Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat


Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Hour of the Wolf

Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Hour of the Wolf

“This… is Steel Rangers level murder here.”

Rage.

Burning, explosive rage. In the moment I realized that the Steel Rangers had invaded my home, were killing the ponies inside, I saw red like I never had before. My nerves were hot, electric. I wanted to strike out. To slaughter the fuckers. To rip them apart from the inside out, and keep stomping until they were nothing but paste under my hooves.

But my enemies, the murderers who were defiling my home, were not here. It would be hours, even at Calamity’s best speed, before we would make it to Stable Two. I wanted to hurt somepony now. My whole body and mind and soul screamed for justice and retribution… and if I couldn’t have that, at least somepony to buck. But the only ponies around were my friends.

So I stood there and raged in silence.

And they were wise enough not to interfere.

*** *** ***

“Do you think I wanted this?” SteelHooves snapped, pacing through the interior of the Sky Bandit. “Stable Two was home to Applejack’s family. If anyone in the Apple family still lives, they live in there…”

“Ah ain’t sayin’ ya wanted this,” Calamity shot back. “An’ Ah ain’t sayin’ ya didn’t do yer darned best t’ stop it. Ah’m jus’ sayin’ yer best weren’t good enough.” The rust-colored pegasus was pouring on the speed despite being at the point of exhaustion. “An’ now it’s muh turn.”

Xenith watched the argument, for once not being the focus of the shouting. She turned to Velvet Remedy, eyes large. “This… is your home? You and the little one? Why do the Steel Rangers attack it?”

Velvet Remedy shook her head. Each blink sent fresh tears down her charcoal cheeks. The wind whipped at her color-streaked white mane. “Resources. Nothing more. All they see is a functional Stable. In the very least, the water talisman is priceless. The apple orchard nearly so.” She closed her eyes, shuddering with a soft sob. “At most, they want it as a base.”

My rage was beginning to ebb, the fire and fury unable to maintain itself without a direction to strike. I could feel numbness, sorrow and horror lurking behind it, ready to overwhelm me once the inferno of anger burnt itself out.

“You can’t just prance in and start killing Rangers,” SteelHooves stomped.

“Ah don’t see why not. Far as Ah can see, they’re nothin’ more’n a gang o’ high-tech raiders preyin’ on the innocent.” Calamity kicked at his battle saddle, changing the ammo. “Ponies like that need t’ die, an’ Ah aim t’ kill ‘em. It’s muh policy.”

SteelHooves turned to Velvet Remedy. “You talk to him.”

“And say what?” Velvet’s voice was hard as steel.

SteelHooves grunted. “That it’s suicide, for a start.” He looked at us. “Do you ponies really think you can take on a few squads’ worth of Knights and Paladins in magical armor?”

The ghoul’s words hit home. The size of this was too much. Who knew how many Steel Rangers were down there, each with weapons and armor and combat experience far in excess of our own. How was I going to save Stable Two? How could I fight that?

I began to remember each and every pony I had grown up with. My teachers, my peers, each pony at my first and only slumber party… I felt myself being crushed under the weight of this responsibility. I couldn’t breathe.

“Y’all gonna be surprised jus’ what we c’n do.”

The armor-encased ghoul rounded on the pegasus. “I’m on your side here.”

“Are you?” I asked, finally breaking my silence.

The others all turned a collective gaze on SteelHooves. The Steel Ranger, the eternally obedient soldier buck, had been backed into a corner. Forced to choose between his loyalty to us and his Oath to them.

If that was all it was, then I knew we would lose. But I had seen into his head, into his memories. SteelHooves’ Oath wasn’t to the Ministry of Wartime Technology. It was to her. Applejack. And when it had come to defending her, there had never been a moral he considered sacred enough to let it stand in his way. If that still held true, then we stood a chance.

SteelHooves didn’t answer. That was not a good sign. But such a decision was hard enough without being further forced. I didn’t dare push him. I needed him. I needed all of them.

“Well, that’s jus’ perfect,” Calamity groused. “C’n ya ‘least promise not t’ shoot us in the back when ya do make up yer mind?”

I wanted to tell the pegasus to shut up. I knew Calamity had a right to say that. And right now, he was the one going beyond the pale just to get us there. But if I had any chance of not letting Stable Two down… not letting every pony I had ever known die… I needed my friends to pull together. We needed to be strong. Instead, I was drowning. And all about me, they were splintering apart under the tension.

Velvet Remedy nickered deprecatingly, “Well, if we’re making promises, maybe Littlepip can promise that, if we win, she won’t adopt any of them?”

I stumbled, feeling sucker-punched even as I was fighting to breathe.

“Oh come on, Littlepip,” Velvet said, rolling her eyes. “It has not passed my notice that you have a habit of collecting ponies (and now zebras) who have nearly killed you.” She shook her mane. “I’ll admit, I sometimes wonder if there isn’t a part of you that is doing it to get back at me.”

“What?!” What the hell?

“Well, aside from just being the one who patches you up every time you get yourself hurt, I’m also the one who is at least a little responsible for you getting trapped out here to begin with,” Velvet pointed out. Her normally beautiful voice sounded frayed.

I could tell this was the return of nasty, bitchy Remedy who dealt with the horrors around her by thinking poorly of her friends. I had really hoped we’d left this Remedy behind. But there she was, buried under the surface, just waiting for enough stress on the fault-lines of Velvet’s personality to set her free.

“Are you sure there isn’t a part of you that isn’t trying to punish me by surrounding us with reminders of all the times you’ve nearly died out here?”

“Whoa nelly!” Calamity looked back. “Is that how ya think o’ me?”

Oh Goddesses. Please, I don’t know if I can do this even with you. I can’t do this without you.

“Stop it! All of you!” I stomped with all hooves, shaking. “We can’t tear apart now. Our home… my home… they need us! What good are we to them if we’re already bleeding to death when we get there?”

“Bits and shrews,” Calamity exclaimed. “Yer right, Li’lpip. Ah’m sorry.”

“As am I,” Velvet Remedy said. The good Velvet was, at least for now, back again. “I… don’t know what came over me. I guess I’m just not dealing with this well.”

“So,” SteelHooves inquired, his voice calm as if the arguments had never happened, “Do you have a plan?”

I felt the wind blow through my coat and mane, ruffling my utility barding under saddlepacks and armor plating. I looked at each of them, suddenly feeling very small. My eyes fell to Velvet. “This… can’t be just my decision. Velvet, this was your home too.” My eyes pleaded with her. Silently, I begged her to help me.

Please, Velvet, please don’t let this be all on me. This is home. These are our ponies. I can’t have whether they live or die be all on me. I just can’t.

Velvet returned my gaze. In her teary eyes, I saw a kindness that told me she understood, and that she would take as much of this burden from me as she could.

Velvet turned to the others. “SteelHooves is right. I doubt we have the firepower to take on the Steel Rangers. And even if we do, we couldn’t hope to without losses. So we look for an avenue of diplomacy first.”

I nodded, weeping thankfully. Suddenly, I could breathe again.

*** *** ***

There was an odd orange glow on the horizon, like an angry dawn was approaching. But the glow was from the wrong direction, and there were many hours before the first hints of daylight. The sun and the moon had gone wild, raising and setting by their own whims, but even those whims seemed to have a clockwork precision.

“What are we looking at?”

“Fires,” Calamity answered. “That out there’s the Everfree Forest. Looks like Red Eye’s got the whole backside ablaze.”

Xenith queried, “Do you think Red Eye’s troops might be near Stable Two?”

“Naw, not a chance,” Calamity answered. “Those fires are over a day away. Wouldn’t make no sense for ‘em t’ be anywhere near Ponyville.”

I leaned against Velvet Remedy, using her soft body for physical support, drinking in the scent of her to calm myself. I was still trembling, trying to steady myself, fighting off waves of alternating rage and bleak sorrow. The stress was winding me up until I felt I would explode. Or shatter.

Velvet Remedy was allowing herself the distraction of staring at the fire-lit cloud cover in the distance. “I remember when I first left Stable Two. The cloud cover had breaks in it. I could see real sunlight. It was the most beautiful, warming thing. More beautiful than anything I had ever experienced in my life. I thought… if there is something as wonderful as this out here, then the Outside can’t be bad.” She chuckled sadly. “Haven’t seen the sun like that again. Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t why this world feels so dark and hopeless.”

I remembered a similar break in the clouds, pouring the soft light of Luna’s moon down upon Monterey Jack and me as we faced off on the Ponyville bridge. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

“Ayep,” Calamity replied, missing the art and soul of Velvet’s comment, “The Everfree Forest don’t work properly. Pegasi have always had a tough time keeping the cloud cover over that place. It’s like the clouds want to move. All on their own. Cloud curtain in the areas right up against it c’n get mighty patchwork-y sometimes.”

SteelHooves was staring in the other direction, his visor gazing out into the darkness. Finally, he admitted with a low rumble, “I don’t understand why Elder Blueberry Sabre is doing this.”

I felt Velvet Remedy had covered that question fairly well earlier.

SteelHooves let out a breath. “This is far outside her territory. Elder Blueberry Sabre is the Elder for the Fillydelphia contingent of the Steel Rangers. Stable Two technically falls under the purview of my Elder and the Manehattan contingent.”

Oh. “They can’t keep Fillydelphia,” I offered, feeling a fresh surge of fury as my thoughts touched on what must be happening every minute now. “Red Eye keeps growing stronger. The Steel Rangers’ position there is stagnant, if not weakening. I think Velvet’s right about them needing a new base.”

The ghoul nodded inside his armor. “Still, it should fall to Elder Cottage Cheese to take Stable Two. For him not to be there would be… a considerable divergence from protocol. And to have two Elders in the same place would be strategically unwise.”

