I wasn’t sure why the building we were in had cells built into it. Whatever the reason, there were several rooms complete with thick metal bars and uncomfortable cots never actually designed to be slept on. Most of the lights were burnt out or broken, but the sole survivor against the test of time was doing its best to cast illumination into as many parts of the area as possible.
Pacing in one was a very grumpy-looking griffin. I’d never seen Ash without his weapons before, but the predatory air about him was not at all damaged. Flexing his claws, his eyes darting back and forth, looking for any chance of escape. He was one unhappy bird.
I was thrown into a cell across from Ash’s, containing another pony. A pegasus. He was either unconscious or dead, so I stayed away. Lemon Meringue left the room in a huff, angered that she had been relegated to what was essentially a delivery job.
I glanced around and found Shade in the cell next to mine, alongside Ivory. Trotting over, I nuzzled her through the bars for a few seconds before looking more thoroughly around. “Are you okay?” She nodded with a small smile.
“We’re fine too, Kick.” Ash’s voice came from across the room, where the griffin had now taken to blending into the shadow. I could make out his golden eyes in one corner of his cell, but not much else was visible.
I nodded. “Good to hear.” I was getting to that part. Glancing around, I noticed something was off. “Where’s Fluster?”
Ivory responded from the same cell as Shade, where she lounged on a cot, with the dismissive wave of a hoof. “She took off right before the steel ponies showed up. Haven’t seen her since.”
“How did they get the drop on you guys? Doesn’t seem like a pony encased in metal can do much sneaking.” Ash wasn’t the type to let something get that close to him. The grenade when we’d gotten into Orchard had been a rare lapse in his sensory abilities, but he’d been injured.
“We were just waiting around for Fluster to come back from wherever she’d gone, I assume she went scavenging. A door opens, and these metal ponies come rushing in. They start zapping, that’s the last thing I remember before waking up here.” Ivory still hadn’t gotten up, just laying there. I saw that the wounds she’d gained from the shrapnel had been healed, she had some plain gauze wrapped around her chest, but her eye was still bandaged.
“Come on, can ya keep it down a bit, my head is killing me.” I spun at the voice, not being one I recognized, ready to do some kicking. I may be unarmed, but I could still kick with the best of them. The pile of pony in the corner, the pegasus I’d noticed before, was looking back at me. He made no effort to get up, just rubbed one of his eyes sleepily. “I’m a little hungover... the noise isn’t helping.”
I stepped towards him cautiously. Had he been listening to us, or had he really just woken up? “You would be?”
He stumbled to his feet, wobbling a bit before leaning against the wall. Giving a little salute, mockingly, he introduced himself. “Crash Course. Scavenger.” He licked his lips a bit and looked around. “There anything to drink around here? Whiskey maybe?”
I sighed. Great, I was locked up with a drunk. Then his eyes settled on Ivory and opened wide. He stood, ran a hoof through his mane, and started trotting towards her. She looked at him suspiciously as he got close and started grinning. “Hey there, pretty eyes. What is a beautiful thing like you doing locked up in a place like this?”
Ivory sighed and turned away from him with a snort. I think she was still sensitive about the eye wound. I looked at Crash Course, shaking my head. “Back off. Don’t you have more important things to think about, like how you’re going to get out of here?”
“Hey, Kick, you want to change cells? I haven’t eaten a pegasus in a while.” Crash’s eyes shot open and he glanced over at the griffin, who was now up against the bars of his cell, staring at the winged pony with a hungry look in his eye. I’d seen that look. He was kidding, but I doubted Crash would know that. Crash shrank back, getting the hint.
“So...” His voice cracked a bit as he spoke, but at least he was on a different subject. “What are you folks in for? Don’t look like raiders.... too many pretty mares.” A glare from across the room made him wince. “The Rangers don’t normally take prisoners... I mean, unless they think they can get something out of them.”
True, I was waiting for Broken Arrow to tell me why he had kept us alive instead of shooting us all, but I couldn’t fathom what the Rangers could want from a drunken pegasus letch. Now that he was closer and in the light, I could make out his cutie mark. A brick with wings. Didn’t even need to ask for an explanation on that one. His bronze coat and black mane made him look like a rusted piece of metal.
“We were scavenging scrap. They caught us as we were evading raiders. Similar story to yourself, I believe.” I’d told the Rangers what we were looking for because they could have killed all of us without even trying. I could likely turning this pony into a fine paste. He didn’t need to know about the Cubes or the Ministry of Peace.
“Ponies of a like mind. I like that. Where you based out of? I stop though Blank every once in a while, but most of my haunts are up north. Mostly around Cowloon. Crazy town.” I was beginning to regret waking this pony up. He just kept talking.
Eventually I held up a hoof to cut him off. “Listen, Crash, could you just... stop talking?”
The pegasus halted mid sentence, his face freezing as it was. He looked at me and closed his mouth slowly, nodding. “Sorry... I talk too much sometimes. Auntie Mooriel always said that, then she’d shoot at me. She always missed though, that’s how I knew she was joking.” The look in my eyes made him stop talking. Slowly, he turned from me and went back to his spot in the corner, laying back down.
A few more minutes of being near Shade, that was all I wanted. I got what I asked for, at least for a little while before we were interrupted. Lemon Meringue came stomping through the door, another armored pony following behind her carrying a blocky weapon I couldn’t name. Ash perked up immediately and was against the bars, gesturing with one talon at his bandaged arm.
“You! You shot at me! That hurt, you scrap metal fuck!” If Ash could have torn through the bars and gotten at the armored pony with his claws, he would have.
The pony responded with an amplified chuckle. “Heh, you were just too good a target. Big and fat in the sky. Been a while since I got to shoot at a griffy. Heh, my aim was just a bit off, got soft shooting raiders. I won’t miss next time.”
Lemon Meringue looked back. “Notches, back down. Star Paladin Broken Arrow wants them alive for now. Give it some time.”
Notches, the armored pony with the laser, snorted and stood aside. Lemon opened my cell, and then she opened Ash’s cell, keeping a close eye on the angered griffin. Ash glared at Notches, flexing his claws, but held back from attacking. Notches just aimed the blocky rifle attached to his side at Ash, practically begging him to make the first move.
With a cough, Lemon broke both of their attention, before she began herding us out the door. Ash and I walked side by side, with the two Rangers following behind us. Lemon guided us by telling us what turns to take, what doors to go through. In the halls, I spotted a few other robed ponies, but very few armored ponies. I assumed they were all outside, keeping an eye on the raider army looking for ways in.
Eventually, we came to a room occupied by the armored Ranger in charge and another of the robed ponies. Our weapons and equipment were laying on a pair of tables, spread out. They’d clearly gone through and cleaned out anything that they deemed we wouldn’t need. My shothooves, the black case, and Broken were all there though, which brought a smile to my face. Ash’s rifle and revolver were also present. Our medical supplies were untouched.
