Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat

Chapter Thirty-Two: Conversations in the Calm Before

Chapter Thirty-Two: Conversations in the Calm Before

“We could form our own secret society.”


I had just barely floated the painting of Splendid Valley back into place when Homage came in. “Well what?” I asked, hoping I didn’t sound as guilty as I felt.

“Did you sneak around behind my back and break into my safe to look at your memories, even after both I and you told you not to?”

Oh Goddesses. It was bad enough that I disappointed myself. But just how deplorable was it that I broke into Homage’s private safe to do so?

I hated my curiosity, and I hated myself for being so weak. I looked to Homage, wondering what to say. Should I admit it? Would it hurt her? Did she already know?

“Littlepip,” Homage said with a sad yet stern voice, “I don’t know what upsets me more. That you broke into my safe and tried to undo everything you’d worked so hard for, or that you actually considered lying to me about it.”

“But I…” My heart broke.

“You paused to think,” Homage frowned. “It doesn’t take that long to think of how to say yes.”

My gaze fell to the floor.

“I think you’d best sleep elsewhere tonight.”

I felt my blood freeze. I looked up into Homage’s eyes, pleading. The beautiful little grey unicorn gave me a soft, sad smile. “I was there when you made your little speech to yourself. I knew you were probably going to do this… and so did you. I hoped you could be better than that…”

Her words hit me like a buck to the gut.

“…but I’m not angry at you for failing. Just disappointed.”

I would rather she be angry. Disappointed hurt so much more. I could handle being yelled at, but the idea that I had failed and saddened Homage…

Homage looked at me tenderly. “Before your worries take you to dark places, I’ll tell you up front: this doesn’t change my feelings for you at all. And my disappointment will be short lived. I’m not sending you away because I don’t want to see you; I’m sending you away because you’ve been bad and I’m punishing you.”

She gave me a little smile, “And I think we both know you need that as much as deserve it.” The smile faded. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Littlepip.”

*** *** ***

It took me most of the ride down the elevator to figure out why I needed punishment as much as I deserved it. There was no question of the latter. The pit in my stomach and the self-loathing in my heart told me that I had done wrong. I had wronged myself. And far worse, I had wronged her. My voice in the darkness.

And with that, even if she forgave, I would never be able to accept forgiveness until she had punished me for it too. I couldn’t move on while my tail was twitching. I needed something to fall on my head, or I’d always be looking for it.

I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d come up with that analogy (“Awareness! It was under ‘E’!”), but I knew that it was appropriate.

I walked slowly down the hall towards the door to our suite, casually unlocking it with my telekinesis. What was once unimaginable had become a feat of such ease I barely focused on it. My mind was largely elsewhere. I was determined to remain at Tenpony Tower for a little while longer, not for myself but for my companions. Each of them had nearly died in the last few days. Xenith and Calamity would both have been turned to ash by the hellhounds’ attacks if it had not been for the spell Velvet Remedy learned from Life Bloom last time we were here. Each had suffered fearsome wounds, Velvet’s injury still left her in a cast despite the most powerful healing magic and best care the wasteland could provide. Nor was I untouched, but I feared for them more than myself. Deep down, I somehow knew that I was expendable but they were not.

I had a lot of repairing to do. I wondered if I should try to get them counseling. Or should we work through this alone? I wasn’t sure where best to begin, or even how much I may have already done. Was I doomed to spend the next days repeating discussions we’d already had but that I didn’t remember? Seeing my friends look at me awkwardly as I initiated difficult conversations for a second time?

Couldn’t I have at least left myself some notes? Of course, as they say, hindsight is… well, no, even that didn’t really apply. My hindsight was perforated. Even worse, I was smart enough to realize that I shouldn’t be trying to put the pieces back together. If I thought about things too much, I might be able to reconstruct lines of logic that I didn’t want to have in the forefront of my brain when I next confronted the Goddess. I suspected that Trixie’s telepathy didn’t extend much beyond reading my surface thoughts -- if it had, I think things would have gone a lot differently in Maripony. (Or perhaps she could, but it just required a level of focus the Goddess couldn’t commit to while maintaining connection to all her alicorns. The fact that Calamity had been able to surprise her about something he had been looking at told me she wasn’t nearly as on top of current thoughts as she wanted us to believe.) Still, if I knew the plan or even suspected what I was up to, there was no way I could avoid thinking about it while I enacted it.

These thoughts so preoccupied my head that I did not even notice the sounds as I entered the room. But the sight stopped me dead.

Calamity. And Velvet Remedy.

Together. In bed. Intertwined. Moving…


I shouldn’t be here. Leavingnowbye!

I had become rather exceptional at stealth. I was able to slip out fast and smooth, without making the slightest peep, without being seen.

The click as I closed the door behind me sounded louder than Little Macintosh.

I froze. My whole body was tense, my nerves covered in ice. My mind was reeling. I couldn’t begin to formulate feelings of my own about what I had just walked in on; I was still panicking.

On the other side of the door, I heard voices. My heart was pounding.

“Did… somepony just open the door?” she asked cautiously.

“Ah locked it,” he responded.

And then, in almost perfect unison:


I ran. As fast and as silently as I could. As I raced down the hall, I could swear I heard Xenith’s voice float out of nowhere, proclaiming: “Doooooooomed.”

*** *** ***

I clopped my hoof on the door to Twilight’s Athenaeum. Part of me knew I was supposed to be banished from Homage’s company for the day, but I wasn’t looking to get away with anything, just to get away. I needed a place to hide, and a place to stay the night, and Homage came to the forefront of my thoughts.

Nopony answered. The door was locked, and I wasn’t about to unlock another anything without permission. I dashed up the stairs to the balcony and lifted my hoof towards the door to the emergency broadcast station. Was she busy? Would the beat of my hoof interrupt a recording? Did I have the right to take that risk?

And what would she have to say to me? How could I ask her to make an exception for me because I had managed invade the privacy of even more of my friends?

Doomed indeed. And I deserved it. I put down my hoof. I’d just spend the day wandering aimlessly around Tenpony Tower, avoiding everypony, and waiting until the final hour of my exile was over.

Not a problem. I could go half a day without getting myself in trouble.

I heard a chime in the atrium below. The elevator doors slid open. I crouched flat on the balcony as I saw Velvet Remedy and Calamity step out into the atrium, Calamity helping support Velvet with one of his wings. Oh Goddesses! I couldn’t face them right now. I backed up against the M.A.S.E.B.S. door, hiding.

“Ya think she’s upset?” Calamity’s voice sounded below.

I could hear the odd thump of Velvet’s foreleg cast as she moved awkwardly into the atrium.

“Well, I wish that she’d just see this as an opportunity to get back at me for some of my teasing,” Velvet Remedy’s voice floated up to me. Her chocolaty-smooth voice had a slightly harried timbre. “But I doubt that she will. The poor girl had a crush on me for ages, and while I’ve been under the impression that she is over it, I worry she might still feel hurt.”

Did I? I wasn’t sure. I was still too wrapped up in the fear of being caught. And now, I worried that I might feel like that. It would be unfair. And selfish. I had a relationship with Homage that left me… exhausted, to be honest. What right did I have to begrudge anyone else a relationship of their own? Especially my two closest friends. I should be happier than ever for them.

“Ah honestly don’ think ya give Li’lpip enough credit. She’s got too much heart t’ let jealousy eat away at her. Or us. Ah reckon Ah got more t’ worry ‘bout in that regard from yer bird.”

It dawned on me that I wasn’t feeling happy for them. I didn’t think I felt jealous. I wanted to be a much better pony that that. If I was jealous, I didn’t deserve the friendship of either of them. But no, I didn’t think it was jealousy either that I was feeling.

It was concern. An achingly pessimistic worry.

Calamity’s voice rose up from below again. “Do ya think she’s here? Seems awfully…”

“Quiet? Yes, now that you mention it. If she was in Homage’s company, I would expect we’d be able to hear her. At least, that is what Xenith would have me believe.”

I buried my face in my forehooves, suddenly blushing. There was absolutely no way this could get more awkward and humiliating.

“I mean… thirty-one? Celestia’s mercy!”

Okay, I was wrong. Now it couldn’t get worse.

“That’s… a lot, right?” Calamity asked in buckish ignorance.

“Yes, that’s a lot,” Remedy said. I could almost hear the rolling of her eyes.

“Did… you...?” Oh no. Did Calamity really ask that? I heard the soft smack of Velvet Remedy’s hoof. Good for her.

“You do not ask a lady that, Calamity!” she scolded. Then, in a smaller voice, she admitted, “Yes. Twice.”

