Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat

Chapter Eighteen: Unnatural Causes

Chapter Eighteen: Unnatural Causes

“That job had strange written all over it.”


Finally, I had found another mare whom I respected and admired, and who respected (and maybe even admired) me in return. One who was attracted to mares, and who I could believe was at least a little physically attracted to me. We weren’t in love; we barely knew each other… but there was the possibility of love. There was, in a word, hope.

The last sixteen hours had made for a very long day. As much as I would have loved to spend the next several hours with Homage, she had realized straight away that I was in no shape for anything but sleep. So she had sent me off back to my suite, where Velvet Remedy had puttered and tsked about my wounds until I had fallen into a dreamless sleep out of sheer exhaustion.

I woke up very late in the morning, hungry… and for more than just food. Velvet Remedy had already awoken and disappeared to the shops to get the best caps for everything Calamity had decided to swipe from the ruins of the Red Racer factory and the Ministry of Morale hub. Most of what Velvet and I had scavenged was intended for our own use -- food and ammo, mostly, as well as the poison glands I cut out of the manticores.

After what she had been through, I had decided to allow the sea-blue pony to keep my poisoned dart gun. I had everything needed to create another once we returned home. Calamity had seen to the purchase of a workstation (currently very disassembled) which he would install at Junction R-7 when we arrived. Which, thanks to the part needed to repair the Sky Bandit, shouldn’t be more than a few days.

I wasn’t about to leave until I had the chance to spend… quality time with Homage.

Out of more than curiosity, I tuned my PipBuck to DJ Pon3’s station and listened to the music playing while I cleaned and groomed myself. Homage had already begun to integrate the new music into DJ Pon3’s playlists. That unusually upbeat song about mending friendships which Homage and I had danced to was playing while I cleaned my teeth and tried to work all the tangles out of my mane and tail.

“Hoo-RAH!” DJ Pon3’s voice thundered over the airwaves as the song ended. “Celestia and Luna bless us, we have NEW MUSIC!

“And with that new music comes some new News! Ready for this? Last night, our Wasteland Savior...”

My telekinesis imploded, dropping everything I was floating.

“…that kid from Stable Two, found and rescued the good folks of Gutterville! And what horror did she save them from, you ask? A psychotic ghoul scientist who was performing experiments with Taint and who had bred himself a small army of manticores! That, folks, is what they mean by crushing two radroaches with one hoof: she not only saved the lives of over two dozen ponies, but she solved Manehattan’s manticore problem too!”

I dropped my head into the sink, letting out a whimpering sigh. My reputation was totally out of control. I barely heard the door to the suite open as I anguished over what ponies would be thinking and expecting of me now. Part of me swore Homage just liked making me squirm.

“Hell, you see the kid, tell her to stop by and visit. Ol’ DJ Pon3 wants t’ give her a big kiss for that one!”

My head shot up, catching my horn painfully on the faucet. “Ow!”

“You do know there are more civilized ways to get a drink of water than slurping it out of the sink, right?” Velvet Remedy’s voice rang out from the other room.

Wincing, I touched my horn, looking at myself in the mirror, then turned to Velvet. She was pulling a small red wagon behind her, loaded with supplies and dresses. I stared at the rather fancy and elegant gowns.

“I thought we would want to look our best for DJ Pon3,” she stated simply. Crap. I’d forgotten about Velvet Remedy’s impending audition. “Don’t worry. I know your size. I’ve wrapped you in bandages often enough that I ought to.”

I felt myself blushing.

Velvet Remedy floated a pair of dresses, both simple yet graceful, towards me. “They’ll look perfect on you. Trust me. The one on the right will really bring out your eyes. The one on the left will beautifully complement your mane and tail.”

“Which one should I wear, then?”

“Up to you. Or, if you want to be mysterious, both. Find an excuse to step out, and change halfway through the evening.” Velvet Remedy smiled brightly. “Go on, take them. A girl can never have too many dresses.”

I nodded, floating them to my bed with care. Then jumped and gave Velvet Remedy a hug. “Thank you!”

“Oh, think nothing of it, dear,” she whinnied kindly.

*** *** ***

Velvet Remedy was expecting to meet DJ Pon3.

I needed to talk with Homage and find out how she wanted to handle this. If Homage was willing to reveal herself to me, trusting me with such a big secret, then it stood to reason she would be equally willing in regard to my friends. Part of me, however, didn’t want her to. I wanted it to remain our little secret -- just Homage and I. Something special between us. I wanted her not to want to trust any other pony, not even Velvet Remedy, with such a gift. It was a selfish thought; I knew I should be ashamed of myself for having it. But I consoled myself that this was Homage’s secret to tell or keep, so the fact that I was keeping it from my friends was an act of virtue.

On the way to the elevator, I passed a poster. Pinkie Pie, it insisted, was still watching me. FOREVER.

On the opposite wall was a poster of Fluttershy. This time, not modeling for Sparkle~Cola, but an actual poster for her own Ministry:

War? Fear? Death?

We Must Do Better!


We must do better. We should be better. I should be better.

I understood why Velvet Remedy loved that yellow pegasus pony. If only there had been more like her, then the Equestrian Wasteland may never have been.

I was still contemplating the poster when Homage stepped out of the elevator. Her face brightened as she spotted me. “Ah. Just the toaster repairpony I was looking for.”

I would never live that down.

“Homage,” I breathed, feeling my heart flutter a bit as I fully drank in the fact that this pretty grey unicorn with the vibrant blue mane actually had feelings for me. Possibly romantic feelings. Or, at least, she was willing to entertain the idea of them. That alone was more than I’d ever had from a mare before. And from a mare whom I really liked. And who was cute too!

“Yes?” she said playfully, making me stammer.

“I…um… I, that is we… When and how did you want to do the thing at the place?”

“The thing at the place?”

I waves a hoof in flustered exasperation. “You know. Velvet Remedy? DJ Pon3? Recording her music?”

