• Published 27th Feb 2013
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Fallout: Equestria - The Hooves of Fate - Sprocket Doggingsworth



A young filly in present day Ponyville is cursed with nightmares of post-apocalyptic Equestria. She finds herself influencing the course of future history in ways that she cannot understand.

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The Price of Failure

CHAPTER FOURTEEN - THE PRICE OF FAILURE

The best way out is always through." - Robert Frost


There's magic in Hearth’s Warming. Grown-ups don't always see it. I know I didn't see it. Not while I was laying there in that cold hospital bed. But it's still there. It sneaks up on you. It comes out at night after the candles have been snuffed, or allowed to droop down into a droopity, waxy mess.

That night in Ponyville Hospital was the worst, and the best Hearth's Warming I ever knew. Certainly the weirdest. It was the night that the shadows made their move.

We should have stood together - given them what for. But we were scattered. Disheartened. Each of us hurting. Each of us alone. And like Nightmare Moon showing up on the most Sun-Happy day of the year, those shadowy cunts couldn't resist the opportunity to trample on a day of hope - to shit all over the one night of the year that was rightfully ours.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.





* * *





The mid-afternoon started out okay. At least as okay it could get under the circumstances. First, there was a bunch of boring medical stuff.

"Hey, Happy Hearth’s Warming, kids!" Said Stethoscope bursting through the door.

I didn't respond. He'd been mean to Queenie. Fuck him. Bananas on the other hoof, turned her frown upside-down on a dime-bit.

"Nurse Stethoscope!" She called out clapping her hooves together.

It was really weird seeing her slide back into "Yay, storytime" mode after I'd gotten to know this whole other side of her. That girl was smart - genius even - so much better than any of this storytime stuff. I was certain that if she showed more of the real Bananas Foster to everypony else, they would still like her plenty. Hell, they might even respect her. But for some reason, she thought she needed to cute herself up. Cough for sympathy.

Now that I had seen her pain - her intelligence; now that I considered her my friend, rather than something to be pitied, it was actually painful to watch her act like that. But luckily, I didn't have to see too much of it, cause some other nurse came along and started unhooking me from all the doo-dads. Before I knew it, I was being wheeled to the other end of the hospital in a chair.





In a way, it was kind of exciting at first. They'd squeezed me in to see the physical therapist before he went home for the holiday, so I finally got treatment that didn't involve lying around. My enthusiasm didn't last very long, though. Physical therapy may sound like a great big fancy massage, but what it really involves is hours spent doing exercises that make you feel like your muscles are full of lava and bees. They had to strengthen me up, they said. I'd be getting out of the hospital pretty soon.

When we got back to the room, Bananas was more content than I had ever seen her. She'd finally gotten her storytime, and was reclining in bed. She yawned just a bit.

Once the grown-ups left us alone, I turned to her. "Why?" I said.

"Why what?" She replied.

"You read at, like a billionth grade level. Why storytime?"

Foster took a deep breath. Still relaxed. Still calm.

"There’s so much I don't get to do around here, you know?” She said, staring at the doorway. “Sometimes you just sort of have to tell yourself, ‘If I can only get this one thing. If just this one thing goes right, I’ll be able to hang on.’"

I thought about it a while. It made a certain kind of sense.

"Why storytime, though?" I asked, and in the long silence that followed, I stammered. "That is, if you don't mind my asking."

"Mother used to tell us stories."

From there she just sort of stared into space. Thinking.

"I hear you." I said.

And then I lay there too. Thinking right alongside her. For a moment, I almost asked what had happened. But she’d tell me when she was ready. And I didn’t want to push it. I knew how awful it felt when ponies pushed it.

"What story did Nurse Stethoscope tell you today?" I asked instead.

"I'm not sure." She rolled over on that bed to face me. There was a smile on her face. "You know, I wasn't even really paying attention."




* * *




The rest of my eve wasn't very Hearth's Warmings-y. It was just Bananas and me. Alone in there. Whittling away the hours like a bunch of time-whittlers. Meanwhile, not a creature was stirring at Ponyville Hospital. The staff was bare bones, and hoofsteps in the hallway got fewer and farther between, as those visiting loved ones had either moved on, and had skipped along home to the real party, or settled in quietly with the sick in their hospital rooms.

For a while, I lay there, just listening for signs of life. Anything at all. But all I heard was that irritating bleep, and the scribble of Bananas Foster's pencil in her journal. After what must have been at least an hour, I finally picked up a noise beyond our door. A laugh. A shuffle. Some hoofsteps approaching. I perked up in my bed.
Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop, clop.

