Chapter Nine: The Moral of the Story
“I’m the one who should be mobbed by strangers wherever I go!”
When I first stepped outside into this new world, the world was impossibly big, the sky terrifyingly high. Now, the omnipresent clouds -- shifting, boiling, darkening with rain -- was just another ceiling. Grey, like the one in Stable maintenance. Only rarely, like on that first night, would small fissures open in the cloud cover, like gaping wounds that would slowly heal. The tantalizing glimpse of a bright, wondrous blue above, cheerful and serene, tempted and tortured those living in the gloom below.
“Littlepip,” Velvet asked, her own thoughts not far from my own, “Does the air seem strange to you outside? The day is so warm and bright, and yet the air is... sickly. I feel so eager and yet so hesitant to be enwrapped by it.”
“Like it’s poisonous,” I agreed. Calamity said nothing. I supposed that to him the air was the air and had always been like this.
The strewn wreckage of pegasus vehicles, cast from the sky when the metropolis of Cloudsdayle was obliterated in a single hoofstomp, stretched on for miles. Some of the sky chariots and wagons were marred further with the old skeletons of the poor ponies who were struck dead or mortally wounded by the megaspell, but whose bodies were not wiped from existence entirely.
The mountains rose up to either side of the valley, sickly grass forested with blackened trees. New plants grew around them, feeding on their corpses. Up and ahead was the worn and faded image of a giant Sparkle~Cola bottle, the stylized carrot immediately identifying the drink even though the words on the sign had faded too severely to read. A badly faded yellow pony with a pink mane was holding it aloft in nearly orgasmic glee. According to Calamity, these giant signs, called billboards, had once littered every major skyroute between Cloudsdayle and other cities, advertising goods and services from all over Equestria. I could spot a second billboard on the opposite side of the valley perhaps half a mile further down. Even from this range, I thought I could recognize the familiar image of heroic pegasi with rainbows exploding across the sky behind them as they swooped over the armies of wicked zebras. Better Wiped Than Striped.
A large, enclosed delivery wagon lay battered, bent and sunken partially into the ground. I spotted on its side what appeared to be a business logo -- a pattern of seven ascending circles -- which struck me as strangely familiar. I didn’t have to ponder it long, for as we drew closer, my PipBuck’s automap christened it: Wreckage of Ditzy Doo Deliveries. Now I remembered where I had seen the pattern before -- on the interior title page of The Wasteland Survival Guide.
Calamity was looking at the wreckage with similar comprehension. Velvet looked between us, confused at why we had stopped to stare. “What?”
“This is where Ditzy Doo fell,” I said, feeling awe and intense sadness. This... this would have been her only grave marker, had she not suffered a stranger fate.
“Ditzy Doo,” I repeated, lost in my own thoughts. I was trying to imagine what it had been like. Velvet, who did not know the name, gave me a look indicating just how helpful she felt that answer was, and turned to Calamity.
Velvet nickered and walked past, circling around the back. Moments later, I heard her call out, "Littlepip, would you please come look at this?" Her voice had a tone of... hope? I trotted around to find her (not at all like a little puppy at her owner's call).
Boxes and crates littered the ground around the back of the Ditzy Doo Deliveries wagon, and many more were toppled and crushed inside. Some had been torn open, all had been looted for anything of value. Except, that was, for a safe and a footlocker in the back. It was the latter which had drawn Velvet’s excitement because, while identical in make to every other footlocker I had run across, the markings were very distinct: three bands of yellow, the center one with a pink butterfly emblem. This was not a medical box, but the colors and symbol were clearly those of the Ministry of Peace.
“Sure, no problem,” I announced proudly, floating out my screwdriver and bobby pin as I watched Velvet struggling not to prance in anticipation. Turning away, I started on picking the lock on the safe first. I could hear her stomp her hoof, and bit my lower lip to stifle a laugh.
The safe’s lock gave up almost too easily. Considering the level of looting, I was surprised that such a weak lock had been such a long-lived deterrent. Was I the only one outside who had developed this skill? I opened the safe.
One item inside immediately captured my attention. The entire interior of the safe was filled with a rosy glow emanating from a bottle of luminescent purplish-red liquid:
With an invigorating touch of radiation and a blast of radish flavoring!
(It’s like a buck to the face! With radishes!)
The Sparkle~Cola RAD floated out of the safe past me, enveloped in a magical glow by Velvet’s horn. Raising the bottle to eye level, she winced at it with a disparaging gaze. “That’s insane. How could any pony be so stupid as to think consuming radiation is healthy?”
My own levitation abilities had been so overstrained that it actually took effort to snatch the bottle back, but I proudly kept myself from panting. Velvet Remedy stared in something approaching horror as she saw me slip the bottle into one of my saddlebags.
“You’re not actually intending to drink that, are you?”
I shrugged. It did sound like it might be tasty; and according to my PipBuck, the radiation still present was minor enough to be washed away with a RadAway potion later. I turned to the footlocker, prompting Velvet to forget (or at least ignore) the beverage in my saddlebags.
This lock was not easy. It selfishly refused to give up its secrets. After the third try, I began to worry that this one was beyond me. And I desperately didn’t want Velvet Remedy to see me fail. I had one other option... but I didn’t want her to see that either. “This is a tough one... I’m going to need concentration. Velvet, could you step out?” And, considering her warning earlier, I added, “Please?”
