• Published 27th Feb 2013
  • 7,238 Views, 765 Comments

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 Door

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO - THE DOOR

"There is nothing to fear but fear itself." - Franklin Delano Roosevelt




The door was open. The dome was down. And with that purple spotlight gone, there was nothing but white coming out of the Crystal Wall.

The colonel and Pickle Barrel marched up front and kept us all from stampeding. Lead us up No Mare’s Land. Back toward the door. And I was right there with Wormwood.

She had insisted.

"So what you're saying is that the Crystal Empire is like a giant prism that projects 'love and light' throughout Equestria."

"Yes, my turn."

My hoof hurt. I didn't have the energy for questions.

"And that the Crystal Heart is, essentially, a smaller prism that projects ‘love and light’ throughout the city."

"Yes, my turn." I grumbled.

My hoof hurt. I did not have the energy for questions.

"And you're saying that it does this by amplifying the good cheer of ponies attending a simple festival?"

"Ugh! Yes!” I snapped.

Wormwood turned away from me. Furrowed her brow. She was planning something. I could practically see the gears inside her brain turning.

“So according to your source, that's what we know for sure." The colonel said to herself.

I stopped to roll up my sleeve. Fiddled with it with my teeth ‘till I could get to that evil hoof.

“Ow,” I winced.

The damn thing was getting worse. It looked normal. For a cursed evil hoof. But it itched at me from under my skin, and each step closer to that big old doorway made it itch just a little bit more.

“Hmm. So that's what we know for sure.” The colonel was talking to herself.

She got so excited she picked up her pace. I had to hobble into a trot on my evil hoof just to keep up.

"Your theory about the Crystal Heart detecting our truce - it’s the best we have to go on, but right now it's still just a theory. So let me ask you--;"

"No."

I pouted. Refused to answer.

"What?"

"No more questions. It's my turn."

"Rose, this is important," said Wormwood.

"Mmm mmm mm." I spoke with my mouth closed to indicate that I couldn't possibly answer.

"Rose,"

I turned away.

"Mm mmm."

All across the field, everyone else was sparkly and smiling. Because everyone else could march toward the door with hope in their hearts, rather than get asked a bunch of dumb questions. Plus they didn't have to deal with those obnoxious pins and needles o' darkness either.

"Rose, we don't know what's behind that door. I'm basing a lot of judgments on your word – judgments that could be life or death for all the ponies here.

“I'm sorry to press you so hard, but I really need to know one thing."

I sighed. Grumbled.

"What do you need to know?"

Wormwood smiled. She was proud of me 'cause I didn't ask for anything in exchange. Duty. Doing stuff for the right reasons and all that.

I threw a weak little smile back at her.

"I need to know," she said, licking her lips, "where you found a copy of a prewar newspaper."

I tripped. Stumbled. Fell face first to the ground. Would have smacked my noggin too if Wormwood hadn't thrown out a leg to catch me.

Oh, no. I thought. Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no.

What could I say that the colonel could possibly believe? I couldn't get anything past her! That mare could smell lies.

I scrambled to my hooves again.

“Ponyviille," I mumbled, mouth full of my own lapels as I straightened them. “Mm-it’s sort of a mmlong story."

Wormwood waited for me to elaborate. I didn't. Just kept walking, lips zipped.

Clip-clop.

Clip-clop.

Clip-clop.

"Rose, I need assurance I can rely on this information."

"You can."

"But how?"

I took a deep breath. Summoned what confidence I could.

"Some things a lady never tells." I said, and flashed a great big doofy grin, hoping that Colonel Wormwood would kinda sorta maybe appreciate the joke, and laugh with me.

She did not.

"I'm sorry." I said meekly. " I would really rather not get into it. Please."

"Rose,"

"Please," I squeaked.

Wormwood looked at me long and hard. Without blinking. Quantified me with that calculating stare of hers.

Please,” I whispered.

"Okay," said the Colonel with a quiet nod, and that was the end of that.

She turned away from me. Got all thinky, and watched that Crystal Tower in silent contemplation.

Light and color poured out of the Crystal Empire - spilled right over the wall like a waterfall.

And I walked right there beside her, admiring it too.

My hoof stung pretty bad. It hated everything about the place, but I didn't care. My hoof could get fucked. It was beautiful.

"What's your question?" Wormwood broke the silence.

"What?"

"You had a question." She said. "You wouldn’t shut up about it."

"But I never answered yours."

“I'm feeling generous.” She shrugged.

This was it! My turn at last! Sweet Celestia! Answers!

"Ok." I leapt with enthusiasm. Licked my lips. "Strawberry Lemonade."

"Ah,” she nodded. “The medal."

"The pony!"

Without even realizing it, I had pressed myself up against the colonel all eager-like while we were walking. She raised an eyebrow at me.

"Please?" I said, all adorable-like.

"Hmm. Well, let's see. We do have service records of course. Dates, missions, but they're just names on rosters and logs. Sadly, the Applejack’s Rangers know very little about her. Apart from the obvious."

