Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat

Chapter Thirty-Three: Crusaders

Chapter Thirty-Three: Crusaders

“I am impervious to such corrupting ambitions.”


What had started out as a light drizzle in the morning was a gusty downpour by early afternoon with ambitions towards a brutal deluge by the evening. The Manehattan Ruins matched the clouds above in a montage of grey on grey, made hazy by a screen of precipitation.

Raindrops bombed the puddles on the roof of Tenpony Tower, swelling them until their edges pushed together, kissing and coupling into miniature lakes. Xenith’s hooves splashed through them as she carried the last of our supplies across to the Sky Bandit. I watched as she rose up on her hindhooves and passed the bag to Calamity, who stored it inside. My gaze lingered on her, taking in the stripes that covered her back, rippling a little as the muscles beneath her coat moved. I had to agree with Homage; I liked her better this way. As pleased as I was to give her the opportunity to shop and mingle amongst the ponies of Tenpony Tower, I was happy to see her stripes again.

Removing the dye had been a little more difficult than I had anticipated. It would have taken weeks for her coat to resume its color naturally, or multiple herbal baths that would have depleted supplies Xenith insisted were best kept for other uses. So we sought out Life Bloom, hoping he might know a spell that would remove the false coloring. Fortunately, he did, and he offered to teach it to us for a small fee.

Velvet Remedy jumped at the opportunity. She was certain that the spell should fall within the boundaries of her magical prowess. Cosmetic magic was at least tangentially related to the medical and entertainment spells that came natural to her, after all. I recalled how easily she had cleaned the Sky Bandit with her magic once; I expected this to be even easier. But while Velvet was capable of casting the spell, it proved surprisingly taxing for her and yielded somewhat limited effects. The dye had faded only enough to turn Xenith’s once-white coat a muddy grey.

I gave it my best effort, but in vain. My horn would not even deign to glow as I poured my concentration into the spell. In the end, we had to pay Life Bloom to cast it himself.

“You’re staring at her ass, aren’t you,” Homage whispered into my ear, startling me just as my gaze had slid down to linger on Xenith’s rear.

My ears shot up in alarm, and I felt myself blushing as I stammered, “What? N-no. I was just… plotting. That’s it! With the plan and the plot and things.”

Homage chuckled. “Sure you were.”

Adopting a musing tone, the grey unicorn teased softly, “Next time, I’ll try to give you those instructions you wanted.” I blushed harder, thankful that she wasn’t speaking loudly enough for my friends to hear. “Although I’m not sure how. You’re such a delightfully sensitive thing that when I demonstrate on you, you have a hard time focusing on the lesson.” Luna’s mercy. My ears were burning. “And I’ll admit it would be difficult for me to concentrate as well.”

Homage leaned close and whispered in my ear, “Maybe bringing in a third party would be in order? Xenith perhaps?”

I felt myself splash into the puddle before I realized my legs had gone out from under me. The rooftop water was cold and soaked beneath my armor, getting trapped against my coat and skin.

Homage giggled. She was joking of course. She had to be. As I picked myself up, my mind had already dug out half a dozen reasons why a threesome with Xenith was out of the question, not the least of which being that the striped mare didn’t like to be touched. But the little grey unicorn had planted the seeds of a fantasy in my head now, knowing it would not make my time away from her any easier.

I shot Homage an annoyed glare, deciding this was probably her revenge for my having responded to one of her favorite toys with a lack of enthusiasm.

“You’re just a little bit evil,” I hissed. “You know that, right?”

*** *** ***

“What’s this?” I asked as Velvet Remedy floated some sort of railing onto the roof of the Sky Bandit.

“Luggage rack. Sorta,” Calamity said as he landed on the top of the rain-slicked passenger wagon and began to tug straps tight. “Ah figured, the way SteelHooves took on that Star-spawn thing while standin’ on the roof worked out mighty good. Settin’ up a mountin’ position fer a pony t’ ride topside even if Ah need t’ do some fancy maneuverin’.”

As Calamity pulled a little welder out of his saddlebags, the reward (I assumed) of recent bartering, Velvet Remedy primly added, “It can also carry luggage.”

Putting down the welder and checking his work, Calamity suggested, “Ah reckon it wouldn’t hurt t’ put some armor on ‘er too. Would slow us down, an’ Ah’d have t’ take breaks more often. But some ablative plates would make ‘er a whole lot safer.”

I got the feeling Calamity was expecting a fight I didn’t know was coming. Was this part of the plan to deal with the Goddess? Something I had made sure I wouldn’t be aware of? Or maybe this had to do with his new concerns regarding the Enclave. If it was the former, we would be better off if I didn’t ask him about it. Pressing the issue would leave him in the uncomfortable position of having to lie to me. Worse, I could cause him to slip and give away something important. I would just have to trust him.

My thoughts flicked back to the memory orbs I had viewed yesterday. According to Calamity, I had told him it was safe for me to view them. Had I known about them, I would have been driven to distraction by curiosity. But I had not been aware of them until Calamity had set them on the table and sent them rolling towards me. Now I wondered if this was just a gift to myself, or if there was some piece of information in those orbs I felt I needed to know.

The first orb held a potential wealth of information. Two elements stood out amongst the others, the first being the vision of The Black Book. Clearly, The Black Book was itself a soul jar. At first, I wondered if Rarity herself had made it one, but I dismissed the idea quickly. Far more likely, it had been infused with the soul of the mad zebra alchemist who had written it. If the zebras feared and loathed everything they associated with the stars, and The Black Book was supposedly dictated to that mad zebra in dreams, this explained how the book could have survived destruction for generations in zebra lands before finding its way here. And it would certainly have enhanced and given credence to the darkest legends that formed around it.

Furthermore, I recalled that soul jars could have other magic “hung” on them. Who knew what mystical effects The Black Book might be asserting over anypony in its vicinity?

The other aspect of the orb which stood out to me was the conversation between Rainbow Dash and those three bucks. In that argument, I had witnessed the beginnings of the Enclave. The orb spoke to a spreading sentiment amongst the pegasus ponies -- a resentment of their sacrifices in a war that they believed themselves literally above -- that had even reached the heart of at least one pegasus in a position of power. One who would be killed as the first zebra megaspell annihilated Cloudsdayle.

And with it, an acknowledgement that Rainbow Dash, heroine of the war, leader of the Shadowbolts, had become a driving force behind the pegasi’s escalating involvement in the fighting. I recalled a news article in the Fillydelphia Ministry of Image hub: in response to the zebra’s recruitment of dragons, Luna intended to strengthen Equestria’s pegasi forces. Rainbow Dash’s new magically-powered armor, I suspected, was at least one part of that.

