The second leg of our trip through the forest started on a high note for me. Starlight was healing nicely and would likely awaken sometime that day. Rubeo walked alongside us without any complaint, deep in thought. Night Glider amused herself by playfully testing my reflexes, throwing sticks and rocks for me to break or deflect with almost child-like glee. Meanwhile, Rara sat in her seat, trying to move as little as possible. While I hoped it wasn’t because she was afraid of me, I couldn’t help but feel her elevated heart rate reverberating into me. After a short while, I decided to speak with the Adjutant.
Adjutant, do we have enough material reserves to begin healing Rara?
It took only a few moments for the Adjutant to take inventory, but it felt like an eternity.
<<The operation on Starlight Glimmer drained our resources considerably. However, at our current rate of passive absorption, we should have enough to begin repairs to Coloratura’s ocular cavities within the hour.>>
And how long will it take to fully heal her?
<<Depending on her body’s receptivity, between three and twenty-four hours.>>
Good. I’ll let her-
<<A warning, Director. If we begin operations with our current resource levels, we will have depleted our carbon and nitrogen stores by the time we are finished.>>
So then we absorb more actively for a while! I don’t see the problem here.
<<The problem being that combat options will be limited if we were to be ambushed after the procedure.>>
I sighed internally. It’s difficult to deal with a sense of self-preservation that can talk back.
I know you’re just looking out for us, but this is something I need to do. Look at it this way: if we fix Rara’s eyes, she’ll be able to move and defend herself orders of magnitude better than she can currently. That means we won’t have to spend nearly as many resources protecting her, right?
The Adjutant spent a moment calculating.
<<It would appear the long-term rewards do outweigh the short-term risks, yes. We simply wished to make certain you were aware of potential repercussions. Let us know when you wish to begin the procedure.>>
I acknowledged the Adjutant’s compliance wordlessly. The only thing left was the sales pitch. It would probably be much easier to convince Rara to let me try healing her if Starlight were awake. However, I couldn’t just shake her awake. She needed to be allowed to come back from Dreamland naturally. As things stood, her breathing was light and easy and her body relaxed, so it seemed like her eyes would open at any time. In the meantime, however, there were things to be done.
“So, Miss Coloratura,” I started, “you’ve now been volunteered for this expedition. Would you like me to keep my word?”
“Oh, um, I’m… I’m not sure? What do you mean?”
“Before we were so rudely interrupted last night, I was offering to heal your eyes. I can give it a try now if you’d like.”
Before Rara could even respond, Night flew up in front of her, posturing protectively.
“Whoa whoa whoa! What’s the catch?”
“No catch. If I start now, and her body doesn’t reject the process, I could have her seeing again as soon as three hours from now. The procedure is entirely safe.”
“No way! The doctors we saw said it couldn’t be done! Not without extensive magical treatment.”
I stopped in my tracks, turning back to look directly at Night Glider.
“Oh, really? The doctors said that, huh? The ones most likely on the crown’s payroll? The same crown that did this to her in the first place? And you believed them?”
That shut her up right quick. Not even Rubeo had any entirely insightful and appropriate comments to add. I pressed the attack.
“Besides, I won’t be using magic to heal her. Just her own body’s chemistry and the world around us.”
Everyone gave me looks like I had just suggested that the moon was made of cheese, or that the earth was flat. Which, upon second thought, could have been entirely true, for all I knew about Equestria and the lands beyond.
“What?” I questioned innocently.
“That sounds a lot like magic to me,” Night Glider retorted.
“Indeed,” Rubeo added helpfully.
“Okay, look, what does it matter how I do it? A wink’s as good as a nod to a bl… to a bat.” I winced internally. Not my greatest metaphor, but I couldn’t take it back. “Anyway, as long as Rara gets her sight back, who cares how I do it?”
“I would, if it hurt somepony,” Rara spoke up, albeit meekly.
All attention turned to her, seeing as these were her first words since I first posed the offer.
“Rara, I swear there’s nothing to worry about. There’s not going to be a blood sacrifice or anything. All you need to do is relax, let me slap some goo on your eyes, and I’ll take care of the rest.”
Despite my extremely logical and scientific reassurances, Rara still seemed to have some doubts.
“I… I don’t know… I don’t want to impose.”
