colts saddlebags now were with the vendors delights. His mother couldn’t understand it. She didn’t know why ponies were so kind to her son all-of-a-sudden and though she had her suspicions, she turned away from them, just grateful the pantry was starting to no longer look so spartan. Besides, she could hardly think her young Swift could be capable of that!
The colt continued for several months. He was getting good. He worked several of the harder stalls, managing to fool many of them. With a few adjustments to his cutie-mark, and styling his mane different, and wearing elaborate clothing as well as changing his voice, he was able to lift suspicion, and the once or twice he got caught, he proved fast enough to hide away from the guards with enough time to change back to his normal self before walking out happily, passing them and waving friendly greetings whilst they were none-the-wiser.
But this couldn’t last.
The stalls were easy pickings, and he started taking simply for the sake of it, but he quickly realised that the house was becoming in disrepair, that the tax was affecting them badly and there were some things you could not steal from a market stall.
Some things had to be bought.
And that required money.
His final decision to hit a big score came after almost a full year of working the stalls. He had spent almost an entire month scoping out a particular house, looking it over, examining its weaknesses and strengths. It was one of the more established houses in Cloudsdale.
Majority of ponies were extremely trusting and not many windows even bothered with glass panes or locks on doors. It was generally understood that such crimes as stealing wouldn’t be tolerated, and the guards were well trained in military tactics. Their militarisation made them a force to be reckoned with for any criminal, and thus curved many desires to try their hoof at breaking the law at all. But Swift had learnt rapidly after his first run in that while the guards were fast and strong, they could also be fooled. They seemed to take notice of outstanding markings without remembering everything else about a pony. A clever disguise was sometimes needed, and one with a particular marking both subtle and eye-catching was the best way. Like a scar, or an elaborate cutie-mark, or a particular style of clothing. And once abandoned out of sight, you could practically disappear to their gaze.
With this in mind Swift had prepared himself just in case his act of burglary went awry. He’d placed a fake scar on his cheek, changed his cutie-mark skilfully into an elaborate design so it barely looked like a paw-print at all anymore. He wore a hoodie as well; making sure his face couldn’t be seen very well.
He was ready. He watched as the family inside turned out their lights. It was late and he waited until he was sure they were in bed. Creeping slowly he crawled into their garden and over to their backdoor. He’d noticed that they often forgot to lock it in the night, and as he tried it, he was thankful that it opened readily, a slight squeak on the hinges making him bite his lip in nervousness. Heading off inside he kept the back door open for a quick escape if needed. He had recently scouted where they kept things and the bits seemed to be piled up downstairs in a jar. He found it in their pantry and opened the lid, looking inside he found a pile of golden glinting coins. He smiled to himself at his success. He was gonna take every last bit!
But then he stopped.
He looked down at the bits and a single tear dripped onto the coins. Wiping his eyes a single thought rose in his mind. ‘I’m a no good thief’. Stealing to eat was one thing, but he was taking from these ponies just as others had taken from him. He was as bad as them. Deciding against his plans he went to put the jar back but a gasp nearby made him freeze and his blood run cold. He turned to see a filly, a little girl in pyjamas standing there with her mouth open as she saw him holding the jar.
The girl screamed!
Swift dropped the jar and it smashed on the floor, bits rolling from the wreckage, their rumble along the hard-wood a serenade to his gallop for the back door, he barely made a meter before he slipped on a still rolling coin falling down hard. A lash of pain ran up his elbow of his right forehoof but he ignored it as best he could, clambering up and heading for the back door before the scruff of his hoodie was grabbed and he was thrown down. His head swam from the impact and he looked around, widening his eyes at the stallion of the household standing over him.
“Call the guards!” The stallion shouted and Swift could only kick up hard into the ponies gut. The stallion gasped and stepped back as the colt jumped to his hooves and rushed out of the backdoor. He ran out into the front of the house only to see guard carriages roll up and shout at him. He spread his wings and leapt to the sky but rope was suddenly flung around him and tightened, lassoed he was thrown back onto the ground and his wings and hooves were bound.
He’d been caught.
Swift had never seen his mother look so disappointed. Her words were harrowing to his ears as he looked down, tears falling.
