Chapter Thirty-Five: Cold Dawn Light
“I heard something about a town south of here being attacked, but details are sketchy. All I know is there haven't been any refugees showing up here. Which means either the attack wasn't too bad, or it was very, very bad.”
“We all need heroes, children. Now more than ever. It’s a good fight that they’re fighting, and they’re doing it on behalf of all of us. But the Equestrian Wasteland is hard on heroes. No… it’s brutal to them. It beats them down. It tears them apart. Eventually, every hero falls. Inevitably, every hero fails.
“Now listen close children. Heroes ain’t machines from some Equestrian Robotics factory. Heroes are ponies, just like us. Doing the things that we should be doing because there ain’t nopony else doing them. The true mark of a hero is not that they never fail, never fall down. I’ve said it a hundred times and I’ll say it again: the one great truth of the wasteland is that every pony has done something they regret.
“No, you know a true hero by what they do after they fall. By the way they pick themselves back up again, shake themselves off, and throw themselves back into that good fight. Despite what they done, and despite the bleak prospects of a happy ending.
“Sad truth is most heroes don’t survive. Or they become overwhelmed by the cruelty and despair and, disheartened, they give up.
“But in the Stable Dweller, the Bringer of Light, I’ve seen a hero of an entirely new tier. I was convinced… still am… that this heroine will never surrender to the wasteland, never give up.
“There is, however, one other fate that may befall heroes. When the horrors and the pain of the Equestrian Wasteland become too much for them, they can snap. They can turn into the very monsters they choose to fight. Sadly, children, it can happen to the very best of ponies. Even Fluttershy had her Gardens of Canterlot.
“Now we don’t know if that’s what happened to our Heroine of the Wasteland. Or if there’s more to this story than we’ve been told. We just. Don’t. Know. But I can tell you this:
“The pony who first reported the slaughter at Arbu was from Bucklyn Cross. Now that’s a Steel Rangers stronghold, and I got my reasons to take a critical eye to what they have to say. So I’ve started doing some digging. And I started that digging by trying to contact a gal I know at Bucklyn Cross, Riverseed. A trustworthy pony.
“Turns out she ain’t there anymore. Nopony is. Bucklyn Cross, where our witness of the Arbu massacre claimed t’ be from, is dead. Completely wiped out.
“Now children, I know this looks bad. Two communities in the vicinity of our Heroine wiped out. I’m still holdling onto hope, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t send out a word of warning. Just on the chance that the Equestrian Wasteland’s facing a whole new kind of dark.
“So if you see a band of well armed ponies, including a pegasus and a zebra, headed your way. Or a pegasus-pulled passenger wagon flying nearby… until we know better, maybe you best be someplace else.
”But if the Stable Dweller should come to your door, don’t lock it. Because if our hopes are true, then she’s more in need of our help and our support right now than ever before. And if our fears are true, then… well, children… she just might see that locked door as a challenge.”
*** *** ***
“…How bad?” Calamity demanded, his snout pushed up against Grandpa Rattle as if the two bucks were going to kiss. “Ah need t’ know. Cuz Ah’m tryin’ real hard here t’ make this make sense, an’ it ain’t happenin’. Ah love Li’lpip, and Ah want this t’ be right somehow. But all Ah’m seein’ is a group o’ good folk who took us in, fed us, offered us shelter, and got slaughtered fer their kindness.”
I just wiped out a town. A whole town. I just killed… murdered… so many ponies.
My rage had burned itself out, leaving me an empty husk. I wasn’t sad or angry. If anything, I just felt hollow. And slightly confused.
The events of the last… how long did it take? An hour? Less? I couldn’t remember. My thoughts and memories were all jumbled and refused to straighten out. My comprehension of what I had done was as much from the evidence in front of me as from my fragmented recollection of my own actions.
“They were cannibals,” SteelHooves stated, not for the first time. “You saw it yourself.”
The basement! Go! See for yourselves!
That’s what I had told them. My friends had caught up to me just after I stepped into Starbucked. But not before I started shooting. The colt was in there, Sandy Shore, I remembered that now. They were at a dinner table. Eating. Again. The bastards had already fed the boy his own father, and it wasn’t enough for them.
I remembered the fire pit. Hot coals and flame and the rod of iron with the twisted ending that took the shaped of the Arbu brand, glowing. In my rage, I assumed they were going to brand him. But in the wake of things, that didn’t make much sense. And, I think, one of the other ponies there had been in the firefight against the bandits this morning.
I remembered that Calamity had been shocked and concerned as he watched me open fire. Velvet had been nearly hysterical. The basement! I had shouted. Go! See for yourselves!
“Ain’t ponies here left worth savin’, boy,” Grandpa Rattle told Calamity. “’Cept fer the kids. Anypony worth bein’ called a pony left this town years ‘go. Found other ways of surviving.”
“Yer still here!” Calamity pointed out harshly.
“Somepony had to stay fer the little ones,” the elderly buck replied. “And to warn folk away.”
Calamity looked like he wanted to argue that, but Grandpa Rattle continued, “Every other pony here was a willin’ party t’ murder an’ worse. Those who didn’t… Some went on to Friendship City or Gutterville. Some just joined up with bandits. Hell, boy, half the folk you shot up this mornin’ used to live here.”
Calamity reeled a bit at that revelation.
