There he was.
I had spent an hour trekking through the El Diablo dry lake with Ace before we saw it. A lone tree stood defiantly in the middle of the sun-baked landscape, its grim, bare branches sticking from the dead, grey tree. There was a pony tied to it.
His orange coat was stained black from the blood that had spilled from the bullet wound in his head. My brother hung there, lashed among the gnarled limbs, completely still. The stillness marred by his mane flickering with the occasional breeze.
There was a storm brewing to the east, slowly creeping its way across the sky. The large grey and black clouds spread a vast shadow over everything as it slowly consumed.
I sat there, unmoving. I couldn’t do anything but stare at the lifeless body of my brother, the cold breeze wafting through my coat and mane. My breaths were long and ragged, my lips quivering ever so slightly.
The memories of my childhood with Shamrock danced through my mind. The Great Bear Hunt, us playing with the trainset he had gotten me for my third birthday. Reading me Mare-Do-Well, him teaching me how to play hoofball, teaching me how to drink in my later years, trying to get me my first marefriend...
Even through my new coat and barding, I felt cold... so very cold...
Ace was sitting next to me. I don’t think she knew exactly what to do in this situation. She settled on putting a foreleg around me. “Are you okay?”
I finally clamped my eyes shut and shivered. My eyes stung as I could feel the first tears coming. “Just...” I whispered, “...cut him down...”
The leather-clad mare looked worried as she stood up. She slowly trotted over to my brother and rounded the tree. Hearing the dull thumps as her machete chopped into the ropes and bark, I couldn’t help but wince in anguish.
I looked up as the body of my brother slumped to the ground. He was stiff and his body was dry and cracked, one of his eyes was burnt and rotted. I remembered Double Down plunging his lit cigarette into Shamrock’s eye, my brother screaming in agony. The tears were starting to make their way down my face.
His other eye had lost the spark of greatness that Shamrock had inherited. He used to be so full of life; now that he lay before me on the dry, cracked earth, he was completely lifeless.
Ace sat by the tree as I slowly approached my fallen brother. The tears were starting to streak down my face to drop onto the earth below. I left a trail of tiny drops on the dirt when I finally reached him.
I couldn’t hold it in anymore. Bursting into tears, I hugged the lifeless body of my brother close.
“Why?!” I wailed, sobbing into my brother’s cold mane. “Why him?!”
My mind was racing through everything Shamrock and I had achieved together, every time my brother stood up for me, every time we laughed together. Each memory was lost to the void of despair. I would never have these experiences again. We would never laugh together, drink together, sing together, or cry together. I was on my own.
Shamrock wouldn’t be able to protect me anymore. I was in a war zone filled with monsters and psychos, and fending for myself was something I would have to master if I wanted to survive. I never thought I would be in a mess this deep without Shamrock.
I continued to cry my heart out while holding my brother.
“Th-There must be a way,” I sobbed. “A-A way to b-bring you back!”
Ace put her hoof on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, Clover,” she whispered. “There’s no cure for dead.”
My vision was blurred from tears as I looked up at her. “There h-has to be...” I looked down at Shamrock. There was no way I could ever bring him back.
Holding his corpse tightly to my body, I cried for what felt like days.
The sky above me was an array of ominous greys and blacks as the storm rolled in above us. A light drizzle had started, bringing me back to reality.
Looking up, I saw the shallow grave I had been buried in just a few days before. Why did I have to be the lucky one? Why wasn’t it me who had to die? Shamrock deserved to live more than I did. He had so much going well for him, while I had sat comfortably in his shadow. Luck? There’s no such thing. Not any more.
I sniffled and got to my trembling hooves. A huge chunk of my soul had been torn from me that day. I pulled my brother’s corpse onto my back and slowly made my way to the shallow grave. He was a lot bigger than me; he reminded me of that red pony from the old newspapers. Shamrock wasn’t as big as that Big Something was, but he had to be close.
We stood at the edge of the grave, and Ace helped me get Shamrock’s body off my back. I stared into my brother’s intact eye, tears dripping onto his face before finally starting to slowly lower him into the open hole.
“This... this can’t be real...” I whispered as his body settled at the bottom of the grave. Looking at Ace with tear filled eyes, I managed to whimper, “This is all just a nightmare? Right? Please tell me it is...”
Ace slowly shook her head. “I’m so sorry, Clover.”
I wiped my eyes and looked down at Shamrock. Taking a few ragged breaths, I slowly reached for the shovel Snake Eyes had left behind. It still had the red tinge of blood. My blood.
“Goodbye, Shamrock...” I sobbed as I picked up the shovel. I stuck it into the small mound of dirt beside the grave, ready to start shoveling. “I love you.”
The shovel’s handle glowed with a black field of magic as Ace picked the shovel out of my grip. I watched as she started shoveling dirt back into the hole. At least Ace had the decency to bury Shamrock in a respectable manner. I pushed dirt into the hole with my hooves, staring at my brother’s face as it slowly disappeared under the dirt, choking when it disappeared entirely.
My hooves were trembling as I sat and stared at the grave. Ace didn’t say a word as she continued burying my brother. She sat down beside me when she finished covering the freshly filled grave with rocks.
I flung myself at her, wrapping my hooves around her. She hugged me and patted my back as I cried my heart out on her shoulder. She whispered into my ear in an attempt to calm me. Things like “everything will be okay” and “he’s in a better place”. Nothing was going to be okay. Ever again.
We sat for what felt like an eternity. I had stopped crying a while ago and just stared at the freshly moved dirt as the rain started to pick up. I slowly got up and walked back to the tree, taking Ace's machete and carving off a large piece of bark.
The black bark seemed strong against my hooves, but the wood underneath was a dead brown. Clamping down on the machete, I tried to carve. I failed miserably, being an Earth Pony. We weren’t known for our art.
Ace’s magic wrapped around the blade once more. She stared at me, waiting for instructions. I nodded. “Shamrock. Loving son and brother. Lest we forget.” Ace complied and finished with a rough carving of a shamrock.
I took the bark and planted it firmly in the dirt on Shamrock’s grave, wedging it between two rocks. The makeshift headstone stood proudly against the dirt and grey skies; a memorial to Shamrock. The drizzle had escalated into a light shower.
“Lest we forget...” I whispered. Sorrow was starting to get replaced by rage. “Lest we forget the murder that took place here.” I clenched my teeth. “The casual slaughter of a great pony.”
The water dripped from my mane as Ace came into view. She looked up at the sky and closed her eyes, feeling the water drip down her face. She looked at me. “Are you going to be okay?” she asked in a soft tone. I had seen this side of Ace before, when we had been caught in the crossfire back in Buckwheat.
I looked up at her. No more tears, just rage painted on my face. “Maybe I will never be all the things I want to be.” I seethed. “Now is not the time to cry.” I stomped my hoof, leaving an indent on the moistening dirt. “Now’s the time to find out why.”
Ace seemed very worried. “You can still be the things you want to be,” she said. “This won’t stop you from reaching your full potential.”
I glared at the mare. “I wanted to be a great pony...” I looked at the grave. “Now... all I want is revenge.” Ace took a careful step forward. I felt power course through my veins. “I’m going to find out why this happened, and then send Double Down to the gates of hell.” The rain started to pick up. “Will you join me?” I asked Ace. “I can’t do it alone.”
Ace seemed to smirk. “Look who’s finally out of his shell.” She looked at the grave. “From the looks of your brother... this Double Down doesn’t deserve to live.” She raised her hoof. “Lets get the bastard.”
The dirt of my brother’s grave started to darken with the rain. Could this have been some form of deep metaphor? Could it have just been coincidence? I may never know, but I what I did know was that Double Down was going to die. Painfully and slowly. I looked at my brother’s grave one more time.
“Goodbye, brother. I love you.” Sorrow filled my heart and I closed my eyes. “I will be back...”
Ace and I turned and slowly walked away.
The old diner we had come across while walking the lonely roads of the Ponave was almost empty, save for the bartender. I will never get used to the sight of ghouls, that’s for sure; looked like a skeleton was manning the bar. Apparently he was named Chester, which sat weirdly when I considered his appearance.
We had been walking in the rain for a while before we found this place along one of the old trade routes going through the El Diablo dry lake. It was a small diner which had been impressively patched up with wood and metal found from the surrounding ruins. The town that once stood here was nothing more than a skeleton, with few houses barely standing. An old trading town maybe? A rest-stop?
I sat slumped in a booth, my soaked head resting on my hooves. I had hung up my coat by the crackling fireplace along with Ace’s barding and armoured stockings. The beige unicorn sat across from me, drinking what was left of her beer. Were we drunk? Judging by the several bottles that had mounted up in the short ten minutes we were there: maybe.