Rainbow Dash had become an icon of pegasi participation, both to those who supported it and those who had grown to despise it… the Dashites were an almost foregone conclusion.

The isolationist core of the Enclave was at odds with Calamity’s worries. Unless… unless they threatened the Gardens of Equestria. Icy fear shot through my body at the idea. But if that was true, surely that wasn’t something I’d want to forget. I would need to act on it immediately! No pony would keep me from joining Spike in his defense of that cave, least of all myself.

The second orb had been a deeply bittersweet experience. I felt such happiness and sadness at seeing five of the mares I had grown to know and love in a warmer and happier time, a spring before the summer of war that would bring such heartache and horror to all of them. They had stood on the precipice of something terrible, and they had loved and laughed and danced.

The memory, to the best I could see, was of no strategic value. This was not the first I had heard of their mission to the buffalo, although now I had much more context. Instead, this was a vision into the beauty of the past, a reminder of what ponies had been. And what, I prayed, could… would one day be again.

“Prayer alone is not enough,” I murmured to myself. No, for our world to change, there had to be action. There had to be ponies who would stand up to the darkness and Stare it down. I would be such a pony.

“hmmm?” Homage said, standing next to me again. I was so soaked by the rain now that the discomfort from the puddle earlier had been forgotten. “You look lost in thought so deep you could be in a memory orb.”

I grimaced. I reached into my saddlebags and floated out the Ditzy Doo orb, passing it to Homage. “I want you to have this,” I told her. “You’ve been my voice in the darkness more than once. If things ever get too bleak for you to find your way to hope, watch this. Let her be your guide back.”

Homage cocked her head curiously. With half-lidded eyes, she whispered, “I won’t need it. You are my guide.” But she slipped a telekinetic blanket of her own around the gift, taking it anyway.

“I would fight to make that bright and innocent past our future once again,” I said, turning to her. “Even if it means dashing myself against the evil and cruelty of this wasteland until there is nothing left of me.” Like the ponies who cracked and shattered their hoofs pounding at the sealed door of Stable Two, I would persevere, making Equestria a better place one battle at a time. Until there was nothing left for me to give. “And then, when I am too broken to go on, I will float my dying body right down the throat of the darkness and make it choke on me.”

Homage gave me a sad, knowing look. Then leaned forward and nuzzled my cheek softly.

Forcing a smile, I chuckled. “Or, you know, this could all end in sunshine and rainbows. No need to get pessimistic.”

Homage laughed despite the tears that had begun to well in her eyes. Or maybe that was just the rain.

“Speaking of orbs,” I said, changing the subject.

Homage blinked in the rain and smiled wanly. “Got it. If they want to see your memories in order to get to know you, then they need to have as much context as possible. So anyone viewing them is required to watch them in order, starting with the first.”

“Perfect,” I replied, now wearing a more genuine smile.

“Although I’d prefer we kept orb number eight to ourselves,” Homage added. And for the first time, I saw her blush.

“So would I,” I admitted dourly, “But at the time I figured that denying them one of the orbs would undermine the notion that I have nothing to hide from them. Sadly, I still think so.”

Homage nodded. “Indeed it would.” Her gaze shifted off to the side. “Maybe I can persuade them it isn’t necessary. At least after the first pony sees it.” Knowing what she could do to me, I doubted anypony would pass up the opportunity to experience that. The thought of people enjoying Homage’s attentions meant only for me, as me, felt slimy. It was a violation that made me sick inside. This was not a sacrifice I wanted to make. But knowing how much good the secrets locked away inside the hidden chambers of Tenpony Tower could do for all of Equestria, the pony in my heart demanded it.

“Can I ask why?” Homage questioned. I blinked. She had to know why I was willing to let the Twilight Society into my memories. Seeing my confusion, she clarified, “I caught that smile. You’re planning something. Why the instructions, if it’s not just about context?”

“Oh!” I bit back a snicker. “Well, it’s just that those memories cover, what, two days? And it takes as long to view a memory as the events themselves. And, unlike when I lived them, those ponies will have to take breaks. Stop, eat, sleep, do whatever work those ponies do…” I shrugged. “I figure, if we’re lucky, by the time they get to the more telling orbs, everything will be over. And if not? Well, at least I will have forced a whole bunch of hoity-toity ponies in Tenpony Tower to eat zebra cooking and like it.”

Homage broke into a laugh. The mare threw her arms around me, hugging me so fiercely we both fell into the small lake that had formed on the roof.

I splashed her. She splashed back. The two of us lay there in the cold, pooling water, kicking waves and sprays at each other until I could swear we were wetter than the rain was.

“Give up?” she squealed. Absolutely not! My finishing move was to telekinetically grasp about a barrel full of the water, hovering it over her head. I pointed up with a hoof and got a most delightful squeak out of her before dropping the deluge onto my Homage.

“Okay, okay, I give up!” she cried out. Slowly, we both got to our hooves. Homage was shivering, dripping, her blue hair hanging straight down like a wet curtain. She was impossibly beautiful.

“Ready to go?” Velvet’s voice called out kindly from within the Sky Bandit. I turned to see that Calamity had finished attaching the mounting on the passenger wagon’s roof and was already harnessing himself to the front.

I looked back to Homage. “I’ve got to go.”

I smiled. “But you will never be far. I’ll be tuned in, listening to your message of hope...” I gave her horn a soft kiss. “...DJ Pon3.”

The somber mood of our former conversation seeped back, making my sopping coat feel all the chillier.

“Promise me you’ll see me again.”

“Pinkie Pie Swear.”

*** *** ***

The Sky Bandit cut through the heavy mid-afternoon downpour. Calamity was getting a miserable drenching. He had hoofwaved off Velvet Remedy’s offer of a protective shield, claiming he was already as wet as he was going to get after attaching the new roof mounting. The claim was half bravado and half being Just Plain Wrong. Now, while he said nothing, I could tell he was regretting it.

Not that any of the rest of us weren’t dripping wet. The passenger wagon, with its broken windows, provided only cursory protection from the elements. Soon, all the benches were soaked and the metal floor ran with rivulets of water. The tarps covering our gear kept our supplies partially dry, but water was seeping underneath to soak the bottoms of packs and bags.

Pyrelight kept giving us miserable, mewling hoots. Velvet Remedy had tried using her cleaning spell to dry us over and over; but it had been an uphill battle, and after an hour she gave up.