I could tell she didn’t want to, but with ladylike grace, she departed. As soon as she was out of sight, I brought up my PipBuck’s sorting spell, and pulled the tin of Mint-als out from where I had hidden it at the bottom of my pack. This wasn’t the incredible Party-Time treat I had before, but I didn’t need to talk to the locker. Opening the tin, I popped one into my mouth and began to chew.
The effect was immediate. It was like a grey film was being washed away from all my senses, like my mind was clearing after having been in a deep fog! I was more alive and aware than ever before! This was not Party-Time, and definitely not as candy-licious, but it was enough to make the damn lock sing for me!
Outside, I could hear Velvet Remedy’s voice: “Calamity, may I ask you something?”
“Ayep, Ah reckon you can.”
“Why is it that you are the only pegasus pony I’ve seen in the Equestrian Wasteland? I was under the impression that pegasus ponies should be as common as earth and unicorn ponies.”
My ears perked. Their conversation wasn’t meant to be private, so this wasn’t eavesdropping exactly. And I had to admit, I wanted to know that too.
There was a pregnant pause. Then Calamity nickered, “Wow, lady, when ya ask a question, ya go right for the throat, don’t ya.”
“I’m sorry. I apologize if this is a personal...”
“No, no. Ya should know, Ah guess.” I could hear Calamity sigh; my perceptiveness was heightened to an amazing degree! As I had predicted, the lock was now easy, and clicked open in surrender.
“Ya ain’t gonna find any other pegasus ponies. Not unless they’re... like me.” He paused as if speaking about this was physically taxing. “Ya see, back durin’ the war, we pegasus ponies were Equestria’s greatest fighting force. We were the elites! The best of the best! But after Cloudsdayle was hit, well... that was it, game over. They abandoned the war, abandoned Equestria... although it’s not like either one of ‘em lasted more’n a few hours past that anyways. The pegasus ponies closed up the sky an’ went inta hidin’.”
“Closed. Up. The sky?”
“Ayep. They kicked the cloudmakers up t’ full power an’ locked ‘em like that. Saved their other cities, their families. The zebras couldn’t well target what they couldn’t see. Not that they didn’t try. Got a few lucky hits, but not many.” I could hear one of them dig at the ground with a hoof. “Ain’t been a day that ain’t been at least mostly cloudy in Equestria since.”
Velvet Remedy gasped. “That... that’s horrible!”
“Oh, they keep tellin’ themselves tha’ any day now, they’ll turn ‘em off, open the sky, come swoopin’ down t’ save the rest of ya. When they’re ready. When the time is right.” Calamity nickered in clear contempt.
“Been tellin’ themselves that for upwards of two hundred years now. Truth is, they’re too arrogant an’ lazy t’ bother. S’long as they c’n keep tellin’ themselves that they’ll do the right thing eventually, they c’n live with themselves. Meanwhile, y’lot are all dyin’ down here, from slavers an’ raiders an’ monsters... and yer making a damn hard effort of savin’ yerselves without their help.” Sounded more to me like the pegasus ponies were scared.
I opened the footlocker and started looking at the items inside.
“And you?” ,Velvet asked.
“Ah didn’t find the livin’ with myself so easy as that lot seem to, buncha winged horseapples.” Wow, Calamity, so very glad to have you on Equestria’s side, but bitter much?
A few moments later, Velvet trotted into the back of the delivery wagon. She spared a glance back in Calamity’s direction, then noticed I had opened the footlocker. With a pleased sound, she virtually danced over the debris to reach me.
Inside: numerous scrolls, ruined when a bottle of something had shattered, and the glass shards of said bottle, a framed picture of a bunny rabbit, a small crystal orb sealed in a clear bag (Property of the Ministry of Peace -- Restricted Viewing Only -- Unauthorized Viewers Will Be Prosecuted!), and a book (Supernaturals).
“Oh!” Velvet gasped and made a sound that I felt I could fairly describe as a squee. I watched her, the corners of my mouth twitching upwards as I realized that Velvet Remedy, the amazing unicorn of unparallel beauty and musical grace who had inspired least three hundred fans, was herself more than a bit of a fanfilly.
“I know what this is!” Velvet announced, floating the bag with the orb up for closer inspection. “It’s a memory orb. Used to record events not only with sound but moving picture. Much better than a recorder or a camera. Rare too!” Velvet collected the memory orb and the bunny photo. I was surprised when she left the book.
“Oh, I already have that one. But you should take it, Littlepip. I know you’ll find it useful.” Something in her expression made me think there was a joke here, and at my expense. Still, I wasn’t one to turn down a book, especially if it was one Velvet Remedy suggested.
I had just finished sliding the book into my saddle bags when my Eyes-Forward Sparkle compass exploded with red. I froze. Crap... that’s a lot of enemies! In my mind, I knew the slavers had found us again. And, from the looks of things, they had brought an army!
“Littlepip? What is it?”
Anxiously, I whispered, “Go get Calamity. Quietly. ...please.” I turned slowly in place. There was a gap in the red; we weren’t entirely surrounded. “Trouble!” More than we could handle!
