Chapter Eleven: Factions
“Didn’t know anyone would willingly walk into this place, not unless they were looking for trouble.”
“Everypony in Manehattan is just... gone. I-I was talking with my best friend, Silver Spoon, over terminal chat when the connection went dead. My... my best friend is dead. Only she’s... she’s not... laying dead somewhere. One minute she was talking to me, telling me about the concert she went to last night at Hoofbeats, and then she was just gone. Erased.
“Th-they say the ponies in a few of the Ministries’ buildings might have survived... but that doesn’t sound real. Shattered Hoof is more than two days trot from Manehattan, and some of the guards said they could hear the megaspell go off. It was unnatural, alien... not like a real sound. A few of the guards ventured up the highest ridge. They came back describing a huge pillar of perverted green fire with a strange rainbow sheen, wrapped with rings of black smoke, lifting up into the clouds from just over the horizon where Manehattan is supposed to be.
“Now they’re saying Cloudsdayle was hit too. And that Equestria’s own megaspells have already been cast back at the zebras. Oh... oh no... will the zebras hit Ponyville? It’s so small! They wouldn’t, would they? I... I’ve got to warn mom and dad!
“Maybe they can get into the Stable at Sweet Apple Acres. Oh please, oh please, it’s got to still be open! Last week, Silver Spoon told me that Stable-Tec was filing ponies into the Stables around Manehattan, but that was only as some sort of test run. Nothing for ponies to panic about. It’s not like they knew...”
I turned off the log. While it had played, several others had been downloaded into my PipBuck. I had been finding bits of this pony’s audio diary scattered all about the guardhouse. I had pulled an earbloom from my armored utility barding and tuned it into my PipBuck, allowing me to listen to the recordings in one ear without giving away my position.
Calamity returned from scouting ahead, signaling with his tail that the path was clear.
Movement through Shattered Hoof was proving swifter than I felt we had any right to expect. Our progress was partially due to keeping our hoofprints as small as possible -- no lining our saddlebags with items that could be missed. (I made an exception for the contents of the Lost & Found safe, justifying the theft with the reminder that the safe had not been opened since before the megaspells, and so no pony here would be suspicious if it was empty, so long as I closed and locked it again.)
But more than that, these ponies didn’t seem to consider that the fortress could be infiltrated; they weren’t on guard. I’m not a mistress of shadow, but I hardly needed the advanced tutelage from Zebra Infiltration Tactics to slip past ponies whom were being this oblivious. (I’d skimmed through the book while Calamity was fetching the mattress cover.) Calamity wasn’t quite as good and had nearly tipped a Shattered Hoof Raider to his presence twice now, but we’d managed to hide each time. I figured once we got back to the train-fort of Gawd, I’d pass him Zebra Infiltration Tactics to peruse himself. (It’s not as if books can only be read once, after all.)
The inside of Shattered Hoof proper was a cold, monotonous grey -- much like maintenance in Stable Two, except here all the walls were cracked and chipped, the ceiling decayed, the light weak and uneven, cast from small lanterns hung from railroad spikes chiseled into the walls. The darkening sky of clouds outside turned the high-set, barred windows into dead eyes staring vacantly into the halls. Somewhere down the hall, a terribly sad song was playing over a radio -- we were within the range of DJ Pon3’s broadcast again.
“...Ponies on the expressway, with no features, with no faces,
Ponies milling about me, trudging off to nameless places...”
The song pulled a melancholy chord in my heart; the singer somehow managing to make the Equestria of before the war seem as dreary and bleak as the wasteland itself. As I followed Calamity, I considered turning on one of the other entries from the audio diary just to drown it out; but I realized that with it playing in only one ear, the two would likely mix into something even more depressing.
“...Waiting foals, for their birthday; have a party, please be happy,
Growing up all too swiftly; losing hopes of what they might be...”