Velvet and I were huddled together on some benches in the back of the passenger wagon. Velvet Remedy’s horn glowed, a soft melody seeming to pour out of it. “More like that?” she asked me. All I could do was nod, feeling a little stunned.

“Did you… just come up with that now?” I asked timidly, amazed once again by how easily she could create entirely new music and have it be utterly beautiful.

“Well, yes, but I’ve had years of practice,” Velvet Remedy admitted. “And it is one of my natural talents.” Giving me a motherly look, she advised, “Before I can create the music for your song, Littlepip, you should really come up with some lyrics. At least enough for me to know the rhythm and meter you wish to use.”

I gave a deep sigh. The idea had sounded so good in my heart last night, and so easy in my head this morning. I wanted to create a song that expressed my feelings for Homage. Not something sappy, but an honest, earnest outpouring of my heart. Something that I could have Velvet Remedy perform next time we went to Tenpony Tower as a special gift for the “disc jockey” pony who had let me fall in love with her.

With Velvet Remedy by my side, I had thought I could have something at least halfway decent by the time we reached Stable Twenty-Nine. But…

“I’m just no good at lyrics. Coming up with words is…” I sighed. “…really hard.”

“Let me help,” Velvet suggested, listening to what I had so far and politely trying not to wince.

Within a few hours, Velvet and I had put together a few passable lines, stringing them into what could be a full verse. Or the two halves of two different verses. I wasn’t sure yet.

“…In the warmth of your embrace, I’ve found acceptance,
And I know our moments, through all my adversities,
In my darkest hour will save and anchor me.
And I will kiss the orb that holds these memories…”

Velvet Remedy sang my lyrics experimentally, smiling at how they came off her tongue this time. “Much better. Although I still think some of your other phrases are a little too specific.”

I shook my head. “This is from me to her. It’s personal. It should be specific.” I was being stubborn in the face of wisdom, but it was my song, and I rather liked the line: I’ve been crushed under the train car of loneliness.

Velvet Remedy gave me a patient and charmingly understanding smile, and I knew she would manage to talk me into changing the line before the night was over.

*** *** ***

The storm continued to escalate, the winds blowing the rain sideways and tearing at Calamity hard enough that we were stopping every hour to give him rest. Even flying, our progress had become achingly slow as Calamity continuously fought to correct our course as the wind blew us off our path. I hated seeing him work so hard for us.

The third time we landed, we were able to take shelter in the overhang of the remnants of a recharging station somewhere in the holocaust-blasted remains of a small business community which had once sprawled between Manehattan and Fetlock. I spotted a mostly intact storeroom in the otherwise collapsed building. On the door was a faded and stained poster of a genial Twilight Sparkle. Knowledge is Magic insisted the words above her friendly smile. And in smaller font beneath: The Ministry of Arcane Sciences is Looking for a Few Bright Minds. Together, We Will Save Equestria! Equally ancient graffiti scrawled across the poster. Partial words – ight the Mini – drove me to imagine the poster had been moved, the rest of the rebellious words left behind on a wall somewhere.

Calamity unhitched himself and trotted into the supply room to have a good shake while the rest of us starting digging through our supplies for the boxes of Pony Joe’s Donut Holes and cans of sweet potatoes which would be our dinner. I eyed the boxes dubiously; I had overcome my squeamishness for eating two-hundred-year-old food, but I still planned to give the donut holes a pass. Calamity returned as Pyrelight was giving the cans a warming (and slightly radioactive) breath-bath. He was less soaked and unsurprisingly more laden with scavenged goods.

“Ah’m gonna swap out the spark batteries while we’re sittin’,” Calamity announced as Velvet Remedy magically cleaned away the rest of the water from his fur and feathers. “Ah don’t want us losin’ ‘em in the middle o’ the storm.”

Velvet Remedy gasped. “Don’t you dare. You’ve already worked hard enough. And now you’re finally dry. You will not immediately go wallowing around in the mud under this wagon. You rest. One of us will change them out for you.”

By necessity, that meant me. But I was more than happy to be volunteered.

“Well,” Calamity looked thankful for the offer and the chance to rest his sore and aching wings. “Ah figure maybe we oughta hunker down fer a bit, till the storm loses some o’ its rage.” We all readily agreed. I knew from experience that rain in the Equestrian Wasteland could last for days, but I hoped the worst part would pass within a few hours. The burning white flash of nearby lightning turned the world into stark light and black shadow. Calamity looked over his shoulder and said something more, but his words were drowned out by a pealing roar of thunder that shook bits of debris from the cracks in the overhang.

Minutes later, I squirmed under the Sky Bandit. The slosh sliding under my body wasn’t exactly mud but a gritty mixture of water and ashes. I tried not to think of who I might have been laying in. Surely most of the ash was from incinerated buildings, right?

As I telekinetically removed the screws on the plate covering the spark battery array, I heard a familiar marching music leaking through the storm. An approaching sprite-bot. The music grew louder as the floating radio drew near, the tinny quality of the music more noticeable through the white noise of the rain.

A burst of static killed the music. The sprite-bot went silent.

“Hello, Watcher.”

“Hey, Littlepip. Been a while, and I can tell you’ve been busy.”

I laughed ruefully as I thought of just how much I’d been through since I’d last spoken to Spike. “How are things at your… house?” I asked, an itch of paranoia preventing me from referencing the cave more directly. “Are the… um… unwanted house guests giving you any more trouble?”

“Actually, they’ve been really quiet recently. I don’t know if they’re preoccupied or just avoiding the place.” Changing topics, “You haven’t, by any chance, found any other… others, have you?”

Wow, this conversation was awkward. “No. Not yet. But I’m looking.”


We were either dancing around something, or we really had nothing to say to each other. I felt a resurgence of the pain caused by realizing I was not the heroine that Spike had been looking for. I was not one of the ponies who could make everything right. For a brief, sparkling moment I had thought I knew my purpose, only to have that hope dashed against the cold rocks of an unforgiving reality.

But then, the Gardens of Equestria wasn’t going to make everything right with the wave of a hoof and a rainbow of good intentions. Even after it purges the taint from the world, the mutated monsters that taint has created will still be left behind. The alicorns, those things from the hospital (if any survived), bloatsprites, hellhounds. Even after it washes the tint from the air, the world will still be trapped under the depressing bleakness of the constant cloud cover. Even though it will rid the world of radiation, it will not exorcise the evil that has festered in the hearts of so many ponies. Raiders and slavers will not disappear like the poisons in the soil.