I considered telling her that she would actually be helping us, then realized that would be about as well-received as a Neo-Nazi comedian at a bar mitzvah. I decided on something simpler.
“If it was an imposition, I wouldn’t have offered. It’s up to you whether to accept or not. I’m just trying to stay true to my word.”
Rara fell silent. We could almost hear the gears turning in her head. What surprised me most, however, was Rubeo. Not once did he attempt to convince her to shun or ignore me. He simply followed along, ruminating in his own thoughts. Night Glider did likewise, although she seemed slightly more alert to our surroundings than the others.
We continued like this until the sun climbed up to the peak of its journey. Starlight began to stir. I stopped immediately, throwing Rara and the others off balance. Before they could ask why we had stopped, Starlight yawned, paused for a beat, then sat bolt upright.
“Where are we? What’s going on? What happened to Ruby Drops?”
The questions flew out of her mouth like bullets. The flying hugs leveled at her were only slightly less speedy.
“Starlight!” Rara and Night Glider shouted simultaneously, tackling their housemate with relief. Starlight grunted as they combined weight squeezed the air out of her lungs.
“Guys… too tight!” She wheezed. Her friends only slightly relaxed their grip.
“I’m so glad you’re alright!” Rara cried, voice cracking with the force of her emotions.
“We were worried you might not make it,” Night Glider confessed.
“Hey! I don’t do shoddy work, hear me?” I grumbled loudly.
Starlight reached up to touch her chest. There was almost no evidence of the gaping wound that had pierced her to the core, save for a small patch of skin where the hair had yet to grow back.
“Wow… So I really did… I mean, I barely feel a thing.”
I grinned victoriously.
“Good. Try stretching a bit. Make sure there’s no residual pain.”
Starlight rotated her front legs, stretching them to their limits.
“It feels… strange. Kind of like my chest is hot, cold, itchy, sore, and perfectly normal, all at the same time. It doesn’t hurt to stretch or put pressure on it, though.”
<<She may rest assured that those feelings will fade over the course of a day or two. Her body is simply acclimating to the new nerve endings.>>
I relayed that information, much to both Starlight’s relief and my own. This was a huge step towards gaining the trust of both Night Glider and Rara. I could see that Night Glider’s expression had softened considerably, and Rara was positively beaming. Even Rubeo’s glare had downgraded to a suspicious gaze. It was at this point that Rara dropped the next bomb.
“Alright, I’ve decided. I’ll put my life in your hooves. Er, tentacles… whatever you have.”
For a moment, I thought she was pledging undying loyalty to me. But then I remembered what we had just been discussing.
“My dear, there is absolutely no chance of you dying from the operation.”
<<Actually, there is approximately one chance in ten billion that fatal complications could->>
“So just sit back, relax, and-”
“Wait! Hold on! I just woke up. What’s happening?” Starlight demanded.
I would have explained, but Rara beat me to the punch.
“Eric’s going to heal my eyes!”
“Really?” Starlight asked. “You’d really do that for her? For us?”
For some reason, I started to feel uncomfortable.
“Well, yeah. I’m here to help, aren’t I?”
Her eyes started tearing up and she gave me a watery smile.
“Thank you, Eric.”
I don’t know what I was expecting. It was… well, it wasn’t the first time she had said those words, but it was the first time she had said them with such genuine sincerity. It was like an awl being jabbed into my heart. I found I couldn’t look her in the eyes.
“Don’t thank me just yet. It’ll be a few hours.”
“Still, thank you for even trying.”
I choked. It wasn’t like I was unused to being thanked. Even working in a library, there were times when I’d get college students or young professionals desperate to finish a research project and unable to find a particular book. Some of them could be quite profuse in their thanks when I helped them find what they were looking for. But hearing Starlight thank me like that… It tore me up inside.
If she had caught on to that, she remained mercifully silent. She simply slid off of my ‘back,’ allowing me unfettered access to Rara. Rara took the opportunity to make herself more comfortable, lying down in Starlight’s place. I produced a few tentacles around her.
“I’m going to remove your bandages now.”