Velvet immediately tensed, nodded nervously, and trotted out as quickly and quietly as she could, only knocking over one crate along the way. We both winced. As she reached the back end of the wagon, she stopped, aghast. “Zombie-ponies!”
What? Not slavers? I moved up next to her. I was already forming how I was going to explain to her about ghouls, but the words died on my lips as I took in the blank, hungry stares and shambling, grotesque movements of the approaching herd. These did not look like ghouls; these looked like zombie-ponies! I remembered the warning: Ya get inta the wrong places, y’ll find yerself hunted by whole packs of cannibal ghoul-ponies gone zombie.
Moving closer to Calamity, I whispered, “Follow me.” We watched them shuffle a foot nearer. Two. The closest zombie-pony broke into a slavering charge!
We ran. Ran like we were being chased by a mindless hoard of monsters intent on eating us alive. Because we were!
The zombie-ponies exploded into action, joining the hunt, our flesh the prize they were after. Many launched into the air and flew towards us. I tried to telekinetically grab a downed sky chariot as we raced past, but the glow around my horn sparked and died. I had no telekinetic tricks to save us.
Velvet Remedy shrieked as a zombie-pony dove from the sky. She ducked, the creature overshooting her and crashing into a tree. I leapt over the body and kept going, my side beginning to hurt.
That hurt swiftly grew into burning coals buried in my side, bringing tears to my eyes and threatening to sap my strength. Two more zombie-ponies dived towards us. Calamity, wide-eyed in fear, suddenly scowled and spat out, “Aw, screw this!” He skidded to a halt, rearing around, and opened fire. The shot ripped the fealtherless wing off one of the zombies, causing it to lurch into the other. The two tumbled out of the sky in a spin, splashing gorily into the half-buried metal skeleton of a huge wagon designed to carry smaller wagons.
Ahead, the rusted hulk of a long passenger chariot rose out of the ground like a barricade. Launching himself into the air, Calamity yelled for us to go around it and keep running. “Don’t slow down! Not fer an instant!” he cried out as he dodged another flying zombie-pony, kicking his saddle to reload.
Velvet was pulling well ahead of me, my shorter legs and my burning side threatening to spell out a most horrific death for me. Velvet tore around the side of the passenger wagon and disappeared behind it. I could hear the herd right at my tail, hooves thundering over the ground in a hungry stampede, foul breath hitting my mane. I couldn’t make the turn; they’d be on me if I tried. Hoping that my small size would come to my aid for once, I instead leapt for one of the shattered, gaping windows.
My body, saddlebags and all, sailed cleanly through the opening. I hit one of the benches inside and jumped for the opposite window without breaking speed. Jagged shards of glass cut at my neck and legs, slashing against my armor before snapping away as my saddlebags hit them. I was out again, and almost clear, when the strap for my sniper rifle caught on a piece of jagged metal, and I was jerked to a halt, swinging back into the wagon’s side with a jarring thud.
I was caught! I tried to pull away, but my hooves barely brushed the ground. I could hear the hoofbeats of the multitude of zombie-ponies as they reached the long body of the wagon, the herd splitting to go around either side. I twisted about, trying to bite the strap loose before they were on top of me. Somewhere above, I heard Calamity taking shots; I heard the metal of the wagon dent and puncture, his hits for once not striking the enemy. Panic flared through me. If the zombie-ponies didn’t get me, one of Calamity’s wild shots might. (Terribly, I realized how preferable a fate that would be, and I prayed that Celestia would grant him the wisdom and mercy to shoot me if they started eating me!)
With a final strong bite, the strap broke, and I fell free. Instinctively, I grasped the sniper rifle in my teeth, realizing only later how foalish a waste of a precious second that was, and ran as hard as my screaming legs and side would let me!
The zombie herd was already coming around the passenger wagon and closing on me. Their hooves brutalized the discolored grass beneath. Even more swooped over it with an ease that made my shortcut laughable. My clear mind and heightened perceptions had become a horror. I could feel the ground tremble beneath me. I could calculate how swiftly they would be gnawing on my hide. I could make out a strange, faint pop even through the rumble of the herd.
I could feel myself lifted into the air as the wreckage of the passenger wagon was consumed in a flare of unleashed wild magic. I could see the pulsing cascade of colors cast strange shadows as swirling magical energies erupted through the air. I could smell the fetid corpse-stench of the zombies as they were blown apart, even as their body parts caught fire.
I hit the ground still running, the valley lurching about as I fought to keep from tumbling. Bits of zombie-pony splattered down about me like rain. Ahead of me, Velvet Remedy had stopped and was just staring, eyes fixed on a scene behind me I preferred not to imagine.
Most of the herd was killed in the blast, and many who were not had scattered... but not for long. Calamity swooped over me, crying out for a panting Velvet to turn back around and keep running.
A cluster of odd sky vehicles, painted a mottled light blue and grey with tiny splashes of white, formed the only possibly defensible position. Beyond that, the valley spread out into rolling, rocky hills that offered no cover at all.
We reached it as more zombie-ponies overflew us, landing just yards away. Velvet Remedy lowered her horn, charging at them, and skewered one messily, unable to hold back an “Eeeew!” that I empathized with completely. I tried to grasp Little Macintosh telekinetically, but my magic just couldn’t. Desperately, I looked around for something I could grasp in my mouth, a piece of sufficiently spear-like debris would do.
