Chapter 9 - Footsteps
"Well, that was a guy called Whip. A long time ago he didn’t listen to his elders and now he lies there in order to show smart people the right way.”
The field of barrels stood empty as I approached. Corpses of ponies my companions and I had slaughtered lay in pools of blood, some of it my own, and seemed to have already been the victim of local wildlife, with little bites and tears evident on the bodies. The wind whistled past, interrupting the still air, and I shivered. The whole scene had a surprisingly eerie feel to it and I wondered how long it would take for my raider to show up - she had taken a very different route to me apparently.
I’d chosen this place very purposefully as a meeting point. If I was going to trust this raider to not completely betray me the first chance she got, detonator or not, I needed a show of strength. Hopefully this would be that. Seeing her fellow raiders fallen before me might have an effect on the raider and at least put doubt in whatever plotting she was likely doing.
I idly wondered as I sat down if I was being too mistrusting of the pony. She was a raider, but I had released her from her cage and given her a job. She had seemed genuine in her willingness to help. I also had the detonator, which would probably help keep her under control if things went wrong, in addition to the fact that I was armed and she wasn’t.
The thought drew my eyes to my new revolver, sitting in its holster. I’d acquired the weapon in this spot earlier and I felt strangely compelled to practice with it. After all, if I was going to use it in a combat environment I needed familiarity with it. I grabbed the weapon in my magical grip and levitated it into my field of view, aiming down the sights towards a nearby barrel. Four shots rang out and a single clang swiftly followed.
I considered my aim as I reloaded. The weapon had some serious kick to accompany its power and that had thrown off most of my shots. The barrel showed only a single bullet-hole from my shots, and off-center to where I had aimed. My natural ability was increasing rapidly but it was nothing compared to the eerily accurate shots that SATS had provided me with. No more.
A clunk sounded from behind me and looked around. Sitting not far away and straddling the corpse of another pony was my raider, her charcoal mane falling around her face as she busied herself with looting. She heaved and pulled a bullet-hole ridden leather jacket from the pony, glancing up as she did so.
“Hey!” She smiled almost too happily at me, seemingly ignorant of the fact that I was pointing a weapon at her, and pulled the jacket over her head and bomb collar. It looked slightly too large for her slight frame, but she seemed content with it - seemingly oblivious to the fact that one size of clothing does not, in fact, fit all. “How are you doing?”
“What are you doing?” I asked suspiciously as the mare sniffed a red stain on her new outfit and licked it experimentally.
“Looting, duh.” She replied sarcastically as she returned to her task, seemingly oblivious to the death of the ponies around her. Obviously my intimidation plan wasn't working. She stood and walked over to another of the fallen ponies, shifting sprawled limbs nonchalantly with a hoof and shifting her gaze back and forth, looking for a decent haul. I doubted she would find any. Gauge had cleaned the area of almost everything he could. Aside from the revolver I now carried he had taken everything he thought was of value and all that was left were the tattered remains, like the jacket that the raider now wore.
She turned her head and looked about before her eyes came to rest on something just jutting out behind a barrel in a way that shrouded the nature of the object from me. Humming happily she trotted over to it. I squinted and the world suddenly snapped into focus. The object was the handle of a machete. I could see the tattered rags wrapped around the metal handle and my heart pounded as I ran up to the pony trotting towards it.
“Stop right there.” I said firmly pressed my revolver’s long barrel against my raider’s head.
“What?” Her tone was one of annoyance. She seemed oblivious to any threat.
“No weapons.” I circled around the motionless pink mare and kicked the machete away with my rear hoof. “You’re a slave now. I might have freed you from the cage but you have a job to do now and I will not have you killing me while my back is turned.”
Ironic, I thought, that I was trusting this pony to guide me through a deathtrap. I ignored that for my own good.
“Yes Master.” She spat, before laughing lightly - that same slightly unnerving laugh. “You want to go to Ramtar to kill some raiders and I'm going to help you. No betrayal, I promise.”
“No betrayal.” I echoed seriously and holstered my weapon, stepping back from the mare. At least she understood the mission well enough, or at least the part of it I was going to tell her. I’d rather she didn't know about me wanting to find Choke Hold, or my reluctance to take on the raiders if I could help it.
“Now what do I call you?” I could use ‘slave’ (I had most of the time within the crew - being friendly with stock was never a good idea) but I wanted to have some level of familiarity with the pony who was going to be hopefully keeping me safe.
She shrugged and laughed. “You can call me sweetie, girl, whore, bitch, cunt, dead. That’s what everypony else does.” She laughed at her little joke. “But some of those ponies lose something afterwards - sometimes their life.” That laugh again, then suddenly - “ I'm Burnt Fuzz.”
I sighed. This pony might be more trouble than she was worth. “Okay Burnt Fuzz. Time for you to do your job. Let’s go.”
“Of course master.” She said with more than a hint of irony and started forward casually as I followed. As she walked I noticed her hooves catching the sleeves of the jacket she wore and giving the earth pony an odd, stumbling, unsteady walk that made her look even stranger. The loose parts of her charcoal mane not drawn into spikes swayed and shook with her movement, flicking off in every direction. It made for a very odd picture as we began to make our way away from the scene and towards the west.
After a short while of travelling like this we approached the edge of the large crater that Dryside bordered. I could see the town across the way from us and even at this distance I felt a little trepidation. The weight of the revolver on my leg and the rifle across my back seemed to become much more comforting as we edged along the slope leading down into the crater.
Burnt Fuzz simply whistled in the background as I studied the crater itself. At least a couple of hundred yards across, it wasn't the even slope I had thought initially. Instead the expanse was full of a varied collection of gradients and dips that gradually increased in average depth, with pools of sickly water dotted around the ground. The ground itself shifted wildly, only a few feet separating areas of filthy-looking muck and spots where the ground looked so dry that cracks riddled its surface.
“Pretty ain't it?” I almost walked into Burnt Fuzz as she stopped suddenly.
“It’s strange. What is it?”
