Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat


Chapter Twenty-Seven: Distress Signals

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Distress Signals

“When the walls come tumbling down, when you lose everything you have, you always have family. And your family always has tribe.”

Family.

It wasn’t a word I’d had much use for, nor a concept I’d felt any connection to.

I had never known my father (a quite uncommon situation for a filly growing up in Stable Two). When my mother had been my age, she had spent a large portion of her time being… well, there were other words I would use if describing other ponies. But this was my mother. And for her, I chose the words “promiscuous” and “inebriated”.

Growing up, I did have my mother. But my memories of her were largely of the “sit quietly while the grown ups are talking” variety. However, she did teach me games. And even though I came to realize (even as a blankflank) that she did so more to alleviate her boredom than my own, I cherished each happy memory of playing with her -- every game of boards and strategies and brightly-colored pieces that the Stable had to offer.

But even then, I never really thought of us as “family” in a way that attached special meaning to the word.

Now, through a haze of pain, I realized this was changing. Had changed already, in fact, without my knowing it.

With the painkillers worn off and adrenaline no longer propping up my body, I could feel just how much pain I was in. The bandages had helped and probably spared me from bleeding out through the deep slashes in my chest. However, continuing to push myself while injured had harmed more than just my magic.

But I was with my friends now. There was a feeling of completeness and safety. My body could finally relax and just hurt.

Velvet Remedy had slipped into mother-doctor mode almost at the sight of me. Now that I wasn’t mentally sniffing between her hindlegs anymore, I found myself comforted by her fretful ministrations, particularly considering that she did a much better job of mothering me than my actual mother ever had.

In truth, these ponies had become my family. Family in that deeper sense of the word that means finding “home” not from the location you are at but through the people you are with.

…And my family was having an argument.

*** *** ***

“She’s a zebra!” SteelHooves exclaimed. He had kept his silence until we were well away from The Wall. But as we had approached the crumbled ruins of Java’s Cup, SteelHooves had finally questioned the presence of my new companion. I made the mistake of simply saying she was a friend.

“Yes, she is.” I was weary and hurting. My breathing was shallow, and I felt like I was constantly drowning. I wanted a bath to wash off the blood caking my coat, the stinging powder still chewing into my flank and the last of the nasty little biting insects that somehow survived along with me. And I wanted a bed that was at least softer than cement. What I did not want was this argument.

“Who has clearly manipulated you into trusting her,” SteelHooves surmised. “You can’t trust them.”

Xenith had wisely remained silent, simply choosing to follow as we moved away from The Wall and the slave pits of Stern’s Fillydelphia. But now, nettled and perhaps feeling bolstered by my assertion of friendship, the zebra retorted:

“The war is long over, and I had no part in it. Just because I have stripes does not make me an enemy combatant any more than that armor makes you a soldier in Nightmare Moon’s army.”

Brilliant.

Princess Luna’s army,” snapped the Steel Ranger who had indeed served in the war two-hundred years over. “Not that your kind has any right to even speak the name!”

He turned to me, “Littlepip, what are your intentions regarding the zebra? Please tell me you don’t actually expect her to travel with us.”

“Oh heavens no,” Velvet Remedy chimed in. “I’m sure she doesn’t. After all, it would just be foolish to travel with the sort of creature known for degenerating into mindless, flesh-eating…”

Xenith drew up, staring at the charcoal-coated unicorn with a look of bewilderment bordering on resentment.

“…oh wait, those aren’t zebras.” Velvet casually finished. “Those are ghouls.”

SteelHooves stopped now too, and I was sure that behind his visor he was glaring. Xenith huffed, still confused. In her exotic accent, she slowly asked Velvet, “Are you saying… I look like a ghoul?”

I hung my head. This was going downhill fast.

Velvet Remedy’s eyes widened as she realized how Xenith had taken the statement. “No, of course not,” she assured the newcomer. Then cryptically mused, “But somepony here sure smells like one.”

Xenith sniffed at her own coat. I rolled my eyes. Then, just to be sure, sniffed at my own. And gagged a little. I was rank.

Calamity swooped up to us. He had been waiting for us in front of Java’s, Spitfire’s Thunder held in his mouth. (Java had apparently been -- based on the large sign collapsed over the door -- a milk-colored stallion whose mane was a wavy light brown with dark brown streaks and whose cutie mark was a steaming cup of what I hoped were coffee beans.) But when we stopped moving forward, he decided to close the gap himself.

He landed next to me, slipping the magically-enhanced anti-machine rifle into a newly-fashioned holster on his battle saddle, and offered Xenith a hoof and a smile. “Well howdy!”

I wanted to kiss him. (Which was not a desire I normally associated with bucks.)

Xenith looked hesitant. She reached out a hoof tentatively, and then shrank back, wide-eyed, as Calamity took it in both his forehooves and shook vigorously. “Pleased t’ meetcha. Ah’m Calamity.” Her foreleg was still shaking after he let go. “Welcome t’ the team.”

“That is it?” she asked cautiously, still looking at Calamity as if she’d never seen a pegasus before. (Which, I realized suddenly, was probably the case.)

“Aw shucks,” Calamity said, still grinning. “Ah saw y’all through the scope. Clearly, Li’lpip here trusts ya. An’ if she trusts ya, that’s good ‘nuff fer me.”

“Yes,” Velvet said in a drawling yet lady-like sigh. “Because Littlepip’s judgment has been Celestia Tier recently.” She was looking over my injuries with growing dismay.

“Okay, okay! Yes, it was a stupid plan! I’m sorry.” I looked to my friends desperately. “I knew it was going to be bad in there, and I didn’t want to put any of you through that. I know I should have trusted you to handle yourselves, and that we should have stayed together. We’re stronger together…” I’m pathetic without you.

I collapsed to my knees, suddenly overcome with fatigue.

Velvet Remedy’s horn began to glow as she waved everyone else to be quiet and stand back. A moment later, my unicorn friend gasped. “By the Goddesses! Littlepip… what happened to you in there?”

*** *** ***

Velvet Remedy knelt next to me as I stretched out on a mattress in what had once been a child’s bedroom. We had invaded a small apartment building that had once shared a Fillydelphia city block with Java and his cups. I could see the others in the next room. Calamity was sorting through the small items he had scavenged from the apartment. Xenith was cooking. SteelHooves was glowering.

“Ah gotta wonder why they even bothered?” Calamity mused as he stared at the boards which he had pried from across the door an hour ago. They now served as wood for a cookfire. “Ain’t like anypony who’s determined and capable ‘nuff t’ brave inner-city ruins is gonna be stopped by a couple planks o’ wood. Why bother boardin’ up the door in the first place?

Xenith had found some cooking pots and was brewing something sweet-smelling over the fire. Several other pots sat around her, each waiting for a turn under the flames. I marveled at our good fortune. Ever since I’d left Homage, I had bemoaned our lack of a skilled chef.

I winced. What I wouldn’t give to see her right now. Instead, she was in mortal peril, and I… I felt myself flush with angry guilt that I wasn’t doing something to help her right that instant. I cursed Red Eye. “Why did he have to go after Homage?”

“Ah don’t figure he did,” Calamity suggested from the other room. “I reckon he’s aimin’ at DJ Pon3. Buck’s been broadcastin’ good things ‘bout ya fer a while now, so’s that prob’ly gets him chalked up as a friend that Red Eye figures you’d want t’ keep from harm.”

“Assuming he hasn’t simply surmised that you want to keep every soul from harm,” SteelHooves added grimly. “And that you will go to absurd and dangerous lengths to do so.”

I felt the urge to remind him that it was a Steel Ranger Elder who pitched the plan, but I bit it back. SteelHooves had never suggested or pressured me to go along with the solo mission, merely supported me when I made the decision to. Considering the tones of his previous conversation with Elder Blueberry Sabre, I suspected SteelHooves would have just as swiftly backed me if my decision had involved telling her to sit on my horn and spin.

I looked from SteelHooves to Calamity, again struck by the difference between them when it came to support. Calamity was loyal. SteelHooves was… obedient. Not necessarily to me, but to whomever he accepted as in charge. He was a soldier buck even now.

Velvet Remedy’s glowing horn passed over me once more. She was making sure she had found every injury. As I had expected, my broken rib and punctured lung had drawn the most reaction from her (including a whole host of dark looks at Xenith that SteelHooves couldn’t match). But she commended the zebra on not feeding me any healing potions, voicing confidence in her mending spells.

She gasped as she started to pass her horn over my tail. “Littlepip!” She leaned close, her voice scandalized and sympathetic. “How did you get wounded there?

“That wasn’t me,” Xenith’s voice sounded from the other room.