"Which is..."

I leaned in harder.

She looked at me like I was crazy, which of course was that same hard-faced expressionless stick-in-the-butt glare as usual, but I knew her well enough to decipher what it meant.

"What…Littlepip wrote about." Said Colonel Wormwood slowly, suspicion oozing off of her.

Squee!

Littlepip - the pony from the future past that everyone looked up to - the one who had saved all of Equestria -The Lightbringer - she knew Strawberry Lemonade!

I squee'd. Out loud. Again.

Wormwood raised an eyebrow at me. Dammit, this was getting uncomfortable. The strange gaps in my knowledge were really starting to stick out

What the Hell? In for a bit, in for a jewel.

"What did Littlepip say?" I bit my lip and asked.

We walked together in silence. Colonel Wormwood weighing me all the way, trying to figure out where this strange question could have come from. Why I didn't already know. Why I could possibly care.

"That when Steelhooves split the Rangers, and started the Civil War, Paladin Strawberry Lemonade was key among his allies." She said.

I leaned in harder.

"But, well, her greatest legacy was her sacrifice in the Battle of Dragon Mountain, thus the medal."

"Oh." I said.

Two different wheels got to spinning around in my head, turning in thinkitty little circles.

Each in opposite directions.

A heroine! One of my Rose voices said to me.

But there was also a sad little voice in my head. Poor Straw Lem, it whimpered.

"Truth be told, I would never have enlisted if not for her." Said the Colonel totally out of Nowheresville.

"What? Why?"

"Everypony always focuses on Littlepip, as well they should,” said Wormwood. “But her great legacy was not what she had accomplished on her own. Paladin Strawberry Lemonade inspired others. Lead them. She headed the defense of Dragon Mountain, and made the ultimate sacrifice. It was that sacrifice that protected the Gardens of Equestria - that sacrifice that saved the Elements of Harmony from the Enclave."

The Elements of Harmony! Strawberry Lemonade grew up to save the. Elements. Of. Harmony.

“No way,” I whispered.

"Ponies romanticize that simply because it was a sacrifice, but they don't know what it really means.” Wormwood lowered her head. “Only a soldier knows. Paladin Strawberry Lemonade sacrificed herself to save the Elements without knowing what they were, or why they were important. That's what a soldier does."

She looked at me firmly, bursting with pride.

"Follow orders." I said.

"No!" Wormwood exclaimed with frantic excitement. "That's just it! She followed her conscience during the time of the Civil War, and stood up against the Rangers when they were wrong."

“What made her fight for the Elements any different, then? When do you follow orders and when do you decide to break them?"

"Paladin Lemonade went into that battle knowing it was probably suicide. She followed those orders because she believed. She believed in what Littlepip was fighting for. In what Steelhooves had stood for. She believed in her friends." Wormwood turned to me, all teacherly again. “Strawberry Lemonade did it for the right reasons.”

I nodded solemnly. And thought of the Strawberry Lemonade I knew, hovering by the console, determined to see every last filly and colt out of the mines. No matter the cost.

She didn't change. I thought. Celestia bless her. She never changed.

"I joined the corps because I dreamed of following a cause as nobly as she had, and of inspiring others to do the same."

The colonel arched her neck and looked out over the thousands of soldiers, marching toward the empire with great big sparkly smiles on their faces. "Tonight, I think we may have accomplished just that."

A faint smile was on her lips. But it faded when she looked down and saw me.

"Are you alright?" she said.

Oh, Luna. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. I must have looked like such a flake. Oh, jeez.

“Yes." I whispered. "I'm fine."

Colonel Wormwood turned away from me. But she had that thinky look on her face again. She focused hard on some far off point somewhere up ahead, and marched in silence.




"You knew her," Wormwood said at last, totally out of the blue.

I froze. She was on to me. I had no idea how, but Colonel Wormwood was on to me.

Quick! My Rose voices freaked the fuck out at me. Say something! For the love of Celestia, say something! Anything!

“Nuh-uh!” I pouted at the colonel.

Good one, Rose.

Wormwood whipped out her colonely stare powers. The kind where it actually hurts to make eye contact with her. And she waited me out. But the moment I turned to her, Wormwood, strangely enough, softened.

"Tears don't lie, Rose.” She said. "I have no idea how it's possible, but you knew Paladin Strawberry Lemonade. Before she was a Ranger. Didn't you?"

I had no idea what to say, or what to do. Where to even start? So I nodded. Just nodded.

"I’m not going to pry." Said the colonel. "In fact, it's better if I don't know."

I looked her in those stareitty eyes of hers. It was a shock to hear that of all things. The mare who habitually studied every inch of everything didn't want an explanation for how I, a kid, had known somepony famous from almost a century ago.

"Rose, whatever you've been through, I'm so sorry." Wormwood said solemnly.

She turned away - used that great big open door in front of us as an excuse to gather her thoughts without looking me in the eye.

"I heard the stories about your escape from the slave compound." She said. "Trench gossip. Didn't know quite what to make of the rumors until now.”