What I found was infinitely better. At least, I thought so. As Calamity shot the zombie-pony moving towards me, I scrambled over to where the cargo of one of the vehicles had spilled. I had seen, in small and cruel glimpses, the beautiful light blue sky above the clouds. My Mint-al-clear mind quickly realized the paint on these strange sky chariots would have once served as camouflage. A pegasus military convoy! And, praise Celestia, one of the things they had been transporting was turrets!
I was trained to reprogram the spell matrix of a PipBuck. Tweaking a turret to run off my PipBuck’s definitions of friend and foe was comparatively easy! Especially right now!
“uh, Li’lpip? Ya sure ya know what yer doin’?” Calamity asked, sparing me a glance as he landed between me and more zombie-ponies, firing again.
I was all grins. “You betcha!”
*** *** ***
“Celestia watch you and keep you safe,
As you travel down the path you choose.
May Luna be with you and keep you strong,
So your courage you will never lose.
Remain loyal, honest and brave,
Forget not the ones that you save
And in our hearts you will do no wrong...”
Velvet Remedy’s tune wove between humming and lyrics, the latter in a state of constant flux. For me, watching my idol actually crafting a song was amazing. Calamity didn’t complain, he too found her music to be uplifting in the bleakness of the wasteland, although his occasional eye-rolling suggested he wished she would stick with one set of lyrics rather than seeking perfection.
It had been several hours since the zombies and the valley was safely behind us. A darker grey began to seep into the sky again. Not a storm, Calamity said with some encouragement. Just the approach of nightfall. (If I ever meet the pegasus ponies, I thought, I’ll have to thank them for making the Equestrian Wasteland so depressing. Somehow, it was worse than the drab monotony of Stable Two, because I never believed the Stable could be better. Although that could have been the post-Mint-al depression talking.)
“oh my!” Velvet gasped as we crested a rolling hill and saw it: an absolutely gigantic billboard, far taller than any of the buildings I’d seen, loomed just beyond the next hill. The image, amazingly un-faded yet marred with the grime and water damage of centuries, was nothing but the giant face of an almost unbearably pink pony with a mane that age had turned into a candy cane. She was smiling, her eyes seeming to follow us.
I’d seen this before from the train. Even now, recognizable in this light and at this distance as a billboard, it -- merciful Celestia! -- still gave me a nervous chill. I stared as I walked closer, trying to imagine it before so many decades had taken their toll, before it had been repeatedly peppered by wind-blown dust and ash, streaked by rivulets of rain; back when its placement would have been clearly playful, set behind the raise of the hill so it looked like the pony was playing peek-a-boo with the whole damn countryside. Back when it wasn’t so...
“...Luna-damned. Fucking. Creepy!”
I tried to shake off the feeling with a shudder, turning away from the massive billboard... and found myself staring at a sneaky sprite-bot.
I would have been in the next country if Calamity didn’t bite my fleeing tail. He held me while I ran in place until the panic left me. By that time, Watcher had wisely floated out of hoof’s reach.
“You are so lucky I can’t telekinetically hurl rocks at you right now!”
Velvet Remedy looked like she’d help me. Calamity was glaring distrustfully at the sprite-bot, wings out, legs spread in a defensive stance. “Li’lpip...?”
All I wanted to know at that moment was, “Watcher, are they safe?”
The sprite-bot bobbed. “Yes. Wagons are on their way. Although Ditzy Doo might now be under the impression that you can hack sprite-bots and send messages through them. Sorry ‘bout that.”
“Li’lpip?” Calamity would have been growling if he could. “Ah don’ trust that thing!”
So, Watcher had found a way to relay the message without alerting the ponyfolk of New Appleloosa to what Watcher was able to do. At Calamity’s words, I realized I really didn’t trust Watcher either. And now that I knew the ponies we fought and nearly died to rescue were safe, or soon would be, quite a few more questions tumbled into my mind. First and foremost being, “You sent me into that raider pit knowing full well what, and who, I would find in there, didn’t you?”
Calamity broke off staring at the strangely-behaving bot, looking to me. I had never told him why I had gone into the Ponyville Library.
“They needed help.”
“You could have told me the truth!” I scowled.
“Hey, I didn’t exactly know you, now did I? You seemed like a good pony who would do the right thing once you saw it for yourself, but...”
Now I felt like growling. “You lied to me!”
“No!” If it was possible for the toneless, mechanical voice to sound heated, it would have. “I told you that I didn’t mean you harm. And I didn’t. I told you that you would find something you needed to survive in there...” The sprite-bot flew close. “And I’d say you found more valuable things in there than just a book. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Dammit, Watcher was right. I found Ditzy Doo, who was an acquaintance I valued far more than the guide she wrote (which I held in fairly high regard). Spinning a mental web, I could make an argument that my friendship with Calamity arose out of what happened there. Possibly, although less firmly, I could say my relationship with the New Appleloosans, and thus my ability to save many more ponies, including Velvet Remedy (for certain definitions of “saving”) stemmed from what Watcher pulled. I still wanted to stuff a hoof through the damn bot’s frontplate. But I knew it wouldn’t do any good. The sprite-bot wasn’t Watcher.
