Once, there had been a grand wall surrounding Orchard. Now, it was a long jagged pile of rubble that circled the compound. At regular intervals were the remains of guard towers, mounds of masonry and metal, standing vigil all this time.
Most of the buildings past the wall had held up much better against the corrosive effects of the wasteland. They were not in the design of Hornsmith at all, having a more industrial look to them instead of a bland, uniform one. Pipes ran between most of the buildings, leading to storage tanks and large buildings with smoke stacks.
In the distance, we could hear gunfire. Plumes of smoke marked the location of where, from the sounds of it, there was a heated battle underway. I could make out multiple weapons, ranging from the sharp crack of rifles to the concussive detonations of some seriously heavy ordinance.
Making our way over the rubble was no issue, though Fluster was lagging behind slightly in making sure that her new pet could keep up. Ash kept shooting looks back at her, clearly unhappy about the new addition slowing us down, but I had faith that if Fluster really fell far enough behind us, she would catch up. She seemed to have a talent for staying safe and finding us in nearly any situation.
As we went over the rubble and into Orchard proper, Ivory voiced what I had hoped not to really think about. “So, we just going to walk around until we find somepony that’s not a raider? Is this just... how do you ponies do things like this?””
“Hey, you’re the one that came up with the plan to come out here. You can figure out how we go about this. I’m not exactly....” I paused, looking for the word that worked in this instance
Ivory grinned and looked me right in the eyes. “Eloquent? You’re not exactly the most convincing speaker from what I’ve seen.”
Ash and Fluster nodded.
“Fine then. You can talk to them, Ivory, when we encounter them. Have fun.” My dismissal of speaking duties made her laugh again, clearly enjoying that she was getting to me. Talking wasn’t really my thing. I’d tried to talk Wires down, but he blew us up. Cinder had nearly burnt me to death. Hell, Shade had punched me in the eye.
So talking to ponies caused me physical harm. Good to know.
Turning to the griffin, who had his rifle out and was in the process of searching for any raiders to shoot at, I gestured towards the air. “Ash, lets find out where the fighting is.” He nodded once and with a beat of his wings he took to the sky.
Ash settled in about a hundred feet up, and was looking down the scope of his rifle when a slash of red cut through the air at him. Acting quickly, he spiralled away from the shot, but more tore up from somewhere ahead of us at him, forcing him to go through a series of aerial acrobatics before tucking his wings and dropping to the earth. We rushed to meet him.
When we got there, he was rubbing at one of his arms where he had received a glancing blow from one of the shots. “Fucking energy weapons... sting like a bitch.” He was mumbling to himself, even as Shade pulled out a bandage and began wrapping it around the wound. “So yeah, there’s some cunt rag a block over with a beam thrower. Good aim too. Can’t be a raider.”
“Why’d you rule out raiders?” Ivory was looking past the griffin, waiting for enemies to come streaming around the corner so that she could end them.
“Too much armor. I didn’t get a real good look at ‘em, but if I had to guess who it was, I hope that I’m wrong. They don’t have any reason to come out this way, the tower was never finished in Hornsmith.” The griffin was rummaging through his bag, looking for something. “Hope I got armor piercing rounds in here, don’t wanna take on Enclave without something that can go clean through.”
That concerned me. Ash had only shown this much wariness for Paragons and elevators, which immediately placed this Enclave on a level of threat above raiders or gnashers.
“Haha, there you are...” The griffin let out a little whoop of victory as he found what he was looking for in his bag and pulled out a few large caliber rounds, which he slid put into his belt for easy access. He then gestured at the rifle. “Tough bastards, the Enclave.”
“So who exactly are the...” I had only just begun asking the question when a small orb bounced off of the wall next to us and landed at our feet. We all looked at it dumbly as it slowly dawned on us that it was a grenade. The red band wrapped around it told me what I needed to know, and I knew that I was not interested in being lit on fire again.
“Fuck!” Ash yelled as we all began diving away from the grenade, grabbing Shade who had finished wrapping his arm, while the rest of us scrambled to get some distance between ourselves and the menacing little orb.
Though we had a small bit of distance between us and the weapon, I still felt about a dozen small bites in my flank as it detonated and peppered the area with jagged shrapnel. Immediately, all that I could think was that I’d had worse. Ivory, however, hadn’t. She started spitting a stream of profanity as blood seeped through her armor in a few places where the shrapnel had gained purchase.
Ash and Shade looked no worse for the wear, having cleared much greater distance than the rest of us. Wings were useful for that.
Then, just like that, I didn’t have time to be concerned for the welfare of my motley band. The raiders were on us, following up their grenade to finish off any survivors.
Surprisingly, none of these raiders had guns or I was sure we would have been killed off almost immediately. They came charging through the smoke of the detonation, screaming and brandishing various sharp instruments of violence. The blacksmiths at Stadium had been busy indeed.
The air filled with screams, bloodthirsty shouts, and gunfire coming from Ivory and Ash. I was still drawing Broken as the first raider to get at me took a swing. I hopped back, the blade scoring along my barding but not doing any real damage. In response, he took a load of buckshot to the face.