The colonel shook her head.

“I'm so sorry.” She added.

And I really don't want to pry. Somethings are best left quiet. But I do have one final question, and I hope you will forgive me for asking."

"Ok," the word awkwardly escaped my throat.

The colonel licked her lips.

"What was Strawberry Lemonade like?" She said.

Her eyes were bright and wide, literally sparkling with stars. It took me off guard.

“Sweet Celestia,” I whispered to myself when I realized.

Colonel Wormwood was a fangirl. A Straw Lem fangirl.

"Oh, um...I guess she was, uh…"

I thought about it. Really, really thought about it.

"Strawberry Lemonade was, well, she was a gigantic pain in the ass."

Wormwood smiled.

* * *

The wall was fast coming on us when Big Blue and Sprinkles trotted up next to me.

"Hey!" I said.

Sprinkles ran up to Wormwood and gave her a hug. Wormwood, without missing a beat, scooped her right up and spun around. They actually fell behind a couple of feet because they had to stop walking just to untangle.

“Hey, BG!” Said Blue. “Dis door thing. Ain't it amazin’? You ready to get in there and see some incredible shit or what?”

I looked over her shoulder and saw The Doorway.

It was beautiful. Even more than the spire. The magic pouring out of that thing was so strong I could taste it. But I couldn't celebrate. I had this feeling. Like I would probably be going home soon. LTo a Hearth’s Warming, Roseluckless.

And that second chance that Princess Luna had bought me? It was just about up.

She’d said herself that she hadn't saved me – merely brought me some time.

What if somewhere on the other end of that shiny happy doorway was another Rose Petal? Screaming. Writhing. Covered in shadow gunk that was trying to drag her into some unspeakable castle? All frozen in time. Like a projector stuck on a single frame.

What if that other Rose Petal was gonna be me again pretty soon?

Get to the door, a voice whispered at me from inside my head. Again.

“Arg! Where the hell else do you think I'm going?” I snapped out loud.

The smile ran from Blue’s face. “You don't hafta--;”

“No, wait, I mean.”

“It's ok.”

“No! Really!” I said.

It's ok, BG.”

But it wasn't OK. I could tell.

“I swear, I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to the brain horne--;"

Zing! desperate as I was to her to prove that I hadn't meant to hurt her feelings,

My hoof gave out underneath me. Out of nowhere.

"Yahh!" I shouted, and down I went.

"Little buddy!" Big Blue dropped to her knees. “Are you OK?"

I clutched my hoof. Looked up at her through watery eyes. There was dread written all over her face. Which is kind of disconcerting. Because you don't want an alicorn looking at you like that.

"Ow, ow, ow.” I replied. “I think so, yeah. Ow!”

I bit my lip. Quit my ow’ing. Summoned all my strength for Blue. And propped myself up - dug my good hoof right into the ground.

But something was off. The dirt beneath my

hooves felt weird - all smooth and even to the touch. The rest of No Mare’s Land had been craggy.

I squinted at it real close. Looked back up at the threshold of the glowy crystaly doorway.

We had come to the clearing. That super special radius-thing that had once been flooded by the wall's purple spotlight.

The same radius-thing that had set all those guns on Colonel Wormwood.

And my shadow hoof was pissed about it.

"Rose!" Wormwood rushed over to me.

"I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine." I said as I struggled to my hooves.

"What happened?" Asked Sprinkles.

"Nothing, nothing. I. Am. Fine."

But the second I put that hoof down, pain shot straight up my leg like a lightning bolt. Not pins and needles. Not a dull ache. Blinding, stabbing pain. Like my leg was one giant eyeball rolling around in salt.

And then the world went white.

* * *

I felt a jostling sensation underneath me. Like my bed was moving. Was I back in the hospital? Were they moving me around?

“Uhh,” I groaned.

I was starting to come to. And it sucked.

I woke up on the alicorn’s back. I had fainted. Actually fainted. That's worse than being a whiny pirate. That's like something the pirate’s useless love interest does!

Get a grip, Rose. Get a grip.

I shimmied over a bit to try to get a look around. But my hoof really hurt. I moaned in pain. And prayed that nopony was listening .

I checked the ground. It was still smooth. I must've only blacked out for a minute.

We were still crossing that smooth-ground-radius-thingy,

“You ok back there , BG?” Blue craned her neck.

“Just pe-e-eachy!” I shouted.

And, oddly enough, most of me was. I could feel that Crystal Heart magic all over me. Pumping through my veins. And arteries. And that other kind of blood vessel too – you know the little one - carterpillars or something.

It was love, and light, and friendship.

It felt fucking incredible. But that damn shadow hoof was freaking out. Pain-O-Rama.

“Fucking shadows.” I whispered bitterly.

I hated my hoof so much, I would have hacked it off myself had you given me the saw.

“Are you okay?" Came a squeaky little voice from down below.

It was Sprinkles.

“Yeah,” I said, summoning the strength to smile. “But come here a sec. I've got something important to tell you.”

