Chapter Three: Guidance
“Books! I’ve read several on the subject.”
I had never seen the sun before, and it was fair to say I still hadn’t. But the power of its light filtered down through the thick angry, cloud cover, turning a sickly color yet still brighter and warmer than the humming lights of Stable Two. The air itself looked somehow wrong in the light, off-color. But everything was illuminated. I could see motes of dust and ash floating about the room (I wondered how healthy it was to be breathing it), and for the first time I really grasped the expanse of the outside.
It made me want to hide under the window.
While working up the nerve to step into the (very, very big) outdoors, I preoccupied myself with opening the locked chest I had discovered the night before. It took two of my bobby pins, but it was worth it! Inside was the most beautiful dress I had ever seen! Such lines, such folds of fabric, and the colors -- elegant and regal -- yet the fabric was light, breezy and did not sag! It was a dream! Sadly, a dream for another, taller pony.
Joy and disappointment mixed in equal measure. But even if I could not wear it (at least not without some major tailoring), it was the prettiest and most cheerful thing I had seen since leaving the Stable. Carefully folding it up, I slipped it into my saddlebags.
Mindful of the sniper pony from the night before, I stood back, behind the cover of an overturned table, and used my magic to open the door. A tarnished bell hanging above tinkled cheerfully. Muted sunlight poured in. The sounds of outside flowed into the room. The twitter of birds, the far away sloshing of the river. Fresher air pushed back the stale.
Cautiously, I moved into the doorway and looked about. Post-apocalyptic Ponyville was a rotting skeleton of a once homey little town. Between collapsed buildings and burned homes, the streets were littered with rubble and refuse. And everywhere, garish paints of depravity and grotesquery. The graffiti was not limited to outside; the raiders had defaced the Carousel Boutique with an almost ecstatic fervor. I turned from the doorway, my gaze following the lines of profanity that curled up the walls towards the rafters. And shrank back, choking in revulsion at what the sunlight revealed above me -- dozens of dead and desiccated cats had been hung from the ceiling like decorations. I had slept directly beneath three of them.
I took an involuntary step back, one hindhoof out the door.
What was that?
I turned and spied the half-buried orange disk in the ground just outside the door. A little red light was pulsing on it. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.
“CLOSE THE DOOR!” The voice came out of nowhere, tinny and mechanical but somehow full of urgency. My heart lurched and I jumped back inside, slamming the door hard.
The explosion just outside tore the door off its frame, hurling it and me back into the room! I crashed through a tattered vanity divider, the smoking door landing over me. “Ugh!!”
I was more shocked than hurt as I slowly dragged myself out from under the door. My ears were ringing. A trap. No wonder the raider ponies hadn’t invaded while I slept. They had left a present instead.
“Hurry. There are more on the way.” I could barely make out the voice; my ears felt like they were stuffed with cotton candy.
“Who are you?” I queried, but moved to throw my canteens over my neck while magically drawing out the combat shotgun. I had been dismayed to learn that it had only had one shot left; but if a raider pony stepped through the door, I intended to make it count.
An entirely different voice replied. “Come out, come out, whoever you are!” The head of a raider pony slid into the doorway, grinning maniacally with something in her teeth. It looked like a metal apple. She tossed her head, it flew into the room at me, but the stem stayed behind in her teeth.
A memory flashed through my mind: I as a younger pony, trotting to the Stable schoolroom when an older pony stepped out of a doorway and heaved a water balloon at me. It had burst against my horn, soaking me and my homework. “Hey, don’t look so sad, blankflanks! I was just tryin’ ta help you. Y’know, in case your cutie mark is supposed to be a target!” The older pony had laughed and hurried off to class, leaving me dripping and miserable in the hall.
Lesson learned: when somepony throws something at you, don’t let it hit you. Don’t even let it hit near you, because it might splash. The combat shotgun clattered to the floor as I focused my magic on the metal apple, catching it and hurling it back out the door. The grenade barely cleared the doorframe when it exploded. Dust and splinters of wood few at me, getting in my eyes. A tinkling erupted at my feet. Looking down, blinking the debris from my eyes, I saw the little bell from over the door had landed, mangled, at my hooves.
