Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat


Chapter Twenty-Nine: Racing Apotheosis

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Racing Apotheosis

“Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria, there were two regal sisters who ruled together and created harmony for all the land. To do this, the eldest used her unicorn powers to raise the sun at dawn. The younger brought out the moon to begin the night...”

“Fuck.

“You know what irony is?”

I recognized the voice of Scootaloo. Even though it was raspy. Even through all her coughing, and the mad clicking, and the roar of the wind all around her.

“Irony is that it feels I spent my whole damned childhood trying to get my cutie mark, and I don’t have it anymore.

“Irony is that I spent most of the last decade working to save Equestria from a megaspell end-of-the-world…” Scootaloo’s voice cracked, followed by a barrage of wet, raspy coughs. “...and then it happened and I wasn’t even fucking here. Broke my damn wing in a stupid damn accident while practicing a new routine for the damn GALLoPS. By the time I got out of the Hanovaerian pegasus clinic, it was all over.

“Irony is that I’m the one who made Sweetie Belle the Overmare of Stable Two. I was beginning to worry about her. Now, she’s probably the only one of us who has survived. I…”

The recording was interrupted by another fit of coughing.

“…Apple Bloom was s’posed to be in Fillydelphia. Can’t even get near that place. A pony would die from the radiation in minutes. I actually considered banging a hoof on Stable Two’s door… but then I saw all the bodies. Sweetie Belle did right. Didn’t open the door for anypony. Can’t let this poison in. Contaminate that whole Stable. If I knocked, Sweetie Belle just might open the door for me. And I can’t let that happen.

“Fuck.

“I’m giving up my PipBuck. Leaving it here with this message. I figure, if Apple Bloom survived, she’ll come looking here. If not, somepony else will. Besides, I’m sick of it clicking. I don’t need it yelling at me that the snow is radioactive and that I’m breathing poison. The air is fucking green…” More coughing. “’Cept for those weird pink swirls comin’ off of Canterlot. When you can see the air, you know it’s bad…

This time, the coughing fit lasted minutes.

”Fuck. That’s blood. That’s so not good.

“They kept telling us the cloud curtain was for our own protection. Keeping the radiation and megaspell pollution from getting into pegasi cities. Who knew that they were telling the truth? Fuckers said the brand is to mark me as somepony who’s been below. Contaminated. Now I know that’s horseapples. Told them… heh. Told them I was proud of what Rainbow Dash did. Called myself a Dash-ite. Boy, that got their feathers in a bunch.

“Irony is… I worked really hard to find a better way. Some kinda society or government or something that would be better. Wouldn’t make the same damn mistakes that killed everypony. And I get trapped up there with a whole slew of ponies who seem dedicated to finding the worst way ever. Even I wouldn’t have tried an experiment like the ‘Enclave’… the Stables aren’t set up to fail. Hell, I give the Enclave a few months at most.”

Scootaloo’s voice stopped. But no cough this time. Just harsh breathing. After a moment, she continued.

“If you find this… before I’m gone…”

She was cut off by an explosive cough, followed by several moments of silence. Then a groan.

“If you find this… there’s a shack marked on it. I traced Rainbow Dash to there. I think she’s living there… or was recently. Wasn’t there when I looked. But I’m headed back. Going to wait there… hope she returns.

“I should be there for her. Like she’s with me. Somepony should be there…”

Scootaloo coughed one final time.

“Just want Dash to know… we didn’t all…

“She’s not alone.”

*** *** ***

I reverently placed the battered old PipBuck back into the Rock of Destiny where it had rested for nearly two centuries. The PipBuck of the first Dashite lay once again with the discarded treasures of Dashites to follow. All except for Calamity, whose relinquished possession of his old life we had come to reclaim.

At Calamity’s hooves lay the black carapace of Enclave armor. The tips of the built-in magical-energy rifles flickered with a wicked light.

“She don’t rightly belong t’ me, Ah reckon,” Calamity said. “They belong t’ Captain Deadshot Calamity o’ the Grand Pegasus Enclave. An’ he ain’t ‘round no more. But after seein’ Velvet put on that zebra suit, Ah figure it’s a might stubborn an’ foalish o’ me t’ not at least drag ‘er out an’ carry ‘er round with us. In case things get bad ‘nuff t’ call fer puttin’ ‘er back on.”

Calamity looked up at us, face reddened under his rust-colored coat. “Y’know, since we ‘ave t’ repack everything anyway.”

I nodded, remembering the overturned Sky Bandit and the swath of scattered possessions.

“So, my buck was a captain?” Velvet Remedy purred, wrapping the Enclave armor with her magic and floating it off the ground.

My buck? I felt the stirrings of a chuckle. I’d been sure that Calamity would end up being Velvet Remedy’s Calamity, not the other way around. But the mare certainly wasted no time.

I smiled at the both of them. This was good.

The whole world was filled with so much bad. My friends needed some good, and I was glad they could find it in each other. I thought of Homage and was thankful to her. Without Homage, I’m not sure my heart could have been so generous.

Calamity stammered, blushing harder.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Velvet asked gently, rubbing her head soothingly yet coaxingly against Calamity’s neck as she floated the creepy black carapace to their side.

“uh… well, she’s got quad Novasurge rifles… muh own design…”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Calamity stared away. “Ah know.” He turned back to her. “Really, there ain’t much t’ tell. They made me Captain. An’ with the promotion came new duties. Ah was assigned t’ lead a wing o’ scouts down below the cloud curtain.”

He saw my surprise and explained, “The Enclave ain’t stupid. They been sendin’ scouts down here jus’ ‘bout twice a year t’ get the lay o’ things fer ages. Then they put out reports tellin’ the civilian ponies that the world down here ain’t ready fer us yet, or the air ain’t breathable. Keeps everypony happy t’ just fritter away their lives above.

“Only that ain’t how it actually is down here. Ain’t been fer a long time. An’ when Ah saw that… well, Ah kinda made waves. Then, on muh third patrol, Ah saw a buncha raiders hittin’ a caravan…”

I knew what was coming. “Your policy?”

“Ayep. Ordered muh wing t’ take the raiders out. They refused. So afterwards, Ah had ‘em locked up fer een-subordination. Higher-ups took unkindly t’ that. Told me they was givin’ me one chance t’ correct the path Ah was on, or there’d be hell t’ pay.”

Calamity snorted and dug at the ground with a hoof. “They put me in front o’ an assembly t’ address everypony an’ tell ‘em how there ain’t nothin’ down here t’ save yet. Show ‘em all just how much Ah was hitched t’ the party wagon.”

Velvet Remedy backed up and looked Calamity over. “Well, that was foalish of them.”

“Ayep.” Calamity’s muzzle broke into a grin. “Ah reckon it had been so long since somepony had bucked the Enclave that they forgot it could happen. Ah stood right up there an’ told everypony that we needed t’ get down here now.” He paused, “…Well, then. Y’know what Ah mean. Anyways, Ah told ‘em I was leavin’ and that they were free t’ follow.”

Calamity lifted a hoof to scratch his mane under his hat. “Didn’t hear ‘bout how Ah s’posedly killed muh own wing ‘till ‘bout six months later.”

I remembered what Calamity had said back in Fillydelphia: Most dictatorships Ah know of tend t’ go hell-an’-highwater t’ either discredit or destroy opposin’ voices like that.

I trotted over and wrapped a foreleg around Calamity in a hug. (Which, I note, was a little tricky since he was a fair bit taller than me.)

“Thanks, Li’lpip.”

Something occurred to me. “So…” I asked Calamity as I dropped back to all four hooves, “Most of the pegasi don’t realize what’s going on down here?”

“They ain’t bad ponies, Li’lpip,” Calamity whinnied. “They’re just bein’ bamboozled by their leaders. Even in the best governments, the ponies at the top don’t tell the rank-n-file what’s actually goin’ on.” He trotted in place. “Y’think the better folk o’ New Appleloosa ‘ave any idea jus’ how connected they are t’ Red Eye?”

I remembered the way the ponies in Turnpike Tavern laughed at the notion of “that buck on the spritebots” being anypony’s leader. On the other side of the bottle cap, I was willing to bet Sweetie Belle didn’t tell anypony in Stable Two about the friends and relatives dying just outside the Stable door, breaking their hooves against it as they begged to be let in.

Hell, I was supposedly the leader of these ponies, and I was keeping secrets of my own. (The truth about the Ministry of Peace and the megaspells came swiftly to mind.) So I supposed that Calamity’s assertion was true.

“Li’lpip, if most o’ the ponies up there saw fer themselves what’s goin’ on down here, they’d buck the damn Enclave and pony up t’ help.” Calamity’s confidence faltered. “Well, most being at least more’n half, Ah reckon.”

I felt an odd tug at one of my saddlebags. I turned to see Velvet Remedy’s PipBuck float out, enveloped by Velvet Remedy’s magic. I watched the polished PipBuck (with its custom engraving of Velvet Remedy’s singing nightingale) glide across the air and gently set itself down in the Rock of Destiny next to Scootaloo’s.

“I hope it’s not presumptuous,” she said to Calamity, sounding slightly apprehensive. “I’m not a Dashite, but I am leaving an old life behind. And it feels wrong to be taking something out without putting something in its place.”

“Thank ya kindly,” Calamity responded, approving.

I brought up the inventory sorter on my PipBuck, scrolling through it until I realized with a pang that I didn’t have anything from my life in the Stable to give up.

I stared forlornly at the Rock of Destiny, feeling like I was failing somehow. I’d already left everything in Stable Two behind. I probably would have sealed a picture of my mother up inside the rock, but I didn’t even have that.

No… but I did have something.

Biting my lower lip, I pulled up the recipe for Party-Time Mint-als. I would give this up, but I didn’t want anypony else to suffer from them as I had. The first night Outside, I had discovered a message from Apple Bloom to Sweetie Belle which used a very special encryption. I used that now as I sent the recipe to Velvet Remedy’s PipBuck. No pony would be able to read the recipe without downloading it from both her PipBuck and mine.

I erased the recipe from my PipBuck.

Somehow, it was both liberating and frightening.

*** *** ***

Stable Two. I was leaving it again. This time it hurt worse. Probably because I knew that I would never return even though I could.

I felt weary beyond simple exhaustion. The mental toll of the night before was compounding the physical expense of the battle, and of nearly dying once again. I stared at Calamity, who somehow managed to seem almost normal despite not only having gone through much the same, but having been up for a full day, much of which was spent dragging the Sky Bandit.

Almost normal. He had been ruthless, I was told, in hunting down the last of the Steel Rangers. I did not begrudge him that. But this had been more than his code, more than his “policy”. We were his closest friends, and he’d take the assault on our former home personally.

Then again, with the exception of Xenith and Pyrelight, we all did. For our own reasons.

“Calamity?” I asked as I floated the Sky Bandit up off the ground. “When we first met, and you told me you didn’t live in New Appleloosa, you said you had a little shack?” I had a suspicion.