I worked the lever, sending an empty casing into the air, just in time for the next two raiders to reach me at the same time. Smart, not coming at me one at a time. Raising my PipBuck arm, I deflected an attack by a wickedly edged slab of metal crudely formed into an axe but staggered under the force of the blow. The second, a smaller, much faster earth pony, managed to get in under my defense and rammed a knife into my shoulder.
The raider let out a whoop of victory, but it was short lived as I slammed my PipBuck down into his head with a crunch. It wasn’t enough to kill him, but he reeled back from the blow, giving me just enough room to make an attack. The raider with the axe was much bigger than his companion and was the much more serious threat, so he was my target.
Swinging Broken around, I smacked him in the eye with the stock of the weapon. His head snapped sideways with the impact, throwing him off balance and sending him crashing into his stunned friend. Broken flipped over in it’s soft grey glow, and aimed directly at the now crumpled pile. Pulling the trigger, I sent lead ripping into the two ponies, hitting one in the neck and the other in the torso. I chambered another round and fired again, just to be sure. Neither made an immediate attempt to continue their attack on me, so I turned to more pressing matters.
Gripping the blade stuck in my shoulder with my teeth, I wrenched it out. The flash of pain was intense, but brief, and I dropped the blade to the ground with a clatter and spray of blood. It hurt, but it was nothing that a potion wouldn’t fix.
Looking back up into the battle, I saw that the raiders had begun fleeing beneath Ivory’s withering spray of gunfire. Ash was picking off stragglers, and before I knew it, the fight was over. Shade rushed to my side, checking my cut with the deep concern she had begun showing for all of my injuries. I wasn’t sure when she’d designated herself as our medic, being an engineering pony, but she seemed to do a good enough job. Plus, having her near me always upped my mood, which right now had been negatively influenced by the knife that now lay at my hooves.
“A single grenade? I don’t think those raiders were very bright...” Ash had begun looting the corpses as had Fluster, who had been absent during the fight. Her little friend was right alongside her, tearing a chunk of meat out of a dead raider. Shade noticed this as well and grimaced before turning her full attention to my knife wound.
I finished surveying the scene before nodding at Ash. These raiders were very underequipped for what I had come to expect. “Maybe they’re a scouting party? Not expecting to run into us, but too eager for violence to pass us by?”
Ash covered his eyes and sighed. “Why can’t all raiders be alike? Everywhere I go, they act different... Hornsmith may have the numbers, but the quality of crazy is down. You should see the Hoof... Fucking psychos up there.”
Shade had finished wrapping my wound and I flexed my shoulder experimentally. It ached, but the magic in the bandages was going to work quickly. I was just forever cursed to be mummified. Her smile as she finished made it all worth it.
Ash tilted his head to the side suddenly. “Hear that? They’re coming back.... sounds like they’ve got friends too.”
Ivory perked up immediately at this, she’d been looking a little disheartened when they had turn and run. “Ooh, just when I thought the fun had ended.” She smiled and kicked an empty casing on the ground, sending it skittering away.
Ash held up a hand and told the pale mare to be quiet. He listened for a few seconds, the rest of us waiting for him, before he spoke again. “Sorry, pretty mane, sounds like there’s a few more than we can handle. I’m guessing they’ve got guns this time too, so we’d best move on if we don’t wanna get killed right here.”
She frowned at him, but he stood firmly before slinging his rifle over his back. Then she looked at me pleadingly. “Come on, Rip. We can take them, right?” In response, I glanced at the griffin who was shaking his head and gesturing that we should hurry up.
“I gotta go with Ash on this. He’s got more experience with these things than the rest of us. He says it’s too dangerous, it’s too dangerous.” I said this in as conciliatory a fashion as I could, speaking softly.
Despite how worked up she got at the prospect of killing, she took my decision rather well, just huffing a bit and stomping her hooves a few times. “Fine then. We’ll just have to kill them later.” She flipped her mane and walked past Ash, sniffing derisively at him.
We moved out, deeper into Orchard. As we walked, we discussed what we would do when we encountered whoever had shot at Ash. A pony that heavily armed could be a useful ally, if they weren’t Enclave like Ash had guessed. If they were just a group of ponies that had stumbled into a cache of wartime weapons, then they may have thought that Ash was a slaver or a raider. It would make sense if every other griffin that came down this way worked for that Red Eye pony.
Ash, to his credit, was willing to let his recent injury go, but if they shot him again he could make no promises that we wasn’t going to turn them into a sieve. The griffin kept flexing his arm as he walked, the bandage hiding the actual injury but I could tell that he was annoyed that it had been magical energy. Those scars don't heal so well. Catching my own reflection in a window as I passed by was proof enough of that.
As we walked, I began noticing an emblem repeating on all of the walls. It was faded, but I could still make out an apple. I was reminded of the starburst I’d seen at the MoAS bunker and the butterflies that I was searching for. “Hey, Ash, is that a ministry emblem?”
The griffin looked at one as we passed it and nodded. “Wartime Technology. They made guns.”