*** *** ***
“Well, crap!” I muttered dourly as I hugged a shadow behind a placard (“Hard Work is Happy Work!”) and stared across the open rows of desks to the well-lit room beyond. Inside, a pony matching Gawd’s description of Deadeyes was sitting behind a desk, reading a book (Applied Gemstones). He was flanked by at least one guard pony that I could see, and possibly others I could not. The safe was directly behind him. There was no way to get at it stealthily. Even if I used the Stealth Buck, he’d hear the safe opening less than a foot away from his ears.
“Time for our backup plan,” I whispered to Calamity. “Got one?”
Calamity raised his eyebrows, “Yeah. Load ‘em all up in the caboose an’ kick it free.” I winced as he reminded me how well one of his last plans had gone.
“Could be worse,” he whispered with a smile. “Ah’m sure Velvet’s plan would be t’ go up an’ ask ‘im nicely.”
I closed my eyes. Damn it. We couldn’t just sit here, waiting for the bastard to move. The longer we hung around, the better chance of getting caught. “Okay,” I said finally. “We’ll do that.”
Calamity’s eyes went wide. “Ah was joking!” he hissed.
Thankful to the hot mare statuette for returning some of my telekinetic magic, I carefully levitated my sniper rifle and assault carbine to Calamity. “Take these. Go back and hide in that side room with all the old flashlights,” I instructed, recalling a room that looked like it hadn’t been used for anything other than a few quickies in several months. “I’ll go up and say hello.”
“An’ when they all shoot ya, then what’s the plan?”
“I’m winging this here, but if all else fails, I still have the Stealth Buck. That should get me out. If shooting starts, don’t wait for me. Get safely back to Remedy.” With an afterthought, “Please.”
Calamity scowled and moved off, muttering something under his breath about the wisdom of leaving “winging it” to non-pegasus ponies. I started up another audio log, listening while I gave Calamity time to position himself safely away. The voice of the same mare leapt through my earbloom, sounding panicked.
“The communication web is down. I tried and tried to reach mom and dad, but I couldn’t get through. At first, it seemed that the web was flooded, and my calls kept getting bounced. Then it just died completely.
“We can’t reach any of the Ministry of Morale hubs either. No pony was expecting the one in Manehattan to respond, but not even Canterlot? Could... the zebras couldn’t possibly have destroyed Canterlot! Could they? What... what happened to Princess Luna??”
Having heard of the Canterlot Ruins, I knew the answer. I toggled to the next log.
“It’s starting to rain outside; it was bright and sunny less than an hour ago. I think the pegasus ponies are mourning Cloudsdayle.
“Most of the guards are gone now. They’ve left me the codes to open the cells. Scoops said it was up to me. Nopony else was going to risk setting our guests free. Why me? I-I’m not the one who’s supposed to be in charge!
“If I don’t, these ponies will starve to death in here! But if I do... some of them are Really Bad Ponies. Some have even confessed to helping the zebras at Shattered Hoof Ridge when they tried to assassinate Princess Celestia. If I let them go... who knows what harm they might do? What is worse? Letting them die here? Or inflicting them on a wounded, suffering Equestria?
“No, no, no! I’m just an inspector. I’m not supposed to make these kinds of decisions!
“Mom? Dad? Silver Spoon? What should I do?”
I wasn’t sure why I was listening to these logs now. Curiousity? Or maybe, in a way, I was paying my respects to the past by listening? By learning?
Either way, it didn’t matter. Time to go.
*** *** ***
“How’d you get in here?” Deadeyess scowled, staring down at me. I had three magical energy weapons pointed at my head (although the big, brutish pony to Deadeyess’s left looked like he’d rather kill me with his teeth).
“I...” Dammit, think! Watcher might call honesty a virtue, but sometimes the ability to lie your tail off is a virtue too. “...used magic. I am a unicorn, after all.” I felt a rush of relief -- that had sounded plausible. Even I might have bought it if I didn’t already know how much I suck at spells.
“Better question is: why?”
“Why? Why I came in here?”
“No, why are fillies different than colts.” The slate grey pony’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “What do you think?”