Next thing I know, Blue has both of us riding on her enormous back.

“Listen." I whispered so softly only Sprinkles could hear. "My hoof is weird. And I'm gonna be okay..."

I stopped. Winced. The damn thing hurt. A lot.

“...But I think I'm gonna vanish or something. I don't know how soon. But it might get um...pretty weird over here on this end. Understand?”

She looked at me like I had two heads.

“I know it sounds stupid. But really, I'll be fine. I'm just going home to my ducky.”

“Ducky?”

“Arg! Nevermind. The point is: grown-ups are crazy. And I need you to keep them from freaking out.

Okay,”

Sprinkles reached out, bumped my good hoof.

Finally something she understood.

“I have no idea what you're talking about.” She whispered. “But okay.”

* * *

The second the archway to the Crystal Empire finally started passing over us, I felt myself slipping away. Like I had back in the truck before disappearing on Strawberry Lemonade.

Big Blue’s mane was in my face. I couldn't even see her, but she was worried. I could tell. Wormwood too. They were whispering together.

Then suddenly it hit me. A terrifying rush, stronger than a thousand cups of tea. I realized I might disappear on Colonel Wormwood.

“No,” I whispered. “Oh, no.”

She had so many regrets - so many Sub Mine F’s under her saddle. I refused to become another.




I started to fade. I could feel it happening. We had passed the giant archway thing, and on into a long, onyx corridor. I had done it. I had finally “gotten to the door.” And just as the hornets in my head let out a huge sigh of relief, the No Mare’s Land duckyverse got fuzzy. Disjointed. It all but disappeared.

“No!” I growled at the universe.

I'm not gonna let that happen. I'm not going to disappear. I'm not gonna freak everyone out.

So I held on tight. Even though the brain hornets were at peace. Even though it was time to go.

I squeezed my eyes shut, buckled down,

and forced myself to stay.

It's just another ducky, I told myself. So just hang on.

I focused. Gritted my teeth. Clutched my hoof in pain, and in the middle of all that spacetime ducky drama I grunted, “Colonel.”

She came up by my side.

“Hey.” Wormwood nudged my hair out of my face.

“Listen." I said.

It was tough to talk and maintain concentration at the same time.

"I'm going home soon. Okay? And it might be weird. I might, uhh...” I winced as we got deeper and deeper into that long hallway.

A sharp pain shot up my leg.

“I might disappear or something. But I'm gonna be fine. I promise you, I'm going to be fine. And I need you not to worry.”

“Don't talk like that, Rose. Sssh.” Wormwood whipped around to whoever was behind her.

"Where's that fucking medic?" She snapped.

Oh, geez.

I was saying goodbye while clutching myself in pain, riding on somepony else's back.

It didn't look good.

“No-no no-no no! I'm not gonna fucking die. I'm just--;”

“Shh,” Said Wormwood.

"What's going on?” Big Blue whispered at the Colonel. “She's talking crazy.”

“No!” I said. “That's. Not. It!”

I leapt right off of her back, hit the ground harder than I’d expected, and tumbled over on my side. They both rushed to me. Dropped down to my side, but I waved them away.

“Stop!” I snapped.

And planted that bad hoof on the ground. It felt like it was on fire. Cold fire. But I puffed out my chest, stood on shaking limbs, and looked Wormwood right in the eye.

“I'm not crazy.” I said. “I'm not dying.”

Tears ran down my cheeks. It felt like there were a hundred thousand nails in my hoof. But the rest of me was so strong - so charged with that Crystal Empire magic - that I stood there and took it.

“I'm going home.” I said, staring the colonel down, all furious like. "Home."

Wormwood’s eyes widened.

"Do you understand?" I grunted.

She nodded at me slowly.

“Good.” I nodded right back, and in my determinationy state, stepped on the hoof too hard. Fell over again, clutching it.

“Rose, stop it. This is nuts!” Big Blue tried to run to my side, but Wormwood threw a leg sideways to stop her.

I forced myself to my hooves. They looked at me like they were afraid I might break. It was so embarrassing.

“Ro-;” Said Wormwood, but I snapped at her before she could finish the thought.

“Colonel,” I said. “I need you to trust me."

She gave me that stareitty face.

“Trust me.” I said again. Firmly.

Wormwood clenched up all rigid-like.

The rest of the army wasn't far behind us, and we didn't have much time before they swept us into their current. So I saluted her. I lifted up my throbbing evil hoof and I saluted.

“It's been an honor." I said. "Thank you."

Wormwood stood there. The worst of her maternal protectiveyness, and the worst of her authoritarian mojo radiating the fuck off of her. But in the end she saluted me back.

“Go,” she said. “Be a pain in somepony else’s ass. That’s an order.”

“Ma’am, yes, ma’am.”

I gestured my saluting hoof at her, all respectful-like. And I was off.

* * *

I ran, and I ran hard. Three legged. There was energy all warbling and blargling around me - crystal energy. It felt incredible. Like having the sun beat down on your face. Only all over. Inside and out.