Calamity landed on it and trotted in place. Now weightless, the passenger wagon rolled easily under his hooves until he had it upright.

“Ayep,” he replied. “An’ t’ answer the next question, ayep t’ that too. Got the marker off the first Dashite’s PipBuck by linkin’ t’ it wi’ muh amor. Jus’ b’fore givin’ it up.”

“Did Rainbow Dash ever return to the shack? I mean, do you know?”

“Ah don’t reckon she did,” Calamity stated, his words sending a wave of bitter sadness through my heart. “When Ah got there, Ah found a pegasus skeleton curled up in a corner which Ah buried out back. Figure if Rainbow Dash had come back, there woulda’ been two.”

Another pang shot through my heart. Calamity had done better for Scootaloo than I had for… anypony who had passed on. I felt a steely resolve build within my sorrow.

“Before we go, we should bury the skeletons in the apple cellar tunnel,” I said firmly. “I know we’re on the clock, but dammit if I’m gonna leave here again without doing that.”

Calamity nodded just like I knew he would. Velvet Remedy trotted closer, levitating another pile of scavenged goods. “This would be so much easier if I had a Find Our Stuff spell.”

“Y’know, if we’re takin’ all these detours, maybe we oughta swing by muh ol’ place,” Calamity suggested. “Ah could gather up a few tools. An’ Li’lpip could have a crack at the floor safe nopony’s been able t’ open.” There was a twinkle in his eye when he said that. I heard Velvet stifle a snicker.

I facehoofed. Oh now that’s just not playing fair.

The clean-up and the Rock of Destiny had already eaten the first hour of daylight, and the burials would take up more. We’d be lucky to make Fetlock by sundown. But then: floor safe! A floor safe in a shack that both Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo had once called home… if extremely briefly... no less. The curious little pony in my head was prancing around eagerly, suggesting all sorts of possibly important or interesting things that might be inside.

I shot Calamity a look. “You think you can use my weakness against me that easily?”

“Ayep.”

I hoofstomped. “Okay, yes you can. But just this once.”

“Ayep. Sure.”

*** *** ***

Ultimately, the burials added less than an hour to our departure time. SteelHooves’ Outcasts weren’t all painted and ready to leave until halfway through the effort.

“I’m glad you’re finally with us,” a paladin buck named Bitter Bright told SteelHooves as they finally began to march into the Sky Bandit.

“It should have been sooner,” SteelHooves stated grimly. “I should have done this when there was a chance for a peaceful break. This will be a civil war. And a bloody one.”

Paladin Bitter Bright nodded. “Star Paladin Crossroads has already locked Elder Cottage Cheese’s communications down, and sent out warnings to those in the other contingents who would follow us. With any luck, they’ll be able to slip away before word of what happened here reaches the other Elders.”

I swallowed. “What happens then?”

Paladin Bitter Bright neighed. “If we had done this years ago, with an Elder taking the lead, then those who believe the Steel Rangers should be following the Ministry Mare and helping the ponies of Equestria could simply have transferred to the new Elder’s contingent. We would have been… looked upon poorly, but the voice of an Elder is law. Now…”

The Steel Ranger Outcast took a moment of silence before continuing. “Now we are seceding. We are traitors and mutineers. Once the Elders learn of this, any within their ranks who empathize with us will be exterminated.”

Oh. Celestia grant mercy.

“Hopefully,” SteelHooves added, “Those who would join us can make it out before then. They will be galloping towards Stable Twenty-Nine. We will need to have it secured by then, or they will be galloping into a trap.”

“Well, except for Trottingham,” Knight Strawberry Lemonade piped up, joining the conversation as she moved to stand uncomfortably close to SteelHooves. My friend looked around as if searching for some trivial task to give her. “In Trottingham, there are more of us than there are of them. In Trottingham, I bet the Elder will be the one abandoning ship.”

The pony in my head whimpered, watching my actions ripple out into war and bloodshed. “I’m so sorry…”

“For what?” Paladin Bitter Bright asked. “None of this is your fault or your doing. Except that because of you and your friends, this squad isn’t dead at Nova Rage’s hoof or still trapped in that Stable school waiting to die of thirst and starvation.” He nickered, “This battle started the moment Nova Rage killed one of us and locked the others away. And that happened hours before any of you showed up. This is on her. And on us. Hell, we should be apologizing to you for not saying enough until after the others started slaughtering the poor ponyfolk in the Ministry Mare’s Stable.”

“It’s on me,” SteelHooves said with finality. “This has always been on me.”

As he plodded past me, he lowered his helmet and whispered into my ear, “It’s better that my child never knew me.”

*** *** ***

Blackwing and her Talons flew with us part of the way, delivering news of their victory back to Gawd, along with the details of a five-year plan that the Overmare and Blackwing had sketched out upon my suggestion

“Y’all sure we shouldn’t stand there with ya at Stable Twenty-Nine?”

“No,” SteelHooves told Calamity. “This is an internal matter now.”

I listened to DJ Pon3’s broadcast in my earbloom, but there had been no news yet of Stable Two. Nothing that could forewarn the Elders that their ranks were breaking. I prayed that the silence would last until I reached Homage.

It was another stroke of luck that Calamity’s Shack was only a little bit out of our way towards Fetlock and Manehattan. It was, however, completely in the opposite direction of Splendid Valley. I began to worry what Red Eye might do if we delayed too long. I was hoping that his twisted generosity would extend to giving me time to rest after everything I had gone through.

“What will we do once we reach Tenpony Tower?” Xenith questioned.

“Will Red Eye even let you get there?” Knight Strawberry Lemonade asked, moving to a bench near me. SteelHooves had managed to successfully maneuver behind several other Steel Rangers, preventing her from reaching him. I found the little dance amusing, partially because her voice was so cute. (Even more so coming from inside that fearsome armor.) Partially because it was finally somepony else’s turn to feel a little uncomfortable.

“Red Eye has the place surrounded,” I said, frowning. “Shooting our way in would be a bad move. But we could try sneaking our way in...”

I recalled what Homage said in her fake letter to me: Then, later, we can meet where we met before, and I promise… Well, ahem, no need to dwell on what she promised. The important part was, “I know of a roof access that Red Eye’s troops probably don’t. And I believe Homage is watching for us to land there.”

The others nodded. Xenith looked concerned. “Will they even allow a zebra inside?”

“Homage will,” I assured her. Xenith may not get the run of the tower, but there was no way we were leaving her out in the cold.

As we approached the turning-point for Calamity’s shack, Blackwing swooped close, flying alongside the Sky Bandit. The griffin signaled me.

“Do you think Gawdyna will be satisfied with the payment?” I called out over the rush of wind.

Blackwing barked a laugh. “I think she’ll be surprised. Disturbed, maybe. She was hoping for rights to draw from Stable Two’s water talisman. Instead, she’s getting an offer to move the entire damn population of Stable Two, as well as its most valuable assets, to her domain.”

As Velvet Remedy had determined, Stable Two could not afford to remain isolated for much longer. The population needed to genetically spread, to introduce new breeding stock from the Outside. But they couldn’t just open the Stable door. Not with Stable Two near the edge of the Everfree Forest and an hour’s trot from raider territory. They needed to move. Shattered Hoof provided additional population and safety.

With this plan, the water talisman would be moved to Junction R-7, and the entire subterranean apple orchard would be relocated to the mines underneath Shattered Hoof. The ponies of Stable Two would start building homes in the land between Junction R-7 and the old prison. It would be a massive undertaking, but then Old Appleloosa had been built by earth ponies in a single year.

It felt odd knowing that my new home was going to become my old home. Within five years, Junction R-7 was going to be the center of a town.

“I’m more worried about the delay,” I called out. “It’s going to be a few months, at best, before the ponies in Stable Two can actually start the move. Right now, the area outside the Stable is just too dangerous.” The Everfree Forest exodus, however, was just a part of the problem. I was even more worried about retaliation from the Steel Rangers.

So for now, the Stable was sealing itself up again. The ponies of Stable Two needed time to process and cope with the trauma. They needed time to clean the Stable and rebuild their lives. They wouldn’t be able to forget; and part of me thought that was good, as it would prevent them from losing sight of what they owed and the changes that needed to be made.

“Gawd’s patient,” Blackwing commented. “But you’ve got other problems. Only way to ferry the orchard to Shattered Hoof is by rail. And those tracks pass through New Appleloosa.”

Crap. That’s right.

“We’ll work something out,” I assured her. “But I’ve got to deal with Red Eye first.”

I sounded more confident than I felt. But Calamity’s words had reminded me that while there might be questionable or even downright villainous ponies in high places at New Appleloosa, the bulk of the townsfolk were good ponies. Hell, Ditzy Doo lived there.

The thought of the ghoul pegasus brought up another responsibility. I had to find a way to thank her. We all owed her our lives. Without those StealthBucks, which she had given freely to aid Blackwing in saving the ponies of my home…

I moved away from edge of the Sky Bandit as Blackwing veered off, the other griffins following closely. Butcher blew a kiss in our direction. I think it was for SteelHooves, but I had no idea why. Maybe just the camaraderie that comes with a mutual love of excessive firepower.

Calamity winged us in the other direction. “This won’t take long,” I assured SteelHooves and the Outcasts.

*** *** ***

“That’s one giant cloud o’ scary black smoke,” Calamity commented as we approached his shack.

The smoke from the Everfree Forest fires had tinted the air an angry salmon hue. Calamity’s shack, nestled halfway up a rugged plateau, was slightly closer to New Appleloosa than it was to the closest border of the Everfree Forest. But while it was nowhere near the fires, the prevailing winds were blowing the smoke for miles.

I’d grown accustomed to the strange, sickly quality of the air Outside, but Scootaloo’s PipBuck message brought back memories. That first morning in the Equestrian Wasteland -- how the sheer oddness of it struck me. This was altogether different. I could smell unnatural odors riding in the smoke. I could taste something pungently bittersweet with each breath.

“Should we be breathing this?” I asked Velvet Remedy. I was reminded of the dangers of working in the parasprite incinerator pits. Did anypony know what nastiness the smoke from the Everfree Forest might carry with it? I suddenly envied the Steel Rangers (Outcasts and otherwise) for the rebreathers built into their armored suits.

“Probably not,” Velvet Remedy said, doing absolutely nothing to assuage my fears.

The cliffs around the shack were precarious with no safe path to ascend and no outcropping to land the passenger wagon. It was, after all, a home for a pegasus. Calamity was forced to land at the base of the cliffs. After brief discussion, it was suggested that Calamity and I would head up alone.

“Oh no,” Velvet Remedy put her hoof down. “You did not bring us all the way here, Calamity, to your old home, only to not let me see it.”

Calamity nickered, looking apprehensive and a bit embarrassed.

“Come on now,” Velvet purred. “I showed you mine; now you show me yours.”

