ACT III: NOON
Chapter 9: Green River
“Good afternoon everypony, this is Mister New Pegasus wishing that you’ve had enjoyed your meal while listening to this very station, New Pegasus Radio! This last piece of musical magnificence was discovered in an abandoned Stable some years ago by a scavenger. The poor fellow had been fighting for his life against a pack of Nightstalkers when he came across a bunch of old records. In his place, I would have understood that he left them, but he didn’t! He picked them up and sold them to a trader, who brought them over to the station. Without knowing it, we had found one of Octavia’s best concerts, which is what we’ll be playing for the next hour.
This is Radio Nowhere! Is there anypony alive out there? Good, because if you’re listening, we’ve got some serious issues going down in Freedom Field and the Wasteland, and we’re here to bring them over to you! First of all, rumour has it that Miss Dee Cleff, the renowned public figure, has started looking for her significant other! Hooves up for her, everypony! We still don’t know the name of the lucky buck, but we at Radio Nowhere wish the upcoming couple the best for the future!
Also, our reporters snooped a conversation between Golden Swallow, the leader of the Followers of the Shy, and an unknown stallion, and I tell you folks, things aren’t going peachy for the happy couple she and Saddle Buckmare form. We’re preparing the recording to be aired in a later broadcast, but I can give you some snippets. For example, Goldie says that Saddle is an ‘irresponsible dick with no backbone to take on the city’ and that she would ‘tell Dee and Ampera to buzz off’. If you think this is heavy, wait until you hear the whole recording!
Remember, this is Radio Nowhere, bringing the latest news in Freedom Field directly to your radios! Stay tuned for more gossip!
Bzzzt... wheee... click!
Those damn pirates... they keep ruining my news bulletins... oh, wait, are we back in? Sorry for the inconvenience, let me assure you that New Pegasus Radio is working day and night to find out where the interference comes from and put an end to it. In the meantime, let me present my sincerest apologies for this problem, and let me remind you that New Pegasus Radio doesn’t share the opinions expressed by this pirate radio.
Moving on to the Ferratura murder case, yesterday Chief Investigator Brass Badge ordered the imprisonment of three employees of The Clops Resort under the charges of assault and criminal conspiracy. The decision has been cheered by the public relations department of the Platinum Horseshoe, whereas the spokespony for the Ferratura family considered this an outrage. Let’s just keep in mind that the poor fellow that was attacked is still under intensive care in the New Pegasus General Hospital, his life still on the line.
That was all the news for now, everypony. Now, let’s return to some lovely music, shall we? As I told you, we’re dedicating a special day to commemorate one of the great Octavia’s finest concerts, the Live at the Canterlot Bowl. This piece we’ll hear next is the famous “March of the Parasprites”, played by Octavia and the Equestrian Philharmonic Orchestra. Enjoy this magnificent work of art, and remember that you’re listening to New Pegasus Radio, and that I’m your favourite host, Mister New Pegasus, speaking directly to your souls...
Talking about spreading chaos.
Hertzian was doing a really fine job. Since I left him, he had already started doing his job, diligently. Every two or three times a day, the signal of New Pegasus Radio would be overridden by the rogue broadcast of Radio Nowhere, and the things aired on Hertzian’s shows weren’t light stuff precisely. I had some worries about how much content he was spewing out, and what the listeners felt about it outside of asking Stuka. Anyway, only time would tell if it was having our desired effect.
Time we were going to spend in Neighorleans.
Nadyr led the way towards the teleport booth, and while I trusted his plan and allowed him to take charge, my mind grew weary over being dragged around by somepony that didn’t seem all that concerned about the well being of his companions.
Ever since leaving Freedom Field he had been gambling on our lives. Whereas I liked to stay close to the roads, and keep to open spaces: Nadyr preferred canyons and chasms wherever possible. Sticking to unconventional roads that nopony sane would ever want to use for travelling.
Which made them, at least to me, obvious hiding places for raiders, and scum seeking safety from NER patrols or armed caravans. Nadyr assured me that my fears were unfounded, and days passed without encountering a single pony while we made our way towards the East and this teleporter of his.
In my desire to be useful while camping, I took up the tasks of heating dinner from cans of the relatively safe, but tasteless pre-War food, as Nadyr did not harbour any desire to hunt and trying out nor did he make any move towards hunting any local wildlife.
Instead him and Rose started chatting about the swamp ahead of us and the sort of environment we were going to face.
When asked about his homeland and dealing with Rose’s naive questions Nadyr adopted the stern manners of a school teacher, speaking about his homeland with clarity and brevity.
I have to commend him for his ability, and took in the relevant dangers of the swamps, how to deal with them, and noted down briefly the marvels of a much different ecosystem, while Rose was able to settle into a rather childlike reverence and amazement.
Apart from the irradiated water, and a brief history about the various megaspells that had painted Neighorleans, Nadyr’s tale of the fauna made me think that almost every single thing still alive in that pit of swamp would eat us alive, poison us, burn us to a crisp, or paralyze us. Leading me to make the conclusion that it’d be best to maintain a shoot on sight, ask questions later policy.
It made me appreciate my rifle more, and I kept it close during the night watches. A fine piece of engineering, robust, reliable. I took to cleaning it often to keep it that way while loathing the lack of NER protection.
This one wasn’t my first night watch, nor would it be the last. Most of them had been peaceful, nothing-goes-wrong nights, where the greatest danger of keeping watch was to fall asleep. However, there was always the danger of being ambushed, what made me rather nervous. Sadly for me, that was going to be one of those nights.
With my sight limited to only a couple of meters because of the lack of light, I was relying on the rest of my senses to grasp perception of what happened in the area. At night, the Wasteland used to be silent. At the moment, however, I could hear a silent rustling. A very slight noise, like the fizzing sound of sand in the wind, but intermitent. Plus, there was no wind, so it had to be the sound of something coming close. Besides, I’d bet my hooves at the fact that we were being stalked by somepony.
I moved forward to wake Nadyr up, while I left Rose sleeping. He groaned a little when I patted him on the back, but he quickly got up. While he was stretching out, I made him a sign to keep silent.
“What’s the problem?” Nadyr whispered.
“I think we’re being stalked.”
“Stalked? By whom?”
“I don’t know. I’ve heard noises that don’t sound natural. There is something lurking around.”
We stood back to back, aiming our weapons to the great darkness of the night. The cloud cover was especially thick in the area, which made the night far darker than in the area close to Nobuck, for example. The noises could be heard clearly now that we were paying full attention to the world around us. There was something out there, without a doubt. Whatever it was, it took great care on keeping out of our sight, concealed in darkness.
“Come out where we can see you!” Nadyr yelled.
“Like that’s going to happen...”
I scouted the darkness, looking for a hint of what could be after us. Whatever it was, it knew the basics of fighting. It had us pinned down close to the bonfire, turning in circles, while it was playing with our psyche. What was this thing that stalked us? Was it a beast, a pony, or something more eldritch and unknown? After all, the Wasteland liked to surprise its inhabitants every once in a while with a new and innovative abomination. And what did it want from us?
“Shit, this is taking forever.” Nadyr groaned.
“I know. Any ideas?”