“Twice?” Oh the big idiot. “And we were… then she was…” I felt my ears burning as I realized my pegasus friend was trying to do the math. “How the hell did she ‘av time t’ come t’ Splendid Valley?”

“Indeed,” Velvet said with a slight trace of bitterness. “Clearly, Homage’s cutie mark should be Littlepip. Obviously, that’s what she’s best at doing.”

I wanted to melt into the wall and disappear into some void beyond. I wanted the moon itself to come crashing down through the ceiling and crush me. I didn’t want them to find me, and I didn’t want to be hearing this private conversation… and the mere thought that they might discover I had been unintentionally eavesdropping made me die inside.

I heard a splash. One of them had stepped into the fountain’s pool.

“After Maripony, I finally understand the alicorn in this room,” Velvet’s voice mused, changing the subject. “I had been wondering how and why Twilight Sparkle would have chosen such a decoration.”

“When we do find ‘er,” Calamity stated slowly, “Ah think ya oughta do the talkin’.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

“Well… y’all are just better at it than me. Li’lpip will want t’ know ‘bout… what we are now, an’ all. Ah’d jus’ mess it up.”

“And just what are we now?” Velvet said silkily.

“Dammit,” Calamity sighed in frustration and confusion. “Tha’s jus’ the question Ah was tryin’ t’ avoid.” Slowly, he admitted, “Ah don’ know.”

Velvet’s voice was gentle and kind. “You’re Calamity, and I’m Velvet Remedy. Just like we were before, only more intimate.” I heard another splash. “I’m not going to push for us to be anything more than you want us to be. I’m never going to tie you down, or demand a commitment that you aren’t looking for…”

I couldn’t help but feel this conversation was built upon a great many that I hadn’t been privy to before, and that I had no excuse to be listening to this one. My mind began to scramble for ways to escape.

“Ya don’t even need t’ ask, girl.”

“I know,” Velvet purred. “But I need you to know that I’m not looking to change anything about you… well, except maybe for your grammar... I just want to be with you.”

If I opened the door behind me, closed it and stood up quickly, surely they would think I had just stepped out of the station behind me? It seemed like a good plan.

The door was locked. Of course it was.

Well, surely I couldn’t get myself into any more trouble…

“Aw dangit. Ah don’t know nothin’ what t’ say. Ah ain’t any good at this sorta thing.”

“You don’t know anything to say,” Velvet tried pointlessly.

“Ayep. Wish Ah did. Maybe Ah… should jus’ hold ya?”

The lock clicked. I slid the door open, then stood as I closed it again.


I looked down at them, both standing in the fountain’s pool, Calamity’s forehoof sliding away from an interrupted embrace. My heart raced, and I blurted out the first thing I thought of. “Oh. Hello. I was just in there with Homage in the place doing the thing.”

They were giving me odd looks. I wanted to facehoof myself into unconsciousness. Instead, I gave them a forced and probably awkward smile. They looked at each other, then back to me, their expressions melting into ones of compassion and concern. I realized that my awkwardness would be taken as discomfort over what they knew I had seen and not what they didn’t know I had heard. Velvet Remedy started to call up to me…

The door behind me opened and Homage peeked out. “Littlepip, did you just try to come in?” Her eyes narrowed at me. “That’s not how punishment works.”

Calamity and Velvet Remedy exchanged looks of quick realization.

Doomed. I am not a clever pony.

*** *** ***

After twenty minutes of explaining and confessing and apologizing (with a hint of blubbering), I found myself sitting across from Velvet and Calamity at Homage’s table, feeling small and guilty, as Homage made everyone tea.

At last, however, I had been able to put solid thoughts to my feelings. The problem now was how or even if I should voice them. What if my worries were correct? What damage would I do by shining a light on them. Or worse, what if I was wrong, but my questions led to doubts in their own minds?

The silence stretched awkwardly between the three of us. Velvet looked patient but strained. Calamity fidgeted.

If I said anything, it would have to be now, while they were together and could draw support from each other as they answered. But what if…?

Calamity rubbed a hoof on the table, absently asking Velvet, “Hey, ya figure they did it on here?”

I changed the subject quickly, and not just because the answer was yes, and I didn’t want them thinking about that when Homage put tea and a plate of cakes on the table. “I guess I’m just concerned. I mean, you two are my closest friends. We travel everywhere together. And with hardly anypony else…”

“And you’re worried we’ve grown intimate out of convenience?” Velvet Remedy finished for me tactfully.

“uh… pretty much, yeah.”

Calamity snorted. “Now Ah know how y’all might think that way, comin’ from a Stable. But Ah’ve been down here for awhile now. Ah’ve had plenty o’ other options. Jus’ never cared for ‘em.” He nodded upwards. “Had options up there too. But none o’ the mares in the service shared muh feelin’s ‘bout helpin’ the ponyfolk down here. A right turnoff, if’n y’ask me.”

I had to admit, I’d never even considered the idea of Calamity having relationships available to him with anypony other than us. He just seemed like such a lone defender that I thought of him as being just as much a stranger to the rest of the world as we were. But hadn’t Railright claimed that Calamity had been offered a home and place in New Appleloosa?

Homage came in with the tea and cakes. She smiled and gave me a little kiss on my horn, which suddenly felt pleasantly warm, as she floated a cup of tea onto the table in front of me.

“I’ll admit,” Velvet Remedy began, “that I was worried about the same thing at first. The first thing that attracted me to Calamity was his wings.”

“Ah swear, y’all got a feather fetish,” Calamity nipped playfully.

Velvet giggled primly. “No. I had just abandoned my home and risked whatever I would find out here for freedom, and there you were. More free than I ever imagined any pony could be. Not even the ground could hold you.”

“Aah shucks, Ah ain’t no differ’nt than any other pegasi.”

“Oh, but you are,” Velvet cooed maturely. “I didn’t know it at the time, but you are so much more. I always wanted to be a medical pony, and I embraced the first chance I got to. But I left my home behind for selfish reasons. You cut your shackles because they were preventing you from helping other ponies. You freed yourself out of compassion and kinship.”

Calamity was blushing now. I realized I liked seeing him like that. It brought out a beauty in him.

“You truly care about ponies,” she continued, her eyes roaming over Calamity. “And I’ve seen how you are with us, especially with Littlepip,” she said, turning back to me. “He’ll stand by you, never leave you. Protect you even from yourself…”

“Always there to catch me,” I found myself saying softly.

Velvet Remedy smiled and nodded. “I feel safe with him around because I know he will protect us. Especially you, since you seem to need it the most. But he has always been right there for me when I needed him too.”

I was suddenly feeling guilty again, this time for monopolizing Calamity’s time. I lowered my head, breathing in the calming scent of the zebra chai tea wafting up from my cup.

Scowling a little, Velvet Remedy couldn’t help but add, “I’m not saying we’re a match made in the clouds. He does tend to jump to violence as a solution far too readily for my tastes… and he’s not the only one.” She fixed me with a look. For a few moments, her gaze held me like steel, making me squirm. Then her expression relaxed. “But I realize that, in the Equestrian Wasteland, violence is often the most appropriate response. Although not as often as you two take to it. And at least both of you are motivated to shed the blood you do out of justice, compassion and a sense of responsibility for your fellow pony. All of which seem sorely lacking in far too many ponies out here.”

She turned to Calamity with a look that clearly said “your turn”.

Homage trotted around and sat behind me, watching unobtrusively. I felt a gentle support radiating off of her despite her recent disappointment. I was supposed to be being punished, but there was no hint of that.

I found myself fervently wishing at Calamity to not blow it. I wasn’t happy for them because I was worried they were going to get hurt. But I wanted them to be together, I realized. I hoped for them. And Velvet’s words were like a ray of real, untainted sunshine. For the first time, I really thought maybe they could last together. So long as Calamity didn’t say anything stupid in the next few minutes, that was.

Calamity shuffled, looking uncomfortable. “Ah take it Ah can’t jus’ say ‘ditto’?”

I took a long sip from my cup, the slightly bitter liquid washing over my tongue. I felt the warmth of the tea spread soothingly through me.

Velvet Remedy gave Calamity a shake of her head. The pegasus reached back to brush at his mane, accidentally tipping his desperado hat into his eyes.

“Well… she’s beautiful,” he started. “Not jus’ outside. Behind her outer beauty an’ occasionally abrasive personality, she’s really beautiful inside.”

I winced. He was going to be paying for that for a bit.

“Ah mean…” From Calamity’s shuffle, I guessed he knew it too. But he was being honest. I hoped Velvet took that into account. “Look, when we first rescued her, Ah didn’t know what t’ think. She was helpin’ slavers. An’ she was… well… Ah was expectin’ her t’ be fancy an’ prissy an’ high falootin’ like the folks in this Tower here. But she weren’t like that at all. She’s beautiful, but she’s… I dunno… down t’ earth?”

