Chapter Thirty-One: Life Interrupted
“We all go through periods of darkness. In such times, we can turn to the Goddesses, but it’s good to have friends.”
All the thoughts we have, all the decisions we make, are rooted in layers upon layers of experiences. To understand ourselves, we must look to our own past. To our memories.
I believe that our pasts and our hearts make us who we are. Our memories define us. But what if we should lose them? Would we become untethered? Adrift? Would we even be the same ponies anymore?
If you could block out your most horrible and hurtful memories, would you do so to spare yourself the pain? And if you did, would you lose an important part of yourself in the process?
And what of higher thought? Reasoning and rationality? If I were to forget the discoveries that led to a realization, would I be able to grasp that revelation anymore? Could I piece together the logic of an argument if I could not remember having the argument?
How important are memories to our ability to even think? Or, at least, think clearly?
And what about the reverse? What if you added memories which were not your own? How often could you live parts of other ponies’ lives, making their decisions, seeing the events that brought them joy or sorrow, before the boundaries that separated you from them began to blur?
Were memory orbs nothing more evocative than particularly well-written books? I knew from experience that a memory orb only preserved sensations. When inside a memory orb, I saw and heard and felt, tasted and smelled, but I was not privy to the actual thoughts and emotions of the hosts whom I rode. Did the visions into others’ lives, no matter how vivid, have any impact beyond knowledge or entertainment?
And what effect might there be on a pony who relived the same memory orb over and over?
And what if you could take it a step further? What if you could hear a pony’s thoughts? Read their minds. Perhaps sense their memories?
What if you were the Goddess?
What manner of pony would you have to be just to keep any sense of yourself?
*** *** ***
I stared in horror at the mob of hellhounds pouring into the streets. They came from the alleys and the shattered ruins. They climbed out of windows and emerged from darkened doorways in nearly every building I could see. Every one, that was, except for the one place we intended to go: the hospital.
The first had already reached the Maripony Mining and Administration Building. Some were dashing inside. Others sunk their claws into the brick façade and began to scale the walls.
Calamity turned to the Enclave crates, shoving the claw-torn containers away until he reached the single undamaged one. I could hear him whisper what sounded like a prayer, although I knew no higher being that Calamity would pray to. Then he furiously clopped at the lock’s cloud keypad.
The crate opened with a hiss and a wash of cool air. Inside was… a bundle of fluffy white clouds.
I would have facehoofed if the noise Calamity made at the sight hadn’t been one of triumph. The pegasus lowered his head and kicked off his helmet, his orange mane bursting free. His wide eyes and self-pleased smile gave me a boost of joy. He’d stayed hidden behind that black, insectoid mask too long, and I had missed him.
“How did you know the combination?” Xenith asked curiously.
“Oh-one-oh-four. Harbinger’s birthday.” Calamity grinned proudly. Then sheepishly admitted, “’Twas on the terminal.”
“Ayep! Y’all are in this mess cuz o’ me. Ah plan t’ get y’all out o’ it.” He leaned his head into the Enclave crate, grabbing the cloud bundle in his teeth. (He bit the clouds and picked them up! The little pony in my head was having an aneurysm.)
“Obferf!” he boasted through the clouds in his mouth. He trotted to the roof’s edge, facing the hospital. A hellhound clawed her way up onto the roof in front of him, raising a paw full of long, flesh-and-armor tearing claws. Calamity backed away, dropping the cloud bundle (which simply floated where he’d let it go).
BLAM! Velvet Remedy’s shotgun went off, the slug hitting the hellhound in the center of her left breast. The flesh rippled, but did not give. The hellhound howled in pain, toppling backwards from the impact.
“Thank Celestia!” whimpered Velvet Remedy, letting out a sigh of relief. I winced as I realized she was thanking the Goddess that hellhound’s had thick enough hides to stop a shotgun slug at close range. Until now, I had only used Little Macintosh and the sniper rifle against them. I’d been lucky in those choices. Nothing else I had would likely penetrate.
Another hellhound clawed his way onto the rooftop directly behind Xenith. The zebra danced, giving a well-placed buck to the creature’s chest. I heard ribs break, and the hellhound fell, rasping, fighting for breath from what I knew was a punctured lung. A second buck sent the hellhound over the edge, catching another climber in the face and knocking them both to the alley below. One of them hit an open waste bin with a back-breaking clang.
I didn’t know which had become scarier, hellhounds or Xenith who could take them down with her hooves.
“Thank ya kindly, Velvet!” Calamity stepped back up to the floating bundle and gave it a kick. The cloud unfurled, rolling outward like a carpet, stretching over the street below.
Three more hellhounds pulled themselves onto the rooftop. Velvet Remedy backed up and let out a song, hitting that perfect high note. All three hellhounds clutched at their ears. Two stopped, backing up to the edge of the wall. One climbed back over the side while the other backed up a step too far, her arms pirouetting comically as she fell backwards off the roof.
The third lurched forward, striking at Velvet Remedy in a half-blind swipe. Velvet jumped away. Her right foreleg did not, falling to the rooftop in a spreading puddle of blood. Velvet’s note ended in a strangled whimper as she lifted her right foreleg, eyes locked on where the stump ended inches above where her right knee should have been.
The hellhound drew back her paw, one claw wet with Velvet Remedy’s blood. Four bolts of magical energy struck her in the offending paw. The female hellhound glowed and liquefied.
I screamed in horror. Calamity dashed to the charcoal-coated unicorn’s side, catching her as she wobbled and fell, her eyes still locked on where her right foreleg should be. “I… can fix this…” she whimpered. Velvet fainted in Calamity’s forelegs.
Pyrelight pierced the air with a mournful cry.
Xenith moved fast, pulling potions from her satchel until she found the right one. She shattered it on the rooftop, commanding our pegasus, “Push her wound into that! Quickly!” It looked like the same pudding that Xenith had given Velvet to stop Calamity’s wing from bleeding him dry.
Wrapping Velvet’s sundered leg in my magic, I floated it to the pudding and pressed it into the glop as well. “We can fix this,” I moaned with determination. “She can fix this. She said so!”
I could hear more hellhounds tearing their way up to the roof from inside and out.
Calamity held Velvet, looking stunned. His eyes glistened; his armor was slick with Velvet’s blood. “Calamity, now!” Xenith shouted into his ears, breaking the pegasus from his trance. He shoved the bleeding stump into Xenith’s medicinal goop hard enough to make the unconscious Velvet moan.
Turning to me, Calamity commanded, “Xenith, put Li’lpip on muh back. Li’lpip, levitate everypony but me an’ yerself. An’ don’t forget Velvet’s leg!” He let Velvet Remedy slide out of his arms and galloped to the cloud carpet, stepping onto it. The cloud held him like it was made of surest steel.
I felt a harsh tug at my mane as Xenith lifted me onto Calamity’s back. I winced, but the tears blurring my vision were for Velvet. I floated her limp, maimed body into the air, wrapping her severed limb in my magic as well. And finally, Xenith.
Two hellhounds burst up through the roof hatch. A third dug her way up through the ceiling itself, one of the torn Enclave crates knocking her in the snout as it slid into the hole.
“Let ‘m chase us across this!” Calamity broke into a gallop, carrying me over the street on a bed of clouds, my mare friends swooping across the urban canyon, towed by my magic.
The two hellhounds from the hatch dropped to all fours and ran for us, leaping for Calamity and me. They would have landed right behind us, but they fell through the clouds (as was proper for creatures and clouds) and dashed themselves on the street below. One got up, dusting himself off, then took one look at the building we were heading onto and turned the other way. The second had broken her neck and never got up again.
*** *** ***
“Ah figure y’all got ‘till that beacon shuts up t’ scavenge what we c’n get from the hospital,” Calamity barked, turning to look back over the walkway of clouds. The hellhounds continued to swarm the Maripony Mining and Administration Building, heedless of our escape. “Ah’ll stay here an’ get this here whirligig fixed.”
“And I… will stay… here,” Velvet breathed weakly. “And… protect… Calamity.”
“Y’all are gonna protect me?” Calamity gave her a politely disbelieving look.
She smiled back with a glare of her own. “If my voice cannot… soothe the savage beasts… it can… at least… send them running.”
I hated this plan.