My eyes hurt, and I kept blinking to clear them. Cautiously, lifting the combat shotgun again, I edged towards the door. I could barely see the foreleg of the raider pony around the edge of the door frame, completely still. With a second thought, I levitated the table so that it formed a barricade over the lower half of the doorway, and crawled up behind it. Quickly popping my head up, I looked to see if the raider pony was still conscious.
The leg wasn’t attached to the rest of the pony.
It took me a moment to spot the rest of her torn body, mercifully dead. I dropped back under cover, feeling a strangeness pass over me. I had just killed somepony!
*** *** ***
Sneaking out of Ponyville had been harrowing.
I realized early that I had been neglecting my Eyes-Forward Sparkle. Once I had brought up my E.F.S., it was far easier to determine where the raider ponies were, and to avoid them. Despite actively looking for me, the raider ponies proved less than adept hunters. Using my magic to bang a mailbox lid down the street or break an empty bottle against a freestanding chimney several yards away provided sufficient distraction to get past them. I had almost made past the last house when the sniper pony started taking shots at me again. The closest shot grazed my flank -- a slash of burning pain and a flowing blood. Fortunately, the wound looked far worse than it was, and even my meager medical skills were enough to stop the bleeding and bandage it.
I crouched in a little gully, sheltered by trees, and fought to catch my breath. Somewhere in the distance, I heard music playing again. The rumble from my stomach was much louder, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten in almost a day. I floated out one of the apples from my saddlebags while I un-corked one of my canteens. Of course, I had no more than taken a sip when my PipBuck threw a dancing red light into my E.F.S. compass. Not coming from the raider town, but from up ahead, deeper into the hilly wood. Of course. Something else was coming to get me. Because the wasteland clearly hated me.
I re-corked the canteen and stood up, wincing at the flair of heat in my wounded flank. I lifted the combat shotgun, still with its single shot, and perked my ears to listen.
My surroundings were quiet. Even the music was gone. Then I started to make out a faint buzzing. I lifted the gun to eye-level and focused down the top of the barrel, lining it up with warning mark of red on my E.F.S. At first, I saw nothing. Then I spotted it, an ugly little flying creature, bloated and grotesque, hovering between the trees. It spotted me too, and shot a spiny dart through the air at me. It missed me (mostly, getting tangled in my mane).
I aimed, but hesitated. The damn thing was so small, and could jerk about so erratically, that I had almost no chance of hitting it. I didn’t dare waste my only shot. So I did the next best thing. I dodged behind a tree and prepared to gallop.
Another mark appeared on my E.F.S. followed by a zortching, crackling sound quite unlike anything I’d heard before. The red light winked out, leaving only the new one, which my PipBuck had divined as “friendly”.
“I’m really sorry about what happened back in Ponyville. But that raider didn’t give you any choice. She would have killed you.” It was that same mechanical, tinny voice that had shouted out the warning that surely saved my life earlier.
With a mixture of relief and bewilderment, I watched the sprite-bot fly up to my hiding place.
“Who are you?” (‘What are you?’ was the question that wanted to escape my muzzle, but I suspected it would be rude.)
“A friend.” I raised an eyebrow. “Okay, a passing acquaintance. But one that doesn’t mean you any harm.” After a pregnant pause, “Call me Watcher.”
I regarded the sprite-bot critically. “Watcher. Okay...” I slipped out from behind the tree and started looking for where my apply had rolled to when I dropped it. Not far away, near where the flying creature had been, I spotted a glowing pile of pink ash. “You do that?”
“Bloatsprites. That’s what you get when you mix parasprites with Taint. Can’t stand ‘em, myself. Glad to help.”
Finding my apple, I levitated it up. “Thank you. And thank you for the warning about that... thing in the ground.”
I blinked. “Y-you want my apple?”
The sprite-bot laughed, which was very weird to hear since the artificial voice didn’t have any inflection. “No. That’s what it was called. The explosive in the ground. It’s called a mine. It triggers when you step close.”
“Oh.” I took a bite of the apple. “That’s a very stupid name for a weapon.”
The sprite-bot laughed again. It was a little unnerving. Then, strangely, I found myself chuckling as well. “I really thought you meant my apple was yours. I’d share it if you wanted, although I don’t know what you’d do with it since you can’t eat.”