Rara nodded resolutely. As gently as I could manage, I began unwrapping the bandages. They weren’t bloody and, when they had been removed, I noted that there weren’t any signs of infection. They had taken good care of her injuries. But the injuries themselves were enough to make my non-existent stomach do anguished flips. I’ll spare you the grisly details, but suffice it to say that Ruby certainly hadn’t bothered expending any effort on precision. I could only be glad that I had no adrenal glands. Otherwise, my tentacles might have started shaking with fury.
“Alright, this may feel strange. I’m going to start at the bridge of your nose. It will probably feel something like molasses being drizzled into your eyes. Blink if you need to, but the gel should numb the skin and everything inside. Are you ready?”
Her second nod was slightly less certain.
“Right then. Here goes.”
I touched a tentacle to the bridge of her nose and my goo started spreading outwards, coating her injuries in green slime. She shivered.
“Oh! That does feel strange.”
“Does it hurt?”
“N- no, not really. It’s kind of… cold. And tingly.”
“Let me know if it gets too uncomfortable and I’ll figure something out.”
If she did feel uncomfortable, she powered through it like a champ. Or at least like a pony who desperately wanted to see again.
Fluttershy felt sick.
She didn’t know why, but the Farm seemed quieter today, and not in a good way. The air felt thick and claustrophobic, and sounds seemed muted. The cows shuffled in their pens, eyeing the doors and each other with equal weight. Even the guards walked the halls with a stiff, measured gait, as though the slightest misstep might bring everything crashing down on top of them.
The push-broom in her hooves jerked as it snagged on the minute tiling. She felt like a child again, dreading with each passing moment the time when her stepfather would come home for the night, reeking of alcohol. She almost put a hoof to her cheek at the memory but kept herself focused on the task. The pain was years gone by now.
Fluttershy nearly jumped out of her skin. She looked around wildly, searching for whoever it was that in wanted her attention.
This time, she noticed. It was the young cow with a brown and white painted coat from the day before. The corner of the cow’s mouth squirmed open for a brief moment, allowing the hiss to escape, but she kept her eyes trained on the empty trough before her. Her body language was stiff, implying that she wanted Fluttershy’s attention, but to be discreet about it. Fluttershy looked up at the observation room and saw why.
The overseer was up there, scanning the rows of stalls watchful. She had met him only once before, and it had left a sour taste in her mouth. Humorless was about as polite a word as she was willing to assign the balding, middle-aged stallion. Definitely Lady Ruby Drops’ admirer.
Fluttershy made a show of looking at the ground behind her, pretending that her sudden start had come from slipping or stepping in something. She walked backward until she was even with the young cow, and began sweeping again, surreptitiously glancing up at the overseer to be sure his attention wasn’t focused on her. As she did, the young cow whispered to her.
“Hey, what’s your name?”
It took her a moment to realize she had been asked a question, and even then, she couldn’t understand why. Just yesterday, she had almost… murdered this young cow. Shouldn’t she hate Fluttershy’s guts?
“Hey, Fluttershy. I’m Arizona. Y’all the usual caretaker ‘round here?”
“Good. And here I was, thinkin’ I’d been volunteered for Tartarus-on-earth for the rest of my life. Least somepony here actually has a heart.”
Fluttershy swallowed hard. She shouldn’t be doing this. She had been specifically warned against fraternizing with the “livestock” when she was first brought in. This could get her in a lot of trouble.
“Um… w- we really shouldn’t be talking.”
Arizona simply scoffed.
“Ain’t no way I’m gonna spend the rest of my life bein’ a mute.” The chocolate-colored cow in the stall to Arizona’s left shushed her, but Arizona ignored her.
“B-but we could get in trouble.”
“Trouble? Seen her already. Death don’t scare me none,” Arizona blustered, though Fluttershy distinctly remembered the look of terror on Arizona’s face when Lady Ruby loomed over her. “‘Sides, y’all were the one who gave me extra food. Y’all may act as scared as a rabbit in a bullpen, but ya got a heart o’ gold. Can’t fool these eyes.”
“It’s true,” a cream-colored cow from across the row piped in. The cow next to Arizona tried shushing her, too, to similar effect.
“You shush,” the new cow reprimanded, though she kept her voice low. “Missy, you haven’t been here a week and I can already tell you’ll be the best handler we ever had.”
There was murmured assent from the other cows in the row and even the next row over, who had overheard.
“Would all of you just shut up?” The chocolate cow hissed. “Some of us don’t have a deathwish!”
