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Title Drop · FiM Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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"So." Ahuizotl's grin split his face like a machete slash across a watermelon. "Once again, Daring Do, it comes down to you, and it comes down to me." He patted the papers on the table between them. "And my cease and desist order, of course."

Her publisher's office—bigger, she was always sure, than her whole house but still somehow cozy, the floors carpeted, the walls book-lined, the view of the Manehattan skyline breathtaking—suddenly seemed hotter and stickier than any jungle Cricket had ever slogged through when she was being Daring Do. It didn't help that she had on the thick shawl, glasses, and bonnet she always wore for A. K. Yearling's trips into the civilized parts of the world, either.

"No games, Ahuizotl," she said. Not wanting to take her attention off the big blue beast, Cricket shot a quick glance at the two earth pony stallions shifting nervously beside her: Red Pencil, the editor she'd worked with since the beginning of her writing career, and Dust Jacket, president and publisher of Random Horse Books. At the end of the table sat a frowning unicorn stallion in a suit and tie, a briefcase open in front of him, but Cricket had never seen him before. She'd only been expecting to meet Jacket and Pencil for their annual luncheon celebrating the success of the Daring Do books, but to find two strange unicorns and Daring's arch-nemesis here as well?

Snapping her gaze to Ahuizotl again, she managed to squeeze the words past her gritted teeth: "What's this all about?"

Ahuizotl leaned back in his chair and waved his tail hand at the pony sharing his side of the table. "I shall allow my lawyer to explain."

"Codicil's the name, Ms. Yearling," the unicorn said. "With the firm of Render, Trocar, and Wheedle." Yellowish light wavered from his horn and pushed a manila folder toward her. "This is a copy of all the relevant paperwork. You might want to have your legal representative look it over, but I'll be happy to summarize." The flash of his thin smile made the Daring part of Cricket think of a dagger unsheathing. "You are to cease and desist immediately from all activity related to the Daring Do series until such time as my client's suit against you has been settled."

Daring's first impulse was to buck the folder back into his smug little face, but Cricket knew Kay would never do such a thing. So instead, she turned to her publisher and asked, "Jacket? What's this all about?"

His gray eyes not meeting hers, Dust Jacket cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, Kay," he started.

But a louder clearing of throat interrupted him. "Forgive me, Ms. Yearling," the unicorn at the end of the table said. "I'm First Part, head of the legal affairs department here at Random Horse. I've advised Mr. Jacket to have no communications with you at all until such time as we've considered whether we'll be bringing a suit of our own against you."

"What?" Kay cried out as Daring leaped to Cricket's hooves and spun to face him.

"For breach of contract." As calmly as if he hadn't just figuratively stabbed Kay in the back, First Part took a folder from his briefcase and opened it. "Specifically article three, section one of your publishing agreement with us." He adjusted his glasses along his muzzle and read the clause aloud: "'To the best of the Author's knowledge, said Work contains no material which is libelous and infringes no right of privacy.'" Looking up, he wrinkled his brow at her. "Imagine our shock, Ms. Yearling, when we learned that the Ahuizotl you write about so frequently is in fact a real person and not a product of your imagination."

A chill rattled through Cricket this time, and her ears folded at Ahuizotl's snicker. "I am quite real, I assure you, Mr. Part." She looked over at the monster, smiling broadly from his perch on the cushion of a chair several sizes too small for him. "And imagine my own shock when a chance trip to a book store yesterday during my first visit to your fair city led me to discover the horrible and libelous things 'Ms. Yearling'—" She could hear the quotes he put around the name. "—has been writing about me for all these years."

"Horrible? Libelous?" As much as Kay wanted to remain professional, Cricket couldn't keep from yelling. "If anything, I downplayed your crimes! I had to, or the stories never would've passed muster for a young adult readership!"

"Crimes?" His smile vanished. "Show me a single Equestrian court of law where I've been convicted of anything! Detail for me what charges have ever even been brought against me!"

Cricket picked the first thing that sprang from Daring's memories. "Three years ago last August!" She pointed a shaking hoof at Dust Jacket's picture window. "Not two blocks north of here! You and your minions broke into the Manehattan Natural History Museum and stole—!"

"Lies!" Ahuizotl barked. "The police never found enough evidence to make any arrests in that case! It's still listed as unsolved unless I'm greatly mistaken!"