The little ones, the children of Arbu, were huddled together behind Velvet Remedy’s shield spell. My unicorn friend had maintained the shield since the fighting started, dropping it only when I floated a new filly or colt from one of the old stores. She hadn’t fired a shot the entire time. Just stood there, inside her shield, guarding the children.
By the time I had come out of Starbucked, the colt and two young fillies in tow, the others had come out of the Clinic. They had seen what I had seen. But by then, it didn’t matter. The rest of the town was awake and they were shooting back. If it hadn’t been for Velvet Remedy, the town might have killed its own children in the crossfire.
Calamity had shot back in self defense, firing to wound and incapacitate. I remember his look of horror as I finished off a pony he had taken out of the fight through crippling. SteelHooves had also fought defensively, letting me enter each place first. But unlike Calamity, my ghoul friend didn’t pull his bucks. Custard’s Pies was burning from the missiles he had fired. Something in the architecture must keep the fires from spreading, I thought, because all of Arbu should have been burning to the ground.
I looked at the children. They hugged each other, crying, terrified. Cowering behind Velvet, casting horrified or hateful looks at me. I stood there and soaked up their hate; I couldn’t blame them. The poor children had just seen me murder their parents, their families. More than one had heard their mothers scream out “RAPE!” as I first ripped their clothing from them, looking to see if they had taken the brand.
I swallowed as the first feelings returned to my soul. Pain and self-horror at what I had done to these children. What I had let them see in the name of saving them. Oh Goddesses, what damage had I done?
There were five of them in all. Plus the colt whose father I had killed. Plus one young buck with them, not much older than a colt. He was old enough to have his cutie mark, but his flank did not bear the mark of Arbu. He had eaten, knowingly, but he had been unable to bring himself to kill.
I spared him. He could be saved. In the entire town, he had been the only one, save for Grandpa Rattle and the children. Even in my rage, I hadn’t wanted to believe that the whole town was vile. Surely, I kept thinking, there had to be a few more. Even just one? Now, listening to Grandpa Rattle, I understood why, except for the young buck, each and every attempt to find a redeemable pony had failed.
Calamity turned, trotting towards Velvet Remedy, barely casting a glance my way. He stared at the unicorn who had become his lover through the shield of magical energy she was maintaining around herself and the children.
“Ya said Li’lpip had a concussion, right? Could that explain all this?” My pegasus friend looked desperate. “She’s not thinkin’ straight, not ‘erself, right? That could… excuse this?”
Velvet Remedy stared back at him through the glow of magic, eyes narrowing. “She shouldn’t need an excuse!”
I stared silently, watching my friends argue about my actions. Take sides. I was struck mute, like I was in shock. Only shock didn’t feel this dead. My headache had returned. Actually, it had never left. But the pounding was getting worse now. Bad enough I couldn’t ignore it anymore, not even with all that was happening.
“Pardon?” Calamity asked, eyes widening.
“They. Were. Cannibals!” Velvet Remedy snorted. “Maybe it’s hard for you to see, being so quick to eat meat yourself, but these… ponies… what they have done is evil beyond the pale.”
“Hey!” Calamity shot back, raising his voice to match hers, “Ah get that they were cannibals. Puts ‘em right up there with New Appleloosa on the list o’ places Ah ain’t gonna settle down. An’ the fact they fed me pony makes this a place Ah would never come back to an’ would be warnin’ other folk ‘bout.”
I winced. Calamity: equating cannibalism to trading with slavers on the morality scale.
“But Ah wouldn’t go slaughterin’ ‘em fer it!” Calamity continued. “Far as Ah c’n see, they only ate bandits, raiders an’ the like. Ponies who needed t’ be put down.”
“Aaarguh!” Velvet gasped in exasperation. “There are some things you just don’t do, Calamity! I’m not a naïve Stable filly anymore. I’ve seen how hard the Equestrian Wasteland is. I know that you have to do awful things out here. Looting dead bodies? Okay. Killing? Monsters and vicious animals, all the time. Other ponies? Not as much as you like to, but yes. Even killing ponies is often and regrettably necessary.”
Velvet Remedy had been a Stable Dweller like me. She grew up with the same morality I did. Only… she had always held to hers better than I had. The wasteland began to erode me from the first night out. Velvet’s sense of right and wrong was made of sterner stuff than mine. And what she had seen in the basement was so far beyond what she could accept…
“But you treat having to kill them with respect. You bury them. Or, if you don’t, you at least don’t dance on them and urinate on their corpses. And you don’t carve them up for snacks.”
“You do what you must to survive,” Xenith intoned softly. It was the first thing she had said since the shooting started.
Velvet turned on her, eyes wide. “Are you seriously going to side against Littlepip on this with the argument of ‘Cannibalism: Yay’?”
Unlike Velvet and Calamity, Xenith’s voice only grew softer. “You cannot begin to understand what I let them do to me in order to survive. If they had put pony meat in front of me and told me to eat, I would have. It would not have been the worst thing I let them do. Not even that week.”
Velvet took a stumbling step back from the dour zebra. Turning to Calamity, “They didn’t just kill bandits, Calamity. You saw the head of the preacher pony. They had it mounted on their wall like a trophy! And if they murdered him, how many more?”
“Ah don’t reckon Ah know,” Calamity replied. “Point is, none o’ y’all do either.”
“They fed you the meat of ponies you killed. Probably fed you the heart of one of them…” Velvet Remedy continued.