“That shotgun of yours Rip. Very interesting piece of hardware. My scribes couldn’t quite place where it came from. Would you happen to know? Enlighten us?” Broken Arrow still had his helmet on, his voice distorted and amplified. I shook my head, glaring at him. Even if I knew how I’d gotten Broken, I wouldn’t tell them.
“You’re not very helpful, are you? You’re lucky we can use you, or we’d have taken your leg off to get that PipBuck there. It does tell me a lot about you though.” He approached the two of us, standing there in the middle of the room under armed guard. “There’s only one stable in Hornsmith that we know of. Stable 87. So that makes you an enigma. You should be one of the raiders outside, but you’re not. From the intelligence we’ve gathered, the only of your kind that leave Neighwhere are either running away or one of the leaders of that gang. What are they called, Knight Lemon Meringue?”
The yellow mare with the exposed head spoke quickly. “Paragons, Star Paladin Broken Arrow.”
He nodded. “Thank you. Paragons. Two of which we have determined are leading the army at our gates. Now wouldn’t it be interesting if a third Paragon happened to have fallen right into our hooves? I wonder what we would be able to do with something like that.”
I had a very bad feeling of where this was leading.
“So you’re either a Paragon, or you’re a runaway that, like you said, has taken to fighting back against the rest of the ponies that came out of that Stable. Either way, you will help us.”
He stopped and looked at me. I took this as my cue to speak. “Help you do what?”
“You’re going to get rid of the raiders for us. We don’t have the horsepower to mount a full attack, and it has been deemed prudent to outsource to ponies with specific skills to alleviate the problem facing us.” He nodded his head towards the weapons placed on the table. “You two will arm up, infiltrate the raider camp, and kill the Paragons. Without leadership, the army will most likely scatter to the wasteland. Raiders fall to infighting so easily. The siege will be lifted. You’ll be free to go on your way.”
Fucker. I’d fought two paragons. The first had leveled a small section of a town, the second had been so powerful we had to run or be burnt to death. To ask us to kill two Paragons... I glanced at Ash and he shook his head gravely.
“Don’t think of running either. Rip, I don’t believe you are willing to leave that blue mare we have in the cell. You’re such a cute couple, nuzzling each other like that.” Shit. Fuck. I hadn’t been thinking that they’d be watching, and had exposed that Shade was a serious weakness of mine.
The armored head swiveled to look at the fuming griffin. I could see that Lemon Meringue was clearly enjoying this, and a slight twitching from Notches made me realize that he was chuckling. Broken Arrow continued in that low rumble, taking a few steps towards Ash until he was within claw distance.
“Ashred, I don’t think we have anything to stop you from leaving. I know how you griffins work though, so I can assume that your contract is with one of the ponies you are travelling with. It doesn’t really matter who, as we’re keeping everypony but Rip in the cells until you get back. If either of you don’t come back... well, we’ll see how long they last without food or water.”
Ash was growling, a strange sound to hear coming from a beak. I was clenching my teeth, using every bit of self restraint I had to stop from lunging at Broken Arrow. I was sure that I could get at least one good kick in before I was vaporized, though with the armor I wasn’t entirely sure that it would be lethal. I wanted this pony dead... and I wanted to get away alive. That didn’t seem to be an option right now.
I would kill Broken Arrow. Someday, I would rip him apart with my bare hooves. Ponies like him deserved nothing less.
The despised Ranger stepped back with a sweep of one leg. “You may arm yourselves with your gear. It wouldn’t make much sense for us to send you out on this task without supplying you with the necessary tools, would it?”
I began pulling on my barding, as Ash went about strapping on the belts and pouches that held his weapons and equipment. It was a silent few minutes as we fully re-equipped, interspersed with venomous glares at the heavily armed Rangers watching us.
Sliding Broken, which I could tell was unloaded, into its holster at my side, I was ready to go. Ash was similarly prepared, though he was nervously running a single bullet through his fingers. Notches and the griffin were still having their staredown. Ash tossed the bullet lightly in the air and snatched it, holding it up for Notches to see. “This one’s for you. I’m saving it.” With that, he tucked the bullet into his belt, and turned to me. “Let’s get this over with.”
He hadn’t grinned since before I’d gone down into the Cube chamber. I’d never seen him this mad.
“Knight Lemon Meringue, Knight Notches, if you would be so kind as to escort our friends to the rear entrance, I believe it is time for them to go about the task they’ve been assigned.” With that, Broken Arrow dismissed us, before he turned and walked out of the room.
“Come on then griffy. You and your unicorn friend lead the way.” Notches laughed as he prodded at Ash with a hoof. We left the room opposite of where the Star Paladin had, back into the halls. We walked in silence, Ash likely planning exactly where he would shoot Notches. I was working our predicament through in my head. We were masterfully fucked.
I hadn’t seen too many other Rangers in the halls, but the two behind us were enough that if we tried anything I doubted that there would be much left of our bodies. Our weapons were unloaded, and that right there was enough to stop us trying anything. As long as they held Shade and Ivory, I wouldn’t try anything anyways. I couldn’t put it past Broken Arrow to just kill both of them if I made even one hostile move.
“Here we are. Get the door.” Lemon Meringue was still grumpy at being overruled by Broken Arrow, and nodded Ash towards a small door on one wall. It wasn’t exactly what I expected. Very nondescript. Ash pulled on the handle and large metal bars built into the door slid out of the wall, after which the griffin pushed the door open. No cracking, no flaking rust, no shooting sparks, no noise at all. I don’t know why, but I was distracted by the fact that this was the only door I’d encountered that hadn’t done any of those things.
Then we were outside, the door closing behind us. Both of us immediately began loading our guns. “Kick... any plans? How the fuck are we going to do this?”
I stood there, loading shells into my hoof guns as well as Broken. My shoulders drooped a bit, my voice sounding defeated as I admitted to Ash what I had hated to admit to myself. “I... I have no idea. Two paragons? We had a hard enough time with one.”
The griffin let out a deep sigh, dropping onto all fours. “Remind me to thank Ivory for the whole idea of heading up here.” Ash huffed after he said it, when it hit me. I still hadn’t even told him I found the cube.
“Well, Shade and I found another Cube back before the steel fucks jumped us. At least we got that.”
The griffin nodded. “Well... I guess it’s not all a waste. We’re still fucked though.”
Beaten before we’d even started. This sucked. We stood there for a minute, staring at the ground, before I broke the silence. “How about we find the raider camp at least? Maybe you can pick the Paragons off from a distance, then we can get back here, grab the girls, and get out of here.”
The griffin nodded slightly. “That could work.” Standing on his hind legs, he craned his neck up to look around. He pointed off down the path. “There’s smoke that way. Probably the camp.”
We headed towards the plume of smoke rising into the sky, trying to think of an actual plan. It couldn’t get much worse.
Then it started raining again.
The first raiders we came upon were an easy target. We heard voices through an open door, the building it was set into collapsed and desolate. Sneaking in behind them, we caught the pair completely off guard. A mare and a stallion, sneaking off to get in some private alone time. I would have felt bad about taking advantage of the situation if I wasn’t in such a foul mood. A raider was a raider, no matter what they were doing.