I tried very hard to think of other things. “Tell you what: I’ll levitate myself up there while you two fly up.”

“Can ya do that, Li’lpip? Levitate yerself that far?”

To be honest, I wasn’t sure. Self-levitation had always been the hardest trick. I wanted to give it a try. But I didn’t want to suffer the fall if I failed.

“Be ready to catch me?” I asked meekly. Calamity nodded, stretching out his wings confidently.

(Somewhere behind me, I heard Xenith ask somepony, “Why do they not just make two trips?”)

I looked up, pointing my horn towards the shack. And swallowed nervously. It was… very high.

My horn began to glow. Focusing, I enveloped my body with a magical envelope and pushed off from the ground. I had done this much before; but just as in the Pit, my ascent had begun to slow rapidly. I focused harder and tried to pull myself upwards.

I was still slowing.

I concentrated, sweat beading on my forehead and running down my neck. An overglow flared around my horn, casting reflections on the cliff rocks.

I stopped slowing. I was doing it! I was pulling myself through the air!

I was… pushing exhaustion. The effort was almost painful. But I was doing it.

I was flying!

*** *** ***

I lay on the little strip of wood that amounted to Calamity’s front porch, panting heavily. My legs didn’t want to hold me up. Oh, they could if I asked, but they didn’t want to.

It was worth it. For just a little bit, I was actually flying.

It had not been a graceful act of freedom; as I was neither a pegasus nor a bird. It had been work, like galloping uphill against the wind. But I had done it. And for a moment, all the horrors and pain of the last few days was forgotten in the rush and exertion.

I wondered how long it would take Calamity to fly up here with Velvet Remedy. Not long, my mind answered swiftly. In fact, I was surprised they weren’t already here.

I remembered that I still had a memory orb from one of the safes in the Fillydelphia Ministry of Magic vault -- the orb from the safe which had also held a cloak. (Judging from Xenith’s reaction and recent griffin-related experience, I deduced that it had been a zebra stealth cloak.) I decided abruptly that I didn’t want to spend the wait laying sweaty and wiped on Calamity’s porch. So I floated out the memory orb and focused on it.

And immediately knew it was a mistake, remembering that the orb had come from a ruined box and was likely damaged itself, but it was too late.

My body exploded, every nerve being flayed as I was burned over and over without dying. I knew my real body must be screaming and thrashing, but the pain was too intense to even fear for my safety. In fact, falling from the cliff side and being dashed on the ground below would be a mercy.

A thousand white-hot knives sliced through my brain.

An eyeblink or an eternity later, the pain stopped as abruptly as it started. And I was no longer myself…

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

I wasn’t even a pony. This was a familiar strangeness. And I could feel the cloak draped about me, the hood over my mane and ears (as well as a saddle-pouch and something strapped to my side). This too was familiar. I was invisible again. A fact all too easy to glean as I watched a stallion admiring himself in a mirror -- a mirror which should also reflect my host from this angle, but did not. My host was a zebra in a stealth cloak. Possibly the same one as before.

“If you won’t accept my offer, then you should at least consider availing yourself of your good fortune that I am willing to pose for your new publication,” the stallion suggested as he preened himself. He was a regal, haughty white unicorn, quite handsome in his elder years. “I am, after all, the best pony.”

“Hardly,” intoned an elegant voice which could only belong to Rarity. If the stallion had noticed the slightly disparaging tone, he showed no indication of comprehending it. “There is no place for grandstanding or glory-hounds in the Ministry of Image. Our purpose here is to help the client shine all across Equestria, not ourselves. And our client is all of Equestria itself. We should remain invisible.”

With a politely sweet tone, she encouraged, “Perhaps you should try the Ministry of Awesome.”

We were in an office. A rather nice one at that, with elegant curtains and golden trim on the wainscoting. It certainly lacked the humbleness I had come to expect from a Ministry of Image building, which told me this was no M.I. hub, but the Ministry’s headquarters on Ministry Walk in Canterlot -- the one place where even the Ministry of Image would have to maintain an image.

“That’s easy for you to say,” the stallion frowned. “You’re already in charge of one of the most important branches of Princess Luna’s new government. You’re already in a position far beyond your wildest peasant dreams.”

Wow. I was quickly forming a rather strong dislike for this buck.

Rarity’s riposte was controlled, calm, even charming. “Humility was a lesson hard learned, in fact. It’s called maturing. Something which, sadly, you seem to have little acquaintance.”

“This is some sort of revenge, isn’t it?” Amazingly, the stallion still hadn’t bothered to glance at the beautiful mare he was talking to. If he was the subject of my host’s surveillance, then the magical cloak seemed superfluous.

“A lady is not vengeful,” Rarity informed him with a refined tone.

“But you are not a lady,” the stallion replied thoughtlessly. “You are a government official.”

I wanted to deck him.

“You are quite fortunate that I am a lady,” Rarity responded, her voice lowering. “And that I do not have a nearby cake.”

I had no idea what cake had to do with the conversation. But at least my host finally turned her attention to the gorgeous white unicorn. Again, she looked younger than I would have expected, and there was no grey in her hair.

She really knows how to take good care of herself, I thought admiringly. I bet she dyes her mane.

“And I am a prince,” the stallion informed her, finally deigning to turn his gaze away from himself and towards the mare he was addressing.

Proposal?

“Really?” Rarity rolled her eyes. “I have long operated under the assumption that your lineage was a joke perpetrated by Princess Celestia on…” She paused thoughtfully before concluding, “…anypony who ever met you.”

Rarity’s horn glowed.

“If you were to accept my proposal, then you would be a princess,” the prince continued obliviously.

Oh Goddesses fuck me in a three-way, this jerk actually proposed to Rarity? That’s what he meant by accepting his offer? A proposal isn’t an offer, it’s a request.

Rarity glanced around, then sighed. “Yes, and you would gain a hoof in one of the most powerful Ministries in Equestria. Or, at least, that would be what you seem to think.” She looked askance. “I cannot imagine any world where that would be worth it.”

The prince huffed. “You speak as if I am not sacrificing greatly myself in this arrangement. As your husband, I would almost certainly be expected to have relations with you.”

Un. Be. Lievable!

I focused, trying to make my host run over and buck him through sheer force of will.

Rarity stared silently. Her eyes slowly narrowed. Her horn glowed briefly again. “This conversation is over. Prince Blueblood, it is time for you to leave. If you have any further business, please address it to anypony other than me. Your presence causes me physical pain.”

“I am a prince, and a member in high standing in the courts of Canterlot. You would do well to…”

“But I don’t want to,” Rarity interrupted. “I don’t like you. In fact, I find you quite horrid. I despise that my position requires me to acknowledge your existence, and much worse, give you the occasional time of day. But that time had come to a close. Goodbye.”

Prince Blueblood huffed, standing tall. “You have no place to complain. It is I who should…”

“Oh, I’m not complaining,” Rarity’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I’m whining. If I was complaining, it would suggest there is a higher authority to complain to. But there is not; I am the highest authority within this Ministry. Observe.”

Rarity trotted to her desk and pushed a button with her hoof. “Oooh guards!”

She turned to smile at the unicorn stallion as the double doors at the end of the room swung open and two guard ponies appeared. Prince Blueblood backpedaled, startled. “Please escort the prince off the property. If he resists, arrest him.”

I would have enjoyed the show had my host not backed away, heart beating slightly faster. She turned our head and I felt my teeth biting down on the object strapped to her side. It was the hilt of a sheathed blade, and the zebra silently drew it.

The guards did as the Ministry Mare requested. Prince Blueblood showed enough intelligence to not resist. I had hoped that once they were gone, my host would re-sheath her blade, but the zebra clearly had other plans.

We were alone with Rarity in her office. And she couldn’t see us.

“Unbelievable!” she nickered, echoing my previous thought. The elder unicorn had her back to us, her head lowered as she focused on something on her desk as my host began to creep closer.

No! I tried to shout a warning.

The zebra turned her head, aiming the blade for the back of Rarity’s neck, right in the lush of her mane. I could feel my host tense for the strike. Rarity shifted slightly, her horn glowing as one of the gems on the front of her desk slid aside, revealing a secret lock that demanded her attention.

Please no!

I felt something shift in the zebra’s saddle-pouch. A new weight. Suddenly, frantically, my host backed up. I heard the detonation, felt a brutal pressure and a searing pain, then nothing. My host fell. Unmoving save for a twitching she could barely feel. It was as if her entire body had gone numb.

“Simply unbelievable,” reiterated Rarity as she elegantly turned, staring at where we had collapsed invisibly on the floor.

I heard more than felt the cloak being pulled off of my host, glowing in a blue magical field that mirrored the soft light tracing the spirals around Rarity’s horn. The moment it was removed, both the cloak and my host became visible. Rarity paid us no attention, floating the cloak to her and flipping the rough fabric about until she found the gemstone clasp.

“There you are, my pretty,” she said, telekinetically ripping the gemstone free, breaking the clasp in the process. “Oh don’t you have some interesting magic,” she said as she appraised the gem, tossing the rest of the cloak aside. “Twi will love taking a closer look at you!”

I realized I was seeing the inception of StealthBucks.

I recalled a message I had found in a recruitment center: Intelligence suggested that the zebras had developed invisibility spell fetishes, but this looks like something designed by the Ministry of Magic. In the pervading paranoia of late wartime Equestria, somepony had feared the worst, not knowing what Twilight Sparkle knew. But the zebra’s hadn’t gotten this magic from us; we had gotten it from them.

The long, wicked blade lay on the carpet where it had fallen, close yet impossibly out of reach. My host tried to move towards it, but her body wouldn’t respond.

“I slipped a stun grenade into your saddle-pouch,” Rarity informed us, moving the gemstone out of sight. “I like to think I’m rather expert at manipulating cloth. Even if I can’t see it.”

The zebra shuffled closer to the blade.

“Really?” Rarity said with a lady-like scoff. She floated the blade away, turning a disdainful gaze on us. “A zebra assassin attempted to infiltrate my office and murder me concealed under a cloak with an enchanted gemstone?”

She leaned closer, “I’d explain how I got my cutie mark, but it wouldn’t do you any good where you’re going.”

Another cocoon of blue light wrapped around a headset on her desk and floated it over her head, gently sliding it into place around her ears and muzzle.

“Although I do have to wonder, were you trying to assassinate one of ‘Nightmare Moon’s’ cabinet?” she asked, turning her tail to us as she slid open the hidden compartment in her desk. “Or were you after this?

Rarity cantered to face us. Floating in front of her was a powerful, dark tome bound in twisted black hide.

The moment I saw the book, I knew it held so many secrets. So many things just waiting for me to unlock if I could only look at the pages.

“Well, I suppose we’ll find out, won’t we?” Rarity promised.

She lifted a hoof to the headset, her expression instantly changing to one of barely-bridled joy. “Oooh Piiiinkie Pie! This is Rarity. I’ve got a present for you!” She smiled. “You’ll love this one.”

