Chapter Thirty-Six: The Very Strange Tale of Midnight Shower
“I got shit make you horny, make your mare horny, make you hard, make you happy, make you strong, make you smart… and, of course, I got THE drug, the shit that’ll make you FLY… Dash.”
The bloodwing screeched as the bullet from my sniper rifle tore through its abdomen. The dark shadow tucked in its wings, spiraling downward, disappearing in the storm.
Sheets of rain lashed across the Sky Bandit. I was relying more on S.A.T.S. than on my own vision. Above us, SteelHooves was doing the same. The rhythmic booming of his grenade machine gun and the shrieks of the bloodwings filled the air.
“Where the hell did they all come from?” Calamity shouted, firing the twin guns of his battle saddle as the dark form of one of the giant bats swooped up in front of us. There were far more than the dozen I had originally counted. It was a whole damned flock.
I heard the thud as one of them landed on SteelHooves above, biting at his armor in a futile effort to pierce it. Another swirled up out of the rain and slammed into the side of the Sky Bandit, rocking it, sending me tumbling backwards off the bench I had perched on. My sniper rifle clattered to the ground.
Green flame erupted across the side of the Sky Bandit; the burning bloodwing let out an ear-splitting screech of agony and fell away as the heavy rain washed away the flames. Pyrelight flashed through the air, piercing the air with a battle cry as she dove after it. I blinked, struck by the impression that the balefire phoenix had a vengeful hatred for the creatures.
Another bloodwing latched itself onto the opposite side of the passenger wagon, viciously thrusting its head into the windows, gnashing at us. Velvet Remedy’s combat shotgun roared, and I was splattered with what had been inside the creature’s head.
As Xenith knocked the body of the bloodwing away, I threw myself to my hooves, leaving the sniper rifle and drawing out Little Macintosh. We were in the thick of them now. And Applejack’s trusty little revolver was the fastest and most powerful weapon I had. For a moment, I felt bad for our zebra; her fighting style was useless in this situation.
I leapt to the window, slipping into S.A.T.S. and taking aim at the first dark shadow I saw.
The first shot went through the bloodwing’s back. The second tore a hole in its left wing. It fell from the sky only for another to take its place, lunging towards my window.
BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!
The creature’s momentum carried its body into the side of the Sky Bandit with a meaty thump. I heard the impact of meat on metal and a tearing sound. The black mass of two bloodwings tumbled into the drenched air behind us, SteelHooves entangled between them as they fell, disappearing into the torrential downpour.
I cried out, throwing out a telekinetic net, but he was gone. And a second later several more bloodwings were swirling about us. One of them was engulfed in green flame from beneath.
A few yards back, Xenith kicked open the door to the passenger wagon, staring out at the black forms whipping about us in the blankets of rain. Before I realized what she was planning, the zebra leapt, soaring out into the air and landing on the back of one of the giant bats. She drove the spear of her hellhound helmet through the monster’s head, then jumped from its falling corpse towards the nearest opponent.
And I had felt sorry for her, I thought, watching as she impacted the creature’s wing and slashed it off with her hellhound-claw horn before falling into the darkness where more unsuspecting bloodwings awaited. I should feel sorry for her enemies.
A giant bat dove onto Calamity, its huge wings dwarfing his own. I spun, targeting, and fired.
BLAM! click click
Little Macintosh’s remaining bullet tore into the monster. It squealed. Calamity tried to buck it off, but the bat sank its huge, razor-sharp fangs into the pegasus. Calamity screamed.
Velvet Remedy galloped past me, firing repeatedly with her combat shotgun, tearing the monster to pieces before it could drink. The Sky Bandit lurched in the air. Calamity was hurt badly, and the ripped corpse of the giant bat was still latched onto him. But he was not dead.
A moment later, I saw how horribly close he had come to dying. The Sky Bandit dropped, jolting with turbulence as Calamity fought to land. The ground came into view, and I could see the two figures we had rushed in to save. Two young zebras, no older than the young mare with the Arbu mark, Clearglass. As I reloaded, a Bloodwing dropped on one of the zebras, knocking her to the ground. I tried to move faster, but it took only a second. The monster plunged its fangs into the zebra’s side and drank. The zebra withered into a desiccated husk faster than her brain could die.
“No! Dammit no!”
I howled. Snapping Little Macintosh shut, I targeted the monster with S.A.T.S. as it cavorted over its kill. But the bloodwing was torn apart by a charging Xenith before I could pull the trigger.
*** *** ***
“I do not understand,” Xenith said. “Why were the three of you traveling such dangerous hills? And in such a storm?”