In short, there was so much more to do. And I didn’t have to be destined to be something great or important or vital. I just had to do something good.

And if I could help a little towards something as great as the Gardens of Equestria, that was just icing on the cupcake.

The pause had stretched to uncomfortable lengths. Finally, Watcher said, “Well, I guess I should be going then.”

“Wait,” I said, suddenly having a question. “Can non-ponies ever be bearers of the Elements of Harmony?” Maybe I needed to widen my search.

“Uh, no, I don’t think so.”

“Oh.” Well, it was worth asking. I searched my mind for anything else to say. Finally, the star-spawn in the room couldn’t be avoided any longer. “Sp… Watcher. I know what happened to Twilight Sparkle.”

Silence. Thunder rumbled in the background. Then, “Oh.”

Spike was silent a little while longer, before finally daring, “Please, tell me she went quickly. Without pain. It was fast, wasn’t it?”

A rock lodged in my throat. As I felt my ears paste back, I was thankful that I was beneath the Sky Bandit, the passenger wagon shielding him from my expression. I opened my muzzle, but I didn’t have the breath to speak.

I… couldn’t tell him. He didn’t deserve that. She was his closest friend -- a sister, mother and best friend all in one -- and the weight of this horror was too much. The pain of knowing now, and knowing that maybe some part of Twilight was still in the Goddess, alive but no longer herself or even sane, and had been for centuries…

I realized I was going to lie to Spike. Corrupted kindness, a pony’s voice hissed in my mind, but it wasn’t the voice of my little pony; it was the voice of the Goddess.

“She died trying to save other ponies, Spike. It was a noble death.” She died crying out a name. Was it his? “And… I believe she was thinking about you fondly as she passed. I think she was happy you weren’t there, that you survived.”

It was an utter, bold-faced lie. Except my face was not bold, and no pony would have believed me if they had been able to see me. No dragon, either, no matter how much he needed to.

Another long pause. “Thank you, Littlepip.” The mechanical voice of the sprite-bot couldn’t convey emotion, but I could still tell that hidden in his cave, the mighty dragon Spike was crying.

“Did you… find her body? Is she buried?”

I felt a hard pang try to tear apart my heart. After a moment of panic, I let out a shuddering breath. “No, Spike. I saw her death on a recording. But… after she was dead, the Goddess… ate her body.”

Utter quiet from the sprite-bot, from Watcher, from Spike.

“I’m going to end the Goddess,” I said, and this time truth flowed in every word. “And if, by a miracle, there’s anything left of Twilight, I will put her to rest.”

*** *** ***

The fury of the storm beat upon the wasteland for most of the night, finally exhausting its rage and slipping back into an almost peaceful drizzle, like a snoring yao guai. We reached Stable Twenty-Nine in that foreboding hour of darkness whose name I could not remember.

I gently told Pyrelight to stay behind and guard the Sky Bandit. Considering the plethora of monsters that we had encountered in Fetlock before, it was a reasonable precaution. But in truth, I just didn’t want to bring a radioactive bird into the Outcast’s new home base.

Outcasts, their Steel Ranger armor bearing stripes of red, took battle stances at our approach. I saw them tense. A moment later, soft light erupted around us and Velvet Remedy’s satin voice rang out through the darkness.

“Hail, followers of Applejack. Littlepip and her Entourage bid you welcome and request an audience with SteelHooves.”

Hearing Velvet Remedy refer to us like that was uncomfortable. I didn’t deserve that sort of credit or attention. But more, I didn’t want my friends thinking of themselves that way. Still, as I watched the Outcasts relax, I was thankful for her diplomacy. Two of the former Steel Rangers trotted over to us, flanking us as we were guided towards the door of Stable Twenty-Nine.

I recalled with a shiver my last visit here. Since then, new scorch marks littered the walls of the maintenance tunnel. Bullet casings littered the floor, and dark stains told of the ferocious engagements between the Outcasts and the Steel Rangers as they vied for control of the Stable and the Crusader computer inside.

One of our escorts motioned to another guard who stood at the control mechanism for the Stable door. A cable ran from the guard’s magically-powered armor to the controls; she didn’t even need to throw a switch. With a teeth-hurting grind and a hydra-like hiss, the huge gear-shaped door was pulled open on its internal arm.

We marched forward. As I set hoof into the Stable, part of me couldn’t believe I was returning here. I remembered vividly the events and emotions of my previous excursion into this place. As we walked, I was relieved to see that the Outcasts had taken the time to clear the bodies away, and young knights were making headway on the rest of the detritus that littered the floors of the Atrium. My first time here, I was bothered by the wrongness of the Stable’s layout. It did not conform to Stable Two, to the way a Stable should be. Now, after my final visit to Stable Two, there was no such feeling. Seeing the death and destruction visited upon Stable Two had stained its memory for me. There no longer was a “proper” Stable.

There had been fighting inside as well as out. One of the columns in the Atruim, previously whole, was now smashed. The floor showed the sort of damage only a grenade machinegun would cause. I spared a glance towards the Clinic, shuddering a little as I remembered the Atrium guns pinning us in there. Those turrets were now replaced by models bearing the Outcasts’ colors and three-apple symbol. I wondered what Applejack would have thought of her cutie mark on turrets facing into a Stable.

My gaze traveled to the grey-tiled roof, and down the catwalks that hugged plain grey walls. Morosely, I thought: this room needs a mural.

The two Outcasts led us up the stairs to the second level. I glanced at the bulletin board as we passed. The old messages and notices had been cleared away. The board itself had been bleached clean. Its ghastly message written in pony blood existed now only in memories.

The final resting place of Vinyl Scratch, the little pony in my head reminded me. The tomb of the original DJ Pon3. I quickly chose not to dwell on that. Down that path lay dark things.

We walked by a couple of knights, one hauling a trash cart, the other walking behind her, chatting amiably. “This place could really use some colorful posters. Not to mention a few throw rugs. Maybe some curtains.”

“This place isn’t exactly rich with windows,” the other said pointedly. “And I don’t think Elder SteelHooves is the sort to embrace draperies.”

I covered a snicker with a hoof.

“Truuuuuue. But he’d probably go for the idea of posters.”

“Good luck finding a good one for us now. All the Ministry of Wartime Technology posters just say ‘PROGRESS’ and have images of tech advancements. I’ve never seen one poster from them that featured their Ministry Mare.”