“What?” Calamity looked up tensely. “Who hurt Li’lpip where now?” I buried my face in my forehooves, feeling my cheeks redden with embarrassment.

“Never you mind,” Velvet told the pegasus sternly as she opened her saddleboxes and floated out an array of medical supplies. Calamity’s scavenging had restocked us well in that regard.

It didn’t help that my worry over Homage had brought with it half-formed daydreams of the wonderful grey unicorn kissing that very wound to make it better.

Gracefully returning us to the earlier conversation, Velvet Remedy suggested, “I know you are worried about Homage, but please try not to let it eat at you. Remember, so long as Red Eye doesn’t act on his threat, he has something to threaten you with. Once he does, all he has is an angry Littlepip. And if he’s half as smart as you make him out to be, then he’s plenty bright enough to know he doesn’t want that.”

I bit my lower lip.

Calamity stood up, shaking his head. “Ah hate t’ be the voice o’ worry, but…” The pegasus paused uncomfortably, brushing a hoof over his orange mane. “Well, Ah figure if he put that megaspell at Tenpony Tower, he musta done so b’fore he hatched his plan t’ use ya. So the only thing keepin’ him from using it is that deal o’ ya.”

I frowned. “So… do you think he’ll set it off the moment he knows the Goddess is dead?” I hadn’t even considered that. “That is, if I do that?”

Calamity nudged his hat. “Ah… don’t rightly know. But DJ Pon3 is a dissentin’ voice with a huge audience.” Calamity’s frown deepened. “Most dictatorships Ah know of tend t’ go hell-an’-highwater t’ either discredit or destroy opposin’ voices like that.”

I almost asked how many dictatorships Calamity knew of. But the words died on my lips as a memory floated to the surface of my mind:

Don'tcha believe 'em, Calamity had once told me. The Enclave has a vested interest in makin' anypony who bucks their ideals inta a monster.

Instead I nodded, trying to give him a supportive look.

“Stern cuts out the tongues of any who speak ill of Red Eye,” Xenith reminded me, putting a little extra loathing into the griffin’s name. “I spent several years speaking nothing so that I might keep mine.” She added, “It is good to finally use it freely again.”

SteelHooves grunted. “Now that we’re all together, I don’t see why we don’t just call his bluff. Fly in and level his operation. Take him out.”

I sighed deeply. “First, because taking him out wouldn’t be that easy. Elder Blueberry Sabre was right about that. He’s always protected, and he can get out faster than we can get to him...”

What I didn’t say was that I wasn’t sure I wanted to flatten his operation. In fact, I was sure that I didn’t want to destroy the work he was doing. I wanted to free all the slaves. But that wasn’t the same thing. Was it?

Dammit! It was easier to know my moral stance before I discovered that the evil fucker was also, as best I could see, right. He was building a better future… or, at least, parts of one. And he was sacrificing everything for it, from his own home to your freedom.

I recalled a conversation with Watcher regarding how, without what he called “the spark”, the virtues he valued could become twisted, lost parodies of themselves. I had found another in Red Eye: Generosity. Even generosity could wander down twisted, dark paths… especially when what you are giving away shouldn’t be yours to give.

SteelHooves nickered. “You don’t actually believe Red Eye has a megaspell, do you?”

I grimaced.

“An undetonated balefire bomb? When would he have acquired something like that?” SteelHooves questioned. “Where? It’s not like you can stumble over something like that just laying around.”

Velvet Remedy, Calamity and I all exchanged looks.

“Oh no…” SteelHooves groaned. “What did you three do?”

The building was silent, save for the crackling of the fire and the bubbling of the cookpot, for several long minutes in the wake of our explanation.

“You gave a balefire bomb over to New Appleloosa?” SteelHooves exploded, pacing in his heavy armor, his metal-sheathed tail flicking in emphasis with each word. “A town notorious for trading with Red Eye’s slavers?”

“Ayep.”

“Which one of you idiots came up with that idea?” SteelHooves demanded.

I silently tore through my memories. I remembered being concerned about sending the freed slaves back to New Appleloosa. Stunningly, I couldn’t recall having the same concerns about giving them a megaspell.

Calamity raised his hoof, a chagrinned expression on his face.

“This is…” Xenith asked, “…why they call you ‘Calamity’, yes?”

Velvet Remedy moved to sit by Calamity’s side.

SteelHooves was fuming. “You do realize that Red Eye is the only reason there even is a New Appleloosa, right?” His visor turned towards us and found only blank expressions. “That place was a small town dying in the dust before Red Eye pranced in and gave them a water talisman. You’ve got to figure they owe him!”

Calamity shook his head, genuinely surprised. “Sorry, pardner, but that’s a new one on me.” I, however, merely groaned, putting my hooves over my eyes.

I saw the bounty of our Stable shared, the water talisman given to a struggling town which now knows the joy of clean and pure water.

Homage was going to die, and it was my fault.

*** *** ***

My PipBuck was clicking at me, not letting me ignore that the water I was bathing in was radioactive. Velvet Remedy had a dose of RadAway sitting nearby for me to consume as soon as I got out of the grossly-stained tub. Pure water was a rare treat in the wasteland; even those who had it would not think to squander it on baths. Not unless they lived someplace with a water talisman like Tenpony Tower. And in the Fillydelphia Ruins, all the water to be found was irradiated.

The clicking of my PipBuck reminded me that my weeks in the Equestrian Wasteland had been, in many ways, blessed. I had avoided some of the more repulsive hardships that many ponies faced every day. I had never been reduced to drinking radioactive water from the bowl of a toilet.

There wasn’t much of a wall left between this apartment’s bathroom and the living room, so I was effectively bathing in front of them. Xenith was still tending her boiling pots. Velvet Remedy moved between helping me scrub places that I normally called on my magic to reach and watching Calamity as he tinkered with broken radios he had found in the other apartments, rebuilding one with parts cannibalized from the others. SteelHooves stood guard near the door.

The radio Calamity had been rebuilding flared to life.

“Yea-haw! Welcome, ponies of Fillydelphia! This is DJ Pon3 beaming a light into even the darkest parts of the Equestrian Wasteland! You can’t stop the signal, baby! And thanks to that kid from Stable Two, the message is reaching even the souls trapped in that Celestia-forsaken hellhole. Looks like our plucky Stable-Dweller galloped into the heart of Red Eye’s slavery operation and gave the old bastard a big black eye… in the form of losing nearly half his dirigibles and a small army’s worth of his slavers. Not t’ mention annihilating the Crater Boss. And she even took Red Eye’s right hoof griffin, Stern, down a peg. Aaaaand that’s not all! Our little Wasteland Heroine, our Bringer of Light, bucked right through the wall that Red Eye had built around Fillydelphia’s airwaves, bringing my humble message into the one place I could never reach before! Thank you, Stable Dweller!”

I sunk deeper into the bath and moaned. The elation I felt at hearing Homage’s voice (disguised as it was) in this horrible place battled the humiliation and dismay at hearing my royal fuck-up described as a brilliant victory. I did not earn this.

“If you should happen to see our Light Bringer, give her a big thanks! She’ll be easy to recognize, should she keep in the company of the zebra slave she rescued as icing on the cupcake in her latest escapade. And for the rest of you still toiling away in Fillydelphia, our hearts go out to you, and your plight has not been forgotten. Plus, I offer these small words of hope: knowing our Light Bringer, I don’t think she’s done with Red Eye yet!”

Xenith stared at the little radio, blinking slowly. “How does he know so much?” We had walked across the moat and outside The Wall less than three hours ago.

The zebra looked at my companions, “And why does he not give you the credit you deserve? Much of the victory was yours. As was our escape, for which I am most thankful.”

Calamity chuckled. “Aw, shucks. T’weren’t nothin’.”

Velvet Remedy purred, “Because we asked… DJ Pon3 not to mention us. Littlepip here should get all the credit.”

I groaned. It was a conspiracy.

I started to get up and say something, but Velvet Remedy put a hoof to my muzzle, then whispered into my ear, “Oh, and don’t think I’ve forgotten about that ‘barn door’ comment.” She smiled as I collapsed with a splash under the weight of my embarrassment.

DJ Pon3’s voice continued bringing news and advice to the ponies of the Equestrian Wasteland. I felt a chill as DJ Pon3 talked openly with us, having no idea she was in mortal danger.

“Warning to all those traveling central Equestria. Keep your hooves away from the areas surrounding Ponyville. I’m getting reports of fires along the back end of the Everfree Forest. They seem to be spreading slowly, but the advancing flames and smoke are pushing many of the forest’s unpleasant inhabitants towards the Ponyville side of that nightmare zone, and at least a couple monsters have actually wandered their way into the old town itself. Fortunately, the only ponies living in that area are raiders. So, to the monsters, I say bon appetite!”

