Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat


Chapter Twenty-One: The Heart of Twilight Sparkle

Chapter Twenty-One: The Heart of Twilight Sparkle

“Have you ever watched the moon rise over the Wasteland? I wish I could have given you something as wonderful as that.”

Dragon!

Really big, gigantic, enormous purple dragon with green spines and with claws and spikes and very, very sharp teeth and a huge mouth that had just promised not to eat us.

Well, that was a start.

I could hear the voices of my companions around me, but I couldn’t turn my head. My gaze remained locked on the dragon staring down at us. I couldn’t move. I could barely breathe.

“Calamity,” Velvet Remedy whispered urgently. “Don’t shoot it!”

“Ah weren’t plannin’ to,” Calamity hissed back. “Girl, ya gotta let that go.”

Pyrelight cried out and flew away, wings flapping with the sound of a crackling fireplace.

“Interesting,” mused a deep rumble from SteelHooves’ armor.

“Ah’d say he’s a damn sight more’n interestin’!”

“He said he was Spike,” SteelHooves said curiously. “He didn’t say he was Watcher.”

The dragon’s gaze locked on me. He raised a very sharp claw the length of my whole body.

Addressing me, Spike-the-fully-grown-dragon asked, “They do know I can hear them, right?”

*** *** ***

"Littlepip, Velvet Remedy, Calamity... please don't be afraid." Spike smiled, showing way too many sharp teeth. Dragons shouldn't smile when they're trying to not be intimidating. "You're welcome in my house. On one condition."

Watcher was setting conditions; that would have irked me, but this was his home. And Watcher was a dragon. Dragons got to set whatever conditions they wanted.

I was fully expecting something along the lines of Don't steal, hoof through or touch my treasure. I was not prepared for the dragon to point at SteelHooves with one lethal claw and say, "That stays outside."

Watcher had a problem with ghouls? That did irk me. Perhaps not quite so much as it would have after meeting Ditzy Doo and before learning about Rottingtail, but it still bothered me. "He's with us," I insisted, putting my hoof down.

"I breathe fire," Spike countered, winning the argument.

I turned to SteelHooves. "You okay with this?" After everything, part of me was ready to turn my back on Watcher and just walk away if SteelHooves said no.

"I'll be fine," SteelHooves answered. I felt unexpectedly relieved. "Besides, I won't be alone." SteelHooves' armor-sheathed tail jabbed towards the Sky Bandit. Pyrelight had taken shelter inside and was furtively peeking her head through one of the windows. Apparently, flying into the home of Equestria's largest predator was a bit much to ask or our new, feathered companion.

I nodded to SteelHooves then turned back to the dragon. "Okay."

Velvet Remedy was more gracious and diplomatic, giving Spike a courteous bow. "Thank you, mighty Spike, for allowing us into your house!" she barely paused before choosing to use the word he had.

Do dragons blush? Spike seemed to. He glanced back into the darkness behind him. "Well, it's really more of a cave. But I've fixed it up enough that it feels like a house."

"I'm sure you did splendidly," Velvet Remedy flattered.

Spike turned -- we all ducked as his massive tail swung around -- and led us into the cave. We followed, all except Pyrelight and SteelHooves. A pony in my head stomped insistently, wanting to know why I had just been required to leave a friend outside.

*** *** ***

A dragon? Watcher was... a dragon?

The awe and I'm-about-to-get-eaten dread was washing away, and I was surprised to find that what tip-hoofed in to replace it was anger.

"It's delightful!" proclaimed Velvet Remedy. "I didn't know a dragon's cave could be so... homey." She turned around, taking in the scattered piles of gemstones surrounding an immense circular bed sunken into the floor. "And there are so many books. You must be a collector." The walls were lined with bookshelves, many of which were full. The cave continued on into the darkness through a massive fissure in the back wall.

"They're Twilight's," Spike said almost reflexively. Then, with a touch of sadness, he corrected himself. "Were Twilight's."

"Twilight Sparkle?" I asked, seeking to confirm my suspicions. I was already sure of the answer even before the dragon nodded. I was thinking of the audio message Homage had played for me, the one Rarity had left Twilight Sparkle. Twilight Sparkle had not gone to Pinkie Pie when she ran out of room for her books. She had started storing them here.

A single terminal sat on a pedestal near the bed, an only slightly fancier model than that found everywhere in the wasteland; a cable snaked deeper into the cave from the machine’s back. I had been expecting something much more like Homage’s setup in the M.A.S.E.B.S.

The little pony in my head was stomping more insistently. Finally, feeling just a touch cross, I bluntly asked, "Why did I tell SteelHooves to stay outside?"

"Uh... you didn't. I did," Spike said, as if I needed to be reminded of the flow of events. "The day a Steel Ranger steps hoof into my house is the day I eat canned food!" The ominous growl in his voice made it very clear what "can" he was talking about.

Okay, Spike didn't have a problem with ghouls. He had a problem with Steel Rangers. Or was it with the Ministry of Technology in general? From someone who spent his days jumping around sprite-bots, that would be a surprising attitude.

Velvet Remedy was still looking around, expressing admiration that the dragon was just soaking up. I suspected it had been a very long time since somepony had complimented him on anything, even something as simple as how well he kept the books dusted. Leave it to Velvet Remedy to know just what to say.

Particularly since I was feeling much less diplomatic. I bit my lip; I was seething just under the surface, and I couldn't put my hoof on why. I wondered if my emotional state was some sort of delayed PTM withdrawal. Or if I was just more tired than I realized. I'd spent most of the last four weeks, ever since leaving Stable Two, in a state of physical or mental exhaustion.

But Homage had pulled me through a miraculous (and multi-orgasmic) recovery. I should be in far more control than I was suddenly feeling. I looked away from Spike, staring at his huge bed. it did look comfortable. Plush with pillows and blankets, I'd even say it looked heavenly. I blushed hotly and shivered from something not related to cold as my brain conjured up mental images of what I would do with Homage (to Homage) on a bed like that. I looked away, clearing my throat.