Stammering, I realized I should have thought my approach through a lot better. “I-I wanted to...” I glanced away, mentally searching for inspiration. My eyes fell on a framed news article, yellowed with age, which featured a faded picture of a pretty unicorn. (“Sweetie Belle Performs Patriotism Concert at Shattered Hoof”). My eyes snapped back to meet Deadeyess’s own. “...to join your crew. You’re all escaped slaves, right? Well, I just escaped from old Appleloosa.”
I realized just after I said it that I was wearing armored Stable barding and probably looked nothing like an escaped slave. Deadeyes was regarding me with deep and well-deserved suspicion.
If they started shooting, I was probably dead. Small and fast is helpful against long-range gunfire, but not so much against point-blank shots from weapons that will melt you into a puddle. Worse, my heart sank when I realized that Calamity would almost certainly share my fate. From what I knew of my new friend, running and hiding weren't in his normal book of tactics. No matter what I told him to do, I suspected he'd choose to join in the firefight.
“Tell you what, filly,” Deadeyes seemed to finally decide, fixing me with a glare. “Let’s see how you do with a couple of errands. Show yourself to be useful, and we’ll chat again.”
I gulped. Well, at least he hadn’t shot me yet. “What do you need me to do?”
“I have a letter that needs to be delivered. Not far, just to Yellow Hill Ridge. Maybe an hour’s trot. I’ve got a map you can download to your PipBuck. Deliver it, come right back, we’ll talk again.”
As he pushed the sealed envelope across his desk to me, I wondered if it said something like “Kill the pony carrying this letter.”
“Oh, and you’ll need this legband. It will let Gawdyna know you’re okay to pass through.”
“Who?” I asked as I slipped on the legband, feigning ignorance.
“The bitch of a griffin who runs our welcoming committee. Honestly, she’s more trouble than she’s worth; but the boss seems to like her, so she stays. For now.”
“The boss? I thought you were the boss.”
Deadeyes clearly did not have the patience for questions that Gawd did. “Scramble, if she talks again, start pulling off her legs.”
The grin on the brute to Deadeyes’ left widened eagerly. I left quickly and wordlessly.
*** *** ***
I hadn’t gotten far before one of Deadeyes’ guards came trotting out after me. He motioned for another, seemingly random, Shattered Hoof pony to flank me on the other side. Without words, it was clear they were making sure I “found my way out.”
As we approached the small room where Calamity was hiding, I blurted out as loudly as I could without sounding suspicious, “So, escorting ponies out. Is that your official job? Are you the escorter-outer?”
“Shut up,” Deadeyes’ guard said warningly, but the other replied easily.
“Actually, no. I’m just a rock-breaker.”
I raised an eyebrow. “A rock-breaker? So what’s your story?”
He seemed amiable enough. “Slavers assaulted my family homestead. My brother and I fought back, while my wife tried to hide our foals. They killed my brother, took my lovely Sugarplum and the foals and left me for dead.” As he spoke, a cloud passed over his face. His eyes narrowed and a tone of sadness tinged with seething crept into each word. “Crawled myself here for the protection. I’m not a raider. Don’t do any of that shit. Just work the rocks and thank the Goddesses that I’m not alone out in the wastes.”
I nodded solemnly. What else could I do? In the heavy quiet that followed, I could hear that radio playing in some nearby room. The music had stopped, and DJ Pon3 was reporting the news.
“...been warning everypony for some time now to steer clear of Appleloosa. Well, seems like the Stable Dweller either didn’t get the message, or chose to ignore it. I’ve gotten confirmed reports that the little gal marched into Appleloosa, and brought hell on her hooves. Freed over a dozen slaves, many of them foals. I’m happy to report that they’re safe and sound. But there’s a bitter note to this song. When a small army of slavers tried to take their captives back, our heroine of the wasteland sacrificed herself making sure everypony got away safe. So this next song goes out to you, Stable Dweller. May Celestia and Luna wrap you in Their tails...”