In front, Calamity whinnied, letting all legs hang in the air and sticking out his tongue with an expression of disgust. “Seriously now? Yer commandin’ officer’s name is Cottage Cheese? Did his folks hate ‘im or sumthin’?”

SteelHooves chuckled despite our dark situation. “He does prefer to simply be called Cottage.”

“I like cottage cheese,” I said in a very small voice.

“Hey, maybe yer Cottage Cheese Elder is pullin’ the same thing on Blueberry Sabre that she pulled on Li’lpip,” Calamity suggested. “Sendin’ her inta a situation that he feels is a giant deathtrap. After all, don’t he believe a buncha rubbish ‘bout the Ministry o’ Awesome havin’ black ops Stables and nonsense like that?”

“Well, maybe not complete nonsense,” I muttered under my breath.

“Whatcha mean by that, Li’lpip?” Crap. Calamity heard me.

“Well, I mean that I saw Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie setting up Zecora to be a double agent for Equestria. Rainbow Dash said Zecora trained under the Ministry of Awesome’s best trainers… which made it sound like MAw did that sort of thing a lot.”

I was met by stunned silence. From everyone. Except Pyrelight, who cooed curiously at Velvet.

I had been slightly worried that mentioning I had a memory orb of Rainbow Dash might lead to Calamity demanding a recollector. I didn’t want my Dashite friend losing himself in the orb the way Velvet often did with the Fluttershy orb.

“Zecora” Xenith asked, her exotic voice slow and cautious. “Do you mean Zecora of Zecora’s Hut in the Everfree Forest?”

Whoops. “Um…. Yes. Turns out she was a friend of the Ministry Mares. And chose to…” Was it really a good idea to tell Xenith that Zecora had gone undercover to betray the zebras?

“Zecora was a traitor!” SteelHooves growled dangerously. “She was selling weapons technology to the zebras.” He took a step towards me. “She tried to give them the damn gun that would punch through Steel Ranger armor!”

oh boy… “Uh, no. Not really. That was part of her… cover?”

“No. That is not true,” SteelHooves insisted adamantly.

“Fluttershy knew a zebra?” Velvet Remedy’s voice asked. At least that revelation, thank the Goddesses, probably didn’t lead down dangerous paths.

“Uh, Li’lpip… maybe ya oughta be explainin’ some o’ these memory orbs y’all been lookin’ at?”

I groaned. Even staying away from personal memories, like SteelHooves’ memory orbs, or dangerous ones like anything involving Fluttershy and the damn megaspells, this would take a while. But part of me was thankful for the distraction. We still had a few hours to go.

*** *** ***

“Burnin’ hoof means what!?”

“That’s what she said!” I was still as overwhelmed by that as when I lived it.

“I’m still wrapping my mind around Fluttershy hitting on Applejack,” Velvet chuckled with amusement. “Even if it was for a good cause.” Her eyes twinkled as she looked at me. I hung my head. I had some torment coming my way after the barn door slip-up, and I suddenly felt sure Velvet Remedy was drawing a whole new level of inspiration from the yellow pegasus.

As if to confirm my suspicion, Xenith leaned close and intoned, “You’re doomed.”

SteelHooves had remained abnormally silent, even for the taciturn ghoul, ever since I explained that first memory. At first, I thought that the revelation about Zecora had affected him, or perhaps the confirmation of his theories about the Ministry of Awesome. With time, I grew to suspect that neither was the case. Rather, I suspected that while we were distracting ourselves from the conflict that awaited us at Stable Two, SteelHooves was plunged deep into his own internal turmoil, and was working through it as best he could before the moment of choice arrived. In a way, he was stronger than we were. Or, at least, than I was.

The sound of rapid-fire pops floated up to us on the wind.

We were approaching Ponyville. Sweet Apple Acres was still a good bit away; but in the stillness of the wasteland, the night air carried the sounds of battle great distances.

Velvet Remedy whimpered. “That’s a lot of gunfire.”

“Grenade machine guns,” SteelHooves noted. “Like mine. Several of them.”

I felt myself trembling as my imagination insisted on conjuring images of what might be happening. They wouldn’t be using that sort of weaponry inside the Stable, would they? And, if not, what were they doing? Suddenly, I pictured all the ponies of Stable Two marched out into the nearest field of poisoned apple trees, lined up… and fired upon with grenades just for the cruel pleasure of seeing their bodies torn violently apart.

I let out a low moan, tears in my eyes. I tried to banish the image. Surely, even these monsters wouldn’t be so vicious, so cruel. These were SteelHooves’ brethren, not raiders, right?

“Monsters!” Velvet Remedy hissed next to me.

“Ah think yer right,” Calamity agreed, making me cringe. Please no. This can’t be what I’m thinking. It just can’t!

“Red Eye’s fires are drivin’ a whole mess o’ things towards Ponyville. Sounds t’ me like a few ‘ave wandered their way up t’ Sweet Apple Acres.”

*** *** ***

It was the deepest part of the night. There was a name for it that I couldn’t remember -- that mystical black hour where all is darkest and you can’t sleep, when the weight of all your sorrows and bad decisions come weighing on you most heavily, and when the monsters scratch just outside your door.

Velvet Remedy got up and started rummaging through the supplies we had stored in the back of the Sky Bandit -- all those things we were keeping for trade, or had intended to stash back at Junction R-7, but didn’t want to burden our saddlebags with. Including every weapon Calamity had been able to strip from the ponies Stern had brought with her to attack my friends at the Fillydelphia Tower.

I began to reload my weapons. My choices were limited. Little Macintosh was powerful enough to possibly punch through a Steel Ranger’s armor if I could hit a weak spot, and I had a single clip of armor-piercing bullets for my sniper rifle. Only my zebra rifle had sufficient armor-piercing rounds, thanks both to the convoy Calamity and I had looted outside of Fillydelphia and some additional ammo he had liberated from Stern’s slavers.

I floated the zebra rifle in front of me, looking at it. My rage was beginning to boil again, pushing away the numbing pain. For once tonight, I put up a wall against it, trying to remain at least partially rational, not let this overwhelm me. Did I really want to use the zebra rifle against the Steel Rangers? On one hoof, these were my enemies and they deserved what they were going to get. And the rifle was the best weapon I had for putting a mess of them down. But the zebra rifle’s enchantment… the bullets would do more than just punch through the armor. I’d seen what happens to a pony who is set on fire inside a suit of armor, and the memory still horrified me. Was I really ready to go Spike on these ponies?

“What is that you are wearing?” Xenith gasped.

Velvet Remedy responded gracefully, “We are going into battle against truly dangerous opponents. How foolish would I be to not go in wearing armor? And this is the best armor I possess.”

Velvet Remedy was wearing the zebra legionnaire armor.

“Unless, of course, you wished to wear it,” Velvet said kindly. “I think you have more claim to it than I do.”

Xenith considered that a moment, glancing towards SteelHooves. “No. Equestria is my home.”

“Oh horseapples,” Calamity muttered to himself, wincing. Then, speaking up, “uh… Velvet? Li’lpip? Ah’ve got a request. An’ feel free t’ say no. Ah know it’s askin’ a lot Ah have no right t’ ask.” He paused a moment, then pushed forward. “But if we’re gearin’ up for a big fight, then Ah’ve got some stuff stashed not far from here that might help. Only add ‘bout fifteen minutes t’ our flight, Ah promise. But that’s fifteen minutes them Rangers could be killin’ yer kin.”

I was already feeling each second drop away with blood. Fifteen minutes more, when we’d already taken so long… I couldn’t bear the thought. “No,” I said firmly. “We can’t give them a minute more, much less fifteen.” I took a deep breath, “But if you think it will help, then drop us off at the Stable door and go. You can meet us back…”

“No,” Velvet interrupted. “Splitting up is a bad idea. I don’t want Calamity wandering the Stable alone trying to find us. We all go in together.” She was right. My suggestion was a bad one.

“Calamity, go ahead,” she continued. “We’ve taken hours to get here. If fifteen minutes more is going to make that much difference, we’ve already lost. I know you wouldn’t even bring this up if you didn’t really think it would help. And anything that helps us get through this alive is worth fifteen minutes.”

Calamity extended his wings, changing course.

Sweet Apple Acres was now looming into view -- the rolling hills of feeble trees bearing poisoned fruit, the old barn still standing, surprisingly intact.

You won’t be able to use the barn until next spring.

I suddenly imagined that Apple Bloom had torn the original barn down while they excavated for Stable Two. Then rebuilt it afterwards. When Stable-Tec builds something, they build it to last.

I could see sparkling lights in the air, like part of the night sky had descended through the clouds and landed in the middle of the farm. A swarm of evil stars. The pin-point lights of muzzle flashes danced across the ground all around it.

Xenith drew a sharp breath. “No!”

“What is it?”

The zebra’s eyes were wide with horror. “Star-spawn!”

What the Steel Rangers fought was a horror out of zebra legends -- a creature from beyond the moon, unleashed upon the world eons ago as a ‘gift’ from the stars.

The creature was massive and completely invisible save for the surging, living constellations of light that seemed to float around and inside of it. I brought up my Eyes-Forward Sparkle, but while the compass burst with lights for the ponies on the ground, most of which were a hostile red, my PipBuck couldn’t lock onto the entity they were fighting at all. As far as it was concerned, nothing was there.

Gunfire from the embattled Steel Rangers poured into thin air, and the starry air attacked back, crushing them or sending them flying. Rockets exploded, bathing parts of the creature in fire long enough to get glimpses of its shape – I felt only mildly reassured that its structure seemed at least vaguely pony-like, with a head, body and four legs. An eldritch roar blasted across the cloud-shrouded heavens. It sounded like the cosmos screaming in rage.