“You’re the bright guy. I’m the muscle. You do the thinking!”
“Why, thanks for the trust, Nadyr.”
I clenched my teeth and looked forward, to the rim of light on the floor. There were hoofstep marks close to the limit between light and darkness, so what was following us had to be a pony or a zebra. Also, it was moving dangerously close to our visibility area, so it was only a matter of time that our stalker made a mistake. I breathed deep and looked at the floor, waiting for a hoof to appear in the dim light of the fire.
The seconds seemed to last minutes, the minutes seemed to last hours. I tried to empty my mind of any thoughts as I turned in circles, looking for the key hoof. Our stalker was still there, running around, but why hadn’t he attacked yet? Why hadn’t he fired? Was it because we were armed as well?
“Farsight!” Nadyr yelled. He saw a hoof and fired his gun.
The flash lit the darkness of the Wasteland night, revealing our stalker. It was a pony indeed, clad in an intricate red and gold armor, very ornate and delicate. His head was covered with a leather helmet with goggles, decorated with spikes resembling a dragon’s spine. He was brandishing a makeshift blade, and he didn’t seem to carry any more guns, that being the reason why he hadn’t fired or attacked. He was waiting for us to lower our guard. I raised my rifle and aimed as quickly as possible, then I shot.
The flash showed the stalker pony falling aside, wounded in one of the legs. He wouldn’t die from that wound, but it would hurt him quite a lot. In the meantime, we could try to get some information from him. But first, we needed to bring him to our bonfire. We trotted close and I used my telekinesis to drag him to our camp. Rose had leapt, frightened with the shot. She was looking around like crazy.
“Where did you hit him, Farsight?” Nadyr asked.
“In the leg, if I’m not mistaken. Why?”
“‘Cause he’s dead.”
“Whatever. He’s dead. Gone. Kaputt.”
I looked at our stalker, now victim. Indeed, he had no breath and his eyes looked into the void of death. How on this world could a leg shot become an instant kill?
“How is this possible?”
Nadyr sniffed the dead stalker’s mouth and winced.
“Ayep. Instant death. Whoever this pony was, he didn’t want to be caught.”
I started searching the dead pony for loot or information. The armor was light, mostly made out of leather covered with some light metal plates, probably tin or brass. However, it had a lot of time and dedication behind it, looking at the details and the decoration. It had this antique feel, like the one on the pictures I had seen in the Stable books. I just couldn’t tell where I had seen it.
There was something more to the armor. A motif was recurrent all along it. There were dragons in each and every corner of the armor, and I found a small tin necklace with the shape of a dragon’s head. I slid the necklace into my saddlebag. Something told me this wasn’t the first of these guys I was going to see.
“Found it!” Nadyr yelled.
“What did you find?”
“A vial! He must have chugged the poison when you shot him.”
“Yeah. He has nothing on him, otherwise. Who do you think this buck was?”
“I don’t know.” Nadyr shrugged. “Never seen this kind of armor. It’s not the usual pony armor, it has something... exotic.”
“Exotic, like zebras?”
“Fuck you, Farsight. I have NEVER seen this armor.”
“Okay, okay, don’t get all fired up. You have never seen the armor, I get it. However, he seemed to be some sort of scout. He was equipped to go lightly, no guns, only a blade. That, and a vial of poison in case he got captured.”
“A scout? For whom?”
“I don’t know. Keep your eyes out for dragon heads. Otherwise, I’m going to sleep now. G’night.”
I plummeted onto the floor and closed my eyes, while Nadyr sat down on the dead scout and started cleaning his revolver. It didn’t take me all that long to fall asleep.
*** *** ***
“Holy Celestia’s fuck!” I exclaimed.
“This is AMAZING!” Rose said, her jaw almost hitting the floor.
“My words exactly.” Nadyr smiled broadly at my reaction.
We had trotted for a couple of hours since we packed up and left the rotting body of the dead scout behind us. Suddenly, the road had opened and had confronted us with a massive canyon to our right and a huge water reservoir to our left. In the middle, the road trod over a gigantic wall of concrete that separated both parts, holding the massive volume of water captive. It was frankly breathtaking to see the massiveness of that construction.
“What the hell is this?” I was having a really hard time to keep my muzzle closed.
“This is Hoofer Dam. One of the marvels of Pre-War engineering. Don’t ask me how, but there’s a power plant in there. That’s where all the electricity for New Pegasus and Freedom Field comes from.”
“Sounds like a nice catch for the NER. Controlling the power would give them the edge over New Pegasus.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what we were sent to scout. Of course they want the damn dam, but they don’t want to rush.”
“And why is it?”
We began to cross the Dam. While Nadyr advanced at a steady pace, I looked at all sides with my face turned into a rictus of amazement. I could see all the course of the river Coltorado from there. I could see how it arched between the mountains, to end up widening and forming what I assumed was Lake Honeymead.
“Come on, Farsight! Catch up!”
Nadyr and Rose were already on the far end of the Dam. I galloped to meet up with them, and we set off to find the bunker he had been talking about. It was time to search for treasure.
*** *** ***
“Is this the place?”
We had stopped close to a small shack, about two by two meters in surface, half covered in dust and desert vegetation. My PipBuck hadn’t even bothered on indicating that I had found some new location. I had always thought that a teleport booth would look more imposing, more futuristic. Instead, it looked like a puffed-up phone booth half-swallowed by the Wasteland.
“It’s bigger in the inside.” Nadyr shrugged. “Let’s go.”
Nadyr opened the shack door and we got into the booth. It did feel somewhat bigger in the inside, mostly because the shack was empty, except for a couple of benches and the teleporter. As it seemed, this was planned to be used as a mass transport system. The teleporter itself stood in the middle of the room, connected to a myriad of cables and wires. It was a void cylinder, glowing in blue and green, welcoming us to step into it.
“I don’t like how it looks...” I shivered.
“Me neither, but I like the look of gold. Let’s go, Farsight. I haven’t come this far to back down now.”
“I know that.” I sighed. “However, are you sure this will work?”
“Come on, Farsight. You know the answer to that question.”
“Let me guess. You have no idea.”
“Exactly!” Nadyr laughed. “I HAVE NO IDEA! Now let’s get crackin’!”
I shrugged, asking myself questions about Nadyr’s sanity, and followed the hyped half-zebra to the teleporter cylinder. As we crossed the halo of light that delimited the teleporter’s perimeter, I started feeling a strange current fill the air, causing rippling spasms in my muscles. Nothing too heavy, but it was a quite unsettling feeling. Nadyr, on the other hoof, seemed undeterred by the imposing unknown that was the functionality and accuracy of the teleporting system we were about to use.
“And how are we supposed to get this thing running?” I asked.
“Easy, bro. The thing is pre-programmed. The user only has to push the big red button.”
“How do you know that, if I may ask?”
“There’s a nice thing over there, at the small cabinet on the wall, called Instruction Booklet. If you took your time to read it, you’d discover how easy it is to operate one of these.”
I smirked at Nadyr’s smug retort. There was nothing to say, in that case. If he had read an instruction book, he’d know best, so I shrugged and nodded.
“My bad. Go ahead.”
“All right, mares and gentlecolts! Please buckle up for this one-way ride to Neighorleans! Estimated trip duration is... meh, who cares! Let’s GO!”