“Chester!” my travelling companion announced. “We need another round!”
The old, ghoul turned to us from behind the bar. Chester was a very old ghoul. He was old before the war. The only thing that survived on the old coot was his absurdly long beard that swept across the floor when he trotted around. He wore an old tartan shirt and a small hoofball cap with his round glasses.
“What now?” the old ghoul said. “Can’t you see I’m busy with my customers?”
Ace looked over my shoulder, then turned and stood on her seat, looking over her side of the booth, giving me a good view of her- moving on. “There’s nopony here!” She laughed. The unicorn slid back down and sat down with an oof. “We need another round!”
Chester looked around and sighed. “Yes... nopony at all...” He grabbed two more glasses in his magic and filled them with a pale yellow beer. “Yer going to clean me out!” He trotted over and put the beers down in front of us. “Ten caps each, if you please.”
Ace grinned at the boney ghoul. “Put it on my tab,” she chuckled.
The bearded ghoul was unamused. “You’re looking at over a hundred caps between you two,” he said with a tone of annoyance. “You can pay that, right?”
The mare’s eyes fluttered and she pouted. “Can’t you cut it down?” she asked, her lip wobbling.
The ghoul fixed his cloudy eyes on her with a serious look, but I could see that he was finding it hard to maintain. He eventually cracked. “Fine, fifty caps then...”
The brown-maned unicorn perked up. “Great!” she said, clapping her hooves, then poked a hoof at the ghoul. “Ten for a beer is highway robbery.”
The old ghoul grumbled and started to walk away, his beard dragging along under him. I sat up and sighed, picking the pint up and staring at it. This beer wasn’t great, and it certainly wasn’t Golden Harp, but it was something.
Ace picked up hers. “So,” she said and took a sip. “Still bummed?”
Of course I was, why wouldn’t I be? I just buried my brother under an hour ago. She probably didn’t really know what to say, having not been in this situation before. I said and took a sip of my pint. “Yeah...”
The mare lifted her glass. “To Shamrock then,” she announced. “One hell of a guy.”
That made me crack a smile. I raised my glass. “To Shamrock,” I said, holding my sadness at bay. “The best pony.”
We clashed glasses and drank heartily. If there was one thing I was good at, it was drinking. I could drink for Equestria, and I owed it all to Shamrock. We both chugged our drinks and slammed them on the table. I won, slamming my glass down first.
“Damn, Clove,” Ace said, poking her glass. “Drink much?”
Did she just say I was an alcoholic? Before I could ask her, the radio changed from the boring, slow violin crap to an older-sounding gentlecolt. I had heard him before, but where...?
“Good evening fillies and gentlecolts,” the radio pony said. “It's Mr. Ponave, back to bring you all the latest news. So lets get to it...”
“Reports are coming in from Westwood about a pony being assaulted out on the El Diablo dry lake. He was reported to have severe head wounds and minor suffocation but has made a full recovery. One lucky pony if you ask me...”
Holy Luna spit-roasting on Celestia’s horn, Mr. Ponave was talking about me! I felt slightly honoured... but slightly scared at the same time...
“In other news, the Federation has confirmed that they have wiped out the Separatists from Buckwheat and set up camp there. They are naming the camp ‘Camp Dagger.’”
That wasn’t right. Not right at all. The Resistance exterminated the Separatists. Or at least most of them. Fed liars...
“Another ammo dump went up in flames near the Federation Border Security late last night. Federation officials are blaming a faulty pre-war canister shell going off and setting off a chain reaction, but rumours persist of Resistance involvement. Reports indicate that nopony was injured.”
You show ‘em, guys!
“Oh! Lookie here. This ought to interest a few of you monster hunters out there. The core town of Generosity reported flashing lights and loud noises coming from a nearby radscorpion den two evenings ago. Apparently it lasted for just a few minutes, but work in the Generosity fields came to a standstill. When investigated, the radscorpions had been completely torn apart. What could this phenomenon be? Aliens? Genetic experiments? Did Twilight Sparkle and the MAS leave us a present? Who knows? Cultists are saying its Cerberus himself, back from where he has been hiding to rid the world of the beasts he swore to hold back. Far fetched? Maybe.”
“Anyway, that seems to be it for now. More news coming later today. Now the weather. Rain. Lots of it. See you later, Ponave. Now here’s some Sweet Sonata with Blue Moon.”
The sound of brass instruments and swing started to fill the air. Much better than that violin stuff. I looked back across the table at Ace. “So how about that wei-”
Ace was beaming at me. “I love this song!” She squealed, jumping out of the booth. She started to dance. Something about her just seemed... I didn’t know. Maybe it was her long, wet brown mane, or her smooth movements while she danced, or... wait... no. Couldn’t be. No way was I starting to feel for Ace.
I think mini you would beg to differ.
Ace looked my way and smiled. “Come dance with me!” I shook my head violently. “Oh come on! Live a little.”
What would Shamrock do?
He...he would dance. But I couldn’t dance! I had four left hooves!
Just do it, filly.
I slowly got up with a sheepish smile. I was quickly grabbed by the hooves and dragged into the middle of the diner. Chester was having a wail of a time, laughing and slamming his hooves into the table. He looked like he was about to break into a jig.
Ace swung me around and around in the oddest dance I had ever participated in. There was a lot of swinging and kicking of the legs. I tried to keep in time with the music, but fell over my hooves instead. Fucking left hooves... Ace was laughing, Chester was laughing, I was laughing... wait, I was laughing? Why was I laughing? I had just buried my brother. Maybe... maybe it was Shamrock’s spirit, telling the inner me not to mourn? Who knows, all I knew was that I was having fun.
Maybe it had something to do with my ultimate vow of revenge. Maybe the fact that I had a goal to right the wrongs done to me and my family made me feel like... like I was mortal, and that I should enjoy every minute of life I had to spare.
I was happy because I was dancing with a mare. Whatever the reason, I knew Shamrock would have been proud. He must have been looking down on me, and nudging the pony next to him telling him, “That’s my wee brother down there.”
“You suck at dancing,” Ace laughed, swinging me around. “Worse than your singing!” She swung me around again and let go. I stumbled back into the open booth and slumped onto the bench, the room spinning around me. What was happening? Was I dying?
No, wait, I was dizzy.
The song slowly finished as I watched the mare dance to her heart’s content. As soon as the song ended, she sat down in front of me and sipped her beer. “Need to teach you how to dance,” she chuckled. “Or at least pretend to dance. Looked like you were having a seizure.”
Gee, thanks. You totally danced like a queen. Not.
“You did seem happy though,” she said with a smile. “Was starting to get tired of mopey-Clover.”
“Yeah...” I replied. “I dunno why.” I looked up at my companion. “Feels good though.”
Ace smiled, and that smile turned into a long yawn. “A soft bed would feel good too,” she said after stretching. “Been up too long.”
I looked over at the old ghoul. He was watching a bug crawl along the top of his counter with great interest. Because bugs are fucking fascinating. Not icky and nasty at all. Especially ants. Ants are awesome. I shuddered in my seat remembering the ant chambers. I still felt bad for the little delusional ant with the knife stuck in him. Poor fellow.
“Chester,” my leather-clad friend called over. “Know where we can spend the night?”
“Not here...” the bearded ghoul muttered, staring at the bug. I swear he was missing a few screws. “There’s a house down the street. Should be empty, I check it every morning. Keep rowdy patrons out, and the like. I can put you up there for the night.” He turned his attention from the bug to us. “For an extra hundred caps.”
Ace looked out the window at the sheets of rain coming down over the Ponave. “I’m not camping out there,” she scoffed. “Balls to that.” She looked up at Chester, then levitated a bag of caps. From what I gathered, caps were currency out here. “Deal.”
Chester crushed the bug without even looking at it, a large smile on his face. “Good!” He dove behind the bar and emerged with an old key. “Here,” he said, dropping it on the counter. “Down the street, right before the road splits.” He smiled as Ace levitated both our tab (mouthing ‘you owe me’ to me as she did it) and the fee for the house. “One more thing,” the bald ghoul added. “Don’t bother getting into the basement. Thing’s locked up tight. Whoever owned that house didn’t want anything getting in.” He leaned in close. “Or out...” he added, then cackled like a looney.
“C’mon, Daisy,” Ace said, ignoring the warning, exiting the booth and trotting to her equipment. “Let’s head off.”
I looked out at the sheets of rain. Fuck. I liked rain, just not massive sheets of it. Sighing, I rose from my nice dry seat and shuffled to my stuff. Putting on the riot armour and coat I had left by the fire, I savoured the lovely, cozy warmth then put my saddlebags on and my SMG in its holster.
