Chapter Twenty-Six: Xenith
“The fate of Equestria does not rest on me making friends.”
Equestria’s enemies. The creatures who slaughtered us by the millions and destroyed our lands with poisoned clouds and balefire bombs.
The creatures which were constantly portrayed as demonic, nightmarish, virtually without souls. Creatures who, according to the propaganda of the Ministry of Image, embodied the antitheses of pony virtues.
“Yeah…” I thought, looking out into a caged arena where ponies murdered each other brutally for the sport of slaves. “…because we ponies are so noble.”
Was it fair to paint Xenith with all the wrongdoings of the members of her race centuries dead? No more so than to blame me for the things ponies must have done to them.
I had my own sins to bear the guilt for.
And now, assuming a raider buck named Daffodil didn’t strike her down, I was expected to fight this zebra. And either kill her, or die by her hooves. Most likely the latter. I had been stripped of everything that I could use as a weapon. Even the screwdriver I had fought so hard for and felt I had earned had been taken. I had my horn, my hooves, my single spell, and S.A.T.S. My brawling skills were, to put it bluntly, pathetic. It would be a miracle if I survived.
I had managed miracles before. That was Red Eye’s intention: that either I should die, or that I should be forced to kill other slaves, this zebra being only one of many, compromising the parts of me I held sacred just so that I might live long enough to kill him.
Either way would be a victory for him. Although the latter, if I did manage to kill him, would be a pyrrhic victory at best.
I thought of the image in the mirror. Littlepip as a raider, soaked in blood, dying. That was not my soul, of that I was certain! But… I knew that I could become that. I was already swimming in the slaughter of my enemies.
I realized that I was Monterey Jack, forced between destroying what allowed me to live with myself, or just dying.
I needed another option.
*** *** ***
The heat of the sun pushed down through black clouds, baking the red-tinged hellscape of Fillydelphia. Daffodil stood firm, snorting heavily, the mangled corpse of Cinderblock oozing blood that soaked into the ground around Daff’s hooves.
The body of Blood, Daff’s raider companion, lay not far away, her own blood drying and caking.
Daff looked at her, and I could see hurt on his face. I realized that she was just going to lay there, baking in the heat, until all the fights were over. I wanted to scream. He wasn’t even given time to mourn. The next fight had already begun.
Daff turned, locking his gaze on the zebra named Xenith. An extremely rare sight in the Equestrian Wasteland. Possibly even more so than a pegasus.
“Xenith’s been in the slave pits for years,” commented the blue-coated pony assigned to fight after I did. “We worked near each other in the alchemy huts up on the northside for about three months, mostly recycling flamethrower fuel. All that time, she never said a word. Way I heard it, the slavers who captured her cut out her tongue after she said something offensive to them.”
Number Four paused, “Her being a zebra and all, it was probably something downright egregious. Like ‘Hello’.”
I watched as the zebra stepped forward, moving up to Daff and lowering her head in what struck me as a sign of respect for her mortal opponent.
Daff didn’t see it that way. He saw an opportunity, and he took it. Spinning around, he delivered a brutal buck right into her neck. The zebra fell sprawling.
Daff turned, rearing up, lifting both hooves over the fallen zebra. Xenith rolled onto her back and kicked out with her hindhooves, planting them ferociously into the rearing earth pony’s exposed stomach. Daff fell, clutching his belly, coughing bloody spittle.
The zebra somersaulted onto her hooves.
Daff grunted and pushed himself back up, only for the zebra to crouch and spin on one forehoof, her outstretched hindlegs sweeping Daff’s legs out from under him. He went down again.
I stared, my jaw falling nearly to the ground. I watched the zebra’s fluid motions. She wasn’t brawling -- this was more of a fighting art form. I’d never seen anything like it.
“Heh. Looks like Fallen Caesar Style… not that I’m an expert,” Number Four noted with casual awe. His eyebrows shot up at my blank look. “Don’t tell me you’ve entered The Pit without having read at least a few Martial Arts of the Zebra books? How do you expect to win?”
“N-no,” I stammered. Of all the books I’d stumbled across in my wasteland trek, I’d somehow managed to miss that one. “Of c-course not!” I turned back to the fight.
Daff had gotten back on his hooves and was circling the zebra. The zebra watched him, waiting for his attack with an almost eerie calm. He lunged, and she tossed herself down, planting a hoof into his breast and using his own momentum to fling him over her. Daff hit the dirt, sprawling.
She was a far better fighter. This was unfair.
But Daff was stronger. And he fought dirtier.
Xenith trotted cautiously closer. I suspected she was looking to end the fight while the piss-colored buck was still face-down in the dirt. Daff was trembling as if in exhaustion, and he moaned as he tried to push himself up only to have his legs go out from under him.
His weakness was a ruse. The moment Xenith got close enough, Daff twisted about on the ground and kicked a cloud of dirt and grit into her eyes. She whinnied, backing up, blinded. Her body sunk into a defensive position, prepared for immediate attack.
But Daff had seen something she apparently had not. And instead of turning to fight her, he dashed forward. I heard the BEEP of the undetonated mine as he galloped over it, kicking the explosive back towards the zebra with a hindhoof.
Xenith had heard it too. She flung herself away as best she could, the mine exploding in the air with almost two pony-lengths between itself and the zebra. Not lethal or even crippling, but enough to send her tumbling, the wind knocked out of her.
I felt myself gasp.
“Oh, she can handle a lot more than that,” Number Four commented. “The slavers regularly did a number on her back in the huts. Seemed to take great delight in taking everything out on her. Made it a lot easier on the rest of us.”
I bristled, wincing both at the mental images his words conjured and at the stinging in my flank. The powder that the slaver had trapped against my cutie mark was sinking its nasty teeth into my flesh.
“Hell, I remember one time a unicorn slave messed up with the recycling and set herself on fire. The slavers shot her so she didn’t run around setting the whole place ablaze. Then, after the flames had gone out, just for fun, they chopped off the unicorn’s head and raped the zebra with it.” Number Four at least had the decency to cringe a little. I was staring in utter horror. “Come to think of it, that was just before she volunteered for The Pit.”
Xenith was pulling herself up. Daff had used the moment of reprieve not to attack but to run across another of the pressure plates. The latch on the barrel above clicked free and the bottom opened, releasing gallons of glowing green slosh. (“Yep, now that’s what most of them have,” Number Four commented.) Something large fell out in the goop, hitting the ground with a wet thud. Daff was out of the way of all but a few splashing drops, but those pulled a scream out of him. He danced, shaking the glowing crap off, then turned to see his prize.
An auto-axe lay in the spreading, luminescent green puddle, glistening wetly. Daff grimaced. Having just felt a few drops on his flanks, he didn’t seem inclined to put something bathed in that goop into his mouth.
Xenith was moving cautiously forward again. She’d gleaned enough of his tactics to know she didn’t wish to engage Daff anywhere near that glowing puddle. They began to circle the spill opposite of each other, each keeping their distance from the slosh, Xenith even more than Daff.
The ponies in the bleachers began to stomp in unison. “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
Daff made a move. He had managed to circle around so he was within range of Cinderblock’s corpse, with Xenith on the other side of the pool. Dashing over Cinderblock’s remains, he drew up his hindhooves…
BUCK! Cinderblock’s corpse flew behind him.
Sploosh! A wave of the green sludge surged towards Xenith. The zebra pinwheeled to the side in a maneuver I didn’t even think possible.
She charged towards Daff.
The large buck saw her coming and crouched down, holding his ground. He drove both hindhooves towards her in a powerful strike the moment she got within hoof’s reach.
But Xenith jumped. She leapt clean over Daffodil, striking the nape of his neck with a passing hoof. She landed in a graceful roll that ended with her back on her hooves, facing him.
Daff seemed frozen in place. He stared, unmoving.
“Paralyzing Hoof!” Number Four announced. “Now that’s definitely Fallen Caesar Style.”
She could paralyze a pony with a hoofstrike? How the hell was I supposed to fight against that?