“Oh!” Homage grinned. “That thing at that place. You trust her, right? The ponies of Tenpony Tower know of me as DJ Pon3’s errand girl, but I really can’t let it get out that I’m a bit closer to him than that. She can keep a secret?”

Part of me hated sharing the truth about Homage, but it would be wrong not to. “Forever.”

*** *** ***

You are DJ Pon3?”

Homage smiled, clearly enjoying Velvet Remedy’s disbelief.

Velvet Remedy had made herself up gorgeously and donned one of her new dresses, a stunning purple number, all with the intention of making a breathtaking first impression. Now she was shooting me cross glances.

“I’ve got a whole recording studio in here, so the recording will be as good as you are,” Homage said, stepping between us as she spoke to Velvet. I found myself staring at Homage’s flanks, covered with a silky silver dress that sparkled as it clung so tightly to…

Velvet was looking at me. She’d caught me staring, and the little smile on her face made my heart sink. I’d be lucky if the rest of our travels weren’t to a soundtrack of “Littlepip and Homage sitting in an appletree.”

Homage gave Velvet Remedy a much abbreviated tour, skipping the roof and the Athenaeum altogether but showing off the small recording studio that exited off the M.A.S.E.B.S. Velvet looked like she was in heaven. No matter how much she protested, no matter how much she longed to be a medical pony, the only one Velvet could hope to convince that she didn’t get unparalleled joy from singing was Velvet herself.

As Velvet Remedy entered the studio chamber, Homage turned her attention to the recording equipment, waving her horn over a desk of switches and dials. Rows of colorful lights lit up in response. I was left to sit in a corner and watch the show.

Velvet Remedy approached the microphone. “Sound check? Do you hear me clearly, DJ… what should I call you?”

“Homage, when we’re together,” the grey unicorn replied.

I felt a completely irrational twinge of jealousy at the mention of them and “together.” I clopped my forehead. Such feelings were as unbecoming as they were ridiculous. “Stop being a silly pony, Littlepip!” I whispered to myself under my breath.

“This is an amazing setup, Homage,” Velvet admired. Then almost too casually, she asked, “Would you happen to have a workbench anywhere around here?”

Homage looked up from the recording desk. “Yes? Why?”

“Oh good. Littlepip has a project, and she needs a private workspace,” Velvet Remedy claimed. Now I felt really stupid for having felt that involuntary twinge; even on the verge of giving a performance that would be heard Equestria-wide, Velvet Remedy was thinking about helping me.

“I suspect the project will take her all night,” Velvet purred conspiratorially. “It’s all right if she spends the night with you, isn’t it?”

Solar-flaring orgasms of Celestia!

“Oh, I’d love the chance to…“ purred Homage back, “… entertain her for a night.”

I was doomed.

“Ready when you are.”

Velvet Remedy’s horn began to glow. The recording chamber filled with colorful light and rich, electric music. Homage was struck with awe. I smiled, knowing the impact of a Velvet Remedy performance.

“Music is my remedy…”

*** *** ***

Four hours later, Homage and I strolled the mall of Tenpony Tower. Velvet Remedy had been amazing. At her insistence, Homage had let Velvet perform each song multiple times, making sure she had the best possible recording for each. Once her performance was completed, my charcoal-coated companion had been exhausted, and had taken her leave of us to take a nap.

Homage had been gushing about the performance and the new music since. Thankfully, I felt no repeat pangs of jealousy at this. I was, in fact, rather in awe myself. Homage and I spent over an hour just reliving the performance like a couple of fanfillies after a concert.

The first song had long been a Stable Two favorite (if I was to attribute to her a theme song, it would have been that one) and the second also a popular one from her days in the Stable. The third was her rendition of a song that she had once told me was originally performed by Pinkie Pie and the original DJ Pon3 at Hoofbeats, something she had chosen especially for DJ Pon3 -- it was the song she had started to sing at Shattered Hoof, and I was thrilled to finally hear it to completion! The effect on Homage was thrilling. I loved seeing the little grey unicorn squee!

The final number was one I had heard Velvet Remedy constructing during our travels. The one she had once claimed was about me. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to melt or to hide.

We had reached the edge of a mezzanine staring down into the lower floor of the Tenpony Tower mall, filled with classy shops (including one just for wine and another across from it that had been just for cheese, but was now closed). As we approached the stairs down, I stopped at the sight below. SteelHooves was trotting about, peering into storefront windows and taking in displays of art, casual as you please. All around him, ponies were stopping and staring, some shying away. I saw a mother pull her curious filly behind her protectively.

“Your friend is causing quite a stir,” Homage noted.

I chuckled. “I guess the high society of Tenpony isn’t used to seeing a pony in magical power armor.” I wondered if his armored hooves were scuffing their pretentiously polished marble floor.

“Well, he is a Steel Ranger. That gives most ponies pause.”

This was not the first time I had heard somepony I trusted suggest the Steel Rangers had a less than sterling reputation. “Why is that?”

Homage looked at me with surprise. “You’re traveling with a Steel Ranger,” she said slowly, “And you don’t know anything about them?”

I opened my muzzle to say that I knew they were… what? I knew them from the posters, but those were two hundred years old. Truth was, I didn’t know the Steel Rangers. I knew SteelHooves. At least more than my companions knew the enigmatic pony completely concealed by his armor. I’d seen a memory orb. One of a memory I had assumed (with reason) was his.

“No… I suppose I really don’t. Tell me.”

Homage guided us away from the stairs and towards a table at a small but expensive eatery. A waitress pony brought us menus the moment we sat down, managing to look haughty, as if her customers were beneath her. Looking at the menu, I once again discovered that everything on it was a fancified version of pre-war food.

I shook my head, pushing the menu aside. “Fifty bottle caps for a banana puree that I can find in the refrigerator of a ruined building for free? No thanks. Frying it into strips and weaving it to look like a basket isn’t worth that much.”