“Oh, go blow it out your ear, Mooriella. We all know what you’ve got, and it’s a sorry excuse for an udder. Go back to stewin’ in your own misery before you sour your cream,” the cream cow snapped, before turning back to Fluttershy. “Dear, Arizona there’s right. I just want you to know we all decided that, if ever there was a pony to hitch our wagons to, it’s you. For all it may be worth, we got your back, hear?”
Flustered, Fluttershy blurted out the only thing she could think of.
“B- but I tried to kill Arizona.”
Arizona just snorted.
“Yeah, well, that weren’t your intention. At least you had the decency to try and make it quick an’ painless. Least, as quick an’ painless as you could, given the state o’ things.”
“Oh, for sure,” the cream cow added. “We cows don’t get much in this life, even less if we lose the lottery, like we folks here did. But a pony that treats us like equals is nothin’ to sneeze at, don’tcha know?”
Mooriella spat on the ground. “Not a lick of sense among you. Or did you all forget we’re here for life? We need to hold our tongues and keep to ourselves. Not go about jawing with some pony.”
There was no wave of dissent that traveled through the warehouse, but Fluttershy could still hear small sounds of agitation. She couldn’t tell how much of it was in support of Mooriella’s words or against, but in this row at least were a few dozen dirty glares leveled at the cow.
“Funny. I s’pose you’d rather ol’ Master Icicle up there be our handler again?” Accused the cow Fluttershy was beginning to refer to as Mrs. Cream in her head.
No one but Fluttershy turned their eyes up to the observation room, but they all knew of whom Mrs. Cream spoke. Mooriella snorted derisively.
“Say what you like. I still won’t be the next on the chopping block at this rate.”
As if her words had reached the ears of the gods of misfortune, the doors to the warehouse slammed open, revealing Ruby Drops. Her features were not so much twisted with rage as they were mangled by it. Fury danced like licking flames across the entirety of her form, murder more than promised by her gaze. Then her eyes fell on Fluttershy, and all the blood in the poor pegasus froze into solid ice.
“Right!” Ruby screeched, stalking over with all the subtlety and amiability of a rockslide. “You and I are going to have a learning experience!”
Ruby Drops had somehow known that she was breaking the rules. If part of her noticed the surprised and panicked movements of the pony in the observation room, it didn’t quell her fear. She could only be thankful that she had recently used the restroom because her bladder would have betrayed her otherwise.
“L- L- Lady Drops, I didn’t-”
“Shut up, don’t care!” Ruby shouted, leaving Fluttershy’s head spinning from the volume. Ruby turned away from her, pulling three stilettos from wherever they had been stashed in her dress. Fluttershy faintly recognized that the alicorn’s normally luxurious auburn tail was nowhere to be seen.
Ruby turned her attention to the cows around her, and a vicious grin spread across her mouth.
With expert skill, Ruby telekinetically flung one of the stilettos at Mrs. Cream, skewering her shoulder. The cow let out a cry of pain, but it was quickly drowned out by another declaration from Ruby and a cry of pain, this one from Mooriella. Then, Ruby turned on Arizona.
“And you…” She decided, venom pouring from her words like a waterfall. The stiletto floated over and press up against the terrified young cow’s neck. Suddenly, the gates of the three chosen cows’ stalls all flung themselves open.
“All of you, out! To the backroom, now! Move!”
All thoughts of rebellion seemed to have evaporated. Arizona and the cream-colored cow left their stalls, eyes brimming with tears and despair in equal parts. Mooriella was blubbering freely, pleading with Ruby even as she forced herself to walk towards the back room. Ruby took no notice, however, guiding Arizona over to the pair of ponies with none too gentle jabs of the knife.
“Now then,” Ruby crooned dangerously to Fluttershy, “I think it’s time I showed you the ropes of your new career. And who better to help than your new friend.”
Ruby silenced her by pressing her horn to Fluttershy’s throat.
“Think very carefully about whether or not you want to finish that thought. Today is not the day to test me, clear?”
Fluttershy shut her mouth with an audible click. Ruby grinned with all her teeth.
“Good. I’ll make a mare out of you yet.”