“A lake.” Her answer was blunt.
“A lake has water in it.” I shot her a contemptuous look and she laughed like I had said something funny.
“It did have water once. Dryside used to be a lakeside town before the megaspells. Clear water and happy ponies. All that shit.” She rolled her eyes and made a tutting sound that suggested she didn't approve.
“Did the bombs do this then? Turn it into...” I waved a hoof over the ground in front of us. “...this?” Balefire was powerful stuff, I knew, but I had never seen something like this.
“No.” The mare shook her head. “It weren't zebra that took the water. It was the Zone.”
I gave her a curious look and she paused, looking out over the lake bed before explaining.
“All the ponies I know say that the Zone took the water to punish Dryside years and years ago. Before I was born it used to be a safe place. The lake and the land around was free of anomalies and let them keep safer and better stocked than most ponies. The extra defense also meant they were hard to attack.” She spat. This knowledge probably came from first hand accounts from relatives or friends of hers. “Scavengers started using it as a base to go deeper and deeper into the Zone. Finding safe ways through to the center. It didn’t like that, no it didn’t.”
She smiled a sick smile and I suddenly felt very uncomfortable. This wasn’t the first time that I’d hear the Zone referred to as a conscious being. Even Soft Step had said as much when I had first arrived, days earlier. I wasn’t sure whether there was some truth to this, but I decided to go along with it, if only to placate the unstable raider.
“What did it do?”
“It took the water.” She shrugged at the simple answer and elaborated at a look from me. “Ponies say that the sky grew darker than usual above the lake and filled with dark magic. Probably like the kind that’s been in the sky the past few days, but smaller and with more...heat. They say that magic dropped from the sky and hit the lake, boiling it so that all the water went away as steam. It was so hot that the dryer buildings on the waterfront were set on fire, and even the surface of the water in some places. I don’t know how, but ponies say that there were huge flames of every colour to burn away the water. Dozens of ponies died.”
Her eyes were as wide as saucers and her tone turned to one of awe as she recounted the description and once again I felt myself becoming a little uncomfortable with her.
“So all the water just disappeared then?” I asked cautiously. She shook her head again and leaned in close, almost whispering in excitement.
“It moved it.” The pony giggled. “After days of burning all the water was gone. Once the fire had burnt out and all the steam rose into the clouds ponies thought that that was the last of it. Instead the clouds moved west and stopped again. They dropped all the water on Ramtar in a storm that lasted almost as long as the burning had. The rain was so heavy and so hot that nopony went near Ramtar for days. When it finally stopped the whole place had become a swamp and was covered in anomalies that hadn’t been there before. Most ponies are scared to go right through and take the same paths over and over instead. It makes it really easy to hide out and attack them if you know the routes through all the danger. The less protected idiots are either so scared to leave the path that they get slaughtered or they run into an anomaly and get roasted.” She chuckled darkly. “They’re both pretty great.”
I scowled. The bomb collar around the raider’s neck was starting to look more tempting the mores she spoke like that and as she turned to keep walking, her tale over, I reached back with my foreleg and felt the comforting bulge that was the detonator in my saddlebags. I wondered if this was how Soft Step had felt when bringing me to this awful place, always considering blowing my brains out with my own bomb collar, the one still around my neck.
No, I decided. She had proven herself more capable than myself. The only reason I was so worried was that I was slightly afraid of this crazy mare.
“It’s a good thing you’re going to make sure we avoid everything then isn’t it.” I said flatly as we started back towards our destiny. “Especially attacks by your fellow raiders.”
“They ain’t my fellows.”
I snorted. Right, I thought. And I was a hellhound’s mother.
“I mean it.” She said firmly, her voice dangerous. “Those bastards can burn.” Then suddenly she was chuckling again.
I frowned. “What did they do?”
The chuckling stopped. “None of your business.” An edge was clear in her voice and I dropped the subject to avoid a confrontation neither of us wanted.
I uneasily shifted my weapons to a more comfortable position as we walked and prayed that this would be over soon. This pony was insane. I wasn’t comfortable around her and I certainly wasn’t safe. I just needed to find Choke Hold.
*** *** ***
The corpse of a Steel Ranger lay in the muck at the base of the hill, his armour blackened and warped by something, likely some kind of intense heat. His legs lay at an impossible angle that reminded me of how Obelisk had fallen on that night several days ago, when he had been thrown through the air by the explosion of a grenade fired by a raider.
My raider stood next to me, looking seriously over the Ranger at the swamp-like plains beyond. We stood at the top of a short hill and in the distance I could see buildings of various sizes - the most notable of which was a large building block of some kind, standing against the cloudy sky almost ominously.
Burnt Fuzz sniffed the air and focused on a single patch of air. I followed suit and found myself looking at a faint distortion that hung in the air a few feet from the base of the hill. Even after such a short time I recognised an anomaly, especially after running head first into one.
This one was different to those I’d seen though. Instead of the blue sparks that I recognised, this one seemed to flare up with brief, tiny flames every few seconds. Following these flares showed me the true size of this anomaly. Yards across at least, the magical hazard lined the base of the hill, acting as an invisible wall to stop an unsuspecting pony from wandering towards the buildings in the distance.
I looked sidelong at my companion. She too was following the anomaly with her eyes, but a slight grin adorned her face as she did so and her eyes flickered as the flames faded in and out.
“Which way do we go now?” My question seemed to break her concentration, and she looked back at me, her eyes darting momentarily back at the anomaly before concentrating on me.
“There.” She pointed behind me and I turned to see a large piece of splintered wood stuck haphazardly into the ground. A filthy, bloodstained cloth was tied to the tip, acting like a rudimentary flag. The way marker was crude but effective - leading past it I could see the faint outline of slightly marked and trampled ground that formed a winding path.
“Some ponies think raiders are stupid. We ain’t, we know how to stay alive. They don’t think a stick in the ground means anything.” She smiled. “That’s why we keep killing them. You’re lucky to have me.”
“Is that so?”