Velvet Remedy spoke up. “Littlepip, what’s going on here?”
I told them everything.
*** *** ***
“Whoops! Almost out of time...” Watcher warned as I finished up my tale, Watcher only rarely commenting. Calamity was still giving the floating bot nasty looks.
I organized the questions in my head, prioritizing. “Watcher, you seem to know a lot about things...”
“What were the Ministries?” I had seen enough references to Ministries scattered in the artifacts of the past that I suspected such information would be helpful for context. I didn’t realize that I had just asked what was arguably the most important question of my life. (It was, at least, Celestia Tier.)
Watcher was silent for a while. Long enough that I thought our strange pseudo-companion might have winked away again. Watcher’s words came slowly, deliberately. “Remember when I told you that you should search for your virtue? And I told you about the greatest heroes of Equestria?”
I nodded. “You mentioned them, yes.”
“Well...” Watcher’s words came slowly, as if they were painful. “The Massacre at Littlehorn broke Princess Celestia’s heart. After that, nearly midway through the war, Princess Celestia decided She wasn’t the right pony to lead Equestria anymore. So She stepped down, abdicated Her position to Her sister, Princess Luna...”
I listened in awe. I had never heard the Goddesses spoken about in this way before.
“The war had been devastating, both abroad and at home. Equestria was in severe distress, suffering from troubles within as well as from the enemy armies. You can’t imagine what it was like back then.
“Those heroes I told you about? They were six amazing ponies with true hearts and virtuous souls, whose friendship held the power to change the world. Princess Celestia had always been like a mother to them. She saw them, one in particular, as Her children. She loved them and wanted to protect them. So Princess Celestia shielded them from the worst of the war, finding quests for them that kept them, mostly, out of harm’s reach, or at least away from the battlefields. Sending them on diplomatic missions to the griffins and the buffalo -- things like that.
“Princess Luna met them for the first time in a much different circumstance. Princess Luna respected them and saw them as Her equals. And, I really think, as Her saviors. And so when Princess Luna ascended to rule Equestria and fight the war, She called Equestria’s most valuable heroes to serve as Her personal advisors. She called for the creation of new offices of government, one under each of them, whose job would be to take their advice and find ways to implement it.”
“And those were the Ministries?”
I looked around at the bleak, ruined wasteland that had once been the beautiful nation of Equestria. “Doesn’t look like that went so well.”
Silence. Then Watcher spoke again. “Have you ever heard the old saying ‘The portal to hell is opened with the incantation of good intentions’? If there was a moral to their story, I guess that would be it.”
*** *** ***
As night closed in, we approached a farm that seemed largely intact – no animals in the fields, but smoke curled up from the smokestack and there was a welcoming glow in several of the windows, as well as light seeping through the cracks around the silo doors. It was just the three of us again, Watcher having vanished with a pop, replaced by tinny, patriotic music and an oblivious sprite-bot. Calamity had kept a wary eye on the bot until it had wandered out of sight.
A raven fluttered down, perching on the first of what looked like a row of three planks sticking out of the ground near the edge of a barren pasture. The last plank was smaller and crooked. The last fellows standing of a fence, I presumed.
Quickly but carefully, we trotted down the rocky hillside and through the stone-strewn fields to reach the house. We needed a place to sleep, food to eat and, if possible, medical supplies. The house seemed like it was sent from Celestia Herself... assuming the ponies inside didn’t shoot us for trespassing. Hanging hope on the hospitality of strangers was unwise in the Equestrian Wasteland.
A creaky windmill with two thirds of its blades missing squeaked rustily as we passed.
“Maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” I began. Just because there was no awful graffiti did not mean that the place wasn’t full of raiders.
Velvet Remedy marched past me. “Really, Littlepip, you shouldn’t sound so jaded...” She was raising a hoof to knock when the door swung open, bathing us in warm light. Velvet blinked at the empty space in front of her, then looked down to see the filly in the doorway.
She was pink. Garishly pink! It was oddly like looking at the face in the giant billboard, only much, much (much!) smaller. And younger. And a very imperfect match. It was hard to tell in the light, but she seemed wrong somehow. My eyes first lighted on a rough scar on her head, like she’d recently fallen headfirst, possibly at very high speed, and scraped herself up rather badly. The first guess that popped into my head was that she had jumped off the roof of her barn. Trying to fly? My eyes moved to her sides, looking for wings, but she was indeed an earth pony. Then my eyes caught her bare flank. She was young, but not that young. She stood less than a head shorter than me. I knew what it was like to strive for a cutie mark that wouldn’t come; my heart went out to her. She had waited longer for hers than even I had, and was still wait... no, wait.
The wrongness snapped into focus. (If I’d still been on Mint-als, I would have realized it immediately!) Her coat wasn’t actually her coat.
She’d painted herself pink!
I looked to Calamity and Velvet Remedy. From their expressions, they had seen it too, and it didn’t sit well with them.
“Hello, dear,” Velvet began. “Is your mother...”
“OH MY GOSH!” The filly jumped up, squealing in delight. Then just as quickly she brought a hoof to her mouth, gasping as if in horror. “Oh no! You’re too late! I waited for you all day, but now we’re closed!” Tears welled up in her wide eyes.