Ash pulled the stallion off of the mare, razor sharp talons biting into the raider’s throat enough to draw blood. The mare found the barrel of Broken floating a few inches from her eye. Looking up into my eyes fearfully, I could only return a glare.
The griffin slammed the Stallion into the ground, drawing out a shout of pain. The mare whimpered in response, and a pang of guilt shot through me. Come on, Ripple. These are raiders. The enemy.
She’s a looker too. Nice and ready. Go for it. You know you want to.
I knocked my PipBuck against the side of my head, the pain shutting the voice in my head up briefly. I had to get back to Shade fast.
Or get some Stampede. It’s been a while.
The mare shrank back from me, probably thinking I was crazy. Though if the raiders that had been chasing us earlier had returned to their friends, it was likely that every raider in Orchard knew that a fallen Paragon was stalking the ruins.
“Do you know who I am?”
The mare nodded her head quickly, squeaking out a response. “Two Kick.”
Fear would get me what I wanted. The voice in my head chuckled and congratulated me, but I responded with a small mental snarl. Shut the fuck up.
Looking down at the mare, I pressed Broken into her neck. “So you know what I can do. Now I want you to answer some questions.”
She was shaking now. Her day had gotten bad fast. That seemed to be going around. Shaking her head, she looked over at the stallion that Ash had pressed to the ground. None of his wounds were fatal, but I knew that the griffin could tear through the pony’s throat with a light flick of his wrist.
“The Paragons leading all of you. Who? Where?”
For a few seconds, I was afraid that she wouldn’t talk. That I’d have to shoot her. Her lip quivered and she started talking in a low voice, almost as though she were afraid the Paragons would be able to tell that she was betraying them.
“Holepunch and Flurry. Holepunch is in an old building we built camp around, west side of the ruins. Flurry.... we never know where Flurry is. Now... please, don’t kill me. Let us go.” I hesitated as she stared up at me, tears in her eyes. I’d told myself that every raider deserved a bullet in the head. I’d been holding that principal close. I’d broken it in the forest... I’d already let raiders go.
I heard a wet choking sound and my eyes shot over to Ash and the pony he held in his claws. One of his hands, the one that had formerly been holding the pony’s neck, was coated in blood. Life blood was pumping from the shredded remains of the stallion’s throat into a steadily growing pool on the floor beneath them.
The mare below me started screaming. I flipped Broken over and rammed it into the side of her head, knocking her unconscious. Sure that she was out, but not dead, I stormed over to the griffin. “We could have learned more from them! They probably would have left Orchard if we gave them the chance!”
The griffin snorted, licking some of the blood from his talons. “Feh, you need to drop the act, Kick. You’re a killer. Just like me. Your marefriend isn’t here for you to impress.”
I kicked him, square in the chest. He slammed into the wall, growling curses under his breath. Then he launched back at me with a beat of his powerful wings, slamming into me like a missile. We went over in a pile of fur and feathers, rolling across the floor kicking, punching, and biting.
We came to a stop against one wall. I felt his talons around my throat, the blood of the stallion still coating them, gripping just tight enough to pierce my hide. Broken was floating next to him, the barrel pressed firmly into his throat. A twitch from either of us would end the other.
We lay there like that, each daring the other to make the first move. A noise at the door interrupted us and instantly Broken and Ash’s revolver were aimed at the intruder, our squabble briefly forgotten.
Fluster let out a short squeak and ducked out of view. Seeing her caused Ash to let go of my throat and stand, stepping off of me. Holstering the weapon, he approached the door. “Miss Fluster, it’s fine; you can come out.”
There was the polite Ash I only saw around contract holders other than myself. The one I’d met first. A far cry from the one I’d been close to shooting seconds before.
I stood shakily, holstering Broken and shaking dust and blood out of my mane. Rubbing at my sore neck, I couldn’t help but grin as Fluster showed her hooded head slowly from around the door. Once she was sure that the fight was over, she entered the building. Her eye glanced at the dead stallion laying in a pool of blood, then at Ash and I, beaten as we were.
“You two aren’t allowed to fight. You’re supposed to protect me. That’s why I hired you.”
Ash grinned slightly, the first time I’d seen in a while. “Hard to protect you when you run off on us, Miss Fluster.”
Closing her eye, her face all but disappeared within the hood. “I’m sorry... when I came back, the Rangers had already put you down.”
I thought about what she said as Ash rubbed her hooded head playfully. “You know the Steel Rangers?” I’d never heard of them before we’d been taken captive. Neither had Ivory, Shade, or even Ash. Ash, the world traveling griffin, hadn’t known who these armored ponies were. Fluster was a pony from Underhoof. How did she know the Steel Rangers?
She nodded. “I’ve... had dealings with them before. When they captured you, I started looking for a way to get you free from them. Where’s Ivory and Shade?” She looked around the room, looking for any sign of the pale mare with the machine gun or the blue pony that spent most of her time at my side.
Ash’s grin disappeared, and he looked angry again. “Rangers still have them. As leverage.”
Her eye widened, catching the light and glinting brightly within the dark confines of her hood. “Leverage?”
“We get them back when we kill some Paragons and break the siege.” Ash was back to growling, all the joy he had shown gone now that we returned to the matter at hand. The hunt.
Fluster had gravitated towards where the raider couple had piled their belongings and began sifting through it as Ash spoke, more intent on claiming whatever goods she could.
“We got the names off of these two.” I shot him a quick glare, which I think he intentionally ignored. The unconscious mare groaned slightly, and I trotted over to her, pulling out Broken. I didn’t want to be near Ash right now, and I felt it would probably be best if he was kept away from the raider mare, at least for now.
Fluster came out of the pile with a few caps, various weapons, and some loose rounds of ammunition, leaving the rest as garbage. “What were the names? I’ve dodged a few raider parties out here, maybe I heard them mentioned.”
“Holepunch, who Shade told me about, and somepony named Flurry.” Fluster was sorting the loot she had acquired into her robes when Ash spoke that last name. Uttering a small squeak, the smaller mare dropped a grenade she had been in the process of stashing in her robe, sending it bouncing across the floor and rolling to a stop at Ash’s paw, which he picked up. The look on her eye before she composed herself was surprising. Shock and fear. She quickly closed her mouth and faked a cough, but I’d caught the look.
“A name you know?” Ash tossed the grenade back to her, which she snatched out of the air with her mouth and stashed away. Ash and I had the same look on our face as we looked at the robed mare. She’d never made that sound before, at least not as a reaction to anything we’d said. She always just went about doing whatever it was doing, this was the first I’d seen her given pause by anything other than imminent danger.
Shying away from us, she started searching around the room for anything that she could get good trade for. Her voice, soft though it was, carried to us quite easily. “I’ve met her... if it’s her. A sadist. Not anypony I want to meet again.” Continuing on in silence, I got the feeling that that was all that we would get out of her. I’d known her longer than Ivory, but I knew almost nothing about the scavenger that tagged along with us out of mutual benefit.
