Chapter 20: Redeemed
"Is redemption enough?"
The bristling ball of fury and flying hooves that was pummeling me while firmly clamped onto my hide with its teeth was a very different pony to any I had seen before, or more accurately, this was a side of this particular pony that I hadn't thought existed. In a way, I was glad she was capable of it, but I wasn't so keen to be on the receiving end, even if it was a case of mistaken identity.
"Whoa, Demi, please look before you beat!" I managed to say between thumps, though that didn't seem to make much difference. The poor girl was beyond the reach of mere words, so I began to quietly sing that ancient lullaby. "Hush now, quiet now, it's time to go to sleep..." I sang, putting as much love into the tone of my voice as I could. Fortunately, that was when Demi's reasoning mind took control, and put her fear and rage in neutral.
"Anne?" she hiccuped, letting go of me. Her eye's were wide with disbelief.
"It is me," I responded quietly. "I came looking for you."
Demi immediately sunk to the floor, and burst into tears. Sitting, I put my fore hoof around her quivering shoulders.
Moments later there was a knock at the cell door, and Eddie spoke. "Girl, what ever your name is, do you want to come out? Do you need any healing potion?" I guess he really did mean that he would let me out and heal me if I was savaged.
"I'll stay here, but I would appreciate the healing potion," I responded. That bite was stinging!
The food delivery slot opened, and a bottle of healing potion was pushed through. "Yell loudly if you need to get out," Eddie instructed. I have other things to do, so I will be a fair distance away."
"Thanks, Eddie," I responded, hating that I needed to be polite to him, and kind of surprised that he was being polite to me.
I opened the bottle of healing potion by clamping it to my chest with a hoof, and using my teeth to twist the lid. It felt most unnatural and awkward to me, yet both earth ponies and pegasi had to do without magic, so would be forced to do things this way all the time. Grasping the neck of the bottle between my teeth, I tipped the bottle back and drank about half of the potion, before screwing the lid back on, which was an adventure in itself. While I was doing that, Demi stopped crying, and began to talk to me.
"Anne, why are you here? Are you working for them?" she queried, still not believing anything could actually be going her way.
"No, silly, I don't work for them. I'm here because I could not live without you. I tried to look for you straight away, but I was so injured the doctors knocked me out to stop me. As soon as I was awake, even before I was fully healed, I sneaked away from the doctors and went looking for you. Lee was looking for you too, so she helped me. When I realized you had fallen down the drain, I took off my battle saddle, and jumped down the drain after you," I explained, before giving the bottle cap another twist.
"You left everypony, everything? To find me?" Demi asked quietly.
I dropped the sealed healing potion, and snuggled her. "Yes Demi, I did."
"Wow, you really are the best mare in the world," she whispered, returning the snuggle. "I left messages for you, but even though I hoped and wished you would come, I didn't think you really would. I didn't think anyone would think of looking down the drain, let alone jumping in. It was the scariest time of my life!"
"Well, now you know I would," I whispered back.
"Now I know you did," she corrected me. "What about the girls in the wheelchairs? Did anypony die?"
"A couple of them were hurt bad, but no one died, fortunately. They are probably up and about by now, looking for a way out of the tunnel again. I don't think they will want to use the drain to escape!"
"Only once," Demi agreed. "There is very little that would convince me to do that again!"
"Yes, that is the sort of thing you can only do if you have to," I agreed. Needless to say, finding Demi was something I simply had to do. Fortunately that had been achieved. Technically I was in a really bad situation myself now, but I was quite relaxed and calm. At the moment, the rest of Equestria seemed insignificant.
"Oh, are you a slave now too?" Demi asked.
"That's what they think," I whispered. "I heard the slavers that had captured you when they were camping where we first met, so I let them bring me here and sell me."
"Was it those bastards Golden something, and Chains Male? They chained me up and dragged me here, poking me with their guns the whole trip."
"Golden Delicious and Chain Mail, yes them, and unless they mend their ways, I'm going to introduce them to the Cybercorn next time we meet," I assured her. "Now before I forget, could you please pull this suppressor ring off my horn?" I requested, bending my head.
"Those won't come off," Demi said quietly. "I heard that jailer talking about them."
"Just try, Demi," I requested.