“We didn’t need it that bad. Your father was trying to get a raise.” His mother could only pause and stare at him, her eyes shimmering. “Is this where it’s been coming from -all the food- you stealing!?” Her shout made him flinch and hot tears streamed down her cheek.
A meter or two stood between them but the bars made it feel like they were each in opposite countries. He stared at the ground, hearing the pain in her voice and feeling it in his chest. How could he have been so stupid?!
“I-I wanted to help us.” He said softly. “But…I wasn’t...I didn’t mean to! I was gonna put the money back, I was putting it back when I was caught! I wasn’t really gonna do I just…I wanted to help.” He said, his body shaking involuntarily.
His mother just shook her head and turned away.
“You weren’t helping.” She said softly and walked away, leaving Swift to curl up in the bed.
The peaceful society of ponies was a front. The happiness and love and acceptance, it was all there as courtesy. But within the cold steel bars of jail, the stallions and mares he met showed a slightly different and less pretty side. There were still wrong doers, monsters and villains, and ponies whose desires were selfish and unreasonable. And now he was among them.
He was given a few months imprisonment and then he’d be set free on probation, but for now, his only company were the likes of other ponies that like him, had made some very bad choices. Swift looked around, trying to find a redeemable pony among the rabble of ungracious delinquents of the equine society. It was probably a good thing he was only a colt and in the juvenile section, if this was how bad teenagers could be, he wasn’t much looking forward to seeing the equivalent adults. In his search he found one or two ponies that were nicer than the others, but while they were courteous, they weren’t fourth-coming with friendship. So Swift, more often than not, found himself alone as he ate his meals.
A clatter of a tray beside him made him jump as a light-blue pony sat down. He was roughly the same age as Swift and had yellow eyes, blue coat and a turquoise mane.
“Wow, don’t you look miserable.” The colt said with a chuckle, chewing on some potato. “You gonna eat that?!” He asked and before waiting for an answer stole some potato from Swift’s tray as well. He was about to protest but couldn’t really see much point.
“What do you want?” Swift asked, feeling somewhat cautious around the stranger. The pony beside him just shrugged as he continued stuffing his mouth with food.
“I dunno, I guess to talk. I’m gettin’ out here in a month or so, and I got plans. What you in for?”
Swift wasn’t quite sure how to answer, so instead of evading the question he figured he’d opt for the truth.
“Stealing.” Admitting it was a bit difficult, so he hung his head, pushing his food around his tray as his appetite plummeted low.
“Huh, similar boat then. I was trying to get something really cool from this household, almost had it too till I was caught. Can’t really get it myself, kinda hard. I needed another pony to help me I think.” The other pony said, chuckling softly.
“I just wanted some bits.” Swift replied with a dull shrug, looking down onto his food before pushing it away, feeling miserable. He hated being here; it felt like a constant reminder of his failure.
“Yeah well, the thing I was doin’ would give me loads’a bits and I would never have to steal again.” The certainty in the pony’s voice made Swift freeze midway from standing to leave the table. He turned back to the colt and looked him over more closely. He was a blank-flank, his mane and tail were untidy, and his yellow eyes a bit mischievous.
“What are you on about?” Swift asked softly, his voice full of caution as he regarded the other pony.
“Well I can hardly be blurtin’ it all out. Sit down and I’ll tell ya.” He grinned. “The names Patchwork, most call me Patch or Pit. One called me Pat but I kicked him. Don’t do that.” He was a fast talker, and something about him made Swift want to trust him. Without much thinking about it he sat back down and shuffled a little closer so they could talk quieter despite the din of the room.
“So…this...erm…thing?” He wasn’t really sure how to talk to this pony; he was a little intimidated if he had to be honest.
“Well ya see I don’t much need any of their bits or valuables. Tis a key I want.” He nodded, giving a slight wink.
“Aye, a key.” Patch replied, grinning eagerly. “Ya see, I read somewhere about this noble Cloudsdale family, they got lotsa rare stuff but don’t know what half of it is. They have this key ya see, all silver and rather sparkly I hear.” He nodded, as though that detail particularly pleased him. “And it’s supposed to be for a special place here in Cloudsdale.” A grin slid across Patchwork’s muzzle as he grinned at Swift.