He paused, looking for a word, then smiled as he settled on, “Practical. She’s practical. An’ more importantly, she’s devoted. She weren’t helpin’ slavers cuz she sympathizes for any o’ what they were doin’, but because she’s dedicated t’ helpin’ folk. And she don’t let unpleasantness or discomfort get in the way.”

Calamity wrapped his tail around Velvet Remedy, who was holding him with rapt attention. “She’s faithful. She’s stuck by our side even as we walked inta hell. Her wantin’ t’ play diplomatic-like wi’ aggressive or evil types does wear thin, but Ah reckon maybe there’s somethin’ t’ it sometimes… an’ she does that cuz she really does care about folk and is committed t’ helpin’ them. Even if a mess o’ them don’t deserve it. Ain’t like her t’ ask if they do.”

He shrugged. “How could Ah not absolutely love ‘er for that?”

Looking into Velvet’s eyes, Calamity finished by saying, “It’s like… yer jus’ what the doctor ordered, y’know?” Velvet rolled her eyes at the corniness, but smiled. “The Equestrian Wasteland ain’t a pretty place. It’s rough an’ it’s grim an’ it’s bloody. An’ some days it c’n be hard t’ remember whats worth fightin’ for out here. But Ah don’t have t’ look any further than at this here charcoal unicorn mare next t’ me t’ be reminded jus’ how good ponies c’n be, and jus’ how worth it all the struggle is.”

Part of me wanted to jump up and hug them. Part of me wanted to tell them to get a room… but then, I was kinda to blame for them not being there.

“Okay… I’m convinced,” I said with a smile. Homage wrapped her forelegs around me from behind. Our couple-ness made me feel less awkward in front of theirs.

“Yes,” Velvet Remedy said suddenly to Calamity while giving the cakes a declining look. “I think they did things on this table.”

Homage bit one of my suddenly-burning ears playfully. Far too late, I changed the subject, “So… how long have you two been… together?”

Calamity laughed. “Y’mean physically? Since, what?” He looked at Velvet, who was trying to keep a lady-like distance from the question. “Yesterday?”

I blinked.

“Aw come on, Li’lpip. We didn’t even kiss b’fore last week.”

Velvet Remedy sighed, then said smoothly, “Really, Littlepip, we have you to thank that we have a relationship at all.”

Wait, what?

“Ayep. Iffin it weren’t fer ya actin’ like we was already a couple back at that Stable, Ah don’t think we woulda started lookin’ at each other that way.”

I blushed so hard I should have caught on fire.

*** *** ***

Calamity rolled two memory orbs across the table to me. “Ya said it was okay t’ see these again.”

I caught them in a telekinetic blanket, careful not to focus directly on either of them. “Are they… mine?”

“Naw. Traded for ‘em. The caravan pony claimed they were gen-u-ine memories o’ Rainbow Dash.” He gave me a wry smirk as my heart gave a little leap. I was actually thrilled to learn anything more I could about those ponies. When had it become such a passion?

“Are they?” I asked hopefully.

“From whatcha said last time,” Calamity responded with a voice suggesting he felt snookered, “not ‘xactly.”

I floated them into my saddlebags for safe keeping and finished my tea. It was now barely lukewarm. The conversation had lasted a while.

After Velvet and Calamity had taken their leave, I felt Homage’s forelegs slip away from me. The cups, saucers and plate of cakes lit up with the glow of Homage’s horn and began to float themselves back to the kitchen sink.

I felt like a warm blanket had been pulled from me on a chilly winter night. “I… guess I should go now. I’m still being punished, right?” I got up and began moving, but not in any particular direction.

“Yes,” Homage said a touch reluctantly.

I wished punishment didn’t mean having to be apart from her. The thought of being alone tonight hurt more now than it did before. I stopped next to a desk littered with Homage’s personal things. She had a triptych of pictures framed on the desk. Pictures of me in the wasteland, my friends nearby. The pictures were taken from someplace high above and far away, zoomed in until I nearly filled the frame, but washed out with the odd tint of all the air between the camera and its subject. I suspected that the pictures were taken by the cameras on those spires. And I suspected the willing separation tonight hurt Homage as much as me. “Couldn’t you just spank me instead or something?” I asked, hoping for a faster punishment.

Homage laughed. “Nooo. But tomorrow night, I might. As a reward.”

I looked at her in confusion, one ear dipping. How would a spanking be a reward? oh…. OH! Ohmygosh! I lost balance, my head crashing to the desktop. I backed up, stumbling, seeing stars.

Homage was chuckling even as she trotted up to make sure I was okay. “I think I better go now,” I told her. “Before I hurt myself. Again.”

*** *** ***

I ambled through the market sector of Tenpony Tower, paying little attention to the ponies around me. The smells from the restaurants and snack shops teased my nostrils with promises that were probably too wonderful for the centuries-old packaged foods to deliver. But I let my nose drag me towards one of them anyway.

Looking at the wall-mounted menu, my eyes widened at the prices, each of which was now written in pencil with the tell-tale signs of several previous erasings. I lifted my PipBuck, checking how many caps I had on hoof. Velvet Remedy was the queen of barter, and so we’d been letting her keep most of our caps. I barely had enough for a Sparkle~Cola or a box of stuffed apple cakes. (Filled with a sweet, candy-apple filling and five thousand times the daily recommended amount of preservatives. Yay.)

I plopped down my bottle caps and ordered the cola. I watched as a pony slid the caps off the counter with a hoof, then picked up a crowbar in his mouth and trotted back to a still-functional Sparkle~Cola machine, prying it open and fetching my drink. A chain and padlock on the ground told me how they kept their supply secure at night.

I took my cola, floating it to my muzzle and tasting the lukewarm, deliciously carroty flatness. I was an hour into my exile and already hating it.

I spotted Calamity leaving the constabulary, looking disgruntled.

“Highway robbery,” he groused. “Anywhere else, Ah could buy an armor-piercin’ round fer what they’re askin’ fer a rubber one.” He added, “Well, if anywhere else sold ‘em.”

I scampered over to trot at his side. “How’s your wing?”

Calamity smiled, judging my intentions. “Velvet an’ Ah are both doin’ fine. Well… not fine. She’s hurtin’ inside. What happened t’ both o’ us in Ol’ Olneigh scares ‘er badly. But we’re workin’ through it t’gether. So don’t go tryin’ t’ set us all up wi’ a shrink again.”

I blinked. “I did that?” I had considered it earlier.

“Ayep. Not one o’ yer better plans,” Calamity noted. “But well intentioned.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see that memory. Ever.

We walked in silence a while. I drank from my cola, then offered some to my friend. Calamity accepted, biting down on the bottle’s rim and tilting it back for a swig. Then he passed it back. We walked on in silence some more.

“Ah’m worried, Li’lpip.”

I nodded. There were about a hundred things for us to be worried about. Plus several extra ones for Calamity as he plunged into this newly deeper relationship with Velvet Remedy.

“The Enclave… that experiment in Ol’ Olneigh. That was new. Post-Calamity new. Ah don’t know why they would be there, why they would be doin’ that, or what they all are up to,” he looked at me. “An’ Ah’m worried.”

Of all the possible worries he might have, this was the one I expected the least. But I knew that I shouldn’t have. These were his ponyfolk. His old home. They had to be weighing on him as much as concerns for Stable Two weighed on me.

“The pegasi are good ponyfolk,” Calamity said. “Whatever happens, remember that. Cuz the Enclave… they ain’t. Not so much.”

*** *** ***

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

I was in a large foyer marbled in grey. Large vertical windows let in the grey light of a rainy day. Outside, a dozen ponies were protesting, chanting and waving signs in the rain. Inside, ponies trotted about on personal business, or stood conversing in clumps. Many wore long raincoats still slick with a wet sheen. A few were hauling small wagons filled with boxes.

My host was an earth pony mare sitting behind a long counter, gazing languidly at the text on a terminal. From the stirring warmth in certain parts of her body, the story she was fixated on was of a cloppy nature and probably not safe for work.

A familiar voice echoed from somewhere above and safely distant enough that my host was able to change the screen (to a memo on Wartime Stress Disorder) without rushing suspiciously. She looked back and up, her eyes moving to a spiraling set of wrought-iron stairs that descended from a mezzanine level above. The whole lobby gave me the impression of Ministry architecture.

A flash of light erupted about four yards from my host’s counter, wrenching her attention away from the stairwell before she could spot who she was looking for. Rarity stood in the lobby, wobbling slightly. Her dress, mane and the large satchel on her side all hissed up wisps of smoke. She blinked, wide-eyed, seeming disoriented. But in an eye-blink, she had gathered herself together and was trotting up to my host with an urgent expression.