We trotted to the door and looked outside. Ace held the key in her magic, then deposited it in her barding’s breast pocket. As we peered through the doorway I was amazed at how dark it was. According to my Pipbuck, it wasn't even the evening yet. Stupid clouds. At least it wasn’t permanent. I would hate not seeing the sun again.
“Ready?” Ace asked, stretching her legs out. I nodded. “Readysetgo!” she yelled, zooming off down the street. I took off after her, but only after tripping over my own hooves and falling on my face, again. Zipping down the street, being drenched with rain, I thought I could see the house we were to stay in.
It was a large two story building that looked pristine against the crumbling ruins scattered around. I hadn’t the foggiest as to why it was still standing compared to the ruins that surrounded it. Didn’t have much time to think about it either as I almost tripped on the front steps to the porch.
Ah, a roof. Excellent. The porch was fairly large, much larger than my house’s. I missed my house... Anyway, the old wooden floor was missing a few planks and a few were foul with decay, as was the roof. I decided to take a look around as Ace unlocked the door. The sign beside the door read ‘Cpt. Pumpkin Cake, Lt. Pound Cake.’ Cool, army house. Maybe Federation? I turned back to take a look around.
From the porch, I could still see the old diner on the roadside, even Chester’s silhouette in the window. Was he watching us? Naw. Couldn’t be.
Trotting around the porch to look out the other side. I saw that the road ahead split into two ways, the left side went on into the desert, but the other one lead to a large hill, and was heavily barricaded. Somepony had spray painted ‘Red Zone. Turn Back.’ on a large slab of wood.
“Red Zone?” I asked as Ace unlocked the door. “What’s that?”
Ace zipped inside and pounced on the couch, using her levitation field to ignite a match and light the fireplace. “The Red Zone is an area that only suicidal ponies enter,” she said, taking off her wet equipment. Mmmm- Stop it! “That area was one of the only places around here to get hit by megaspells. About half a kilometer in the rads start to get to you. A kilometer in and you’ve passed the point of no return.” She looked at me with a serious look. “One and a half kilometers and you’re dead.”
She stretched herself out and yawned. “The zebras hit a coal power station out there.” She sat up on the coach and enjoyed the fire. “The only things in the Red Zone are two small towns, the power station, and Fort Divit.”
“Fort what?” I asked, taking my own equipment off. “What’s that?”
Ace rolled her eyes at my naivete. “Fort Divit,” she repeated. “A Coalition base. Had an academy too, if I read that correctly.” She looked over at me taking my coat off. “You do know what the Coalition was, right?”
“Yes,” I lied.
She wouldn’t be Ace if she didn’t see through my lies. “The Coalition was the old government back before the war. A Coalition of several species to be exact.” She took a second to think. “I think the Ponave and the Western Territories were supposed to be some kind of haven for all species. Pony, minotaur, griffin. The whole lot.” She shrugged. “Or some shit like that. Didn’t help them when the bombs went off.”
“You seem to know a lot about it,” I said as I moved my equipment to the fireplace. “Care to elaborate?” I sat down in an old armchair beside the fire.
“I read it in an old book a while ago,” she replied. I raised an eyebrow. “What? I locked myself in the bathroom once and it was the only thing to read while my dad found out a way to get the door open.” I raised my brow higher. “What? Its the truth!” she said, smiling. “Besides, your balls are showing,” she snickered.
My ba- I looked down. Shit. I panicked and shuffled myself around to conceal my dignity. “Um...uh...” Ace was laughing her flank off. “What’s so funny?!” I snapped.
“Just your reaction,” Ace said, wiping a tear from her eye. “It’s priceless.” She composed herself and grinned. “I’ve seen your equipment before, Clover.” I started to turn red. “No need to be so shy.” Was she coming on to me? “Not like I would jump your bones. You’re not my type.”
Well wasn’t that a kick to the daddy-bag?
“I usually go for tough stallions or mares.” Another kick. “Or ponies I take a special liking too. But that takes a long time before even considering.” There goes all my chances.
At least you tried.
I guess... wait, was my conscience being nice?
Don’t get used to it.
The beige mare yawned and stretched again. “What? Did you think I would just pounce anything that came along?” The thought had crossed my mind. “‘Cause I don’t. I have only had three sexual partners in the past three years.” Really? Thought it was much more... serves me right to assume. “Anyway, I’m going to go find a bedroom.”
I watched as the brown-maned unicorn got off the couch and started for the stairs. She started swishing her hips as she walked. That was just too unfair. Turning my head, I decided it was better for me to stare at the fire, crackling warmly in the fireplace.
The world around me started to fade as I stared. I swear I saw a small Double Down in there and the face of a completely black pony laughing. It scared the crap out of me, but I couldn’t look away. The red eyes on the pony were fixed on mine, staring at me as it laughed over the corpse of my enemy. I myself started to chuckle, slowly.
“Yo, Chuckles,” Ace called from upstairs. The world snapped back into reality. “There’s two rooms up here.”
I looked up and saw Ace hanging over the banister upstairs. “Hmm?” I asked, still shaking the... satisfying, but scary picture out of my head.
The beige mare rolled her eyes. “Two rooms,” she repeated. “One for me, one for you.” She disappeared again. “Come check ‘em out, if you want.”
A soft bed did sound nice. So far I had slept in a grave, on a hospital bed, a couch, and, I think, the floor of a flying machine. I hated this desert, but a bed might make it a little better. Getting out of my chair, I trotted to the stairs.
The lounge was a sizable room with two adjoining rooms. From where I was, I saw that one was a kitchen, and the other was a study. I doubted the kitchen had anything left in it, considering it’s been a long while since it was last stocked. The study might have had something worthwhile, but I doubted that too. I was more looking forward to a bed.
I looked down the hall after trotting up the stairs. It was a long corridor with three rooms branching off. At the end of the hall I saw a bathroom, and I was guessing the other two rooms were bedrooms. Trotting to the first one, I peered inside. Ace was sprawled out on the bed, stretching with a big grin on her face.
“Making yourself comfy?” I asked. The room she had chosen was definitely a mare’s room. Or a very feminine stallion’s room. A dresser stood opposite the bed, an assortment of trinkets sprawled out on it. A mane brush, a decayed note, some pens, and three pictures.
One of them was of a golden earth pony with a blue mane, wearing a set of yellow fatigues and heavy brown plates of armour. His helmet sat beside him, a reinforced full helmet with a skull scratched into the visor. A peach unicorn with an orange mane, sat beside him on a long bench, leaning against him in a loving way. I could barely make out ‘Me and Valentine.’ written on a note that had been stuck to the heart shaped picture frame.
The other picture was of two ponies, the unicorn mare from the other picture was laughing with a cream coated pegasus with a brown mane. Both wore the same set of desert camouflage armour, just like the Resistance Special Operations squad’s armours. The picture made them look like twins. Maybe they were brother and sister?
I looked at the last picture. It was fairly faded, but I could still make out a plump blue mare with a tall pink mane, a slender yellow earth pony with an orange mane, and in the middle, a pink mare with a very poofy mane. The pink pony was pulling both of the other ponies into a strangling hug with a huge grin. I wondered who the others were, but I recognised the pink one, but where from? I stomped my hoof when I remembered the packaging from Pinkie’s Pies. That must have been Pinkie.
“Yup!” Ace piped up, stopping my train of thought. She dove under the covers. “Night!”
I chuckled and closed the door. “Night,” I said as I left. Trotting down the hallway, I noticed the lack of pictures or paintings. Just two pictures stood on the wall, one was of a bunch of soldier ponies in the middle of nowhere. I recognised the cream pegasus and peach unicorn, both with impressive sniper rifles on their backs. The rest of the ponies I didn’t know. My eyes were fixed on their rifles. They were black with a green stock, and looking very powerful. Shaking my head, I snapped out of it and trotted further down the hall.
The other picture was of a happy looking family. I recognised the plump blue mare and slim yellow stallion, even the peach unicorn baby and cream pegasus baby. So they must have been their parents. I couldn’t help but smile at the happy family. I was filled with a warm feeling as I turned and trotted to the other bedroom.
The room was more masculine looking than the other. In the corner sat a set of large weights, and the dresser only had two pictures (neither of which had heart-shaped frames). The first one was of a line of soldiers all saluting to a massive, blue, bipedal creature.
A minotaur, stupid.
I knew that! Stupid me... I mean conscience. Fuck. Anyway, the first three wore desert camo, the pegasus and unicorn included, followed by three ponies in heavier armour. The same as that Valentine chap wore. I think I saw Valentine there, but I couldn’t be sure it was him.
