Step by step.
Through the frozen wastelands, corrupted by tremendous amounts of delicious yet poisonous ice - an acid that keeps you warm and full so long as you keep in that place. But start moving - and the toxin will deplete your insides till they rot and you die in pain, lost and forgotten.
Step by step.
Through the volcanic wilderness, flaming with radioactive fire that burns your coat and skin, getting to the very meat of your weary muscles. But then it stops, making you a living corpse - an unprotected moving pile of bones and muscles.
Step by step.
Through the desert, created by the last flash of Armageddon - a symbol of ceaseless struggle within nature. Born from dust, deceased to dust. The desert... The lifeless creature where the corpses of the valiant and traitors lie side by side, emphasising the insignificance of life.
Step by step.
Through the ruins of ancient towns and villages - the reiterated repetition of the same dull scenery: piles of cold stones and black dust that will never vanish, no matter how hard you try to forget.
Step by step.
The last remnants of night were still covering the lifeless waste ground when the unperturbed silence of that place was suddely interrupted by a sound of hooves hitting the ground. A shadowy figure that only slightly resembled a pony was moving through the wasteland. If one were to look closer, they would clearly see it to be an earth pony, of the common variety. His black coat was covered with dust that was almost hiding his true colour. His mane and tail formed a tangled mass, losing their natural lavender colour, as if they were pretending to be black as well, to conceal their owner in the night.
The pony dragged his hooves in exhaustion. It seemed as though his each next step would be his last. However, he gritted his teeth in unspoken pain and continued his pointless journey. His red eyes were dull, and the only light in them was the light of despair and humility. Despair that showed he stopped finding any point in that constant desert voyage. Humility that showed he kept struggling against death only automatically, not paying a single thought to the actions he kept performing. Raise a hoof. Move a centimetre. Stomp the hoof. Repeat the process.
All of a sudden, he stumbled over a rock. Under other circumstances, the small item wouldn't have been an impassable obstacle for the muscular and strong earth pony, but, considering the inconceivable fatigue that had been following him for days (or were they weeks? He couldn't remember exactly), he fell on the dusty ground, his head hitting the ill-timed rock.
He hoped he would faint. He didn't. So he had two choices: either to die, covered by sand that soon enough would be brought upon by the ill wind, impervious to everything surrounding it, or to remain alive and continue the pointless struggle.
The black pony let out a heavy sigh. He lay on the ground for some time, collecting the bits of energy he had. The waste ground was slowly changing into a desert, when the hot dry wind spread the ground with hot sand. The pony gritted his teeth. He couldn't lie there any longer, or else he would be covered with the deadly substance. He rose on his knees, lowering his head and breathing heavily. It was a great show of power for him: though it was not clear from the distance, his legs were trembling and it was extremely difficult for him just to keep his head straight, not letting it fall on the ground, attracting the whole body with it, only to forget his suffering and give himself up to the endless dream of Death.
A second later, he was standing erect, slightly shivering but remaining still nevertheless. The wind was blowing through him, almost penetrating his tissues, making him take a step back. That was nothing for the sinister wind but very important for the lavender-maned pony. A step back. A whole step. Gaining a small, almost insignificant amount of physical might from some unknown resources, the pony stubbornly took a few steps forth, only to prove that his pride still remained somewhere deep within his body.
Alas, the wind was not impressed - it hit the pony with increased might, making him swallow his useless pride and fall on the ground again. Now, the pony noticed, he felt light-headed, as if he were going to faint. And, to his deepest pleasure, he felt the valet of Death approaching him, making him lose consciousness.
He opened his eyes. A flash of bright artificial light was the first thing that met him, enveloping his whole body, warming his limbs. The light was so intense that he had to spend the next minute adjusting to it. When the black pony regained the ability to see things clearly, he realised he was lying on a bed - not a shadow of a bed, like he had seen in the shelters and abandoned towns - but a real bed, with clean sheets and a cosy pillow. In front of the bed stood a tall red unicorn, who was grinning widely. His teeth were completely white - so were his mane and tail. He looked young - presumably, in his early twenties - and, what was unusual for most ponies of those dark times, his eyes were shining with youthful vigour and he stood tall and majestic, shining with happiness, radiating hope.