But it wasn't Roseluck. Just some nurse all decked out in winter gear, laden with presents. She strolled right by our door without paying us infirm-o's no never mind.

She was humming a Hearth's Warming carol.

I closed my eyes and banged the back of my head against my pillow. Roseluck wasn't coming. I could feel it in my bones. The thing is, that wasn't like her. Something was wrong. Really, really, really, really wrong.

Damnit, Roseluck, what the hell is taking you so long?




“Hey, Rose Petal!” Foster called for my attention with a bit of a laugh.

“What?!” I grumbled.

“A skeleton pony walks into a cider tavern.”

“Huh?” The randomness of it caught my attention.

“A skeleton. Pony. Walks. Into. A. Cider tavern.” Said Foster. “Let me know when I’ve lost you.”

“Um...okay.”

“He says to the salespony, ‘I’ll have an apple cider...and a mop.’”

Bleep-bleep.

Bleep-bleep.

I got the joke. It took me a minute, but I got it. Then, against my better judgment, I actually started laughing. It was so stupid, but for some reason, I couldn’t help but just laugh.

“Where did that even come from?” I said, now wheezing with oh-my-Celestia-this-is-so-dumb-but-damnit-I’m-chuckling-anyway laughter.

Bananas shrugged and held up a slip of paper that had been tucked into her new book. Of course.




I caught my breath.

"Is it always so dreary around here on the holidays?" I said, the echo of a smile still lingering on my face.

"I wouldn't know." Said Bananas Foster. "I haven't been in Ponyville long enough."

She reclined in her bed, forehooves behind her head, and stared up at the ceiling, looking relaxed. Self-satisfied.

"Well, at least you seem to be having a good holiday."

"Pinkie's present." She said. "I haven't gotten new books in forever. And, of course, the joke."

She waved that piece of paper with the skeleton joke around before tucking it back in, and using it as a bookmark.

I held the watch that Pinkie Pie had given me. Turned it over in my hoof. It was a very simple design. Just a pink watch on a chain. No fancy designs. No fancy inscriptions. But somehow that just made it more magical.

I listened to it tick. The Most Accurate, Most Super Duper Mega Special Watch ever, as designed by the mare who was late to visit the hospital every Thursday. I fiddled with the button a bit, tempted as hell, but I didn't dare press it. I'd made a promise. Still, it was driving me nuts. How did it work?

How did an earth pony know how to use magic? How did Pinkie Pie know I was having issues with time? How the hell did she know about the pirate in my head?

There were a million mysteries surrounding Pinkie, and a million more surrounding that watch, but the thing that hit me the hardest was that she had thought of me in the first place. It sounds so stupid, I know, but look at it this way: if a giant purple monster with a billion eyeballs passed you a cup of water after you had just crawled through the desert, you'd drink first and ask questions later. So it was with smiles in that dreary desert of a hospital bed.

I turned the watch over and over as it hung from the chain around my neck. Left and right, and right and left. It felt good. Knowing that other ponies cared. Ponies I didn't even know all that well. It made me think of that get well card from my classmates.

That was when I got the idea.

I reached underneath me for the card. Unfolded it carefully. Plucked out Misty's old tail hair. It came loose no problem. Flakes of that old school-paste fell off. That stuff never was any good.

I took the watch around my neck and held it really still. If I could tie the hair to the bale, it wouldn't get lost. Cause nopony was going to just come along and take the watch off of my neck for no reason. So I fiddled with my hoof, and the hair, and my mouth. A little awkward, but still, just like threading a needle. I suck at threading needles, by the way. But I could manage this one so long as I worked at it long enough.

I fiddled, and fiddled, and fussed, and fussed, and when I was done with that, I fiddled some more. I challenge any unicorn to go just one day using only your mouth and your hooves for basic everyday tasks. Go ahead. I dare you.

Anyway, I was grunting, and growling, and mumbling, and squeaking when Bananas interrupted.

"Hey, Rose."

"What?!" I snapped.

By some miracle I got the hair through.

"Got it!" I exclaimed, and went about the business of tying it tight. The easy part. Then I looked over and found Foster staring at me.

"Oh. I'm sorry about that. I just sort of um...Hehehe." I laughed to myself. "This is hard."

She looked at me with a raised eyebrow. Just sort of looked at me for a long, long time.

"It's ok." She said. "I just wanted to tell you how glad I am that you're here to spend Hearth's Warming with."

Well, damn.




* * *





It was good to have a friend. Scratch that. Bananas Foster was a life saver. I don't think I could have made it through Hearth's Warming Eve all alone.

Because Roseluck didn't come. She actually stood me up.

It was just Bananas Foster and me.