“What kind of place?” Swift was starting to feel dubious. This pony didn’t really seem all that…stable.
“A place of gold.” He said, that grin never leaving his face. “A Fountain of Gold.”
He’d heard the legends and stories. Most ponies grew up with them. They were always about a Fountain of Youth, or a Fountain of Gold or some other tripe that was used to send colts and fillies to sleep at night with pretty dreams in their heads. He wasn’t into that stuff anymore and the idea that this pony thought it was all real…well it was hilarity ponyfied.
“It’s not a laughin’ matter.” Patchwork said with his brow furrowed in offence. “I’m serious, they have the key and I know where to use it.”
Swift’s laughter calmed down and he shook his head. “Sorry, I haven’t laughed like that for a while.” He said, his cheeks actually flushed. “Look, it’s been searched for again and again and it’s not real.” He tried to lay it a bit gently, not wanting to crush the pony’s dreams too harshly.
“It’s not a myth ya know. It’s real. They never found it ‘cuz they was all lookin’ in the wrong places. It’s not in the ground.” He spoke as if it was obvious and the world was stupid, but Swift couldn’t help but shake his head at the absurdity.
“Well where is it? Here in the clouds?” He asked dubiously.
“Sure it is, where else would ya hide it? Not like it would be expected. Besides I found the keyhole in the big old storm clouds up north of the town. I think the keys all magic like and the place is charmed. The keyhole don’t cover itself no matter what you do to the cloud, so that’s definitely real, and the key is like really special. It has all that ancient Equestria written stuff over the side of it.” He said with a grin. “And I have a good source that tells me it’s instructions on how ta reach the fountain.”
“A source, and who’s that?” He asked, milking the conversation a bit. He wasn’t much into believing this, but it was the first source of amusement he’d had since he been put in here.
“Oh some stallion named Cable Ron or somethin’ like that. But he was a really cool guy with a cool hat, and he knew his stuff.”
‘Cabel Ron?’ Swift thought, his mind suddenly latching onto the name as his eyes widened.
“Cabel Ron? Do you mean Caballeron, as in Doctor René Caballeron?” He asked. The name had cemented itself in his mind. He should never have taken that commission from him, that money had been a godsend, but it had ruined them.
At his question Patchwork just shrugged. “I dunno. I suppose. I think it might’ve been, why?”
This was different, this was BIG!
If Caballeron was in on this then there was every chance the fountain was actually real. The money had been real, and the pony had seemed trustworthy.
“Okay, I’m in.” He said finally, looking at Patchwork. If they could really get to this, then he could save his family and make up for everything. He could even pay back and return the key when he was done with it...or just maybe pay for its worth or something. Not like he’d be running out of gold anytime soon if he found that fountain, and all it would take was one last steal. Surely even his mother would understand that!
The days turned into weeks and Swift Hooves made sure to be on his best behaviour. He didn’t want to give them any reason to keep him in longer than necessary.
The day came when he was allowed out and his mother was thankfully waiting for him. He hugged her closely, letting her cling to him. They’d spoke a bit more while he’d been in there and slowly but surely she had warmed to him again, allowing him to feel a bit better about himself. Her hug was sincere and he was glad to be in her arms. But being inside there had been difficult. There were always ponies to avoid, other colts and even some fillies that just…weren’t nice. He’d grown a little skittish, and had spent most of his time being in the background, tailing Patchwork. Patch had taken to calling him his personal shadow.
The first time he stepped back home he breathed in the scent and smiled, finding himself happy to be within the comforting walls. But the place looked like it was in bad repair. Drippings from the ceiling seemed a habitual occurrence when it rained and the cupboards were almost completely bare. The money had almost completely dried up by now, and it made him more determined than ever to help his family.
Patchwork had been released a little bit before him, and after receiving Swift’s address, had promised to meet up with him when he got out. He just had to wait.
A home cooked meal was wonderful, and talks with his father were slightly strained. But that night he kept his window open, waiting for Patchwork to visit.