Ruby stabbed at Arizona again, forcing her onward. She turned away to lead them towards the sterile plastic doors, not even bother to make sure Fluttershy followed after. Fluttershy celebrated her newfound insignificance by briefly contemplating whether she should try to swallow her own tongue and hope she choked to death before Ruby noticed. In the end, self-preservation and a fear of retribution with a fate worse than death won out, and she galloped after Ruby, some tiny part of her hoping against hope that she might have a brain aneurysm before she caught up.
The gods were not feeling so merciful it seemed, because all too soon she was standing at the south end of the warehouse. She peered up at the cloudy plastic windows, the combination of the unknown and the promise of intense suffering causing her heart to thunder in her chest. As Ruby pushed the doors open, the pony called Icicle galloped up to Lady Ruby at full tilt, fear and servility warring in his expression.
“M- My Lady! I apologize profusely for not expecting you. Is there anything you need?”
Ruby gave him a disgusted glare, then huffed.
“No, not particularly. But if you would stay here to ensure we are not interrupted, I would appreciate it.”
“Absolutely, my Lady! Anything for you,” he groveled, scraping his stomach on the ground in his hurry to bow at her hooves.
Ruby deftly ignored his attempts to ingratiate himself further, leading her latest victims into the backroom by the knives still stuck in their flesh. Fluttershy slunk in behind her, trying to make herself as small and inconspicuous as possible.
Ruby wasn’t having any of it. She practically dragged Fluttershy in by her primaries, causing the pegasus to let out a yelp of pain. Shame immediately flooded her heart, because the others had and were almost certainly about to suffer much worse pain. The cows were already crying, so she didn’t even bother to hide the tears welling up in her eyes.
“L- Lady, please!” Mooriella sobbed. “I… I’ve been good. I’ll be good! Don’t kill me, please!”
“Shut up, you worthless piece of shit!” Ruby bellowed, telekinetically shoving the cow into the center of the white-tiled room. “How dare you speak to me?! Animals don’t get to talk!”
She lunged forward, ripping the stiletto out with her bare hooves and plunging it back into Mooriella’s flesh again and again. Mooriella tried pitifully to crawl away, but Ruby was too fast, too blinded by her murderous rage to oblige. Blood flew through the air, splattering the white-washed walls with crimson. Mooriella’s anguished cries grew faint, then ceased altogether.
Fluttershy couldn’t breathe. Ruby just kept stabbing and stabbing, ripping and tearing, until the bloody carcass beneath her waist barely recognizable as bovine. Eventually, Ruby leaned back, breathing heavily. With one last heave, she tore a huge gash in the still-warm flesh as she removed the knife. A shudder ran through her body.
“Oohhhh, that’s it. That’s what I needed. Mmph.”
She stood back up, revealing that she was soaking in more than just blood.
“Hear that? That sweet silence? That is perfection.”
Although her mind had already gone numb with fear, Fluttershy realized Ruby was talking to her. However, even if she wanted to, she couldn’t reply. The stench of blood and death saturated the air so thickly that she would have thrown up if she so much as opened her mouth. She shook like the room had become an arctic wasteland. Faintly, she recognized something wet and warm coming in contact with her hooves. Whether it was blood, urine, or something else entirely, she wasn’t about to take her eyes off of the insane alicorn to find out, even for a moment.
Ruby regained her composure and looked down at Mooriella’s corpse with detached amusement.
“Oh, dear. It seems I got a bit carried away. There’s nothing left of this one for me to teach you with. Silly me. Oh well, at least we brought two more.”
With a thought, she lifted the tattered carcass off the floor and impaled it on one of the many hooks hanging from the ceiling. Blood poured continuously from the grisly form, running in a small stream across the sloped floor and into a drain in the center. Fluttershy couldn’t bear to see the despair in Mooriella’s now single, unblinking eye but neither could she look away from Ruby. The image was being burned into her brain.
“Now then,” Ruby continued. “Let’s get started, shall we?”
Fluttershy couldn’t respond. She couldn’t even think. Her nerves had fried. But then, she didn’t have to. At that moment, somepony came barging into the room from behind her.
“My Lady! Urgent news!”
“My Lady, I’m so sorry, he wouldn’t list-”
Fluttershy only barely recognized the second voice as Icicle, but the first belonged to someone unknown. Regardless, Ruby cut them off.