As we passed, I found myself thinking of the two mares whose Ministries never boasted their image, Applejack and Rarity. One because her Ministry didn’t want to give her the honor, and the other because she did not wish to take the honor for herself.

SteelHooves, whose love for Applejack had never faltered, had a statuette of the mare (“Be Strong!”) in his shack. I suspected that was the best image of Applejack they would find.

*** *** ***

Instinctively, I had assumed SteelHooves would have taken the Overmare’s Office. But as our escorts turned us into the security station, I remembered that Stable Twenty-Nine didn’t have an Overmare’s Office. A ghostly touch of that sense of wrongness brushed the back of my mind.

SteelHooves was pacing the room, speaking to a brown mare with a cropped yellow mane whom I quickly gleaned was (ex?) Star Paladin Crossroads. She wasn’t wearing Steel Rangers armor, painted or otherwise. But then, they had to take it off sometime didn’t they? Except SteelHooves, of course.

They’re calling him Elder now, I thought bemusedly as I watched our former companion.

“...can’t send a full detachment with him,” SteelHooves was arguing. “That would leave Stable Twenty-Nine dangerously low on defenders.” I did not yet know what this was about, but I recognized the dire necessity for the Outcasts to keep Stable Twenty-Nine. If the Steel Rangers took the Stable, then all the Outcasts drawn here for refuge would be galloping into a trap.

“And if we send only a small honor guard, it invites an attack,” Crossroads retorted evenly. “We can’t ask our ponies to walk into that kind of danger with insufficient numbers.”

SteelHooves disagreed. “They’re Applejack’s Rangers. Galloping into danger for the sake of another is exactly what we should expect from them, and what they should expect of themselves.”

“Any one of us should be willing to rush to the aid of the innocent without thought for ourselves. But there are no innocents here to be saved. This is a prisoner transfer in hostile territory. This is different,” Crossroads insisted, “And you know that.”

The Outcasts flanking us stood silently and at attention. I felt I should clear my throat. To announce our presence. Not out of impatience but to make sure the two leaders of this new faction were fully aware their discussion was not private. I didn’t feel like I was politely waiting; I felt like I was eavesdropping.

“If the Steel Rangers open fire on our paladins, then they risk catching their own Elder in the crossfire,” SteelHooves countered, but then seemed to have second thoughts about his argument. “Actually, if the Steel Rangers were to kill Elder Cottage Cheese in an attack, that might actually be better for us in the long run. Letting him go free is only going to borrow future trouble and death for the Outcasts.”

Crossroads sighed and smiled reasonably, “True, but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to think that way. Remember, we’re the good ponies.” SteelHooves nickered in response.

“Howdy y’all,” Calamity called out, “Who ya takin’ where now?”

I caught Velvet purr something under her breath. Our escorts bristled a bit at the audacity of Calamity’s interruption, but as SteelHooves and Crossroads turned to face us, Crossroads gave us a smile. “And you must be Calamity, Velvet Remedy, ‘That Zebra’ and, of course, Littlepip.”

For a moment, I glowered at SteelHooves. That zebra. Really? But then Xenith spoke -- “Your reputation spreads, little one.” -- and my indignation deflated. There was, after all, a touch of fair turnabout at play. I didn’t believe for a moment that was why SteelHooves referred to Xenith that way. But if I spoke up, he could argue it was, and I could not win that argument.

Velvet Remedy stepped forward and dipped her head in greeting. “We are. And our zebra companion’s name is Xenith. We are pleased to finally meet you, Crossroads.”

SteelHooves seemed to look us over in lieu of a more formal or familiar reunion, then told Calamity, “Elder Cottage Cheese of the Manehattan Steel Rangers is currently under… house arrest. We have negotiated an agreement to return him to the Steel Rangers at Bucklyn Cross.”

“Bucklyn Cross?” I asked out of curiosity.

“Why don’t they jus’ come here t’ get ‘im?” Calamity wondered.

Crossroads frowned. “For the same reasons, I suspect, that we are disputing how many of our own to commit to the delivery. Elder Cottage Cheese devoted most of his knights and paladins to the assaults on Stables Two and Twenty-Nine. The forces holding Bucklyn Cross are depleted enough to explain their refusal to divide their forces.”

“Then ya hardly need t’ worry ‘bout them attackin’ here.”

“Them, no.” SteelHooves paced. “Others, yes. We can expect a counter-strike by forces sent from Fillydelphia at any time. Their Elder was killed in Stable Two. They will not forgive that. And they may receive reinforcements from other contingents.”

Crossroads shook her head. “Hoofington is still dark. And Trottingham is such a mess that the Elder there will be hard-pressed to devote forces to anyplace else…”

“Unless the Steel Rangers abandon Trottingham entirely,” SteelHooves pointed out.

“At this point, that might be their best strategic option. But even if they left now, it would be difficult for them to rally with the Fillydelphia forces in enough time to attack before our ponies have returned.”

“Hard, but not impossible.”

Calamity whinnied, whispering to Velvet, “Ah almost wanna tell ‘em t’ get a room.” I shook my head. “But, y’know, this would be it.”

One of the security intercoms let out a burst of static, followed by a stallion’s voice. “Elder SteelHooves, sir. My apologies for the interruption, but Elder Cottage Cheese is demanding his medical chair.”

In the background, I could hear the grumpy yet cultured voice of a very elderly stallion. “…still an Elder, and you traitors will show proper respect. I will not be hauled back to my citadel in that capsule like a piece of luggage. I will return with my head held high.”

“Medical chair?” I asked.

SteelHooves groaned. Crossroads trotted to the intercom switchboard, glancing briefly at the map of lights above to determine which button she needed to press to speak back to them. Velvet Remedy whinnied softly. “Oh, Pip.”

I wasn’t sure why she had said that at first. But when I noticed which light was blinking on the map, I realized they were using the PipBuck Technician’s stall in the maintenance wing as a jail.

I stared as the brown mare found her button, the pony in my head trying to decide how I should feel about that. I dispassionately settled on, “Makes sense.”

“Elder Cottage, it’s raining,” Crossroads nickered politely into the intercom. “You could catch a cold. Which you know would probably kill you. Your life support capsule is the only way we can ensure you will survive the journey.”

“You traitorous lot have already killed me,” the Elder retorted. “The Crusader Maneframe in this Stable was my last hope, and you have ripped that from me. Whether the finishing draught be from sword, drizzle or cup of poison, I will face my end with dignity.”

Crossroads took her hoof off the intercom, looking at SteelHooves with an expression of concern.