“Well, if it ain’t one thing, ‘tis another,” Calamity neighed, pointing out that Splendid Valley was beyond Ponyville in the opposite direction. Fortunately, we would be crossing the area well above ground level, so we should be able to fly clear of any trouble.

“Unless, o’ course, the critters wanderin’ out o’ that place include manticores or the like.”

Knowing my luck, and the Equestrian Wasteland’s maliciousness, they would be angry dragons.

“Well, it’s another hard day in this Equestrian Wasteland, but I’ve got the news and the music to get you through. So say bye-bye to stupid static, and hello to magnificent music! This has been your host, DJ Pon3…”

The voice of Homage’s broadcast persona gave way to one of the newer songs on DJ Pon3’s playlist. Something from a record I had rescued out of Stable Twenty-Nine.

“Do you dream...?”

*** *** ***

I felt immensely better after the bath. As Velvet Remedy wove her horn about my broken body, mending my rib and lung with her beautiful magic, I began to drift to sleep.

SteelHooves walked in. “Littlepip, can we talk? About the zebra.”

I released a long-suffering sigh. This again? Lamely pretending to mishear, I replied. “Candy Hawk? Sorry, don’t think I’ve heard of her.”

“Funny,” SteelHooves said dryly. “Littlepip, I need to talk to you.”

“You need to go to the zoo? Fine. Need the four of us to come with you?” I put a little emphasis on the number four, only to realize that, with Pyrelight, it should have been five. Where was that magnificent bird anyway?

Snickering softly, Velvet Remedy stood up and trotted over to the Steel Ranger, head down. She pressed against him, wrapping him with a telekinetic field of her own, reducing the massive weight of his armor so that she could shove him out the door. “Sorry, SteelHooves. Too busy saving Equestria today. All prejudice has to be rescheduled. Is next month good for you?”

SteelHooves nickered with a stomp. “You might accept having one of those traveling with you, but even if I did, there is no way the Steel Rangers will let her trot into their citadel and live.” He looked at me over Velvet’s scarlet-and-gold streaked white mane. “Or am I wrong that you have further business there?”

I buried my face as I realized the ghoul stallion had a point. Stable-Tec’s old headquarters was my first intended stop. I had some things to… discuss with Elder Blueberry Sabre. But that wasn’t someplace I could take Xenith. I’d have more luck walking into the Steel Ranger’s citadel with an alicorn in tow and trying to convince them she was friendly.

Velvet Remedy had him all the way through the doorway when I finally said, “SteelHooves, I have welcomed Xenith to join us. She’s here as long as she wants to be. If that’s a problem for you, then you are free to be elsewhere.” I stared at him with what I hoped was a gentle expression. “Remember, Applejack herself offered her hooves in friendship to a zebra…”

The response I got back was an unexpected growl. “Yes. And if you only knew how that ended, you wouldn’t speak of it!”

Wow. Minefield. “Okay… but somehow I’ve become the leader of this merry band of ponies, and I’ve decided to give her the chance. If you want to stay with us, you will too. I won’t have Xenith mysteriously disappearing when my back is turned…”

Velvet Remedy gasped sharply at my insinuation. She didn’t know the patterns of behavior I had seen in Applesnack’s memories and looked appalled that I could suggest one of us capable of such things. I envied her innocence. SteelHooves himself was silenced.

“…So long as you are with us, you will love and tolerate the shit out of her. Consider that an order.” I stared at him, giving him one chance.

“That said,” I added reluctantly, “You are absolutely right about the Steel Rangers. I won’t be bringing her with us into the Stable-Tec building. Which… ugh… means we’ll have to split up again. If only briefly.”

SteelHooves stood there for a moment, then gave a rigid nod. As he turned to trot away, he nearly ran into Xenith, who was trotting up with a small, covered cookpot hanging from her mouth. They stared at each other awkwardly, then danced about each other. Velvet Remedy backed up, letting Xenith through the doorway, then closed it behind her.

Xenith lowered her neck, placing the pot on the floor. “Once again, it would seem that I am the subject of an argument.”

“You were the subject of an argument,” Velvet Remedy corrected gently.

“Is that not what I said?” the zebra asked, perplexed. I covered a snicker with a hoof.

Velvet Remedy gave up with a roll of her eyes. “And what is that?” she asked, pointing at the cookpot with a hoof. Her ears tilted back. “Please tell me there is no meat in that.”

Xenith looked quite surprised. “Of course not. Zebras are vegetarians… as I thought were ponies. Are you not?”

I could see the relief wash over Velvet Remedy as a look of joy broke over her face. “Yes! Yes we are! Thank Celestia… finally!” She slid up to Xenith, wrapping a foreleg around her neck, seemingly oblivious to the way Xenith suddenly tensed. “Oh, we are going to be the best of friends, you and I.”

Velvet Remedy backed up, looking over Xenith. “And Littlepip isn’t the only one in need of medical attention.” The mother-doctor side of Velvet was instantly back in control as she pulled the top mattress off a set of bunk beds and insistently guided Xenith onto it.

But the nudge to lie down was the final straw. Xenith jumped away, spinning and knocking back Velvet Remedy’s nudging hoof with enough force to send Velvet stumbling back with a tear in her eye. “I do not like to be touched!” the zebra spat.

Velvet Remedy blinked, falling onto her haunches, holding her bruised forehoof against her breast. I felt like I was frozen. Part of me needed to jump between them, to do something. But the situation had changed so rapidly my brain was still catching up.

“Oh.” Velvet blinked. Her eyes widened. “OH!” She stared back at the tense zebra mare with an expression flooding with compassion. “oh, Xenith… I’m so sorry!”

I had not told anypony what Number Four had told me about Xenith’s abuse; I did not feel I had the right. Velvet Remedy didn’t need me to; she had figured it out for herself. Not the details, thank the Goddesses, but enough.

Gingerly putting her sore hoof down and standing, Velvet Remedy apologized again. But with that apology came insistence, “I will not touch you casually without permission. That was wrong of me. But I am a medical pony, and I will need to touch you to treat your physical wounds.”

“I can do that well enough on my own,” Xenith nickered.

Velvet nodded. “I am sure you can. But I can do it better.” There was no boast. And after Velvet had been able to treat my rib and lung, there was no question that she was right.

“You deserve a lot better treatment than you’ve been getting. From others in the extreme, but also from yourself. Let me give you the level of care you need” Velvet whinnied. “At least, to the best of my ability.”

Xenith neighed. “I came in here to deliver a gift for the little one, not to be prodded and treated by a medical pony.”

They both turned to look at me. I was half tempted to pretend I couldn’t hear them again. Ugh. Our family had clearly grown big enough that somepony needed to lay ground rules. But why should it fall to me? Considering my whole lack-of-family experience, wasn’t I the least qualified?

“Xenith,” I said gently, “In this group, we have to trust each other with our lives every day. We care for each other, and each one of us uses our talents to help all of us.” I stopped as I recognized my line of thought was wandering. Re-adjusted. “You are very welcome here, and I do hope you stay with us. But being a part of this group will call for some sacrifices. You told me that I was responsible for you now. That includes making sure you are properly cared for, and this is how I choose to do that -- by having Velvet Remedy care for you like she cares for the rest of us.” I looked at the zebra, adding, “Unless you choose to release me from my responsibilities.”

Xenith’s eyes narrowed. But slowly, she laid down on the mattress. “No, I do not, little pony.”

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.

Velvet Remedy moved carefully towards the zebra. She stopped as she passed the small cookpot still resting on the floor. She sniffed at it. “Xenith, what is this gift?”

“It is a restorative brew,” Xenith told us. “It will replenish and heal your horn of the magics you overtaxed in our rescue.”

I blinked. On one hoof, this was extremely welcome news. The last time I had burned out, it had taken days to recover. With Red Eye’s threat hanging over Homage, I couldn’t afford to be ineffective that long. On the other hoof, I couldn’t help but question what a zebra could know of unicorn magics, much less remedies for uniquely unicorn ailments.

“I know many of the ancient mystical recipes. Ones to cure, to enhance and to harm,” Xenith told us. “If I have the right ingredients, I can brew potions that will permanently alter and strengthen you, making you better fit for the fight ahead.”

Alter? I didn’t think I wanted to be altered.

“This is not such a potion, but I have what is necessary to craft one of these elixirs -- one which will strengthen your bones such that they will be much harder to break. I will brew this for you… if you allow me to.”

