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  • 1w, 4d
    Apologies

    I don't really have an excuse for why the next chapter is taking so long. Depression, distractions, procrastination... There's no real reason... I'm just a slackass.

    So I'm sorry. I'll do my best to have chapters come out as soon as possible. I make no promises on release dates, it'll be ready when its ready, but I'll try my best to get the next one out soon(tm).

    ~Hnetu

    3 comments · 34 views
  • 6w, 1d
    Hiatus over

    So that's it. The hiatus of the story is officially over with the posting of a new chapter. I'm sorry it took so long. really the damn thing shoulda been out almost a month ago but I've had so much going on, and editing has been difficult due to time zones, losing people, etc. Speaking of which, the editing team lost two people during the hiatus for various reasons (Me being impossible to work with, mostly.). So if there's any quality issues with this chapter, it's because there's less people tweaking and correcting my mistakes. If you notice any problems, feel free to comment or message me privately and I'll do what I can to fix whatever's wrong.

    A lot of you commented on what would happen to Rose, and I'm really curious to see all the comments now that we know her fate. (No I'm not gonna spoil it here, read the chapter.) I just hope everyone enjoyed it, because there's an awful lot of talk in this chapter and it worries me that it won't be engaging enough.

    I'm sorry, I'm a bit braindead at the moment, so this seems a lot more droll and dour than usual. Anyway, I hope everyone enjoys the chapter.

    Thanks for reading.

    ~Hnetu

    2 comments · 34 views
  • 6w, 3d
    Breaking Silence

    Sorry I've been so quiet lately. Things have been busy. Short update.

    Expect a new chapter in the next few days. Edits are 99% done. Just doing the polish passes to make sure I didn't miss things, then I'll have it posted.

    ~Hnetu

    2 comments · 47 views
  • 9w, 5d
    Two Whole Years

    So this is a few days late and I'm sorry. It'll look wrong if you go by fimfic's dates, but that's because I didn't upload the story to fimfiction at first.

    But August 21st was both my birthday, and the day the first chapter was officially released to the public over on GDocs! I chose to do it on my birthday because the timing was good (it was like, one whole day later than when I finished writing/editing it) and so I'd be able to easily remember the anniversary.

    So here we are, two years down the line and still at 21 chapters. I wanted to have 22 finished in time, but it still has a bit of work to go before its finished. I blame the fact that I had surgery on the 20th. Knowing that was coming made me work a little slower. (For those wondering it was nothing serious.) I've been mostly out of it since the surgery, so I haven't written anything new since I got back home. (Anesthesia made me sick and we had to stay an extra day, ugh!)

    So yeah! I'm still working on it, another awesome year has passed where I spent the vast majority of my time trying to make the story better before moving forward. I just hope you've all been able to stick with me patiently. I'll have new content for you soon!

    4 comments · 45 views
  • 12w, 1d
    Done.

    And now we can start on new content....

    Good Lord I'm scared.

    3 comments · 84 views
  • ...
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There is a trigger warning for this chapter, please see the notes at the bottom of the page for more details.

Chapter Ten: Lead A Pony To Water

“I’ve got plans for you.”

Chains.

Turned out, the cart was just for possessions and trade goods. Of course, Amble and her personal guards rode atop it, getting a nice look over the rest of us, and a pleasant trip since they didn’t have to walk. They’d stripped me of my guns and belongings, and tossed them into the cart to be added to the slaver’s belongings. Only insignificant or impossible-to-remove items were left. Lost got to keep her glasses so she could see, and the slavers didn’t have the proper tools to take off the PipBuck, or so they thought. Once all of their, no, our stuff was loaded up, the slavers chained Lost and I to the other slaves. Hoofcuffs held our legs, alternating sides on each pony. Chains held my left fore and rear legs, while Lost’s chains held her right fore and rear legs. They forced us to march.

I looked at the ponies all around me. At least a dozen mares, not counting Lost or me, marched in front of and behind us. A few stallions marched with us, at the far end of the chain. Some looked horrified at what was about to happen, others just stared ahead. I recognized some from under the town hall, but several were new faces not from Skirt. They had that dejected look Lost had when she’d realized we were beaten. I wondered if I had the same look. A few of the ponies from underneath the town hall shot me glares, since they recognized me, but they said nothing.

If I’d had two more seconds, we could be free, and all the ponies here would’ve been safe. If I’d just had the PipBuck, we’d have been fine. The extra time from S.A.T.S. would’ve been enough time to think up a good plan and get us out. But no, I had to be careless and let that Goddesses-damned gunslinging bitch survive. How dare she sneak up behind me and pull a gun on me! I’d fought her fair and... Oh right. I’d snuck around a corner and tried to blow her head off with a shotgun when she followed. Well, that should have worked, dammit.

I looked off to the distance as we walked, and saw the ruins where we’d killed the raiders. I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself or complain about what could have been. I needed to think of a way to get out, or at least ask if Lost had an escape plan. We worked together, and we had a zebra on the outside. Goddesses... please let Xeno be as loyal as I thought she was.

Lost walked in front of me, staring forward blankly. They’d put something on her horn. I didn’t know what it was, but it kept her from using any of her magic. Apparently it was some sort of arcane technology used during the war, kept unicorns in line. It almost made me laugh, because, for the first time in our lives, we were on even ground, and both had the same abilities. The irony... I was more useful than her now. Knowing how to use one’s hooves was a good thing in the Wasteland, and Lost had always relied on her magic.

“Lost, we’ll be fine,” I started. “Okay? I promise, we’ll-”

“Hey! What’d ya say yer name was?” yelled Slipstock, staring at me. Several bandages covered the wounds I’d given her, including one over her eye. It actually made her look really funny. I didn’t laugh.

“Fuck you!” I yelled back.

“Well, Fuck Ya. Shut the fuck up before I come down there and Fuck Ya,” she snapped back, tapping one of her guns along the railing of the cart. She smiled wide at me, and turned back around. The gun stayed though, tempting me to speak up. Her ears skewed back, listening. Great.

I kept walking, head down. Rather than zone out, I kept an eye on the surroundings. I couldn’t leave, but I could trace our steps, and make sure that whenever I got free, I could come back and do some real serious fucking damage. The minute I was out, I was going to bring the Goddesses’ wrath down on Amble and Sunbright, kill Slipstock with my bare hooves, then haul flank back to Skirt and burn it to the ground.

The Wasteland would rue the day it decided to make a slave out of me. Captivity only held so long as I couldn’t overpower the captors, and I knew damn well that I was strong enough to overpower that bitch, if I could get her away from those Goddesses-damned guns.

For half a day we walked, never stopping. The hills and mountains began to fade behind us. We followed a cracked and broken highway along the edge of a ridge, one that gave a fairly good view of where we’d been. It was a small blessing, but at least I could gauge where we were going and where we’d come from. Far off in the distance, I could see Leathers. The building looked lonely, sitting intact yet surrounded by ruins. I looked at the river that ran behind the factory, where Éclair was buried. Upstream would be Pommel Falls, where the Star Paladin and his family were, and downstream? I looked, and saw nothing that would serve as a decent landmark. Leathers it was, then, as the landmark to finding our way back. Follow the river, then rain fire down on that bitch of an alicorn.

That worked, for a while. As we got further and further away from Skirt, I started losing track. After hours of walking, we were past anything I even remotely recognized. My hooves felt raw from the rubbing of the chain and the trot we were forced to keep wasn’t what I was used to for long travel, but we couldn’t stop. The fact that they hadn’t healed me from my fight with Slipstock made it worse. I was just happy I’d stopped bleeding. The sun sank in the sky behind us, so all I really knew was the general direction I’d need to go to get back. I couldn’t trust that I’d get the PipBuck back, and without it I had no map.

I looked ahead, hungry and ready to stop, but couldn’t. The chain kept pulling my hooves, and I kept walking. Nopony said a word, lest we bring the wrath of Slipstock upon us. Distance stopped mattering, just one step after another. I gave up trying to figure out how many hours we’d walked.

At the edge of the horizon, just barely where I could see, were several buildings. Each was nearly pristine, all sitting clumped together. Between them were walls, sturdy ones built high, past where raiders or gunfire could get through. One looked like a factory, almost like Leathers, another was a tall office building, another so black I could practically see a reflection on it despite the distance. I couldn’t see anything on the far side from so far away.

“‘Ey! C’mon ya. Slowin’ us down’ll get ya killed,” snapped Amble. The chain gave a tug, practically pulling my leg out from under me. Half the chain line nearly tumbled and two of the mares dropped completely. We weren’t in any position to bargain about how fast we went. With Slipstock’s guns covering us, and Sunbright staring down from above, following orders was the only thing we could do. And that’s what happened. The mares scrambled to their hooves, and we marched.

After several more hours, when I could barely keep my head up, we passed some threshold. The sun hung low in the sky, casting its light on the underside of the clouds; had we really marched the entire day? All three of the mares riding comfortably on the cart sighed, and Amble shouted “Home sweet home!”

A sign hung over the road, with several letters missing or faded, and all that was left to identify what the place had once been was ‘U CIG.’

Apparently, ‘home sweet home’ meant another few hours of walking. Even the strange pristine buildings I’d seen a few hours ago had disappeared over the horizon. When I looked for U Cig, I could only just make out a settlement on the horizon. Guard towers dotted makeshift walls that stretched between buildings. I didn’t like the look of the walls. The built-up, very obvious reinforcements outside, where they wouldn’t do any good for keeping out intruders. Walls usually meant safety, to keep out bad ponies, but these ones? They looked designed to keep ponies in.

“Alright, we’re here. Pull off,” yelled Amble, before picking up a whip in her teeth and cracking it over the two ponies who hauled the cart. One yelped, and the cart turned off the side of the road toward a patch of broken down ruins. The cart haulers pulled up behind the only building outside the wall that was still mostly-standing, and we creaked to a halt.

Amble and her bodyguards hopped down and pulled out several keys. They shouted orders to the cart pullers while unhooking the chain line. The two mares hoisted the cart farther, tucking it away between some ruins.

“Right, cart’s hidden from the main road. Sunbright, head back to the town. Tell Cherry Pick and Lead Line that I’ve got...” She paused and counted, a hoof pointing to each of us in turn. “...Seventeen new slaves. Make sure Lead Line starts the paperwork. Fourteen mares, three stallions.” She flicked her hoof and the green-maned unicorn vanished with a flash. “Right, ya lot! Into the buildin’. Now!” She cracked the whip above our heads, loud enough to make several of us jump.

Even me.

They shuffled us in through the back door of the building and forced us to sit in a large circle, the chains still latched to our legs. Slipstock was nice enough to release the rear leg hoofcuff from everypony in the room, except for me. I was left locked so that I couldn’t turn or sit comfortably like the rest of the captives. Mostly unhooked, we were left to our own devices. Amble slammed the door shut without a word, locking Slipstock in to play watchdog. I swore Amble smiled at me...

Slipstock glared a moment, then trotted over to stand before me.

Click.

The door locked, and Slipstock just smiled. “About that steel hoof,” she said through gritted teeth. “Off with it.”

“It’s attached, you dumb cunt,” I snapped, spitting at her.

That pissed her off something fierce. She reared up, kicked me hard with both forehooves and I went down. One hit wasn’t enough, and she stomped me repeatedly. “Bullshit!” she screamed, kicking my foreleg hard with a hoof. She stood on it, just above the graft. Other ponies watched with mixed expressions, some in horror, some holding back laughter.

“Stop!” yelled Lost, lunging at Slipstock. She couldn’t reach because of the chain attached to the next mare behind her. To shut her up, Slipstock cracked one of the pistols across her head.

My leg twisted and stretched painfully, but I just gritted my teeth and glared at her. It hurt more than I wanted to admit, especially with the fresh wounds from our fight, but I refused to give her the satisfaction. “I lost it killing a monster far tougher than you. Whatever you can do, I’ve had worse.” I looked to my sister as she shook her head to clear it from the pistol-whipping. “Just remember, whatever you do, I’ll do ten times worse when I get free,’ I said, smiling as wide as I could.

She hit me harder after that, switching between hooves and pistols. One particularly large revolver hovered, aimed at my sister to keep her from interfering. I didn’t bother blocking any of her blows. I took every single one with a smile while L.A. watched in horror. Battered and bruised, at some point, I slipped from consciousness...

*   *   *

I was bored out of my mind after several hours of sitting doing nothing. My everything hurt from the beating Slipstock had given me, but I wouldn’t let her know it. I smiled at her again as she stood by the door, reading a magazine.

I looked around the room. The only other exit was a doorway full of rubble. Half the building was collapsed after all. Furniture was nonexistent. Just warped, cracked walls, and dirty hay on the floor. It didn’t look anything near edible. A giant steel loop stuck out of the wall near the corner, hooked to our chains. Sighing, I looked around to the others. Twelve dejected mares and three stallions all sat staring at the floor or walls. Two of the stallions were having a conversation.

“Shoulda known better than to let you go to Idle,” said one of the two.

I leaned against my sister, and closed my eyes, ignoring the conversation across from me. “So how do we get out?” I asked in a whisper. She’d have a plan. L.A. always had a plan.

“I didn’t know they were connected,” said the other stallion, defensively. I didn’t look over, and just listened to my sister.

“I don’t know yet,” Lost whispered back, looking at me. She coughed a few times, turning away. Her free hoof went to her throat to rub it a little. She looked back and forced a weak smile. “Sorry, the alicorn choked me really bad. It still hurts.” She looked over at Slipstock, and then back at me. “We can’t do anything right now...” She held up the chain around her hoof. “As soon as we get a chance, we’ll find a way out.”

“Can’t leave you alone for a second,” said the first stallion with a sigh.

I shot the two a quick look, but turned back to my sister. I had more important things to worry about. “If we have to split up?” I asked, thinking like a thinky pony.

“You didn’t have to come with me!” said the second, starting to whine.

“Of course I did, I always watch out for you,” responded the other stallion. It was becoming harder and harder to ignore the two of them. I tried to focus on what Lost was saying. The stallion continued, “Especially when you go drinking.”

“I don’t know,” Lost said, tapping the base of her horn with her free hoof. “Worst case, back home.”

“Alright,” I said. “But let-”

“Okay,” The first stallion said with a very long sigh. “If we get out of this, I won’t go ever again, I-”

That was that. I looked over at the two with a glare. Lost stared too.

“-swear to Luna!” The small green unicorn stallion voice hit a pitched whine, cutting me off. His purple eyes stared pleadingly at a much larger stallion, his face flushed.

The bigger stallion just grunted, shaking his hoof against the chain. I grimaced. The buck looked like he’d been orange at one point, but so many scars and burns covered his coat that he looked more mottled blood-red and brown. He looked intensely intimidating, like he’d been through a lot in the Wasteland. And I knew just what the Wasteland could throw at a pony, given I’d had a hoof replaced.

