The Catch

This story takes place roughly 200 years before The Chase.
If it wasn't for bad luck, Rye Mash would have no luck at all. As a foal, he was taken during one of the infamous sweeps of the Shetland Isles. Now, as a young colt, he is an indentured servant, forced to spend the rest of his life working for his master, a unicorn named Lace Collar, so he can pay off the bill for his education.
However, Rye Mash's bad luck ends up being Lace Collar's bad luck as well, and both of them end up as prisoners of the infamous sky pirates and their dreadful leader, Captain Spyglass, the mass murdering lunatic that is feared the whole world over.

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34. Chapter 34

It was strange how the falling snow muffled every sound and left the world in an eerie silence. It was quiet enough to hear the sound of the falling snowflakes hitting the snow. There were soft, muffled crunches as Rye and Mousy’s hooves trampled through the snow as they made their way to Alpin.

The wind cut like careless, heartless knives, biting through Rye’s cloak and into his flesh. He couldn’t imagine how cold it must have been for Mousy, and he felt guiltier and guiltier with every step he took. He hoped that she wouldn’t get frostbite and he had nightmarish visions about her ears freezing off. He liked Mousy’s ears and how they twitched as she slept. There were a lot of things he liked about Mousy. Things he was fond of.

Things he would miss if they froze off.

Ahead of them, the city loomed, built on rings around the mountain peak, shelves carved into the very mountain itself. In the center of town, on top of the peak, was Château de la Roche, a rough looking stone fortress that was half carved out of the mountain and half constructed from massive stone blocks. Rye could see the city gates and he could see diamond dogs armed with pikes standing guard at the gates. On top of the gatehouse there were a few griffons that did not appear to be armed, but Rye suspected that they were. Pistols were small, concealable, and easy to tuck away.

As he approached, no one said anything, it was as if no one even noticed him. Rye, as cold as he was, began sweating, and he could feel the moisture on his frogs freezing. One of the diamond dogs glanced at him and then resumed looking at the road.

As he passed through the gate, he saw a number of other unicorns, but not many. The streets, much to Rye’s surprise, were neat, clean, and orderly. The snow and the ice had been removed from many of the streets. There was no sign of garbage anywhere, or sewage, as was so common in large cities. The city smelled of evergreens… and roasting meat. Rye held back the urge to gag, worried that it would be his undoing. He didn’t even want to know what, or who might be cooking.

 

 

A team of earth ponies pulled a snow plow, scraping away ice and snow from the roadway. Rye watched them as they worked. Each of them looked a bit too thin, a bit worn down, and all of them bore signs of abuse. He felt bad, but there was nothing he could do to save them. One of them had a crooked leg and struggled to pull his own weight.

With each look around, Rye discovered that this was not the town he thought it was. He saw a toy store filled with dolls, wooden toys, and tin figures with bright, cheerful paint. Beside it was a bookstore. This was a civilised place, a place with learned creatures… but still a place full of slaves. No matter how clean it was, no matter the fact that it had a toy store and all of the grim implications of what that meant if a full out assault took place here, this was still a rotten place. Blasting this place off of the mountainside would cause a lot of unfortunate deaths.

After thinking about it, Rye was filled with a grim determination to find some other means of getting the job done. While he wouldn’t feel too bad about shooting slavers, he knew that he would feel just awful if he gunned down puppies and cubs. He shivered, but it wasn’t from the cold.

He needed to find a way. He needed to find some other means of entering the castle and finding this Doctor Lapin fellow, whomever Doctor Lapin was. He looked around while flogging his brain, no doubt looking like a tourist and drawing attention to himself.

Much to his surprise, he saw a teashop. Without thinking about it, he smiled. Perhaps something good could still come out of this trip after all. Where there was tea, there were most likely ponies, and where there were ponies, there were most likely loose lips. Head high, Rye Mash headed for the ornate, brass decorated door of the teashop, wondering what he might find and hoping for interesting gossip.

 

 

The teashop had a blissful smell, aromatic, spicy, and nose-tingly. It gave Rye chills as he went through the door. The shop itself was narrow, long, and the walls on either side were covered in tea tins, teapots, teacups, teakettles, plates, saucers, decorative spoons, and all manner of bric a brac. However, the most important feature of the teashop was that it was warm. Blessed warmth caressed Rye’s skin and warm air filled his lungs.

“Oi, she can’t be in here,” the shopkeeper said. The unicorn behind the counter near the door looked more than a little annoyed. He was rather fat, portly, and had flappy, hanging jowls that wibble-wobbled as he spoke.