Velvet Remedy looked skeptical. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. Nor this gift, for that matter.” Before either of us could protest, Velvet reminded me, “Littlepip has had some bad experiences with zebra ‘medicine’ before. She is particularly susceptible to their dangers.”

Xenith looked between us. “I would not offer an addictive draught, nor give a cup too full.” The zebra frowned at Velvet then turned to me, “You just said that here you allow each other to share their talents. Will you not let me share this one with you?”

Velvet nickered at the way Xenith used my own argument so swiftly. The zebra cocked her head. “You have seen Red Eye, have you not? That pony has augmented himself with machines and technology. If the little one truly chooses for him to be her mortal enemy, then should she not take advantage of the gifts I offer her? If Red Eye is also my enemy, should I not offer them?”

My answer was to get up, walk to the cookpot and lift away the lid. The brew inside smelled sweetly spicy, the steam that rushed out cleared my sinuses. With only the slightest hesitation, I began to drink.

*** *** ***

My magic had been completely spent. After drinking Xenith’s potion, and a night of rest, I still couldn’t lift the now-empty cookpot. But I believed I could feel the stirrings of my magic. And I knew one test which called for only the tiniest spark of focus and power.

I laid one of the memory orbs on the apartment floor. I had sacrificed all save for the two I had taken from the safes in my battle with the super-alicorn. But those two had been put in the other saddlebag. I laid down, leaning forward and concentrating as I touched my horn to the orb…

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

Flashes of light burst across the night -- scores of cameras capturing the moment for a mob of news-ponies and paparazzi. They mixed with a throng of ponies shouting protests and holding signs in their mouths. My host was standing on a set of marbled steps, looking down on them and watching a quartet of armored police ponies push their way through.

I was encased in armor, but unlike my experience in the mind of Applesnack, this armor did not feel heavy or claustrophobic. I could, in fact, barely feel it at all. The limited vision, the Eyes-Forward Sparkle that played behind the visor and the smell of trapped pony sweat were the swiftest indications of how I was clad. (A very nice scent of mare-sweat, I could not help myself from thinking.) With an unpleasant shock, I realized I could feel my wings. I was in a pegasus pony.

To each side of me stood more pegasi wearing the sleek, black carapace armor I had come to associate with the Enclave.

As the police ponies broke through the front of the crowd below and started up the steps, I could see they were escorting a zebra, bound in chains and encircled by the armored ponies.

One of them stepped forward, speaking to somepony just behind me. "We caught her in Ironshod Firearms, red-hoofed, trying to steal the schematics for the anti-machine rifle."

The zebra protested her mistreatment. "I haven't broken any rule; I was invited there you fool!" Her exotic accent was like Xenith’s, and I recognized the odd rhyming that seemed to flow in all her speech. Lowering her voice loudly, Zecora asked the lead pony, "So are you always such a tool?"

"I knew it!” cried an equally familiar voice from behind me. The pink party pony advanced into view, glaring daggers at the zebra. “And to think I let you trick us into trusting you! You... you trickster!"

Zecora looked hurt. Pinkie Pie didn’t relent, breaking into furious sing-song. "She's an evil enchantress and she does evil dances..."

"Pinkie Pie, you have me wrong. I am not like your foalish song."

"Don't even try to entrance me, Zecora. I... Never again." Pinkie Pie turned from her, scowling. It was the first time I had really seen the Mare of the Ministry of Morale angry, and it was terrifying.

In a low voice, she grumbled, "I hope you really like rocks!"

Pinkie Pie looked up at me, then jabbed a hoof towards two of the armored pegasi on my right. “You and you, help escort my old friend...” Pinkie Pie hissed the words between clenched teeth, “…to the convoy. Zecora will be spending the rest of her life as a guest of Shattered Hoof. Tell them that I want all of that zebra’s memories. And don’t. Be. Too. Gentle.”

The two pegasi on my right rushed to obey. Pinkie Pie pointed her hoof at me. “You, with me.”

The pink earth pony stomped back up the steps and into what I assumed was a Ministry building. My host turned and trotted after her, following behind Pinkie Pie as she crossed the darkened, spacious lobby towards the elevators. Under her breath, Pinkie Pie continued to sing venomously, “…she’ll mix up an evil brew, and swallow you up in a big, tasty stew!...”

She stopped singing in the elevator. Which was good, since the song would have clashed unpleasantly with the lullaby version of March of the Parasprites that was playing inside the lift. Pinkie Pie turned and pushed all the buttons simultaneous with her rump.

The elevator took us directly to a large office with a huge plate-glass window that looked out over… Canterlot.

Pinkie Pie strode dangerously into the middle of the room, then turned, fixing me with the sort of malevolent expression that made me think she might carve me up and bake me into a cupcake. Then in a magical instant, she broke into a huge smile that seemed to light up the room. She waved a hoof in a sweeping bow, her voice bursting with joy: “ACTING!”

The aging pink earth pony collapsed onto the floor in a fit of giggles. “Best! Prank! Ever!”

My host humphed and trotted over to the window, looking down below. The Eyes-Forward Sparkle started identifying ponies and wagons in the street below. The convoy carrying Zecora to Shattered Hoof was already rolling out under a light guard supplemented by the two pegasi in magically-powered armor.

I felt myself lift the visor. In the window, my reflected face was blue, with magenta eyes and a shock of rainbow-colored hair matted between them. Pinkie Pie’s reflection appeared on the window next to me. “Zecora’s gonna be all right,” she asked, a note of true concern in her voice. “Won’t she Dashie?”

I saw and felt my host nod. “She’s been with the best trainers the Ministry of Awesome has. I wouldn’t let this move forward if it were otherwise.”

Pinkie Pie nodded and turned her stare to the convoy below. It was already two blocks away. Pinkie Pie paused, lifting her left forehoof and wiggling it. “Huh.”

Rainbow Dash ignored this, eyes narrowing. “Extraction by traitorous zebra sympathizers in three…”

“Two!” Pinkie Pie looked back down, excited. “Ooooh, Zecora’s gonna make such a good spy!”

“One…”

There was a flash down below as the first wagon in the prisoner convoy exploded. Dark figures rushed in from all sides amidst flashes of muzzle-fire.

Rainbow Dash pushed down the visor. “And here. We. Go.”

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

*** *** ***

I sat in the apartment common room, trying to float small objects. I had made it up to levitating a pack of bubblegum. (Which, honestly, was the only thing I imagined the package was good for anymore. Who would even try to eat two-hundred-year-old bubblegum?)

Over breakfast, a meal which in content was indistinguishable from dinner, the conversation had turned towards more open introductions and an attempt by the others to get to know Xenith a little better in return for regaling her with stories of our adventures over the past five weeks.

“I have never seen a bloodwing,” Xenith admitted, “But I have seen the dessicated husks their preying leaves behind. Still… wouldn’t a missile be a little excessive for killing one?”

“SteelHooves ain’t never been one fer underkill.”

The ghoul snorted. “You should talk. Tell her about your solution to the alicorns chasing us through Manehattan.”

“Actually,” Velvet Remedy interrupted, “I think it is Xenith’s turn to share.” She gave the zebra an encouraging look and suggested, “Why don’t you tell us a little about where you learned those brewing skills of yours?” Velvet was purposefully suggesting tales of a time that must have been before Fillydelphia, steering the zebra’s memories and our conversation away from more dangerous and hurtful paths.

Xenith hesitated, but relented as the silence stretched out. “I learned the brewing of potions and remedies both mundane and magical from my grandparents. In their youth, they had been adventurers of sorts, prying into all the forbidden places -- even delving into the Everfree Forest in search of the Hut of Zecora and braving Lookout Plateau that rises above the dark fumes of Froggy Bottom Bog along the vilest stretch of the Ponytomic -- searching out old recipes and lore of zebra-kind that had been over a century lost. It is from them that I learned the ways and tales of the zebra people… or as much as I know of them.”

I looked up from my task of stacking bubblegum and bullets into a tiny fort. Somehow, the idea of the zebras as Equestrian scavengers not unlike myself was surprising. I don’t know what I had expected. Something more military and uniquely zebra, I guessed.

“My great grandparents were amongst the survivors of Stable Three, as were most zebras in the Equestrian Wasteland. As is typical for youth, my grandparents rebelled against their parent’s ways and sought to learn more about the zebras beyond the tales passed down through oral tradition since The Sealing. “

I didn’t need clarification on what The Sealing was. Nopony who lived in a Stable would. But I did wish to know more about the Stable whose floor plan I had in my PipBuck. “Stable Three?”

SteelHooves grunted. “The Let’s-Get-Along Stable,” he snorted derisively. I saw Velvet’s ears perk at that.