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

I came to on a worn, musty cot in Calamity’s shack. Velvet Remedy was laying on the floor, panting and soaked in sweat. Calamity himself stood towering over me, shadowed from the light coming through the window over the workbench behind him.

“What happened, Li’lpip?”

“Where?” I blinked, looking around. “What…?”

“Ya made it all the way up,” Calamity asserted. “Ah saw ya do it. But we were most o’ the way up when ya screamed, thrashin’ like ya were on fire, and flung yerself from the porch!”

“I fell?” My eyes went wide. I turned, looking around. The door to the shack was open. I blinked as the image of The Black Book swam in front of me -- much like having turned away after staring at a bright light and seeing the shape of the light dance before your eyes. But nothing in a visited memory had ever left such an imprint outside of the experience.

I blinked, clearing my vision. I could see the porch were I had been laying. The memory orb was nowhere in sight.

“Darn tootin’ ya fell!” Calamity retorted. “We had a helluva time getting’ ya up here, even after ya went limp. Been worried sick. What the hell happened?”

“I…” I looked towards the empty porch again. My instinct was to lie. But there wasn’t a lie that wouldn’t end up worrying my friends needlessly. “I made a mistake. While I was waiting, I touched a memory orb. Only it was damaged…”

“Ya did what?” Calamity snapped. “On the porch? Li’lpip, Ah barely caught ya!”

I cringed back, staring up at my pegasus friend, my hooves pushing at the cloth on his cot as my back thumped softly against the wall.

“Y’know, it’s hard ‘nuff flyin’ while carryin’ one pony. Ah can’t do it wi’ two when the second one is buckin’ an’ screamin’ like she’s bein’ eaten from the inside out!” Calamity lashed out. Unpleasant nightmares about parasprites washed through my mind. “Ya nearly brought us all down! Velvet Remedy had t’ use her magic t’ carry ya. And Ah’ll remind ya that she ain’t nearly as good at that spell as y’all are!”

I turned a nervous look to Velvet. She was so exhausted that she could barely return my gaze.

“An’ don’tcha think after all she’s been through last night, tha maybe she didn’t deserve for ya to make us all scared t’ death that yer dyin’ from somethin’ in the smoke?”

Oh Goddess. The weight of what I’d thoughtlessly done to them crushed down on me. I started to shake. The hurt from my shame and Calamity’s righteous anger broke the floodgates, and suddenly the emotional deluge of the last half a week consumed me. The horrors of Fillydelphia slavery, The Pit, the threat to Homage, the slaughter at Stable Two, my mother…

“I’m sorry!” I yelled back, bursting into tears. “I fucked up! It was horrible! I’m sorry!”

“Galdangit, Li’lpip!” Calamity growled back angrily, “Yer curiosity is gonna get ya killed one o’ these days. An’ t’day ya nearly took alla us with ya!”

“I’m sorry!”

Calamity snorted, glowering, as I broke into sobs. Velvet Remedy, trembled, huffing as she got to her feet, and moved closer to me, pulling herself onto the cot with a painful effort.

“Okay,” Calamity insisted. “Ground rules. From now on, ya don’t play with one o’ those things unless yer on the ground, out of combat, somewhere’s safe. And ya have one o’ us watchin’ over ya.”

Having laid the law, Calamity allowed his expression to soften. His own utter exhaustion finally showed through his eyes. He gently wrapped me with a wing.

The two of them stayed with me until the tempest passed.

“Now buck up, Li’lpip,” Calamity finally said, prodding me with his wing. “Ya gonna have a look at that floor safe or not?”

I nodded, although for the first time I really didn’t feel right allowing my curiosity to be sated. I slid slowly from the cot and looked at the floor beneath it.

It was, at most, an average lock. Even in my distress, I could open it easily, with or without tools. The safe clicked open.

Amongst the saddlebag’s worth of decayed personal effects, one item sat gleaming and unblemished by time. A statuette of Rainbow Dash. Her pose was powerful, wings spread and a huge grin on her face…

“Go ahead,” Calamity said softly. “Take it. Ah know ya collect those things.”

“But… don’t you want it?” I asked, surprised.

“Ah already got her cutie mark burned inta muh flanks. Ah figure she’s already close ‘nuff t’ me.”

I nodded, then carefully reached out with my magic, experiencing a sudden surge as my magic touched the statuette. I was… better. I felt like I could be better than I had been before. Do anything. Nimbler, more graceful… but much more than that. I was, in a word, cooler.

The inscription was what Rainbow Dash’s inscription had to be:

“Be Awesome!”

*** *** ***

Calamity stepped out of his shack and into the oddly reddish-orange air. He was encased in the terrifying black carapace of his old Enclave armor. The tips of his four Novasurge rifles glistened wickedly. He tested his wings and the scorpion tail.

Then he lowered his head and hoofed off the helmet. He looked back up, letting the smoky wind catch in his orange mane. He looked weird without his hat on.

“Forget it,” he huffed with a stomp. “Ah’m not goin’ ‘round like this.” He turned and trotted back into the shack. “Ah’d rather be shot.”

It took him less that a minute to shuck the armor. Velvet Remedy wrapped it in her magic, making sure to also collect his helmet from the porch. “Well, at least take it with us. You may change your mind when you see whatever forces Red Eye has around Tenpony Tower.”

“Fine,” he grumped. “Ah’ve grabbed everythin’ Ah want. Let’s just go.”

I paused. “Calamity? I know you are hoping to sell a bunch of those slavers’ weapons up at Tenpony, but I really think we should give them to Ditzy Doo. You know, as a thank you for what she did for Stable Two.”

Velvet Remedy neighed. “That would be a rather impersonal gift, Littlepip. And possibly a painful one, considering what slavers have done to her.” I frowned, wincing. “Besides, do you really want to give New Appleloosa more weapons right now?” I had to admit that I did not.

Instead, Velvet Remedy looked to Calamity, “Do you know anything that Ditzy Doo likes? I agree with Littlepip: we do need to give her a gift, something to show our thanks for her help.”

“Well,” Calamity thought. “She likes muffins…”

Velvet looked shocked. “Can ghouls even eat?” Apparently, they didn’t have to, but they could.

I smiled. Between Homage and Xenith, we had the best cooks in the Equestrian Wasteland.

*** *** ***

I spent most of the ride trying not to think about anything that had happened recently. I knew that if I did, I’d start crying again.

Instead, I tried to focus on the discussions between the Outcasts, but they delved into internal Steel Ranger politics, and I felt my attention drifting. Knight Strawberry Lemonade sat next to me, chiming into the older members’ conversations at every opportunity.

Strawberry Lemonade, I thought, sounds delicious.

I groaned, catching myself before my imagination went too far south. I needed Homage. I looked over the side of the passenger wagon. Twilight was spreading across the wasteland as we approached Fetlock. Below I spotted the mostly-collapsed ruins of that first cottage, but the wandering merchant and his mechanical owl had moved on.

As we approached Fetlock, I spotted the faint column of smoke raising up from the ponyhole that lead to Stable Twenty-Nine. More curled up from nearby drainage grates. There were no sounds of fighting.

“This is either very good,” SteelHooves commented, “Or very bad.”

As we drew closer, a Steel Ranger moved out of the shadows. There was a flash of light. I ducked, expecting impact.

But it hadn’t been a weapon. It was a flare.

“Thank Applejack,” I thought I heard SteelHooves mutter. It was good news.

I let out a breath. It was about time the Equestrian Wasteland threw us a break.

*** *** ***

Our luck continued to hold as we glided through the night over the Manehattan ruins. As we approached the top of Tenpony Tower, I could see the firelights from Red Eye’s camps below, ringing the tower on the ground and lighting up the Celestia Line. They had taken the exterior of the Four Stars station.

Griffins flew in patterns around the tower, but they flew low, looking for targets on the ground. I realized with a start that Red Eye didn’t know about the Sky Bandit. He knew we had a pegasus, so he could suspect we had faster transport. But he had to allow for the possibility that we were walking. And if that were true, we’d barely be making Manehattan now if we traveled here straight from Fillydelphia.

We had time.

We had a problem. There was an alicorn perched on the roof of Tenpony Tower. Her shield was down, all the better to spot incoming Littlepips. I could shoot her. The silenced zebra rifle would more than do the trick. But the moment she went down, every alicorn in the area would know. And there was a good chance Red Eye would too.

The passenger wagon lurched hard. “Aww crap,” Calamity grunted as we began to sink out of the sky. The spark batteries were drained. And our poor pegaus was too exhausted to handle the sudden change in weight. He nearly fainted from the strain. We began to plummet.

Frantically, I concentrated on wrapping the Sky Bandit with my magic. If I could pull myself through the air, maybe I could slow or even reverse our fall.

My horn flared brightly. The strain hit me like a shock, buckling my legs, reminding me that I hadn’t slept in over a day.

We were still falling.

I pushed harder, gasping, my body trembling. A layer of overglow burst from my horn. Sparks started to shoot from its tip.

The glow around the Sky Bandit became brilliant. It attracted the attention of one of the griffins below as we plummeted towards their patrol line. The griffin turned towards us, lifting her sniper rifle, and fired.

Now everyone would know we are here. But I couldn’t focus on that. I was pouring everything I had into trying to slow our descent. A second overglow wrapped my horn. Beams of light shot out of it.

We began to slow.

“Aw hell,” Calamity moaned weakly, all but collapsed in the harness, as the alicorn took off from the roof, diving towards us as she put up her shield.

I screamed, somehow tapping into strength I didn’t have (Be Strong! Be Unwavering! Be Awesome!). A third layer of overglow erupted from my horn. The Sky Bandit stopped abruptly, hovering in the air.

Then we began to ascend.

The alicorn’s eyes widened and she stopped her descent. Her glowing horn began to crackle with electricity as she prepared to cast a bolt of lightning at us.

The griffin shot again. This time, the bullet hit the wagon, leaving a small hole in the roof. The griffin began to reload, and was engulfed in green flame. Pyrelight hooted happily and swooped back up after us.

Velvet Remedy tossed her shield around the Sky Bandit. The first bolt of lightning struck it and the shield imploded, but it kept us from being hit. Part of my mind realized that the shock from a strike would obliterate my concentration and we would fall to our deaths.

The alicorn was flying upwards, back towards the roof, keeping a distance between herself and us as her horn crackled again with electricity.

Pyrelight landed next to Velvet Remedy, looking proud.

Xenith had shattered another flask on the floor and was stomping in it. As the second bolt lashed out, the zebra grabbed my mane in her teeth and pulled me onto her back. The powerful electrical bolt hit the Sky Bandit, arcing all about the metal frame. Velvet let out a lady-like squeal and collapsed. Pyrelight squawked and tumbled to the floor of the passenger wagon.

Xenith and I remained unharmed, protected by her insulating potion. We continued to rise. There was nothing else we could do.