Homage lifted an eyebrow. “Try to remember that most ponies here wouldn’t last a day on the outside. There are raiders, slavers, renegade security robots and possibly even a stray manticore between them and that ‘free’ food.” She looked around at the other patrons, then leaned forward and whispered, “Honestly, I don’t think most of these ponies could handle radroaches. They'd stomp one, then the other radroaches would kill them while they were still trying to scrape radroach gunk from their hooves in uncontrolled disgust.”

I looked around at the elite mares and gentlestallions of Tenpony. She was probably right.

“The stockpiles from Tenpony Tower itself ran out generations ago. What they sell now has been acquired from scavenger ponies, specialists in plumbing the ruins of Manehattan for foodstuffs. Fortunately, there were food shops, restaurants and groceries galore in this city before the bomb, so scavenging has been as fruitful as it is dangerous. But scavenger ponies don’t risk their necks for cheap. And with how irradiated all the water is, it’s hard for a pony family to purify enough for a tiny garden. For a restaurant like this, fresh crops are out of the question.”

I considered that. Then picked up the menu again.

I ordered the fried banana puree basket and a bottle of wine. It was surprisingly full of flavor.

“The Steel Rangers,” Homage explained over our glasses of wine, “Are the old guard of the Ministry of Wartime Technology. They see themselves as the knights of the greatness of the past, which they consider to be tied to Equestria’s advancements in technology and industry, and custodians of the technology that their Ministry helped create.

“Honestly, most of them would be more interested in saving your PipBuck than saving you.”

*** *** ***

After lunch, I treated Homage to an early evening at the spa. The last time had been so utterly delightful that I had to share the experience with her.

Homage had asked that the small radio in the spa be turned to DJ Pon3’s station. From the expression the spa ponies gave her, they didn’t much approve of the ghoul-loving renegade, but were used to this request. With the new music playing, I suspected that the broadcast’s popularity was peaking.

One of the pretty spa ponies was dabbing my face with cleansing and revitalizing mud when the voice of DJ Pon3 blasted out of the little radio.

“Good evening, children!”

I looked to Homage in surprise. She winked back before they covered her eyes with slices of cucumber.

“Got a question for all you faithful listeners. Have any of you mares or bucks ever seen… a ghost? ‘Now, DJ Pon3!’ I hear ya say. ‘There’s no such thing as ghosts! Been ghost stories about Manehattan ever since my grandmother’s grandmother was a filly, and no pony’s ever actually seen one. Ghost stories are all made up, y’know!’ Well, now what if I, DJ Pon3, your voice in the wasteland, were to tell you that I have seen a ghost? And I don’t mean heroic Stable Dwellers who miraculously survive falling off cliffs in trains, not this time.”

I groaned aloud. I would have clenched my eyes, but they were already being covered with vegetables.

“Now, it was several years ago, and I had just gotten myself out of a tight spot with one of those manticores, so I was ridin’ Dash and Stampede at the time. But she was there, Celestia’s honest truth. Never seen her again, or found the exact spot I’d stumbled onto. But there are more crazy things in this wild wasteland than you’d believe.”

Later, as spa ponies gave us a ponypedi and horn treatment, I asked Homage, “What is Stampede?”

“Oh, a mixture of Rage and painkillers,” Homage answered. “A friend and I found the recipe in the ruins of a M.O.P. clinic when we were younger.

My curiosity took hold. “A friend? Will I get to meet her?”

“No. I’m afraid my friend didn’t survive the efforts to get us into Tenpony Tower.”

*** *** ***

I felt amazingly refreshed and relaxed. Our time in the spa had been pleasant and intimate, and I had high hopes for the rest of the evening.

As we stepped out of the spa, Homage leaned close and whispered, “Had that last bit pre-recorded. It’s a good idea to be seen in public occasionally while DJ Pon3 is ‘live’ on the radio.”

I nodded, staring at her just a little. The mud bath had been the first time I had seen her wearing neither a dress nor a spa robe. Her cutie mark looked like it could be either a speaker or a megaphone. Either way, it was perfectly appropriate to her. And I could see why she chose to keep it private through dressing finely. If anyone suspected she was more than just DJ Pon3’s errand filly, the cutie mark was all but a dead giveaway.

Three little ponies galloped up to us, two colts and a younger filly. The two youngest had tears in their eyes, the colt trying to hold his back while the filly was blinking hers away with a hopeful expression.

I heard Homage moan at their approach.

“Miss Homage,” the oldest called out as they drew close. “DJ Pon3 says that daddy tried to rob the Heroine of the Wasteland, an’ that’s why he’s in jail. Is it true?”

“Did he really do that?”

“Daddy wouldn’t.”

Oh fuck me with the moon. Moon, sun, both of them. Rape me hard.

Homage looked, if anything, even less comfortable. But she stood by the truth. “Yes, children. I’m afraid he did.”

“But he’s really sorry…” I interjected, even though I knew the only thing Monterey Jack was actually sorry about was that it put him in a bad place. “…and I’m sure they’ll let him go. I…”

I paused, wincing as I chose my words speaking more slowly, “I know the Stable Dweller is really upset to see him in jail.”

“Will she save him?” the filly blurted out with so much hope in her voice it nearly knocked me over.

“Why would she do that?” her eldest brother retorted. “He threatened her and tried to rob her.”

I looked to Homage hopelessly.

“They ain’t gonna let him go,” said the middle brother. “They’re gonna hang him in two days.”

*** *** ***

I paced back and forth in the Athenaeum as Homage watched me sadly. “You can’t interfere.”

“Oh yes I can!”

Homage gave a melancholy sigh. “I understand why you feel you should. Even if he did lay his own hay. But from what you said, it doesn’t really sound like he wants to be helped.”

I snorted. “Then I’m not going to leave it up to him. He has three children that need looking after. They need to come before his twisted-up code of honor.”

“Littlepip,” Homage whimpered. “We’ve just met. I don’t want to lose you already.”