Words could not describe how much I hated this plan. The only things making me agree to this plan were a severe lack of time, an inability to see a better way, and the spark of hope borne from that one hellhound’s reaction. A hope that, maybe, the hellhounds had an aversion to the hospital that would protect us.
Turning to Xenith, I motioned her to follow. We had no time to lose, and we now had two major injuries that demanded top tier medical supplies. I prayed to Luna that this place had not been stripped clean already. That somehow, for any reason, this hospital was still well stocked.
“Ah crap,” Calamity said, still staring across the cloud bridge. I turned in alarm, my stomach dropping. Oh Goddesses, please, not anything else! Please!
“Ah left muh helmet.”
I wanted to buck him so hard. “Leave it. You look better without it anyway!” A thought struck me. “Can you still shoot those rifles without the helmet’s interface?”
That sinking feeling was reinforced. “How many shots do you have left for Spitfire’s Thunder?”
“Ah’ll swap t’ a fresh clip, but Ah’ve only got three. Plus the two shots left in the current one.”
More than he’d have time to fire if he was shooting alone. I looked to Velvet Remedy bleakly.
“Go, Pip. I’ll take care of him,” Velvet insisted. Pyrelight landed next to her, puffing out her breast and looking fierce.
I nodded before looking back to Calamity and then to the candy-colored heap that was the Griffinchaser II. “Can you fix her?”
“Ayep. Positive. Now go!”
Pyrelight gave me a heartbreaking look.
Xenith was already waiting for me at the rooftop access doors. I nodded one last time, praying to the Goddesses that this was not the last time I would see them alive, then galloped silently away.
*** *** ***
Xenith and I made our way through crumbling grey hallways with peeling yellow wainscoting. Motes of dust floated in the air. Occasional debris rained from the ceiling.
I took the lead, moving quickly and stealthily, checking rooms. My E.F.S. insisted that there were numerous enemies inside the hospital, lurking somewhere ahead and behind us. From my experience in Stable Twenty-Four, I suspected they were all on the level below.
It hit me as unfair that even with the signal, there would still be hellhounds inside this place hunting us. But as I prepared to curse the heavens (wondering if perhaps I should be cursing the stars), I remembered Calamity and the bloatsprite in the closet. The curse died with a chuckle as I realized we were probably surrounded by hostile insects. Bloatsprites or radroaches… or whatever radroaches became in the presence of Taint.
As I turned down a hallway, my ears perked at the sound of a blessedly familiar “male” voice:
“Who says you can’t go home again? That tenacious mare from Stable Two sure did, and saved her whole damn home from a vicious and unprovoked attack from Steel Rangers who intended to slaughter the Stable’s entire population and set up shop. But this time, children, the Stable Dweller had help! That’s right! Our Bringer of Light in this dark and cruel world has stirred the hearts of other ponies. And not just ponies, but griffins too. Even ghouls put a hoof to the cause!
“I tell you, children: this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in the Equestrian Wasteland. The people, ponies and non-ponies alike, have witnessed our Heroine selflessly helping those around her, and many of us have taken her example to heart. And when our Wasteland Savior needed us the most, we stepped up!
“Now I ask each and every one of you, and this is a question straight from DJ Pon3’s heart to yours: when the opportunity comes, will you step up too?”
I felt myself flush, but this time the embarrassment was buried under a heartburst of love for the grey unicorn behind that voice. Her words were like the beam from a lighthouse in my storm of darkness.
“Let me tell you of some of the ponies who did step up. Because you are not going to believe this! The Steel Rangers, a saddle-full of them at any rate, decided to buck their Elders and pledge themselves to helping out the suffering folk of this Equestrian Wasteland! You heard me right, children. Some of those metal-clad powerhouses are on our side now!
“That ain’t easy. And their Elders have ordered them hunted down. I have reports of Steel Rangers and Steel Ranger Outcasts fighting in the streets from Manehattan to Trottingham. But I’ve also got amazing reports of these Outcasts taking down raider hovels and galloping to the aid of caravans. So if you should happen to see one of those new Outcast Knights or Paladins, give them your thanks. And maybe a little ammo.”
I felt both thankful and hurt as I thought of SteelHooves and those who now followed him. Embattled in the streets, fighting for their lives because they chose not to follow ponies who were selfish and evil. The pony in my head wondered what would happen if the pegasi ever learned the truth about this world below them. Would they seek to help, only to have their leaders turn upon them?
I moved forward, following the voice, nudging open the door to the office where an old radio sat, dusty and neglected, the face above the dial still glowing as the speakers gave DJ Pon3’s voice a slightly tinny echo.
“One last thing, and this is to the Stable Dweller herself. Another message from my assistant… but don’t worry, children. I read it this time and it’s perfectly chaste…”
I froze, my mind conjuring everything from another devastatingly embarrassing promise to another warning as soul-breaking as the warning about Stable Two.
“She says: Wherever you are right now, I’m thinking of you. Look up at the darkness of the night sky, and know that I am looking up into the same darkness with you. We are never apart, no matter how far your drive to help us all takes you from this place. For you are here in my heart, always.
“I love you, Littlepip.”
I felt my heart gush, bursting with joy.
“Aw… now ain’t that just romantic? Don’t that just tug at your heartstrings? When did my assistant get so cheesy? Oh, and there’s a P.S.: Thirty-one. Huh. What’s thirty-one mean?”
My mind simply went blank. I was drowning in embarrassment, burning alive from the heat that suddenly flushed through my body.
“Oh dear,” Xenith intoned behind me, her exotic voice holding not a trace of actual sympathy. She leaned forward and whispered into my ear, “I should tell Velvet Remedy so that she does not hear it first from strangers, no?”
I collapsed, dying of sheer humiliation. Homage had banished me to a world of embarrassment, and Xenith had imprisoned me in a dungeon of anticipated torment in that world I had been banished to.
It wasn’t until hours later that I realized Xenith’s words carried with them the implicit hope that Velvet Remedy would survive. By making me certain Velvet would soon be teasing me endlessly, Xenith dispelled my fear that I was about to lose her.
*** *** ***
The medical cabinet opened with ease, the lock hardly a worthy challenge. Xenith began to collect the medicines and healing bandages inside. So far, the hospital had been a treasure trove of lesser supplies but had not yielded the more potent potions we were desperately searching for. I looked across the room filled with rotting beds, tattered partitions and toppled IV stands. A night wind blew through broken windows, making the curtains dance like ghosts. The foul scent of a hundred hellhounds drifted through the room. I glanced outside and saw them crawling all over the building across from us like a swarm of bees.
I wondered why they didn’t just destroy the array. But maybe they couldn’t. Maybe there was something in the pulse that didn’t allow them to. Still, with that many trying to clamber onto the roof, it was only a matter of time before they destroyed it just by accident.
I looked the other way, out the door. There was a nurses’ station across the hall. No red lights on my E.F.S. I let Xenith know where I was headed and slipped out. Pressing an ear to the door, I thought I heard a snake-like hiss. I checked my E.F.S. again, but there were no threats.
The door was locked. Again, it was hardly a challenge. But when I tried to push the door open, it didn’t want to budge. I shoved, throwing my weight against it, and heard a crash from inside as the door opened half a yard. Dust and old plaster blasted out of the opening. A fast clicking burst from my PipBuck.
I poked my head through, coughing, and saw that the ceiling had collapsed, filling most of the room. Broken terminals and office supplies littered the floor around large hunks of structural material. I could see partially into the room above where a bathtub teetered, hanging from the washroom above only by the plumbing. Water sprayed out of a crack in the pipes, soaking the rubble of the floor below and draining down into the level beneath us through a section of the nurses’ station floor which had given way from decades of water damage.
There wasn’t much room inside, but I saw that I could reach a locked metal cabinet with the word “CONFISCATED” written in large red letters. I removed my saddlebags and squeezed in through the opening.
The metal cabinet proved a tougher lock. Within my skills but still a worthy challenge. Enough that I felt a touch of pride as it opened. Inside were drugs. Buck, Dash, Mint-als and a variety of powerful painkillers, as well as other pills and powders which I did not recognize. There were other things too. A memory orb. A knife with a blade that shimmered with an unnatural purple sheen. A copy of Zebra Infiltration Tactics. I floated my saddlebags to me. With a telekinetic push, I dumped the entire contents into one of them.