I stumbled, missing a step, my mind shocked by rapid realizations. The radio was talking about me. Again. The poor ponies I helped to freedom had made it safely. I was dead! ...Well, according to the radio; somepony must have assumed I had died in the train crash. Either that, or somepony who knew better lied.
I wanted to stop, go back, hear the rest of it. To kick or shout at the radio to somehow make it repeat everything from the beginning.
“Keep moving!” Deadeyes’ guard barked as I fell momentarily behind. I trotted faster to put myself back between them.
Looking at the guard, I asked him this time, “And what’s your story?”
With a glare, “I won my place here in the annual Stomp an Annoying Unicorn to Death competition.”
Back to being quiet it was then. We were taking a slightly different, more direct path back to the yard than the one Calamity and I had used. The hall we were passing by now had several doorways opening onto a combination of amphitheatre and mess hall. There was an old stage in the back with tattered and befouled curtains which I imagined Sweetie Belle, the mare who would become Stable Two’s first Overmare, performed on. The room was crowded haphazardly with tables and benches and several dozen raider ponies scarfing a pale stew, the odor of which was mixing unpleasantly with the stench of unbathed ponies and an under-scent of dry rot.
I kicked on the next log on my PipBuck to distract me.
“I wasn't fast enough. I should have known better. No wonder the rest of the staff fled so quickly. I should have known that Shattered Hoof would go into lockdown as soon as the mainframe realized we were cut off from the outside. Assisted jailbreak prevention protocols. By the time I made my decision and released the guests from their cells, we were already all trapped inside.
“I know how the weaker ones fare. I can only imagine what they will do to me when they find a member of the staff got locked in with them.
“I took the food from the guardhouse fridge and locked myself into this bathroom. I locked several other doors too. With luck, they will think it's normal for this door to be locked as well. Because if they really try to break it down, I'm sure they can.
“I've got maybe three days of food. Plenty of water. A little bit of medicine. I only hope it will last me long enough for them to find a way out of Shattered Hoof. My only chance is if they leave before they realize I'm here.”
*** *** ***
As we exited into the yard, the guard turned on me, pushing me up against the wall. “You want to know my story?” he growled. “I’ll tell you. I was a merchant on a caravan that Gawd’s Talons were supposed to be guarding. Saw them try to buck us over to slavers, and saw her take them down. So how’d I get here? She flew me in. Just like we all know she flew you in.”
My ears tilted. I could feel the stone wall grinding into my backside.
“I used to be one of those ponies out there, following Gawd. But you don’t become a good merchant if you can’t read changes in the market. So I made my allegiances with Deadeyes,” the merchant-turned-guard informed me, his voice rumbling with warning. “Gawd’s heading for the chopping block. And trust me, you don’t want to be standing on the wrong side when the axe comes down.”
The two then turned from me. The other one chuckling, “You go ‘teleport’ out now.” They left me in the rock yard, locking the door behind them. Looking around the yard, I realized that any structure designed to hold ponies prisoner would have wards to prevent unicorns from just teleporting out. It was a rare magical ability, but one they would anticipate.
I moved over to where the mattress cover had been thrown and hid myself, clicking another audio log as I waited for Calamity. The voice was soft, nearly drowned out by the sounds of heated argument in the background.
“Out of food. Made what I had stretch... I think. No real way to tell time in here, but I think its been a week. At least four days. After the food was gone, I raided the garbage can. Some old apple cores... they were brown, mushy and tasted horrid.
“The guests outside are doing much worse. There was less than two days food in the pantry when we went into lockdown. Now they’re starving. I-I can hear them outside... arguing about who they’re going to eat first! Oh nonono. They can’t! It’s beyond horrific -- “
The pony’s voice was cut off by a muffled scream. The chaos in the background heightened, and I could clearly make out a pony shouting “Carve her up!”
“NO! Oh nonononono! Don’t make me hear this! Celestia, Luna, please! I can’t hear this!...”
*** *** ***
Night hugged us in its darkness as Calamity carried me towards Yellow Hill Ridge. “Now why are we helpin’ this Deadeyes feller again?”