“Ain’t happy ‘bout that.”
“…and they’ve been selling it to merchants, spreading their filth across the whole wasteland.” Velvet pointed a hoof towards the children clutching each other behind her. “And they have been indoctrinating a whole new generation to do the same…”
“Velvet…” I said softly. Too softly to be heard. Don’t defend me, Velvet. You were right about me back in old Appleloosa. I’m a murderer. A monster drowning in the blood of all the ponies I have killed. I’m the thing in the mirror, no better than a raider.
Except… I wasn’t, was I? These were bad ponies. They needed to die. I was saving ponies by wiping them out, wasn’t I?
Corrupted Kindness, the little pony in my head said angrily.
“Arbu wasn’t a town full of ponies,” Velvet Remedy asserted. “It was a cancer that needed to be destroyed before it could spread any further.”
“Velvet?” I said again, a little louder. Calamity was staring at her in silence.
Neighing loudly, Velvet exclaimed. “Arbu was mutated flesh that had to be cut away in order for the wasteland to even begin to heal.”
“Velvet… you’re scaring the children.” My voice was soft, but just loud enough for her to hear. The beautiful charcoal unicorn turned, aghast, tears forming in her eyes as she looked at the terrified expressions on the faces of the fillies and colts behind her.
I’m not corrupted kindness, I whimpered back at the mare in my mind. But I didn’t believe it. Not anymore. Trixie had been right. Or I had made her right.
If you haven’t found your own virtue yet, Monterey Jack had told me, you best hurry up. While there’s still anything left of you to save.
Was there anything left of me to save?
You just slaughtered over twenty ponies, the little pony in my head responded. What do you think?
My head was splitting open. I realized I was crying.
Calamity turned to SteelHooves now. “What about you?”
“What about me?” SteelHooves responded laconically.
Calamity shook his head. “Is this… is there a way for me t’ be okay wi’ this? Ah want t’ be okay with this… for Li’lpip… but…”
“Littlepip is our leader,” SteelHooves replied. “It was her call.”
“It was…?” Calamity blinked. His brow furrowed under his hat. “It…? Oh hells no!” The pegasus launched himself through the air, flying up to the Steel Ranger Outcast. SteelHooves stood his ground. The idea of Calamity intimidating the huge Ranger struck me as ludicrous.
“Yer the Elder of Applejack’s Rangers now. Ya don’t get t’ play the good li’l soldier card anymore!” Calamity informed him. “Tell me, what would Applejack think o’ all this?”
SteelHooves’ deep voice rumbled dangerously, “Applejack was a farmer. What she didn’t put into her friends and trying to save ponies, she put into her apples. She understood the need to get rid of bad apples. And I think she would be repulsed beyond the telling of it to see ponies eating other ponies.”
Calamity flapped his wings, moving back a pony’s length. “But... t’ kill ‘em all?”
SteelHooves whinnied. “She wouldn’t have done that, no. But she had other options. She would have had them all arrested. Rounded up and carted off to the Ministry of Peace, where they could be fixed.”
Calamity nodded. “But… that’s kinda muh point. Li’lpip had options. She coulda come t’ us. Why didn’t she come t’ us first?”
I was hating how Calamity was talking about me like I wasn’t there. Like he couldn’t bear to acknowledge me. But then… did I deserve better? Would I have been able to look at him, if he had just done the same thing?
“She was enraged. She was not thinking clearly,” SteelHooves informed Calamity bluntly. “The only thing she’s done wrong here is that she let her anger control her. Is that what you need to hear, Calamity? Then yes, I don’t approve. I would prefer she had killed these monsters with cold-blooded calculation.”
SteelHooves was right. Calamity was right. I had totally lost it.
But… they were bad ponies. They were horrible ponies. They deserved it!
All of them? the little pony challenged. Even the young ones?
I tried to save the young ones! I rescued them! But I had traumatized them in the process. Was what I had done any better than what the raiders did to Silver Bell?
Still, I’d only killed the responsible ones, the adults…
The mare in my mind spit back at me, asking: what about the young mare in the clinic?
My mind swam. I was still having trouble remembering everything that had happened. It was like trying to put together a puzzle while gagged, I couldn’t hold the pieces in my hooves and they kept slipping away.
Pffatt. Pffatt. Pffatt. Pffatt. Pffatt. Pffatt.
I remembered that much. Two three-round bursts. One into the mother, one into the father. I… I hadn’t killed the young mare.
Are you sure about that? My little pony was quick to point out: she’s not here amongst the living, is she? Are you sure you didn’t choke her to death? Were you even paying that much attention?
I… I didn’t… couldn’t have… did I?
And even if I didn’t, what had I done? I’d left her laying unconscious next to the burning bodies of her murdered parents. So much less evil, Littlepip.
I was evil.
But she wasn’t a filly, I thought desperately, clinging to any illusion I could keep. She had her cutie mark already.
Stable-think, the mare in my mind chided. You were older when you got yours.
She had her Arbu mark. She’d killed and eaten…
How do you know her kill wasn’t a damned radigator? my little pony spat.
She was a guard! The rifle under the table proved that. The Arbu ponies had guests in town. Guests they weren’t going to kill. So they had guards. Protecting their dark secret. Ready to kill to defend it. She was one of them. She knew what the town was doing, and that it was wrong, and she was still protecting it.
The little pony in my head shut up at that. For what absolutely little it was worth, I had scored a point.