“My apologies my good sir, but my property is valuable to me. I’ll not leave it outside where it might be mistaken as an idle slave just standing around.” Rye gave the shopkeeper a hard, flinty glare and he saw the unicorn scowl.

“Fine, but if she touches anything, if she muddies anything, you’ll be buying it.”

“Seems reasonable,” Rye replied in a dismissive voice as he began to look around. He glanced at Mousy and guessed that she was just happy to be someplace warm. She looked miserable and Rye knew that it wasn’t just an act.

His eye was drawn to a group of red tea tins, red with gold and blue trim, along with little silver stars. Cinnamon Starlight, the label said. A blend of black and red teas with strong notes of cinnamon and anise. Rye felt his mouth watering. That sounded good.

“She’s quite distinctive… I could see why you would want to keep her close,” an almost familiar sounding voice said.

Rye paused, recognising the accent. There could be no denying it, that was a Canterlot accent. Rye had grown up hearing that accent—it was the accent of authority. He turned and looked at the unicorn that was studying Mousy.

Mousy’s head was surrounded in a pale yellow glow and lifted, which made Rye nervous. Her lips were pulled back and the unicorn began examining her teeth and peering into her eyes. For a second, Rye was filled with an almost blinding seething rage that threatened to make his blood boil, but he kept his emotions in check, remembering where he was and what he was doing.

“Young, good teeth, distinctive eyes, and a pleasing musculature… certainly not a field pony. I can see why you’d keep her close. I must say, she is quite submissive and obedient. You’ve done a fine job in keeping up with her discipline, no doubt.” The unicorn’s horn stopped glowing and he looked at Rye. “My name is Lord Byron Bitters, of House Bitters, Scion of the Platinum Lineage. You are clearly from Canterlot yourself, but your accent is a little strange. Travel will do that. Who might you be?”

Rye drew himself up, cleared his throat, and tried to remember all of his elocution lessons. “My name is whatever my employer wishes to call me. I am a mercenary, a gun for hire. I can be a very useful shadow that stands behind or a very fearsome face that presses ahead.”

Byron began to chuckle and a warm, sincere smile split his muzzle. It was a cultured laugh, polite, soft, a well  practiced laugh that conveyed a sense of humour, but was not so loud or rambunctious that it offended.

“That sounds like a sales pitch.” Byron’s eyebrow arched and he began to study Rye. “Tell me, Nameless One, why would you carry your own saddlebags when you have a sturdy slave that could be doing it for you?”

Taken off guard, Rye flogged his brain for some kind of useful reply. Much to his relief, his brain delivered. “I am a stranger in a strange city, full of unknowns. If something happened and my slave was snatched, I would be out of a slave and my possessions. I would rather keep my possessions, thank you very much. My slave can be replaced, but my powder, shot, and personal effects are all very dear to me. Shooting things is how I feed myself.”

“Oh my,” Byron replied, chuckling again. “You are quite a find… a hired gun that can actually think. You sound educated, cultured, you think, you clearly have a good eye for pony flesh, and you must have a love of fine tea to be found in a shop like this.”

“I’m no noble, sir, but I am educated.” Rye did his best to let out a haughty sounding sniff. “I know my place in the world. I could be like her”—Rye made a gesture towards Mousy—“a mindless beast meant only for menial labour, but I chose to lift myself up in the world and make myself indispensable.”

“Well said, well said… it is refreshing to meet a cultured mercenary that knows how to appeal to his betters. So many of the soldiers around here are so… crass. They don’t know how to bathe… they lack culture and refinement. They are impossible to have conversations with… but you… you sir, are a breath of fresh air.” Byron’s smile grew wider.

“Thank you, sir.” Rye bowed his head.

“So tell me, Nameless One, how did you make her so docile?” Byron glanced at Mousy, studying her, and then back at Rye. “She is so meek… such a difficult status to achieve… I would like to know how you did it.”

Lowering his head, Rye leaned forwards and in a low voice that was almost a whisper, he told Byron, “I find that a good dry cornholing takes a lot of the fight out of them. You can’t run or fight when you can barely walk.”

“Indeed.” Byron shuddered, blinked his eyes, and shook his head. “Oh, that’s positively ghastly.” The unicorn blinked a few more times, shuddered again, and then continued to study Rye. “I could only imagine that you must have other methods as well. When you said that, she stopped breathing for several seconds.”