A tin of Party-Time Mint-als landed on the top. My heart skipped a beat.
I wrapped the tin with a magical sheath.
Do we really have time for this? the little pony in my head asked. Hurry. We can dump it later.
I knew she was lying.
I knew I needed to get rid of it now. If I carried it around with me, the temptation to take one when things got bad might be more than I could bear.
Oh come on. You’re stronger than that, the pony insisted. And I was, wasn’t I?
Or… what if Xenith could use it for a potion or something? It would be a shame to waste it.
Dammit, I was taking too much time! I closed the saddlebags, floating them out ahead of me. I slithered out of the nurses’ station.
I’d been so distracted by my inner struggle that I didn’t even notice the red light at the very edge of my E.F.S. compass.
*** *** ***
There were no Goddesses! There couldn’t be for what I was seeing to be allowed to exist.
The… thing that shuffled down the hall before me had clearly once been meant to be a pony. There was enough pony left in its face to tell that horrifying truth. There was no way to describe the vile, sickening body of the thing -- the best my brain could manage was the idea that a pony had started to melt, losing all her fur and keeping only sporatic tuffs of her mane and tail, only for the flesh beneath to stop melting (arbitrarily and not all at once) and then begin to bloat and metastasize. Its eyes, sunken and huge and red, stared into mine. Its tongue had swollen and stretched, bursting out of its muzzle and splitting into tendrils as they hung down from the wreckage that had once been its mouth. The tentacles writhed individually, as if in great pain.
I was petrified by the sight, rooted to the floor with no ability or will to move. I wanted to run screaming as that split tongue undulated and whipped out, stretching the length of the hall, each wrapping wetly around one of my hooves. I fell, dragged forward towards the squirming flesh-blob, my gaze locked onto its eyes. I tried again to scream, but somehow it had stolen my voice.
The tongues lifted me over the mass of writhing, furless tissue. As another tongue-tentacle pushed out of its muzzle, the tentacles twisted me over, my eyes turned to the ceiling, and my paralysis broke. I thrashed, letting out a scream of terror.
The tongues were impossibly strong. I could not pull my hooves free. It continued to rotate me until I faced away from it, the hallway behind me upside-down. I witnessed Xenith dash out of the room to save me… then stop, eyes wide and locked in place.
I felt that new tongue slither across me, and I realized with abject terror that the flesh-blob did not intend to kill me…
“NO!” I screamed in a mix of fury and primal panic. “NOnono” BLAM!! “nonono” BLAM!! “nononono!!!” BLAM!! My screams were punctuated by the fury of Little Macintosh as I made my weapon fire blindly into the mass of living flesh.
I was hit by a cloying reek. I felt the tongues go slack, dropping me. I hit the creature -- its body felt like a warm and slimy bean-bag chair with grotesque muscle and sinew hidden beneath -- and bounced onto the floor. I scrambled away. I felt sickened, loathing my body where I had touched it.
“Oh Littlepip, I’m so sorry,” Xenith cried out, galloping up to me.
I got shakily to my hooves. Little Macintosh’s bullets had torn gaping holes in the meat of the thing. “W-w-what is t-that?!”
“I do not know,” Xenith said fearfully. “But we must be cautious. There may be more of them, and they possess a Stare.”
*** *** ***
We moved through the rows of the hospital pharmacy. Our hooves left tracks through the spilled powders that covered the floor. Many of the stacks had partially collapsed, spilling their contents onto the tiles below.
I waved the lamp of my PipBuck over the barely legible labels on a shelf which still held little jars of unsullied medical treasures. Xenith trotted up, a sack held in her teeth which she had found in the housekeeping section behind us. She scooped a seemingly random choice of the tiny jars into the sack with a hoof. I didn’t know if any of these would help either Calamity or Velvet Remedy, but I had learned to trust in the value of Xenith’s alchemy and brewing.
We both froze at the sick shuffling sound of another of the flesh blobs. Dropping the sack, Xenith moved towards the pharmacy counter as I moved to the pharmacy door.
Xenith pushed herself up, peering over the counter cautiously. And didn’t move. Every muscle in her body was locked in place. I could hear the softest sound strangling in her throat as the slick tongues of the thing in the room beyond distended and stretched to start wrapping around her.
I darted out of the pharmacy and around the corner, getting the barest glimpse of the creature before squeezing my eyes furiously shut and firing several bursts from the zebra rifle into where the creature had just been. I heard an unearthly squeal and was assaulted by the acrid stench of the thing’s bulbous flesh burning away. I opened my eyes to see Xenith wrench herself free from the limp appendages as the fire climbed up them towards her. She barely avoided being burned.
“Sorry,” I said with a grimace as we both coughed and gagged, mentally noting that the zebra rifle was no longer to be used against these… or for that matter any Tainted creature considering my run of luck when pairing the two.
Xenith tied off her bag and I helped tie it to her across from her satchel. Together, we moved to the nearby stairwell, not taking the time to peek in the garbage bins. This was already taking far longer than I was comfortable with. And that discomfort didn’t even include the creepy itching that was starting to spread inside me.
According to the old paint, the next floor down was the emergency care and operating rooms. They were our best bet for extra-strength restoration potions.
*** *** ***
You had to sneak up on them from behind, we quickly learned. To look the slithering flesh-mounds in the face was to be paralyzed, body and mind. We did not know if those things could affect more than one mare at a time, but neither Xenith nor I were foolish enough to risk it.
They were, however, the opposite of hellhounds in many ways. They were slow, stupid monstrosities, possessing no tactical skill, driven by only the basest urges. And their flesh was weak. Even a low-caliber bullet would cause great, stinking ruptures in their tuberous bodies.
We made it to the surgical level. Benches lined the wall of what had been a small waiting room, rotted periodicals stained the floor. There were a few pony skeletons here, two with cracked pelvic bones. An ill shudder racked me as it occurred to me that the poor mares had not been killed by the horror which had invaded them, but the horror that had come out.
Beyond the waiting room was a hallway which ended in a swinging pair of double doors. Midway down the hall were two heavy, vault-like doors, each with a wall-mounted terminal. One of these was the medical supply room for the floor. The sign above the other simply said “ISOLATION”. The one bright point was that the hospital seemed entirely unscavenged. There was no sign of hellhound claws. It was no mystery anymore why they shunned this place.
“Oh dear, oh dear,” came a slightly tinny voice from the other side of the swinging operating room doors. My Eyes-Forward Sparkle was picking up two entities, one of which was a non-hostile presence. The other glowed red on the compass. “Misses Tulip, I’m afraid you’ve come down with a serious case of death. I’m afraid this is beyond my meager skills, but I do recommend plenty of bed rest and I will alert the next available doctor to your condition.”
The two of us crept down the hall, stopping at the terminals. The one to the medical supply room was dead, leaving me to pick the lock telekinetically.
“Good afternoon Mister Tester,” said the oddly cheery voice. “I’m pleased to see some of your color has returned. Let me change your IV tubes for you. No, no, don’t fuss. You’ll only make this harder. The straps are for your own good.”
The tumblers moved, sliding reluctantly into place and the medical supply room opened. I pointed my PipBuck lamp into the dark space, hoping fervently for a spot of luck. Inside were racks of collapsed shelving. A metal cabinet had pulled free from the wall and fallen, catching on a counter edge. The doors had swung open, its contents spilling and shattering on the floor.
Xenith took a guarding position as I stepped inside. Moving like prey, with any luck we would be in and out before either of the entities in the other room noticed our passing.
There was one cabinet that looked fairly intact, but from the stains around the bottom of the door, the insides had not fared as well as the exterior.
My heart sank into my stomach and started to die.
Outside, the chipper voice said, “Miss Sunshower, dear, let me put that back on for you. You’ll never heal if you keep losing your head like that.”
My hooves felt terribly heavy as I approached the cabinet. It was locked, and the lock was a tricky one. It took a few tries to open, but that was due in part to the numb dread that was creeping through me.
“Really, is the cleaning staff completely lazy? Just look at the state of this room. Hardly sanitary. If a Ministry of Peace inspector were to show up, somepony would be out of a job.”
I wanted to gallop out, find the source of the voice and buck it to death. Instead, I opened the cabinet door.