SteelHooves marched over, accessed a terminal, then pushed Crossroads out of the way as he pushed the intercom button. “Elder Cottage Cheese,” his voice rumbled into the intercom. “This is SteelHooves. This conversation is now being recorded. Please state your request again.”

“Request,” the Elder responded with irritated civility. “Yes. I require that my medical chair be brought here at once, and that your knights here assist me in transferring to it. I will return to Bucklyn Cross as a pony, not a parcel.”

Crossroads shook her head. “We can’t. Chances are he’ll die.”

SteelHooves pressed the button again. “You have been informed of the risk this poses to your health. If you refuse to travel in a life support chamber, you could expire. Is that what you want?”

“Damn you, SteelHooves, yes, now bring me my Goddess-damned chair.”

SteelHooves looked back at Crossroads and gave a grunt of satisfaction. Hitting another button, “Will somepony please bring Elder Cottage Cheese his Goddess-damned medical chair.”

“SteelHooves!” Crossroads gasped.

But our armor-entombed companion had made his decision. “He is an Elder. He has the right and the authority to make his own decisions.”

The familiar voice of Knight Strawberry Lemonade burst from the intercom. “I’m on it!”

Star Paladin Crossroads looked grimly displeased with her new Elder’s decision. “Honestly, I don’t think the assisted suicide of an enemy Elder is the best stone we could have laid in our movement’s foundation.” More tenderly, “Do you believe Applejack would have approved?”

I could feel SteelHooves’ glower radiating from behind his visor. His response was slow in coming. “I don’t know. This is not the sort of decision she would ever have wanted to make. But there will be many such difficult decisions over the next several months, and the survival of our faction has to take priority.” He added solemnly, “Applejack would want us to help the ponies of the Equestrian Wasteland however we could. And we can’t do that if we’re crushed before we can get our hooves under us.”

*** *** ***

“Littlepip, what brings you here?” SteelHooves asked once his discussion with Crossroads had ended and a few other interruptions had been attended to. “I promised I would rejoin you, but as you can see, I have my hooves full.”

“We need your advice,” I told him. “We have to go into the Canterlot Ruins. We need to know what to expect. And how best to survive.”

Crossroads gasped. “You’re… going where? Why?”

SteelHooves was taken aback. “Do you have a deathwish, Littlepip? It’s not enough to throw yourself against raiders? Why are you driven to constantly find new and more extreme ways to punish yourself, risking your life and often the lives of those who follow you?”

That hurt. “I’d do this alone if I could. But we have to get into the Ministry of Awesome in Canterlot, and I can’t do that by myself.”

“Eyeah,” Calamity stomped. “We appreciate yer not wantin’ t’ put us in danger, Li’lpip, but ya c’n just cut that crap right now. Ya ain’t pullin’ another one of yer solo missions.” Fillydelphia was still fresh on everypony’s mind.

“How bad is what we’re trotting into?” Velvet Remedy asked.

SteelHooves gave a low nicker. “Bad. Not like it used to be, but still bad. At least, am I correct that you know where you want to go and what you want to do? The Canterlot Ruins is not a place for sightseeing.”

I nodded. “We have two objectives. Rarity’s office in the Ministry of Image, and the secure vault in the Ministry of Awesome.”

SteelHooves nodded. “Good. You have that in your favor then. Once you enter the ruins, do not let yourself get distracted.” His visor turned to stare at each of us in turn, ending with Calamity.

“Why…?” I asked, concerned that SteelHooves seemed to expect us to have trouble with that. “Are there ponies still alive in the ruins who need our help?”

“No.” SteelHooves’ tone was final. “There is nopony in Canterlot who would meet your definition of alive. And nopony who is looking for rescue.”

“Well that’s ominous,” Velvet Remedy whinnied.

Xenith surprised me, saying “All those with the minds to leave Canterlot have long since fled. Those who remain are Canterlot ghouls. But not the manner of ghouls that have sound minds. These are empty shells filled with necromantic poison, retracing the last steps of their obliterated lives. Zombies performing rote tasks over and over because that is all they can remember to do.” The zebra frowned deeply. “Other than attack. That is the one thing they all seem capable of. And they will move to slaughter any living thing whose presence they sense. Anything that is not one of them.”

“Canterlot zombies?” Velvet intoned. “Lovely.”

“Your biggest threat is the Pink Cloud,” SteelHooves informed us. “It seeps into everything. Corrupting, decaying, killing all it touches. Over the centuries, the cloud has thinned to a mere haze. Canterlot itself absorbed most of it like a sponge, and now it bleeds from the walls and the streets, slowly released as they decay.”

I nodded. This much I had heard before.

“These days, it is possible to survive if you are fast and careful. Some ponies can even survive hours of exposure at a time. But taking that risk is foolish. Do not fall asleep. You will never wake up.

“Limit your exposure. Every second you remain outside, the Cloud is seeping into your lungs and your skin. Interiors are safer, intact buildings and tunnels, but only where the Pink Cloud has yet to penetrate. You will want to bring every healing potion you can lay your hooves on, and drink them regularly. Their healing magic can reverse the effects of the Cloud before it causes permanent damage. Do not use healing bandages. They can cause… other problems.

“There will be pockets where the Pink Cloud has settled and pooled. Avoid them if you can, dash through them with all haste if you cannot. While still only a fraction of the potency of the original Cloud, such pockets will kill you in seconds.”

Velvet Remedy raised a hoof. “Other problems?”

SteelHooves sighed. “I have told you why I cannot leave my armor. You do not want to be wearing anything when you go into the Canterlot Ruins. No protective gear is a guard against the Pink Cloud, and there is a chance that anything touching your coat may fuse to your skin under prolonged or extreme exposure. Littlepip, you will want to carry everypony’s weapons telekinetically. The rest of you: take hold of those weapons only when you are using them. Pack lightly, save for medical potions, as Littlepip will be floating your saddlebags.”

I was tempted to tell him that weight didn’t matter, but realized that there might be wisdom in having less objects floating about me to keep track of.

“Iffin there ain’t ponies there t’ save, why you so worried ‘bout us gettin’ distracted? Canterlot don’t seem like the sort o’ place t’ poke ‘round in.”

“Because Littlepip is fatally curious,” SteelHooves said flatly. “And you are a kleptomaniac.”

“Scavenger,” Calamity corrected with a flap of his wings. SteelHooves ignored him.