I stopped, shocked. “Lose me?”

In exasperation, Homage pointed out, “If you do anything, and survive the guards with their battle saddles, you and your friends will never be allowed to set hoof in Tenpony Tower again.”

I turned and looked into her eyes. They were glistening, ready to cry.

“I’ll be with you, always, pretty much wherever you go. Just tune in to DJ Pon3 and I’ll be there. But… you won’t be able to be with me.”

I fell back on my haunches as the weight of what I would be sacrificing descended fully upon me.

*** *** ***

Night was falling as I walked slowly along the Celestia Line. Velvet Remedy and Steelhooves walked in line behind me, Calamity was flying scout.

All I had told the others was that I was going for a walk. Every one of them insisted on coming with me. Only Velvet Remedy asked if there was a reason why, and she did so in private. She could tell I was distressed, and she was alarmed that I was not spending the evening with Homage. Calamity, I think, was looking for an excuse to stretch his wings. SteelHooves simply fell in behind me without comment; I felt he would go anywhere I did, and I still had no idea why.

Truth was, as much as I wanted to spend the night with Homage, I was too messed up inside to enjoy it. I needed fresh air. I needed to clear my head. I needed a distraction.

Fortunately, the grey unicorn had not only understood but had encouraged me.

Velvet Remedy’s horn provided light; I didn’t even need the one from my PipBuck. The quiet of the night wrapped us like a blanket, punctured by the occasional distant screams or gunshots. Each time, Calamity swooped away to investigate. Sometimes, he came back with reports of scavengers fighting off wild animals; most of the time, he returned no wiser than before. Once, his disappearance was followed by several little thundercracks -- I knew the sound of his battle saddle by heart. I heard no return fire, but we all stopped and waited and worried all the same. It took him a quarter of an hour to return, and when he did so, he was laden with sacks of pilfered goods.

“Raider nest. Bunch o’ earth pony raiders with spears an sledgehammers,” he explained with a grin. “Nopony expects a pegasus!”

He landed and passed me a sack full of metal apples. “They didn’t have any ammo either, but they had these.” SteelHooves offered to take the grenades. Of the lot of us, he was the only one who actually had any skill with the things.

“One o’ these days, we gotta getcha somethin’ that don’t do splash damage.”

Calamity passed another sack, this one clearly holding a square box with beveled edges inside, to Velvet Remedy. “The medical kit they ‘ad was locked, so Ah jus’ brung the whole thing.”

“Brought,” Velvet corrected as she took the sack.

“Tha’s what Ah said.”

Velvet rolled her eyes to me before slinging the sack over her, clasping it to her saddlebag harness. There was no rush in opening it. I could pick the lock when we reached the next Four Stars station.

Presents delivered, Calamity flew ahead again.

*** *** ***

The next Four Stars station was the sight of a massacre. I watched SteelHooves tread between the bodies of over thirty ghouls. Most of them looked like they had been mowed down by heavy minigun fire. Powerful explosions had torn holes in the walls of the station and the homes that had been built into and around it.

The place was rank with the wet smell of ghoul corpses. The buzzing of flies was a constant drone that reminded me of the high whine of Stable Two’s lights.

Velvet Remedy had fled up the line about three hundred yards, unable to stomach this. Calamity was looting the bodies.

“Rottingtail’s group,” SteelHooves finally announced, long after I had come to the same realization. He kept his deep voice neutral. I wished I could see his expression behind the mask.

“SteelHooves?” I asked cautiously. “Are you all right?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” he asked, again keeping his voice neutral. Too neutral. He was refraining from something -- whether it was laughing in joy or raging in offense, I couldn’t guess. “How about you? You’re not indulging in the looting, I notice. As Calamity would say, it’s not like these creatures are using anything here anymore. Might as well go to our use.”

To SteelHooves: looting ghouls was okay but looting Steel Rangers was not? I didn’t like that, although with consideration I had to admit to myself that I would probably react considerably worse towards the looting of the bodies of stable dwellers.

“I’m going to burn them,” I announced. “As soon as Calamity is done scavenging. If you want, you should join him in that.”

“Interesting,” SteelHooves intoned, but remained with me.

I found his reaction to my reaction as interesting as he apparently found my reaction to be. As morbid and repulsive as the setting was, I decided to attempt to fathom our new friend. “I… heard about the Steel Rangers. They don’t exactly have a… heroic reputation.”

“Is that how you see yourself?” he replied. “You’re a hero?”

I flinched but quickly suspected he was deflecting. “How about you? How do you see yourself?”

“As a traditionalist.”

Okay, what the hell did that mean? I tried again, “I’m told that most Steel Rangers are more interested in saving technology than saving ponies. How about you?”

SteelHooves was quiet.

I pressed. “Are you following us around to keep my PipBuck safe?”

SteelHooves snorted a laugh. Then, somberly, he revealed a little of himself. “Steel Rangers, each and every one, swear the same Oath. But there is some… divergence of opinion as to whether our fealty is owed to the Mare of the Ministry or to the Ministry Itself.”

He spoke of “the Ministry” as if there was only one. Or, at least, only one of any importance.

“Are they that different?” I asked, but Calamity returned before I could get an answer, and SteelHooves was not willing to share with an audience.

“Ah think Ah got everythin’ we might want.”

“You have a strong back for a pegasus,” SteelHooves ribbed. “Are you sure you don’t want to get the furniture as well?”

Calamity grunted, flapping his wings. Ignoring the gibe of SteelHooves’ comment, I considered the underlying truth. “Calamity, why don’t you fly back and unload that stuff back at the suite. You can catch up with us. We’ll still be on the Celestia Line.”

Calamity smiled, tipping back his hat. “Will do!” Then he was off.

I focused, the bodies of the ghouls wrapping in light one by one. I levitated them into a pile. Then, walking out ahead on one of the monorails with SteelHooves following on the other, I reached a safe distance. I turned, floating up the zebra rifle, and sent half a clip into the mound of ghoul cadavers. The pile began to burn.