With a howl of victory, Nadyr slammed his hoof on the big red button with the engraving ‘Activate’ on it, and the machine started humming and buzzing. I was no technician, but common sense told me that a buzzing machine wasn’t a healthy machine. However, Nadyr didn’t seem to care too much about the teleporter’s condition. Instead, he was whistling and singing in tune with the machine’s noises.
“Nadyr, are you sure this is working properly?” I asked, rather scared.
Before my companion could give me an answer, the teleporter emitted a loud, screeching noise and the world itself vanished in the dark.
*** *** ***
Being teleported is not a nice feeling. Not at all. When all our atoms got hurled across the world at an unfathomable speed, my senses simply got nullified. All I saw was a dark tunnel of eldritch shapes and impossible colors, twisting and turning in all directions. To give a similar image, I was seeing things similar to those impossible, shifting shapes and shiny tunnels you see when you close your eyes after a hard day. These ones, however, were vivid and massive, and I swear I had the feeling of having my eyes wide open.
Also, the only thing I could hear was a loud, low-pitched rumbling that echoed across all infinity. Any other sound, if there was any, got drowned in the reverberating madness of the teleporter’s void. My ears, or at least what I thought were my ears, vibrated like crazy, sending ripples of pain through.
That was not the worst, though. I had the feeling of having been stuck in a cocktail shaker. I was being hurled around by impossible forces, gravity being first down, then up, then down again. My nerve system was being overrun by forces and signals that didn’t add up, as if all the laws of Physics had been ruled out and the world had been swallowed by a vortex of pure, unmodified chaos.
My body, or what I thought had to be my body in this impossible, chaotic space, was screaming for an instant of rest. Literally, I needed to get off, or I’d collapse. My brain was being bombarded by inconsistent data and sensations, first pain, then dizziness, then pressure, then cold, then heat, then stress, then speed, then pain again. If this carried on for much longer, my mind would simply snap.
I felt like I had been thrown down a massive rollercoaster, my brain bouncing against invisible walls, about to be torn apart by forces that I didn’t get to understand. My nerves couldn’t bear any more of this punishment that didn’t seem to end, and at some point I blacked out. In hindsight, I assume it was some sort of emergency shutdown in order to avoid greater pains, but it was something else.
*** *** ***
I felt the smell before anything else. It was a horrible stench, deep and disgusting, that made my gut churn. It was the smell of stagnant water and decay, the reek of everlasting death and decomposition, the stink of rotting organic matter. In a nutshell, it was the smell of a big, massive swamp. It seemed like the teleporter had worked, after all.
I opened my eyes to find myself in a shack similar to that of the Neighvada desert. The teleporter cylinder was there, humming and lighting the small room in a greenish light. I got back up on my hooves and shook my head, trying to deplete all the remaining traces of dizziness left in my brain. Then I took a look around the place, trying to get back into action.
There were not many differences from this place to the shack in the other end of the teleporter. The same useless neon lights, the same big teleporter cylinder in the middle of the room, the same benches in the corners. If I was to spot a difference, I’d say the place looked a bit dirtier, a bit rustier than the desert booth. There was another key difference, though. Nadyr and Rose were nowhere to be found.
I can’t say I panicked, but my heartbeat became rushed and irregular when I found myself alone. I relied on having Nadyr by my side when it came to exploring the city, since he was the one that knew about the potential dangers of the Neighorleans swamp. Finding myself on my own was a bit of a setback. Besides, I did worry about both him and Rose. After the bumpy teleporter ride, I was afraid he hadn’t made it to the other end. For no reason, I started looking around the place, trying to find evidence that showed that Nadyr and Rose had come out of the teleporter void in good shape.
There was nothing in the teleporter, nothing on the benches, nothing on the walls that told me they were alive and kicking, and I was starting to get seriously worried. I checked every corner of the room, but there was nothing that spoke about the half-zebra or the filly’s presence. Worried sick, I was about to leave the room when I remembered about what Nadyr had told us in the other end. There had to be a small cabinet somewhere in the shack, a cabinet that I hadn’t found yet.
I returned to check the room once again, looking for anything that could resemble a small storage space. After a frantic search through the walls, I had found nothing. Once again, panic started rising towards my mind. I sat on my flanks and massaged my head with my forehooves, trying to keep calm. I had to think properly if I wanted to succeed, with or without Nadyr. I looked up at the teleporter cylinder, and I found myself looking at a small protuberance on the back of the machine. A box-like protuberance. A Celestia-damned cabinet.
I leapt forward and opened the cabinet harshly. I found what I expected to find: the operation instructions of the teleporter, some old, rusty tools and some replacement breakers. There was something else, however. A piece of paper, seemingly ripped from the booklet, floated out of the cabinet and fell slothfully to the floor. Something had been scribbled in it.
Since you’ve had a bit of a hard ride, we have decided to leave you here to rest. We’re going to scout forward. When you are ready, come and look for us. Neighorleans can’t be that big anyway.
Just keep out of the water and you’ll be good.
Catch you later, bro.
Nadyr (and Rose)
So, they were alive, after all. I sighed and smiled, feeling quite relieved. I was still alone, but the three of us were doing fine, so we could combine our efforts and search for that promised loot. I discarded the small note, cocked my rifle and checked my armor. Everything was on its place, now it was time to get out to face our new environment, the Neighorleans swamp.
I opened the shack gate and came out of it. The smell of decay coming from the surrounding swamp made my gut twist in disgust, but I forced myself to breathe deep, in order to get used to the horrible smell. Well, after ten minutes breathing that mushy, stinky marsh air, it wasn’t that terrible after all. The natural light was blinding me, as the neon tubes in the teleporter shack weren’t working and my eyes had got used to the dim glow the teleporter emitted.
When my eyes finally managed to see something apart from a blinding whiteness, I found myself looking up to a shiny green dome, made out of entwined branches and leaves of lush, huge trees. As Nadyr had said, there was no way to get through that heavy cover. Even light had serious issues to sip through the several layers of foliage, and the one that managed to enter the dome was tinted in a greenish colour, giving the place an otherworldly feel.
Amazed by the massive dome hanging above me, I lowered my sight to look at the city I had just entered. I expected to see something like Freedom Field, a city in an acceptable state, but I found myself looking at a large, half sunken ruin. Wrecked buildings stood out of the stagnant swamp water, like the fangs of a massive beast, greenish vegetal life growing out of the mud and clinging onto the debris.
The roads were cracked and sunken in many places, nature slowly winning the battle for the dominance against the advances of ponykind. Electric cables, long rendered useless, floated slothfully like some sort of water snake, curling and stretching with every ripple in the water. A water that was, like Nadyr had told me, a death trap of wildlife and radiation. Speaking of which, my PipBuck had started clicking as soon as I got out of the shack, letting me know that the place wasn’t the safest to stay.
I looked at the device attached to my leg. The screen was flashing a red warning: +2 rads/second. That was not good, so I had better get going. I tried to ubicate myself using the PipBuck map, but that feature didn’t seem to work in this place. Apparently, the PipBuck had been deconfigured in the teleporter ride. All that appeared when I tried to switch to the map screen was a flashing message saying “Connection Lost”.