“Yep.” She laughed. “You’d be dead already if I wasn’t here probably. Roasted alive at the bottom of that hill, or killed by somepony else coming this way. They do that often, the other raiders.”
“So where are these raiders?” I asked suspiciously, gently levitating my rifle out in front of me and checking the weapon was properly loaded.
Walking a few yards further revealed that my suspicion was pointless.
Lying in the middle of the path were three raiders. Each appeared to have been beaten mercilessly, despite their varying levels of protection from armour and weapons strewn around. One in particular seemed to have had his entire chest caved in, large cuts visible around the wound from not only the shattered ribs inside, but also external piercing. It seemed whatever had caused it had been spiked, not just a blunt weapon.
I recognised the wounds. They were the kind that come from a vicious hoofblow when accompanied with the kind of spikes found on weaponised ponyshoes. Choke Hold loved to use them. Accompanying her sheer brute strength with the piercing power of the spikes made for a deadly force in close combat.
We were getting closer.
“Looks like you’ve got competition.” Burnt Fuzz was examining the ponies over my shoulder and chuckled. “Not that it matters. We’ll probably see them dead at the roadside soon.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I told you, this place is dangerous. Nopony who would do this knows the way through safely.” She smiled dangerously. “Except you, but you have me.”
Suddenly her head snapped up and she looked around. Warily, I joined her, stealing a glance at my EFS as I looked in all directions. Empty.
“We should go - quickly.” Her voice was suddenly serious, a surprise for one normally as unhinged as her. “These corpses have been here for a while. They’ll attract scavengers.”
My own surveying was still showing no danger around us, but my guide was visibly on edge. She was right, she was the one that knew this area and I should follow her lead. She lowered her head slightly and walked over the fallen raiders as if they weren’t there, leaving me to delicately pick my way between the fallen bodies. Her erratic style of walking seemed to dull slightly and she walked with new purpose. I found myself slightly worried about the threat she seemed to sense, if the strange pony had become this focused because of it.
As if on cue, a gurgling growl came from behind us and I turned to see a ghoul shambling into view just behind me. The horrific creature’s ravaged skin had once been some shade of pink and it wore a set of barding that looked familiar - red and black like the armor that the Loyalty ponies wore. It was surprisingly well protected for a ghoul.
Surprisingly quiet as well. The zombie had apparently been able to sneak up on us from nowhere, despite my companion’s and my own efforts to stay alert. I wondered just how much intelligence was hidden behind the dead, glowing eyes of the creature.
Pushing the thought aside, I turned and brought my rifle up to aim at the ghoul. Even without SATS I could hardly miss at this range and I sent several bullets thudding into the ghoul’s scarred hide. Unfortunately it seemed like the barding took much of the force, or else my enemy had ignored it, and the creature replied to my shots with a bestial roar and a charge.
I heard Burnt Fuzz back off behind me as the ghoul closed the small gap between us. It was understandable - I had allowed her no weapon and she was no match for the ghoul in unarmed combat with her slight frame. I had no intention of letting that happen however, instead my horn glowed and the ghoul smashed into the barrier that suddenly materialised before him, leaving him dazed at point blank range.
Blood splattered across me as I fired a single shot and the device on my leg let off a slight but noticeable clicking in response to the close proximity of the now dead ghoul.
My companion walked up beside me and smiled wickedly. “Nice shot, and that thing you did with your horn was cool as well. It’s a shame those shots will probably attract more. You should have been more quiet.” With that she turned and returned to our journey along the subtle path, her pace increasing now.
I hastened to follow her, stealing a glance back at the ghoul as I did so. The barding it wore seemed to be calling to me, the urge to go back and take it to replace my horribly tattered barding strong. However Burnt Fuzz remained ignorant of my wishes and I was forced to turn away from the potential loot to keep an eye on the pony in front of me.
As we worked our way across the path the ground around us seemed to grow wetter and more marsh-like. Anomalies dotted the landscape, often sitting above small pools of filthy bubbling water, and the path frequently veered away from large groups of them, growing fainter and merging with the saturated ground. Often only the presence of another blood-stained flag or some other marker, sometimes even the corpse of another foolish pony, warned of these abrupt change in direction - the anomalies themselves completely invisible.
Occasionally I knew I could hear the sound of ghouls, growls and other disgusting noises that sounded like they were always just behind a nearby hill, although the creatures never showed themselves. The feral creatures weren’t known for their intelligence so I supposed they didn’t know we were here.
The air seemed to grow heavier and warmer, especially close to a patch of anomalies, and I remembered what Burnt Fuzz had said earlier about this area - that it was the result of a dangerously large act of seemingly natural magic. That didn’t seem so strange now, looking at the environment around us.
We approached another way marker now and I watched my companion for a sign of which direction to move in. My eyes widened as my questioning gaze met a panic-stricken face.
“What?” I asked, fear rising at the pony’s expression.
“There should be a sign here to show us the direction.” Came her exasperated reply, accompanied by a desperate wave of her hoof in the general direction of the stick in the ground.
“Does that not show you?”
“No! It’s just a warning! There are dozens of anomalies all over this field that we can’t see and we need to know which direction is safe! If we don’t have a marker we’ll either have to spend ages trying to figure out where they all are, or...” Her voice trailed off.
“Or..?” I prompted.
She shrugged. “Or pick a direction and hope that your corpse is at least recognisable.”
I shivered. I wasn’t eager to go running into another anomaly any time soon. I barely survived my last encounter with one. “So what kind of sign was it.”
“A corpse.” She said simply, head jerking back and forth to look for a clue to the safe direction. “He’s supposed to point the way through, but somepony has moved him.” Her voice grew angry at the somepony and she began muttering angrily under her breath.
“Fucking... did this to stop me... how dare they... bastards... going to fucking kill...”
A groan interrupted her string of obscenities as a ghoul shambled out from behind the charred remains of a tree several yards away from us. I took up a battle stance and prepared to fire as another two materialized from seemingly nowhere. They all wore the same barding that the previous one had worn, the red and black armor of Loyalty. I wondered just how many ghouls in the Zone wore such barding as I took aim.