“Hello. Welcome to…” my host began politely. But Rarity was in too much of a hurry for niceties.

“Yes, yes. I know where I am, and I know who you are,” she said, waving a hoof. “I need to know if Rainbow Dash is still here. Please tell me I haven’t missed her.”

Before my host could answer, that familiar voice answered for her. Hovering about halfway down the spiral staircase, Rainbow Dash exclaimed loudly, “Whoa! Rarity, did you just teleport here?”

Standing on the steps behind Rainbow Dash, Applejack was looking equally impressed. Her orange coat and blonde mane made for a welcome splash of warm colors in the stark, cool room.

Rarity paused, seeing the two of them, then smiled with a soft whinny. “Yes, well, I have been trading spells with Twilight for years now… and let me tell you, it is not as easy as she makes it look.” With a wince, she added, “How’s my mane?”

Rainbow Dash swooped down to greet her. “It’s fine.” Descending the stairs, Applejack added, “It’s gorgeous.” It looked like she’d run a few laps around a burning house.

“So what’s up?” Rainbow Dash asked cheerfully.

Rarity glanced behind her and up towards Applejack, a brief look of unease passing over her face, and then turned to Rainbow Dash. “I had some… things to talk to you about. But it can wait. Until you’re alone.”

Rainbow Dash blinked. Then her eyes opened wide. She whispered, “Oh… about the new…” then glanced back towards Applejack too. “…armor?”

Rarity nodded. “That and the other thing. I’ve been having a lot of trouble trying to perfect that spell, and I wanted to see the device you want it embedded into.”

“Oh!” Rainbow Dash reached back and scratched at her rainbow mane with a forehoof. “Well, Apple Bloom’s all set to procure a life support capsule from the Ministry of Peace. We should have it by next week, but… well, she’s going to be modifying it a lot. Do you need to wait until it’s finished?”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Apple Bloom’s part of this too?”

“Yeah. Why… is that a problem?”

“Well,” Rarity said, brushing her left forehoof in circles against the marble floor. “I really don’t want my little sister anywhere near this research of mine. And she and Apple Bloom are best of friends…”

“Did Ah hear muh little sister’s name?” Applejack said, trotting up from the bottom of the stairs.

Rainbow Dash turned and smiled. “Yeah. She’s helping me on a project.”

“Ah thought the Ministry of Awesome didn’t actually do anything?”

Dash snorted and puffed herself up, “They don’t do anything that isn’t awesome, you mean.”

Rarity and Applejack exchanged looks of doubt.

“Anyway,” Rarity said a little too hastily. “I really should be going…”

“Wait,” Applejack said. “Y’mean ya teleported all the way over here jus’ t’ go?” She frowned. “How come Ah get the feelin’ Ah’m undesired company?”

“Unwanted?” Rarity gasped. “Oh heavens no! If anything, I want more Applejack.” I snickered inwardly and was glad my eavesdropping host didn’t do the same. “We don’t see nearly enough of each other anymore. It feels like it’s been ages since…” She paused, then chimed up, “I-deee-ah! We’re together right now. Let’s do lunch.”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

Applejack chimed in, “Well, Ah’ve got ‘bout an hour b’fore Ah gotta be at a meeting fer alla the governors of the Ministry o’ Technology. And there is a new apple fritter place that Caramel Apple’s kids ‘ave just opened up which Ah’ve been meanin’ t’ try…”

“Sounds perfect.” Rarity clapped her forehooves with a demure squee. “Wait… aren’t those the same brutes who tried to kill you with an elevator?”

Applejack’s eyes narrowed. “That ain’t never been proven.”

“Still, the idea of you spending time in a room with that lot…”

“Yeah,” Rainbow Dash jumped in. “Want me to come with you? If they’re planning anything funny, I’ll make them think twice.”

“Ah c’n handle muhself ju’ fine, Dash. But Ah do thank y’all kindly for the offer.” Seeing her two friends still frowning, unconvinced, she sighed and added, “Besides, Sergeant SteelHooves has already offered t’ be muh personal escort.”

“Have I met this guy?” Rainbow Dash asked suspiciously. “Are you sure you can trust him?”

Applejack sighed. “Ah don’t think ya have, but he served wi’ muh brother. He trusted him, an’ so do Ah.” A smirk scrawled across her muzzle. “’Sides, Ah don’t plan on bein’ there too long. Just ‘nuf t’ give muh speech. Ah’ve been practicin’ it all day. Wanna hear it?”

Rarity’s eyes widened at the thought of listening through an entire speech by Applejack, or perhaps just alarmed at having to do so in a public lobby while her mane was frizzy. “Maybe… over lunch?” she suggested.

“Sure,” Rainbow Dash encouraged Applejack with considerably more volume. “Let’s hear it.”

“Okay…” Applejack paused. Stood straight and tall. Cleared her throat. Closed her eyes.

“Y’all are fired.”

Rarity and Rainbow Dash stared. Applejack opened one eye and blushed. “Well, how was it?”

“That’s… it?”

“Ayep.” She blushed some more, looking a bit proud of herself and yet a touch worried.

“Awesome! You tell them, AJ!” Rainbow Dash grinned wildly as Rarity stomped on the floor with applause. “Dang, now I want to go just to see their faces.”

“Hey, Rainbow Dash!” a voice called out from the doorway, causing her head to whip around. Three elderly pegasi trotted into the lobby. One of them, a light grey buck with a short-cropped age-greyed mane that fell over his eyes, hadn’t been wearing a rain slicker and shook himself, spraying water everywhere to the shouts and grumbles of the ponies in the lobby around him.

“Hello! Welcome…” my host began to say, but her words trailed off as the three pegasus pushed their way up to Rainbow Dash, ignoring everypony else including her friends.

“Hey, Rainbow, remember me?” a mustard-colored buck asked, stepping forward in front of the others. He was an unusually large buck, his rainslicker covering only half of his flank, revealing most of a large orange basketball for a cutie mark. I wondered idly if he had one ball or two… then immediately wanted to jab my hoof in my eye to kill the mental image that followed.

Rainbow looked them over then narrowed her eyes and shook her head. “Sorry. No. I’m rather busy and only have time to remember important ponies.”

The three all scowled. The mustard one growled, shoving a hoof into Rainbow’s breast. “Well then, maybe you remember my little brother. He was one of the pegasi you got killed fighting that dragon over Hoofington.”

Rainbow Dash’s eyes went wide. Her demeanor changed immediately. “Oh… I’m so sorry. Several brave ponies died valiantly that day…”

“Yeah,” said the third, a pegasus the color of dark dust with piercing blue eyes and a few remaining strands of a sandy mane on his bald-coated head. “Seems like an awful lot of pegasi die valiantly these days. In fact, seems like we do the bulk of the dying. I don’t know anypony in Cloudsdayle who ain’t lost family.”

Rainbow Dash nodded sadly. “The war…”

“The war,” the dark-dust pony scoffed. “The war is on the ground. Against zebras…”

“And dragons,” Rainbow Dash reminded him. “They’re using dragons now, in case you somehow forgot. Not to mention griffin mercs.”

“And some of them have magic fetishes that can allow them to fly,” Rarity chimed in knowingly. “If you think it’s impossible for an earth-bound mare to fly her way into Cloudsdayle with the right magic, you have tragically short memories.”

The mustard-colored one spat, “Well, they wouldn’t be bringing in dragons if the pegasi had just stayed out of the war. Now I hear you’re pushing Luna’s new initiative to put even more pegasi on the front lines? You won’t be satisfied until every one of us is facing down zebra guns.”

“If the… had just…” Rainbow Dash sputtered. “What!?”

“And we ain’t the only ones who think that neither,” the balding one informed Rainbow Dash coldly. “And while we might not be important, my sister is the mayor of Clousdayle, and she…”

“Now jus’ one apple-buckin’ minute,” Applejack interrupted loudly. “Now Ah know y’all have lost kin, an’ Ah know how much that hurts.” She strode up to the mustard-colored buck. “Ah lost muh own brother in this war. His name was Big Macintosh. Y’all may ‘ave heard o’ him!”

The mustard-colored pony had the dignity to look abashed.

I heard a click and a whirr from above. My host turned away from the argument as the text on her screen disappeared, replaced by a flashing warning.


At seemingly the same instant, Rarity gasped. “Grenade!”

Ponies began to scatter, running into each other, not knowing where to go.

Rarity’s magic flared around her satchel, opening it.

Beams of colored light shot out from the twin magical energy turrets which had descended from the ceiling. They struck a pony in the crowd, turning her into a burning pink silhouette of whomever she had been.