The alicorn landed back on the edge of the roof. Motes of magic began to form in a ring about her, forming into eldritch darts.

From somewhere on the rooftop, a lashing beam of cosmic energy struck the alicorn, rippling the shield where it pushed through to strike the monster directly. The shield imploded as the alicorn was reduced to luminescent, moon-colored ash.

I floated the Sky Bandit onto the rooftop. Homage was waiting there for us, the alien weapon floating by her side. As soon as she saw me, she galloped into the passenger wagon and wrapped me in a hug.

Homage!

I could smell her, feel her soft coat and the warmth of her body. My own relaxed in her embrace, and once more, I began to cry.

*** *** ***

“A zebra!” Homage squealed happily. Xenith cringed back as Homage offered her hoof.

“She… doesn’t like being touched,” I told the sexy grey unicorn. Homage lowered her hoof and nodded.

“And who might you be?” Xenith asked, prompting introductions.

Inspiration hit me. “Homage, would you allow…” I paused. “Could you ask DJ Pon3 if Xenith could spend some time in the M.A.S.E.B.S.?”

Homage and Xenith both looked at me curiously. “Please?” I asked Homage.

“I-I’m sure it could be arranged,” Homage said trustingly.

I turned to my zebra friend. “DJ Pon3 has cameras all over the Equestrian Wasteland. Maybe one of them has seen your daughter or her tribe?

The zebra’s eyes widened. I saw a glimmer of hope.

Homage smiled. “Yes, please. And I’m sure I can get DJ Pon3 to let you peek at some of the archived footage. I’ll show you how to do so, then leave you in private.” She blushed a little, “Littlepip and I are going to be busy, but we won’t be far away.”

“She likes spankings and bondage,” Velvet told Homage in a conspiratorial, overly-loud whisper.

I stared at her, wide-eyed, blushing hotly. “That’s not true!”

Homage raised an eyebrow. “Did you two talk about liking bondage and spankings?” she asked innocently.

“No. I mean yes, but…”

“Oh,” Homage feigned understanding, “So you talked about Velvet liking bondage?”

“No, me. But…” Aw crap.

“So you do like it!” Homage was grinning way too much. I gave up, hanging my head and accepting my doomed-ness.

I narrowed my eyes, whispering to the charcoal-coated mare, “All those times I fantasized about you? That was before I learned you were evil.”

“Don’t worry,” Homage said, wrapping a foreleg about me as she smiled, her eyes twinkling as she glanced to Velvet. “Last time, I learned you were multi-orgasmic. Tonight I’m going to find out just how many you can have before you pass out.” She nibbled one of my ears. “Then I’m going to find out if I can wake you up with one. So… some bondage might be required.”

I felt myself flooding with heat and embarrassment. I simultaneously wanted to both let her tie me up and do whatever she desired… and to run away and hide under a rock forever. I swayed, feeling faint and nearly fell over. Delicately, Homage maneuvered me towards the rooftop door.

“Wow,” Xenith said, standing with the others as we walked away, her exotic voice gaining a touch of melancholy. “With all your teasing, I was beginning to feel sorry for the little one. Now I just feel jealous.”

“Yes,” Velvet Remedy agreed, sounding a touch stunned. “So do I.” She turned to Calamity. “No offense.”

“Offense? Hell, Ah feel jealous.”

Homage snickered. Then turned to the others. “Are you coming?”

I stopped, at first thinking that she was inviting them to watch. That… I couldn’t possibly… no!

But Homage had less cruel plans. “I’ve arranged for the rest of you to have the same suite as before. It’s all taken care of.”

*** *** ***

Velvet Remedy and Calamity had taken their leave, Velvet mentioning something about dragging the poor pegasus buck to the spa. Homage, Xenith and I were left alone in the room with the huge alicorn water fountain.

As physically exhausted, emotionally gutted, and achingly horny as I was, I could not seek attention for my needs until others had been met. First came getting Xenith set up in the Emergency Broadcast Station. Xenith’s eyes went even wider as she took in the walls of monitor screens. Many still flickered and suffered distorted images, but I saw all of them were working.

“This is… amazing,” the zebra breathed. “What is this place?”

Homage told her, adding, “The images you see are from the spire towers like the one in Fillydelphia. Until just over three days ago, the ones from Fillydelphia were dark. Red Eye is using that tower for something and it was keeping me from getting a signal. But thanks to Littlepip, DJ Pon3 now has eyes in the heart of slaver territory too.” Homage gave Xenith a sympathetic and hopeful smile. “We’ll finally be able to start doing some real good out there.”

The zebra nodded. For the next hour, Homage instructed the zebra in the camera controls and accessing the archives. Xenith took to it with difficulty. In the meantime, I mostly just watched. In Homage’s home, I finally felt safe. I was no longer on edge, no longer running or fighting, and my body kept trying to fall asleep.

I did however, manage to get a promise of muffins from both of them. Ditzy Doo would soon be getting the biggest and best muffin delivery in the history of the Equestrian Wasteland.

Then, finally, Homage and I were alone together in the foyer, standing next to the fountain.

“And what shall I do with you, my Wasteland Heroine?” Homage purred. “First, I mean.”

“Homage,” I said reluctantly. “We need to talk.”

“Oh my. Sounds serious.”

I nodded. Falling to my haunches, I began to talk. I started with the truth about SteelHooves and Chief Grim Star, apologizing profusely for having not told her sooner. Homage’s expression was troubled but forgiving.

Then I told her of Red Eye and the megaspell.

“We have to evacuate the tower,” I said finally. “Quickly, and stealthily.”

“We can’t leave Tenpony Tower,” Homage said, shaking her head.

“I know they have you surrounded. But maybe with the Sky Bandit… or though the tunnels?” I fretted. “It can’t be impossible.”

Homage shook her head again. “No. Some of the population, maybe. But even then, I can’t leave here. We can’t let Red Eye take this place.”

“I know DJ Pon3 is important, but he’s not as important as your life.” She couldn’t understand that, of course. But I had seen the Gardens of Equestria. I knew.

“Then you seriously underestimate the need for a voice of truth and hope in this ruined world,” Homage told me. “DJ Pon3 gives the ponies of the Equestrian Wasteland the warnings and advice they need to survive. But more than that, he gives them comfort and the hope they need to make surviving worthwhile.”

I looked away and nodded, feeling ashamed. She was right.

“And while I would say DJ Pon3 is the most vital thing we need to preserve and protect here, he is not the only treasure in this tower.”

I looked up in surprise. This was new.

Homage brushed my hair tenderly even as her own blue mane fell into her eyes. “Littlepip, love,” she said, that word shooting thrills through me, igniting desires and dreams. “Tenpony Tower was a prominent hub for the Ministry of Arcane Sciences. It’s not a hotel or a mall. There are secrets here.”

“Secrets?” I asked, that damnably curious pony in my head perking at the mere idea. “What sort of secrets?” I could tell Homage was debating whether or not to tell me. But only for a moment.

“Littlepip, did you ever wonder how I could stay here, DJ Pon3’s public assistant, when the stuffy lot in this place despise him so?” I had to admit the question had never occurred to me.

“There is a secret society within Tenpony Tower. They are the ones who, I dare say, are really in charge.” She backed up and looked around. “There are places in this building that are sealed off from the general public. Places were the Ministry’s secrets played out. All manner of magical research and development.”

She looked at me, tossing her hair out of her eyes. “You know that annoying shield spell the alicorns all have? It was developed here.”

I found myself looking up at the age-darkened bronze statue. The alicorn in the room.

“And you haven’t seen how powerful that spell can get if you pump enough power into it,” Homage told me. “The only reason the alicorn shields can be punched through with the right firepower is because they can’t manifest it at anywhere near full power.”

“Actually,” I said, remembering the super-charged alicorn from the Fillydelphia Crater flying through the building, her shield tearing apart walls and supports, “I think I have.”

Homage bade me to tell her about it. Once I was done, she nodded, visibly shaken. “I think you’re right,” she admitted.

Homage continued, “In the weeks before the end, one of the other hubs in the Ministry of Arcane Science cracked some sort of sub-spell that they used to enhance the shield spell,” she continued. “Not make it more powerful, but make it so that specially designated ponies could pass through a shield as if it wasn’t there. They started creating enchanted shield generators, placing them inside rooms or sections of buildings that they wanted secure.”

With that, Homage hopped up onto the fountain’s rim and tapped her right forehoof rhythmically on the alicorn statue. I gasped as the horn flared with magic and the glowing aura of a magical shield swept over the walls. “The M.A.S.E.B.S. and Twilight’s Athenaeum are amongst Tenpony Tower’s sealed areas,” she said with a smile. “To the population below, DJ Pon3 has always been a strange hermit living in part of the tower that no pony can get to, always dealing with the outside world through intermediaries.”

My jaw dropped.

“Once started, the only way to turn off the shield was from inside, and the only ponies who could get inside were those designated by the sub-spell…”

“Bypass Spells,” I said, slowly re-closing my jaw. Homage gave me a quizzical look. “The sub-spell, it’s called a Bypass. Twilight Sparkle reverse-engineered it from a zebra enchantment.” Like the StealthBucks, I thought. Shield screens that let specific materials through my flank.

Dammit.

I was going to have to kill the Goddess for Red Eye after all. Not only was it the only way to protect Homage and the ponies of Tenpony Tower, it was the only way to keep him from taking too close a look at this place.

“Could we move all the ponies of the tower into the shielded areas?” I asked.

“Not for long,” Homage answered. “And I don’t think it would do much good. If that Balefire bomb goes off, it will take out the foundation and everything not protected. All the shielding in Equestria won’t save us from the fall.”

Glumly, she admitted, “The shields that were used to protect the whole building haven’t worked since the first one.”

“I know,” I told her, recounting how a wrong turn in the basement had brought me to the room full of generators. I didn’t mention the maintenance pony who had died from shrapnel when the megaspell overloaded them and they all exploded.

Another realization struck me. “Red Eye is researching a way to trick a Bypass,” I warned her. If these shields were being used to house the most vital research of at least one of the Ministries... what could he be after? Was it here? “He hadn’t had much success yet, but he’s got ponies working on it.”

Homage frowned. “Not good.” She hopped down from the fountain. “Thank you for the warning, Littlepip.” She approached me, “Problem is, there already is a way to trick a… Bypass, right?”

I nodded.

“The Bypass works on genetics. And it’s not as accurate as the Ministry of Arcane Sciences thought. Close family members of the designated ponies, or even a direct descendant of them, can get through a Bypass. That’s how I can get in here even if the shields are up.” Homage looked back at the alicorn and then to me.

“The shields in Tenpony Tower were set to allow only Twilight Sparkle and the three highest ranking unicorns in the Manehattan M.A.S. hub to pass through. Turns out, I’m a direct descendant of one of those high-ranking unicorns,” she revealed to me. “Just like the ponies who actually control Tenpony Tower. That’s why they want me here.” Homage added cautiously, “As long as I don’t make too many waves.”