“Huh?” For having no emotion in its voice, the sprite-bot did a good job at conveying confusion.
“You don’t eat. Food. Because you are a robot, and you don’t have a mouth.”
A third time with the laughter, although this was more of a slight chuckle. “Oh! You mean the sprite-bot.” Well, at least I wasn’t the only one this conversation had managed to confuse, although I was more confused now than ever. “The sprite-bot isn’t actually me. I’m somewhere else; I just learned how to hack into these things to communicate. And look around.”
I was beginning to get the picture. “Then that music...”
“Oh gosh no. I turn that crap off the moment I hack into one of these. You have no idea how old that music gets.” As an afterthought, the hacker-in-the-sprite-bot added, “Yet.”
I finished my apple. My stomach felt much better now. As did my spirits, thanks to finally having a civilized (if utterly bizarre) conversation.
“Oh, time’s almost up. Look, there are a few things you’re going to need if you want to survive out here. A weapon (or at least a lot more ammo for the one you have), armored barding, a bit of guidance... and most importantly, you need to make some friends.”
Armor, at lest, shouldn’t be too hard, although I shuddered hard at the thought of putting on a dead pony’s barding. Still, that grazing shot... I’d been outside less than a full day and already I’d come terrifyingly close to death. I could probably slip back around to the bridge and strip it off the corpses there.
A weapon? If the idea of stripping armor from the dead made me cringe, the idea of possibly killing again stopped my heart. And friends? I’d had no luck with that as a foal in the Stable. What chance did I have in a world where saving a pony from raiders and slavery didn’t get you a friendship welcome mat? If this was what I needed to do to survive, I wasn’t sure I was up to the task.
“What do you mean by guidance?”
The bobbing sprite-bot was silent a moment. “I’m going to take a shot in the dark here and guess you like books. Am I right?”
“Well, yes. I...”
“There’s a great book for people traveling through the Equestrian Wasteland. I’m pretty sure there’s a copy in the Ponyville Library. Give me just a second... Okay, I’ve sent the tag for it to your PipBuck.”
My eyes widened in alarm. “The Ponyville Library. You mean, that place I just barely escaped from? The town full of sick, psycho ponies? Are you trying to get me killed?”
“Look, you’ve got to trust somebody.”
The memory of Monterey Jack surfaced in my mind. “Why should I trust you? I’ve never even met you. You’re hiding behind a robot radio.”
“Oh, I dunno. How about the me-saving-your-life part? If I was trying to kill you, why would I have done that?”
The voice, Watcher, had a point. Before I could say anything to that effect however, the sprite-bot burped static and began playing music again. (The music featured multiple harmonicas and trombones.) It flew lazily away, as if it didn’t care I was there.
*** *** ***
The Ponyville Library was in a tree. Not a treehouse, but literally inside a tree. A massive, gnarled tree bigger than most buildings had been grown in the middle of the town, clearly the project of magic, and hollowed out to be the public library. The south side of the tree was scorched black and dead. But there were still a few leaves clinging to life on the opposite branches. The tree was surrounded by a wide open space with absolutely no cover.
Any hope my luck at the Carousel Boutique would hold out here was dashed when I looked up to the highest balcony and finally spotted the sniper pony – an earth pony armed with a powerful-looking rifle. The rifle was attached to the balcony railing with a gliding swivel mount, allowing the raider to aim it wherever she could see. The only safe approach was from directly behind her, where the door to the balcony and the narrow top of the tree beyond blocked her line of sight. There were surely more raider ponies inside.
Sneaking up carefully from the only direction that wouldn’t mean instant death, I was trembling with nerves by the time I reached the door. As swiftly and silently as I could, I slipped out of Ponyville... and straight into pony hell!
Pony corpses everywhere! Not like the bridge where ponies had fallen in battle; these ponies had been mutilated, desecrated and put on display! Some poor pony’s body hung from the ceiling, head and hooves severed and flesh sliced open and pulled back to reveal the meat and bones beneath. Heads and limbs hung from chains like sick party decorations. The rotting body of a pink pony with a violent mane was mounted, spread-eagled over a bookcase with railroad spikes. Two had been driven into her eyes. On another wall, a torso had been skinned and sliced open, the pony’s entrails pulled out to decorate the shelves like streamers.