“Silence!” Ruby bellowed. “What is so fucking important that you felt the need to interrupt my personal time?”
Fluttershy heard one of them gulp audibly.
“I… I’m terribly sorry, milady,” the new voice spoke. “It’s just… we’ve received a report about the Smooze, and-”
Ruby’s eyes widened dangerously. “When?”
“Just now, milady.”
“Well then? Out with it, idiot!”
“Th- the Smooze has been located on the Southern edge of the Everfree. It seems to have been attacked by hellhounds on its way there but defeated them readily. Agent Kingfisher just reported this in.”
A wild smile stretched from one corner of Ruby’s cheeks to the other.
“Oh, today just keeps getting better and better. Take me outside. I believe I will pay a visit to my dear, sludgy friend.”
Fluttershy wasn’t sure when Ruby left, but the next thing new, she was being shaken by strong hooves.
Fluttershy finally looked away from Mooriella’s mangled body. Mrs. Cream was rattling her like a smoker’s last box of matches. She stared at Fluttershy with heavy, desperate eyes, flecks of blood marring her cream coat.
“Fluttershy, you need to take Arizona and leave. Get out of here. I’ll keep ‘em occupied, stage a riot if I have to. But you both need to escape!”
“W… what?” Fluttershy murmured, still dazed.
“Run. Take Arizona and run away. Get out of this gosh-forsaken country. After seeing… that… I just… I can’t let Ruby have her way with the two of you. I just can’t. Please, Fluttershy.”
“H- hold on, now,” Arizona intoned, “that ain’t fair. You… you have to come with us.”
The older cow shook her head. “I’m old, dear. I’ll only slow you down. Besides, it’s easier to move with just two. But I can darn well make sure those brutes aren’t watching when you make your escape.”
“I don’t… I don’t even know your name,” Fluttershy protested weakly.
The cow took a deep, steadying breath. Her eyes were kind, but they had taken on a hardness only matched by diamonds. “Probably best that way, dear. Now get yourselves ready. In a few minutes, I’m going to have the others all riled up, and we’ll have ourselves a good ol’ fashioned revolt. You two sneak out in the confusion, understood?”
Arizona looked like she wanted to argue further, but she just nodded. Fluttershy felt herself getting swept up in their desperate plan, but felt no need to extricate herself. She couldn’t stay.
“I… It’s not fair. I wish I could do something more for you,” Fluttershy choked out, tears threatening to hijack her cracking voice.
Mrs. Cream — the name already cementing itself in Fluttershy’s mind — simply hugged the younger pair to herself.
“Live long lives,” she cooed, “free and clear of all this suffering. Think you can do that for me?”
“Yes ma’am,” Arizona croaked, nodding fiercely. Fluttershy choked back a sob and leaned harder into the hug. Mrs. Cream held the hug for a few seconds longer, then release the younger creatures.
“Alrighty, then, you two. Get ready. We’ll have you out of here faster than two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Listen for a commotion, then head on out the back.” She paused a moment longer, eyes shining. “Take care of each other.”
Without waiting to hear a response, Mrs. Cream took off through the double doors, out into the rest of the warehouse. Fluttershy wanted to go after her. She wanted to stop her, to tell her to come with, to not get herself killed. But she had seen the truth with her own eyes. There was no hope for those who stayed here. Mrs. Cream had resolved to sacrifice herself in order to give two younger creatures a chance to live. Fluttershy swallowed hard, forcing the cries of despair back down her throat. She wouldn’t let that sacrifice be in vain.
The pegasus and the heifer exchanged determined glances, then hunkered down next to the room’s only other door, out of the line of sight. They kept themselves tensed and ready, and did everything they could not to look at the grisly reminder of their narrowly escaped fate hanging from the ceiling hook.
A couple of hours of travel passed in a silence much more comfortable and hopeful than any prior. The others would occasionally join Rara, offering emotional support or, in Starlight’s case, watching the process with morbid curiosity. Not that there was much to see. Kind of difficult to see through opaque green jelly. Rubeo kept a discreet distance, but couldn’t quite disguise the concerned glances at those whom I was coming to realize he must consider his surrogate grandchildren. An aging stallion with family elsewhere wouldn’t be tagging along so willingly. After a while, though, even Rubeo deigned to grace my form with his righteous posterior.