"Phillydelphia, then! The home of the wealthy industrialist Countertops was robbed of—!"

"Again, 'Ms. Yearling,' insufficient evidence led to no charges being filed against anypony in that particular instance."

Opening her mouth to rattle off the next one, Cricket stopped. For the first time, she realized that no official action had ever resulted from any of Ahuizotl's various capers. "Well, then, what about the destruction of the Hippodrome in—?"

"I can hardly be blamed for the collapse of a three thousand year old ruin when an earthquake strikes!"

"You caused the earthquake!"

"I?" He pressed the fingers of his right hand to his chest. "Do I look like a unicorn? Or are you claiming now that I possess some sort of magical powers?"

She had to restrain Daring from launching across the table. "You had the Amulet of Enceladus! You could've made every rock in that valley start dancing if you'd wanted to!"

He spread his arms. "And where is this amulet now? Produce it as evidence, 'Ms. A. K. Yearling,' and bring the full power of the law against me!"

Cricket just glared at him. He knew as well as she did that Daring had shattered the amulet before kicking its pieces into Titans' Gorge.

"No?" His smile was back. "Of course not. For there was no Amulet of Enceladus, no Griffon's Goblet, no Rings of Scorchero. Nor am I the villain you paint me to be in your series of potboiler novels." He folded his arms. "After all, if I were truly as much of a threat to Equestria as you seem to think me, surely one or another of your four princesses would step in as they did against Discord or Tirek. Surely they would deal with me once and for all rather than allow the same insignificant little pony to continue failing and flailing against me. Would they not?"

If she'd been facing him out in the wild, Cricket would've happily let Daring answer him the way he deserved. But in Kay's domain, all she could do was glare at him some more.

"No." He said it more quietly this time, but Cricket could hear the malice in his voice. "For I am but a private citizen of foreign birth upon whom some hack novelist has focused her irrational fears and hatreds for what has apparently been more than a decade. And I will not continue being libeled for the sake of this company's bottom line."

First Part cleared his throat again. "As I was explaining to your counsel, Mr. Ahuizotl, the representations clause of Ms. Yearling's contract clearly indemnifies Random Horse from any liability in this case."

"And yet?" Ahuizotl pointed his toothy snout at the lawyer. "I will sue you for damages: every last bit you've made despoiling my good name to line your pockets."

Cricket sat forward. There was the Ahuizotl Daring knew, laying out his threats before getting to the point. "Or what, Ahuizotl?" she asked. "What is it you really want out of all this?"

His grin got even toothier. "I want A. K. Yearling to disappear. Forever."

That made her blink. Kay had been expecting him to spit out a number with six or seven zeroes attached to the end of it. "Disappear?"

"Completely." He was getting that glint in his eye, the glint Daring recognized from all the times she'd seen him perched atop some ancient plinth or other in an attempt to summon whatever fiendish power he was after. "I want her every title dropped from Random Horse's catalog. I want all the library copies gathered up and burned. I want the printing plates melted to slag and dumped into the sea!" He leaped onto his hind legs, all three of his hands bunching into fists, the tips of his ears nearly brushing the ceiling. "I want her name erased, her typewriter smashed, and legally-binding contracts formulated that will forbid this foul pony—" He crooked a finger out to point directly at her. "—from ever besmirching my reputation again!"

Pencil, Jacket, and First Part were quivering, their eyes rimmed with white, but Cricket didn't spare them more than a glance. A tingle had started at the base of her spine, the same tingle Daring got every time Ahuizotl tried to kill her. "Wow," she said with a grin. "I'm flattered."

Ahuizotl's face twitched. "You're finished!" he shouted. "That's what you are!"

She shook her head slowly and made a clicking noise with her tongue. "You've finally realized that you'll never beat Daring Do. So you're trying to beat A. K. Yearling instead."

"Trying?" He flung an arm out. "Look around! Your ostensible allies have turned upon you! This false veneer you have wrapped yourself in has shattered irreparably! Your livelihood, the source of the wherewithal you need to support your adventuresome meddling, is draining away around you never to return!" His chest heaved, and his snout curled into an absolute ripsaw of a smile. "This is the end, Daring Do. You've interfered with my plans for the last time."

