• Published 21st Sep 2013
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Fallout Equestria: Ashes - Relyet



Another Fallout Equestria Sidestory. Two ponies walked across the wasteland, trying their hardest not to be heroes, not to make friends, and not to change the wasteland.

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Chapter 9: A Tangled Web: Part 1

Fallout Equestria: Ashes

Relyet

Chapter 9: A Tangled Web, Part 1


Nature is so fascinating…

"Welcome to Shot Trotters!" The grey mare behind the counter greeted us as we, finally, stepped inside the gun shop. It took me a moment to realize I'd seen her before. It was the same mare with the tired eyes Cactus Flower had been talking to when she came to meet us at the gate. She was not exactly who I expected to see behind a counter full of deadly weapons, especially with that gentle smile on her face.

"Miss?" I realized I'd been staring at her when she spoke up again, her smile turning nervous. The muscled stallion serving as a guard had taken a few cautious steps towards me.

"Sorry. We need a gun.”

Beside me, Abattoir snickered, and the mare behind the counter waved a hoof at the various shelves and cabinets stocked with guns of every shape and size. “Well, we certainly have plenty of those. Feel free to browse, I’d be happy to help you if you’re looking for a specific model.”

I shook my head “I’m fine, but I need you to find out the best weapon for my teammate here.” I turned and waved in the direction of Air Heart.

And found an empty space between myself and Crunch. “Where’s Air Heart?” Crunch looked down at me, then the empty space, and then shrugged. I sighed and looked over my shoulder at the salesmare. “Excuse me a moment.”

I pushed the door open and stuck my head back outside. Air Heart was there on the sidewalk, shuffling his hooves and looking around anxiously.

“Hey!” He jumped when I shouted and looked up, smirking.

“Oh, hey… uh, done already? That was quick…”

“Get in here.” I stamped.

“I… I don’t wana.”

“Do not make me come out there!”

He bit his lip and slowly trotted over, following me inside. “Okay, now. My teammate needs a gun.” I waved at him, making sure I was between him and the door.

“Alright then” The mare said, slowly limping around the counter. “What kind of gun are you looking for?” She asked, gently nudging him towards the counter.

“Uhm… a small one?”

The mare smiled and nodded at the row of pistols laid out under the front counter. “Well, feel free to browse and let me know what catches your eye. The rest of you, don’t be shy, take a look around, you never know what you might find.”

I looked back at Crunch, with his crushing hooves, and Abattoir and her… whatever it was she did, and shook my head. “We don’t really use guns that much ourselves.”

Still, she urged us to look around, so I did. I let my eyes pass over the shelves and cabinets, but stopped when I spied the large flat table in the corner. It had several tools scattered around it, and other various crafting supplies on the shelves around it.

“Can I use that?” I asked, pointing at the workbench.

Chance looked up and smiled again. “Of course, just clean up after yourself.”

I stepped up to the bench and pulled out the blue scroll, laying it flat and looking it over closely. I pulled out the wrapped up lawnmower blade and set it aside. Then I fished out the tennis racquet and called Crunch over to have him snap the handle off, discarding the rest. Using a combination of one of the thick rolls of tape under the table and the wonderglue I’d brought from Iron Will’s garage, I fixed the blade to the handle. Then I attached the metal valve to the hose, and secured it just under the base of the blade. Finally, I dug out the igniting talisman and glued it right in front of the valve, just touching the edge.

I lifted up the weapon and looked it over, swinging it a few times with my magic. It felt sturdy, and I focused on the little triangular gem. It glowed and sparked once, the little flame shooting out, but nothing else. I looked down at the scroll again, at the image of the flaming sword and scoffed. “Shoulda figured I couldn’t trust nothin’ on paper…”

“It looks like you’re missing the fuel.” I nearly swung my newly crafted sword at the salesmare when she suddenly spoke up behind me, relaxing and quickly dropping it on the table. “Oh my, I didn’t mean to startle you, miss, you just seemed to be frustrated.” She reached out with her hoof and tapped the blue scroll, showing a long oval shaped tank attached to the other end of the hose. “A weapon like this requires a tank of flamer fuel. I’d be happy to sell you one at a reasonable price.”

“Uh, sure, I’ll take one...” Her extremely pleasant manner was throwing me off, and I shook my head once to clear it. She took my caps and returned with an olive green colored tank. She screwed the tank onto the dangling end of the hose and then stepped back, waving for me to test it out again. I turned the valve, focused on the talisman, and with a spine tingling -WOOSH-, the blade was wreathed in flames.

I stared up at the floating, flaming sword, the flames turning green under the veil of my magical grip, feeling my eyes opening wider. I watched the ember column climbing up the length of the blade, watched it climb, higher, into the sky, and heard a shrill scream on the air.

Then I felt Crunch beside me and quickly shut off the valve. The flow stopped and the flames guttered out. I carefully lowered the completed sword onto the workbench again and cleared my throat, turning back to the mare. “Thank you.”

“The pleasure was all mine, miss.” I really wanted her to stop smiling at me. To distract myself from that feeling in the pit of my stomach I turned my head sharply and barked.

“Air Heart, did you pick a gun yet?”

He jumped and looked up guiltily, shaking his head. “No, I… I don’t know the difference between any of these, I don’t know what I’m looking for, I’ve only held a gun once and I shot you with it!”

The mare gave me a curious glance and I just shook my head. “Don’t ask. Can you just give him a hoof picking something?”

“But I don’t know… anything about guns!” He stammered.

She just beamed and trotted back to the counter, lighting her horn up speaking softly. “Well, they say practice makes perfect.”

***

“I’m not so sure about this.” Air Heart mumbled as we gathered in the abandoned back yard of the home directly behind Shot Trotters. The grass had been mostly cleared away and stamped down, several targets set up against the side of the house.

The mare, who told us her name was Second Chance, had assembled an assorted selection of guns and brought them out to the yard for Air Heart to test.

“Just focus.” I said, watching while Chance pinned up some shooting targets against the walls of the house.

“Yeah, and do your best!” Abattoir patted him on the shoulders.

Air Heart muttered noncommittally. Chance approached, levitating a small pistol. “All set?” Air Heart nodded and she guided him to a marked spot in the yard, telling the rest of us to step back. “Now just take the bit in your teeth, don’t clench it so hard.”

She levitated the weapon into his mouth and he took it nervously. “M’kay, now wuff?”

She chuckled lightly, slipping behind him a few steps “Don’t try to talk too much until you’ve had more practice, you could hurt someone.” Abattoir stifled another laugh beside me. “Just line up the sights with one of your targets, grip the trigger with your tongue, and gently squeeze it.”

Air Heart stood stock still, his head swaying slightly as he tried to line up the shot, and finally fired.





“Did he hit it?” Abattoir asked after the drawn out silence, squinting her eyes.

“I don’t think so.” I leaned in and tried to spot a mark on any of the three targets.