Using her lips, she grasped the ring, and pulled gently, letting out a little squeak of surprise when it moved. Moments later it was sitting on the floor between us.
"How did it come off? Did they lie? Are they lying to us?" Demi puzzled.
"Magic," I said with a smirk. "I have a spell that protects my horn, but it means I can't use my magic for a little while, so I have to sit here quietly and wait. And yes, they are probably lying to us, but not about these rings. I was trained to deal with these things back in Stable Lab Four."
"Oh, so the ring still works?" Demi asked, poking it cautiously with her hoof.
"It won't after I have finished with it!" I responded. I gave Demi another hug. "It is just so good to see you again. I was so scared I had lost you forever!"
"I still can't believe you left everypony for me," Demi responded. "What about your mother?"
"She is still insane. She's smart enough to realize it though. But she isn't my mother any more; she's a stranger, and I don't think my mother is ever coming back," I admitted.
"That's sad. I never met your mother, did I?" Demi pondered.
"That's right! She changed just after the battle with Saffron," I agreed, "oh, and Saffron accidentally got his revenge on me; he kicked me in the head!"
"I saw something happened to you just before the big explosion that knocked me down the drain, but I knew you would survive. You are tough!" Demi confided.
I heard hoof steps passing our cell, so I whispered in Demi's ear. "Now listen carefully. No matter what I say to them, no matter how nice I act with them, I am only pretending. As soon as I can, I am taking you and leaving this place, and I mean to kill anyone that tries to stop us. Just trust me. Know that I am the pony you have come to know over the past weeks, and that I will not betray you."
Demi moved to put her mouth near my ear, and I was expecting a reply when she kissed me there. I guess that was all the reply that was needed. I gave her another squeeze.
"My mother would never let me kiss her," Demi said quietly. "Thinking back, I don't know why I ever wanted to kiss her. She never loved me."
I chuckled. "I met your parents!"
"Oh..." Demi almost deflated. "What did you think of them? Did they lie to you about me?"
"No, but they did lie to the rest of New Appleloosa. They thought I had come from Bukov! When they found out I didn't, they tried to grab me to sell me too!"
"So did they? No, they can't have. You said you let yourself be caught at the slaver camp," Demi pondered.
"That's right. I threw your father so hard he flew the length of your home and through the door at the other end," I stated.
"What about my mother?" Demi asked, clearly unconcerned over the fate of her father.
"I think I knocked half of her teeth out when I kicked her," I admitted, not mentioning my second kick, or where I had targeted that.
"Good," Demi said. "Good, good, good. I would have hated if they managed to twist you into believing their lies."
"The ponies of New Appleloosa heard the truth too. Some of them were outside the door when your parents tried to capture me. They heard what your parents said."
"Not my parents." Demi said emphatically.
"Pardon?" That comment was a little puzzling.
"I just disowned them," Demi stated. "They may have given birth to me, but from now on they are not my parents."
I just gave Demi another squeeze. I think we must have sat there in mutually appreciative silence for quite a while after that. I felt the magic return to my horn when my horn protection spell wore off, but continued to sit quietly, hugging Demi as she gradually relaxed, the tension of the last few days fading as she lay in her newly adopted safe place.
"Hey Demi, did these bastards try to use any sort of recollector or memory orbs on you?" I asked. I doubted it, but it wouldn't hurt to ask.
"No. Why?" Demi answered.
"Oh, nothing." If they had succeeded, she wouldn't remember anyway, but her personality and memories appeared to be free of tampering. I hadn't seen any sign of such out in the main Education room, and these magic suppressor rings would interfere with their use on the most susceptible: unicorns. If I also considered Demi's furious attacks whenever anyone had tried to approach her, I could be pretty sure there was no time bomb planted in Demi's mind.
I really had no plan for our escape, but I didn't think it would be too hard, unless I started collecting another herd of disabled ponies. That would complicate things to the point of failure. Instead, I decided that I would free the other captive fillies, but tell them to wait until everything had been quiet for a while, then for them to sneak out. I figured that would give me time to kill Bukov and any guards. Demi was to stay with me through the whole ordeal. Had I suggested otherwise, I would have been wasting my voice. Tactically, leaving her behind didn't make sense, either. I wasn't going to wait until I was taken to Bukov to assassinate him either. I would go looking. I considered leaving him alive if it would make our escape easier, but thinking on how Demi had been caught a second time after escaping, we would be running from his slavers for the rest of his, or our lives. He had to die.