“Still trying to get a chance at that safe for Gawd. Remember Velvet.”
“Ayep,” he said dourly. We flew in silence a few more minutes before, “Where’s this place supposed t’ be again? Ah can’t see a damn thing out here tonight.”
I had the location marked on my PipBuck’s automap, but I hesitated to lift my leg and look; shifting myself around while being carried by a flying pegasus seemed unwise. Instead, I brought up my Eyes-Forward Sparkle to check the compass.
Nothing. Either I had forgot to set the compass to keep track of Yellow Hill Ridge, or we were off course.
“Dagnabit, Ah overshot!” Calamity banked, the cool night wind cutting through my coat and mane. The turn brought a number of flickering lights into view. “Is that what we’re lookin’ for? Looks like a whole mess o’ campers t’ me.”
I checked my E.F.S. Now I could see the marker; it was pulsing at the very edge of my compass. “No, we’re still off course. It’s back that way.”
Calamity didn’t turn. “Hold on an’ hush. Ah wanna see what this is then.” He swooped a little lower, aiming to fly a pass above the lights. As we neared, I too could make out a mass of tents, cookpots, and ponies. And, as we drew closer, banners: red and black, a stylized white eye with a crimson iris dominating the center.
The ponies down there were armed, and there were a lot of them. I spotted two griffins amongst them. Talon mercenaries, by their armor, but wearing neckbands of red and black with the distinctive eye. Clearly not Gawd’s Talons. Different company. Towards the back of the camp, I spotted the rows of slaver wagons.
Calamity beat his wings, grunting softly in pain as he pulled us higher into the darkness, hopefully before any of those below had taken a glance up. “Well, ain’t this a barrel of bad apples.”
“Calamity,” I whispered, not able to un-hear that grunt. “Your wing...”
“Ah’m fine. Hush now.”
We continued to fly. I was now keeping a closer eye on my E.F.S. compass. Yellow Hill Ridge was a quarter-mile back towards Shattered Hoof, with just enough hills between to have ensured that we wouldn’t have spotted the camp had we come straight to it. This time, I spotted the tiny speck of the waiting courier’s lantern. I suggested to Calamity that we fly past and let me trot up alone, coming from the expected direction.
*** *** ***
Deadeyes clopped his hooves together, reading me. I had mentioned nothing of the Red Eye slaver army. “Good work,” he said finally. “Go get yourself some rest. You look like a griffin’s playtoy. Come back tomorrow. I’ll have one more job for you. Do that, and you’re in.”
With that, he waved me off. This time, to my surprise, no pony jumped to escort me. I was only a few yards down the hall when Deadeyes, accompanied by all his guards, simply walked out of his office, leaving the door open behind him. They turned, moving off in a different direction.
I stopped. The safe was unguarded. This was... almost too easy. No, it was definitely too easy.
I activated the Stealth Buck.
The safe was tricky, but within my range of skill. It popped open with a snap. The only thing inside was the ledger.
I slipped the ledger into my saddlebag and was just snapping the safe shut when Deadeyes and his entourage returned, looking around. If it hadn’t been for the spell, they would have seen me. Deadeyes began to trot around the back of his desk from the right, his brutish bodyguard circling from the left, trapping me. It didn’t matter if they could see me -- the slightest bump would let them know I was here! As they drew closer, I scrambled up onto the desk itself.
The two other guards, one of them the ex-merchant, took their positions by the door. I turned on the desk, crouching, and prepared to crawl down and out between them. One of them shut the door.
Luna fuck me with the moon.
I turned slowly. Deadeyes had stopped and was staring at his safe.
“Think she took it?” the former merchant asked. My heart sank into my stomach.
“Oh, I think our little spy did whatever Gawdyna wanted her to do,” Deadeyes smiled. “All the better. Let the griffin cook herself.”
He turned to his guards. “Best prepare the others. Red Eye’s forces are set to raid Shattered Hoof the sunrise after tomorrow. We want to make sure they have no trouble getting in. It’s time to meet the big man himself.”