Giving the two of us a slight glare, Chance stepped up to Air Heart’s side again “Try moving a few steps closer and going again…”

And so, over the course of the next hour or so he went through and tried out each of the guns she brought. He nearly dropped several of the heavier pistols when he tried to hold them, the smg Chance gave him ended up spraying bullets and hitting everything but the targets, and the shotgun she strapped onto him bucked so hard he ended up flying back and landing on his ass. “Now, don’t fret. It’s important for a shooter to find the right weapon, one that matches their personality and shooting style.” The mare assured him.

Eventually I got tired of watching him fumbling and looked up at Crunch. “I can’t watch any more of this. Are you ready to talk about the orb now?” He stared ahead silently while a giggling Abattoir helped Air Heart up. “Fine, then I’m going to go practice. Come get me when he finds one he doesn’t suck with.”

I turned and trotted across the yard to the fence blocking off one of the other abandoned houses. I kicked at a few boards until I found some loose ones, knocked them out of the way, and climbed through to the other yard. Then for good measure I picked up the boards and jammed them back into place.

The grass in this other yard didn’t stand over my head, but it was sufficiently tall enough for testing. I lifted the new sword I’d crafted off my back and ignited it, swinging it through the air a few times and trailing flames. I couldn’t use it as flexibly as my own sword with that hose coming out the bottom, but I felt the tradeoff would be worth it. Satisfied, I crouched down and held the burning blade before me, ready to singe some grass.

I’d barely gotten started when something startled me out of my focus. A sudden harmonic blat, like a trumpet sounding off, played up from behind the fence. Gritting my teeth, I charged out and hacked at the boards until one was chipped and charred enough to kick through. I stuck my head through and peered at the next yard over.

There was nothing there but more grass.

I sighed and trotted back across the lightly singed yard and pulled away the boards, climbing back through to my companions. “Well, how’s it going over here?”

“He picked one~” Abattoir sing-songed, twirling on her back hooves. I looked and saw Air Heart blushing and holding a modest little pistol in his mouth.

“And a fine choice it is too. It won’t bring down a charging hellhound in one shot, but it has plenty of stopping power for your day to day wasteland pests. Come back inside and we’ll get everything settled.” Chance motioned, collecting up the rest of the guns and turning back towards the Shot Trotters building.

Back inside, while Air Heart was paying for his new gun and bullets, I sidled up to Crunch and whispered. “I still expect some answers from you, but in the meantime… I think something is following me.” Crunch snorted once and gestured at the crafted sword. “No, It wasn’t the fire, I’m sure of it. I really heard something this time.” The fact that I was hearing horn music could only mean one thing I really didn’t like to think about… “Just keep your eyes open.” Crunch gave me a look, and then nodded. I nodded back.

Air Heart returned from the counter, his new gun peaking out of a small shoulder holster, resting just under his neck. He looked uncomfortable and kept fidgeting at it. “Are you sure this is really necessary?”

“Yes.” I said, turning to leave.

“Thank you. I sincerely hope you survive long enough to come again!” Second Chance bid us as we exited the shop. Shaking my head, I made my way back to the sidewalk and started to walk.

A few minutes later I stopped because I didn’t know where I was walking. Usually at this point I’d be heading out of town again, but somehow we’d decided to stay. I turned around and cleared my throat. “Okay. For the moment we’ve got some spare time. You two are welcome to spend it however you want.”

I was answered by Abattoir’s stomach gurgling loudly. She looked down at herself, then grinned up at me. “Mrs.Tum-tum says we should all go to lunch together.”

“It’s not late enough for lunch yet.” I snapped quickly.

“Brunch then. Whatcha say, Nurse Air Heart~?”

Air Heart flushed slightly and looked between the two of us. “Well, it has been a while since we ate anything…”

“Mr.Cruuunch?” My companion nodded, and all three of them turned to me.

Snorting, I stamped my hoof forcefully. “Now listen, I know you did sort of help with the last job, but that doesn’t make us buddies. There are other, important things I could be doing instead of watching you eat-”

“But you’d have to go there eventually anyway, to look for another job, right?” Air Heart cut in. I clammed up, that wasn’t entirely true, I could find a job not posted on the board.

“And if you still don’t wana come, Mr.Crunch can just carry you again.” Abattoir asked, tipping forward on her front hooves and grinning. Crunch smiled slyly down at me.

I stared back, sighed, and growled at him. “You’re fired… Fine, but I’m walking in front this time.” I was the leader. And I did not need to be nodding off now, walking ahead and plotting our destination would help with that.

And so I navigated us back to that horribly crowed restaurant/hotel thingy, with that ghastly sign overhead. The waitress from before saw us waiting at the front and sent another to take us to a table. The three of them ordered and I told them I’d had a snack while I was off practicing, then we settled in to eat and or wait.

The meal passed mostly uneventfully, aside from Abattoir trying to fit a strawberry up her nose. After they finished eating I led us away into the lounging area and approached the jobs board. While I was busy skimming for numbers, Air Heart snuck up and started reading them.

“How about this one?” He interrupted me, pointing up with a wing at one scrap of paper. “It sounds easy.”

“Only a hundred caps…”

“For radroach extermination. Most of those other ones are bounties, and I’m just not ready to shoot at another living pony. Can’t we just try it?” He looked at me pleadingly.

“Alright, fine, let’s go.” I rolled my eyes and turned away from the board, calling out, “Abattoir, we’re leaving.”

Abattoir had wandered over to some other ponies table and was stacking their glasses into a pyramid, but quickly joined us on the way out the door, and we once again trotted into town with Air Heart leading the way.

***

“It’s just been such a nightmare.” The purple mare explained as she led us around the side of her home. “I’d been hearing some noises through the floor, and when I went down into that old cellar, I found it just lousy with the little pests.”

She stopped and pointed at a pair of wooden doors built into the ground, over which a few extra boards had been nailed. I waved Crunch over and he started to work on prying them up, turning back to the mare. “This shouldn’t take too long then.”

“Bless y’all,” The mare smiled, taking a few steps back as Crunch pulled up the first board “I’ll just be waiting inside, I’ll have some nice lemonade ready for y’all when ya finish.” She turned tail and quickly trotted back around to the front of her house, and I heard the door slam a moment later.

Shaking my head, I turned around just as Crunch pulled up the last board, looking to Air Heart. “Are you ready? You and me are going down there first.”

He cleared his throat and nodded, steadying his hooves. “Y-yeah. Yeah, I think so.”

“What do I get to do?” Abattoir asked, bouncing impatiently.

“You hang back until I say so, we might not even need you or Crunch, they are only radroaches.” With that I looked up at Crunch, waiting with his hoof on the door handles. “Do it.”

With a squawk of rusty metal the doors were flung open, and the midday sun spilled onto the dusty staircase. I nodded at Air Heart again and started down, the old wood creaking under our hooves at every step.

The stairs ended and we found ourselves in the long disused cellar, the walls and floor mostly made of bare earth, with a few wooden beams spaced around, and the forgotten junk of a long dead pony laying around on shelves and in sacks.

But with the sunlight spilling in behind us, it was hard to see very deep into the cellar at all, and there wasn’t a single radroach to be found. Craning my neck back, I shouted up the stairs. “Crunch, shut the doors.”