Escaping when someone opened our cell door would not work either, as most likely a force field would be used again. In the distance, I could hear Eddie screaming at a filly, who was crying just as loudly. It sounded like he was whipping her. It was time to move. I had disenchanted the suppressor earlier, so now I levitated it up and dropped it on my horn. Maybe it would fool whoever I attacked into underestimating me.
"Ready, Demi?" I asked.
"I was ready to get out of here before I arrived," she muttered. I guess that was one way of looking at it!
I leaned forward, pressing my horn to the door, letting my magic feel out along the metalwork to the mechanism that operated the locking bolts. A push sent it sliding back with a decisive clunk. That had probably been heard by the other prisoners, but with Eddie and the filly both making such a racket, I doubt he had noticed.
"Come on, Demi, let's get out of here," I said quietly, exiting the cell. My first destination, contrary to what may seem logical, was Eddie himself. I headed towards the screams and yelling, looking around for a weapon as I went. There were plenty to choose from, as assorted old melee weapons were hanging from the walls, just out of reach for non-unicorns. Again, they appeared to be for effect. The plan wasn't great, but it fell apart when I arrived at my destination a lot sooner than anticipated. Eddie stepped out of a much closer room, practically right in front of me. Shit, he must have an assistant!
"How did you get out of your cell?" he demanded.
"What? I walked out," I responded. "It's not like the door was locked or anything."
Eddie frowned, looking between me, and the much quieter Demi tucked in behind me, and his frown lessened somewhat.
"I'll be! You really have tamed the shrew," he commented, "although that doesn't mean you should be out here, walking about." He paused, as if searching his mind for something. "I am quite sure I secured that door when you first entered it, and come to think of it, I checked it again when I passed you the healing potion. Hmm. That means you must have opened it with unicorn magic. Show me your horn."
I bowed my head towards him, allowing him to move closer and look at the suppressor ring. I had no doubt he would realize I had nullified it, so now was the time to act. I was planning to execute him anyway. I just hadn't found a weapon yet... unless... yes, that might work. All the Cybercorn carbine did was channel my pushing magic so it could propel a slug along the barrel. I was at point blank range, so it wasn't as if I needed precision aiming. All I needed was a slug, and the suppressor ring would do the job. With a flash, my horn blasted the ring forward, off my horn. Through the magic, I felt the impact as it hit Eddie. I let the magic drop, and looked up. There was a ring shaped, red mark on his chest, seeping a trickle of blood. Had I hit him hard enough, or had the ring bounced off? I hadn't heard it hit the floor. I looked up at his face, and could see his eyes were glazing over. He was quite stunned. Yes, that was hard enough.
"Eddie, the educator, you have been found guilty of crimes against ponykind. The punishment for your crimes is death," I stated. That sure sounded corny, but the situation seemed to demand I say something. I stepped back, dodging as Eddie wheezed, coughed up blood, then staggered towards me, before falling at my hooves. I touched my horn to his hide, and felt for signs of life, finding only the secondary systems of his body functioning, as they would for a little while yet. His heart had stopped, and he was no longer breathing.
"Is he really dead?" Demi asked from behind me.
"Yes, short of a raise-the-dead type miracle, he is quite dead," I assured her.
"Excuse me for making sure," Demi said, walking past me, and up to the fallen stallion, where she proceeded to rear and crash her hooves onto his skull several times. I heard it crack. "Just making sure he stays dead. What he does to fillies is..." Words failed her, but her expression told me how Demi was feeling. It wasn't for revenge that she had stamped on his head.
"Let's go deal with his assistant next," I said, changing the subject to get Demi's mind off it. "Hey, how come you didn't mention he had an assistant?"
"I only ever saw this bastard," Demi replied. "And the assistant sounds the same."
"That would explain it," I responded, looking around for something else to use as a weapon or ammunition.