The second picture was of the blue mare and yellow stallion again. Definitely parents.
I turned around and saw the bed. It looked pretty damn comfy. Yawning, I closed the tattered drapes to block out the rain, took my duct-taped Pipbuck off, and slumped onto the bed. It was really soft, softer than the past few places I had slumbered. Warm, too. Snuggling under the blankets, I rolled over and stared at the ceiling.
Still stuck to the ceiling were several newspaper clippings and pictures. The pictures were of several mares in very provocative positions, albeit a little faded. I looked around, blushing, and decided to read the newspaper clippings. They were all so faded. Something about a failed assassination attempt, a couple of heroes, some sort of ceremony... it was all jumbled up. I rolled over and stared at the wall. It wasn’t long before I found myself looking back up at the photos. I guess all of me wanted to see them...
I rolled over as much as I could and clamped my eyes shut. I shouldn’t be looking at them. It was ungentlecoltly. And...stuff. Pulling the blanket over my head, I yawned and slowly fell asleep.
“Da...Daw...Dawing...” I said in a small voice, reading the book on my lap. I was sitting on my father’s lap in our living room. I remembered the old cream couch and the green floral wallpaper from my childhood. “Dawing D...Doh.”
“Do, son,” my father said, smiling at me. Shamrock chuckled from his seat on the couch beside us. He was reading Mare Do Well, as he always did. I beamed up at daddy and looked back at the book.
“Dawing Do, and t...teh Gw....G...Gwi...” I looked up at dad again. “Whassat?” I asked in my foaly voice.
“Griffin,” Dad chuckled. “Half bird, half lion.”
“Wow...” I gasped and looked back at the book. “Awesome!” I found where I had left off. “Dawing Do and teh Gwiffin’s... Go...Gob...Gobwet.” I looked up at my dad. He beamed down at me and nodded. I grinned back. “Dawing Do and teh Gwiffin’s Gobwet. O...Onc...um...” I looked up at dad again.
My father shook his head with a smile and plucked the book from my hooves. “Maybe this is a little too advanced for you,” he said in a soft tone. I drooped a little on his lap, then the book appeared before me and dad cleared his throat. “Doesn’t mean we won’t read it.” I gasped and clapped my itty-bitty hooves together.
“Daring Do and the Griffin’s Goblet. Once upon a time...” my father began. I was immediately enthralled. Griffins were cool. Daring Do was cool. Goblets were cool. Whatever those were. This story was just awesome. Snuggling down in my father’s lap, I readied myself for the best story ever in the history of evers.
Except...nothing was happening. My father looked frozen when I looked up at him.
“Daddy?” I asked, standing up. “Hello?” I stood on my hind legs and pressed my hooves against his head. “Daddy?” I tapped him a few times, but nothing was happening. Shamrock was frozen in mid page turn. As frozen as dad was. “Shamwock?” Tears were starting to brim in my eyes. “I’m scared...”
“Surreal, ain’t it?” a smooth voice asked. “Just like a pretty picture.”
I looked in the direction of the voice. There, leaning against the kitchen door, munching on an apple, was a pure black pony with glowing red eyes. His mane and tail seemed to waft like smoke as he stood there.
“W-who are you?” I asked, my voice shaking as I tried to bury myself in dad’s lap. “What did you do to daddy?”
“I didn’t do anything,” the dark stallion laughed, throwing the applecore over his shoulder. “This is your mind, not mine.”
I peeked out of dad’s lap. “G-go away...” I squeaked. “You’re scawing me.”
The demon pony let out a laugh, which slowly escalated into a maniacal cackle. He looked at me with his piercing eyes. “I wish I could,” he said with a smirk. “As for who I am...” He put a hoof to his chin in thought. “Well, I don’t have a name...”
I blinked and he was gone.
“Lets think, hmm?” a voice said from behind me. The demon was on my shoulder, sitting crossed legged in thought, now a tiny little pony. “I guess I’m laying the groundwork in your mind. Pioneering if you will.” The black pony grinned at me.
“But Pioneer is so...” This time, the voice came from Shamrock, but instead of Shamrock flicking through the comic, it was the demon pony. “Lame,” he sighed, closing the comic.
“Oh, I know!” The voice changed host again. Shamrock was back to normal, but the voice came from behind me. I looked up at my daddy, but it wasn’t daddy. It was the red-eyed pony, grinning at me with a demonic smile, his teeth like a savage beast’s.
Turning, I tried to leap from the pony’s lap, but it caught me in mid air, grabbing me by the scruff of the neck and pulling me before his red, psychotic eyes. “How about Trailblaze?”
I hid my eyes behind my hooves.
“Yes...Trailblaze...” the demon pony said, scratching his chin with a demonic grin. He looked back at me. “I like that.”
“L-Leave me alone!” I squeaked, trying to squirm free.
Traiblaze laughed, ginning and bringing me closer. "Why would I do that when there is so much groundwork to do?" He raised his hoof to eye level. I tried to scream, but the hoof shot at me, shooting down my throat. I felt his presence blow through me like a freezing breeze, from the top of my snout to the end of my tail.
I convulsed on the armchair, the demon flowing through my body. “He-”
“-lp!” I shouted, darting upright in the bed, covered in cold sweat. Taking several deep breaths, my eyes darted around the room. It was dark but silent. I whipped the blankets off and sat on the edge of the bed, my head in my hooves. I shook it softly. “Talk about nightmares...” I muttered with a ragged breath.
Getting up, I trotted to the window and opened the curtains. The clouds were still out there, but the rain had stopped. I picked up my pipbuck and duct taped it to my foreleg. Glancing at the time, I realised it was stupid-o’clock in the morning. The sun would be coming up soon. I had been asleep for a good ten hours.
Stretching and shaking my head of the images that had plagued me during the night, I made my bed and decided to snoop around until Ace woke up.
The hallway outside my room was dark and cold. The only light was at the end of the corridor, coming from the remains of the fire. Moseying past Ace’s room, I swear I heard loud snoring. “Like a log...” I muttered to myself.
I sat down in front of the fire, lighting a match and trying to give the flame more life. As luck would have it, I had a crackling fire in no time. I sat back and sighed. “Now what...?” I asked myself. Might have had a few more hours before Ace was up and we could continue.
Looking around at my surroundings, I drummed my hooves on my lap and hummed to myself. “Welp. I’m bored,” I announced. Looking at my equipment, Idecided to look it over. Pulling my coat onto my lap, I spied a small note of paper. I pulled it out and saw the four numbers. Having a bright idea, I pulled up the note tab on my Pipbuck and hummed.
“The local flavours show the way. 20-45 39-73 85-97.”
What the hell is that supposed to mean? The local flavour...
The diner maybe?
But what did the numbers mean?
Maybe it was the date... I looked at my pipbuck then facehoofed. The only number there that could even possibly be part of a date would be the twenty. Rolling my eyes, I glanced at the pipbuck, then hummed. “I wonder...” Could they be co-ordinates?
I zoomed in on the map, and traced the numbers on the side. The grid numbers here were nowhere near the seventies to nineties, so I traced the closest numbers to the ones on the note. 2045 led to the Red Zone, and 3945 led even deeper into the Red Zone. But 20-39 wasn’t. And just so happens to be the same grid as the diner and the house. The local flavours must have been the diner.
Zooming in, I used the map skills dad had taught me to find the exact spot. 204395 was right next to the diner, 207393 was... in the middle of nowhere, and 209397 was right next to the house.
What could it be? A message? A meet-up? Oh! Maybe it was treasure!
But what if it was a warning? Should I risk it?
What? It might be treasure!
I slipped on my armour and coat before trotting over to the door, leaving my packs and weapons behind. Opening the door, I took note of the darkness. Not even Chester’s light was on in his diner. Flicking on my pipbuck’s light, I trotted out of the front door.
The night was chilly, and the wind was bracing. Popping my coat’s collar, I trotted outside and down the porch steps. According to my pipbuck, the first set of coordinates were right around the corner. Being the closest ones, I chose to follow them first.
I hobbled along, keeping an eye on my raised hoof’s pipbuck. It wasn’t long before I fell flat on my snout by tripping over a rock, but I had gotten to my objective. Sitting up and rubbing my snout, I found that I had fallen against a small trap door, a lock sitting on a thick chain around the handles. It was all shiny and looked damn near new. I would have predicted maybe a month or two since it was put there.
I lifted the lock and examined it. Looked sturdy as a tank to my eyes. I pulled on it, but to no avail. “This is definitely it,” I mused. “Or some weird coincidence.” I bit my upper lip while I thought. What could be down there? Gold? Federation Bits? Or even the caps they used as currency out here? Maybe...maybe a pristine trainset?! Oh I so hoped so! I liked trains, ever since Shamrock got me that trainset for my third birthday.