“Trust me, i-if I’d known, I promise I wouldn’t have gone!” cried the green unicorn. He covered his eyes with his hooves, rustling the chain and pulling the two ponies next to him closer.

“Gone where?” I demanded. They’d been interrupting my conversation with L.A. long enough. I knew I should just keep my mouth shut, but sitting in a locked room made it hard not to eavesdrop. It’s not like I could just get up and trot away somewhere quieter! Ignoring the gun Slipstock raised to point at me, I gave my friendliest look to the stallions.

“Some bar in Idle, didn’t water their shit down. The runt can’t hold his liquor,” rumbled the scarred unicorn. He opened his eyes and stared daggers down at his companion. One eye was a brilliant light green, but his other eye was missing entirely. The eyelid hung loose, covering a gaping hole long since dried from exposure.

I shuddered, remembering the look of Lamington’s eye, freshly wounded after the battle at Leathers. How had he survived in the Wasteland like that? I didn’t have time to ask, as he jerked the chain back down, stomping his hoof on the floor. Both his friend and the mare on the other side of him lurched as their chains were pulled tight.

“Shut the fuck up, or I’ll make sure ya see Vice Brand first thin’,” threatened Slipstock. The threat seemed empty, as she didn’t actually look up from her magazine or pull one of her guns away. Her ear flicked back and forth a few times.

The big stallion shot her a look, then turned back. “Dumb fuck got wasted, got into a fight, and couldn’t pay the repair bill for breaking all the owner’s shit. Of course, he passed out afterward, and the owner chained him up,” he explained in a low voice. He closed his eyes, er, eye once again, thankfully. “I got dragged along, because he can’t keep his flanks out of trouble without me.”

The smaller stallion turned from green to bright red as he blushed, embarrassment painfully obvious. “I’m sorry, Cluster. Please, what can I do to fix this?” he begged, his eyes tearing up. All the unicorn could do was fiddle his forehooves together, seemingly unable to come up with a reason for his actions.

“Fix this?” I asked. With a sigh, I hung my head. “Little late now to fix things.”

“Hidden, don’t be like that,” Lost whispered, leaning against me and wrapping her hoof around my neck awkwardly. Damned chain. “Things can be fixed, it just takes some work.”

I leaned back against my sister. “Sorry,” I whispered to her. I turned to the stallions and apologized to them. “Sorry, I’m just... Exhausted.” My stomach rumbled loud enough to startle me. “And hungry. It’s making it hard to look on the bright side.”

“Walking an entire day will do that. What’s your name, cutie?” asked the green unicorn. Him calling me ‘cutie’ made me shudder, but he had a friendly smile, and Slipstock would stop him if he tried anything. Right? Probably not... Either way, the change in subject calmed him down a little. He didn’t look on the verge of crying anymore.

Cluster whacked the smaller unicorn with a heavy hoof, glaring with his good eye. “Shut. Up.”

“Oof! Yes sir!” he yelped, lying himself down and covering his head with his hooves. They might have a history, but there wasn’t a reason to hit him like that.

Nopony spoke much after that. Occasionally one of the mares would break down and cry, but none said anything I could make out. One talked to herself every so often, spouting nonsense before quieting down for long stretches of time.

I tried to get some sleep, but I couldn’t. Lost leaned against me, occasionally nuzzling me and whispering bits and pieces of ideas for our eventual escape. Not much of what she said was coherent, whether because she hadn’t slept at all the night before, or because hunger was getting to her. She coughed from time to time, and I worried that the alicorn had done more than just choke her. But she was the medical pony, not me. And without some sort of cheater magic or, or something...! I had no way to know how bad it was. I was useless. I just wrapped my free hoof around her and tried to get comfortable.

My stomach grumbled again, demanding food. This was going to be a long night...

*   *   *

Thunk, thunk, thunk!

“Everypony up, now!” yelled Slipstock, with an buck to the wall. The whole building shook, the sound of her hooves against the rotten wood as loud as a gunshot. Maybe the silence we’d been sitting in was just that unsettling. Every one of us chained together jerked to attention.

Lost woke with a start, but I held her tight with my free hoof. She looked back and forth a few times, from Slipstock, to me, and then to the others we were still attached to.

“I said up!” the blue mare screamed again, pistol-whipping the nearest slave to her.

We all stood, shaking. Chains rattled and hooves shifted as we got used to standing again. I’d lost track of how long it had been, but it had to be well after nightfall by this time. Lost faltered, coughing and clutching at her throat with her free hoof. For nearly a minute straight she hacked and coughed, hard enough to dislodge her glasses from her nose.

“Sis, you okay?” I asked. She nodded a few times.

Slipstock turned, and the chain began to glow in the magenta haze of her telekinesis. Each of the spare shackles lifted, and clasped around the leg of the nearest pony.

All except me, I already had both on.

I bent down to pick up my sister’s glasses, something Slipstock apparently didn’t like. Crack! The butt of her pistol cracked into the side of my head, right below the ear she’d shot off. “No talking!” she snapped.

I didn’t bother flinching against the blow. Showing weakness would only fuck me over in the end. I’d beaten her once, and I’d do it again. If the chance presented itself, she was dead. I passed my sister the glasses, and nuzzled her side.

L.A. returned the nuzzle, then took the glasses. Without her magic, she awkwardly put them back on with her hooves. I couldn’t move mine far enough to do it for her. Blinking a few times, she nodded, and whispered, “I’m fine,” low enough Slipstock couldn’t hear it over the stamping of exhausted pony hooves.

Thunk! The guardpony slammed a hoof against the door, and with a loud click, it unlocked and opened. Another unicorn mare walked in, this one deep purple and wearing glasses like L.A. She looked over the group of us, and raised an eyebrow. An umbrella and a notebook hovered in the air next to her. She ticked a few things off with a pen in the book, then turned to Slipstock, gave her a nod and left.

“March, slaves!” yelled the pale blue mare. Without much choice, the seventeen of us did as instructed. At least one pony was crying, begging to be let go. When she only got a glare as a response, she gave up, lowering her head and marching out as told. As I walked by, Slipstock smiled, and slammed me in the head with the pistol again, “Faster, ya walking glue bags!” she screamed in my ear.

With the chains pulling me along, I did just that. I had no choice. Patience, then revenge. Stepping past the door, I shuddered. Frozen rain fell from the cloud cover, sending a shiver down my spine. The ice cold rain chilled me to the bone, and made my joints ache, and the graft for my steel hoof burned like frozen fire where the metal merged with my flesh. My soaked hooves felt heavy and hard to move, but the chain pulled me along.

Night fell while we were locked away. The clouds hung high above, dropping the torrent of rain down on us. Really, Goddesses? The cart was gone, and so were Amble and Sunbright. The purple mare stood off to the side, holding the half-torn umbrella over her head. It levitated just right to keep rain off the journal that she kept floating with her magic. Every few seconds she’d look from the book to a watch strapped for her foreleg and back again.

“That way!” she yelled, with a sweet voice, horribly out of place for her job. She pointed her hoof, the one with the watch on it, to another building, with a door open and another pony waiting. The stallion guarding the door looked even bigger than Lamington in full armor, with a gun just as big as he was, mounted on a battle saddle. He didn’t make eye contact, just stared, waiting, mouth on the bit.

A gust of wind cut through me, sending another shiver through my soaked coat and mane. We shuffled into the building as fast as we could, only to bump into another guard. The new guard was a unicorn, holding a whip with a series of razorblades threaded into the end. She cracked it above our heads, herding us all down a set of stairs and into a passageway underground. Stairs were terrible to walk down, going at a trot with chains on our hooves. Every step ached after the day’s march, punctuated by the heavy chain clinking and clanking down.

“Stop!” yelled the purple mare. By the time I got to the bottom and managed to stop, the last slave mare was through the door. It slammed shut, and locked. Slipstock and the slavers sauntered down the steps. We stood still. The only sound coming from us was the dripping of water from out coats onto the floor.

“Right. This is where processin’ starts. Say goodbye to yer freedom, if ya haven’t already,” taunted Slipstock. “Follow Lead Line here down.” She pointed a hoof to the purple mare with the notebook. “Step out of line once and ya get whipped. Step out of line twice and ya get beaten until ya can’t stay in the line. Step out of line a third time, I put a bullet in ya head and let our guards fuck the corpse.” As if to prove her point, she kept one gun out and spinning idly in the air.

“March, trash,” snapped Lead Line, folding her umbrella and striking the lead mare in the flank with it. She yelped, and we began to move forward down the tunnel. Only the three unicorn’s horns lit the way, so we had to stay close to them at all times. Lead Line worked her way back and forth among us, swatting ponies with the umbrella whenever they slowed too much for her rushed pace.

In the distance bobbed another light, brighter than the three flanking us. It shone painfully, enough that I closed my eyes and just ran forward with the chain as a guide. It pulled, I moved, trying to keep pace. I opened my eyes a fraction, trying to see past the red glow shining through my eyelids. The light at the end of the tunnel came from another female unicorn. I tried to look at her, but I could only make out a thick pair of glasses and a grin with jagged teeth. Whatever light spell she used, it lit the entirety of the corridor and then some. She grinned, dimmed the spell, and took the glasses off.

Hollow white eyes stared at our group, slowly moving across each pony. Canting her head to the side, she grinned and gnashed her teeth at us, then pointed to a trapdoor in the ceiling. Whether or not she could actually see, I didn’t know. I just knew I wanted away from this guard. Her grungy grey coat and hollow eyes didn’t do her any favors, either.

Lead Line opened the trapdoor with her magic, and another set of stairs lowered down. We cantered up them, the heavy chains thudding across the stairs. Halfway up the step, the hollow eyed mare put her hoof up. The lead pony froze, and we all stood waiting.

“I’ll be watching you, pretties,” she jeered, tongue flicking over her sharpened teeth. “Oh, and enjoy your stay.” She snapped her glasses back over her eyes and laughed cruelly. Her horn’s light disappeared completely, leaving us in near total blackness.

The chain glowed, and dragged us up the stairs to the floor above. We ended up in a well lit room, one that seemed to be in amazing condition for being two centuries past its prime. Lead Line sat at a desk near the far wall, with Slipstock next to her, pointing at folders on the desk with a hoof and whispering to her. Both slavers wore towels across their backs, giving them some relief from the ice cold that chilled through the rest of our bones.

Lead Line pointed to a number of folders, each overlapping the next in an intricate pattern. After a few minutes, the two stopped talking and Slipstock’s horn lit up. The chains fell from our legs and coiled up in the corner.

One mare made a break for the door, and got close enough to touch it with a forehoof. Before she could open it, her forehoof exploded. She collapsed to the floor, screaming in pain and grabbing at the missing hoof. I winced in empathy. Slipstock put her gun away and rolled her eyes.

“One for Bonemeal. I’ll take her,” said the blue coated bitch, cursing under her breath. She trotted to the door and nudged it open, still looking at the mare. Never breaking her glare, she lifted the wounded pony in her telekinesis and left for ‘Bonemeal.’ As she left the room, the three guards from the tunnel emerged and shut the door. Each moved to a corner: the two unicorns on one side of the room and the earth pony on the other.

“How am I supposed to turn a profit with her ruining all my product?” sighed Lead Line. She grabbed the first of the folders with her telekinesis and looked us over, “This will go much faster if you all cooperate. I’m already behind schedule.” She looked over her glasses, scanning the dripping and shivering lot of us.

I glared back, stomping my steel hoof.

“And take off any personal effects. If you don’t, I’ll let Slipstock have you,” she snapped. “First, Spark Light?”

The smaller of the two stallions from earlier moved forward. He wobbled on his legs, practically falling over with each step. “Y-yes?” he asked, staring at the floor.

“Quit being a fucking coward, Spark,” rumbled Cluster. “You were raised a raider. Fucking act like it.” He motioned as if he wanted to hit the green unicorn, but stopped at the last second. “At least act like a stallion, and not a broken mare.”

Good! Resolve, that’s exactly what we all needed. None of the other ponies seemed to take Cluster’s advice, though.

To his credit, Spark Light stood taller and steeled himself. “Spark Light. Whatcha want, you tarted-up whore?” Defiance might be the only thing he could get away with, considering the three guards, but he did it well. He flashed a shit-eating grin and stepped close enough to the desk that he could have touched noses with the slaver.

In a flash, his file snapped shut and hit him across the face. Lead Line spun the folder and slashed the edge across his muzzle. With a yelp of pain, he fell back from her smirking face. Blood coated the sharpened edge of the folder, and he ended up with a gigantic gash just past his nose. “I want you to stop being a smart-ass. You’re a unicorn. Go stand with Flood Light,” she said, pointing to the white-eyed mare.

As Spark slunk away from Lead Line’s desk, she flicked the folder a few times to clean the blood off, then stuffed it into a drawer in the desk. One by one, she called each of our names, making sure they matched whatever was written in her folder and putting them off to the side. Every unicorn lined up against the wall between Flood Light and the whip guard. Any pony that had any possessions were stripped down, their things thrown into a pile behind the desk.

“Lost Art?” she called, looking at a rather thin folder.

My sister stepped forward, only pausing to ask, “How do you know my name?”

“We bring slaves in, if we can, in groups of at least two. Gives us a chance to...” She paused for a moment, looking for the right word. “...catalogue our stock. I know both your and your sister’s names thanks to how talkative you are.” She lowered the folder to her hooves and snapped it shut. “Amble has special plans for both of you. I get the PipBuck and your glasses, though.”

“It doesn’t come off,” L.A. lied. She held her dripping hoof up and shook it a few times for emphasis. “Locked on tight. And I can’t see at all without these.”

The purple mare raised an eyebrow. “Uh-huh. Keep the damn glasses then, I don’t fucking care. I’ll have Bonemeal cut your leg off later,” she said calmly. The bitch swatted L.A. across the flanks with the folder and pointed to the wall with the other unicorns. “Out. All of you! Get out of my office and to the filthy pen you belong in, slaves!”

The whip-carrying unicorn opened the door, and the two guards shuffled each unicorn out, last of all Lost. I stared in horror. Unable to see her go, I charged after. Something caught my steel hoof, and I faceplanted the floor before I could even get to her.

“Hidden!” she screamed, trying to run back to me. The whip slashed across her back, slicing her open and dropping her to the floor. She stared over her glasses at me, tears in her eye. “Stay safe...” She couldn’t get anything else out before a slaver lashed the whip around her tail and pulled her through the door.

With a purple haze, it slammed shut, locking me away from my sister.

Lead Line just smiled. “And you must be Hidden Fortune.”