There were more suppressor rings on the table over by the entry, and I contemplated walking over to get some. Maybe I would pick some up on the way out of the education wing. For now, I looked back at the decorations of this nasty place. They would be quite functional. Reaching out with my magic, I pulled a knife from where it was embedded, passing it to Demi. My choice of weapon was the rusty old battle axe. Lowering it to the floor in front of me, I touched my horn to it, using my magic to form the dulled edge into one that would cut through flesh and bone alike. I turned back to Demi, who was holding her knife in her mouth, and used my horn to sharpen it for her too. Levitating the axe, I started towards the screams, which surprisingly were still going on. The poor filly copping that beating would be lucky to live.
As soon as I arrived at the room from which the noises were coming, I readied myself to strike. Rearing, I kicked the door open, and sprang in... to find myself standing in a room empty of any ponies. None the less, this was definitely the right room, because the screams were coming from right in front of me. After a few moments, the technical side of my brain started working, and I recognized the recollector playback device in front of me, hooked up so it would play back the audio from the memory sphere at some volume. I put my axe through it, and with an unearthly shriek, the din stopped.
"Bukov doesn't like it if Eddie marks our skins," I quietly stated. "Eddie let that slip when he was talking about you in front of me. So he, or any assistant of his wouldn't really be in here whipping any filly, would he? Again, this is part of the intimidation. Psychological torture."
"It works. When I heard that, I kept thinking I would be next. It was terrifying," Demi admitted. "Let's see if there are any real fillies in any of these cells."
"I hope there aren't, but I did hear ponies crying in several when Eddie first led me to your cell," I commented.
"Then let's let them out!" Demi responded.
Of course it wasn't as easy as that. If we let them out now, they may just rush off into the guns of the guards or snipers. If I left them locked in, and I came to grief they could starve to death while waiting for rescue. I decided to go with my original plan of trying to talk to them, convincing them to wait if possible. If they came out in a furious rage like Demi had been in, who knew what the result would be. I decided to start at the cell the furthest from the entry, and work my way to the door. That way I would not inadvertently leave anyone locked in. The first cell, when opened only proved the cruelty of this place. Dangling from a length of wire attached to the ceiling was a pegasus filly. Like me, she had only three legs. Unlike me, she had evidently been able to fly. Now she hung there dead, and by the very advanced state of decay of her body, she had been left there for weeks. Before Demi could see the horrors, I pushed the cell door closed again.
"Empty?" Demi queried.
"There is no pony that needs rescuing in there," I confirmed. Admittedly it wasn't the answer to what she had asked, but it would do. I moved onto the next cell, pulling back the remote release mechanism before moving to the door and opening it. The remote releases had probably been devised as a primitive defense against unicorns breaking out. Not all would be able to work them like I had. Then there were the magically skilled unicorns who could teleport. Locks and doors would be useless against them, which would be why suppressor rings were used.
Fortunately, the second cell was empty, as was the third, as the two ponies from that cell were Demi and myself. With some trepidation, I slid back the release mechanism for the fourth cell. This was one from which I had heard quiet crying. I opened the door and peered into the dimly lit room. Crushed into the back corner was a small blue mass. I called to her, but she didn't respond, so I approached, and tried again.
"Hello, my name is Anne. I'm another one of the captured fillies," I introduced myself to the little blue bundle. As I watched, the bundle uncurled, and I found myself looking at a small blue filly with a slightly darker mane and tail. She was years younger than Demi. "We are going to escape," I said.
"I can't escape," she sobbed. "I can't do anything!"
"Come, on, don't be like that. It will take a little while, but we are going to get out of here," I insisted.
"I can't escape," the filly sobbed again, rolling over. "They cut off my legs!"
I could see that both of her forelegs had been severed at her shoulders. I didn't know who "they" were, but I could guess. The wounds on her legs were only freshly healed. Either she had been found by Bukov's slavers after running foul of raiders, or some of Bukov's slavers had decided to go for a bonus by making a crippled filly to order. I didn't think Eddie, even in all of his nastiness, would have stooped that low. One thing was certain: we could not take her with us. Carrying her would stop us from being able to fight.
"Sorry, love," I consoled her. "We will see what we can do to help. We'll come back for you if we can."
The filly sniffled, then rolled back against the wall and balled up again. What she needed was a small box into which she could lodge herself, I thought, and that was a weird, twisted sort of thing to be thinking. I wasn't promising to come back for her. I had no idea what the future would hold. For all I knew, in a few hours, Bukov could be standing over my body while doing unspeakable things to Demi. The wasteland sucked like that. I exited the cell and moved to the next door.
