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My Little Metro: Chapter 14
“He’s a very decent youth; I can guarantee it personally.”
My stay in the infirmary was a memory I didn’t bother dwelling on. It was a full day and night’s stay and though I tried to sleep soundly, my mind was full of strange dreams that I couldn’t for the life of me remember, save they were extremely disturbing. My time awake comprised of long stretches of boredom punctuated by me having to chase off my new fans, those bandits who had not yet found somepony to ally with. One colt in particular had to be shooed off five times, insisting he had “connections” that guaranteed I would have an army in less than a week. I didn’t want a personal army of thugs. I wanted to get out of here! But I knew that my body had been put through hell the last few weeks, and it needed at least a little rest. I’d been given a waif of a mare to bring me food and other amenities, though by the lecherous wink the stallion who dropped her off gave me I was clearly expected to do more. I did not, but this wasn’t a comfort to her as she obediently brought me whatever I asked and never spoke to me apart from a muttered ‘yes sir’ or ‘no sir.’ When I asked about her personally, she either didn’t answer or claimed she didn’t know depending on how forcefully I asked, and since I didn’t beat her she didn’t tell me more. It broke my heart to see a pony in such condition. But what could I do for her? She wouldn’t last five minutes in the Metro.
I supposed I should’ve been surprised at how callous I was being. But I had only so much room in my heart for compassion alongside my mission, and that had already been squeezed out by the mare I’d serenaded days ago.
On the morning of the third day, I knew I couldn’t delay any longer. Fortunately, that was also the time when the day of our mission to meet with the Lunar Republic would begin. Ruby Red came to the same conclusion as me and barged into the room, throwing my covers off and dragging me to my hooves.
“Get your shit together, we’re leaving in an hour. Come to the front of the Fort and don’t be late,” she snapped, and then stomped off again to vent her unending anger on some other poor pony. I was surprised; after all the attention she’d been giving me being brushed off like so much rubbish made me feel almost indignant. At least I didn’t have to look forward to her brand of ‘special treatment.’ I stood on shaky limbs that still remembered the fight with Steel Crescent. Though I’d won everything in that moment, I knew I still had so far to go. The fact that I’d beaten him didn’t matter in the end, and the fight had only been necessary at all because of the explosion in the Blue Line leading to my capture.
Amazing how just a few days of recuperation suddenly ruined my good mood. Everything that troubled me before seeped back into my mind as I threw on my bags, which had been returned per my request and Buttercup’s orders. I checked through the contents, surprised to see not a single thing had been removed. Just to try and butter me up, Buttercup seemed to have included a few magazines worth of bullets. Not scratch made ammunition, but real, pre-War bullets that were worth money. At least I didn’t have to worry about dying poor again.
The screw that let me defeat Steel Crescent was gone. The stallion would have plucked from his head and threw it down a toilet or the like. Like the screw, I knew that Bad Omen was also gone, and there was nothing I could do for him anymore. He’d resigned himself to die in the cages, and there he certainly would die. I couldn’t take him out into the tunnels, couldn’t point him anywhere safe. Just like Pitter Patter, who I was thankful not to receive a visit from. Hopefully she did the smart thing and stayed out of my sight. All we could do was move on. I couldn’t bear to look that poor mare in the eyes and tell her I’d never see her again. So many ponies to be left behind. So many who would die in misery and solitude whether or not I won, and I didn’t even have something to remember them by...
No. I wouldn’t let my thoughts wander. I had to walk on. I had to go as far as I needed. If I couldn’t at least save Exiperia, then all of this would have been for nothing. That was a thought I couldn’t bear.
I threw on my clothes, which had been cleaned and stitched. The patchiness of my garments flattered me; I think I just appreciated clothes that looked as traveled as I felt. I spent a moment admiring how far I’d come, and how clearly the marks of my travels showed on my clothes and body. Here a lurker tore open my sleeve, here the scar of nosalis teeth bit into my neck. My poor flak jacket was useless, bearing the scars of several battles in many places. It too had a story, and I’d have liked to have kept it if I hadn’t so far to go. I discarded it and dismissed my temporary servant before I headed out, eyeing my surroundings. The Fort was just as nasty and dirty as it was before, packed with ponies who looked at me with odd expectation in their eyes or glared at me as I passed by. One mare who looked several years older than me tossed a wink and a come-hither look my way.
“Hey Lockbox!” Squeaky Clean called out as I passed by. “Good job kicking Steel Crescent’s ass! I’m glad you’re here with us!”
“Steel Crescent gives his regards,” the very next stallion I met said as he crowded me into a corner and spat on my clothes.
The new attention made me uncomfortable, but I couldn’t say I hadn’t expected it. I was a threat now, and a potential leader. Having taken down Steel Crescent my new fans and enemies watched to see what I’d do next. I kept my head high as I wandered the grimy halls, remembering that my next trick would be a vanishing act.
Sidewinder popped up in front of me. Somehow he’d managed to stay out of sight in a completely straight hall with no side doors until he appeared right in front of my face. He seemed more serious than usual and wore all of his old gear, the Stalker flag of Stalliongrad showing proudly on his shoulder. His Wonderbolt was slung over his neck, ready to be propped up in his war reins at a moment’s notice.
“What is it now, Sidewinder?”
“I came to collect you. What are you waiting for? Everypony else is ready!”
“Ready? I didn’t know bandits were capable of being punctual.”
“When Ruby Red is threatening to ruin your ass with her nightstick, you are. Come on, we’re meeting in the Main Hall.”
The Main Hall turned out to be the underground entrance lobby of the sewage plant converted into a barricaded strong point. Located on the eastern side of the plant it faced all the dangers the Metro had to offer and was one of the Fort’s few weak points. The lobby was a long room with an arched, ribbed ceiling. At one time it might have held a sense of stateliness — old Equestria made even their sewage plants with dignity — but now it was full of guns and barbed wire, and I saw that it had been excavated to create a larger killing zone for any enemies that got this far. At the back of the Hall where I stood with Sidewinder bandits milled about preparing for their forays into the Metro. I saw Ruby Red with a few of her personal guard, their armored bodies taking up some serious space that other ponies gave willingly. I didn’t approach them, instead letting Ruby spot me from afar. She and her retinue were outfitted with metal plates and bulletproof barding. Menacing spikes jutted from Ruby’s shoulder plates, and she wore an assault rifle, shotgun and three pistols in her holsters. Her famous baton lay in wait over her shoulder, ready to ruin a pony’s day. When our eyes met she gave me a disdainful sniff and turned away, continuing to make plans with her little gang.
“Well she seems in a particularly fine mood,” said Sidewinder. “She didn’t even try to smash your head in!”
“Good to know things are looking up,” I muttered, glancing at the other bandits. They looked furtively away when they saw me turn towards them. Deferring or ignoring me, I wondered?
“Didn’t I used to be talk of the town? I couldn’t get away in the infirmary.”
“You made your first hoofprint in the sand, it’s true,” Sidewinder said, throwing a hoof around my shoulders. “But you gotta keep up the momentum, lil’ Lockbox! Out in the tunnels is your chance to shine! Meeting with the Republic is a big deal around here. Buttercup wants us to play friendly, since they have the power in East Metro. Come on, let’s get you geared up. If you can call the shit they have here gear.”
He led me to a ratty looking unicorn with a tattered mane standing in the far corner of the Main Hall, surrounded by weapons and makeshift armor. Even though he was several years older than me he wasn’t any larger, and his beady eyes snapped nervously left and right. All of his stock was second-hoof, rusted to the point of antiquity, and most of the armor was unwashed. I tried not to wrinkle my nose. I was a bandit for today, and bandits took what they could get.
“You need weapons? These are what will keep you alive, kiddo!” the ratty unicorn rasped at me.
They looked more liable to blow up in my face. Still, I needed armor, and told him such.
“Something that looks the part,” Sidewinder interjected. “Something that says ‘I’m here to kill you, and I’m okay with that.’ Oh, like that one! With the spikes!” He pointed at some barding that, to my amazement, did indeed have spikes on it, and what looked like a piece of a tire strapped to the shoulder in place of real armor. It would barely cover my chest and the overly-long spikes were utterly useless in cramped tunnels full of detritus that could catch and slow me down. What kind of self-respecting bandit wore something with a tire on it anyway?
“Want to add some streamers while we’re at it?” I asked. “It might make me too dazzling to shoot.”
“See, learning already!” Sidewinder laughed and punched my shoulder. I went with a typical flak jacket as I’d had before. There was nothing back there that could adequately protect me from a mutant’s claws — depending on the mutant nothing would — and I didn’t have the money to waste on metal.
“Why do ponies have to buy these?” I wondered. “I don’t get a special discount for being Buttercup’s favorite or beating Steel Crescent?”
“Buttercup doesn’t have favorites,” the ratty unicorn hissed. “She has useful ponies. And somepony’s gotta pay for all the shit we buy. You want something for free? Should’ve asked for it as a reward.”
I slipped the armor on. It was a size too big and hung down around my belly like a paunch until I tugged the straps as tight as they could go. Better this than nothing. If it came to a fight at least I knew I had plenty of meat shields.
“Everypony in my group to the fore!” Ruby Red belted out, pointing at me in particular. “You! New meat! Up front with me!”
Sidewinder chuckled as he walked beside me. “Mmm, front row seats. If she’s trying to intimidate the Republic with you, it won’t work.”
“Do I really look that bad?”
“Worse. If I told anypony who wasn’t there the day you beat Steel Crescent that you did, well, they’d be have to be crazier than me to believe it. And nopony is crazier than me. If they were I’d have to kill them.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
We gathered at the front of the small group, numbering no more than a dozen ponies, five of whom were Ruby Red and her guards, the rest being Sidewinder, me, and the remaining bandits assigned to the mission. I noted with no small amount of distress that Steel Crescent stood nearby with his own group, nursing battered pride and glaring daggers straight at me through a black eye. Ruby Red noticed and stepped between us, levelling a fearless glare at the larger unicorn.
“Back the fuck off, Crescent. You can dick around all you want when we get back. My mission’s too important to let you screw around with it out there.”
Crescent sniffed and turned away.
“No surprise he volunteered for a patrol the same time we were going out,” one of Ruby’s guards muttered under his breath. He was an orange pegasus no older than me whose wings were tied down. I reflected that very few pegasi found an advantage in flying in the cramped tunnels, and this was probably also a safeguard against going feather-brained. I wondered how close he must be if he was taking such extreme precautions. Not that I cared enough to strike up a conversation and ask.
“Crescent, your group will leave first,” Ruby Red commanded. “If I see you in those tunnels, I’ll rip off your horn and castrate you with it!”
“Just keep your new pet on a tight leash,” Crescent snarled back, looking at me instead of Ruby. “If he ends up alone in the tunnels it’s open season.”
“Celestia alive, Crescent, you pick the stupidest fights,” Ruby Red shot back as she motioned for the main gate, a heavy sliding door on rails that reminded me of a portcullis, to be lifted. Beyond I saw a mess of barbed wire, jagged metal and lengths of rebar jutting out of concrete towards the small service depot that brought crews to their workplace in years before. The long rectangular room held a single track going north and south. The depot was inhabited, much to my surprise, by a few outlying sentries who saluted lackadaisically as we passed by. Steel Crescent and his small band, eyed cautiously by ours, peeled away and went compliantly south without making any trouble.
I kept watching even as Crescent’s group rounded a turn, not feeling safe to turn around again until the beams of their headlamps vanished into the gloom. Even out of sight I knew I wasn’t out of Steel Crescent’s mind. Self-consciously, I fixed my war reins to my head and slid my Mule into the gun slot, grateful that I’d even been given back my weapons. Buttercup wanted to show her trust of me and her disturbing willingness to make me one of her own. I had no problems betraying the trust of a bandit. Only after a full hour passed did Ruby Red feel it prudent to lead us on.
The road south was dismal and quiet just like every other tunnel in the Metro, but the bandits had the foresight to post border guards and a few sprite-lights until the four hundred meter mark, whereupon we were lost in the gloom. The weak lights we carried illuminated the tunnel walls and the bones of mutants killed outside the station and left to rot. I saw a pony skull in the midst of the carnage. We passed several tunnels that split off from ours, but Ruby Red kept us straight south and me uncomfortably close to her. She kept her eyes forward and didn’t speak to me though, which I was very grateful for, but then I didn’t dare try to fall behind and walk alongside Sidewinder either for fear of drawing her ire.
On my other side marched the pegasus with bound wings, also professional and quiet. The other bandits kept their steps measured and soft; clearly they’d done this several times before. I’d gathered Ruby ran a tight ship, but seeing first-hoof how disciplined her group was made me reconsider how easy it would be to turn on them. I’d have to wait for an opportunity. We walked in silence save for a few quips from Sidewinder about the state of the tunnels. They were cluttered with filth the bandits had carried out and tossed away.
“There’s negligent and then there’s this,” he said, tutting. “The irony is killing me. You all live in a garbage disposal but your trash is all over the ground! I might as well wear a gasmask.”