*   *   *

“Get in and shut up, slaves,” snapped the new slaver, a pastel pink earth pony with a pissed-off look in her eyes. She and a guard led the remaining five of us to a large communal pen and ordered us all in. At least the rain had slacked off from a torrential downpour to a light drizzle.

Every pony inside was an earth pony, with stallions and mares of all shapes, sizes, and colors milling about. Most looked worse than me, with some still showing enough free will to fight one another. Two mares rolled through the mud, hooves flying at one another over something I didn’t care to know. I didn’t get far into the pen before I collapsed into a shivering ball of pony against the wall and started to dry heave.

I considered myself a survivor. Living with just my sister for years in the Wasteland, and having to scavenge each day had done a lot to toughen us up. We were both lucky though, and managed to always find something to keep going without having to go across the Wasteland to find it. I’d never been without food for too long, though I had a bad feeling for the future, going by the looks of some of the slaves... I’d thought we had it bad before.

The meal from the previous morning just wasn’t enough though. After an entire day without anything in my stomach, coupled with the long march here, I couldn’t hold it in. Throwing up whatever little was in my stomach, I sat there and dry heaved my desolation away. Really, vomiting because I was having bullets dug out was one thing, but when I had nothing to give but the acid and bile inside, it gave me a new appreciation for just how bad my insides could taste.

I tried looking around at the ponies in the pen with me. Half seemed like they’d given up, just lying curled up in small groups to combat the rain and the cold. The other half seemed content to watch the fight between the two mares in the corner. Somepony was shouting, taking bets on which mare would kill the other. The less attention on me, the better. Moving away from the mess I made, I found a somewhat empty spot between two piles of collared slaves and flopped myself onto the wet ground.

I tried to get comfortable, curling into a ball as tight as I could. I needed to be a thinky pony, I reminded myself. Think, learn, find out the consequences. I sighed. Without Lost I didn’t even care. But, I needed to. If we were going to get out, I needed to learn the ins and outs as best I could. To my left, ponies, all wide awake and staring. I could see ribs through their rain-soaked coats and a general sorrow from all of them. I didn’t want to talk to these ponies either, fearing they’d just drag me into their depression. Maybe some sleep, then hopefully some food.

I just needed to close my eyes, get a few hours to recharge from that forced march. I’d slept in the rain before. It sucked, but I could do it. First thing in the morning, I’d find a way to get to Lost. Hopefully, she’d have a plan by then.

Somepony was shouting at me. “You with the X! Get...” I didn’t hear the rest.

I’d be fine after a good night’s sle-

CRACK!

My back erupted in agony. My eyes shot open and ears pinned back, trying to make heads or tails of what had just happened. Turning and looking, I saw a line of blood traced down my back. Another ‘CRACK’ split the air and the fire on my back flared again. Another line of blood formed, and I curled up to get away from it. Another pony with a whip? I clenched my eyes shut and and tried to crawl away. Crack! I screamed as a third attack sliced at my side.

Why!” I yelled, looking for my attacker.

“No sleeping, wretch!” yelled some mare from outside the pen.

I stared at the edge of the pen, where the voice was coming from. “No sleep?” I asked. I couldn’t see the pony who’d whipped me. With a heavy sigh, I turned away and trotted off. If I could find somewhere where they couldn’t spot me, I could get some sleep. I looked back and forth. I was surrounded by ponies who looked like they just wanted death. I couldn’t be around this.

Walking around got me pretty much nowhere. The pen was surprisingly large, enough that the fifty or so ponies I could see were all comfortable... ok not comfortable, but we had enough room that we weren’t squished together. I could move between groups of ponies huddled up without any problem. One group though, I had to stop and see.

Four of the mares I’d seen underneath the town hall huddled together. They spoke in hushed voices, occasionally looking out and to the other slaves. Since we’d been separated, a few of them were gone, and only the earth ponies were left. I stayed a short distance away, not wanting to get too close in case they recognized me. I didn’t have the brainpower to put up with it, if they chose to blame me for shattering their little fantasy world. Still, I swiveled my ears forward and strained as hard as I could to listen in on their conversation. Figuring I’d be listening for a while, I laid down where they wouldn’t see me.

“This cannot be where Our- Mother said we would be headed,” said one, her voice cracking every few words. The fear in her ruby red eyes reminded me of how I felt when I saw Wirepony rebuilding himself. She looked horribly out of place in a slave pen, with her curled, styled blue and green mane and perfectly clean lime green coat. Then again, I probably looked out of place too, what with the shiny steel hoof at the end of my leg.

“No, We- were promised salvation from this...” said another. She wept openly, not bothering to hide it for pride or courage. The other two held and consoled her, trying to get her to stop.

“Allegro, please calm down, We-... We’ll be fine. Mother wouldn’t lie to us,” said the first again, leaning down to join in consoling her. “We... I... I’m sure somepony will save us, and we’ll go back to her. She’ll take us to Unity herself this time.”

I scooted closer, trying to get as close as I could. Little steps with my hooves, never lifting more than a few inches off the ground. Thanks to the clanking hoof, I wasn’t the best at sneaking, but they didn’t know I was trying to sneak. Perfectly sound logic.

“Fouetté, don’t lie to her,” whispered the second consoling mare, looking back and forth. She leaned in close to the first mare to try and make sure the others couldn’t hear. I could barely hear them through the sobbing, but if I strained...

“If we don’t stick together through this, what’s going to happen?” snapped Fouetté, glaring at the other mare. “The only thing we can do is pray that Mother will find out. This Amble pony isn’t going to take us there. Even if we do make it to Fillydelphia, why wouldn’t she have us separated from the slaves? We aren’t slaves! We’re going to Unity one way or another. I’m sorry, Battu, but I’m not giving up hope.”

I backed off after that. I might be delusional a lot of the time, and treat the Wasteland like a giant playground, but this was ridiculous. We all had coping mechanisms. ‘Treasure hunting’ was always going to be better than ‘scavenging,’ but there was a big difference between finding a fun way to handle what the Goddesses dealt, and willfully ignoring what life has become. I knew I was going to be treated like a slave, but I only had to deal with it until I broke out. Knowing what I was up against made all the difference.

I found a nice spot to sit, as far away from the guards as I could manage. I looked at the ponies around me, all half awake and looking like death warmed over. I sighed.

It really was going to be a long night.

*   *   *

I hit the guard with my steel hoof as hard as I could. How dare he think he could grab me like that! I hit him again and trotted toward the pastel pink pony that stood waiting. I knew I’d probably catch a beating for attacking one of the slavers or guards, but that didn’t matter. They’d kept me up all night and I needed to vent some rage.

The mare just smiled at me. An earth pony like myself, I wondered if she was related to Amble, what with her purple eyes and a pink mane. Such a similar color scheme. Her cutie mark was something else, a black rod with a noose at one end. I wasn’t sure what talent that might represent, but I’d probably find out shortly. She motioned to another guard and he hit me in the face hard enough to drop me.

The stallion, a huge unicorn, grabbed me by my mane with his telekinesis and dragged me from the pen into the street. He held me just low enough that I couldn’t get to my hooves, and got to feel every piece of broken asphalt dig into my belly and legs. We trailed behind the pastel pink pony, and when she motioned for us to enter another building, they threw me in and I slammed into the far wall. It cracked and the building creaked.

I groaned, but didn’t bother yelping or screaming, even though the throw had burst open the cuts on my back again. I didn’t have the energy anyway; I was so tired. The hit I’d given the guard before wasn’t near as strong as I could have, but steel gave me a bit more force no matter what. I pushed myself up onto my hooves, shook the dust off, and sat down against the wall. I stared at the pink bitch through half-closed, slowly swelling eyes, smiling as wide as I could. I just hoped Lost was having better luck with the slavers than I was.

“Not gonna break me,” I taunted. I didn’t bother looking at the room, I stared straight into the eyes of the slaver as she walked in. Every part of me wanted to kill her, from my hooves to the blood-covered cuts on my back. I grimaced and waited. I still needed to find Lost, and I couldn’t blow my chance just yet.

The guard stepped in with her, and put me in chains. He locked one around each hoof, making it so I couldn’t move more than an inch or two in any given direction. He smacked me across the jaw as a parting shot, and trotted out to stand just outside the open door.

“I don’t get to, unfortunately,” said the mare, “I’m Cherry Pick, and I normally do all the separating and training. You belong to me; all new meat belongs to me and mine. Amble might have something special planned, but whenever you’re not under her watchful gaze, expect my guards to treat you just like you deserve to be treated.” She smiled and trotted over to a desk.

I finally broke eye contact and looked around. The room was in a sorry state. The broken supports barely kept the roof above our heads. The wall I’d hit wasn’t doing much more than keeping the wind out, and even that was questionable with the giant crack I’d put in it. Two desks sat on opposite sides of the room, one labeled Cherry and the other labeled Hoof. Their names were written crudely, carved into the fronts of the desks.

“I had Lead Line come up with something special for you, though,” she said, pulling something up with her forehoof. Hooked in her fetlock was a collar, with something grey and shiny pressed along the inside. “This is our standard slave collar, we use them for all the new ponies. At least until we break them down and make them realize their place. You belong here. Whatever your old life was is gone, and this is where you will find your true calling!” She looked up as she said it, as though believing in the reverence of it.

“Fuck you,” I spat at her.

“You’re not my type,” she said, rolling her eyes. “This is a special collar.” She placed it in her mouth and stepped over to me. She sat in front of me, staying just out of reach of my chained hooves, not that it stopped me from trying. Dropping the collar into her hooves, she continued, “The frequency we use to detonate it is... Well, reusable. See. We have a lot of property here that we break, train, sell, or transport. But we’ve only got so much from the old world we can use.” She slammed the collar around my neck and held it there, unlatched. “This one is yours; you get to keep it on until Amble decides it can come off.” She slammed the collar closed, and it snapped into place. “Only Sunbright and Slipstock know the secret to unlocking it once it’s on. They’re smart enough to know that only Amble can order it removed.”

I didn’t respond, I just stared at her with a smile.

“Here’s the fun part,” she smirked, “The frequency for yours is connected to three random other ponies. So if you step out of line, we kill all of you. If any of them step out of line, say goodbye to the rest of your body. I’ll give you a hundred caps if you can figure out who else is tied to you. Of course, you won’t have a body left to spend them with, unless you can keep every pony in line.” She patted me on the head with a hoof and turned. “Get her out of my sight. Amble wants her new toy now.”

I stared, not wanting to let on that I was officially terrified. My resolve had been great up until there, even with attacking the guards I felt pretty confident in myself. But now that I knew there were other ponies’ lives depending on mine, and that I could be killed at any moment...

The guard came in and unchained me. I didn’t fight. “Come,” he said, and started toward the door.

I followed obediently.

“Oh! Before you go, tell Amble I said hi. And, here’s a hint,” she paused, making me wait, “One of those three ponies is your sister. Hoof made sure of it. See you soon.” She gave a little wave, and dismissed us.

*   *   *

I stared at the guard as I followed a few steps behind him, not that he bothered to look back. I figured he must be confident that the collar threat was enough to keep me from trying anything. Stupid stallion. Halfway down, he transferred me to another guard, who kept me in her sights the entire time. She also kept a baton pointed at me, as insurance that I wouldn’t act up.

I made a point to look around, take in what I could. There wasn’t much I could do with the collar around my neck, but I could at least get a good understanding of the layout while I had the chance. I did my best to be a thinky pony and memorize everything I saw. What buildings were where, where alleyways were and how wide roads were. I knew I wouldn’t remember it all, but every detail would be useful. The more information I had, the more useful I’d be when Lost and I came up with a plan to get out.

She led me to a salon called Mane Attraction, with fancy glass windows offering various deals on mane dyes and tail curling. ‘The best deals in town!’ for whatever that was worth. One of the windows was missing the top half, while the other seemed to be completely intact. Surprisingly, both were polished and crystal clear.

Through one of the two gigantic glass windows, I could see two rows of chairs along each wall, a mirror flanking every one of them. There was a desk at the front, covered in messy stacks of papers, a far cry from the neatly organized desk in Lead Line’s office. The room was lit perfectly, by a combination of functional lamps and the light through the windows. Over a half wall at the back of the main room, I could see the pink and purple mohawked mane of Amble.

The guard opened the door, and a little bell rang. She stepped back, and pointed her hoof inside. “In.” When I hesitated, she cracked her baton against my cutie mark and smiled wide.

With a stifled yelp, I cautiously stepped through the door.

“Oh, they’re gonna eat you alive,” she snapped as she walked in, “and I can’t wait to see you break.” With a flick of the baton in her magic, she led me to the back of the room and past the half wall. She sat me down in front of Amble, who didn’t acknowledge the two of us entering, too busy staring down at an old-world magazine, idly flipping the pages.

I sat across from her, in a surprisingly comfortable cushioned chair.

The guard left, moving past the half wall and heading for the entrance. She left, and stood just outside the door, with her hoof holding it open.

Amble still said nothing, but reached below the desk, opened a drawer with one hoof, and placed a brown metal box onto the desk. A shiny red button sat atop it. She flipped the page she was reading, and said nothing. With a nod, she tagged the page and folded the magazine closed. The cover was emblazoned with a soldier holding a minigun and firing off the page, under the Equestrian Army Today title.

“Hey, that’s mine!” I said, reaching out to snatch the magazine from her.

“It is. Ya have good taste in readin’, this is a good edition. The article about soldiers and dealin’ with Wartime Stress Disorder is fascinatin’!” Amble said, looking up at me. I must have had a surprised look on my face, because she continued, “What? Do ya not think I enjoy a good read? WSD is amazin’! Very good for conditionin’. It can be caused by a number of thin’s. Usually, as we see here,” she placed her hoof on the cover and slid it toward me, “an example of stress due to fightin’. Seeing yer comrades die around ya and not bein’ able to do a damned thin’ about it? It fucks with ya.”

“You’re insane. What do soldiers and their reactions to war have to do with your little twisted slavery ring?” I asked, not looking away from that shiny red button.

“Funny ya should ask,” she answered. “Yer focusin’ on the wrong part. Wartime Stress Disorder can also be caused by significant trauma!” She sounded very excited, and clopped her hooves down on her desk hard enough to make me jump. “And causin’ trauma is how we break property in!” She stood and trotted around the desk, pulling the box with the red button on it along with her. “The risk of death, pain, and all of that delicious torture. That causes it too. We make ponies into property, teach them their place, and break their will to run.”

“So, you’re admitting to being a monster?” I asked, raising both eyebrows at her.