“Oh, seriously. What the crap?” I scowled. Well, I would have to move the old way.
I looked around trying to get a grip on my location. Without the help of the PipBuck map, I would have to rely on other things to orientate myself, such as the E.F.S. compass, which, thank Celestia, was still working; and on local reference points. At the moment, I was standing on a hill, judging from the water surrounding me. The hill was crossed by north-south road, that descended on both sides, being the teleporter booth the highest part.
My first objective was to find Rose and Nadyr. They could be anywhere within the large dome, but my gut told me they hadn’t gone too far. If the water was as deadly as Nadyr had told me, they would still be trying to find a way out of this island. With a pinch of luck, I would be able to hook up with them rather quickly.
I started descending the road to the south. The slope was gentle but constant, and the smell of stagnant water became more and more intense as I walked forward. Also, as I advanced, I began to see the remnants of a massive city that came out of the water. Most of it were ruins of high-rise buildings, crumbled as if they were made out of sand. However, what seemed like the oldest part of town hadn’t suffered all that much. Many of the ancient buildings stood strong, even if surrounded by water to their first floor.
What I was witnessing had to be the center of Neighorleans. Our loot had to be there, but I already saw a major problem to it. The city was sunken in that radiated, nasty, deadly, thick green water that flooded all the dome. We would need a boat, or some way to avoid getting our legs in the swamp.
I kept advancing down the crackled, leaf-covered road as I tried to figure out a way of getting to the flooded city center. I soon found myself dangerously close to the water, with my PipBuck clicking nervously, as it marked a rather worrisome +12 rads/second. I swiftly backed away from the radiated fluid, trying to look at the horizon with a safe distance. All the money in the world wasn’t worth a deadly radiation poisoning.
Suddenly, I heard a loud laugh coming from behind me. A laugh I could identify almost everywhere. The crackling, loud laughter of a loudmouth, irreverent half-zebra.
“HAHAHA! Look at you, Farsight! Afraid of a little water?”
I turned around and saw Nadyr and Rose trotting carelessly towards me. I smiled as I saw them doing fine, and I scowled at the half-zebra’s comment.
“I’m not afraid of the water, Nadyr. I’m afraid of the radiation.”
“Well, that’s something you already knew about. Don’t go crying on me now.”
“Fine. You’re right. I shouldn’t bicker about the radiation.”
“Farsight, Nadyr, please calm down.” Rose mediated.
I breathed deep to keep my tension at bay, while the nasty marsh air filled my lungs and made me wince. Nadyr smiled once again.
“The smell, right?” he said, winking.
“Yes. It will take some time until I get used to it.”
“Don’t worry. I have been through that already, even if I think that the smell in Peekayune wasn’t so bad. I guess the dome will have something to do with it.”
“Sure thing. By the way, where is Peekayune exactly?”
“Hm... More or less, like ten kilometers from here, to the northwest. It’s outside of the dome and on the mainland. There’s no way we’re getting there.”
“Right.” I pointed the other way, towards the ruins coming out of the water. “Any plans on getting there, Nadyr?”
Nadyr gazed at the city center and mumbled something. The old buildings that stood strong looked very far away, and the rest of the newer constructions had been almost toppled. I was already thinking on a way of getting there by climbing and jumping through the ruins, but it was very risky. Besides, we needed a way of getting back with our saddlebags full, and I wasn’t sure that we’d make the most agile lot. Maybe Nadyr would, but I would surely not.
“We could try to use the crumbled buildings to get there, but it would be very risky. A wrong step and you could be done for.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Shit. Then we’re in real trouble.” Nadyr grumbled.
“Are you giving up?”
“Aw, hell no. No. No. No. I ain’t giving up. I didn’t come all the way to turn around here.”
“Well, I don’t want to be a spoilsport, but I don’t see a way of getting there and back safely. And honestly, I don’t want to die in a radiated puddle.”
“Err, Farsight...” Rose whispered.
“So what? You want to return to your poor, miserable life in the desert? Fine by me!” Nadyr yelled.
“Nadyr...” Rose looked at the half-zebra.
“Fine by you? Oh, look at who is speaking. I don’t think your life was any better.” I smirked.
“Farsight, please!” Rose said.
“Well, at least I depend on myself!” Nadyr chuckled with irony.
“THAT’S ENOUGH!!!” Rose leapt and yelled. Nadyr and I bounced back, startled. “Are you two crazy or what? Is the swamp air rotting your brains? We have to work together to get this done! Otherwise, we’re going to return barehooved, and that in the best case scenario!”
“All right, Rose.” I nodded, feeling a bit ashamed. Nadyr grumbled.
“Now, listen to me for once, please. If this place was surrounded by lakes before the war, the ponies that lived here had to have boats. Boats that shouldn’t have been affected by a rise of the water level.”
“What about the megaspells?” Nadyr asked. “Those would affect them alright.”
“Meh. Look at the city center buildings. Still standing, even if flooded. I’d say that the zebras didn’t hit Neighorleans properly. They rather let it be flooded by radiated swamp water. Therefore, I’m pretty sure that we should find a boat somewhere. Now, let’s get moving, gentlecolts.”
Rose turned around and left us looking at each other, rather puzzled. That had been an enormous display of character and strength by our little Rose. I couldn’t help to crack a smile when I thought about it. Rose had leadership in her, she could actually be in charge.
“We should get going, Nadyr.”
“No doubt. She’s scary when she gets angry, bro.”
“I don’t think she’s really angry. When she’s really angry, her other half comes out.”
“You mean Lavender?”
“Damn. Then I don’t want to see her angry. Let’s go.”
We caught up with Rose after a rather hasty gallop uphill. If my hunch was right, from the looks of things and the lack of buildings around us and around the teleporter shack, the hill island we were scouting had to have been a pre-War park. That gave us a vantage point to see the rest of the area, and that was what Rose had figured out already, since she was waiting for us on the top of the small knoll.
“Took you long enough.” She smiled.
“We’re sorry, Rose.” I sighed.
“Sorry for what?”
“For not having taken you seriously.”
“Oh, that. Apology accepted. Just do it a bit better next time, okay?”
“Now that all’s clear, would you mind taking a look around?”
I did what Rose told me to do and turned around slowly, looking at the green horizon. Water and ruins were the common scenario in the Neighorleans dome, but when the compass pointed to the North, I saw something that stood out of the environment. A cluster of ruins came out of the water, but unlike the rest, it was connected by a series of catwalks made out of debris and sheet metal. Catwalks that had been crafted by ponies, what came to demonstrate that there was actual life inside the dome.
“That is...” I started.
“That is a settlement, indeed!” Rose smiled broadly.
“Great job, Rose. When did you find it?”
“Oh, not too long ago, really. I spotted it when I was waiting for you two to arrive.”
“I assume you suggest we go investigate the settlement.”
“Of course. If somepony knows how to get to Neighorleans, that will be whoever lives in those shacks.”
“Good. Let’s get moving, then.”