My host looked down, scanning the floor, her actions seeming unbearably slow. I mentally shouted for her to duck for cover, but she seemed transfixed. Her eyes fell on the metal apple not two yards from her desk. The dark bulk of a large, open book fell down over it, and four white hooves jumped on top.

The Book!

In an instant:

A flash of fire and swirling magical energy underneath the book,
A cracking sound that left a buzzing silence in its wake,
A rippling of explosive force that threw Rarity back.

My host stumbled, disoriented, a ringing in her ears. Everypony was shouting, but their voices seemed muffled and far away.

I spotted The Black Book. It had landed next to Rarity, smoking but undamaged.

I felt conflicting waves of horror and relief. How could any book survive smothering a magical energy grenade? What kind of book was this? And yet… thank the stars that it wasn’t hurt. That book was dangerous, but it was valuable! Just looking at it, I knew how useful it must be…

Rainbow Dash was fast. She flew up to my host, breaking her out of her fear-induced paralysis with a clop of her forehooves. “Lock this place down!” she shouted over the ringing in my ears. “Gather the witnesses and call the Ministry of Morale. Somepony saw something, even if they don’t know it.”

Applejack was trotting around, calling out, “Is everypony okay? Anypony hurt?” She turned to my host and lifted a hoof as she shouted, her voice sounding like it was coming to me through yards of thick cotton, but at least the buzzing was quickly fading. “Call up the Ministry of Peace. Have ‘em send counselors.” My host nodded.

Rarity groaned, getting shakily to her hooves and rubbing her ears. “Quick thinkin’, Rarity,” Applejack said, dashing over to help her up. “Ah reckon ya just saved a mess o’ lives with…”

Applejack froze, staring at The Black Book. “Is that… what Ah think it is?”

Turning to Rarity, a dark scowl crossing her face, Applejack said, “Ya said ya were gonna get rid o’ that cursed thing!”

Dusting herself off, Rarity stared back. “I said I would burn It,” Rarity said calmly. “And I tried. But as you can see, It doesn’t burn.” Lowering her voice, she whispered something to Applejack that made the earth pony’s ears shoot up in alarm. Then, raising her voice again, she added, “I even tried to have Spike burn it. All that did was send it to Princess Celestia.”

I winced. Even my host winced, realizing that couldn’t have led to pleasant conversations.

Applejack frowned, clearly wanting to believe her friend, but having doubts all the same. Rarity’s guilty look wasn’t helping. “Well… ya still shoulda gotten rid o’ it!”

“How?” Rarity retorted stubbornly. “I doubt anything short of a megaspell could destroy It. And I certainly don’t want to dispose of The Book where It could find Its way into the wrong hooves.”

“Dammit!” Rainbow Dash piped up, unknowingly interrupting her friends before their fierce discussion could grow into an argument. Dash had flown over to the pile of ash which had once been a pony. “Whose idea was it to use magical energy defenses in here? A pile of ash isn’t going to conveniently tell you who it was or offer up its former possessions for an investigation.”

“Zebra sympathizers, I would suspect,” intoned Rarity dourly, turning towards the very upset blue-coated pegasus.

“Shouldn’t jump t’ that conclusion, Rarity,” Applejack warned. “Ah don’t like this blamin’ zebras fer everything that goes wrong.”

“It certainly wouldn’t be the first time they’ve taken a shot at me,” Rarity bristled. She looked at Applejack with surprise. “After Zecora’s betrayal, I’m surprised you still defend them.”

“Jus’ cuz Zecora turned out t’ be a bad apple don’t mean alla them are,” Applejack insisted.

Even though my host was paying more attention to the earth pony and the unicorn, I was able to catch a brief guilty look cross Rainbow Dash’s face. I realized suddenly that Rarity and Applejack didn’t know the truth about their zebra friend. The reality behind Zecora’s defection was a carefully guarded secret held by only two Mares and probably only the tiniest fraction of ponies within their respective Ministries.

“Ain’t like there ain’t other ponyfolk who might want t’ take a shot at one o’ us.”

Rarity met Applejack’s statement with wide eyes. “Oh dear… You’re right.”

“Well, if it was them who was behind it, they sure as sugar ain’t stopped me from gettin’ t’ that meetin’.”

“Hell,” Rainbow Dash blurted out, flying up. “For all we know, the target may have been that lot.” She pointed a hindhoof towards the three pegasi cowering in a corner. “What they were speakin’ amounts pretty much t’ sedition.” Her expression was cross and grim. “I’m beginning to think Cloudsdayle needs a Ministry of Morale hub.”

Rarity looked around desperately. “Oh dear, oh dear. Lunch is off, I’m afraid. I need to get back to Image. We don’t have much time to figure out what to tell the newsponies to say about this. Three Ministry Mares… oh, this is bad. We have to move on this now.”

As Rarity magically scooped up the Black Book and vanished in another flash, my host finally began actually doing her job.

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

*** *** ***

When I returned from the memory orb, I was no longer on the secluded bench outside some restrooms where I had laid down to view it. I was someplace else. Dark and cold.

The Black Book floated in the darkness before me. Just an afterimage that was already fading.

A spotlight flared to life above me, its beam pinning me to the ornate purple and pink marbled floor as it destroyed any adjustments my eyes were making to the dark. I brought up my Eyes-Forward Sparkle, detecting at least half a dozen figures in the shadows around me. According to my E.F.S. compass, they were not hostile. That only relaxed me slightly, considering I had apparently been abducted.

“Hello?” I asked, not trying to keep the annoyance from my voice. “Who are you? And what do you want?”

I immediately suspected they wanted me to do something. Some task to perform, some new distraction that would further divert me from my date with the Canterlot Ruins. If so, they were in for disappointment. I chose when and if I strayed off task, and I’d done too much of that already. There was a clock ticking. There was a bomb poised to destroy this very tower and everypony in it. And I didn’t have time for games.

A pony trotted forward, concealed in a full robe. Under his hood, his face was cast into black shadow by the light from above. But the folds of the hood made it clear that he was a unicorn. And enough light bounced up from the marbled floor to recognize a mottled brown coat.

“Greetings, Littlepip,” said a familiar voice that I couldn’t quite place. The voice had the tones of a refined gentlestallion but shied away from sounding too haughty. “We apologize for the rude awakening.”

“We who?” I asked, but I already knew.

“We call ourselves the Twilight Society,” the gentlestallion proclaimed. I forced myself not to ask if he was kidding.

“Very enigmatic. And who are you really?” I said, biting back deeper sarcasm. “And what do you want?”

The unicorn under the hood restrained a chortle. He whinnied, “Why that is exactly correct. You too have enigmatic titles, do you not, Stable Dweller? Wasteland Heroine? We have been told that you are the Savior of the Wasteland and the Bringer of Light.”

I cringed. They weren’t titles I had ever wanted. Nor ones I had ever thought myself worthy of. And now I was under a spotlight, being judged for a reputation I couldn’t control and couldn’t live up to.

“What we want,” The gentlestallion continued, “Is to know who are you, really?”

I snorted. “And you kidnapped me to find out? You could have just asked.”

“These conversations are not for prying ears,” another voice said from the darkness to my left.

“You have already been places you were not meant to be. Shown things no pony was allowed to reveal,” a third voice said, this time to my right. Suddenly, I was worried for Homage. She’d clearly broken the rules of this overly-dramatic group of ponies to help me. What might they do in response? Murmurs rippled through the darkness around me. “You have used for your own goals the very secrets that we hold guardianship over.”

Oh. “I know too much, right? Is that what this is?”

“That is but half of what this is,” the gentlestallion said, addressing me. “We have been counseled to make available to you the full might and mystery of this place. We have not yet made our decision, yet you have availed yourself of our secrets anyway.”

“You are a risk,” claimed the voice from my right. “Not only to us but to all that could one day be accomplished with what we guard here.”

I stomped. “Bullshit. I’ve heard that crap before. Two hundred years, and you’ve done nothing with what you have.” I turned, advancing towards the source of the voice on my right. A cloaked pony, hiding under a hood as he hid in the shadows. He backed up, bristling nervously.

“You’re hiding your secrets away because they’re special,” I spat. “And they make you feel special and important. Not because you’re ever going to put them to use to make a difference.”

“Tenpony Tower is a bastion of civilization in the wilderness,” the gentlestallion commented serenely. “I would suggest we have done quite a lot.”

“Yeah it is. But that isn’t you, is it?” I rounded on him. “The only damn one of you doing any good at all is…” I paused before I said her name. “…Is DJ Pon3.”

“At least she can keep a secret,” nickered yet a fourth voice from somewhere behind me.

“We are only the most recent inheritors of these secrets. You are unwise to judge us by the failures of those in generations past,” the gentlestallion said. I frowned, biting my tongue. He had a point.