Spike took the sound as a call for attention. "Oh, right. The Black Opal." He stretched out a purple paw, its expanse bigger than my whole body. "If you would, please?"

Courier pony at your service, I thought bitterly as I floated out the Black Opal and set it into his palm. "Why did you want this so badly?" I asked. He was a dragon. He was no more able to view the memory than an earth pony could. And I doubted that anypony had ever made a recollector in his (current) size.

"Because," he answered simply, "It was the last time Equestria's greatest mares, and my closest friends, were together." With a sadly nostalgic tone, he added, "All of us. In the same place, at the same time. And happy."

*** *** ***

Twilight Sparkle. Rarity. Pinkie Pie. Applejack. Rainbow Dash. Fluttershy.

They were, in Spike’s on words, the greatest heroines of Equestria. The mares who epitomized the six most important virtues of ponykind. The mares whose friendship had the power to change the world.

“How did it go so wrong?”

It was Velvet Remedy who asked, but I think we all needed to know. Spike was slow to answer, and much of what he told us I had already expected.

“Those ponies, my dearest friends, were not without their problems. They had their failings, even when they were young. But their virtues let them stand up to any hardship, and their friendship gave them a strength that they never had as individuals.” Spike smiled nostalgically. But then the smile faded. “Even the greatest people have their flaws. And when put under pressure or in the right circumstances, those flaws can become cracks. They can break you.”

“And with the Ministries, they weren’t together anymore. And they were under pressure all the time…” Spike stopped. And then fiercely asserted, “Not that everything that went wrong can be laid at their hooves! Not even most of it!”

We all nodded, listening intently.

“First there was the war. Equestria had been at war for over a decade before Luna created the Ministries. War changes everything!” Spike informed us passionately. “Before that, Equestria had known peace for over a thousand years. We didn’t know war. We didn’t understand it. Maybe, if we’d had a few in the past, we wouldn’t have made all the mistakes all at once.”

The dragon’s tail thumped, making gems and books and ponies jump.

“And then there were the Ministries themselves. The very epitome of good ideas and noble intentions gone wrong. And not by the fault of the mares who ‘ran’ them.”

Velvet Remedy caught an inflection in Spike’s words that I did not. “What do you mean? The Mares of the Ministries didn’t actually run the Ministries?”

“Well, yes. And no.” Spike pinched the bridge of his nose between two claws, wincing a bit. “How can I put this?”

We waited as the dragon gathered his thoughts.

“Of the six of them, only two even tried to run their Ministries. Those were Twilight Sparkle and Rarity. The others pretty much just threw suggestions at their Ministries and hoped for the best.” Spike fought for words before finding an analogy he felt was suitable. (I found it rather an odd choice, myself).

“Think of the Ministries as dressmakers. They have their own ideas of how to make a good dress, but they are beholden to the sporadic demands of their clients -- in this case, my friends, the Mares who have been put in charge of them -- even when those clients don’t have the first clue about the art of dressmaking. No matter how good the suggestions may seem, no matter how brilliantly skilled the dressmakers may be, they can still end up with a nightmare design.”

Calamity broke in, “Ayep. ‘Specially if what yer talkin’ ‘bout is more like a committee o’ dressmakers, all competin’ fer their vision.” Spike agreed.

“Democracies tend t’ make a mess outta everything,” Calamity said with clear bitterness. “Only time they c’n act as one is when they’re feelin’ threatened.”

I looked at my rust-coated companion, wondering: where that had come from? Oh… of course. Suddenly, I was very happy I didn’t know more about pegasi politics.

*** *** ***

"Ah don't get it," Calamity commented. "Why ya hidin' in here? Ain't like there's much a dragon needs t' hide from." He cocked his head thoughtfully, "Ah mean, a really ticked-off Ursa Major, maybe."

And that's when I knew why I was mad. His words were like an earthquake, opening a fissure of reason to the anger simmering just beneath the surface. My response was natural: I erupted.

"All this time, you've been a dragon! A DRAGON! All. This. Time!”

Spike looked at me, startled.

"uh, Littlepip," Calamity cautioned. "Please don't upset the really big dragon."

I stomped, fuming now. "Do you have any idea how much good you could have done? How many lives you could have saved?" I found myself advancing on the dragon in my fury. I would have facehoofed at the preposterousness of my own actions had I not been blinded by righteous anger. Spike's backing away from me only heightened the absurdity of it

"Don't tell me you don't care," I spat. "I know you care! You’ve been watching. Why aren't you out there doing something! The Equestrian Wasteland needs someone like you!”

Spike looked abashed, but insisted, “I have my reasons.”

“Reasons?!” I attacked, “Afraid of getting your own claws bloody? Hell, the Ponyville Raiders couldn’t have even scratched your scales! But no, you'd rather send a little mare fresh out of a Stable with virtually no combat experience into a pit of raiders where she's more likely to get killed than to save anypony.” I was huffing. My mane and tail were in disarray. Part of me seriously wanted to charge Watcher. Maybe with all my telekinesis behind it, my horn could give him a jab he might actually feel.

“Littlepip…”

“What reasons? What could possibly be more important!?”

I was screaming at the dragon. All the times I had put my own life at risk to help others, and the person who had set me on that path was a nigh-invulnerable dragon yet couldn’t be bothered to leave the house? “What, do you need to polish your gems? Count them? Maybe take a nap?”

Spike flinched. Seeing that was like dumping fuel on the fire. I opened my mouth and let out a barrage I didn’t know I had in me.

“Enough!” boomed Spike, finally sounding like a dragon. I cringed, suddenly remembering that I was small and probably tasty. The single word slammed me into silence.

The dragon turned away from me, looking to my friends. “Do you trust Littlepip?”

“Ayep!” said Calamity without hesitation.

“Yes, I do,” chimed in Velvet Remedy. I felt a pang, knowing that I might have hesitated had our places been reversed. While I forgave her, I still felt the pain of her betrayal, no matter how well-intentioned and beneficial it had been.

“All right. Then I will tell Littlepip my reasons. But only Littlepip. And only on the promise that she never tell anyone else. Not even you.”