“Go up to my room,” a voice said beside me. Grandpa Rattle had walked up to me at some point and I hadn’t even noticed. I felt like I was missing time. “There’s a safe under my bed. Fetch the book inside. I know you can pick a lock.”
I turned to him. It was like he was forever away. I had the sudden sense that I was drowning in all this air around me. “What’s in the book?”
“It’s my ledger. E’ry pony they killed. E’ry pony they et.”
Velvet Remedy had heard him. “Why?” she asked softly. “Why would you keep a record of something like that?”
“Cuz I knew this day was comin’,” Grandpa Rattle replied. “An’ my mind ain’t what it used t’ be. Particularly in daytime.”
Velvet Remedy closed her eyes. A tear reflected the light of her shield spell as it trickled down her cheek.
“I didn’t figure it would be folks like you, though,” Grandpa Rattle added. “Actually,” he said, pointing at SteelHooves, “I figured it would be him.”
*** *** ***
I found myself in Grandpa Rattle’s loft, staring at his bed. At the scuff marks on the floor. At the iron shackles that had been used to bind the old man to his bed.
I remembered running through the fire in Custard’s Cakes and galloping up the stairs. I lost my balance twice on the steps, feeling dizzy. I blamed the headache and the smoke. The loft was filled with smoke, forcing me to press against the hot floor. The heat was oppressive. But the fire wasn’t spreading up the stairs. The ceiling of the bakery below wasn’t catching the flames.
I coughed, trying to open the lock on the safe. But it was impossible. My mind just couldn’t grasp the image of the tumblers. Every time I tried, my thoughts got jumbled, fell apart. My headache was like a railroad spike being hammered into my skull.
I floated out my screwdriver and a bobby pin. I would have to do this the old way…
…It was too hard. The lock was ridiculously difficult. Or I was just too messed up to function. After breaking four bobby pins, I gave up. I just laid there on the hot floor, coughing and hacking, trying to still my head. The coolness of the water talismans was washing over me, buffeting against the heat, keeping the room bearable.
Why didn’t you go to your friends first? The pony in my head would not let me rest.
I don’t know, I told her.
Why didn’t you talk to Grandpa Rattle? You could have gotten this ledger. You could have known for sure.
But I did know. I had seen… enough.
I had killed for these monsters. The Steel Rangers… those poor ponies up at Bucklyn Cross… they didn’t have to die. They didn’t deserve to die. Not for Arbu. Especially not for Arbu.
More memories came back. I could remember gunning down the milk-colored, one-eyed pony now. “We helped you!” she screamed at me as she dropped her shotgun, having run out of bullets. My mind flashed back to the Ponyville Bridge. Had I not said the same thing to Monterey Jack?
You’ve never been forced to give up your principles for the greater good. To sacrifice yourself and become a monster because it was the right thing to do.
Red Eyes was no longer my dark and twisted reflection… he was my reflection. I was a monster. I hadn’t even been forced. I did it because I was mad. If anything, he was better than me.
No, I wouldn’t let it be like this. I wouldn’t let myself become this. I had made a… mistake. A horrible, evil mistake. But this wasn’t me. I was better than this, and I still could be. I had to find a way to make this right. To fix this.
You can’t fix dead.
No. But I could spend my entire life doing everything I could to make up for it. I would…
I was Corrupted Kindness… but I could be more than that, couldn’t I? Was it possible for a messed up pony to have a True Virtue as well?
Yes, a voice in my head insisted. My memories flashed to out last visit to New Appleloosa. To Silver Bell seeing Pyrelight, her eyes going wide with wonder as if suddenly a whole world had opened up to her. A world of beauty.
That voice out of nowhere (It was under ‘E’!) took on a filly’s tone: I never felt joy like that before. It felt so good I just wanted to keep smiling forever.
And suddenly, part of me knew, knew for sure…
Call me crazy, but after we go, Ah half expect that filly t' spend the next few days tryin' t' make New Appleloosa as pretty as that bird.
…that in that moment, Silver Bell had found her virtue. A real one, pure and true. And if the pony who had epitomized corrupted laughter could also be something greater, then so could I.
My headache had faded. I glanced towards the window. The sky was getting lighter. Dawn was almost here. I’d been in this room for hours. How? How had I lost so much time?
I pulled out another bobby pin. This time, I got the lock open. It wasn’t nearly as hard as it had been when I first tried it.
*** *** ***
“Howdy, children! This is your favorite voice of the airwaves, DJ Pon3, bringing you the news!
“First up, a warning to travelers. The fires in Everfree Forest are creating a major travel hazard from Splendid Valley to New Appleloosa. And I’m not just talking ‘bout the air quality, although considerin’ some of the things burning up in that place, that might be a righteous concern. No, I’ve got reports of some truly fearsome monsters that have been driven from the forest. Caravans are cautioned to steer clear of the whole region until further notice.
“And now for a little something different.
“Mail pony dropped ol’ DJ Pon3 a letter today. Written from our dear Ditzy Doo out in New Appleloosa. Love that gal. Well, she was listenin’ to the two reports I made regarding the Stable Dweller and the news out of Arbu… and she wasted no time in weighing in. Here’s what she has to say about the Stable Dweller:
“I’ve seen her get raging mad. At what the raiders in Ponyville did to me. And to a filly. And to so many others. She saw, she went crazy, she pulled out her gun, and she started saving ponies.