“Shut your mouth unless you want to get shot,” the wing-bound pegasus next to me snarled. “There’s enough questions going around about why you were let out.”
“I haven’t shot you yet, have I?” Sidewinder said with one of his disturbingly toothy grins. “Among you bandits that practically makes me your brother.”
Soon enough we came to a sturdy closed door that shut off the tunnel entirely. A huge pony skull had been spray-painted on the rusting metal. The message was clear: there was no going further without welcoming certain death. Ruby Red turned east and headed into the small side passages. I didn’t look forward to heading into that maze again, preferring to stick to main tunnels.
“Where does this lead?” I asked. Nopony answered except for Sidewinder.
“Towards the once great station of Felberskaya. It’s just a checkpoint of the Guild of Magic nowadays, but when the waterworks were still going at full efficiency they were the envy of the Eastern Metro. Their tunnels run past a long series of water pipes and gas mains,” the lanky pony muttered. “It’s a mess up there with lots of flooding but it’s one of the few safe ways east from here. Heh, safe. I should say it’s actually one of the few ways east from here in general. Republic territory crosses over with Hoofsa at a few points, and since Hoofsa’s in bed with King Pleiades things are tense between them. Hoofsa’s probably trying to play both sides... silly ponies, nopony wins when you do that!” He grinned manically and sniggered to himself, staring straight ahead with a wide eyed unfocused gaze.
“It’s all gonna go to Tartarus.”
“Will you shut your traps?” Ruby snapped as she pushed led us into a series of cramped passageways that forced us to walk single file. Ruby of course went in front, making me walk directly behind her. “We’re not the only things down here! I don’t want a single fucking word from anypony until we get to Felberskaya!”
The side tunnels echoed with her voice. Our small lights kept pitifully small circles of illumination, warding off the encroaching shadows and silence. The walls were ever-changing, one moment a mess of pipes and wires lit by emergency lighting that made Ruby Red seem more like a demon than a pony, another just long stretches of blank concrete. Cobwebs and dust were in abundance to the point where I longed to slip on my gasmask.
True to Ruby Red’s commands everypony was quiet. We went up several sets of ladders, following what appeared to be an old water maintenance network, built vertically. There were no offices, but instead several checkpoints where workers could stop and open up the pipes at particular junctures. Each checkpoint was a mess of levers and caps and pipes, full of gauges that I couldn’t read or no longer recorded the proper water pressure. Most of the independent stations here couldn’t afford the resources to reroute water from elsewhere, and so depended on these decaying systems from the old world to keep running until their expiration.
In spite of our upward direction we never breached the surface. I perceived we must be close though, from the fact that several of the rooms around us were irradiated and avoided studiously. Once, I believed I saw something scuttling around just out of sight down a long hallway, moving on spindly insectoid legs and peering at us with glowing eyes. But it left as soon as my gaze fell properly on it. Ruby Red ignored the crawling atmosphere and alien beasts, following some kind of esoteric signaling system made up of symbols painted on the walls by bandit scouts. I didn’t dare pull out my Guide to check and see where we were; I felt no tugs from Hunter’s token and didn’t feel like attracting attention.
At last the path began to even out. We stopped ascending, and I heard the sound of water rushing through the pipes we passed. The constant, unwelcome background noise of deep thunder under the earth grated on my ears. The pipes were in sorry shape, taunting me with memories of the ghost tunnel I had braved with Nopony. A few of them had burst open and brackish filth oozed out of them, pooling on the tunnel floors. A strange, rotten stench pervaded the area, one that was terrifyingly organic, and not and might’ve been the death of a pony with a wilder imagination. One set of stairs later, we came to another main Metro tunnel running east and west.
“We’re near Felberskaya,” Ruby Red muttered as she poked her head out into the tunnel. After the crushing quiet of those side passages her voice was a welcome relief, not for the fact that she was easy on the ears, but just the fact that a pony was making the noise. I felt a palpable sense of freedom coming out of the strange, alien tunnels behind me. These bigger lanes were more my speed. Ruby Red flicked her ears left and right, and then started following the tracks. “Past that is the waterworks. We’ll go south and head around it though, place is flooded as shit. But then we hit Republic territory.” She turned back and grinned at me. “We’ll see if you can handle that, my little badass.”
So now I was part of her gang? Her trophy to cart around? As if.
The road to Felberskaya was much like any other Metro tunnel, save for the fact that it was very wet and fungus grew in abundance. Mushrooms sprouted from the walls and algae coated the floor, soaking in the brackish water that pooled in every crevice and flowed in a thin trickle down the rail line. From the ceiling a long white tendril grew, following the pipes. I knew it was alive in that undefinable way that all living things were, but I almost refused to accept that snaking, slithering “root” was actually something I’d need to live with in the new world. More mushrooms grew from its surface. Though the bandits ignored it, I couldn’t help but sneak a glance at it now and then. Sweet Celestia, I thought it even moved once or twice. Just another oddity of the Metro.
“Let me guess,” I muttered as we passed a working sprite-light that marked the outer limits of Felberskaya’s territory, “the chief export here is mushrooms and soggyweed?”
“Damn straight,” the pegasus with the bound wings said. He had an oddly focused look about him much like Ruby Red, compared to his fellows who ranged from anxious to bored. “They make some of the finest shroom beer in the Metro too. Odd types. But always willing to do business.”
“You think the Guild is still there?” asked another bandit, emboldened by the lack of reprimand from Ruby. “I hope not. Never know whose side those bastards are on.” Mention of the Guild made my heart skip a beat. I couldn’t avoid them forever, but I sure wanted to try.
“Why is the Guild here?” I wondered.
“Why are they anywhere? To make money and rub their wealth in our faces,” said the wing-bound pegasus. “They use this spot to test their water purifiers and ‘help’ this part of the Metro by keeping the waterworks here running. They’re closely tied with Hoofsa but they don’t turn us in cuz we can go places they don’t want to. Don’t want their precious artifacts getting smudged with dirt...”
I glanced over my shoulder at Sidewinder, who looked straight ahead and didn’t pay me attention. If knowing the Guild was about made him uncomfortable, he didn’t show it.
Felberskaya’s guards were well-equipped with machine guns and heavy barding, no doubt supplied by the Guild of Magic. They glared at us from a squat guard tower across a moat that bisected the tunnel floor. I surmised they’d dug up a water main and split it open allowing the hole to fill up.
“Aw, shit,” one of them crowed, his face hidden by a welder’s faceplate. “It’s Ruby Red. You looking for passage too?”
Ruby stopped short. “Too? Who the fuck else is there, Ricochet?”
“Some weird hobos,” the earth pony answered. “The Guild boys said they’re legit though, told us not to ask questions.”
“Were they heading for Republic territory?”
“Fuck should I know? Didn’t I just say we didn’t ask questions?”
“Whatever. Let us in. We’re heading for the Marevskaya bypass tunnel.”
Ricochet laughed as one of his subordinates lowered a drawbridge over the moat. “You’re kidding right? That shit’s blocked off. Guild’s orders.”
Ruby’s eye twitched. “Blocked? Blocked? That fucking tunnel is the only way from here to East Metro!”
“Not the only way, if you don’t mind a couple days of crawling through squatter stations, nosalis nests and cerberus packs. Scouts say some weird shit has taken up residence in the waterworks and southern tunnels too, so those are out. Only safe way east now is back north through Solar Station. We’re all waiting for the Republic or Hoofsa to get off their asses and do something about it, but Hoofsa loves the Ring too much and the Republic ain’t very friendly...”
“Fuck it,” Ruby spat as she crossed the bridge, us in tow. “I’ll find out what’s going on myself.”
We crossed into Felberskaya. The station was built in an odd way: it was built in three tiers and mostly flooded, but ponies still lived and worked here. Lower corridors that housed the old sewage pipes and service stations for Metro trains were submerged, but the upper two floors, including the main line we’d traveled on, were either dry or only had a shallow creek running through them.
Ponies who had to live near or above the water built their housing lengthwise on stilts, or inhabited train cars piled on top of each other. Non-Guild ponies skittered and skulked through the station’s shadows, moving with nimble quickness over their thin catwalks and never once disturbing the water as they rushed over it. Walkways and low ceilings were in abundance and there was no electricity, only sprite-lights. Our motley crew got a few second looks, but I paid them no heed as long as anypony wasn’t shooting at us. Were bandits and thugs really so common a sight here? Perhaps they felt safe... I know I would. At every other corner there stood a unicorn guard of the Guild of Magic, stoic and unapproachable in his full body armor. This station was firmly under their control, which was somewhat unusual as they generally tried not to get involved in turf wars. We passed a stairway that led up to the highest section of the station where I saw a unicorn mare walk by under a string of functioning lightbulbs that illuminated her Guild seal. The sight of Twilight Sparkle’s cutie mark made my stomach turn; suppose the Guild ponies here somehow knew about my failure to kill Sidewinder, or worse, recognized Sidewinder and tried to start trouble? Ruby Red just marched right up those same stairs, though, and we were forced to follow.
We came into a long hallway filled with ponies. The highest tier of the station was its nerve center, and the inhabitants crowded every available space. The air was thick and hot from the press of so many bodies. I smelled food and the pungent stench of sweat and alcohol. At both ends I could see the hallway curve and split into other corridors that must run around the ceiling of the entire station, and lights and the sounds of ponies came from every one. They were pressed right up agains the walls, snatching every available space and filling it with warm bodies and the sound of their fun. Cooks prepared their meals right next to lines of ponies playing cards. I saw a few foals running about, darting between their elders’ legs. All of them tiny pinpricks of defiance against the wall of darkness just outside.
Two in particular caught my eye: an earth mare and stallion without clothes huddled against the wall, surrounded by baggage and equipment, looking at the floor. Their colors were almost faded to grey, and they sat so still they seemed statuesque. Both were draped in heavy shawls that covered their bodies. Everypony else passed them by without a second look. They didn’t look despondent while they stared at the floor. Just patient, as if they had a very important thing to do by sitting there staring at the floor and wouldn’t leave until it was done. Somehow they seemed more purposeful than the others here, who lived their lives because that was what they did. Somehow I immediately knew that these two were here for a true reason. But as we passed them, I felt something, a memory, chase me down the dark corridors of my mind.
A bright, blinding light coming to consume me. I danced on my hooves in full view of everypony, reduced to a quivering, hysterical ball in the space of an instant. I only got a few stares.
No, no! That was a memory now. No anomalies here. And those ponies... they still hadn’t moved, in spite of my little panic attack. Perhaps they were some of the ‘weird hobos’ Ricochet mentioned. The feelings they’d inspired caused me to scamper away before one of them raised their cold, determined eyes to me. I opted to follow Ruby Red towards a side tunnel. At the tunnel’s end was the entry to a larger room beyond, covered in sheets. Light poured out through the thin cloth, as well as the murmur of voices, all clipped and august in their direct, businesslik tones. In front of the doorway stood two burly unicorns dressed in full body armor, armed with ferocious looking spiked clubs and machine guns.
“I think... I’ll disappear for a few minutes,” Sidewinder whispered, and was lost in the crowd before I could even turn to look at him.
Twilight Sparkle’s cutie mark menaced us from the wall above the entrance, like a great eye daring us to turn back. My gaze was riveted to it, but Ruby Red marched on to confront the door guards, both of them mares.
“Lemme through,” she demanded. “I need to speak to your Guild Representative.”
“And who are you?” asked the guard in a tone that suggested she didn’t care who Ruby was at all.
“Ruby Red! Second in command of Auntie Buttercup.”
I balked at her so brazenly declaring her allegiance to bandits, but the guards only gave each other a short glance before one lifted the sheet with her magic and nodded inside.
“Right this way,” she said simply. “Your... crew will wait here.”
“Fine.” Ruby Red followed the guard into the Guild office with her head held high. “You all stay in this hall! Don’t go wandering off!”
And so we waited. A few of the bandits split off and went back to the front of the hall, talking in quiet tones about how they wished they were back in Connemara with all its delicious booze and prostitutes. The rest of us hovered awkwardly around the doorway, under the firm gaze of the remaining unicorn guard.
“I didn’t know bandits were so cozy with the Guild,” I remarked The pegasus with the bound wings answered me.
“We aren’t. Buttercup is. She may look like it, but she’s not in charge of every bandit in the Metro. Just gives us a place to sleep and rest in between missions.”
Missions. What a quaint, bland way of saying pillaging and raiding.
The pegasus shrugged. “Like I said, we do them favors and leave their caravans alone, they don’t shoot us on sight. Not a bad deal all things considered. Buttercup and her captains handle all the minor details.” He smirked. “And if any other gangs near us get too far outta line, we get to go stomp them. Buttercup’s corner of the world is a nice place to be.”
“Must be fun,” I mused, “staying a step above other bandits while still having the freedom of one.”
I let his glare bounce off my cheek. “That’s a mighty uppity attitude to have. You know, that must be why Ruby doesn’t like you, if you talk like that all the time.”
“That’s why I don’t like to talk much.”