* * *




We weren’t completely alone, of course. But we might as well have been. There was this big cluster of folks down the hall somewhere. They'd come to visit somepony. I don't know who he or she was, but their whole family had gathered a few doors down to be with ‘em on Hearth's Warming.

At one point, a little kid about six or seven wandered up the hallway and stopped right in front of my door. She was holding a brand new button-eyed plush. Clearly a present. You know, that one present you get on the night before Hearth's Warming Morning.

She looked at me. Gawked at my bleep-a-majig. At my empty room. At my get well card half-crumpled on the end table beside me. Just stared at all of it - not sure what to say - like I'd caught her doing something wrong or something. So I waved. Gave a weak little reassuring smile.

"Hey." I said.

But one glance at my hoof, and she gasped. Panicked. Galloped off. It wasn't even my evil hoof that she saw. The tubes were enough to scare her.

Fucking Hearth's Warming. Fucking health-o's.

"Buck her," said Foster. "She'll learn soon enough it's all a sham."

"Yeah!" I said,

"That Hearth's Warming sucks."

"Yeah," I repeated, but my heart wasn't in it.

I didn't want Hearth's Warming Eve to be a sham. I didn't want it to suck for anypony. I just wanted it to be a day I shared with my sister. I wanted to sit in the garden with all of those roses - preserved out of season by my sister's magic touch - and smile at all the shinies we'd put on the tree. I wanted to warm up by the fireplace afterward with a mug of hot cider. I wanted presents. I wanted Roseluck to take the mass of yarn that I had tied together, and the googly eyes I'd pasted on to it in an attempt to make her a present, and to cherish the silly thing like it was made out of gold.

But even if I hadn't gotten stood up - even if I wasn't stuck in that crummy hospital - I didn't think Hearth’s Warming could ever be the same for me. That holiday magic? Somehow, it didn't feel real anymore. I just wasn't that stupid, sweet little filly anymore.

I suppose I could have taken it worse. I could have started sacrificing children to The De-Innocentizer of Souls. But the holiday was still getting off to an awful start, and thinking about it still hurt.



* * *




So, of course I thought about it plenty. I was off in my own little world - being my usual mopey old self – the mess I'd let myself become - when I suddenly got hit in the stomach with something.

"Oof!" I oofed.

"I'm so sorry!" Laughed Bananas Foster. "Why didn't you catch it?"

"Why didn't you warn me?" I moaned.

"I did!"

"Well, I wasn't paying attention!" I snapped.

"Maybe you should."

"Maybe I don't wanna." I said, rubbing my stomach.

"Just read the book." Bananas Foster rolled her eyes.

I picked it up. It had settled just a little to my side. The book was pretty big, and was tied all good and tight with a ribbon so that she could huck it at me without breaking it.

"The Ponies' History of Equestria?" I read the title out loud.

"You hate authority. You'll love it."

Did I hate authority? I’d never really thought about it.

"Um ok. But why?" I mumbled as I pulled the ribbon off with my teeth.

I mean, I read plenty of nonfiction. And I don't mind a little history. But i couldn't help but feel like she was giving me homework.

"You can't stop Equestria from crumbling if you don't learn how it got the way it is in the first place."

"Fair enough." I said. "I did get an A in history, you know?"

Bananas just raised an eyebrow.

"Which executive order gave Chancellor Puddinghat the authority to round up earth pony political protesters, and shove them into brainwashing 'happy camps' during the War of the Three Races?"

"I'm not all that good at remembering numbers...Hold on a second. What?"

"What was the death count on The Blockade, ordered by Commander Hurricane?"

"The pegasi didn't make the blizzard." I whipped through the pages.

"They sealed off the clouds though, when the earth ponies refused to pay the tithe. The result wasn't pretty. Read the book."



* * *




I flipped through it with fervor. Devoured it.

War. War. War. It had almost destroyed us once before. More than anypony likes to admit.

"But...We've gotten better than this." I said out loud, turning the pages bitterly. "The flag. The princesses answering our call, like Cliff said."

At some point, I’d just sort of casually accepted Cliff Diver's crazy theory. In my state, is that really a surprise?

"They all say that." Said Foster. "Do you have any idea how many civilizations came before us that thought the same thing?" Foster asked totally out of nowhere.

"Um...two?"

"Any idea how many were forgotten ‘cause they didn't leave any written records behind at all?"

She was on a roll now.

"Um...four?"

Foster just stopped. Looked at me. Waited for me to realize what a spazz I was being, which, of course, I already knew. After a long awkward silence, I finally just caved and asked, "Alright, how many?"

"I don't know." She shrugged. "They’re forgotten. They didn't write anything down."