“What?!” Air Heart turned, and would probably have run back up the stairs if I hadn’t stopped him. Crunch stood at the opening and gave me a roll of his eyes, before trotting out of view. A moment later, the doors came crashing back down one after the other, and the bright sunlight was blocked out.

But the greenish glow from my mane and tail remained, illuminating a circle around us. Air Heart blinked and lowered his head sheepishly. “Oh, right.”

He quieted down and jumped when the first of the radroaches reappeared, skittering out from under a nearby shelf. It just sat there, antennae twitching in the air, and I nudged Air Heart. “Go on, take care of it.”

He swallowed nervously and lowered his mouth to the handle of his pistol, pulling it out of the holster on his shoulder and training it on the unaware pest. I was about to urge him on again when he finally fired, the radroach collapsing with a single screech. We both stared at the dead insect for a moment, then he gave a whoop and flapped his wings once, rising into the air for a second.

“I did it! I hit it on the first try! Did you see that?” He dropped back onto the ground and grinned excitedly at me around the handle of his gun. I quickly reached up and tilted his head so he was facing away before I answered.

“Yes, yes, that wasn’t a bad shot. Once the rest come out of hiding we should be able to get rid of them just as easily.” I removed my hoof from his cheek and he turned to smile at me again, but it turned into a look of shock and he pointed over my head.

“Look out!” I turned around and saw a radroach on the top edge of the shelf, just as it spread its wings and flew at me. Out came my sword and I batted it away, looking over my shoulder.

“You really need to relax, they’re only radroaches.” I looked ahead as the creature recovered from impacting the wall and started skittering towards me, spearing it to the floor and killing it with one stab. I raised my head at the sound of a paint can clattering to the ground, about to yell at Abattoir, when I saw the culprit was another radroach, leaping off from another shelf. And with it came a dozen more, flying or crawling, all closing in fast.

Air Heart started firing wildly at the ground while I slashed at the air with my sword. The radroaches weren’t quick, but there were so many. I cut two clean in half, but another swooped in and landed on my mask, blinding me. While I reached up to pry it off with my hooves, I heard Air Heart firing until his pistol emptied, then a shrill yelp. “Eeyk! Get them off! Getthemoffgetthemoffgetthemofff!”

I threw the radroach to the ground and stamped on it, turning and finding Air Heart spinning in circles and flapping his wings as the radroaches climbed up his legs and landed on his back. Sighing, I pulled out my new sword, turning the gas valve and igniting the talisman at once, bathing the blade in flames.

“Hold still!” I shouted, causing him to freeze mid spin. I lashed out with the flaming sword, all the radroaches scattering from the heat and light, a few of them going away singed. Air Heart opened his tightly clenched eyes and took a deep breath, collapsing on the floor and kicking his legs.

“Ew ew ew, they were all over me!” I rolled my eyes and turned back towards the stairs, trotting to the bottom step and calling up.

“Hey, you two!” A sliver of light opened up and two silhouettes appeared. “Come on down, we might need a few extra hooves.”

Abattoir giggled with glee and skipped down the stairs, Crunch following after shutting the door behind him. I waited until they were all gathered around me before extinguishing the flaming sword, as it only drove the radroaches further away. In seconds they were back, a miniature swarm all homing in on us.

***

We were fine, of course. They were only radroaches.

Between Crunch’s stomping hooves, my swordwork, Abattoir’s… Abattoir stuff, and Air Heart’s shooting, we pulped and cut and blasted until the skittering came to a stop.

After the swarm was dealt with we were spread out poking around for stragglers or eggs, when Crunch stepped up beside me. When I looked up he nodded at a pile of radroach remains, then pointed at me and made a growling sound.

“So you think so too?” I nodded, closing a box of dusty old bowling trophies. “I thought they seemed unusually aggressive for radroaches. Think it’s just the climate down here?”

Crunch shook his head, and I went back to searching, when something blue caught my eye. When I moved, I could make out something faintly glowing in the far corner. Trotting closer, the light I was giving off filled the corner, and revealed that it wasn’t there. The back corner of the basement had been demolished from the other side, remains of wall and washing machine heaped in front of a huge hole that continued into the earth. And when I got closer I saw what was glowing, reaching out with my hoof. It was a sticky, pale blue and almost clear substance scattered around the rim of the hole, with tiny flecks in it that sparkled in the light.

“What in Equestria…” I mumbled, pulling my hoof back, the sticky substance trailing behind. I wiped it off on the ground and turned, calling out to Abattoir and Air Heart. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

They both leaned in to squint. “You mean a hole? I’ve seen a few in my time, but-eek!” She ducked and giggled as I swiped at her.

“I mean that blue stuff!”

Air Heart shook his head and stepped back “Doesn’t look familiar, but I don’t know that much about b-bugs… Did the radroaches do all this?”

Abattoir caught her breath and leaned in again, sticking her tongue to the sparkling blue goo, and pulling back a glob into her mouth before either of us could stop her. She hummed loudly and rubbed her chin. “Hmm… It doesn’t taste like anything that comes outa a radroach.” Then she continued her repulsive display by picking up one of the scorched radroaches I’d left behind and taking a large bite out of it.

“Mmh, nope, nope, definitely not radroach.” She mumbled with her mouth full, while I sighed and turned back to Air Heart.

“Radroaches do dig tunnels sometimes, but one of this size... it would’ve taken them months, and that mare said she only recently noticed them.” I looked down and shook my head “And even still, something much bigger smashed up this wall and the washer, and made those radroaches act more aggressive.”

Air Heart looked around the cellar and lowered his voice “Could it have something to do with Xephaniah?”

I opened my mouth to snap at him, but thought twice about the question and cocked my head up towards Crunch. “You think he’s behind this?”

Crunch shook his head quickly and kicked one of the dead radroaches. I nodded. “Right, this doesn’t feel like his style. But there’s definitely something strange behind this… But it’s none of our business. We’re just here to exterminate.”

“What about the hole?” Air Heart Protested as I turned around and trotted towards the stairs. I just shrugged.

“We’ll tell her about it, but if she wants us to try and close it, it’d cost extra. That’s a big job.” I started to walk away again, and found Abattoir in my path, smiling innocently.

“Hey Lumi. Can you show me that cool sword you made again?”


That was not suspicious at all. “Why?” I asked flatly.

“I jus wana see it. You did such a super job on it, I wana admire your craftsmanship!”

I stared at her closely as I drew the weapon I’d made, holding it in the air between us “What are you up to?”

She snickered into her hoof and made various oos and ahhs as she looked it up and down. “Ehe, can’t a friend compliment her pal on a job well done? I was wondering, did you come up with a name for it yet? All the best weapons have names, I was thinking the BurneyChoppah! Or the ChoppyBurnah… What d’you think, buuuuddy~?”

In retrospect, I should have realized it was a trap. I spun the gas valve and ignited the talisman, jabbing forward at Abattoir and hissing “We are NOT friends!”

She simply bent her forelegs and ducked, kicking up her back legs and making something fly loose from her saddlebags. It spun through the air and she caught it in her teeth, and I realized it was a stick of dynamite. She craned her neck and lit it with the flame from my sword, then galloped past me and chucked it into the tunnel, then grabbed Air Heart and galloped back towards the stairs.