“Or maybe you just don’t know the lingo! I mean, you’re not a bandit, and that’s fine, not everypony can be one. But you shouldn’t talk down to ponies you don’t know.”
“I know enough.”
“Yeah? And who are you?”
“That’s it? You need to be more than that, my friend. I’m Thaumaturge, but my friends call me Theo.”
“What kind of a name is that?”
“My mom said it was something to do with magic. Well, I am really lucky. Or somepony’s watching out for me. Things always seem to work out for me.Whatever I do, I’m pretty successful at it. Maybe that’s my magic!”
He waggled his torso, showing off his bound wings. I noticed his cutie mark too: a set of golden scales in perfect balance. “I haven’t gone feather-brained yet, so that’s a plus.”
I studied him carefully. A pegasus who didn’t fly went berserk. A pegasus who didn’t even let himself move his wings? I could hardly believe he wasn’t a gibbering mess. Then again, he was very young, so I could believe he wasn’t affected by it just yet.“How did a pony like you end up a bandit?”
Theo grinned wolfishly. “Well, that’s a funny story you see. I was born in Dale Station...”
He trailed off as Ruby Red came marching back through the curtains, tailed by a handsome yellow unicorn stallion with a bright blue mane. He wore a deep violet uniform that I supposed marked him as a Guild officer. We all went silent.
“I’m sorry Ruby, but there’s nothing I can do. There’s really no way forward from here.”
“You and your fucking rules!” Ruby spat. “Just let us in if you’re so scared! What the hell is going on in the waterworks anyway? Somepony rip a really smelly one?”
“I said it before and I’ll say it again. No. Access. To anypony. That includes Auntie Buttercup and her little lackeys.”
Ruby Red growled and lowered her head. Theo and the other bandits jumped to their hooves and tacked up, lowering guns and whipping out knives. Before I could breathe three more Guild ponies leapt through the curtain in full battle dress, levitating weapons ready to kill. The Guild officer’s brow crawled up.
“You really want to have this fight?” he asked. “You’ll all be dead before you can reach the end of this hallway.”
Ruby stamped her hoof on the ground. “You forget that we’re the ones who open up the tunnels you smuggle your fancy shit through! I’m not going to go back a failure because of your Guild’s smart-ass schemes!”
The officer rolled his eyes. “This discussion is over, bandit. If you really want to make an appeal, talk to Two Step.”
Ruby Red didn’t say anything else. She raised her head until their eyes were level, breath steady and low. I backed off, scooting away from the space between the two groups.
“Fine,” Ruby Red muttered. “I’ll talk to Two Step. Where is he?”
“The Branch Officer is currently away on business, but he will be back in approximately eight to ten hours.”
Ruby scoffed. “What! We can’t afford to wait that long! We have business with the Republic! Send us a message to them.”
“If you want to make use of our transmission crystals you will need to pay for claim on a mana stream. It’s a veritable king’s ransom these days, unfortunately.”
Ruby Red huffed and snorted. She stomped her hooves and flicked her tail. I thought she’d very nearly lose control right there in front of her posse, but she reined in her feelings at the last moment, filling her lungs with a breath of cold, humid air. When her eyes opened again, she was more composed.
“We… will wait,” she announced. The Guild officer nodded and turned back to the curtain.
“To honor your previous services to the Guild you may have access to some of our private bedrooms in the station’s southeast corner. If you have any questions ask for Evening Shimmer. That’s me,” he said before disappearing. The guards and their weapons continued to deny us passage.
Ruby Red swung around to head back the way we came. Sidewinder rejoined us at the edge of the hall and smirked, opening his mouth to say something.
“One word, and your ass is mine,” Ruby snapped, and Sidewinder’s jaw snapped shut. The mood was defeatist and sullen as we left the Guild office; eight to ten hours of nothing but waiting in this poor station? Who knew what the conditions would be when we finally got going? Nopony spoke for fear of drawing Ruby’s wrath, and I confess I felt just as spurned. My progress depended on the bandits for now, and without them moving forward my mission was also stifled. I didn’t have much chance of sneaking my way through a Guild blockade.
As if to add insult to injury, our ‘private bedrooms’ were little more than a few cramped shacks that nopony lived in anymore, tucked away in what appeared to be a former storage room at the end of a hall. Ruby saw to it that we all took one for ourselves. I chose the smallest one at the end of the row, and thankfully Sidewinder didn’t follow. He unfurled a bedroll on the open floor near me, and the bandits resignedly followed suit. I found myself thankful in some way I traveled with Ruby Red; even if the worst bandit was a bored bandit, at least she had no interest in causing trouble and would keep her minions in line.
The shacks were lined up against one another like lockers, and there was barely enough room to lie down, let alone get comfortable. It reminded me of the housing near Exiperia’s docks; like there, one simply lied down and didn’t move until they woke up. I didn’t have a bedroll, but fortunately this particular shack had a grubby little mattress crammed into it. I dropped onto it with all my gear still attached.
“Don’t wander,” said Ruby. “Bunk down here and don’t cause trouble, these Guild fucks won’t look for an excuse. We’re just here until we can move on!”
I listened to the other bandits break out some cards and beer. Sidewinder plopped down against the wall in a position I found extremely odd: he sat down on his rump with his back to the wall and his rear legs splayed out in front of him, front hooves on his stomach. I shrugged; only Sidewinder would find such a strange posture comfortable.
At least I had a modicum of privacy. As long as I did nothing and spoke to nopony I’d stay out of trouble. Theo joined his card playing brothers, and I took the opportunity to ponder his name as I stared up at the low roof of my shack after shutting the door. I’d lied; thaumaturgy wasn’t technically magic. It was the performance of wonders that not even magic could do: the revival of the dead, the instantaneous winning of a war or the like. Fables of old spoke of wonderful things happening without the aid of magic, or at least being more the cause of strong hearts and goodwill instead of a wizard’s powerful spell or a general’s expert strategy. Whatever miracle was working in my life that had kept me alive so far, I prayed it didn’t grow dull.
Eventually, I grew listless with the pressing fatigue that had dogged me for several days now. Nopony could just keep going forever, as much as I was trying to. My body was under constant stress, and this one small opportunity for rest grabbed me like a dropbear, but I couldn’t go to sleep no matter how much I tried. Instead my mind whirled with thoughts of miracles and Dark Ones and murderers.
A couple hours passed by my reckoning when the door to my shack slid open. I kept my eyes closed, snatching every second of rest that I could while waiting for Ruby’s hoof to thud into my ribs. Instead I felt a softer touch press into my side. It remained there, tender and unassuming.
“Nmmm?” I murmured.
“Shh,” said a gentle voice. “It’s all right; we don’t have to get up yet. How are you?”
“Uh,” I said, trying to turn and see them. It was too dark, though; I must have drifted in my half-sleep past the station’s light’s out period. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” they said. Their hoof wandered up to my neck, and their touch was so soft and gentle I didn’t feel threatened. It wandered over my pelt with the calm familiarity of a mother doting on their child. “I just wanted to see you. I missed you.”
“Don’t you remember?”
“Pitter Patter?” I guessed. My heart skipped a beat. She wasn’t supposed to be here! What was she thinking?! I worried I’d accidentally attracted another lunatic like Sidewinder. “Wha… what are you doing here? How did you follow me?”
“I’ve had more experience sneaking around than you, silly pony,” she said with a throaty chuckle. “I’ve been around long enough to know all the good hiding places… I bet I surprised you good. Don’t worry, I’m not sticking around.”
She clambered into my shack before I could stop her, laying herself out over me. I squirmed and tried to peer over her shoulder. Any moment now one of the other bandits would peek inside and we’d be done for, but she didn’t seem worried.
“You and me,” she whispered, nudging her snout against my cheek and taking a deep breath of my scent, “have unfinished business.”
My eyelid twitched. I froze beneath her, willing every inch of me (every inch) to remain still. “Pitter Patter, what… this… isn’t really a good time…”
She snickered. “You little pervert! I’m not talking about that. I’m here to help you. But, uh, maybe if you stay alive long enough…” She pecked my cheek with the barest brush of her lips. “I can say thank you. Properly. For… for doing what you did.”
I made a noise between a cough and a squeak. “That… that wasn’t anything. I was just being nice.”
I felt her snout caress my ear, her warm breath covering it like a blanket. “No, you weren’t. You did something no other pony had done to me before, Lockbox.”
She pressed her head against mine. I felt something wet and sticky and warm. And the hard, bony length of a unicorn’s horn.
“Let me show you.”
The horn’s tip ignited with light, and I saw Sweet Dreams’ gaping, blood-soaked eye sockets staring down at me.
I tried to throw up my hooves and hurl the specter away, but her horn’s magic already had me firmly pinned down. My mind raced as a dreadful rock was plopped into my stomach.
She’s dead, I told myself. Dead, dead, dead. This is a nightmare. Wake up!
But wakefulness didn’t rescue me. Nopony heard my whimpering gasps as she put her hoof on my throat and pressed. Fear’s claws drilled into my brain as I squirmed beneath her, my mighty struggles reduced to a pathetic sort of shiver in the iron grip of her telekinesis. The dead mare grinned, and blood squeezed out between her teeth, dripping onto her chin. Her aquamarine mane was matted and filthy, and I saw her fur contained more dirty grey than silver.
“Hi there, Lockbox,” she crooned. “We haven’t talked in a while.”
I tried to speak, squeezing the words past her constricting hoof. “You’re… not here! Dead! I killed you! Stop haunting me!”
She jerked her head back, eyebrows raised. The movement made her blood trickle onto my face. “Haunting you? I thought I was dead. I thought you killed me. What am I doing here?” she said in a haughty, mocking tone.
Her other hoof went to my face, caressing my quivering cheek. Her touch was repulsively cold and clammy. “Poor boy. You don’t even know what your own mind is doing. Am I a ghost? A memory? A feeling? I don’t know. I’m just… so glad… that we get to spend this time together.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. It didn’t matter anymore if this was a dream or not: I felt everything. Every inch she traced over my fur with her ice-cold hooves, the weight of her body pushing down against mine, the warmth of her magical grip. I felt my chest spasm with every as I hyperventilated, felt the tears burning on the corners of my eyes. Why was it so much more real this time?
“Simple. You’re going crazy.” Sweet Dreams’ hips pressed lewdly against mine, and her head nuzzled under my chin. I shuddered. “But we’re wasting time. I have something to tell you, my lovely. Open your eyes.”
A knife hovered tip-down over my left pupil.
“You throw yourself into the shadows and pretend you’re a beacon of hope,” Sweet Dreams intoned in a deeper, less playful tone. “But you don’t see the truth. You’re a relic; an echo of a bygone era bouncing and rolling into the darkness, weaker and weaker with every iteration. You’re stumbling in the dark because you don’t know how to see. Everything… everything you do now is worthless. What afterlife will accept a wretched creature like you? What trumpets will sound if you do find victory? You’ve killed so many... and for what? To survive and survive some more? What world is this to live in? The Sun is dead, little pony. And the only way to see—”
The knife dropped. She let me scream and wail as she pushed it slowly, lovingly into my skull, twisting the blade so it tangled with my flesh and scraped over my bones.
“—is to give up the light.”
I opened my eyes.
Sweet Dreams was gone. The roof of my shack was all there was. I shot upright, gasping like a pony who just escaped drowning, my fur damp with sweat. Hot. I was very hot—feverishly so. My heart thundered against my ribs and my limbs shivered relentlessly.
I sat up and vigorously rubbed my eyes (thank Celestia they were still there!), trying to blot out the awful feeling of cold metal sinking into my head. I fumbled for the door, shoving it open with a metallic squeak that sent chills down my spine. Staggering into the hallway I wrestled with my heavy equipment, dropping it piece by piece. I gave up halfway through peeling my jacket off and lay panting on the floor, letting the cool concrete leech away the heat.
“Water,” I told myself, and reached back for a canteen. Somepony gave me one, and as I craned my neck back to drink, I saw it was Sidewinder.
He watched me without compassion or interest, still sitting in that odd upright way against the wall. The other bandits were asleep. I took my fill of his canteen, using the rest to drench my mane. Oh Luna, the water felt so good as it ran down my neck, drawing out that terrible heat.
We sat a while watching one another.
“Sidewinder,” I managed to say through my irregular breathing, “who was Sweet Dreams? Really?”
The Stalker tilted his head to one side and regarded me with a strange look, a look that spoke of things I’d never know.
“Honestly? I haven’t the slightest idea,” he said with a shrug. “She showed up one day, good at what she did. Never got a straight answer out of her. Crazier than me, though. Always going on about the state of the mind…”
He grinned like a fiend. “You can see where that got her. She was hot in a weird way, had that whole dangerously capable mare thing going on, but I honestly didn’t know much about her. After she murdered Purple Prose I figured the time for bonding was long gone.”
“Another Stalker friend of mine.” He sighed. “One of the few mares I wondered about going steady with. Figures she was the one to get shivved instead of Papyrus. Fucking Pap... always the most cowardly of us.”