Surprisingly abrupt of an answer for the griffin, but it answered what I wanted. So these were Ministry buildings. That was a good sign... now if only I could find those butterflies. Butterflies meant Ministry of Peace, and Ministry of Peace meant whatever Hate had an army of raiders looking for.
Then the griffin’s voice cut through my thinking. “Oh, fuck.”
I looked up and saw what he noticed. At the end of the corridor we were headed down, a band of raiders was coming into the view. They were heavily armed. Looking behind us, I could make out another group behind us.
We were trapped. Outnumbered and outgunned.
“Oh, fuck.” I agreed with the griffin.
“Uh... we can go this way.” I didn’t even recognize the voice at first. Fluster had not spoken in quite a while. Looking to the side, she was pushing open a door with that big apple emblem on it.
A roar of voices began from both ends of the corridor we were now trapped in and I nodded quickly. A shot skipped off the wall, making Fluster flinch, but then she moved much more quickly and opened the door wide before rushing inside. I pulled Shade through, and Ivory followed behind us. Ash closed the door behind him and immediately went about looking for some way to lock it.
The rest of us were staring at what we’d walked into.
Vast machines filled the space within, none of which I could even begin to guess at the use of. Fluster was trotting forwards, and I could just imagine that her eye was wide with wonder. Shade was the first to speak. “This... this is a weapons factory. I’ve never seen an ammo press of this size before.”
Well, that right there might explain the raider army. Armies needed supplies, and a weapons factory in the wrong hands could do a lot of harm to the wasteland.
If the door was unlocked though... why hadn’t they already found this?
I kicked something and looked down, finding a dead raider at my feet. A line of blackened holes were punched into his side, and it looked like he’d been dead for only a few hours. There were other corpses in here as well... all of them similar to the scouting party that had rushed us before. They’d all been gunned down just inside of the factory.
I quickly floated out Broken, scanning the area in front of us. A loud clang from behind drew my attention briefly, but it was just Ash finally engaging the locking mechanism on the large metal door. His eyes got big as he looked into the room and saw the bodies. Ivory saw them as well and braced herself to begin firing.
“Shade.... Fluster.... get behind us.”
They looked at me and then they noticed the bodies. Shade’s eyes darted up and around the room as she retreated behind us, but Fluster began moving towards one of the bodies to begin looting.
A slash of red barely missed the robed mare and she jumped back a few feet with a small shriek. Coming around the corner was a robotic pony with a glass casing on for a head, a brain visible within. It began firing lethal beams of energy at us, but luckily it had terrible aim.
Ash snapped up his rifle and fired, the heavy round tearing into the brain and destroying it in a spray of metal, water, and grey matter. As the echo of the gunshot reverberated through the building, I could begin to hear metal hoof falls throughout. We’d woken up a 200 year old defense system.
The door behind us began rattling as the raiders reached it. Then the banging started. It was a solid door, but there were a lot of them and it could only resist them for so long.
Ash worked the bolt on his rifle and began walking into the interior of the building. “Come on, we’re gonna die if we stay here. We find a way out, we’ll live longer lives.”
Ash led the way, and Ivory brought up the rear. As we passed the fallen robot, I saw that it had Protectapony written on it in faded letters. Not very creative, but it got the point across.
I was quickly beginning to hate this building. Everything echoed, and we could never tell if another Protectapony was on us until it began firing or we made a visual confirmation. Even the subterranean ponies, being accustomed to the acoustics of a tunnel, couldn’t get a good fix. Every robot was a potentially lethal surprise.
I reloaded as I took down my fourth of the metal monsters. They weren’t very quick, but those beams hurt. They hurt a lot. I’d taken a glancing blow on my rump, which Shade had immediately tried bandaging, but I’d shooed her away.
Then we hit the far wall of the building. It was a blank slab of metal that ran off in either direction with no doors, hatches, windows, or any other discernible way through. As I sighed in disappointment, two things happened.
First, a loud bang echoed through the chamber, from what I could only assume was the raiders finally blowing their way through the door.
Second, a beam of red light sliced out of the darkness to our right and hit Ivory in the face. She screamed and fell to the floor swiping at her face frantically with her front hooves. Ash and I spun and fired into the dark, hoping to down the hidden aggressor before it could do anything else.
Shade and Fluster rushed to Ivory’s side as Ash dropped his rifle and drew his revolver, emptying the chambers in rapid succession. I racked the lever and fired again, this time being rewarded with a flash of sparks and a quick smell of ozone as the robot finally took enough damage to break.
I looked to Ash frantically, yelling at him. “Find us a way out. Any way out!” He nodded and jumped straight up, onto one of the large machines and disappeared from view. I rushed to Ivory’s side, more to make sure that she was still alive than to help. I couldn’t really do anything.
She had stopped kicking and screaming, but was sobbing as Shade made a hushing sound as she gave Ivory a hit of Med-X. Once I saw her face, I sighed in relief. The blow had the potential to be fatal, but the majority of it had been absorbed by her goggles, which were now a half melted ruin laying on the ground next to her. Without them, the beam would have hit her straight in the eye.
At best, she would have received a scar similar to mine. At worst, she would have died instantly. She was missing some fur from right under her eye, a bit of charred flesh visible. That would scar, but it would not be too big. She’d gotten off very lucky, from what I could tell.