Daff toppled over. Xenith trotted up to the fallen pony, her sad gaze looking into his wide and fearful eyes. The crowd began to chant and pound their hoofs. “Kill! Kill! Kill!”
Stern’s voice called out, bizarrely magnified. “Finish it!”
The zebra planted one hoof on Daff’s neck. She lowered her head, her muzzle lingering next to his ear a moment before she bit into his mane. She pulled her head back with a hard jerk. I heard Daff’s neck crack.
Xenith’s teeth let go of the dead pony’s mane. She trotted towards the center of the arena and waited for her next opponent. Me.
*** *** ***
The midday heat was becoming stifling under the thick, choking blanket of the Fillydelphia cloud cover. My cracked rib ached. My flank was stinging so badly I had to wipe tears from my eyes.
Xenith stood, watching me with those sad eyes, as I plodded into the arena.
Now that I was inside, rather than watching through a gate, I could see more of The Pit. But it was mostly just more of the same. There was a third entrance -- a set of double doors behind which I imagined slaver guards were waiting ready to gallop into what had once been an ice-skating rink at the first sign of real trouble. I could see Stern standing on a raised and barricaded platform above and behind the bleachers. She was wearing an odd pre-war headset that I suspected was responsible for amplifying her voice. She was also wearing her anti-machine rifle, slung back over her Talon armor.
And I could see the mob of ponies staring down into the arena with gleeful anticipation. I noticed a few were eating snacks. I felt a flare of anger. A pony wouldn’t want to see me brutally murdered on an empty stomach after all.
“I’m trying to save all of you WHY?” I screamed out at them. For just a moment, I could understand how Red Eye morally justified putting these ponies through such suffering to build a better world. I didn’t agree, but I could comprehend it.
You see, little pony? Mister Topaz had said. Look at what you ponies are doing to each other up there. Look at what you did to each other in here. What makes you think your pathetic, wicked species is worth being anything other than dragon food?”
I tried to remember my answer.
Xenith stepped closer to me. I could see that her body bore many scars under her striped coat. Her cutie mark (or whatever zebra’s have on their flanks in place of one) was a squiggly jumble of lines, looking more like a complex glyph than a proper cutie mark icon. On her right flank, it looked like somepony had snuffed out cigars against it.
She lowered her head as she neared me. That same posture which I had taken before as a show of respect.
Then, very softly, so that only I could hear, Xenith whispered, “I’m sorry.”
I froze, stunned. The zebra who hadn’t even spoken out when slave-masters were raping her with a dead pony’s horn broke her silence for me. A sign of respect indeed.
Of course, I realized, she had played the mute because doing anything else would have resulted in actually losing her tongue. She could break it to me because I was about to die.
I also realized, a moment too late, that her words had effectively dropped my guard.
Xenith struck me with her forehooves, driving them into my wounded side. I heard and felt as my cracked rib broke and punctured into one of my lungs. I collapsed, sliding backwards from the force of the blow. The world swam as I struggled for air.
It was like she’d known just where to strike to cause the most injury. (As opposed to Daff, who had just known where to cause the most pain.)
I looked into the sky, a red fog seeping into the edges of my vision. I saw the griffins flying above, their talons holding rifles. I could hear the pounding of over two hundred hooves as the ponies in the bleachers called for my death.
A shadow fell over me. I turned to see Xenith rearing up, her hooves raising above my face for a swift final blow.
I gasped, my horn flaring, and kicked against the ground. My levitation blanket wrapped around me, making me nearly weightless, and I surged up off the ground like a kicked balloon. The zebra’s hooves slammed into dirt that still bore the imprint of my head.
“Wait!” I gasped again, feeling the strain of levitating myself while I was struggling for proper breath. “We… we don’t have to do this…”
The zebra looked up to me with an expression of resignation and pity.
“Please… don’t do what they want you to do!” I was sinking back towards the ground slowly. Xenith watched, waiting for me to come back within reach. “Join me. We can escape together.”
Xenith snorted, giving me a look that made me wonder just how many ponies had made this offer before. But none, I suspected, who could actually succeed.
“FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!” cried the crowd.
”I have a plan…” I offered, trying to sound more confident than I was. My success rate with plans in the last few days had not been self-inspiring. This entire plot had been amazingly ill-conceived.
In truth, I had been arrogant -- so prideful of my ability to improvise, so full of myself from past victories, that I actually thought I could walk into the enemy camp with nothing but my wits… and win. I let the Elder convince me this was the only way because it conveniently allowed me to protect my friends. Instead, I had become a slave, and now I was desperately attempting to float beyond the reach of a zebra’s devastating hoofstrikes.
It was time to get out, regroup and hopefully come up with a strategy less mind-bogglingly stupid.
Xenith jumped, a forehoof striking me in the breast. Pain exploded through my body! I screamed, my magic imploding as I dropped to the ground with a thud.
The zebra landed a pony’s length away.
Gasping wretchedly for air, I looked up as she took a step backwards, bringing her hindhooves into bucking range.
My horn glowed again. In desperation, I wrapped the telekinetic field around her throat and began to tighten.
As I began to choke her, Xenith bucked at my unbroken ribs. But my choking had thrown off her aim just enough, and I had learned to dodge.
The zebra staggered as I tightened my telekinetic grip. There wasn’t much physical force behind my telekinesis, but I had enough to crush her throat. I didn’t want to kill the zebra mare, but I had to take her out of the fight.
Xenith wobbled, eyes buldging, nostrils flaring. For a moment, she gave me the same terrified look that Daff had given her. Then that look melted into resignation and she stopped struggling, watching me with a gaze that told me she had accepted my victory.
Then she passed out. I released her, letting her drop like a sack of apples.
“What an upset!” Stern’s voice boomed.
All around me, the air roared with thunderous applause.
“Kill! Kill! Kill!”
I struggled upright, painfully catching my breath, and looked up at the crowd. I hated them. Every one of them.
I trotted over to Xenith’s fallen form. She was breathing slowly.
I looked up at the barrels. My horn flared again, wrapping one of them in a magical field. But the barrel was securely fastened to the cage ceiling, and my telekinesis was not strong enough to tear it free.
Stern seemed to glean that I was up to something because she unslung her anti-machine rifle. “Finish it!” the griffin demanded. Couldn’t Stern at least call Xenith ‘her’?
My mind flashed to the memory of how the barrels opened. I didn’t need to pull them down, just flip the latches. Latches were easy.
My horn glowed brightly.
Stern pulled her anti-machine rifle forward and peered at me through its scope. “Finish it now!”
The latches on the barrels sprung open. All of them.
My PipBuck clickclickclicked urgently. True to Number Four’s predictions, most of the barrels held glowing green sludge. And weapons. The barrel’s released their contents, raining down implements of death. A magical-energy lance, a sword, a chainsaw (a chainsaw!?) and even a couple firearms. I let them fall where the barrels dropped them. It was the sludge I wanted.
The luminescent goop was barely translucent. I spun it around and over the inside of the cage, creating a glowing green curtain, thin as film but enough to obscure me inside. I didn’t want any of those griffins or guard slavers to be able to take shots at me. Immediately, I galloped into a new position; as I predicted, Stern fired a shot at where I had just been standing.
I felt tears in my eyes. The pain in my chest was burning, my breathing becoming more ragged as I tried to maintain focus in so many places at once. Each breath felt a little like drowning.
I wrapped another telekinetic sheath around myself, canceling out my weight, then extended it to wrap about the zebra as well. There was never any question that I would be taking her with me. The thought of leaving her behind here had never entered my mind.
My vision blurred. I forced myself to keep focus. My horn flared brighter, a layer of overglow erupting from it. It occurred to me that a keen-eyed griffin might be able to spot the glow of my horn through the curtain of muck.
But I needed to keep enough focus and channel enough power for just one more trick. And I needed more time.
I telekinetically grabbed the magical energy lance and wedged it across the double-doors seconds before slavers started slamming against them, trying to get in.
The curtain weakened, holes appearing along the top of it. One of those tears was almost directly above me, revealing the door in top of the cage which I had spotted earlier, bound closed with a simple padlock. I kicked off, sending myself floating upwards, my eyes fixed on the padlock. I had no bobby pins. My screwdriver had been stolen from me.