“I was one of those ponies. Maybe you too. The bullets she fired are still saving ponies today, because those raiders aren’t around anymore.
“I bet she saved a whole lot of ponies in Arbu.
“PS: Yummy, yummy muffins! Homage is awesome! Xenith is awesome! Littlepip is awesome! Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
*** *** ***
“Took you long ‘nuff,” Grandpa Rattle grumped as I returned with his ledger. “Fall asleep in there?”
I set it down before him. “I… don’t know.”
“Well, I ain’t got all day!” he snapped, floating the ledger up. “Dawn’s almost here. Won’t be lucid much longer.”
Velvet Remedy was curled up with the children, singing a soft lullaby. She’d gotten most of them to sleep. At the elderly buck’s words, she stopped singing, turning to him. “What do you mean?”
Grandpa Rattle looked to her without a trace of shame, as if he was too old and too weathered to be embarrassed about what he was saying anymore. “Told ya, my mind ain’t what it used to be. I’ve been Kissed by Luna since I was old ‘nuff to have a cutie mark, but that don’t help come dawn.”
“Kissed by Luna?” I asked, my actions apparently having not killed my curiosity.
Grandpa Rattle regarded me. “That’s right. Means I’m clearer headed and more perceptive at night. A blessing from the Goddess. Recent years, means the nighttime staves off the dementia.”
The old buck floated the ledger in front of Calamity. “Well, ya gonna read it or not?”
The rust-colored pegasus looked at the book floating in front of him. Then shook his head, pushing it away. The book broke out of Rattle’s levitation bubble, thumping to the ground.
“Ah don’t need to,” Calamity said walking past Grandpa Rattle and up to me, staring at me. “Ya did wrong, Li’lpip.”
“Says the pony who shot her because he thought she was a raider,” Velvet Remedy whispered.
“Don’t matter what that book says,” he continued. “Ya lost control.”
“I know,” I said softly.
Calamity lunged at me. I stiffened, too startled to react. He grabbed me, crushing me. I tried to fight back, but he was bigger, stronger…
He was… hugging me?
“Ah’ve seen yer heart, Li’lpip,” Calamity reminded me, clutching me tight. “Ah know yer a good pony. Maybe the best pony Ah’ve ever met.” I felt his tears. “An’ if that heart cries out in pain an’ rage an’ fury, then Ah’ve got t’ believe it’s fer good reason. An’ that Ah’m just too jaded t’ see it.”
*** *** ***
The early morning breeze washed through the Sky Bandit. Six children, one young buck and Grandpa Rattle all accompanied us, scattered about on the benches of the passenger wagon. This was the second time in two hundred years that it had felt full, even though there were still plenty of empty benches.
Velvet Remedy had been nothing less than amazing in getting the foals to come along with us. We were taking them to Friendship City, someplace they could be safe. Surely, a place called Friendship would take them in. And if they needed persuading, I had a water talisman to offer.
Now Velvet Remedy’s attention was on me. Her horn was glowing as she looked into my eyes.
“If it would make you feel any better to claim temporary brain damage, I could probably give you a doctor’s note,” Velvet chided. “Your concussion was less than sixteen hours ago, and what you’ve done since is pretty much the opposite of rest.”
“It’s at least three days’ flight to Canterlot,” I reasoned. “I’ll rest on the way.” My headache was back, although not as bad as before. I hadn’t been able to eat. But I really didn’t want to. I wasn’t sure I could ever eat again. I would never put meat in my mouth for as long as I lived.
Velvet nuzzled me softly. “But you shouldn’t. Need to excuse yourself, I mean. You… you didn’t do anything wrong.” She took my face in her paws and made me look into her eyes. “I know you, Littlepip. I can see that you’ve been bucking yourself to pieces about this ever since it happened. Possibly even while it was happening. You’re not a monster. You’re not a villain. You’re a mare who loves ponies and cares about them, and who had finally seen too many hurt too badly to stand it anymore. Goddesses, if we were only all like you.”
“Velvet?” Something in her voice worried me.
She looked down, dipping her horn. “If anypony is a monster here, Littlepip, it is me.”
“What? No. That’s…”
“Yesterday, you killed a bunch of ponies who were murdering and eating other ponies,” she said softly, a tone of real sorrow in her voice. “Yesterday, I put the life of my pet above the life of a pony.”
I shook my head quickly. And now it was my turn to make her look into my eyes. “You put the life of a beloved member of our group, a thinking and feeling creature, above the life of the pony who shot her.”
Velvet Remedy gave me a wet, grateful look, but said nothing.
“What are these marks?” SteelHooves asked Grandpa Rattle. Calamity may have neglected the ledger, but the leader of Applejack’s Rangers was giving it a close inspection.
“Say what now?” Grandpa Rattle asked. “Hey! How’d ya git my ledger!”
“You gave it to me,” SteelHooves said evenly, patiently.
“Oh.” He looked around. “We’re leavin’ Arbu, ain’t we?” This was not the first time Rattle had seemed surprised at the change in his surroundings.
“Yes, SteelHooves said. “Now, if you please, what are these marks.”
Grandpa Rattle peered at the ledger. “That there’s how many times I warned folks off before the others kilt ‘em. One mark fer each time I told ‘em I have a shotgun.”
“For him to keep such records of his attempt to help,” Xenith leaned close, whispering to me, “I suspect he was not expecting rescue at all. He was preparing his defense.”