“No, I’m a businessmare. I work for a profit, and honestly do try to make sure my thin’s go where they’ll be most useful,” she said, rolling her hoof along the metal box at the edge of the desk. “WSD causes, sometimes; flashbacks, nightmares, and reactions to thin’s that remind my property of what broke them. So when they see the collar,” she tapped the collar around my neck with her hoof, smiling wide, “they remember watchin’ their lover’s head get blown clear off, and they remember their place.”

I said nothing.

“There are ways to treat it. That’s what the article was about,” she explained, “but I prefer to keep it goin’ as long as I can. Ponies that know their place are happier! I promise ya that.” She held up the red buttoned box again, and moved it closer. “Ya wanna push it, don’tcha? Because ya dunno what it does. Here.” She set it on the chair, between my hind legs. “Go ahead.”

I stared at the button, wanting to push it. It was hard to resist, polished and shining like it was. I reached out with my flesh forehoof. Just before I touched it, I looked up at the slaver, and the huge smile she had across her lips.

Oh shit. Was this the button for?! My eyes widened and I tried to pull my hoof back.

I managed to stop right as my hoof touched the button, but I flinched. My hooves scrambled, trying to catch myself. I only succeeded in knocking the detonator off the chair and onto the floor. I watched, eyes wide, as it tumbled, and inches became miles. I tried to catch it, reaching down. I wasn’t fast enough, and all I could do was clench my eyes shut and waited for the end.

Amble laughed. It wasn’t a wicked laugh, but a hearty warm laugh. She actually started giggling, and when I finally opened my eyes, I saw her holding her side with a hoof and leaning against the table. “Every... Hahaha,” she had to stop talking to laugh. “Every. Single. Time. I never said what that was, ya took guess though, didn’t ya?”

What!?” I yelled at her, standing off the chair. I stormed over to her, only stopping when I felt the collar shift on my neck. Misbehave, and I kill my sister, two innocents... and myself.

“Everything okay?” asked the guard, who eyed us from the doorway.

“Jus’ fine!” she yelled to the guard. “I like ya a lot, Miss Fortune. Ya got spunk and drive, ya managed to hurt Slipstock in a way that she won’t get over for a long time,” she said, picking up the fake detonator from the floor in her mouth. Her words stunned me, and I just stood there in shock. She trotted around the desk and set it in a drawer. Pushing it closed, she hopped up into her chair and leaned over the desk, “I don’t wanna haveta break ya like that. Ya could be very useful to me, as a bodyguard or slaver. I promote from within if ya prove yerself to me. For Celestia’s sake, my doctor is a slave!”

I blinked a few times, and finally said, “I’m not following.” I didn’t have the energy to think right now.

With a sigh, she continued, “I use tools to break my property in, then I sell ‘em off. It’s economy, and that’s jus’ how the Wasteland works. Ponies are a commodity just like water. Breaking them, inducing things like WSD, jus’ a way to keep them in line. Numbing down dreams and ambitions means they jus’ accept their place. Because this is where they belong. Jus’ like ya, ya belong here. Don’tcha see? I can give ya a good place, ya can have ya sister back even!” She slid the magazine over to me, and I took it from her. “Show a faith. I’ll do my best to not use the bomb collar, or beat ya within an inch of ya life.”

She held out a hoof to me.

“Deal?”

“Never,” I said, snatching my magazine back from her. “I will take the magazine though, I’ve been meaning to read it for over a week now.”

“I thought we could do this the easy way, my pet,” she said, shaking her head. “I guess I was wrong. Go talk to Cherry again, tell her...” She raised a hoof to her head and closed her eyes. “I... I don’t even know. Forget it. Just get back to yer pen.” She turned and looked over the half-wall, and shouted to the guard. “No rations for her, or her sister!”

“What?” I asked, in shock. “Lost didn’t do anything to deserve that! She doesn’t need to be punished because you’ve got an issue with me.” I understood that they were punishing me through my sister, but it was worth it to at least try and talk them out of it.

“Have a good day, Miss Fortune,” she said, waving her hoof at me. “We’ll try this again another time.”

Slipstock stepped in, in place of the earlier guard. She didn’t have her holsters draped over her back this time, just a single saddlebag. Her cutie mark was just as I’d thought before, a gun sliding out of a holster. All of her bandages were gone, and she had a wide smile like she was excited, instead of the bored expression I’d gotten used to. She looked at Amble. “Can I brin’ her to Vice Brand? I want to make sure she can’t pull any tricks,” she said. Apparently she remembered my switch up when we’d fought.

Amble was thoughtful for a moment, and said nothing. She tented her hooves and closed her eyes. After what seemed like forever, she opened them again and nodded. “I think that’s reasonable, given all that ya told me. It might just speed up the process,” she said, then looked at me. “Miss Fortune, while I treat my favorites well, I also punish them the harshest, because I know they can be somethin’ more. Yer not a hero. Yer not... whatever that steel hoof makes ya think you are.” She pointed to the steel hoof, and continued, “Yer mine, and I’m going to make ya see that.” The slaver mare turned to Slipstock. “Take her to Vice Brand, and let that be her punishment instead of starvation. Leave her sister alone. For now. I want leverage for later.”

Slipstock led me from the building to the road outside. She’d mentioned a pony named Vice Brand twice now, and from context, I was getting a bit worried. What kind of a pony was he, that he was the standard threat for this place? Amble had been fucking with my mind, trying to confuse me. Slipstock was flat-out sadistic. What more did they need?

In my frustration, I hit Slipstock as hard as I could. One little bit of revenge I could probably get away with. If I was really Amble’s current favorite pet project, surely she wouldn’t have me killed for one little thing. The hit didn’t do much anyway.

With a sigh, Slipstock cracked me right between the eyes with a buck from both hind legs. In my exhaustion, I went down like saddlebags full of too much treasure. At least Lost was safe for now.

*   *   *

Slipstock dragged me off to another building on the far end of the compound. Halfway there I stopped struggling and she allowed me to walk on my own. She stayed behind me, and I knew she was watching my every move.

I didn’t try anything, just kept marching wherever she told me to go. I held the magazine I’d been meaning to read for days under my leg. I tried my best to memorize where I was going, but in the haze of hunger and lack of sleep every building looked exactly the same to me. The pen I’d been kept in overnight was... somewhere? I sighed, the layout of this town was confusing, and I didn’t even want to think straight. I just wanted to bash Slipstock’s head in, run off, find my sister, and leave.

Celestia, Luna? Grant me your strength to kill this pony and break free? I closed my eyes for a moment and stopped walking, breathing heavily. I was too tired and too hungry to go on. Was it this bad for L.A., too? Trying to look ahead my vision started to blur and I wobbled on my hooves.

“Stop stallin’,” she snapped, jabbing me a few times in the side. She aimed for where the whip had cut me open the night before and the slowly healing gunshot wounds she’d made. After the fight and the march, she had no small number of painful places to prod me.

I flinched a few times, still rather tender. She hit me across my flank hard enough to wake me from my stupor. I looked at her, nodded and got myself going again. I wasn’t beaten this time, and I just kept forward. She took me to another building off the main road, attached to the outside wall.

The green unicorn I’d seen before, Spark Light maybe, walked out of the building behind a guard. His green coat was splattered with blood, and he seemed completely unfocused. For half a moment he looked at me, shivered, and stared back at the ground. Just what went on in this building? I didn’t have time to wonder, as Slipstock pushed me through the entrance.

Inside was a small room with several counters. I didn’t recognize anything to tell me what this room might have been before Balefire turned it into a rusted and rotted tomb of the past. Skeletons were piled in the corner, for who knows why. Scattered on the counters were sets of cuffs and shackles along with piles of metal scraps and chain. Old world tools hung along the warped and battered wall on pegs and hooks. Whips, chains, and gruesome tools I’d never seen before adorned the opposite wall.

“Stand here,” ordered Slipstock, and I obeyed. She trotted off and yelled something in another room.

After a moment or two, another voice answered, and a gigantic unicorn stallion entered the room, followed by Slipstock. “Yeah yeah, I’ll do the dirty work. Don’t mean a thing that I was trying to spend time with my daughter. Slave or not I-” he stopped, and looked directly at me, “What do we have here? A stubborn mare in need of hobbling.” He smiled wickedly, a twinkle shining in his yellow eyes.

“I don’t really know,” I said with a shrug.

He hit me across the face with his massive hoof so hard that it floored me. “I wasn’t fucking asking you, slave,” he bellowed, before stomping my side. The attack nearly knocked me out cold. Whatever this stallion was made of, he hit harder than a bullet. “Now, hold the fuck still.”

I held the fuck still. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Slipstock smiling at me.

His horn began to glow, and a welding torch from the far wall lifted up and floated toward me. He looked down at my steel hoof and asked, “That thing come off?” Not waiting for an answer, he grabbed it in his magic, dropping the torch onto the floor next to me.

I flinched away, thinking it was going to hit me. I couldn’t pull the steel hoof back, as he held and tugged against it. I could feel the graft giving way under his telekinesis, and shouted, “Attached! It’s attached! Sto-” before screaming in agony. It felt like my entire leg was going to split open again, just like it had been when they were installing the steel hoof. In horror, I watched as the seams Praline had made started to tear again, and blood began to seep out. I clenched my eyes shut and ground my teeth. Finally I yelled, “It’s... A replacement. I lost my hoof.” I gasped, clutching at my leg to try and stop the pain.

“Rip it off, Vice,” goaded Slipstock, smiling so wide I thought the top of her head might come off.

The stallion just raised his eyebrow, and released his telekinetic grasp. “No. Less wasted materials this way,” he said, and started up his telekinesis again. Three hoofcuffs and a length of chain lifted from the counters and off the wall. He held me down with one forehoof and began moving the hoofcuffs toward me.

The chain dropped onto me and draped over my neck, making it hard to breathe. He took one of the hoofcuffs and wrapped it around my left foreleg, then slammed the two halves together. Six small rods lined the outside of the hoofcuff. I didn’t want to guess what they might be. The torch lifted and he melted the two ends of steel together, locking it in place. The metal burnt horribly, but after the first flinch I didn’t move. Hot glowing metal was one thing, a flame on me was another entirely. I just wanted it over with. When the magic let go, I dropped the hoof to the floor and stared at it. Morbidly, I actually wanted to know what the six rods were for.

“Let me do it,” said Slipstock, her smile turning to a wicked grin. She trotted over and stood above me. Her horn glowed. I watched, terrified and almost curious, as to what she would do. Then my world turned into unspeakable pain. The six rods all shot into the hoofcuff until they were flush on the outside. On the inside, six spikes stabbed into my leg and cut straight to the bone. I screamed, louder than I thought possible, until I ran out of breath, and could scream no more. Blood soaked my leg, and I could feel each individual spike inside my flesh. I shook wildly, trying to remind myself I’d been through worse. Having my hoof bitten off and seared shut was worse, right? I’d had Med-X and Buck in my system then though. This I could handle... at least I prayed.

She burst into laughter, cackling madly. “One down,” she whispered into my ear.

He ignored my screams and whimpers. Without a word, he lifted a sheet of metal with a looped steel ring on it and wrapped it around the hoofcuff. With the welding torch, he attached it over the six spikes so they couldn’t be pulled back out. When he was finished, it looked like one solid piece. He dropped the telekinesis around my forehoof and I let it drop to the floor. The steel shackle hitting the steel floor sent lightning bolts of pain up my leg. I screamed again.

He grabbed my rear left leg and held it up.

“Please, stop. No. I’ll be good. One leg is enough!” I shouted, trying to pull my leg away. I looked back and forth between Vice Brand and Slipstock pleading, “I don’t need another one of those. One’s plenty! I’ll be good. Collar, spiked cuff- I can be very obedient.” I kept trying to pull my leg away. “Anything! You name it, anything. Please, don’t do it again. I’ll be good, just take me back to Amble. I’ll be as good as you need. Anything she says! A good little slave, sell me off and I’ll make some pony very happy!” I talked as fast as I could, trying to convince them that I didn’t need another one attached to me. He welded the hoofcuff around my leg, and her magic flared to focus on the rods. “Pleasepleaseplease I know my place! I belong here, just like she said! Obedient property at her side. No, no no! You don’t need-” I screamed out to the Goddesses for mercy as she pierced to the bone with the horrific steel spikes.

The stallion said nothing. He stared stone-faced at his work and melted the steel solid. He picked up the third cuff in his magic and slowly levitated it toward my other hind leg. My tears weren’t going to stop him, and neither was my begging.

I stared through the tears as the cuff wrapped around my leg and closed. This was the end, wasn’t it? I went limp, unable to keep fighting. It snapped shut, and the welder closed it. I didn’t even feel the burns anymore. My breath came slow, almost calm. Slipstock wanted to punish me, but... Was this even punishment anymore? I would accept it, if it made the pain go away. “You win...” I whispered, my voice breaking. “Please... No more. You. Win,” I said louder. It didn’t work.

Slipstock’s horn began to glow, and I just closed my eyes. Despite gritted teeth and every attempt to block it out. The stabbing of the spikes into the bone was too much. She laughed with glee at my whimpering. The energy to scream or cry for mercy was gone. If it would make the pain stop, I’d do whatever they wanted. If only to get rid of this pain...

Since my last hoof was already made of steel, he instead attached a single steel ring, identical to the other three, and used the torch to fuse the parts. Finished with the cuffs, he laced the chain through all four and locked the ends together between all four legs.

“Please...” I begged, staring at my blood-coated legs. The only response was another stomp to the stomach. That answered that.

He lifted me in his telekinesis, and threw me toward the door.

I flew through the open doorway and out onto the street. Tumbling a few times, I screamed in pain, before coming to a rest right as Slipstock walked out. “Hey,” she said with a grin, “have fun?” When I didn’t answer, she grabbed me in her magic and dragged me by the chains back toward the pen.

*   *   *

Slipstock threw me back in with the rest of the ponies. Most of them avoided me. Apparently having the spiked shackles wasn’t very common, given the looks. I was used to it. Mom’s paranoia was still strong with me, and I didn’t trust them any more than they trusted me.

I flopped onto my side where I landed. Slipstock stayed for a few minutes, laughing at me. “Enjoy yer reminder a how tough a pony ya really are,” she mocked, before finally walking off.

I didn’t have the strength, mentally or physically, to do anything but lie there. I didn’t bother keeping track of how long I lay in the dirt, trying to not think of the pain in my hooves. Everything ached, and even though the wounds were technically plugged up, I swore I could feel myself bleeding.

I tried to move, but the chains held tight. I struggled, but pulling one leg away did nothing more than pull in the others. Every movement twisted and dug at my cuffs, pulling the spikes around. My mind couldn’t even find a way to register that much pain. I gave up and laid still. I just wanted to go back home, crawl into the remains of my bed, and pretend this had never happened. I could wake up tomorrow, and my sister and I would go find a new ruined building to dig through. We’d bring home some new treasure, some food, and maybe something unique to add to the small collection of interesting stuffs we had. That would be perfect.