A cough and a groan drew my attention, and I saw that the formerly unconscious raider was slowly pushing herself to her hooves. Her eyes were unfocused, but they rapidly gained focus on Broken, which I was again aiming straight at her. She just lay down again, tears springing to her eyes as she saw the corpse of her fellow raider. There was the guilt again... if they’d attacked us, or even been armed, she wouldn’t even be alive now and we’d already be on our way.
“So, Kick, how do we handle this then. You know if you let her go, she’ll have good reason to bring friends. Just kill her, get it over with.” Ash folded his arms, glaring at me. Fluster shook her head and went back to scavenging through the room. The raider just stared up at me, tears in her eyes.
Fuck. Why was this so hard?
Easy fix. Shoot her. Right in the face. Have some fun with it.
I had to shoot her. Ash was right.... the voice was right. Letting her go would a mistake. A huge mistake.
Looking into her eyes, I shook my head sadly. “I’m sorry.”
I lowered Broken and looked at Ash. “I can’t do it. It’s just... ” The griffin sighed, disappointed that I couldn’t do what was needed. He drew his revolver and fired it in one swift motion. The bullet hit the raider straight between the eyes, killing her instantly. The look in his eyes triggered some primal feeling inside of me, one that I hadn’t felt near him in a while. I was prey in the presence of a predator.
“Let’s... we’re leaving.” I turned and walked away from the raider, headed towards the door. Ash replaced the spent bullet and holstered his weapon as I walked past him in silence. Fluster, the room thoroughly picked over, fell in line right behind me. Ash lingered in the room, looking at the pair of dead ponies, before he followed. Over the roofs of Orchard, I could still see the telltale smoke trails of the raider camp’s fires. It would only be a short walk, then we could be done with this whole situation and get Shade and Ivory back. Head back to Hornsmith.
Be rid of the Steel Rangers. Of this fucking place.
Fluster led us straight to the raiders, her skills at stealth getting us around several raider bands searching through the ruins. Searching for what, I wasn’t sure. Us, the cube I had with me, ways into the Ranger base. Probably all three.
The raiders had set themselves up in an old warehouse, easily one of the largest buildings in the Orchard. The roof had snipers, heavily armed raiders patrolled the perimeter. Our first guess had been right; the weakest and least armed were being sent on patrols into Orchard. The best were being kept here, sent out when they were needed. Pretty clever for raiders... this had Paragon written all over it.
We were in a building nearby. Entering it, we’d found it empty. Completely empty. It must have been cleared out before the war, there wasn’t even paper. There was usually paper everywhere. From the second story, we were granted a detailed overview of the raider defense.
“So how do we get in?” I was looking over at Fluster when I said this. We needed something low to the ground, maybe even underneath it. If there was a tunnel, I trusted the robed mare to find it.
She was busy peaking through the filthy windows, looking for something. She didn’t answer, her eye darting back and forth, scanning the street. Eventually she let out a small noise and pointed with one covered hoof. “There’s an air vent in the street down there. Means there’s a tunnel. It looks like it’s headed into this building, but I didn’t see any entrance.”
I nodded at her. “Well, lets look closer, shall we? Ash, keep watch.” The griffin nodded at me, humor still gone from his face. Since the fight, he’d only glared whenever he looked at me. I’d eventually need to talk to him about this... we couldn’t risk another fight. One of us would probably already be dead if Fluster hadn’t interrupted.
Kill him before he kills you. When his back is turn, he won’t see it coming.
Back on the ground floor, I let Fluster do her own thing. While I wandered, rather aimlessly, looking for a door or a button, she darted off into a side room. It took only a minute or two before a loud noise rang out from a back room. I dashed towards it, sliding around a corner with Broken drawn.
Fluster stood there, at the top of a staircase. I could see that it had been hidden under a metal door blended quite well into a shadowy corner. I smiled at the mare, who was looking rather proud of herself, as I walked past her to look down into the now open passage. “I knew you could do it.”
Standing next to me, she stared down into the opening. “Ripple... are you and Ash going to be okay? When I found you... you looked like you were about to kill each other.”
Sighing, I looked down at the little mare, her eye staring out at me from the darkness of her hood. “I don’t know. I don’t think he likes how I’ve been acting since... well, since I found Shade in Hornsmith. Like I’m getting too soft to go through with what he signed on with me to do. To stop Hate.”
She smiled at that. “I like this you. You’ve gotten a determination about you that wasn’t there when we went down to kill those gnashers. Ever since Shade and Ivory tagged along.”
I hadn’t thought about that. Maybe it wasn’t that I was softening up. It’s just that my attention had gone from my need to stop Hate, to help ponies, and had now settled on protecting a few ponies. I’d sworn to protect Shade and Ivory, even if it killed me. Their imprisonment was a failure in that vow. It had set me on edge, a promise to bring my whole world crashing down.
I think that is what Ash saw. I was losing sight of the big picture. I had to agree with him. I’d had a few dreams, in the rare chance I slept instead of being knocked out, about just giving up and leaving Hornsmith. Taking Shade with me. Starting a family.
Pandemonium had picked up on that. Combined with how dedicated I’d seen Sweeps and Cinder to taking me out, I knew that I’d never be able to just leave. The things he had promised....
“Ripple? You okay?” I snapped out of it, looking back down into a grey eye filled with concern.
“Uh... yeah. I’m good, I was just thinking.” A life of peace with Shade. Safe from my thoughts, from my past. All I had to do was get the other Cubes and hope that Pandemonium was good to his word.
A rustle from around the corner drew my attention, and I aimed Broken, gesturing for Fluster to get behind me. The robed mare obeyed immediately, my larger size hiding her fully from view. Hearing the padding of paws rather than the clop of hooves, I lowered Broken just in time for Ash to round the corner. It would probably be best for now if I didn’t point a gun at him.
“That shook the whole building you know.” Ash strode past us, looking down into the uncovered stairway. “Of course, more underground... when we get back to Hornsmith, how about we head to Blank? Nice and open. No tunnels. No elevators.”
I nodded, hoping to appease the griffin. “Yeah, sounds good. I’m sure Traffic misses us anyways.” Then I took the lead, walking down the stairway into the Orchard underground yet again. Fluster trotted along behind me, and I heard a deep sigh from the griffin before he came down behind us. At the bottom, Fluster reached up and hit a button, slamming the door shut behind us.
The tunnel here was nearly identical to the one we’d found underneath the factory. As before, Fluster was reading all of the signs to figure out where we needed to go. “Robot storage.” I voiced it out loud.
The hooded mare nodded as I read the sign. Looking down the tunnel that was indicated, she inclined her head towards us. “I’d say that looked like a storage building. Shall we?” Always so eager at the prospect of salvage.