*** *** ***
Xenith was carefully putting each of the healing poultices and extra-strength restoration potions we had found into my saddle bags. We had found less than I had hoped for, but hopefully more than enough. In addition, there was a smaller lockbox which had proven far trickier to open. Inside was an advanced medical spell matrix.
I floated the arcano-tech device, a peripheral with intricately enchanted gemstone in the center, out of its box and carried it with me. “I’ll be right back,” I told Xenith, scanning my E.F.S. once again to make sure no other hostiles were in the area.
Xenith kept watch, ready to pull me back as I crept forward towards the operating room doors. I moved as stealthily as possible, Little Macintosh floating close to me. If the red light on my E.F.S. was another of those horrors, I didn’t want it to have the time to turn my way. I hoped it wasn’t already facing the door.
I nudged open the door and looked around. The operating room was full of gurneys, most of which bore the skeleton of a pony. A few were empty. And one held the bloated, fleshy body of one of the horrors. It was strapped down with an IV needle jabbed into it. The IV tube was less than a yard long and dangled off the creatures’ bulbous mass, the other end attached to nothing.
A bright yellow, multi-limbed medical bot hovered from gurney to gurney, “helping” its patients.
The blob of flesh wiggled. I unloaded four shots into it, Little Macintosh echoing throughout the floor. The horror seemed to deflate, filling the air with an awful, fetid stench like bile and sewage.
I had to turn away, covering my muzzle with my hoof, my eyes watering. I galloped back down the hall, stopping in the waiting room and vomiting violently. The acidic taste of bile in my mouth was actually preferable to the smell of the horror’s innards.
I swallowed and wiped my muzzle, feeling faint. I turned back, trotting to the door again, bracing myself for the suffocating reek. I pushed in, holding my breath as long as I could, and snuck towards the malfunctioning medical bot.
I could reprogram it, I believed, routing around the corrupted sectors of its programming. And with the advanced medical spell matrix, it would not only have the medical expertise to help, but be able to utilize a small number of medical spells. Perhaps even ones that Velvet Remedy could learn from it. In the very least, it would be an asset to Junction R-7. At best, it could help Velvet Remedy re-attach her severed foreleg.
But all that was for later, the trip back.
Right now, I just needed to shut it off.
*** *** ***
I walked out of the operating room, my robotic prize wrapped in a magical field and floating next to me. I stopped as I met up with Xenith, and I stared at the vault door beneath the darkened sign reading ISOLATION. The terminal next to this sealed door was glowing softly. The little pony in my head pranced with eager curiosity.
It would only take a minute.
I hooked my hacking tool into it and went to work.
The door clanged internally and slid open. Inside was a small room with filing cabinets, a desk, a glowing terminal… and a huge, reinforced window which looked into a slightly larger chamber. The chamber had a single operating table positioned below a ceiling-mounted robotic medical array. A spider-like mass of arms holding scalpels, bonesaws and torturous-looking medical tools protruded down towards the form still strapped to the table.
It was one of the flesh-horrors. Only this one was dead already, the flesh putrescent. Its tongues had been severed, its body sliced open and partially dissected.
There was one other difference. Stretched and distorted over the rear of this aberration’s mutated flesh was the deformed remnants of a cutie mark.
I heard somepony gasp in horror. I think it was me.
The observation room was virtually untouched by the centuries. The quake from the megaspell had cracked the window, but it had held. The paint on the walls was peeling. The ceiling sagged a little, covered in spider-web cracks. The room beyond however, was missing a corner. The ragged edges suggested massive water damage. I wondered if this was caused by the split in the pipes above the nurse’s station, but there was similar damage in many parts of the building.
I approached the room’s terminal and hacked into it. There was one audio file still remaining. The others had been corrupted or purged. I asked it to play, and a mare’s voice, a ghost from the past, came from an overhead speaker.
“This is Sunny Days, Maripony consultant to the Ministry of Arcane Science. It is now two days since the accident that ended Peachy Pie’s life as we knew it. Eighteen hours since I had to order the brain stem of… this thing severed. Previous attempts to put the creature down through lethal injection proved futile. Even now, we are still reading life signs; this thing just does not want to die. But there is no brain function anymore and hopefully the rest of the body will get the hint. I’ve ordered the autopsy halted until then.
“I take comfort in knowing that my childhood friend died two days ago, and that there was nothing of her in this… abomination.
“I finally managed to get an audience with Ministry Mare Twilight Sparkle. I have learned that the Ministry of Arcane Science is using my old facility to craft something called the Impelled Metamorphosis Potion. According to Twilight Sparkle, this IMP will likely become the deciding factor in the war. It is clearly her hope that through magical augmentation, we can bring the war to a swift conclusion. The zebras have been engaging in mystical and alchemical augmentations for years now, and it sounds to me like the Ministry of Arcane Science is determined to beat them at their own game.
“I questioned Ministry Mare Twilight Sparkle about the contents of the barrels now being stored in the caverns underneath Splendid Valley. She revealed that these barrels contain effectively the very same transformative magical brew that the Ministry of Arcane Science is testing for use on pony volunteers.
“According to the Ministry Mare, the process for creating IMP is extremely delicate and demanding. And apparently, her standards are even more so. Any batch that is flawed in any way, any batch that is not absolutely optimal, is sealed up and discarded. In Twilight Sparkle’s own words, if she is going to ask ponies to trust their bodies to IMP-induced transformation, how could she dare give them anything but the most perfect version of the potion possible?
“The Ministry Mare was absolutely horrified to hear of the accident, and appalled as I told her what had happened to Peachy Pie. She put a strict moratorium on any further attempts to move the barrels. It looks like Ministry Mare Fluttershy is going to have to find a different avenue of negotiation with the Diamond Dogs.
“Personally, at this point, I’m tempted to just start shooting them. I know that’s horrible of me, but I’ve just spent two days seeing the best friend I ever knew reduced to… something worse than any nightmare. And all because we’re trying to appease a bunch of Dogs.
“The worst part is that part of me blames Peachy Pie. She shouldn’t have been down there. She’d come to work sick the last four mornings. I told her to take sick leave. Practically ordered her to. But she never could stand to be doing nothing. Part of me wonders if she slipped, or if her judgment was slightly impaired. And I hate myself for asking that. She deserves better.
“Peachy Pie was the best friend anypony could ever have.
“Her husband is outside. He wants to see the body. I have no idea what to tell him. All I know is that I can’t, absolutely can’t, let him see this.”
*** *** ***
I stumbled out of the isolation room and collapsed against the wall, breathing heavily.
“Littlepip?” Xenith asked, her voice deep with concern. She had heard Sunny Day’s recording too, and I could see the sadness in her eyes and hear it in her voice. But she didn’t know what I knew, didn’t realize what I did. She could tell the recording was affecting me far more than it did her even if she could not sense the revelation behind it.
Taint on the other hoof, Homage had said as DJ Pon3, is a zebra of very different stripes. Nopony knows exactly what the taint is or where it comes from, but we know its mutative effects on monsters and the fatally malignant repercussions on ponies.
I knew what Taint was. I knew where it came from.
I know that as you travel, as you poke your nose into places and memories, you’re going to hear things or learn things about my Twi, Spike had warned me painfully.
Taint was IMP: Impelled Metamorphosis Potion. This was Twilight Sparkle’s other legacy.
But that wasn’t being fair. Twilight Sparkle had been a good pony with a good heart. Of course the M.A.S. hub in Manehattan had been working on a spell to clean Taint, and it was no longer a surprise that they had been successful when everypony since (like that insane ghoul doctor) had failed. Twilight Sparkle knew exactly what Taint was, after all. She knew every component that went into it. And after what happened to Peachy Pie, she was not going to be content to just leave that kind of dangerous magical toxin in barrels underground. She was working to clean it up. Of course the Gardens of Equestria would include the spell to purge Taint from the land. I suspected that Twilight Sparkle would have created a Taint-purging megaspell and set it off over Splendid Valley… just as soon as pony testing of IMP had proven successful.
The only variable is, well, dosage.
Twilight Sparkle’s words floated back to me. The IMP experiment at Maripony required a very tightly controlled dosage. Who knew what the effects of too little would be? The deep itch that had now spread through my entire torso told me I would likely soon learn.