Too bad pain like this couldn’t ever be from a dream.

Or a nightmare...

I scrambled to my hooves, ignoring the pain, and stared at my legs. Shackled, bound. Tears hit the ground, darkening it in little spots. I just shook my head, it couldn’t be. It wasn’t. It wasn’t the same at all. I fell back, and pushed myself as best I could until my back was at the wall of the pen. Wildly, I looked back and forth at the other ponies. I knew they were just lying there, distraught and afraid of what would happen next, but I could feel them looking at me. I knew they were sizing me up, now that I was bound. I was a target.

There were stallions here too. Not many, but enough. Stallions? Stallions!? I laughed inside my head. After what Slipstock did to me, I was scared of all of them. One pony tilted her head, looking at me fairly intently. She started toward me, and, all I could do was fall on my side and curl up.

I couldn’t run. What was I supposed to do? I pulled at the hoofcuffs and chains, clenching my eyes shut. The pain didn’t hurt as bad as I thought, I told myself. I could just break the chain. I was strong. My mind raced to dark memories of darker dreams, and against my will I thrashed against invisible ropes put up by a raider that wasn’t even there. I wanted, no, I needed Lost. I needed my sister. She could tell me what to do, she could help. We’d protect one another. We were stronger together, so it only made sense that they’d split us up. Celestia, Luna, please let my sister have a plan...

“Slipstock?” asked the pony.

I opened my eyes, slowly, and looked up at her. I didn’t expect what I saw... I figured there would be a pissed-off mare ready to attack me because I couldn’t fight back. I nodded just a little, still wishing Lost was there to tell me what we could do to get out.

She held up her left forehoof. Around her light cyan coat was a steel shackle just like mine. The loop on the side of it looked well worn. The mare stood a few inches taller than me and small scars covered her thin frame, but she grinned wryly as she sat next to me and hunched over. She sighed. “What’d ya do?”

“I don’t. I don’t even know,” I said, swallowing to keep from crying. “I think she wants me dead.”

“She wants everypony dead,” said the mare. “You just got it sooner than most I’ve seen.”

“Does this happen often?” I asked, trying to wrench my mind away from the fact that I was chained up and couldn’t move than a few inches. I ignored my own thoughts, and focused on the conversation.

“Only when Amble lets Slipstock have her way, which is rare. Still too often though; it’s us versus them here,” she explained while looking around. “They haven’t broken me yet, and I don’t plan to let them.” The wry smile crossed her lips again, even though she refused to make eye contact with me. She might not think she was broken, but she was definitely close.

“Spikes?” I asked, finally pushing myself into a sitting position. It wasn’t easy, but I just had to focus on something else. Talk, get Lost back, leave. Break these things off somehow...

“Spikes?” she asked back, looking at the banded hoofcuff on her leg. Realization must have dawned on her, as her eyes went wide as saucers. “You... Three of them?” She pulled her own cuffed hoof toward her and cradled it. “No... I’ve only heard of one other pony getting the spikes. She didn’t last a week, or so they say.”

I shrunk down, curling against the chains that bound me. How was I going to get through this? How had the Steel Rangers gotten through this sort of thing? They watched family die in front of them, and were fine the next day. Was there some secret to blocking out that sort of pain? It got hard to breathe. I gasped for air, and my vision swam. Somewhere, a guard yelled something, I thought, but the pony I was talking to said something. No whips lashed out, thank the Goddesses. I couldn’t take any more. Not now.

I needed sleep. I needed food. I needed my sister.

“Look... If... If you need anything, and you feel better, ask around. Name’s Sourbelle. Other ponies who haven’t totally given up will know where I am,” said the mare before standing up. She trotted a few steps away and turned to face me. “Good luck...”

Yeah, luck. Like Xeno always said, a special kind of luck seems to hover around...

*   *   *

The mess hall was gigantic, and housed far too many ponies. The chains were gone for now, and I could move on my own, just barely. Guards led small groups of us inside the gigantic building, one with row after row of tables, each full of starving ponies eating whatever they could get. Even though every step was agony, and dug the spikes into me, the idea that I was going to get food was too good to pass up. The only bright side to having what must have been every pony in the city in the room was that I might see Lost.

The guard shuffled me into a line at gunpoint. I stepped in behind another pony, a stallion with a green tail, not that who it was mattered. We took slow steps forward, and I gritted my teeth. The smell of whatever food was being prepared had me drooling, even if it was something I hated. A delicious snack from the Stable 60 Steel Rangers would be perfect, but at this point I would take anything I could get my hooves on.

The tiny bowl of unidentifiable gruel met my expectations pretty much exactly. Whatever it was, it was probably edible, and I was going to enjoy it. There was a small amount of freedom, as the guards allowed the slaves to choose their own seats. I might not have been allowed to talk, and there were still dozens of guards on the ground and standing on balconies built into the walls, but I could at least sit where I wanted.

I looked around for purple manes and bandanas. My sister had to be somewhere; I just needed to find her. Looking over large groups of ponies wasn’t really the best way for me to spot one particular pony, but I tried. Nothing seemed in focus, though, and I had a hard time picking out where one of the masses stopped and another began. On top of that, I had no idea how long I’d have to eat. I might only have a few minutes before the guards shuffled me back.

Not bothering to find a seat, I tilted the bowl in my fetlock and swallowed its contents. I was still hungry. I dropped the bowl on a table where several others had been stacked and looked back over the group. I looked at the line again, but when I stepped toward it, the guard just smiled and lifted a whip in my direction. No second helpings, I guessed. Hanging my head, I walked out into the room, looking side to side to try and find my sister.

Pssst,” whispered somepony, “psst, Hidden!” It was Lost! She waved me over and made room for me on the bench she sat on. Her face fell as she saw the hoofcuffs around my legs. “What did they do to you?” she whispered, pulling me close.

I sat down, and just closed my eyes. I leaned against her, saying nothing. Rest and relaxation, if only for a minute or two. I had my sister back, and she was okay. The only thing I needed right now, was to know that she was doing well. She didn’t look hurt, so she was faring better than I was. I rested my head against her. “Slipstock,” I whispered. “Pain. Lots...”

“Oh Goddesses, Hidden, you didn’t fight back, did you?” she asked as quietly as she could. Looking around at the guards, she bent down and took a few more bites of whatever her gruel was. The ring was still over her horn, keeping her from using any of her magic, but I didn’t see any other injuries. She still had the PipBuck, too! Her glasses even looked like she’d had a chance to clean them.

“No. Revenge,” I said, before breaking down and telling her everything. As I went on, my voice slowly rose, and the guards started to step over to us.

Lost cut me off with a hoof over the mouth, and I went silent. “Shh, we'll get away, we just need to wait,” she said. “Just stay strong, little sis.”

One guard stepped over and stood directly behind us, “You. Up,” he ordered, and grabbed Lost. She stood without struggle, and turned to nod at him. “It’s been long enough,” he said, then turned his back to yell at a huddling group of mares.

When he turned, Lost bent down and whispered in my ear. “Play along,” she said. “They’re nicer if they think you-” She stopped when the guard went quiet. Turning her back to me, she looked back past her glasses and held a hoof up. Several ponies were standing now, blocking the view of other guards. She whispered once more as the stallion trotted off to lead her group away. “Behave, survive.”

Then she was gone in the crowd.

*   *   *

Play along. Behave. Easier said than done. I stared across the desk at Amble. The guard didn’t led me back with the rest of the group. Instead, she brought me straight to the Slave Mistress herself, at least that’s what the guard called her. It didn’t matter. All I had to do was play along and behave. Answer her questions. Listen, smile, and nod.

“Tell me about yerself,” Amble said. She propped herself up on her forehooves, leaning onto the desk. “I want to know jus’ who Miss Fortune is.”

I didn’t answer. My brain couldn’t process that. Even the little claws that normally picked and prodded at my psyche weren’t bothering me. Was I really so tired...? I closed my eyes and shook my head. “Nothing special,” I said.

“That can’t be true. There’s gotta be a reason for the steel hoof,” she said, pointing at it. She had the same bored expression, with her eyes half-closed. “Are ya some sorta hero, savin’ the Wasteland from dangers? I heard on the radio somepony called ‘Gunbuck’ killed off a monster a few days ago.”

“I’m not a hero,” I explained, “just a pony hunting for treasure, and chasing ghosts.” I didn’t want to tell her that I was that somepony. That might get me in an even worse situation. What would somepony like Amble do with a ‘hero’ anyway? My stomach growled. That food wasn’t enough... I let out a deep sigh. “Why?”

“Miss Fortune, why don’tcha get some sleep? Ya look exhausted,” she said, sounding legitimately concerned. When I opened my eyes, I didn’t see a horrible slaver trying to break me into nothing and rebuild me. I saw a savior, a pony who wanted to give me some relief.

I don’t know if I fell asleep or not, just that a smile crept across her lips.

Who said ya could sleep!” yelled a very angry mare.

My eyes shot open, and I saw up straight in the seat. Where was I? Who was I? What time was it? I looked at a purple and pink earth pony who sat across from me at a nice desk. She didn’t look happy at all.

“What? I...” I said, shaking my head to clear my thoughts. I hunched over, holding myself up with my forehead against her desk. Feeling it shift, I sat back up. “You said...” I tried to remember. “You said I should get some sleep?” She had said that. I remembered.

“Why the fuck would I let a worthless mule like ya sleep?” she demanded, slamming her hooves on the desk. “Ya supposed to be tellin’ me yer life story. I own ya, and I ordered ya to tell me. So do as I say, or I’ll find a way to make thin’s very, very unpleasant for ya and yer sister.” Her frown switched in an instant, and she flashed a friendly smile. “C’mon now,” she coaxed. “Be a good pony, and do what yer owner tells ya to.”

“But you don’t own me,” I said, blinking a few times. I clenched my eyes each time, trying to remember. I knew she’d said I could sleep... She said I was exhausted, and could sleep.

“Miss Fortune, don’t fight. Ya belong here, it’s easier this way,” said Amble, tapping a hoof on the desk. She frowned and tilted her head side to side, almost as if she were examining me. “I don’t want to let Slipstock have ya again, she’s a bit too...” She paused, tapping her chin with her hoof. “...rough on my toys.”

“But I belong with my sister,” I said. I needed L.A. She’d have a plan by now, and then we could leave.

“She belongs here too, ya two will be together soon,” she smiled wide. “I promise. Now tell me ya story. Tell me what makes ya tick. I’ll let ya visit her after this, if ya tell me.”

I looked at the floor, my thoughts still hazy. Lost said to play along, and if I got to see her, I could play along. I looked at the mare, and smiled weakly. “Promise?”

“Of course,” she said, offering me a hoof. “I promise.”

I reached out and took her hoof, watching the shackle on mine. My heart started to pound, and I found it hard to swallow. I could still feel the spikes, and I was still covered in my own blood. Didn’t she see what they’d done to me? Did she want her belongings in such poor condition? Wait... had I just thought of myself as a belonging?

“Ok, since... since you promise,” I said, forcing myself to swallow. “Umm, where do I start?” I asked, not knowing what she wanted to know. I wanted her happy, so she wouldn’t hurt me again.

“Why not start from the beginnin’? I want to know ya,” she said in a sickeningly sweet voice.

“Oh, okay,” I whispered, more to myself than her. I tried to think what I could get away with not telling. I didn’t want too much information about myself out. If she knew we killed Wirepony she might... I didn’t even know.

I started to tell my story, parts of it. I didn’t mention certain things, like details about where I was born or lived. I told her parts about mom, and that she was dead. Amble seemed genuinely surprised that I’d been honest during the standoff. I explained that we were treasure hunters, and how we scavenged. I made sure to go into detail about hunting for treasure, because it was fun to do but boring to talk about, and ate up a lot of time.

Her interest peaked when I talked about Stables 21 and 12. She also liked the part about how we’d learned to grow up once mom died.

“And we’ve killed some raiders, too. Bandits too, that one time,” I said, trailing off. What else was there to say?

“And then Skirt?” she asked. Happy with my nod, she continued, “Do ya know who the ponies ya killed were? What their lives were like?” When I shook my head, she kept going, “Did ya ever stop to think they might have family? Just how many lives have ya ruined, Miss Fortune?”

I stared at her, unblinking. Those ponies were raiders! They were insane bloodthirsty killing machines who would shoot us as soon as look at us.

“Ya never even thought about it, didja?” she said with a laugh. “And ya call me a monster. At least I think about yer future. Where yer goin’, even if it is Filly. I’ve broken hundreds, if not thousands of slaves, and they’re all the same. They think they’re somethin’ special, no matter where they’re from. Raiders, bandits, scavengers, soldiers, even heroes. They think they’re too good to be a slave. Yer right though, yer not a hero. I’ve met a lot of ponies with similar lives, but ya? Yer just a murderer.”

“No, I’m not,” I countered, staring at her. “I killed to survive, and to help! I never just... Murder.”

“Ya jus’ told me yer life story,” said the slaver. “Ya sound like a murderer to me.”

“No, there’s a difference!” I yelled, shifting. I wanted to slam my hooves down on the table, to make her see my point. I tried, but raising my hooves hurt, they were heavy and I just wanted to go back to sleep and deal with this later. Why couldn’t Lost be here to back me up? “Accidents, murder, self-defense! They’re not the same. Sometimes we have to kill.”

“Ya believe that?” she snapped. “Where were ya when ya killed the bandits?” She smiled wide, sitting back in her seat.

“We were in,” I said, stopping when I realized the truth. “...their home.”

“So ya broke into their home, and killed them?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“They said,” I tried to remember. So much had happened in the past few days I couldn’t remember what those three stallions had said. “I don’t remember, but I remember they were going to hurt me!”

“Ya were in their home, Miss Fortune. What did ya expect?”

“We needed a place to sleep...”

“And the raiders?” she asked.

“We were hunting for treasure, the building was the only one standing. So, we went in. Then they attacked us,” I explained. I tried to remember the details as they happened. That was two days ago, so why was I having so much trouble remembering?

“Again, ya went into their home and killed them. I’m beginnin’ to think ya have problems with decision makin’,” she mused. For a slaver, she sure had a lot of philosophical thoughts. “Ya say there’s a difference between self-defense and murder. How can ya call it self-defense if ya went into their home and killed them? Did ya even try and talk to them?”

“When they fire first, you don’t stop and try and talk. I acted on instinct,” I announced, trying to hold my ground. I was right. We were killing to survive, nothing more. I didn’t feel any guilt at killing them, because if I hadn’t killed them, they’d have killed me. I felt bad about Gunbuck, because it was just him, and I could have talked it through. I felt bad about mom. And I felt bad about the good stallions who’d tried to help me, and gotten killed for their trouble. Those were my fault.