My first instinct was to try to help. I wanted to run to their aid. It actually took a moment for me to remember that the ponies down there were our enemies. But not all of them, at least according to my E.F.S., and wasn’t that enough?

“We’ve got to help them,” SteelHooves insisted, voicing my own thoughts. “You wanted diplomacy? This would be the first step.”

“You cannot hope to fight a Star-spawn!” Xenith gasped. “What manner of fool are you? All you can hope do is run and hide.”

“Have you met us?” SteelHooves asked. And with those words, I knew he had made his choice.

Detour abandoned, Calamity winged towards the barn and flew us into the storm.

*** *** ***

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

SteelHooves stood on top of the Sky Bandit, his grenade machine-gun tearing at the virtually invisible monster as Calamity circled us around again. The pegasus buck was doing his best to get us as close as possible while keeping us outside the Star-spawn’s striking range -- not an easy trick being unable to properly see the creature.

The Steel Rangers on the ground had been nearly decimated. There were at least a dozen corpses in crushed and mangled armor. Nowhere near the forces that SteelHooves estimated had been sent to take the Stable. I could make out three remaining from the dim light of their E.F.S. visors and the brilliant flashes from their weapons. One fired off a pair of missiles. They exploded against the transparent hide of the monster.

The Star-spawn retaliated, an unseen appendage connecting with the armored knight with a sickening crunch.

The pony flew through the air towards us. “Yeeeow!” Calamity cried, dodging. I could see the pony was dead as it arced past us, internal organs pulverized inside gruesomely dented armor.

Pyrelight shot out past us, strafing the creature with balefire, washing part of its back with flames that quickly died away.

I focused, trying to wrap the entire entity in a magical field. I had no intention of moving it, but as the magical aura spread around it, the creature became clearly outlined. It was far bigger than I thought. But at least now we could properly dodge the alien behemoth.

Velvet Remedy cast her anesthetic spell at the cosmic beast. Her magic hit it square in the head. The creature stumbled, fazed for only a few seconds, then let out another unearthy roar.

“Dang it, she’s just too big! We ain’t doin’ more’n bee stings t’ her!”

“I told you,” Xenith warned, cringing. “You can’t slay a Star-spawn. You best be thankful this one is but a baby. A full-grown one would have devoured all of Ponyville without even noticing.”

“That’s just a baby?” I asked in shock as the monster stepped backward, colliding through the barn. The last building standing on Sweet Apple Acres, the barn which had weathered apocalypse and two-hundred years of the wasteland, came crashing down. I felt a pang as I watched the barn I’d witness Applejack and her friends together in during sunnier, happier times be obliterated by the uncaring misstep of the Star-spawn.

“Littlepip, keep that glow up!” SteelHooves ordered as my telekinetic field began to slip. “Calamity, bring us around in front of the thing and hover. Velvet, have that spell ready again when I say.”

“Ah sure hope ya know what yer doin’,” Calamity said as he brought the Sky Bandit directly in front of the monster’s snout.

“Now, Velvet.”

Velvet Remedy focused, unleashing a small bolt of magic that splashed against the head of the creature. Again, for just a moment, it was stunned by the same magic that would completely paralyze a hellhound for nearly an hour.

A streak of smoke shot out from the top of the Sky Bandit above me as SteelHooves fired off a single rocket. I watched as the missile shot through the glow of my magic and beyond where the hide of the creature should be, lodging inside the monster’s transparent, star-moted head.

The Star-spawn let out a howl that tore us from the sky. Calamity fought to regain control before we smashed into the poisoned orchard below. A moment later, the missile detonated, it’s explosion accompanied by a gut-wrenching, wet, splorchy sound.

We hit the ground seconds before the Star-spawn’s body did. I bounced around inside, banging heavily against the benches and metal walls, bursts of pain blossoming throughout my body. The sky bandit rolled, crashing through several trees before coming to a stop. Calamity hung limp from the harness. Velvet Remedy lay amongst the scattered supplies, moaning. I could not see where SteelHooves had been thrown to. Or Xenith.

My PipBuck was clicking madly. I felt the warm stickiness matting my mane. I reached up with a hoof. My lightest touch brought dizzying pain and shooting lights. And then darkness.

*** *** ***

The bright spotlight from SteelHooves’ helmet found me.

Xenith trotted beside him, looking annoyingly unhurt. She had, I would learn, jumped out a window as we crashed, landing in a controlled roll that left her unmangled save for her mane.

“Is… everypony okay?” I asked weakly.

“Never better,” SteelHooves said. The way my PipBuck was clicking, he may have been telling the truth.

“You flew through a tree,” Xenith countered. “Your back should be broken.”

“Hard to keep down a Canterlot ghoul,” SteelHooves replied. I got the feeling he enjoyed the way she gasped in near horror, stepping quickly away from him.

“That’s us,” I smiled weakly. “Full of surprises.” I looked to SteelHooves, “How did you kill the Star-spawn? That was amazing!”

“I’d seen an Ursa once before, back in the war,” SteelHooves replied. “From your outline, looked like the monsters they turned into weren’t too physically different. Just a bit nastier and a lot harder to see. So I fired where an Ursa’s eye socket ought to have been and hoped for the best.”

Calamity had come to with a weary groan. Finding himself hanging upside down in the Sky Bandit’s harness, he waved his forelegs, as if hoping to flip the entire passenger wagon back over. It wasn’t going to work.

“Here, let me help,” I called out and magically unhooked the harness. Calamity fell onto his back with a thump.

“Oof!”

Velvet Remedy hobbled out of the passenger wagon, dragging our medical supplies with her. I realized that we had probably scattered our belongings across a hundred yards of irradiated cropland. But that would be a task for morning. First we had to get through the night. At least I hadn’t lost my weapons.

“Everypony (and zebra) gather around,” Velvet said politely, dropping her saddleboxes to the ground. “Your medical pony is going to patch you all up before we proceed further, while simultaneously managing to not take it as a bad omen that she’s having to heal your wounds before you even get inside the Stable door.”

“Hold up right there, ponies!” a voice ordered from the darkness. Two helmet spotlights pinned the group of us.

The two Steel Rangers who had survived the Star-spawn battle were moving towards us, weapons pointed, the light from their E.F.S. visors letting me know they had their targeting spells locked onto us.

“Oh wow,” came a sweet mare’s voice from the second suit. “Look, it’s Elder SteelHooves.”

Star Paladin SteelHooves,” the other corrected swiftly. “And keep your weapon locked on him, Knight Strawberry Lemonade.” That one turned to face our ghoul companion. “We have specific orders to send you on your way. You will not interfere with this operation.”

“That was awesome, SteelHooves, sir!” the younger knight gushed, turning off her E.F.S. “How’d you kill that thing?”

“Knight Lemonade!” The older Steel Ranger turned with a growl. “You will bring your E.F.S. back up and lock it onto your targets.”

“Do you even realize which Stable you are attacking?” SteelHooves asked evenly. “This is Stable Two, the Stable built to preserve the Apple family and the ponies of Ponyville. This is the Apple family’s farm. That barn had been the barn that the Mare of the Ministry of Wartime Technology, Applejack herself, had grown up in. That Stable holds her kin. You are attacking the family of the Ministry Mare of Wartime Technology. It is you who should leave. In utter shame.”

“We have our orders. As do you.”

“You are not my commanding officer, Paladin. Nor is Elder Blueberry Sabre.” SteelHooves stood his ground. “And even if you were, these orders are wrong. This operation is a disgrace. And any pony involved in it does not deserve the title of Steel Ranger.”

“The orders I’m giving you come from Elder Cottage Cheese himself. You are to leave at once, and take your tribal friends with you.” The paladin turned to the knight once. “And you, bring up your Eyes-Forward Sparkle and lock on target. That is an order.”

“Sir?” Knight Strawberry Lemonade faltered, “Eld… Star Paladin SteelHooves is right. This operation is wrong.”

The paladin turned to face the knight, a back-mounted light machine gun swiveling to lock on her now. “You will bring up your Sparkle and lock on target or you will be facing a court marshal for disloyalty before the sun next sets!” the paladin growled. “Do I make my-“

Blam!

The paladin fell, twin bullet holes forming black zeroes on his armored helmet.

Knight Strawberry Lemonade backed up in shock. The rest of us turned to Calamity.

“What? Ah gave diplomacy a chance. He obviously wasn’t ‘bout t’ join the good guys.”

*** *** ***

Velvet Remedy’s horn glowed softly as she did her best to heal the gash on the back of my head without binding my whole face with bandages. Fortunately, she said it looked and felt far worse than it actually was.

“Elder Cottage Cheese is dying,” Knight Strawberry Lemonade said, filling SteelHooves in as best she could. “I mean, I know he’s been dying forever. But just this last month, not even the medical bed seems to be helping anymore. He’s focused on taking Stable Twenty-Nine before he dies. That’s where he is, with Star Paladin Crossroads. He invited Elder Blueberry Sabre to lead the acquisition of Stable Two, along with Star Paladin Nova Rage.”

“Of course he did,” SteelHooves commented. “Star Paladin Crossroads had pushed for me to become an Elder. She has the same sentiments that I do. Cottage must have known there was no way Cross would agree to the taking of Stable Two.” He stomped. “Star Paladin Nova Rage, on the other hoof, is a M.W.T. traditionalist just like Elder Blueberry Sabre.”

Calamity wiggled his left wing. It had suffered injury in the crash and now Velvet had it mummified in bandages. “Reckon this Cottage feller wants the Crusader in Stable Twenty-Nine? Live forever inside a machine?”

“But that’s insane,” I asserted. “The Crusader can take an imprint, a copy of a pony’s mind, but it’s not like the pony actually becomes part of the machine. Cottage Cheese would still be just as dead when he died.”