"Okay." Cricket crossed her front legs over the table. After more than a decade, Daring knew pretty well what made Ahuizotl tick. This sort of revenge thing was one of his big buttons, sure, but he had plenty of others. Kay just needed to bring out her negotiating skills and start pressing those buttons. "Here's my counter-offer."

Even with all the times Daring had been ambushed there, beaten and robbed and left for dead, her cabin in the woods was the only place that could really make the tightness in Cricket's stomach relax. Here, she didn't have to choose between being Daring Do or being A. K. Yearling. Here, she could just be quiet, little Cricket.

"That?" Ahuizotl sputtered. "That's a hovel, not a home!"

"It's where the magic happens." Cricket kept her voice light, but the sight of the cabin this time wasn't relaxing her stomach at all. "Come on in, and we can get started." Grateful for the chance to finally stretch her wings, she flapped over to the front porch, pushed the door open, and gestured with a hoof for him to precede her.

Sniffing the air, he did, and Cricket frowned at his back. Not the best idea Kay had ever had, offering to let him co-write the next book.

In her defense, of course, Kay had never expected him to take her up on it. She'd purposefully started with that absurd proposition and had expected to haggle with him till they reached something that appealed to the trifecta of his vanity, his greed, and his lust for power: a cut of all future earnings from the series, for instance, and a public apology where A. K. Yearling admitted her wrongdoing and announced how sorry she was for tarnishing his sterling character. Give him a little speech and some money, she'd thought, all very simple and meaningless, and Cricket could head back home to write without having to worry about his ugly mug till the next time Daring foiled one of his stupid schemes.

But the look that had come over that ugly mug when she'd suggested that he drop his legal claims in exchange for collaborating with her on the upcoming Daring Do novel, the way his long, tooth-filled jaw had dropped and his little, beady eyes had lit up, she'd suddenly felt too cold and too warm at the same time. "Yes," he'd said, his voice deep and rumbling. "My name and likeness beside yours on the cover." He'd slapped the table, the other ponies jumping as the crack echoed around the room. "We have a deal!"

The two lawyers had clearly been unhappy, but they'd still drawn up the contract then and there. Kay had glanced through the usual boilerplate but had slowed down to read the new language for divvying up the profits and the credit and all. Daring's insistence on a 'no pets' clause had come close to sinking the deal, but she'd been adamant: this whole situation stank enough without adding Ahuizotl's herd of cats to the mix.

With a big, phony smile, then, Kay had signed the copy she'd been examining and had passed it over to him. Always the supercilious egomaniac, he'd signed all three copies without bothering to read them, but the way his smile hadn't seemed phony at all had rustled the fine hairs along the base of her mane. Traveling north by train over the next three days with the big lummox in the compartment next to hers, Cricket had found more and more doubts cropping up. He'd agreed to this so readily, Daring couldn't help but wonder what he was up to.

As with most of Ahuizotl's schemes, though, Daring was pretty sure the easiest way to get to the center was to let herself fall in and then fight her way back out. That's how it always worked, after all. So they'd gotten off the train at Lone Pine and had walked from there to her cabin: three-and-a-half hours on hoof without a word passing between them.

"Do you ever dust?" Ahuizotl was asking when she followed him inside, one finger of his tail hand clearing a track along the top of her desk.

"I've got better things to do." A quick glance around the room showed that none of Daring's tripwires had gotten sprung while she'd been away, so nothing had likely been stolen.

Of course, the creature responsible for most of the thefts she'd experienced over the years was currently sitting and blinking at Cricket's writing desk. "I have never understood," he announced, that overly-theatrical voice of his filling the air like molten wax oozing into a candle mold, "how these typewriting mechanisms you ponies employ can possibly function."

"They're magic." A shake of Cricket's head dislodged Kay's bonnet; Daring caught it in her teeth and tossed it across the room to its hook beside the door. "You think of the letter you want, push down the proper lever, and it gets printed onto the paper. The left lever does the first half of the alphabet, the right lever does the second half. For a capital letter, you push down the opposite lever first, and for punctuation, you—"

"Cease!" His ears had folded practically flat against his long, narrow head. "I shall allow you the honor of recording my immortal words for posterity, then."

Cricket couldn't help laughing at that. "The way most pony magic ends up exploding in your face, yeah, that's probably a good idea."