Velvet Remedy took a step back. “Oh dear. I’m so sorry, young one, but we’re not...”
The look of horror dissipated instantly, replaced by a wide grin. “Of course you’re not! As if we ever close!” She giggled exuberantly. She ran out of the house, dashing past us, then spun with a suddenly somber expression. “You really should hurry though. Nasty things haunt these fields at night!” With that ominous proclamation, she squealed with glee and ran towards the silo.
We looked at each other. I was confused. Calamity simply shrugged and started trotting after the young, pink girl.
As we reached the silo, Velvet called out, “I’m sorry, sweetie, but we didn’t get your name?”
“OH!” The pink filly jumped. “Hee! Of course! Sorry! I’m just so excited! You’re the first visitors I’ve had to the museum in... oh ages!” Giggling again, “Oh, I’m Pinkie Bell!”
“Museum?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
Pinkie Bell braced herself and pushed open the silo door. The inside of the silo looked like a party had exploded inside it. Not in a good way -- more like a party had ingested a grenade, and the room was now splattered with party-gore and party-entrails.
“Welcome to the Pinkie Pie Museum!!” The girl was practically bouncing. “This here is the number one museum of all things Pinkie Pie in all of Equestria!”
Calamity was shaking his head, but there was a relieved smile on his face. Velvet Remedy gave Calamity a smirk and he rolled his eyes in return. This was weird, no doubt about it. But: no slaver, no raiders, no horrible monsters -- a descent into the slightly bizarre was almost a welcome change.
Pinkie Bell didn’t let up, didn’t even stop for breath. “And what do you know, you’re just in time for the tour! Now where’s our tour guide? She better not be sleeping again... oh wait! It’s ME!”
The “museum” was a single huge room. There wasn’t much to tour. But Pinkie Bell made a point to stop and show off one item after another, most of them adorned with saggy balloons or vomited all over with confetti.
“... and they danced and danced all day and all night! And best of all this is the very silo where Pinkie Pie, as a young filly, invented the first party ever and got her Cutie Mark!”
Velvet leaned close to me, murmuring, “I’m fairly certain that parties have existed for more than two-hundred and fifty years.” But Pinkie Bell was clearly on a roll and not about to stop for questions.
“During the first years of the war, Pinkie Pie traveled all over, throwing parties for Equestrian troops about to head into battle! Bringing them a taste of their homeland, and more importantly, bringing them cheer and putting smiles on their faces!” Pinkie Bell waved her arms at several easels with framed photographs of Pinkie Pie, dressed in frills and fishnets, dancing on stage in front of nearly a thousand ponies. “That is, when she wasn’t on super secret missions for Princess Celestia!”
“She looks a lot smaller in person,” I commented back to Velvet, thinking of how much less threatening the real pony seemed than the insane billboard just a few miles from this farm.
“Pinkie Pie’s only regret was that she couldn’t be everywhere helping all the troops all the time! (Although with Dash, she could come pretty close!) So of course...”
Calamity raised a hoof. “Dash her friend or Dash the drug?” Pinkie Bell seemed not to notice.
Prancing towards a familiar poster, Pinkie Bell rambled on, unstoppable. “...when Princess Luna offered to give Pinkie Pie a whole Ministry of her very own to do whatever she wanted to with it, she pounced on the chance! And the Ministry of Morale was born!”
It was the PINKIE PIE IS WATCHING YOU FOREVER poster, this one intact. The elderly pink mare was smiling mischeviously, as if she’d just played a wonderful prank. And with the whole face visible, I swore I caught a curious look in her eyes. I no longer felt guilty with the poster staring at me; now I felt uncomfortably exposed.
A practiced twirl took Pinkie Bell to a table covered in a chemistry set and several...samples. “Pinkie Pie was always really great at cooking things. And when Princess Luna (boo) declared that the drugs that were flooding Equestria from zebra lands were harmful to the people, Pinkie Pie decided to prove that they could be good, a fun addition to any party! Working day and night, Pinkie Pie concocted a mixture of Mint-als and some of her favorite things, creating... dun DUN DUN! Party Time Mint-als!!” Pinkie Bell lifted up a tin, showing them off.
I wanted that tin!
Pinkie Bell set it down next to the chemistry set and continued on. I lost track of her monologue because my mind insisted that I needed to be absolutely sure I remembered where that tin was.
“...by that time the Ministry of Morale had transformed Pinkie Pie into an iconic figure who transcended the boundaries of one pony to become a mystical figure that easily stood alongside Princess Celestia and Princess Luna Themselves!”
Okay, that was just wrong.
“Little colts and fillies knew that Pinkie Pie was always watching them. She saw everything they ever did. And if they were good little colts and fillies, who were nice and friendly, who did their chores and smiled and laughed and never spread seditious lies, then on their birthdays, Pinkie would bring them a wonderful party!” Pinkie Bell waved a hoof in warning, “But if they were bad little colts and fillies, Pinkie Pie would bring them a rock!”
What the...?! I looked to Velvet Remedy in disbelief.
Meanwhile, Pinkie Bell had stopped. Her eyes went wide, and she sucked in a huge breath. And waited. One second, two, three, four... Finally, Pinkie Bell let out the breath with a disappointed sigh. “I’m sorry. I thought I felt an impromptu musical number coming on.”