“Unless,” Velvet Remedy suggested, “He thought he could really put himself into it, mind and soul.” It took me a moment to realize what she was thinking: a soul jar. Blackwing’s Talon group had been hunting for information on The Black Book for somepony. Now I suspected I knew who. If a soul jar could be made out of anything, why not a Crusader? I suddenly imagined the Elder who ordered the attack on my home living forever in an indestructible computer. There was no way I could let that happen! He didn’t get eternal life as a reward for this murder.

SteelHooves continued to speak to Knight Strawberry Lemonade. In the end, she told him, “Look, I believe you’re right. And I’m willing to stand aside. But I can’t follow you in. I can’t attack other Rangers.” Her visor turned towards Calamity, “Or cooperate with tribals who do.”

SteelHooves nodded, putting an armored hoof on her shoulder. “I respect your decision. You are doing the right thing.”

He turned to us. “Are we ready?”

I stood, floating the zebra rifle to my right and Little Macintosh to my left. From what the knight had told us, Elder Blueberry Sabre had left a fifth of their force guarding the way in, a precaution against us as much as the horrors slowly emptying into Ponyville from the Everfree Forest. Truth was, I was not ready. But every moment we spent talking and healing was one more for the four dozen Steel Rangers inside to tear their way into the Security and Overmare’s wing and slaughter everypony they hadn’t killed in their initial strike. They couldn’t wait for me to be ready.

“We go.”

*** *** ***

Calamity brought up the rear. His sharpshooting would be critical should we be flanked. I kept glancing back at him, watching his reactions as we passed through the tunnel beyond the apple cellar. It was not like the sanitized little tour he had seen in Stable-Tec Headquarters.

“This is Velvet Remedy’s home,” he muttered. “Li’lpip’s home.” I’m pretty sure he didn’t know I could hear him. Before the Pinkie Pie statuette, I probably wouldn’t have been able to.

“Ah gotta be strong fer them. Not go crazy. Ah can’t jus’ charge in an’ kill every armored bitch Ah see. Ah need t’ be strong. Need t’ watch fer them. Need t’ protect ‘em. Ah c’n do this.”

The skeletons which littered the floor had been crushed and broken, trampled by an army of metal hooves. I felt a twisted sickness welling up within the reservoir of rage that was filling my head. Nopony knew who they were, but they deserved better than this. I felt part of my anger turn in on myself. Why had I not returned to bury them? They died at the door to my Stable.

But then, the Equestrian Wasteland was filled with skeletons. I hadn’t treated any of the others any better. Not even the skeletons of Apple Bloom or Pinkie Pie. But at least I hadn’t defiled them. I hadn’t smashed them under hoof without even caring.

The door to Stable Two was wide open.

Velvet Remedy and SteelHooves were our diplomats, so they were in the lead. I wanted our Steel Ranger to have a shot at wooing any other Rangers before we had to shoot. So Velvet was the first to step back into the place that had once been our home. She stopped with a painful gasp. I galloped up to meet her.

The entrance room was as grey as the maintenance areas of Stable Two had always been, but now there was a cacophony of color splashed all over it. The pretty colors of pastel-coated ponies lay in pools and sprays of darkening crimson.

The Overmare had sent half a dozen ponies to greet whomever was coming in. Only two of them, Stable security guards, were armed. The others had come bearing only hopes of friendship. Scattered near the open muzzle of a magenta-coated young mare was a bouquet of flowers, a welcoming gift. The white flower petals were stained red. And the Steel Rangers had gunned them down.

The pony in my head stood teetering on the edge of a great, dark spiral. A bath covered with bones that lead forever downward into blackness. The currents of my rage pulled her towards it, a tidal force of crimson pouring into the abyss.

I pulled her back, and my rage shattered. The horror and sorrow and hurt that had been building just behind flooded in. I collapsed to my knees, sobbing openly.

“That’s it,” I heard Calamity say. He sounded so very far away. “Fuck diplomacy. Any pony who was part o’ this, who even stood by an’ watched, is a dead pony.”

I realized I recognized the yellow-coated mare who lay disembowled in the corner… but I couldn’t’ remember when I had met her. Or what her name was. And that made it so much worse. Why couldn’t I remember her name? She deserved to have her name remembered. She deserved to be alive!

Velvet Remedy, her own face wet with tears, trotted up and wrapped her forelegs about me, pulling me into an embrace as I heaved and sputtered and wept wretchedly against her armor and coat.

“Littlepip has been strong long enough,” I heard her say. “This is my home too. I’ll take it from here.”

*** *** ***

Calamity, Xenith and I formed our stealth team. As soon as I could quiet myself and move again, Velvet Remedy sent the three of us ahead. We were no longer looking to negotiate unless they offered the white flag first. Instead, we would strike first, fast, and with finality.

The first Steel Ranger whom I pumped full of bullets from the zebra rifle died in agony, screaming as his internal organs burst into flame, cooking him from the inside out. I didn’t feel any remorse. No sympathy. Nor did I feel glee or even a grim satisfaction. My emotional deluge had left me fiercely numb and focused. The act was necessary and right, and beyond that had no more emotional impact than brushing my teeth.

I no longer felt even a twinge of revulsion for what Spike had done defending his own home.

We passed more dead ponies in every hallway. The Steel Ranger’s attack had been brutal. But there were not nearly the number of dead that I would have expected. The friendship committee had been a well-calculated play on the Overmare’s part. And when the Steel Rangers showed their true intentions right there in the entrance, they gave her enough forewarning for a rushed evacuation into the Security and Overmare’s wing.

I both loved and hated her for that.

So far, the Maintenance wing had been hit the worst. The Steel Rangers had moved to secure it first, probably to prevent anypony from sabotaging the technology they were most interested in. The ponies down there had no time to get out before the Rangers had cut them off.

I turned the familiar corner and found myself face-to-face with the PipBuck Technician’s stall. A fresh surge of emotion hit me as I saw the black scorchmarks on the walls I had once cleaned. A red trail of blood ran along one wall, dipping at the end until it met the corpse of my mentor. If I ignored the missing leg, I could almost pretend that he was asleep on the job again.

This was not the mural I had once hoped for.

I was crying once more, my vision blurring, making the lights of my E.F.S. swim.

The door into my mentor’s office lay open. There was movement inside. A red splotch on my compass. I waved the others back and started to creep forward.

The Steel Ranger never saw me coming. I floated Little Macintosh up right behind her head, just to the left of the fins.

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!

I unloaded the full cylinder into her brain. She was probably dead after the first, but I didn’t care.

I turned to walk out and froze as I spotted my mentor’s hammock. There was an empty Sparkle~Cola bottle and a maintenance book (TLC Squared: “Tender Loving Care for Totally Lost Causes”) laying on the floor beneath it. I remembered how my mentor would skim that book while talking in a direction vaguely connected to where I was sitting in rapt attention. Shedding tears of painful nostalgia, I floated the book into one of my saddlebags.

I heard the distinct sound of Calamity’s battle saddle. A moment later, Xenith and Calamity dove into the PipBuck Technician’s stall. The hallway outside erupted in flame.

“Little Macintosh ain’t stealthy, Li’lpip!”

Xenith pulled a jar out of the small saddlebag she’d been using to carry her herbs and mixtures. She tossed it to the floor, where it shattered, spreading a licorice-scented goop. The zebra clopped her forehooves in the goop, then her hindhooves.

The rush of flames down the hallway stopped. A moment later, a grenade bounced into the room. I grabbed it with a telekinetic shroud and floated it back out the way it came. I heard a shout of alarm just before the explosion.

“Dammit. I hate unicorns!” the Steel Ranger said, letting us know he had survived largely unscathed.

I turned to Calamity and… where was Xenith? I looked around. Then up. She was crawling along the ceiling, the goop on her hooves providing a magical adhesion similar to the spell that the slavers on the train had used against us weeks ago.

She crept up to the doorway of the stall and peeked out, looking both ways before slipping back and mouthing “two”. With small nods of her head, she indicated where, giving Calamity the same information my E.F.S. was giving me. I reloaded Little Macintosh.

Then she snuck out, keeping flat to the ceiling, silent as a ghost. Calamity waited until the moment she dropped onto one of the Steel Rangers, then rolled out, facing the other and fired a single double-shot.

I charged out, swinging Little Macintosh around as I kicked on my targeting spell. But Xenith had already crippled the other pony, her hoofstrikes resonating through armor to pulverize internal organs. I let my jaw drop a little as she finished him off.

Fallen Caesar Style scared the crap out of me.

*** *** ***

As we swept further into Maintenance, we started seeing glowing piles of green residue or pink ash -- all that remained of ponies killed with magical energy weapons – scattered amongst the massacred ponies of Stable Two. Calamity found that disturbing.

My E.F.S. told me there were four Steel Rangers around the next corner, near the door to the generator room. I relayed this to the others.

“Ah’ll take ‘em,” Calamity said, starting to move forward, but I put a hoof on his shoulder and shook my head. Calamity frowned. He didn’t want to back off, but he did so anyway. The pegasus and the zebra held position as I galloped silently back to where Velvet Remedy and SteelHooves were waiting.

A moment later, SteelHooves trotted past Xenith and Calamity, and rounded the corner. His missile rack was open, his weapons primed.

“I am Star Paladin SteelHooves. I am declaring an end to this travesty of an operation. We do not assault the Stable of the Mare of our own Ministry. And we do not slaughter innocents when She was dedicated to protecting ponies.” His voice rumbled with command. “You have two options. Side with me and stand by your Oath to the principles of our Ministry’s Mare, or side with Elder Blueberry Sabre and Star Paladin Nova Rage and be gunned down.”

“Then you admit you’re a traitor!” one of them called back. “You stand down, and submit to arrest.”

Wrong answer. SteelHooves fired everything he had into the hallway, which was torn apart in a blaze of light, heat and shrapnel.