Mousy, who looked as droopy and miserable as ever, had not stopped breathing from fear, no, she had stopped breathing to hold in laughter, and even now, her face was a rigid, unchanging mask of melancholy.

Rye leaned in a little more and dropped his voice down to a low whisper. “The last time she sassed me, I cut off her clitoris with a red hot pair of snips.”

Byron inhaled, his breath caught in his throat, and it took every bit of effort that the dignified pony had not to choke. It took several seconds of deep breathing to regain his composure. “Oh dear, that is positively barbaric. I say, my good pony, there is cruelty, and then there is cruelty.” Byron cleared his throat, shuddered, and then looked at Rye through narrowed eyes. “How would you like a job? A pony with your skills is needed… we need somepony that will take a creative approach. I need a slave catcher… we send out workers to the surrounding logging camps down below. Sometimes, they think they can make a run for it. I am in need of somepony that will not only catch them, but make them reconsider running ever again.”

“Looking for work is what brought me here,” Rye replied. “I’ve heard it told that for a pony like myself, there is good work to be had here, with good pay. This a wealthy town with a high cost of living.”

“Indeed.” Byron began chuckling again and looked around the teashop. “For a pony with tastes, with culture and refinement, it can be quite expensive to live here. Now, about good pay… that all depends on who you know.”

“Milord, I’ve had the good fortune to run into you,” Rye said to Byron. “Certainly I’ve met the right pony and I will not be walking away, disappointed and looking for work.”

Byron’s chuckle died and his smile faded away. A stern, serious expression materialised on his face. “That would be a tragic turn of events, Nameless One. I fear that I would be genuinely upset if that were to happen. It has been so long since I’ve had meaningful conversation involving actual wit.” Byron coughed and cleared his throat. “If you wish to discuss employment, come with me. I assure you, not only can I pay you, but I can get you expense accounts for anything and everything you might want. You could have a very comfortable life here, Nameless One.”

Rye bowed his head low, a familiar gesture that brought back a flood of memories and feelings for him. “I would be more than happy to listen to what you have to say, Lord Bitters.”

“Fantastic… come with me… think we can reach a mutually beneficial arrangement…”

 

 

As it turned out, Byron Bitters operated the stables, a place where freshly broken slaves were tested. Rye had listened as Byron had explained everything. Slaves that had been broken down in the prison were brought here to see how they worked out. This was the place where their work ethic was tested. They were given menial jobs around town, like plowing snow, hauling garbage, cleaning up sewage, or any number of other jobs necessary to keep the town clean and free of filth. Byron had explained at length about how slaves were the glue that held society together.

Alpin was modeled after Canterlot, after all, and it was important to keep up impressions.

The stable was more than just a place to house the freshly broken, it was also a place where off duty guards could come and relieve their tensions—the slaves here were expected to perform any duty requested of them. Slaves that had troubles doing their duties were sent back to the prison for a bit more breaking in, until they became, if not docile, at least manageable.

Rye had surprised Byron by preparing tea, and Rye could tell that Byron was impressed. Rye was learning a great deal, as Byron was quite a chatty fellow—it was clear that the unicorn was just dying for meaningful conversation.

Mousy, who still looked miserable, stood slumped in the corner, her head low, her ears drooping, and her tail tucked between her legs after Rye had scolded her for filling the air with her earth pony stink and launching into a blistering, profanity laced tirade about the need to purchase perfume to make earth ponies not as offensive to the nose, a performance in humiliation and degradation that Byron had watched in slack jawed awe. The performance had ended with Rye threatening to twist off one of Mousy’s teats with a hot pair of pliers, and Mousy had broken down, sobbing in front of everypony in the streets.

A passing griffon had called Rye “a cruel, heartless, buzzard faced bastard.”

 

 

“It is a pretty standard contract, no small print, just a written declaration that you will look after my interests and that you will do your best to return my property to me, alive.” Byron focused upon Rye. “Now, I don’t mind if you rough them up a little. But I need them alive and I need them to be able to work… of course, depending on the severity of their crimes, a little time for healing up and contemplating their actions might be in order.”

Byron’s horn glowed and he set out an inkwell, a quill, and a bit of fine sand for drying the ink. He also set out a silver wax seal, some sealing wax, and a ribbon of mark.

“You know, at some point, I really am going to need to know your name,” Byron said in an amused voice as he glanced at Mousy in the corner, who was still trembling with her tail tucked between her legs. Taking delight in her misery, the unicorn chuckled.

“Forgive me for being curious, but I’d like to see the stables… I want to know what I am working with.” Rye glanced at the items on the wooden table and then looked Byron in the eye. “I do in fact, have a fine eye for pony flesh.”