Oh. Oh wow.

“I’ll admit, I’ve been talking you up a lot. And I think I’m finally getting the others to come around. It won’t be long before I can put the special resources of this tower at your hooves.” Homage smiled sweetly. “Let me give you the extended tour.”

*** *** ***

Shield spells had only been the start. Homage guided me through one concealed hallway and shielded chamber after another, turning off the shields for me and restoring them in our wake.

We walked into a large, multi-cornered ritual chamber, bleached brightest white. The floor was an intricate mosaic of white-on-white tiles in exquisite and arcane patterns. There was a mirrored chimney leading up to a skylight, looking up into the darkness of the clouds above.

“What is this?”

“This,” Homage revealed, “Is a megaspell chamber.”

I stumbled. “Wait… you can cast megaspells here?”

Homage giggled. “Yes and no. You can cast a specific megaspell in here. If you had enough unicorns who all knew the spell. Each megaspell chamber is keyed to a specific spell, apparently.”

I nodded, my mouth suddenly dry. “How many… megaspell chambers… does Tenpony Tower have?”

“Just this one,” Homage admitted sadly. “And it’s useless.”

“Useless?’

Homage moved over to one of the chamber’s thirty-two corners. She floated up an audio machine. “I found this in the recording studio. Apparently, it never got around to editing.”

Homage started the machine, and hauntingly peaceful music flowed out, plucked and strummed from a deep-sounding harp. I closed my eyes and found myself swaying to the music. It was mysterious, unlike anything I had heard before.

“I try to pull this out once a year for a late night broadcast. I love it, but it’s totally not DJ Pon3.”

I nodded, wanting her to shut up. I was enjoying the music. It was speaking to me, touching on the sorrows of the last week, but without making me hurt.

The music ended in a rippling wave of sound that slowly reverberated away.

I heard a voice from the recording, sounding like somepony speaking through the recording studio’s intercom. “That was beautiful, Lyra. Next, let’s try…”

But an argument in the background, at first almost too quiet to hear, was quickly growing louder. From inside the recording chamber, the voice of a mare whom I assumed to by Lyra, spoke up. “What’s going on?”

“um… You didn’t hear this from me, but Twilight Sparkle’s gone the last three days without sleep, trying to prepare for the Princess’s inspection, and has been in supreme bitchy mode all day today. I suggest steering clear. Don’t worry. I don’t think she’ll come in here.”

The arguing voices outside the recording studio were getting loud enough and close enough to make out the words.

“…Well that’s just great, Twilight. Now she’s in the bathroom sobbing her eyes out.”

“Well, I’m sorry. But those results are just unacceptable. I can’t go to the Princess and tell her that we’ve put her name on a megaspell that’s… that’s useless!”

The ponies in the recording studio had fallen completely silent. The argument was just outside their door. Twilight Sparkle and a male voice that sounded vaguely familiar.

“There’s better ways of handling it than grabbing a pony, pointing and saying ‘Look, there are all the thousands and thousands of bodies of ponies who are dead because your spell sucks. Explain it to them.’ Just how the hell was that supposed to help?”

“Don’t you get it, Spike? The zebras have megaspell-tipped missiles. Hundreds of them. If they launch them, those missiles will reach Equestria from the zebra homeland within minutes. And this Celestia One, or Celestia Prime, or whatever they’re calling it can’t even be cast unless it’s sunny. I can’t tell the Princess that the only defense we have against those missiles can be defeated by a cloudy day. What if the zebras decide to attack us at night?”

“…”

“You know what? Forget it, Twilight. I’m going to take a nap. And frankly, you should too.”

“You’re always taking a nap. There’s work to be done”

“Whatever. Wake me when the Twilight I know and love has decided to visit. Until then, I don’t even want to speak to you.”

“Urrgh. Fine.”

*** *** ***

“In here,” Homage said, waving a hoof at a sprawling agricultural bay, “We discovered that the Ministry of Arcane Sciences had perfected spells that purified water, cleaned radiation, even purged taint.” I boggled. If only that maddened ghoul doctor had known. What he killed so many to accomplish…

“Unfortunately,” Homage informed me, “The spells only work on an extremely small scale. With a lot of effort, we could purge one tree, the fruit becoming ripe and succulent and perfect for consumption… but there’s nothing to keep the poisons from just seeping back in, and the area affected is so small it would take an army of unicorns to clean enough of a field to grow a garden without having to worry about the soil going bad before harvest. But it makes for wonderful potted plants.”

“But, if you could cast it everywhere, all at once. Purge everything…” I realized what I was seeing. These were components of the Gardens of Equestria.

“I’d say you were delusional, but I’m talking to my Littlepip. I know better.”

It was time to tell her.

When I was done, Homage collapsed weakly. “Me?” She looked at me, as if pleading for me to renounce the truth. “The… salvation of all of Equestria… is on me?”

I nodded. “You. Ditzy Doo. Four others. We don’t know who yet.”

“This spell… it will fix everything?”

“Pretty much,” I nodded. “But there’s things that need to be done first. I’m not the Wasteland Savior, Homage. You are. You and them.” I gave her a bittersweet smile. “I’m just the one who clears the way.”

Homage stared at me for a long time. Then pushed herself up. “I need a drink...”

*** *** ***

Screw my mother and screw my vulnerability to addictions. We were back in the Athenaeum, and Homage was drowning herself in apple whiskey and I was right there beside her, soused to the… whatever it is that ponies get soused to.

“…And then,” Homage slurred, continuing a tale that had blurred into another tale which had jumped off from the original story about four stories back, “Jokeblue says, 'pfft, big deal. You've got one box that's bigger inside than outside. Well, Mister Whooves, I've got four little saddle bags, and I can carry about thirty rifles in them and more ammo than you can shake a hoof at. Hell, you should see how many rakes I can cram into my toolbox back home.’" Homage thumped down the apple whiskey bottle on the table for emphasis.

I paused, waving my hooves as I tried to measure my imagination. I was drunk and probably missing something, because there was no way a rake could fit in a toolbox. I finally gave up, deciding it must be a joke.

“Jokeblue’s a funny name. How’d she get that?”

Homage became more somber, although no more sober. “Birth defect. Her mother was hit by killing joke while pregnant. Lucky either of them lived.”

“Ah,” I said, not really understanding, but reaching out a comforting hoof anyway. It seemed the right thing to do, even though I ended up knocking over several of the apple whiskey bottles. Fortunately, most of them were empty.

A memory struck me and I began to cry again.

“Lit… pip? What is it?”

With a shuddering breath, I recounted, “I shot one of the Steel Rangers. In the back of the head. I think it was the one who killed my old mentor, but… I’m not sure.”

“Well, sounds like the bitch deserved it. Sounds like all of the Steel Rangers did.”

“Yes, I know… but I just snuck up and shot her. And kept shooting. Even after she was dead. Until I’d emptied Little Macintosh into her corpse.” My breast heaved with a shudder. “I… I don’t like the pony I’m becoming. I think I’m losing myself.” My voice hitched. “Monterey Jack was right. I’m running out of me left to save.”

Homage was by my side. I didn’t remember her leaving her chair. For the second time that night, she held me as I began to cry.

She gently led me towards her bed. “Come here, Littlepip. Rest now.”

*** *** ***

If Red Eye had any problem with me staying at Tenpony Tower, he did nothing to show it. Even the loss of the alicorn and griffin seemed to go unnoticed. I knew that should worry me. Instead, I ignored it. Instead, I relaxed. I even went to the spa with Homage. Twice.

I didn’t want to think of myself as a selfish pony; but fuck Red Eye, I needed this. And hadn’t I earned at least a little of it? Maybe not, considering my mistakes -- the damaged memory orb, the really stupid battle plans, going behind The Wall alone. But if I didn’t then my companions certainly did.

I had hoped Xenith and Homage would get along. But while Homage seemed to like the zebra, Xenith maintained a thankful but remote demeanor, even a touch frosty. It made the muffin-baking sessions in the kitchen awkward enough that I spent that time in the library, sitting at the table, researching and reading.

I had just finished a comparative reading of the library’s unabridged version of Applied Gemstones with my own and was staring up at the huge painting of Splendid Valley when Xenith trotted in.

“Any luck finding your daughter?” I asked, trying to sound casual as I reminded her what an exceptional and unique tool Homage had put at the zebra’s disposal.

“Yes and no,” Xenith replied. “I have seen signs of her tribe. They have been living in the foothills beneath the Canterlot Ruins.” She quickly added, “Safely outside the Cloud. But I have seen no sign of my daughter. Still, I thank you for this…”

“You should be thanking Homage.”

“I have.”

“Then why do you act so… cold around her?”

The zebra contemplated me. Judged me. Then finally said, “Did you not see the weapon she used? Your lover had been touched by the stars. She is cursed. No good can come of her.”

Xenith walked out.

Well fuck. It would seem that even now there was no reasoning with a zebra when it came to that nonsense. I was probably lucky I didn’t step in any Star-spawn blood or she might think I was cursed too.

“There’s no such thing as curses!” I called out after her in frustration.

With a deep sigh, I buried my head in the scattering of books.

A few minutes later, Homage strode in, a puff of muffin batter on her nose. “Now then,” she whispered huskily as she wrapped her forelegs around me. I flushed, feeling a pleasant, uncontrolled fluttering wash over my body like I’d fallen into a bed of butterflies. “Where was I?” That fluttering coalesced in my nether regions, becoming very warm and joyfully difficult to bear. “Twenty… three, wasn’t it?”

Oh my Goddesses! She was actually counting!

*** *** ***

The Sky Bandit cut through the air as we approached Splendid Valley. The sky was crisp and slightly stained with smoke. The valley below was a rocky wasteland completely barren of life.

Scattered small holes were the only warnings that the caves beneath were home to dozens, if not hundreds, of the most dangerous monsters in all of Equestria. Hellhounds.

I floated out my binoculars and stared towards the horizon. A sinkhole several miles across indicated where the balefire bomb had been detonated. The bomb had been snuck in underground and detonated. The surface above had collapsed into the toxin-filled tunnels below.

Over the last two hundered years, the sinkhole had weathered and eroded into a wide crater. It glowed faintly, even in the daylight. It was marked with hundreds of holes.

On the cusp of the crater, I saw the crumbled walls of the Maripony. Once a station for gem mining, the building had more in common with Shattered Hoof than any of the Ministry Hubs that I had seen. It could have passed for a fortress, but a devastated one. The explosion and sinkhole had torn away part of the foundation, and crumbled the rest. About a third of the building had collapsed into the crater. The rest had suffered a mega-quake.

“Whoa nelly! If the Goddess done survived that, Ah reckon she prob’ly earned two-hundred years o’ livin’.”

“What is the plan, little one?” Xenith asked.

“Plan?” Velvet Remedy chuckled, “I think Littlepip’s just planning to go in there and shoot her.”