Just pure love. And light. And awesomeness.

But I was losing it. Every brick in that wall. Every fleck of dirt. Every breath I took was all part of one great big unstable ducky.

That internal clock in my brain started spazzing out. Flickering. Throwing random numbers at me. I had to squeeze my eyes shut even as I galloped. Just cause I was afraid. Of the shadows waiting for me on the other end. Of turning into Statue Rose again.

And my hoof. That was agony. .

So I galloped and galloped and galloped and galloped and galloped. Like a scuba diver with a broken mask, I held on as long as I could. ‘Till finally, I just couldn’t take it any more. And fwoomp! It all dropped out from under me. The ground. The Crystal Empire. The world.

I got this weightless feeling. Like that terrifying moment after you misstep and first realize you're falling down the stairs.

“Waa!” I squeaked.

And reached out, flailing. But I never hit bottom. The whole world simply went black.

I was in another ducky entirely. A dark ducky.

* * *

I looked around. Left. Right. Up. Down. Black. Black. Black. Black. Black.

I couldn't see a Celestia-damned thing.

A shivery sensation crawled over my skin and coat. My tail flicked uncontrollably.

Where am I? I thought.

My evil hoof, as if in reply, quit hurting, and felt downright calm all of a sudden.

“No,” I said softly.

If my hoof had had lips, it would have smirked at me.

I sucked in a ragged, freezing breath, un-stuck myself from that spot, and tried to run, but Bang! I hit my head the moment I moved.

“Ow!”

I recoiled in pain, but bang, whack, thunk!

There was no room anywhere. Just rocky walls boxing me in.

I panicked. Kicked. Writhed. But there was nowhere to go, and every damn thing I touched was cold. The kind of cold that sends a shock straight to your bones.

No. I thought. No, no, no!

This can't be it. Luna saved me! She gave me a second chance!

But Luna wasn't there, nor the doom castle she’d statue-ized me in front of. There was nothing but rock. Lots and lots of evil rock.

It didn't make any sense!

What about the hornets? Where were they now? And the door! I’d gotten it open. Run through it and everything. I’d even stopped the fucking war!

I had done every-damn-thing the voices had wanted. But now they were gone. The inside of my head was hornetless.

“Luna!” I called out.

“KkkkcKCCKCckKkk.”

Shrill whispers scratched at my skull in reply. Millions of them. It was like having an ear full of rusted metal centipedes.

“Stop!” I cried.

But they gathered together - every scrape and crack – to form a single wave of articulate noise inside my head.

“Luna cannot help you here.” It said.

“Ahhh!”

My hoof was going crazy now. Coldness seemed to radiate off of it.

Shadow presence was every fucking where. And I was trapped in some kinda evil pocket of doom rock. Nowhere to run.

“Hurry!" A voice called at me from behind. A real voice. A little kid’s voice. “Get out!”

“What?!”

Somepony yanked on my tail.

“Yipe!”

I tumbled backwards out of a hole I didn’t know I was in. Landed on my back on a warped plank of wood.

“Yah!” I held my legs up. Shielded my face.

“They are coming!” A little boy stood over me, grey with red hair. “Get up! Get up! Hurry!”

He helped me to my hooves. I rubbed my eyes. It was dull and gray in there, but still way brighter than the inside of that tunnel.

There were a bunch of kids all around me. Little kids. They were worn. Bruised. Haunted. Touched by shadows.

“We can fight them!” Shouted the boy who’d helped me up.

“Hooray!” They all cheered. Cheered like really really little kids. They actually said the word, “hooray.”

“Please, we should hide.” Said a timid filly, green with blue hair. “There's a hole back there, big enough for all of us.”

I looked all around. There was nothing but caves. Dark caves everywhere. Like a dungeon.

“No! No! No! Come on! We gotta fight our way out,” the redhead shouted back. “The Voice says we have to do it now!”

“Voice?" I said.

I stopped. Listened. Focused as hard as I could, but there was no brain wind. Not a single hornet. No get to the door. No save this guy, but not that guy nonsense. Nothing. Just more of that awful scratching sound.

“Silver is right.” Squeaked yet another little filly. “We have to fight. It's our only hope!”

“Wait,” I said, totally confused. “You know how to fight them?"

“Yeah!” A squeaky little colt with buck teeth grabbed me and said, huge smile stretched across his tiny face. “The Voice told us how!”

“There are more of us then there are of them.” The redhead climbed up and perched himself upon a rock as though it were a soapbox. “They’re a bunch of jerkfaces, and we don’t deserve this shit!”

All the little kids cheered again in unison. Except me. Something wasn't right. Those words. They seemed familiar.

“Do it for yourselves. Do it for every time they ever kicked you cause they wanted you to dig for jewels and stuff!” The redhead leaped off the rock. Charged ahead.

"Not that.” I whispered. “Not here.”

I leapt up, but the kids were already on the move. They converged all at once into one big herd.

“Wait!” I grabbed one of them, but the crowd just shoved at me.