Blood and gore were everywhere, dripping from the ceiling and painting the walls in equal parts with the graffiti that had somehow gotten even more mocking and cruel. Between the bookcases, pre-war posters were mounted in shattered frames. Some raider pony had painted over one of them (“Reading is Magic”) with a crude but effective depiction of a megaspell detonation. Another (“The most beautiful ponies have beautiful minds!”) was covered over by a painting that was simply pornographic. The books had been burned in piles. The floor was layered in ash and filth. The stench was unbearable.
The room was dominated by three cages, two large square ones, and a smaller one hanging from the ceiling which was barely big enough for a pony. Captives -- filthy, beaten and misused -- were curled up inside, their hooves tied together with stained ropes. The two in the nearest cage looked at me pitifully and my heart wrenched painfully.
My eyes kept going wider until I had to clench them shut and bite my own hoof to keep from screaming. I backed against the door, heaving, unable to breathe properly, not wanting to breathe this air at all! The horror of the room flooded over me, drowning me. I pulled my hoof away barely fast enough to avoid vomiting my apple all over myself. The stench of it mixed with the reek of the room, assaulting me further.
“please,” a whisper from one of the ponies, terrified to raise her voice, “help us.”
This was beyond horror! I pressed my eyes tighter and tighter... then opened them as a wave of brutal determination cut through the sickness.
That was no voice, disembodied and trapped in an eternal loop, coming from some radio signal floating through the ether. These were living ponies; they were right here in front of me, and they needed help. And I was as damned as these rotten raiders if I was going to make them beg again.
The screwdriver and bobby pin slipped out and immediately began working on the nearest lock. With a click, the metal cage door swung open. Inside, two ponies, bound and laying in their own filth. I realized uncomfortably that I had nothing to cut the ropes with. I tried to untie them with my magic, the first pony’s ropes were so wet with blood that I could pull them apart, but second pony’s were bound too tightly.
“Are... are you for real?” The first pony stood shakily. “I-I’m free?”
I nodded, then glanced to the other ponies. I had no idea how I’d reach the one in the hanging cage. “If you could help me with...”
The pony blanched and shook her mane. “Oh no, I can’t stay here any longer. But, here, take these supplies. I managed to squirrel them away...” The pony dug into the floor muck with her hoof, revealing the utterly pathetic pile of scraps laying on a dirty rag that amounted to her entire worldly possessions. A can of diced carrots, a box of pre-war single-serve cake, a handful of bottle caps. It broke my heart.
“No, you keep it. You’ll need it more...” I paused, my eye catching a single shotgun shell in the pile. “Actually, I’ll take this shell. Thanks!” I magically opened the shotgun and slid it into place. Now I had two.
The pony had already folded up the rag, picked it up in her teeth and slinked rapidly out the door before I could say anything else. I sent up a prayer to Celestia for her and focused on saving the others. I looked over the second pony, who hadn’t said a word, and recoiled as I saw the blood caking the inside of her flanks. What had these raiders done!?!
Looking around, I took in the shape of the room, trying to blot out the horrors everywhere I turned. (Above the front door was an aged fresco of a beautiful white winged unicorn -- Celestia? -- unusually large and graceful, a book floating in front of her, her wings outstretched over a rainbow of foals as they smiled up and listened to storytime. Not only had the ponies been painted over with images of blood and knives and violence, the fresco had been used for target practice, everything from bullets to flung excrement, and was now shattered and stained unspeakably.) The room was oddly shaped, with balconies and rooms branching (literally) off in all directions. I could hear the voices of raider ponies in the other rooms. And, judging from the décor, knives wouldn’t be far behind.
“I’ll be right back,” I promised with a whisper. Then, levitating the combat shotgun, I moved towards the nearest interior door.
I jumped back as the door swung open at me. A raider pony stepped through and stopped, staring at me blankly. His coat was dark black under his makeshift armor, his mane wild. Holsters were strapped to his flanks, one with a small gun, the other holding a blade whose edge was jagged like a saw, ensuring the most grievous of wounds. In stark, horrified disbelief, I saw that his cutie mark was actually a splayed torso.