But that was when they discovered that Twilight’s magical… byproducts, shall we say, have started eating through the barrels, Rarity had told Rainbow Dash. Sunny lost a pony trying to move them when several tore open like they were made of nothing but the covering paint.
That horror, on the other side of that window, was what became of anypony who suffered massive exposure. If that creature had been created from a few barrels, I was thankful that I had never seen Trixie herself inside that vat.
And if you got it just right? That was how Trixie was creating the alicorns. I wondered how long had it taken her to find the correct amount, and how many failed experiments had she cannibalized before she struck on the perfect dose?
My eyes went to the hole in the corner of the far chamber. Peachy Pie had been sick each morning for days. The medical equipment was still picking up anomalous life signs after the creature should have been dead.
I knew where the other horrors had come from.
*** *** ***
Xenith and I galloped all the way back to the roof. I slammed through the door, stumbling and panting. “We’ve got… what we… came for!”
Velvet Remedy was looking decidedly bad, but I thanked the Goddesses that she was conscious. Calamity stood at the edge of the building, looking down. I noticed his helmet in his mouth. He had run across and gotten it!
I looked to the building across from us. All the hellhounds were gone. The antenna array was smashed to pieces. I crept to the edge, casting a glance first to the Griffinchaser II. It still looked like a mess, but I could see the work Calamity had done.
Calamity set down his helmet. “In case y’all missed it, they’re tellin’ us t’ surrender.”
Looking down, I saw the hellhounds surrounding the building, some carrying energy weapons. A few dozen carrying torches. Most were armed only with their claws. Standing on a dilapidated wagon was one particularly large female hellhound holding a megaphone.
“You come down now!” she barked, her voice carrying, “Final chance!”
I had really hoped we could treat Calamity’s wing and Velvet Remedy’s leg here. But that was no longer an option. “Come on, Calamity. Let’s go.”
“Ah don’t get why they ain’t swarmed us yet.”
Grimly, I answered, “I do. And trust me, you are much happier not knowing.”
He turned from the edge, picking up his helmet again and walking towards Velvet Remedy. His eyes looked older than they had the day before.
“Not… your… fault,” Velvet Remedy insisted to the pegasus as he laid down next to her.
He set down the helmet and nuzzled the charcoal unicorn. “Yes it is. Ah’m the one who got ‘is wing shot. An’ Ah’m the one who wanted t’ snipe the hellhounds. Y’all faced alla this shit t’ help me. An’ Ah ain’t gonna forget that. Not ever.”
Suddenly the whole building shook. A thunderous rending boiled up from beneath us. A massive fissure tore across the roof a few yards back from the south side edge, and the entire southern wall of the hospital collapsed with a monstrous roar.
Luna-eclipsing orgasms! The Goddess-damned hellhounds were taking out the fucking foundation!
“Out of time, everypony!” I shouted as I climbed onto the Griffinchaser II and tried to figure out how to operate the earth pony contraption. Thankfully, it seemed rather simple. While the mechanics used a spark battery-augmented assist, the whole thing was basically pedal-powered.
“And zebra!” I added. “Gather together. We’re leaving!”
More of the building began to collapse. The roof canted, and the Griffinchaser II began to slide towards the ragged edge.
I wrapped everyone else in a field of magic, making sure to include the medical bot, Velvet Remedy’s leg, Calamity’s helmet and Xenith’s sack of medicines; I started to peddle as hard as I could.
The gears and belts and chains of the Griffinchaser II squealed in protest. The blades began to spin.
With a horrendous rumble, the hospital roof fell away beneath us, the hospital collapsing into billowing clouds of smoke and debris.
We didn’t fall with it. The clouds of dust puffed up at us. Slowly, getting a feel for the flying contraption, I turned us towards Maripony and the Sky Bandit.
*** *** ***
After everything that had come before, there was nothing I could do.
Xenith was brewing a potion, using a mix of her own supplies and the chemicals we had just gathered. I could smell the odd scents coming from the pot she held over the cookfire. Xenith told us this would augment Velvet Remedy’s own healing, allowing her leg to heal fully and properly once it was reattached. It would also permanently alter her, much like previous brews had altered me. Somehow, while such enhancements should be viewed as a gift, this felt like a sacrifice. A final step in severing Velvet Remedy from who she was before. After this, she really wouldn’t be the same pony anymore.
Calamity had refused to leave Velvet Remedy’s side the entire time I had spent reprogramming the medical bot. (While I was at it, I’ll admit that I changed the robot’s name. Considering what its next operation would be, I didn’t feel “Sawbones” was particularly appropriate.)
Now it was up to the medical bot and Velvet Remedy to treat both her and Calamity. I could only sit back and watch. And I didn’t think I could bear to do that.
We were, for the moment, safe. The alicorns were creating a perimeter around Maripony, and the hellhounds seemed to be taking the rest of the night off. I pulled up my PipBuck’s inventory sorting spell, looking for the memory orb I had found in the hospital. I was shocked to find a tin of Party-Time Mint-als amongst my supplies. For a moment, I couldn’t remember how it had gotten there. I ordered the inventory sorter to bury it at the bottom of the saddlebags. The little pony in my head, once an advocate of keeping them, now nickered at me in disappointment. Stupid, inconsistent little pony.
I floated out the orb, laying it on a chunk of rubble in front of me. Then quickly captured it again as it started to roll. Finding a better place to set it, I focused directly on the orb with my magic.
The world melted away.
The world smelled of scented lotions and effervescent fragrances. The floor beneath me was comfortable; my flanks lounged into plush carpeting. I felt warmth and weight pressed against me from the mare wrapped in my forelegs. Her tears soaked into my coat over my breast.
I could hear the pony crying. And behind that, soft, tinkling music from somewhere up above. And in the other room a familiar mare’s voice was saying, “I mean, that’s wonderful news, right? Why don’t you sound happy?”
The pony in my forelegs had the gentlest yellow coat, a flowing pink mane, and was Fluttershy.
“…but I do deserve it,” Fluttershy mumbled against my breast, her body hitching with sobs. “I…”
The legs holding Fluttershy had an elegant white coat that was getting mussed, and I was Rarity.
Rarity felt weak from barely contained sadness, an exhaustion I knew all too well. Her eyes burned on the edge of tears, but she was holding them back, remaining strong for the yellow pegaus in her embrace.
Fluttershy wailed meekly, “I am a traitor!”
“I don’t believe that,” I heard my host say gently. “Rainbow Dash was…”
Fluttershy turned her face up to me, her eyes overflowing with tears. “Rarity. I gave megaspells to the zebras.”
I felt my host tense, her eyes growing wide. But still she didn’t let Fluttershy go. She held her, her voice shocked but her tone non-judgmental as she asked, “Why would you do that?”
Fluttershy gave a wretched squeak as she felt Rarity tense. Her expression told me she expected to be rejected. Pushed away. Maybe worse. But there was a tone of resolve in her voice when she answered.
“To stop the war.”
Rarity shook her head. “How?”
“You remember the test. I have healing spells that megaspells will let heal almost anything. Zebras have potions that allow them to regenerate wounds, and a megaspell will make their whole army like that. Have you seen Twilight’s new shield spell? A megaspell shield could protect a whole city.”
Fluttershy looked at her unicorn friend, fierce determination shining behind those large eyes that were swimming in tears. “If both sides had megaspells, we wouldn’t be able to kill each other anymore. They’d have to stop fighting.”
I felt Rarity shudder, a knot forming in her throat. The tears she had been holding back began to flow. She knew, I could tell, that such was not the way either side would use this gift. “Oh Fluttershy…” As the first tear raced down her right cheek, Rarity leaned forward, brushing aside the flowing pink mane that obscured most of Fluttershy’s face, and planted a kiss on the pegasus pony’s forehead. “…You always were the best of us.”
She hugged the pegasus tighter. “Never, ever regret what you’ve done, darling.” She held Fluttershy’s head against her breast so the pegasus could not see her weeping.
In the background, I could hear the other voice saying, “What? Oh, oh no. My sister is fine. We’re…” I recognized the voice of Sweetie Belle now. “We’re at that spa on Leaf Fall Lane. Rarity’s been here all afternoon trying to get Fluttershy to stop crying.”