“Why?” Velvet Remedy asked politely. I would have demanded an answer.

Spike scowled deeply. “You’ve seen memory orbs. You know that there are ponies who can rip a thought from you with their magics. And the so-called Goddess who commands the alicorns is telepathic. And through her, so are they.”

I was struck with a new image of the alicorns as terminals linked to a maneframe. Sending and receiving messages from and through it. This is how they knew when and how one of their own had died -- their Goddess observed their death through the alicorn’s mind and then sent the knowledge on to all the rest.

“The fewer who know, the smaller the risk that someone might rip that knowledge from you and use it against…” He paused before concluding with, “me.”

I frowned. If Watcher’s reason for being Watcher was that dire, then Spike was taking a massive risk just telling me. My outburst alone couldn’t be cause enough to break two hundred years of silence.

Or was it an opportunity? Again, I got the impression that the dragon was desperately lonely in his self-imposed exile.

On the other hoof, Spike could just be full of horseapples. “All right,” I stated firmly. “I’ll agree to that condition… but only if your reason is good!”

Spike contemplated that for just a moment before seeming to accept it. He stared to Calamity and Velvet Remedy. “And will Littlepip’s word that my reason is ‘good’ be enough for you two, without ever hearing what it is?”

“Yeah,” Calamity said, frowning. “Ah trust Littlepip’s judgment. If she says ya got good cause t’ leave the rest o’ the folk out their on their own, that’s good ‘nuff fer me.”

Velvet Remedy nodded. “Of course.”

“Then follow me, Littlepip. I have something to show you.” The huge purple dragon turned and lumbered further into the cave, passing through the fissure in the wall.

I gave Calamity and Velvet Remedy one last look, and then trotted after him, nearly needing to gallop to keep up.

*** *** ***

“What am I looking at?” I asked for the second time in my life.

We had traveled into the center of the mountain peak -- I had soon realized we were following the cable from Spike’s terminal -- and now I stood in a vast chamber, large enough for the dragon to move around easily.

Along the walls were maneframes, half a dozen of them, with gemstones that pulsed with magical energy. They all seemed to be nearly dormant save for the closest one, which beeped busily. In the center of the room, like a gigantic stalagmite of magic and steel, rose the tapering column of a super-maneframe that made DJ Pon3’s systems look downright quaint. Massive, insulated wires ran up the walls from the tops of the maneframes, then swooped across the chamber to attach around the column at a point well above Spike’s head.

The chamber was a chimney. Staring upwards, I could see far above us a rough circle of night’s sky, twinkling with stars. The super-maneframe was pointed towards that hole like a colossal magical wand.

“A Crusader Maneframe,” Spike answered.

The ultimate arcano-technological maneframe. So powerful it could think for itself. Learn. It could even hold the imprint of a pony’s mind. Only three had ever been built, I remembered. One was installed in Stable Twenty-Nine. One went to the Ministry of Awesome. And one... this one… came here.

A platform radiated out from the base of the Crusader like a six-pointed star, each point ending in a dais. Upon each dais rested a fine pillow upon which sat a single piece of jewelry. The one closest to me was a beautiful tiara. The other that I could see clearly was a necklace.

“Are you…” I looked at Spike, suddenly questioning my assumptions. “Is this Watcher?”

Spike chuckled. “No. I’m Watcher. This is a Crusader Maneframe. A very special one.”

“What does it do?” I asked, my curiosity beating down my anger. “Except let you hack sprite-bots and spy on ponies.” Something this incredible couldn’t be here for a purpose so… pedestrian.

“Right now, nothing,” Spike told me. I felt the little pony in my head cry out in disappointment. “It’s waiting.”

“Waiting for what?”

“Waiting for who.”

I looked at Spike blankly.

Spike seemed to bulwark himself. I sensed the plunge he was about to take frightened him. “This is Twilight Sparkle’s greatest and most important project. She poured her heart into this. In the end, it was more important to her than anything else…”

Spike trailed off, looking to me as if pleading that I could grasp how meaningful his words were. I nodded, waiting for him to continue. I was reserving judgment, but already felt sure that Spike’s “reasons” were, if not good enough for myself or other ponies, truly of vital importance to him.

“She commissioned this Crusader, and worked on it herself in every private moment she had. Creating a maneframe which could cast a very special spell…”

I blinked, jaw dropping. “What? All this...” I waved a hoof, “Just to cast a spell?”

Spike glared at me and I shut up. “Not just a spell. A megaspell. One more powerful and more complicated than any other megaspell ever conceived. Twilight Sparkle wouldn’t have been able to cast it -- the most powerful magical pony born in a thousand years -- and she created it. Gardens of Equestria was beyond what even Celestia or Luna could hope to cast.”

“Gardens of Equestria?”

“Yes,” Spike answered. “A single spell, powered by the Elements of Harmony, calculated and cast by a magically augmented Crusader Maneframe. A single spell that would affect the entirety of Equestria, cleansing it of radiation and taint, restoring it to the beautiful paradise it once was before the other megaspells twisted and poisoned it.”

Oh. My. Goddesses.

I stared, eyes wide, unbelieving even though I could tell it was true. One spell. One single spell that could fix… well, not everything, but it would mend the soul of our mortally wounded land.

“Then why…” I asked slowly, an ache building up inside me. A beautiful, restored Equestria… “Why hasn’t it been cast?”

Spike spoke with almost infinite sadness. “Because the ponies who can use the Elements of Harmony are dead.”

*** *** ***

I moved around the Crusader, looking at each Element of Harmony in turn. I stopped when I reached the necklace with a balloon-shaped gemstone.

I went to the get-together at Spike’s place and brought It just like you asked. All of my friends were there but you…

“Twilight Sparkle entrusted you with the Element of Magic, didn’t she?”

“She entrusted me with all of this,” Spike answered. “I can’t leave. If a band of raiders should make their way into this place while I’m gone… or worse, a troop of Steel Rangers…”

He didn’t need to say anything more.