Foster gave me a smug little grin. "That's why we read."

This coming from the girl who debased herself to get attention from nurses and orderlies.

"Yeah, thanks, Professor."

I turned the pages of the chapter on the War of the Three Races, and found a whole other kind of history I had never known about before. Diaries. Snippets of records. The words of Clover the Clever herself.




* * *




"It was upon mine honor that I did take my vows as servant of the crowne, and it was with honor that I have executed those duties for all these longe years. But lately, bearing the yoke of those charges and duties has taken a grave toll upon my conscience. In the end, I feare I am disgraced regardless of my course. Betray myself, or betray my oath, which, in a matter of speaking, is another betrayal of self - a lesson you taught me so very longe ago.

We are at odds not only with the enemy, but with one another, and all the while, the tortures of winter have chilled our hearts, and blunted our wits. The Summit begins tomorrow. With any luck, the three tribes will come to a peacefull agreement. I longe for your enlightened counsel, Master Starswirl, for I feare this task that you have set me upone may prove to be one test that I cannot pass.

I was not prepared for this.

I await news from the homefront.

I hope it is not as bleake as the rumors have lead me to believe?

Your faithfulle student,

Clover the Clever"





I stopped reading for a moment.

"Chilled our hearts." I whispered to myself out loud, running my black evil hoof over the page.

I turned the words over in my head. Even got excited for a moment. This was a clue. A connection! The shadows were cold. The windigo were cold. That had to mean something - the way they both fed on strife and discord!

Then I thought about it a little longer and realized that I had just come up with a whole lot of nothing. All I'd really found out was that cold is fucking evil. And I already knew that.





I devoured the section on Pre-Discordian history. I can't even guess how much time it took, but when I looked up, I found Bananas Foster unconscious. Twitching in her bed. Squirming. She turned herself over a bit here, and a bit there, but she was definitely asleep. It occurred to me that in all the time I'd been there, I'd never actually seen that girl sleep. So I let her be.

I'm not going to trouble you or bore you with every detail of my whiny piratery. But I was alone with my thoughts for quite a long time. I tried hiding from them in that history book, but eventually, I had to put it aside. So I closed my eyes. Did my best to go to sleep.

It was no use. Luna knows how tired I was. But all these stupid fucking thoughts just kept on coming at me. They tossed my feelings around the inside of my heart like one of those baskets full of BINGO balls that old folks play with. G-17. Disappointment. B-4. Loneliness. I-7. Abandonment.

Did Screw Loose know it was Hearth’s Warming? Did they have Hearth 's Warming Eve in the Wasteland? Had Twink ever experienced one? What the fuck was Roseluck doing?

How could she do this to me?

Fuck Roseluck.

I hope she's okay. If she's not okay, I've got to do something to save her! If she is okay then I'll kill her for leaving me alone. What the hell is she thinking?! What if she's not coming back cause she finally realized Dad was right, and I'm not worth the trouble?

CLONK! Twinkle Eyes' 2x4. "Nopony talks that way about my friends."

You get the idea.





At some point in all that madness, I looked up and I was in that field again. The one outside the schoolhouse. The pink light of sunset was already kissing the hills on the edge of the grounds. It was the same thing as before: Twink attacking Misty for cheating in a game with no actual rules; Misty protesting "ees not my fault I'm good at dee things." Laughter.

The big red kickball rolled away from the chaos and stopped at my bad hoof.

"Hey, guys!" I turned to them. "I got the ball."

But they didn't answer. They just kept on doing their thing, rolling around. Having fun.

"Guys?" I said, trotting up to them with a forced smile, but they just completely ignored me. Like I was invisible.

It occurred to me then and there that this perfect little moment that I'd seen before - it wasn't mine to enjoy. I wasn’t that stupid sweet little filly anymore. And they were all happier without me.

I squeaked out a little whimper, and plopped my flank down on that kickball. I hung my head down low, just listening to everypony else as they had their fun without me. Eventually it all faded. The game. The laughter. The waggitty-tailed Screw Loose dog. When I finally looked up, they were gone altogether.
Probably for the best. I thought.

BINGO. I was finally completely and totally alone. That was when that damn bell chimed again. The schoolbell calling me back from recess.

A breeze picked up, and a whisper scratched at me all the way from inside my ear drums. It was loud and insistent. It burned the inside of my ears like scratchy grains of sand stuck all up in there, but I couldn't make out any words. All I knew was that recess was officially over, and that it wanted me to come back inside. The voice behind all that noise. I thought back to how messed up that schoolhouse had looked the last time. Remembered Roseluck’s warning about it too.