He scowled, and she did the same sort of flip and fling with her shawl to snag it on the coat rack. "Besides," she went on, "we've got a lot of work to do before we start any typing." She set Kay's glasses on the desk and trotted toward the kitchen door. "You want anything to drink? I've got water, cider, iced tea, or I can put the kettle on if you like."

"Drink?" His shout bounced around the walls. "We stand upon the precipice of a literary masterpiece, and you prattle on about beverages?"

With a sigh, she kept trotting. Amateurs... "Fine, then." She pulled the icebox door open, grabbed the jug of iced tea, and set it on the counter. "You got a plot in mind?"

"Of course!" He squeezed through the doorway, a giant smile on his face. "This shall be the book in which—!"

"Ahuizotl beats Daring Do, right?" Cricket shook her head as Kay rose to the fore. "Dust Jacket'll never go for it no matter how many lawyers you throw at him."

He stood frozen in place for a moment, his mouth open and one finger raised. Then his jaw snapped shut, and his scowl came back. "Your publisher seemed quite spineless to me. I'm certain Codicil can frighten him into doing my bidding once again."

Flapping up to the high cupboards, Kay took out a flower vase, one big enough to fit around that snout of his. "You'd be surprised how cut-throat Jacket can be when profits come into the picture. And a book where Daring Do gets beaten? That won't just lose him money; that'll lose the series some fans." She filled the vase with ice tea and pointed a hoof at it. "This stuff's pretty strong, so let me know if you need more sugar or anything."

His snort puffed against the back of her neck, but the gentle airflow over her wings told her he wasn't leaping for her. "Your readers fear being challenged, do they?"

"It's a fine line." Grabbing a normal-sized glass, Cricket glanced along the counter to see his tail hand wrapping around the vase. "In a series like mine, you want to push things just a little with each book, show the audience something that's new enough to fit in with their own ideas about the characters but not so shattering that they feel like you've blown all the stuff they love to smithereens."

He grunted this time, squatting on a stool at her table, an oily but thoughtful look slipping across his face. "As in book four, for instance," he said, tapping a finger against the vase. "Introducing Compass Rose allowed you to shift perspectives ever so slightly, giving new readers a way into the story while shaking the series dynamic up a bit for the old readers."

Cricket almost dropped her glass. "You said in Jacket's office that you only found out about the books last week."

His ears folded again, and his cheeks darkened with an unmistakable blush. "Well, now!" Cricket gave a toothy smile of her own, all kinds of things coming clear to her. She glided over to the table with her glass and settled onto a stool herself. "You're a fan, aren't you, Ahuizotl?"

Swigging a gulp of his iced tea, Ahuizotl grimaced and reached for the sugar bowl. "That fool Caballeron brought me the first book ten years ago while I was recovering from the burns I suffered during our encounter at Mount Salamander. I think he expected that I would tear it to shreds in rage, so to spite him, I read the whole thing from cover to cover. Although I found the characterizations laughable and the writing pedestrian, my featured role in the proceedings made the experience not entirely unpleasant." He dumped about half the bowl into his drink and began stirring it with a finger. "You treated me with more fairness than I would have expected, all things considered, but still, having finished the book, I became even more determined to destroy you and everything you stood for."

Wariness tensed Daring's muscles, but Cricket was sure it didn't show. She'd had plenty of practice hiding her true reactions, after all. "You always know how to make a girl feel special, Ahuizotl."

He shrugged. "As you continued ruining my plans, I continued going over your novels as sort of 'after action reports.'" Sipping from his glass, he smacked his lips and drained it dry. "Finally, it occurred to me that I could strike at you using this art of yours as a weapon, upending your life, then finishing you off while you reeled in confusion." He set the glass down. "But when you offered this collaboration, I felt that it would prove much more satisfying to force you into plotting your own demise, as it were." He shrugged again. "Failing that, however, perhaps I can console myself with the truckload of money I'll be making from this partnership."

Slowly and carefully, Cricket took a mouthful of her own tea, cold and bitter and just the way she liked it. "And there's our plot."

His brow wrinkled. "A truckload of money?"

"A partnership." Pushing both the action-oriented Daring Do and the business-focused A. K. Yearling completely aside, Cricket rolled the idea around in her mind and liked the way it fit. "Daring and Ahuizotl are forced to team up against a bigger enemy that's threatening them both. That way, you get a notch in the win column, and I still don't get any notches in the lose column."