Grandpa Rattle turned his appraising gaze to SteelHooves. “Yer him, ain’tcha?”
SteelHooves looked up from the ledger. “Excuse me?”
“Yer Paladin SteelHooves!” he exclaimed. “I remember ya! Yer that ghoul my daughter kept lustin’ after.”
Velvet Remedy’s ears perked. I stifled a laugh. SteelHooves nickered and tried to turn his attention back to the ledger.
“You must be mistaken.”
“No, yer just none too perceptive,” Grandpa Rattle insisted. “Never knew she was even there. Always pinin’ for Applejack.”
SteelHooves looked up abruptly. “Do I know you?”
“Scribe Rattle.” Grandpa Rattle paused. “Former. Left after my daughter got pregnant.” At SteelHooves’ quick stomp, Rattle swiftly added, “Not yers! With that buck what’s-his-mane from Arbu…”
SteelHooves cocked his head slowly. “Scribe Rattle. Transformations magic. Abandoned the Rangers after your daughter was disgraced. I remember now.”
Grandpa Rattle’s expression darkened, but he nodded.
“You knew transformation magic?” Xenith asked.
“Yep. Steel Rangers was tryin’ to figger out a spell to turn Steel Rangers armor inta clothing and back. Wouldn’t work, I told ‘em. Armor’s already fulla spells.” He looked suddenly eager. “I can change yer rifle inta a stick if ya’d like.”
I’ve got a shotgun.
“I do not have a rifle,” Xenith pointed out.
“Oh.” Turning to me, “How ‘bout you?”
“Can you change it back?” I asked.
He had a stick.
Looking past him, my eyes caught those of the young buck I had pulled out of Java’s Cup. The young buck had been staring at me silently since laying down on one of the Sky Bandit’s benches at the start of the trip.
You have no Arbu mark? I recalled asking him, my heart almost giddy with relief.
No, he had told me backed into the corner of his room. Last week, I was supposed to kill a mare and eat her heart, but… I couldn’t. I’m sorry, I know I was supposed to, and Daddy was furious. He… Then his expression changed a flash of insight. You killed daddy, didn’t you?
There had been such an odd look in his eyes. It wasn’t blame. It was… resignation.
Now, for the first time since then, he spoke. “What happened to Clearglass?”
It took me a moment to realize he was talking about the only other pony in Arbu of similar age,the young mare guard. The mare I hadn’t intended to kill… but who I was sure now that I had choked to death without even thinking. I cringed, looking for words.
“I killed her.” The voice wasn’t mine. I turned, looking at SteelHooves in surprise.
”Comin’ up on Friendship City!” Calamity called out before anything more could be said.
“This time, let me do the talking,” Velvet Remedy said to SteelHooves. “Your diplomacy leaves a lot to be desired.” The ghoul nodded wordlessly. The events of the night before were weighing heavily on him. And for him, Arbu was not the heaviest burden.
I got up, steadying myself as I was hit with an odd dizziness. It passed and I moved to the window, staring out at the Pony of Friendship, a huge statue made of greened metal that stared out over the Manehattan harbor. Living inside that metal structure surrounded by water was an entire town of ponies. I could see lights pouring out of tiny holes where the metal had rusted through. Friendship City.
*** *** ***
I was thrown against one of the passenger wagon’s benches as Calamity banked a hard left, dodging the shot.
“I can’t believe Friendship City is shooting at us!” I cried out.
Smaller pops were followed by a massive crack of thunder below us. An explosion of black smoke and flame burst in the air a dozen yards away. The rifle ponies firing from the crown windows of the Pony of Friendship were not much of a threat, but the shells from the harbor artillery were a whole different matter!
“You haven’t been listening to the radio, have you?” SteelHooves rumbled. “Your friend DJ Pon3 has had some unpleasant things to say about the massacre of Arbu.”
Another shell burst in the air. Calamity veered harshly, throwing me again. Velvet put her shield up around the children to keep them from getting tossed. “We can’t land here,” Calamity shouted. “Ah’ve got t’ head back!”
“Sounds like one of those two Rangers you let go at Bucklyn Cross reported Arbu in the worst possible light,” SteelHooves informed me bitterly.
I was dying inside. Homage… oh Goddesses, what did Homage think of me? Did she hate me?
“I have them recorded if you would like to listen later.”
I wanted to gallop to her. To order Calamity to head to Tenpony Tower straight away. But...
But I couldn’t. I had already delayed far too long. We needed to go to Canterlot. To deal with the Goddess. And to turn our attention to Red Eye. Right now, thousands of ponies were in danger just from Red Eye’s threat alone, and I was surely already testing his patience.
I remembered thinking, in that one brief moment of memory I had kept for myself from the Helpinghoof Clinic in Tenpony, it was the only way to make sure Red Eye listened. I had communicated with Red Eye somehow. Presumably through somepony or griffin in his encampment. I hoped that I had been convincing him that I had a plan and that I just needed time. A lot of time.
More importantly, Homage needed the truth. Truth she could trust in. And I was the last pony to be able to give her that. She needed to learn what had happened from a source that was not as biased as I was.