*** *** ***
After a long walk downhill, we made it to the beginning of the catwalks leading to the settlement. I looked up to the small village we were about to enter, and I had to acknowledge the adaptive abilities of ponykind. The settlement was built almost entirely on pylons and stilts, sprawling upward in an unstable balance. Most of the houses were made out of wood (which was abundant in the area) and sheet metal (which required a bit more of time to find and gather, but still was quite abundant), and even if they looked rusty and about to fall apart, they did conform a stable village.
There was no electric lighting, as it was obvious, but the place was lit by torches with eerie green flames. Those had to be the lights Nadyr had seen as a foal. They were rather unsettling, indeed, and they gave the place a rather obscure feel. However, these fires were the irrefutable proof of ponies living in the settlement.
“Err... What should we do?” Nadyr asked.
“I say we enter.” I answered. “Keep your guns concealed but ready. I don’t want to scare anypony, but we can’t discard the possibility of them being hostile.”
“Of course. They could be cannibals. It’s not that strange in the swamps.”
“Ca-cannibals?” Rose squeaked.
“Don’t worry, Rose. If they’re cannibals, we won’t let them have a bite.”
We walked forward on the catwalk, the sound of our hooves stepping on loose sheet metal resonating across the large green dome. So much for a silent entry. I visualized my rifle, hanging from my side, ready to be unholstered and fired if things got ugly. Suddenly, a figure stepped out of one of the few buildings that weren’t made out of sheet metal. In the middle of the settlement, the remains of a high-rise tower came out of the water like a spear futilely trying to pierce the leaf cover. However, only a couple of stages managed to grow higher than the catwalk level.
One of these stages had been modified to work as a ground level. One of the main windows had been turned into a main door, and that was where the figure was standing. Dimly lit by one of the torches, I managed to see that the fur of that pony had almost fallen apart, revealing a sickeningly white and bluish skin, full of gashes and scars. The mane was almost gone, just a few strands of blue remained as a witness of past times.
“Oh, visitors!” she yelled. Indeed, it was a she. A mare ghoul.
“Oh, hi.” I greeted.
“Don’t be shy, come closer!”
We advanced towards the ghoul mare, looking around. More and more ghouls were coming out of the shacks, looking at us with evident surprise and a bit of eagerness. I tried to keep calm, but the sight of walking carcasses looking at us with interest was something that made me feel, to say the least, rather uncomfortable. Rose, on the other hoof, looked around amazed. I assumed she hadn’t seen a single ghoul in her life. Nadyr didn’t seem too impressed.
“Hello!” The ghoul mare shook hooves with all of us. I didn’t shake her hoof too strongly, since I sincerely feared to rip it off her leg. “My name is Auntie Cheval, welcome to our little settlement!”
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Farsight, and these two are Desert Rose and Nadyr.”
“How are you?”
“Still a little shaken from our little trip, but fine, I guess.”
“Oh, you come from the teleporter!”
“Of course, where did you expect us to come from?”
“Ugh, me and my rotting brain.” She facehoofed. “Of course, you can’t come from anywhere else. Why don’t you come in and get comfortable?”
We nodded and walked into the old apartment building. The place had been conserved in a pre-war fashion, with fancy wooden furniture decorating the rooms, rugs on the wooden floor, and chandeliers providing the much needed light. The fire was, as in the outer torches, bright green. We all sat on a comfortable, large and profusely decorated red rug, while Auntie Cheval laid on a couch before us. We did look like fillies listening to a storyteller.
“So, now that we’re all comfortable, why don’t you tell me what brings you here?” she asked.
“Well, being totally honest, we’re scavengers.” I answered bluntly.
“Yes, we came to explore the old city. Back where we live in, we work as traders, specialized in scavenged goods. The Wasteland is a nice source of this kind of items. However, we’re starting to run a bit low on supplies, and we learned about this city and how to get there.”
“I see. Well, I have nothing against that. Everypony has to make a living.”
“Thanks for your understanding.”
“Still, that hasn’t answered my question. What brings you to here?”
“To here? As in to this settlement?”
“Without wanting to be rude... Where are we exactly?”
“Oh, my head once again.” Cheval composed a lipless smile. Rather disturbing. “Welcome to Maretairie.”
“Maretairie?” Nadyr leapt out of his pseudo-lethargy. “Really? I thought it didn’t exist anymore!”
“You know Maretairie?” Cheval looked surprised.
“Of course I do!” Nadyr smiled. “I was raised in Peekayune! I know all the area, but I thought this place didn’t exist.”
“Really?” Cheval squeed. “What a coincidence! Good to see a fellow swamp-dweller every now and then.”
“Indeed. It’s great news.”
“Sorry to break the happy meeting, but we came here looking for something.” I got up to emphasize. “We need to find a way to get to Neighorleans. More properly, a boat.”
“A boat? Of course, I forgot that you smoothcoats can’t get into the water.”
“Yes, we can’t. Speaking of which, why have you built your town on stilts if water doesn’t bother you?”
“Well, to be totally honest with you, water does bother us. We don’t suffer from radiation. In fact, it heals us. Also, the local fauna doesn’t see us as prey, like it sees you. Who would like to eat rotting meat, anyway?”
“Yes... Err, no offence meant.”
“None taken. However, the water is cold and thick, which makes it pretty cumbersome for use to move in. So you can imagine it’s not the best setting to live in.”
“Fair enough. Now, about the boat...”
“Well, we don’t have any, but I guess some of my bucks could try to fetch one for you. There should be boats close to the remains of the Ponychartrain Yachting Club.”
“Thank you very much, Auntie Cheval. Can we offer you something in return? Like workforce, caps or something?”
“No, not needed. We are self-sufficient as we are. Still, I appreciate your kind offer.”
“No problem, it’s the least we could do.”
“Now, while you wait, why don’t you spend the night with us?”
“Of course. It will be our pleasure.” Damn, that had been a terrible lie.
I won’t lie to you. I don’t like ghouls. I find them to be an aberration, a freak of nature, product of the senselessness of ponykind. I thought about it for a long time when I met Mixer back at the Followers’ Fort, and, as charming and friendly he could be, he still was a rotting carcass. Back in Freedom Field, I saw Mixer as an oddity, as the sideshow freak of the Followers.
In Maretairie, however, things were fairly different. We were the oddity there. As sincere as Auntie Cheval’s welcome could be, I didn’t like finding myself surrounded by living timebombs. Mixer’s warning flashed in my mind like one of the New Pegasus neons. At any minute, under the relentless radiation of the swamp, any of the inhabitants of Maretairie could go feral. That would mean very bad news to us. However, if we wanted to get a boat, we would have to accept Cheval’s proposal.
“Great!” Cheval didn’t seem to notice my lie. “Samedi! Would you guide our guests to their rooms, please?”
Out of the blue, another ghoul had appeared in the room, without any of us noticing. I winced with surprise, while Nadyr greeted him (since it was a stallion) with a nod. Rose was looking awestruck by the locals. The newcomer was, as I said, a stallion, but unlike Auntie, this one was a zebra ghoul. White and black stripes were clearly visible in the patches of fur that hadn’t fallen off.
“Follow me, please.” He turned around and exited the building with us following him closely.
Nadyr caught up quickly and started talking with the zebra ghoul. It seemed that he had a certain interest of chatting with somepony of his own species, even if it was in a state of partial decomposition.
“So, your name was Samedi, wasn’t it?”