The black pony mechanically glanced at the unicorn's flank, only to find no cutie mark. What did he expect - the radiation literally wiped out all cutie marks in the world, leaving the new foals... How to put it... talentless. No hope. No guide. No faith. No talent. Isn't it so beautiful to be alive?
Such thoughts didn't last long enough for the black pony to speculate about them, since his stream of consciousness was interrupted by the red unicorn, who waved a hoof before the bed.
"Hey there, pal! Feeling better?" He asked, somehow maintaining his grin.
The black pony nodded. He was too tired to say a word.
"The name's Golden Lance, but everypony around just calls me Lancy. Do call me so, please," the red unicorn continued.
Does he ever close that smiling mouth of his? The black pony silently wondered, while noticing that the grin was magically assuring. He wanted to call that strange unicorn 'Lancy', somewhere deep inside, maybe even against his will. The thought ceased in his mind, and the trails to it became muddled, disallowing the brain to make further associations.
He finally managed to open his mouth and, licking his cracked lips, said:
"Silver Dawn." Then he burst into an especially severe fit of coughing, tears streaming from his eyes, crawling down his face and finally losing their tracks in his black fur.
The red unicorn levitated a glass of water, bringing it to the earth pony's mouth, who gladly accepted the much desirable liquid, drinking it in small but fast gulps.
After such a treatment, Silver Dawn's throat became less sore and he finally felt able to speak properly. He let out a final cough and sat up in the bed.
"I'm in a hospital, right?" He asked, looking around, slowly moving his aching head.
The room was disturbingly bright. The white walls reflected the artificial light of a single bulb that was hanging right above the bed. The bulb was swinging but the light didn't flicker at all: it remained overwhelmingly blinding. There was no furniture in the room, apart from the bed, of course. Frankly speaking, it was a great achievement to keep the whole place clean, lighted and provide the room with a real wooden bed so there was no use complaining about lack of other pieces of furniture. The curtains were dark red, keeping the light inside while protecting the room from any other sources of illumination.
Lancy... Golden Lance grinned from ear to ear, before speaking again:
"Well, Silver... I may call you Silver, right?"
The black pony nodded but the unicorn continued talking without taking this silent approval into consideration.
"You see, Silver, pal, you may call this place a hospital but we call it 'House of Health' instead. A more inviting name, don't you think?" The unicorn carried on, still paying no attention to another nod from the earth pony.
"So let's call it 'House of Health', shall we?" Lancy finished, still keeping his wide grin.
Silver Dawn shook his head. Why not? He thought. Surprisingly, even to himself, he said aloud:
"Sorry, um... Lancy, but I'll keep calling it a 'hospital'. You know, I'm kind of used to old names."
The red unicorn raised his brow, not dropping the grin.
"Interesting... Such hypnotic protection... Where are from, pal, if you don't mind my asking?" He mumbled under his breath, sharply raising his voice at the end of the question.
The black pony shrugged, shaking his head.
"Before the Cataclysm I used to live in a small town called Ponyville... Like that matters now..." He said, his voice dropping to a sad whisper. When he raised his head, he realised the unicorn was no more grinning. Silver could see sympathy in his eyes - maybe even a sign of empathy.
"Everything matters, Silver, pal. Say, how old are you?" Lancy wondered with strange, unhealthy curiosity.
The black earth pony narrowed his eyes.
"Twenty-four... If that matters," he said, trying to break through that impenetrable mask on the unicorn's face to find out about his true intentions. Nothing is free - you have to pay your price for everything. That was what the dark, almost lifeless, world had taught Silver Dawn, and he always kept that in mind.
"Oh, it does!" Lancy exclaimed, his grin returning to the bright face. "But first of all, would you like an excursion around Stealth?"
"Stealth?.." Silver asked in lack of understanding, getting up and finally standing on his four legs, stretching his limbs.
"That's our town - Stealth!" The unicorn exclaimed, trotting in the direction of the door. "See for yourself, pal! Come on!'' He shouted, leaving the room.
Silver Dawn shrugged and slowly followed the strange unicorn outside.