From somewhere in the building, I began to hear gunfire and the crackling sound that the Protectapony energy weapons made. It sounded like our hunters had encountered each other, which was good for us. It would thin the numbers, make it that much easier if it came down to us having to fight either.
“Shade, is she good to walk?” We couldn’t really go anywhere until Ash came back, but it was important that we were all ready to move when he did find his way back.
The blue mare nodded a bit as she helped the sobbing Ivory to her hooves. “She’s just disoriented... maybe in shock. I’m not sure.” She leaned in close to Ivory. “Are you okay to walk?”
Ivory sniffed and winced as the skin on her face contorted from the effort. I knew that pain well. Shade began wrapping a bandage over her eye as she wobbled a bit but stood her ground. “Yeah.... I should be okay.... is it bad? My face? Am I gonna look like Rip?”
I snorted a laugh at that. A gunshot to the face and she was worried it had would damage her looks more than anything. “Nah, you won’t have a scar near as big as mine. Maybe a little one. Don’t worry.”
She smiled weakly, tears and blood staining her cheeks. She was going to be fine as far as I could tell.
Then something jumped up and bit me. I yelled and looked at the fresh bullet wound in my side. Fuck. The raiders were now in sight. I aimed Broken down the path between machines and fired at the approaching raiders, sending them scattering into cover as the buckshot ricocheted down the tight alley. The girls took cover, getting as much metal between them and the raiders as possible.
Ivory tried to get into a position to add her fire to my defense but stumbled and fell. Her balance was still off from the wound, which meant that until Ash came back, it was just me against the raiders.
I was not liking these odds.
A small orb bounced once and rolled next to me. I’d been slow to react the last time, but now I knew what to do. I grabbed the grenade in my magic and threw it as hard as I could propel the weapon back the way it came. Two seconds later, I heard a yell followed quickly by a concussive thump as the grenade went off. I was sort of hoping that they wouldn’t learn that lesson and keep sending them. Any kills I could make without expending my own ammunition I would take gladly.
The next thing they threw at me were words. “Hey... hey hold your fire! You’re Two Kick, right? The Paragon? Why are you fighting us? We’re on the same side... aren’t we? You’re supposed to be friends with Hate.”
That made me mad. That made me really mad. I shouted down the alley at whatever pony decided it was safer to try and talk us out of our spot than flush us out with grenades. “Yeah, well if Hate shoots all of his friends in the face, I don’t think I really want to be his friend!”
They were quiet for a long time... which was exactly what I wanted. Buy some time. Any time we could get. I had a quick flashback to the last time I’d bought time for Ash to find us an exit. Dragon of fire. Chemical smell. My old marefriend. The bitch that set me on fire.
Shade let out a sharp gasp from where she, Fluster, and Ivory were taking cover, and I whipped around, aiming Broken. Stupid. They’d been flanking us, how had I not thought of that?
A single pony’s head was around the corner and I pulled the trigger, blowing it to pieces. The head burst like a balloon filled with bone and meat. I heard a familiar screech and lowered Broken, chambering another round. A torrent of gunfire picked up from back down the alley in response to my shot, peppering the wall near me with holes and dents.
Ash came around the corner, holding the dead body of the pony, which I could see had had it’s throat ripped open, as a shield in case I fired again. He poked his head around cautiously and saw me holding Broken at rest. Sighing, he dropped the body softly and gestured that we should follow him. He looked down at Ivory as Shade helped her up and visibly sighed before reaching down and grabbing her up gently.
My concern right now was getting to them. It was only a short distance across to where they all were, but that distance was being periodically filled with flying lead. I pulled open my inventory and started looking for anything. A voice floated into my head and I was surprised to find that it was not the one I’d expected.
It was Traffic. “Buckshot. Slug. Magnum. Incendiary.” That’s right... she’d given me multiple types of ammo, but I’d been using only buckshot and slug. Right away, I located that I had ten incendiary rounds. All that thought of Cinder lighting me up had produced something fruitful. Thank you, Traffic. I’d have to remember to thank her the next time I was in Blank.
I loaded an incendiary shell and hoped that it would give me the desired effect. I took a few breaths and floated Broken out, low so it wouldn’t get hit by a stray shot. Pulling the trigger, I felt the roar of flames that shot down the alley, causing a break in the return fire and a few shouts of surprise.
I rolled quickly across the killing field, over into the safety of the machinery where Ash waited. I nodded at him, and he returned the gesture, before we ran off. He led the way, carrying the armored bulk of Ivory rather gently. That made me think that them shooting barbs at each other constantly was just for show, and that maybe I didn’t really need to worry that they were going to end up shooting each other.
What he had found was a wide staircase leading down. It was better than nothing, but as Fluster led the way down I noticed he was lingering at the top. “Oh come on, Ash. It’s either down here or die, remember?”
He sighed and began down the stairs after us. I noticed that at the bottom of the stairs, Shade was looking up at us with her hoof resting on the wall. Once Ash was clear of the entrance, she pressed something and two metal doors slid out of the walls, slamming shut and plunging us into brief darkness before several orange lights flickered into being. She pressed another button and the light around the panel she was at went red. I hoped that meant it was locked.