Velvet Remedy studiously looked elsewhere.
“Anyway, what was I saying... oh yea, how Pinkie Pie brings parties!”
Velvet turned back to the little filly, a little startled. “Brings? Dear, you do know that Pinkie Pie is dead, don’t you?”
Pinkie Bell didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, she’s physically dead! But her spirit lives on inside all of us!”
I watched Velvet Remedy’s eyebrows raise. And then she snickered, seeming to accept that on a level I just couldn’t. While I facehoofed, Velvet leaned close to Calamity and whispered, “I think Pinkie Pie’s spirit has a stalker.”
I managed to miss most of the rest of the “tour” because I was trying to come up with a way to talk Pinkie Bell into parting with what was probably a prize part of her collection. But I was snapped back when Pinkie Bell announced that she had something to ask of us. A proposal.
“It turns out, I have the only copy of the recipe for Party-Time Mint-als!...” Okay, I knew that wasn’t true. Calamity’s friend also had it. But this might be the fastest, easiest way to get it for myself. And why stress over asking for a single tin when I could get the damned recipe!?
“...And I’d be willing to share it with you if you can bring me the one piece of my Pinkie Pie Museum collection that I’m missing! A limited edition Pinkie Pie magical statuette! Bring it here, and I’ll throw the party to end all parties!”
*** *** ***
“I shouldn’t have made fun,” Velvet Remedy was saying as she trotted nervously about the cramped upstairs bedroom that Pinkie Bell had absolutely insisted we stay in for the night.
When Pinkie Bell explained that a few sets of very special magical figurines had been crafted of each of the Ministry Mares, my mind had immediately gone to the orange pony statuette with the three apples on her flank. Finding another one like that, one specifically of Pinkie Pie, could be virtually impossible. On the other hoof, Pinkie Bell insisted that the statuettes would have survived even the apocalypse. And really, I’d found one after being Outside for roughly what, a week?
Calamity sat on the bed, one ear to the wall as he watched Velvet fret.
“That poor filly. She’s so terribly sad.”
Calamity whinnied. “Sad? Were ya listenin’ t’ the same little pink-painted ball o’ Dash tha’ I was?” Then remembering his own earlier confusion, he clarified, “The drug.”
Velvet Remedy stopped. “Oh yes. And that poor girl is not happy. Not at all.” She hung her head. “She’s full of pain. Something horrible must have happened to her.”
Looking at Velvet Remedy, I was once more struck by the scarlet and gold stripes in her silvery-white mane, again finding them oddly reminiscent of the Ministry of Peace pink and yellow. Only then I was thinking of it as coincidence or destiny. Now, I wondered if it wasn’t more like Pinkie Bell’s painted-on pink coat.
Velvet caught my stare and seemed to fathom what I was thinking eerily quickly. “It’s not the same!” she insisted quietly.
Calamity was paying more attention to the wall. Abruptly he jumped to his hooves. “She’s gone. An’ if ya don’t want somethin’ horrible t’ happen t’ us, Ah suggest we be leavin’ too.” He moved to the door and pushed on the handle. It didn’t budge.
It was locked.
“Maybe she’s just trying to us safe from the ‘nasty things’ that haunt the fields at night?” I offered, not really believing it.
Velvet Remedy had pushed past me to try the door herself. Now she whinnied, “Doesn’t matter. We’re leaving. I will not be locked in a cage.”
Calamity had moved to the window and was looking down on the farm below. I reared up, putting my hooves on the ledge, and peered out through the glass. For a moment, I saw nothing. Just the night. Then, a crack of dimly pulsing, colored light appeared as Pinkie Bell pushed open the door of the barn just enough to slide through, then pushed it shut behind her.
Calamity waited, quiet and still, until the door of the farmhouse opened, casting a rectangle of light across the ground with a Pinkie Bell shape cut out of it. The moment the door closed, he turned and bucked at the window.
The crash was terribly loud.
The escape would have been treacherous, if not impossible, without a pegasus pony to fly us down. We started across the farm, crouching low, keeping to the deeper shadows in the darkness. We were creeping alongside the barn when impulse overtook me and I slipped inside.
I later told Velvet Remedy and Calamity that I wasn’t sure why I entered the barn. But the truth was, I had exactly two reasons. First, the recipe for Party Time Mint-als had not been in the museum, and I had not spotted it in the house. It could have easily been hidden anywhere -- in a book or under a rug -- but I was guessing that Pinkie Bell’s obsession would not allow her to not put it on display. So I was hoping it was in the barn.
Second, that oddly glowing, pulsing light reminded me uncomfortably of the way that passenger wagon had exploded after Calamity shot it. I had asked Calamity about it later, and he had explained that some of the really big skywagons, like that one which had been designed to carry dozens of ponies, used a magical field generated by a spark engine so that a single pony could pull it through the air. Like spark batteries, those engines of arcane science still hold serious magical energies. Calamity didn’t understand it at that level, of course. He just knew that shooting a hole through the magic box in one of those vehicles unleashes one hell of a vortex.
Such a vortex was brief and very violent. The idea that Pinkie Bell might have something akin to that in her barn, possibly a somehow stable or perpetual magical vortex, deeply worried me.