“Do it for every one of us they ever fucking killed! “ The redhead called out as he charged.

“No, stop!” I shouted. “Stop! Stop! Stop!”

But they wouldn't listen.

“Do it for your friends!

I got shoved to my knees. Stepped on.

“Ahh!” I cried.

Still they stormed ahead. Swept right over me.

“Do it for each other.” The Voice said.

I could finally hear it. It was my voice. Coming out of one of the horn-shaped speakers tied to the ceiling.

The horn had been marked crudely with the letter "F.”

“Don't listen!” I sobbed. “Don't listen.”

But it was too late. The kids were charging full on ahead. And I couldn’t stop them.

* * *

I staggered to my hooves just as the rest of the kids reached the mouth of the cave up ahead and hit a wall of soldiers. Cloak-o’s.

Their mere presence blasted cold, smoky shadow-wind all over Sub Mine F. And then the guns went off all ratatatat.

My hooves couldn't figure out if they wanted to run forward and try to grab one of those poor mine kids, or turn around and gallop for dear life. So I froze.

Like being nailed to the ground with four railroad spikes, I just stood there.

Silver, the redhead, was crawling on the floor, struggling to suck in raspy breaths. The timid kid who’d wanted to hide in the corner dropped with a single bang. The eager little boy? Just laid there on the floor, motionless. Eyes wide open. Staring at a whole lot of nothing,

And out from behind the smoke came the clip, clop, draaaaag of a lone colt struggling to walk.

“Fuck.” I snapped out of my shock. Ran to him. Threw my weight under him. Pulled him away from the carnage as best I could. But we weren't safe. They were coming.

“Don't leave me.” Moaned the kid.

“I won't!”

“Don't leave me!” He sobbed.

“I won't!”

Freezing cold wind pushed at us from behind. My hoof was bone-chilled again. The shadowy cloako’s were near. But they were busy sweeping up Sub Mine F, making sure that no stone was left unturned, no child left behind.

“Please,” wailed a tiny voice way back there.

A kid trembling before the cloak-o’s presumably.

“Please. Please. Please.” He sobbed. “Plea-;”

Pow.

Silence

I had to swallow my own scream. But I pushed ahead, determined to save the boy on my back.

Just one kid. I told myself. If I could only save just one kid..

A gust of cold smoky wind blew at us from behind. They were finally coming for us.

The kid on my back got heavier and heavier the deeper into the mine I went. He may have been a kindergartner, but with my shadow hoof threatening to give out, he felt like a sack of anvils.

“Don't leave me.” He groaned as we both fell to the ground.

“Uhh.”

He spilled right off of me.




The floor seemed to open up. That scratchy sensation, that feeling of unease - it wrapped around me like a blanket. The air itself got colder. Tendrils of inky blackness reached up from the ground and started tugging at me, and at the kid who could barely move.

“Don't leave me." He shivered.

I huddled over him to keep us both warm.

“I won't!” I shouted over the gusts. “I promise! I won't. Just please, hang on.”

Then, out of nowhere, fwoom, the wind was suddenly still. And the mine was quiet.

Like the eye of a storm.

My heart thundered. I fought to catch my breath. Even that rasping sound in my throat seemed to echo off the rocky walls in all that quiet. But there was no use hiding.

It came up from behind. I felt it. A cloak-o shadowmajig standing over me. Smiling. Toying with me.

The wooden planks beneath me bubbled. Oozed. And out came this foul tar from below. There was unnatural motion in it. Like a million tiny starving little claws reaching desperately for the same sandwich.

It grabbed me. Scraped at me. Frantically tried to drag me the fuck down.

“Fuck!” I shouted.

The black swept over the kid beneath me like an ocean tide. I had to grab his face and brush away the evil just so he could breathe. Again and again and again.

“You can't have him!" I shouted at the waves, frantically clearing the tar from the colt’s nose and lips.

"Not this one!” I yelled. “Not this one.”

The shadow thing did nothing. Didn't even fight me. Just smiled with lips that parted like an old wound breaking open again to let out the pus. Don’t ask me how I saw it. Because there was nothing to see. The whole thing was just a shape, black as pitch. And I even had my back to it, but somehow that just made it worse. Like the Moon, the shadow spoke to me in feelings, and my mind’s eye flooded with images that made me want to go blind.

“You can’t have him!” I shouted again, tears in my eyes.

But the shadow thing just kept on watching me smugly until I finally realized what it already knew - that the kid was dead.

My heart thumped at me from inside my chest. I strained even to take shallow breaths. I had failed. Again.

I stopped struggling. Wiped the blood from his poor face. And shook my head in disbelief.

I thought I could do it - thoght I could save one. But even the second time around, Sub Mine F was just a bloodbath.

The tides of tar washed over him bit by bit, and the boy’s lifeless corpse started sinking.

The ink rose so high that it was starting to cling even to my chest.

I leapt up. Tossed and writhed against the tide. Struggled to pull away, till a claw lowered itself delicately onto my head.