The tunnels were completely different than what I’d gotten used to in the underground of Hornsmith. These ones were much more... industrial. Wires and cables ran all along the walls, faded signs pointed towards different locations. I began looking at them curiously, before a sharp pain drew my attention away.
Oh right, I’d been shot again. Shade was worrying over the bullet hole in my side, wrapping bandages around it to stop the blood flow. I made a note that she should get some actual medical training... maybe I’d leave her with Crimson Knife for a while. Right after I had the teleporting mare dig a bullet or two out of my side.
I went back to looking at the signs. Surprisingly, Fluster appeared next to me, looking at the signs as well. “Huh... these would have helped around Underhoof.” She was the expert on tunnels after all. As she looked at them, she stood on her hind legs and tapped a hoof on one of the signs. “Ministry of Peace. This is the one you’re looking for.” She dropped back down, but as she had reached her hoof out I couldn’t help but notice that her leg was just as scarred as her head had been. My theory that she was almost more scar than pony was starting to get a little more fleshed out.
She nodded at me before sticking her head into her robes. I heard a munching sound, which continued after her head had popped back into view in the hood. I realized suddenly that I hadn’t seen Fern in a while. She had him in one of her... whatever she had in the robe. She’d just fed the little monster.
I grinned at that though, which got me a strange look from her. I wasn’t going to bother her if she was perfectly comfortable keeping a monster that close to her body. She turned and began trotting away from us, down one of the tunnels.
“It’s this way. We’d better hurry before they find a way through that door.” Ash nodded in agreement with the robed mare, and once he was sure that Ivory could walk, he began following Fluster.
I turned to Shade and gestured towards Ivory with a tilt of my head. “See to her. I’ll be fine. She needs your help right now.” I nuzzled her neck lightly, and she returned the gesture before trotting off to give the pale mare somepony to lean on. They started trotting down the tunnel after the griffin and robed mare, so I brought up the rear. Those doors were pretty solid looking, and I suspected they’d used most of their heavy ordinance getting the factory doors open, so we should be good for a while.
Still, the possibility of more of those pony robots lurking about down here kept me on my hooves, and I loaded slug rounds into Broken. They just seemed like they would do more damage to the metal bodies of the potential robots.
One thing I was glad of is that Orchard seemed completely free of gnashers. I’d not seen one sign of the beasts, and that was a small comfort. Having to face killer robots, murderous raiders, and an unknown side that had already shot at Ash was all a lot easier to handle without a horde of ravenous once-ponies trying to eat my face.
“This should be it.” Fluster’s light voice echoed down the tunnel towards me, and I picked up the speed to catch up with everypony. She had found a metal door, exactly like every other one we’d passed down here, save for the fact that it was emblazoned with the triple butterflies. Ministry of Peace. Wonderful.
Shade left Ivory, who still looked rather wobbly but had a smile on her face, and approached the terminal set into the wall next to the door. Activating it, she tapped at a few keys before sitting back and putting her fetlock to her chin.
“Something wrong?” Ash was looking over her shoulder at the terminal. I had no idea how those things worked, for the most part, so it was best if I just sat back.
“It’s more complicated than I had thought. I can get it though.” She sat there for a few minutes, opening and closing the terminal every once in awhile.
Eventually, the door let out a loud, echoing click. Shade let out a small cheer and stepped back from the door, which Ash pulled open. I held Broken ready, just in case. Ash opening doors always had mixed results.
The open door gave us no surprises, luckily. Inside was the clean white that I had come to associate with Hornsmith MoP facilities. I took lead, walking past everypony, the overall cleanliness of the hall amazing me. In a world of filth, places like this were rare.
Then we came to the elevator.
Glancing back at Ash, I saw that he was nervously itching at his bandaged arm, staring at the elevator. “Ash, we’re not all gonna fit in there, so you stay up here with Ivory and Fluster. Keep them safe; we’ll be right back.”
I pressed the button for the elevator and it arrived after only a few seconds with a pleasant ding. As the doors slid open, Shade and I entered. I looked through the options, and I chose level B4, Research. That’s where I’d found the first cube back in the regional headquarters.
Shade sighed and leaned into me. It had been a while since we’d had time to just stand still, and she was taking every chance she could to be near me. I smiled, enjoying this brief interlude. I had no idea what would be waiting for us in the research lab, and it suddenly seemed like a very bad idea to bring Shade with me, pleasant as her company was.
Why did I never think these things through?
A ding heralded the opening of the door, and I braced myself, stepping in front of Shade slightly. Through the door came... nothing. No killer vines, no unstoppable gnashers, just a the slightly antiseptic smell of a Ministry of Peace building.
I took a few cautious steps out, Shade following warily. She was eyeing me strangely, not used to me using actual caution. I grinned at her and began trotting much more confidently down the hall leading to a large room.
I smiled even wider as I rounded a corner and found exactly what I was looking for. There, floating in a magical field much like the first I had found, was a Black Cube. The field meant that it was in stasis, like the first, so I looked around for the head scientists office.