I should not need them.
Manipulating multiple objects that were out of sight was tricky, but I had pulled pins from grenades hidden in a sack. And I knew locks. I knew tumblers and internal mechanisms. I should be able to pick a lock with my magic alone.
Reaching out with my magic, I enveloped the padlock in a gentle glow. My own horn flared as a second layer of overglow burst around the first. Streams of light poured from my head.
I felt a bullet lash past me, followed by the sound of a gunshot. Below, the blows against the double doors were causing the magical energy lance to bend.
I was still floating upward, carrying the unconscious zebra. We were nearing the cage. But our ascent was slowing alarmingly. One of the griffins above fired down at me, but the shot sparked off one of the bars of the cage.
“I can do this!” I told myself repeatedly.
A second shot sparked against the gate itself, inches from the padlock.
Who was I fooling? I could barely breathe! My magic faltered, the swirling curtain slipping, wavering.
No! “I can do this!”
I shifted the tumblers into place. The padlock sprung open. My vision swam again. I nearly lost everything.
The magical energy lance cracked in two. The doors below swung open and slavers stumbled into the arena.
Frantically, I hovered the padlock away and pushed open the gate. A moment later, we were through and I was running along the top of the cage as fast as my surviving lung would allow me. I let everything fall except my grasp around myself and Xenith. My whole body screamed in pain and exertion.
Shots rang out, bullets striking the cage about me from above and below. I weaved erratically, again doing my best to make a hard target. I was reaching the edge of the cage.
The ice arena was at the far end of the Fillydelphia FunFarm. With luck, I could jump from it over the fence, again putting a barrier between me and at least the ground-bound slavers.
The end of the cage came faster than I would have wanted. I jumped, screaming from the agony in my chest. The two of us soared out over the amusement park. My heart sank as I realized I had run the wrong way and my jump was taking me into the FunFarm rather than away from it.
A tearing kick jerked my right foreleg with a metallic crunch! The sound of Stern’s anti-machine rifle followed closely after as searing red agony shot through my leg. The bullet had missed, just barely catching my PipBuck, but the force of that alone felt like it had shattered my leg!
I fell, my magical field imploding, collapsing onto a set of tracks several stories above the amusement park below.
*** *** ***
I moaned, feeling the world thump rhythmically though my body as if I was riding a washing machine, and not in the way young fillies do to enjoy themselves. The world seemed crazily tilted. I could only take shallow breaths. Bright pain pulsed in my right foreleg. I heard gunfire.
Memory flooded back to me and my eyes shot open. I looked around, almost falling off the back of the zebra who was carrying me up a steep slope on the Fillydelphia FunFarm’s roller coaster track.
I had been out for a few minutes at most. Long enough for the zebra to come to. Having awoken on the elevated tracks, jumping hadn’t been an option. There were only two ways for her to go. I felt thankful that Xenith had returned the favor and taken me with her.
My first worry was for my PipBuck. I lifted my foreleg, but only managed to raise it a few inches before I let out a tortured scream, hot pain bursting through my leg.
My PipBuck had taken an indirect hit; it was not itself damaged, but the bullet had torn through the peripheral. The broadcaster was destroyed. And with it, my plan for escape.
I brought up my Eyes-Forward Sparkle. My PipBuck was flashing alerts. I had taken more rads from being in the middle of all that green sludge than my PipBuck liked. My chest and right foreleg had taken crippling wounds, the latter having suffered a wrenching sprain and a small hairline fracture in the bone.
Looking down, I saw slaver ponies shooting at us from the ground. By experience these mares and bucks were not the best shots even at close range. If they hit us at this distance with the cover of the tracks, it would be by sheer dumb luck.
Behind us even more were charging up the track, but they were well behind. It was the griffins that were the biggest threat. I looked around, but couldn’t spot them. Which meant little.
Xenith reached the apex of the track, stopping just shy of it. A set of three colorfully-painted, pony-shaped carriages sat on the top of the roller coaster’s hill, rusting for two hundred years. There wasn’t any room to go around them, leaving the zebra no apparent choice but to climb over them.
She cautiously put a hoof onto the orange rear carriage and pressed her weight down on it. The carriage gave a metallic groan. She looked back at me with a grimace that I was able to match.
I focused, wrapping us in a levitation field to reduce our weight. Perspiration broke across my head. Hot coals formed in my lungs, only one of which could catch breath. The effort sucked all the remaining strength out of me. My magical field popped as I nearly blacked out again.
No. Dammit, why did this have to be happening now? I’d overtaxed my magic once before, and it had taken days (and a magical statuette) before I could properly float objects again. This felt much the same. Perhaps not a true burnout, but a severe drop in power, the result of having pushed so hard in such a weakened state. And true burnout could be imminent.
I steadied my breath and focused again. My horn glowed softly. The levitation field wrapped slowly around us. I was breathing quickly, nearly hyperventilating, but the field was holding. “Climb,” I gasped, “Now.”
The zebra cautiously mounted the carriage, then stepped down onto the bench of the first seat well. The old car rocked slightly, groaning again. Step by step she started walking across the trio of carriages.
We were halfway across the purple middle carriage when a hole punched through the nose of the carriage in front, followed by a distant report. I grunted as Xenith took an involuntary step backward and fell partially into the carriage seat. My magic imploded and the linked carriages let out a protesting whine.
I had been wrong. It wasn’t the griffins I had to worry about. It was the snipers in the damn Pinkie Pie Balloons. Once we crested the top, we had put ourselves right in their crosshairs. And the carriages slowed us to a crawl, giving them easy shots.
Another shot punched clean through the seat and carriage frame behind us. Xenith dumped me off her back into the cover of the seat well, then scrambled to take cover in the seat well ahead of us. We were pinned.
The shadow of a griffin shot over us, dropping something that hit the rim of the stairwell and bounced over the edge of the track. A moment later, the grenade went off, the sound of splintering wood accenting the explosion. I felt a subtle and unpleasant shift in the carriage beneath us; the grenade had taken out some of the beams in the already precarious roller coaster’s framework.
Another griffin soared past, spreading his wings and banking. With alarm, I saw the creature was holding a rocket launcher!
There was no time to think. We had to go.
Jumping out of the seat well, I swung around and bucked the link that held the front two carriages to the back one. Another gunshot ripped the air above my left flank and punched into the back carriage. I noticed belatedly that the nose of each carriage was shaped and painted to look comically like the faces of Pinkie Pie’s friends.
I flung my forehooves back into the seat well and bucked Applejack in the face. My body screamed in protest, my right foreleg flaring in pain and slipping.
The orange rear carriage squealed and began sliding backwards down the tracks, sparks spraying from rust-jammed wheels. The slaver ponies charging after us stopped abruptly, standing like pins before a bowling ball, then turned and tried to run the other way. One of them tried to leap onto a lower set of tracks and disappeared from sight.
Without the rearmost carriage as an anchor, the front two began to slowly slide down the forward slope. I swung myself, trying to hook my injured leg back around the seat well’s edge. I succeeded, but the pain slammed into my head like a sledgehammer. I screamed, nearly slipping free entirely.
Xenith jumped back into my seat well, grabbing my mane in her teeth.
The rocket-launcher griffin fired. A streak of smoke shot towards us, tipped with violent death.
Xenith wrenched me into the carriage, pushing us both down as far as we could go. A moment later, the rocket struck into the track almost where the rear car had been. The explosion washed over the top of us, cutting our backs with shrapnel and kissing us with flame. The carriage lurched forward hard, bucking up from the track and slamming back down as bits of metal track and chunks of burning wood rained into the park below. What had been a slow crawl forward was abruptly transformed into a racing plummet.
The carriages bumped and rattled, squealing all the way down. The light blue carriage ahead bucked and skipped, threatening to jump the tracks. If it did, we were done for. There was no Calamity to catch me this time.
My stomach lurched violently as the downhill slide swept into an uphill thrust, tossing us against the seat well’s bench.