One fell as I emptied a magazine into her, trying to aim for the parts that weren’t armored. As I reloaded I brought up another force field to brace against the other two that were now heading straight for me. I felt the strain on my magic as they thudded into the magical barrier and broke through it with a few kicks with their forehooves. One veered off towards Burnt Fuzz, standing a few feet from me, while the other charged straight for me. I dove to the side to avoid its wild swings and fired back at it, one of my shots hitting it dead in the leg to cripple it. Despite the injury it swung at me again, albeit slower and much easier to dodge. I smoothly switched weapon, slipping the rifle onto my back and pulling the pistol from its holster on my leg. The .44/70 rounds roared as the undead pony slumped and fell to the ground.
Turning, I saw Burnt Fuzz dealing with her own assailant. She dodged back and forth as the creature swung at her, jumping forward suddenly to exploit a gap to land a blow on the enraged ghoul while at the same time keeping it from pushing her too far from the area she knew was safe. Seeing me, she ducked around the creature to allow me a clear shot. I took it and the third ghoul fell to the ground.
The thrill of victory was shortlived however. The minute the sound of gunfire cleared I could hear the sound of somepony running straight at me from behind. I whirled to meet the new threat, only to find a fourth ghoul barreling into me, its bared teeth gnashing as it tried its hardest to tear at my flesh. I found myself flat on my back, only my hooves pushing back on the dead flesh of the ghoul.
I looked around desperately for my weapon, for any weapon to fight off the ghoul. My rifle was trapped against the floor by my body and I hadn’t seen where the pistol had fell. I felt Burnt Fuzz buck the creature on top of me, but it recovered quickly and continued its attack. Blows rained down on my body and face and I heaved to try and shove the creature off.
And then, as if a switch had been flipped, the creature fell limp. It took me a few seconds to register that the ghoul’s head had exploded, lumps of gore falling onto my own body from the mess that had once been his head. I crawled out from under the heavy corpse and brushed myself off. My gun lay on the ground and I tentatively picked it up, looking over at Burnt Fuzz as I did so. She was looking around, apparently looking for the mysterious gunpony that had killed the ghoul.
I looked across at the fallen ghoul and angle of the wound. Confident I had the rough direction of the shot, I scanned the swampy horizon for signs of the sniper. At first it seemed that nothing stood out, but by squinting harder I found myself able to make out a small patch of purple in the distance. I suddenly felt a sense of dread race down my back as I saw the flash of light reflecting off a gun. They were still aiming at us.
I dove the side and a faint bang sounded from the direction of the purple spot. A single bullet formed a crater near the space I had just occupied, followed by several more. I jumped to my hooves, heart racing, and turned to the raider with me. “Run!”
She nodded and set off past the way marker. “This way! Keep your eyes open!”
I followed, hearing the sound of gunfire from the sniper behind us, trying to follow us with their shots. I tried to weave, but didn’t want to risk running into an anomaly on either side so my arcs were shallow. Up ahead the buildings I had seen earlier loomed closer as we raced towards them, barely dodging around the occasional disturbance in the air that gave away an anomaly before us.
Bullets impacted the ground around us, hitting the pools that dotted the landscapes and sending eruptions of thick mud and water flying into the air. The shimmering of an anomaly in front of me instantly transformed into an inferno as a bullet tore into it. I felt the heat claw at me as I dashed past the flickering flames and my heart seemed to want to jump from my chest.
My guide still ran ahead, her experience in the area allowing her a better opportunity to spot danger and react before I could. The further we ran, however, the longer the intervals between gunshots became, as if the shooter wasn’t able to get a good shot off as easily, and the slower Burnt Fuzz’s pace became.
Suddenly she snapped to a halt, almost sending me barreling into her. I pulled myself up just short of colliding with the smaller pony and looked around anxiously. We were just a few dozen yards from the first building, from the cover from the sniper.
“Come on! Let’s go, they could be shooting!” I cried at the raider, who instead remained still and staring straight ahead. “We’ll be killed if they can get a sight on us!”
“Shut up.” The pink mare suddenly hissed at me through gritted teeth. “Look.”
She pointed with a hoof at the ground before us. The air seemed clear enough and I was just about to suggest she was seeing things, when I saw it.
A distinct shimmer floated in the air in front of us. Similar to the anomalies I had seen before, except this was much, much bigger. The distortion in the air - much more distinct than usual and as if from an intense heat, stretched for several yards across the horizon. From this range I couldn’t see any details to give away exactly what kind this one was, whether it was another of the lightning or flame anomalies I had experienced already or whether it was some new kind of danger. One thing I could tell however, was that it wasn’t stationary like the others I had seen. The ominous shape was moving towards us at a considerable pace.
I felt the panic in my chest rise. This was worse than being shot at. Our only chance to avoid it was to double back, back towards our aggressor to avoid the threat that was drifting ever closer. I had no idea which would be more suicidal, to run willingly into the magical hazard rapidly closing on us or to take our chances with the sniper who was probably gaining ground themselves the longer we stood still.
As it turned out, Burnt Fuzz made the decision for me - one that I had not even considered.
“Down!” She shouted, catching me off guard as she jumped at me, tackling me to the ground and pushing me down against the thick muck.
The small earth pony lay across me, breathing heavily and staring up at the oncoming anomaly. I stared up at the dull metal of her bomb collar as she panted heavily, her hooves continuing to hold me down into the mud. She arched her back suddenly, as if forming a shell over my body - or at least as much of it as she could. The unbound strands of her mane brushed against my skin and I suddenly felt very uncomfortable.
Thankfully, or perhaps not, that feeling was a fleeting one. As the air above us suddenly distorted wildly the feeling was replaced by a much more immediate and powerful one - heat.
The world around me seemed to erupt in heat as the anomaly passed over us. The previously still and somewhat cool air now attacked us like the breath of a dragon. My eyes began to sting and water instantly and I shut them, relying on my other senses to inform me of the details of the situation - which they gladly did.