“It was clearly an experimental Stable,” SteelHooves rumbled. “Virtually all of the zebra citizens of Equestria were ‘randomly assigned’ to Stable Three. They would have made up half of the Stable’s population.”

Xenith frowned at the unpleasantness of the interruption but nodded at SteelHooves’ assessment. “It was long before even my grandparent’s time, but the stories passed down say that the Overmares told all in the Stable why they had been chosen. And why the Stable had no texts of history or posters of current events.”

Ah. Instead of altering things, Scootaloo and her friends had simply filtered out as much of the Ministry of Image’s influence as possible.

Velvet Remedy questioned, “Overmares? Plural?”

Xenith nodded. “One pony and one zebra.”

My experience with Stables was clawing at the back of my mind. Still, if there were survivors… “What went wrong?”

“Why would you assume something went wrong?” Xenith gave me a questioning look. “Zebras and ponies can live together quite harmoniously if each gives the other the opportunity.”

SteelHooves again provided the answer I was looking for. “Stable Three was built within the limits of the one city in Equestria with more than a hoof-full of zebras,” he informed us. “Canterlot.”

Oh no.

Xenith saw my expression and nodded glumly. “Not even the Stables could hold back the Pink Cloud forever. Stable Three lasted over a century before the Cloud ate its way inside. Within a generation more, those who still could were forced to unseal the door and flee. Many did not survive the exposure; my great grandparents were amongst those who did.”

*** *** ***

“You… killed a dragon?!” Xenith stared between Calamity and me, her eyes wide. They narrowed as she asked me, “Is this true? Or is this revenge for Doombunny?”

“Doombunny?” Velvet Remedy asked curiously.

Calamity pulled a book from his saddlebags. “Ah’m guessin’ somethin’ t’ do wi’ this.”

I focused, trying to wrap the book in a field of magic. I broke a sweat, but the book dutifully floated over to me on a cushion of levitating energy. Martial Arts of the Zebra announced the title.

“Where did you find this?” I asked as I flipped the book open to the contents page.

“Filin’ cabinet at the station,” Calamity said matter-of-factly. “Strangely, it was under ‘P’.”

I shrugged that off. The prologue spoke of the zebra’s rich history of martial artistry, from the many fighting styles that had been perfected over centuries (such as Fallen Caesar Style) to newer ones. The newest of which had been only been in existence for a couple years at the time this pre-apocalyptic book had been written, and focused on drug-enhanced martial prowess: Doombunny Style. The book’s author spoke ill of it for having undefined “influences” from the lands of the ponies.

I closed the book, intending to read it later.

Xenith tapped a hoof in thought. “Littlepip, with your permission, there is someplace I would like us to go. I understand that there are other matters pressing, but this is important to me.”

“Of course we… wait, how come this is my decision?” I looked to the others. “Why do you ponies keep acting like I’m the leader?’

“Littlepip’s right,” Calamity neighed. “Anyway, we do have more pressin’ matters, so Ah think we should first hear that plan. What’s next?”

I nodded thankfully and laid out the plan. “We need to go to Stable-Tec Headquarters first. I have something that Elder Blueberry Sabre wants, and I plan to use it to barter for access to the Stable-Tec maneframe.”

SteelHooves whinnied questioningly.

“Red Eye is building a fortress called the Cathedral where Stable 101 used to be. I figure the Stable-Tec maneframe has record of the location of all the Stables, so that’s the fastest way to find out where Red Eye’s main base is located.”

I looked to Calamity, “After that, I say we fly as fast as we can to Tenpony Tower and begin an evacuation.”

Calamity smirked and turned to Xenith. “Ah’m sorry fer interruptin’. Jus’ provin’ a point. Now go on wi’ what ya were askin’?”

I blinked, lost. “Huh? What point?”

Xenith gave her own smirk back, answering kindly. “I believe you just demonstrated to everyone but yourself why you are the leader.”

I stared. What did she…? Oh fuck. I shot Calamity a dark look, but the buck just grinned. Luna clop me with Her wings.

“You could go yourself,” SteelHooves suggested to Xenith as non-nastily as he could.

Xenith nodded. “Yes, but the journey would be long and dangerous alone. I would prefer to arrive later than not at all.” She looked to me, “Although should you refuse, then I will take my leave as soon as your travels bring us within a few days of my destination.”

I nodded. I wanted to immediately agree, but it seemed wise to ask, “Where do you need to go?”

“I… need to return to my tribal home. The village that had been mine and my family’s until Stern’s slavers descended upon it.”

“Your family?”

“My parents and husband were slain in the fight. My daughter…” the zebra choked before plowing on. “My daughter was too young for Stern’s slave pits, and not a pony so she had no place in Red Eye’s schools. So Stern left her there, along with the other children.”

Velvet Remedy whimpered, shedding the tears that the zebra seemed unable or unwilling to. My own thoughts traveled back to the words of one of the raiders in Shattered Hoof, speaking about how her own town had been treated to the same, with the children left behind to fend for themselves. She had fled into the life of a raider to escape the horror her town had descended into under the rule of slaughter-scarred bullies and traumatized children.

“It was long ago. Years. I doubt my daughter would know me should she still survive.” Xenith’s face was sorrowful but her voice was steady. “Any claim I had as her guide and guardian I lost in the years since. I only wish to know.”

*** *** ***

“You really shouldn’t be going anywhere,” Velvet Remedy chided as we made our way towards the Stable-Tec building, itself walled off from the rest of Fillydelphia like Stern’s city in miniature. “Except to a medical clinic for a week or two of recovery.”

She was probably right, but we couldn’t afford a week. I felt guilty for having selfishly stolen most of a day for resting. But once my magic had grown strong enough to lift Little Macintosh, I knew it was time to move.

A small family of scavengers spotted us on the street and scurried for cover. It hurt to think that ponies once greeted each other as they passed on the street. That cheer and open neighborliness had once been the social norm. In the Equestrian Wasteland, a stranger pony was met with guarded suspicion, assessed first for threat potential. I gave the scavengers a smile and a friendly hoofwave as we passed. It wasn’t returned as they cringed, the adults hiding the younger ponies behind them, weapons ready should we attack like a band of raiders.

I hated the Equestrian Wasteland. Especially Fillydelphia.

“Oh my!” Velvet Remedy burst out, eyes wide with wonder. “Aren’t you just magnificent!” She trotted quickly ahead of us.

Pyrelight was perched on the fountain statue of Sweetie Belle, glowing brilliantly. She had bled off most of the endowment from the Fillydelphia Crater, but her aura was still five times her size, lighting up the Steel Rangers’ outer courtyard with golden radiance.

My heart went out to the balefire phoenix, immensely grateful for her companionship when I was behind The Wall. I too began to trot towards her, a tear in my eye.

My PipBuck started clicking, informing me that being in Pyrelight’s vicinity was even less healthy than bathing in Fillydelphia water. I drew up short and watched as Velvet Remedy floated a bottle of RadSafe from a saddlebox. She downed more than the recommended dose before trotting right up to the radioactive bird and nuzzling her gently. Pyrelight cooed.

Well, at least Velvet Remedy wasn’t spending nearly as much time inside the Fluttershy orb since Pyrelight joined us. I had mixed feelings about the trade.

“All the ponies in this crowd are crazy,” Xenith muttered as she walked past me.

I moved up to Xenith. “Um… this building belongs to the Steel Rangers. I think maybe it’s not so safe for you to come in with us. Would you mind waiting outside? It won’t be alone, and I hope it won’t be for long.”

Xenith considered me. “And whom did you intend to keep me company?”

I knew I needed Calamity’s combat prowess backing me up, just in case my meeting with Blueberry Sabre went south. And not only did I want a Steel Ranger at my side for diplomatic reasons, I didn’t trust him alone with Xenith quite yet. Velvet Remedy, on the other hoof, would enjoy having some time with Pyrelight… and I certainly wasn’t taking the glowing ball of regal radiation in with me. I told Xenith my decision.

The zebra nodded. “As you wish. I will remain here with unicorn Fluttershy and her balefire Doombunny.”

Okie dokey lokey.

“Perhaps… you could work on that brew you offered me?” I suggested, taking a plunge. I wanted to show the zebra my trust, and give her something to do while we were gone that she would find productive. I didn’t really want to be altered. I had a hard enough time entering the memories of folk whose bodies were significantly different than my own. I didn’t know how well I could handle living in one.

But…

Xenith was right. Red Eye had his own advantages. I had to at least seriously consider putting my squeamishness aside and taking those offered to me.

Xenith smiled. “As you wish.”