“Indeed. And you are?”
“Fine. Are you from here?”
“Well, from the same swamp, but on the other side of the dome. Peekayune.”
“Peekayune, eh? I visited the town a long time ago, before the bombs fell. It was a nice place. Comfy.”
“Yeah. Comfy.” Nadyr smiled and looked to the dome. “It’s been so long since I left...”
“Things don’t change much in the swamp. You won’t have missed much.”
“I guess...” Nadyr looked down. I couldn’t see him clearly, but I had the feeling he was holding back the tears. Even a tough-as-nails killer gets homesick every now and then.
Samedi took us to a small group of shacks that stood on the far end of the village. At a first glance, I had thought they had to be lavatories of some sort, or storage closets at most. They were small and frail, and were almost at water level.
“These are your shacks.” Samedi pointed at them without much enthusiasm.
“They don’t look too... stable.” Rose muttered.
“They’re a bit torn apart. Sorry about that.” Samedi shrugged. The expression was more of a social convention than a real apology. “They used to belong to some bucks that ended up going feral. After that, well, we emptied the shacks and left them as they were. Time did the rest.”
“Oh well, if it’s for a night...” Nadyr smiled. “I’m going to have a little shuteye now. The teleporter has left me really worn out.”
Nadyr picked the first shack, which was the one in best state, and darted inside. Soon, we could all hear him snoring. Good old Nadyr had a great ability to disconnect from the surrounding reality when it came to getting some sleep.
“Now that we speak about it...” Rose yawned adorably. “I need to rest a bit as well. Excuse me.”
Rose walked into the second shack, looking rather tired. By the time I noticed, I was standing alone on the catwalk, looking at Samedi face to face.
“Aren’t you tired as well?” he asked.
“Not that much. I blacked out when we teleported, so I took a little nap. I guess that’s the difference.”
“So it seems.” Samedi shrugged again.
Silence fell between us and the sound of crickets and rad-frogs filled the air. I didn’t feel like going into the shack, but Samedi wasn’t leaving either. Instead, he looked at me with a rather concentrated face, as if he was trying to read my mind.
“Excuse me...” he started. “Farsight, was it?”
“I think I heard you say you want to go to Neighorleans?”
“Yes. That is our goal.”
“Have you heard about the Curse?”
“The Curse? Oh, yes, I remember Nadyr mentioning something about it. Still, I only know that there is supposed to be a Curse, nothing else.”
“Then you know nothing. There IS a Curse in Neighorleans. You should beware its power.”
“Interesting. Would you tell me a bit more about it?”
“It all happened some months before the megaspells fell. Neighorleans was getting ready for its yearly celebration, Maredi Gras, when something happened. Something bad, really bad.”
“What happened, exactly?”
“I don’t know, I wasn’t there. That very day, I had gone to Peekayune to visit an old friend. We were going to listen to the Maredi Gras Midnight Parade in the radio, but about an hour before midnight, the radio went silent. Not only ours, but all of them. Everything had gone crashing down.”
“What did you do, then?”
“My friend and I decided to go to Neighorleans, to learn about what had happened. Many of the inhabitants of Peekayune were getting ready to form a scouting party, but we were faster and left before they even got started. Luckily for them, to be honest. We galloped down the road in the dark, praying for the best but expecting the worst. We were at war, and I was afraid that my kin had launched a massive attack on the city.”
“Oh, by the way, sorry for interrupting. Didn’t you get harassed for being a zebra in wartime?”
“Lots of times, but in the end, the Ministry of Morale goons knew who me and my family were. We had been living in Neighorleans for generations, a long time before zebras and ponies became enemies. Others weren’t so lucky, I’m afraid.”
“Indeed, it is. But we’re digressing. As I told you, my friend and I got to Neighorleans as fast as we could. Upon arriving, we noticed a dark energy surrounding the city. Some kind of necromantic spell had been cast. My grandmother, the sun and moon guard her soul, taught me to identify and defend against necromancy. I warned my friend, but he insisted on going deeper. We could have turned around and warned the neighboring towns about what had happened, but we didn’t. We should have left Neighorleans as fast as possible.”
“But you didn’t.”
“Indeed, we didn’t. We walked down the streets of the once busy city, now totally silent. I swear I have never felt as much fear as the one I felt then. Everything was silent, dead silent. As we advanced toward the center of town, the dark forces acting in town became stronger and stronger, but my friend wouldn’t back down. Soon, we got to the old town, where the Parade was taking place, and we witnessed the most abhorrent thing we would ever see.”
“What was that thing?” Samedi’s tale had me absorbed.
“Everypony was there, looking at the parade, but nopony moved. It looked like time had frozen solid for everypony but my friend and me. When we got close to the mass of ponies, we saw their faces... I still see those faces in my nightmares. They were locked in wails of pain and horror, their eyes gazing into infinity, about to come out of their skulls. Their muzzles were opened wide in all sorts of screams and rictuses of fear. Something terribly wrong had happened.”
“Were they dead?”
“No, they weren’t. They were warm, and I could feel their heartbeat when I checked. Something had turned them into... whatever they had become. I call them ‘husks’. I was close to panicking, and then my friend started hearing the voices. He started talking to the husks, as if they were alive. Then he started talking about a party. I tried to talk to him, but he didn’t seem to notice me. I tried to pull him out of town, but there was no way of making him notice me. Before I could do anything, he galloped forward down the avenue, and soon I had lost him. I looked for him all around town, and then I heard him scream. It was a blood-chilling cry, as if his soul was being ripped out of him. By the time I got to him, he had turned into another husk.”
“That is horrible...” I felt a chill down my spine. I had already fought dark forces before, and I ended up with a bullet in my knee and a psycho hiding in Rose’s body.
“Indeed, it was horrible. I galloped as quickly as possible and returned to Peekayune to warn the population. Soon, we spread the word about the Curse. Then, the megaspells fell and Neighorleans was flooded. The husks were destroyed and the place was forsaken, but the Curse remains.”
“I am sorry to hear that.”
“Never mind. I’ve lived with this burden for more than two hundred years, and there are many more to come.
Samedi sighed and turned around, leaving me sunken in a sea of doubt, worries and curiosity.
*** *** ***
I walked around for a while, talking to the locals while trying to hide my disgust towards them. I wanted to learn about Maretairie, about how things went down in the small settlement. I soon came to the convincement that the ponies in Maretairie formed a tribe. They didn’t have all the tribal paraphernalia, such as rituals or idols to the stars or the sun; but they did behave like a tribe. Auntie Cheval was a sort of Elder to the ghouls, a spiritual and terrenal leader. They didn’t have any kind of economy, since they could manage without having to resort to trading. The population was so small, that all the needs were covered in a self-serviced fashion. Some ponies hunted, some cooked, some took care of the maintenance.
We had a quick meal with Auntie Cheval at night, before going to sleep. We were offered what seemed to be a rad-snake stew that tasted like everything in that swamp, damp and mushy. The chat was the usual one between newly-mets, that is, pointless chit-chat about the weather and the difference between our and their slice of Wasteland. Rose had seemed to grow fond of Auntie Cheval, as she looked at her with starry eyes. I could understand her, since Auntie resembled the mother or grandmother we all missed. I couldn’t forget the fact that she was a rotting carcass, though.