My skin screamed at me as the leather of my jacket stiffened and cracked and the ground beneath me dried and hardened so quickly I could feel it forming a crust on my body. The metal of my bomb collar started rapidly heating up, burning me as the collar gently touched my neck. I hurried to pull the rapidly drying armor between my flesh and the collar to shield from the heat. I felt Burnt Fuzz shifting slightly, no doubt trying to do a similar thing with her oversized jacket. If left un-insulated the metal would brand our skin in seconds. I prayed that the explosives wouldn't catch.
As the heat continued my flesh felt raw and I could feel a river of sweat pouring from every pore in my body, in a futile effort to keep me cool in the unbearable heat. Every breath I drew in set my lungs on fire. I opened my mouth to cry out, only to find the sound dying on my throat as the heat rushed into my mouth. I heard my PipBuck begin to click, signalling that the artifact I carried had begun to try to heal the damage the heat was doing to me.
Throughout it all I felt the pressure of the pony lying across me, pressing me to the ground as if desperate to keep me down. I felt her suddenly begin to shake, presumably from the sheer heat of the world around us and I wondered if she had pushed me to the ground to shield me from the worst of the heat. I vaguely remembered hearing once that heat always rises. Perhaps this heat was even more unbearable not even a foot above us, and by keeping us down she was making it easier on us.
That lead to another thought. She could have simply said nothing and let me stay standing. She could have endured the lesser heat and let me take the brunt of it alone. It would be nothing for her to take her freedom then. For a raider, she apparently had some morals.
Eventually the air around us started to cool as the anomaly passed over us. I had no idea how long the two of us had been lying in the heat, but it felt like hours had passed before I was able to open my eyes again.
Burnt Fuzz rolled off me and I rose, sucking deep breathes of deliciously cool air. Looking across, my raider was recovering in much the same way. She was breathing heavily and I could see a faint glow coming from the bomb collar around her neck, protected by the thin collar of her jacket. My own neck was still screaming at me as well, despite the insulation from the heat, and I pulled a healing potion from my saddlebags. Foregoing the indirect route, I poured the magical elixir directly onto the skin, feeling it dripping lightly off my hide as the pain began to subside.
The faint clicking from my PipBuck was slowing, the artifact having done its work on my body. As convenient as it was, I thought as I brought up the PipBuck’s radiation counter, I really needed to stock up on Rad-Away if I were going to keep the artifact around. A little more and I was going to start feeling really ill.
I paused and looked across at Burnt Fuzz. Then I reached across with my magic and offered the remaining contents of the potion flask to her. She looked up at me and narrowed her eyes slightly before nodding.
“Thank you.” She rasped as I poured the liquid over her burnt flesh.
“No problem.” I replied, my own voice strained from the lack of moisture in my throat. “You were on top of me, you took more of the heat. Am I right?”
I voiced my theory and she simply looked at me and shook her head, more subdued than she had been previously. “Not really. I have this.”
Her tail suddenly snaked around her body and dangled to her side. I peered into it, curious as to what she meant. I found myself looking at a small orange orb bound neatly into the hair of her charcoal tail. As I stared it seemed to pulse and shimmer, not quite forming a solid shape but somehow still tied in place. It was an artifact.
“It protected me from some of the heat in exchange for blasting me with radiation.” Burnt Fuzz explained. “I probably came out better than you. You look like shit.”
I smiled. “I would have looked worse if you hadn’t shoved me down like that. Why did you do that?”
She shrugged. “I said I’d get you to the raiders so you could kill them.” She smiled wryly and nodded her head sidewards at the buildings that loomed a short distance away. “Come on. In case you’ve forgotten we have a sniper watching us. That anomaly will keep them busy for a bit, but don’t think just because you almost got roasted everypony is that stupid.”
She grabbed me with a hoof and pulled me forward, guiding me towards the cluster of buildings, to shelter from the threat. To tell the truth I had actually forgotten about the sniper in the confusion, her reminder had brought back the fact that we had been running before we were confronted by the anomaly, something that felt like hours ago.
I looked back briefly as she guided me, looking for the telltale purple spot on the horizon that gave away the position of our attacker. I saw nothing, only the faint shimmer as the heat wave swept over the land and, past that, the sun dipping low in the sky. I wondered where the sniper had gone to take cover and how long it would take her to recover and follow us again.
*** *** ***
“In here. Quickly, come on!”
Burnt Fuzz beckoned to me as she passed through a doorway into the building beyond. We had passed into the cover of the cluster of buildings mere minutes before my companion had declared that she could hear the sounds of ponies approaching, too many for us to handle. I had gone quiet and listened and, sure enough, I could hear the sound of voices and the movement of rubble. What followed was a rush to find a door that wasn’t barricaded - as many of the doorways in Ramtar apparently were. It was something I hadn’t expected from a den of raiders.
We passed through the gloom of the building and I took in our surroundings. Judging by the faded headlines in picture frames, this had been the office of a pre-war newspaper. Broken desks and other furniture were strewn everywhere and rubble littered the floor for as far as I could see, while the walls showed the signs of desecrating that was common to buildings in the wasteland. It was not unlike the shelter I had found myself in many times during my previous life with the slavers.
I looked back at Burnt Fuzz, opening my mouth to say something, when my voice froze in my throat.
Although her features were faded in the dull light of the office, I could clearly see her flank as she walked before me. Her normally burnt-pink coat was stained with red on her left flank and a large wound was visible. She walked with a slight but noticeable limp and blood was still running down her leg as she moved it.
My mind raced as I tried to remember when this might have happened to her. My eyes widened as I realised that she hadn’t shown me her left side at all during our pause to recover from the anomaly. Could it have happened then?
I peered closer, squinting in the light and trying not to alert her to my actions. At closer inspection, the wound was clearly a bullet wound, and from a considerable caliber to look at it.