“The Canterlot Ruins suffered only the single strike. I heard rumors in the days after the apocalypse that after the shield fell, the zebras launched megaspells to finally obliterate the city. But if that is true, then those missiles never reached their destination. Canterlot is surprisingly well preserved, at least within those places the Pink Cloud has not touched. The city contains a wealth of treasures from the world before. Is it even possible for you two not to get distracted?”

Xenith turned to Velvet Remedy. “It would seem the task falls to us to keep our two companions safe from themselves.”

“There is more,” SteelHooves warned. “The Pink Cloud has seeped into everything it touched, and the decay has transformed once benign objects into lethal traps. The most noteworthy of these are the broadcasters and the sprite-bots.”

“Broadcasters?” I asked. “You mean the PipBuck peripherals like the one Blackwing gave me?”

The magically-armored ghoul nodded. “They were all the rage amongst Canterlot’s elite just before the end. PipBucks had become the latest fashion accessory, and the broadcasters were rare enough that having one was prestigious.” SteelHooves gave a dry, humorless laugh. “Now the Pink Cloud has both weakened and decayed their signals. I cannot explain how, but the static they now emit has a necromantic component. If you find yourself within the range of their effect you must either destroy them or flee immediately. You do not wish to know how you will die if you do not.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I gasped. The dangers of the Canterlot Ruins had galloped past deadly and into outright insane. How was I going to get everypony through this alive?

“I wish that I was,” SteelHooves grumbled. “If you are going there, then I should accompany you. You will need more than advice. You will need a guide. Somepony who knows the streets and can get you where you need to be swiftly.”

I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. “That means… a lot. Thank you. We really need you.”

“We miss you too,” Velvet Remedy purred. SteelHooves stomped and nickered.

“And maybe we can help you in return,” I offered. “You don’t need to commit any of your Outcasts to delivering Elder Cottage Cheese to… where was it?”

“Bucklyn Cross,” Calamity answered with a grin. “Li’lpip’s right. We got me an’ we got the Sky Bandit. We c’n make the trip ourselves in half a day.”

Crossroads, who had remained mostly silent during our reunion, spoke up. “That is a splendid idea. But as much as we appreciate your offer, we couldn’t have you do it alone. There will need to be representatives of Applejack’s Rangers present for the exchange.”

SteelHooves seemed to consider this. “No. There only needs to be one, so long as that representative is appropriately high ranking…”

Was it my imagination, or did he sound ever so slightly happy?

“…I shall go.”

*** *** ***

SteelHooves was with us again. The little pony in my head gave a small squee. We were together once more.

The door to the security station slid open, and I stepped out into the hall, SteelHooves close to my side. Alarms went off everywhere.

“W-wha…?” I stumbled, looking around.

“We’re under attack!” SteelHooves spun on his hooves and pushed back into the security station. “Star Paladin Crossroads report!”

“I-I don’t know, sir,” Crossroads said, zipping between monitors and panels of flashing lights. “Perimeter is secure. No hostile contact at the entrance.” The Outcast Star Paladin paused. “Oh damn. The attack came from inside. I’m reading explosions in the maintenance wing.”

“Cottage!” SteelHooves growled. He threw himself to the intercom switchboard. “Ponies, report. What’s going on down there?”

No answer.

“Cross, bring up the tags of every pony in Stable Twenty-Nine. And tell me we have the tag for Cottage’s damn chair.”

My friends and I had re-entered the security station and stood watching as a glowing map of the Stable began to light up with tag markers. I knew this procedure although I had never witnessed it before. All PipBucks had a tag that allowed their wearer to be located; this was how the Overmare had intended to find Velvet Remedy, and why Velvet had tricked me into removing her PipBuck. Steel Ranger armor was built with nearly the same technology. It made sense that they would have similar tracking devices. But what about everypony not wearing their armor, like Crossroads?

The Stable map was flooded with tags now. But two stood out. Because two were in a section of the Stable that, according to the map, didn’t exist -- the empty space where the Overmare’s Office was supposed to be.

One of those two tags flashed red. “That’s the Elder’s chair,” Cross stated. “Where…?”

I knew. “The Crusader Maneframe.” I didn’t know how he managed to get inside a room that not even Shadowhorn had known how to access. But then, I knew I shouldn’t be surprised. Elder Cottage Cheese had clearly been in tight communication with Elder Blueberry Sabre. And that Elder’s citadel had been in the headquarters of Stable-Tec itself. They had full schematics of all the Stables. It would be easy for them to know things about each Stable that the residents themselves did not.

“What the hell is he tryin’ t’ do?” Calamity neighed. “He don’t have that book y’all been fussin’ ‘bout, does he? Uploadin’ himself inta that machine ain’t gonna save him.”

“No,” SteelHooves replied, “Cottage keeps sending Rangers into the Canterlot Ruins after that thing, but none of them have ever returned. However, I’m not sure he cares at this point.”

“Even if it won’t be him,” Crossroads suggested, “He may still view it as a sort of living legacy.”

The intercom burst with static. “Elder… SteelHooves…” a pony’s voice breathed. “Elder Cottage… has escaped.”

“I can see that,” SteelHooves retorted. “How?”

“His chair… lockbox held… matrix-disruption grenades.”

SteelHooves stomped. “Didn’t anypony check the chair for weapons before giving it to the damn enemy?”

“Sir… it was… an Elder’s private… lockbox,” came the reply. “And… it was locked.”

Crossroads whinnied. “You can’t expect them to just abandon the respect that had been ingrained in them for decades. I would have had a hard time breaking into the Elder’s private possessions.”

“This world needs more Littlepips,” SteelHooves groused.

Velvet Remedy piped up, looking at the map. “Who’s in there with him?”

Star Paladin Crossroads turned to a terminal and scanned it. Looking back to us, the brown-coated mare replied, “Knight Strawberry Lemonade.”

SteelHooves reared. Crossroads continued to scan the terminal. “Her armor’s spell matrix has crashed. She’s paralyzed.”

“He has a hostage.”

*** *** ***

I crouched against the wall between the security station and the two V.I.P. rooms (once belonging to Shadowhorn and Vinyl Scratch, I recalled). A security panel lay next to my hooves. I had my PipBuck plugged into the junction terminal hidden behind it.

On my PipBuck, I could see into the room from a camera whose visuals were only available to somepony connected into this junction. Not even the security station had access to it. I saw the Crusader Maneframe -- a giant pillar with arms that reached out to smaller maneframes along the walls like spokes from a wheel. I could see Knight Strawberry Lemonade lying immobilized in her dead armor. Her helmet was off, revealing a very cute, youthful mare. Her coat was pink, her mane a gentle yellow. Her palette struck me as a reversal of Fluttershy’s although her mane was cropped very short, better for one who constantly wears a metal helmet.