Inside this cell was deep yellow... unicorn? She had backed herself into the far corner, and was glaring at me. Where her horn should have been was a nasty scar. Before I could even open my mouth, she spoke.
"Get out of here, and leave me alone, you murderer!" she spat.
"Huh?" I stepped back, somewhat shocked.
"You killed Eddie, you bitch!" she snarled. "If I had a weapon, I'd kill you myself!"
Whoa! I hadn't expected that reaction. I guessed she was most of the way though her education, and it was working. I had considered that some prisoners would have been successfully brainwashed, but it was still a shock to find one. I quietly stepped out of the room, closing the door, and pulling the locking mechanism home.
"Sorry," I responded. "I hope someone comes to help you. I hope your mind isn't twisted beyond all help."
At the rate things were going, there wouldn't be much rescuing happening. If the unicorn filly was that upset about the death of the educator, what would the rest of the ponies in this place be like when I killed Bukov? I moved away from the angry unicorn's cell, and on to the final door. Hopefully the occupant of this cell wouldn't be further along her education than the last filly. I opened the door and stepped inside, finding myself staring at a pretty pale pink unicorn filly with crimson mane and tail. She was standing directly in front of me, as if she had been waiting for me to arrive. She looked completely uninjured, but her eyes were both closed. There was a distinct air of calmness about her.
"I heard what you were saying to the other fillies, Anne," she stated, without introduction. "I heard you kill Eddie too. My name is Cherry Sundae, and I would like to come with you."
"You aren't angry about Eddie's death?" I asked. This one had certainly been paying attention.
"Not at all. I've been stuck down here for at least three times as long as some of the others. So far their attempts to break me have failed. For example, that recording of the whipped filly was annoying, but I knew it was fake. There were three different sessions recorded, and I could recognize each one after the first few times I heard them. There were a few fake murders of fillies pretending to be uncooperative too, but ultimately I was able to understand all the other tricks they were using to shape us. They were a bit nasty when they left the poor girl that committed suicide in her cell though. It would have been nice to give her a proper burial."
"Didn't they ramp the intensity of the training up for you?" I wondered. "After this long, surely they would have started actually beating you or something."
"No, I was always civil to them, and never made them angry, but they could still tell I wasn't to be trusted," Cherry explained. "I am nopony's plaything."
"Good for you," I responded. "You can come with us but it will be risky. We could all end up being shot. Perhaps you should wait, then make a break for it later."
"That would be hard,” she responded. “My best chance is to travel with ponies who can see," she stated.
That was when the bit dropped. Cherry Sundae was blind.
"Okay..." I responded, not sure how well we would go with a blind pony travelling with us. The up-side would be that we wouldn't need to return for her... but that left the little blue filly. "Hold still for a moment, and I will disenchant the suppressor on your horn."
"Thank you," Cherry responded, bowing her head towards me. I repeated the disenchanting spell, and touched my horn to her suppressor. With a ping, it loosened its grip on her horn, and I was able to levitate it off. I dropped it over my own horn, where it would serve as a future piece of ammunition.
"Cherry, do you think you are strong enough to carry a small filly?" Demi suddenly asked.
"Why, Demi?" I pondered.
"I could, I guess, but yes, why?" Cherry added.
"A couple of reasons. The filly can't walk, so it would save us having to come back for her. And if you were carrying her, you would have a set of eyes available to you," Demi explained. "Of course, she needs to cooperate. She's curled herself into a ball and is trying to shut the world out."
"Lead the way," Cherry said. "I'd hate to be left 'alone' here."
"I can see what you mean," I agreed. Cherry moved up until her shoulder was touching my flank, remaining in contact as I moved off.
"I noticed you sounded a little different when you were walking. You have an odd gait. You are missing a foreleg, aren't you? The right one?" Cherry commented.
"That's right. I have a prosthetic, but it was taken from me when I came here. It's in one of the lockers outside," I responded. "Do you have anything in the lockers, Cherry? What about you Demi, what happened to your barding?"
"Nothing," Cherry responded.
"All of my stuff was stolen by the slavers," Demi responded, "except for the Pipbuck, which they thought could not be removed. Eddie took that off with some tools."
"Bastards," I muttered.
"I know," Demi replied. "They took my custom one-wing barding!"