But still, part of me started to wonder. Part of me got to thinking that maybe that place was where I really belonged after all. My friends were better off without me, and Roseluck was off somewhere, having a good time. I knew it. I could see it! Like looking into the window of a bakery when you don't have any money. I could literally see Roseluck. Laughing by the fireside. With her own friends. Having the holiday she deserved.

In that moment, I was confirmed in what I had quietly suspected my entire life. Roseluck didn’t need some bratty little sister dragging her down all the time. I know that sounds like a stupid thing to think, but dreams are pretty much just feelings with pictures, so that asshole pirate was in control for once. And he was having a field day. Tossing more Desolation Bingo balls right at my heart.

“Come home,” said the whisper in my head, totally out of nowhere. “Come home.”

The kickball under my flank started to wobble and slide out from under me. There was a current underneath my hooves too. An undertow. I didn’t fight it, and it didn’t matter, cause I was standing in darkness. And it clung to me like tar.

That long schoolhouse shadow had come up behind me. Stretched its way all the way toward the hills.

And I got lost in it.

Maybe that creepy voice was right. Maybe the schoolhouse was home.





Then the voice grew bolder.

When I was just a foal, we had gone to help clear out Great Aunt Roseroot’s old cottage. My sister and me.

The inside was full of junk, and cobwebs, and strange unpleasant smells. When Roseluck lit the first candle, four hundred thousand bugs startled all of a sudden, and noticed us too, and scurried like crazy to get away from the light. A million little scratches. On tile. On wood. On metal. In every direction. Left, right, forward, back, ceiling, floor. Awful, awful scratches everywhere.

There was no place to run to, so I just froze in place - screamed and cried. But the sound just got louder, and louder, and louder. I didn't stop freaking out till I looked up and realized that Roseluck had already taken me outside.

In that field, surrounded by tar and shadow gunk, I heard that sound again for the first time since I was small. Scratches. Millions of them. All somehow assembling themselves into one voice.

“Come home." It said. "Come home.”

I shivered. Shot up to my hooves. And there in the distance, I finally got a good look at that weird schoolhouse. I realized just how terrible a place it actually was. That I didn’t belong there - really, really, really, really didn't fucking belong there.

I turned. Tried to run. Tried to pull away from the tarry floor. But it just tugged at me, and tugged at me, and tugged at me harder.

"Twink?" I said. "Misty? Cliff!"

But they didn’t answer. They were nowhere at all to be found.

"Twink is gone." Said that voice, scratching at the inside of my ear drum again.

"No," I whispered to myself.

I kept looking for her, but I couldn't even see the hill anymore. Let alone Twinkle Eyes.

Meanwhile the shade I stood in was moving. Rustling. It didn’t sound like bugs anymore. These things, whatever they were, were much bigger now. My size. There had to be dozens of them from the sound of it, and they were creeping up on me from behind. Dragging themselves through the dirt.

I didn’t want to look at that schoolhouse again, and risk getting sucked towards it, so I didn’t dare turn around. But I checked my hoof like Roseluck had said. It was warm.

“What?!” I said out loud. “So this is all in my fucking imagination then?”

I was safe. I had to be. I assured myself quietly. The shadows couldn’t trick me with my own piratery. They couldn’t suck me in with their stupid tar either. The shadows sucked. And I told them so.

"Fuck you, shadows!" I yelled. "You suck!"

But still, I felt that old familiar terror.

If only I can lay eyes on my friends again, I thought. Just for a minute! Then I knew I would be out of their grasp for good. You had to beat them with a strong heart. Or some shit. Dream Roseluck had told me so the night before.

"Twink! Rose? Cliff?” I called out. “Anypony?"

But the creatures just got closer. Dragging. Crunching on leaves.

Then one of the rustlers called to me from behind.

"Rose Petal," she pleaded. "Help."

It stunned me so much that I actually turned around, and found myself face-to-face with them. Forty-some-odd children. Dressed in rags. Covered in dirt. And they looked to me with blank expressions.

Those poor kids couldn't have been older than kindergartners.

"Why?" Said the one closest to me.

Just why.

"I believed in you," said another.

They stepped closer. One-by-one. The mass of them seemed to emerge from the black like an army marching out of the ocean. When I saw them up close, it became really obvious that they were fucked up and mangled in someway. All of them. Obviously broken limbs. Holes in the head that had stopped bleeding long ago.

"We need you," said one of the littler ones. "Come home."

I looked her in the eyes. Eyes that did not blink. Eyes that looked back at me so coldly I felt like my bones were naked.

"Who are you?" I whispered.

But she didn't answer.

None of them did. They just stared me down scornfully.