My friends had all spent the last couple days in much-needed recovery, as had I. Despite the mounting hopelessness of our mission, everyone was well rested and back in form. If I was going to fail and die, I was happy it would be like this. With these ponies.

No, wait. Zebras weren’t ponies. With these people.

“Well, then it’s a darn good thing Ah sold all those guns an’ bought us plenty o’ ammo. Even managed t’ get some enchanted ones for Li’l Macintosh. Don’t know if they’re enchanted wi’ Goddess-slayin’, but we c’n hope.”

I checked my PipBuck and brought up my Eyes-Forward Sparkle. I checked the date and time. “Ditzy Doo should be getting her muffins about now.” I smiled to Xenith. “Thanks for your help with that. I’m sure she’ll love them.”

It struck me that when Xenith and I had walked across the moat and outside The Wall, I had been in the Equestrian Wasteland for just over five weeks. Now it was nearly six. Six weeks from apprentice PipBuck Technician to would-be deity-slayer.

“My life is surreal.”

Velvet Remedy leaned close. “So, how high did you get to?”

I blushed hotly and buried my face in my forearms.

“Look sharp,” Calamity called out. “Incoming at high eight!”

My head shot up. I pulled up the binoculars again. Five glowing orbs, alicorn shields, were heading towards us from Maripony.

“Dammit, Ah shoulda worn that damn Enclave gear after all,” Calamity cursed. “Li’lpip, reassemble Spitfire’s Thunder. We’re in for a bumpy ride!”

I levitated the magically-augmented anti-machine rifle from Calamity’s holster and began putting it together.

Four midnight-blue alicorns suddenly appeared, flanking us.

“The stars curse me to a thousand rapes by the horn of Nightmare Moon,” Xenith whispered next to me, shocking me nearly as much as the alicorn’s arrival.

“You’ve been around Littlepip too long,” Velvet suggested, floating out her shotgun. The alicorns were already casting their shields.

{{WELCOME TO THE HOME OF THE GODDESS!}}

The voice boomed in my head, reverberating with is own echoes.

“Oh…” Velvet moaned, wavering. “This is not good.”

{{PUT AWAY YOUR PUNY WEAPONS AND COME! YOU ARE MY GUESTS! FOR I, THE GODDESS, HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR FROM YOU!}}

Oh no. Nonononono!

“Iffin she ain’t got nothin’ t’ fear from us, why the show? Hell, why not jus’ send us packin’?”

Xenith looked between the three of us. “What are you speaking of?”

But I knew. Oh by the Goddesses -- the real ones -- I knew.

Heavily, I said, “Because she wants us to do something for her.”

*** *** ***

We were guided into the crumbling building. As we landed, we saw at least three dozen more alicorns standing about the crumbling ruins. In a single movement, in perfect unity, they all turned their heads to look at us.

It was the unparalleled creepiest thing in the history of ever.

Escorted through the doors by the four midnight-blue alicorns. They had dropped their shields. Honestly, they didn’t need them. We were totally outmatched.

I was surprised when the alicorns brought us to what looked like a security substation within the building. This room seemed largely undamaged, save by time. The rest of the rooms and hallways we had seen were broken and crumbling, fragmented by the subterranean blast and eroded by centuries and weather. This small room was almost… intact.

There was no Goddess here. There was nothing here but some chairs, a bank of four dusty monitors and a microphone, a filing cabinet and a few ridiculously pristine coffee cups. The area above the monitors was glass, but the long window looked out at nothing but a metal wall inches away. The opposite wall held a recessed door. There were odd grooves on the wall.

“Ah reckon this is our cell,” Calamity said. If so, it would be stifling. And cramped, if any of the alicorns tried to stay in here with us.

{{WE WILL TALK! BUT FIRST, THE GODDESS WISHES YOU TO SEE! TO UNDERSTAND, AND MARVEL!}}

The voice of the Goddess didn’t merely reverberate, I realized. It pre-verberated. Like there were dozens of smaller, weaker voices inside that voice, all trying to say the same thing at the same time, and not quite succeeding. The voice of the Goddess was a chorus.

“Understand what?” Velvet Remedy asked. Xenith looked at her, confused.

{{THE GODDESS!!}}

The security monitors flickered to life under the dust. One of them displayed colorful ponies in lab coats milling about a much bigger version of this room, full of monitors and maneframes and banks of blinking lights. “Ready when you are,” a chartreuse pony with a cutie mark of a flask filled with bubbling green liquid said, glancing up at us through the monitor.

“These images are of the far past,” Xenith intoned.

The second monitor looked down on a vast factory floor. The factory was filled with six huge, interconnected vats full of churning luminescent stews that rippled with lavender and green beneath glass coverings, the light casting colored shadows over everything. Arcane apparati hung down from the ceiling. Catwalks ringed the vats and another hung suspended from the ceiling above and between them, stopping midway across the room with some manner of control panel at the end.

“Again with the catwalks-over-factory-floors aesthetic of wartime Equestria,” I groused.

“Is that…?” Velvet Remedy began to ask as a single pony appeared on the third monitor. An elderly lavender pony with grey streaking her purple mane. The room behind her was about the size of this one, filled with identical monitoring equipment. But where we saw only a metal wall, her picture window looked out onto the factory floor in monitor two.

“Twilight Sparkle,” I nodded.

“uh, yer goddess-ness,” Calamity said to the air, tapping on the last monitor. “Ah hope yer aware this one is broken?” The monitor had a large crack running through it and was displaying only rainbow splotches.

{{BROKEN? WHAT? OF COURSE I AM! THE GODDESS KNOWS ALL!}}

The little sub-voices continued to telepathically echo the last two words for several seconds after the Goddess had “spoken”.

“Lovely,” Velvet Remedy said snidely.

“Ready to begin pony testing,” Twilight Sparkle said, sounding just a hint nervous. “Send her in.”

“Sending in Test Subject One,” the pony on monitor one announced.

“Don’t call her that!” Twilight warned. She trotted over to look out the window, floating a coffee cup filled with what looked like tea to her lips, sipping primly. She set the cup aside and leaned her muzzle over a microphone. On monitor two, a lovely blue unicorn with a mane that had aged to a luxurious silver slowly made her way out onto the suspended catwalk.

She turned and looked up to the window. “Twilight Sparkle, I just wanted to thank you again for giving me this opportunity. It means so much to me.”

“You’re welcome, Trixie,” Twilight Sparkle said kindly. The name rang a bell, but it took a moment to place it. Trixie: the mare from the cottage outside Fetlock. She went to Manehattan for a meeting with Twilight Sparkle and never returned.

The lavender pony hit a button with her hoof and an ornate golden cup rose out of the console at the end of the walkway. Purple and green liquid rose through tubes running from the vats to the apparatus above. Then a thin stream poured into the cup.

Trixie walked across the platform and sniffed at the cup. “Is that roses?”

Twilight chuckled softly. “Yes. I added the scent. Hopefully, it will taste like roses too.”

“Really?” Trixie looked up towards Twilight Sparkle with astonishment.

Twilight’s ears drooped. “Unfortunately, probably not.” She hesitated. “Trixie, you know you don’t have to do this…”

“Oh, I want to,” the blue unicorn insisted. “I want to help. And… this will make me more powerful? Like Luna and Celestia?”

“Well, not that powerful. But more powerful, yes.”

“Like you then?”

Twilight Sparkle looked uncomfortable. “We’re hoping for more than that.”

“And… it’s safe, right?”

“Absolutely,” Twilight Sparkle assured the blue unicorn on the catwalk below her. “All the tests have come back looking spectacular. The only variable is, well, dosage. And for that we need to do testing with pony volunteers like you. With luck, we’ll get it right the first time, and you’ll be the first new alicorn since Luna was born.”

The unicorn at the end of the catwalk nodded. And mumbled something that sounded like “great and powerful smells like roses”, then looked up with wide eyes. “You sure I shouldn’t start with a little more, then?”

Twilight Sparkle stifled a chuckle. “No, I-“

On the monitors, everything happened at once.

From the broken one, I could hear a terrible roar and the rainbow sprays turned to a flaring light.

On the other three, the world shook.

On the first, chunks of ceiling came down, some killing ponies outright, one blocking the door. A maneframe toppled in a spray of sparks.

On monitor two, the entire factory floor shook. I could hear the loud twangs as several of the cables holding the suspended platform snapped out of the ceiling. Sections of catwalk fell. Two of the vats were ruptured as a third of the ceiling came down, spilling their glowing contents onto the factory floor. I could see automatic systems severing and sealing the connections with the other vats. Trixie cried out as half the cables holding up her section of the catwalk gave way, turning it into a freely-swinging platform.

On the third monitor, alarms were blaring: “Radiation surge detected!” “Seismic activity detected!” “Toxic contamination warning!” “Safe rooms sealing!”

“No!” shouted Twilight Sparkle as a huge armored plate slid down over the door to her room. She turned to the window as massive armored shutters swung down from above.

“TRIXIE!”

On monitor two, Trixie’s platform tipped, swinging in a low arc. The unicorn slid down the inclined surface, trying to find purchase, as the lower end of the catwalk segment impacted the glass roof of one of the vats, shattering it. The blue unicorn plunged into the vat.

All the monitors flickered and went dead.

The four of us stood in the security room, shaken, our eyes peeling away from the monitors to look at each other.

Monitor three flickered back on.

“Dear anypony. This is the Mare of the Ministry of Magic, Twilight Sparkle,” a weakened Twilight said. “It’s been two days now since the megaspell strike on Maripony. I can only assume by the lack of rescue that this was not an isolated strike.”

“I’m leaving this record in case somepony does come. I’m trapped in Safe Room Three on the Maripony Vats Level.” The elderly lavender pony addressed the camera. “The safeguards that should allow me to open it aren’t working; and unfortunately for me, I designed these rooms to withstand a nearby megaspell strike, so the room is more than a match for my own magic.”

Calamity, Velvet Remedy, Xenith and I watched the monitor, realizing we were watching Twilight Sparkle’s goodbye letter. My vision began to blur wetly. I tried to force myself not to cry. I’d cried too much this week already. But the tears rolled down my cheeks anyway.

“I’m out of food, and the safe room’s water talisman seems to have been corrupted.” She gave a wry smile as she said, “At least, I’m fairly confident that pure water isn’t supposed to be that color. I’m also beginning to suffer hallucinations. I think that I’m hearing the screams of the ponies in Maripony, like something horrible is happening to them. But I know that’s impossible. These walls are soundproof.

“I keep hearing Trixie’s voice in my head, screaming. Sometimes, it gets so bad...”

The lavender pony waved it off. “Not important. What’s important is that we tried. We tried, and we came so very close. Another week, maybe even just a few more days, and the work we did here would have not only changed the war, I believe we could have forced a peaceful resolution.

”What’s important now is that we still have one more chance. Find Spike. He’s my most loyal assistant… my number one assistant. …Find him...”