“And perhaps you are right,” the gentlestallion said earnestly. “Perhaps it is time for us to make a greater use of what is hidden here. But to do so carries great risk, not only from the greedy and wicked outside our gates, but from within. Who can we trust to guide the use of this power and these resources? Who can we know will not become corrupted by it?”

I sighed heavily. “What do you want from me?” I asked. “How can I persuade you that I’m not going to become the next Red Eye if I’m given a little help?”

“Your memories.”

I jolted with shock. “W-what?”

“You had several days of memories extracted earlier today, from within our secluded chambers. We require access to those memories.”

They wanted… my memories? A chunk of my life? One that even I didn’t know the contents of? “No,” I stomped. “Those are my memories. They’re private!”

“We could ask you who you are, but you would only tell us what you want us to hear. The perceptions of others are fragments and heavily colored by their own perceptions. How better could we possibly learn who you really are?”

I fumed. I didn’t want to trust something so precious to these strangers. I didn’t trust them. I trusted Homage. That was all. Plus… It felt wrong. Like a violation. Which I knew was hypocritical at best considering how much time I’d spent prying into the memories of others.

The voice on my left intoned, “We already know that Red Eye is threatening this tower and the lives of everypony in it to motivate you. If you are playing with our lives, do you not think we at least deserve to know what the score is?”

I stopped fuming, considering that.

Finally, I took a deep breath. “Will I get them back?” If the answer was no, this deal was off. And if necessary, I would fight my way out of here.

“Of course,” the gentestallion told me.

“Fine. Then yes, but on two conditions.”

Underneath his robe, the gentestallion cocked his head, “And what conditions would those be?”

“One: the memories do not leave Homage’s possession. I trust her to guard them. So far, I have no reason to trust any of the rest of you.”

“Agreed. And two?”

“Homage continues to live here as long as she wants, safe from any repercussions for having helped me or for revealing what she did.”

More murmurs. Unhappy ones.

“Non-negotiable,” I said. I hoped I had this card to play. What if they decided that they really weren’t that interested in me after all?

But the gentlestallion answered, “Agreed…” I felt a sigh of relief.

“…Conditionally.” I felt my heart skip a beat. The robed pony elaborated, “No actions will be taken against Homage until all of us have had the opportunity to view the memory orbs. Should what they reveal of your character and methods persuade us to deem you an asset rather than a threat, then no action will be taken against her and record of her misdeeds will be expunged. If, however, your memories prove you are a menace to our society or this tower as a whole, then Homage will be judged accordingly.”

I knew that by agreeing to this, I would be putting my memories in jeopardy, running the risk that I might never see them. But in the end, what else could I do? My memories were a small price to pay compared to the potential rewards. I prayed that I had at least a shred of the sort of character that DJ Pon3 attributed to me. I was relying on myself to have been a decent pony.

*** *** ***

I was given the memory orb again, and instructed to lose myself in it while they returned me back to the bench they took me from. All of which seemed utterly silly to me, but I went along anyway. I suspected Life Bloom was with them, and that made me feel just a touch safer, if only because Homage and Velvet seemed to think well of him.

When I came out of the memory orb for the second time, the feeling of déjà vu was almost enough to make me wonder if I had imagined the Twilight Society. I wondered how often ponies in Tenpony Tower suddenly found their days interrupted, and what the Twilight Society used when there wasn’t a convenient memory orb in play.

Revisiting the orb in the wake of my odd abduction had left me thinking about secrets. About the dissemination of information. Covert operations depended on secrecy for the safety of those involved. But it seemed cruel for Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie to leave Applejack and Rarity in the dark about Zecora, believing that a close friend of theirs had betrayed them. Was it necessary to cause them that pain? Could they have been trusted with that secret? Everything I had seen suggested that Rarity was well-practiced in keeping secrets, but Applejack? How convincing could the Bearer of the Element of Honesty be if put into a position where she had to maintain a lie? Was it better for everypony (and one zebra) that she not know?

I packed up the memory orb, checking my PipBuck to make sure the other one was still with me, and all my equipment was still in its proper place. Then, getting up, I started to walk down the hallway, away from the bathrooms. My mind was still engaged in contemplation.

Likewise, it was clear from several previous memories that the Mares knew the truth about zebra religion. Or at least knew enough about their beliefs regarding Nightmare Moon to try to use that against them. But SteelHooves had been blindsided by the idea. Clearly, a decision had been made by the heads of government not to inform the general population or even the lower ranks. I found myself second-guessing that decision, even though I could understand why. How demoralizing would that knowledge have been? Would knowing have served any positive purpose? Littlehorn was such a painful horror, the massacre of a school full of pony children, that it left a black and weeping wound in the psyche of Equestria.

Littlehorn had surely been a point of no return for both sides. At that point, I wondered if the ponies would have been any more capable of surrender than the zebras were.

A zebra dropped in front of me. I jumped back, already floating out Little Macintosh, my heart pounding. But recognition struck and relief passed over me. “Xenith, you scared me!” Flustered, I hastily slid Little Macintosh back in its holster. “I mean, uh, you… broke my train of thought.”

“Brave little pony,” she intoned.

“Where have you been?”

“Hiding,” she said simply. “When they took you, I followed. But they did not seem to hurt or threaten you, so I did not act.”

I suddenly felt a lot better about the day’s strange interlude. At the same time, I realized that I needed to speak to Homage and let her know what was coming. If she didn’t already.

“I’m going to see Homage,” I said, not adding if she’ll let me. “Are you okay following?” I remembered the zebra’s discomfort with my Homage, and wondered if that was why I hadn’t seen her all day. Well, that and her ability to hide like a living StealthBuck, and on the ceiling no less.

“If you wish.”

I stopped. “Well, what do you wish?”

“It does not matter,” Xenith informed me. “I am not welcome here, so I cannot do as I wish. For too many, my stripes make me the enemy. Or worse, a demon from the past responsible for all the misery in this world.”

“That’s unfair.”

“It does not matter that it is unfair. It still is.” She looked down. “Sometimes, I feel as if I am an earth pony and that my stripes are really great wounds, a punishment for some great wrong the ancestors of my ancestors were connected to.”

I shuddered, as much at the pain and resignation in her voice as the mental image her words conjured. There had to be something I could do. “If you could do anything, what would you want to do most?”

“I would like to go shopping,” Xenith said. She smiled at my surprise. “What? Everyone likes to shop. I would like to be able to stride into a store, look around, greeting the sales pony and make purchases. All while being treated only as rudely as every other pony customer is.”

I felt a little rocked by the normalcy of the request. I tried to imagine how it must be not to even be able to go into a store. To buy. I couldn’t, and I felt awful for it.

Surely there had to be a way to fix this.

*** *** ***

“We could dye her coat a new color,” Homage suggested as she floated the huge painting of Splendid Valley away from her safe. She was moving my box of memory orbs to another location so that she would not have to reveal this safe when the Twilight Society came for them. “A near-black charcoal would hide her beautiful stripes enough for a modest gown and hat to obscure them completely. Although for the life of me, I can’t imagine wanting to do that.”

Homage turned and smiled warmly to Xenith. “You’re gorgeous the way you are.”

Xenith scowled.

“I’m being honest,” Homage insisted. “I’m sure my Littlepip has drank in the sight of you at least once. Haven’t you, Littlepip?” she asked, deliberately putting me in a humiliating spotlight. All the worse because I immediately thought of staring at Xenith’s flanks back in Stable Two.

“See?” Homage laughed. “That burning face means Littlepip’s been watching you.”

Xenith was staring at me. I sunk to the floor, putting my forehooves over my head. After a few excruciating moments, Xenith replied, “I am a zebra. And a scarred one at that.”

“Yes,” Homage agreed, unlocking her safe. “And a beautiful, sexy mare of a zebra at that.”

“A simple glamour should then mask your… zebra-ness from notice,” Homage suggested as she swung the door of the safe open. “But are you sure you want to hide who and what you are like this?”

“I hide all the time,” Xenith said simply. “This is no diff-“

Xenith made a slight choking noise, backing up, her eyes fixed on something just beyond Homage. At her reaction, we both followed her gaze.

The Star Blaster.

“You… have it locked away like a treasured possession…” Xenith intoned.

Homage frowned. “I have it locked up to keep it from hurting anypony.”

Xenith blinked. The zebra cast a look to me as she slowly asked, “Then you know that it yearns to kill.”

Homage gave me a quick quizzical look. I tried to return it with an expression that told her Xenith was deadly serious in the claim. Homage didn’t laugh. She didn’t look like she found the idea even a little funny.