I looked out over their shoulders. Beyond them, still in the distance, was a vague and distorted outline of the schoolhouse. That's where the inky black stuff was coming from. Bad news.

"Come on!" I said. "We gotta get away from here."

I turned, but the field was gone. Then I turned around some more, and around, and around again, but it was all just black. I couldn't find the hills. I couldn't find the playground. I could barely tell up from down, let alone figure out which way to go.

"I'll um...I'll get you out." I did my best to wing it. "Please just, uh...Follow me."

I kept looking desperately for an exit. A drop of light. Anything. But it was all just black. Everywhere.

The little girl at my side looked up at me. "That's what you said before." She said dryly.

The wind blew her ratty old cape off. It disappeared clean into the darkness around us. Her poor chest was riddled with holes. The kind you can only get in the Wasteland.

"It should have been you." She said.

I clapped my hoof against my mouth. "You poor thing," I started crying.

I reached out to touch her face with my other forehoof, but she just looked at me with purest hate.

"It should have been you." She said again, and spat on me.

"It should have been you," said another voice from behind.

Then another. And another. And another. It should have been you.

I dropped to my knees there on the playground.

"No," I whispered.

I was looking at the kids of Sub Mine F.

I wanted to call out to them. Tell them I was sorry. Tell them that I had tried. Really, really tried. But I couldn't summon up even a syllable. I didn't have enough breath for words.

Then the recess bell rang, and one-by-one, they turned their backs on me and filed away back towards the schoolhouse.

"Wait!" I cried at last, and got up to gallop after them. "Don't go in there!"

I caught up with the crowd, and tried to pull the fillies and colts back. But they just kept marching - filing their way back into this horrible, jagged version of the little red schoolhouse I'd once known.

A cloud of pungent smoke rose out of the chimney.

"Wait!" I said. "Wait!"

Finally one of them turned around. A colt. The one I saw on the back of those cloak-o's the night I first stumbled through the Wasteland. The One I'm Not Meant to Save.

It was him! It was him! I was sure of it.

"You," I said in awe.

He stared me down. Dead judgmental eyes.

"You." He replied coldly.

We just stood there, alone together in the field as the other kids marched right on into "class." He didn't blink. Didn't breathe. Didn't do anything. It was unnatural.

Finally, after a long staring contest, he turned his back on me without saying another word, and followed the rest.

"No!" I said, grabbing him. "Don't go in there! It's evil!"

But he didn't listen. So I followed. Threw myself at him. I couldn't let that kid go. Not this time.

With my hooves wrapped around his torso, the One I'd Failed to Save merged seamlessly into the crowd.

My hooves dragged through the tar. No matter how deeply I dug in, or pressed, or tugged, there was no stopping him. No slowing him down. He moved like I wasn't there at all. It wasn't long before we were closed in, and surrounded by the crowd of all the other slaughtered mine kids.

"Stop!" I said. "Please!"

As we drew closer, my hoof started tingling again. Getting chills. I looked back at that doorway, and the impenetrable ink that seemed to spill from inside. That stuff was made of evil shadow. The real thing. The kind that Dream Roseluck had warned me would attack if I lingered on my heartache for too long. The kind that freezes you solid, and plunges into your worst memories, and dyes your hoof, and turns you into a quivering mess.

The kind of shadow you can't escape from.

I shrieked wildly. "Ahh! Ahhh! Ahhh! Ahh! Ahhh!"

Then I did it some more. "Ahhhhhhhh!"

But they all just marched. Coldly.

It hurt to abandon those poor mine-o's a second time, but I didn't want to run into another shadow thing. I couldn't. I couldn't even think about it without degenerating into a rampaging mindless panic. So I pushed and charged through the crowd. Screaming like a foal. There were so many kids, that I couldn't even tell what was what anymore. It was all just black and gray. Black and gray. Black and gray.

"No." I howled. "Stop."

But it was too late to turn back. The crowd kept marching on toward its doom, and sweeping me with them.

"It should have been you," was all any of them said to me. "It should have been you."

"I'm sorry." I cried.

"It should have been you."

"I'm so sorry."





At some point I stopped pleading with them, and just plain begged to be spared for my own sake. "Please,” I said. “Just leave me alone."

But they did not.

We were damn close to the door now, and they knew it. I still couldn't see anything on the inside. Just black. But the echoes of a whole bunch of voices reverberated from the inside.

“It should have been you, Rose.” They said. “It should have been you.”

I tried to run. To push. To climb away from all of them. But they were grabbing me now. And those kids were burning-fucking-cold to the touch. Almost like they were shadows themselves.

I tossed, and I writhed and swung out at anypony who touched me with their icy hooves, but it was no use. Because deep down inside, I knew that they were right. It should have been me.