*** *** ***
“What am I looking at?”
It was small, geometrically shaped with surfaces that seemed to twist through each other. The whole thing was the size of a bushel of apples, and swirled with sickly mesmerizing colors.
I could feel it drawing me in. I was losing myself in it. It took physical effort to pull myself away from the thing. Casting my gaze about, I found a safe. The rest of the barn was almost completely barren. I slipped over to it and began to ply the one trade I had which seemed truly unique.
The safe popped open with a whisper.
Inside was my prize: the Party-Time Mint-al recipe!
But it wasn’t mine. I scavenged. I looted the homes of slavers and raiders. But this was stealing from some poor young earth pony not yet a mare.
But... Party-Time Mint-als! And really, all I had to do was take it long enough to copy it onto my PipBuck. It’d put it right back. And that wouldn’t really be stealing, right?
Except Pinkie Bell was offering it as a reward for helping her with something. And that made it feel like stealing. Like I was taking a reward I hadn’t earned.
I sat, staring into that safe for I don’t know how long. Finally, I focused my levitation magics... and picked up the one other item in the safe. A recorder with a single imprinted message. I copied it into my PipBuck and started it.
I didn’t recognize the voice, but she sounded young. At least as young as Pinkie Bell was now.
“The raiders came back yesterday. They didn’t take kindly to daddy running them off last week with his shotgun, so this time they came in force. Mama made us hide in the upstairs bedroom and cast a spell over us to keep us from being seen. She made us promise to be quiet and still. But Silver Bell...
“My little sister has always been able to make beautiful music, like the tinkling of dozens of magical bells. We all adore it. But Silver Bell, sometimes when she’s frightened or worried, the spell happens all on its own. She didn’t mean to. It was an accident.
“The raiders killed mama and daddy. They killed them really slow and brutal. And they made us watch. It was...
“I buried them out by the end of the east field. Put up a couple planks as tombstones. I hate that they won’t last long, but I can’t carve their names into rocks. And mama and daddy deserve to have their names over their graves.
“Silver Bell has nightmares every night. Honestly, I do most nights too. And during the days she just curls up silent-like. Never crying. Never smiling. I can’t even get her to eat. I don’t know what to do.
“I’m going to try taking her to Tenpony Tower. I’ve heard there’s a buck up there who takes in orphans. It’s a long walk, and so I’m headed up to gather provisions from the neighbors. If I’m not back when you get here, please load up the wagon. I know I can’t ask you to come with us; you have your own folks to take care of. But I would really appreciate it if you could hang around so I could say goodbye.
“You’re the best buckfriend I could have asked for.
I sat there, stunned. Oh sweet Goddess Celestia...
“You shouldn’t have listened to that!” I turned with a start to see Pinkie Bell (...no, Silver Bell!) staring right into my face. “It’s. Not. Yours.”
This close, I got a much better look at that scar. Horrible realization hit me like ice water. Silver Bell was a unicorn. She’d cut off her own horn!
I recoiled, backing into the open safe.
“You want it so much? Keep it!” Pinkie/Silver Bell reached up to swing the safe closed on me.
From behind her, Velvet Remedy’s voice broke the air. “You’re not like Pinkie Pie.”
Pinkie/Silver Bell froze. Then slowly turned away from me. Still, she blocked the front of the safe, and I somehow couldn’t bring myself to barge through her to get out.
“You’re nothing like Pinkie Pie,” Velvet Remedy spoke slowly, calmly. Her voice wasn’t accusing now. It was mostly sad. “You are, if anything, the opposite of Pinkie Pie.”
I watched the filly in front of me shake. Emotions seemed to rush through her as if they didn’t want to stay or were eager to get out of the way so the next emotion could take hold.
“You don’t bring happiness. When I look at you, all I feel is sad,” Velvet continued, her voice giving gentleness to her words. “If Pinkie Pie were to meet you, she wouldn’t throw a party...”
“Yes she would!”
Velvet paused only a moment, “Maybe she would, but she wouldn’t throw a party because she wanted to have fun with you. She would throw a party because she wanted to help you. Because you would make her very sad.”
“W-w-what do y-you know!?”
“I know that laughter, real laughter, isn’t forced. It isn’t something you paint on to hide how you are truly feeling.” Velvet Remedy walked slowly towards the filly, who was trapped between flying into a rage and breaking down in tears. “I know that you are very badly hurt inside. And it’s not the sort of hurt that can be fixed with a party. Or healed by my horn.”
By the time Velvet Remedy had reached the filly, Pinkie/Silver Bell was shaking badly.
“What happened to your parents wasn’t your fault. What happened to your sister wasn’t your fault...”
To her sister? Suddenly, I remembered the three planks in the field. The last one crooked, like it was planted by someone smaller and younger who didn’t manage so well. I thought of an older sister named Memory trotting out alone towards the nearest neighbors, another farm probably a dozen miles away through territory being savaged by raiders. My heart broke.
“YES! IT! WAS!” And with that, Silver Bell collapsed into wretched sobs. Velvet Remedy was there to wrap her head and a leg around the filly, giving her a mane to cry into.
Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Math Wrath – You are able to optimize your PipBuck’s targeting spell logic. S.A.T.S. is now 20% cooler.