After our meal, we returned to our quarters to try and get some sleep. Soon after lying in the mattress that would act as my bed, the thoughts about what Samedi had told me started coming out and keeping me awake. Nadyr was asleep already, as almost the whole swamp could hear, and I guessed Rose was too. I, on the other hoof, was wide awake. For some hours, I laid on my bed trying to get some rest, but I failed miserably, so I decided to go out for another walk, hoping that the night air would help me get ready for a shutdown.
I felt amazed when I opened the shack door. Everypony was acting normally, as if it wasn’t the middle of the night. The green torches lit the shacks and ruined buildings with their eerie light, and the ghouls walked and worked as if it was noon. Close to the entrance catwalk, I saw the promised boat. It was a small vessel, fitted with a small off-board engine, that would take the three of us safely into the city center, and with a pinch of luck, it would bring us back with our loot.
Since everypony around was acting normally, I decided to go pay Auntie Cheval a little visit. After all, if somepony could give me information regarding the place we were about to visit, that was her. Besides, I wanted to know if the boat was ready, since I wanted to leave as soon as possible.
Cheval was sitting on the old couch where she had sat before. It seemed that her only purpose in the tribe was to give advice and sit down. When I came through the door, she lifted her decomposing head and smiled. I had to refrain from shaking.
“Ah, Farsight. What brings you here? Shouldn’t you be sleeping?” she asked kindly.
“I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to go out for a walk. But then I saw all of you acting normally, which puzzled me quite a lot, so I decided to come to you for some answers.”
“Before you ask anything, it’s because of our condition.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Our ghoul condition. We don’t need to eat, drink, sleep or breathe.”
“But then, why do you hunt and cook?”
“It’s just a reminder of our past lives. After all, we all will end up going feral. However, we don’t want to sit down and wait for that to happen, so we try to act as normal ponies. We respect daytime, we hunt, eat, drink and so on. It may be useless, but it gives us peace.”
“I understand that.”
“Still, you don’t like us. Don’t worry, it’s understandable.”
“But...” I had been unable to hide my disgust, judging from her remark.
“I told you, don’t worry. I understand that. We’re the first ghouls you’ve seen, aren’t we?”
“No, you’re not. I came across one before.”
“And knowing him, you still hate us.”
I had a choice lying before me. I could either act politely and try to come out of the situation by means of a political answer, that is, saying a lot of words with little meaning; or I could be totally honest, as harmful as it could be. For some reason, I chose the second option.
“Indeed, I do. You’re aberrations, living reminders of the mistake our race committed more than two centuries ago. Not only that, but you’re miscalculations. You were supposed to die with the megaspells, and yet you live. Rotting and close to destruction, but you endure to live. Your very existence is a mistake.”
“And you don’t like mistakes, do you?”
“Of course not. I like it when plans come out right.”
The air between us seemed to freeze as an uncomfortable, tense silence filled the room. Auntie Cheval and I stared at each other, trying to read each other’s minds, or challenging ourselves to maintain eye contact. Her expression, as much as her aberrant face let me know, was stern and cold; whereas mine had to be one of pure defiance. Then, she let go a slight sigh and closed her eyes.
“At least, you’re being honest.”
“Why would I lie to you by saying this?”
“Anyhow, we will leave soon, and I don’t think we’ll be coming back again. You will forget us and you will forget my lack of finesse.”
“Lack of finesse?” Cheval laughed. “You’re worried about your lack of finesse? Seriously, Farsight, you are surprising.”
“You’ll have to explain that to me.”
Cheval sighed, and her expression became sad and moody. She made herself comfortable in the couch once again, and looking to the floor, started talking. Somehow, I had the feeling that she was sunken deep in her memories.
“You know, Farsight, there was a time where I would have said the same thing that you are saying. In fact, there was a time in which I abhorred ghouls. That is, until I became one of them. You can’t even imagine what we all have been through. I am two hundred and seventy-five years old, Farsight. I’ve seen my share of the world, both before and after the War. You’ve seen Maretairie now. A bunch of ruined shacks, about to fall into the water. I remember the Maretairie from before the War... It wasn’t a dirty village, but it was a distinguished suburb. Classy houses with their yards and their pools, the park of Harmony Hill, where the teleporter was built... Then, the Curse came to happen, and later, the Flood.”
“The Flood? You mean the Megaspells?”
“I mean the Flood, Farsight. Things weren’t as black or white as you might think.”
“What happened to the city, Auntie?”
“You know about the Curse?”
“Samedi told me about it.”
“Ah, Samedi. Poor fellow. He’s forced to bear the burden of the Curse for all eternity. What he saw cannot be unseen, and he won’t find the solace of death anytime soon.”
“Does that worry you?”
“Of course it does, Farsight. Imagine our life, or our un-life, if you prefer. For more than two centuries, we haven’t had to sleep, eat, drink or breathe. Not only that, but we have become virtually immortal. Our only fate is slowly descending into insanity, just to keep roaming the swamp until something finds us worthy of its stomach. We force ourselves to maintain some rituals from times past, just to delay that degradation of our minds, since our mind and our self-awareness is what keeps us from becoming wild beasts like the ones lurking below the dark waters. We don’t pray for prosperity or happiness. We pray for our death to come swiftly.”
“We broke the laws of Nature. Ponykind played Goddess, and this was our punishment. If Nature had been respected, I would have died of old age, in my bed and surrounded by my beloved ones. If it was for Nature, you and I should never had met. But we believed we could outsmart Nature. We believed we could bend its laws to our purpose. We meddled with Physics, Chemistry, Magic, Arcano-technology... What did we obtain in the end? A Wasteland. Death, suffering, hatred. But for us, for Nature’s greatest mistakes, there was another punishment, much worse than death. It was the punishment of life.”
I breathed deep while thinking about Cheval’s words. I could feel the sorrow in them, the boredom of a forsaken life in the middle of a prison of wilderness, with no hopes of getting out, healing or even dying. When the only possible outcome is insanity, hope is banished.
“I see. Still, you didn’t tell me about what happened to the city.”
“Oh, sorry, sometimes I get carried away. You know about the Curse, so I won’t tell you much more about it. Since the Curse took place, the population of the suburbs started leaving the area, scared of the horrors of Neighorleans. Some said that one could hear the blood-chilling screams of the cursed at midnight, some said that the buildings lit up at night and eldritch shadows could be seen. Of course, all of them were rumours with no fundament, but nopony dared to enter the lost city.”
“Then the zebra nation attacked.”
“Indeed. Some months later, reports of attacks started ringing in the radio. The zebra nation had deployed missiles armed with balefire bombs, they said. One day, the radio went silent. The next day, shortly before dawn, we heard and felt the world tremble. Some of us climbed to Harmony Hill to see what was going on, and that was what saved us. Two massive tidal waves hit Neighorleans from North and South. They swallowed the city, wrecking buildings and killing thousands of innocent ponies. When the waves cleared, Neighorleans was sunken. We all wept when we saw our homes underwater. Then, other problems came. Radiation, wild beasts, diseases... However, we endured. We survived, and we changed. We mutated and we become the living horrors that we are now.”