My mind reeled. Deadeyes was making deals with the slavers? He was going to let Red Eye’s forces come in and capture the ponies he was supposed to be protecting here? The treachery mirrored the betrayal of Gawd’s Talons but on a much larger scale.
Deadeyes strode behind his desk and clopped his hooves down on it forcing me to lift one of mine to avoid being touched. I could feel sweat break out across my forehead as I balanced silently.
Deadeyes leaned forward to grab his copy of Applied Gemstones in his teeth. With a fright, I realized I was standing on it. I lifted my hindleg away with just barely enough time. Now my balance was much more strenuous. My whole body was achy from sleep deprivation. I searched frantically for a place to put one of my raised hooves before I fell.
The door banged open. I toppled onto the floor with a thud as a pair of earth ponies burst in. Deadeyes jumped back, startled, his book dropping to the floor.
“Sir, sorry to interrupt, but we’ve got an intruder!”
Deadeyes stared at the two ponies. “Little unicorn girl, ‘bout this high?” he asked casually, raising his hoof.
“No sir. This one’s a pegasus!”
With the moon!
My PipBuck alerted me that the invisibility spell was about to wear off. I didn’t have a choice. I lurched to my hooves and skirted around the ponies, barely slipping between them. Then dashed out through the open door.
*** *** ***
I galloped to the meeting spot as fast as my weary legs could take me. Calamity was waiting for me, hidden under the mattress cover. “No need for that now. They spotted you. Got the ledger. Let’s go!”
We were airborne in moments. I could tell how tired Calamity was; we kept dipping in the air. I winced at the workout we were giving his mending wing. “We get back to Gawd, and we sleep. No matter what else, we have to sleep!” He hadn’t complained, but I could tell his wing was killing him.
I played another audio log. This time, the mare was no longer whispering, but I could still barely hear her over a thundering racket.
“Dammit. They know I’m in here. I woke from my nightmare with such a start that I kicked over the garbage can, and they heard it. They’ll break through the door soon.”
I could hear one of the ponies on the other side of the bathroom door call out abysmally profane promises.
“I don’t have to guess what they’ll do to me anymore. They want me to know. But I’m not going to let them.
“Go figure, this crappy little gun is going to save me after all. Used the handle to shatter the mirror. This is going to hurt... but if I do it quickly... it won’t hurt for long.”
There was one audio log left.
Junction R-7 swam into view through the darkness. Exhausted, Calamity brought us in for a slightly rough landing. Ponies pointed glowing magical energy weapons at us from all directions. Gawd stepped forward. “Welcome back. I was beginning to worry about you two.” She looked us over. “Got the ledger?”
I nodded shakily. “Yes. But before you look at it, I want to look at it. And there’s something you should know.”
Gawd raised an eyebrow. “Oh?” she asked appraisingly.
“Deadeyes knows. He pretty much let me steal it. I overheard him saying something about letting you cook yourself.”
Gawd sat back, regarding me. Finally, “I’m impressed. You didn’t have to tell me that.” Then, with a narrow look, “So why did you? What’s in it for you.”
I swayed on my hooves. “There’s more. But I’ll only tell you that after my friends and I get some sleep. Here. Under the safety of your protection.”
Gawd’s beak broke into a grin, the scar twisting it on one side. “All right. You’ve got yourself a bargain.” Pointedly, “But while you sleep, I want that ledger.”
I nodded. “What I want out of it won’t take long.”
Gawd guided us back towards one of the cattle cars. As I stepped a hoof inside, I felt a rush of relief to see Velvet Remedy, curled on a bed of slightly moldy hay. She was talking softly with another pony as she watched over a third whose hindleg was wrapped in what had been some of our precious remaining bandages. I wondered how many medical supplies we had left, if any.
Velvet Remedy jumped up at our return, giving us a weak but bright smile. “What did you two do, take the scenic route?”
“Ayep. Somethin’ like that,” Calamity responded.
“And what did I say about this wing!” Velvet Remedy pushed Calamity towards the corner of the train car that had clearly become her impromptu clinic. “Let me take a look at it and change those bandages!”