*** *** ***

“…those fires I reported yesterday appear to be the work of Red Eye’s private army. Griffins sporting the slaver king’s colors were spotted flying over the far side of the Everfree Forest carrying incinerators. But where any other woods would be consumed in flame by now, these fires are spreading extremely slowly. Looks to me like the Everfree Forest is fighting back. “

DJ Pon3’s voice came out of the wall speakers in the Stable-Tec visitor’s lounge. We listened as I waited impatiently.

“And one last bit o’ news for all you faithful listeners. Looks like Red Eye’s set his sights on Tenpony Tower. Fortunately for the folks in that place, it’s built like a fortress. And the only entrance is both well-defended and tricky to access. The ponies of Tenpony Tower are barricaded inside, safe and sound for now. There’s plenty of stockpiled food and water, and the new constable chief is doing her best to organize rationing, so they should be able to hold out until help arrives.”

I jumped to my hooves at that. “No!” I shouted at the speaker. “They’re not trying to invade. They’re trying to seal you in!”

“And now for something a bit unusual. I don’t normally read mail on the air, but I have a personal message here from my assistant Homage to the Stable Dweller. Ahem. Dearest Littlepip… aww, now ain’t that sweet? I think somepony has a crush. Dearest Littlepip, I know things sound bad here, and I know it’s your nature to try to rush to our rescue; but we’re okay for now, and you have other more pressing matters closer to home. Do what you need to do, take care of them first. Then, later, we can meet where we met before, and I promise to give you so many orgas…Oh! Well now that’s not something I’m comfortable readin’ on the air. I think I’ll be having a little talk with my assistant.

“Meanwhile, here are the silky-smooth tones of Velvet Remedy singing about what gets her through life in this post-apocalyptic wasteland!”

I stared at the speaker, my body locked up, my jaw on the floor, heat rushing to my face and other places. Velvet Remedy’s beautiful voice poured through the speaker, replacing the voice of DJ Pon3, but I barely heard it.

What I meant to say was “I can’t believe she just did that!” What I actually said was closer to “squeak!”

Calamity snickered, tears in his eyes, then collapsed onto his back in laughter.

*** *** ***

“What do you mean the Elder isn’t here?!”

“The Elder has been called away on an urgent crusade and is not available,” Knight Poppyseed claimed. “However, she said that in the case you should return, I may receive what you have recovered.”

I stomped. “I was under the impression that these things were important to you ponies! Or at least to her, considering I risked my life for them and all!”

“She wasn’t actually expecting you to survive,” SteelHooves deciphered. From his tone, he wanted a few words with the Elder himself.

I glowered at the mare in magically-powered armor. “Fine. I can report that Red Eye’s research into Bypass Spells has been destroyed.” I hadn’t scavenged any of it, and would have not given it to these ponies even if I had. But I did know that at least part of the research had been successfully completed. I could tell her that. But really, fuck these ponies.

“I have recovered the schematics to the Radiation-Powered Engine. And I’m ready to turn them over to you…” after having made copies, but I didn’t feel the need to tell her that. I had no problem giving the Steel Rangers this technology. I intended to give it out to any pony with a chance of implementing it. This was the sort of step forward that all Equestria could potentially benefit from, but not if it was being jealously guarded by only a few.

That said, I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to get something in return this time. “…in exchange for access to the Stable-Tec maneframe.”

Knight Poppyseed sputtered at that. “I’m sorry? No, there is no way…”

Calamity stepped up next to me, fixing her with a dangerous stare. “Ah reckon we ain’t exactly askin’. Y’all owe Li’lpip, an’ we’re takin’ payment. Now why don’t we do it all friendly-like?”

The knight mare looked to SteelHooves for support.

“I’m a Star Paladin,” my armor-encased companion reminded her smoothly. “In the absence of the Elder, I am the ranking Ranger on this base. And I order you to take us to the Stable-Tec maneframe.” He turned his stare to me. “I will personally make sure Littlepip doesn’t access any information vital to the security of the Steel Rangers or the Ministry of Wartime Technology.”

Knight Poppyseed nickered, but turned obediently and began to lead. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“No.”

*** *** ***

The room was cold and dark save for the blinking lights of the maneframe. From the locks on the door, the turrets outside and the hoofprints in the dust, I could tell this room was not only restricted but rarely entered.

I hoofed the light switch, but the room remained dark. I turned on my PipBuck lamp and looked around. The spotlight on SteelHooves’ helmet hummed softly to life, cutting a beam of light through the darkness. He followed me in.

Instead of moving directly for the maneframe, I allowed my curiosity to drag me around the huge basement room. At the far end was the huge, gear-shaped door of a Stable. It rested against the open doorway, not attached. By removing my saddlebags, I was barely able shimmy through the entrance. According to the number, this was Stable 0.

Beyond stretched the rooms and hallways of a Stable maintenance wing. But the hallways dead-ended in shallow caverns of dirt. The rooms were unfinished. Toolboxes and construction equipment lay scattered everywhere. Several sections of the walls and ceilings had collapsed.

In one corner, I found the curled-up skeleton of an earth pony. The floor around the pony was littered with empty bottles. I shook my head as I noticed the liquor had been applejack. There was a black opal laying on the floor next to the tattered remains of a recollector. The lower bone of the earth pony’s left foreleg wore an early-model PipBuck.

I plugged my PipBuck into it and found a single audio recording. Sitting down, I let it begin to play. The voice on the recording was soft, almost overwhelmed the background noise of sirens and bombardment.

“Ah don’t really know what ta say. Or, for that matter, whom Ah’m sayin’ it to. The good news is that Sweetie Belle’s got muh family safe an’ sound in Stable Two. Ah dunno where Scootaloo’s at, but Ah’m glad she’s not…”

A particularly loud roar drowned out everything else, followed by the sounds of metal and concrete collapsing within the unfinished Stable as a maelstrom devoured the city above.

“…Fillydelphia was just hit. That’s it then… it’s all over. Everypony’s dead… except for the ones we could save. Celestia dammit, Applejack, couldn’t ya have stopped this from happening? Couldn’t anypony have stopped this?”

I heard a furious clicking. I checked my PipBuck, but the radiation meter was safely in the green.

“No, no, no! Ah didn’t mean that! Ain’t Applejack’s fault. Hay, it’s more muh fault than hers. An’ Ah know Ah ain’t s’posed ta feel that way, but Ah do sometimes. An’ Ah guess it don’t really matter anymore. Everypony’s dead now. Ah’m dead now. Ah didn’t survive the megaspell just cuz Ah lived through the blast. We never even got the door on. Radiation will kill me.”

The clicking was coming from the recording.

“Ah just wanted t’ tell anypony listenin’ that Ah’m sorry. Even if it’s not muh fault all those kids are dead. Ah’m still sorry. Ah tried t’ make up for it. Ah really did.”

*** *** ***

SteelHooves was calling for me.

“I’m fine!” I called back, wiping tears from my eyes. “I’ll be out in just a minute.”

Before worming my way back out, I knelt down and picked up the memory orb in my teeth. Once back in the basement proper, I put the orb in my saddlebags and proceeded to the Stable-Tec maneframe.

The maneframe was a tricky hack, but either I had grown more skilled or Pinkie Pie’s had been easier. I downloaded all the information I could on the various Stables and began sifting through it for the one piece of information that interested me most. The location of Stable 101.

I found it and the answer surprised me.

Once I was reunited with all my friends outside of the Steel Ranger’s citadel, having given Knight Poppyseed the schematics I had promised in return, I told everyone what I had learned.

“Stable 101 was built within the Everfree Forest itself.” The looks and gasps were exactly what I expected. “Apparently, there used to be an old castle on a safe patch of land in the middle of the place. That’s where Stable-Tec built their last completed Stable.”

Xenith was the first to make a particular connection. “So Red Eye is building his fortress in the middle of the Everfree Forest… and is burning down the forest around it? Why?”

“Hard t’ maintain a growin’ army in a space where the wildlife wants t’ disembowel ya an’ suck the juices, Ah imagine,” Calamity theorized.

“Agriculture,” I answered with my own guess. “You said it yourself, Calamity. The Everfree Forest was never hit by a megaspell. As far as cropland goes, the Everfree Forest is one of the few places that isn’t poisoned with radiation or taint.”

Xenith agreed with my line of thought. “And after the burning, the soil will be rich with nutrients from the ashes.” She looked grim, slipping unconsciously into the sort of rhyming speech I was used to hearing from Zecora. “I worked for months recycling flamer fuel for Stern. Clearly he was stockpiling plenty for this burn.”