My struggles got random. Desperate. I started lashing out wildly, without even having any targets. There was nothing more that I could do. The mine-o's were everywhere, they were fixed on taking me inside, and I couldn’t stop them.

I looked up. The schoolhouse wasn't even lying anymore. It showed itself for what it was - the castle tower from my vision in the Trottica tunnels. The place with all the screams that you could hear for miles, and miles, and miles. The home of the shadows.

A gust of wind chilled my back. My evil hoof felt like it was on cold fire now. I clutched it and screamed, it hurt so bad.

The doorway was looming right over us - a great stone arch. It was so dark where I was, that the gray outline of that doorway became all that I could see. In just a moment, I would be inside, and there would be no use in fighting at all anymore. A claw almost grazed my back as it whipped around behind me. Hungry.

I could feel it.

“Help!” I called out one last time, more a whimper than a yell. "Please?"

And to my surprise, help came.






“Enough!"

A bold and terrifying voice. Booming over everything. Suddenly, it all ground to a halt, and the cursed souls of Sub Mine F carried me no more. Instead, I found myself on the floor. Heaving. Sobbing. Practically a puddle. Apologizing. Pleading for mercy. Shielding myself instinctively, as if that could do any good.

Then a hoof set down before me, and a light started shining down from above. A real light.

"Dry your tears, child. " Said the voice.

The hoof lifted my chin. And then I saw her through salty, teary eyes.

"Princess Luna!"

A spark of moonlight lit up her face. The very air around her seemed to hum like some strange and mysterious choir. Without thinking, I threw myself around her leg. I had never met a real live princess before, or even come close. Maybe I should have bowed or something, but I was so relieved I just couldn't help myself.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!!" I cried. "You saved me."

Her hoof stroked my mane as the rest of the field around us warmed up slowly, and became its old self under the light of the Moon.

"You saved me." I sobbed for a long while.

"I'm afraid that I did not." She said at last.

I looked up at her. Shocked and confused.

"The real danger is yet to come." Princess Luna pointed at a scene beside us.

It was me. Frozen in time. Like a photograph, or something out of a wax museum. It was all exactly as it had been right before she had come. I could see myself just outside the doorway to that hellish castle. Like a statue trying to claw its way out of a sea of black syrup.

"I cannot fight the shadows for you," said the princess. "Because I did not invite them here."

"Who did?"

She looked down her muzzle at me. "You, child. This is your dream."

I couldn't tell if she was chiding me, or just being frank.

"No, I...I--;”

I tried to think of an excuse, but then I remembered what Dream Roseluck had said the night before. How they find you. How they get you. How you fight them. There was no way around it. Luna was right.

"Loneliness. Fear. Despair." She said. "This is what the shad--;"

"What about Sub Mine F?!” I interrupted her without shame or tact. “The kid from the Wasteland! The shadow things have them."

I pointed back at the scene: The statue of me getting sucked into that castle, still frozen in time. But no mine-o’s were anywhere to be seen. Just me and a whole lot of tar.

"I don't know what it is that you speak of,” said Princess Luna. “But anything that you've seen here is a trick."

"So what now, this isn't real?" I waved my evil hoof around, gesticulating wildly at Statue Rose Petal and the shadow waters. "All this over a silly dream!"

I reached out to touch the statue, but Luna snatched my hoof away.

"Rose Petal." She looked at me sternly. "You of all ponies should know that there is nothing silly about dreams."

I seized up, as still as a wax statue myself. Luna knew! She knew! The Princess actually knew.

"Uh...umm." I couldn’t figure out what to say.

She held back and watched me fumble a bit. Measured me with her eyes. And I just kept on acting like a dufus. I mean, really, what do you do when a princess casually happens to know your biggest secret? I wanted to crawl into a hole and shrink into nothing. But I didn't dare to look away. She just held on to me with her bright blue eyes. They almost glowed.

It made me wonder. Could Princess Luna help me in the wasteland? Had she seen everything? Had she been watching this whole time?

"Every dream has a door," she said, as if to answer the questions in my head. "Where yours lead..."

She lifted an eyebrow at me. "...I cannot follow."

I nodded. But the answer wasn't reassuring. Every dream has a door.

I turned to look at Statue Rose Petal again. Struggling. Screaming. The black was dragging her through the doorway of the castle with all its might.

"What's that door?"

I said, trembling just a little.

Luna looked at me gravely.

"The Point of No Return."

Statue Me was inches from it. And surrounded in all directions. Roseluck had said that my heart was how I could beat them, but it was my heart that sunk as I watched. There was no way I could get free from that.