"Don't worry, I'll make you another one, Demi," I assured her.
Together we entered the cell of the small blue filly. Her only reaction was to try to curl up more.
"Come, Bubbles, we are leaving. I need your help," Cherry said into the room.
"But I can't do anything!" the filly answered, uncurling just enough to speak.
"You can see," Cherry told her, "and that is something I cannot do."
"You're blind?" the blue filly asked quietly.
"That is right. I am blind. I can walk, but I cannot see. You cannot walk, but you can see. If you were to ride on my back, you could look over my head and be my eyes," Cherry suggested.
"I'd fall off," Bubbles muttered.
"I'm a unicorn. I can use my magic to stick you there so you won't fall off!"
"So use your magic to fix your eyes, or to see or something," the blue filly responded, dejectedly.
"I can feel things with my magic, but it isn't the same as seeing. I'm afraid there is no choice. You simply must ride on my back."
"Oh, okay," Bubbles relented.
With that agreement, Cherry Sunday promptly scooped up the little blue filly and deposited her on her back, making adjustments as she commented on her comfort and the available view. Bubbles glanced left, right, then down at the back of Cherry's head.
"Wow. We are a two headed pony!" Bubbles bubbled, temporarily forgetting her grief and fear. "And how did you know my name? What's your name?"
Cherry smiled. "I'm blind, not deaf. I heard Mable call you by your name when you were first brought in. I'm Cherry Sundae."
"I'm Anne," I added, "and this is..."
"Demi One Wing," Demi admitted quietly. That was the first time I had heard her use her full name.
"And you really do have just one wing?" Cherry began.
"Yes, I have just one wing. No, I'm not a pegasus, I'm a freak."
"So is every other filly in Bukov's little collection," Cherry stated. "I was born with no eyes."
"Shall we go?" I asked. "Cherry, is there anyone special here you want rescued?"
"Nah," Cherry said. "Even if anypony had come in as my friend, they wouldn't be anymore. Well, they would be, but they would be so brainwashed they would like Bukov more. They aren't worth the risk. Oh, and if you do try to kill the bastard, try not to get caught by his adoring masses. It could be fatal."
"I wondered if that would be the case, after meeting Miss No-horn in the cell," I admitted.
I led the procession from Bubble's cell to the big mahogany doors, releasing the lock, and pulling them open a fraction. I could see or hear no pony through the gap, so I opened them wide enough for us to pass. I glanced back at the table holding the suppressor rings, and decided not to bother checking it out. I doubted there would be anything of real use there. My battle axe would have to do. In the mean time, my first stop was the lockers to retrieve my leg. As I had promised myself, I formed a neat little window through the front of locker four, complete with flower box and shade, and extracted my items through the opening. Mable could puzzle over that when she found it. A few moments later I was wearing my Pipgirl, and my stump was bandaged and neatly tucked into my prosthetic leg. For a few moments it felt odd to be on four legs again.
The rest of the lockers I opened simply by using my magic to cut the locks. All I found were personal effects, some probably belonging to ponies that had died or were no longer in the education wing. One item, a very grubby toy pony had Bubbles squeeing with excitement. Apparently it was hers. I salvaged a small shoulder bag from another locker, popped the doll inside and hung it around Bubble's neck. At least she had something back, even if it wasn't her legs. As Demi had already stated, apart from her Pipbuck, not one of her items had survived. That was duly retrieved and fitted on her foreleg. It was amusing that Eddie had been forced to use tools to release it, because it was one of the Pipbucks modified at Stable Four so as to be easily removable. Cherry had been brought in without any possessions, so there were none to retrieve. I hung my water bottle around her neck. The less I was carrying, the better, as I wanted no encumbrances when I was fighting. Nonetheless, while it was of little real value, having some water to hoof was worth while.
"Demi, it will be you and me fighting, if it comes to that. What did you do with the knife I gave you?" I asked, noticing I could not see it.
"It's hard to talk with it in my mouth," Demi responded, "so I'm hiding it under my wing."
"Ah, that's a good idea," I said. My axe was currently stuck to my flank using magic. It was too large to hide.