The stallion shrugged. “So yeah, thanks for killing Sweet Dreams. Good riddance to that crazy bitch.” He spat on the ground.
I staggered to my hooves and wandered down the hall, back into the station. I walked aimlessly, jacket hanging from my shoulders. Other ponies avoided or ignored me as I went by, finding myself in another part of the station without meaning to. It was dark and empty, and I found myself standing on a ledge over a pool of water that filled the lower part of the station. I sat down and stared at it, looking at my dark, pale reflection.
Good riddance... would Sidewinder believe me if I told him about my visions? How could I trust they were anything useful? I’d seen and done so many things I was starting to wonder if I was truly special, and something about this world was trying to shine through me. Something involving these nightmares, and that yellow mare, and Sweet Dreams, and the Dark Ones. The thought frightened me, and for the first time I found myself thinking that going crazy was better than actually being swept up in some mission of destiny. It was why I’d cried and railed at Sunny Side, trying not to think about things too much. What answer could I give myself, except the fact that I was going insane? What other comfort was there to a pony who honestly didn’t want to do anything but save his home and go back without any fanfare?
Very suddenly I wished Sunny Side was still with me. But all that did was make his absence all the keener. Thinking about Pitter Patter didn’t help. It just filled me with a sense of cold longing, isolation and now vague dread after that nightmare in my shack. Thinking about father or Starry Gaze or home or my Wall only gave me guilt, depression, and painful nostalgia. Tracer or Hunter? The Rangers had started me on this journey and one was willing to die to see me finish it. There was just no way around it: everything I did and everypony I met seemed inevitably fated to push my journey forward in some way, shape, or form. And those I’d almost truly connected to were forced away by circumstance. It made my heart ache for some reason, thinking about how I must be different from the average pony to get here. I only wanted to save my home. Why must I be the one to do it? What wasn’t I figuring out? Why did I read Guides, survive anomalies, slog and shoot and smash my way to freedom time and again? I’d even defeated Steel Crescent one-on-one, to everpony’s astonishment including my own.
The pony who stared back at me from the water didn’t provide any answers. He looked just as tired and harried as I felt. I didn’t want to be this pony.
He... I... was alive and moving forward again, where any other pony would have died or given up by now. I tried to justify it, saying it was my sheer grit and determination that kept me going, but I wasn’t all that brave or noble and I didn’t like what I’d done to get here. What kept me going? Love for home could only carry me so far; better ponies than me would’ve, and did, fail far sooner in greater endeavors. Celestia and Luna, once bearers of the Elements, couldn’t save Equestria. The Elements of Harmony couldn’t save it either, nor could the efforts of thousands of other good ponies who were surely more blessed and righteous than I. And though my goal wasn’t so ambitious that it covered most of the world, the stakes were just as high. And the mere fact that I was actually doing it frightened me to death. Why me when so many others died was a question philosophers would ponder years from now. Was it fate or simply something within me, something that was intimately connected to my... abilities, for lack of a better word? Something that made me just that determined, that I could shrug off these horrors I’d endured? Whatever it was, I didn’t like that I’d been chosen to be its vessel.
In fact, I hated it. And the more my thoughts dwelled on it, the more that hate grew, until I scowled at my own reflection and I longed for Sweet Dreams to be real just so I could kill her again and make her stop haunting my dreams. How much longer was my guilt going to taunt me? Torture me as I shored up my defenses with endless trenches packed with flimsy justifications?
I dipped my hoof in the water, half expecting blood to wash off. How many ponies were dead now because of me? A dozen at least. Maybe more. I saw most of them clearly in my mind. Bandits falling to the ground as they were shot full of holes. Cultists falling with nothing more than a gentle sigh. A Ponyevskaya guardpony crushed under a war wagon. Maple and Chill Wind...
… Ray Drop...
I didn’t feel much, not at first. The memory of that day already felt so far away, one more post-it note nailed beside a dozen other horrors I’d witnessed. Ray Drop’s memory was a ray of sun, piercing the gloom of my mind with brightness that knifed into my conscience. She hadn’t deserved that. Pitter Patter didn’t deserve it. Sunny Side didn’t deserve living with the knowledge that someday he’d go insane like the rest of his winged brothers, dying with nothing but a dream of the sky on his lips. This was my world. The one I wanted to save. The one trying to kill me. If Sweet Dreams was any indication, I was even trying to stop myself. But if this world really was so wretched and terrible, then Ray Drop had died within merciless, hungry jaws that sought death for the sake of it, and I’d thrown her into it to keep my selfish vision of a lesser, smaller world, my world, alive.
Without warning I started to cry. I cried without reservation, without caring who might come up behind me or what anypony else might think. I squeezed my eyes shut and buried my head in my hooves, blubbering into the concrete, uttering apologies and hateful invectives. I curled up on the ground and wanted to hide from it all, but hiding from myself was a feat even the most powerful magic couldn’t help with. But in the end, I grasped at the flimsy straws that made up what was left of my sanity and tried to justify my breakdown one last time. I was still a normal pony... wasn’t I? I was allowed to be fragile given my circumstances, right? It was all right to feel overwhelmed.
It had to be, not just in the sense that my body couldn’t take it. It had to be right. My sadness and grief had to be something that proved that I was still a pony. A thinking, breathing pony who didn’t just feel sad because he didn’t like something, but one who knew, truly knew the value of every lost pony. I couldn’t just be a weakling that cowered before adversity. If I was, I was just as wretched as the tiny world I lived in, confined by Metro tunnels and ruled by fear.
I had to cry for them. Not for me. Never for me, the bloodied and sullied creature still crawling along where more honorable ponies would stride. I couldn’t insult their memories like that. No. I didn’t matter. All that mattered was the mission. The corpse of a world that couldn’t be resurrected, but at least given a proper burial.
I stayed there for at least an hour, maybe two. I couldn’t tell. But when it was over my eyes were puffy and red, and I’d dunked my head in the water to relieve the burning sensation of too many tears being forced from my eyes. The guilty portion of my mind was satiated for the moment and I pushed myself up, suffering a headache and dizziness that I presumed was from hunger and leftover sadness.
Forward. Always forward. When this was done then I could rest.
As I went back into the station my vision began to blur and I tottered on my hooves. The dizziness passed like a rolling wave and I forced myself onward. I realized the tunnels around me didn’t seem so familiar anymore: I was confronted by three branches that went left, right, and straight ahead. This wasn’t something I’d passed coming here. Had I somehow gone down another tunnel? I looked over my shoulder at the pool, and that was the only landmark I remembered. Had I gone straight? Up? Down? Another wave of dizziness crashed into my head. I groaned loudly and hobbled down the center tunnel, feeling somewhat panicky. I had no idea whether I’d made the right choice: no matter how far I peered ahead into the shadows, there didn’t seem to be an end to it. But I could’ve sworn these tunnels didn’t extend more than a hundred yards in any direction.
I stumbled on in a straight line, growing more confused every moment. The darkness was such that I couldn’t see more than a foot ahead or behind. The tunnel slid out of the dark ahead of me and disappeared again as I left it behind. It felt as though the tunnel were looping in on itself with every step I took, never taking me anywhere. Without context, without something ahead or behind to mark my way, how did I know whether I was going anywhere? How did I know I even existed?
I had no idea where this sickness came from, and it just got worse as I tried to find my way. Every step seemed to bring with it fresh confusion. Was I going forward? Back? Which direction was I really walking? Was that tunnel I’d taken left or straight? I hadn’t taken a single turn, but I was so sure I was going in the wrong direction...
I stopped in some dark, featureless part of the tunnel, scratching my head as drool pooled in my mouth and threatened to dribble down my chin. I couldn’t be bothered to remember swallowing, I needed to get out of here!
That damn buzzing was back too. My skull felt like a tuning fork that’d just been smacked against a wall, vibrating at an alarming rate.
All right. Calm down. One hoof at a time...
I tripped as a spike in the pain drove me into a wall and I flopped to the ground, watching the tunnel spin all around me. I fought the rising panic that bubbled in my stomach and clawed my way to another intersection, trying to remember which way I’d come. Oh, Princesses have mercy, I felt so faint and weary.
And hot. I was so hot. No, cold! I was cold, but I was sweating profusely.
“Hello?” I called, shamelessly frightened at this point. “Hello! Help! I...”
Down the tunnel to my right came a muffled voice, and then again on the left. But that noise came from a solid wall! Something was... close. I stood up, legs creaking as I stumbled left. It was a totally random decision born of desperation. I didn’t know what the hell was happening, but I needed to keep moving or I’d never find my way out.
“Is that you?” I asked.
“Who?” another voice asked. I couldn’t tell if it was truly another pony, or just me talking to myself. My own words were muffled and faint to my ears.
“Are you there?”
“I’m nowhere... yes, I’m lost.”
“How do you know?”
“I can’t find my way!”
“What way is that?”
“The way I came...”
“That way is gone.”
“Who are you?”
“I don’t understand!”
I slammed my hoof against the ground and threw myself into a gallop. The interminable tunnel stretched ever onward. I began to fear I’d been swallowed up by the Metro, like that tunnel Nopony had led me and Sunny Side through. Had I wandered into one of those dark tunnels that ate ponies and made them disappear? Was this their fate? No! No! I couldn’t be beaten so easily! All my efforts couldn’t just have been erased like that! I ran on and tripped again, skidding to a halt.
I was at another intersection.
“Stop giving me choices!” I yelled at the top of my lungs, and the effort made me retch as my head spun. A vice choked my head, my thoughts, my breath. I was so hot, but I didn’t dare take off my jacket and be left totally naked in the dark.
I saw a flash of white down the right tunnel. A flicker of ghostly strands... no, that was a pony’s tail!
“Hey!” I shouted, wielding my anger like a bludgeon against my complaining limbs and aching head. “Come back here!”
I charged after the unknown pony, and suddenly the maze became much more convoluted. Twists and turns and other intersections were thrown at me at every corner, and I perceived that somehow they were trying to keep me from the fleeing pony. I managed to stay just behind them, straining to catch the flicker of white fur at the edge of my sight.
“Stop! Stop!” I called, my voice echoing off endless walls and bouncing back to me in a faint, mocking echo. “Stop, stop!” I called to myself, and the desperate calls became sneering insults. I couldn’t see a thing.
I was still trying to see by the light... but there was no light here. Was what Sweet Dreams said true? Was I being willfully blind?
I may not have seen the path, but I certainly saw the knife coming out of the dark straight for my neck, held in the mouth of a wild-eyed pale stallion. I yelled and spun, feeling cold metal bite into my flesh as I collided head-on with the stranger.
We fell. The burning metal slid free from my neck and I watched blood, little bits of me, come out with it. I landed atop him and pushed my foreleg under his chin, halting his wild thrusting with the knife. He lashed out with his front hooves, thumping my chest as I reared up and brought my free hoof down on the side of his head. Three times I mercilessly punched him above the eye, then the cheek. I got a good look of the face I was trying to ruin, and realized I’d seen him before... he was one of the ‘weird hobos’ I’d seen coming into the station. As for why he was trying to kill me, I needed to figure that out after I stopped his murder attempt.
“Drop it! Drop it!” I screamed at him as he tried to grab my hooves in his and roll. I didn’t give him the chance, instead wrapping my hooves around his neck in a chokehold and dropping to the side, letting him squirm as I rolled beneath him. His hooves flailed in midair, reached over his shoulders to claw at my face.
“Drop it!” I screamed again directly into his ear, but he still struggled on. I felt one of his rear legs hook around me as he grabbed my choking leg with both hooves, and then with a mighty heave he rolled beneath me again. I then fully comprehended that he was an earth stallion, larger than me, and much more muscular.
Whatever he planned was going to hurt.
I rained down punches on the side of his head as he slowly but surely pushed himself up with me still on his back, ignoring my blows. I might as well have been giving him love taps. He didn’t even flinch as I broke skin and blood welled up to smear on my hoof. He didn’t hesitate when he rose up on his rear hooves and fell backwards, driving me into the wall. I made a sharp hiccuping sound as the air leapt from my lungs.
My grip slackened for just a moment, a moment he’d been waiting for, and then he spun out of my grip as I slid to the ground, falling backwards as he lunged at me again with the knife in his mouth. I reached down deep and felt the earth surge up into me as I fell back onto it, lying on my back. He came on, heedless of the danger.
“Fuck off!” I shouted as I curled my rear legs and bucked. I hit him square between the front legs, right in his chest. He lifted clear off his hooves and flipped backwards, landing heavily on the concrete behind him. I stood up as quick as I could, but somehow he recovered first and scored a deep slice over the top of my head. I felt the knife scrape over my skull as it whipped through my mane, drawing blood.
Spinning about I bucked again. He saw it coming and ducked, then leaped up again before I could pull my legs back.
The knife slid with sickening ease into my left thigh. I felt every vile inch, so cold it burned as it parted skin and muscle before terminating far too deep inside.
Oh Celestia I could feel it sawing through my flesh as he twisted his head oh Luna no no NO!