At least, if the raiders were there in force, it seemed unlikely that the robots were active. I would honestly rather deal with an enemy I knew how to fight than the cold, unfeeling drones that had taken shots at us in the factory. The scar on my face ached briefly as I thought about what an energy weapon could do.
The tunnel was unguarded, the exit into the warehouse was even wide open. I poked my head in first, checking for any traps. Expecting an ambush. The room was dark... dusty and unused. Nopony had been in here in a long time judging from the thick layer of dust coating the ground. I waved Ash and Fluster up after me as I went further into the room. It had been an office once, I could tell that much from the old desk and the broken terminal.
There was nothing here, so I headed for the door. The window, which was still surprisingly intact, had been blacked out long ago, probably when ponies still worked here. Trying the door, I found that it was locked.
“Fluster. Give me a hoof here.” She trotted over, producing the screwdriver and a thin piece of metal, before going to work on the lock. She worked masterfully at it, and the door unlocked with a soft click. I nodded my thanks to the grinning mare before shooing her away from the door. Opening it, I peeked through.
Robots. Hundreds of them. Rows and rows of a model different than what we’d fought in the factory. These looked meaner. A lot meaner.
Each was shaped like a pony, but they had blades on their fetlocks and assorted weapons built attached to their sides. This was an army. Another fucking army.... and here I was thinking that the raider army had been bad news.
Creeping out of the office, I listened for any noise. Any sign of ponies. Nothing. I slowly made my way to the nearest robot and looked over it. Series P-27 was stenciled onto each in white letters.
Did the Rangers know that these were here? I doubted they did or they would have come in here guns blazing, despite the number situation they were facing. Something like this could turn whoever controlled them into a serious force in the wasteland.
Hate could not get his hands on them.
The high pitched whine of a power tool drew my attention. There was a light on in another office, this one set up along one wall, a few stories up. A staircase led up to it and I began walking towards it. Anypony in this building could not be good news... it was probably a Paragon.
I nodded my head up towards the higher room at Ash, who nodded and pulled the heavy rifle off of his back. Fluster was staying near me, despite the huge amount of potential salvage she was looking at. I whispered at the both of them. “Ash... you cover me through that window. Like at the Relay. Fluster, stay behind me, don’t wander off.”
The two nodded, before Ash flapped his wings, launching himself up onto one wall. We were lucky that the lighting wasn’t good in here, his dark fur and feathers blending quite nicely into the shadows that high up the wall.
The stairs were made of thick metal mesh, and I did everything I could to muffle the noise of my hooves as I made my way up them. The metal of my hoofguns did not help the matter, but for the most part I was making as little noise as was possible. It was still a veritable cacophony compared to the silent whisper of Fluster’s robes.
At the top of the stairs, I paused at the door. There was a voice coming from within the room. I cracked the door open, just slightly, enough to hear what was being said.
“If I drill here, I’ll be able to directly tap into the power supply. From there, I can turn on the terminal. Yes. Then I can begin diagnostics. Oh yes. Oh what fun.”
Pushing the door open further, I stuck my head into the room. There was that feeling of remembrance. I knew the pony across the room. The name hadn’t run any bells, but if I had to guess, this was Holepunch.
If it was just the tan coat and purplish mane, he’d look fairly average. The harness he was wearing, bristling with robotic arms and various power tools, was what set him apart. He was using one of his arms to drill a hole into a large bank of machinery along one wall, talking to himself as he went.
Every Paragon I’d met, other than Massacre, seemed to love the sound of their own voice.
I fully entered the room, drawing Broken from its holster as I went. I felt more than heard Fluster enter behind me. I had to get closer for Broken to be really effective... I wanted this fight over quickly. Glancing over, I saw that the large window along one wall was not positioned in a way that Ash would be able to see Holepunch, so I had to make this count.
As I took another step close, he stopped drilling suddenly. I looked for cover, but all that I could see were several desks, much closer to the Paragon than to me. I aimed Broken, but he didn’t turn around. Had he not heard me?
“Who have we here?”
He turned his head slightly and I found him looking right at me with one purple eye. “Ah, the errant Paragon. It’s been a while, Two Kick; how have you been?”
He turned fully, stepping away from the hole he had made. Looking at me with a judgemental look, he smiled. “You seem worse for the wear. That scar is rather dashing though. Oh yes. Cinder mentioned that you had a few new scars to show off.”
So she had reported back to them. Just like I knew she had. Bitch.
I couldn’t see any weapons in the array of tools he carried about him on those insectile robot arms, at least none built specifically for that. A cutting torch, a drill, a circular saw.... those were what I could immediately identify. Several of the implements I had no idea of, but they all looked lethal in close range.
Kicking would be out of the question if I wanted my hide in one piece.
“So what, are you working for the Steel Rangers now? Is that it? Oh yes. They’ve been trying to get in here for a while, but the nice little army Massacre keeps sending has helped stave them off.” One of the arms, tipped with a very thin blade, reached down. He began picking his teeth with it, looking a bit disinterested. “I was expecting them to send an assassin, but not you. This is a pleasant surprise. Oh, yes.”
He placed two of his robotic arms on the table and the rest on the ground. I tensed up, ready for whatever he was trying. Then he threw the entire table at me. As I went to dodge, I fired at Holepunch, though the table took most of the the shot, the lead spray pinging harmlessly off of the solid mass. The table just barely missed me but slammed through the door I’d came in. It took out a good chunk of the wall as well as the door, sending them all clattering down the staircase in an avalanche of debris.
Levering the shotgun, I looked up just in time to see that he was practically on me, propelled along by the harness. I lept backwards, a spinning saw missing my neck only barely. I rolled, bringing Broken up to fire as I hopped to my hooves.
A mechanical arm batted the weapon off target at the last second, but when I pulled the trigger I was rewarded with a spray of blood as the shot tore into his flank, shredding what I noticed was a nail and hammer cutie mark off of his left leg. Yelling in pain, he slammed another arm into me.
I felt a disturbingly familiar pain as the arm hit me, accompanied by a sharp pft sound. It was the nail gun. I jumped backwards, slowly being driven towards the hole that had once been the door I’d come in through, feeling three nails in my side, grinding against my ribs. It paled in comparison to the dozens that had once been there, but it still hurt.
Where the hell was Ash? Holepunch and I were in clear view of the window by now... I really hoped that he hadn’t decided to abandon me as a result of our fight. Levering another shell into the chamber, I fired again but most of it was blocked by several metal arms coming together. Only two shots left before I’d be forced to reload.
An arm came in low, this one some sort of pneumatic punch, which I reacted a little slowly to. It missed, and I’m glad it did because it would have gutted me, but the metal rod shot out into my left saddlebag, throwing it and me out onto the stairs. I hit hard and lost my grip on Broken, which clattered away into the array of robots below us.
Tumbling down the stairs, I felt some ribs break when I bounced off of the door which had wedged itself in about halfway down. When I reached the bottom, I could do little but lay there and catch my breath. I could hear him coming down the stairs after me, but with most of the wall plugging it up, I had a few seconds to spare.