I missed Shamrock...
Yes. Right. Wait...
Since when do consciences actually talk to a pony like a sentient being?
Who said I’m your conscience?
Oh...oh no... I gasped and covered my mouth with my hoof. Was that dream real?
That’s for me to know, and you to find out.
My body froze in complete horror. No. Nononono. That was not real. I do not have a demon pony in my mind. No way, no how. That shit was impossible.
I’m not listening to you! You aren’t real! I stuck my hooves in my ears. “Lalalalala, not hearing anything, lalalala.”
A hoof clipped the back of my head lightly. I unplugged my ears and looked up to see a beige unicorn mare looming over me. “Y’alright there, Clover?”
I looked at my hooves, then to Ace. “Um...yeah. Sure. Just got a, uh...” Think, Clover, think! “A song stuck in my head. Its annoying as hell.” Genius!
Ace snorted. “Whatever.” She dropped my saddlebags and SMG at my hooves. I picked them up. “What’d you find?” she asked, kicking the trap door.
I merely shrugged. “Tried to decode those numbers that we found. Thought they might be co-ordinates, so I followed ‘em.” I looked at the trap door. “This is where the first set led me.”
“You can read coordinates?” Came the response. “Not many ponies can do that.” She leered at me for a moment. “You gonna tell me how you learned how to?”
“Simple,” I said, smiling up at her. “My dad taught me. He was super smart!” I tapped my chin. “I think he was a scientist or something. Would explain his cutie mark.” I shrugged. “Before he was a farmer.”
The leather clad mare raised an eyebrow. “Oh really.”
I nodded furiously, like a child agreeing to free candy. “Yup!”
“Alright...” Ace said, suspiciously. The then stepped over to the door with the padlock. “Oooh, this one's a doozy!” She grinned and prodded it with a hoof. “Nothin’ the great Ace can’t handle!” She sat down and pulled a bobby pin out of her mane with her magic.
I sat there and watched as she fiddled with the lock, slowly turning the pin and licking her lip. I clamped my mouth shut and watched in silence as she slowly manipulated the pin. She was concentrating so hard it looked like she was going to pop a blood vessel. It was several minutes before she cheered in triumph as the lock clicked and opened.
“Fuck you, lock!” she jeered at it. “I owned you, bitch!” She picked up the lock. “I’m so keeping this sucker.” She dropped it into her saddlebag.
“Good job,” I said with a smile. “Now what?”
The brown maned unicorn used her magic to violently open the trapdoor, floating her sawn off double barreled shotgun through. “We find out what’s inside!” she laughed and dove in. “I want to see some treasure!”
“Hey!” I called after her, diving inside. “I called it!”
The basement was almost empty. Only a few shelves with random junk stood amongst a few small boxes. Ace was drawn to the shelves full of bits and bobs, mostly books, as I trotted over to the boxes and nosed through them.
“Find anything?” my companion asked, throwing a small wooden doll over her shoulder. “Nothing good over here...”
I opened a box, grimaced, and closed it again. “Who knew ponies could hoard rat poop.” I shoved the box away and picked up the little wooden doll. “This was probably a filly’s favourite toy...” I whispered, thinking of my Gunter. The doll was of a pretty looking mare, smiling a brilliant smile, not in the least bit worn. I put it in my saddlebag. “Probably misses it.”
“What was that?” Ace asked, looking over her shoulder. “You say something?”
Sighing, I looked at the shelves. “Just be more careful, eh?” I trotted over. “Some of these things may have been prized possessions.”
Ace laughed, heartily at that. “To whom? The dust mites?” She shuffled along the shelf some more. “Whoever owned all this is probably long dead.”
Scowling at the unicorn, I too started looking around the shelves. “What have we got here...” I looked over the books and old magazines. Lusty Griffin Maid, Tales of a Cop... Mare Do Well issue 2?! I picked up the comic and made myself comfy on the ground. “Sweeeet!”
The unicorn just rolled her eyes, and continued her search. “Gotta be something of use...”
“What do you mean?” I asked, my nose buried in my comic. “This is gold!”
The mare sighed. “Sure.” She started pulling the books from the shelf with not much more than a glance. “Boooring...”
Book after book fell from the shelf. “So nothin’ in the boxe-”
“Nothing at all.” I looked up at Ace who had her hoof on a book. “What’s up?”
“This one’s stuck...” she grunted, pulling at the book. “No book defies Ace!” She got up on two hooves (giving me another good vie- STOPPIT!) and put both hooves on the book. With an almighty heave, she yanked the book from where it sat on the shelf. Except it pulled a lever along with it.
“Groovy...” Ace marvelled as one of the shelves buckled and started to move. Now, I’d expect dust and grime to fall down from the ceiling and the hinges to creak and groan, just like in Daring Do, but this wasn’t the case. This set of shelves moved with no noise, no dust, and no grime. Needless to say, I was quite disappointed.
Ace was the first through the new door. I reluctantly shoved my new comic into my bag and got up to follow. The new shelf-door lead to a long concrete hallway, and a light flickered on at the end.
“Fancy,” Ace murmured. “Dibs on the treasure.”
“Hey!” I whined. “I called dibs ages ago!”
Ace rolled her eyes and glanced at me over her shoulder. “Such a child.” What? She just said she had dibs, then called me childish?! What the- I don’t even- Ugh. Bitch.
The concrete corridor was so bland that the room at the end was a very welcome sight. There was a huge door on the wall opposite the corridor, a desk and workbench to my left, and three large containers on my right. I zipped to the containers, wanting to get the treasure before Ace could. I was successful.
“Lets see what we have here...” I said with a grin. “Come to papa, treasure.” I opened the first of the containers. The hiss of pressurised air was comforting, meaning that whatever was inside was preserved.
And better yet, not taken.
The top of the container opened up and there sitting before me was the most gorgeous, most intense, most beautiful sniper rifle I ever did see. It was the same green and black rifle from the pictures upstairs, with a matching harness.
“Pretty...” I murmured, licking my lips and wiping away the slobber. “So mine.” I picked the sniper rifle up and slung it over my back in a flash, put all the clips and clasps together, and flipped the scope over my eye with practised precision.
But I had never held a rifle in my life.
“What the hell...” Ace asked, staring at me down the sights of her shotgun. “How the fuck did you do that? You’re a spy, aren’t you?!”
“We’ve been over this!” I said back, flipping the scope back to its resting position. “I’m just a farmer.”
“Then explain how you know how to use a sniper rifle like that.”
I looked at the rifle, to Ace, then back to the rifle. I had no clue. Not the foggiest. “Must have...read about it.”
“Fuck off,” Ace growled. “No fucking way does a pony do that from just reading.”
Hell, she was right. Nopony could. Ever. Think Clover, think! I strained to remember how I knew how to do this.
Before my brain exploded from all the strain, as if by magic, I remembered. “I remember!” I yelled before Ace could pull the trigger. “Me and my brother Shamrock had an old harness like this one when I was eight!” I explained. “Dad made us a wooden rifle to use when we played Rangers and Raiders!” I shook my hooves to emphasise my point. “Shamrock always let me use it, even when it was his turn!”
“A harness just like that one?” Ace asked, nodding at the harness now strapped around my riot barding. “That’s a grade-A combat harness, very rare equipment if you aren’t in either the Resistance or the Feds. Start talking sense, boy.”
I blinked. Where did I find it? Ugh, thinking was starting to hurt... oh! That’s right! “Found it when my dad found that old Coalition cart. He found it half buried when he was out on one of his little trade negotiation thingies.”
“Trade negotiation thingies?” Ace asked in a condescending manner. “Keep talkin’.”
“The Feds wouldn’t come to us,” I explained. “So he had to go to them!”
Ace huffed, lowering her shotgun slightly. “And he just happened to find it?”
I nodded furiously. “Yes! Yesyesyesyes!” Please don’t shoot me, please don’t shoot me...
The mare stared for a few moments, then lowered her shotgun. “I guess weirder things have happened...” she muttered and walked over to the desk and chair, muttering some more, only brightening up when she found a key for the padlock. Who kept a key inside the thing they locked up? It doesn’t make sense...
Breathing a sigh of relief, I turned back to the box. Lots of ammo. About fifty rounds in all, all packed together in magazines. I pulled them out and put them in my saddlebags, making a mental note to get some extra pockets for them. That left three ammo boxes in the container. I opened them and was presented with two magazines in each. Pulling one out, I looked at the top bullet. In it was scratched ‘Redemption.’