It felt like a razor blade,

I gasped. Stopped dead in my tracks. Sucked in shallow little breaths. Tried desperately to hold still, while it lingered there, taking its sweet time. Then another claw came down, and started brushing my hair. Delicately.

I could feel it scraaaaaape across my scalp. Just enough to make me wince, but not enough to break the skin.

“You said you'd never leave him.” It spoke with that old familiar chalkboard screech of a voice. “You promisssssed.”

I swallowed hard. There was no use denying it. I had promised the kid. And I’d failed.

A trembling came up on me from the inside. I quaked, and shook. ‘Till finally I couldn't hold it in anymore, and I burst into tears. The shadow thing stood over me like a douchebag, soaking it all in. Brushing my mane, even as I heaved.

Every discouraging thought that had ever crossed my mind – every cruel word that had ever been said to me - every fiber of self-doubt - in that moment, flooded into my brain. All at once.

The look on Butterscotch’s face when I had leapt out of the way of the lightning puddle back in the Trottica cage room. The boy from the Wasteland I’d never found. The time I had snapped at Cliff. The pain and the worry I had caused my dying mother.

I didn't fight it. Any of it. Just went limp as the cold shadows stretched their way over me. Because that shame was mine, and it felt like home.


The tar got higher. I sank. And sank. And sank. And sank. And sank. The shadow thing was relishing my sorrow like fine chocolates. ‘Till finally, it took its claw from off my head, and lifted up my chin. Forced me to look into the deep black void where its face should have been. The abyss.

“It should have been you.” It said to me in almost soothing tones.

I shivered all over.

The shadow thing leaned down closer to whisper at me.

“It should have been you.” It said again.

The shadow clutched at my face, relishing its conquest, but when I heard those words, something inside me woke up.

I remembered Colonel Wormwood. Clutching her candle. "It should have been me.” She’d wept. “It should've been me." And the stallion from the trenches who’d started the truce! I had found him all crazy and messed up because his friend Tulip had left him behind to go over the top and die.

“It should have been me.” He'd said again and again. “It should have been me.”

I remembered. Everything that had happened. Everything we had gone through.

And when it all hit me - when it all came back - I gritted my teeth in anger.

I hadn't come as far as I did. Hadn't spent all night starving in a trench, crawling through tunnels, fighting off evil red dots, just to die there at the claws of some shadow thing!

“It should have been your mom.” I shouted, and tossed myself backwards. Threw my weight as far as it would go.

I landed, spun, and tried to run from the thing, but it still had a grip on me. The tendrils from the ink pool stretched like rubber bands.

I pushed. Ran. Plowed my way through the ink.

‘Till snap! Its hold on me broke. And the smoke cleared. And I finally saw the battle for what it really was.




There was no kid to save. No Sub Mine F. Just a schoolyard, and a frothing river of black stuff coursing all over me as I stood in the exact spot where the princess had frozen me.

“Sweet Luna,” I said. “It was all bullshit.”




The shadows shook with anger. Pulled on me. Like a fishing hook tearing through my cold evil hoof.

It ripped me back into the darkness, and I slid spiraling through a giant storm of cold smoke and chaos.

The shadow thing was done toying around.

“Let the fuck go of me, you fucking dick-fuck!”

I shouted.

BAM! I whacked into a stone wall, threw my legs up against it instinctively - grabbed on as best I could.

A freezing hurricane whipped at my face. I refused to huddle this time. I had to get my bearings - had to search around – had to find a way out. I had to fight.

I was already losing my grip, sliding along the wall. Through blurry-ass tear-soaked eyes I managed to look up, and see the outside of the castle - that horrible fucking shit cock castle..




Tar swept my legs out from under me like the undertow of a tidal wave. A gazillion tiny claws from inside the goo ripped at me like the pointy wires of No Mare’s Land that had claimed so many soldiers.

I cascaded along the wall towards The Door That Wanted to Eat Me. The point of no return, Luna had called it.

“Ahhhh!”

I threw my legs up. Grappled with the doorframe. The tide splashed against my belly, and tried to wash me away, but still, I held on. Grunted to myself. Winced and screamed. My brain went almost totally blank, and all I could think about was how much it all hurt.

Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain.

My grip weakened. My hooves started to slide.

‘Till the memory of Colonel Wormwood popped into in my head again.

“It never stops hurting." She said. “All you can do is look for a light and fight like hell to get to it."

I picked my head up. Unclenched my eyes. And there it was way out in the distance - a speck where there was no ink. No smoke. Just a light. like a tiny star just above the horizon. I would never have spotted it had I not been looking, but I recognized that flame right away.

It was a stick-candle. Twinkle Eyes’ stick candle. She was the light.

"Quit cunting around." Said Candle-Twink.

“You wanna get your ass over here?”

At the sound of her voice I felt that awesome Crystal Empire feeling again. That warmth. That love. That light. I could barely even see the tiny fire, but it brought tears to my eyes just to hear her voice again.