Pulling myself up, I felt that I’d twisted my back left leg. It hurt to walk on, but I limped off towards where I felt Broken had gone. “Ash! A little help?” I shouted out as I made it into the labyrinth of robots, hoping that the griffin was at least still around. He wouldn’t just abandon me, would he? I still held his contract... I thought that meant something to his people.
“These robots, aren’t they amazing Two Kick? Oh yes. Such grace... such power. If only I could get them moving. They were meant to turn the tide of the war with the zebras, but they just weren’t brought online in time to make a difference. Now they’re here, for us, for Hate to make a difference.”
Holepunch’s voice echoed through the vast chamber, from somewhere down amongst the robots with me. I had to find Broken, I had to get it reloaded...
There. Through a row of pony robots I caught a glimpse of my faithful shotgun, waiting patiently for me where it had fallen. I broke into a limping run, my back leg still sending a shooting pain that I could ignore, but couldn’t shrug off.
I heard the echoing boom of Ash’s rifle from somewhere in the chamber, which let me know that he was at least around, but if he was fighting Holepunch or somepony else, I had no idea.
A flash of metal was the only warning I had. I sprang backwards as the pneumatic punch arm flew from between two robots, missing me barely. The rod that the weapon fired hit one of the robots near me, punching a hole through it and throwing it into the bot next to it. They both fell over with a clatter, impacting the next one, which fell over into the next one, and so on. The sound of metal hitting the floor rang out in increasing frequency as I jumped over a fallen robot and rushed for my weapon.
I could hear hoof falls right behind me, knowing that Holepunch was right on my tail, but my priority was Broken. I couldn’t win without it. I snatched it from the ground as I ran, pulling out incendiary rounds from my bag as I went. I’d like to see him block fire.
With three fire shells loaded, I spun to behold the Paragon hot on my hooves. He was being weighed down by all the equipment, the only reason he hadn’t caught me. I aimed Broken in his face and pulled the trigger.
He moved to block the shot, as he had before, but fire didn’t work like lead. It flowed around the arms, hitting him despite his efforts. His face and mane caught fire and he screamed. His arms flailed wildly, one of which caught me in the chest. The impact threw me up and over a few rows of robots, dropping me in a new row. Every time one of those hit me, I was amazed at how much power was behind them. They were thin, thinner than my front legs, but they hit much harder than I could have imagined. I groaned as I landed, winded again.
Holepunch was there, walking slowly towards me. His face was heavily burnt and his breathing was ragged, but that wouldn’t stop him from impaling me, cutting me apart, or doing any number of other things to me. I couldn’t stand, no matter what I tried. My legs just would not cooperate.
“That was.... a dirty trick.... Using fire.... like that....” I’d done some damage to his throat or lungs, I could tell that much from how he was talking. “Cinder... would be proud....” He raised his saw arm, the bladed metal spinning up to a lethal rate. Raising it back to strike, he paused. “I’ll tell... her about it....”
From atop a nearby robot, a shape threw itself on Holepunch’s back, between the arms. He twisted his head to see who it was, but Fluster was already biting and kicking at any wires she could get to. With a flash of sparks, the saw arm went dead, slumping to the ground.
“Stop! Get...off!” She was really latched on, and was not letting go. None of his arms could reach her, so he just kept flailing about, knocking over more robots and shouting obscenities in halted speech. I had to make my move.
My lungs finally did what I told them, and I sucked in a breath of air. It hurt, but it was what I needed. Rolling over, I stood and moved towards the flailing Holepunch. Ducking the torch arm, I got within his arm’s reach, but he was not looking at me. His mistake.
“Forget somepony?” I spun and planted a double kick into his chest, triggering my hoofguns. With a thunderous blast, I blew apart his chest, shredding through the barding holding the arm mechanisms on. Fluster and the arms slid to the ground in a pile, leaving the tan pony staring at me in disbelief. I could see into his chest, see the slowing beat of his heart.
“That... Oh no.” The light faded from his eyes and he slumped to the ground, a large pool of blood spilling beneath him.
I dropped to the ground, coughing. Everything hurt, but I could handle it. I just needed something to get the edge off.
Stampede. You have it. Use it. You can find the griffin, kill him.
Med-X will do just fine. I floated some out of my crumpled saddlebag and jammed it into my flank, the needle piercing true and spreading a cool numbness through my chest and legs. That felt better. The potion I followed it up with helped even more, and I could feel parts of my chest knitting back together.
It still felt like a rib was floating around in my chest cavity though... when I coughed I spattered blood on the ground. Fluster was there, looking concerned.
I smiled at her. “Thanks... that kill... goes to you. Couldn’t.... have done it.... without you.” It hurt to breath. I couldn’t help but notice I was now talking like Holepunch had after I’d hit him with the fire.
“Are you going to be okay?” She kept asking me that. Before I could answer, several reports from Ash’s revolver echoed across the chamber. He was still fighting. He hadn’t abandoned me... he’d been distracted.
I loaded a slug round into Broken and started limping across the warehouse, towards where it sounded like the griffin was. Fluster kept up, amazingly untouched from the battle with the Paragon. Some ponies had all the luck.
Hearing more shots, I started picking up speed. Between my difficulty breathing and my twisted leg, I could only go so fast, but I was pushing it. I needed to get to the griffin. Needed to help my friend.
Coming around a row of robots, I found the griffin. He was aiming his revolver into the air, his head snapping around as he searched for a target. Blood pooled at his feet, he was cut in dozens of places across his chest, neck, and wings.
A black shape streaked past him, drawing a bright red line across his shoulder. A pegasus, I could just make out before the shape was gone back into a row of robots. Fluster ran forward, towards the bleeding griffin. I’d never seen her run into danger before, and before I could say anything the black shape reappeared, heading straight at her.
She turned her head to stare straight at the black blur and shouted at the top of her lungs. “Flurry! Stop!”
The figure pulled back mid swoop, hovering for a brief second. A black coated pegasus. Blades covered her hooves, dripping with griffin blood. An eye patch, opposite the one that Fluster wore. I’d seen Fluster without her hood, just the one time, but it had been enough to tell.
They could be twins.
“Fluster!” The pegasus shouted gleefully before launching back into a row of robots, disappearing from view.
How was this Paragon a pegasus? I didn’t think there were any pegasi in Stable 87, at least not from what little I could remember. She didn’t have a PipBuck either, which every Paragon I’d encountered had had. Sweeps, Cinder, Massacre, Holepunch. They’d all had one.
“You know this winged bitch?” Ash was bleeding heavily, but he was still on his feet, aiming his revolver in the direction the pegasus had retreated.
Fluster nodded, her eye scanning the rows of robots for any sign of the black blur. “My sister. Flurry.”
“Fluster! I didn’t know you were still alive? What’s with the robe? Ashamed of the scars?”
The abusive sister. The sadist Flurry. They were the same pony. A Paragon.