If she learned the truth, it couldn’t be from me. Anything from me would be tainted. And if she did not… or worse, if she did and hated me for it…
It would kill me. But like a ghoul, I would keep going anyway. If I lost Homage, I was losing something I didn’t deserve. And if the whole wasteland turned against me. If everypony feared and hated me, it wouldn’t stop me from trying to make Equestria a better place. Even if it meant that I would forever be seen as the villain of the piece.
Calamity flew us away from Friendship City.
*** *** ***
We waited an hour after landing in the Manehattan Ruins, then worked our way towards the harbor on hoof. The rest of us stayed behind, watching from an observation platform, as Velvet Remedy lead the survivors out onto Friendship Bridge. Her horn was glowing. Behind her floated Elder Cottage Cheese’s life support capsule. Pyrelight perched on top, enjoying the ride.
Friendship Bridge was a drawbridge that had once extended all the way from Manehattan to the island. I was astounded how close to intact it still was. There were gaps, but none looked longer than a hundred yards, and there were rope bridges spanning the collapsed sections.
“How did they do that?” I mused, staring at the extensive rope bridges through my binoculars. It seemed like an incredible feat even for unicorn magic. Calamity tapped my shoulder, then grinned and fluttered his wings.
“Oh. Duh.” At some point, Friendship City had become home to at least one Dashite.
Through my binoculars, I could see that the ponies of Friendship City had fouled the Manehattan half of the lifting bridge, locking it flat, and had re-engineered their half so that only they could control it. As I watched, Velvet Remedy, Grandpa Rattle and the children approached the far end on the Manehattan side.
It had to be Velvet, and it had to be her alone. DJ Pon3’s warning had painted Xenith and Calamity as signs of danger. And only Velvet Remedy had the diplomatic skills to talk the ponies of Friendship City into letting the survivors in.
Well, not exactly alone. She had Pyrelight. I was suddenly reminded of how much solace Pyrelight had given me in Fillydelphia.
In the crumbling ruins of the building behind us, Xenith was talking softly with SteelHooves as she built a cookfire.
“You were swift to condemn those who eat the meat of other ponies,” she said softly.
“I am a ghoul,” he replied.
“And I am a zebra,” she responded. “And, like the medical pony, a vegetarian. Yet you took greater offense to the survival tactics of Arbu than I did. Why is that?”
“Zombies eat the flesh of ponies. Because they are monsters.”
The zebra nodded sagely. “I see.”
We watched. And waited. They were far away, but I thought I could see Velvet Remedy lifting her hoof. There was, I had been told, an intercom that would allow her to speak to the guards on the island. If they were willing to listen.
SteelHooves moved up next to me and sat down. “Calamity, mind if I talk to Littlepip alone?”
Calamity looked at him for a moment, then nodded and flew off to where Xenith was cooking. I looked to SteelHooves nervously.
“Clearglass?” I asked slowly.
“You sent a merchant pony, an innocent, into a basement -- a place where he could be easily cornered -- even though you had left one of the guards alive,” he responded. “Us as well. It was the sort of tactical error you wouldn’t have made if you were thinking clearly.” He looked at me. “That is how I knew you were not.”
I closed my eyes and looked away.
“Take the pain slowly,” he told me solemnly, “What you became last night is going to hurt you for the rest of your life.”
I nodded. Part of me wanted to cry, but I would not let myself because the tears would have been for me. And I didn’t deserve them. The ponies of Arbu didn’t deserve them either. As much as my actions horrified me, showing me the monster I could and briefly did become, there was no question that Arbu needed to be… purged. Just like any pit of raiders or band of slavers. If anypony deserved my tears, it was those whom I had saved. The night had cut a deep wound in me, an abscess carved in my soul by a blade of my own wielding. That great hollowness festered with despair and self-loathing, but I was slowly filling it with determination.
SteelHooves stared out over the harbor. “I need to thank you, Littlepip.”
“For failing,” SteelHooves said, surprising me. “All this time, you have been somepony to look up to. You have made me want to be a better pony. But at the same time… you were too good.” He looked at me. “You were an impossible standard. Tonight, you have made it easier for me to live with myself.”
I just stared. My heart twisted, unsure how to feel. A drop of rain hit my horn. Another splashed against my nose.
SteelHooves turned away, staring out across the harbor again as the rain began to fall. Eventually I did too. Raising my binoculars, I caught Pyrelight flying towards the island, carrying something. The ledger, I knew.
*** *** ***
“This is DJ Pon3, and have I got news for you! Major update on the situation at Arbu and Bucklyn Cross. My associate spent the last few hours talkin’ with a merchant who was at Arbu and saw much of what went down.
“First and foremost, let me say hallelujah! Sounds like our Wasteland Savior hasn’t fallen to the darkness after all. Maybe stumbled a bit, but listen t’ this:
“The ponies of Arbu were cannibals, folks. That’s right. They ate ponies! And as if that wasn’t sick enough, they’ve been sellin’ pony meat, claimin’ it was radigator meat. Eaten a radigator kabob lately? You sure about that? Great Goddesses, and I thought I’d seen all the fucked-up shit this wasteland had to serve up.
“Well, turns out our Stable Dweller discovered the truth. Unfortunately, here’s where things get sketchy. See, when our heroine showed the merchant what she had discovered, the good pony hightailed it out of there and didn’t look back.
“But what the merchant could tell us is that before this shit went down, the ponies of Arbu were treating our heroine to a meal and a place to sleep, and yes children, you guessed what was on the menu. But before she knew the truth, our heroine tried to help the ponies of Arbu. She went to Bucklyn Cross to negotiate for clean, purified water for the town. And the Rangers on that broken bridge started firing on our heroine before she even got into shoutin’ range. According to the merchant, it was quite the light show.