Fluttershy shuddered, whimpering, “Rarity? I… I can’t breathe.” Her meek, hesitant tone suggested that she’d accept it if Rarity just kept squeezing her.
Rarity let go quickly. “Oh… Fluttershy, I’m so sorry.” She got up, quickly turning away before the pegasus could see her tears. “I need to freshen up a bit. Will you be okay until I get back?”
Fluttershy squeaked but nodded.
My host trotted quickly for the little mare’s room. On the way, she passed an anxious-looking spa pony. Stopping, Rarity whispered, “Remember, you’re closed. I’m very sorry, and the Ministry of Image will pay you triple your lost earnings, but we really can’t be disturbed right now.”
Before the spa pony could respond, Rarity nearly galloped the rest of the way, pushing through the door to the ladies restroom. As the door swung shut behind her, I could hear Sweetie Belle saying, “Fluttershy says that Rainbow Dash called her a traitor!”
Rarity’s nerves felt fried. She was shedding tears, and it was making it difficult to see, but the sight of her in the mirror looked sad and terrified. Her horn was glowing, and something floated out of her side-purse. She wiped her eyes with a forehoof to better see the framed picture.
It was the Ministry Mares. All together, looking much younger… maybe my age. They were looking disheveled but happy, wearing once-elegant dresses that appeared to have been worn through a wrestling match. There was Spike too, but not Spike as I had ever known or imagined him. Baby Spike! They were all gathered around a round table covered in what looked like donut crumbs.
“I… I don’t think I can take this anymore. I was n-nothing before you. You’re th-the best friends a p-pony could h-have. The best ponies ever…” Rarity choked up. “A-and it feels like I’m l-losing all of you!”
Rarity’s whole body shuddered. She looked up at the mirror and was shocked by what she saw. Turning on the sink, she splashed water onto her face and tried to wash away any trace of her sadness. Looking back up, she drew herself up tall. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Rarity! Fluttershy needs you!”
Her horn glowed again, opening her purse and lifting up the picture.
The door pushed open. Rarity turned, a natural-looking smile already forced onto her muzzle. Her eyes widened upon seeing Sweetie Belle looking mournful.
“Sis, I’m sorry to interrupt but…”
“Yes?” Rarity said with hopeful cheer I know she didn’t feel.
“Applejack’s been in an… accident.”
I could feel Rarity’s body tense. “An accident? Is she all right?”
“She’s in a coma, but the doctors say she’ll recover,” Sweetie Belle told her sister regretfully.
At the word coma, Rarity’s magic imploded, the framed picture dropping to the floor with a clatter.
“Apple Bloom says Twilight Sparkle’s on her way to see them. She wants to know if you and Fluttershy can come see Applejack too.”
Rarity swayed. Forcing her voice to not waver, she informed her little sister, “Of course we will! Fluttershy and I will head to Manehattan right away.” She gave her sister a smile, “And will you be coming too?”
Sweetie Belle nodded. “I’ve already made arrangements. There’s a train leaving in an hour.” The younger unicorn slipped back out, closing the door behind her. “I’ll see you there.”
The moment Rarity was alone again, the usually elegant unicorn swayed on the verge of fainting. As she braced herself against the sink, her eyes fell to the picture on the floor. A slight crack now ran down the glass, separating Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy from Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle.
The unicorn mare whimpered softly. Her magic wrapped around the picture and tucked it back into her purse, then drew out a familiar headset. She touched her hoof to the earbloom.
Rarity turned to the mirror, looking at herself. A look of sad determination crossed her face.
A voice crackled over the earbloom. “Hello? Ministry of Image, Mistress Rarity’s office.
“This is Rarity. Contact the Ministry’s top magician. Tell him I’ve changed my mind and I will need his services on that special project after all.”
*** *** ***
The trip back was a long and occasionally eventful one, but it was only in trying to look back on it afterwards that things became strange.
Calamity’s wing had mended beautifully, but at our insistence he made regular stops to rest. Velvet Remedy fared both better and worse. Her foreleg was encased in a thick, rigid cast that prevented her from walking; she was extremely weak and in dire need of rest and recovery.
“Velvet, go to sleep,” Xenith intoned, carefully using our unicorn companion’s name. “Breath of the Phoenix takes time to do its work.”
“Goddesses, Velvet,” I chimed in, “You’re worse than… well, all of us when you give us medical pony’s orders.”
Velvet Remedy ignored us, instead cooing at Pyrelight and nuzzling her wing softly. “Hear that, Pyrelight darling? Xenith’s little brew has made me part phoenix. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“It is just a name,” Xenith sighed.
Velvet Remedy continued to play with Pyrelight who fluttered about my beautiful friend with unconcealed joy at her survival. The balefire phoenix kept perching on Velvet’s cast, which I couldn’t imagine was really helping.
I itched. And I really didn’t like that. I swore to myself that the very first thing I would do upon returning to Tenpony Tower was find Homage and promise whatever I had to in order to get that Taint-purging spell cast on me. I feared it might already be too late.
Well, second thing. First thing would be to set my friends up in a luxury suite where Velvet could get some damn rest. “If you don’t go right to bed when we get to Tenpony, I swear I’m going to tie you to the bed.”
Velvet Remedy’s eyes widened. Then narrowed as she gave me a sultry look. “Oh Littlepip, you tease. But really, that’s your kink, not mine.”
I sputtered. It was most definitely not my kink.
Thankfully, Velvet Remedy turned her spotlight on Xenith. “Yesterday when that siren went off, were you hearing it just in your ears?” Velvet Remedy asked.
The zebra gave her an odd look. I didn’t blame her, finding the question equally strange until I heard Xenith’s answer: “How else would I be hearing that dreadful noise?” She seemed to consider, “I have felt sounds before, low vibrating rumbles, but this was no such sound.”
Velvet Remedy nodded and looked to the rest of us. It took me a moment, but when the realization hit me, it seemed so obvious that…
*** *** ***
…I was looking down the scope of Little Macintosh as the zombie-pony came into view. A slight squeeze of the trigger and Little Macintosh roared. The creature’s head exploded.
I turned, checking for any more of the flesh-eating zombies, but my E.F.S. compass was clean of red. I floated my weapon away, feeling a pang. It was tragic and terrible that these zombies were once living ponies who had become trapped, imprisoned in decaying bodies and minds, slowly tortured by the rotting insanity that turned them into mindless monsters bent on devouring other ponies. Yet part of me remembered all too horrifically that there were even worse fates.
I turned back to eating my soup. The others were settling back down to dinner as well. Twilight was fading. The ruins of the old power substation loomed about us. We had chosen it because the crumbling walls would shield the light of our cookfire. Calamity had wanted to push the rest of the way to Manehattan, but yielded to our persuasions.
Xenith stirred the pot again, offering Velvet another helping. Pyrelight had flown off hunting the moment the Sky Bandit touched down, and Velvet had been anxious about her since the first zombie-pony appeared.
I heard hoofsteps and a clattering sound approaching, followed by heavy, ragged breathing that didn’t sound like any pony. Waving to the others, I floated out the zebra rifle and brought up my E.F.S. again, scanning the area for hostile life. No red, but there were several approaching non-hostile entities. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Several minutes later, the traveling merchant moved into the light of our campfire. Upon seeing us, she froze, eyes darting to each of my (very heavily armed, I suddenly realized) party. The two-headed cattle carrying her wares mooed plaintively behind her.
Calamity flew over, causing the merchant to take a step back. But he was all smiles and a hearty hoofshake. “Howdy there! Been ages since ah’ve seen any sort o’ caravan. Ah’d be much obliged if y’all would join us for soup. Ah promise, it’s mighty tasty!”
He leaned forward and whispered loudly, “Ah didn’t cook it.”
The merchant smiled, the tension in her body melting away. “Thank ya kindly.” She hitched her cattle to a trash bin and trotted over to join us. I gasped as a large beast pushed past the cattle and lumbered in after her, growling softly.
“W-what is t-that?” Velvet Remedy stammered, wide eyed.
The merchant laughed. “Oh, don’tcha mind Cuddles. He really is a friendly bear. Unless y’all are raiders.” The pony smiled, “A lady can’t be wanderin’ the wasteland without a friend, y’know. There’s some bad folk out there.”
“Yao guai,” our zebra whispered strangely to Velvet.