I kicked again with my uninjured leg, right into his neck.
He made a strange choking noise, but his grip on the knife remained.
I kicked again. And again. And again. Something crunched and that only encouraged me to hit him once more.
He grabbed my kicking leg with his hooves and pushed.
The knife tore away from me and I wailed as fresh pain crashed through my mind. Searing, agonizing pain like when I’d been thrown from the cart outside of Draft. I was vaguely aware of falling flat on my face, but I couldn’t concentrate as my mind spun around trying to land on the right decision to make. I was under attack in a ghost tunnel by a seemingly unstoppable murderer and I had a hole in my leg. The earth gave me strength, but I wasn’t invincible, and now I was wide open as I reached back, holding my injured leg and curling up in a vain attempt to stifle the pain. I expected to feel him stabbing into my spine at any moment, but no blow came even as I struggled to my hooves, hobbling away before turning to face my attacker.
He was in bad shape. Even though he seemed to feel no pain, my final savage blows had hurt something important. He wheezed, grabbing eagerly for air that was never quite enough. One of his eyes was a solid red where blood had seeped into the whites, and the lacerations of my blows to his head were ugly and ragged on his brow.
“Who are you?” I growled.
“Un... unworthy,” he rasped. “I... am done.”
He looked straight at me. Something about his eyes, dead and unfocused yet blazing with rage and fury chilled me. My ears went back as he squeezed and gasped his words through a collapsed airway.
“My Family will finish you. He feels you. He feels us all! You’re a monster, a shadow walker and I... I won’t let you hurt Him!”
He tried to scream, but it came out as a bloodcurdling gargle while he charged me one last time. I felt confident I could take him; he was already fading fast and I was ready for him while I prepared myself for the final blows.
But he fell before he reached me, and it took a moment to realize his rear leg was no longer attached to his body. I heard a thundering report echo through the empty halls.
I watched in amazement as his head came apart right in front of me, scattering brains and flecks of skull all over my front hooves.
And then I stood in a very normal tunnel, lit by a little sprite-light hanging from the ceiling. Ruby Red, Sidewinder, and several guards stood before me, looking down at the corpse of the strange pony.
Ruby Red lowered her gun with a shimmer of magic and sneered at me.
“I knew you weren’t gonna stay outta trouble.”
In the glare of their headlights I stared down at the corpse.
In place of a cutie mark, he had two horrific burns far too clean to be anything but self-inflicted.
“I’m telling you. He was one of the unregistered ponies that came in earlier... just find his partner!”
“We’ve swept the station and nopony of that description matches what you’ve told us. As far as we can tell, this stallion acted on his own.”
I slammed my hoof down on the examination table, startling the earth pony doctor tending to me and drawing the attention of every pony in the room. That amounted to Ruby Red and a few Guild ponies including the morbidly indifferent Evening Shimmer, whose stonewalling of my demands for a proper investigation grated on my nerves. Two Step had also arrived some time after I’d been dragged into the infirmary, drifting in and out of lucidity while I rambled about darkness and prophecies. The tall earth pony dressed in a fancy purple uniform emblazoned with Twilight’s cutie mark stood in the doorway, regarding me like a prisoner of war. He let Evening Shimmer do the talking while Ruby Red lounged nearby, leaning on the wall and pretending what we said didn’t matter.
“I saw her! I felt them both... his partner must still be around. They had so much equipment to carry they couldn’t have gone far!”
Evening Shimmer shrugged, eyes drifting to the door. “And I’m telling you if she was around, she’s long gone now. And since you can’t tell us anything about why he wanted to kill you, neither we nor Felberskaya’s guards don’t really have a case. Just be glad you’re still alive.”
“You don’t even care you might have another murderer running loose in the station?!” I barked. I had a headache and wasn’t in the mood to entertain more indifference. “You’re pathetic! No wonder everypony hates you!”
Two Step came to life and violently slammed his hoof on the floor. I felt the blow in my chest from where I lay.
“We look out for Guild interests, boy. We don’t police this station any more than we have to, and we sure as hell don’t care if you have an argument in some back alley. The only confirmed attacker is dead, and we haven’t received any other strange reports that need investigating.” Evening Shimmer sighed and didn’t bother to hide it, looking up at the ceiling. “Frankly, I’ve wasted enough time on you bandits and your little quarrels. If this happens again, then we might have a problem. For now, I can only thank you for distracting your attacker long enough for us to put him down.”
He looked at Ruby, who continued to stare off into space.
“As far as permission to use our passages through the waterworks goes, it’s denied as of now. Too many unknowns around here already; I don’t need more crawling around. If Buttercup doesn’t like it, tell her to talk to us herself.”
And with that he left with the rest of his guards. I was left with Ruby Red. Her head swiveled with surprising gentleness until her gaze landed on me. I shivered with a mixture of excitement and rage, wondering if she’d attack me. I boldly held her intense glare in check with mine. For several minutes neither of us spoke.
We stopped. Ruby Red sighed and lifted her hoof, giving me permission to speak.
“I don’t know who that was,” I insisted. “But he’d burned off his own cutie mark. That’s unnatural for a pony to-”
“I know how weird he was. I saw it. I’m asking who it was. Lots of crazy ponies here, but I didn’t think you were the kind to attract the random murderers. And what were you doing wandering the back halls anyway? I told you not to go wandering. And you did.” She sighed and gave me a rough shove with her magic. “Now your leg is fucked up and we have to pay for a healing potion if we want it fixed up in a jiffy. Or, no, scratch that. You’re paying for one. And I’m sure as hell not lugging your ass all the way to the Republic!”
She seemed to forget about trying to figure out who the strange stallion was, instead advancing on me angrily. “I knew you were trouble, Lockbox. From the second I saw you look me in the eyes back in the cages, I knew something bad was going to come of traveling with you. And now it’s happening. I should leave you here to crawl back to Buttercup’s lap on your own.”
“She wouldn’t like that,” I countered. “Apparently she has big plans for me.”
“Yeah, I can tell.” She stepped closer to me, close enough that I could feel her breath on my face. Like when we’d first met, my gaze didn’t waver.
We both stared, unblinking, until I began to wonder what she was looking for. Her violet eyes seemed brighter than normal, attentive and alert to something that she saw in me but I couldn’t sense. Like she knew something about me that I didn’t. I felt very vulnerable under that gaze.
“Stars alive, you are one weird motherfucker,” she whispered.
She pulled away with a disgusted sigh, looking at the wall as if it could replace my image. The sheer intensity of her gaze had been burned into the back of my eyes. I wondered if she felt the same.
“Celestia damn it. Right. Here’s the deal, Lockbox. I don’t like you. In fact, I pretty much hate you because you exist and you’ve been a pain in the ass for the last week. Causing trouble, getting Buttercup’s attention without even trying, and now drawing in psychopaths who want to assassinate you and getting my mission stopped dead in its tracks. I’d have put you against a wall myself and shot you, but Buttercup is my meal ticket and I don’t need to piss her off. But I don’t like dragging you around either. So you figure out how to make yourself useful and just maybe I’ll forgive some of the crazy shit following you.”
I froze. Something about her voice gave me pause in a way nothing else about her had before. She wasn’t speaking out of anger or sheer malice, no, she’d have beaten me or worse if she was truly furious. This was something that made me almost as nervous as her wrath. It sounded as if she was honestly asking me for help. At least she seemed to know attacking me wouldn’t help.
“Why me?” I had to ask. “You shouldn’t be asking me.”
Her voice cracked like a whip, making me recoil as it cracked against the walls and rebounded on me tenfold. There was the Ruby I was familiar with. She rounded on me, eyes blazing.
“I know you’re the one who screwed this up! Somehow I know you’re responsible! But I can’t prove it with the bastard who attacked you dead and you being... whatever you are!”
She sallied back and forth across the room, coming towards me until she was close, close enough for me to smell her, and then withdrawing again. Her tail lashed and her horn glowed ominously. My terror rose and fell with each lap back and forth she took. I felt sure that at any moment she’d toss me across the room and beat me, but that moment never came.
“Who are you?!” she barked, rushing up to look at face-to-face. “What is it about you? What the hell am I looking at?”
“I don’t know!” I shouted back. “You think I enjoy this? You think I know what’s going on? Why are cultists trying to kill me? Why does your leader trust me so much? Why can’t you kill me? Damned if I know! But I don’t care about that. I’m trying to move forward, same as you. And I have the way to do it.”
I reached back into my saddlebags and produced the Guide. I hadn’t looked at it since before Trotsky, but that was when I had Tracer and Nopony to lead me. Now I’d have to trust my own skills, meager as they were. I didn’t trust Ruby Red in the slightest, but I needed her to trust me, because I sure as hell knew Sidewinder wasn’t the most stable of companions. Right now these bandits were my only guaranteed shot of getting through the tunnels to East Metro with something resembling strength. If I tried crawling through these places totally alone with Sidewinder at my back, I’d be dead in a day. I hadn’t had to risk my neck without at least some help yet, and I didn’t want to start.
Ruby Red gave the enchanted map one look. She seemed to be seeing a two-headed monster instead of a piece of paper. Yes, it had odd little stains on it and she probably couldn’t see its true worth, but it was all I had that would help.
“That’s your secret weapon?” she deadpanned, staring at me with eyes that couldn’t hold humor if they suddenly grew hands. “A sticky little map?”
“Yes. But it’s a magic map.”
She punched me in the face.
About ten minutes later I’d managed to stop seeing stars and keep her from shouting herself hoarse at me.
“Explain this!” she said. “You actually expect me to believe this’ll help, so explain it!”
“It’s a Guide,” I sputtered through a cracked lip. Blood spilled out, hopefully adding a bit of credibility for my willingness to speak through it. “A Guide! It shows me the places that normal ponies can’t go. Or won’t go... in any case, it’ll show us a way through that only this map knows, and nopony else.”
“Yeah, right,” Ruby spat. “And I suppose one of these ways will lead us straight to our deaths!”
I didn’t see a point in lying. Tell the truth enough times and eventually somepony will believe you. “Maybe. But that’s the Metro, isn’t it? In any case, it’s the only way you might get through to East Metro on time.”
Ruby Red scoffed, but some subtle clue made me feel as though she knew what I said was true and simply wasn’t admitting it aloud. I saw it in the way she didn’t quite brush me off, how she looked at the wall more to buy time than to dismiss me. When she couldn’t come up with an alternate route, I pressed home the advantage.
“You know I’m right. There are no other routes you can take except to go days south or north, and those will take us into territory hostile to your ponies. Right now this is all you have.”
“And that’s why I’ll believe you?” Ruby glared at me over her shoulder, eyes glowing with power.
“No. You won’t believe me. But you will take a leap of faith.” I almost smirked. Almost. “Buttercup and her opinion mean that much to you?”
Her baton hovered underneath my chin, lifting my head up to expose my throat.
“Don’t you get all psychological with me, kid! You’re nothing, and your words are nothing, but if that Guide gets us somewhere then I’ll reconsider smashing your face in!”
“You already did that,” I muttered, rolling my eyes. Ruby raised her baton, reconsidered at the last moment, and instead used it to scratch behind her ears. Her weary sigh rolled out like a heavy fog.
“Let me look at it.”
I showed it to her, waiting for the inevitable incredulity. Her eyes roamed over the paper, faster and faster to dizzying speed until they jerked to a halt, centered on my face again. She must have thought I was playing her for a fool. I watched her muscles coil and tense like snakes in waiting. There was something almost symphonic about her subtle yet controlled movements, all precisely tuned to completely wreck a pony as painfully as possible.
“I don’t see anything. Just some scribbles over a regular old map.”
“You’re not supposed to,” I said, bracing myself. “I’m the only one here who can read it.”
“Oh, fuck this!” Ruby said, throwing her head back as she turned away. She shoved me right off the bed with a jerk of her magic. My leg felt twisted in on itself with the sheer volume of pain that rushed from the site of my injury. I didn’t even bother wincing; pain was becoming a close friend around this mare. “You expect me to believe all this? To put faith in you?!”
“The pony who beat Steel Crescent in a ring, one-on-one, after punching him in the jaw in full view of the Gut.” I seated all four hooves under me and pushed up, standing proud as I could. “The pony who managed to look you in the eye and get on Buttercup’s good side just by being there. The one who traveled through dirt and death and destruction, the one who you think should be dead ten times over. And the only one giving you an option now besides turning back and going home in shame because the Guild snubbed you.”
I took a step forward, pressing in on her personal bubble. “I’m not a pony who is strong or fast or all that good with a gun. In fact I don’t really know what has been keeping me going. Hope? Determination? Sheer luck? All of those things together couldn’t have picked me to be the one to survive, to be here, at this very moment, offering you a way forward that could actually turn out for the best. You say that something about me bothers you. Something keeps you from shooting me in the head and risking Buttercup’s displeasure in spite of everything your instincts tell you. If you’re going to turn your back on that, then do it now. But the fact of the matter is, I don’t know if I can do it alone. I need somepony. Something. An extra gun, even. Now you can see this as an opportunity to help, or you can be the angry little mare you always are and end it here. But I’m going on either way.”