The raider pony recovered quickly, swinging his head around and drawing out the small gun in his teeth (what, was he going to pull the trigger with his tongue?) just before S.A.T.S. helped me pump my two shotgun rounds into his face. I felt no remorse as his head turned into spaghetti sauce that splattered over his instantly lifeless body. I hadn’t just killed a pony -- these raiders had given up any right to the title! These were not ponies, they were sick monsters that needed to be put down! And Celestia help me if I wasn’t going to do just that. I didn’t realize it until that moment, but I was mad! The pure evil of this place had shaken me to the core... and my core was furious!
Collecting knife and gun, I dropped the empty combat shotgun to the side. The smaller weapon was not going to be as powerful, but was fully loaded -- six shots in a revolving barrel. And that was good, because there was no way the noise wasn’t going to bring every raider pony running.
The first three raider ponies galloped into the main library almost immediately, one of them crying out thrilled insults. S.A.T.S. helped me fire three shots at her head. The first two missed, but the third found a home in one of her ugly red eyes and down she went. A second started firing another small firearm at me (what do you know, they do shoot with their tongues!), bullets impacting the door frame. One shot punctured one of my saddlebags, but didn’t pierce flesh.
I crouched and poked my head around, levitating the revolver in the open doorway. I fired two shots at the second pony, but my PipBuck’s targeting spell was refreshing, and without it I might as well have been aiming at the ceiling. Still, the gunslinger raider skittered away, using one of the captive ponies for cover. The dishonorableness poured gasoline on the fire of my anger. I stepped fully into the doorway, looking for the third, spotting him on the far end of the main room.
The third raider pony lowered his head, a pool cue clenched in his teeth, and charged at me.
I blinked. “Really?” I took a single step back. The pony rushed at me full-tilt, and was nearly on me when the ends of the pool cue struck the doorway, snapping him to a stop. I fired the revolver’s last shot point-blank into his neck. Even I didn’t need S.A.T.S. at that range.
“Shouldn’t you ponies be smarter than that? You live in a library!”
As the body slumped to the floor, bleeding from the gaping wound through it’s neck, I saw the gun-wielding raider standing in the open, aiming through the door. I dived to the side as shots rang out, and screamed as I felt a bullet sink into my side. It hurt! More than I had thought it would.
I fell against the wall, leaving a bloody smear as I collapsed next to the doorway. Pain seared my side, flaring with each breath. I could hear the clop of the raider’s hooves as he approached cautiously. I tried to focus my magic to close the door, but the body of pool-cue pony was in the way.
I cast about the room. It was a kitchen. On a table, surrounded by knives, was the body of a fearsome creature of scales and teeth. The raider pony with the splayed torso cutie mark had been carving it up to cook. A refrigerator. And oven. There were scattered books, but all ancient, destroyed and unreadable. (I was beginning to doubt the Watcher’s assertion that there was a book here like he described.) Then my eyes fell on what I was hoping for. In one corner, mounted on the wall over several metal boxes of ammunition, was a faded yellow box with a pink butterfly symbol on it: a medical box! Double luck: the box looked to be locked. There were knife-scrapes all over it where the raiders had attempted to get it open. It should still have a few medical poultices, and maybe even a healing potion!
But I had to survive the raider pony first, and I was wounded and out of bullets. Crossing to the ammo boxes would mean moving across the open doorway. Scooting back, I looked around again. And focused my magic through the pain.
When the raider pony stepped in, he was met by a swarm of knives flying at his face. “Gah!!” He turned and fled back out. The knives all either missed or struck uselessly against his armor. I was even more pathetic with melee weapons than I was with guns. But it got him out of the way long enough to make for the ammo boxes. Luck was with me again. While one box had ammo in large clips for a type of gun I had yet to see, the other had bullets designed for the revolver.
The raider poked his head around again, calling out “You’re all out of knives, missy! Why don’t you just come on out. I promise I’ll let you die, eventually.”
His head turned in my direction his eyes went wide. I don’t know if it was the look in my eyes or the revolver. S.A.T.S. was with me again, and this bastard wasn’t going to get another chance to use raped and beaten captive as a shield.