The sun was just tipping over its zenith when the trees started to thin out drastically. Soon, we found ourselves rolling up to the edge of a steep, rocky gorge, devoid of plant life. Out on the southern horizon, we could just make out the flat-roofed buildings of a frontier town. I also learned from the Adjutant that my sight could become telescopic, with up to twenty times zoom. With that, I could see that it was a pony-inhabited town, supplemented by Rubeo observing to no-one in particular that we would reach “Salt Lick City” by nightfall. I internally facepalmed with the force of a thousand suns. Which, thankfully, doesn’t translate into actual physical energy.
Things were going smoothly. It set my teeth to grinding. Our luck couldn’t last much longer. We needed a plan. I rolled up to the edge of the group, trying to feel as confident as I looked.
“Alright, what’s our next move?” I asked Starlight.
“Uh, well…” She hesitated, clearly still unused to being in charge. “I mean, assuming you still want to get to the Southern Badlands, the simplest idea would be to sneak into Salt Lick City and board a train bound for Dodge Junction.”
I nodded. “Maybe, but that still won’t be terribly simple, will it? None of our options are.”
I sat at the edge, staring fitfully at the frontier town. Our best bet would likely be trying to get in with disguises, but the question was how to get our hands and hooves on disguises in the first place. I could probably whip a few up fairly quickly, but that would require resources that were currently being used elsewhere. As it stood, we would have to stop to gather supplies, and I wasn’t entirely sure we had the time. Lately, I had been feeling as though we were being watched. It was a sudden, fleeting chill that disappeared as quickly as it arrived. When I asked the Adjutant, it told me that it had detected nearly a dozen slight intrusions into our proximity sensors, but could make no assertions as to the cause.
Strangely, it was Rubeo that shook me out of my funk.
“It may not be easy, but I believe it to pose the least amount of risk. Especially if we can get our hooves on some disguises.”
I glanced sidelong at him. It was odd, hearing him give me support. Something had changed, apparently for the better. I could only hope he wasn’t secretly plotting to throw me under the bus first chance he got. That wouldn’t end well for anyone.
“It’s possible for me to make disguises, but I need more material than I have available. We may have to make camp for a couple of days, and that means giving the enemy two days to find us. Are you all willing to take that risk?”
One by one, I looked into their eyes and received a nod in kind. I received a nod from Rara when I wasn’t looking, but I felt it anyway.
“Right then. First order of business is to find a spot-”
A mental shout of ‘alert’ and a high-pitched whistle were all the warning I received before a fleshy meteor impacted the ground behind us. It appeared to be some sort of hideous amalgam of bat, rhino, and elephant, and it smiled grotesquely in the split second I caught its eye. Then, the world crumbled around me. Or at least before the ground did.
Cracks spread out like lightning from the impact site, and I felt the rock beneath me shift. On reflex, I grabbed everypony in our group and sucked them inside me. As the chunk of cliff face on which we stood turned to rubble, I took one last look at the monster that had doomed us. Ruby Drops’ manic smile grew as the tusks shrank back into her mouth. As if that weren’t weird enough, an orange-coated pegasus in a nun’s habit alighted next to her just as we fell past the edge of the cliff.
The next few moments consisted mainly of uncontrolled descent, panic, and a few thousand pounds of recently aerated rock.
Meanwhile, on the top side of the gorge, a freshly reverted Ruby Drops was dancing with gleeful excitement, Kingfisher off to one side staring at the now empty space where I and the other rebels had once been.
“Oh, did you see that?!” Ruby yipped. “The look on that thing’s face? Priceless! I’m going to have that memory copied and made into a tapestry! Today just keeps getting better and better.”
Ruby continued to celebrate loudly, paying little mind to the ever stoic and disapproving gaze of Odd’s little agent.
“You should have waited for one of the other Masters to arrive,” Kingfisher chided.
“Oh, please. It’s not like any of them would have done anything different.”
“You don’t know that for certain.”
“And who are you to question me? Until you can say you sit in on the Masters’ Court, keep your trap shut. Only then will your opinions be worth half a rat’s ass.”
Kingfisher bit back a retort, but she was spared the indignity of sitting silently next to the insufferable alicorn by the next arrival. A silver portal shimmered into existence nearby, and the ruler of Equestria stepped through.