The upward angle of the carriage now left our seat well exposed. A bullet punched into the bench, inches from Xenith’s left shoulder, spraying rotted foam.
One of the griffins (I believe the one who had tossed the grenade) had unslung his lever-action rifle and was flying towards us, slowly pumping shots in our direction. Our impromptu ride had put distance between us and them, but we were already slowing. He would be in optimal firing range in moments.
The second griffin was reloading his rocket launcher. A third swept around behind him and banked, moving out of my line of sight beneath the wooden hills of the roller coaster.
Lever-action griffin fired again, and a line of blood spurted from the back of Xenith’s neck. A grazing shot that I knew must burn. But she gritted her teeth and kept silent. The griffin moved closer, aiming, and fired again.
The rifle was empty. Cursing, the griffin drew up into a hover and began to reload.
Reloading meant he had less of a grip on his weapon. I focused and telekinetically wrenched the firearm away, closing it. The griffin’s eyes widened as his own weapon twirled around to point at him. BLAM!
As he fell, another stream of smoke leapt from the other griffin’s missile launcher and raced towards us. The missile streaked past us, and I heard it detonate somewhere ahead.
I urgently floated the lever-action rifle, checking the shots. The griffin had only loaded two bullets into the rifle before I had snatched it away, leaving me with one shot. I had to choose my next sh-
The third griffin suddenly swooped up right next to our carriage as we crested the smaller hill, aiming a scattergun point blank at our faces.
BLAM! The griffin spiraled downward, my barely-aimed shot having gone through her wing.
Xenith was cringing in the seat well. I dared to sit up and look ahead. At the base of this hill, the track took a sharp curve and shot into the tunnel that passed through the barn-like Ministry of Morale building. But that second rocket had torn a hole in the track.
Xenith muttered something in a strange tongue, appearing at my side. Then, in a low voice, “I hope this is still going according to plan.”
“Yes,” I lied.
I crawled forward, cringing as a balloonist sniper sent another shot into the track ahead of us, the bullet from the anti-machine rifle obliterating a track tie. I hooked my flanks against the forward seat well and slid over the face of Twilight Sparkle. The small horn protruding from the front gave me something to brace a shoulder against. Reaching down with my left forehoof, I kicked at the latch, freeing the light blue forward car.
Freed of the extra weight, the forward car began to separate, slipping ahead. It hit the turn, then the gap… and the Rainbow Dash carriage did what it really wanted to do. It flew from the tracks and caught air.
Focusing for all I was worth, I enveloped the Twilight Sparkle car in a magical field, negating our weight. I prayed to Luna that it would be enough to let us jump the gap. I prayed to Celestia that my strength wouldn’t give out until we had.
If there had been any doubt in my mind that the Goddesses were watching us from above, it evaporated as both prayers were answered.
*** *** ***
The purple Twilight Sparkle carriage swept into the darkness of the tunnel. A hard jolt slammed through us as our out-of-control ride finally skipped the track. I felt my body being flung from the car as it skidded and flipped. I hit the track roughly; new pain bit deeply into my shoulder and arced like electricity along the nerves of my left foreleg as my left shoulder struck the metal rail.
Xenith remained huddled in the seat well as the carriage rolled once before crashing against a row of clown-pony-shaped pylons. I looked up, wheezing, to see the zebra’s form crawl shakily out of the wreckage.
I struggled to my hooves. Both my forelegs protested with discordant pain. My head swam. I wondered if I was in shock.
Xenith trotted up to me. “So, my little pony savior,” she said in her low, exotic voice, “This is still all part of the plan, yes?”
I turned on my PipBuck’s lamp. “Somewhere in here, there has to be a way into the building.”
“The plan to escape is to break into Red Eye’s home?” I could hear the incredulity lurking behind her almost innocent tone.
I nodded. “We make it to the roof. There’s always a Pinkie Pie Balloon anchored up there. We’re going to take it. That’s how we get past the moat and The Wall.” I winced as I fought for breath. “I have friends waiting outside for us.”
The zebra stared at me appraisingly. “Are all your friends as crazy as you?”
“You… don’t have to follow me,” I noted with a sigh. I had saved the zebra’s life; but in doing so, I had kidnapped her. She couldn’t go back to the slavers; we both knew that. Until she was past The Wall, I had pretty much trapped her with me. After that, however… “Although I really wish you would.”
“You saved my life, little pony,” she answered. “You are responsible for it now. It is up to you to get me to safety. Until then, I follow.”
I nodded. “And after.”
“You are still responsible,” she said firmly. “Unless I take that responsibility from you.”
I blinked. It was one thing to be thinking such thoughts. It was quite another to have them thrown back at me in some sort of insane zebra logic.
We trekked further into the tunnel, looking for a door into the old Ministry of Morale hub that Red Eye and Stern had made the center of their slave empire.
I was badly, badly hurt. But in my experience, I had a much easier time turning interiors to my advantage in a fight. I was feeling a touch of confidence returning.
The griffin with the missile launcher flew into the tunnel behind us. Both Xenith and I shrunk into the darkness around partial cover and held still. The griffin began to walk along the track, his eyes adjusting to the darkness.
I focused on the latch of his saddlebags where he was keeping his extra missiles.
I focused again. Harder.
Nothing. Not even a faint glow from my horn, much less a telekinetic field. I hung my head. Burnout. That save jumping the gap had taken what little I had left. I was defenseless. And useless.
Dammit… why did this have to happen now? I had been counting on my levitation to at least get us into the balloon. Now, we’d have to find another way to get into it. If there was another way. And if we survived to the roof. Which was now much more in doubt.
I looked back up in time to see a shadow move near the griffin. Xenith had slipped right up next to him, completely unnoticed. Only now did I spot her as she struck out with a hoof. The griffin made a choking sound as his body went rigid. She wasted no time snapping his neck with her forehooves.
I looked over the griffin as he fell dead beside the zebra. I wished he had been carrying a rifle. I did contemplate taking the missile launcher. But then (not being SteelHooves) I decided against it. Clearly Xenith preferred a stealthy approach to combat similar to my own. Plus, with my lack of experience, teeth-wielding high-explosives inside a building seemed like a very bad idea.
I also wished his armor was more pony-shaped. I did, however, empty his saddlebags and take them for myself.
*** *** ***
I peeked around the corner, staring down a decaying pink hallway. Two ponies wearing armor in Red Eye’s colors were standing guard near a wall terminal, watching over a shallow alcove opposite them. I thought I saw the glow of a Sunrise Sarsaparilla machine coming out of it. These guards weren’t actively hunting us; but as best I could tell, there was no way around them. The only other way up had collapsed decades ago.
Still, I felt a pang at the idea of attacking ponies who weren’t even threatening us, slavers or not. This stretched the definition of self-defense. I wondered if it would be possible to sneak past them; but the hallway was far too narrow, and they were standing with their tails to the wall. We’d have to pass directly in front of them. And no matter how light-hooved we were, crouching didn’t make us invisible.
Xenith slipped past me before I could motion to her. She had no moral hesitation about killing random members of Red Eye’s forces. To my surprise, she managed to creep halfway down the hall before they spotted her. She crossed the remaining distance with a leap, landing on her forehooves and bucking one of the guards in the head hard enough to send his helmet clattering down the hallway.
The other guard was a unicorn, and she was already floating an automatic rifle towards the zebra.
I screamed out at the pain in my legs as I charged the guard, lowering my horn. The unicorn turned, surprised by the second attacker, giving Xenith a chance to kick the automatic rifle. The magical field around it imploded as the weapon flew out of it and bounced against a dingy pink wall. My horn glanced off the guard’s armor, hurting me more than her. Her horn was glowing.
Electricity burst around her, tearing at my nerves as I stumbled and fell to the floor. Between the guard’s legs, I could see Xenith collapse as well. I groaned, remembering that (unlike me) other unicorns have more magic than mere telekinesis under their hats.
The unicorn wrapped her automatic rifle in a new sheath of magical energy and floated it over me, apparently considering a unicorn attacker to be the most dangerous threat. Fatal mistake.