He arched an eyebrow. "A bit of a cliché, isn't it?"

She shrugged. "That's how things get to be clichés, pal: they work."

"It'll never work," Cricket said.

"Ha!" Ahuizotl was clinging to one of the two-story tall pyramids he'd put together behind the house using nothing but firewood and rope from her shed. "Detail for me how many death traps you have ever built!"

"A valid point." She had to smile. "But I've still managed to dismantle every one I've ever come across."

He scowled. "You will see, Daring Do! This will be the perfect scene with which to end the novel's third act!" His tail hand grabbed another coil of rope, and he began lashing a few more logs to one side of the thing.

Standing on the back porch, Cricket shook her head. The past month and a half had been, well, fun for want of a better word. More fun than she'd ever had as herself, at least. Yes, she loved venturing forth into the wild as Daring Do and living the civilized life as A. K. Yearling, but holing up in this cabin alone with her typewriter, that was what made her who she really was.

But this? Having Daring Do's arch-nemesis curled up under the nest of blankets he'd made for himself in the spare room downstairs kept her nerves humming the way they only did when she was trying to untangle some ancient cipher or evading fiendish cultist bent on her destruction. A. K. Yearling got to sleep in her own bed every night, got to eat three meals a day at her kitchen table, and got to engage in hours of conversation with a bombastic yet erudite houseguest. And Cricket found that working on a completely fictional adventure with one of the few other creatures in the world who knew what a true adventure was like—

It was the best of her three worlds, and she reveled in the way it scratched all her various itches at the same time.

They'd made good progress, too: hashing out plot points; arguing over the outline; scrawling thoughts and ideas and bits of dialogue on pieces of scrap paper that they then arranged and rearranged by pinning them to a section of the living room carpet. Cricket did the actual typing—the machine wouldn't respond to Ahuizotl's touch at all, it turned out—and she recited the lines aloud from their notes as she typed them so he could shout his corrections from where he paced back and forth in the room behind her.

Annoying? He most certainly was that; he and Daring had come extremely close to exchanging haymakers more than once. But as Daring had learned from Rainbow Dash and her friends last year, working alone wasn't the only way to work. And Ahuizotl had a gift for language that kept Cricket grinning while she typed. A couple of times, she'd very nearly asked him to call her 'Cricket,' a name she hadn't heard spoken aloud since she'd left home...

"Behold!" he announced, and she shook herself back to the present; he'd added what looked like a couple of scarecrow arms to the tops of his two firewood pyramids. "This is the trap Ahuizotl will set for Daring Do amidst the bones of the ancient Land Leviathan!"

"Really." She stepped down from the porch. "Flick a match at it, and the whole thing'll go up like a couple of torches, I'd say."

Snorting, he waved his arms. "Exercise your paltry imagination if you can, Daring Do! The complex itself would be four times this size and fashioned from solid granite!" He gestured to the ropes. "The trap would be fashioned from steel cables as thick as your leg and twice as supple! But once they have wrapped themselves around our hapless heroine, there will be no escape for her!"

She pursed her lips and thought back to the scene that had started this argument just before they'd taken their lunch break. "So, this would all be desert, right?" She waved a hoof at the patchy grass, the forest pressing in along one side. "Land Leviathan's fossilized bones are scattered for an acre in every direction, and from what Daring Do understands of the prophecy at this point in the story, all she needs to do is find the one part of the monster that hasn't turned to stone." Nodding to his structure, she settled back to sit. "Why would she bother with something as obviously suspicious-looking as a double pyramid complex if she's got all this other ground she can search?"

"For one thing, she's not an idiot!" Hanging onto the top of the left pyramid with his tail hand, he folded his arms across his chest. "One would expect Daring Do to have picked up a bit of elementary knowledge during her career as a pseudo-scientist! She would therefore know that nothing of the Leviathan's physical being could've survived all these millennia without undergoing the process of fossilization!"

"Then what—?" An answer came to her, and she cocked her head. "Wait. In the legends Daring hears back in chapter two, you made sure I put in that line about Leviathan leaving its name and thoughts written across the landscape." She couldn't help surging to her hooves as if she really were standing out in a deserted field of bones. "You're gonna tell me these pyramids are built right over Leviathan's front paws or something like that. Right where the monster would've written its last words before the curse killed it."