“I see. I only have one question. Why didn’t the zebras destroy Neighorleans? After all, the tidal waves did kill a lot of ponies, but the core of the city remains rather intact.”
“You know, I always thought it wasn’t the zebras who attacked Neighorleans. I think this was the Equestrian Government’s doing.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I am. Before the War, Neighorleans was surrounded by water, and protected by a series of levees, in order to avoid problem created by high tides. After all, Lake Ponychartrain is connected to the sea. Well, I think the attacks were directed to those levees instead of being headed for the city. When all the levees broke, the water rushed into town, sinking everything in the process. They wanted to flood the city so nopony could enter, but they wanted to preserve it unharmed.”
“Are you implying that the Ministries had something to do with the Curse?”
“I’m just adding two plus two here, Farsight. I’ve had over two centuries to think about it. One day, the city goes silent. The next, the levees are attacked and the city floods. Some years later, the trees grow and close the dome around Neighorleans. Everything is too tailored, too perfect. I don’t think this is a matter of chance.”
“All right, Auntie Cheval. Thanks for sharing all this with me. However, I need to ask for forgiveness once again.”
“For my terrible manners, of course. You have welcomed us to stay with you, and we have been really rude. I must say I’m sorry. The Wasteland turns everypony into savages.”
“You’re right, young one. Still, there is no offence taken. I can understand your disgust towards ghouls.”
“Well... In that case, with all said, we will be leaving.”
“Farewell, and good luck.”
I turned around and left Auntie in her couch. I was fighting with my feelings, as the thing I really wanted to do was to take all the rotting carcasses out. However, that was not wise, at least not for the moment. There was a non-neglectable chance of having to need their help while in the swamp, and then there was Rose, who would surely not see it as a good decision.
“Farsight, before you leave...” Auntie called.
“Yes?” I said, without turning my head.
“I am thinking that you should know a bit more about us. Your hatred and disgust is mostly based on ignorance, and I can’t blame you for that. However, what I can do is give you the means to fight that ignorance. From there on, it will be your responsibility to decide whether you want to open your mind or not.”
What she said was fairly reasonable, I had to admit it. However, my disgust towards ghouls wasn’t fundamented on ignorance, but on a totally reasoned basis. Still, in order to be a polite guest, I decided to accept her offering.
“All right, Auntie. Tell me.”
“No, it’s not something I will tell you now. Your companions want to leave, don’t they?”
“I guess they do. What is it, then?”
“It’s a little holotape I listen to every now and then to remind myself of what I was and what I did. It will help you understand me better, and in consequence, the rest of the inhabitants of Maretairie.”
I noticed that she said what I was instead of who I was. Auntie had, in a way, denied she was an actual pony. She was something different now.
“All right, I’ll take it.”
Auntie picked the tape from a pouch lying by her side and threw it across the room. I lifted it with my magic before it hit the ground. The tape was old and the nickel coating of the case was almost worn out from the many times it had been used. I put it into my saddlebag and looked at Auntie for the last time.
“Then, goodbye, Auntie.”
“Goodbye, Farsight, and good luck.”
I left the room without looking at the ghoul. I really wanted to leave fast, or I’d do something irreversible.
*** *** ***
Rose and Nadyr were waiting for me on the pier, next to the boat. I jumped into the small vessel, which rocked dangerously in the thick swamp water. My companions looked at me in silence, while I took a seat and started looking at the engine. It was a magic-powered arcano-engine, meant to be powered by a gemstone, or in case there was no gemstone, a unicorn could use his energy to start the propeller. I concentrated on the engine, focusing my magic on the starter circuit. My horn glowed with a faint blue aura and the propeller coughed and started spinning.
Rose looked at me with a smile on her face, while Nadyr was more concentrated on our surroundings. I was trying to steer the boat through the forest of pillars and ruins that emerged from the water and the ones that didn’t. These last ones were clearly the most dangerous ones, since they could wreck our boat without us even noticing it. None of us said a single word, and the only sound we could hear was the constant humming of the boat engine.
“How did it go?” Nadyr asked.
“Well, it went.”
“You don’t seem too happy.”
“I’m not. I had to fight the wish to start shooting everypony there.”
“I guess you would have your reasons, bro.” Nadyr whispered.
“I do, Nadyr.” I shrugged. “I don’t like ghouls. I really don’t like them. They are living abominations.”
“So what? Are you going to slay them all?”
“No. Just these ones.”
“Well, while you two were sleeping, I spoke to some of the locals, namely Samedi and Auntie Cheval. Did you feel they were happy?”
“Yes, happy with their lives.”
“Aw, hell no. They were bored, even disgusted, I’d say. Not happy at all.”
“Exactly. From what I spoke with them, their existence had become a burden to them. Having to live day after day in a prison, with no hope of anything but becoming a feral monster had to be a terrible feeling. I just assume that they won’t bicker much about me giving them eternal rest.”
“Well, if that is what they said... I remember having met many ghouls as a foal, and I wouldn’t say they looked sad or suicidal, but they weren’t locked in a cursed city. However, have you thought on how Rose will take it?”
“Do you honestly think she would accept it?”
“All right, you’ve got your point. She won’t buy it.”
Nadyr and I looked at each other in silence. I could kill the Maretairie ghouls and Nadyr would understand it, but Rose would surely see that choice with disgust. I would have to make a choice. I could either be true to my principles and damage my relationship with Rose forever, or I could lie to myself in order to preserve Rose’s respect towards me. Either way, I lost.
“You know...” Rose said suddenly. “I’ve been thinking about the ghouls.”
“What is it?” I asked. It was quite a coincidence indeed.
“I admire their resistance. They’ve survived for more than two hundred years in their state, and still they endure, day after day...”
“Yes. What about it?”
“They did remind me of myself. Me and my other half... Lavender. About how I’m forced to live with the constant threat of turning into something I totally abhor.”
“Just as the ghouls have the danger of going feral. What is your point then, Rose?”
“Well, if they could survive two centuries, I guess I can take a lifetime.”
I sighed. For a moment, I was starting to fear she might go suicidal and angsty. The analogy she did between the ghouls and herself was legit, although I didn’t think it was the same process. Ghouls would end up going feral by action of the radiation-induced decay of their brains. It was an inevitable process, and it was only a matter of time. Rose’s case, on the other hoof, was different. There were two personalities living in her brain, and every day was a struggle to keep Lavender at bay, but Rose had all the means to succeed in such endeavour. If there was a pony capable of doing so, that was Desert Rose.
“Well, speaking of ghouls and survival, Auntie Cheval asked me to listen to this holotape.” I pulled the tape out of the saddlebag. “Apparently, it will help us understand them better. I suppose we should take our time to listen to it.”
“Go ahead.” Nadyr nodded.
“Yes, I agree with you.” Rose smiled.
I stopped the engine and jacked the holotape into my PipBuck. In the middle of the silence of the swamp dome, Auntie’s voice started booming, about to reveal us the truth about Neighorleans, Maretairie and herself...
Note: Perk added.
Swamp Newcomer: You’ve come across a totally different environment, and you’re still in the process of adapting to it. -5% to all abilities until this perk is substituted by the “Swamp Dweller” perk.