We were huddled under the glittering dome of Velvet Remedy’s shield spell. I watched as barrels of rain cascaded down over the barrier of light, struck by the strange beauty of it.
The surviving young zebra had been dried by repeated use of Velvet’s cleaning spell, as had we all, and was wrapped in a blanket from our supplies (which had needed similar de-drenching).
Xenith had built a fire and was sitting next to it, across from the other zebra, a pot of (purely vegetable!) soup beginning to bubble between them. The young zebra had just seen his two childhood friends die in a most horrible manner. He needed more than a blanket. I knew it wasn’t much, but I had come to believe in the miraculous power of hugs.
Xenith, however, didn’t hug. Xenith didn’t touch unless it was to hurt something. Velvet Remedy was tending to Calamity’s wounds, using her magic and Xenith’s bleed-stopping goop to remove the fangs embedded in the pegasus’ back safely before medical potions could be administered. None of us had seen any sign of our Applejack’s Ranger. Getting up, I trotted over to the young zebra buck and lay down next to him.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “We… I should have been faster.” I paused, unsure if suddenly embracing this strange zebra was the best thing for him after all. And, to my shame, a tiny part of my mind warned that I had been fooled into caring for evil folk before. I mentally dropped an anvil on that part of me, and then banished it to the moon.
Instead, I put a tender hoof on one of his, holding it gently. Just a simple touch. He started, looking first surprised, then grateful.
“We had to,” he said at last. “We were too old.” Looking at Xenith, he questioned, “You are not from Glyphmark?”
“Glyphmark?” Xenith asked. The younger zebra nodded. “I am sad to say I do not know of this place. This is a zebra village?”
“Whaddya mean, too old?” Calamity asked, grunting. He gritted his teeth as Velvet Remedy pulled the second fang free and quickly applied a hoof covered in Xenith’s mixture to the flowing wound.
The zebra looked at us strangely. “Who are you ponies?”
“Friends,” I answered gently.
He looked at me with suspicion. Then sadness. “My friends are dead.” He turned to Xenith. “Quothe and Zuna had been my friends since we could walk. We did everything together. We even… we even got our marks together.” He choked, tears forming in his young eyes. “W-we got k-kicked out of the t-t-tribe together…”
Now I hugged him. I held him and let him sob into my side.
*** *** ***
The downpour finally relented, leaving a light drizzle in its wake. I looked into the sky, turning my gaze towards the mountains. There, nestled in the open jaw of a cliff, were the darkened spires of the Canterlot Ruins. We could be there in hours. But we were going the other way.
Velvet Remedy’s beautiful voice rang across the hilltops:
“No more living in this gilded cage, shackled to what is supposed to be.
“I am ready to exit this stage; it is time for this bird to fly free.”
Calamity cut in with perfect timing, his voice a pleasant counterpoint to the luxurious voice of the unicorn mare:
"Ah’ve been blinded cuz Ah’ve closed muh eyes, seein’ just what they told me t’ see.
“Time t’ get up an’ shake off the lies; break their rules, stretch muh wings and just leave!”
Together, they belted forth the chorus of their duet, their voices daring the slate grey sky and the ceaseless rain to even try to make the day gloomy.
I’d missed this.
We were trotting towards Glyphmark. Calamity flew alongside me, pulling the Sky Bandit no more than a pony’s height above the ground. The mere idea of boarding the flying thing had driven the young zebra to panic. So we walked, escorting him towards his new home.
It was better this way anyway, I thought. I had been cooped up in that passenger wagon for days, recovering physically from my head trauma and psychologically from the most soul-destroying Worst Day Ever of my lifetime. Physically, I was healed. Mentally… I was capable of pushing on. What I had done would never heal.
The reality of that turned my thoughts to SteelHooves. Another reason for the walk. I had to trust he would find us. And when he did, it would be best if we were on the ground. Otherwise, he might shoot a missile to get our attention.
“Ah cannot hope to change things if Ah do not even try.”
“I cannot heal another if I lay down and die.”
“There’s a whole world beneath us,”
“And a whole sky above…”
As the voices of Velvet Remedy and Calamity joined forces once more for the last line of the verse and another rousing chorus, I turned to my zebra companion. Xenith trotted along beside me, the young one between us.
“Do you still wish to seek out the tribe itself?”
“There is no need,” Xenith intoned gravely. “My daughter is no longer with them.”
The young zebra had wept openly, unable to stop once he had started. He had blubbered, sobbing and mourning the loss of his friends. And in the spaces between his words, I began to construct a picture of what had happened.