“Want to have a little look at the goods to see if anything catches your fancy?” Byron gave Rye a sly grin. “I don’t care how you wear them down… that’s your business.” The unicorn cleared his throat and let out an obscene sounding titter. “And if you wanted to purchase something that caught your eye, you would of course get a reduced price, you have my word. A slave catcher should have slaves that are docile and meek… it’s just good, smart advertising. It would certainly put my mind at ease.”

“That sounds wonderful, Milord.” Rye bowed his head.

Byron headed off for a heavy wooden door and Rye followed. He gave a swift, unseen nod to Mousy, and after letting out a whimper of fear, Mousy fell in behind Rye, almost dragging her hooves while looking beat down and dejected.

There was a long hallway lit by brass wall sconces and the smell of burning oil made Rye’s nostrils tingle. It was a foul, bitter smell, and the glass in the sconces was greasy. An even worse smell awaited. It was the smell of misery. Urine. Feces. The smell of sickness. The fetid aroma of unwashed bodies. The stench of slavery.

In a windowless room, there were stables. Many of them were empty, but there were ponies here. Rye did not know how many, but he could see them huddled in their cells, and only a brave few dared to look at him.

“Ugh, what a terrible stench. Why must earth ponies have such a stink about them?” Byron trotted off to a cabinet against the wall opposite of the cells, muttering to himself about mud ponies and how mud and shite were indistinguishable.

Byron opened up the cabinet and Rye realised that he had a good source of information about the prison right here in front of him. Ponies who had been inside of it. He glanced at Byron, his eyes narrowing, and then he glanced at Mousy. He saw Mousy give him a nod and something resembling a cold, calculating stare could be seen in Mousy’s eyes.

When Byron’s head disappeared into the cabinet, Rye Mash pulled his four barreled shotgun out from beneath his cloak. The slaves didn’t make so much as a peep, but remained as silent as the grave. A truly terrible grin spread over Mousy’s face as Rye Mash swept Byron’s tail aside and pressed the cold steel of the four barreled shotgun up against Byron Bitter’s scrotum.

There was a startled squeak followed by a thunderous roar.

The force of the blast launched Byron into the cabinet, he bounced, the cabinet rocked, and he fell out along with several scented candles. The unicorn fell to the floor and a second later, a keening, high pitched agonised wail filled the room.

Rye Mash stood, one barrel of his shotgun smoking, and he peered down at Byron through narrowed eyes. A pool of blood grew at an alarming rate, flooding the floor, which was covered in lead shot and brass tacks… Rye Mash’s standard shotgun load.

“Byron… Byron, please, stop your sniveling… I want you to listen to me,” Rye said in a cold, emotionless voice. “You’re going to die, Byron. But before you die… there are a few things that you should know.”

Rye Mash began to reload his shotgun and he gave Byron a pleasant, polite grin. “My name is Rye Mash… and when you get to Tartarus… I want you to tell them who sent you. That’s Rye Mash… He of the Almighty Shotgun. Also…” Rye Mash made a dramatic pause as he finished loading. “Tell them I plan to keep them busy. Can you do that for me?”

Byron, whose tail had been blown off and had flopped to the floor, let out a screeching whimper and closed his eyes as he writhed upon the ground, his entire groin nothing more than a shredded, brass tack and lead shot encrusted mess.

Hearing something, Rye lifted his head. He saw a flash of metal as a pistol came through the doorway and he didn’t wait to see who was holding it. In the blink of an eye he had Right Nut pulled out and he fired at the doorway, his bullet arriving just as a griffon stepped through.

The lead slug hit the griffon in the neck, ripping it open, and causing an arterial jet to paint the wall crimson. The griffon went down in a heap, letting out a gurgled squawk. Rye began to reload and he pulled out Left Nut.  

Rye stood, his ears perked, waiting, listening, his eyes upon the door. The room was cold enough for him to see his breath, and his heavy breathing caused little eddies in the gunsmoke.

Lying on the floor, Byron’s front legs flailed about in a useless manner as the unicorn drew closer to death. Blood flecked Byron’s lips as he coughed up his shredded, brass tacks and lead filled insides.

The sound of something coming could be heard and Rye stood silent, still, and waiting, three guns pointed at the door. When something grey and hulking came through the doorway, stepping over the dead griffon, Rye fired both Right Nut and Left Nut. There was a pained yelp and the diamond dog coming through the door pitched forwards. One shot had hit him in the gut, the other had gone through his right bicep. The musket he was holding clattered to the ground and Rye fired again, this time with his shotgun.