We reached Velvet Remedy, who was staring at the ghoulish pyre with strange fascination. I looked back, trying to figure out why the sight was held her gaze so.

A balefire phoenix was circling the bonfire of corpses.

*** *** ***

“…repeating message. Again, this is Blackwing of Blackwing’s Talons sending out a distress call on every friendly frequency. Please send this message on to any Talon companies in the area. My team and I are trapped on the roof of the Horseshoe Tower by enemy forces. We are low on ammo and cannot hold out much longer. Oh… oh no…. here come more of them…!”

The radio message ended abruptly, then looped, repeating the words of the female griffin. She sounded younger than Gawd and not as hard.

My PipBuck had started receiving the distress signal over a mile away from Horseshoe Tower. The signal was weak, but Horseshoe Tower had been one of the tallest buildings in all of Equestria, and was the largest skyscraper remaining in the Manehattan Ruins, easily dwarfing Tenpony Tower by over double its height.

“To anyone receiving this message, this is Blackwing of Blackwing’s Talons. Please, we need help. We’re pinned on the roof of the Horseshoe Tower by overwhelming enemy forces. We are low on ammo and food, and we’ve lost three of our team already. We are in desperate need of assistance. If anyone can hear this message, please bring help. Please hurry! We can’t hold out much longer. This is a repeating message. Again, this is Blackwing…”

I removed my earbloom and played the recording aloud as we got within a few blocks. I had hoped Calamity would catch up with us before we reached the skyscraper’s Four Stars station, but I wasn’t willing to wait. Each loop of the message pressed upon me mounting sense of urgency.

“We’re going in,” I announced. Then, reconsidering my words, “I’m going in. You two can stay behind if you want. I understand.” I swished my tail. “Besides, somepony should let Calamity know where we are.”

SteelHooves nickered. “Personally, I look forward to the chance to meet these noble ghoul-slayers.” He looked at me. “And you are going because? Are you being a heroine? You enjoy risking your life for strangers? Or is there something else about Horseshoe Tower?”

I glared at my companion, then smirked. “Oh, I just want to know how a bunch of griffins could get trapped on the roof of a building.”

SteelHooves chuckled. I turned to Velvet Remedy.

“You are not going in alone,” Velvet insisted with a grim smile and a stomp. And we can leave Calamity a note.” She paused. “He can read, can’t he?”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, and you know it.” Then considered the idea and found myself at a loss. I still had the clipboard and pencil that I had taken from the Tenpony Tower constabulary, but a note left under a chunk of crumbled concrete would be easily missed. For Calamity to see it, we’d need to paint the message in big letters on the roof of the station. And even then he would miss it if we didn’t illuminate it somehow. I pointed these problems out to Velvet Remedy.

“In case you missed the light show earlier, dear, illumination will not be a problem,” Velvet smiled wryly. “I can cast a spell on the letters that will make them quite eye-catching.”

“Can you just make glowing words?”

Velvet Remedy shook her head. “Yes, but only if I stayed here to maintain them. To leave them behind, I would have to enchant existing writing. Paint, preferably, unless we can find a really big inkpot.”

SteelHooves whinnied as he trotted past us to the station’s double doors that lead into Horseshoe Tower. “Then we’ll paint it in the blood of the first enemy we encounter.” He turned and bucked the doors hard enough to not only swing them open but send one of them flying across the waiting room inside. I cringed and thanked the Goddesses that the room wasn’t full of enemies. “Are you coming?”

*** *** ***

I helped Velvet Remedy step over the body of the griffin, his bulk nearly doubled by the twin minigun battle saddle that was still strapped to his corpse. It was the first body that we had found which wasn’t centuries old. The floor was littered with bullet casings, making walking around it treacherous.

I couldn’t tell what killed him. That worried me. It worried me even more when Velvet Remedy diagnosed it as natural causes, her voice loaded with disbelief.

“At least we know they came this way,” SteelHooves observed. “I was beginning to worry there was no way up.”

Much of Horseshoe Tower’s interiors had collapsed. Stairwells had crumbled, hallways had caved in. The entire building had become a maze, forcing us to weave in and out of rooms in order to make it from one end of a hallway to the other, making us go down a floor to find stairs that would take us up two.

Ahead we could hear the spray of water. My PipBuck starting click-clicking softly.

The only way to get to the next set of stairs was through a collapsed section of wall between two bathrooms. The building’s water talisman was still pumping water through the shattered pipes. The water was alive with low levels of radiation. The balefire bomb had probably irradiated the talisman itself.

I checked with Velvet Remedy, making sure we had enough RadAway with us. The radioactive shower would be minor, nothing worth getting concerned about. But if this was a sign of bigger problems ahead, I wanted to be sure we were prepared.

Holding my breath, I pushed myself through the spray as quickly as I could. I stumbled a little as the wet floorboards on the other side gave an inch.

“Oooookie dokey lokey. SteelHooves, I’ll be floating you through and setting you down over there,” I said pointing at the far corner of the room near the doorway out. “This floor is not stable.”

Velvet Remedy stayed back. I focused on SteelHooves, wrapping him in a telekinetic blanket. Slowly, I lifted the heavy Steel Ranger up half a yard and brought him through the shower. I took a single step back, feeling the floor wobble alarmingly once again, and glided him past me towards a corner that I was fairly certain would be dry and stable.

SteelHooves made it halfway there when something he saw through the open doorway caused him to thrash, trying to find purchase on the floor.

Before I could put him down, before I could even ask what he saw, the alicorn stepped into the doorway.

My levitation magic imploded as I gasped in shock. SteelHooves dropped hard, turning to fire at the alicorn, and the floor gave way beneath him. SteelHooves dropped out of sight. I heard splashes beneath. The alicorn took a step forward, looking down at the hole, and rest of the floor collapsed. The alicorn tried to thrust out her wings to fly, but they struck the sides of the doorframe and she fell into the floor below with him.