“I still think ya have a problem with decision makin’. It sounds to me like ya don’t think yer actions through,” she said, tapping her hoof on the desk. She looked deep in thought, before she looked back at me.

I didn’t like that look. I knew I wasn’t a very thinky pony, and I had problems with shooting first and asking questions later. But I was still a good pony, right?

“This is why ya belong here. Ya won’t haveta make decisions,” she said with a wide smile. “I want ya to think about that. Stay by my side, and I’ll make sure ya know what ya gotta do each day, and there won’t be any chances for ya to make little mistakes like that.” She offered me her hoof. “Bein’ a slave is better than bein’ a murderer, don’tcha think?”

I didn’t take her hoof. I slid off the chair and turned from her. “I’m not a slave. I’m a pony, and I make mistakes sometimes. But I’d rather be my own pony with a bad record than a slave without any thoughts of my own.” I just needed to find Lost, and get some more food and sleep. And get my shaky memory working again. “You promised I could see my sister now?”

“I don’t remember sayin’ anythin’ about that,” she said, raising her eyebrow again.

“But you promised. I remember,” I reminded her.

“I said no such thin', but ya did as I asked, so... How about this,” she said with a smile, “as a reward, I'll let your sister get a full night's sleep and three meals tomorrow?”

I blinked several times, but nodded. Lost probably needed anything she could get. A reward for her was worth doing what Amble said, this time.

“Good, now get out of my sight.”

*   *   *

The guard didn’t take me to see Lost.

She marched me agonizingly slowly to some ruins at the far end of the town, and into another holding area. The brick walls had either fallen apart or been broken down in a particularly elegant manner and were less than a full story tall. It meant I couldn’t do anything to get out, and that the ponies situated on the guard towers looking over the walls of the town could watch my every movement. They carried guns I’d be envious of in another situation, but were on towers tall enough that they’d be out of earshot.

Once inside, I sat down to lessen the pain in my legs. The cell was completely barren. Four walls and not a damn thing else except the pony inside. I sat in the corner, trying to look at small as possible. I knew the guards watched me, even if they didn’t look directly at me. Maybe I could get in some sleep since there were only two guards? Amble had said I could get some sleep. I knew she had.

I closed my eyes. Just a few hours, and I’d be fine. Then come up with a plan. It might not be as fancy as Lost’s plan, whenever I learned it, but it could get us out! Just a little bit of sleep, like Amble said.

A bullet slamming into the wall behind me woke me right up! It shot through where my ear would have been, had it ever fully healed. I made a mental note to get that fixed as soon as possible. Then I figured out what had just happened, and scrambled to my hooves.

“No sleeping, got it!” I yelled, staring at the guard. I gave a salute, but got nothing back. Whatever, fuck her then. I sat on my haunches again and just stared up. The clouds were moving, little by little, and I had a pretty good view of a total square of gray with a guard tower on either side. Wonderful.

And I wasn’t allowed to sleep, still.

So, I had plenty of time to think. Amble said I was a murderer. I wasn’t a murderer, I was just a pony trying to survive. I wasn’t any better or any worse than some of the ponies we’d met in the Wasteland. Okay, so I didn’t kill ponies who wandered into my home without asking questions first, but I also didn’t go out of my way to fight for others at the drop of a hat, even when they’d burst into my home. I was both better, and worse, than other ponies. Did that make me average. Was there really anything to feel guilty about?

Raiders and bandits were evil ponies who didn’t have any redeeming qualities. ‘Kill and steal and leave you for dead’ ponies with nothing about them that benefitted society. They were content to let the evils of the Wasteland flourish and take advantage of better ponies. Was it just because that was all they could do?

Of course not! There were always better ways. Searching for food was fine. Lost and I survived just fine like that. They chose to murder, and I chose to stay alive. That’s just how it was. It wasn’t fancy or glamorous, it was just survival. I knew very well that if I’d been born in Equestria as it was in the history books, before the war that turned it into this Wasteland, I’d have had a different life. And those raiders, maybe we’d all be friends. Life just put us in situations we couldn’t handle the best way. The Goddesses watched out for us whenever they could, but ponies still made their own decisions. They weren’t always the best, but they were just a way to survive.

The shack was full of garbage, nopony could live in it. Lost and I were used to living in ruins, but that place was filthy even by Wasteland standards. It was a bed, and not dirt. That was good enough for a night’s sleep. Abandoned buildings were so common. When we walked in, the place looked abandoned. How was I supposed to know that it was the raiders’ home? And the raiders, well how were we supposed to know it was a raider nest? They shot at us without so much as a second look! I wasn’t a murderer; I was a survivor!

Maybe I was just telling myself that. I stood up and started pacing around the walls. Walking hurt, but it kept me awake and unshot. This was me being a thinky pony, trying to make sense of what they did. I killed Gunbuck without a second look. I saw him, jumped, and pulled the trigger. I didn’t even think about it; it just happened. So what if the raiders were like that too? Shoot first and ask questions later. Did that mean raiders were just as good as me, or that I was as bad as a raider? They deserved what they’d got. I’d heard the stories. I never killed innocent ponies or raped mares or sold off others into slavery... Oh, the irony. Everypony who lived in the Wasteland knew what raiders were like, and bandits too! They were bad ponies who killed for fun and pleasure, and they did a lot of terrible things to ponies they killed, or intended to kill. I wasn’t like that!

Did I need to feel guilty for killing those ponies? We’d helped take something evil out of the Wasteland, and made it just a little bit safer. Just like killing Wirepony. That monster needed to be put down. It was the same thing, killing to help ponies and to survive. That wasn’t murder, and I wasn’t a murderer.

I kept pacing, trying to get used to the new weight on my hooves. Could these ever come off? I felt the spikes scraping against the bone when I set my hoof down, and dig an agonizing scratching pain deep inside. By keeping myself occupied, I didn’t feel it too much. It was like the little claws in my mind; every so often, I’d realize it was there, and do my best to not think about it. If I didn’t give the pain any power, it couldn’t hurt me. The weight took some getting used to. They weren’t particularly huge shackles, just flat wide bands welded to me. I laughed to myself. It was almost funny that them being welded to me and not being bulky was their saving grace. I reached the corner and slumped down into it again, making sure to keep moving and keep my eyes open so I wouldn’t get shot at again.

I lifted my hoof and looked at the cuff around it. The welds were obvious, a line traced through the steel that ended where burns on my coat started. Skilled or not, he’d welded them on to a point where I didn’t think they’d ever come off. The spikes underneath were fascinating, if horrific. How had such a deep spike fit in such a thin hoofcuff. Were they retractable? Whatever cheater magic they’d used, it hurt just as bad as losing my hoof did. Holding up both forehooves, I compared. I was broken now, missing one, with metal loops for chains. A shiver went down my spine and I put my head in my hooves, feeling the cool steel.

Was this really who I was now?

“Mom? Is this what you wanted for us, when you had us leave the Stable?” I asked nopony in particular. I wanted to remember what happened, why we’d been cast out. She never talked about it much, and just said that it wasn’t something I needed to concern myself with. Her and Lost together, they’d been close, but she was older and remembered more of what had happened than I did. I wanted to ask Lost when I got the chance, after we escaped. I wasn’t good at planning, and I didn’t know enough to figure out a way to escape.

I leaned forward and faceplanted into the ground.

“I just want to go home,” I whispered into the dirt, before pushing myself up. The guards would shoot if I looked like I was sleeping. See, I was a thinky pony, I could learn!

What about the ponies who died helping us? Were those really my fault? Did I murder them? Xeno’s brothers killed one of the stallions. The other got himself killed. The third was killed in battle. I was there for all three, but were they my fault? Each would’ve died eventually, and two of the three under similar circumstances. Poor Sweet though, having to leave him like that? I didn’t like that, but it was survival, not murder. Éclair just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. If it’d been Crème who got shot instead of Éclair, would I have felt so bad about it? I grimaced, knowing full well I wouldn’t have felt bad for a pony who hadn’t offered to help me without even being asked.

Maybe, I was a monster.

NO! Gunbuck, I killed him with my own hooves and that was my fault. Mom, she died because we were inexperienced, but it wasn’t anypony’s fault. The raiders and bandits deserved to die for what they did to the Wasteland, and I didn’t feel a scrap of guilt for that. Situations got ponies killed, but that didn’t mean I put them to their deaths. I was a good pony! I helped others. I killed Wirepony, for Celestia and Luna’s sake!

Only...

It wasn’t just me. Lost was there too. In fact, she’d done more than I had, solved problems I was too stupid to figure out. She reacted faster, and came up with plans to win. If she hadn’t been there to save my flank, Wirepony would have eaten me alive, and that was only the most recent time she’d saved my life. Was I really just good at following orders?

Maybe I did belong here? Somewhere I could follow along and not do any real thinking for myself. No actions, no consequences. That would mean giving in, and not just playing along.

I sat and put my head in my hooves. I needed Lost.

*   *   *

I went in circles, trying to point out to myself which parts of my life were things I deserved blame for, and which were just survival. The door opening broke my train of thought, and Slipstock trotted in. I looked at her, closed my eyes, and let out a little sigh.

The bitch mare stepped up to me and roughly pushed me down onto my flanks. “Hooves up,” she ordered, and I complied without complaint. Given the last time she’d seen me, she’d had the hoofcuffs installed, there was nothing I could think of that would be outside her imagination of torture. She inspected the work on the cuff, grabbing it in her magic and roughly twisting my leg back and forth until she was satisfied, “Not his best work, but good enough. Can ya walk?” she asked, almost pleasantly.

“Barely,” I answered, not making eye contact.

“Good, follow. Slave,” she ordered, her emphasis on the word ‘slave’ grating on my nerves. As if I didn’t know my place right now. She walked to the door and stood just outside of it, a smirk across her lips. As I passed her she snap-kicked my left foreleg’s hoofcuff. Shockwaves of pain blasted all through my leg and down my spine.

“Goddesses! Why?” I screamed at her. I stopped and stared, holding the aching hoof up.

“Ya mean aside from ya beatin’ me to within an inch a my life?” she asked with a deadpan look. It was hard to tell that from her normal bored expression. She slid one of her pistols out of its holster and cracked it across my skull. “Because yer a cunt of a wannabe hero who thinks ya better than others. Ya rush in like a fool and start shootin’, not even tryin’ ta ask what’s what. I was doin’ my job and ya left me for dead in an alley,” she explained. Once more she cracked me with the pistol.

I didn’t flinch either time, but I could at least understand her. While our morality might be opposite, she was just doing what she did, and I was just doing what I did. Revenge was something I understood well enough. I thought the exact same way, that as soon as I got the chance, I was going to cause her as much pain as I could before finally letting her feel the sweet embrace of the Goddesses’ love in the afterlife. Once I got these shackles off...

She led me past another set of pens. Just how many of them were there? I looked inside as we passed, and saw several unicorns. In the distance, I swore I saw a white pony with a black bandana and a purple mane. That had to be her. I looked over at Slipstock, who just glared at me. I said nothing, but made a mental note of where L.A. was being kept before I moved on. If she was in this pen, I just needed to figure out where it was in relation to mine, and then I could start my plan.

We walked to a building, intact enough to support two stories and some actual glass windows. A carving of a heart with with two crude bones painted in an X-shape across it marked one of the doors. Going by threats I’d overheard since I’d gotten here, I could only guess this was ‘Doc’ Bonemeal’s clinic. Slipstock pushed past it, and with a loud chime, I found myself in a long hallway. One of the interior walls sported a window that looked into the next room. When we walked by, I snuck a glance.

The room held three cots. One was empty, the second held Fouetté, one of the unity mares from my pen. She slept soundly, with a bandage wrapped around her head. The third cot held Cluster, the stallion I’d met when we first arrived. Bandages covered his body and face, several of them were still bright red. I couldn’t tell what they covered, whether it was wounds from fights with another pony, or just from one guard too many whipping to the bone. He was awake, and stared back when I walked by. He looked pissed.

Slipstock opened the door on the opposite wall, and pushed me in. The room on this side of the hallway must have been the operating room. A white sheet covered a table, and blood spatters stained the counters. A little wheeled stand sat next to the table, holding tools from centuries ago, still cleaned and prepared for operating on ponies.

In the corner of the room, a pony washed blood off her hooves in a shiny steel sink. She wore a blood stained smock, and a slave collar just like mine. I looked from her straggly mohawk, with several clumps of hair tied up with thick straps to keep it off her face, to her similarly maintained tail. Just like Lemon Tart, her hooves were visible and her coat trimmed nicely. At least she had the same level of professionalism as a Steel Ranger. Even though Slipstock cleared her throat to get the mare’s attention, she ignored us and continued scrubbing her hooves.

“What?” she finally asked as she turned off the water. She turned around, and I got a glimpse of who the doctor really was. She was a unicorn like many of the slavers, though for the first time since I’d gotten here, that was a relief. At least she’d have some cheater magic for healing, and not have to fix everything with her mouth. My relief fell flat when I saw the horribly defeated look in her eye. Dark lines, not unlike Xeno’s, crisscrossed over her tan coat. Maybe she was part zebra, and that’s why her mane was tied up like that? It wasn’t really worth the time to consider. She clacked a hoof against her collar and stared at me. “What’d you do this time, Slipstock?” she asked, closing her eyes and sighing softly.

“Just heal her up so she can work for Amble; we’ve got plans for her,” Slipstock explained with a roll of her eyes. She pointed me to the sheet covered table, and I crawled up onto it.

The doctor walked over and grabbed one of my hooves gently in her magic. After the harsh twisting of Slipstock, this was almost nice. She looked me over carefully, saying nothing as she worked. She seemed fascinated by the steel hoof and stared at it for several minutes, but said nothing.

“So what’s the damage, Doc?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant. Deep down, the idea that it might be bad news terrified me, but I didn’t want her to see it, and I didn’t want Slipstock to have even an inkling that I might have a weakness.

“Well,” she said, “from the looks of things, Slipstock and Vice Brand went overboard again. You’re not the first pony they’ve pulled this stunt on, though... You got three out of four, and I’m guessing they only stopped there because of this.” She tapped my steel hoof a few times. Her horn flared to life, and she began looking back and forth from hoof to hoof. The whole time the spell was active she chewed on her lip as if she were deep in thought.

Finally, her horn’s glow faded and she looked up at me and said, “The good news is, with the spikes inside there’s not too too much damage, because they’re holding everything together. The bad news is, you can’t take them out. The spikes he prefers to use go down to the bone, and they’ve got little barbs that make them impossible to slide back out. Just ripping them out would actually be what cripples you, unless you had an Autodoc or a very experienced surgeon. With them in, they’ll keep it from getting worse. The best I can do is heal up what damage has been done and make it less painful to walk. I can’t imagine that’s been pleasant or easy.” She looked at me with a depth of sadness I’d never seen before.