“And when he’s done, he’ll put up a wall around the whole place and have complete control over the food,” SteelHooves agreed, glancing back towards The Wall that Red Eye had erected around two-thirds of the city. “It’s what he does.”

*** *** ***

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

“Do ya think She’ll like it?” Apple Bloom asked, fretting over an exquisite model of an almost monastic walled village. The design looked familiar; I had seen the remains of this model on display outside of Elder Blueberry Sabre’s chambers.

“She’ll love it,” I felt and heard myself say. The voice was not immediately familiar, and completely lacked the country drawl of the younger mare. This Apple Bloom, dressed in the manner of formal attire that she had not yet grown comfortable with, was no older than me.

“Do you think She’ll like the crenulations?”

“She’ll love the crenellations,” my host assured her gently. “The crenellations are fine.”

“How about the moon in the center courtyard? Maybe I should have gone with a full moon rather than a crescent moon…”

“She’ll love the moon. The moon is fine.”

Apple Bloom trotted nervously around the table, eyeing the model from every angle. The room we stood in was a glowing white marble with flowing curtains and golden filigree in all the accents. If we weren’t in a palace, then somepony had gone to great lengths to give the impression of one.

“How about the tower? Is it too short? Or maybe it’s too tall?” Apple Bloom hoofed her ears in frustration. “Arrrugh! I don’t even know if Princess Luna likes towers! Why didn’t I ask that earlier?”

My host let out a long-suffering whinny. “She’ll love the towers. The towers are very nice.”

Apple Bloom reacted like she’d been struck. “Nice? But they need to be perfect!” Apple Bloom’s agitation was strong enough that she nearly hovered. I thought the young mare could spontaneously combust from stress.

“Calm down, child. I’m sure Princess Luna will love all of it.” I felt myself smile as soothing words came from my muzzle. “Princess Celestia wanted the greatest architect in all of Equestria for this project, and She made sure She got it.”

Apple Bloom quaked a moment, then calmed with a breath. “Thank ya again, Uncle Orange, fer accompanying me t’ meet with the Princess. Ah don’t think Ah coulda done this on my own.”

“You’re doing a far sight better than your sister ever managed. But try to watch the country drawl. Remember, sound sophisticated and you show everypony that you are sophisticated.”

“Yes, Uncle Orange. Ah’ll… I’ll remember.” Apple Bloom returned to fretting, but a more subdued fretting.

“You should be proud,” Uncle Orange said encouragingly. “This is the sort of project that will make you renowned across all of Equestria.”

Apple Bloom simply nodded. The fame didn’t seem to interest her. However, “With the bits I get from this, Ah’ll… sorry, I’ll be able to expand muh… my business. Hire more help. Maybe start looking into other sorts of designs.” She looked up with a smile. “Scootaloo says she’d like to invest now that Red Racer is doin’ so well. Maybe build a company together…”

Apple Bloom’s voice fell away. Another presence entered the room. An exalted one. My host dropped gracefully into a bow. Apple Bloom swiftly followed his example.

I was in the company of a Goddess!

Not one of those blasphemous pseudo-goddess alicorn monsters. I found myself kneeling before the Goddess of the Sun whom I had prayed to since I was a little filly: Celestia Herself!

She was majestic beyond description: a tall, white, proper alicorn whose mane and tail flowed with color, Her flank emblazoned with the symbol of the sun itself. She was graceful, kind and altogether sovereign.

“Please,” She addressed us graciously, “Rise, my little ponies. It is a joy to see you.”

As my host stood, Princess Celestia (squee! squee! squee!) moved around the table, eyeing the model favorably. “So, this is to be Luna’s new academy?”

Apple Bloom nodded nervously, unable to speak.

“It looks lovely.”

Apple Bloom squeaked, “Thank you, Your Majesty!”

Celestia’s ears perked. “Ah, and here she comes. If you would be so kind as to let me speak first?”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” my host said quickly. Celestia turned and both Apple Bloom and her uncle followed the glorious Princess’s gaze.

Princess Luna walked in between two curtains. Her dark blue colors looked striking yet starkly out-of-place in the rest of the palace. She was much smaller than Her regal older sister (or, for that matter, than the pseudo-goddesses)… almost the size of a normal pony. While Princess Celestia was resplendent, Princess Luna struck me as… cute.

The sort of cute that I would have impure thoughts about if the pony in my head wasn’t already too busy bouncing around Pinkie Pie Style and letting off a barrage of squee-ing noises.

“Sister? You called for me?”

“Yes, Luna dear. I’d been thinking about that school of magic you have been proposing. And I’ve decided to send all your students to the moon.”

Luna froze. Her mouth hung open. Then closed slowly. “You wouldn’t…” I could see the gears in Her head start spinning again. “And you couldn’t. Without the Elements of Harmony, you don’t have anywhere near that kind of power, dear sister.”

What was going on here?

Apple Bloom, apparently either not quite in on the joke, or simply unable to see Luna made uncomfortable, quickly spoke up. “She means Crescent Moon Canyon.”

Princess Celestia smiled but tilted Her head towards Apple Bloom with a look that suggested the regal Princess hadn’t wanted the young architect to spill that quite yet.

Princess Luna shot her sister a Look then moved to the table, Her eyes going wide. “This…?” She looked up with tears in Her eyes. “This is going to be the Luna Academy for Young Unicorns? A magical school of my very own? Just like yours?”

Princess Celestia smiled and nuzzled Her younger sister. “Happy birthday, little sister.”

Apple Bloom’s mouth hung open until my host tapped his own with a hoof. Blushing, she waved a hoof over the model. “Princess Celestia has given…” She paused, looking up at the Princess to make sure it was okay to speak. Princess Celestia smiled with a nod and softness in her eyes. “…us Littlehorn Valley in the Crescent Moon Canyon t’ build on. It’s isolated, far away from any dangers…”

“Or any villages,” Princess Luna noted, giving Her sister a gentler look, but a look nonetheless. “And far away from Canterlot and your own school.”

Princess Celestia nodded. “I want you to have this fairly, without ponies making the comparisons they would if the schools were side-by-side, and without the students being distracted by rivalry.” The Princess flicked Her gaze to Apple Bloom as she added, “And I know you were considering Ponyville, but I didn’t want young colts and fillies wandering off into the Everfree Forest.”

Luna rolled her eyes. “Come on, big sister. No filly is foalish enough to go wandering around that place. Have faith in my students...”

Apple Bloom was making the sort of face that suggested she really wanted to be someplace else.

“…the only thing within a day’s wagon ride of Littlehorn are some zebra jungles.”

“Yes,” Princess Celestia nodded. “There will be friendly zebras not far away if they need assistance. And soon several of your students will have baby dragons of their own; so if anypony needs to contact you, you will only be a sneeze away.”

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

*** *** ***

We were airborne between Fillydelphia and Manehattan. As much as I wanted to go straight to Tenpony Tower, the warning that DJ Pon3 had sent me was at the front of my thoughts, so I had directed Calamity to take us to Junction R-7 first. If something nasty was brewing in Shattered Hoof, something that Homage thought I needed to take care of first, then I wasn’t going to waste any time.

That still left me a lot of time to think. And most of that time was spent thinking about the memory orb I had found beside poor Apple Bloom’s skeleton. My inner pony had taken over a day to stop dancing at having seen the Goddesses, and it was almost harder to prevent myself from reliving the memory over and over than it was fight the urge for Party-Time Mint-als. And at least with the latter I had the help of simply not carrying any to take. The cravings came without an easy way to sate them. But this… I couldn’t throw away a memory orb of the Goddesses! It deserved to be enshrined.

I momentarily played with the idea of taking the Cathedral for myself, wanting to transform it into a temple to Celestia and Luna with the memory orb as a sacred relic. It was a silly daydream, and it passed. I also caught myself revisiting the notion of Luna clopping me with Her wings, only this time as a fantasy rather than a swear. I caught myself before my imagination could get too far and punished myself by banging my head repeatedly against the side of the Sky Bandit until Calamity threatened to land.

It took a while before other implications of what I had seen started to sink in.

Littlehorn. It was a name I had heard before in several contexts. But Watcher’s words stood out:

The Massacre at Littlehorn broke Princess Celestia’s heart. After that, nearly midway through the war, Princess Celestia decided She wasn’t the right pony to lead Equestria anymore. So She stepped down, abdicated Her position to Her sister, Princess Luna.

I looked around. Velvet Remedy was lost inside the Fluttershy memory orb once more. Pyrelight, her aura merely twice her size, had cradled herself against Velvet’s left shoulder and was snoring loftily. I shared the Sky Bandit with SteelHooves and Xenith. Calamity was ahead, pulling us.