“I don’t think I’m going to be able to wear this armor anymore,” he said, stepping back around to where we were waiting, his armor smoking and peppered with red-hot shrapnel. “Which is a problem, since I cannot take it off.”

“Honestly,” Calamity said with a grin, “Ya ain’t never looked finer.”

*** *** ***

Xenith slipped through the back door of the Stable Two Saloon. I followed close behind, getting a surprisingly pleasant eyeful of the zebra mare’s hindquarters. I found myself cursing the slavers who had scarred it so.

The back of the Saloon was a darkened kitchen. Well, darkened until Pyrelight flew in and landed on one of the pots sitting on a stove. The balefire phoenix had almost returned to normal, but was still shedding off enough energy to glow like a torch.

Mr. and Mrs. Sparkle Cider were dumped in a far corner, their bodies bleeding into each other. Mr. Sparkle Cider had always given me free ice cream when I was younger. (Well, until he caught me lockpicking his wine cabinet.) His wife had been one of my mother’s friends.

Mrs. Sparkle Cider’s hindhoof was caught on the door of the walk-in freezer, propping it open. All the ice cream inside was slowly melting, swirling in pools with the sherbet on the floor.

I felt an uncontrollable rage sweep over the numbness. My heart was pounding in my breast.

“It’s clear,” Xenith whispered, looking out into the Saloon itself. I passed the message back.

A minute later, I crouched in position at the door, loading the last of my bullets for Little Macintosh. The magical bullets. Calamity and Xenith remained in the kitchen, taking their turn as rear guard.

SteelHooves stood in the Saloon, looking out-of-place amongst the rich pseudo-wood décor. Velvet Remedy however moved with purpose, almost gliding up to the raised stage, the magic of her horn playing against the terminal and soundboards. Velvet Remedy had a plan. A moment later, she strode to the edge of the stage, looking down at SteelHooves.

My mind flashed back to sneaking into the Saloon, an underaged blankflank, hiding in the back of the crowd and watching as nearly adult Velvet Remedy performed. Her music moved my soul, and often it was agony not to dance.

“Ready,” she said and her horn flared.

“Attention, Steel Rangers,” SteelHooves began. His voice boomed throughout all of Stable Two. Velvet Remedy had commandeered the public address system.

“This is SteelHooves, founding member and eldest living of the Steel Rangers. Star Paladin of the Manehattan Contingent. I call on you to stop and consider your Oath. Consider where you are and what you are doing. Do your loyalties lie with Applejack, the Mare of the Ministry of Wartime Technology, the creator of the Steel Ranger armor and the mare who by Her own hooves, the sweat of Her brow and the honesty of Her heart forged the Steel Rangers? Or is your oath to the fearful, greedy ponies who abandon all that She stood for, turning us into little more than technology raiders, hoarding toys from the past because they have forgotten that it is virtue, not trinkets, that make a pony great? Ponies who now turn their eyes on Applejack’s own home, commanding that you slaughter Her family for their greed? These orders, this operation, would be an abomination in the eyes of our Ministry’s Mare!

“Applejack was put in charge of the Ministry of Wartime Technology because She was the Bearer of one of the Elements of Harmony, and the ruler of Equestria recognized the caliber of that. Do you think it was the Virtue in Her soul or the jewelry on Her neck that made Applejack a Bearer?

“Today, you must choose with whom your Oath lies. Surrender this ignominious goal and join by my side, reaffirming your Oath to the protection of the citizens of Equestria, just as Applejack dedicated Her life to. Or continue in this disgraceful act and face the wrath of those of us who choose to stand true!”

*** *** ***

The glow around Velvet Remedy’s horn faded. SteelHooves looked up at her. “Well… how was that?” She smiled brightly in response.

Three Steel Rangers charged into the Saloon, battle saddles filling the room with flames and machinegun fire. SteelHooves fell in the first volley.

I stared at the Steel Ranger, collapsed in spreading pool of the ichor that ghouls called blood.

I slid into S.A.T.S. and fired the last of Little Macintosh’s rounds into them, felling one and crippling the second. I dropped Applejack’s gun and swung about the zebra rifle as three more poured in. Behind me, I could hear the explosive blast of Spitfire’s Thunder as Calamity decapitated the first Steel Ranger to try to get in through the back.

One of the five remaining Steel Rangers fired a pair of missiles up at Velvet Remedy. The unicorn singer threw up her shield as the rockets detonated against the underside of the stage, spraying the air with jagged chunks of pseudo-wood.

Another turned towards me, leveling what looked like an anti-material rifle at my head.

“No!” bellowed Velvet Remedy, her horn glowing and her voice magnified. “This is my stage!”

The room blazed with light conjured from Velvet Remedy’s horn as she made herself the center of attention. The Steel Ranger in front of me sidestepped as Velvet Remedy’s lightshow blinded her. The distraction gave me enough time to fire a burst from the zebra rifle, one bullet tearing through the visor of my opponent.

One of the Steel Rangers responded to Velvet with a roar from her twin miniguns. Velvet’s shield held. I fired three more armor-piercing shots from the zebra rifle into the minigunner’s head, seeing the flash of fire through the bullet holes. I could smell the pony’s brain roasting.

Velvet whipped out her combat shotgun, firing it at the invaders, but their armor proved more than sufficient. It did not, however, protect them from her anesthetic spell. The Steel Ranger I had crippled went down.

Another Steel Ranger fired up at her with a back-mounted sniper rifle. The bullet tore through her shield and armor. I saw the look of shock and hurt in her eyes.

Pyrelight swooped in for the kill, blasting the downed ranger and the two still standing with radioactive flame. Their suits protected them against that as well, but the flames obscured their vision. I slid in and out of S.A.T.S., spraying each Steel Ranger until I was out of armor-piercing ammo.

Spitfire’s Thunder sounded again. A moment later, Calamity and Xenith galloped into the room, knocking me over.

I realized I could smell gas.

Somewhere deep in the Stable, I heard a deep explosion that didn’t sound like firearm or grenade. Alarm shot up my spine as I wondered if the Steel Rangers had managed to blow the security doors that the bulk of my home’s population was hiding behind.

Xenith turned, grabbed me in her mouth and pulled me from the doorway.

WRRRRRRRRHHHHHHOSSSSH!!

The kitchen erupted, an inferno pouring out into the Saloon and setting fire to many of the pseudo-wood tables and chairs.

“Not one word ‘bout muh name,” Calamity panted, looking at Xenith. Then he saw SteelHooves and froze. A moment later, “Where’s Velvet?”

I pointed upwards at the stage. I could see her fallen form. In the eerie silence that followed the battle, I could make out the sound of drops of blood falling from the stage to the floor below.

Blop. Blop. Blop.

“No.” he whispered. His wings propelled him up to the stage far faster than either Xenith or I could have made it by hoof. The orange-maned pegasus landed and pulled Velvet Remedy into an embrace with a gasp.

“ow” whispered Velvet.

“Shush now, ya silly pony,” Calamity said, holding her. “Ya dun got yerself shot. But ya gonna be right as rain, soon ‘nuff. We got ourselves the best medical pony in alla the Equestrian Wasteland.”

I started up the stage stairs towards them. Xenith was right behind me.

“ow!” Velvet said again. Then added, “Who’s a silly pony?”

“Ya is, Velvet Remedy,” Calamity insisted gently, “Ya beautiful, wonderful mare. Now shush it.”

I reached the stage just in time.

I don’t know what Velvet had started to say, but this time Calamity cut her off with a kiss.

“Aww,” Xenith whispered in my ear. “I’ve been waiting to see those two do that since I first met them.”

I was stunned at first. But then I realized that the little pony in my head wasn’t feeling the slightest bit envious or jealous. She wasn’t happy exactly, but that had more to do with the situation we were in and the fact that Velvet Remedy was bleeding all over Calamity from a bullet wound.

The air filled with an odd, unholy sound from down below. A chill filled the air.

SteelHooves stood back up.

My jaw hit the floor. I had sorely underestimated what it meant to be a Canterlot ghoul.

I didn’t have time to marvel. “Oh fuck!” I moaned as two Steel Rangers took up positions outside, aiming grenade machineguns at the front windows of the Saloon. “Everypony, we’ve got to go!”

*** *** ***

The Steel Ranger mare stepped through the door on the far end of the bathroom and opened up with a grenade machinegun of her own, blowing up the stalls and toilets between me an her. Heat washed over me, searing my lungs. Shrapnel cut at my armor and flesh, leaving me bleeding from dozens of small wounds. Outside, Calamity and Xenith crouched behind a row of lockers which I had floated into a barricade. We were getting close to the school where I had once taken my Cutie Aptitude Test, and the place was swarming with Steel Rangers.

I was out of ammo for Little Macintosh, and was actually beginning to fear for the zebra rifle.

We had been lucky taking them on one or two at a time, the element of surprise on our side. But now they were alert and moving against us in force. Only the narrow hallways prevented us from being surrounded or utterly overwhelmed.

A missile flew over the lockers, exploding against the wall behind Xenith and Calamity, the explosion blew them both hard into the barricade. Calamity rose up, dazed and bleeding. Xenith didn’t get up at all.

“SteelHooves, Velvet!” I cried out. “We need your help!” The two of them were guarding our rear, Velvet considerably worse for wear even after downing both of our remaining extra-strength restoration potions. She needed to stay out of the heavy fighting, but we couldn’t spare her entirely. The farther in we got into the Stable, the more ways to flank us opened up.

Another thunderous explosion sounded from somewhere deep in the Stable. Followed by more.

Water sprayed from all the destroyed toilets. The Steel Ranger’s hoofsteps splashed as she approached closer. “Give it up, Littlepip.” Crap. “Surrender now, and Elder Blueberry Sabre might just spare you and most of your friends. You won’t get that offer from Nova Rage.”