“I can’t take the risk that someone might damage or destroy this,” Spike said anyway. “I have to stay here. Keep guard. Until I can find the right ponies.”

I sat down next to the Laughter Dais, my eyes wet. The raw emotions stirred by what I was seeing and hearing were too much.

“For nearly two hundred years,” Spike admitted morosely, “I have been searching out ponies who seemed like they were virtuous. Helping them. Setting them on a path to find more like themselves. All in the hopes of one day finding the right six ponies. Magic. Kindness. Laughter. Generosity. Honesty. And… loyalty.”

My heart broke for the dragon. “All that time?”

He gave a bark of hurting laughter. “You wouldn’t believe how hard it is just for a pony to find five friends in the blasted horror of the wasteland.” He looked down, his eyes taking me in. “Well, actually, you do.”

“Does it have to be six?” I asked.

“In all of Equestria’s history, there has only been one pony who has ever been able to wield more than one. (Trust me, I have a lot of books on the subject.) And that was Celestia. She used the power of the Elements of Harmony to banish the monster her sister had turned into. Only with the Elements can magic that powerful be cast. And only Celestia had the ability to use them all.”

“Then…. Why didn’t she?” A thought struck me. “For that matter, why didn’t she just send all the damn zebras to the moon?”

“Because she’s dead too,” Spike informed me bluntly. “And even when she wasn’t, she couldn’t use them anymore. They were no longer hers to use.”

I stared up at the nearest dais. The tiara, Spike had informed me earlier, was the Element of Magic. I found myself reminded just how pathetically un-magical I was. For all the raw power I had learned to tap, I was truly a one-trick pony.

A dark realization washed over me.

“It… it’s not us, is it?” I looked around at the daises and then back to Spike. “We’re not the right group of friends either. We can’t bring Equestria back.” I felt my heart tearing. “You’re still looking.”

Spike nodded sorrowfully. “No. You’re not.” He snorted laughter again. “Don’t feel bad about it though. You’re an amazing pony, and you have amazing friends. I have no doubt that the group of you will do a lot of good for the Equestrian Wasteland. It’s just not your destiny to heal it.”

A beautiful, green, healthy Equestria… full of life… just a spell away. And I was… insufficient. I’d never felt more worthless.

“Hey,” Spike scolded, reading my expression. “It’s not your fault. Hell, imagine how hard it is to find a pony with the virtue of laughter in the Equestrian Wasteland.”

I thought of Ditzy Doo, and felt a spark of hope. We might be the wrong ponies. But maybe I could start Spike on the right path to finding the ones who are. “I think I know who you’re looking for.”

*** *** ***

I swore that I would never speak a word of what Spike had shown me. I almost wished he hadn’t. The consequences of an enemy learning of what Spike was protecting in this place was no less than the doom of Equestria’s greatest hope. It was a heavy secret even for a dragon. And I was a very small pony.

On our way back to the others, I noticed something that Spike had unintentionally blocked my view of before. Set high into the wall was a glass case. In the case were six statuettes. I knew them well. I already had four of my own.

I couldn’t see them properly, nor could I read their inscriptions, without floating myself up to them. I felt that would be inappropriate.

“What happened to them?” I asked suddenly. Spike stopped, looking back at me, then trailing my gaze up to the display case.

“I mean, I know what happened to Pinkie Pie. But what happened to the rest of them?”

Spike’s jaw clenched frighteningly. “I don’t know.”

“You… don’t know? I mean, you were there, right?”

“I. Don’t. Know.” He repeated, sounding threatening.

I took a step back, swallowing hard, suspecting that I had crossed a line, and probably destroyed any bonding that had begun in the chamber behind us. I stared at the floor. “Oh…. Of course… you were here.

The dragon’s voice boomed with anger and self-incrimination and regret: “I was asleep!

Yet again, I found myself staring at the dragon. The huge, purple, powerful dragon who had somehow slept through the apocalypse.

“I just needed to take a nap! I figured that if anything important happened, someone would wake me up” Spike cried, his voice brimming with a self-loathing that made my own self-hatreds seem petty and small. “I should have been there! I should have been with her! She was my closest friend! She shouldn’t have died alone! But instead, I was asleep!

“I’m… I’m so sorry,” I said, my voice trembling. I put a hoof on his scales in a feeble attempt to comfort him. He was too big to hug.

Spike just stood there, unmoving, lost in an ocean of his own regrets. He didn’t cry. I suspect that the tears this pain could wring from him had all been shed over a century ago. So I cried for him.

I understood it. This mountain was in the middle of nowhere. Days’ travel from any hint of civilization. It would have been nearly impossible for even the sounds of the megaspells to reach this far, easily mistakable as thunder. The flashes of light might have pierced the cave… but after the very first hit, the pegasus ponies had closed up the sky.

When Spike had gone to sleep, all his friends were still alive. Equestria was struggling through the darkest part of its history, but there was hope it could pull through. When he woke up, Equestria was gone. His friends were dead. The sky was cloud-locked and the land below was nothing but blighted, poisonous wastes.

I wondered how he had ever been able to sleep again.

*** *** ***

“I just want you to remember,” Spike told me as we approached the main room of his ‘house’, “That Gardens of Equestria was the real gift that Twilight Sparkle gave to all of us.”

His voice took on a slightly hard edge. “I know that as you travel, as you poke your nose into places and memories, you’re going to hear things or learn things about my Twi. But this… what you saw back there… that is the true heart of Twilight Sparkle.”

“I won’t forget,” I promised.

“And remember, this is your secret now. And my little breakdown back there? That’s a secret too. You breathe one word of that, and I’ll eat you,” Spike said dourly. Then cracked a smirk, “Or, for that matter, if you make any jokes about a grown guy playing with dolls.”

Calamity and Velvet Remedy looked up at us as we returned. From Velvet’s expression, she could tell I had been crying. “It’s a good reason,” I said simply.

They both nodded, clearly willing to accept it.

An awkward silence fell over the room.