She was glowering at the ancient, wrinkled pony with a sickly oatmeal coat sitting in a high-tech wheelchair. According to SteelHooves, the chair had been “reclaimed” by the Elder from a crumbling Ministry of Peace hospital, along with several egg-shaped life support chambers and a variety of other advanced medical gear. Tubes continuously fed the decrepit body of the Elder, a body kept alive only by extremes of medical science and a tenacious force of will.

The Elder was fussing with a helmet covered in gems and lights attached to what I could safely assume was the Crusader Maneframe’s brain transfer-mapping unit. The unit was meant to be worn on the head of a pony resting in a gel tank beneath it. Cottage was being delayed by an inability to physically move himself from the chair to the tank, so he was unfastening the helmet.

As I watched, he floated it free. The helmet levitated through the air towards his head, then stopped as it reached the length of several vital cables that still bound it to the rest of the machine. The Elder started jockeying his chair, trying to move close enough for his head to reach the helmet.

It occurred to me suddenly that Elder Cottage Cheese was the first… no, second unicorn I had seen amongst the Steel Rangers. Their helmets weren’t exactly designed for horns. I wondered if he had cut his horn off to wear their armor. It would have certainly been a sign of dedication to the Steel Rangers. But, if so, then the horn had re-grown, and I hadn’t thought that could happen. If so, it was a bright spot of news for Silver Bell’s future.

Or, I realized, he may have just moved up through the ranks of non-armored Steel Rangers. They did, after all, have unicorns like the one whose body I found in Old Olneigh. Scribes, I think they were called. Researchers.

I knew SteelHooves was working to find a way into the room. Cottage would certainly try to use Strawberry Lemonade as a hostage. But knowing SteelHooves, that wouldn’t stop him. Fortunately, I had another idea.

“Hello, Elder Cottage Cheese,” I said, speaking into the terminal. “I’m Littlepip. I’ve hacked into the room to beg you not to do this.”

The Elder frowned but ignored me, trying to nudge his chair into a better position next to the tank.

“Stop him!” Strawberry Lemonade cried out. “Do whatever you have to do. Gas the room.”

“Shut up,” the Elder said almost amiably. Then, addressing me, he announced, “Any attempts to interfere will cost this young traitor her life.”

“I’m not a damsel in distress,” the young knight bit back. “I am a knight of Applejack Ranger’s. And I won’t be your leverage. I’d self destruct if I could to stop you.”

First I felt a warm pride stretching out towards Strawberry Lemonade. You tell him, girl! Then I blinked. Nothing I’d seen had ever suggested that Steel Ranger armor could do that. But then, I supposed it would depend on the payload in their battle saddles.

“But you can do nothing,” the Elder replied coolly. “So cease your prattling.”

“This won’t save you,” I told Cottage through the terminal, trying to be reasonable. “You have to know that. The mind you create inside the Crusader won’t actually be you.”

“I am well aware of that,” the Elder replied. “I’m not an ignorant tribal.” He tilted and strained his neck, attempting to get the helmet to reach. He was getting close, but there were still several inches of space between the helmet and the few remaining wisps of his mane.

“Then why?” I asked plaintively as my PipBuck scanned the junction terminal.

“My body and soul may not survive, but my mind will go on. This rebellion will fail, and when the Steel Rangers reclaim this place, my intellect will be here to guide them into the future.”

“What future?” I countered. “All you ponies do is raid and horde technology. While other ponies are building a new world, you are hiding in your citadels. How much guidance does that take?”

“You are an ignorant insect,” he grunted in annoyance as he shifted painfully in his chair. “You cannot be expected to understand.”

“Then educate me,” I offered, my voice a little more curt than I would have liked.

“Educate yourself,” he replied. “Look around you, if you have the eyes and the wits to comprehend your surroundings. These tribals have no future. What you see as progress is just brief distraction along their march to destruction. More ponies choose to be raiders and bandits and slavers than seem to flock to the dying embers of civilization. Only Red Eye has any real ambition towards creating a new world, and you have seen the depths of depravity he has fallen to in his attempts to manifest his vision.”

“At least Red Eye is actually doing something.”

“All he is doing is stabbing a poisoned dagger through the heart of ponykind.” Cottage shifted further, straining his neck in a way that caused him to quiver and grit his teeth in pain. But he managed to get the helmet onto his head. “Do you truly think any society that evolves from the pits of misery he has created can be anything other than a degenerate and vicious abomination?”

I cringed, fearing he might be right. “But what about the Steel Rangers? What possible good could come out of the murderous thugs you have cultured?”

“We do not pretend that we are building a society now,” Elder Cottage Cheese informed me. “We are just gathering what is necessary for those who will. The Steel Rangers will wait out this plague. And when you debased creatures who have no right to call yourselves ponies have finally extinguished each other, generations from now, the Steel Rangers will emerge into a world clean of you. We will rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Not the twisted blasphemy of a balefire phoenix, but a pure and true one, bringing with us all the glory and knowledge of the past to create a new world of proper ponies.”

“And you will guide them.”

“Yes.” He grunted, starting up the scans for the mental transfer-mapping.

“You will rule them?”


“And what will keep you from becoming a tyrant? For that matter, what will keep you from making the same mistakes as old Equestria? All you are preserving is the knowledge and science that they had when they fell. Nothing you are saving will prevent ponies from falling again.”

The device began to hum. The gems on the helmet began to glow. The lights began to flash.

“I will,” the Elder claimed confidently. “My intellect. My judgment. Unfettered by emotion and the selfish desires that have brought ruin to the ponies of past and present. It is, in retrospect, better that I never did acquire that Book. I will be wiser this way.”

“You would be heartless,” I mused sadly. “Lacking in compassion. Lacking in any of the virtues that make ponies worthy of saving. It is the virtues of our hearts that make us something good. That can make us something great.”

The Elder started with alarm. “Wait. What are you doing?”

“Stopping you,” I told him gently. “The vice-president of Stable-Tec gave Shadowhorn the codes to shut down this Crusader completely if it should ever pose a threat. I should have used them before. I’m doing so now.”


“I’m truly sorry. Mister Cottage. But there is no place in this wasteland for a cold, ever-living despot who would rule this world through soulless vision.”

I sent the code. The lights of Stable Twenty-Nine went dark.

Footnote: Maximum Level