Yeah. That was going to happen.

“I don’t suppose I can talk you into surrendering to us?” I called back. “Is mass murder really the Earth Pony Way?”

“Fuck you!” she retorted and opened up with another barrage of grenades. I wrapped all the debris around me in telekinetics and pulled them together, creating a shield. It didn’t work very well. The first explosion blew the debris out of my magic’s grasp, pummeling me with it. I felt bones break as pain surged throughout my body.

More grenades detonated around me. My PipBuck screamed as every limb registered as crippled. My PipBuck politely told me I was dying from internal injuries. I couldn’t feel them. My body was in shock. All I could feel was cold.

Two missiles streaked through the air overhead, entering the room from behind me. They hit the Steel Ranger, blowing her off her hooves. She slid across the wet floor and collapsed in the corner, unmoving.

“Littlepip!” Velvet Remedy cried from forever away. I lost consciousness.

*** *** ***

My eyes blinked open. I couldn’t feel my body, but somehow I was still alive. My E.F.S. was reading my condition as bad, but stable. I was looking up. I could see lights of Stable Two overhead. Heard their ever-present buzz.

“Where am I?”

“Really, Littlepip,” Velvet Remedy chided kindly. “With your habits of gross injury, you can’t tell me you don’t recognize Stable Two’s clinic?”

“Calamity? Xenith?”

Velvet Remedy’s face leaned into view. “The good news is that all three of you are going to survive reclaiming this floor. The bad news is that I’ve used up all our medical supplies and an unhealthy portion of the Stable’s to save you.” She glanced away. “A few of Xenith’s brews too.”

“Elder Blueberry Sabre had pulled most of her ponies back into the apple orchard,” SteelHooves said. “She’s worried now, and with good cause.”

She’s worried? They nearly killed us, and we were nowhere near the Security and Overmare’s wing yet. I didn’t understand why they weren’t just swarming us and wiping us out. I said as much.

“Because there are less of them and possibly more of us,” SteelHooves said bluntly. “About a fifth of the Rangers she was leading didn’t take too well to what was going on down here. Star Paladin Nova Rage killed one of them for disloyalty and Elder Blueberry Sabre locked away the rest of the dissenters behind a welded door…”

Explained why diplomacy hadn’t been working. All the ponies that diplomacy might have worked with the Elder had locked up.

“They’re trapped in the school,” Velvet interrupted. “SteelHooves has been speaking with them. If we can get them out, we’ll have nearly a dozen Steel Rangers on our side.”

“Unfortunately, we’re having a bit of trouble with that. But Elder Blueberry Sabre doesn’t know that. As far as she knows, the moment we took this section, we got a whole lot stronger.”

I tried to get up only to realize that not only could I not feel pain, I couldn’t feel anything.

Velvet Remedy had used her anesthetic spell on me. I tried to get up again, fervently sending the signals from my brain to a body I couldn’t sense that ought to make it move. My body heaved and I fell to the floor with a thud, bloodying my nose. I couldn’t feel that either.

“Now look who’s a silly pony,” Velvet Remedy giggled. “Stop that, or I’ll tell Homage that you’re into bondage and spankings.” I couldn’t feel myself blushing, but I’m sure I was.

As extra punishment, Velvet let me lay there on the floor as she turned her attention to Xenith. The zebra was still unconscious.

Calamity trotted in a short time later. “Ah’m afraid there ain’t an easy way t’ get that door open. Best bet its t’ cut through it with a blowtorch, and that’ll take hours.” He whinnied. “On the plus side, seems like that’s what the enemy is tryin’ t’ do with the S an’ O wing. Only those doors are a helluva lot thicker, an’ there’s more than one o’ them. Best bet, we’ve still got a couple hours b’fore they’re through.”

I forced my body to roll over, feeling an uneasy sense of accomplishment when I managed it on the third try. I found myself staring up at the ceiling rather than at my friends, which significantly diminished the victory.

“Y’know, magical energy weapons would melt through these doors a whole heap ova lot quicker.”

“Steel Rangers’ battle saddles aren’t equipped with magical energy weapons,” SteelHooves replied. “That is an Enclave design.”

“Yeah,” said Calamity in an odd tone. “Tha’s what Ah figured.”

My gaze fell on the grate to the air ducts. Unfortunately, while I was small, I was no chimera. I couldn’t fit through them. But…

“Pyrelight!”

“Wha’s that, Li’lpip?” Calamity asked.

“Pyrelight can get through the air ducts. She can carry a blowtorch to the good guy Steel Rangers trapped inside the classroom. Let them cut their way out,” I suggested. “Plus, she can carry in food and water to them while they work.”

“Ah like it,” Calamity said, the grin I couldn’t see evident in his voice. “Frees us up t’ continue the mission, while we’re still providin’ diplomatic relief.”

We had a plan.

*** *** ***

So did Elder Blueberry Sabre. While we were busy, the bitch had welded shut every entrance into the Atrium except for the passage through the apple orchard.

The orchard was a huge, open space with only thin trees for nearly useless cover. She could amass her forces inside, creating a kill zone while a few of her soldiers worked on cutting through the security doors.

The best plan I could come up with was to float more lockers in front of us, forming a wedge two lockers deep and two lockers high. SteelHooves and Calamity were going to join me. Velvet had clearly taken far better care of us than of herself, unwilling to use up more than the minimal medical supplies on herself that we might have (and did) need later. She was still partially crippled from the gunshot wound, and I insisted that she stay behind as a “liaison” with Pyrelight. Xenith promised Calamity that she would stand guard over our wounded medical pony.

To claim that I was in good shape would have been an outright lie. But the pain I was in when the spell wore off was not the worst I had felt (definitely better than being set on fire by a dragon or bucked between the thighs by a scarily strong raider); I could work through it. My legs, fore and hind, all seemed to work, if stiffly. And could breathe without too much effort and feel my heart beat. Plus, I had my magic and my PipBuck. I was not in optimal fighting shape, but I really didn’t need more. And there were ponies counting on me.

I’d already seen too many ponies whom I recognized lying dead on the Stable floor. I wouldn’t allow Elder Blueberry Sabre or Star Paladin Nova Rage to add to that number.

SteelHooves trotted up behind me as I floated the lockers into formation. A moment later, another Steel Ranger trotted up… only it wasn’t a Steel Ranger. It was Calamity, wearing a Steel Ranger’s armor from the neck back. His black desperado hat was still firmly on his orange mane and he held Spitfire’s Thunder in his mouth.

“What are you doing wearing that armor?” SteelHooves demanded. Calamity just gave him a look. “Okay, then how do you expect to fight in that? Magically-powered armor requires months of training to perform even adequately in.”

“Whaf mef,” Calamity mouthed through his grip on the unique anti-machine rifle.

I shook my head, sending up a prayer to Luna for our coming battle and a prayer to Celestia to keep Xenith and Velvet Remedy safe.

I telekinetically triggered the door.

*** *** ***

My brilliant battle strategy lasted about two minutes. Like with the debris before, my magic couldn’t hold the lockers against the explosive force of their missiles and grenades. I was forced to plant our barricade in the ground, creating a makeshift pillbox about twenty yards into the orchard. The Steel Rangers quickly surrounded us, firing into the lockers, slowly tearing away at our shielding.

Our line of sight was limited to small cracks between the lockers, purposefully not large enough to allow a grenade. Even so, I had focused my magic on flinging all grenades back at our attackers until they stopped trying that.

The gaps were too small for SteelHooves to fire through. Calamity was using Spitfire’s Thunder to great effect, downing a Steel Ranger every time one was foolish enough to make herself or himself visible. The noise was deafening in our metal cage. My ears were ringing so badly I felt I would vomit, but I stayed on task.

But the pegasus was down to less than half a dozen rounds of the rare ammo (even after having pilfered some from the battle saddle of the anti-machine rifle Ranger in the Saloon). And the twin-minigun battle saddle integrated into his armor couldn’t be aimed through the tiny cracks.

The zebra rifle was out of armor-piercing bullets, and the normal sort didn’t have the penetrating power to take down a Steel Ranger. I was using my sniper rifle now. It too was out of armor-piercing ammo, but a well-placed shot to a weaker part of their armor would still go through. Part of me felt chagrin that I was becoming so practiced at defeating Applejack’s creation.

Calamity and I kept firing.

“Sonuva…” Calamity mouthed as he fired a final shot. He motioned to me that he was out of ammo.

My hope had been that we could take out enough of them to make moving again an option. From all the red lights on my Eyes-Forward Sparkle, we had done admirably… but we were still doomed. I had walked us into a trap with yet another stupid plan. And this time I had probably gotten all of us killed.

I wasn’t ready to give up just yet. It was about time to try a rush and gallop. SteelHooves and Calamity still had their battle saddles; and for the first time, the one pony not in any danger of running out of ammo was our ghoul. Finally being willing to scavenge ammo helped immensely.

I focused, floating the lockers, and hurled them in all directions, aiming at the red marks on my E.F.S. compass. There wasn’t a lot of force behind the throw, but I released them just before they hit and suddenly they went from flying weightless lockers to flying damn heavy lockers. A chorus of THUDs rang out as several Steel Rangers were clobbered and trapped underneath.

Unfortunately, Steel Ranger armor made them strong. They began to buck the metal weights off faster than I expected. We took off at a gallop, running across the orchard for the opposite door.

Gunfire and explosions erupted all around us. Dirt and wood filled the air. A missile roared past me, disappearing into the foliage of an apple tree before exploding. I felt applesauce splatter my face.

SteelHooves fired forward clearing a way ahead. Calamity, bemoaning the magically-powered armor’s lack of wings, spun and poured out suppressive fire behind us. Several Steel Rangers fired back with light machineguns and miniguns, but their shots glanced off the power armor he was wearing.