The blur returned, heading straight at Fluster. A small shriek came from the hooded mare, a long slice cutting through the robe. It was a very measure and exact cut, the robe falling off of her, revealing her fully.
Head to flank, she was covered in scars. The exact coloring of her sister, only the scars and the opposite eye patch set them apart. In place of a cutie mark she had deep, wicked scars. What struck me as most surprising were the wings. Fluster was a pegasus. Her wings were tucked tight to her body. She was also covered in straps, holding pockets, pouches, and saddlebags.
She looked at me, her eye wide with shock, before she glanced down at herself. “No!” She screamed and tried pulling the robe back up around her.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” The voice came from behind me and I spun, pulling the trigger on Broken. If I’d had an incendiary round loaded, the pegasus would have gotten a face full of fire. The slug round that flew out of the barrel missed her, however, punching a hole into the faceplate of a dormant P-27. Flurry spiralled past me, hitting me in the face with a wing as she went.
I felt the blood before I felt the wound. Touching my face, I felt a long cut along my cheek. She’d only hit me with her wing, how had it cut me?
A slash along my back snapped me back to the task at hand. She made no noise as she flew, I could never tell where she’d be coming from unless she spoke. I understood how Ash was so cut up.
Fluster was still trying to gather her robes to herself when Flurry dropped out of the air right behind her, hooking a hoof around the scarred mare’s neck, holding Fluster as a shield between us and her. Her good eye poked out from around Fluster’s head, and the look was rather bizarre as the identical coloring blended the two together. Like two ponies melted together.
“You killed Holepunch? Bravo I say. Wasn’t too fond of him... all you Stable ponies are weird. Not like us topsiders. Like me and little Fluster here.” As she spoke, her mouth was practically in Flusters ear, but I could see in her eye that she was petrified with fear. This pony had covered her in scars, cut off her cutie mark, put out one of her eyes. Her own sister.
The Paragon glanced past me, and I heard Ash approaching, the dripping of blood a dead giveaway. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the barrel of the revolver aiming at the pair.
“Oh, you’re mad at me aren’t you? Is it the cuts? You needed them, you were too pretty. I had to cut up little Fluster too. She was always Daddy’s favorite, especially after I lost the eye. A little blood always helps to bring everypony down to the same level.” She moved her hoof, cutting into Fluster’s neck just lightly enough to draw blood.
“That... that’s why you cut me?” Fluster’s voice hardened a bit as she spoke, surprising the bladed pegasus. Easing the blade away from Fluster’s throat just a bit, Flurry kissed the side of her sister’s head.
“Did I never tell you that? Must have slipped my mind. I see that you went and made some friends though. Good for you. I’ve heard about your stallion friend there. Hate never let me near the other Paragon’s until just recently, so I never had the pleasure. Hi there, Two Kick.” She waved her wing at me, a grin on her face.
“Let Fluster go. Back away... I’ll let you leave.” Ash growled as he aimed the revolver. I had Broken out, but if I pulled the trigger I would roast both Flurry and Fluster alive.
Flurry laughed, putting the blade back against Fluster’s throat. “You’ll let me, will you? I see this ending two ways, honestly...”
She drifted off as she spoke, taking a deep breath in Fluster’s hair. “I missed your smell, little sister.” She ran her tongue along Flusters neck. “Your taste. I’m so glad you aren’t dead.”
“I’m five minutes older than you...” Fluster squeaked out, careful not to move too much, the blade still pressed into her throat.
“I was always the bigger one though. We may look the same, be the same size, but I made something of myself. I’m the bigger pony! I stood up on my own four hooves and took what I needed! Those ponies out there? That army!? They’re mine! They do what I say!” Her wings opened wide as she started screaming at Ash over Fluster’s shoulder. With each word, the scarred mare flinched.
“Option one! I Bring them in here! You can’t fight them all! They’ll be pissed that you wasted all their time by killing Holepunch!” Her face softened suddenly, her rage coming to a screeching halt. “Or option two. You let me leave. I send the army back home. Everypony lives to fight another day.”
Stepping forward, I glared at her, Broken still floating right next to me. “So call your army. Bring them in here. I don’t think you can without letting Fluster go.”
She smiled, an unnerving look. She looked exactly like Fluster, but the mare I knew would never smile like that. Like a predator. Like Ash. “You got me there. So it’s really only one option. We have no reason to stay here now, and if I go get everyone, you’ll be gone. We’ll have hundreds of broken robots, but no unstoppable army. I doubt Holepunch could have even gotten them running. He’d been at it for days with no progress. The army’s getting twitchy.”
“So I’m going with option two. I’ll leave. I’ll take the army with me. Providing you give me two things.” Holding up a wing, she dropped all but one big feather. “You let me go. Don’t chase, don’t shoot. Without me, the army will just rampage about.” Raising another big feather, she continued. “You keep little Fluster safe. Nopony but me gets to hurt her. I promised Daddy that I’d protect her from the world while I slit his throat.”
I glanced at Ash, who’s eyes were starting to droop. He’d lost a lot of blood... I was surprised he was still standing. It still hurt to breath and I was honestly glad that I’d been standing here for this long. Walking hurt. The two of us were in no condition to try and outrun the army. We would die. Shade and Ivory would die. Hate would win. I didn’t even want to think of what would happen to Fluster at the hooves of her sister. Ash nodded at me, a defeated look spreading into his features.
“Fine. Go.” Two words out of my mouth. I hated saying them, but I had no other option.
Kissing Fluster on the cheek, Flurry spoke softly into the scarred mare’s ear. “I’ll see you around, little sister. Don’t go dying on me... we still have some catching up to do.” With a flap of her wings, she took off into the darkness of the cavernous space. She was gone.
Fluster dropped to the floor, crying softly. I waited for a few seconds, waiting to see if Flurry would launch out at us in attack, but she was true to her word. She was gone.
Holstering Broken, I used my magic to pick Fluster’s shredded robe up off the ground. Draping it over her, I kneeled down helped her to her hooves. She unfolded her wings, for the first time in a long time, and used them to clamp the rags to her body, to cover as many of her scars as she could.
We needed to get back to the Rangers. I’d see what I could do about letting them sticking around to heal, as much as I hated the thought, just to avoid heading back to Hornsmith at the same time as an army of raiders. If they caught us on open ground, we wouldn’t stand a chance. Ivory was the only one really capable of fighting right now.
The three of us began limping back to where we’d entered the building. I stopped briefly at Holepunch’s corpse, copying everything off of his PipBuck that I could. Shade had showed me how. Whatever he had might help us figure out what we needed to do next. Where we had to go...
We’d be heading to Blank, as Ash had asked. We needed a break.
Once back into the tunnels and through into the building across from the warehouse, we took cover in the second story. There was a great amount of noise out in the streets, raiders were everywhere. Flurry had carried through with her side of the deal. They were pulling army back in from all over Orchard, preparing for the trip back to Hornsmith. The ruined city would be much less safe than usual, but that didn’t matter to me.