Vines breaking ribs, tearing flesh, crushing bone. Pain, pain, oh so much pain.
I shook my head as the thought slammed through my defenses. Right, I’d forgotten what being around a cube without the safety of the box was like. The one in my bag had given me no issues since I’d placed it the case. Shade normally had an effect that I couldn’t explain, but the Cube cut right through it and let the voice out.
You’re getting near another one? The fuck is wrong with you?! Do you remember last time! The vines! How can you not hear that noise?!
Shut up. If Hate wants the Cube, I want the Cube. You won’t be able to stop me. Once I get it in the box and in my bag, I won’t even hear you anymore.
Your little marefriend. I’d sure like to take a tumble with her sometime. How is she? She looks like a screamer.
I began moving faster as the voice started describing, in great detail, what he’d like to do to Shade. Each word made me hate him more.
There, a door with Dr. Ink Quill written on it. Very similar to Blooming Leaf’s door. It slid open cleanly, revealing the messiest room I had ever seen. Paper was strewn everywhere, writing covered all the surfaces in the room, even the meager decorations had words scratched into them. That... that seemed a lot more on par with the rest of the Black Cube stuff I’d seen.
“Wow.” Shade’s voice made me jump, and I found that she was standing next to me in the door entrance.
It would be so easy. You’re alone. Go for it. I’ll watch, give moral support. Have some fun.
No. That was not going to happen. Shut the fuck up.
I trotted into the room, weaving around stacks of books, piles of scrolls, and heaps of paper. These buildings must have some magical way of stopping decay, or all of these would have been mouldering piles of mush after two hundred years. I could still read what was written on everything... all of it was completely over my head, but the fact remained.
I stepped around the table and found the terminal was luckily the one thing that Ink Quill had not written on. The screen was scrupulously clean. I hit a button on it, bringing it out of sleep mode.
>>Good Morning, Dr. Ink Quills
>>Please Enter Password
“Shade, we need to look for a password.” I started making my way towards the nearest stack of paper, but she coughed lightly and I looked back. Her hoof was pointing at a spot on the table where I could make out something carved. Password: Vivid.
Wow. Ink Quills was the least secure pony ever.
I returned to the terminal and tapped that in. The machine beeped at me and scrolled new text.
>>Current Status: In Stasis, Awaiting Transport
I hit menu, pleased that the Cube was already packed up and ready to go. I’d be able to get it from the terminal attached to the pedestal it floated over.
I grinned and hit the option for the safe, hearing a light click behind me. The last one I’d opened had held the black case built for the Cubes, and I couldn’t help but wonder what treasures awaited me this time.
Inside the safe was single solitary orb. I paused, looking at it for a long time. The image and feeling of the vines was fresh in my head, as the voice was still reminding me of what had happened. He was really desperate for me to get out of here, leave the Cube, and do some fairly unspeakable things to the pretty blue mare at my side.
I shook my head again and carefully rolled the orb into my bag. I’d watch it later. Going back to the terminal, I opened the section called Personal Letters and discovered, much to Shade’s giggling amusement, that Ink Quills, a stallion from what I could make out, was in a rather complicated relationship with a pair of twin pegasi. Glancing through the first email made me blush rather heavily. He was not exactly subtle on what he did with each of them.
“Okay, that’s all we need here.” I stepped away from the terminal, though Shade lingered briefly, her eyes reading the text with her mouth agape. I cleared my throat, and she looked up, blushing deeply. She smiled and trotted over to me. The look in her eyes was an odd one, almost predatory. Great. I couldn’t even tell if my ‘great’ had been sarcastic or not.
Approaching the center of the room, I felt a deep sense of unease creep into my head. That would be the cube. It wasn’t as strong as Greenhoof had been, but I assumed it meant that Brighteyes was much less hostile. I sure hoped that that was the case.
“Ripple... what is that? I... I feel funny.”
I turned to her slightly as I approached the Cube. “Don’t worry about that. It will go away in a little bit...”
I activated the terminal and found that is was indeed what I was looking for. All I had to do was press a button and the magical aura around the Cube went down. Done.
The feeling in the room intensified as the field went down, and I wasted no time in pulling out the black case containing the other Cube. Once I got both in there, I could close it, be free of the feeling and we could get on our way. Ash was surely getting antsy waiting for us to return. I flipped the case open and....
Everything went white.
I stood in nothingness, stretching off into infinity.
“What the fuck?”
My voice echoed everywhere, louder than I had meant for it to be. This had taken me by surprise. Was I dead? Unconscious again? No... I wasn’t unconscious, this didn’t feel like that.
“Well, who do we have here? You’re my savior then? A pony. Such a mess of a pony.”
I looked around sharply, trying to find the voice speaking to me. It was coming from everywhere. I sighed, looking at my hooves.
There were a pair of eyes directly underneath me, staring up into my own. I jumped back and reached for Broken, but found that I had nothing. I was naked. That was not a good sign. I watched as the figure slithered up out of the white nothingness, taking the form of a creature I had seen hints of in a memory orb.