Calamity swiftly turned, racing to catch up before one of them returned his fire with a missile or sniper round. He was doing far better in the suit than SteelHooves had anticipated, but nowhere near as well as Calamity himself had expected.

Still, it looked like we would make it. I pushed as far as my battle-weakened and overstrained body would take me… and I was the first to reach the door.

It was locked. And trapped.

Of course.

But this was not a problem for me. Well, not one of skill or tools. It was a problem of time.

Calamity and SteelHooves reached me as I attempted to disarm the explosive. SteelHooves began to guide me through it, his skills far surpassing my own, while Calamity turned to face the approaching Rangers.

“Give it up,” called out Elder Blueberry Sabre as the Steel Rangers advanced, encircling us. I heard a click as the bomb disarmed. Now for the door.

I heard more clicks as every enemy Steel Ranger in the apple orchard reloaded. Elder Blueberry Sabre called out again, “Last chance. Give it up.”

I sighed. Dammit. This was the damn Ministry of Morale rooftop all over again. “Why don’t you just kill us?”

“Because now she needs to make an example of me,” SteelHooves guessed. “And she knows that will go a lot smoother if she has hostages I care about.”

“Or maybe I just need a good lockpicker,” Blueberry Sabre answered. “Somepony who can get me past a security door.”

Oh hell no.

A deep explosion rang out. One of the Steel Rangers fell, her midsection torn through. Several friendly lights suddenly danced across my E.F.S. compass.

But that was impossible, I thought. The Steel Rangers upstairs were still hours away from being freed. We wouldn’t be getting reinforcements for…

A magical energy pistol appeared pointed at Elder Blueberry Sabre’s head. It was held by a familiar-looking griffin, the hood of her cloak falling back to reveal her head.

Blackwing?

Elder Blueberry Sabre’s eyes went wide as she realized the situation had dramatically changed. “Wh-where did you come from?”

Blackwing smirked as she pulled the trigger, the green beam from her pistol striking the pony between her eyes, turning her into a pony-shaped glow of luminescent green.

“Gawd sent me.”

Elder Blueberry Sabre collapsed into a luminescent puddle.

*** *** ***

The battle had changed. Arcs of magical energy from the small group of griffins were exchanged with the artillery fire of the Steel Rangers. Calamity and SteelHooves waded into the fight while I struggled to unlock the door with my telekinesis.

The door unlocked with a satisfying click and slid open. Beyond I could see the Atrium. But even before I could see it, I could smell it. The cloying stench of burnt pony hair and the reek of spilled blood, pooling and drying by the gallons, smashed into me like a speeding wall. This room had become a slaughterhouse.

Colorful, innocent ponies lay dead everywhere. In many cases, the same ponies could be seen in multiple places -- one of the Steel Rangers had unleashed a grenade machinegun in the room. I stepped into the Atrium over a pink leg blown off at the knee.

I saw a yellowish clump of matter sliding down a wall, mixed with blood. It took me a moment to realize it wasn’t part of a pony’s brains.

It was cake.

I looked up and saw the colorful banner. The Steel Rangers had interrupted a Cutie Mark Party.

I felt rage. Pure, unadulterated rage.

I met three Steel Rangers on the Atrium balcony at the top of the stairs. Two of them were wielding auto-axes and were working their way through the third and final security door. They had about half an hour’s work left to go.

I wrapped each of them in magic, floating them up and turning them towards each other before they could react and turn the auto-axes off. The magically-enhanced blades did exactly what they were designed to do -- cut through metal. The flesh beneath offered no resistance at all. It was gruesomely messy.

I dropped them, but kept the auto-axes, turning to face the last of the Steel Rangers. “Star Paladin Nova Rage, I presume?” I noted her battle saddle had a grenade machinegun.

The Star Paladin stared at me. “Yes, and you are?”

“Run.”

*** *** ***

The adrenaline had once again left my body, and I hurt. Physically and emotionally. It was literally all I could do to stand up.

I had exorcised my rage, but that left only despair and a deep sadness.

The hour was long over -- that blackest hour whose name I couldn’t remember where the darkness of the world is echoed most heavily by the darkness in the soul. But I was still trapped there.

Blackwing joined me as I waited for Velvet Remedy and Xenith. The Overmare had surely been watching everything through the Stable’s “Friendly Pie” observation system. But she had not yet opened the door.

“Gawd knows you’ve flown to our aid without contract, content to negotiate compensation after the fact,” the griffin explained. “When we heard the distress signal, she decided to give you the benefit of the doubt and asked if my Talons would be willing to help.”

“I’m thankful you said yes,” I replied with a grim smile. My gaze kept drifting up to the gaily-colored Happy Cute-ceañera banner.

Calamity trotted about, flexing his wings, thankful to be out of the Steel Ranger armor. “Ah do not envy SteelHooves!” He looked up, “How the hell didja appear right next t’ the Elder like that? StealthBuck?”

Xenith trotted up the steps to the Atrium balcony. She stopped abruptly upon seeing Blackwing. Velvet Remedy collided with her backside and stumbled with a moan. She was crying again. Calamity flew to her, wrapping her in one of his wings as she moved onto the balcony

“My girls had to make do with StealthBucks, yes. But I…”

“Where did you get that cloak?” Xenith interrupted.

Blackwing gave the zebra a tolerant smirk. “Yes, as I was saying, zebra stealth cloak.” She fixed me with a serious look. “You have more friends than I thought, kid. We’d barely made it past New Appleloosa when this pegasus ghoul and her kid flagged us down. Turns out, they’d heard the distress signal too and wanted to pitch in. Practically gave us enough SteathBucks to get in while all you ponies were busy with the Star-spawn and wage a war of our own. Not to mention the cloak. Which, I would note, I insisted on paying her for.”

I looked over the railing at the other griffins in Blackwing’s Talons. The deep explosions I had heard before were now obviously from Butcher’s Little Gilda.

“I think she wanted to come in herself, but… well, she has a kid.” A frown passed across Blackwing’s beak. “Whom I’m really hoping she adopted. Because if not… ew.”

“Sorry we didn’t get to you sooner,” Butcher called up to us. “Managed to get ourselves trapped in the generator room for the longest time. But then you ponies come along and not only take out the guards sealing us in, but most of the door too.”

I was standing in an abattoir that had once been my home, and yet I found myself laughing. It was not a good laugh. It was a hurting, horrified, emotionally wrung out laugh. The laugh of a pony that can’t scream or cry.

I forced myself to stop as the security door slid open. The Overmare stood there, gazing at us. Behind her was a throng of terrified ponies.

“Is it safe?” one of them asked. I found that I couldn’t find my voice. I was petrified.

“Ayep,” Calamity answered for us. “Rooted out the last of ‘em. The ones in the school are good ponies who just got wrapped up in something really horribly bad. They’ll be leaving soon with us.” The auto-axes were making cutting through the welded door a much quicker task.

“Thank you,” the Overmare said to all of us. Then she shooed the other ponies back inside. They did not need to see any more of what had become of the Atrium.

“Littlepip, Velvet Remedy, would you please come in?”

The Overmare motioned for us to enter the formerly sealed wing. Calamity slid his wing from Velvet and poked her towards the Overmare with his nose. She moved slowly, but with lady-like grace. I followed, feeling clumsy and small and horrible.

*** *** ***

“…and then there was blood everywhere! Sparkling Cider did a wave of his hoof like this, and fell down…”

As the Overmare slowly guided us through the crowd towards her office, a familiar voice froze me in place.

“Mother?”

I looked up, and there she was. Standing in a small clique of friends (notably absent Mrs. Sparkle Cider). She turned and looked at me with a vaguely scandalized expression. “Is that Littlepip?” she asked one of her friends.

The other mare answered in the affirmative.

“I don’t even recognize her,” mother said. Not with awe or maliciousness, but as a casual statement of truth.

I felt all the life drain from me as she looked me over. My blood had turned to ice water. My stomach knotted up, then sank to the lowest part of my body it could find. The world seemed to stretch away from me.

She turned away from me, delving back into her conversation, my presence barely augmenting her tale. “I was traumatized. I mean, I’m going to have nightmares of this forever. I’m going to need therapy. And as horrible as this sounds, my first thought was ‘that will never come out of his apron!’ (Because he was wearing that lovely yellow one with the…”

I spotted the glow from her horn, so very soft. And the bottle floating nearby, surrounded in the same light. She was drunk. Of course she was drunk… that’s how she had always protected herself from whatever crisis she thought she was going through, and this had been a real one.

Still… She was alive. Alive and exactly the same. I was right here. Again.

“Mom?”

Suddenly, Velvet Remedy was between us, and her hoof was striking my mother across the face so hard it knocked her down.

I stared. Velvet Remedy had just hit my mother.

Velvet’s voice sounded like she was throwing all the hurt and rage in her behind it. It wasn’t a scream, but it was somehow much louder than that.

“You. Have suffered. Nothing.”

She turned from my wide-eyed mother and lowered her head, pushing me away.

*** *** ***

“There are no thanks which are enough for your bravery and heroism,” the Overmare told us, thanking us yet again for coming to Stable Two’s rescue.

“And Littlepip, I owe you such an apology. You are always welcome here. This is your home.”

I looked up at the Overmare. Then down at my body. I was caked in blood. Maybe half of it mine. “No.”

“No?” the Overmare asked.

“I have no place here. Not anymore.” I looked up at Velvet Remedy who was laying on a couch in the Overmare’s office across from me. “I’ve been outside for five weeks, and look at me. As much as I try, I’m not the same pony I was when I left, and I never can be. The wasteland has changed me, bloodied me… maybe even poisoned me like it has everything else outside. I can’t come back. I can’t bring that poison in here.”