Ahuizotl's teeth seemed to gleam in the early afternoon sunlight. "The one part of the monster that hasn't turned to stone." He tapped the side of his head. "Its final thoughts scrawled on the spot where it breathed its last!"

Caught in the moment, Cricket half-closed her eyes. "I can just see it now. Daring would be standing on the thing's spine, these mounds of stone jutting up from the sands of the silent desert around her. She would turn slowly at the thought and look up along the spine to where the skull lies." She stomped the ground. "We'll have its arms folded under its snout so its chin is resting on its front paws! And the pyramid complex will be sitting right there at the end of its nose! She'll have no choice but to investigate!"

"Excellent!" he shouted. "And then she will fall into the trap Ahuizotl has strung for her!"

"Ha!" Cricket started forward, her senses alive in ways they'd never been before. "The triggers are obvious: there, there, there, and there." She pointed a hoof at what had to be pressure points on the surface of the pyramids and the wooden plaza he'd laid out between them. "The doors are suspicious, too, so she'll need to—"

Something clicked under her hoof; Cricket leaped to the side, but not fast enough. Ropes sprang from among the lashed-together logs and coiled themselves around her legs and barrel. They tripped her, spun her sideways, and sent her skidding across the logs to bump her nose against the base of the pyramid on the right. "Ow," she said.

"Eloquent as always." Ahuizotl's voice came from above and behind, and she managed to roll enough so she could see him climbing down and settling into a squat beside her.

Her throat wanted to tighten, but she wouldn't let it. "Huh." She blew out a breath like she wasn't Cricket lying bound and helpless before Daring Do's arch-nemesis. "I guess maybe that would work."

"Yes," he said, and just that one word made shivers crackle down her spine. "But now, you see, we come to the crux of our act three, the mid-point of the story, if you will, the climax toward which all the action so far has been rising." He reached down and stroked a finger along the side of her head. "For Ahuizotl has had Daring Do caught in his death traps before, but he has never done the one thing he really should've done the very first time." His finger moved to rest under her chin. "He has never simply wrapped his hands around her neck and strangled her, or grabbed her firmly below the ears and snapped her skull from her spine." The pressure of his finger forced her head up till she was looking into his narrowed eyes. "This has always seemed odd to me."

Cricket made herself give as much of a shrug as she could while surreptitiously setting the Daring Do part of her to work stretching and relaxing her hind legs to loosen the ropes. "Art imitates life, I guess. I mean, I can't very well write that Ahuizotl kills Daring Do when, like you say, he never has."

He nodded. "Then why shouldn't he do it now? Yes, I know that in our plot outline, we have him and Daring Do reach an agreement to cooperate lest the Land Leviathan return to life and in its madness destroy everything they both deem worthwhile. And yes, the resurrectionists have thwarted Ahuizotl quite thoroughly throughout the early chapters of the book. But that doesn't mean he's incapable of stopping them on his own. He might get lucky." A second finger folded down to join the first crooked under Cricket's chin. "Luck is going his way at the moment, after all. Should he not take advantage of the situation in which he suddenly finds himself?"

Breathing in and breathing out, Cricket kept Daring Do focused on stretching, relaxing, stretching, relaxing and wouldn't let even the idea of breaking eye contact with Ahuizotl cross any part of her mind. "Well, for one thing, he's not an idiot," she said. "He knows he's gonna need a very specific sort of pony magic to see this thing through, and we've already seen in the second act of the story how that sort of magic doesn't work for him. Also, why would he take the chance? The rewards if he and Daring Do pull this off will be more than substantial, but, well, so will the penalties if they fail." Kay started recalling the punitive sections of the contract they'd signed, but no way was Cricket going to push this little discussion out of the realm of fiction.

He didn't move, as still as a stone idol half-covered with undergrowth. "All valid points," he rumbled. "But you do see his dilemma, do you not? For he has her right here." The pressure increased under her chin. "Right here."

The smile she gave him then was slow and sardonic and quite thoroughly practiced. "And he'll have her there again. They both know it. It's just that right now, they've got a bigger problem to deal with. And they can only deal with it together."