“Yes. That is I. My name, my messy pony, is Pandemonium. I am so delighted to finally get a chance to pull myself together enough to introduce myself. I tried talking to the other you, but he would have nothing to do with me. Rather rude, I must say.” The creature stroked a thin beard as he spoke, towering over me. He gestured to the side and I saw myself, but not myself. A wild, drug crazed look, a long mane, covered in bandages. This was the old me. He was shouting something at me, but I couldn’t hear it. Was that what the voice in my head really looked like?
I backed away from Two Kick, but Pandemonium swept in between us and took up most of my vision. He looked quite capable of ripping me apart with no real effort. I stared at the wicked claws tipping one of his limbs. “Where am I?”
He laughed. “Oh, you’re in your head. I’m there too, for now. Well, half of me is, the other half is off somewhere, but I believe that you know where that somewhere is. So no, I won’t be ripping you apart. You can help put me back together.” The creature slithered through the air as he spoke, moving like a serpent in water. Grinning, almost as if at the analogy, he spiralled around me faster than I could react and held me there, putting us face to face.
“You’re what Hate wants, aren’t you?” I glared at him, but I wasn’t sure that I would be able to intimidate this thing.
Pandemonium chuckled. “I suppose. Ever since I stepped foot on your cursed little chunk of land, ponies have wanted what I can provide them. Then...” His eyes narrowed into vicious slits. “Then, they found a way to actually get me. These cubes. Break me apart, harness my power without my consent.”
Then he grinned, a sickening expression on his face. “You though... you are halfway there. If you get me the other two, I can get out of this fractured prison and leave your accursed race. Of course... I’d reward you quite handsomely.” He snapped his fingers and the white nothingness changed.
We were standing in what I had a strong feeling was Neighwhere. An army of ponies, heavily armed and standing in ranks, lay out before us. Pandemonium put a claw on my shoulder and guided my view towards a tower.
Atop that tower, I saw myself. I was slightly older, but dressed up rather nicely. I saw Shade standing next to the other me, smiling happily. I saw Ash, Ivory, and Fluster. They all looked different, wearing armor bearing a mark of two hooves.
“I could make you a great leader. A king. You could unite the wasteland, bring Ponykind back to it’s former glory.” He snapped his claws again, and this time I found myself in a warm house. Shade was there again, along with two fillies. “I could destroy your enemies and let you live a life of peace. Have a family. Children.”
I reached a hoof towards one of the fillies that approached me before Pandemonium snapped his claws again, bringing us back into the blank nothingness. “I could do so much for you if you put me back together.”
I was in shock at what he had shown me. I wasn’t doubting that he had the power to pull these things off, but I was severely skeptical that he would just reward me and leave. If I had been broken into fourths and used against my will, I would want revenge.
“True, I do want revenge, but it would not be on you. Most of the ponies I want dead are long gone. All that would really hold me up is....”
Then, the white world was gone. My eyes snapped open and I looked up into the concerned gaze of Shade. She held the closed case in her mouth. I couldn’t feel the aura of discomfort. She had put the second cube in the case and sealed it.
“That’s my girl.” I coughed and rolled over to get up. As I stood fully, she ran up and kissed me hard. My eyes went wide, but then I settled into it. It was nice.
When she stopped and backed away a bit, I reached down with my magic and picked up the case she had dropped in her rush to my face. Placing it in my bag, I grinned at her. “So, what was that for?”
She smiled and giggled. “You called me your girl.”
I chuckled and rubbed my mane sheepishly. “Yeah. I guess I did.” We’d never really made us an official thing, but I guess that I just had with those words.
She smiled, but then the smile dropped back into her concerned look. “What happened? You just fell over... I scrambled to get the Cube into the box, and then you woke up. What was that?”
I shrugged. “I guess it just got to me, that feeling. I’ve had nothing but trouble from these Cubes, but I gotta keep at it if I want to stop whatever Hate is planning.” For some reason, I didn’t mention Pandemonium. It didn’t seem like telling Shade was the best idea, it would only cause her to worry more. I’d figure out what to do... how to handle his offer. Then I’d tell her.
It was just a matter of time.
I turned away from the pedestal and gestured with my head that she should follow me. She smiled softly and trotted after me, catching up and leaning into me as we walked. I smiled, but my mind was elsewhere. If I got all four Cubes... I could fix the wasteland. I could get rid of ponies like Hate. I would potentially be unleashing something much worse... but that was only if Pandemonium was not good to his word. Maybe he really did want to just get out of Equestria. He’d been trapped here for a long time.
“Really, is something wrong?”
Shade. Always there to bring me back to reality. I found we’d been standing at the elevator and I’d been lost in thought. I shook my head. “No, I’m just working out what we need to do next in my head. Lets get back to the others... Ivory’s better at planning than I am.”
Shade giggled lightly and hit the button to summon the elevator. It dinged open and we walked in. We’d come into the building in the second basement and that was the floor we told it to return us to. As the elevator began ascending, I thought about what they must be doing up there right now.