“I don’t know about you, children, but that gives me new suspicions about what happened at Bucklyn Cross, and it puts some serious questions to the witness from Bucklyn Cross who first reported the events at Arbu.
“I’ll let you know more as soon as I do, children. But for now, I think we can all breathe one hell of a sigh of relief.
“And now, it’s Sweetie Belle, singing about that one great truth of the wasteland…”
*** *** ***
It rained for the next two days straight. Water was still falling from the sky in sheets as we flew over the foothills that slowly climbed up towards the base of the mountains. Dark cliffs shot up abruptly to loom over the landscape. Somewhere up there, obfuscated by the rain, were the ruins of Canterlot, the former capital city of Equestria.
We were all soaked to the bone, but Calamity had suffered the most by far.
I shivered from the cold. My armored Stable utility barding was pasted to me like a second skin, the fur of my coat trapped between it and my real skin in a most unpleasant way. But still, I was better off than I had been in days. This morning was the first that I had been without headaches. For the first time in days, I felt I was actually thinking clearly.
Velvet Remedy proclaimed my concussion gone. But still wanted me to rest. I’d been doing nothing but resting since she had returned from Friendship Bridge. Alone, save for Pyrelight. Friendship City had proven good to its name and taken in the refugees from Arbu, and Cottage Cheese as well. They hadn’t asked for any payment, any compensation. They just wanted to help. The way ponies were supposed to.
I had sent Pyrelight to them with one of the water talismans. Not as payment, but as a gift.
The other water talisman was now safely installed in Stable Twenty-Nine. Star Paladin Crossroads had been talking about rebooting the Crusader when we left. With the override codes, Cross was convinced they could rewrite the Crusader’s programming, turning it into an obedient and beneficial custodian.
She still hadn’t decided what to do about Bucklyn Cross. SteelHooves gave her some advice, but left the decision up to her. I believe his diplomatic failure had left him wanting to distance himself from that place.
I stared at my forehooves. As we approached Canterlot, a new concern had pushed its way into my mind: my PipBuck. We were supposed to take everything off before we entered. Our armor, our saddlebags… I was supposed to float it all.
But you couldn’t float a PipBuck. Well, you could, but all you would have is a fancy radio. It had to be attached for the E.F.S. and S.A.T.S. to work, not to mention the medical assistance and automapping. I could take it off. I had the tools. But without it, I would be at a fraction of my usefulness in the most dangerous place we had ever set hoof into. Could I do that? Was it right to expose my friends to even more danger because I might otherwise be forever bonded with… well, with my cutie mark?
“Keep yer eyes peeled fer a safe place t’ put down fer the night!” Calamity called back over the roar of the rain. To be honest, none of us were as concerned about safe as we were about dry.
We all moved to the windows. I lifted my binoculars, but they did little good. They just made the grey of the rain closer.
Suddenly, SteelHooves galloped to the front of the Sky Bandit. A moment later, he turned to me. “Littlepip, can you get me on the roof?”
“Can you stay on the roof?” Velvet asked, concerned. “Even with the mounting?”
“What’s wrong?” I asked even as I kicked on my E.F.S. and answered my own question. With my targeting spell, I could recognize several hostile targets, at least a dozen, all airborne. And… three friendly ones on the ground. In the second it took me to count, one of the red marks passed over the one of the friendly lights and extinguished it. Now there were only two.
“Calamity!” I shouted as I drew out my sniper rifle. “Get us as close as you can! We need to see what we’re shooting at!”
Floating up the sniper rifle, I slid into S.A.T.S. and took aim at a shadowy, flying figure I could not clearly see. The targeting spell, however, didn’t give a damn about the rain. And my E.F.S. was quick to identify the targets.
Bloodwings. A whole damn flock of them. Attacking two fleeing figures on the ground who, as best I could tell, were completely unarmed.
I opened fire, determined not to allow that number to drop any further.
*** *** ***
“Hello out there? Anypony awake? It’s time for a special late night edition of the news!
I have with me, communicating over broadcaster, one Grandpa Rattle, long-time resident of Arbu and new citizen of Friendship City. And he’s here to set the record straight. The whole pony about what went down three nights ago. So sit down and hold onto your hats, children, because this is going to be a hell of a story.
“But first, I have something that I have to say. And this goes out from me to that Heroine of the Wasteland, our little Bringer of Light:
“When you’ve seen as much as I have, when you see as many heroes fail and fall… it’s hard not to expect it. It’s hard to keep believing. Even when you know there’s somepony out there you should believe in.
“You didn’t fail us, Stable Dweller. I failed you. And you have my deepest and sincerest…
“A particular toaster repair-pony once told me that she would always be tuned in, listenin’ to my message of hope. Well, listen close, Stable Dweller, cuz this is the honest truth, straight from me to you:
“That message of hope? That’s you. You are my message.
“Now then Grandpa Rattle, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself and this book you want to share with us tonight?”
“Ain’t a book. It’s a ledger. A recordin’ of every sick thing the ponies in Arbu did. By the time I’m done readin’ two pages, I gare-un-tee every one of y’all will wish ya coulda been there to do what that little mare did fer ya...”
Footnote: Maximum Level