The only ponies I gave the slightest bit of thought to in Hornsmith were all in Underhoof. Underhoof existed solely because nopony knew it was there.
The night was rough, as raiders wandered around outside. Fires were lit, ponies laughed and joked as they began the trip home, and I watched out the window as they set off during the night. An amazing amount of coordination, I had to admit. I’d thought that raiders were an unruly bunch, going where they wanted, doing whatever they pleased.
Ash had said that raiders came in all kinds. None of them sounded like the type to act like the army I saw through the night. Hate must have promised them the world to get them to follow what he said.
Briefly, I thought that I spotted Flurry. It was hard to tell in the dark. Glancing over at Fluster, I felt sorry for the mare. I’d never guessed that she’d been through that much suffering in her life. She was curled up asleep in the corner, her robe covering her as well as she could get it. I decided then and there that I would protect her as well.
At this rate, I’d be the self-proclaimed protector of every mare in the wasteland.
All the mares around me were deeply damaged. Was it a coincidence that they found their ways to me? The escaped slave. The pony who lost her brother. The scarred pegasus. I couldn’t help but wonder who else would find me... and if I would be able to help them if they did.
“You got that look, Kick.” I glanced at Ash, who lay against the wall. He was heavily bandaged, having taken much of my supply to stop the bleeding, but even with the healing power of the bandages and a couple potions he sounded weak.
I stood and trotted carefully over to him, avoiding the window. “What look?”
He chuckled, which made me smile. I was glad to see anything other than a snarl on his face. “The one you get when you look at Shade. You falling for Fluster too? Quite the player, aren’t you.”
I laughed quietly. “Nothing like that. Just deciding that I won’t let Fluster get hurt. It’s weird, but I just feel like it’s my job to protect the girls. They can do it themselves... but they just need a little help.”
He punched me lightly in the shoulder, the first time he’d made contact since he’d had his talons around my throat. “I’m sorry for what I said back there, Kick. I know you’re not doing this to impress Shade. You’re a good pony, but you know that those mares will be the death of you right?”
I nodded. “Probably.”
He started laughing, quietly to avoid drawing attention to our building. I joined in, and before long we were sitting next to each other chuckling softly. We’d won, for today at least.
“We pulled it off, Kick. Two Paragons dealt with. The wasteland is a safer place.”
“That it is Ash. That it is.”
We sat there in the dark, staring out the window at the moon.
The morning came quietly. That was what woke me, I think. The lack of raiders shouting and moving around outside. Standing slowly, I peeked through the window. The streets were deserted. What I could see of the raider camp was abandoned.
“Ash. Fluster. Time to head out.”
The two were slow in waking, but before long we were up and about. The Ranger base waited. I did what I could to help Fluster keep her robe on, but it was a lost cause. She’d need a new one. The best we could do was fashion it into a cape, the hood over her head and the sleeves tied around her neck. Her wings were still visible though, as well as her heavily scarred front legs.
Ash looked like the griffin version of myself, swathed in bandages. Standing, he stretched and worked several loud pops out of his back. “This floor isn’t comfortable.”
He was right. Rock or whatever this was sucked to sleep on. I was sore everywhere, not just my chest and leg. The cut on my cheek had healed up with one potion, leaving only a dried crust of blood in my fur.
Once out in the street, I found that it was raining slightly. A drizzle, setting a somber mood for the morning. Not that it was much different from every other morning. It was always raining in one way or another.
Using the map in my PipBuck of the local area, I found the door that we’d been let out of. I banged on it with a hoof for a few minutes before I heard the locking mechanism slid open with a loud clunk. The door opened and I found myself face to face with Lemon Meringue. Behind her were two Rangers with their helmets on, their heavy weapons trained on the three of us.
“Wow. I didn’t ever expect to see you again. You found a new friend as well!” Fluster was standing behind us, and drew back behind the larger griffin as attention was drawn to her. “Anyways, come in. I’m sure that Star Paladin Broken Arrow will want to see you.” She sounded disappointed. Like she’d been hoping we’d die out in Orchard. I was glad to have denied her.
We were brought back to the room where Broken Arrow had told us our task. He wasn’t there, so the two of us sat in silence. Lemon Meringue and Notches stood at the door, weapons aimed at us. None of us were in the mood for small talk.
Eventually, the door swung open and the pony I swore I would kill walked through the door. Broken Arrow walked in, head held high, and stopped in front of us. “My scouts have reported that the army has left. You two pulled it off. Surprising.” Turning his head towards Notches, he nodded lightly. “Go retrieve our guests. Not the pegasus.”
Notches left the room, without any snarky comments at Ash as I had expected. I glared at Broken Arrow for a while before I spoke. “So you’ll just let us leave?”
“I am a pony of my word. You followed through, it is only proper if I do as well.” I got the feeling he had never expected to see us. He’d been fully prepared to let Shade and Ivory die locked up. I wasn’t going to ask him if we could stay for a short time to heal. We had to get out of Orchard, head somewhere friendly. As soon as possible.
I could only say negative things to Broken Arrow at this point. I felt that if I kept my mouth shut, we would be able to get out of here. Ash had either reached the same conclusion, or was zoned out from blood loss. I couldn’t rightly tell.
The door opened and Shade bolted through, wrapping her legs around me and kissing me full on the mouth before I could even say hello. Ivory trotted through the door, stopping in her tracks and gasping loudly. “Fluster!” She rushed over to the scarred pony, who was curled up under the table, trying to hide her scars.
“I’m fine too. Thanks.” Ash laughed as he said it. It was good to see him lightening up at the prospect of leaving this place.
“Well, now that you’ve been reacquainted, I’d prefer it if you would be so kind as to leave the premises. We have much work to do, and babysitting some.... scavengers, is not high on our list of priorities.” He turned his armored head to Lemon Meringue. “Knight Lemon Meringue, if you would be so kind as to escort our guests to the door. Thank you.”
With that, he was gone. Lemon Meringue jerked her head towards the door, which I found that Notches was standing outside of. As we walked past, I noticed that Fluster was all but attached to Ivory, her robe draped over the both of them for cover.
As Ash passed Notches, I heard him hiss through his helmet. “See ya soon, griffy.” Ash just glared at the armored pony as he passed. “Not if I see you first.”
Then we were herded through the building and unceremoniously seen out the door. Once outside, I let out a sigh of relief. They hadn’t shot us all, as I’d sort of expected. They’d really let us go, all of us. Crash Course was still in the building, but I honestly couldn’t care less about what happened to the crude pegasus.
“So... where do we go now?” Ash looked at me knowingly. He’d already told me where we were going, but I guess he was playing it up so that it looked like I was making the decision.
“We head to Blank. We can avoid the raiders and get some rest.”
Ivory grinned. “I’ve never been there. Is it nice?” Fluster was still attached to her side, trying her best to hide, even though I’d now seen all that she’d been covering.
I nodded. “I think you’ll like it. Both of you.”
As we left orchard, there was one pressing thought on my mind.