The automatic rifle went off, peppering the ground next to me with bullets as Xenith swept the unicorn’s legs out from under her. I was barely able to move, but the zebra seemed to have recovered most of her faculties. My striped companion rolled onto the guard pony and struck her repeatedly in the face with her forehooves. I cringed at the sound of the unicorn’s horn shattering. The magic around the rifle evaporated and the firearm fell to the ground within biting distance.
By the time I had gotten up, rifle in mouth, Xenith had rendered both guards deceased.
I looked around. True to my suspicions, the alcove across from the guards held a couple of vending machines -- a Sunset Sarsaparilla machine and a functional-looking Ironshod’s Ammo Emporium. Between them was the heavy metal door of a vault.
*** *** ***
“What is this?” Xenith asked, staring into the room that had been sealed behind the vault door.
She had been understandably perturbed when I stopped to hack the terminal, but relented when I explained that I needed to catch my breath. A statement my shallow, harsh breathing had proven altogether true. The worst part of my injuries was the fact that I couldn’t risk healing them -- not with a broken rib and punctured lung. Any poultice would cause those to heal wrong. I needed Velvet Remedy before I could dare use anything more than a healing bandage. And in our situation, I didn’t even dare use painkillers. I needed to be thinking straight.
“The Wasteland, taunting me,” I answered as I stepped into the vault, looking around at the mostly-empty shelves with their scattering of memory orbs -- none of which I could look into without my magic -- and the line of passkey-coded wall safes along the back -- none of which I could open. The Equestrian Wasteland loved rubbing my face in my every moment of weakness.
“What are they?” she questioned, looking at the dozens of orbs littering the floor.
I started collecting the orbs, picking them up in my teeth and dropping them into one of my pilfered saddlebags opposite the ammo and bottles of sarsaparilla. Moving through the shelves, I spotted the glow of another terminal. Perhaps there was a way into the safes after all.
Reaching it, I hooked my PipBuck into the terminal and began my hack. The terminal was exceptionally tough. The little pony in my head started crying out for Mint-als after the third time that I was forced to back out of the system before its security protocols could lock it up. I fought to silence that voice.
I was increasingly aware of how long this was taking. Stern had ponies scouring the building and surrounding grounds for us. They were spread out, but eventually one or more of them would stumble across us.
“One more try!” I insisted to Xenith after I backed out a fourth time. “If I can’t get it, we go.”
“Why are you trying to unlock Red Eye’s safes anyway? What do you hope to find?” Xenith asked reasonably. “Balloon tickets, perhaps?”
I snorted. I was about to reply, probably with something snide, when I found the password: Sir Lints-a-lot. After staring at that for a moment, I no longer felt bad about not figuring it out sooner.
From the timestamps on the terminal, it became clear that nopony else had figured that out either. The terminal had not been used to access these safes in more than two hundred years. A security notice indicated that the far left safe had been accessed several times in the last few years through use of the passkey.
I opened them all.
The far right safe held a badly damaged memory orb case with a single orb inside. The other three were gone. There was also an audio log, a dingy cloak, a StealthBuck and half-a-dozen files. I caught Xenith’s reaction as I pulled out the cloak, even though she recovered quickly.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she lied.
I took the audio recording and memory orb, keeping them separate from the mess of orbs I had collected from the floor. I offered Xenith the cloak. Its dingy color would provide better camouflage than her stark stripes, and it was too large for me. She nodded and put it on, but it slipped off. The neck clasp was broken.
I opened the second safe and jumped back in alarm at the pulsing, swirling lights that poured out. Inside were four egg-shaped objects that glowed with a hypnotic dance of dark colors. “W-what?”
Xenith trotted closer, studying the objects without looking directly into them. “Balefire eggs.”
I stared dumbly for a moment as my brain deciphered this. That’s right. Fluttershy didn’t actually design city-destroying spells. She designed the magical framework that would take a normal spell and augment it beyond… well, beyond anything they really imagined. But like the healing spell, there had to be a magic to be amplified. These balefire eggs were the base magic for the mass-murdering balefire bombs.
“H-how big an explosion?” I asked my zebra companion.
“I don’t know. I was never alive two hundred years ago fighting in a war where these were used.”
Touché. I imagined the Ministry of Morale confiscated these on a raid of some sort. I could see why they would still be locked up.
The third safe held what looked like a Pegasus Enclave helmet with a built-in recollector, complete with black opal. It also held a whole lot of paperwork labeled “CZA”, including many photographs too warped by age to make out. I yanked the paperwork out, scattering it onto the floor as I tried to get at something that was hidden behind it.
“Citizen Zebra Activities,” Xenith said behind me, reading one of the folders I had knocked out of the safe. “Your government was paying close attention to every zebra living in Equestria.”
“Not my government,” I corrected swiftly. “And the Ministry of Morale was watching everypony.”
Behind the papers was what looked like a first-generation PipBuck. The PipBuck was still closed, and there were ancient bloodstains in the felt lining. It had been removed through amputation, hopefully post-mortem. I quickly plugged the PipBuck into my own and started looking through the files, but they were encrypted with that odd dual-encryption which I had discovered my first night out of Stable Two. The only thing I could get from it was an automapped floor plan for Stable Three. The Stable looked identical to Stable Two, except that the apple orchard was only two-thirds the size and there were two interlocking Overmare’s Offices. I shuddered inexplicably.
The final safe was the one Red Eye had been using. And it held the big prize.
The schematics for the Radiation-Powered Engine.
*** *** ***
Xenith took an involuntary step back from the poster at the top of the stairwell. “Doombunny!” she whispered enigmatically.
I stared from my zebra companion to the poster and back. It was the same poster I had seen in the clinic, only this time in better repair: Fluttershy surrounded by animals, with the words “REMEMBER: We are all in this together! Care for one another.”
At first, I thought Xenith was referring to Fluttershy. It almost made sense; I could see Fluttershy being regarded as a bringer of doom and destruction, considering her connection to the megaspells. And she was abundantly cute.
Then my eyes caught the little white rabbit sitting on her head. My eyebrows went up and I turned to Xenith in disbelief. “Doombunny? Seriously?”
Xenith snorted. “You would not understand. You have not heard the tales of Fluttershy’s protector.”
My ears were tilted and I knew I was giving her the most astoundingly dubious look.
“Doombunny was a horror on the battlefield. Fluttershy came to heal, even the zebra soldiers, and her protection annihilated anyone foolish enough to try to attack her.”
“oooh… Doombunny was more than just a rabbit. Doombunny was death with sharp, pointy teeth...”
She was messing with me. She had to be messing with me.
“…more powerful than a creature several times its size, thanks to the chemicals doombunny brewed in secret laboratories.”
“Chemicals?” This was insane.
Xenith lowered her face to mine, speaking in that odd accent. “Oh yes. Doombunny was a master in the laboratory. I also hear it could cook and toss a mean salad.” She smiled just a little. She was messing with me.
Although, from the look in her eyes, not entirely.
We moved on, finding ourselves, all too appropriately, in what seemed to be a research laboratory floor. Beyond the stairwell was a single door with a small window set into it. Through the window we could see a sprawling place dedicated to arcane and earth pony sciences. A huge picture window on the far end of the room glowed with the deepening red-tinted light of Fillydelphia. The day was ending. The sun would set soon.
We slipped through the door silently. The one pony trotting around inside had not noticed our entry. Xenith made quick work of him.
I put down the automatic rifle and started tugging off his lab coat. Xenith raised an eyebrow as I shucked it on. “It’s not much protection,” I admitted. “But anything is better than nothing…” I could have taken the armor from Red Eye’s guards; but after nearly being killed by a pegasus, I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. “…besides, it makes me feel more science-y.”
Xenith rolled her eyes then trotted towards the apothecary cabinets in the trot-in closet towards the back of the room. She put a hoof through the lock of the first one and pulled it open.
I pulled out the audio recording, downloading it into my PipBuck, intending to play it while we gave the room a look-over. My eyes fell to the schematics for Party-Time Mint-als. This research lab certainly would have everything I needed to make some, and I was feeling increasingly desperate.