“I’ve… never met such a beast before,” Velvet Remedy said, still wide-eyed.
“Well, truth be told, Ah never met neither a pegasus nor a zebra b’fore,” the merchant replied good-naturedly as Xenith offered her a bowl of soup. “Thank ya, miss.”
“What brings ya out this way?” Calamity asked curiously.
“Doin’ the new run ‘tween Shattered Hoof an’ Manehattan,” the merchant pony said with a smile. “Figure Ah outta get in on the new action b’fore everypony does.”
Suddenly, Calamity took to the air, darting back to where the Sky Bandit was parked. We all watched as he returned with his saddlebags and started pulling out seemingly random junk. Everything from old boxes of instant mashed potatoes to small-caliber firearms that were, quite frankly, beneath us.
Wait… when exactly did any lethal ranged weapon become beneath us?
“Where did you find those?” Velvet Remedy asked. “When did you find them? I thought we had sold everything non-essential at Tenpony Tower?”
“Scavengin’ Ol Olneigh,” Calamity replied as he started to pick the best things to barter with while Velvet Remedy just shook her head. She got up and hobbled over, nudging him aside and rearranging his selection.
“I will now tell you a secret,” said Xenith as she leaned close to the pegasus. “It is both possible and permissible to pass by a filing cabinet or garbage barrel without looking inside.”
I facehoofed as Calamity turned to her with wide, mock-amazed eyes. “Really? How? Ah ain’t learned that trick.”
I found myself smiling at that. A thought struck me. “Hey, Calamity, could we take a swing by Shattered Hoof on our way? I want to talk to Gawd…”
*** *** ***
…I frowned as Velvet Remedy once more submersed herself in the original Fluttershy Orb.
I knew now that SteelHooves hadn’t quite been right about the yellow pegasus. But he’d still been close enough for me to worry for my friend. Especially with the strain, physically and mentally, that this week had put Velvet Remedy under.
She’d come chillingly close to dying. Twice. And even if there were no visible scars or lasting physical damage from the loss of her leg, the psychological impact would not heal with magical ease. Her alteration under Xenith’s brew showed no outward signs, but I could not imagine that it was not weighing on her as well. All this, on top of the horrors of the Stable Two massacre…
I looked away, tracing my right forehoof over the metal floor of the Sky Bandit. We were nearing Shattered Hoof. I could see the lights of it in the darkness.
I pushed my thoughts in other directions, purposefully distracting myself. I thought of the orbs I had seen yesterday. For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine how or why the Leaf Fall Lane spa memory had ended up locked in that cabinet. Most of the time, the locations of the memory orbs I found struck me as completely logical. This one did not.
The other orb did, although it took me a while to puzzle it out. The Steel Rangers had likely been trying to make their way to the hospital roof, led by the robed unicorn mare in their party. With the information in that orb, they could have gotten a fix on the location of the central hub of the Single Pegasus Project, whatever that happened to be.
As for Rarity’s reason to make a recording of the memory, I chose to believe that the moment Rainbow Dash asked her to design the Enclave armor was a happy moment for her. She was, at heart, a dressmaker. And finally her job and her beloved hobby had united… after a fashion. No pun intended. I could imagine the graceful, elderly unicorn wanting to relive that moment again and again. Especially as things began to fall apart for her friends.
Not unlike Velvet Remedy.
“Okay, Li’lpip,” Calamity called out. “We’re headin’ in.”
The pegasus was in a good mood. He was flying again. Velvet was going to be okay. And he’d even gotten to chat with a caravan merchant and barter (or, more precisely, watch Velvet Remedy barter). I had been surprised how many little items he had managed to scavenge from Old Olneigh while the rest of us were focused on just moving through.
I wasn’t the only one with a vice.
“Incomin’ griffins,” Calamity called out. I brought up my E.F.S. and verified that they were friendly. A moment later, Blackwing and her Talons flew into view, circling and pulling up along side us.
“Littlepip and friends,” she said. I felt my cheeks redden. Why was it never Calamity and friends or Velvet Remedy and friends I wondered for what seemed like the millionth-billionth time. Of course, by now I knew the answer. I had Homage and my companions to thank for it. Yay.
“Blackwing!” I said, brushing off my embarrassment to talk to the griffin. “I was hoping to see you. I have something I need to ask you for, and I hoped we could come to an arrangement.”
“Oh?” The griffin merc raised an eyebrow. “This should be good…”
*** *** ***
…I woke up, finding myself staring at the familiar ceiling of Doctor Helpinghoof’s clinic. Only this time, at least, I wasn’t bound.
I knew better than to get up too fast. Instead, I cleared my throat loudly. The voices beyond the partition stopped and a shadow approached. Doctor Helpinghoof pushed aside the partition and eyed me curiously.
“When I said that I could make a tidy profit off of you, I did not mean that as an encouragement.”
Velvet Remedy pushed past him, wobbling as she tried to walk with just three legs. Her eyes were narrowed and her voice was cross. I was completely expecting this.
“I can’t believe you!” she nearly shouted. “After everything we’ve been through! You used them again!?”
“I had to,” I said evenly. “It was the only way.” The only way to make sure Red Eye listened. “But it was just a one-time thing, and I sought treatment immediately.” I leveled a gaze at her. “On my own, I could point out.”
“One time? Of course. Until the next time you decide you need them,” Velvet seethed. “Littlepip, haven’t you learned anything!? You can’t do just one time!”
I winced. She was right. I was playing with fire even though I knew I was soaked in whiskey. “Please… I know this is bad. But it was really important. I know this will make it harder for me. So I’m going to need you…”
“Let me see!” she demanded. Doctor Helpinghoof had politely backed away.
“Your Goddess-damned inventory sorter, Littlepip!” Velvet Remedy barked. “I want to see for myself that you didn’t keep any.”
A shot of fear went through me. I lifted my PipBuck for her to see, praying that I actually had tossed the damned tin of Party-Time Mint-als into a burning trash barrel the moment I trotted out of the encampment. I prayed that my addiction and the little pony in my head hadn’t somehow played tricks with my memory. I was going to be doing too much of that on my own.
“Okay, fine,” Velvet said as she looked through my inventory and, thankfully, found no sign of PTMs. “And you better believe I will be going through your things back in the room. And quite regularly from now on.”
I nodded. “Thank you, Velvet. I…”
“You’ve proven you can’t be trusted,” she snapped, her words wounding me. Even more so because I deserved it.
Doctor Helpinghoof’s assistant trotted forward, smiling indulgently. Velvet Remedy looked to the white unicorn buck with the candy-red and scarlet striped mane. “Will it hurt?” Velvet asked, sounding worried. Shooting me a dark look, she added, “Not that she doesn’t deserve it a little.”
Turning back to the white unicorn, Velvet admitted, “She’s been through so much. I don’t want her to have to suffer any more.”
“Don’t worry,” the unicorn said. “She won’t remember any pain.” Turning to me, she asked, “Are you ready to do this?”
I nodded. “Let’s get it over with.” I slowly pulled myself out of bed and followed him.
As we walked away, I heard Velvet Remedy moan, “You’re going to destroy yourself trying to save the entire wasteland, Littlepip...”
*** *** ***
…A piercing white light above me died, and I found myself in darkness, staring up at an unfamiliar ceiling inlaid with strangely patterned mirrors. I was laying back in a chair, a bizarre and uncomfortable position. And I had absolutely no idea how I had gotten here.
The last thing I remembered was being in Helpinghoof’s clinic. I seemed to recall that I had been treated for PTM use, and voluntarily at that. I cringed, my mind filling with shame as I remember taking that tin from the nurse’s station. I was humiliated and disgusted with myself for the weakness I gave into every time I could have thrown it away. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember actually taking one.
Or, for that matter, I didn’t remember volunteering for treatment, although I could remember acting as if I had once it was over.
A deep, alien terror started to envelop me as I tried to retrace my actions, only to find my memories of even the flight back to be piecemeal at best. Ever since leaving Maripony, my sense of time had become swiss cheese. But the scattered moments I did remember didn’t leave me with the impression that I had been losing time.
A familiar white unicorn buck appeared, leaning over me, his scarlet and candy red mane draping so that it almost touched my face. His mane reminded me of Pinkie Pie’s at the party, after it had seemed to deflate. “Don’t panic.”