To say that the town was breathtaking was to say nothing. It was a large town, not as big as Canterlot, of course, but twice as big as Ponyville. Two- and three-storey buildings were neatly put on the both sides of a wide road paved with polished flint. To Silver's astonishment, there were not only living houses, but also a wide web of infrastructure: hospitals and shops, schools and libraries, casinos and sports centres - they were everywhere, shining with all colours of the rainbow, luring ponies, who were passing by, with striking illumination and neon signs that read: Welcome to Stealth.
Ponies of all races and varieties were trotting up and down the road, chatting with each other or looking around, choosing where they should go first of all. There were unicorns, pegasi and earth ponies, who walked side by side, unperturbed by their obvious racial differences. However, something was bothering Silver: all the ponies he had seen so far were young - too young, to his mind, - but he decided not to concentrate his attention on such things yet.
As the two ponies began walking down the road, Lancy began speaking, sublimely, gesticulating with a hoof, like an orator standing before an audience.
"...And the best thing, Silver, pal, is that everypony is accepted here. Yes, everypony! Stealth is a town built by refugees for refugees. Anypony who is considered an outcast there..." The unicorn's grin faded for a second as he said that word, full of disdain, referring, no doubt, to the outside world. "...is welcome here. Assassins and terrorists, rebels and adventurers, victims of racism and political dissidents, colt-cuddlers and filly-foolers - everypony, I repeat, everypony is welcome in Stealth!" Lancy finished his tirade on an especially high note, raising both his hoof and head high in the air, almost beginning to hover above the ground.
The black pony couldn't suppress a mild chuckle, for the speech carried so much passion. But... All of this was so... unusual. So unreal. So similar to some of his dreams that he had occasionally, on cold nights, after a prayer for dawn to come faster, after fervent days of constant survival. But here happiness reigned. Happiness everywhere. Young faces filled with bright, almost narcotic rapture. There were excited faces, laughing faces, blissful faces, loving faces... But where were hating faces, faces filled with sorrow and despair, faces expressing deepest regrets about what happened to their poor planet? Those youngsters seemed so... content.
Suddenly, Silver found himself before a two-storey stone building, with no windows and a large wooden door with some bizarre symbols encrypted in it.
Lancy patted the black earth pony on the back, smiling as usual.
"Now, Silver, pal, if you would just stand back for a sec," he said, gently but firmly.
Silver Dawn obeyed and took a few steps back.
The unicorn's horn glowed with golden light, a small orb of magical energy forming above his head. He gently shook his head and the orb hit the door. The black pony awaited a destructive explosion but it never came: instead, the orb spread about the door, making the very structure of the wood glow - and then the door opened, revealing a single, yet insanely large, room filled with countless bookshelves.
"Welcome to the Library, or, how we call it, our 'House of Wisdom'," Lancy said, entering the building, waving a hoof to Silver, inviting him.
The shocked earth pony proceeded through the doorway, into the library.
Silver Dawn instantly realised that the place wasn't called 'House of Wisdom' for nothing: an unimaginable, even scary amount of books met the pony, surrounding him from all directions. There were large shelves with dusty, almost shattered books and there were bookcases with new shiny books in all kinds of covers, there were shelves with magazines hanging low enough for foals to approach them easily and there were such tall bookcases that it seemed they were propping up the ceiling. And they were indeed!
The black pony lost himself in the ocean of books surrounding him. How many of them had been brought here? Hundreds? Thousands? He had just opened his mouth to ask Lancy where they had received such a wide variety of such valuable printed production when the unicorn replied to his unspoken question.
"Impressive, huh? Every year, every month, sometimes every week ponies arrive here and bring knowledge with them. And knowledge is hidden in the depths of the books' pages, as you know. Got any books, Silver, pal?" The red unicorn asked, turning his head towards the black earth pony, who shook his head lamentably.
"No, Lancy, I'm an adventurer, I have no time for reading books," Silver replied.
Lancy shrugged, walking along the bookcases, gently and lovingly stroking the books' covers.
"Well, Silver, pal, you'll have a lot of time to educate yourself," he said.
Just as the black pony was going to say he would leave soon, a blue unicorn who looked like a librarian came up to them, raising her brow.
"Who's that, Lancy?" She asked, planting a small peck on the red unicorn's cheek.