Calamity glanced nervously towards the entrance. Somewhere out there were the other pegasi, a whole civilization that had once been his home. To his family and friends, he was now a Dashite. A traitor. Was he thinking about them? Missing them? Or was he worried about what his own kind would do, not to himself but to his friends, should they catch us up here?

Velvet Remedy fidgeted with her saddleboxes -- medical kits that had seen far too much use patching up wounds inflicted by violence. The singer and aspiring medical pony, a pacifist by nature to whom the thought of harming another pony was abhorrent, now wore three weapons, one of them a combat shotgun. She’d stopped speaking to us like we were capable of horrible things because now she knew just what we were capable of. Instead, she retreated into a fantasy world that was more of a minefield than she could ever know.

Spike…

I could almost feel the pain everyone was hiding.

“Tell us about them,” I said, breaking the silence. Everyone turned to me.

“Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy and the others. You knew them, Spike. Tell us about what they were like when they were younger.” When they were happy. Tell us of the good times, Spike. Everyone here needs to hear that. Including, if not especially, you.

*** *** ***

“Wait, wait, wait…” I gasped. “She got them to let her go by whining?

Calamity was laughing, “And give up all them jewels t’ boot?”

Spike nodded, a big smile on the dragon’s face.

“I’ll have to remember that,” Velvet Remedy said with dangerous silkiness.

“Great, Spike,” Calamity muttered. “Ya doomed us all.”

I clopped my hooves on the cave floor in applause. “Tell us another one!”

This was good. Calamity had cheered up immeasurably at the tale of how about Rainbow Dash had stood up against her own for the buffalo. Velvet Remedy had virtually fan-gasmed over Fluttershy’s caring for a sick phoenix. And I could tell that talking about all of them, especially Twilight Sparkle, was doing Spike a world of good.

I opened my saddlebags, pulling out Sparkle~Colas for each of us. One of the bottles had wedged itself against the audio recorder I had found on the cliffside, forcing me to shake it loose. Part of me felt bad that SteelHooves couldn’t be in here with us sharing these memories. But I understood all too much why Spike didn’t want a knight of the Ministry of Technology poking around his lair. Instead, I tried to memorize the stories so that we could share them with him.

“Okay, here’s another one. This is the story about Twilight Sparkle’s first Winter Wrap-Up.”

“What’s a Winter Wrap-Up?” Calamity asked, opening the Sparkle~Cola I had passed to him. Carrot-flavored liquid erupted in his face. He shot me a look.

“Oh, come on,” I chortled. “I owed you that for the Ministry of Awesome!”

He glowered, then chuckled. Velvet Remedy floated him a cloth to wipe his face.

Spike watched us with amusement, waiting for Calamity to dry himself before answering. “Well, that’s when the ponies of Ponyville would clean up the winter so that spring could start properly.” As he looked at us, I could see it dawning on him that none of us had the slightest clue what he was talking about. Two of us were from Stables and had never experienced a winter. Calamity had been an outcast long enough to have been through a few, but only wild winters that wrapped themselves up on their own. The pegasi had long stopped aiding the passing of the seasons.

“Well, normally in Equestria, one season would be aided to finish neat-and-tidy by magic. But Ponyville was founded by earth ponies, and it was tradition to help wrap up winter the earth pony way. Without magic.”

“But they had unicorns and pegasi living their too,” Velvet Remedy questioned. “So why didn’t they use magic?”

Spike nodded. “I thought it was silly the first time too. First half-dozen times, actually. Wasn’t until I visited Fillydelphia that I understood.”

“Understood what?” I asked.

“Well, it’s more difficult for earth ponies,” Spike explained. “They don’t have magic. They don’t have wings. A lot of the time, they have to work three times as hard to get half as much done. But they will, without a complaint. You won’t find ponies as proud or stubborn as earth ponies.”

I took Spike’s words as the generality they were, although I wondered how they might apply to our friend clad in steel.

“Of course, earth ponies are exceptionally innovative. Wait until I tell you the story of when Pinkie Pie chased down Rainbow Dash and a griffin with a crazy flying machine! They’re always looking for a way to do more work more easily. That’s why earth ponies have always been the ones to push technological progress. Equestria probably wouldn’t have ever come up with the wheel if it wasn’t for earth ponies.”

“Ah believe it,” Calamity agreed. “Well, the part ‘bout the wheel. Ah don’t believe no earth pony coulda kept pace with Rainbow Dash.”

I smiled at that.

Spike returned to his story. “It all started with Twilight waking me up waaaay too early and I told you that you are not welcome in here!

I turned, knowing that SteelHooves must have walked into the cave. Maybe he overheard our voices and wanted to say something about earth ponies. That would certainly fit the proud and stubborn label.

SteelHooves was backing into the cave.

Not good.

“Sorry to intrude,” the Steel Ranger said. “But you have more company. Fry me if you must, but you might want to deal with them first.”

Calamity’s voice was nearly a growl as he said: “Them?”

Four pegasus ponies completely entombed in nightmarish black Pegasus Enclave armor flew into the room, landing in front of us.

Spike reacted immediately. The green-spined purple dragon drew himself up to his full height, snorting flame and spreading his wings wide. “YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE!”

They stood their ground, although two of them backed up a pony’s length.

“Seems you have some other guests,” the lead Enclave pegasus said casually.

“They are here at my invitation. You. Are. Not!”

The lead pegasus spread his forehooves in a disarming gesture. “We’re just here to make sure they find their way safely back beneath the clouds,” he said amiably.

“Ah think we c’n find our way ourselves.” Calamity had lowered into a fighting stance. He kicked a handle below the bite-piece of his battle saddle -- a lever that had not been there before Tenpony Tower; I heard a clicking inside the battle saddle as the ammo type changed. I was certain he had just swapped in armor-piercing rounds.

“Don’t shoot them,” Velvet Remedy hissed to Calamity. “Let us at least try diplomacy first.”

“Well lookee who it is!” one of the female Enclave pegasi called out with a whistle. “We got ourselves a Dashite!”

"Not just any Dashite," one of the other black-clad males spoke up. "That's Deadshot Calamity."