I found myself standing on a wet, sagging plank jutting out over the floor below like a diving board. Which was appropriate since the floor below was a swimming pool.

My PipBuck started click-click-clicking with great enthusiasm.

Scrambling on the floating debris, the alicorn thrashed. Her horn began to glow. SteelHooves was nowhere in sight, having surely sunk to the bottom.

I wished for the bag of grenades. I had to act fast, but my mind wasn’t thinking fast enough! The alicorn would have her shield up before I had figured out what to do!


An explosion right next to my head blew out my eardrums. The world became a strained, high buzz. I immediately lost all sense of balance, tumbling from my position. I landed on a floating chunk of flooring that immediately began to capsize.

I grasped the chunk of floor telekinetically, letting out a scream I could feel but not hear. Focusing had become excruciating.

In front of me, I saw the alicorn floating in debris and blood. Velvet Remedy had blown a large chunk of the creature’s neck away with the combat shotgun. It wasn’t dead, but it was a race between blood loss and drowning as to which would finish her off first.

I watched in horror as it began to heal, the wound slowly closing.

They fucking regenerate?

That was not fair! That was not okay!

With a flash of anger, I started telekinetically grasping jagged, floating bits of floor and jabbing at the alicorn’s neck until I had crudely sawed it off. The creature began to sink beneath the reddened, radioactive water.

*** *** ***

Velvet Remedy crouched over me, her horn pointing at my left ear. She had already restored hearing to my right.

SteelHooved stood next to us on the edge of the swimming pool, dripping with water that was making my PipBuck clickity-click wildly. He was arguing with Velvet over how much RadAway he needed to drink. Velvet was leaning towards every last packet we had; SteelHooves was insisting he didn’t need any at all.

My left ear began to mend.

“We don’t have time for this,” SteelHooves stomped, cracking the tiles under his armored hoof. “Those creatures always travel in groups.”

“Then take the RadAway and stop being a baby,” my shotgun surgeon spat back, glowering. “Seriously, do all my patients have to be so difficult?”

I wanted to point out that I was laying there being very non-difficult, thank you.

SteelHooves bristled at that. Finally, I spoke up. “SteelHooves, tell her.”

Both of them turned to stare at me. Or, at least, I assumed SteelHooves was staring at me. His visor was pointed in my direction.

“Tell me what?” Velvet asked me slowly. Then, turning to SteelHooves, “Tell. Me. What?”

SteelHooves was silent.

I sighed. “Look, if I was able to figure it out, so will she. She’s smarter than I am.”

I could tell Velvet Remedy was forcing herself not to react to the compliment.

SteelHooves finally relented.

“I’m a ghoul.”

Velvet Remedy, to her credit, didn’t take a step back. Didn’t even gasp. She was just strangely quiet for a while. Long enough that I would have worried I had lost my hearing again if it wasn’t for the drip, drip, drip on the tiles underneath the Steel Ranger.

“Radiation is… regenerative for ghouls,” SteelHooves admitted. “I was more in danger of drowning.” In truth, there had been little danger of that with the rebreather in his magically powered armor.

Of course, I realized, feeling slow and stupid: the alicorn was regenerating because she was in the pool. Radiation must effect them the same way.

“Well then, I guess you won’t need the RadAway,” Velvet Remedy concluded casually, slipping the packs back into one of her open medical boxes.

*** *** ***

Knowing I was by far the most capable of stealth, I determined that I should scout ahead. I spotted the alicorn’s two sisters in a room on the next floor. Their tails were to me, oblivious to my presence as they seemed to be focusing on trying to magically rip the door of a safe off its hinges. Their coats were a deep purple, almost black. And that was not all I noticed.

They have no cutie marks!

I slipped out my sniper rifle and slid into the zen of S.A.T.S.


The first alicorn when down hard, brain blasting out the front of her skull to paint the safe she had been so focused on. The second began to turn, her shield already starting to form. But I was faster. And these creatures were not that much tougher than the rest of us if caught unawares and without their protective spells cast.


I slipped out of S.A.T.S. as the second alicorn’s body slumped to the floor. I looked at the safe, the splatter of blood, brains and bone reminding me that we never did go back and paint that note for Calamity.

Wait. Stop.

I’m looking at the gore from somepony… or at least something that I have just murdered… and I’m thinking that?

Am I really becoming that callous to the horrors and violence in the Equestrian Wasteland?

I wondered where this would fit on Monterey Jack’s slide of loss-of-self.

I also wondered what the hell the alicorns had been after. So I trotted up to pick the lock. The safe, however, refused to be unlocked. After examination and struggling, I realized that it wasn’t jammed or broken by the alicorns. I just wasn’t good enough.

Well, I knew how to fix that.

I found myself smiling as the Party-Time Mint-al washed me clean of all the stupidity and dullness that was holding me back. I took a deep breath of relief! Finally, I was the real me again. My smile faded as I turned to see Velvet Remedy watching me sadly.

*** *** ***

Three more alicorns stood on the other side of a gaping divide. At least five internal floors had collapsed, leaving a honeycomb of half-rooms ringing a massive pit. Motes of debris and ash floated in the void between us.

SteelHooves opened fire with his grenade machinegun, taking out one of them (and all the rooms around her) before she could fully erect her shield. The two others launched themselves into the air, spreading their wings as their shields bubbled around them.

I gave a prayer to Luna and floated out a memory orb, making sure it was the one of Pinkie Pie’s last party, and not the one I had retrieved from the safe seven floors below. I began levitating the orb towards closer of the two.

The alicorn let out a wicked, bitter and majestic laugh that echoed off the walls of the pit. Using telekinesis of her own, she knocked it free of my telekinetic sheath with a hurled chair. The orb containing the memory of Pinkie Pie’s last party plunged into the depths below, bounced, rolled and disappeared through a crack, lost forever.