I pulled the old casing from the communications building. Redemption, Regret, and Revenge. The other ammo boxes held similar magazines, one of them held ‘Regret’ and the other ‘Revenge’ bullets.
This equipment had to belong to the two ponies who lived here, but that was two hundred years ago. How did the casings end up in the communications building? None of this made sense...
“What’s in the second one?” Ace asked, from across the room. Good question. I trotted over to the other container and opened it, with the same pressure release gimmick the other one did.
Inside sat a gauntlet with a circle right in the middle of it. “What the...” I pulled it out and looked it over. It was a brown leather encased device that fit perfectly around my forearm. It looked like a small orb would fit in the middle of it. Looking in the box, I saw one little orb, sitting right in the center, and on an old note.
“Hmm...” I mused, taking the note out. ‘The Good Times...’.
I pulled out the orb and looked it over. “What’s this doohickey?” I asked Ace, holding it out. Ace was nosing through some old document and groaning from boredom.
She looked up at me and ooh’d. “That’s a memory orb!” She trotted over. “Looks old too. I’d say over two hundred years. Ever wanted to see what the world was like before the war?”
I looked at the orb, then back to Ace. “Bullshit.” That’s impossible. How do you capture a memory in an orb? I held it between my hooves and looked it over. Was it a camera? A camera the size of a billiard ball, how convenient.
Ace shook her head. “Nope, its legit a memory from the past.” She took the ball from my hooves. “Trapped in this little thing.”
“So how do we see it?” I asked, taking it back. “Is there a button or something?”
“Need to be a unicorn,” Ace said with a smirk. “Which I just so happen to be, and you just so happen to not be.”
Bitch. I held the orb back to her. “Take a look then, your highness.”
The mare backed away. “Fuck that,” she stated simply. “Could be torture or some shit.”
Wimp. “Sure.” I sneered. “You’re just chicken.”
“Says the chicken,” Ace replied with a grin.
“I’m not chicken,” I whined back. “I’m just...uh...” Think, Clover, think... “Sensitive to bad situations is all.” Nailed it.
The unicorn mare rolled her eyes. “Yeah, whatever.” She nodded to the last box. “What’s in box number 3, Mr. Sensitive.”
Good question. I trotted back over to the boxes and looked the last one over. This one was a bit more beat up than the others, and the lid seemed to have been opened recently. Especially when it opened without the pressure show.
Inside sat a note, nothing more, nothing less. Frowning in disappointment, I picked the note out and read it.
“Damn it all...
It’s been too long to keep this charade up. I wish I could change the past. I wish I could find you.
But I can’t.
Nothing will change. This tired old world will just keep spinning, and day in, day out, ponies will die at the hooves of corruption and monsters. I tried to fix that, but I couldn’t.
Whoever finds this, you’ve gone through enough for me to know you aren’t some dumb raider, so I hope you can use my equipment better than I could.
I don’t give a shit anymore.
Go kill some raiders. Or Feds. Or Resistance, whatever. Just do better than I did.”
Well that was morbid.
“So...” Ace said from behind me. She had been reading the letter over my shoulder. “I guess that stuff is yours now.”
Sweet. “I guess...” My very own super-cool rifle and hoofband...thingie. What was that thing anyway...
The inscription on the side read “Recollector V1.7”
“What strikes me as odd...” Ace mused, “Is that whoever wrote this note didn’t mention the memory orb.” Maybe whoever wrote it just didn’t care about anything anymore and walked into a bullet or something.
“No idea,” I lied. Didn’t want to make an already morbid situation more depressing. “Anything by the desk?”
“Just some papers and a really rusty knife,” my companion replied. “The sheath is still good though.” She pulled a sheath from her saddlebag. It looked like it was suited for some kind of woodspony/combat knife thingie. I had seen this kind of knife in a survival poster in the town hall back on the Plains. Its blunt side started to slope inwards half way down, then back out to meet with the tip. I couldn’t remember what it was called...
“Neat-o,” I said, looking at it. “But your machete won’t fit in it.”
“Which is why,” Ace said, using her magic to strap it around my upper foreleg. “We need to get you a knife.”
I blinked at her. “What are you implying?” I asked dumbly. “That I need a knife to... stab somepony?” No way, nope, not going to happen.
The mare huffed with either frustration or amusement, I couldn’t tell. “You might need a knife for survival, not killing.” She nodded to the door. “Might need to cut some wires or harvest food or something out there.”
Breathing a sigh of relief, I nodded. “Right. Non-combat options. Yes.” I looked towards the door. “Time to get moving?”
Ace looked around. “I’m curious...” No duh. She trotted over to the large steel door on the other side of the room. “What’s through here...”
I would hazard a guess as to nothing good, given the large ‘Authorized Personnel Only’ that was painted on it.
“We don’t need to find out,” I muttered, turning to the concrete corridor. “Let’s just- Hey!”
A silhouette at the end of the hall was staring at us, then burst into laughter as a large steel door started closing on both our side and his side of the corridor. A beardy silhouette.
“Chester, you fucking fuck!” Ace roared, running from the other side of the room, but she was too late, the large steel door slid shut in front of her. “Fuck you!” she yelled repeatedly, slamming her hooves on the door. “Let us out!”
“What a dick...” I said, looking at the door. “Why would he do that?”
“Fuck him and his stupid little diner,” Ace grumbled, giving up on forcing to door open with her hooves. “He trapped us, the git.”
Looking around for a way out, I spotted a wall mounted terminal beside the corridor door. Except it was dangling by two solitary wires. “Well, that’s disappointing...”
Ace roared and ripped the terminal from the wall completely. “I hate ghouls!” She kicked the terminal’s dead screen in and stomped to the larger door, its terminal still intact. “Looks like this is our way out.”
Ah yes, the large door that probably holds all sorts of baddies. Nope, not panicking at all. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
Ace just leered at me. Good enough for me. She looked back to the terminal and turned it on. “Oh for fuck’s sake!” she yelled, facehoofing. “Need a damn password.”
Trotting up beside her, I looked at the terminal. Yup, login screen. “That suck-” My pipbuck beeped and showed a whole new screen. A screen with all sorts of...words. And symbols. And numbers. But what could it all mean?
“Fuck yeah!” Ace cheered, grabbing my pipbuck’d foreleg and pulling it before her, bringing me sprawling with it. “Hacking software, nice.”
“What?” I asked, but she wasn’t listening. She was scrolling through the words and symbols with the occasional murmur, or ‘dammit’.
I watched her back out of the terminal about three times over the course of about ten minutes. “Oh come on...” she grumbled, backing out again. “Come on, fourth time’s a charm.” She shut her eyes and pressed a word at random.
“Well I’ll be a radhog’s uncle...” Ace said with a smile. “That got it.” She dropped my foreleg and looked over her options. Well, option. She pressed the ‘Open Tunnel’ selection and stood back.
Getting back on all fours, I looked up at the door that was starting to shudder and light up. Several gears started to churn while all sorts of security latches started to open. Sure enough, the door started to slide up. “Bit excessive, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Not when it's a heavy military-grade blast door,” Ace replied. I still thought it was excessive.
A huge, rectangular hallway stood before us, looming into complete darkness. “Fuck. That.” I stated, shuffling back to the broken terminal. “Maybe I can fix this and-”
“Oh stop being a baby,” Ace growled, dragging me back to the door by my tail. “This is the only way out and you know it.” I did know it but that wasn’t the point! It was scary as fuck in there!
That was until the very dim lights started to flicker on. “How novel,” Ace said, dropping my tail. “Now come on, I don’t want to be dragging your lame ass down here any longer.” She started trotting down the tunnel, I really reluctantly followed.
“Did I ever tell you...” Ace said, looking up at the dim lights. It had been about twenty minutes since we started down the hall, and I hated every little moment of it. “That I hate tunnels?” She looked at me. “Like, with a burning passion and shit.”
“You and me both, pal,” I whimpered. What? I was scared witless. Down here, in Celestia-knows-where. Fuck tunnels. There weren’t even directions, we were just choosing tunnels at random. I dunno how the ponies of old navigated through here. Might have something to do with the really faded coloured lines on the floor. Maybe. And to make it worse, my mind was playing tricks on me, making me hear things. Nothing down here but me and Ace.
“Y’know, I think we might be under the Red Zone,” Ace mused, looking up. Fucking great. “Scary stuff happens out here apparently.”
“I don’t even want to know,” I grumbled, looking at my hooves. “I just want to go home.” Home. Oh, how I missed it. I wished I was in my old bed, with my little Gunter, in my own room, in my own home. Oh man, I’d never see Gunter again... I sighed and looked up again.