I was so stunned that Crunch had to hoist me up and carry me after them, up the stairs and out onto the yard as the dynamite exploded, filling the cellar with dust and rattling the house above it.

I rolled onto my hooves from the patch of grass I’d been tossed into, finding Abattoir giggling and coughing on her back. I pounced on her and tried to press my hooves into her throat. “Why you little-!”

The purple mare emerged from her house and came galloping up to us, finding me still trying to lash out at her from Crunch’s back, where he’d tossed me to keep me from murdering Abattoir.

“What in blue blazes was that?!”

I took some deep breaths and started to settle down, kicking my legs and sliding backwards off Crunch’s back. I calmly trotted over to the mare and cleared my throat. “We’ve taken care of your radroach problem.”

***

“She sure was a nice lady.” Abattoir mused out loud as we walked the sidewalks of Little Cliffside.

“She was pretty understanding about us exploding her basement.” Air Heart added.

I just grumbled. I’d been grumbling since we left her yard.

“At least she still paid us, right?” Air Heart asked hesitantly.

“Minus compensation for almost destroying her house and scarin’ the wits outa her, whatever that means~” Abattoir added.

I grumbled again and levitated up the ten caps we’d walked away with, then floated them back and dropped them on the sidewalk in front of them. “Yeah, almost makes the whole thing worth it. Here, go buy yourselves some Sparkle Colas. I’ll wait right here, I promise.” I said, as I continued to trot down the sidewalk.

“Oh c’mon, up until the very end there we did a pretty great job, right?” Air Heart picked up speed to keep up with me.

“And that’s another thing, you need to stop using that word!” I snapped, spinning around and stopping him mid trot. “We. We this and we that, we, we ,we! There is no we, got it?”

He was too startled to reply, but Abattoir snickered loudly and threw her foreleg over his shoulder, mumbling, “She said wee-wee.”

Before I could come up with a colorful threat, a voice called out and interrupted us. It was Cactus Flower, crossing the street to meet us.

“There you are, I been lookin’ all over for y’all.” She smiled and pushed her hat up. “Heard you been busy helpin’ out the townsfolk a bit more.”

“Something like that…” Then what she’d said reached my brain and I added, “Wait, you were looking for us?”

“Well, not me, but DJ Desert Rose is, she’s…” She hesitated a moment and chewed her lip. “She’s got a job for you.”

“Really? What kind of job?” She hesitated again and I nodded. “Something dangerous, I assume? Something you’d rather she not do herself.”

“Bingo.” The lawmare chuckled lightly.

“Yahzee~” Abattoir called from behind.

Ignoring her, I waved my hoof at Cactus Flower, “Well, lead the way. Remind me to thank her for being discrete and not asking me over the radio.”

“That was her first idea, actually.” Cactus Flower turned and started to lead us back to the police/radio station. “I talked her out of it.”

There wasn’t much more conversation on the way, just a few whispers between Air Heart and Abattoir. Cactus Flower let us into the station and past the front room with the cells, holding open the door to the back room. “Go on in, I’ll go up and tell her you’re ready. Same rules as before, the big guy and the pegasus stay down here-”

“Holy shit!” Came a started cry inside the room, from Desert Rose, who had been sitting up on the countertop waiting for us. “You’re bucking huge!”

She was talking to Crunch, of course, who just favored her with a look of mild amusement. Cactus Flower sputtered and hurried us through the door, slamming it shut behind her and turning on her sister “Rose, you watch your mouth! And what are you doing down here?”

Desert Rose flapped off the table and flew over to hover above Crunch’s head, ignoring her sister. “I only saw you from far off before, I thought my eyes musta been playing tricks on me.” She landed on his back, grinning.

Cactus Flower looked ready to faint. “Get away from him, he’s very dangerous!”

Desert Rose gave her sister a look and rolled her eyes “Well duh, just look at him… fiiiiine.” She took to the air again “And I was waitin’ down here ‘cause I wanted to meet another pegasus before you chased them outa town.” She scanned the room from the ceiling until she spotted Air Heart trying to inconspicuously hide under a desk. She swooped down and landed in front of his face, startling him backwards.

“Oh. My. Goddesses. You are sooo pretty, were you really in the Enclave?” She demanded, making Air Heart’s cheeks flush.

“O-o-only for the one week so far… Uh, I… don’t think your sister likes me talking to you.” Air Heart kept stepping backwards while Rose advanced on him. Abattoir laughed particularly hard at the sight.

I cleared my throat and put my hoof between the two of them. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but I was told we came here for a job.”

Desert Rose smiled and flapped into the air again, landing back on the countertop and pushing her pink and white mane back. “Sorry, excuse me, I just never get to meet any other pegasus when they come though. Yes, I do have a job for you.”

About time, I thought to myself, before saying “Well, let’s get down to business.”

Rose smiled wider and raised one wing, pointing to what she'd been tinkering with on the countertop before we entered, and I could have kicked myself for not noticing it earlier.

A spritebot lay on its side on the counter, thankfully deactivated and, upon a closer look, partially dismantled. Next to it lay an open lunchbox, or something that had once been a lunchbox. There were several wires and tubes and metally bits jammed into it. I didn't really understand at all what I was looking at, I was too busy glancing over at the husk of the spritebot. I didn't even realize Rose was explaining something to us until halfway through. "-so I need you to take this with you the next time you go outside the gates, head up to the roof of the old town hall building, and plug it into the antenna."

I stared at the filly and the cobbled together piece of technology for a long moment before just blurting out. "Plug it into the what now?"

"The antenna!" Desert Rose rolled her eyes. "The big one on the roof, it's part of the old emergency broadcasting system."

I nodded my head a few times, then just to save everypony some trouble and potentially a wasted trip, I asked “Plug it in how?”

Desert Rose beamed “Oh, it’s simple.” She waved us in to take a closer look inside the lunchbox. She pulled out two loose cables and explained. “There’ll be two holes, just plug the blue plug into the blue hole, and the yellow and black wire into the yellow box.”

“That does sound pretty easy.” Air Heart said, and I nodded in agreement. Then something else struck my mind.

“We were just out that way, you know.” I picked up the device and looked it over a bit, even if I didn't understand it I could still be impressed with her work.

“Yeah, I know. Now. And if my sis had told me you were goin’ that way I woulda given it to ya before. But, what’re ya gona do?” She shrugged and hopped down off the countertop.

Cactus Flower just sighed and crossed the room to pour herself a cup of coffee. Meanwhile I set the lunchbox thing down again and Abattoir came up to poke at it, but I moved it aside. "So, what the heck is it anyway?"

“It’s a relay; if it works right I’ll be able to majorly boost my signal and reach more than just this town. I might even be able to tap into DJ Pon3's broadcast finally, he's so awesome!" Rose sighed wistfully and I groaned, changing the subject quickly.

“What’s the pay, then?” I already knew she was a talkative type, I didn’t want to get pulled into a long conversation about radios and DJ's and things.

“How does a hundred caps sound?”

It would make up for the disaster with the roaches. I nodded and lifted the lunchbox with my magic again, this time easing it into my own saddlebags. “Alright, I’ll take it.”