The dark-purple coated alicorn’s voice rumbled with undeniable superiority. “Do you think We are fools? We remember how you killed Us before!”

Oh we were so fucked!

“Run!” I yelled, turning tail and racing towards the stairs.

Velvet Remedy and SteelHooves galloped after me, overtaking me as I charged up out of the stairwell and into a hallway.

Turning, I ordered SteelHooves to collapse the entrance behind us. His grenade machinegun was useless against a shielded alicorn, but more than a match for the crumbling structure we were in. Concrete and wood rained down in a thunderous cloud of dust.

“What happened?” SteelHooves demanded.

Panting, I explained. “There’s some sort of telepathy involved…” My fears had been proven true. “…not just between the ones that are together. All of them. Every time we kill one, they learn from it.” I wouldn’t be able to trick them the same way twice.

Our ploy bought us time, but not much. I could hear them on the other side, clearing a path to us.

With a flash of light, one of the alicorns appeared right between us.

“They can teleport too!?” Velvet Remedy blurted, finally reaching the same level of hateful disbelief I felt towards these creatures.

The alicorn herself seemed a little surprised. Apparently, teleporting into someplace you can’t see was tricky work even for these creatures. I don’t think she expected to be this close. Too bad she hadn’t appeared a yard to either side, stuck herself in a wall. But no, we couldn’t be that lucky.

Or could we? I realized something very peculiar. The alicorn’s sphere of shielding was up at full strength, but she had appeared literally in the center of us. Parts of each of us were inside the barrier. Including SteelHooves’s metal rear end.

The alicorn began casting a spell. I felt a vice tighten around my heart. My hooves began to tingle.

A heart attack spell? Feeling panic well up inside me as my heart struggled to beat, I suddenly knew how these creatures had killed the griffins through “natural causes”.

“Move!” I yelled as I telekinetically grasped the sack of grenades. SteelHooves dashed forward, leaving the grenades inside the sack. Without opening it to reveal the contents, I focused and tried to pull as many of the pins as I could. Unfortunately, moving objects I couldn’t directly see was as difficult for me as teleporting into an unknown space was for the alicorn. I only managed to pull the pins on three before I backed out of the shield.

The alicorn looked questioningly down at the sack as it fell to her feet. Her shield contained the explosion quite effectively. It was a gory and brilliant sight.

*** *** ***

“Well, that would explain how griffins can get trapped on a roof,” I said flatly.

We had to fight through four more of the creatures before we made it to the roof. The combination of my stealth and SteelHooves’ massive firepower kept us alive, but it was getting harder. They were all alert for us now, and seemed to be coordinating their defenses. We had to run any time they got their spells up, and we were not fast enough to take out more than two before the others were able to cast their shields.

On the roof were four more alicorns. They were sitting, frozen, at the four corners of the building, their attentions focused inward. Instead of surrounding themselves with a sphere of protective magic, they were cooperatively maintaining a hemisphere of magical force that was keeping the three griffin mercs caged.

“New one on me,” SteelHooves muttered from beside me.

“Oh thank the Great Egg,” one of them blurted out, seeing us through the glowing shell of force that trapped her and the other two surviving griffins. She stopped. “Where are the rest of you?”

I looked around. Velvet Remedy and SteelHooves were flanking me. The Goddesses only knew where Calamity was. I suspected he was circling the Celestia line, hoping to spot us. I winced at the thought and hoped he wasn’t too worried. I could see the faintest suggestion of approaching dawn on the skyline.

A chill wind blew at my mane, bringing the salty smell of the harbor. It was almost a shame that we’d reached the roof in the dark of night. The view in the daytime must be amazing.

Then again, the view could also paralyze me with vertigo. So probably better we were here now after all. Turning back to the three griffins, “This is it. Just us.”

“Well, this isn’t much of a rescue,” one of the griffins said bitterly.

“Gratitude. Look it up.”

I turned away and looked over the alicorns. They were statuesque in their concentration. I wasn’t even sure they realized we were on the roof with them. And they were outside the shield they were creating. We could take three of them down with a coordinated attack. Surely the griffins could take out the last one. “What kind of firepower do you guys still have?

I could hear SteelHooves whistle as the griffin in the back stepped forward. She was wearing what looked like magically powered armor of her own, a griffin design -- nowhere near as complicated or encompassing as SteelHooves, leaving her talons, legs and wings bare, as well as most of her face -- with a huge, tri-barreled, biggest battle saddle I had ever seen.

“Dismounted AA cannon,” SteelHooves said appreciatively. I had no idea what that meant, but this looked like the non-magical-energy version of the plasma cannon that Calamity had used against the dragon.

Well, we definitely had the firepower.

“Only five shots left,” the griffin said glumly. Still, five shots from that thing should be more than…

“And there are four wings of these horny bastards on their way,” the first griffin announced. From her voice, I finally identified her as Blackwing. I noted mentally that I would not have chosen the word “horny” to describe the alicorns. Unless Blackwing knew something I did not.

“Four wings?” I asked. “You mean two more?”

“No,” SteelHooves interjected. “She means twelve.”

“Oh. Well… moonrocks.” Made sense. A “wing” then must be a group of three. Explains why there were three of them hunting SteelHooves outside Fetlock.

“These four have just been keeping us pinned here while their reinforcements arrive,” Blackwing informed us.


I perked up. “We’re okay, then. I’m pretty sure we took them out on the way up!” I mentally counted. One in the pool. Two at the safe. Three in the pit. One of those had lived, and joined up with three more. So we’d killed…

…nine. There were still three left. Somehow, we’d managed to go right past a whole wing of alicorns without either party realizing it.

And they would probably be bursting onto the roof any minute. We had to work fast!

*** *** ***

I quickly laid out the plan and everyone started taking their positions. As they did so, I couldn’t help but voice my suspicions to Blackwing: “What is it that you mercenaries were after in this place that these creatures want so badly?”