“Stop!” I declared suddenly and Burnt Fuzz obeyed, looking back at me quizzically.
“What?” Her voice was the same as it had been for a while. More subdued than when I had first met her.
“You need to lie down and deal with that.” I pointed to the wound.
She snorted dismissively, but I knew she was feigning it. “I’ll deal with it later. It’s just a flesh wound.”
I tried to keep my voice level as I spoke. “When did you get shot?”
“When we were in the anomaly. The bastard sniper got a shot off on me. Luckily we were laying down so we were a harder target. Only got my leg.” Her tail came around and three empty syringes clattered onto the floor. “I was dealing with it.”
I was taken aback slightly. Not only by the revelation that she had been keeping Med-X somewhere on her person, but also by the fact that she had kept her wound to herself. Even on the slaver crew we had made sure that even our slaves were at least able to walk everyone in the crew were at least reasonably healthy, even if medical supplies weren’t always distributed fairly.
Perhaps it was a raider thing. Burnt Fuzz had already expressed her dislike of being associated with the other raiders here, maybe they were used to being largely self-reliant despite the company of others. Ponies often assumed raiders and slavers were the same thing, but few realised just how different they were. Sure the slavers I had been with had traded with raiders occasionally, but we avoided them when we could.
They didn’t even use the slaves right. They just killed them for sport and then asked for more without the fund to pay us.
I realised my mind was wandering from the situation at hand, and turned my attention back to my guide,
“I don’t care if you’re dealing with it, I won’t let you go walking around with a hole in your leg when you’re supposed to be keeping me safe.”
She growled in displeasure but I continued. “You said we couldn’t deal with whoever’s outside so we’re not going anywhere anyway. So you take this-” I levitated out a healing potion and passed it to here. “-and go find a room to rest in. We’ll move out again in the morning.”
And maybe in the meantime I can come up with a plan, I thought.
Now that we were in Ramtar and so much closer to Choke Hold and the raiders that might still be alive I realised how much trouble this could potentially be. I had no idea of the terrain, or even how many raiders I was dealing with. In addition, without SATS I was heavily weakened and I would need all the help I could get to complete my goal.
I followed Burnt Fuzz as she found an office with a still-standing table and unceremoniously draped herself across it, guzzling the healing potion with a sour expression on her face. After checking over the office for anything she could betray me with I backed out and closed the door and, on further thought, dragged a nearby desk in front of it - blocking her in until I removed it.
With that I started on a tour around the newspaper office. Framed copies of what had apparently been acclaimed copies of “Equestria Today” lay scattered around the place. Some had been shattered, while others still hung neatly on the wall as if the balefire bombs had never fallen. One particular headline caught my eye for some reason and I walked closer to read it.
“APPLE FAMILY REUNION GOES AHEAD DESPITE WAR, INCLUDES MEMORIAL FOR FALLEN HERO.”
“Ministry Mare Applejack found time away from her duties today as she attended the traditional Apple Family Reunion at Sweet Apple Acres. Also present were Ironshod Firearm’s Braeburn, Stable-Tec CEO Applebloom and the Ministry of Arcane Science’s Red Gala, who regular readers may remember as being rumored to have recently been moved into a higher position within the Ministry by direct order of Ministry Mare Twilight Sparkle. "
The surviving Apples also held a ceremony for the hero Big Macintosh, who gave his life to protect Princess Celestia from a cowardly Zebra assassin. It’s nice to know that despite the turmoil of our nation, Applejack still has time to-.”
I lost interest in the article as it continued to ramble on, and instead turned to the picture that had caught my eye. The faded picture showed a group of weathered looking ponies standing together in front of a barn. Most were smiling, although their eyes didn’t match their smiles, and all looked very similar. Even without the headline it would not have been hard to guess that they were all related.
I recognised several of the figures in the picture. Standing almost in the middle, clad in plain business garb and a slightly out of place stetson and flanked by two very large security ponies, was a mare I recognised as a wartime leader - most likely Applejack if the article was anything to go by. Others wore similarly serious outfits, including another who wore a similar stetson hat to Applejack with his suit. Maybe that was Braeburn, I reasoned. I recognised another pony, the younger earth pony that had been at the concert with Sweetie Belle - Applebloom. It was hard not to recognise her face after delving into that particular memory so many times.
Then my eyes fell on another pony, one that I had only recently seen, but in full colour and before my very eyes. Red Gala stood close to Applejack, one of the gathered that looked like she belonged in an office. The more I looked at her, the more I felt a strange familiarity with the scene and her place in it. It was something I couldn’t quite put my hoof on, but it was definitely there. Somewhere.
After a few minutes of trying to figure it out I decided it was a hopeless task and left the frame hanging on the wall, a testimony to a time when the world wasn’t quite so fucked. I walked over to a window on the east side of the building and gazed out.
In the distance, towards what I realised was the center of the Zone, I could see the cloud cover growing darker, no doubt warning of another of the electrical storms of the past few days. I wondered if there was some significance to their seemingly daily occurance since I had arrived in this Goddess-damned place, and how long they were going to go on for. Even for the ponies who lived in the Zone they were an oddity and they bore a worrying similarity to the storm that Burnt Fuzz described as being the cause of the lake around Dryside being drained.
A faint glowing in the dull light caught my eye as I stared out of the window. Turning for a better view, my gaze fell on a dusty terminal sitting alone in a cubical. Having somehow survived balefire and the sacking of the building, the screen was glowing pitifully underneath a layer of grime.
I walked over and wiped away a layer of filth, revealing that the terminal was already unlocked and had a list of prompts sitting on the screen in a similar layout to the terminal that had been in the underground compound I had been in the day before. Lines of text marked a series of messages between the user of this terminal and some other recipient. Unlike the other terminal I had accessed recently, however, it seemed that the owner of this one had been careful, seemingly having deleted his older messages. I laughed a little at the irony.
The messages were short, but interesting.
Typeface, I need you to report to western Maremont ASAP. Some kind of magical discharge happened and ponies are saying it’s related to the MAS facilities. Lots of injuries reported and the public need to know!