It took a severe force of will to scroll away from the recipe. I forced myself to think of Calamity. Velvet Remedy. Homage…
I remembered Homage’s sweet voice. And something she said floated back to me:
…Oh, a mixture of Rage and painkillers. A friend and I found the recipe in the ruins of a M.O.P. clinic when we were younger…
I blinked. Then called out to Xenith.
“Wait… you mean to tell me that Fluttershy’s pet rabbit invented Stampede?”
*** *** ***
Rarity’s voice asked in my earbloom as I started looking through the terminals and notes that filled the lab. It swiftly became clear that I was getting only one side of a conversation.
“Oh, hello, Your Majesty! How delightful of you to call!
“Oh, same as always. So much to do, so many projects, and so little time! Honestly, half the time I feel the same about running a Ministry as Fluttershy felt about being a model! But the other half, I absolutely love it! Of course, I still find the time to create new dresses. And to get my beauty sleep. I think I’d go insane if I didn’t… Oh, no no no. A few missed meals never hurt anypony. And it helps me keep my figure.
“Yes. Yes I did hear what happened to Zecora, and I’m as enraged by it as anypony. I’ve already promised Pinkie Pie any resources my Ministry has to offer to help hers hunt down the brutes responsible and bring them to justice. …On the plus side, you have to admit, the new poster line is really effective.”
Rarity sounded legitimately upset about Zecora, and only thinly pleased about the effectiveness of her propaganda. The name was familiar. Oh yes, the zebra who was Applejack’s friend, possibly a friend of all of them. I could see why Rarity would draw the connection.
“…Pinkie Pie? She’s always eccentric darling! …No, not any more than usual… No, Princess Luna, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Strange and Pinkie Pie go hoof-in-hoof. You just learn to accept that about her and love her all the more for it.”
I recalled how Twilight Sparkle, in the Vinyl Scratch orb, had commented on everyone covering for Pinkie Pie and her addiction. I was immediately thankful I’d resisted the urge to make more Party-Time Mint-als.
“I will admit, however, that I am getting a bit worried about a few of my other friends. …Well, I’ve heard a rumor, just a rumor mind you, that Applejack is having some… trouble within her own Ministry. …No, I really couldn’t say.
“…And Twilight… Have you seen her recently? She’s just exhausted! And terribly stressed out. The poor dear has taken on so much responsibility and so much work… Well, you have to admit, other than me of course, Twilight Sparkle is the only one who has really tried to run her Ministry, rather than just tossing ideas at them like horseshoes… And the less said about Rainbow Dash’s ‘Ministry’, the better. …and with the big move underway; and Spike’s started his draconic adolescence, so you just know he’s a real saddle-full right now… No, no. But Princess Luna, I really think Twilight Sparkle needs a vacation…
“No, everypony else is fine. At least, they were the last time I saw them. Fluttershy’s doing brilliantly. I see her every week… I do wish I could see the others more often. They were my first real friends… my only ones, to be honest. And I miss them all terribly. But there’s just always so much to do. I can’t remember the last time we were all together… Oh, wait, I can. It was Pinkie Pie’s birthday party. No, not this year’s. Last year, I think. …Or was it the year before?
For the first time in the conversation Rarity’s voice faltered. I could feel the sadness she was trying to hide. It resonated deeply. Maybe because my heart held a similar ache.
“Oh no, I’m fine. It’s just… sometimes it feels like we’re pulling apart. And I can’t stand to see that happen. I really must do something about it.”
I needed my friends. I was trembling from more than just pain as the audio recording drew to a close.
“No, Princess Luna, the pleasure was all mine! Thank you so much for calling!”
*** *** ***
I re-read the entries that had been concealed within the terminal at the lead researcher’s desk. (A desk which had held an ashtray, a box of cigars and nearly two dozen bottle caps.)
Bypass spells. According to the research I was seeing, the Ministry of Arcane Sciences had cracked it already, about a month before the end of their world. They had even begun limited use, not for weapons but to create shield screens that would only allow specific materials to pass through.
Red Eye’s research in here had been two-fold. First, his scientists had been working to apply a bypass to some sort of weapon effect. The full details had been redacted after the research had been successful. From what little I could read, that was less than a week before I had arrived. I was willing to extend the Steel Ranger’s Elder the benefit of the doubt and assume she didn’t know. The second line of research was ongoing, and had met with considerably less promising results -- Red Eye was trying to figure out how to trick a Bypass into ignoring something it wasn’t designed to ignore.
Xenith had filled a bag full of herbs and chemicals from the supply closet and was trotting back towards me when something outside the window made her freeze in her tracks.
I abandoned the terminal and moved to her side as quickly as my legs and breath would allow. I stared out the window as something huge came out of the red glow of the Fillydelphia Crater.
It was an armored black alicorn, easily three times the size of a normal one, the air about her rippling with power. She flew towards us, leaving swaths of energy in her wake.
“W-w-what is….?” I couldn’t speak further. My mouth had gone dry.
“She’s been basking in the radiation of the Fillydelphia Crater,” Xenith commented. Then explained as if to a child, “The creatures of radiation do not merely heal in its presence. If they absorb enough of it, they grow stronger. More powerful.”
Alicorns could become… massive, behemoth super-alicorns? I squeaked in impotent rage. “T-that’s not fair!’
I looked up towards the sky, cursing Celestia and Luna in turn. Wasn’t it enough that they were magically far more adept than I? That they were smart? Crafty? Fucking telepathic? With shields that only a small number of things could apparently get through? And they could fly?!
And go invisible? Or teleport?
I found enough voice to rasp at the heavens, “What do You want from me!? In Your names, what the fuck do You want!??”
A field of dark blue light wrapped around the enormous window. The glass began to vibrate. I had a sudden image of the abattoir that I had turned the maze of mirrors into.
“Run,” I whispered to Xenith.
We turned and fled.
As we dived through the door to the stairwell, I heard that window shatter. And I heard none of the shards hit the ground. I spun and shoved the door closed behind us an eyeblink before the super-alicorn sent hundreds of lethal shards of glass into the door.
When the barrage ended, I lifted myself up and dared a peek through the little window on the door. I watched as the huge black alicorn swept into the room and activated her shield, a bubble of scintillating force expanding around her with enough power to tear into the floor and ceiling, blasting apart desks and chemistry sets. The energy sloughing off the bubble caused nearby terminals to explode in sprays of sparks. I saw the automatic rifle which I’d left behind fall through the broken floor into the level below.
Well, at least I didn’t have to worry about destroying the research.
I turned away, terrified, and discovered that I could make myself gallop far faster than my body wanted to let me. It hurt, my chest raged as if I was breathing liquid fire, but I ran.
*** *** ***
The alicorn blasted up through the floor into the hallway. Her size was too big to comfortably move through the space, but it hardly mattered. Her shield just ripped away the walls as she passed near them, chewing up parts of the offices on either side.
The thought flashed through my mind that she might just bring this whole building down on top of the three of us. Her horn blazed with an almost black light. Her shield dropped briefly as she lashed out with dark energies that only crudely resembled black lightning.
I tore around a corner, my body feeling like it was about to explode and then explode again. Xenith was in front of me, moving far more gracefully. The hallway behind us was shredded with a smell of ozone and black licorice.
I followed her up another flight of stairs, screaming out in agony and hating the building for making us climb when the damn monster behind us didn’t have to.
The super-alicorn tore through the ceiling, hovering in front of us as we made it to the top. I stumbled and crashed to a stop, realizing with utter loathing that we would have to go back down. Only my body didn’t want to move anymore. My body wanted to just give up and die.
I felt Xenith bite into my mane and toss me onto her back.
The giant black alicorn spread her wings and pointed her horn. A point of light flickered in the front of her shield then spiraled to create an opening. I realized with dismay and amazement that even if I had my magic, it would be useless. This alicorn’s shield was so powerful even she couldn’t cast a spell through it.
Xenith went down, dropping me like a sack of pain. I saw her twitching.
Heart attack spell. She would be permanently damaged or dead within seconds.