“Codes to crack a safe in the Ministry of Image on Ministry Walk,” Blackwing said, surprisingly forthcoming. “Safe contains an artifact that our employer would really like to take possession of. Turns out, the ‘goddess’ these monsters serve wants it too.”

“What kind of artifact?” I asked, as I levitated out Little Macintosh and checked the load. I was going to use a magic bullet for this, just to be sure.

“The Black Book. Well, the Black Book of something-or-other. A tome of some of the foulest zebra magics. Stuff that can tear a pony’s soul apart, they say. Or raise spirits from the grave.”


The very thought that such spells and powers actually existed gave me nightmarish chills. To my knowledge, no pony had ever used such dark arts; it was horrifying to imagine that the zebras actually could. Necromancy wasn’t even supposed to be real -- just a horror story to scare young fillies at slumber parties.

If this was the sort of foulness the Ministry of Image was casting their nets to catch, the purging of books took on a whole new and terrifying light. I began to wonder if the purpose behind the confiscation of “ideologically incompatible” books wasn’t, at least in part, a smokescreen for this. Because by the Goddesses, you couldn’t tell the public that the zebras had necromancy, much less that books on the stuff were slipping into Equestria!

The notion of zebra necromancy breathed an uncomfortable new dimension into how being on the fringe of a megaspell event turned ponies in to ghoul-ponies and zombie-ponies.

While I was talking to Blackwing and pondering the implications of the Black Book, SteelHooves and Velvet Remedy were discussing our foes. I caught the end of the conversation.

“…don’t all have the same spells. Only the deep purple-coated ones like the wings below can teleport,” SteelHooves explained to her. “The midnight blue coats…”

“Invisibility,” Velvet Remedy interjected. “Oh yes. I remember.”

“The dark green ones? I haven’t seen them do anything the others can’t do.” SteelHooves walked up close to one of the statue-like alicorns and took a close look at its coat, a forest green so deep it was nearly black. “Until now.”

Butcher, the griffin with the heavy gun stood at the ready in front of the farthest alicorn. SteelHooves had locked onto the one on my left. Velvet Remedy had her (formerly my) combat shotgun hovering an inch from the temple of the one on my right. I floated Little Macintosh between the eyes of the one in front of me.

“On the count of three. One… Two…”

In a thunderous crash of gunshot and explosions, three alicorns went down. So went the shield. The last alicorn immediately sprang to life, alert and…

…the griffin’s supergun let out a boom that could be heard on the moon. The fourth alicorn was simply no more.

Blackwing swooped forward and took me in his talons as the other lightly encumbered griffin scooped up Velvet, taking off into the air. I threw a telekinetic sheath around SteelHooves, carrying him with us. The last griffin took off, circling to cover our tail.

We were a few blocks away when the last three alicorns burst onto the roof. Part of me wanted to laugh tauntingly. Then they reminded us that they could fly too. And, unencumbered, they were much faster and more maneuverable.

Wrapping themselves in magical shields, they swooped to close the distance.

I closed my eyes, trying to force my PTM-enhanced brain to think of something. For the first time, Party-Time Mint-als were failing me.

“Well now, y’all look like ya c’n use some help!”

Only once before had I ever been so happy to hear Calamity’s voice and that was when I was facing a dragon. I opened my eyes, staring to him thankfully. “I hope you have a plan. Cuz I’ve got nothing.”

“Y’all just follow me!” Calamity smiled and shot out ahead of us, dropping altitude.

Turns out, the one direction that heavily-laden griffins could fly even faster than alicorns was down. They gave chase, but we were pulling ahead.

“Unless we’re diving for a mattress factory,” Blackwing squawked, “This’ll be a really short trip!”

I glanced back. There was good distance between us and the three creatures, now only visible as glowing bubbles of sickly green energy that zipped through the sky towards us.

“Start pulling up now!” Calamity called back.

“Does he have any idea…” the griffin carrying Velvet Remedy grunted, “how hard it is… to pull up… at this speed… carrying this much weight?”

I could see the street coming up fast as we began to level. I smiled, thinking of just how much junk Calamity had a habit of scavenging. I had no doubt that the answer was yes.

The three griffins finally pulled straight with only yards to spare, skimming over the tops of the taller wagons. I felt a hoof drag along the top of a passenger wagon. The alicorns were beginning to close the gap. Lightning ripped from one of their horns, shooting past us.

Up ahead, the street ended in a massive parking lot. Rows upon rows of delivery wagons were lined up before a long building. With the exceptional visual clarity provided by Party-Time Mint-als, I was able to make out a logo on the roof of the building as we approached it: a filled-in black omega symbol with a white earth pony seeming to levitate a package on her back.

I suddenly realized the plan. An eye-blink before Calamity started shooting.

I turned on my Eyes-Forwards Sparkle, making a quick scan for life down there. I only had a moment, but at least I had Party-Time Mint-als boosting my keenness and judgement. All I was seeing were red blips scurrying about, below. Probably radroaches. I could hear a series of pops as we shot past the delivery wagons and over the rooftop.

The alicorns were just reaching the parking lot, moving too fast to stop, when the first delivery wagons exploded like megaspell bombs in extreme miniature. The first explosions instantly set off the rest, and three city blocks erupted in a vibrant cascade of insanely-colored light.

Their shields couldn’t protect them against that. The blast of radiation couldn’t heal them from a force that ripped them apart beneath a cellular level. They could not even mentally scream. There was no time. The three alicorns were simply gone.

The building shielded us just enough to save us before it was vaporized. My PipBuck screamed as we were hit by a wash of heat and radiation. My E.F.S. flashed a red warning that I was suffering radiation poisoning before it collapsed altogether, my PipBuck crashing.

A moment later, we crashed too.

Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Mighty Telekinesis (level three) – Your telekinesis is Twilight Sparkle tier. You can handle multiple objects with ease; and with enough focus, you could probably carry around an Ursa Minor!