I didn’t know I’d been walking forward until I ended up mere inches from Ruby’s face, staring down her snout with fire in my eyes. She countered with a withering glare that made my ears curl. I remembered how I’d felt when I intimidated the guards outside of Ponyevskaya, Nopony’s weighty charisma, and did my best to level it at Ruby. Every moment that passed hung heavy between us, wavering between my victory and defeat.
I felt Ruby’s magic slither around my face, engulfing me like a blanket that pricked and pulled as it went, smothering my entire head and painting the whole world with a sheen of pale burgundy. It yanked me down until I was nose to nose with the murderess.
“One thing goes wrong? One little thing screws up? One of my boys gets killed because you make a wrong decision?”
I felt icy talons grip my heart. I knew from an ugly memory that wasn’t fear touching me. It was her.
“I will squeeze your heart until it pops inside your ribs.”
She thrust me away with a cruel magical yank on my mane. As I looked away, desperately trying not to hyperventilate from the bowel-loosening terror I’d been experiencing in those last few seconds, I saw Sidewinder at the door. I saw him grin and the terror returned.
“So are you two going to angrily make out now, or later?” he asked, and just barely avoided getting flattened by the table Ruby flung at him.
What was it that made a pony trust another? None of my books were good manuals for a budding psychologist, and I hadn’t even worked out who was trustworthy and who wasn’t yet, apart from Sunny Side. Could it have been dependability like his that built trust? I had known him all my life after all, and he’d never once abandoned me or belittled me. He’d saved my life several times on this adventure. Those acts over the course of many years made him a pony I knew I could give my life and not worry. But then there were others: Nopony and Tracer, who had given mostly just their words. They hadn’t been with me more than two weeks, and I’d thrown myself at their mercy.
It made me wonder what drove ponies together as well as apart. What made us instinctively want to huddle together against the darkness, instead of striking out alone? Why did some of us warrant the honor of company more than others? I’d been careful with my trust, or liked to think I’d been. Sunny Side was the only pony I’d trust not to stab me in the back when it suited them. Ruby Red was a means to an end; I needed her firepower to help me through the dangers of the Metro until I got to the next leg of my journey. But what made her trust me? The quickest and easiest thing to do in her position was shoot me in the head and damn what Buttercup thought. But somehow she’d found enough of her old ponyness to take that one small step that began friendships: trust. Trust was an act of faith that required a bit more fortitude than an average Metro resident had. You didn’t truly know whether a pony was safe to travel with in the Metro. You couldn’t reach inside their head and pull out the file that said “this pony is not on my list of things to kill.” Ruby Red was trotting into the unknown, as was Sidewinder, though he seemed ready and eager to bail out if things got too tough.
Perhaps there was more to the bandit than I thought. Everypony had a story after all. As much as I wanted to demonize and de-ponify the bandits and cultists and anypony else who tried to stop me, I knew that for every one who found their death at my hooves a long story came to a close. The bark of my gun was an exclamation point, my bullets punching periods into the final chapter of their lives. The very memories I’d set out in hopes of preserving were being murdered by me. The one pony who’d never forget. What could I call myself if I chose to let those small shreds go? Every shadowy figure that fell in a spray of blood was a sentence fragment, a tiny proof positive that somepony had been there, alive, and I was the recordkeeper of their very existence.
Perhaps if I collected enough of the lives that petered out before mine, I’d be able to make up for all this. For Ray Drop and her remaining sister. For the ponies of the plantations, and the ones in my home. Even for the ponies who’d tried to kill me. I owed it to myself and my sanity, and to ponydom in general.
Could I trust myself? Could I put faith in a mind that I felt cracking a little more day by day, every stress and every death weighing me down more and more? Before this journey I’d have never thought that I was made for something like this. But here I was, in defiance of all the odds and all the horror the Metro had to throw at me.
I stood at the threshold of the southern entrance to Felberskaya, looking down at my Guide. Guardponies and Guild ponies alike stood apart from me, taking me for nothing more than a drifter staring listlessly at a map. The Guild of Magic didn’t care what we did as long as we didn’t interfere with their plans. I planned to take advantage of that apathy. Nopony insisted that I could see what the Guide kept hidden, and so I concentrated on the tunnels leading south and north along the Red Line. The guards were only posted at the three hundred meter mark at both ends, as the Guild claimed that any further the tunnels were overrun with mutants and only heavily armed caravans could make it through. I planned to find a way east past their final checkpoint to the south, then double back up to the waterworks. The surface was out of the question. It still held an unbearable shroud of terror over me; and going up there was suicide with a bunch of inexperienced bandits who preferred the claustrophobia of their tunnels. I wasn’t giving Sidewinder another easy opportunity to slip away, even if he said he planned to stay with me this time. Trusting him was a leap of faith I didn’t quite have the courage to make.
I’d given him a simple task nonetheless: head south to an unmarked entrance I’d spotted using the Guide’s supernatural powers and see if it was guarded or choking with drakes and cerberus dogs. It’d been an hour and would be a little longer before he got back.
Theo came up next to me, nervously swaying backward and forward on the tips of his hooves.
“Sooo... this Sidewinder guy. I’ve only heard of him. What’s he like?”
“He’s a selfish bastard, like most Metro ponies,” I said, relishing the glumness of my voice.
“And he’s supposed to help lead us through the waterworks... you and your magic map that nopony can see except you?”
“Yes. If you don’t like it feel free to turn back any time. I’m going forward.”
“Huh. Well, I may be miraculous, but I am pretty simple... why’re you so determined to get this done with such a flimsy method?”
“It’s the best idea I have.”
Theo nodded. “I like it. That’s usually what I go with, you know. Just what I have.”
“So what do you see?”
“On what? Oh, the Guide. Uh... Everything. Nothing. It’s rather confusing, actually. I have to concentrate. But there’s a path that cuts through the waterworks here. Don’t try to look, I know you won’t see it.”
Theo looked down over my shoulder anyway, peering at the Guide. He furrowed his brow and stared long and hard at the paper. I noticed he didn’t immediately pull away with an incredulous expression like Ruby. His response was much more measured. He simply leaned back and nodded.
“Yup. Can’t see a thing.”
I would’ve found his quiet acceptance of this odd if it wasn’t so fortuitous. I just had to hope nopony thought I was bluffing.
“Trust me, sometimes I’m not even sure how this all works.”
“Heh. Not very reassuring. But I like your attitude! A real go getter you are.”
“I hate go-getters.” Ruby appeared with the rest of our group, who regarded me with equal parts suspicion and outright distrust. Obviously they didn’t think much of my plan, but they were Ruby’s ponies more than they were bandits. If she followed my lead, they’d follow hers, and that was all I needed.
Sidewinder eventually returned with a smug grin on his face.
“I like these Felberskaya ponies. They never ask questions of a pony with the Stalker’s emblem on their shoulder.” He patted Stalliongrad’s symbol. “Anyway, your little map was right, Lockbox. There’s a locked door that was easily coaxed open by yours truly. Behind that a staircase, and beyond that a tunnel system going east. Judging by all the pipes, I’m willing to bet it runs straight through the underground of the waterworks. We can nip back up to the established pathways once we hit it.”
“Then what’re we waiting for?” Ruby said. She led us past the gate, which the guards opened willingly enough. Even as we passed the checkpoint at the three hundred meter mark, hardly anypony even bothered to note our passage. As far as they knew it was our funeral going out there, and I planned to keep it that way. We didn’t care what the Guild was hiding. Just that we got through their silly blockade to reach our destination.
The door was left ajar by Sidewinder, and we closed it again as we went through. I made sure to lock it, not wanting ponies who traveled down this way to suffer for any monsters that went through doors we left open. Then came the stairs, and then the tunnel. It had a low ceiling and was ringed all around with a mess of pipelines, all of which seemed corroded and rusty, yet still moist with running water. I wondered if any of them would need maintenance soon, and which poor Guild ponies would have to brave the darkness to repair them. Always plugging away at the crumbling vestiges of an old way of life, we ponies. What a pathetic thing our Metro was. A failing organism kept alive by these ruptured arteries and split-end veins, with us running about inside as the slowly dying cells.
Before me stood the screeching darkness that waited to gobble us up. Behind me stood a gaggle of ponies I didn’t trust and didn’t trust me. But even so, our lives were in each other’s hooves... or our own, if we selfishly stole away to huddle around the tiny light of our own life. All around us was death, held back only by that thin membrane of faith we’d stretched over each other.
With our headlamps blazing bold paths into the shadows, we journeyed into the unknown.
“By Celestia, this shit stinks!”
“No more than you do after a tumble in the hay, Jitter. Think of this as make-up for all the baths you never take.”
“It’s not my fault I sweat as much as I do...”
“Shut up back there! This is hard enough with your whining.”
I shut out the appalling noise of my companions’ griping. It made my ears twitch even over the loud breathing of my gasmask filters. It wasn’t that they didn’t have good reasons to complain. We were slogging through knee-deep sludge that was mildly radioactive, the geiger counters wouldn’t stop telling us it was radioactive, and it stank about as bad as one might expect decades-old trash to stink. Fortunately, Sidewinder and Ruby had the foresight to warn the others of the danger of infection, and we’d wrapped our hooves up as best as we could and donned gasmasks to avoid the worst of the fumes. Everypony was going to die from the Rot sooner or later anyway, but being caught with something contagious made one an instant pariah, no matter what their social standing. Not even bandits—the ones who had half a brain left anyway—could stand that kind of isolation and ostracism.
We were somewhere in the very bowels of the waterworks, finding our way there after several twists and turns down shifty little side passages that would have trapped us forever without the Guide. Ruby couldn’t stop whispering in my ear how suspicious she was of my ability to lead, and I had to admit once or twice I’d given up and walked by instinct, following the gentle tug of intuition. The Guide didn’t have an in-depth map of every building in the Metro, but somehow it seemed to push my hooves in the right direction no matter how invisible or small the tunnel we walked. More of its magic, giving the bearer some kind of magical compass in their head? Sheer dumb luck? Fate, pulling me along on marionette strings and laughing at me the whole way? Whatever it was, I felt it clear as day. Much like I’d “felt” the presence of the anomaly, the Cultists, the Ranger safehouse, and the “ghosts” in Nopony’s weird tunnel.
I couldn’t say what magic was at work in that piece of paper with all the scribbles and lines. All I knew was that somehow we’d made it through the underground and come to the edge of the waterworks, and now we were here in these blasted, stinking tunnels. The Guide was much more clear about this particular section: I saw a small note scribbled next to the outline of a maze of tunnels. Did Rangers really use this place for secretive missions that skirted the Guild and Felberskaya? Did Stalkers smuggle through it? And how did the Guide know to lead me through tunnels that weren’t even marked on it?
If I ever saw Tracer or Nopony again, I had to ask them how this thing worked. Something told me more was at work than a simple enchantment.The sludge wasn’t moving, which worried and intrigued me at the same time. It could mean that somehow the pipes we traveled were isolated from the rest of the waterworks, or that the system had broken down somewhere and water wasn’t moving. Perhaps that was why the Guild shut down access to these tunnels... but then, why was it taking so long to fix? And for that matter, why did they need everypony to stay out to perform what I assumed was routine maintenance?
All questions I didn’t think I’d get the answers to.
“Are we almost there?” Ruby hissed, shoving my side. “What’s your stupid Guide say now? We need to get out of this shit and onto some solid ground! We’re exposed as fuck and I haven’t seen a single path marker since we came here!”
“We’re almost out,” I promised, and it was true. I’d just looked at the Guide; a little note in the corner promised that these pipelines were in some way connected to the waterworks and we’d be able to find a way up sooner or later. They ran all around underneath. We just needed to find a ladder.
The only one we did find was rusty and squeaked as we put our weight on it, but it did bring us out of the muck and into the guts of the waterworks by way of a tightly closed porthole.
Here, there was something I didn’t expect: noise. The sound of rushing water, dripping water, bubbling water flowed and dipped and roared from every angle. And beneath it all was the strange buzz that I figured had become my personal alarm system. We were in a concrete hallway lined with more pipelines of every color, and it led to the left and right. I took out the Guide once again, and pointed down the hallway to the right.
“Ahh... all right. I think we go this way.”
Sidewinder stepped in front of me.
“Ahem. I’ll take it from here,” he said with a grin, and pulled out a familiar old tool: a metal screw attached to a length of string. “Lockbox, I told you that we earth ponies have magic, and you used it well against Steel Crescent... but it’s not just how you affect the world. It’s you sensing how you are affected by the world. Plant your hooves in the ground.”
“We don’t have time for mentoring bullshit!” Ruby snapped, but we both ignored her. The other bandits, especially the earth ponies, watched curiously. Sidewinder took a few steps into the hall I’d just been about to enter, tapping the floor with his hoof.
“She speaks to us still,” he murmured. “The flow of magic is like blood through veins, water through pipes... and I can sense magic here, infused in her skin.”