Patchwork didn’t turn up the first night, or the second. A week had passed before Swift had started to give up hope, thinking of looking around for a job instead, maybe earning the bits in the long, but legal way. It was as these thoughts touched his mind that a wrapping on his window pane made him jump. There among the darkness was Patchwork, grinning.
Opening the window he let the Pegasus into his room. Patchwork shook himself and looked around. “Wow, what a dump.” He smirked “We’ll change that, you ready?” He asked curiously.
“Erm…” Swift began to think about it, and if this was really what he wanted to do. But he knew a job would take a long time to get, and a longer time to earn the bits needed to make any difference. And it could all be sorted tonight if he just did this. “…yeah. Let’s go.”
His affirmation made Patchwork grin. “Okay, you call me Pit, I’ll call you Shadow.” He winked.
“Codenames, really?” Swift asked dubiously. Swift just shrugged.
“Well do you wanna be callin’ each other our real names if we get caught?” He asked, and it kinda made sense. He nodded and brought out his makeup kit.
“If we’re gonna act like different ponies, let’s look like different ponies.”
By the end of it, Pit stood there with a dark purple coat and an elaborate flower cutie-mark –which he wasn’t happy about due to hating botany, not that Swift cared much- and his turquois mane had been turned a startling blue. Such changes had almost exhausted his makeup kit so Swift simply used a temporary dye to darken his coat and mane. He looked in the mirror and barely recognised himself. His light blue had become an almost deep night purple and his mane had taken a shade of dark purple that was even deeper than his coat, to such a point it almost merged with the black. Even his cutie-mark had darkened from a soft brown paw, to a deep tree bark wooden colour.
“Wow, now ya kinda look like a Shadow.” Patchwork chuckled. “They’ll be hard seein’ ya, let alone recognisin’’ ya.”
He wasn’t quite sure if that was a compliment or not, but he intended to make the best of it. They headed off into the night after creating a pillow dummy under the sheets just in case his parents checked on him. They usually didn’t, but he wanted to cover all bases.
They reached the house and the size of it was astounding. “Oh, I don’t know about this.” He said hesitantly, looking over the high walls and obviously expensive security. They even had GUARDS.
“Don’t worry about it; there are three guards, two outside, one in. The one inside is a bit of a sleeper.” Patchwork smirked, speaking in a hushed tone. “The two outside are better than the one in, but they still don’t look very hard. I got past them easy the first time, I’m sure we can manage it together.” He grinned.
Swift gulped but nodded, and together they headed off. They flew above the wall and let themselves drop into some bushes, waiting for one of the guards to pass.
“We need t’ make sure the door is unlocked.”
Swift nodded at the idea and flitted forward, his hooves barely touching the ground despite his wings not being spread. He moved fast and quiet, tried the door and it opened with a somewhat loud click. He jumped up at the sound of the click, slipping between the rafters of overhanging roof just as the guard’s torch touched the slightly open door. The guard approached, tested the door, looked around and closed it, pulling out a set of keys and locking it, slipping the keys onto his belt.
Swift grumbled under his breath, biting back a few choice words as the guard trotted away. Swift slipped down, picked up a stone and padded along to the guard, he slipped almost beside the guard, threw a stone against the wall and when the guard turned to look Swift snatched the keys from the guard’s belt and slipped back up high into another alcove in the overhanging roof. The guard, completely oblivious to Swifts actions, looked around the wall, looking for the source of the clatter the stone had caused. After a few moments the guard decided it was nothing and continued his patrol, unaware his keys were gone. Meanwhile, Swift slipped back to the door, unlocked it, slipped inside and motioned for Patchwork to join him. The other colt slipped in beside him and when the door was closed Patchwork seemed to throw a quiet fit.
“That was amazing!” He whispered desperately. “How did you learn to do that?” He asked with wide eyes. “You were like WHOOSH and then there was like a BANG and the Guard was like a HUH and then you were like YOINK and FLIT and then we were in and you were just awesome!”
Swift flushed pink and shrugged. “I erm, I dunno. It’s just…something I do.”
“Well you do it awesome.” Patchwork winked before looking around. “Come on, it’s this way.” He slithered through the house, showing some level of skill but Swift quickly realised his friend wasn’t near as quiet as he himself could be. Maybe he was right and his cutie-mark did also mean he was ‘light-pawed’. He smiled at that.