“Excellent! I’ll just get your caps and… oh, sis, I left my bank upstairs in the studio, could you get it for me?”

Cactus Flower was not having that, and narrowed her eyes at her younger sister. “Rose…”

“Pleeeease?”

Cactus Flower rolled her eyes, then gave each of us a quick glare before turning and galloping up the stairs. Desert Rose waiting until she heard the heavy door to her studio slam shut before turning back to us and grinning, specifically at Air Heart.

"Uhm... can I help you?" Air Heart asked once the silence started to grow uncomfortable.

"Soooo, you're in the Enclave, huh? I don't see what my sis is so afraid of."

"Oh, well, I was, but not for very long..."

"Didja quit or somethin'?" Rose continued to fire off questions faster than Air Heart could keep up.

"N-no, I was kicked out for... for stowing away and I really, really don't think your sister wants us talking like this.” Air Heart glanced nervously at the stairs.

“Oh, a few questions won’t hurt! Sis treats me like such a foal sometimes, she didn’t let me talk to the last pegasus that came through, she didn’t even let me talk to the zebra, how am I am supposed to get more news if I can’t meet anypony interesting, huh” The little filly vented at us and crossed her forelegs, making Air Heart look a little abashed.

Then the cap dropped and Air Heart and I both processed what she’d just said and shouted out in unison.

“Zebra?!”

“Pegasus? What did she look like?”

At that same moment, Cactus Flower stepped onto the bottom landing of the stairs and spotted us staring intently at her sister. She immediately turned her own gaze on Desert Rose and demanded “What did you say now?”

“Nothin’!” Rose squeaked.

I rounded on Cactus Flower and tried to keep my voice level “I need you to tell me everything about the zebra that passed through here recently.”

Air Heart was right behind me, sounding much more frantic. “And the pegasus? What did she look like? Was she from the Enclave too?!”

Cactus Flower sighed and rubbed her forehead with her hoof “Alright, everypony just calm down and we’ll talk… Rose, put some more coffee on.”

***

I sat at the table and stared into my mug of coffee. Two bright green ovals stared back at me. Air Heart was politely sipping his own mug and Abattoir was still at the counter pouring more sugar into hers.

“Okay, now that we’re all calm, where should we start?” Cactus Flower was seated across the room at her desk, her hat resting on the terminal across from her. She decided to look to me first “Let’s start with you. You want to know about that zebra?"

I nodded.

"Okay. Well, I was suspicious of him from the very start-"

"Which is totally racist, sis."

"-Because he showed up at the gates with two ponies that looked like they'd been beaten, and recently. I'm pretty sure they were slaves, he was very careful not to let them out of his sight, and did all the talking himself."

"What did he look like" There was little doubt it was him, but I had to be certain it wasn't a wild coincidence, or even a decoy of some sort.

Cactus Flower furrowed her brow and shrugged "He looked like a zebra. I didn't get a real good look, he was always wearin' a heavy cloak, don't know how he could stand the heat in the desert dressed like that... And there was somethin' else weird about him."

I leaned forward a little, I knew what she was going to say, but I still wanted to hear it. "And what was that?"

"Whenever he looked at me... There was somethin' wrong with his eyes, it was like... Like he was lookin' through me, y'know?" Cactus Flower looked a little shaken as she recalled the experience, but quickly recovered. "Like I said, he was suspicious from the start."

I took a deep breath and leaned back again, turning to stare into my cooling mug of coffee. No doubt at all now, it could only have been him. Everypony always noticed the eyes, they were unforgettable. I even started to think I could see them staring back at me from the brown liquid, those inky black pools that seemed to pierce through my very being...

"Huh?" I said, using my hoof to slide the mug away from me when I realized Cactus Flower had been asking something.

"I said, is that all?" I looked up to find every eye on me, and I had to wonder how long I'd gazed into the mug. I shook my head.

"Almost. Did he do anything else while he was in town?"

Cactus Flower had replaced her hat on her head at some point, and lifted it up to scratch behind her ear while she thought. "Hmm.. Well, I know for sure he stocked up on food n' water, and I didn't really want to, but I did direct him to the bed n' breakfast. Don't know if he actually stayed there... what else... Oh! He asked where he could go to get some medical attention for his two... for those two other ponies."

I guessed she was trying to avoid worrying Air Heart any more than he already was about the pegasus in tow with Xephaniah. I glanced over and caught him chewing on a hoof before I continued "So you sent him to some doctor around town?"

She shook her head. "Well, there's one or two resident sawbones; I think one of 'em actually does call herself Saw Bones... But if you need serious medical treatment, you gota go to The Clinic.”

I sighed, because I could already tell by her tone it was ‘The Clinic’ and not just the clinic. “And where’s that?”

She pointed out one of the station windows, in the general direction of the massive canyon that divided the area. “Across the bridge, in Big Cliffside.”

“That’s our next stop then.”

“Figured you’d say that. I can’t stop ya, ‘course, just stay on your hooves while you’re there. It ain’t as safe as here, my jurisdiction ends on this side of the bridge.”

I thought back to Iron Will’s front yard, and the rampaging giant stoneback, both on this side of the bridge, and nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind… I guess that’s everything.”

“That means it’s your turn.” Cactus Flower turned to Air Heart, and he took a few deep breaths.

“Okay, I just need to know who that pegasus was, what did she look like?” He leaned forward a little in his stool.

“Well, her coat was pretty dirty, but it was sort’ve… blue green, and her mane was orange, does that sound like who you’re lookin’ for?”

I could tell by the way Air Heart’s face dropped that she’d just described his sister. He cleared his throat and opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Finally he got himself together enough to ask “Did she look alright? You said she’d been enslaved by the zebra…?”

“I did, but it was just a feeling I had. It wasn’t like he was dragging them around in chains or anythin’. They just kinda kept real quiet and stuck close to him, and didn’t answer when I spoke to ‘em. She didn’t look like she was hurt too bad, not as much as the other guy at least. He was all bandaged up, looked like he’d been run over by a train.”

Air Heart let out a little relieved sigh and leaned back “As long as she’s… and she left with the zebra to go to this Clinic? Could you give us directions?”

“Now wait just a minute, what about me? You already agreed to take my job.” I almost forgot Desert Rose was there until she spoke up. She had a point; I couldn’t back out now, no matter how tantalizingly close he was. At least Xephaniah also had two other ponies to drag around with him, hopefully he wouldn’t slip too far ahead while we took care of this antenna or whatever.

I realized I’d left a silence hanging in the air and took a deep breath, nodding “You’re right, my apologies. We’ll finish up your job, you have my word…”

“Just in case, s’it okay if I pay ya when you get back?” Desert Rose gave me a cheeky little grin. “No offense.”

“None taken, not the first time.” I looked around the room to make sure my companions didn’t have anything else to say, and climbed out of my stool. “Well, let’s get going then?”

“You’re headin’ out already?” Cactus Flower asked, rising to walk us back out to the main room.