“Where am I? How did I get here? Who are you?” The questions tumbled out as fast as I could form them. The unicorn raised a silencing hoof, but I didn’t want to be silenced. “What happened to me!?”
I felt another hoof touch my shoulder as Homage stepped around the chair. “Relax, love.”
My eyes darted between them, my emotions in turmoil.
“Littlepip,” Homage asked, “Do you trust me?”
The answer shot through all my dismay and confusion. “Yes.”
Homage whispered, “Then still your thoughts, love. Relax.” She helped guide me off the chair into her embrace. I pressed myself against her, breathing hard, trying to find a way to peace in the storm of panic that threatened to overwhelm me.
Her scent became a life preserver tossed into my ocean of distress. And a rope with which to pull myself to safety. Slowly, I relaxed.
“Littlepip, this is Life Bloom,” Homage said finally, introducing me formally to the white unicorn with the red and scarlet mane and tail.
“I’m pleased to meet you again,” Life Bloom said. “Velvet Remedy and Homage have told me so much about you.”
I nodded slowly, piecing a little together. “You are Doctor Helpinghoof’s assistant, right? The one that Velvet Remedy has been buying spells from?”
“Indeed I am.”
Homage stroked my mane gently as if she could brush out the little shakes I was feeling. “You remember what I told you about the ponies who really run Tenpony Tower? Life Bloom is one of them.”
The unicorn buck bowed with a smile. “And you are the Stable Dweller whom DJ Pon3 and Homage have woven into the Bringer of Light.”
I flushed with embarrassment, looking away.
“And humble,” the buck said with a smile. “That is a good sign.”
Turning back to him, I asked again, this time more slowly, “Where am I? And what happened to me?”
The unicorn’s horn glowed a brilliant crimson. A small box floated into view. I recognized the kind of box. It was the kind which held memory orbs. “These, Littlepip, are yours.”
“Mine?” It took me a breath to grasp what he was saying. “They’re my memories?”
“Of the last couple days,” Homage said in agreement.
I reeled. I’d lost days? “Wh…? Why did you remove them?”
“Because you asked me to,” Life Bloom said. “And because Homage persuaded me it was for a good cause.”
“Life Bloom is a bit of a magical protégé. Takes to new spells like nopony I’ve ever seen. He’s the only unicorn in Tenpony Tower to have mastered the old memory spells once used by the Ministry of Morale,” Homage informed me. “He’s also the one who can cast the Taint Purge.”
Looking at me knowingly, Homage followed that little revelation up with, “So, how are you feeling?”
I stopped. Assessed myself. I felt tired. Strained. The burns on my flank and side had been healed but were still tender.
The deep, unsettling itch was gone.
“There may be minor mutations,” Life Bloom announced. “But nothing life-threatening or even, I suspect, life-changing. I’m pretty certain that we purged you in time.”
I felt my knees give out as a sudden rush of gratefulness weakened me. “Oh thank you!”
*** *** ***
The box of memory orbs came with a note in my own tooth-writing.
The memory orbs inside this box are in order. The first is pretty much a table of contents, and the others are most of my/your memories from the last few days. The three important ones that I think I will want to relive are orbs four, six and eight. Everything else is just long, dull flights and routine stuff. I don’t think I/you really need to spend hours trapped in a memory orb just so we can relive our bowel movements or hours of feeling itchy.
Don’t watch any of these until after you/I get the Black Book and take it to Maripony. Please. I know that’s going to be really hard for me/you, but it’s important.
I read it again and again, but it still made no sense. I looked at the orbs. I wanted my memories back! I wanted to know what I did over the last two days. I needed to know why I had taken Party-Time Mint-als again. What could possibly have been so dire as to make me do that?
A bluish sheath of magic closed the lid, removing the memory orbs from my sight, and floated the box out of my hooves. Homage magically lifted it, placing it into her safe and locking it. The huge painting of Splendid Valley floated back into its place.
She turned towards me, smiling. “Now, how soon do you have to go?”
I shook my head, completely at a loss. I felt untethered. Adrift. I didn’t know what my plans were. What I was supposed to be doing next.
All I did know was that Velvet Remedy needed time to recuperate. In reality, so did Calamity. Maybe all of us did. I hated the idea of spending another day on myself when there were ponies in the Equestrian Wasteland suffering and dying because I wasn’t there to help them. But this wasn’t time spent for me. This was for my friends. And I couldn’t do anything without them. I needed them, now more than ever.
“I think we can take a day or two,” I said hesitantly. “But no more than that.”
Homage smiled. “Perfect! I’ll start dinner.”
I remembered something. “Thirty-one!? How could you do that to me!”
“Because I know your body like the beautiful instrument it is!” she called back as she made her way into her kitchen. “And I can coax the most beautiful music from it.”
I felt myself go weak. “Not… what… I meant…”
I looked around, wondering suddenly where Xenith was.
*** *** ***
“Hello, me! Welcome to my memories!”
I was looking at myself in a full length mirror. I could see Life Bloom and Homage moving about in the background. The room was dark and strangely shaped with an odd chair in the center beneath a shining spotlight. Mirrored inlays on the ceiling caught the light as it bounced back off the chair, making the lines of mirror seem to glisten.
This is just the table of contents, I told myself. It’s okay to watch just this one. I felt utterly confused and I needed at least a little context.
“If you are not me, then these memories are not for you,” I felt myself say with what was actually my own mouth. This was supremely weird; I was riding me. “Please do not watch any more of them, and return them immediately to DJ Pon3 or his assistant at Tenpony Tower.”
That deep itching was gone. I had stood in front of this mirror, saying these things, after Life Bloom had used the Taint Purge spell on me.
“Now, assuming I am me… and this is supremely weird. And I thought writing the note felt bizarre…” I paused, apparently re-gathering my train of thought. Did I usually ramble like this?
“Okay, the first big thing you need to know…” I stopped again. I felt my body deflate with a sigh.
“Dammit, Littlepip!” I said, stomping. “I’m watching this before I told me to, aren’t I?”
I felt a rush of embarrassment as I realized I had caught me.
“Celestia rape your cunt with the burning sun if I can’t even take simple instruction from myself! Do I have no fucking self control?”
I felt myself stomp again. Felt myself huffing. The entire memory was too surreal. “Dammit! Okay… sorry for that if I’m watching this when I should be. If so, I owe myself an apology.”
Taking a deep breath, I started again. “I’m going to make this short, just in case I’m the kind of idiot I’m afraid I am.” I gave myself a dark look, then continued. “First, by now you’ve already figured out that there are two kinds of memory spells. The first records a memory, like the spell enchanted into a recollector. The second extracts a memory completely. That’s the kind that the Ministry of Morale used when they weren’t being gentle.“
I felt myself frowning, and the Littlepip in the mirror frowned back.
“Second, I’ve got a plan for dealing with the Goddess. I’ve told everypony their parts, and just their parts. I’m the only pony who knows all of it. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything about the Goddess if we can’t even reach Maripony. And if I go in knowing the plan, Trixie can read it right out of my head. Game over. So…” I felt myself lift a foreleg and make a sweeping motion as the Littlepip in the mirror did exactly that.
Crap. I knew I was right. Other me, that is. Arrugh.
“So for the love of Celestia and Luna, for the love of Homage, don’t watch any more of the damn memory orbs until after you take the Black Book to Maripony.”
I stomped with a huff. “Seriously, I am so disappointed in me.” Then, sheepishly, I added, “That is, assuming I should be. If I really held out like I told me too, I really have egg on my face right now, don’t I?”
I felt utterly guilty and pissed at myself.
“Now, the fourth memory orb is my conversation with Blackwing. I’m sure I’ll need to know the deal we struck. The sixth one I’ll need to know for entirely different reasons. That’s the one where I took a Party-Time Mint-al. I’m beginning to question if that was the right call. But I really, really needed to be at my most persuasive. You’ll see.
“The eighth memory orb was being greeted by Homage as we returned to the Tower. And that one I know I’ll want to relive again and again.”
I gave myself a wink.
Footnote: Maximum Level
Quest Perk added: Touched by Taint (1) – Exposure to Taint has altered your physiology. When under the effects of Advanced Radiation Poisoning (400+ Rads) any crippled limbs will automatically regenerate.