I assumed that by now Fluster had torn everything not nailed off the walls and shoved it into her robes to sell at a later date. Ivory would be watching this out of the corner of her eyes, while staring into a reflective surface somewhere and making sure that she could work with the damage done to her face. Ash would be pacing, waiting for us to return so that we could get back above ground, as unsafe a concept as that actually was.
When the door opened, I did not see what I had expected. Two grey metal ponies, quite different looking than the Protectaponies were staring at us, the barrels of some heavy duty weaponry pointed straight into my face. Behind them, I could make out one other, as well as Ash and Ivory unconscious on the floor.
I reached for Broken, hoping to get it out before they could fire, but there was a flash of blue light from one of their weapons and everything went dark.
When I eventually drifted to, I found that I was staring into a very bright light. I was tied up. Worst, I was unarmed.
“Ah, you’re up. Good, I’ve been getting impatient.”
A mare’s voice came from somewhere in the room, but I couldn’t see anything other than that light. I tried talking, but I just burst into a fit of coughing instead. My sides hurt, quite a lot. It felt like a rib was broken.
“Oh, don’t worry about that. You and the griffin were heavier than the others. We used a robot to get you here, it was a bit bumpier than if one of us had done it.”
I calmed the coughing fit and choked out the first thing I could. “Who...”
“Who are we? I guess we really don’t have much of a presence in Hornsmith do we. We...” She stepped into the light and I saw a mare wearing that heavy armor from before, but with her head exposed. Light yellow coat, brown eyes, and a brown edged white mane. She had a grin on her face, clearly enjoying the unveil. “...are the Orchard chapter of the Steel Rangers.”
I stared dumbly at her. I couldn’t do much else. Whatever they’d knocked me out with was taking a really long time to wear off.
“Oh, don’t worry. The stunner wears off fine.”
I coughed again. “Why...”
She beat me to it again. She was clearly enjoying herself. “Why did we knock you out instead of kill you? We’ve been watching since it was reported there was a griffin in Orchard. The band of raiders at the gates don’t have quite the clout for that, so we assumed that you were either an elite raider group, meant to get in the sides and take us out with a flanking maneuver.... or you were a random group of scavvies in the wrong place at the wrong time.” She laughed a bit. “Oh, were we surprised to find that you were the latter.”
A door opened and I heard somepony else enter, heavy metal hoofsteps betraying that the newcomer was armored as well. A deep, gruff voice filled the room. “Knight Lemon Meringue, stop badgering our guest.” A third pony entered, much more softly than before, and I saw a robed figure approaching me. For a second, I thought that it was Fluster, but no, the colors were all wrong.
The third pony had a tray of medical supplies and fed me a potion, which I did not fight back against. I instantly felt better as my damaged ribs started healing themselves, and my head started clearing up.
“Turn that off. Get some real lighting in here... you and your show.”
I heard Lemon Meringue walking away from us, grumbling under her breath. “Yes, Star Paladin Broken Arrow...”
The bright light turned off, plunging us briefly into darkness, before overhead lights flickered into brilliance, illuminating the room. Star Paladin Broken Arrow was rather more intimidating than Lemon Meringue, though he had his helmet on. At his side was a huge single barreled weapon, a missile launcher counterbalancing it on the other.
“Now, who are you and what are you doing in Orchard? You came here with a purpose, and I want to know what that is.”
I took a few deep breaths and found that I could not do it without the coughing fit. “We... we’re just scavengers. Heard there was a Ministry of Peace building out here, came to take a look. We just want to find some medicine to take back home.”
He chuckled throatily. “You’re not very good at lying, Rip. Yeah, already talked to your friend Ivory. She was very forthcoming. You think that we could be allies. We have a common enemy. That’s what you came out here for. She was a little vague on what you were looking for in the Peace building, but that’s what I want you to tell me.”
Fuck. Well, there goes my plan.
“Fine.... I was looking for a little black box.”
He looked at me for a while, his eyes obscured beneath the glass of the helmet. “Did you find it?” I couldn’t tell if this was a baited question. He’d already caught me lying once, I wasn’t sure what he would do if he caught me a second time.
He nodded. I could hear muffled talking coming from his helmet and a few seconds later, the robed pony from earlier came in, carrying the black case.
“So, that would mean that this is what you came all this way for.”
“Well then. I believe that we can reach an agreement.” He turned and began walking from the room. Opening the door, he turned and looked at me. “Knight Lemon Meringue, take our friend and rejoin him with his companions. Get them fed and cleaned up. I’ll be having a chat with them before too long.”
I heard the show mare’s voice from the hall and she walked in, untying me and helping me to my hooves. She was surprisingly dextrous for a pony encased in a tank. “Come on, lets get you to detention.”
She led me out into the hall, which had the industrial feel of the factory we’d found ourselves in previously. As she marched me down the hall, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what we were being forced into.
This was definitely not the alliance I had hoped for.
Fuck the Steel Rangers.
Thanks to Kkat for creating FoE, an amazing piece fiction as well as a setting.
Thanks to ErrantIndy for helping with the editing process, he does much and deserves all of the thanks.
Kibu, the amazing artist that he is, did a picture of our fine feathered friend Ashred as well.
Then, as always, fav/track/comment/rate.