As none of us actually knew where Bukov was, we were going to have to explore. He had been close enough to the slave entrance that it hadn't taken too long for Mable to fetch him when I had arrived. My guess was that he lived in the upper floors of the main part of the building, Those areas would be the most grand. Going up the main staircase in the lobby to get there would be a stupid move. As we were already in a passage that seemed to be for staff rather than paying customers, that wasn't going to be a problem. All we had to do was find the back way up. As I was the only really stealthy pony in the group, I crept ahead of the others, indicating when it was clear for them to follow. They, on the other hoof, made no attempt to conceal themselves, instead walking along as if they had every right to be there, relying on my guidance to keep them out of the view of others.
Mostly I found utility type rooms, usually empty. Broom closets were not the sort of places ponies stayed for any length of time! Noise from ahead indicated the place was not deserted though. Bangs, clangs and clattering soon alerted me to what was ahead: the kitchen. Peeking in, I could see there was a moderate amount of activity in there. With numerous staff to feed, as well as Bukov's collection of fillies, that was not surprising. The ponies working in there were all whole. Not a single limb was missing from any of them. They were probably slaves too, but they were clearly here to work, not to provide "personal entertainment" for Bukov. I wondered what he expected from us. Were we simply bed time playthings, or would we be expected to wait on him all day? Would we be expected to dance for him like in those ancient entertainment orbs that were in the stable library? Whatever. It wasn't like it was actually going to happen. I'd die first. Literally.
Past the kitchen was the back stair case. It was certainly elegant, and well kept, but nothing as grand as the one I had glimpsed in the lobby. Once the other three had joined me, we began to climb, and as I had four legs at the moment, it was pleasantly easy! As I climbed, a strange thought crossed my mind. The Stable Four mares would have loved this place. They would be happy sharing a single stallion, as that was what they were used to. Bukov would have a herd of courageous cripples! But then, how would he treat those who he could not sleep with. Anne, wasteland slaver and hypocrite! Wow. Even though I had thought about it, I knew deep down that I would never actually do anything so rotten. It was just my mind processing the available data in as many ways as possible while searching for a solution. I wondered if acting on thoughts like these was how ordinary ponies became the scum or Equestria. One day something that had seemed unspeakable became justifiable. Then, thinking about myself, here I was, little Miss Innocent off to murder someone who didn't live in a way of which I approved. I shuddered.
"Anne, are you all right?" Demi quietly asked.
"I don't know," I admitted. "I was just thinking about all the horrible things that ponies do, and realized I am no better than them."
"What do you mean by that? You are heaps better than so many of them!" Demi insisted. "Better than all of them."
"Then explain to me why I am justified in killing Bukov," I answered, as we reached the top of the stairs to the second floor, stepping onto an old and well worn carpet runner. I guessed some things were beyond maintenance. After all, how could you repair carpet, except by replacing it?
"Are you losing your conviction?" Demi wondered.
"No. He needs to die. He's a horrid bastard that exploits the unfortunate for his own satisfaction," I muttered.
"That sounds like justification to me," Demi said.
"But it still means I that I have to kill another pony," I stated. "Killing ponies is wrong."
"Ponies behaving in manners that require them to be killed is wrong," Demi stated. "If there were more ponies like you, there would be less ponies like Eddie and Bukov, and Equestria would be a much nicer place."
My mind flashed back to history lessons of the years of the war. "Many ponies used to kill for what they believed to be the right reasons. That lead to this, to the wasteland."
"Oh," Demi said. "I can sort of see what you mean. So what can we do? Do we just walk away? It wouldn't be right just to walk away. We still need to do something."
"Why are you girls having a conversation here?" a male voice asked. "Oh, it's you, and the minx."
My head snapped around at the source of the voice, and I found myself staring into Bukov's eyes. Clearly he had missed most of what Demi and I had been discussing. I doubt he would have been quite so calm if he had heard our intentions. But how had he got here? I hadn't heard him coming. Glancing down, I saw the carpet he was standing on. Oh shit. I'd been so busy thinking about morality that I had missed several clues. I looked back up at the gorgeous face of the stallion I had been planning to kill, and my mind went blank.
"For that matter, why are you wandering around at all?" he asked.
I opened my mouth, but found no words.
"Guards!" he called.
Footnote: Level Up. Perk: Magic Missiles. Who needs a gun. Using small everyday objects as ammunition, you can now shoot at close range targets using just your magic as your weapon.