Another moment quivered in the air between them, and then he sighed. "Yes." He pulled away from her just as the ropes around her hind legs loosened enough to let her spring into a sitting position. But by then, he had already loped halfway across the yard. "Perhaps we could take the rest of the day off," he called without looking back, his voice tight and growling. "I fear I'm feeling somewhat uninspired at the moment!" And he vanished into the trees.

"Okay!" she called after him, a few shimmies sliding the rest of the ropes from around her midsection and upper torso. "Bright and early tomorrow morning, though! I'll just type up the scene in the pyramid tonight now that we know how it goes!"

Only the chirping of the birds and the wind in the branches answered her. Trotting onto the porch, she pushed into the kitchen, closed the door behind her, and collapsed into a twitching pile on the floor. For two seconds—two seconds!—she'd dropped her guard, had stopped being both Daring Do and A. K. Yearling, had truly revealed Cricket to the outside world, and she'd come that close to literally getting her head torn off! The fear and the hatred and the anger that had splintered her all those years ago flooded through her mind—

And she clung to them, breathed them in, breathed them out, and breathed them in again. She could use these emotions, she knew, not just in the pyramid scene but also in the scene where the resurrectionists finally realize that the Land Leviathan plans to make them its first victims.

Climbing to her hooves, Cricket wrenched open the ice box and grabbed the pitcher of tea steeping there. She needed to get to work while it was all still fresh in her mind.

"So without any further ado," Dust Jacket said with a smile that Kay recognized: instead of seeing the ponies crowding into the Barns & Kobold bookstore, he was seeing the bits in their saddlebags, "let me introduce the best-selling authors you've all come here to see this evening! Fillies and gentlecolts, A. K. Yearling and Ozzie Yodel!"

They'd been putting the final touches on the typescript when Cricket had first suggested the pseudonym to him. Ahuizotl had stormed around the front room in outrage until she'd pointed out that if he laid claim to the identity of the character in the books, he would also lay claim to the crimes the character had committed. He'd settled down pretty quickly after that.

She glanced over at him now as the crowd began whistling and stomping. In his tweed coat and horn-rimmed glasses, he certainly didn't look like the megalomaniac who'd nearly killed her a dozen times in the past decade, and padding out onto the stage beside her, he almost seemed embarrassed, ducking his head and smiling shyly. The glint behind those glasses, though, told Daring exactly how much he was eating this all up.

Still, the whole party went off without a hitch. The two of them unveiled the over-sized lithograph of the book cover that they were auctioning off for charity—Cricket's regular artist, Bristol Board, had done a terrific job on the Land Leviathan looming above the figures of Daring Do and Ahuizotl—and when the bookstore staff wheeled out the carts filled with special editions, the crowd practically stampeded to get their hooves on them.

After the auction, the signing went on for hours, but Ahuizotl didn't threaten to disembowel anypony at all. In fact, the big jerk was obviously basking in the admiration of the ponies who lined up to get their signatures. He repeated the story that he and Cricket had come up with—Ozzie and Kay had known each other since their university days, but he'd never considered collaborating with her on a project until she'd asked him during one of their frequent get-togethers for lunch—and it flowed out of him with such sincerity that Daring and Cricket both vowed to never, ever trust him or anything he said. A written contract, of course, was a different matter, and Kay allowed that she might just work with him again under the right circumstances...

It wasn't until it was all over, the books sold and signed and the two of them strolling down the sidewalks of Manehattan toward the hotel, that he let his persona slip. His shoulders hunched forward under his coat, and that familiar aura of cold menace shimmered up around him. "Dust Jacket asked if I might be interested in writing a spin-off series focusing on Ahuizotl's attempts to take over the world. Something for the pre-adult market, he said, and he used the nonsensical phrase, 'Dark but light.'" He puffed a breath through his nostrils. "Nonetheless, I find it to be quite the tempting offer."

Cricket shrugged. "You'll need to hire a pony to work the typewriter for you. Or get one of your minions to do it, I guess."

He glared at her, but she wasn't worried. Daring and Kay were each more than tough enough to deal with him. "Deadlines are tricky, though," Cricket said with a grin. "Might be you'll find you won't have time for much else but working on stories."

His eyebrows bristled. "I will remind you, Daring Do, that I still mean to destroy you and everything you stand for."

Part of her wanted to sigh and say she felt the same way sometimes. But instead, Daring winked Cricket's eye through Kay's glasses. "Get in line, pal," she said. "Get in line."
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