"Horseapples!" I heard Calamity mutter under his breath.

The lead pegasus looked between my friend and the pegasus who had identified him. "You sure?"

"Oh yeah. Winner of the Best Young Sharpshooter competition four years running? You don't forget the pony who beat you."

"Gutshot?" Calamity whispered, eyes going wide.

The leader's compound visor turned towards Calamity, locking him in its glowing, fire-colored glare. "Well I'll be. Decorated military officer to murderous traitor..." The gems on his battle saddle's antenna-like weapons began to glow a fierce yellow-orange that matched his visor. "Sorry, dragon, but this changes things."

Spike didn’t seem to think so. “Go. While I still let you.” The dragon was growing impatient.

“You seem to forget who is in charge up here, dragon,” the leader said, still speaking gently. “Now we’ll be going, as a gesture of goodwill. But we’ll be taking that criminal there into custody.” He pointed a hoof at Calamity.

“You seem to forget who is tasty and good with ketchup.”

“Hey now…” The mare in sinister black magically-powered armor spoke up again, “Look, dragon… sir. The reward for this one’s head is worth a pretty nice pile o’ gems. Far tastier than any pony. Tell you what: let us take him, the reward is yours.”

Spike paused. Blinked. “Gems?”

Oh no… he wouldn’t. Not after everything he just told us about friends, especially his friends…

The pegasus nodded. “A lot of gems!”

“A lot of gems?”

“Yep!”

Spike cocked his head, as if listening to a voice we couldn’t hear. “You’ve barged into my house and tried to bribe me with gems, asking me to betray one of my guests to you… a guest who you have named after a pony who was not only a good friend of mine, but the bearer of the Element of Loyalty?”

“uh… yes?” The Enclave mare didn’t seem to like where this was going. I, on the other hoof, felt a sense of relief. I permitted myself to crack a smile.

Spike reached forward with one claw and dropped it onto her back, pinning her against the floor. He leaned very, very close to the mare, then used another claw to lift up her visor so that they were staring at each other eye-to-eye.

Spike snorted a gout of flame into the magical armor through the open visor, setting the Enclave mare on fire inside her enclosed suit. She screamed and thrashed for an unbearably long second or two before perishing. Smoke curled out of seems in the insectoid metal carapace.

I heard Calamity bite back a strangled sound as I gagged from the smell. I didn't think I'd be eating cooked meat for a long time.

“oh Goddesses…” moaned Velvet Remedy.

Spike raised his claw again. The other Enclave pegasi fled into the night.

“Well. This is going to be trouble.”

*** *** ***

“We should stay. We should help.”

“Ah ain’t exactly gung-ho t’ start shootin’ at folk who could be muh kin. But Ah’ll do what it takes t’ make this right.”

Spike shook his head. “No. It will be better if none of you are here when they return. Once they see that their prize is gone, they will have less reason to press the matter.”

I looked at Spike worriedly. “What if they… look deeper?”

“I won’t give them that option.”

SteelHooves, now standing in the mouth of the cave, suggested, “If there’s something here you don’t want them looking at, then we’d best make sure the pegasi know we are somewhere else.” He turned to Calamity. “We should stay above the clouds for a bit.”

Calamity nodded. “Get ourselves seen somewhere that ain’t here.” He looked to me, “Whatcha say? Head back towards New Appleloosa, drop down an’ make a turn towards Junction R-7 after we’ve been spotted?”

“It would give us a chance to lighten our load,” Velvet Remedy added approvingly. “Get Calamity’s workbench set up.”

I nodded. It was agreed. We would draw the pegasi’s attention away from Spike’s cave. I just hoped they didn’t start shooting at us. Although if we did go up in an explosive blaze of glory, it might very well be worth it to keep the Gardens of Equestria safe.

“Before we go,” Velvet Remedy said to Spike, “I did have one question you might be able to answer.” My heart skipped a beat. Please, I begged silently, don’t let it be about Fluttershy!

“Sure,” Spike said amiably.

“What are those towers?” Velvet asked, much to my relief. “The tall, slender white ones? As we were flying here, I saw several of them. They’re the only things I’ve seen as tall as this mountain, and they’re definitely pony-made.”

“They were for the Single Pony Project,” Spike answered, speaking simultaneously with Calamity.

“Them’s the Sustainable Pegasi Project,” Calamity had stated. Spike and Calamity looked at each other.

Okie, dokey, lokey. “The Single Pony Project?” I asked. Calamity looked a touch hurt that I didn’t turn to his expertise first. “You’ve mentioned that before. What was the project for?”

Spike opened his mouth, then paused. The dragon raised a claw, then stopped. Finally, he admitted, “I actually have no idea. I spent all my time with Twilight. I don’t really know much about what the other Ministries were up to. All I know is that it was called the Single Pony Project, that it was Rainbow Dash’s idea, and that it was pretty much the only thing the Ministry of Awesome did.”

“Only official thing,” SteelHooves interjected.

I turned to Calamity now, “Sustainable Pegasi Project?”

“Well, Ah can’t say fer sure it weren’t the Single Pony Project at some point…” Calamity chewed on what the dragon had said. “Ah was told otherwise, but it ain’t like Ah ain’t got no reason t’ doubt anythin’ just cuz the Great Pegasus Enclave declares it t’ be true.”

Velvet Remedy looked particularly pained at this spectacular mangling of proper grammar.

“An’ iffin it were Rainbow Dash who come up with it, then Ah really doubt she woulda meant fer those towers t’ be bein’ used fer what they all are usin’ them fer now. Cuz right now, they’re being used t’ help keep the pegasus ponies isolated from the rest of y’all.”

“How so?”

Calamity turned to Velvet Remedy. “Remember when ya asked about what we ate up here, an’ Ah joked ‘bout cloud seedin’?”

Velvet Remedy nodded. “I recall that I was going to demand a proper answer later.”

“Yeah, well, now yer gonna get it,” Calamity said. “I dunno what them towers were originally meant t’ do. But Ah know what the Enclave has repurposed ‘em t’ do. And that’s t’ enchant the clouds fer miles around ‘em so that we c’n grow crops right up in the sky.”