“Twink,” I grunted. “I’m coming.”



The goo kept rising, But I slammed one of my good hooves through it, straight on down to the ground. Anchored it there by force of will. Then, gritting my teeth, focusing on that faraway light, I pried the other three hooves from the doorway. One by one. Just slammed them down. Right through the tar. And stood there. In the middle of a shadow storm. And held the fuck on.

"Don't!" I yelled at the goo claws. "You! Fucking! Touch me!"

I plowed my way through. One step, then another. Like a workhorse with a heavy yoke, I moved slowly. But I could do it! If I was sturdy enough to make it even an inch from that door, against the current, I knew I could make it a mile.

Twink was by my side. Like old times. Helping me to be strong again.




When we first met, I had cried like a foal in those Trottica cages. Twink had reached out a hoof to calm me. Even though she was exhausted. Even though she’d had problems of her own. Twink had reached out and stroked my mane. Because she cared.

And as I made my way up that slippery hill through that hurricane of shadow, and concentrated liquid fear, I could feel that hoof on my head once again.

With tears in my eyes, I pushed ahead. Kicking. Stomping.

"No!" I shouted again.

I wasn't going to let them take me. Wasn’t going to give up. Wasn't going to let Twink down.

"Fuck. Off. You. Damn. Shadowy. Clitweasels!"

The goo weakened, and I broke into a gallop. Broke good and free. I ran for that light with everything I had. It was like trying to ride a scooter up a steep hill covered in oil. But I pushed, and pushed, and pushed and remembered the feeling of her hoof on my head. And gave myself one last push.

A wave of shadow reached for my tail, and chased after me. But I just focused on The Light. Watched that little flame burn. And in all the chaos, for just one tiny second, I saw more than just a candle. My eyes were blurred with tears, but I swear, in that weird light, I saw her face.

I saw Twinkle Eyes. She was cheering for me.

* * *

The waves of evil gunk crashed far behind me, and receded ‘till the schoolhouse from my dream was just a regular old schoolhouse again. Not a castle at all. Or a dungeon.

The oil seeped back into the ground. I was running on grass. Fresh grass.

But I kept going anyway until I was completely out of breath.

I collapsed, laughing and crying all at once.

“I made it.” I said to myself. “I actually made it.”

The waves from that oceanside cliff in my dream were rolling. Crashing like a soothing kind of thunder. Everything else was dead quiet. I don't know how long I spent lying exhausted on the grass, catching my breath. But eventually, something poked at me from under my chin. I rolled over. It was the stick. Twink's candle. It had followed me back! I clutched the thing and smiled, and listened to the waves with Twink’s candle for company..

* * *

When finally, I was ready, I got up. Walked over to the edge of the playground, which was now a cliff. And saw that same gigantic moon from before. Setting over a vast grey ocean. Tucking itself in and getting ready for a new day.

"I really made it." I said to myself.

I poked my head over the edge, and looked down at the rocks below. Watched the frothy waters splash around them. It was amazing. I'd never seen an ocean before. Even in dreams.




As I watched those waves in awe and wonder, my hoof clutched at the stick that had been Twink’s candle.

"Luna fuck me with moon rocks, Twink,” I said with a smile. “We really made it."

"Come again?" A voice from behind me.

The Princess. The actual Princess Luna. Standing there. Right there next to me. Her mane and tail flowing with ethereal nighttime glory.

"No!" I threw my hooves over my mouth.

"No, no, no! I'm sorry!"

She raised a cynical eyebrow at me.

"I didn't mean…It's just, it's a figure of speech! I swear. I didn't mean--I'm sorry. It's just, uh, something ponies say, you know, in the future."

"Imagine my relief to learn that I am fated to be so fondly remembered."

She looked down her nose at me. It was awful. Just awful.

To be disapproved of like that. By the Princess of the Moon! The one you could always count on.

"No.” I said. “You have it wrong. You are revered!”

I fell to my knees. Bowed to her. Started to cry. I didn't even realize I had any tears left, but out they came.

Until a silver-clad hoof touched the underside of my chin. The princess was kneeling at my side.

"Please don't fear me." She said.

And while she may have tried to maintain princessly formality, there was tenderness in those words, and pain behind those eyes.

I was taken aback by it. It hurt Luna dearly to be feared. So I looked her in the eye, and nodded silently.

“Come,” she got up off the ground, and offered me her hoof. “We need to talk.”

I threw my leg over hers, and pulled myself up. Wondered how she managed to keep those sterling silver shoes so clean.

The rest of her had seen better days. There was anxiety written all over her face, in that Colonel Wormwood silent nervous breakdown sort of way.

“Is something wrong?”

"It's been a busy night.” She said sternly. “For all of us.”

“What do you mean?”

“The shadows are on the move,” she said. “And I fear that there are some who may not have fared as well against them as you have."

“What?!”

“Follow me," she said. “There is something I need to show you, and much to talk about along the way.”

Author's Note:

Special thanks to Fireclawdrake and Seraphim for your help editing and proofreading!