“Your majesty,” Kingfisher quickly announced, bowing low. Ruby turned and, upon seeing Argent Light dropped to one knee as well.
“My lord, you are just in time. I have just successfully put that slimy pest out of our misery.”
Argent raised an eyebrow and looked around, spotting the recently missing chunk of the cliff face by the dust and rock still settling and falling into the gorge. His eyes hardened. He walked over to the edge and looked down.
“And have you confirmed the kills?” He asked harshly, scanning the rubble below.
“Well, no, but nothing could have survived-”
Ruby was cut off by a sudden brilliant white light that shone out of his horn. She averted her eyes, only to catch a glimpse of the sky. In an instant, silvery-white lines spread out among the clouds, forming a spell circle whose radius was measured in miles. As soon as it was complete, another smaller spell circle began just below the first. Then another. And another. Soon, there was a cone of light in the sky, and as the sky darkened, the cone grew steadily brighter.
Ruby’s jaw dropped. It had been centuries since she had seen this magic. Silver Song had ridiculously dubbed it “Magna-Fire” in a misguided attempt at double entendre. The thing was, it actually fit.
Buried under a veritable hill of rock, our group slowly stirred. It had not been a terribly graceful landing. I was able to prevent us from being crushed by solidifying myself into something akin to granite and filling my hollow interior with impact foam. Unfortunately, that still didn’t entirely negate the fall.
“Is everyone alright?” I asked, letting the foam dissolve.
Although they didn’t answer me directly, I still heard some form of vocalization from everyone. But even as I asked, the Adjutant spoke up again.
<<Warning! Extreme magic and temperature levels detected overhead!>>
<<Enough to liquefy the rock around us. Immediate evasive action strongly advised.>>
There are moments in life when you realize that things can always be worse. Usually, this is something along the lines of realizing that the thing you tried to use to clean up that spot on your carpet ended up bleaching it. Or that you did, in fact, lock your keys back in your house. Events that, while inconvenient, wouldn’t require your family to spend three months’ salary on funeral services.
This was not one of those times.
<<We began collecting extra carbon as soon as magic was detected. Dig.>>
With no time to spare, I set upon the rock beneath me with a fervor matched only by innocent death row inmates. I drilled, using up the carbon I took in almost as fast as it arrived in order to bore into solid rock. It took several agonizing seconds to create a hole wide enough for ponies, and by the time I had snaked all of us into the tunnel, I could already feel the heat bearing down on us. I drilled faster, shoving every last speck of carbon into maintaining the drill bit. Everything was growing hotter, the rock above us and the drill below. As much as I tried to mitigate the heat, Starlight and the others were already sweating. I didn’t dare spare even a second to look behind me. My movements were becoming stiff and slow.
But what could I do? Should I double back and make something like a sink trap? Did I have enough time? Could I save them? These thoughts raced through my head with such frantic energy that I barely noticed the Adjutant speaking to me.
<<Director! Turn east!>>
With no reason or time to question, I complied and suddenly it seemed like I was drilling slightly faster than before. The Adjutant sensed my confusion and responded.
<<We detected a minute change in pressure and oxygen content. That indicates we have come across a small underground fissure. If we follow the fissure, there is a decent possibility that we may find a cavern system! If not, following the fissure still buys us some time.>>
There’s also the possibility that it’s a gas pocket and we cause an explosion, but at this point, I guess we have to take the risk.
Sometimes the gods are cruel assholes that delight in causing pain to us lowly mortals. However, it seems that when the entire world is in the midden heap, they start to feel pity, and are a little more generous with the lucky breaks. After following the fissure for what felt like ages, it widened. Then it widened some more. Before I could process it, we had broken into a small cave, with another semi large fissure leading almost straight up. I had made it only a foot up the wall before magma came spewing into the cave behind us. The heat grew unbearable. I climbed into the upward fissure like a madman, unable to afford even a single slip up.
By the time we reached the cavern above us, I had hardened into the consistency of day-old playdough. Starlight and the others clawed their way out of me, gasping for air and sweating like snowballs in summer. I looked at them, exhausted and miserable, but alive. I savored the sight. The giddiness of having successfully avoided death crept in.
“Well,” I quipped, my voice an odd croak, “who else never wants to see a sauna ever again?”