They got close to the room with the objects in and looked in. Sure enough the guard inside was sleeping, snoring quite loudly in his chair.
“Alright, I need you to keep watch. This next part is my deal.” He winked, whispering quietly as he slunk forward. Swift also slipped in kept a watch on the guard as Patchwork began deal with the glass case surrounding the key. The colt had to admit that the key did look kinda mystical and it did have some weird writing on it. Maybe it really was the real thing.
Patchwork managed to open the lid and pull it out, smiling. “Okay, now here’s the important part.” He pulled out another key from his satchel bag, this one wasn’t sparkly, but did look very similar to the other one. “You hold this.”
Swift was confused but took it. “What’s this?” He asked.
Patchwork shrugged and smiled. “I got workin’ on it before I came to yours. It’s why it took me so long and kinda why I need you here.” He said, his face slipping into an almost apologetic smile. “Need a fall guy.”
The words were barely comprehended before Patchwork suddenly galloped from the room and the crash of a window was heard. The shattering glass sounded through the house and it made the fur on Swift’s neck stand up on end. The sleeping guard woke up and all he saw was Swift standing there with the key in his hoof and the glass case empty. Dread bubbled up in Swift’s body.
The colt threw the key down and dashed out as fast as he could, galloping for the doors only for the other guards to open it and corner him. He turned at the last second and headed for the broken window, diving through it as fast as he could, gasping as the sharp glass cut into his wing slightly. Ignoring it his wings spread and the young Pegasus took off into the night. The guards were in hot pursuit.
They were pretty quick, but Swift was still experienced in escaping faster and smarter opponents, so it didn’t take him long to lose them. He ended up in an alleyway, panting and shaking.
Patchwork had betrayed him.
He probably should have seen it coming; it was not like he could trust anypony. The clouds opened up above and rain poured down, washing some of his coat from dark back to blue. He sat there in the rain, tears stinging his eyes as he tried to control himself. He wasn’t sure how long he stayed there, but it was long enough for his hurt to turn to anger.
If he was gonna be betrayed, he wasn’t going to go down, he was going to get what he’d been promised. He knew where the key was supposed to go, he’d just go there and take it back and take the fountain for himself.
With that the colt spread his wings and Swift took to the sky, heading for the northern area of storm clouds. The flight was difficult in the rain but he persevered until he was close, slipping low, making sure he could get a good look as he searched for Patchwork.
It took almost ten minutes of searching before he found the pony traveling over a few cloud banks; he was looking around on the ground nearby himself as though searching for something very small. Swift glared down at Patchwork, he flew a bit higher so he could land on a cloud above and watched Patchwork intently. Instead of going in himself, Swift decided he could wait until his ‘friend’ found it for him.
Patchwork’s search seemed to take a while before he seemed to get excited. Swift hoped that meant he’d finally found what he was looking for. The key was then pulled out of Patchworks satchel, the golden surface glinting in the dark light of the storm. Patchwork slipped the key down into the cloud and turned. A light shone out as the cloud opened like the ground might, with a hatch that flew out and stone steps underneath. Those certainly weren’t imbedded inside of the cloud, so this was all likely a form of portal magic done by unicorns. Swift had to admit, hiding it in the clouds was pretty smart; it really was the last place anypony would look. He flew down as Patchwork disappeared, slipping in before the hatch closed. The moment he got inside he slunk into a small corner of the wall, making sure that he was in the dark and out of sight. The key in Patchworks hoof shone in the darkness giving the colt some light, but kept enough darkness in the area for Swift to remain hidden.
They slipped lower into the depths. The sound of trickling water was everywhere and it was dark and damp. He kept himself in the dark corners, lightly treading but not using his wings. He didn’t want to cause air disturbances that Patchwork might notice. Pegasi were particularly sensitive when it came to air currents, and in a windless room like this, his movements would be very noticeable if he tried flying. The stairs ran deeper into the dark caverns, but a light glow seemed to be emanating from the bottom. It took almost ten minutes before they finally made their way to the bottom.