He took the string in his mouth and tossed the screw out into the hall.
An arc of lightning exploded from the wall and struck the screw, obliterating it.
Sidewinder hummed to himself as he pulled out another screw, tying it to the still smoking end of the string. “The Guild wasn’t kidding about not letting anypony through,” he said with a grim smile. “I love getting in places I’m not supposed to. Got me in a heap of trouble with the mayor of Dale’s daughter, let me tell you...”
He tossed it out again, teasing it along the floor. Magical sparks of energy leaped through cracks in the concrete, inundating the ground in a ten foot radius. Several of the bandits yelped and jumped back.
“Two stages... one to tag the first who wanders through, the other to finish off the group when they think the trap is done.” Sidewinder then tossed out a third screw, and when nothing happened, he boldly trotted forward. The rest of us meekly followed, except for Ruby, who stewed behind the Stalker.
I didn’t notice anything pass between them until Ruby tossed her mane and growled, drawing a smile from Sidewinder.
“All right, fine. Why didn’t I sense it?”
“You could have just fine,” he answered. “You just need to know how to look. I’m familiar with the Guild’s little tricks. Stick with me. My brother Stalkers have been through here. I can feel it.”
“How does that help us?” Theo asked.
“It probably doesn’t. But at least we might find some supplies if we need it.”
He took us through a winding maze of passages, up through cramped staircases with skeletons resting on the steps. I felt the buzzing in my head as we passed by them, but it didn’t abate as we traveled through the low concrete ceilings, past traps and alarms set down by the Guild to destroy intruders. The Guide couldn’t help me avoid those, and at least Sidewinder was making himself useful. Judging by the size of the facility on the map and Sidewinder’s expert knowledge, it shouldn’t take more than an hour to get through.
The buzzing persisted, like a grater slowly dragging back and forth over my subconscious mind. It made my teeth itch and set my mane on end. Something here was dangerous... not just the traps. Seven more such runes were sprung by Sidewinder’s wily tricks, including cutting himself and coating his screw in blood to spring one in particular, stating that some traps were designed ‘purely for ponies.’ Perhaps just not to be shown up, Ruby detonated several herself that she was able to scan for. Useless and humbled by their expertise, I hung back with the bandits, following the lead of the Stalker and the murderess.
The buzzing wouldn’t stop bothering me. It grew and faded like a tidal wave, lapping at the edges of my mind, until at last I couldn’t stand it anymore. I stopped walking and shook my head, silently cursing my inability to control this strange feeling.
“You all right?” Theo asked. I shook my head again, finding it hard to talk. Something seemed to be blocking my ability to speak.
“N... igh... I c-can’t...”
“Hey, steady on! We’re not out of this yet!” Sidewinder called from up ahead, shining his light on a sign that read “Ground Water Filtering.”
“What’s wrong, newbie?” another bandit asked me. “You use up all your mojo fighting Crescent?”
“No, I... ggh..” I stumbled over my own words. My lips felt clumsy, as if I’d forgotten how to use them. They flapped over my gums as I struggled to speak. The buzzing reached a fever pitch, developing into an unbearable whine that seemed to set my very skull vibrating in time with the ghostly noise.
Sidewinder’s face split into a horrible expression. It was stuck somewhere between a grin and a terrifyingly calm sort of fear. He seemed frozen on the precipice of dawning comprehension, watching some terrible thing claw its way up out of the dark abyss at the back of his mind.
“Uh oh. I remember this part. Auntie Pinkie preserve me...”
Above the whine I heard a screech of rending metal. The bandits jumped and looked around at the tight corridor, their lights now pitiful and desperate as they carved tiny circles of safety in the shadows. The darkness around us solidified, mocking our lights’ attempts to breach it.
“Tack up!” Ruby barked. “Everypony tack up! Weapons out! Back up against the wall, cover both ends of the hallway!”
She leaped into the midst of us and her horn erupted with light, bathing us all in a pale purple glow.
“Guns...” I whispered, horrified at how hopeless my own voice sounded, “guns won’t help us now.”
There was another terrible scream of metal being torn asunder. Everything was silenced save for the whining in my head as we looked down the hallway we’d come, watching, waiting for the evil things that lived in the dark to slither out at us.
Instead, the ceiling exploded and our lights didn’t matter anymore. A massive thing I could only vaguely perceive as globe-shaped burst out of the hole it’d created, jittering and bouncing and flailing as it cast tendrils of pure energy out in random directions. It glowed with a terrible light, neither warm nor cold, overpowering all other colors until we’d all been reduced to bright white silhouettes. Its tendrils scored the walls and rent the pipes asunder, picking them up and hurling them in completely aimless ways. The anomaly seemed to be bouncing not just in place, but within the space of its own existence. First it seemed three, then two, then one dimensional, the next it expanded until it filled not just my vision but my mind.
The whining in my head broke out into full-fledged screaming. A banshee-wail that excavated my brain and replaced it with nothing but sheer, outright terror. I was an earth pony. A steward of the green earth. I knew what was supposed to go in the ground and come out of it. This thing didn’t belong anywhere on our planet, and it murdered every notion I’d had of a world that still had a semblance of order. I watched it carefully dissect and then brutally rip and tear at the very laws of our universe, simply by being there.
But there it was, petulantly, angrily existing... and quickly advancing on us.
I heard guns firing, somewhere. Bullets flew into the vortex of impossibility and simply winked out of existence, burned to ash, or passed right through. Still more were simply flung about, redirected and shot into the walls.
Like a child throwing a temper tantrum, the debris of the thing’s passing was caught up in its whorl of tentacles and hurled our way.
I watched a piece of concrete that must have weighed half a pony smack right into the face of one of Ruby’s lieutenants. With a sickening crunch he fell over dead, laid out flat on the ground, a gruesome halo of blood and brains scattered around what had been his head. Ruby caught a pipe spearing through the air and sent it flying back, only to watch as it bounced harmlessly off some invisible shield.
“Run,” I whispered. Then I spoke. Then I screamed. “Run. Run. Run! Run run run run!”
I clawed at the grounds, digging my hooves in as if to throw the earth back at the thing behind me, offering the space I cleared as a sacrifice to soothe the slavering monster. At last I got to all fours and ran like a pegasus out of Tartarus, and my infectious panic spread to the others. In an instant I was back in the same tunnel where I’d first encountered an anomaly, the same terror gripping my heart, the same denial of what that thing behind us bouncing around in my head.
I saw the others next to me suffering from similar symptoms, their eyes wide and pupils shrunk to pinpricks. Theo frothed at the mouth. Sidewinder had that manic grin on his face.
Only Ruby Red looked anywhere near composed, and to say any of us were near “composed” was to say that a fly that just escaped a spider’s web looked “relieved.”
Another concrete block flew by my head, followed closely by a spar of metal that embedded itself into the wall. The light flew after us like a thing possessed, not just tearing up the hallway, but devouring it, swallowing random bits of the scenery into itself where it was thrown around in that interdimensional blender and spat back out as molten slag or constituent atoms.
And it was gaining on us.
Sidewinder led us to a doorway in the side of the hall, and we very nearly doomed ourselves as we crowded inside, driven by the herd instinct. We crashed into a stairwell and the front rank went tumbling down the rusted metal steps until they hit the next flight. The rest of us piled on over them in a confused jumble until Ruby used her magic to throw me and Theo down the next flight, thinning our numbers just enough to keep running.
I didn’t even feel myself hit the metal grate on the next flight, only barely noticed Sidewinder snatch me by the mane and pull me up. Through the screeching warning in my head I vaguely heard the thunderous roar of an angry god as the anomaly smashed through the wall and the door we’d shut on it, angrily smashing apart the walls of the stairwell with its hungry tentacles. I swear I felt some great and evil eye turn towards us before the anomaly began a slow, deliberate descent right through the stairs as we ran and staggered and gasped and whimpered. It ate the metal construction as it went, gobbling up space and time and everything else that got in its way, down to the smallest dust mote.
We must have gone down two floors before, as the head of the pack, I smashed through a door into another corridor crowded with pipelines and gauges.
The anomaly still chased us, eating up the way we had come, and in our panic I don’t think anypony even seemed to notice where we were going. Our lights flashed and spun wildly with our heads, and I wasn’t sure but some of the bandits must have gone one way while the rest of us went another. Theo wasn’t among us, but Ruby didn’t spare them anything but a simple backwards glance before we were cut off by the anomaly crashing through the wall once more.
It spun in place and whirled around... I’m not sure what it used to face us, but that was the side it presented us with... and bulldozed down the hall I’d taken, boiling and bouncing erratically. Everything it touched was instantly vaporized, leaving a mess of scorched, burning metal in its wake.
“It’s catching up. Oh Celestia. Oh please. I don’t wanna die!” I heard somepony gasp. I couldn’t tell who. Probably me.
I leaped to the side instinctively, dodging into another random hallway just before a massive crash sounded behind me. I didn’t bother to look back at what it was.
All that was left was me and Sidewinder, running for all we were worth, and that lasted about five more seconds before there was another huge crash, the sound seeming to roll towards us like some kind of wave, and then we were struck and my hooves left the ground as the wall ahead came flying towards us-
I sucked in air through my nostrils. Blood came down with it, making me cough.
The hallway was soaked in blood. No, was it blood or just emergency lighting? Hard to tell when I couldn’t see straight. My eyes felt loose, jarred from their sockets. They rolled haplessly around in my head as I struggled to make sense of things. I was up against something hard and cold; it dug into my back as I struggled to stand.
A pipe. Many pipes. I was still in the hallway.
A body nearby, curled and limp. The flag of Stalliongrad was on his shoulder.
“Sidewinder. Sidewinder!” I screamed through the haze in my head, more to try and convince myself I was still alive than to actually get his attention.
The only way to see...
“Get up, damn you!”
… is to give up the light.
I felt something hot and dry on my back. A wave of cascading energy.
The emergency lighting was subsumed by the all-encompassing glow of the anomaly.
I reached out towards Sidewinder, snatching the ground with my hoof and digging in hard. Earth give me strength, I had to reach him! I had to get out of here! Why couldn’t I move my back legs? Something felt wrong with them... weighing them down. I felt like the knife of the cultist tearing me apart again, its cold teeth chewing and gnashing my muscles. I didn’t dare look back as the light grew.
“You selfish bastard! I’m the one who has the Guide! I’m the one with a reason to live here! And I’m helping you?”
As far as it takes...
My hooves inched along and Sidewinder was miles away. I felt the heat and saw the light grow, expecting at any moment to feel my flanks disintegrate as the anomaly gobbled me up. I felt so weak. But I couldn’t stop moving.
What drives you?
I clenched my eyes shut and reached. My hooves grasped the material of Sidewinder’s coat.
You’re a good pony, Lockbox.
“Sidewinder!” I shrieked. “You fucking bastard! WAKE UP!”
I can see it.
I gripped his jacket in my teeth and pulled, my powerful neck muscles doing most of the work as I sprawled my hooves out and pushed myself up. Intangible feelers of my own reached deep into the ground and sucked up all the power from it I could. I had a mission. I had a home. Ponies I loved were in danger, and I would be damned if I let a giant ball of light eat me.
And then I felt it. I felt the anomaly through my hooves, right up into my veins as my magic reached out and tried to give me strength. I felt the gaping emptiness, the sheer, horrifying void in reality the anomaly represented. I felt whirling, eddying chaos and nothingness that seemed dredged from the nightmares of creation. The anomaly was from the refuse pile of the universe, tossed back into reality kicking and screaming and tearing at anything that wasn’t already empty. I felt my magic being drained right back out of my body as I planted my hooves in the ground and threw myself forward, felt my life itself being vacuumed up like so much garbage.
And then I seized hold of it and yanked it back into myself. It took everything I had to keep my life within me and keep moving with Sidewinder limp between my teeth, carted like a foal. Every step was a mountain to be scaled, every breath snatched from the jaws of death. The macabre tug-of-war intensified with every inch I covered.
The light was nearly upon me. I picked up speed, fighting my own inertia and the burning sensation in my legs. I didn’t know where I was going; my headlamp had burst and the hallway seemed to go on forever. But I moved. I couldn’t be sure of how fast; the space ahead of me distorted and warped and wobbled as I went, first feeling like I was moving at a brisk trot, then at a gallop. I just moved. All I knew was that the anomaly was right behind me. I saw reality being torn asunder at the corners of my eyes, and that was all the motivation I needed.
Somehow, I stayed ahead of it. Somehow, I got to the end of the hallway without being sucked into the void.
That just left the door... a large, metal door that looked like it could take a direct hit from a tank round and still stand. I collapsed in front of it, mind whirling as I searched for a switch, a lever, something that’d get it open.
But it opened of its own accord, sliding upwards with a screech to rival that of the one in my head.
I saw hooves under the half-open door. Pale, discolored hooves. Many of them. They reached out and grabbed me and Sidewinder, pulling us under the door. My head flopped around, giving me a single glance back at the anomaly, a mere three or four feet behind. And then the door shut once again, the awful light refracted and squeezed as it tried to claw through the vanishing space.