Twilight Sparkle seemed to fall to sleep. The Monitor flickered out again.

“Spike?” Xenith asked.

The monitor burst back to life. Twilight Sparkle’s haggard face was pressed close to the camera. She looked atrophied, crazy. “Something’s going on here. I… I don’t know what. But it’s bad. If you’re in Maripony, get out. Get out while you can and drop a zebra missile on this place…”

Suddenly, there was a loud, metallic grinding from the speaker below monitor two. On the monitor, we watched as the metal plate over the door lifted up, the metal shutters over the windows lifted.

Monitor two sprang to life. The vats room was a disaster. The floor was waist thick in mixed fluids. Something swam in the water. No, not swam… the body of a light red unicorn pony was being dragged through the liquid by a telekinetic tendril. We watched as the tendril hauled the body out of the pool and up the side of one of the vats. A moment later, the body disappeared over the lip and into the vat.

Streaks of blood rose up several of the vats.

On monitor three, Twilight Sparkle was crawling towards the door, too weak from hunger and dehydration to stand. Unable to stand, she couldn’t see what was just outside her window.

Light flared in the room. A blue light that took the form of Trixie. The blue unicorn stood, shimmering, in front of Twilight Sparkle. From this angle, we could clearly make out her face as she spoke to the lavender unicorn who once bore the Element of Magic. The Trixie illusion spoke, but no words came out.

“I’m sorry, Trixie,” Twilight Sparkle whimpered.

As the Trixie illusion’s mouth continued to move, Xenith pushed past me and leaned close. Our zebra began to read the movement of the illusion’s mouth.

“…to be sorry for. Your experiment worked, after all. It worked more wonderfully than we ever dreamed it would. Don’t be sorry. Be happy. We’re going to live forever, you in I.”

I felt a deep, dark chill and prayed that Xenith had mistranslated that.

“What?” asked a startled Twilight.

“I’m sorry it took so long for me to be strong enough to save you, Twilight Sparkle.”

Velvet Remedy gasped as light blue tendrils of telekinetic energy snaked into the room and wrapped around each of Twilight’s hooves.

“No!” Twilight Sparkle struggled with more strength than should have been possible.

“It’s time to save you now, Twilight Sparkle,” Xenith continued to speak for illusion-Trixie. “We’re going to be very close now, you and I.”

“Oh Goddesses,” Velvet moaned and buried her face in Calamity’s mane as the tendrils slowly dragged Twilight Sparkle, kicking and screaming, towards one of the vats.

I was shaking. I wanted -- so desperately wanted -- to turn away. But I couldn’t.

Twilight Sparkle let out a last cry as she was dragged over the lip of the farthest vat. One word, a name I think, but I couldn’t make out what it was.

The two monitors went blank. And this time, they stayed that way.

*** *** ***

Oh Goddesses! oh Goddesses! oh Goddesses!

I felt utterly numb with horror. Velvet Remedy was crying. Calamity looked grimmer than ever.

The whole room shook, the air filling with the squeal of grinding metal, as the shutters over our own window lifted up.

We stared out over the vats. This wasn’t just a similar room. It was the same room.

Centuries had not been kind to the room beyond. Another third of the ceiling had collapsed, as had two of the vats. The pool on the floor had turned to sludge covered with a sickly layer of dust and floating debris.

Swirls of colored light seeped up from the two still-intact vats. They danced in the air, exploding like fireworks. In my head, I heard the echoes of half-remembered fanfare, but not from any memory of my own.

{{THE GREAT AND POWERFUL GODDESS WELCOMES YOU!}}

“Okay, how in tarnation do we kill that?

“Calamity!” I hissed.

More swirls of light lifted from the vats. They shimmered, merging together, until the giant face of Trixie loomed above us. But not just Trixie, as little motes of other ponies’ faces occasionally burst to the surface like zits, crawling along the head and mane of Trixie before sinking back.

{{FEAR NOT! FOR I, THE GODDESS, ALREADY KNOW WHY YOU HAVE COME! RED EYE, THAT TREACHEROUS PONY, DESIRES MY END. BUT THE GODDESS IS NOT WORRIED, FOR THE GODDESS IS GREAT AND POWERFUL AND RED EYE IS NOT!...}}

Somehow, through the sheer soul-breaking horror of what I was seeing and what I had just witnessed, the little pony in my head stomped for me to pay attention. She did not like where this was heading.

“Fear not,” Xenith began, “For I, the goddess, already…”

“You can stop that now,” Velvet Remedy hissed.

{{...YET.}}

I squeaked. Then fought to find my voice. “Red Eye has seen these recordings, hasn’t he.”

{{IT MATTERS NOT THAT HE HAS SEEN THEM.}}

That would be a yes.

{{IT MATTERS THAT HE HAS DISOBEYED ME AND PLOTTED AGAINST ME! IT MATTERS THAT HE HAS BEEN WITHHOLDING FROM ME! RED EYE HAS NOT SENT ME A UNICORN IN OVER A YEAR AND THE GODDESS BELIEVES HE WILL SOON STAND IN THE WAY OF MY UNITY ALTOGETHER!}}

“And… let me guess,” I prodded. “You need us to kill Red Eye for you?” Please let it not be something as stupid as that. There wouldn’t be enough facehoofs in the world.

The illusionary fireworks changed. A spinning pinwheel of crimson flame swirled behind the floating glower of the Goddess, over-signaling her displeasure.

“Ugh,” Velvet Remedy whispered, cringing back. “Even for a real Goddess, this would be a bit much.” She neighed. “Honestly, if we must have an eldritch-nightmare-of-arcane-science ‘Goddess’, does she have to be a freaky-carnival-sideshow goddess too?”

{{DO NOT BE ABSURD! THE GODDESS CAN SLAY HIM AT ANY TIME I CHOOSE! BUT…}}

And here it comes.

{{IT IS POSSIBLE THAT HE HAS DISCOVERED SOMETHING THAT MAY BE A THREAT TO THE NEW, GLORIOUS WORLD WE ARE BUILDING! AND BEFORE THE GODDESS DESTROYS HIM, WE… I… MUST KNOW WHAT THAT IS!}}

Well. Okay. That makes much more sense.

“Says the Goddess who claimed to ‘know all’ not twenty minutes ago,” Velvet Remedy muttered.

Calamity nudged her with a wing. “Wouldja kindly not go upsetting the telepathic psycho-gestalt?”

“And why us?” I asked.

{{BECAUSE THE SECRET THAT RED EYE SEEKS, THE SECRET HIDDEN EVEN FROM THE GREAT AND POWERFUL GODDESS, IS LOCKED AWAY INSIDE A WAREHOUSE ON MINISTRY WALK IN CANTERLOT!...}}

Oh! So that’s the place Red Eye is trying to get into. I remembered a conversation with Watcher:

Yes, one of Equestria’s heroes did decide that her Ministry would be the Ministry of Awesome. They even built a Ministry Headquarters for it on Ministry Walk… After a few years, Luna ordered it crated up, and they began using the M.Aw HQ for storage.

{{…WITH CONTROLS WHICH CAN ONLY BE OPERATED BY A PEGASUS...}}

Clever. So, the Goddess didn’t actually need me. She needed Calamity. I wondered how Red Eye was planning to get past that.

{{…AND BEYOND A SHIELD WHICH ONLY A MINISTRY MARE CAN STEP THROUGH!}}

And that would be the Bypass that Red Eye was trying to get through. But why did…?

Oh! Of course. Close family or direct descendants thereof. The Goddess needed Velvet Remedy as well. Once again, I was the one just clearing the way.

{{IN ADDITION, THERE IS ONE THING REMAINING THAT PREVENTS UNITY. A… FLAW IN THE PROCESS THAT MUST BE CORRECTED BEFORE IT CAN BE BROUGHT TO EVERY PONY IN THIS BLIGHTED LAND!}}

“Y’know, now that Ah’ve seen what this Unity is all about, Ah’m fine with that.”

{{THAT IS BECAUSE YOU ARE ONLY A PONY! YOUR KIND CANNOT THRIVE IN THIS WORLD ANY LONGER! YOU MERELY SURVIVE! AND BARELY AT THAT! BUT MY CHILDREN CAN THRIVE! MY CHILDREN ARE MORE POWERFUL! MORE CAPABLE OF FACING THE MUTATED DANGERS OF THIS WORLD! THE VERY POISONS WHICH KILL YOU MAKE MY CHILDREN STRONGER!}}

“Your children can’t even breed,” I pointed out. “Every single alicorn I have seen is a mare. You have no stallions. Now I’ll agree that can be fun; but when it comes to ‘thriving’, that’s a doozy of a problem!”

The main voice of the Goddess was silent a moment. Flares and fireworks continued to explode behind her glowing, faces-covered face. They whispered incoherently in my mind, giving me a headache.

{{LIKE THE GODDESS SAID, A FLAW! BUT ONE WHICH CAN BE CORRECTED WITH THE RIGHT MAGIC!}}

“Let me guess. You want Rarity’s little black book.” The Goddess did need me after all. She needed somepony who could pick a lock.

*** *** ***

As our alicorn escorts marched us back to the Sky Bandit, all my friends were wondering the same thing I was: what now?

“Can you all read lips?” Xenith asked. Okay, so not all my friends were wondering the same thing.

Red Eye still had me over a barrel. But…

I stopped like I’d been hit in the face with a bale of hay. I lost all feeling in my hooves as one more horrid realization flooded through me.

“Li’lpip?” Calamity asked. Something in my expression was making him look very worried.

“She said… Red Eye hadn’t sent her any unicorns in over a year.” My mind flashed back to experiences with slavers. And the little hints that Red Eye, or at least Stern, was particularly interested in unicorns.

And another unicorn too. She’ll fetch a pretty price, this one.

If it wasn’t a unicorn, I’d say toss it back in the lake.

“But if Red Eye wasn’t sending unicorns to the Goddess…” I said darkly, “Then he’s keeping them for himself.”

I turned and looked to the others in desperation. “Red Eye talked about controlling the weather, moving the sun and the moon. He couldn’t do that if he just became an alicorn. But he’s not aiming to become an alicorn. He’s aiming to become one of… of…” I pointed a hoof back at Maripony. “That!

The only way he could possibly hope to get that kind of power was to duplicate what happened to Trixie. And he could. He’d seen the videos. And based on his claim that the fortress in the Everfree Forest was designed as a new home for the Goddess, he was building a duplicate of the Maripony vats at the Cathedral.

He wasn’t sending the Goddess any unicorns because unicorns have the strongest magic of all ponies and he was keeping them to consume himself!


Footnote: Level Up.
Maximum Level
Skills Note: Stealth has reached 100%
New Perk: Celestia Tier Telekinetics – The things you can do with your levitation magic are the feats of legend. You can effectively fly at the skill level of a novice pegasus. Who knows, maybe you could even move the sun?