“Stuff like the dead roaming the rad fields.” Wait what? “Yup, zombies ‘n’ shit.”
“No way, zombies aren’t real,” I scoffed. Right? They better not be.
“Eeyup, radiation does fucked up things to a pony. I mean, look at Chester.” She growled. “Chester... fucking ghoul’s gonna die next time I see him.”
“Pleasant,” I whimpered. “So these zombies... are they like the ones in stories?” I never did like horror stories, but Shamrock loved them. He never watched or read them near me, but I did take a peek on occasion and regretted it.
And as if on cue, four red blips popped up on my EFS. Fuck.
“Nope,” Ace said, pulling her shotgun from her back. “Because the dead don’t shuffle...” A heavily rotted face peeked around the corner, more rotted than Snake Eyes or Chester, with only a few tufts of mane on its head. “They run.”
The rotting pony howled to high heaven and sprinted around the corner, followed by several more. Ace was quick as a bunny with shooting the first one, making its head explode into thousands of pieces. “Don’t just stand there!” she shouted at me. “Fire your weapon!”
I stood dumbstruck, disgusted, and scared out of my mind. “Z-Z-Z-Zombies...” I had had nightmares about zombies as a kid, and I have always hated them since. But I didn’t have a gun in them. I felt an eerie calm flow over me as pulled my sniper to bear. Aiming down the scope, I lined up a shot. I clamped down on the firing bit.
A bullet exploded from the end of my rifle and slammed into another zombie’s head, a unicorn, making it fly back into a zombie earth pony. Both fell lifeless as the bullet had gone through both and struck the wall behind them. Ace was making short work of the rest with her shotgun, firing and reloading like a fine tuned machine.
It didn’t take long to take on the group of zombies. And there it was, the sweet feel of adrenaline coursing through my veins. Lovely.
“Fucking ferals,” Ace grunted, smashing one’s dead head with the butt of her shotgun. “Worse than ghouls...”
“Ferals?” I asked, looking over the corpses. They all wore the tattered remains of yellow and brown fatigues and armour, and one wore a desert camouflage set of armour, like the Resistance spec ops group’s. I think the pony was a mare by the shape of her head. I wondered who she used to be, but from what I could tell, she was a green earth pony mare with a pink mane.
“What happens to ghouls who take too much radiation,” my leather-clad companion answered. “Or when their brain finally melts.” Ew. “And there’s bound to be more where this came from. We better hurry.” And with that, she was off. With the adrenaline now in my blood, I felt like I could run for miles, which we might have to do, seeing as these tunnels ran forever.
More red blips popped onto my EFS, but we kept running. Occasionally, as we passed an intersection, Ace would fire down a hall, nail a ghoul, and keep running. I don’t think I could do that, as I would have to turn my whole body to shoot. I decided to switch to my SMG and do the same.
The weird thing was, I didn’t feel any fear. Or maybe I did, but didn’t notice it. I was almost enjoying myself, like the adrenaline was making me delirious, or maybe courageous. Whatever it was, I loved it.
I looked over my shoulder and instantly the feelings of courage disappeared. There was a fucking horde of undead ponies following us, each howling their horrific screams. “Ace!” I screamed, turning my head back around and clamping my eyes shut. “What do we do?!”
Ace just laughed. “We use my secret weapon.” She continued to fire back with her shotgun, but I saw her levitate a small metal apple out of her saddlebag, then another one with a red band. “Fire in the hole!” she yelled as we turned a corner and pulled the stems out, throwing them into the horde.
The hallway exploded into shrapnel and fire as both apples detonated. Bits and pieces of pony slammed against the corner we had just turned and fell into mushy silence. Ace and I slowed down to look back.
“And that’s how we do that,” Ace cheered with a grin. She turned around and started trotting back down the old corridor. My EFS was clear now, no sign of any enemies.
We turned another corner and were met with another intersection. Except this one had a sign, pointing left. Left was the only direction we could go, seeing as the other halls were collapsed. Come to think of it, the condition of the halls had been getting worse and worse. I wondered where we were. The sign read ‘Fort Divit, Escape Hatch 101, Hangars’.
“Guess we’re heading left then,” Ace said, looking down the hall. Just as bland as the others.
I was right, the halls were getting worse. Especially when the next intersection came up. The walls were covered in gunk and nasty mould; even my pipbuck started to tick slightly. “Now what?” I asked.
Ace shrugged. “Keep going straight?” She started to trot forward. I closed my eyes and sighed, taking a quick moment to calm myself. The adrenaline was leaving my system, and I was starting to feel the effects of the running. Fucking zombies... I opened my eyes and started trotting after Ace.
Within a blink of an eye, a red blip appeared and disappeared. I turned around and looked down the hall. There was nothing there. “Ace...”
“What?” Ace asked, looking over her shoulder.
The hallway was empty and silent. “...nevermind.”
The mare rolled her eyes and kept walking. “Then shut up.”
I couldn’t help but comply as I fell in beside her. I think this place was starting to make me go crazy. Maybe it was the mould or spores or something. Either way, I wanted to find that escape hatch.
Which wasn’t this way. Something that was made painfully obvious by a huge metal door at the end of the hallway. It looked like the one in the basement, but so much bigger and more battered. Especially the two large holes in the center of it. They were about as big as my hoof and looked like something had pierced the door from the outside. The giant steel door. Well, that inspired confidence.
“Dead end,” Ace muttered, turning back.
“Aren’t you curious?” I wasn’t, but it was a door like the other one she was curious about.
Ace simply pointed the door. It read ‘Fort Divit’. I see. Definite Red Zone. Turning back was the only real option here.
“So what do you think made those ho-”
I was interrupted by a blood curdling roar that chilled my soul to the very core. “What...was tha-” I was interrupted again by an almighty crash and the sound of thundering hooves running down the hall. We poked our heads around the corner at the intersection and peeked down one of the halls.
That became one of the scariest moments of my life. Down one of the halls stomped a massive, bipedal ghoul, more than twice the size of a pony. It had huge, cracked horns that were easily a hoof wide, and a ring going through its nose. Its massive barrel chest was peeling and cracked, just like all the other ghouls, and it wore what seemed to be the tattered remains of a uniform, with stars along its shoulders. Its weird finger things held a long decorative sword, turned orange with age. I looked into its yellow, milky eyes and only saw rage. What the hell was that thing?!
Right, that- shut up!
The thing spotted us and roared with the rage of ten thousand balefire bombs (not really, but still) and raised its sword above its head, scraping it against the tunnel ceiling.
Ace turned down one of the halls and bolted. I watched her, rooted in what I think was shock. Then I looked back down at the minotaur.
The giant abomination scraped the ground with a hind hoof and roared before taking off at lightning pace. I barely had time to snap to before I realised what was happening. I yelped and took off after Ace.
“Got any more grenades?!” I yelled across at her after I caught up. “We could really use one or... a thousand right now!”
“Nope,” Ace yelled back. “Those were my only ones!.” Shit shit shit shit. “I have a plan though!”
“Now would be a great time to tell me!” I yelled as we turned a corner.
Ace looked back and saw the towering beast try to turn into our corner and slam its side into the wall. That just pissed it off more. “We keep runnin’!”
“Bloody genius!” I yelled back, thundering along the tunnels, watching my EFS. “You should get a medal!”
“Hey, don’t you start!” the mare running beside me called. “It might not fit through the escape hatch, if we find it!”
Okay, that was wishful thinking, but it might’ve worked. If more red ticks hadn’t started appearing on my EFS. Balls.
Ghouls of all shapes and sizes of pony started to emerge from the tunnels ahead. Even a few griffin shaped ones. They all turned their creepy, milky eyes to us before growing into a crescendo of unified roars. We had to get past them.
“Charge!” Ace called out, levitating all her weapons out. “Fight to the last pony and bullet!”
“Fuck that!” I yelled back, clamping my teeth down on my SMG’s handle. “I’m not dying down here!”
We both opened fire, Ace’s shotguns tore through them like a hot knife through butter, and her machete was like a chainsaw through paper. Great analogies, Clover, absolutely golden. My SMG was effective, but not as effective as I wished. The ghouls were still falling around us as we sprinted, but more were getting trampled by the huge beast thundering after us. Gore and bits and pieces flew up around us as the ghouls met their grisly end.
I felt the teeth of a ghoul sink into my flank as I sprinted by, but only for a second as I yanked the teeth out of the rotten pony’s skull. Ace had suffered a ghoulified talon to the cheek, but we kept running. By the time we had gotten ahead of the horde, we were bashed, battered, and bruised, but dammit we kept running. Literally running for our lives.