Listen Typeface, I need you to make this place look good for the MoI agents that are dropping by today. Luna knows we definitely don’t need Rarity shutting us down. Hide everything they could use against us and lie through your teeth if you have to.
Good work with the inspection last week Typeface. You’ll get a raise for this.
I smiled in amusement at the entries as I read. The more I seemed to learn about the Equestria of the past the more it seemed like they were little better than we were today; lying, stealing and revelling in the death and pain of others. I remembered what Soft Step had said about learning from the past. It seemed like maybe we shouldn’t be learning too much, rather making our own way instead.
Typeface, you probably know I’m going to be away on a business trip to Canterlot tomorrow so I need you to take care of something for me. We’re going to be getting a very important delivery and I need you to make sure it’s safe. The Ministries could shut us down for this information, but I just can’t let it go. Please, I need a pony I can trust. Just put it in the safe in my office. It’ll be safe there until I get back.
The messages ended, leaving me intrigued. What was this delivery the message had mentioned and, more importantly, was it still in the building?
Walking around, I was able to quickly locate an office that looked suitably important for what I assumed was the guy in charge of the newspaper. A noble looking wooden desk stood dead center, its surface covered in dents and scratches yet still quite whole. Walking around the desk revealed a worn carpet that had been violently pulled back to reveal a floor safe - no doubt the safe mentioned in the messages.
Kneeling, I could see that somepony had clearly tried very hard to open this safe. The surface was covered in the signs of attempted forced entry, but apparently to no avail. It seemed whoever had been trying to access it had become quite frustrated, as a smashed terminal lay against the wall behind the desk and the safe - clearly somepony taking their rage out on the long-dead ponies of “Equestria Today”.
I smiled and brought out my lock picking kit. If the pony who had been here before wanted to go around looting other ponies things he should probably learn the tricks of a dishonest pony. Simply bashing at things weren’t likely to get things done.
The lock was complicated, but not overly so. I managed to eventually manipulate the mechanism until a satisfying click signalled that I had bypassed the lock. The door to the safe swung open, revealing a deep hole filled to the brim with paperwork and notes - probably dirt on the various ponies that “Equestria Today” found interesting enough to tell the public about. Sitting atop the pile, apparently the most recent addition to the safe, was a carefully wrapped box.
I carefully levitated the box, pulling it up out of the safe and down onto the floor. Once there I tore the rotting brown paper that covered the box away and lifted the lid, revealing a memory orb, nestled in the packaging within. It seemed for all the world like it had been put there just for me - the memory of a long-dead pony that had waited for a century for me to add it to my own memories.
I was wary, remembering why exactly we were now taking shelter in this building. Ponies were walking around outside somewhere and Burnt Fuzz was locked in her room recovering under my own orders.
But something in the back of my mind ached to reach into the orb and see what awaited me there. It had apparently been something important - so important the head of the paper had been slightly scared of the repercussions of holding it. The fact that the package had still been unwrapped suggested that he had never even looked at it. It must have been something very special.
I stole a glance out of the window. The daily storm had finished building and was moving rapidly outwards, the sparks of electricity that it released visible even at a distance. Soon the ponies in the area would be taking cover, if they hadn’t already, if they wanted to stay out of the danger of the discharges. The lack of sound throughout the building or outside, save for the crawling of the radroaches, suggested that we were safe from interference. I doubted the memory orb would take too long and anyway, Burnt Fuzz needed the time to recover.
I nodded, my decision made, and concentrating on the orb. The world around me shimmered and faded as the memory took hold.
The first thing that hit me was that my host was female. Even after my experiences in my original memory orb it still felt weird to step inside the body of a mare, but somehow the body felt strangely familiar. I felt as if I had been in this body before. It was strange, the body didn’t feel like the mare I wore at the concert but neither could it be the soldier from my second orb, for obvious reasons. I cast aside the thought quickly - it was leading me to places I didn’t need reminding about.
I stood in an open space filled with ponies, although not quite as closely packed as the ponies in the concert in my other orb. Scanning the crowd with my host as she walked showed similarities between the ponies gathered. Their clothes varied between more rural garb and the stiff suits of business ponies, as well as several clear military uniforms dotted throughout the crowd.
A sense of deja vu hit me as I continued to look at the faces around me. With a start I realised that I recognised at least half these ponies - infact I had been looking at them from quite a different angle just a short time earlier. These were the ponies in the picture of the article about the Apple family - this was either the reunion the article had been reporting - or a similar reunion from another year. I strained to see if I could put names to faces, looking for Applejack, Braeburn or maybe even the pink hide and green hair of Red Gala.
As if reading my mind, my host pushed through the crowd and came upon a welcome sight. Standing in the middle of a small crowd was an orange-coated pony with a long, blonde ponytail that fell down from beneath her wide-brimmed stetson hat. Applejack was flanked by some very tough looking security ponies and looked as if she was trying to mingle despite the general aura of separation she seemed to emanate, as if she didn’t quite belong with these ponies.
“Yes!” I heard my host excitedly whisper under her voice before excitedly advancing on the important pony. “Applejack!”
The orange pony turned and smiled wearily at my host before responding. “Howdy Red Gala, Ah’m glad t’ see ya made it.”
Well that made two ponies I knew. My host appeared to be none other than Red Gala
“I could say the same about you. I thought you would be too busy with Ministry business.”
Applejack shifted uneasily. “Yeah well. Ah reckon that a family reunion is worth takin’ time off fer. Even if I weren’t allowed to come alone.” She gestured at the security ponies giving my host a cool but slightly threatening look, as well as several more in the crowd I hadn’t spotted.
My host nodded. “Well hopefully everything will go smoothly. We shouldn’t be having any disasters or barn-raisings this time! Just a good old fashion traditional family meetup.”
Applejack laughed before growing more solemn. “Yeah. Ah’ll welcome a bit of tradition in times like thes. Things’re getting worse an’ worse. Not that ah need to tell you. The MAS is just as frantic as everypony else. Ah ain’t even spoken to Twilight in weeks.”