Swift couldn’t help but gasp at what he saw. Thankfully his gasp was masked by Patchworks own, as neither of them could deny that what they saw was beyond their wildest dreams.
The Fountain was real and it was made of solid gold.
It looked like it had been carved out of stone that had then been turned; rigid and worn slightly it was both beautiful and archaic in design. Carved into the side were symbols of ancient equestrian.
Patchwork approached and looked down into the pool of crystal clear water, the top spouted it out continuously but the basin never seemed to gain more liquid. Patchwork picked up a rock and dipped it halfway into the water, making sure to not let his hoof get even the slightest bit wet. He couldn’t well risk being turned into gold himself. The half of the stone that touched the liquid sparkled slightly before it began to turn to pure gold before his eyes.
“It…it works.” He laughed loudly, Patchwork shaking with relief and joy. “ I’m gonna be rich...everything is solved...it’s all fixed.” He said, and seemed to be almost shaking. “Finally…”
“Finally what?” Swift said loudly, stepping out of the darkness. Patchwork yelped and stepped back in shock.
“Wow, you really are a shadow.” He laughed nervously. “So erm…sorry about before...got away?”
“You left me to get caught!” He shouted in anger, feeling it bubble inside of him.
“Well…yeah.” Patchwork said, flushing slightly and shrugging. “I kinda needed a fall guy. The family know me from the first time; if things got stolen I’d be the first pony they’d look for. I had to make them think it was somepony else. That’s why I needed somepony else. It’s why I needed you. I’m sorry.” He said, shuffling his hoof nervously. “We can be friends right? I mean, you got away.”
Swift could barely believe what he was hearing. Patchwork still wanted to be friends with him? After what he just did? NO!
“You don’t get to do that and just say sorry!” Swift growled angrily, approaching him.” Give me the key and leave!” He demanded.
“Wow, wow, wow. Nah-ah. You ain’t takin’ this from me. I need it.” He said firmly, holding his satchel bag close to himself to protect the key inside.
“Oh yeah, why, just to become rich? I wanna help my family. If we don’t we’re gonna lose everything! I NEED the fountain.”
“SO DO I!” Patchwork retorted almost violently, shocking Swift into silence. “I don’t even have a home. My family don’t live anywhere, Swift.”
“You’re homeless?” Swift asked softly, taken back by this revelation. “Well…I’ll be homeless too soon without it. So I still need it.”
“Well you can’t have it. I done a lot o’ stealin’ just to keep my family safe. I had to take a lot just so we could eat an’ then I was arrested. I dun’ wanna be arrested again!”
“Neither do I! I’ve been stolen from before. I don’t like doin’ it to other ponies. I just want to stop and help my family.” Swift retorted, desperate for Patchwork to see his point of view.
“I know but...!” He shouted before closing his mouth with a snap as though he hadn’t meant to say that. Swift’s blood ran cold as he heard that.
“You know?” Swift asked softly. “How could you know? I never told you we were stolen from.” He looked Patchwork up and down, taking note of how uncomfortable he looked now. “You…you were the one that stole from us?” He asked, his voice croaking slightly as he looked at his former friend in a new light.
Patchwork looked nervous. “Sorry, I just...I really needed it. We were gonna starve and...It was a big score and…I’m sorry. We all have our reasons for stealin’ right?”
That’s right. They did.
Swift’s mind galloped at a million miles per hour. He understood it now. Everypony stole. Everypony had their reasons for stealing. And they were all good reasons. It wasn’t about who deserved the money more. It wasn’t about who was most in need. It was only about what you could grab, and if you were good enough to get it. The strong protected their family. The weak starved. He wouldn’t be weak. Swift’s gaze grew dark after that, he began to chuckle and shook his head. He knew his friend needed the gold…but he wouldn’t get it. He was done with this. Swift looked down at his own hooves and shook his head again.
“You should leave.” He warned his fellow Pegasus, looking up at him with an expression that was not at all kind.
“S-Swift?” He asked softly. “Are you okay? Look I’m sorry for what I did…really I am.”