Statue Rose Petal was totally fucked. Which meant that I was totally fucked.

“Wait, wait, wait!” I pleaded. “There’s gotta be...maybe some--;”

“I built it myself,” said Luna. “Once upon a time.”

I was about to make a great big loud obnoxious exclamation. “You what?!” But I saw the worry on her face. The pain. The regret.

That castle, however it had come to be, was her Sub Mine F.

“I built it to keep the children safe." She said at last. "To keep the nightmares away. But in my long absence, it fell.” Her voice trailed off into a whisper.

We were left with the dreaded silence of night. Not even a cricket. Just the sound of waves on distant shores. Luna took a deep breath at last. “Not with all the magic in Equestria could I liberate this place.” She said, summoning her composure once again. “And if you set hoof inside, there is no power in this world that could set you free.”

"What about the Elements of Harmony?" I whimpered, as though they would come to the aid of a background pony anyway.

"The Elements belong to Equestria. This place - these dreams - they belong to a vast ocean between worlds. If there is a way to bring the Elements here, I do not know it. It is up to each and everypony to stand alone against their fear."

“And you can’t get me out of...this?” I gestured to the chaos. The wax museum sculpture. The ink. The shadows.

“No,” she said from behind me. “I can only show you how.”

I kept on staring. It's impossible to describe what it’s like to see your own self struggling right there before your eyes. Fucking screaming. Getting dragged into someplace truly unspeakable.

"So, um…” I ran my hoof nervously through my mane. “I'll actually have to...You know...All by myself?"

I turned back to face the princess, but she was already gone. Trotting amongst the stars.

"No! Wait!" I yelled. "Come back! How do I..."

I looked back at my own screaming statue self, and whimpered. "How do I fight the impossible?"




* * *




She was out of sight now. The choir was silent. The hum was gone. And I was left alone in the field, looking up at a gigantic yellow moon that took up nearly half the sky.

"Please,” I shouted at the great black sky. "I didn't get to tell you about the future. The war!"

No answer. Not even crickets.

"You die, Princess! You fucking die!"

A whisper hit me from the inside of my ear. It was the Princess' voice one last time.

"I know, child." She said, frighteningly calm. "I know."

I looked up at that moon. It was silent. Tranquil. Patient.

Luna knew. There was a Way It Was Supposed to Happen. And she was following it. Just like I had. Following it straight to her own doom.




* * *





I looked around. It was just that big yellow moon and me. And, of course, Screaming Quite Reasonably In Terror Statue Rose Petal. I scuttled my hooves through the dust to get as far away from that thing as possible, but even when I closed my eyes, I could see every detail of my own statue face. That horrifying desperation.

I shuffled away, and kept my eyes on the stars, and listened. But there were no voices. Not even a brain hornet. Just hoof-shuffling and silence. When I got far enough away, I stopped and looked up at that big old moon. With Luna gone, it was all I had.

"What am I supposed to do?" I cried. "Tell me!”

No answer.

“Tell me!"

Still no answer.

At least until I noticed a strange object all the way on the other end of the field. I couldn't figure out what it was at first, but it was bigger than a pony. And it didn't belong there. I walked over, staring. Hoping.





It was a door. A metal door like the kind that leads to an apple cellar, but standing straight up. In the middle of the field. As far as I could tell, it lead to absolutely nothing. After a bit of a walk, I soon found myself standing right in front of it. It towered over me. I touched it. It was chilly but not that Evil kind of cold. Just regular cold. The door was splashed in sloppy white paint. "No Mare's Land." It said in uninviting letters.

I looked back at the sky. But the Moon just hovered there. Watching. Waiting.

I circled the door, inspecting it carefully. When I came around to the other side, there was nothing there at all. No door. Just air. It had dis-a-fucking-ppeared. I could look right through the spot where the door was supposed to be, and see my own hoofprints right there where I had just been standing. But when I came back around, there it was again.

The door. Like magic. The writing as stark and un-reassuring as ever: No Mare's Land.

The fucking thing stared at me. Daring me to open it. At least that's what it felt like.

Stupid door.

It was hard to look away from. There was some strange kind of magnetic pull about it or something. But with effort, I looked back up at the Moon again anyway.

"I'm supposed to learn how to beat the shadow things in a place called ‘No Mare's Land’?"

Silence.

"Isn't that, you know, just a little creepy?!"

Silence.

Moon.

The sound of distant waves.

"Well," I took a deep breath. "Um. Okay, then. Here goes nothing."

I wedged my hoof under the metal handle and tugged it open gently. Immediately, I fell forward right through it.

Right into No Mare's Land.

Fucking Moon.