Shaking my head in a combination of adoration and despair, I followed behind her. I was too tired to even appreciate how nice a tailside she had. Finding a bit of hay that looked filthy but soft, I curled down and levitated out the ledger. Flipping through, I found entries going back many years. The newest ones, I felt, were suspect. Whatever Deadeyes was up to, I rather expected he had doctored the ledger as part of it. But the older entries, faded as they were, couldn’t have been altered without being obvious. At least, not by an earth pony. (I found myself wondering what a forgery cutie mark would look like.)
It was easy to find the entry I was looking for:
Some of the nearby farmers have begun to put up resistance. Armed themselves from that merchant caravan that passed through last month. One of them took a few shots at the raider party I dispatched to the east side. Mr. Topaz doesn’t care, just wants the rocks to keep coming. So I think it’s time we reminded these rock farmers just why they do as we say. Tomorrow, I’m sending some of the boys up to the Bell farm to make an example. Told them to make it real graphic, so the rest of these ponies don’t have any room to misinterpret.
I slammed the book closed with more telekinetic force than I thought I had left in me. The ledger went flying across the cattle car, bouncing off the far wall. Now I didn’t want to sleep. Now I wanted to march back in there, stuff Little Macintosh down Deadeyes’ throat, and open fire.
Instead, I got up, fetched the ledger, and walked out to have a talk with Gawd.
*** *** ***
“So what now?”
Gawd looked up from the ledger, gazing at me from across her desk.
“Now? Now, you go t’ sleep. Tomorrow, we chat a bit over breakfast, then you’re free t’ go. By then, all the border patrols and outposts will know I’ve said you’re free t’ pass. You did the job. A verbal contract is still a contract, and I don’t renege.” Gawd frowned slightly. “Too bad, too. We could really use a skilled medic here.”
I let that sink in. Still, not really what I was looking for. “How about you?”
“What about me?”
I pointed a hoof at the ledger. “What do you do now?”
Gawd huffed, then drew herself up. “Mister Topaz contracted me to protect Shattered Hoof and its ponies from threats. Ain’t hard to argue that Deadeyes has become just such a threat.” She jabbed the ledger with a talon. “I can’t ignore this. I knew Deadeyes was up to something shady, but this is beyond the pale.”
A little too on the nose, part of me thought. Almost like Deadeyes’ treachery was custom tailored to get under Gawd’s feathers. I told her as much.
She laughed, a bitter but still humored laugh. “Think I don’t see that?”
I could guess what she must be planning. And another question surfaced in my brain. “What would you do with this place if you were in charge?”
She gave me a look.
“Shattered Hoof, I mean. What would you do?”
Slowly, evenly, she intoned, “I’m not in charge. I’m not going to be. Even with Deadeyes gone. Mister Topaz runs this joint, and I’m still contracted to him.”
Right, I thought as I nodded. But what if you weren’t?
*** *** ***
Velvet Remedy approached me as I returned to the cattle car. I was so tired, but my heart still fluttered a little at her approach.
“So, is the griffin actually letting us go?”
I nodded. Velvet Remedy looked surprised more than relieved. “We get to spend the night. We need sleep...”
“I would insist. Calamity’s done more damage to his wing with all that flying around. He needs time to heal.”
I winced painfully. Velvet Remedy switched topics with what my sleep-deprived mind insisted was a jarring abruptness.
“Littlepip, I had the most interesting conversation while you and Calamity were out stealing.”
I sighed weakly. I wasn’t really up for this.
“See the buck over there?” she asked, pointing a hoof towards a dark shape that I assumed was a sleeping pony. “His name is Preacher.”
I nodded, vaguely recalling Gawd saying something about a Preacher.
“He says he came here to spread the word of the Goddess out from under the hoof of Red Eye.”
My ears perked. Velvet Remedy had my full attention. “The word of the Goddess?” I asked. The way she spoke made it clear that she wasn’t talking about Celestia or Luna.