"A newbie, Star. His first day here," Lancy replied, maintaining his speciality grin, softening his look a bit as he spoke to the librarian.
Silver Dawn couldn't help admiring the mare. She was a stunning representative of her species: her curvy body, smooth blue coat, orange mane that looked as if it were on fire all the time - the black pony simply couldn't turn his eyes away from the librarian. Star... That's her name... He thought, trying to be polite and stop staring at the beautiful pony.
"Librarian Shining Star," the blue unicorn said, paying Silver a curious look.
"Yes, I see..." The black pony mumbled, blushing slightly. "I mean, my name's Silver Dawn but you can call me Silver... if you want..." He recollected his manners suddenly, still mumbling at the end of his introduction.
The mare chuckled.
"Oh, I will, Silver..." She whispered seductively, winking at the young adventurer, slightly touching him with her flaming tail.
The black pony was glad that his black coat hid the deepest blush he had by that time.
"Say, Lancy," she addressed the red unicorn unconstrainedly, like she had instantly forgotten about Silver. "Could you check the Sphere today? Flicky is terribly ill - we had to take him to House of Health this morning."
Lancy nodded energetically.
"Sure, why not? I was just going to show the Sphere to Silver - here's the chance!" He said excitedly, immediately trotting out of the library, almost dragging the stunned earth pony with him, whispering: "Come on, you'll have the chance to get a closer look at the books later." He winked at Silver, who snatched out of his frozen stance and followed the red unicorn outside willingly.
For a moment, they stood outside, letting the fresh air fill their lungs.
"Gosh, she's hot," Lancy said to Silver, chuckling at how the earth pony immediately blushed.
"I don't know what you are talking about..." Silver Dawn mumbled, flushing. He liked the librarian mare but he surely didn't want to show his affection.
The red unicorn burst into laughter. He was laughing stiffly, unrealistically. His smile was strained, and this fit of laughter was forced as well, Silver noticed. The whole town looked strange enough to the adventurer and he was looking forward to leaving it as soon as possible. When he looked up, he saw that Golden Lance was at least fifty steps ahead, waving for him to follow.
Silver Dawn sighed and, looking around and still meeting the same whirligig of happy faces, trotted towards Lancy, ready to follow the strange red unicorn anywhere he would take the poor stranger, lost in the tangle of emotions of a big town - something he was dreaming of but at the same time something he was very afraid of.
As the recently acquainted ponies walked along the road, Silver Dawn ceased to listen to Lancy's constant chatter and delved deeper into his own feelings about life in general and this improbable place he found himself in so suddenly and so unexpectedly. Life had always been cruel enough to Silver. The black pony lost his kin and friends during the last great Cataclysm, and, for two or three months after the shocking occasion, he had wished he were dead, his body lying somewhere deep beneath the rotten earth, his soul flying high above the clouds, pleased and content with the feeling of being free and near his loved ones.
Years passed, times changed and the once naive colt changed with them. He lost his faith, throwing the unneeded atavism away, in the direction of the old life - life long forgotten, and life he once wanted but now never desired to reclaim. He lost his hope, burying it in the once fertile soil of Ponyville, which now served as a silent cemetery for those who lived there some time.
His muscles became stronger, his body felt firm and hard - a sign he was becoming a fair stallion. He could get no new knowledge, for he couldn't find any books, but he had received wisdom - a generous gift from the new world, world of dead nature, dead creatures and dead emotions. He set out on a journey - once he had a reason, but now he couldn't remember what it could be. He crossed the frozen wasteland, the volcanic wilderness, he passed ruins and deserts - and he remained alive.
He lived to survive and, to his embarrassment, he liked it. He didn't simply get used to constant struggling against the sinister world - he enjoyed it. It was like all his foalhood dreams of becoming an adventurer came true with a flash - a flash of destruction, a flash of eternal damnation, but a flash of a new dawn nevertheless.
He started to cherish his loneliness. When he lay on the frozen ground, using a pile of cold stones as a pillow; when he climbed the summits of mountains that seemed unapproachable for an equine creature, not to mention of the earth pony variety; when he walked along the craters, his mane and tail burnt and charred; when he cried in despair over the ruins of ancient towns whose inhabitants had passed away and whose knowledge was lost forever - somewhere deep in his heart, he was pleased with the idea that he might be the last living pony - maybe even the last living being! - on the corrupted planet once called Equestria.