“I’ll admit, I’m a much better shot with that thing than I’ve ever been with any other weapon I’ve tried, including other magical energy weapons. But I attribute that to magical energy weapons being damn rare in most parts of the Equestrian Wasteland, and all the others I have tried being poorly maintained pieces of rubbish.”

Xenith remained silent, waiting.

“No, I don’t think it actually wants to kill. I don’t believe that thing is alive or sentient,” Homage told her. “But I do believe that it was made by crafters with murderous intentions.”

“Crafters?” Xenith asked.

“It’s a complex techno-magical tool. I don’t think the stars just willed it into existence. Someone, or something, made it.” She looked at the zebra, “Isn’t that how the stars work? They help guide people to their own destruction?”

I was startled by the response. I remembered now that it was Homage who first spoke to me of the zebra’s mythology. And she had spoken as one who put some credence to the notions.

“Then you… believe as we do?” Xenith asked slowly.

“I believe that most all religion is born of a mixture of truth and fantasy, hope and fear. How much truth is in any one mythology is hard to say.” Homage pulled the box full of my memories from the safe before closing the safe up again, sealing the weapon from the stars away once more.

“But I believe that the amount of truth in the zebra’s legends is a good bit more than zero. I don’t believe that your ancient ancestors understood the stars nearly as much as they believed they did…”

Homage looked to me, addressing us both, “But I have seen enough to be certain that the void beyond the moon holds wonders and terrors far beyond our imaginations. And that at least some of what is out there is malicious beyond our conception of evil, and is looking this way with hostile intentions.”

*** *** ***

“I’ve changed my mind,” claimed the exotic voice of the charcoal-black earth pony next to me who was really Xenith. “I like her.”

Xenith the not-a-zebra was peering into jars of strange things floating in stranger liquids that lined the back shelf of the secluded apothecary which crouched around a corner from the main stores like a little colt hiding from bullies. The proprietor kept shooting us nasty looks, but I felt they were more directed at me than Xenith. She was dressed in a gown of subtle goldenrod and ivy, with a matching wide-brimmed hat. The entire ensemble made her look not only lovely, but right at home amongst the fine ladies and gentlestallions of Tenpony Tower.

I looked like me.

“Like who?” I asked before I realized the obvious answer. “Homage?” I suddenly felt a little giddy. The not-a-zebra nodded with a smile.

I wanted to dance around shouting “yes!”… but I was already getting enough looks from the proprieter.

Xenith had clearly been enjoying her evening, strolling openly down the streets, passing through the crowds, sitting down at the same restaurants and being served by the same snobbish waiters. Paying the same unreasonable prices as everypony else for confections made of sweet potato pudding and deep-fried apple sauce.

More than once, somepony had snidely suggested she take me to a dress shop, and gave her sympathetic looks, as if I was a younger relative she had been burdened with and my appearance was some sort of youthful rebellion. Sometimes I hated being small-framed.

“The selection here is wonderful,” Xenith commented. “But I had not expected such high prices.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, miss,” the stallion behind the counter grumped, “We’re not getting any fresh product anytime soon. It’s a seller’s market.”

The prices of everything in Tenpony Tower had tripled since the first time I had been here. Red Eye’s blockade was killing commerce with the caravans and scavengers. I could feel an undercurrent of worry in the marketplace.

Earlier, a mare had snorted, exclaiming, “The mere thought of the wines meant for my cellar being sold instead in one of those dirty little places like Gutterville or Arbu gives me the vapors.”

I had remembered how much I really didn’t like the company of these ponies.

Shouts from outside drew our attention. Xenith smiled politely to the stallion glowering from behind the counter, saying, “We will be right back.” He didn’t look like he believed it and scowled at me as if I had been intentionally wasting his time. Backing away from him, I turned to follow Xenith out of the shop.

Ladies and gentlestallions gathered by the nearest outside windows in small crowds. Prim and proper young fillies and colts squirmed about, and climbed on their parents, momentarily forgetting proper decorum as they tried to get a peek.

Xenith, reveling in her ability to talk to these strangers, asked, “What is the commotion?” It surprised me not for the first time how easily she blended in now that the perceived stigma of her race had been obfuscated.

“The slavers,” a colt replied as he quickly trotted past us, heading towards a window. “They’re leaving!”

*** *** ***

“I don’t like this,” I told Xenith as we stood at one of the windows, looking down through the darkness of early night. The burning lights of torches drifted away from the base of Tenpony Tower like rivulets of lava. Over half of Red Eye’s forces were pulling out. “The only reason I can think of for Red Eye to withdraw before I fulfilled my end of the bargain is if he decided to blow the tower anyway. Now.”

“But then, would he not remove all of his men?” Xenith asked cautiously.

“Not if he wanted to make sure we weren’t able to evacuate,” I suggested. Although I realized it didn’t make much sense, I couldn’t think of another reason for this behavior.

“Perhaps it is part of your cunning plan?” Xenith suggested hopefully.

“Doesn’t feel like it.”

*** *** ***

“Aren’t I supposed to be being punished?” I asked, sitting on Homage’s bed inside Twilight Sparkle’s Athenaeum, staring out the huge windows at the retreating forces. I was tense. And worried. I wanted to know what Red Eye was up to. He was making a move. And while I had nothing but a gut instinct to base my opinions on, it didn’t feel like this was something I’d predicted.

Throughout the tower, ponies were cautiously optimistic.

“I gave up,” Homage admitted as she sat down behind me and began to massage my shoulders, working to relieve my tension. Xenith had convinced me not to assume the worst, but that didn’t keep me from contemplating all the other avenues of bad.

Homage’s gentle hooves worked in slow circles over my shoulders and down my spine, moving towards my flanks. I couldn’t hold back a sigh.

My eyes flew open as a dark thought struck into my brain like a dagger. “Homage! You know I’ve been Tainted, right. The Goddesses only know what that vile stuff did to me. I might be… abnormal now.”

Homage giggled softly -- not at all the response I expected. “Love,” she said, sending a thrill up my spine, “We’ve already had this conversation.”

“Oh…” I said, feeling embarrassed. Homage planted kisses up the length of my mane.

“The highlights: both Doctor Helpinghoof and Life Bloom have given you a look over. There is a tiny mutation, but it is benign. Nothing to worry about.” She gave one of my ears a nibble. “The fact that you risked Taint for me and the ponies of this tower has not gone unnoticed. Or unappreciated, especially by me.”

I felt relief. The dagger in my brain melted away.

“I’ve even checked you over myself, quite thoroughly, and you are definitely still my Littlepip.”

My ears shot up as she whispered, “Orb number eight.”

*** *** ***

I held Homage in my forelegs, nuzzling her softly. She leaned into me, her body warm, her breathing pleasantly heavy.

“Homage,” I asked with trepidation. I didn’t want to spoil the night.

“Yes love?” Homage’s sweet voice panted gently up to me.

“Are you… doing all right?”

“After that? Ooooh yes.” She giggled.

I tickled her absently, enjoying the ability to just touch her. “You know what I mean. Things here have been… rough lately. And a few days ago, what you had to do to save us…”

Homage sighed and curled around to look at me even though we couldn’t really see each other in the darkness. “After all you’ve been through for me, you’re still more worried about me than yourself.”

That was… a dodge. And I wasn’t going to let her get away with it. “Doesn’t change the question.”

“Jokeblue was usually the one doing the shooting,” Homage admitted. “I have only taken a life a few times (not counting beasts and robots) but each time it was to save somepony… although sometimes that pony was myself.” She reached a hoof up to brush my muzzle. “I don’t like it. I don’t enjoy it. And I’m really no good at it. But I don’t regret it.”

*** *** ***

The next morning, a light rain had begun to drizzle, spotting the windows and making the grey-on-grey of the Manehattan Ruins into a monochromatic haze. I had used my binoculars to search the ground below, startled to find that only a third of Red Eye’s forces remained. But they looked like they were camped out permanently.

My heart felt heavy, and my head was foggy from a lack of sleep, the latter being entirely Homage’s fault. Not that I minded. Not even slightly. But I was beginning to feel guilty for the amount of attention she lavished on me compared to the other way around. I couldn’t do anywhere near the things to her that she could do to me, and I was beginning to feel inadequate in comparison. I’d reached the point where I was going to have to start asking her for instructions. A request that, no matter how I tried to phrase it in my head, always sounded pathetic rather than romantic.

The little red wagon squeaked along behind me.

I stopped as I reached the door to our suite. This time I raised a hoof and knocked. Twice.

Calamity opened the door, smiling. “Howdy, Li’lpip. Mornin’.”

“Good morning to you too, Calamity. I see you’re in a good mood.”


“Are we ready to do this?”