I let out a whistle at that. From somewhere outside, Pyrelight whistled back.

Made sense. No matter what the Single Pony Project had been meant to be, the towers were now being used to suit the purposes of the surviving ponies. The pegasus ponies were using them up above for agriculture up above. Homage was using them below to broadcast DJ Pon3’s music and messages across the Equestrian Wasteland. (“Bringing you the truth, no matter how bad it hurts!”) And Red Eye was using one for the Goddesses-knew-what.

My thoughts drifted to Homage.

I hadn’t told Homage about SteelHooves’ deception. He’d used DJ Pon3’s radio broadcast to spread his lie about Chief Grim Star. (I had to wonder how somepony like SteelHooves managed to find himself in a romantic relationship with the mare of the Element of Honesty.) I expected that Homage would be personally offended. I didn’t want to be the bearer of a message that caused her pain. But I didn’t keep my mouth shut just because I didn’t want to upset her.

She might feel provoked to air what I told her, even though I could offer no evidence to back it up. Yet what good would that serve?

More likely, I suspected she would choose not to air it. Like my struggles with addiction, or her real identity, sometimes secrets had their place. Homage understood that. That wonderful unicorn had more personal integrity than any pony I’d ever met, and I couldn’t bear to put her in a morally uncomfortable position. Especially not after Monterey Jack.

I was brought out of my reverie by the jab of Velvet Remedy’s hoof. “Still with us, Littlepip?”

I nodded. The others were already gathering back at the Sky Bandit. It was time to go. We wanted to be moving before the Pegasus Enclave returned.

I trotted to the mouth of the cave and then looked back towards Spike. “I guess… this is it then?” Watcher had helped me; without him I might not have survived. He helped give me purpose, a goal… and ultimately friendship. But now it was clear that we were not the ponies he was looking for. And he needed to focus his attention elsewhere.

Spike nodded. “I’ll keep an eye open for you. We may talk again. But… yes, this is it.”

“Thank you, Spike.”

“Thank you, Littlepip.”

I turned, and walked out of the cave.

I was about to step into the Sky Bandit when I was hit by an epiphany. Turning, I galloped back into the cave.

Honesty. It was about more than just telling the truth. It was about integrity.

“Spike!” I cried out. “I know one of the other ponies you’re looking for!”

*** *** ***

Two black-carapaced pegasi were still hot on our tails as we broke beneath the cloud-curtain.

"Ha!" shouted Calamity, wings flapping hard as he hauled the Sky Bandit through the air at breakneck speed. "Told ya they wouldn't follow us below the clouds! Cowards!"

Velvet Remedy looked at the two demonic silhouettes behind us, her hair whipping across her face. "They're still following us!"

"What?!" Calamity glanced back over his shoulder. "Oh horseapples!" Somehow, he managed to pour on even more speed.

We were pulling ahead. I saw the gemstones of the Enclave battle saddles flare, and bolts of colored light shot past us. Thankfully, neither of these pegasi had Calamity's aim.

"Calamity, could you please kindly lose these ponies?" Velvet asked with an almost seductive smoothness. "I'd really hate to get blown up today."

Two more blasts of magical energy shot past us, one actually passing through one shattered window of the passenger wagon and out another, barely missing Pyrelight. The magical bird squawked and hid behind Velvet, who cooed at her comfortingly.

"Wow," SteelHooves commented dryly. "They really don't like you, do they."

"Y'all c'n shut it now," Calamity barked back at us. "An' hold on!"

I wrapped my forelegs around one of the poles between the wagon's bench seats. Velvet Remedy clamped down on one of the bits that dangled from the ceiling. (From her expression, she immediately regretted it. I could only imagine the taste!) SteelHooves braced himself between benches. A moment later, Calamity took the Sky Bandit into a steep dive. Pyrelight bounced off the wagon's ceiling. She scrambled to bite down on Velvet Remedy's wind-thrashed mane before the wind threw her out the back window of the wagon. Bolts of colored light shot all around us. I think I screamed.

The Enclave pegasi broke off their pursuit about halfway to the ground.

*** *** ***

My legs were still shaking, my hooves thankful to be planted on firm ground.

I watched as Velvet Remedy bartered with Ditzy Doo outside the front gate of New Appleloosa, trading for spark batteries to replace the nearly drained ones in the Sky Bandit. We weren't allowed further, but the ghoul pesagus was more than happy to come out and greet us. For a moment, I didn't recognize the little lavender filly who shyly followed behind her. My eyes widened as I realized it was Silver Bell. No longer painted pink.

She seemed... better. Being with Ditzy Doo was good for her.

Silver Bell looked up, recognizing Velvet Remedy. She froze in her tracks.

"Hello, Silver Bell," Velvet Remedy said gently. "You're looking beautiful this morning."

Silver Bell looked everywhere but at Velvet.

"I have someone you might like to meet," Velvet continued, her voice warm and accepting. "Pyrelight, come out and meet Silver Bell."

The little filly's eyes went wide at the sight of the majestic balefire phoenix. The emerald and gold creature landed next to her and cooed a friendly hello. The effect on Silver Bell was dramatic -- it was as if Pyrelight was the first truly beautiful thing the girl had ever seen!

Calamity walked up next to me. "Call me crazy, but after we go, Ah half expect that filly t' spend the next few days tryin' t' make New Appleloosa as pretty as that bird."

I could so picture that.

I looked up at Calamity. The rust-colored pegasus with the orange mane and black desperado hat was probably the closest friend I had. (Not counting Homage, who was all manner of closer, but much more than a friend.)

"Ah know what yer thinkin'," Calamity stated. "Don'tcha believe 'em. The Enclave has a vested interest in makin' anypony who bucks their ideals inta a monster."

“I believe you,” I told him sincerely. I regularly put my life, and the lives of those I loved, in Calamity’s care. I absolutely trusted him with this too. “But, Calamity, if you’re running from something, perhaps we can help.”