“I think it’s already gotten in,” the Overmare said sadly.

I nodded. “I know. But these ponies are good ponies. Innocent ponies. They need to treasure that, and hold it as long as they can. You need to wash away the blood, clean away the bodies. Try to make Stable Two right again. Tonight will be enough of a nightmare already.”

The Overmare nodded. “Then… is there anything I can do for you in return for all you’ve done for us?”

I thought about it. Then looked into her eyes. “Yes. First, we need to arrange for some sort of payment for the griffins.”

“Payment?” the Overmare blinked. “Ah. I see. They are mercenaries.”

“Mercenaries who came to Stable Two’s aid without contract or promise of payment,” Velvet Remedy swiftly added. “Because they trust us to do right by them in return.”

“Then I will not sully your reputation, Velvet darling.” The Overmare turned to me. “And there was something else?”

“Yes. I want access to the Overmare records.” That she did balk at. “I want to look at the population records, nothing more.” Somehow, she liked that even less.

“I do as well,” Velvet Remedy said, getting up and moving to my side. I was still conflicted, wanting to simultaneously hug her and buck her for striking my mother.

“You know,” the Overmare said slowly, addressing Velvet, “When I gave you Sweetie Belle’s possessions to look through, it was with the hopes that her rich history as a musician would persuade you to accept your career. I hadn’t expected you to use the opportunity to find a way to escape.” She frowned. “CMC3BFF. Clearly, I needed to give the recordings of a previous Overmare a much closer inspection before allowing them into anypony else’s hooves.”

Velvet Remedy shook her head. “You had to have known.”

“I… may have suspected. But I thought you would make the better choice.”

“I did make the better choice,” Velvet Remedy said firmly.

*** *** ***

I found what I was looking for in the population records within the first few minutes.
She made it!

Applejack made it into Stable Two. She was here when the Stable door sealed. According to the records, she lived peacefully for another twenty-five years. Happy… or at least as happy as somepony could be, living in a Stable and knowing the world above had been obliterated.

Still, she had survived. According to the records, she spent ten years down here bucking the Stable’s apple orchard until a hip injury forced her to retire. (The doctor’s addendum suggested that weakening hips might have been a genetic ailment common to her family.) Even after that, she spent another ten cooking for the Stable’s inhabitants from the kitchen of what was now the Stable Two Saloon.

She passed away peacefully, and unlike other Stable residents who were incinerated, the Overmare insisted that she be buried in the apple orchard. She was…

I paused in my reading.

*** *** ***

I walked into Palette’s stall. The always messy, paint-splotched artist of Stable Two had survived the slaughter and already was diving into a new project.

The Steel Ranger stood very still in front of her, obediently at attention, as she painted over the symbol of magical sparks and gears with three candy-red apples.

SteelHooves plodded up to me. “I’m no longer fit to wear Steel Rangers’ armor, but I can’t take it off,” he said as I took in his new look. Like the Ranger being painted, he too had the Steel Rangers’ symbol painted over with the likeness of Applejack’s cutie mark. The red paint continued from there, accenting the ridges and edges all over the rest of his armor. “So I thought this would be appropriate.”

I was a little surprised he didn’t go with orange, but I could see sticking with the cutie mark’s color. “They’re all doing it?” I asked, looking at the Steel Ranger being painted and then at the line down the hall.

“Everypony who has decided to return to the true meaning of The Oath. That is, the Oath as Applejack would have wanted it.” He whinnied. “We won’t be able to call ourselves Steel Rangers anymore. I won’t be able to.” He grumped, “That’s going to take some getting used to.”

“What will you call yourselves then?” I suggested, “Applejack’s Rangers?”

“Hmph. I am hardly worthy of that. But… maybe. We will see. For now, we’re simply outcasts.” He looked away, his metal-sheathed tail swinging. “I have to go for just a little bit. I’m taking the others up to Stable Twenty-Nine. I’ve been in contact with Star Paladin Crossroads, and she immediately joined the cause. She’s already planning to make Stable Twenty-Nine into someplace we can operate out of. All it needs is a functioning water talisman. But there’s another problem…”

“Elder Cottage Cheese?”

“As Calamity would say: ayep,” SteelHooves nickered. “Looks like you were right about him. Cross says he’s sent a squad of Steel Rangers to the Canterlot Ruins to retrieve that ‘Black Book’ for him. But they haven’t returned yet. If we can get to Stable Twenty-Nine before they do…”

“You have a ride.”

“Do you really think Calamity can haul ten more Steel Rang… er Outcasts all the way to Fetlock?”

“It is a passenger wagon,” I commented. “Besides, have you met us?”

SteelHooves laughed. “All right. But after you drop us off, you need to head on to Tenpony Tower. No more delays. I’ll catch up to you later. I promise.”

I nodded solemnly. I was going to hold him to that.

I started to walk away, and then remembered what had caused me to seek him out. “SteelHooves? We need to talk somewhere private.”

*** *** ***

“Applejack didn’t leave you.”

SteelHooves shook his head. “Yes she did. She chose to be with her family. And I don’t blame her for that. I never have.” He paced a little. “We… weren’t exactly… our relationship was in a bad place. We were trying to put it back together, but… it really wasn’t going to work, and we both knew it. I loved her, and I let her go.”

I whimpered inside, but stood firm. “No, Applesnack,” I said, using his real name. “She loved you. She tried to come back to you. But the Overmare wouldn’t let her.”

He stopped pacing and looked at me. “Wouldn’t let her?”

“She helped her family into the Stable, and the Overmare closed the door. Applejack didn’t know that the Stable Two Overmare was under strict orders not to open the door for anyone. Under any circumstances. Not until the atmospheric and soil monitors read that the world above was clean and safe again.”

“It’s been two hundred years…”

“I know. Stable-Tec grossly miscalculated how long it would take. But that didn’t matter because there was no way Sweetie Belle was going to let Applejack out. Applejack wanted to leave. She wanted to find you. The record for Applejack is full of annotations about her arguments with Sweetie Belle over this. But of course, with her condition, and with the readings outside, there was no way Sweetie Belle was going to let her back out.”

SteelHooves stomped. “Wait, her condition? Was she hurt? If those zebras…”

I could feel my heart sink. Oh Goddesses, he didn’t know.

“SteelHooves,” I said, my voice sounding tender and small in my own ears. “Applejack was pregnant.”

*** *** ***

“I swear,” the Overmare huffed. “This is why I didn’t want you becoming a medical pony.”

Velvet Remedy glared at her crossly.

“You just can’t help yourself. You dig and pry. You and Littlepip are a match, you know.”

Velvet took a deep breath. “You have a serious problem here. Have you even looked at the population reports? Do you have any idea how many of the original inhabitants of this Stable were extended members of the Apple family? By Celestia, even Littlepip and I have a common Apple ancestor six generations back!”

I had stopped just inside the Overmare’s office, watching the two mares argue. Neither had noticed me.

“That’s not a big deal. Six generations is a lot…”

“This entire Stable is in danger of a becoming completely inbred,” Velvet Remedy shot back. “I’d say that’s a big deal. Littlepip was wrong. You can’t stay locked up in here for much longer.”

“Hello?” I finally said. The two mares turned to look at me with matching shocked expressions.

“Maybe there’s another way?”

*** *** ***

One last detour. It was a small one. Fast. Fifteen minutes tops. We’d be back to pick up the Steel Ranger “outcasts” and ferry them to Fetlock before they knew it. And then, it was on to Tenpony Tower.

I needed Homage. I needed to just fall to pieces in her embrace.

“I found one.” Velvet Remedy read the words scrawled in foal-like letters on the side of the metal monster rusting in front of us.

It was a cannon. And it had probably been rusting here for years even before the war. The Goddesses only knew what it had been doing this secluded portion of Sweet Apple Acres. The trees here grew close. The cannon would only have been visible to a pegasus flying almost directly overhead. And it certainly didn’t seem pointed anyplace strategic.

Small patches of the old metal muzzle were still polished enough to reflect the orange light of the rising sun. The base was partially sunken into the ground amongst several large rocks, making the weapon cant strangely. Nearby was a crumbling picnic table. There were a few planks of wood nailed to a dead tree behind me.

“How would this have helped?” Xenith asked Calamity. I had to admit I was asking the same question. This old metal monster couldn’t possibly fire.

Calamity chuckled. “Not the cannon.” He trotted around the pile of large stones that the base was partially leaning against. He tapped his hoof on one, then another. “This one.”

“A rock?” I asked.

“The Rock of Destiny,” our pegasus friend says, grinning cryptically.

I was tired, physically and mentally exhausted. I couldn’t keep up. “Destiny is a rock?” Even Velvet Remedy was looking confused.

Calamity sighed. “Hollowed out rock,” he explained. “This rock has been used by every Dashite since the first pegasus was hunted down by the Enclave and branded fer leavin’. It’s enchanted to open only fer somepony who done know the proper pass-phase.” He looked down at the apparently special rock. “Every Dashite has put somethin’ in here. Some token of the life they left behind.”

“How did a pegasus enchant a rock?” Velvet Remedy asked.

Calamity shrugged. “Well, Ah assume she had somepony else do it fer her.”

“Or perhaps a zebra helped her,” Xenith offered.

Calamity took a deep breath, tapped at the rock again with his hoof, and said loudly and clearly:

“Cutie Marks don’t matter.”


Footnote: Level Up.
Skills Note: Firearms has reached 100%
New Perk: Zebra-Augmented Pony – You have allowed your body to be permanently enhanced through zebra alchemy. You gain +10% to your Poison, Fire and Radiation Resistances and +3 to your damage threshold. (Note: Zebra-Augmented Pony and the cybernetic implant perk Cyberpony are mutually exclusive.)