Calamity grinned. “Ah reckon she’s been ready fer a few days now.” He flapped his wings, scooting out of the way.

Velvet Remedy lay on the edge of her bed (and Calamity’s now, I was willing to bet), her plaster-bound leg stretched out uncomfortably in front of her. Her eyes widened as she caught sight of the wagon. Then narrowed. “What exactly is that for?”

“Today’s the big day,” I said sweetly. “Ready to go to the Clinic and get that cast removed?”

“I can remove it myself,” Velvet Remedy insisted. “And you’re not hauling me around in that.”

I wrapped her in a telekinetic blanket and floated my unicorn friend into the air.

“Put me down.”

“Doc’s orders,” Calamity reminded Velvet. “Helpinghoof wants t’ get a good look at yer leg t’ make sure everythin’ healed proper.”

“We’re your friends,” I chimed in as she waved her legs helplessly in the air. “We insist you get the best treatment and won’t let you skimp out on it. You’ve always given us the best care and often shortchanged your own. Not this time.”

I floated her down onto the wagon. She tried sticking her legs down and pushing away, but with her cast, it was a losing battle. Finally, she tucked her three good legs in and settled into the little red wagon.

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you.”

“Yep,” I said with a smile. I turned and strode out the door, pulling her slowly through the hall towards the elevator in the very same wagon she had once hauled me to the very same place in.

*** *** ***

“You were right,” I told Velvet as Doctor Helpinghoof did one final examination of my friend’s foreleg. There was a slim scar that encircled her leg. It wouldn’t even be visible when her coat had grown back.

Velvet Remedy looked up at me as she flexed her foreleg in every possible way at the doctor’s insistence. Life Bloom was standing nearby, his horn glowing as a spell allowed Helpinghoof to examine the inner working’s of Velvet’s leg.

“You said that I can’t be trusted,” I reminded her. She sighed heavily and started to say something that would surely have been comforting, but I didn’t let her. I needed to say this. “And where Party-Time Mint-als are concerned, you are right. I can’t be trusted.”

I frowned, trying to push the words out of my muzzle, knowing I had to. “I don’t know if I really needed them. There’s a chance I never will.” She didn’t know the context of that; only Homage and Xenith knew that my memories were now being reviewed by the Twilight Society. “But I do know that when confronted with the chance to slip some into my saddlebags, I wasn’t strong enough.”

Velvet Remedy was looking at me sadly.

“So from now on, I need you to do what you said you would. Go through my things. Check my PipBuck. Maybe Life Bloom can teach you a PTM-detection spell. Whatever it takes.” I trembled a little, hearing the tone of begging creep into my voice. “Please. I want your help. I need it.”

Slowly, Velvet nodded. “Of course, Littlepip.”

“Well,” Doctor Helpinghoof announced, “I’d say you’ve made a miraculous recovery, young lady. You’re fit to go.” He looked to Calamity, “You can settle up the bill with Life Bloom on your way out.”

Calamity nodded, wrapping his recently-wounded wing around Velvet in a snug. Looking to me, he asked, “So, where to next?”

I pressed my lips together, thinking. “The Canterlot Ruins are our goal now. But we have a few places to visit along the way. The village that Xenith believes her daughter lives in is on our way. But first, we need to arm ourselves with all the information we can on surviving in the Pink Cloud. And that means our next trip has to be back to Stable Twenty-Nine.”

The others nodded in agreement. “We need SteelHooves.”

*** *** ***

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

It was a particularly beautiful day in Ponyville. The sun was shining, pouring a warmth down on the Equestrian village that cheered both the land and the soul. Only a few clouds spotted the sky, and a mint-green pegasus flew about overhead, belatedly kicking them away. Below, brightly-colored ponies trotted about their daily business, often stopping to give a neighborly hello to those they passed on the street. A trio of bunnies darted between bushes, carrying radishes pilfered from somepony’s garden.

“Oh my…” Fluttershy said, watching through strands of solid pink mane as the bunnies darted between her legs. For a moment, she seemed ready to break away from the other ponies she was walking with to fly after them.

“New feller’s doin’ all right,” Applejack commented, looking up into the sky. “But it just ain’t the same without Rainbow Dash.”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Twilight Sparkle told her, floating a letter out of her saddlepack. “I got a letter from the Princess today. She says that Rainbow Dash isn’t just on a vacation. She’s signed up for the new Equestrian Skyguard.”

“Poor dear took what happened to the Wonderbolts really hard,” Rarity commented, adjusting her newest hat creation so the feathers all flowed with the gentle summer breeze. “I can’t say that I blame her.”

“Yes, well, the Princess doesn’t want to see her get put in harm’s way, but it wouldn’t be right for Her to tell Dash no. So…” Twilight opened the letter as the others gathered around her, listening intently, “…Princess Celestia has given us a mission. We’re to travel to the buffalo and try to strengthen diplomatic ties with them. Given Rainbow Dash’s previous experience with them, the Princess feels that she would be the ideal envoy.”

“Oh goodie!” Pinkie Pie bounced. “I’ve been working on my song and I think…”

“Oh hay no,” moaned Applejack.
“Oh dear,” winced Rarity.
“umm…” umm’ed Fluttershy.

“No singing!” Twilight Sparkle said sternly.


“No singing,” she repeated. “Princess’s orders.”


“Twilight, Darling,” Rarity asked, concerned. “Did Princess Celestia say why exactly we are strengthening diplomatic ties with the buffalo? I mean, other than to keep Rainbow Dash occupied?”

Twilight shook her head. A heavy silence fell over the group of friends that was distinctly at odds with the cheery brightness of the day.

Applejack was the one who broke it. “Ah heard talk from some o’ the folk at the farmer’s expo last week. They’re sayin’…” She paused, as if scared of the words she was thinking and what would happen if she said them out loud. “…we might be a’headin’ t’ war.”

Fluttershy gasped and disappeared behind a stump.

“Th-that’s impossible, Applejack. Equestria has never had a real war in…” Twilight Sparkle paused, clearly running through her vast studies of Equestrian history. And finding nothing. “…I don’t think Equestria has ever had a war. At least, not in over a thousand years.”

“Yeah, well, we all know how mighty stubborn ponies c’n get when their livelihoods are bein’ threatened. Only this time, Ah fear it ain’t gonna be pies they’re throwin’. Big Mac brought home one o’ them new-fangled firearms t’ take care o’ the cockatrice that’s been attackin’ our pigs…”

Applejack was interrupted by an upset squeak from Fluttershy, who had finally managed to come back out from behind her stump. “He wouldn’t!”

“Sorry, Fluttershy,” Applejack said apologetically. “But that thing was killin’ our pigs. Sometimes, ya just gotta take care o’ dangerous predators the hard way.”

“You should have told me! I could have stopped him for you,” Fluttershy said, uncharacteristically raising her voice just a smidgeon. “Now your pigs will stay dead forever, you know. Only a cockatrice can reverse its own magic. And he would have if I’d had the chance to tell him to.”

“What?” Applejack moaned. “Nuts and shrews.”

Fluttershy turned meekly to Twilight Sparkle. “There’s not really going to be a…” Her voice faltered on the word ‘war’, becoming barely a squeak, “…will there?”

“I hope not,” Twilight said. “I don’t know what we’d do if there was.”

“But… people would get hurt. And animals.” Fluttershy was trembling just at the thought. “We can’t let that happen. We just can’t.”

“I think that’s why the Princess wants us to start talking to the buffalo,” Twilight said unsurely.

“Well, whatever the reason, we’ll do this together,” Rarity asserted. “Give me a few days to close up my shop, and I’ll be ready for the trip.”

The others nodded. “Yer right. Ain’t nothin’ we can’t handle together,” Applejack said, smiling at Rarity.

“Right,” Twilight Sparkle said, back on firmer ground. “Whatever the cause, Princess Celestia has given us this mission and we will not fail.” This was familiar to her. She’d done this before, and she could do it again. “Everypony, make whatever arrangements you need to. We may be gone from Ponyville for a while. I’m going to go get Rainbow Dash. Let’s meet back here in less than two days.” The faith she had in her friends virtually radiated from her.

All her friends nodded, Fluttershy looking both exceptionally nervous and particularly determined. Then everypony galloped off, leaving the yellow pegasus standing on the path alone.

“Oh, so much to do. But we must not fail. We must not, must not, must not.” She fretted. “Who will take care of my animals?”

“Can I help?” my host asked, flying up to the distraught yellow pegasus.

“Oh!” Fluttershy jumped. Then crouched meekly, looking around until she spotted me. “Oh, hello Ditzy Doo. I didn’t see you there.” She looked away shyly. “Um… sure, if you would like?”

I felt my host smile happily. Today was a good day.

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

Footnote: Maximum Level