The load of brass tacks and lead shot ripped the right arm of the diamond dog off and most of his face as well. The large, brutish looking creature lay twitching in a pool of blood that grew ever larger, and bits of brass twinkled in the flickering light.

Rye began reloading, a passive, instinctual gesture that was as natural to him as breathing. Rye’s telekinesis was nothing impressive—except for when it came to guns. His fine control allowed him to reload all three weapons at once, in seconds.

Rye waited for several minutes, his guns still out, and Mousy began to rummage through the scented candles that were not covered in blood, sniffing out the ones she liked and rolling them away from the mess in a neat cluster. Candles were romantic, scented candles stolen from a violent murder scene doubly so.

When no more guards seemed forthcoming, Rye turned and faced the prisoners, his guns still out. “My name is Rye Mash, and I need your help. I need to know everything that you know about the prison. Now, I understand that you have no reason to trust me, but I’m here to rescue you. I want to help you. But I ask for something in return. I can get you to safety and to a better life, but you have to help me first. Okay?”

There were murmurs from the ponies in the cells, the sounds of low voices speaking to one another, voices muffled with fear.

Mousy let out a disdainful whimper as she looked down at a bloodied candle that had what appeared to be a chunk of testicle embedded with a brass tack stuck to it. “What a damn shame, this one has the lovely scent of spicy vanilla.” She lifted her head and looked at Byron. “You made quite a mess… I hope you’re happy. I love vanilla and you had to go and ruin it.”

Byron made no reply. He stared upwards through unblinking, wide eyes, and he was having an unheard conversation with a pony that nopony else could see, a pale white earth pony that had a wilted petunia as a cutie mark.

Rye Mash made a hasty head count. Eleven. Eleven ponies. A few stallions, a few mares, and a couple of zebra mares, all of which showed signs of abuse. Rye pitied them and hoped that they would recover with time. He wondered what Captain Spyglass would have to say about all of this.

“We need to escape this place, and to do that, you still need to look like slaves,” Mousy said as she rolled away another candle. “Lucky for you, I have an idea. As my husband Rye said, you have no reason to trust us, but honestly, what choice do you have? Do you want to stay here? If you come with us, you have a chance to be free.”

There was no reply and Rye Mash sighed. He began scooping up the candles Mousy had collected and made a mental note to loot the tea in the pantry before they left. There was no way in Tartarus he was going to pay full price in the tea shop, that was highway robbery, and Byron had quite a stash of tea. An enormous stash of tea. He was going to load Mousy down with some saddlebags and make her look the part. There was also the silverware, which was actual silver, the teapot, and a number of other valuables that needed liberation.

Mousy grinned. “Okay, here’s my plan on how we’re going to get you out of here alive…”

 

 

Insides squirming, Rye Mash fought off a wave of nervous nausea as he approached the city gate. He was a lone unicorn with twelve earth ponies in a train behind him, each one hobbled together with shackles going from one leg to the next. Each earth pony was hooded, a burlap sack secured over their head, blinding them. One earth pony was loaded down with saddlebags and something bundled up in a blanket was secured to her back. Each and every earth pony in the train looked miserable as they dragged their hooves through the snow.

Rye Mash led them along with a rope he held in his telekinesis. He wasn’t sure if they could just walk out of here. He suspected that buyers came here to buy slaves, so they had to leave the city somehow. A cold, bitter wind blew and Rye Mash’s green cloak fluttered around his back. He trudged ahead, not knowing how this would end.

At the gate, nothing happened. No one even gave them a second glance. No one cared. Just another group of slaves and a slaver. A diamond dog yawned, letting out a high pitched whine, and then tried to scratch his belly through his heavy overcoat.

With the city now behind them, Rye Mash did not let down his guard, but continued onwards, ready to draw his guns. All he had to do now was make it to the moonshiner’s camp and back to The Apogee.

There was still the matter of explaining all of this to Bloody Velvet and Captain Spyglass— something that Rye knew was going to be quite a chore. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure everypony in his care was okay, his ears listening for both pained whimpers and the sounds of angry guards, which he was still waiting for.

What Rye Mash did not know was that he was leading away the witnesses that would one day tell the stories that would make up his legend. These were the ponies that had watched him kill their owner with a shotgun blast to the dangly bits, the very sort of story that a pony likes to tell, should they ever get a chance or a friendly ear to bend.

 

 

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