I screamed! At the super-alicorn for being so ridiculously powerful and evil and totally unfair! At the Goddessess for allowing such a nightmare to exist and for making me face it and just after I had lost my magic too! At the Fillydelphia Crater for being so damn radioactive!
With a rage-fueled strength beyond what I could actually muster, I wrenched my suffering body off the floor and galloped at the creature which I suddenly realized looked an awful lot like those old pictures of Nightmare Moon. I leapt, jumping partway into the opening of the super-alicorn’s shield. The edge cut deeply into my chest, like I was hanging on a curved razor blade. I struggled, cutting my self even worse, my blood poured down both the inside and outside of the shield.
The alicorn at least had the grace to look shocked. I had successfully caused her to drop the spell attacking Xenith’s heart.
I couldn’t get inside with her. But with a mortally wounded cry, I tossed my head back, pulled open one of my saddlebags, and dumped the contents inside the shield.
Dozens of memory orbs scattered along the bottom of the magical bubble. The alicorn glanced at them and was unimpressed. She turned her attention to me. In a panic, I realized what was about to happen and kicked myself away before the hole in the shield scythed closed. If I had been any slower, the super-alicorn’s shield would have cut me in half.
I collapsed, bleeding heavily on the floor. That was it. I was done. Time to sleep now.
But as I passed out, there was a slight smile on my face, despite all the pain. I had saved Xenith. And I had proven that you could trick one of these fucking cunts the same way twice.
The last thing I saw before darkness overwhelmed me was the alicorn floating in her impervious bubble, cut off from every danger except for a few dozen memory orbs. And four balefire eggs.
I never heard the explosion. But Xenith later told me it was… loud, only louder.
*** *** ***
When I awoke, we were in a buck’s bathroom. I was propped up in a stall, looking out at a poster of Pinkie Pie (watching you piss forever?). I didn’t hurt anywhere near as much as I should, assuming I wasn’t simply dead (and really, who would put a Pinkie Pie poster in a bathroom in heaven… or for that matter, in a bathroom anywhere?), which worried me considerably. I felt light-headed and… odd.
I looked down. I was wrapped in healing bandages. Probably three or four medical kit’s worth. There were more on the floor next to me, blood-drenched and spent. I had been in here for some time. My mind grudgingly realized I was doped up on painkillers.
This escape plan was going well.
Xenith trotted back into view. “You are an insane pony.”
“I wish I could let you rest some more, but we must go. We are being hunted.”
I nodded and tried to get up. My limbs didn’t want to co-operate. A moment later, I once again found myself riding the zebra, slung over her back like an old carpet. I blushed with embarrassment and hoped I didn’t bleed all over her. I wondered what riding like this would do to the wounds on my breast, and how well the magical bandages had healed my other injuries. My left shoulder no longer hurt, and my right leg felt only mildly sprained.
Xenith picked up my saddlebags with her teeth and then added them across her flanks along with her sack of apothecary supplies. I helped tie it to her securely.
My striped companion crept through the floors swiftly yet cautiously, clearly trying to keep ahead of something. I knew we were being hunted by Stern’s slavers. But something about this felt different. My thoughts turned dark. After the super-alicorn, I wasn’t ready for another surprise opponent.
“What’s after us?” I asked, dreading the answer.
“Winter,” Xenith whispered in an ominous tone.
My painkiller-fogged mind fought to make sense of that. “It’s summer,” I responded blandly.
The zebra snorted. “Red Eye’s cyberdog. Winter is tracking our scent.”
My mind replayed part of a broadcast from Red Eye that I had found particularly striking: I was lucky, fortunate beyond my deserving, to be blessed with safe places to roam, security from the fiends and horrors of the Equestrian Wasteland, and companionship in the form of my beloved dog, Winter. Oh, the adventures we had.
If he was but a colt at that time, the dog should have passed away naturally from old age. But now I imagined that instead of letting that happen, he’d cybernetically enhanced it, replacing part after part as each failed. It was macabre.
I groaned. I really, really needed to get out of Fillydelphia.
We made it up two flights of stairs without trouble. Three times, Xenith managed to creep past slavers unnoticed even with me on her back. As we passed an open office, I could see the overhang of eves out the window, shadowed in the light of a setting sun that turned the world outside the color of a bloody river. We were almost to the roof.
I heard a low, tinny growl.
I looked back. Behind us, I saw a half-robotic dog stalking towards us. Winter was more machine than animal. His brain was encased in a lightly glowing tank which looked so shockingly like that of a brain-bot that I began to assume it wasn’t ponies but pet dogs whose brains were used in those awful things. Winter’s forepaws ended in claws that looked like they were made from the clawtips of hellhounds.
Even Xenith didn’t want to fight that thing. The zebra bolted, galloping as fast as she could. Winter howled and gave chase, the glow of his brain-case shifting to crimson.
I wished I still had the automatic rifle. Or, for that matter, any weapon at all. Somehow, I didn’t think I could strike it down with baleful looks.
We made it to the stairwell marked “Roof Access”, the cyberdog nipping at Xenith’s hooves. I realized belatedly that the dog could have jumped and started tearing me apart, but it chose not to. We were being corralled.
I turned to warn Xenith. Before I could, we burst out onto the roof. Xenith skidded to a stop, trapped between the Ministry of Morale roof and the cloudy, blood-red sky.
The anchored Pinkie Pie Balloon was still there. But so were two others, with a third closing in. Half a dozen anti-machine rifles were trained in our direction.
With a clear note of sarcasm, Xenith asked, “Still according to plan, right?”
Winter came out behind us and stopped as if guarding the door back.
*** *** ***
I closed my eyes, waiting for the shot. But the sniper ponies were hesitating. Waiting for something. The growl behind us gave Xenith a clue. “Red Eye’s coming.”
So, the bastard was going to take care of us himself? Fuck that. “Oh, come on!” I yelled up at the giant, inflated Pinkie Pie heads. “Just do it already!”
I was exhausted. The painkillers were wearing off and the pain was beginning to flood back in.
A pillar of golden flame, tinged with balefire green, shot out of the Fillydelphia Crater. The bolt of light reached its apex and spread out wings that flared across the sky like a second sun.
Pyrelight dipped and swooped towards us, burning with an aura of emerald and gold nearly a hundred times her size.
The creatures of radiation do not merely heal in its presence. If they absorb enough, they grow stronger, more powerful.
Sorry, Celestia, Luna… for everything bad I thought!
The incoming Pinkie Pie Balloon erupted in flame just at Pyrelight’s passing. The majestic harbinger opened her beak and bright green balefire blasted out, tearing across the roof above us. All three of the Pinkie Pie Balloons ignited, becoming infernos. Bits of burning balloon and slaver flesh rained down on us as the blazing zeppelins began to collapse, sinking towards the amusement park below. I hoped nastily that it was full of slavers surrounding the building.
“Pyrelight!” I cheered, clopping my hooves in applause!
Xenith stared upwards, having lost the very notion of speech.
The cyberdog panicked and fled down the stairwell.
Pyrelight swooped around. I could see the energy she had absorbed was already bleeding off of her, like the scintillating waves that came off the black alicorn. The bird dived, and I thought I could hear the crackling of fire and the sound of slaver screams below.
I was so overjoyed at the turn of events that it took me several minutes to realize that Pyrelight had incinerated what I had hoped to be our ride.
We were still trapped in Fillydelphia.
*** *** ***
Our capture was as ignominious as it was inevitable.
I found myself staring through a haze of red. Not a fault of my own vision, but a property of the room we had been marched into. The air was filled with some sort of odd steam. My already strained lungs pitched a fit as I attempted to breathe it. Red lamps lined the room, diffusing their light to make the air take a sickening scarlet tint.
There was a line on the floor that the well-armed griffins beside us had warned us not to cross. Winter crouched nearby, ready to launch himself at the first to run. With Xenith’s skills, I thought it might still be possible to fight our way out of the situation. But the very idea made me want to drop from weariness.