Calamity laughed. “Li’lpip, ya should know me well ‘nuff by now t’ know runnin’ away from things ain’t my way.”

My friend turned his head towards the ever-present cloud cover. “Ah flew towards somethin’. They jus’ didn’t wanna let me go.”

*** *** ***

"Nice place you got here," SteelHooves said as he looked around Junction R-7. I couldn't be sure if he was being sarcastic or speaking truthfully.

"Home sweet train-wreck."

SteelHooves eyed the turret defenses, then looked up at the tri-barreled magical energy cannon mounted on the roof of the train's incongruous engine. "Oh, now that is a beauty!"

I could hear Calamity setting up his workshop. I looked around, but could not see where Velvet Remedy had wandered off to. Hopefully, she was getting some sleep. I knew I needed some. Our next stop was going to be Fillydelphia. I didn’t know if we would actually find Red Eye there, but everything I had learned said that all his slave operations were centered in that foul place.

It was time to start putting some things right.

Spike’s words rang in my head. I know that as you travel, as you poke your nose into places and memories, you’re going to hear things or learn things about my Twi. I had sworn I would remember, as he called it, the real heart of Twilight Sparkle. I couldn’t imagine forgetting, now that I had seen it for myself. The sight of that Crusader maneframe, surrounded by the Elements of Harmony, sitting and waiting… year after year, decade after decade for the chosen ponies to put right things that were far beyond my ability to effect…

I would say “collecting dust”, but they hadn’t been dusty. Spike, I realized, had been dutifully tending to the Elements of Harmony and the maneframe.

How hard would it be to remember if I had nothing like that sight to cling to?

Right now, I had another private moment with SteelHooves. I should make the best of it. I wanted to ask him about Applejack… but I didn’t think we were ready for that conversation yet; I felt I would be prying into someplace I hadn’t yet earned the right to go.

But I had other friends, including one I worried was heading towards a shattering reality-crash. I had no idea what to do for her, but I felt that knowing as much as I could beforehoof would give me my best chance to at least help her recover if I couldn’t protect her from the tragic discovery.

“SteelHooves… what happened to Fluttershy?”

The Steel Ranger stopped in mid-trot and turned his visor towards me. “Depends on who you ask,” he answered cryptically.

“Nopony knows?” I asked, having really hoped for a more definitive answer than that. Preferably one that I could mine for a little hope.

SteelHooves shook his head. “Keep in mind, it’s really hard to pin down what happened to any particular pony. Skeletons don’t come with nametags. And there were millions of ponies for whom the megaspells didn’t even leave that. Some places, like Splendid Valley and the Canterlot Ruins, are still far too dangerous for proper expeditions. It’s rare that you can say for certain what happened, even to a loved one.”

Oh dear. I nodded slowly.

“That said, most ponies… well, those who ever think of or even know about Fluttershy beyond the Ministry of Peace posters… believe that she was so devastated by what had happened to Equestria and to the world because of her efforts to force peace that she plodded into one of the really bad places and let nature tear her apart. Let Equestria do to her what she had done to it.”

I cringed. This wasn’t what I had hoped for.

“There are other tales. Some claimed she leapt to her death from the top of the Ministry of Peace in the Canterlot Ruins.”

“Wasn’t she a pegasus?”

SteelHooves nickered. “Yes. But then, just being outside in Canterlot would have been death sentence enough.” I looked at the ground. It just kept getting worse. “And then there are the ponies who say she wandered into the Everfree Forest and became a tree.”

“Wait. What!?” I demanded, jaw on the ground. “How could that even happen?!”

SteelHooves gave a shrug. “Don’t ask me. I’ve always been in the Fluttershy-committed-suicide camp, myself.” He snorted. “Still, Everfree is a bizarre and twisted place. It became vastly more warped and deadly after the apocalypse… although Luna knows why. It wasn’t even hit.”

The Steel Ranger turned away. “Only thing everypony can agree on: Fluttershy lived through the Apocalypse… long enough, at least, for the full horror of it all -- the death of innumerable ponies and animals, the poisoning and disfiguring of the land itself -- to be ground into her soul.”

I collapsed onto my haunches, feeling heartsick.

”This is the Equestrian Wasteland. It’s nothing if not cruel.”

*** *** ***

“Well, this was a bust.

“Spike’s asleep. I could wake him, but why would I do that to the poor guy. To wake up to all of this? Better to let him sleep. Have good dreams for just a while longer.

“Hey, dragons can sleep for up to a hundred years, right? Maybe Spike will get lucky and not wake up until Equestria’s had time to heal. Although I don’t know if a hundred years will be enough…”

“Seeing the sun like this, I can almost believe it never happened. Clouds hide the view below. I’m beginning to think that’s the idea.

“They call me a traitor now. Me! After all I did for them! They turn their backs on Equestria and they have the nerve to call ME a traitor!

“They’ve even hired a mercenary now to hunt me down. Bring them back my head. Neck need not be attached, of course.

“She’s good. The best. I’m better. And she knows it…”

A second voice sounded on the audio recording, gruffer than the mare’s, “Sure. Which leaves a gal to wonder why you’re just sitting up here letting me find you.”

“Hello, Gilda,” the mare’s voice replied, sounding tired.

“Sorry it had to end this way, Dash.”

“No you’re not. Not really.”

“Naw. Not really.”

“…”

“Gilda… can I make one request?”

“What?”

“Can we sing it? One more time?”

“Huh? Sing what…? oh you can’t be serious.”

“Just once?”

The second voice let out a long-suffering sigh. “Ugh. Why?”

“Because, just for a moment, I want to remember an earlier, happier time. A time when the world didn’t suck.”

“Fine. …Only for you, Dash.” The voice paused. “One final time. But after that, you know I’m going to kill you.”

“You’ll try.”

The two voices blended into an odd harmony:

“Junior Speedsters are our lives. Sky-bound soars and dare…”

The audio recording abruptly cut off; the machine had reached its limit.


Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: The Magic of Friendship – When your HP or the HP of any member of your party drops below 30%, all members of your party (including yourself) gain much greater resistance to damage.