Without another word, she tilted her head down and pressed her horn to my forehoof. The familiar feeling of knitting flesh overcame the pain, and I could feel the wounds closing around the spikes inside. Any lingering aches slowly faded away, and even though I had the steel spikes still imbedded in me, I could move the hoof without bolts of pain lancing through me. She repeated the process with both of my rear hooves, and it felt... better. Compared to what it was before, I guess. I couldn’t complain.

The doctor was nice enough to fix up my ear, too. It required hacking part of it off to make it regrow, but that was worth it to get my full ear back again. Finishing her work, she looked at me with that same melancholy, and waved a hoof. “Go. I need to finish cleaning.”

Slipstock collected me, and together we paced, faster and less painfully, back toward the building they were keeping me all alone in. The day was nearly over. Celestia’s sun was so low that the light hit the bottom of the clouds directly. I only hoped I could get some sleep under cover of darkness in the pen. Being left to my own thoughts was just more torture at this point.

*   *   *

Back in the pen with the other earth ponies, I had a lot to think about. Lost’s suggestion to behave and play along worked out, so far. I hadn’t received any more ridiculous punishments, and I was able to get a good look at the camp’s layout, at least the places I’d walked so far. I tried as hard as I could to keep a mental map. There were a lot of places: dozens of buildings, only some of which I’d seen in use. There were several pens, of varying shapes and sizes, with entrances built to be hidden from the slaves they were breaking.

I trotted around the pen a few times, actually enjoying being able to move without the constant pain. The hoofcuffs weren’t so bad, now that the open wounds were healed. Each step still hurt; as I put my hoof down, the spikes twisted and yawed inside, scraping against the bone. But when I wasn’t moving, I couldn’t feel them. I looked at the ponies I was passing, trying to find the mare who’d introduced herself to me before.

I found a group that didn’t look completely hopeless, but it was the four Unity mares. They seemed to have a bit more resolve now, and weren’t focused on trying to keep from crying. I still kept my distance from them, but felt a little better since they seemed to have grown up and decided to act for themselves. I moved to another group, but they just looked away when I approached. With a frown, I moved on to the next group.

“Anypony seen, umm... Ah! Sourbelle?” I whispered, asking the nearest pony who would meet my gaze. He looked away, and I headed off in that direction. “Thanks,” I muttered.

I found the blue-maned pony leaning against the wall, idly chatting with one of the guards. If Lost’s suggestion of playing along and behaving was a good idea, this seemed the perfect example. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but they talked as if they knew one another, without any loud, overbearing threats or slurs thrown at the slave pony. I stayed a short distance away and watched. If only I had a guard that was so nice, I might not have ended up with horrible spikes dug into my legs.

A few incredibly boring minutes later, Sourbelle walked away from the guard, and I trotted up to her. She nodded in greeting, and pulled me further into the center of the pen. Once we were surrounded by several groups of ponies, she smiled and clopped a hoof onto my back.

I winced hard. She’d managed to find the spot where I’d been hit with the whip. Saying nothing about it, I smiled weakly at her. “I’ve got some questions, if you can help,” I said, looking back and forth to the groups of ponies around us.

“Well, I could get into shit for it, but anypony who can deal with three of those things is worth at least hearing out,” she said with a shrug. “What do you need?”

“How long have you been here?” I asked her, shifting from hoof to hoof. I felt agitated. The hunger and lack of sleep were really getting to me.

“Nearly a month, why?” she asked. She raised an eyebrow at me, and lowered herself to the ground.

I followed suit, lying across from her. “How long does Amble usually take to break a pony?” I asked. I needed to know how long I could stall and work around her. She’d already gotten me to question my motives, and I knew she was lying about a lot of things. If I knew how she worked, I might be able to resist it better. “And do you know where they keep the unicorns, compared to here?” I needed to know that who I saw was really who I thought it was.

“It depends! Some ponies go down in a day, some of us hold out a lot longer. I fought every step of the way, and it hasn’t even been a full month for me,” she explained. With a long sigh, she continued. “Sometimes I wonder why I’m still fighting. It only leads to more pain. I know at some point, I’ll be taken away, out to the far end of the city. When I come back, I won’t be the same. None of those ponies come back the same... If they come back.” She shuffled her hoof a few times, not making eye contact. “Each slaver uses different tactics. Amble doesn’t always do the breaking. I just try and stay positive. It keeps me sane.”

“Goddesses, why do you make it so hard?” I asked and stared at the near-black sky. The information didn’t really help, but if I could make it last a whole month, that would be plenty of time to meet up with Lost and get out, I just needed some patience. I looked back at the light cyan mare and asked, “What about the unicorns?”

“Same style of pen, different location. Rotations happen every so often, and one group gets moved to another. It’s always random too; they don’t regulate it,” she explained. She pointed out at something, “In that direction is another group pen.” She pointed a different direction, and explained, “There’s another there. And a third one far past it. Plus the one building...” She indicated at a building in pristine condition, between two of the pens she’d pointed out.

“Wow, any idea where to start? I need to find my sister,” I said to her, trying to remember the locations of each of the pens she’d pointed to. I frowned when she shook her head. “That’s fine, thank you Sourbelle.” I didn’t want to admit that her information wasn’t really useful, but she was only mare who’d been nice to me so far, and I didn’t want to lose a friend.

I lifted my cuffed hoof to her, as a sign we were in it together. She met my hoof with her own, the one with the cuff on it. We nodded to one another, and I trotted off to find another place to rest without sleeping. Staying together too much, especially considering how friendly she’d been with the guard, wasn’t something I wanted to do. It would just draw attention to me.

I trotted to the wall of the pen, and looked out the gaps in it. I could see the pen Sourbelle had pointed at in the distance. I sat and watched. I couldn’t see much inside, but if I waited, I might see my sister. I couldn’t sleep anyway, and this was a far more productive use of my time. She’d told me to be patient, behave, and play along. I trusted L.A. I trusted her planning skills. She might not be mom, but she was just as good in a tough situation. I just had to wait it out.

*   *   *

Two monotonous days of torture. Is that the point where a pony can call torture monotonous? I sighed, staring at the gate of the pen, waiting to be taken. I might only get one meal a day, and it might be even less than what I could scavenge in the Wasteland on my own, but it was something. And it was the only time I got to see Lost. And I was hungry, dammit!

My mind drifted, hunger being the only true constant. Amble’s tactics were altogether boring, lots of talking with little actual work. She spent her time lying to me, but at least I was getting to the point where I could recognize them, I thought. Every so often I swore she would say something, only to find out that I was completely wrong. Either she was a crafty bitch, or I was going crazy. It was probably her. I couldn’t be crazy; if I were crazy, I’d have given in already. That’s what crazy ponies do, they give in when a mare promises something and then takes it away, even though I knew she promised. I faceplanted the dirt in the cell and grumbled. I was sure she’d promised... But lunch was more important right now.

My stomach grumbled. Yes, lunch was much more important right now. I wanted to introduce Lost to Sourbelle as well. She seemed to have the same idea about playing along, and if I could get the two of them talking, I might be able to get information passed back and forth. I terrible using another pony as a middle-mare to talk to L.A., but I was running out of ideas.

A thinky pony would have better ideas. And I wasn’t one, not quite yet. But I was working on it.

I pushed myself up from the dirt and looked around one more time. She was always there when we went to lunch, or was that just my imagination as well? What if the guard she kept talking to was just really watching us. I hadn’t heard him say anything, and nopony else had spoken to her, or quieted her down when we were discussing the layout. Surely there was some slave out there willing to sell out their fellow ponies for some better treatment? I shook my head. No. Sourbelle was real, no questions asked. She answered things that... I looked down. No wait, I knew about the pens from walking past them when I was taken to to wait alone after the talk with Amble. And that building was completely sealed, there couldn’t be any slaves hidden in there.

Ok, I was going crazy! Either that or I was so overthinking all of this...

I hit myself upside the head with my steel hoof, smacking my skull a few times to jostle the information into a pile that made sense of things. Sourbelle was real, just like those things Amble had said and then said she didn’t say. I was not making anything up. I looked back at the gate and focused on my hunger. Barely any sleep or food was really getting to me now, worse than it had been a couple days ago. I waited patiently for the guard, like a good little slave would. Playing along and behaving. Go straight to get food, talk to my sister, leave when they tell me to. I could be a good pony, yes I could.

When the guard opened the door, I got into position where I knew I’d be required to. I looked down the row of ponies, both in front of and behind. At the end of the row I could see the blue mane of my, well, friend I guess. The guard walked down the line, holding a hoof up to count. She passed over, hoof bobbing up and down with each pony she passed. Expectantly, I watched, waiting... the hoof passed right over Sourbelle and the guard turned around. Wait, had she been counted?

I looked straight forward, stood up straight, and closed my eyes. “Just march, Hidden,” I told myself, and started on with the line. No thinking about what might or might not have just happened. I was just exhausted and hungry, and overthinking things.

We marched to the mess hall, and filed into the queue for food. Same as the past few days, they gave me half of a meal and sent me on my way. Today’s entrée was something I couldn’t find words to describe, and didn’t particularly want to taste. I trotted to where I normally sat, and found Lost’s normal seat empty. My heart sank to the pit of my stomach as I sat down, and slammed my muzzle into the gruel. I ate quickly, both to sate my hunger as fast as possible, and to allow myself time to look for L.A. Halfway through eating the tiny helping, she slumped down across from me. I looked up at her, and lifted my head only far enough for my jaw to drop back into the bowl.

She looked horrible, her coat a few shades off from normal, and her eyes glazed over. She didn’t have the horn ring on anymore, but still carried the bowl in her hooves. When she saw me watching, she blinked several times, adjusted her glasses, and smiled wide at me. “Hey, little sis,” she said, sounding as tired as I felt.

“Are... Are you okay Lost?” I asked, finally managing to pick my jaw back up.

“Yeah,” she said past the smile, “just fine.” The bags under her eyes were far worse than normal, and her coat was matted down from sweat. “Playing along, getting treated okay,” she explained. Slowly, she raised a forehoof and pressed it to her horn. “They took the ring off!” She didn’t use her magic though, when she ate, she just lowered her head down to the bowl and ate like I’d been.

I took the time to finish mine, since we’d only get a few minutes to talk before the guards noticed and carted one of the two of us away. Considering we’d done this every day since we go there, I was honestly a bit surprised they weren’t just waiting to split us up. Was this a new kind of torture? It was working, because seeing my sister look so rough was the most painful thing they’d done yet. I only guessed she felt the same. Hoofcuffs only hurt my legs, not my heart.

“How have they been working you?” she asked, not making eye contact with me. Her breathing was heavier than usual, and she’d gone pale, even through her white coat.

“Same as the past few days. Talk with Amble, listen to her tell me all the things that aren’t really happening...” I explained. I finished the last bite of my ‘meal’ and pushed the bowl away. “I made a friend, I think. Another mare with a hoofcuff like mine,” I said, looking for Sourbelle to point out. “She’s, umm...” I couldn’t find her. “Anyway, she’s been here a while, and seems to be pretty smart. I think she could talk to you during the meals? Share our plan between us.”

“Mmm, maybe. Do you trust her? What does she know?” she whispered to me, looking around at the ponies sitting beside us. With none watching or listening, she just closed her eyes and let out a long sigh. Her heavy breathing was really starting to worry me. “Sunbright’s been a lot better than Slipstock,” she said. “No shackles so far.” She stopped, and put her hoof to her mouth. Several coughs and a wretch later, she continued, “I think I’m getting it a lot easier than some of the other ponies I’ve seen her work on...”

A group of ponies approached, searching for seats. L.A. kept a watchful eye on them until they passed by. She turned back to me and continued. “That one you spoke to when we first got here, Spark Light? He’s gotten it a lot harder than me. We’ve been talking. If your friend can’t be trusted, we can-”

One of the guards started toward us, and I tapped my steel hoof on the underside of the table to let her know. She looked up at me, a horrible sadness in her eyes. “Behave, stay strong,” she whispered, and stood up. She looked at the guard for only a moment, collected her bowl in a hoof, and trotted off.

The guard smirked, and walked right past.

I sat back on my haunches. The ring was off, which meant Lost could use her magic again, but she didn’t. Was she that exhausted? With the lack of sleep and terrible food, I couldn’t blame her for saving her strength. She was such a smart pony. I looked past the table, and caught her tail dragging limply behind her as she walked off.

*   *   *

“I said no sleeping!” yelled the guard.

“I wasn’t asleep! Praise Luna, Praise Celestia, I can stay awake with my eyes closed!” I snapped. A whip crack across my back reminded me not to talk back. I just whimpered, and closed my eyes again. The night had been terrible, a half-dozen new ponies were shuffled in and created quite a stir. They were rowdy, and since they weren’t wracked with hunger and exhaustion yet, they took the time to pick on some of the weaker slaves. It took a steel hoof to their leader’s face to get them to calm down. I just wanted a night to rest.

The guard latched a leash to the bomb collar around my neck and dragged me off. The leash really wasn’t necessary, where exactly was I supposed to go? I had never been a morning pony, but being whipped and taken somewhere when the sun was barely past the clouds was a new kind of suffering. As if I needed more new kinds... I just needed another hour off my hooves and I could survive another day of Amble’s rambling monologues. “Faster,” the guard snapped.

The guard didn’t take me to Amble’s salon. Instead, he took me a few turns in the opposite direction, to the far side of the slaver city. Along the way we ran into Amble’s second-favorite guard.

“Oh, finally ya turn, eh?” said Sunbright to me, with a wide smile. She trotted up and walked along side the guard, looking me over. “Y’know, yer sister’s been kinda fun to work with. Not in any way ya’d understand, but still fun. Want me to tell her ya said hi?” she teased.

I didn’t respond, just kept going forward. The guard must have had something special planned, to use a leash, but I didn’t know quite what. We went around another turn and walked toward another building.

The wide, low building stood apart from everything else except the wall and guard towers. I could see, through collapsed sections, that there was no roof. I didn’t like the fact that it was so separated. What could go on there that needed to be secluded from the rest of the town? Several other ponies filed in, under the direction of a dark blue stallion with a stupid-looking green goatee.

Inside stood more guards, watching a few slaves that couldn’t even look up from the floor. The guards dragged us all off to separate corners of the building. I could see through half walls and broken windows that the center was hollowed out, and nothing was left except a rotten wooden floor. Inside were two ponies, one with a look of horror on her face, and the other bleeding out on the ground.