*** *** ***
One more dead raider, a picked medical box and a healing potion later, I trotted quietly back into the main room, serrated knife floating by my side. I moved to the open cage and sawed away the ropes binding the poor pony. “Go. You’re free. Get somewhere safe.” With a blink, I remembered the sniper pony, and quickly told her which direction to sneak away in. She nodded mutely and began to slink out. I moved to the next cage.
What I saw sickened me. A pony had been locked inside along with a decaying corpse. The pony was whimpering in her sleep, and had her tail wrapped around the ghastly body like a teddy ursa.
Unlike the other bodies, I couldn’t tell how this one had died, for it wasn’t carved apart. The body had lost all its coat, it’s skin was a sickening blotch-work of red and grey, flaking away. Its eyes were open, dry and staring in wrong directions. Its teeth were horribly yellowed, matching the few strands of hair left in its mane and tail. Odd, fleshy growths hung from its sides. At first, I mistook them for mutations, but then I realized I was looking at the pony’s wings! This was the body of a pegasus pony. Stripped of feathers and hair, the wings looked strange, even repulsive.
I screamed, a full-throated cry of terror, when the corpse shifted position and sat up, it’s eyes sliding around until they both focused on me. It was a zombiepony!
The zombiepony blinked at me, then tried to get up, only to fall over onto one winged side as it’s hooves were bound in ropes like the others. It... she stared at me plaintively.
My mind was reeling. Of the scattered half-thoughts that flitted through my brain, “untie the nice zombie so she doesn’t get mad at me” managed to be the most coherent, if not the most sane.
Swallowing, I moved the knife down to her ropes. “Hold still.” I looked at her eyes and was quickly forced to look away. One of them was sliding again. Her breath was fetid. “Now if I let you go, and you try to eat my brains, we’re going to have harsh words.”
*** *** ***
I had freed the second two captives, including the zombie-pony, both of whom slipped away without an offer to help (although the zombie at least smiled at me, which was... deeply unpleasant), and was trying to figure out how to get to the hanging cage when two more raider ponies appeared on a balcony above. One of them was a unicorn pony with a very scary-looking firearm. I dove into the shelter of a stairwell as the raider opened fire. The gun let out a terrifying cacophony of rapid-fire cracks as it sprayed the main room with bullets.
At least I knew what type of gun the large clips were for now.
I waited until I heard him reloading, then dashed into the room and spun to face him, focusing all my magic... not on my own weapon nor on him, but on the bookshelf behind him. The glow of my horn stood out brighter and brighter as he lifted the reloaded assault rifle and took aim for my head.
The bookshelf came down on top of him, knocking him unconscious. The assault rifle fell to the floor in a rain of dead books. Something else showered down as well, thrown from the falling bookshelf. Knocking away a book that had fallen over it, I saw that it was an ancient, dusty pair of pre-war binoculars. At first, it struck me as extremely odd that someone would need binoculars in a library -- that would require some really bad eyesight -- but the silly thought passed.
I couldn’t see where the other raider pony had gotten to. Swiftly, I added the assault rifle to my growing collection, and the binoculars for good measure. Then I looked back to the balcony, considering it as a way to get to the cage pony hanging from the ceiling. If I could get up there, I thought, I could leap from it to the cage. That would get me close enough that I could see what I was doing while I picked the lock.
The second raider pony appeared back at the railing, a wicked grin on his face. With a hoof, he shoved forward an ammo box, then tilted it over. The lid sprung open and half a dozen orange disks poured out into the library below.
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
I dashed as fast as my little legs could take me, leaping over the body of pool-cue pony and under the kitchen table, using my magic to toss it over as a shield. The carved-up radigator slid to the floor with a meaty thump.
Behind my shield, the world became blinding light and fire!
*** *** ***
When I emerged, the main room was a wreck. Fresh blood dripped down into my mane. Looking up, I saw the blast-torn remains of the pony in its twisted metal cage. Oh, Celestia damn them to hell!
More determined than ever, I stripped the raider bodies (what little was left of them now) of their armors. The armors were in shredded tatters, but with some effort I was able to use the best parts of each to patch together something that would give me better protection than my stable-issued utility barding. The resulting outfit had almost no pockets, so I would have to dig the utility suit out of my saddlebags to get at most of my tools, but it was a fair trade.