“Maybe, but first we have a few things to look into. I’ll still take care of your antenna thing, but while we’re here in town I’m going to check out anyplace he spent a little time.” I cut Desert Rose off before she could protest again, and walked to the door to wait. Crunch was right behind me, and Air Heart followed, dragging his hooves again. Abattoir was trying to finish off her coffee quickly without burning herself, and galloped after us with her tongue hanging out. Once we were all gathered and ready to go I nodded politely at Cactus Flower and opened the door. “Until next time.”

“Keep outa trouble.”

I nodded, and trotted away.

***

“A zebra?” The squat stallion behind the counter furrowed his brow.

“Yes. He came through a couple of days ago, and he had a pegasus with him. Not an easy thing to forget, so don’t even try to pull that one.”

He snorted and frowned, lowering his head and looking at the counter. After a moment he nodded “Think I remember them, yeah. What’s it to ya?”

“I need to know which room he stayed in.” I said, leaning forward on the counter.

“Please, we’d really appreciate it.” Air Heart added.

“Pretty please~” Abattoir chimed in, and the stallion held up his hooves.

“Okay, okay!” He ducked under the counter and came back with a large metal key with a 4 on it. “Here. He really creeped us out, y’know? Paid in advance for two nights bit only stayed one… Said the ‘other party’ would take the second, is that you then?”

“Uh, yes, that’s us.” I levitated the key over and turned for the staircase, leaving behind the loud, busy dining floor of Strawberry Shortcake’s Bed and Breakfast.

“Why do you think he did that?” Air Heart asked when we reached the second floor, which looked more like a hotel, with rows of rooms and a much quieter atmosphere than downstairs.

“Did what?” I asked, turning to the left to start following the rooms.

“Paid for an extra night. Do you think he knew we’d come asking for him like this?” He asked with a touch of nervousness in his voice.

“I don’t know, it’s possible. Just don’t think about it too much, it could just be…” I reached the fourth door and held up the key, stopping to look at the metal 4 on the end. I turned to look at the three ponies behind me and sighed, “Coincidence.”

I unlocked the room and stepped inside. It looked like any simple hotel room, two small beds and a window, a wardrobe, a bookshelf, and a door across the room leading to a bathroom. I entered the room slowly and scanned around for anything out of place or suspicious.

“Keep your eyes open.” I whispered over my shoulder.

“For what? Are we having a scavenger hunt now?” Abattoir asked, already up and jumping on one of the beds.

“I don’t know. He could have left anything behind, and whatever it is could be dangerous.” I said, peeking under each of the beds.

“Why would he do that?” Air Heart asked from behind me.

“What?”

“I mean, does he want to hurt you? Does stuff like this happen a lot?”

I raised my head and stared at Air Heart for a moment until he stepped away, checking one of the dresser drawers. “No, not really, he wants to… test me. Not important to you, just be careful.” I looked up at Abattoir and pointed at the wardrobe. “Go search that.”

“Aren’t you gona tell me to be careful?”

“I don’t really care” I pointed again and she jumped off the bed, pouting. I turned in a circle and looked around for anything else to look in or under or behind. My eyes fell on the bathroom door and I trotted across the room.

Opening the door, I found a typical pre war bathroom. The light had been left on, and I sighed and stepped inside for a closer look. I peeked inside the toilet, and then lifted the lid on the tank. Nothing there but cloudy water.

I turned back to leave the bathroom, but Abattoir poked her head out of the door of the wardrobe. “How rude can you be!”

“What now?”

“You left the light on!” She pointed an accusing hoof.

I narrowed my eyes at her and turned back around, hitting the lightswitch with my hoof. The little light in the ceiling winked out, leaving behind only my own green glow casting off the walls. And the other glow, a sliver of blue light I caught when I turned to leave again. I glanced back and saw my own green orbs, reflected in a mirror.

I hit the light again and tilted my head, seeing I’d left the medicine cabinet unchecked. I flicked the light off again, stepping towards the sink and the line of light escaping from inside it. I tugged on the door until it clicked open, and something metal dropped into the sink.

I saw two things at once. One was the words painted in the back of the cabinet in some glowing , sparkly blue liquid, reading “Follow the stars” in minotaur glyphs.

The second was the single shotgun shell rigged to a mechanical trap that had been wired to the cabinet door until a second ago, before I had pulled the pin out.

I didn’t even have time to sigh before the gears clicked again and drove the mechanism into the shell, firing it off and punching a hole in my chest. Pain exploded through my torso and I stumbled backwards out of the bathroom. My ears were ringing but I heard Air Heart shout “What’s wrong? What happened?”

I held my hoof over the wound and gritted my teeth, trying to get the room to steady. I looked up and saw Abattoir and Air Heart coming closer to check on me, Crunch behind them looking furious, and heard yelling and pounding from outside the door. There was no time to deal with the grievous wound without at least these two seeing me, and at the same time I’d have to deal with the owner, who would no doubt have some questions of his own. I couldn’t think of any way I was going to talk myself out of this, I needed some time to think.

I’ll admit I may have acted irrationally, when I turned and jumped through the window. I used my horn to pierce the glass and went sailing out into the back parking lot of the former bed and breakfast. I hung in the air surrounded by glass shards and enjoyed a brief moment of relief, before gravity took hold and I started to plummet towards the ground. My gaze tipped forward and I saw where I was bound to land, groaning and covering my head.

I landed in the vegetable cart with a THRUMPH and a tinkling of glass. I found myself half buried in a pile of smushed and shredded produce.

“Veggie salad...” I felt compelled to grumble at the mess. I lifted my head and came eye to lenses with the startled ponies that had been unloading the vegetables.

“Are you alright?” One of them asked.

“What in Equestria were you thinkin’?!” Another shouted.

“MY CABBAGES!” the last one shrieked, and that was my cue to jump out of the cart and shake off the leaves and bits of carrot, then take of galloping into town. I was sure I was still bleeding but I didn’t stop to check, I just had to get away from the commotion and find a place to rest, away from curious ponies and prying eyes and endless questions.

***

I’m not sure how far or long I galloped, eventually I came to a stop in an empty playground. There was a large metal play structure shaped like a flying saucer, with ladders and slides and even a little dome on top. I climbed up inside and tumbled over onto my back, throwing off my bags and digging around for the torn rad suit. One of the water bottles rolled out and I caught it in my hooves, screwing off the cap and pouring a generous amount of the foul water onto my chest. It burned, but I grit my teeth and held in a grunt of pain as the wound slowly closed. I nearly used up half the bottle before the last trace of the hole vanished, and I returned the cap and sprawled out again.

For a long time I just lay there on my back, panting and watching the clouds and fast fading sunlight through the grimy plastic dome in the ceiling. I tried to process what had just happened.

“Follow the stars…” I thought out loud. Zebra gibberish? Xephaniah had told me about reading the stars once, but I’d never been able to understand it, and it could only have been him that left that message. And it had been written in that strange substance. It took a few ticks of my brain before I realized where else I’d seen it recently.

“That goop in the tunnel…?” I grunted as I sat upright. So maybe he did have something to do with the hole and the roaches and whatever that crud was. So that’s one question (sort of) answered.