“What in the Goddesses’ name?” I whispered to myself. Were they? I shook my head. No! Amble was too frugal to pull a stunt like this. It must be a show or something, more scare tactics and monologues and lies and fake ponies that didn’t really exist. I rubbed my eyes, and trotted after the guard a little faster.

He led me into a small room off to the side, and we waited. After a few minutes, the noise from the main room subsided, and the guard tugged on my leash. Back out we went.

The pony I’d seen earlier was gone, and the... the other pony I’d seen wasn’t there either. The floor was amazingly clean for being two centuries old, and there wasn’t even a speck of the blood I’d seen earlier. I suspected cheater magic, but I was too tired and too confused. I must have been imagining that too. See, it was just a case of, well, seeing things that weren’t there. I shook my head, trying ineffectively to clear the thought.

“Well, lookie what we have here,” said Slipstock, snark obvious in her voice. “I’ve been waiting for this...” She sat up in the seat she was in, a nice comfy looking one in the corner of the room. All along the corner were holsters and pistols, dangling there just waiting for her to use them on me.

From the other side of the room, the green unicorn, Spark Light, was brought out. He stumbled on his hooves, the defiant look he’d had when we were separated completely gone. The other stallion with him said he was raised a raider, and to act like it, but this pony looked like one who’d been a slave their whole life. The guard stopped him directly across from me, and left. My guard left as well.

Amble sat just outside the room, leaning over one of the rotting half walls. It creaked under her weight, and she looked me straight in the eyes. With a small smile, she pointed at the stallion. “Kill him,” she ordered.

“No. This isn’t a death match. You’re not that wasteful,” I snapped, somewhat confident that she wouldn’t kill me right here. “I told you, I only kill to survive.”

“No, ya said ya were a murderer and took pleasure in it,” she corrected. “I wrote it down, I can show ya. Now prove what ya told me. Kill this pony.”

“Why?” I asked. I’d never said that! I wasn’t a murderer. Why would I tell her I was a murderer? She would only use something like that against me. I looked at the stallion and sat hard on my haunches. I tapped my steel hoof on the floor. “Why would you waste one of your slaves?”

“Wow, talkative for a murderer,” she said in an annoyingly happy tone. “He’s useless and won’t bring a profit like ya will. Broke like a filly under a raider warlord who ain’t got laid in a year. All he’s done is fuck up. I’m wastin’ more caps feedin’ him than I’ll make sellin’ him.”

“That’s not a very good reason to kill him,” I said, looking away from her. There was no way I was just going to kill a pony because she told me to. That wasn’t the kind of pony I was, and there was nothing she could do to change that. Standing, I dusted my forelegs off and turned to walk toward the door. “I’d rather listen to you tell me how much you love the stubborn ones, and how you have special plans for me. I’m not going to kill him.”

“Miss Fortune, come now. I’ve got plans for ya, I do. But I need ya to be loyal to me, or it’s all worthless,” she said in a soft voice. “I want to put yer skills to use, in a way that benefits us both. Don’t make me do somethin’ terrible... Yer sister’ll be the one who suffers.”

I turned and looked at her. Threats to do something terrible? She let Slipstock do terrible things all the time already. Raising my hoof, I winced at the shifting hoofcuff. I might be more used to that pain, but it was still a reminder of what I’d gone through for the past few days.

I just needed to hold out. Hold out and pray she wouldn’t hurt Lost like she’d hurt me.

“I said kill him!” she yelled. “Now!”

The stallion whimpered. He stared at the floor trembling. “Just do it,” he whispered, “I’m already dead... Just take the pain away okay? They’ve done some terrible things, and I just...”

“No!” I screamed back, rearing up and slamming both forehooves into the ground.

“...I just want it to be over,” he finished. Tears fell to the ground below him.

“Miss Fortune, now.”

“Never,” I snapped.

“Slipstock?” Amble said, turning to the bodyguard.

A bullet tore through his horn. The stallion yelped in pain and fell to the floor, clutching with his hooves at the shattered bone. He looked up at me, past his tears, almost as if he was accusing me of letting it happen to him.

“Stop!” I screamed, looking at the two ponies in shock.

“Are ya gonna do like I asked?” Amble teased, giving a look to Slipstock. “Kill him, and his pain ends. I know ya take sadistic pleasure in this sorta thing, but we got other ponies to handle today.”

What! I didn’t take any pleasure in this! I wanted the stallion’s suffering to end, I wanted him healed and put back into the Wasteland where he could survive on his own and make something of himself. Killing him was pointless! I wasn’t that kind of pony!

“Miss Fortune, I don’t have all day,” she snapped, with more urgency this time. She sighed loudly and closed her eyes. “Just let me know that ya accept that ya belong here like I need ya to. I won’t make ya kill again, without reason, if ya do. Isn’t that what ya said ya wanted?”

“I don’t want to kill anypony if I don’t have to,” I argued. She was wrong. I didn’t belong here, and I didn’t need to kill him. We could leave together, go back to the pens, and think of a plan. Lost would tell him what we could do, we’d talk, and then we’d all get out. It would be okay, if we could just-

Her logic was all wrong. If I was a murderer, wouldn’t I want to do this? Was it just because I was fighting against her suggestion? Was she trying to make me a murderer? I shook my head, looking back and forth between the stallion and the slaver. I closed my eyes, I couldn’t make sense of it all. I just wanted to go.

“Alright, Miss Fortune here obviously doesn’t want to go back to see her sister,” Amble said in a calm voice. She would let me see my sister, I just had to kill for it?

I stared at her, my jaw hanging slack.

The bodyguard moved her hoof.

Spark Light’s collar exploded.

It wasn’t fast. It was more like a sparkling firework than a bomb. The collar didn’t take his head off like they’d threatened. Instead it burned through half of his neck. He screamed in pain before his vocal cords sizzled into burnt ruins. The horrific whine that came after was something I knew I’d never forget. He went limp on the floor. Occasionally he twitched.

I could hear him gurgling.

I could hear him still breathing.

“See what happens Miss Fortune? Ya kill ponies no matter what. Like a murderer. All ya had to do was end his pain. That’s mercy, not murder. Can’t ya see the difference?” Amble lectured, flipping her hoof in the air. “Ya coulda done it fast and painless, at least.”

I wasn’t paying attention to her words. My mind racing so fast that I could barely collect my thoughts. Was I a murderer or wasn’t I? Which was it? Would I really get to see my sister? Did this poor stallion have to die slow like that?

He didn’t die when she set the bomb off. I stared in horror as he bled out, drowning on his own blood. Everything seemed to stop around me, and my thoughts quieted. Just like...

I fell, hard. Just like Lost had. I wanted to run, escape from all of this, but I couldn’t move, not with Slipstock and that murderous gleam in her eye.

I wanted to tell him it would be okay, and end it quick. My legs wouldn’t move, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t have a damn thing to save him.

And I had to... I had to watch him slowly drown.

He looked at me, a mixture of rage and pain in his dimming eyes.

Why didn’t I just end it quick for him? Finally, I found the strength to stand, and I walked over. I raised my steel hoof and pressed it to his forehead.

“I...”

He was already gone.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

Footnote: Level Up!

Hidden Fortune:

New Perk: Fight The Power! – You gain a +2DT and a +5% Crit Chance against organized groups within the Wasteland. Enclave, Steel Rangers, and Red Eye's Slavers better watch the buck out!

Lost Art:

New Perk: Fight The Power! – You gain a +2DT and a +5% Crit Chance against organized groups within the Wasteland. Enclave, Steel Rangers, and Red Eye's Slavers better watch the buck out!

“Didn’t we do the ‘get enslaved thing’ already?”

“Well yeah, but the author is a sadist.”

“That’s not an excuse for bad writing...”

“I know, just let her get it out of her system. She says it’ll be better later.”

“Do you really think I believe that?”

“I wouldn’t if I were you.”

“And just who the fuck are you?”

“One of the editors...”

Author's Note:

(A massive thank you to Kkat for creating, and everyone else who has helped to flesh out the universe of Fallout Equestria. And to everyone who has/will help with with editing and making this more palatable... Big hearts to Dimestream, Sabsy, Heartshine, Moth, and everypony else who helped with ideas, editing, and brushies. And of course everything is copyright their respective owners. ~Hnetu)

Disclaimer: For any readers who have followed chronologically up to this point, I’m sure you’re well aware of what’s going to happen in this chapter. Slavers are not good ponies and often do despicable things to their ‘property’ in an effort to make them compliant... So this is a warning before you can start, that this chapter will contain torture. A lot of it. This includes traditional brainwashing techniques, gaslighting, physical and emotional torture. So please, if any reader feels that they might be upset or triggered by any type of torture, please skip this chapter. I will be posting a brief summary at the beginning of Chapter 11 to make sure every reader is on the same page.

Trigger Warning: Torture, physical, emotional, and mental. Read with caution.

#1 · 81w, 6d ago · 1 · ·

Wow, that was...good. Not what happened to them, no, but the way you described it. Very vivid and matching the atmosphere.

Slavers are, in my opinion, even worse than Raiders and should all burn in everlasting blue fire. The more I'm looking forward to how they're going to get out of there (and hopefully kill them all in the process). I'm hoping for the Steel Rangers to come, since Lost still has that broadcaster....

Anyway, great torture/mindfuck chapter.

#2 · 81w, 6d ago · · ·

Our first double digit chapter and our darkest yet. As reward for everypony who reads and follows along I present Commemorative chapter 10 art for you all to properly burn this chapter and this scene into your memories~

Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy~

-LA

#3 · 81w, 6d ago · 1 · ·

Written good!:pinkiehappy:  Hmm.. Dark chapter.. Not so dark, actually, more sad.  :ajsmug: You didn't overdone anything, i think. "Catched" chapters are quite common in FoE fiction, and that's one good.  :twilightsmile:

#4 · 81w, 5d ago · 1 · ·

As  a huge fan of authors horribly screwing with their characters, I heartily approve of this chapter and look forward to the next. :pinkiehappy:

#5 · 81w, 4d ago · 1 · ·

Suspense so much of it, anyways that slaver will regret everything so will all the others :yay:. Late at commenting.

#6 · 80w, 5h ago · 2 · ·

A minor edit has been made. Due to me not paying attention, I TOTALLY forgot that there is no 'PTSD' in FOE-lore. It was brought to my attention that it is referred to as Wartime Stress Disorder, or WSD.

Changes have been made to reflect this correction of oversight.

#7 · 79w, 5d ago · 1 · ·

Good story so far. This chapter was not as bad as it could have been. The question is, could the chapter be described as more well written if it had been worse and actually disturbed me? I wonder...

Regardless, I await the next chapter with righteous fury in my heart, hoping that they can get out and get even in a satisfactory way.

#8 · 61w, 3d ago · · ·

Not exactly sure where it said it, but there was a point that confused me a little. It was something along the lines of....

"No sleeping," I said (blah blah blah), giving the guard a salute. blah blah blah nothing in return, blah blah blah bitch.

I don't think it was Hidden saying that.

#9 · 61w, 3d ago · · ·

>>3111974

One of those "I understand, that's the rule" comments, where Hidden is repeating what she's come to understand is the norm.

#10 · 56w, 4d ago · 1 · ·

Why is the warning on the bottom of the chapter? Not that it matters. Would have read it anyway. (Edit: Oh wait, no, there it is. Nevermind.)

Annoying sitting here as powerless as Hidden, only able to wait for the comeuppance I hope will come and REALLY hope will be slow and painful.

Is there a slaver colony in Fallout: New Vegas? Maybe I should load up Fallout 3 where I know there's one. I need to go on a slaver killing spree. Hidden isn't a murderer, I am.

#11 · 45w, 6d ago · 2 · ·

You sure like to take it hard upon poor Hidden, don’t you? I liked Amble, though, as odd as it might sound. She knows what she has to do to overcome Hidden's resistance, and she does it properly.

The discussion on the morality of Hidden is also juicy enough to talk about it for a long time. Good work on the chapter!

#12 · 44w, 20h ago · 1 · ·

Good grief, you must have a similar opinion of humanity to me to be able to write this sort of chapter. Even so, you managed to make my slavers look like a damn holiday camp. The previous chapter wasn't any less frustrating either, with that almost unbeatable @#$%. I can't say I either liked or enjoyed this chapter, but that is the entire point, isn't it?

#13 · 40w, 6d ago · · ·

Pah lease I've read Murky Number Seven 2 times, slavery and torture does't affect me that much anymore :derpytongue2:

#14 · 39w, 8h ago · 1 · ·

Silly slavers there only making it worse for themselves in the end.

#15 · 20w, 7h ago · 1 · ·

So this was the infamous Chapter 10.  Even going in knowing it was going to be bad, I don't think I was ready for just how bad it was going to get.  I can't be certain because of the roiling mix of emotions in my head by the time I reached the end of the chapter, but I'm pretty sure I was trembling.

I just...  One moment after another after another and things just never get better for Hidden and Lost.  I want to jump back 2 chapters to Drop Scone, Lamington, and Creme Brulee, I want to fast-forward, skip the chapter and find things getting better, find when Hidden and Lost get a chance to comfort each other again and be sisters again.  But I can't.  As much as my heart is seizing up inside of my chest at how much pain Hidden is going through, this is her story and I feel like I have to keep reading just so she has someone to share her pain.  And please don't take my statement of "I want to fast-forward" the wrong way.  It's not borne out of the fact that it's bad writing, or a bad story, or anything like that.  It's just me wanting to bury my head in the sand.

Sorry, I know I'm just talking about me here, but it's rare to have something get this much emotion out of me.  I want to commend you on how effective your writing was this chapter, and this is the best way I know how.

Right, right, take a step back and let's get you some proper feedback.  The way Hidden was having a hard time distinguishing truth from lie, in her sleep-deprived, starved state was very well-handled, and the difference between Lost the first time Hidden saw her and the second time...  good lord.  And though I have used this word before, and will likely continue to abuse it going forward, the scene with Vice Brand was horrifying.  Throughout this chapter, whenever I had to set it down for something else that popped up and needed my attention, and I had a moment to think, I assured myself that the physical torture couldn't get worse because they need to sell her.  Presumably, they need a healthy slave, right?  It can't get worse.  I suppose the only thing I could offer for critique is that Amble's phonetic accent bumped the flow of reading a little, but it's a minor critique at best.

I think no matter what I say I'm just gonna keep circling back to just how goddamn emotional this chapter made me.  And I couldn't explain how, maybe it simply was because I was ready for things to get bad, but it didn't feel out of place, or out of character for anyone involved.  Now if you'll excuse me I need to step back and... I dunno, play Pokemon or something.  Maybe just listen to some happy music for a while.  Need to re-stabilize myself before I tackle Chapter 11.

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