Putting it on was gruesome. My hooves were darkened with blood just from working on it; every inch was covered in the flash-fried gore of dead ponies. I almost lost my nerve and abandoned the awful thing. I slipped it on; my stomach rebelled, but I didn’t have any more to throw up.
A last look around while I figured I still had time. The raider above obviously assumed I was dead. (I would have assumed I was dead too.) Looting the bodies garnered me a little more ammo. The gun from the earlier raider had been in bad shape to begin with, and was damaged beyond repair by the explosion. Several ponies apparently collected bottle caps, which struck me as an absurdly odd thing to horde. I left those alone. The kitchen’s refrigerator had a small stockpile of food: cooked radigator meat, a few skewers of barbecued fruits and what the PipBuck identified as bloatsprite meat, a box of pre-war cake (because nothing says healthy eating like two-hundred-year-old food) and some water that looked like it was bottled straight out of sludge river. I took everything but the cake and water; apparently, splayed-torso cutie raider was a rather decent cook. With a second thought, I looked over the ingredients on the cake box (filled with enough preservatives that your stomach will still be intact long after the rest of you rotted away to dust!) and took it too.
The raider pony was in the main room, looking over his handiwork, when I returned from the kitchen. One look at me (and my growing pile of weaponry) and he fled up the stairs. I galloped after him, revolver zipping through the air in a cloud of levitation magic that matched the light around my horn.
He went through a door on the level above. It took me only a moment to reach it, but caution made me skid to a stop before barreling through. If that had been me on the other side, I’d be waiting just to the side of the door, ready to take the head off of the raider who rushed through. With positions reversed, I was not going to make the same mistake.
A filly’s cry from inside, “aaah! Help!” changed the scenario.
Standing to the side, I threw open the door. When there was no attack, I darted in. And stopped short.
The room was lined with more destroyed books on either side, and ended in a large window that opened onto a balcony. This room was decorated as disgustingly as the last, but filled with stained sleeping mattresses. Near the open window, a filly too young to even have her cutie mark lay on a mattress stained with so much blood it was nearly black. She had been brutalized and raped repeatedly, and her flank was covered in small burns where her cutie mark would have eventually appeared.
Her ropes were on the floor nearby, looking chewed through. And between myself and her, the raider pony stood with a shocking hostage: the zombie-pony! It took me a moment to realize she must have flown in from the balcony; and (if I was allowed to believe there was any decency left in the world) it would have been her who gnawed the filly’s ropes free. Now, she was against a wall, with the blade of an axe to her throat.
A small part of my brain insisted on distracting me by wondering how the zombie-pony could have flown when her wings didn’t have any feathers. As if that was a more significant mystery than how she could be alive (by some definition) in her decayed physical condition.
My distraction was distracted by a nearby table. An ashtray with a smoking cigar told me just how the filly had gotten those burns. Rage welled up in me until I felt it would burst through my eyeballs. Next to the ashtray, two familiar metal apples rested on top of an (only lightly stained) book with a stylized pony skull on the cover. A second book, this one showing a revolver almost identical to the one floating next to me, had slipped to the floor where it rested against one leg of the table, along with several pencils and a filly’s lunch box. A smiling, gentle white unicorn with a beautiful lavender and pink mane stared back beneath the Stable-Tec logo. It felt wrong that something so innocent-looking should be in this place.
My eyes turned to the earth pony raider with the axe in his teeth. For a moment I just hated at him, the room quiet except for the filly’s occasional whimpers.
When my voice returned, my words surprised me. “By Celestia, you’re stupid. Hard to tell a pony to back off, or surrender, when your mouth is full of axe, isn’t it? Maybe if you spent some more time reading these books rather than destroying them, you’d be smart enough to come up with a plan that actually allowed you to negotiate a way out of this.” The grenades levitated off the table; I dangled them between us. “One that doesn’t end with me shoving one of these up your tailhole!”
The raider pressed the axe blade tighter against the zombie-pony’s throat, enough to cut flesh, which split and pulled back as if it had been strained taut. Ichor that might have once been blood oozed from the wound. The zombie-pony didn’t flinch or whimper, but the filly did both.