Velvet Remedy nodded. “He claims this Goddess of his has been speaking to him in dreams since he was a tiny colt.” Her tone suggested her prognosis didn’t involve the divine.
I wasn’t ready to dismiss it so quickly. Looking sternly to Velvet Remedy, I whispered back, “He might be right.” Her eyes widened in disbelief. Before she could open her muzzle to mock, I elaborated. “Ever wonder how the slavers got ahead of our train like that? I’ve been wondering if there might be some sort of... telepathic magic?... involved somehow.”
I felt a sudden urge to travel to Tenpony Tower and talk with DJ Pon3. He seemed to have an incredibly good, if imperfect, network of informants... or possibly some sort of magic or technology that was giving him the lay of the land. I wanted to trade information. Find out what he knew. There was a puzzle here, and I was still several pieces short of seeing the picture. If any pony had those pieces, it would be DJ Pon3.
Velvet Remedy seemed to be digesting my comment. Finally, she spoke again, “Well, if that’s true, it puts the rest of what Preacher said in a more ominous light.” She lead me to the far corner of the cattle car, whispering, “According to Preacher, the Goddess chooses to speak to very few ponies...”
I found myself questioning that. Chooses? Or are there limitations to this so-called Goddess’s powers.
“...And the pony Red Eye is the one she speaks to the most. However, Preacher isn’t so sure Red Eye is...” Velvet Remedy paused, searching for words. “...getting the message right. He seems to think that Red Eye’s reception is being garbled.” Clearly, Velvet Remedy was not satisfied with the analogy, but I got the idea.
“Either that,” Velvet continued, “Or he’s just not listening. Either way, Preacher is here to spread the ‘True Word’ of the Goddess. Away from Red Eye and his bands of slavers.”
I thought of the armed camp parked a few hours trot outside of Shattered Hoof territory. Preacher didn’t go far enough.
I hesitated to ask, “And what is the ‘True Word’?” I really didn’t want to ask Preacher directly. Sure, I’d get an answer that wasn’t tainted by Velvet Remedy’s own prejudices, but at the cost of being roped into sermon. I was too tired to even contemplate that tonight.
“To paraphrase: Praise Me, worship Me and I will lift you up and you will all become One, Unified under Me.” Velvet Remedy had clearly suffered through hours of this. I could understand why Gawd had been wary of gaining another Preacher.
I nodded to Velvet. “There’s a pile of hay calling my name. We’re going to talk to Gawd again at breakfast tomorrow, but after that, we’re free to go.” I wasn’t so sure, however, that I wanted to leave just yet.
I played the last audio log before I headed to bed. This time, the banging on the bathroom door was much louder, rhythmic. It sounded like the ponies outside were using a piece of furniture as a battering ram. I could hear structural cracking from the doorframe.
The mare’s voice was weak, and she spoke in a disturbing sing-song.
“I hear you knockin’ but you can’t come in!
“I hear you... yeah, I hear you. wow... I just realized I’ve got all these diaries and the only ponies that will every hear them are you fuckers. Fuck you all! Every last one of you!
“Oh wow... dizzy... What was I...?
“Y’know, I kind of think red is my color... Splish splash, clop clop! Hey, Silver Spoon... let’s paint the town red! Or... you know... at least the bathroom...
“Oh keep knocking you bastards!
“...doesn’t go with my cutie mark though. That’s okay, it’s a stupid cutie mark anyway. Really, a crown of diamonds? What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?
“I mean, I get the diamonds. Celestia knows I’ve inspected enough of ‘em... Sent the best ones below for years now. Ha! There’s something else you’re never gonna get! Ha... ha ha... Just like you’re not going to get me!
“my... my name is Diamond Tiara and you fuckers didn’t get me! I got... I got away!
“I mean... really, though... a crown? What was that supposed to mean?
“he heee hee! You can’t geeeeet meeeeee!
Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Silent Gallop – You have mastered silent movement, allowing you to move quickly and still remain quiet. You can Sneak at full speed with no penalties.