He struggled with his weary mind every day, albeit he lost the very feeling of existence of time: one part of him wanted to remain alone forever, taking pride in the fact of his specialness, even uniqueness; the other part wanted to spend at least several years before his inevitable death with other living creatures, or (he had dreamt of it many times, smiling in his uneasy sleep) even ponies - equines, just as he was, of all colours and races, living together happily...
And now he saw it. He saw that wonderful dream come true. Stealth was full of happy ponies of all races and colours... Then why was his heart feeling saddening pain inside? Why was he anxious about meeting other ponies? Why was he keeping his head low, trying not to look at the cheerful red unicorn, who was telling him something excitedly? Was it... because he ceased to be unique the moment he found himself in this town?..
"Silver, pal, snap out of your dreamy dreams about Star - we've arrived!" A shout from Lancy, corroborated with an especially rough yet somehow friendly pat on the back made the black earth pony start and look around, swiftly regaining his ability to think properly and understand what was happening to him at the moment.
After a second of adjusting, Silver Dawn blinked and looked around.
The road had ended, and they were now standing in a square that was filled with ponies. The square was paved with finest marble - it was of a strange variety since it looked entirely transparent, yet didn't let a bit of light through. There were pillows neatly put all around the place, designed specially for comfortable sitting or lying. In the middle of this plain square, however, was some kind of a pedestal made of some weird material: it looked cyan with inclusions of dark blue, and the material glowed with mystical, otherworldly light - so did the large ball of the same material that was placed on the pedestal. It was a sphere, yet it didn't roll away, although it wasn't held in place by ropes or any kinds of fasteners.
"That's the Sphere, Silver, pal. That's it..." The red unicorn said dreamily, smiling blissfully, as a fanatic would smile whilst admiring his idol.
Silver Dawn looked at Lancy with circumspection. He was a non-believer, yet he didn't want to breed strife between the religious beliefs of others and his prosaic worldview.
"So... what is it exactly?" He carefully asked, trying not to cast a shadow on the influence the spherical object had on Lancy.
"It is the Sphere - a device without which we wouldn't be able to survive," Lancy replied, walking around the Sphere, checking it with utmost accuracy.
"And how does it work?" the black pony wondered in the same tone.
"You see, Silver, pal..." The red unicorn stopped. "This may sound bizarre to you but it's common knowledge for us citizens of Stealth..." He looked straight into Silver's eyes. "When a pony reaches a certain age... twenty-five, to be exact..." Lancy put a hoof on the black pony's shoulder. "The Sphere consumes him, giving us the energy to maintain our infrastructure. It's a source of energy for us - and, may I say, a reliable one." The grin faded, replaced with another one.
Only now Silver noticed what was shocking about Lancy - he left the impression of a successful manager united with a mad scientist, the most dangerous kind of pony.
Twenty-five... That's why only youngsters could be seen in this town - the older ones were wiped out - no, consumed alive by that device of happiness and torture. Happiness for the young, torture for the old. But what is 'old'? Silver reminded himself that he had one year left till he turned twenty-five - the frightening limit of Stealth.
Okay, don't panic. He's crazy. Everypony is this town is. Just step back. Then slowly leave the place, the black earth pony thought, following his mental plan as he took a few steps back, only to notice he was circumscribed by four pegasi wearing armour and guns.
"Heh, you see - such things... the Sphere and all that... they're not within my ken, you see..." Silver mumbled.
"Silver, pal, you weren't thinking of running away, were you?" Lancy asked, his mad grin turning even wider. "Once you get here, you can never leave. Don't you worry, though. Soon enough you will be happy to be living here," he said, approaching the earth pony, his horn glowing - he was undoubtedly preparing some kind of spell.
Silver Dawn was surrounded - he realised this instantly and didn't try to run - for the sake of his life.
Golden Lance lowered his head, shooting a yellow orb of magic into the black pony's chest.
The last thing Silver could hear before falling asleep - from a sleep spell, no less - was Lancy's sweet and cheerful, yet so dreadful and categorical voice:
Welcome to Stealth.