But what about that shotgun trap? He knew he couldn’t do any real harm to me with such a simple trap, but the confusion afterword was far more damaging. Or was it even meant for me in the first place? It didn’t make sense for him to try to kill either of those two, not while they were being such a torn in my side already.

I groaned and rubbed my head. I would at least be explaining to Abattoir and Air Heart when I went back to the Bed and Breakfast. If I even went back, I reminded myself. And for that matter, I could just tell them both to fuck off.

But I did have to go back, I knew it. Not just to get back to Crunch, but because I had that filly’s job to finish, and while I was completely sure I could handle it myself, it might be a good idea to bring them along in case they ended up being useful by accident.

I spent a while longer just resting and thinking in the abandoned playground, until I noticed how dark it had got outside. I climbed out of the saucer and left the playground, and started trotting down the sidewalk.

I stopped again when I realized I didn’t really know where I was going. Nothing looks familiar, and I only saw a few ponies out on their front porches or closing up their shops, but they all looked a bit too spooked whenever I approached for me to even ask for directions. And eventually they all returned to their homes and I was left roaming the sidewalks alone hoping to see anything I recognized.

I don’t know if I’d made any progress before I heard the dreaded sound, a burst of insufferable fanfare from a speaker somewhere ahead of me. I cursed and galloped until I reached an intersection, glaring left to right until I heard it again, sounding like a phantom marching band off in the distance. I took the left route and followed it into a smaller neighborhood, the houses smaller and closer together.

I kept a wary eye on any of the lawns that looked a little overgrown, and my ears perked for any further bursts of music, until I realized what was happening. Not only had it somehow found me down here, but it was leading me somewhere, roping me into something no doubt.

The next sound I heard was a mare’s scream somewhere ahead of me, further into the neighborhood. That removed all doubt of what it was up to. For a few seconds I just stood there on the sidewalk, listening and holding my breath, wrestling with my options. Then I decided I wasn’t going to fall for this again, I already had enough to worry about. I spun around and high tailed it back the way I’d come, and once I was out on the sidewalk I picked a random road and galloped as fast as I could.

***

I’d almost run all the way back to the eastern gate before I started to recognize some of the shops in the darkness. I’d stopped across the street from the Shot Trotters, from there it was easy to find my way back to the Bed and Breakfast by spotting the big obnoxious sign of the strawberry mare and following it.

Rather than risk going in the front and bumping into the staff, I skirted around to the back lot and looked up. Sure enough, I saw the empty frame of the window I’d made my dramatic exit from, but I couldn’t see any lights on inside the room.

Instead of wasting the time trying to climb up to the second floor before knowing if they were even there, I searched the lot for a few small rocks and used my magic to fling them up into the window. After the second I heard a sharp yelp and a moment later Air Heart appeared in the frame.

“Whuh... Lumi, is that you?” I stared up at him, glowing green in the night, until he continued. “Uh, what’s going on?”

“I need you to help me get back up there.”

“Oh, uhm, okay, I think maybe I could… find some sheets and tie them together, and lower it-”

“You have wings, dumbass.”

He winced slightly, but I saw him scanning the back lot before he gingerly stepped out of the frame into the air. He descended down to meet me and extended a hoof. I took it, and with a few flaps he carried us back up to the window and I climbed through it.

Inside I found Abattoir and Crunch also awake and waiting for me, her wearing a grin and him giving me a stern glare. I took a deep breath and sighed, taking a seat on the floor and waited “Well?”

“Well what?” Air Heart asked, joining them across from me.

“The questions. I’m sure you’re dying to ask me dozens of them all night, let’s just get it over with.

Air Heart shook his head “Oh, no, we know you’re uncomfortable with snooping, we can respect-“

“So you took a shotgun to the face, huh? Looks fine to me!” Abattoir cut in, snickering. Air Heart at least tried to hide his own curiosity and looked away.

“In the chest, actually. No one could survive a shotgun blast to the face… And I’m sure that’s not the most important question you have.” I was feeling tired, surprisingly, and just wanted some peace and I knew I’d never get it until I got them off my back.

“Well, we did kinda already figure out most of it on our own… Xephaniah knew we’d be here and he tried to kill you right?” Air Heart reached into his saddlebags and came back with the trap device. I looked at it, then up at him, making him squirm. “What?”

“Why do you have it?” I asked, surprised.

“I hid it, the owner was coming in and I figured it was important... We didn’t want him to think we were up to something and take it, right?” He was biting his lip nervously.

“I just didn’t think you had it in you to be so secretive and sneaky. So you managed to explain everything without him getting suspicious?” I wouldn’t admit it but I was close to being impressed. “What about the window?”

“We told him you were late to an appointment and you really, really, had to go!” Abattoir beamed, that was obviously her own solution. Less impressive, but still, if it worked…

“So, was he really trying to kill you? I thought he was your friend?” Air Heart dropped the trap and I floated it over to examine it.

“He’s… not. I don’t have any friends. But no, I’m not sure he left this. He definitely left the message, but this is too direct for him, even if he wanted to attack me.” I set the contraption back down, it was useless to me anyway “So, are we done here?”

“Well, I guess so, but you said there was a message? I didn’t see anything like that in the bathroom.” He turned and trotted into the bathroom, and I cursed inwardly, but it was already too late, so I just plowed ahead.

“Check the medicine cabinet. It’s in Minotaur, and it’s written in the same blue gunk we found in that tunnel.” I sighed again as Abattoir went to join him, and they peeked inside the cabinet at the still faintly gleaming message.

“What’s it say?” Abattoir asked, before sticking her tongue out and leaning in. Thankfully Air Heart stopped her.

“’Follow the stars’.”

“What the heck does that mean?”

I shrugged and rubbed the side of my head “I’m not sure. Like I said, Xephaniah likes to be indirect. I’m sure I’ll figure it out soon, just… Are we done? I want to… go to bed.” I tried to sound as tired as I felt, but it wasn’t a phrase I was used to.

They returned to the bedroom and seemed satisfied for now, drifting over to the beds. “I guess so…” Air Heart mumbled as he climbed up. “Should we ask where you went for the rest of the day?”

“I took a walk, that’s all. Go to sleep.” I snapped, at the end of my patience. The two of them settled into their beds, and I finally turned to look at Crunch, still giving me his hard stare.

“There was nothing I could do. I panicked. Don’t blame yourself.” I whispered, turning my head and looking away. “Just get some sleep.”

I heard him get up and move across the room, so it seemed I was finally going to get some peace and quiet.

Of course, I was wrong. Only a few minutes passed before someone came banging on the door. “Discord curse your eyes…” I hissed and jumped up, trotting to the door and wrenching it open.

I found Cactus Flower there, looking slightly surprised, until she pulled on the bit extending from her battle saddle, raising her shotgun at me. I noticed another pair of ponies flanking her, both armed and sporting stars on their vests and trying not to look as frightened as they did. “Uhm, yeah, this is kind of embarrassing but… you’re under arrest.”

***

“Again, I’m really sorry about this, we don’t usually do things like this.” Cactus Flower explained as she escorted me towards the police station. She’d left behind her two deputies to watch Crunch and the others in the room once I agreed to come quietly. I wasn’t in the mood to start a fight with an entire town by taking out their law enforcement, and whatever this was I was sure I could get out of it.