Swift waved his hoof in dismissal. “Oh I understand, I’d have done the same. Really it’s fine. But I get it now. Ya see I know ya need it. You deserve it, but so do I. But I want it more, and I know that because you’re the one gonna be leaving here empty hooved while my hooves are full of gold.” He said firmly.
“Swift? That’s not funny...you’re scarin’ me.”
“Stop calling me that.” He barked making Patchwork’s mouth close rapidly. “I’m done being ‘Swift’. I’m done being stupid, weak, and being naïve and being a silly little colt ‘just trying to help’.” He said grunting, approaching. “Just call me ‘Shadow’.”
Everything in Swift’s life seemed to change and his priorities altered. Swift faded in his mind, and Shadow was all that was left. He would be a shadow, and take what he needed, what he wanted, and be damned anypony else that would be in his way. Shadow wasn’t weak. Shadow knew what he was capable of and without even thinking he was on Patchwork, his hooves striking down in strong punches in an effort to make the colt yield the key. He was kicked off hard, striking the fountain and scrambling away as some water almost fell on him. Patchwork seemed to realise Shadow wasn’t going to stop so he ran towards the stairs, spreading his wings and flying up only to have a weight bear down on him and slam him back into the floor. Shadow grabbed him and dragged him back to the Fountain.
“GIVE IT!” He demanded. Patchwork almost complied, bringing out the key and when Shadow’s attention was on it, a hoof lashed out and struck the colt hard. Patchwork used the moment to jump up and run for the stairs again, only to trip on a rock and fall down with a grunt, the key clattering along the floor. The scared colt dived for it but so did Shadow, both their hooves grasping for it but the key was accidently sent flying. They watched with wide eyes as the key flew towards the fountain. Patchwork yelped and dove for it, Shadow’s eyes widening.
“NO!” He shouted in shock as Patchwork slipped, his hooves caught the key for a moment but it slipped and fell to the floor as his hooves accidently dunked into the fountains water.
His scream sent a chilling shiver down Shadow’s spine as he watched Patchwork’s arms sparkle and suddenly the gold was traveling up him. He was shaking, screaming and turning to Shadow for help before he froze completely.
Shadow watched in horror, his eyes wide as sweat poured profusely down his coat, looking at the pure golden statue that had once been his friend. He looked at the Fountain as though it were a monster, he took several rocks, and dipped them in, making a few golden slabs, picked up the key and headed out, taking Patchworks satchel to hold the golden rocks. He looked back once more, looking down into the darkness he saw the dull light of the Fountain of Gold still gleaming in the darkness, its soft aura giving a ghostly glow on its new companion, a solid gold statue of a young colt frozen with a look of horror on his features.
Shadow closed up the entrance to the Fountain and headed into town; he sold the golden rocks for bits, and took the bits back to his parents. He refused to answer their questions, just leaving the bits there with assurances that he didn’t steal them. He took himself out to the pasture beside the house, over to the small barn and dug up a small hole inside, placing the key into the ground and covering it with dirt, burying it where only he would ever find it.
Shadow felt cold inside, like he no longer cared. He looked in the mirror, the rain having washed away the dye completely, but the bright blue pony that looked back only made him feel more sullen. The next day he took a trip to a parlour and paid a handsome amount. Fur dyes were permanent, allowing for tattoo designs to be embroided on those that were into that kind of thing. He instead had his entire coat and mane and cutie-mark darkened. It was a dye that would never wash out.
He didn’t even bother going home, taking some bits for himself, he left home that day feeling like he couldn’t look his parents in the eyes anymore. He was alone now. No pony would be able to understand what had happened to him. Seeing what had happened to Patchwork had changed him, had destroyed what was left of Swift inside.
‘10 years later’
Moving while carrying a bag full of jewellery was difficult. Moving whilst carrying THREE bags of some of the most prized jewellery in Equestria while being chased by a range of Royal Guards? That wasn’t just difficult…it was FUN!
He dashed down an alleyway. These didn’t seem the usual Royal Guards that would run around such places like Cloudsdale, they seemed annoyingly more coordinated. But the challenge was invigorating. They were currently running through the ‘Cobbled Market’, a market within Cloudsdale that was paved and cobbled but kept afloat with magic so normal ponies could visit and not have to worry about falling through the clouds. He wasn’t too happy about the design; it brought all manner of unsightly and annoying Guards on his tail he usually wouldn’t have to face.