A rifle butt knocked against my head, and shadows claimed me instead.
“Is he still alive?”
Pain. I couldn’t see. Was I alive? Yes. Given how much pain I was in, I didn’t know if being dead would be better. Why couldn’t I see?
“Take the blindfold off.”
Something rough and cloth-like was drawn back over my head. Light invaded my eyes, blindingly bright. Though my head had been silent before, the light made my headache and the buzzing alarms come back full force. My first thought was that the anomaly was back. I tried to fling my hooves about, finding all of them bound together. I flopped like a fish, which just made me panic even more. I started hyperventilating, struggling against nothing in particular out of sheer fight or flight instinct. I had to run. I had to get away!
“Where’s... where’s the...”
“The anomaly? It doesn’t chase if it can’t sense a life form. Its range has a reach that doesn’t go through solid doors. You would know if you’d bother to study them.”
What? Who was that? Who was talking? I didn’t try to find out. I continued to flail ineffectually, thrashing against cold hard concrete as I shut my eyes against the light, trying to keep it away, keep it out. Sweet Dreams was right, I had to give up the light. I wanted to. Just don’t let it get me again. I’d spent so much of myself escaping...
“He... help! Help! Sid! Ruby... Celestia... anypony...”
I felt a warm glow encase my body, stilling my struggles with gentle resistance. A gentle tingle invaded my insides, calming the burning in my legs and the throbbing headache that threatened to burst out of my skull.
I heard another voice, distinct and female.
“Blessed Wyrm, He Who begins and ends the world, bring this one under the shadow of Your love, as he is now my brother, and I his sister...”
“Who is that?” I asked, keeping my eyes shut.
“One of our Preachers,” the first voice answered. It was male, deep and imposing. I couldn’t make out the details. It sounded as though they were speaking through a gasmask, or a radio... “She is blessing our new initiates.”
I continued to listen, confused as all get out.
“Make us one in the midst of Your coils, Your holy form that encircles the world...”
I licked my lips, finding them chapped and dry. How long had I lay here? “Who...?”
“Many of those who came with you were wise enough to see the light. The true light. Not the evil lights of your dead city, or that of the anomaly you faced.”
“Join us together as You are joined to Yourself, through the circle that binds all of time and in which we are safe...”
“Your name is Lockbox.”
“How did you-?”
“You said it in your sleep.”
I tried to open my eyes again. This time the light was a little more bearable. I saw something pony-shaped, huge and bulky. Pipes and other strange bits spread out around its silhouette. It was very close and stood right over me, glaring down at me through wide, unblinking eyes.
“The Children tell me you were very talkative. You spoke of dark and evil things. You spoke of Dark Ones and bandits and cried the names of many ponies. Your name is Lockbox and you feel guilty. There are ponies you failed. Ponies you have yet to fail.”
“Who are you?”
My eyes adjusted to the sight of a unicorn even bigger than Steel Crescent. I could only tell he was such by the grey horn jutting from his forehead.. no, not grey. Wrapped in some kind of armor, sharpened to a nasty point that seemed to cut the air even when still. The rest of him was encased in a massive suit of armor, wrapped all around his body, even his tail, which dangled behind him in a pouch of presumably bulletproof material. Surrounding the metal plating on his limbs were hydraulic supports and rubber pipes, zig-zagging over his body, hissing and squeaking with every move he made. At his sides rested a pair of cannons with no discernible source of ammunition, but they looked large enough to punch holes in a dragon’s hide. He looked more like the infrastructure to a building than a pony in armor. His face and neck were completely covered by an armored gasmask, similarly infused with pipes and sheets of solid metal. This wasn’t a regular suit. This was a military exoskeleton, scavenged from the battlefields of the War and the armories of Stalliongrad, brought back and repurposed in the Metro to continue service in our meager little conflicts.
I didn’t need my books to recognize the dreaded sight of an exoskeleton... Monarchy assault squads often wore them into battle to maximize the shock and awe they employed to achieve victory. Often augmented by magic and worn by only the most skilled combatants, the only reason you might see one in action was because you were a target the wearer very, very much wanted dead. Hunter had told me a story of how he fought one, and saw the pony inside punch clean through a metal door in one blow.
“Are you going to kill me?” I asked, as that was the only reason I could think of why I’d been brought before this mighty pony.
“No. But you will wish we had before this journey is done,” he answered.
“Blessed Wyrm, He who begins and ends the world, bring this one under the shadow of Your love, as she is now my sister, and I hers...”
“Fucking traitors,” I heard Ruby Red snarl. My head jerked up, but though I nearly bumped the exo-pony he didn’t move a muscle.
The room we were in was large and round. It looked like a vat of some kind, with pipes of all kinds leading in from all around the walls. Several were large enough to fit ponies. The floor was filled with ponies, all of them pale and silent. They were equipped for long Metro excursions, sporting sealed bodysuits with armor sewn into the fabric, and gasmasks hung at the sides of every one. Guns and ponies of every shape and size were in abundance: machine guns and pegasi, unicorns and shotguns, earth ponies and long rifles. Mare and stallion both. Many of them wore face-masks with only three small holes at the eyes and mouth...
“Cultists,” I whispered.
“No shit,” Ruby answered from one side of the room. She and Sidewinder huddled together with several other of the bandits. Theo wasn’t with them. All had been stripped of their weapons and most of their clothing, and they looked dismal and withdrawn... save for Sidewinder, who stared at the cultists with narrowed eyes and a sickly smile. At the other side of the room sat the rest of Ruby’s crew... it seemed over half were in this group... but they weren’t nearly as depressed.
In fact, they all smiled.
A unicorn mare, horn glowing bright, trotted back and forth between them. She dressed just like the other cultists but for the tattoo on her cheeks: twin serpents with their jaws open to attack that coiled around her cheekbones, their tails wrapping down around her jaw to her chin. Though her fur was a sickly pale blue and her eyes a dull grey, there was something compelling about her. Something that made me want to look at her and listen to her words, dull and monotone as they were. When she put her hoof on the head of one of the bandits, her face seemed to light up with joy.
“May you now know the love of our Family, the true Family, in which all ponies belong and all ponies will know. May you be joined with us forever in the coils of the Great Wyrm, Who devours and creates the world. From now on, you are no longer little flames flickering in the dark. You are part of the mighty Torch which will bring light back to the shadows, which will spark the Sun and make the Moon shine again. You are now part of the future that will bring Equestria back to us in all its glory.”
“Rise, brothers and sisters,” the exo-pony intoned. “Rise up and join with the Great Cause. Preacher, take them home, where the marks that divide and chain them may be removed.”
“You bastard!” Ruby shouted for all of us. “You sick fucking bastard! You’re talking about their cutie marks! You’re sick! You’re all fucking sick!”
“True wisdom is a heavy burden to bear,” replied the armored pony. “I do not fault you for having too small a mind to comprehend it.”
“Step out of your big badass suit and say that again!” Ruby screamed, spittle flying from her mouth. The exo-pony sighed.
“She is most... vociferous, this one. She screams and rails and fills her mind with hate, so that the Voice cannot get through. I pity her.”
“I pity the beatdown me and my boys’d put on you if you weren’t-”
Ruby was silenced by a good knock on the skull by an earth pony behind her. He wordlessly returned to his post, utterly calm. He wasn’t just quiet, none of them were. They looked blank.
“You are afraid,” the exo-pony whispered. “Don’t be. Today is a happy day. You are a Shadow Walker. One who can move between the dark spaces. One who can See. Your affliction has caused much suffering in your soul. But today you have been found by the right ponies.”
He lifted his head, pointing his horn at the ceiling and the bright lights that buzzed above.
“You call us a cult. But we are not. We are the truth. We are the wave that is slowly building to sweep away the refuse of old Equestria. The Princesses failed, but in their place, the Great Wyrm came to guide us. He speaks to us all, and it was His Voice that drew us to you, and you to us.”
“You... you sent that assassin after me? In Felberskaya?”
“Yes. We wanted to be sure. You couldn’t find your way out of the Dream, but you saw our agent and defeated him. It takes a great deal of effort to create a Dream, and only a will as strong as yours could have seen one of us in the midst of one. You proved you are a Shadow Walker. In you rests threat and salvation.”
He reached out with his magic, caressing my cheek.
“Lockbox,” he said tenderly, in stark contrast to his emotionless subordinates. “If only you knew how important ponies like you really were. The Wyrm wishes to touch your mind, to see the world through your eyes. He has seen you, and felt you moving through Him, and He knows of your struggle to end the threat of the Dark Ones.”
I lifted my head and peered at the armored pony.
“There are many ways to See in this world,” he said. “Many have Sight, but few know how to utilize it. That one—” he pointed at Sidewinder, “—might once have been able to See, but he has rejected his gift in favor of madness.”
“You guys just don’t know a proper smile when you see it,” Sidewinder replied, baring his teeth. “I see more than you’ll ever know, smarty-pants. More than you’ll ever understand.”
“You will all suffer for your heresy in time,” the armored pony exclaimed, then turned back to me. “But you... Lockbox... you must be tested.”
He waved a mighty hoof and his soldiers backed off, clambering out of the pit by way of ladders lowered down into it, and disappearing over the edge, pulling the ladders back up as they finished.
“My name is Nexus,” the armored pony bellowed, his voice ringing in the large space. “I am first and foremost among the Children of the Wyrm! And you, Shadow Walker, will be judged worthy or unworthy of His touch!”
With a glow of his horn the bindings on all of us were untied. Several of the bandits attempted to flee, only be stopped by barriers erected by other Cultist unicorns. Nexus went over to the last ladder and climbed out of the vat, then turned and cleaved the ladder in half with a burst of magic. The lower part clanged uselessly to the floor, melted down to where it was unusable.
“So... what’s this test?” I asked, standing up and trying to brace myself against the ground, casting out for strength from the faltering earth.
“Simple,” Nexus said. “You proved you are a Shadow Walker, one who can See and Dream and know the minds of those who also walk in shadow. Now you prove that you are worthy of the title.”
He turned to a pipe that jutted from the wall and raised a crowbar with his magic, bringing it down on the metal surface. Three times he slammed metal on metal, the hollow clangs reverberating all around us and through the pipes that led to our enclosure. The echoes faded. Nothing happened.
Nexus struck three more times, and now all of us in the vat were standing up, ears perked and eyes darting along the walls, trying to discern the nature of this test.
When Nexus brought the crowbar down again, he only had to strike twice before he got an answer.
On the left side of the vat from one of the pony-sized pipe openings, a bone-chilling moan floated out. It was the voice of our death, serenading us with its monstrous swan-song.
“There are beasts that have invaded the Metro,” Nexus began to explain as he clanged on the pipe once again, “that without proper preparations, nopony can really hope to defeat. The Guild of Magic sealed off the waterworks for a good reason... a reason they can’t or won’t deal with. They can’t admit their failure until they have a way to destroy the beast.”
When the clanging died down again, a deep booming noise responded. I couldn’t tell if the fear slowly worming into my mind was playing tricks, but I could’ve sworn it sounded closer. We all began to take steps back to the opposite end of the vat. There were three pipelines that could fit ponies. Any one of them could lead out, or to our deaths... but I realized I still had my saddlebags with me. Had they left me the Guide? I tore open my pack and found the blessed sheet of paper, holding it reverently in my hooves as my eyes devoured every tiny inch its makers had squeezed full of information.
“We call it the Hydra,” Nexus continued in a blase tone. Thrice more he struck the pipe, and another rolling moan answered him. One of the bandits at Ruby’s side began shaking; the blood-red unicorn herself just watched the opening, waiting for the creature to pierce the gloom and fall on us. Nexus just kept talking.
“But this is a whole different animal than the one our Equestrian ancestors knew. So far, it’s the only one we know of. Not even we are sure how it invaded the Metro. Perhaps it was a dormant egg that somehow arrived here when the Metro was built? Either way, all you need to know is that it has gotten large and hungry over the years. It’s trapped here now, because of its size. And it needs meat.”
Symbols and words and thoughts began to dance in my mind. There wasn’t any way all of this information could be written down on this one sheet; there just wasn’t enough space. Somehow the Guide was actually telling me things, things that not even a pony with my gift who looked at the surface could see. Somepony had endowed this Guide with information that I was tapping into. Was it desperation or a miracle that fueled my newfound understanding?
There was one spot at the edge of the waterworks with a small hieroglyph next to it. Before my very eyes I watched it change from an archaic Old Equestrian symbol to something I could recognize.
“Outpost Nine Seven. Exit.”
Hunter’s talisman let out a quiet, gentle chime as I looked down the central pipe. The Ranger hadn’t given up on guiding me yet.
I charged down the middle pipe, the others following close behind, too desperate to try any other path. Nexus’ voice chased us down the cramped interior.
“Run, Shadow Walker. Run and live. Should you survive this test and prove worthy of your mantle, we will meet again. And then I shall guide you to your final fate.”