“What exactly am I being arrested for?” I asked over my shoulder.

“There was an attack, in the night. They… described you at the scene, sort of. We’ve also heard from someponies who say they saw you fleeing nearby at the same time.” She explained, gingerly poking me with the barrel of her shotgun when we reached the door. I sighed and opened it, stepping into the station while she mumbled “Sorry.”

“I didn’t do it.” It seemed like the right thing to say.

“There’s a lot that points to you. I also heard from the owner of Strawberry’s that you… leapt through a window and disappeared sometime in the afternoon? It does sound very suspicious.” She led me to the wall of cells across the room and stepped around me, keeping an eye on me while she fished out the keys and unlocked it. “We’ll do some investigating, but it doesn’t look very good… unless she turns up, or we find something that clears you, we’ll have to hold you accountable.” I started to step inside the cell but she stopped me “You’ll… have to give up your weapons.”

I was ready to cut my losses, and cut her head off, when what she’d just hit me. “Unless who turns up?”

She stared at my strangely before she went on “A filly has gone missing. She was taken by… whoever did this… now, the swords.” She motioned with the barrel of her shotgun and I levitated my swords off my back and onto the floor.

“You be careful with those.” I warned her as I stepped inside the cell. She locked it behind me and bent down to scoop up my swords. She struggled with my blade, but eventually she got them both into a nearby locker and locked them away as well. I just took a seat on the bench in the cell and watched her until she left the station, saying something else about investigating.

If I hadn’t been paying attention, I would have gotten my hopes up that at least, locked up in jail, I could finally have some peace and quiet and time to think. But I already knew I wouldn’t get it, any second now, something was going to come along and interrupt me, and most likely annoy me to no end.

“What do you want?” I called out to the thin air.

“You look like you could use some help.” Came the reply, in a warbling voice from the little window in the back of the cell. I turned my head and saw the metallic pink orb bobbing in the air just outside.

“Fuck off” I looked away from the window and tried to stare a hole through the wall.

“Okay, maybe I deserved that. And maybe I owe you an apology.”

“You owe me a hundred caps.” I stood up and started to pace.

It was weird, hearing the robotically generated voice stumble “I-I’m sorry, what?”

“For the ponies you had me kill when we first met.”

“I don’t know what you mean, I was only giving you directions.”

I picked up my pace a little “You directed me into a camp full of ponies you wanted dead, I’m not an idiot. That’s as good as hiring me. But you weren’t there to pay me, so I had to take what I could from that family they’d captured, and they were 100 caps short.”

I didn’t know where the eyes were, exactly, on the spritebot, but I could feel the operator behind them staring at me, and I turned to meet them. “You... took their caps? I didn’t hear about that.”

I nodded. Technically I’d given them a portion of Crunch’s food in exchange, but he didn’t need to know that. “I told them to keep quiet about it. Same with every other time you’ve shown up and pointed me in the direction of trouble. That slaver ambush you walked me into, the caravan that was getting robbed. I took care of it, but I took my pay and I made sure nopony spread any stories.”

“Just coincidences… Fine, let’s change the subject… I heard you helped out some nice musician in town here?”

I laughed bitterly at the spritebot, and sighed, returning to the bench. “It doesn’t matter how much you try to groom me, I’m not a hero. I kill ponies for money. That was… a rare exception. Just say what you want and then fuck off.”

The voice took it’s time to answer again, so much that I had to turn my head to see if it was still there. “Well, I’m sure you’ve already heard about the… incident earlier, in town.”

“If you wanted me to kill something, next time try approach me and think about paying me first. So you had something to do with that?”

“I’m sorry, I left my money in my other robot. No, but I like I said, you looked like you could use some help. I can get you let out of there, but only if you’ll rescue that poor filly.”

“So it is a job. Well, I can’t promise anything, so you’d better hope her parents have some spare caps…” I reached up and kicked at the bars with one hoof. "And how are you going to get me out, do those things have lasers on them too?"

"They do, but no strong enough to melt through all those bars. No, I was going to get you out the right way, I captured some footage from the... incident. It proves it wasn't you. I can send it to your friend's PipBuck and she can show-"

The voice from the bot cut off when I grabbed it in my magic and slammed it forward against the bars on the windows, rearing up to put myself closer to wherever the camera was on the cursed thing. "They are not my friends. I don't have any friends!"

I released my hold and the orb floated back a few inches, sparking once "Easy there, do you know how hard it is to get one of these bots all the way down there? Sorry, I just thought you'd finally taken my advice an found someone else to watch your back. So if they're not your friends, who are they?"

"The loudmouth one is a pest, and I'm going to kill her someday." Thinking about it made me wish my sword wasn't locked up, I could be practicing right now. "The other one is... a slave."

"He didn't look like a slave to me."

"I bought him, he's a slave." I stomped my hoof "This conversation is over. Fine, go do whatever you want to do, just leave me alone."

He hesitated for a while before timidly asking "I take it that means you haven't found your virtue yet either?"

I growled in answer, and the orb started to drift away silently. I started to return to my little bench, but stopped suddenly, a thought cutting through me like a knife "No..." I spun around and called "Wait!" The spritebot returned, somehow looking curious despite not having an actual face. "Can you show me the footage?"

"Uh, yeah, do you need to see it right away?" Now all of a sudden he didn't want to bother me. I nodded, and the bot pushed in as close against the bars as it could.

The two huge hexagon patterned disks that represented the sprite's eyes flickered and illuminated. The screen went from bright white to pitch darkness, then the scene of somepony's back yard materialized. The bot was moving quickly through it, bobbing over fences until it arrived at one home that was pressed up against the giant wall that surrounded the town. It topped the fence just in time for that same shriek I'd heard an hour before to ring out a second time. It had come from a mare who was running out of the back door of her house, into the yard, towards... Something. Something large, that I couldn't make out in the darkness, but that peered down at the frantic mare with cold, glowing blue eyes. In front of the whatever-it-was, was a young filly scrabbling in the dirt to crawl away. The creature made a lunge, moving several more limbs than any pony had, and snatched up the young filly, turning its back and fleeing towards the tall fence.

I felt a chill race up my spine as I watched the creature leap the fence with ease, seconds before a stallion burst out the back door of the home and fired a shotgun blindly into the darkness. "Stop it." I gasped out "Go back a few seconds." The watcher behind the orb complied without question, reversing the footage until I shouted "Stop!" again. There, on the unknown creature's back, were dozens of stars, glowing bright blue in the dark of the night.


To be continued~

Footnote: No new levels this time!





((Phew! All I can say is sorry it took so long to get this chapter out, had plenty of distractions along the way. I've decided, rather than take another 6 months to finish the whole thing, to once again split a larger narrative into two (or more) parts, making this the first proper multipart chapter. Hopefully part 2 will be out much much faster!
On to the thanks, thanks to all y'all for stickin' it out long enough and coming back to read this, thanks to everybody promotin' my story wherever you are, thanks to the WD staff for letting me use their setting, and finally of course, thanks to KKat for starting this whole wild ride in the first place. See y'all next time!))