Turning through an alleyway he galloped round a corner only to skid to a halt as his way was blocked by one of the guards.
The Pegasus stallion looked strong, he was tall donning gleaming golden armour, his eyes a piercing green, his coat a dull grey and his mane that flowed freely from the top of his helm waved in the light wind in bright white and blue hues.
“Going somewhere?” The guard asked with a furrowed brow.
“Yes actually, I was thinking of selling all of these and retiring in the south of Prance.” Shadow replied with a shrug. “Wanna join me? We can split it?” He asked, giving a somewhat cheeky wink.
The guard didn’t look amused. “Actually I was thinking you were gonna pass out soon.” He replied, a soft smile tugging on the guards lips.
Pass out? He wasn’t quite sure what that was meant to mean but the soft playing of music soon met his ears. He turned and saw another Pegasus Royal Guard holding a guitar plucking a few strings. The stallion had a dark grey dyed mane and yellow eyes, his helm had blue hair. Shadow had no idea why but the music the guard was playing was making him sway sleepily, but he figured it was some kind of strange magic so in an effort to get away his wings spread and he flew up high only to suddenly get tackled by something fast.
He struck the floor and grunted, looking up eeping, his eyes met green ones and a deep purple coat. Multi-coloured flocks of mane flowed freely from the ponies Royal Guard helmet and one look at her told him she was an extremely attractive mare. But a mare outside of the Mystic Guard could only mean an Inquisitor. Not to mention the free flowing mane and lack of a coat dye also pointed to Inquisitors. He HATED Inquisitors.
“So, you free this evening?” He asked charmingly before the mare suddenly pulled out a spear and lashed down at him with it. He yelped and dashed from under her just in time for her spear to strike the ground. “Eek, a simple ‘no’ would have sufficed!” He grinned and turned only for his heart to drop into his chest.
Before him stood a dark grey coated stallion earth pony that looked more Militia than Inquisitor. His fake white mane was an indicator. This wasn’t a team of Inquisitors; this was just some Inquisitor’s that had brought in a personal team of their own. By Shadow’s experience this only happened when they were especially annoyed with a particularly hard to capture criminal. It made him feel a little special if he had to admit, though this stallion before him looked like he could snap steel with just his hoof muscles, so he wasn’t quite sure if he should feel proud of himself.
“Hey big guy.” He gulped, looking up at the much larger Shire horse. “Mind if I pass?”
“Yes.” The guard answered with a look of warning.
“Oh…that’s just not gonna work.” Shadow grinned and dove forward, slipping between the large stallion’s legs and out behind him.
“Toodles!” He called out and dove through the cloudbanks along the side of the cobbled street, bursting through the clouds, clutching his bag tight as his wings narrowed, his speed picking up and he fell towards the ground. His wings spread before he hit the ground and he was picked up by a gust of wind.
“WOOHOO!” He squealed as he fled away from Cloudsdale. This was likely the last he’d see of that place, not that he minded, plenty of ponies to meet and plenty of fun to be had.
The Guards watched him go, forming up behind their leader. The grey Pegasus with the blue mane watched Shadow sore off into the distance, not having the authority to take his team, or even himself right now on a pursuit out of Cloudsdale. He would need to go see the Princesses about this. Shadow had taken more than jewels on his spree around Canterlot. Rumour had it he had gathered plenty of sensitive documents, plenty of secrets and information on locations to particular areas no pony should know about. He had to be brought in. He’d cost many hundreds of thousands of bits worth of theft and damage around the city, and after some discovery of a raid where he used to live and what they had found there…it only seemed to get worse. Their discovery had led them to the entrance of an ancient cave magically hidden in the clouds. It seemed there was a chance Shadow wasn’t just a thief, but a murderer as well.
They weren’t quite sure if the colt was actually dead, the Mystic guard were working around the clock trying to transmute the pony from gold back to normal, but the results looked bleak.
The Guard watched as Shadow disappeared into the distance.
“Let’s go.” He said firmly, he had permission to seek, and a criminal to bring to justice.