The minotaur was still tailing us, its heavy hoof falls crushing spines and heads as its sword carved through anything in its way. “Maggots!” It screamed at the top of its lungs. They could talk, how novel.
Left, right, left, we just kept running and running and running through the tunnels, occasionally looking back only to fire our weapons. The minotaur was leading the pack, foam oozing from its nose. The horde of zombies were sprinting behind it. Occasionally one would get in front, but it was promptly squashed beneath the big blue bastard.
“We’ve got to be almost there!” Ace yelled, blood oozing from her cheek. “C’mon, please?!” It was as if she was talking to whoever was looking over us. Some would say Luna or Celestia, and some would say... probably somepony else. As if I’d know, I didn’t need a deity to farm appl-
Oh now that was just fucking evil. We had sprinted down a hall where the lights had been knocked out and right into a dead end. The tunnel had collapsed right ahead and we hadn’t seen it.
“Shit! Turn back!” Ace spun on her hooves, but the tunnel entrance was blocked by the silhouettes of the horde, standing, watching. The minotaur started forward. I could barely make out a demonic grin on its face as it dragged its sword along the ground beside it.
“Desertion... betrayal... treason... you maggots are gonna pay...” It growled at us. “And I’m the taxman.” That was corny. Definitely crazy.
The only light at this end of the hall was the faint glow from my pipbuck light. It was really dull, but then again, it was burned and damaged. I looked at Ace for some idea of what to do, but she was just staring at the minotaur. She had no idea what to do, and all I saw in her eyes was fear.
If Ace wasn’t going to do anything... that just left me.
You can do this. Don’t be a pussy.
The voice in my head was right, regardless if it was me or that dream demon thingie. I was the only one left to do anything. Clamping my eyes shut and taking a deep breath, I pulled my sniper into its firing position. I opened my eye and looked down the scope, aiming at the beast’s face. Clamping down on the trigger bit, and a bullet cracked from the sniper. It almost seemed like time slowed down as the bullet flew through the air with grace and majesty... just to hit the nosering and ricochet into its shoulder. The nosering hit the floor and the beast roared. Fuck.
At least it gave Ace the cue to wake up and get her weapons out. “Come get som-” she began, but the beast charged us. “Shit!” She fired her double barreled shotgun and the beast’s chest was peppered with buckshot, but its bloodlust overrode the pain and it swung its sword, sending the shotgun spinning and smashing into a wall, breaking into several pieces. The beast curled its digits on its free hand into a ball and swung at Ace, connecting with her chest and sending her flying into the wall next to her shotgun with a crack. She slid down the wall and went limp.
“No!” I yelled and charged at the beast, the adrenaline giving me a newfound confidence. Slamming my hooves into its bloody chest with all my might, I actually managed to stagger the best, but it was short lived as it roared back at me and shoved me off.
“And assaulting a senior officer!” It bellowed at me. “I’ll see you executed for this, soldier!”
I reared up and kicked with my hind legs, but it caught one of them and whipped me back down onto my back. I felt my back crack and my teeth shudder as I collided with the floor and looked up at my assailant, pinning me down with his overgrown hoof. In the glow of my pipbuck, the minotaur looked like the devil himself. With the horns, demonic expression, and slick with blood. He brought his sword above his head, and the other ghouls at the end of the hall howled in triumph.
“Time for your dishonourable discharge, boy,” the beast chuckled. The sword glimmered in the orange light, making it look like it was made of fire. Pebbles from the debris hit my face, but I was too transfixed on the blade to really care. “Any last...” The minotaur looked up.
Wait a minute, orange light? My pipbuck was white. Where was the light...? I followed the minotaur’s distracted gaze and saw a tiny little orange hole opening in the rubble. It started to grow wider and wider before stopping, the last pebble smacking my nose.
“What the-” the minotaur started before the hole erupted into flame, bathing the minotaur’s face, charing the rotten flesh from the bone. The beast howled and clutched its face, staggering back. The flame was spreading across its body. I looked back up at the hole, and there sat a giant red ant with a knife sticking out of its body. My loyal subject, as it were.
The ant silently crawled out and scuttled along the ceiling, making a beeline for the horde of ghouls. The minotaur had already trampled some of them in its panic. By then, the fire had spread over its whole body as it fled. I knew the beast wouldn’t survive, and I certainly didn’t want it to. Bastard.
The fire ant took its sweet time roasting the ghouls and the air filled with their screams as I got back to my hooves and walked over to Ace. She was coming to and holding her head.
“Minotaur got us,” I stated, simply, helping her up.
Ace looked at me unbelievingly. “And you killed him?” She looked around. “Or did he get bored and walk away?” She looked at the burning corpses. “And what happened to them?”
I pointed up. Ace looked up and saw the ant clinging to the ceiling above us, waving its antennas around. The mare automatically levitated her shotgun up, only to realise that the stock was all that remained after its sudden, hard impact with the concrete wall.
“Minotaur,” I said and looked up at the ant. “And he saved us.” The ant climbed down the wall and stood next to me. “I’m surprised he’s not attacking you.”
Ace eyed the little ant. “Sure...” She narrowed her eyes. “I don’t trust it...” She looked at the hole it made, then to the burning corpses. “Can it get us out of here?”
I looked down at the ant. “Can you?”
The ant stared at me for a brief moment before scuttling over to the debris. He started digging and soon enough, he had made a pony sized hole through to the tunnel on the other side of the rubble.
“How did he know where we were?” Ace whispered to me after we had crawled through and applied the last of our bandages.
I looked at the bug, then to Ace. “Maybe he was following us.” I stood up tall. “I am his king after all.”
Ace snickered. “Sure thing, Queen Daisy.” Dammit.
Sunlight. Glorious sunlight. It was pouring into the tunnel from a large open hatch in the tunnel.
We had been following the ant out of this maze for around twenty minutes before it showed us where it had gotten in, and according to my pipbuck, we were well out of the Red Zone. Even the tunnels had started to get in better condition.
And better yet, no ghoulies.
That was almost literally hell. I had never felt so scared or overworked in my life. I was even starting to shake just by thinking about it. Still, it was over, and we were safe. And being guided by a fire-breathing ant. Nothing could be better.
I crawled out and took a look at the crates in the cart.
One of them held some ammo which I hadn’t seen before. They were small bullets, and the magazine said ‘10mm’. None of our guns could hold them, but I deposited them in my saddlebags. Still might make a pretty bit- sorry, cap out here. The next two carts were empty, but I did spy something under it.
Under it lay a skeleton. Judging by the bone structure of its face, I would guess male, in the tattered remains of clothing. Not a uniform, this attire looking like it was cobbled together, waster style. Maybe a scavenger who met an untimely end? By the looks of the congealed blood around its hind leg, maybe a ghoul bit into his main artery and he bled out. At least, I think that’s what happened. I’m no doctor.
He did have a saddlebag though.
“Sorry, friend,” I grunted as I carefully took the pack from him, “but I’m guessing you won’t need this.” I opened it up to see his plunder. A few tins of preserved food, some ammo, a broken pistol, some caps, and a photo. Dropped the rest and looked at the photo. It wasn’t too old, maybe taken in the past few years. It was of a pink and orange mare holding a green foal, only about the side of my head, and a proud looking black earthpony stallion. I looked down at the skeleton. Placing the photo under his hoof on his chest, I sighed. “Fucking wasteland...” I went back to his bag.
The last thing I found was a small billiard ball-sized orb. “Another memory orb?” I asked myself. “Wonder if it’s from the same person...” No explanation on it, and no way of telling what’s in it. I decided to deposit it in my saddlebag and got back to my hooves, having emptied the skeleton’s bag into mine. Still, just leave him lying under that cart? I decided to pull him out and place him in the cart.
I found the fire ant had made his way next to me and was staring at the cart. “Do it,” I ordered. I think I knew what the ant was thinking. Did ants think? No matter, as I was right. It unleashed a small spout of flame, which set the cart ablaze, the skeleton with it.
“It’s not a proper burial, but it will do...” I muttered to myself. A funeral pyre was better than rotting on the sands.
“So...” Ace asked, trotting beside me and prodding her cheek, followed by a tiny ‘owie.’ She took a look around. Nothing in the immediate area, mountains in the distance. “Where are we?”
Footnote: Level Up!
Well ain’t you fancy? Your skills with long ranged weapons and map skills have made you quite the little pathfinder. You gain 10 points to both Guns and Survival, and your ADS is much faster with long ranged weapons.
Special thanks to Adder1, Kal, Menti, and Julep for editing and art.
Thanks are in order for the great and all powerful Kkat for creating the FoE Universe that I implanted my work into.