Applejack’s change in mood was mirrored by my host as she nodded in agreement. She hoofed at the ground, as if unsure what to say next, and the silence between the two ponies had started to become uncomfortable when she finally spoke, choosing her words carefully, like she was picking through a minefield.
“Listen, Applejack. I wanted to talk to you about the Ministry actually. Twilight and the higher ups are really pushing for progress and, well...” She paused. “I need to start showing more results.. I’m supposed to be the...” She cleared her throat before announcing her title. “...Chief Consultant Regarding Natural Magic, and yet the most I’ve done so far is set my team to analysing Zebra potions.”
“What’s that got to do with me?” Applejack’s tone was cautious.
“Well. I was hoping we could talk again about the Za-”
“No.” The Ministry Mare’s response was short and quick.
“Ah said no before and I’ll say it again. They’re too unstable for ya’ll to use in Ministry work. Ah don’t like it.”
Red Gala sighed. “I understand, but I really think we can do some good with them. They might be unstable but they’re also powerful and could really contribute to the war. The Ministry Mare herself has authorised the creation of a specialist facility for us to do our research in. She intends for Stable Tec technicians to make sure it fits the standards we require.”
“Twilight don’t know what she’s messing with. Ah swear, she’s just gonna wind herself up more than any of us.” Applejack shook her head. “Ah s’pose if Applebloom’s gonna be involved with housing them it might be a little safer, but still...”
“Please Applejack.” Red Gala was practically begging now. “We need those trees. They’ll be in good hooves.”
“Fine.” A smile spread across my host’s face at the orange mare’s sudden decision. “But Ah’m only doing this because yer mah cousin. Send yer ponies to Sweet Apple Acres and Ah’ll make sure Granny don’t stop them.”
I felt my host’s body relax in gratitude. “Thank you Applejack. This is going to do so much good for us in the Ministry.”
“Jus’ be careful.” Applejack cautioned as the memory began to fade. “Zap Apples have a mind of their own.”
The world returned in a blaze of light. Rather than the usual calm fade into and out of a memory, it was if I stood in a dark room and a torch had just been lit. My vision swam and a bright spot burned in my vision as I blinked. The faded and crumbling walls of the office seemed to shimmer and take on the appearance of metal through the distortion. I rubbed my eyes to clear them and gently lowered my hoof to allow my eyes to adjust.
I felt disorientated and confused for a second - the world was far brighter than it should be and I could see flashes of light from the window. I briefly wondered if I had actually fallen asleep somehow while in the memory orb and if such a thing was even possible before my mind reminded me of the storm that had been approaching when I had gone out.
I walked over to the window and looked out. Sure enough, the telltale deep black clouds stood out above the buildings that rose around us, distinct from the grey of the normal cloud cover. The standard blue lightning shot across the gap between the sky and the ground but there was also something else, something that caught my eye.
Bright lights were visibly darting from the cloud cover. Little balls of what appeared to be pure light, like that created by a unicorn spell, fell to the earth to accompany the blue lightning, a beautiful tail of smaller lights streaming behind them. They were so dazzlingly bright that my eyes hurt to watch and they lit up the world as they fell. They had obviously been what had caused the strange brightness in the office.
They weren’t contained to just the storm either, I realised as I watched. As far as I could see the white dots pierced the heavens and fell to the earth all over the Zone. I noticed that, although they fell to the ground like stones thrown by some giant creature, they caused no visible impact when they hit the ground. Their light simply faded where they fell and they disappeared as more fell to replace the lost light.
It was hauntingly beautiful and I found myself staring as the things continued to drop from the heavens as the storm passed above me. I didn’t even look as a particularly close strike of lightning struck the ground near the office and static caused my fur to stand up.
Gradually they stopped falling and I sighed. The light had been a rare sight - something that inspired awe in the wasteland.
I continued to stare up at the clouds above me and blinked to clear my vision. I felt stronger than I had before. The journey here from Dryside had been taxing and my body had felt weak, but now I felt as if I were ready to go again. The rest from the memory orb had clearly done me good - more than I had expected.
I made the decision to see how Burnt Fuzz was doing. Although she had been doing worse than I the bullet wound should have healed a bit by now and if it hadn’t I could probably spare one more healing potion. I was running low on supplies but I needed to make sure my guide was okay. If she were smart she would have been resting like her told her and we could move out immediately.
I smiled. I felt a lot better about the mission as I stared up at the clouds. The raiders would not be hard to deal with - I had dealt with some before and I could be stealthy if need be. I would find Choke Hold and make my way out of the Zone and there was no way anypony would stop me.
Sighing happily, I moved to move out of the window that allowed me my view. As I did so I saw movement out of the corner of my eye.
My blood froze in my veins.
Walking out from the space between the nearby buildings were several ponies. Each wore full-body barding, some even with masks that covered their face with large respirators, and all carried large guns. At least a dozen spilled out into the street below, organized in a rough V shape with a single pony leading. They stood with a sense of power, taking a solid stance with their guns pointing forward. The lead pony stood smaller than the rest, but they still seemed to emanate something - something that made it very clear that they were in charge. These ponies clearly knew what they were doing and they were heavily armed, heavily armoured and they were in a group.
And every single one of them was staring straight at me.
New Perk: Rad Resistance - You've taken more radiation than anypony should and your body has developed a slight immunity. You take 25% less radiation from all sources.
This Fic is based on Fallout Equestria, which you can find here: http://www.equestriadaily.com/2011/04/story-fallout-equestria.html
Huge thanks to Kkat for writing it and creating the world for us all to play around in.
More thanks to my pre-readers and editors.
Locations and events in this story are inspired by the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, the 2007 video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and the 1979 film Stalker. Familiarity with these pieces is not required but is encouraged (They're good.)
Any resemblance to any other pieces of fan fiction is merely coincidental.
Any criticism is welcome and encouraged.