“Right. Kill her.” The revolver floated forward next to the grenades. “That way, there won’t be anything to block my shot.”
I could see the raider considering his options and not liking what he was finding. Dropping the axe from his mouth, he whinnied pathetically “I don’t wanna die!” and dashed for the open balcony, leaping over the cringing filly.
S.A.T.S. send four shots right into his ass. It was a pathetic way to die.
Looking to the filly and the zombie-pony, I smiled grimly. “There’s one left. I’ll be right back.”
I turned and continued up the stairs toward the upper balcony and the sniper pony.
*** *** ***
Better equipped and a lot more confident, my heart still flickering with righteous fire, I made my way carefully out of Ponyville.
Up ahead, I spotted a huge gazebo surrounding a marble statue of a rearing pony girded with combat barding, a sword in his mouth. The gazebo was relatively free of grafitti... and peeking through the binoculars, I could see why. The field of weeds around it were teaming with radigators. My E.F.S. was filling with red marks as I drew closer.
Slipping out my newly acquired sniper rifle, I picked off a few. Their meat, I knew now, was safe when cooked (at least, relative to other food source in the Equestrian Wasteland). Slipping the sniper rifle back into its harness (another “gift” from the sniper pony), I slid out the serrated knife and crouched up towards my kill.
An alert flashed on my PipBuck. Checking it, I discovered that it had labeled the gazebo in front of me: The Macintosh War Memorial.
Curiosity pulled me closer. Careful of radigators, I neared enough to read the inscription beneath the statue through my binoculars.
“In honor of Big Macintosh, hero of the Battle of Shattered Hoof Ridge, and his noble sacrifice for all of Equestria.”
As I lowered the binoculars, I caught sight of something else. A concrete circle sticking up from the ground, roughly halfway between myself and the gazebo, with a ponyhole cover. Remembering the night before, I turned my PipBuck back to the first radio broadcast on the list.
“...from those damned apple trees up near the Stable, and now he’s terribly sick. Too sick to move. We’ve holed up in the cistern near the old memorial. We’re running out of food and medical supplies. Please, if anypony hears this, help us... Message repeats...”
Pulling out the revolver, wary of radigators, I crept towards the cistern opening. I was almost there before one of the beasts charged at me, its huge maw opening to reveal rows on rows of razor-sharp teeth. I fired twice into its mouth. Horrifyingly, that wasn’t enough to kill it. But it did make the beast think twice. The sound, however, brought more of them down on me. Abandoning the revolver in fright, I used my magic to pull open the ponyhole and dived in, sliding the cover over behind me.
*** *** ***
In the wake of my anger, I was exhausted. In the aftermath of the library battle, my whole body ached from exertion. My nerves felt frayed from the content adrenaline. Eating a bloatsprite skewer, I looked over the small underground chamber once more before curling up on the upper bunk of the pair of bunk beds built into the wall. I tried not to think of the colt skeleton on the bed below me. The skeleton of his father was by the door. A sip from my canteen took the edge off my thirst. It was almost empty; I had to conserve.
I reflected how, when I had come back downstairs after dealing with the sniper pony, the zombie-pony was already gone, and had taken the poor filly with her. I hoped it was to someplace safe. I found it strange that the most decent pony I had found in the wasteland was already sort of dead. I also noticed that the assault rifle pony was also gone; he had woken up and freed himself from the crushing bookshelf. That meant there was at least one more raider still in the wastes, but I wasn’t the sort of pony to kill somepony while they slept. Not even a raider.
I figured that if I slept here tonight, that would give the radigators time to wander away from the exit. If I was lucky, I would even spot where I dropped the revolver.
Until then, I would preoccupy myself with my two new books. Slipping them out of my saddlebags, I looked the first one over, the one with my lost revolver on the cover. Guns and Bullets. Very straightforward. I set it aside for now.
The second book, a grey tome with a black pony skull on the cover, was the real prize. Opening it to the first page, I began to read:
“The Wasteland Survival Guide. By Ditzy Doo...”
Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Bookworm – You pay much closer attention to the smaller details when reading. You gain 50% more skill points when reading books.