Well, if there was any pony who would know, it was SteelHooves.

“What happened at Littlehorn?”

SteelHooves and Xenith both started at the question. They looked at each other before SteelHooves answered me simply, “Disaster.”

I shivered, knowing I didn’t really want to hear this. But part of me needed to. “Tell me.”

“Littlehorn was a school. Unicorn fillies and colts, many of whom were too young to even have their cutie marks, lived there, being trained by some of the best of Equestria’s magicians,” SteelHooves started slowly. “One evening, around twilight, a little over nine years into the war, a zebra convoy rolled into Littlehorn Valley. Two dozen Zebra legionnaires and three large covered wagons. When they didn’t respond to peaceful overtures, the matron of the school activated the school’s defenses…”

“They didn’t know your language,” Xenith abruptly interrupted. “They weren’t front-line soldiers. It was a refugee convoy. Mares and small zebra children just trying to get out of the killing zone!”

“I know that!” SteelHooves shot back harshly. “They realized that when the first wagon was struck and they saw the dead! But by then it was too late.” He turned to me. “It was too late. The zebra convoy had assassins wearing zebra stealth cloaks…”

“They had one.” Xenith corrected. “A father whose family was killed in your school’s surprise attack.”

“They only needed one,” SteelHooves growled. “The school was full of children. And the zebras set off a gas bomb inside. It was Canterlot in miniature. The striped bastards killed… every… pony in Littlehorn!”

I felt myself crying. “Okay… please… I don’t want to hear anymore.”

*** *** ***

They weren’t paying attention to me.

But then, I wasn’t being very assertive. I was still numb with heartache. Littlehorn had been the turning point of the war, and the pony in my mind was realizing with tearful slowness how Littlehorn had rippled out to destroy everypony it touched. I began to understand. The architect Apple Bloom’s sense of guilt and how it steered her choices. And that would have been nothing compared to the guilt and sorrow of then-Princess Celestia who had Herself chosen the location. Or the effects on Princess Luna, whose beloved students were the ones slaughtered to the last.

“It was after Littlehorn that the damn zebras went totally manticore-shit. Every fight became one to annihilation of one side or the other. We struck one wagon, and yes it was a mistake. They massacred hundreds of small children and then went completely insane over it!”

“That had nothing to do with Littlehorn,” Xenith said solemnly. “The war had changed. It wasn’t about coal or gemstones anymore…”

Coal and gemstones? But then that made a lot of sense. Zebras weren’t like unicorns. They couldn’t cast spells or use magic directly. They had to brew it into potions, infuse into fetishes or otherwise bind it into objects to get their magic to work. And with the possible exception of Soul Jars, gemstones were the ultimate receptacle for magical enchantment. Any society advancing through arcane sciences would require trains full of gems. That was easy for ponies. We had lands rich with them. Rock farms for growing them. But if the zebra lands didn’t have gems… but they did have coal…

I was pulled out of my mental distraction when SteelHooves advanced on Xenith. “Then you admit your whole damn species had a fucking mental break!”

“Not mine,” Xenith insisted. “We saw that you ponies had fallen under the influence of the stars. No quarter could be given and no mercy expected from a nation under the sway of cosmic evil.”

“What?!?” I mouthed what SteelHooves screamed.

“Did you or did you not choose to follow the champion of the evil stars, Nightmare Moon?”

“What? Are you… what!?” SteelHooves turned stomping and pacing until Calamity once again threatened to land the Sky Bandit and give us all a talking to.

“Wait…” I said slowly. “Are you saying… that the reason the war got so bad… is because zebras couldn’t tell the difference between Princess Luna and Nightmare Moon?”

From a struggle over resources to holy war in ten seconds flat.

“They’re not the same fucking pony!” SteelHooves screamed at Xenith, although more now because he couldn’t scream at the zebras of the past. “We… we weren’t following Nightmare Moon any more than Princess Celestia imprisoned Luna on the fucking moon for a thousand years.” The Steel Ranger was shaking. “They. Are. Not. The. Same!”

Velvet Remedy had come out of the Fluttershy orb and was looking on in confusion. SteelHooves turned to the two of us and barked, “Tell her.”

“They are not the same,” I said firmly. Then took note of the silence beside me. I turned a look towards Velvet Remedy.

“Honestly,” she whispered, “I was never really clear on that myself. I always figured it was some kind of psychotic break.”

“Arrugh!” SteelHooves sounded murderous. Which, considering this was SteelHooves, actually scared me. “Psychotic breaks don’t come with physical transformations!”

I nodded in firm agreement. …Unless you were Pinkie Pie’s hair, I thought, remembering that weird change at the end of her argument with Twilight Sparkle.

SteelHooves visibly shook. His voice changed from an angered yell to a low, even blade. “Then there was never any real chance of diplomacy after that, was there?” I could tell that behind his visor, his eyes were locked on Xenith’s. “The invitation to Shattered Hoof Ridge for peace talks… there were never going to be any peace talks, were there?”

Xenith’s ears flattened. She tried to be reasonable, apparently realizing that this was no longer even an unfriendly argument. “I wasn’t there. Please remember that these were other people, zebras and ponies alike. Not us.”

“Answer the question.”

Xenith looked away. “From the tales I have been told,” she sighed sadly, “Peace was what was hoped, but there could only be peace if Nightmare Moon was removed. Unfortunately, the ponies sent the wrong Princess to Shattered Hoof Ridge.”

The night turned infinitely colder. I waited, my nerves on edge, for what SteelHooves would do.

With a final growl, SteelHooves removed himself to the farthest end of the Sky Bandit and crouched down, pretending to sleep. Which I knew he didn’t, but I thankfully played along.

“Y’all okay back there now?” Calamity called back.

My answer echoed SteelHooves’ answer to Knight Poppyseed.

“No.”

*** *** ***

We picked up the signal near within an hour of setting down at Junction R-7. It wasn’t from Shattered Hoof.

“…mated distress call from Stable-Tec Stable Two. Message begins:”

The mechanized voice gave way to one I had written off ever hearing again. The voice of our Overmare.

“Littlepip, Velvet Remedy, if either of you can hear this… I pray you’re still alive, still out there to hear this. Please, if you… or if any friendly pony can hear this… Stable Two is under attack. We don’t know who they are or where they came from. But they have somehow opened the front door and they are killing everypony inside! I’ve evacuated all the survivors into the Security and Overmare’s wing. But now that we are cut off from the orchard, we are running out of food. The invaders seem content to wait us out. If you can hear this, please save us.”

My blood turned to ice. I analyzed the signal. The broadcast was being piped through the same transmitter that the father of a dying colt had once tapped into from the cistern under the Big Macintosh Memorial. The mechanical voice returned.

Home!

“Message repeats. This is an automated distress call from Stable-Tec Stable Two. Message begins…”

Oh Goddesses…

“C-Calamity, turn now! We have to get to Stable Two! Fast!”

“Uh… Li’lpip? Ah’m ‘bout t’ collapse here. What’s the…”

I pulled out my earbloom and played the message aloud. Within ten words, Calamity was already banking and pulling us onto our new heading.

“No…” SteelHooves whispered. “Damn them, no!”

I swiveled towards my Steel Ranger friend. “No what?” And then I realized what crusade Elder Blueberry Sabre had rushed off to the moment I was out of the way.

“I’m sorry, Littlepip. I did everything I could to make them believe taking Stable Two was a mistake. I have been for decades. But after you two showed up, and they realized there was still a functional Stable down there…”

“This. Was. Your. Mission!?” I strode forward, my glare alone almost strong enough to disintegrate the earth pony ghoul. “Assess if Stable Two could be safely taken?!”

He cringed back from me. “I even tried giving them Stable Twenty-Nine instead.”

I rocked on my hooves, my mind teetering on the edge of a dark chasm as I struggled to remember if, in my own hack of Stable Twenty-Nine’s entrance, I might have left clues that the tech-savvy agents of the Ministry of Wartime Technology could have used to figure their way through my own Stable’s door.

Velvet Remedy wrapped a hoof about me, holding me back. “If the Steel Rangers are assaulting our home,” she said with steel in her voice, “We might need him.”

“Or maybe it’s best we just drop ya off here,” Calamity called back, fixing SteelHooves with an even stare. “Cuz Ah’m headin’ t’ Stable Two, an’ when Ah get there, Ah’m plannin’ t’ kill me a whole lot of Steel Rangers!”


Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Bone-Strengthening Brew – With this perk, your limbs only receive 50% of the damage they normally would. (Note: Bone-Strengthening Brew and the cybernetic implant perk Adamantium Bone Lacing are mutually exclusive.)