Red Eye trotted in through a door on the opposite wall next to a large, dark screen. He raised a hoof and the griffins flanking us took their leave. I heard them lock and bar the door behind us.
“Littlepip,” he said graciously. “Sit, relax. I mean you no harm.”
Obviously, the same couldn’t be said for us. I was still processing the mere notion that Red Eye would lock himself in a room with us when Xenith charged at him, murder in her eyes.
She slammed against an invisible wall hard enough that she was lucky she didn’t break her neck. I stared around and realized suddenly the reason for the odd atmosphere. “You’re using the reddened mist to conceal an alicorn shield,” I surmised aloud. I was actually slightly impressed. “You must have at least two of the green ones doing their statue thing just behind the walls.”
Red Eye beamed at me. (Literally -- in the mist, the line of red light shooting from his cybernetic eye was clearly visible.) “I wanted us to be able to talk freely. Without anypony attacking anypony else.” He shot a wry look at the recovering zebra.
“What do you want?” I asked dourly. There was only one reason I could think of for him to spare us. And I didn’t like it.
“All I want you to do is something you were going to do anyway,” Red Eye said in a tone both casual and infuriatingly confident. “I just want you to do it on my timescale.”
Great. My mortal enemy had a quest for me. My life sucked.
“I want you to kill the Goddess.”
My jaw hit the floor.
Okay, I did not see that coming. “B… but you serve the Goddess! You… you’re Her high-fucking-priest!”
Red Eye scowled slightly, sitting back. “I like to think of us more like… partners. And sadly, the partnership is no longer beneficial to my goals.” He looked me over, ignoring Xenith completely. “And after your handling of the Crater Alicorn, I really do think you have what it takes to succeed.”
“Do tell.” I glowered.
“As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the Goddess controls Her children. Telepathically. They are not so much individuals as they are extensions of Her will. And they will remain so until She is finally put to rest.”
I nodded solemnly.
“There is no point working towards the freedom of all ponies if Unity comes with chains,” Red Eye pontificated. “There is no room in the New Equestria for slave masters, and no room for slaves.”
Xenith nickered, “Not much room for you then.” I smiled, my own sentiment echoing hers.
Red Eye regarded us calmly. “No. No there is not.”
Okay, second time he caught me by surprise. “What do you intend to do then? Kill yourself?”
He laughed. Red Eye had a charismatic, likeable laugh. I hated him for that. “No, no. I plan to ascend. Once you have taken care of the Goddess, it will finally be time for me to join Unity myself. But not as one of the rest of you. Somepony will have to take up the tasks that the Princesses and pegasi left to run wild, after all. Somepony will have to regulate the weather, to raise the sun and the moon.”
I blinked. “Okay, I’ve got a new theory. You’re a loony.” Seriously, the Goddess couldn’t manage these things, much less an alicorned earth pony.
Again he laughed, setting my nerves on edge. “Well, then I will fail. But either way, I will be out of your mane. You won’t have to worry about me further. And won’t that be nice? Crushing two eggs under one hoof?”
I really hated this stallion. “And what about all your work,” I argued. Dammit, the one reason I was at all hesitant to take down this monster was because even I could see the good his efforts would eventually bring about. I could… admire what he was building, even if I hated how he was doing it. “What about the schools? The hospitals? Rebuilding an infrastructure that will allow Equestria to pull itself out of this post-apocalyptic pit?!”
Red Eye feigned contemplation. “Oh, dear. Well then, I suppose you’ll just have to take my place and see it through.”
My jaw was on the floor again. Once more, he had blindsided me. How did he keep doing that?
“You want me to… what?”
Red Eye smiled. “Want you to? Or just expect that you won’t let all this just fall apart. Of course, I’m sure you’ll try to find a way to accomplish all this without the regrettable horrors of slavery. And, with at least the foundation I’ve managed in place, you might even succeed.” He gave me a gracious bow. “I certainly hope so.” Then added in a businesslike tone, “The Goddess is still in Her… home in Maripony.”
I realized there was another horseshoe waiting to drop.
“And… so you’ll let me go?”
The black-maned cyberpony nodded. “Somewhat implicit in the request.” Without even looking at Xenith, he added, “And you can take your new zebra friend with you. The two of you seem to be… effective together. Agree, and she has her freedom.”
Xenith stared at me with an unfathomable expression. I knew she wanted her freedom enough to risk her life for it, to kill other slaves for it. Was she asking me to accept? Or was she warning me about deals with devils?
“And if I refuse to kill the Goddess?”
Red Eye frowned. “Well, I would prefer not to resort to threats. But let’s just say that by succeeding, you will save the lives of your friends in the tower.”
No! I should never have sent them into that place alone! Oh Goddesses, what had I done?
“W-what have you done with Calamity, Velvet Remedy and SteelHooves?” I demanded in a frightened voice. “Are they okay?”
Red Eye’s one real eye blinked. “Oh, you mean your assault team at the Fillydelphia Tower station? I sent Stern on ahead with a full squad of her best to give them a warm greeting. I’m sure at least one of them survived.”
I swallowed hard, feeling all of Equestria fall out from under me. “I… I want to see them.”
Red Eye nodded graciously. He trotted to a button on the wall beneath the large screen. “Stern, report. I have somepony here who wants to see the captives.”
The monitor screen lit up. For a moment, all it showed was ruins and blood.
Then a hoof rose up, tapping on the screen. “Hey!” Calamity’s smiling face and orange mane came into view. “Ah think this here just turned on!”
I could hear the low grumble of SteelHooves voice, “Calamity, don’t mess with it.”
“Oh, hold on,” Calamity said, looking slightly up. “Hey, Ah can see Li’lpip through this thing now. Heya, kid!”
This was obviously not the response Red Eye had been expecting. I felt a crippling surge of relief and collapsed to the floor.
“oh, an’ y’all must be Red Eye. Can’t say it’s ah pleasure t’… whoa! Y’all are a cyberpony! Ah didn’t think those were even real!”
Red Eye finally found his voice. “Calamity, is it? I take it you have killed…”
“Yer welcomin’ party? That who ya was expectin? Sorry, but they all can’t make it on account of them bein’ mostly blown up.”
“We kept yer griffin gal all safe an’ cozy. Trust me, she ain’t hardly hurt, and she ain’t feelin’ a bit o’ pain,” Calamity said with a mock friendliness that didn’t touch the steel glint in his eyes. “Figured things mighta gone a bit south fer our friend Li’lpip, so Ah decided we oughta keep someone fer trade.”
*** *** ***
I watched as the drawbridge lowered over the moat. On the other side, through the electrified gate, I could see Velvet Remedy and SteelHooves flanking a thoroughly trussed-up and glowering Stern. Calamity was sitting sniper in an undisclosed location.
I could almost feel the air grow colder when SteelHooves’ gaze fell on my striped companion.
Red Eye stood next to me, protected inside an alicorn shield -- the projecting alicorns were hidden in a sewer passage right beneath us yet safely out of Calamity’s field of view. “Remember my offer, Littlepip. Kill the Goddess…” he whispered to me, clearly unconcerned that the Goddess’ children might hear. (Judging from my experience on the roof of Horseshoe Tower, I strongly suspected they couldn’t hear anything at all.) “…and you not only get rid of her, but you get rid of me. And save your friends in the tower.”
I blinked then turned to him with a cross stare. “I think we’ve already established that threat is pretty stupid.” I pointed a hoof at my friends waiting for me on the other side of the gate.
Red Eye cocked his head, and for a moment I think he was actually confused.
“Ah. I apologize for the misunderstanding. I don’t mean these friends in that tower…” he said, nodding towards the rising white needle of the Fillydelphia Tower. “I mean your friends in Tenpony Tower.”
I felt my blood go cold.
“Now, I know that the damn building has already survived one balefire bomb, but do you really think it could survive another?”
Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Gladiator Pony – The action point cost for all unarmed attacks performed in S.A.T.S. is reduced by 10%
Quest Perk added: Fillydelphia Survivor – Your vicious fights behind The Wall in the Fillydelphia ruins have left you stronger. Your damage threshold is increased by two and your radiation resistance increases by +3%