The trio of friends had come from the tribe that Xenith’s daughter had been part of, the tribe that formed from those who were left behind when the slavers fell upon Xenith and her village. Zebra foals, all of them.
My parents and husband were slain in the fight, Xenith had told us. My daughter was too young for Stern’s slave pits and… she had no place in Red Eye’s schools. So Stern left her there, along with the other children.
An entire tribe of children. Living under the shared belief that being an adult meant being ripe for the slavers. That having adults in the tribe invited attack. And while the slavers would not take the children, that didn’t mean that they wouldn’t do much more horrible things to them.
“And jus’ how do they decide when a zebra is suddenly too old?” Calamity had asked. The answer was obvious. It wasn’t a matter of birthdays. It was a matter of maturity. You were too old when you got your mark.
Just like in Stable Two. When you got your cutie mark, you were an adult. And from that moment, you joined the work force. Only here, in this zebra tribe, it was a dreaded event.
I nodded to Xenith. She had suffered in the slave pits for many years since the attack on her village. Her daughter was young, but hardly an infant, and the zebra with us only vaguely recalled when the mare had herself been ostracized from the tribe.
“If she still lives, my daughter will be in Glyphmark.”
*** *** ***
I looked down the hill at the rows of sad, dilapidated shacks with their sunken roofing leading up to a half-collapsed building in a yard of junk. The whole town was surrounded by a wall of scrap that couldn’t keep a radhog out. The ground was dark and lifeless mud. The hoof-full of zebras looked battered and dejected, their eyes downcast, their heads low, their manes and tails tangled and unkempt.
It looked like a town just waiting to die.
I could make out letters spelling “ANGEL” on the front of the ruined building, the last remaining word of a forgotten name. Whatever angel had once watched over this town, it had fallen.
As we approached, the zebras looked up fearfully. I saw two of them nudge a third forward. The mare stepped towards us. “We surrender! Just… just don’t kill us,” she called out. “We don’t have anything… but take whatever you want!”
I could feel my barely mended heart breaking.
“This… is Glyphmark?” Xenith asked in a tone of disbelief.
The young zebra buck with us nodded, rocking slightly on his hooves, looking sucker-bucked.
Velvet Remedy trotted forward. “Hello,” she said gently, her voice calming. “Do not be afraid. We mean no harm. We are just travelers who happened across a newly-marked buck and offered to help him make his way here safely in all the rain.”
Conflicting emotions swam across the faces of the zebras. I could tell how desperate they were for the approaching strangers to intend no malice, yet how hard it was for them to believe it.
“Having brought him here, we will depart at once if you wish. Although I would ask your indulgence. We have trotted far, and seek a safe place to rest.”
“Safe?” the zebra mare asked, her voice cracking with a bitter laugh. “Pony lady, there is no safe here. We are all just waiting for the slavers to come. The only question is whether the raiders or the monsters will have left any of us alive for them when they get here.”
She waved us into the town anyway. With every step, the town got worse. Bleaker. As if despair and hopelessness had sunk into the very planks of the shacks like the Cloud and was radiating out of it.
“How do you survive here?” Velvet asked, her voice almost a whimper. I knew what she was seeing. There were no crops here. No gardens. The zebras were armed with crude spears and small, badly-maintained pistols that were no match for creatures like bloodwings. These were not hunters. Trappers of small game at best.
The zebras were all emaciated. I could see the shadow of their bones through their coats. They were all starving.
When Velvet put words to her observations, the nearest zebra responded, “Nothing grows here. This town is just close enough to Canterlot that the Cloud has poisoned the ground.” At our looks of alarm, she added “But far enough away that it is not in the air anymore.”
The zebra mare who had ushered us into the town explained, “The building up there was a laboratory for veterinary medicine...”
I was surprised by how educated she sounded. The tribe of children was far better off than those who they kicked out. But I had to wonder how long that could last. Without adults, there would be no replenishing of the tribe. In a few more years, the tribe wouldn’t be a tribe anymore. Just one child telling another to go away.
“…There is an old hydroponics bay in the basement. Most of what they were growing down there is poisonous,” the zebra mare stared at the ground and shuddered heavily. “We learned that the hard way. But we’ve been surviving on what was not, and what was left in the vender machines. But even that is almost gone now. I’m sorry, but we have nothing to feed you.”
Velvet Remedy waved a hoof, “Banish the thought. We have some supplies. Let us feed you.”
I exchanged looks with Calamity, then nodded. Those supplies were meant to feed us while in Canterlot and on the trip back. But these zebras clearly needed them far more than we did. And, in comparison to me, they were far more deserving. None of them had slaughtered a whole town in a blind rage recently. And their suffering made mine look petty.
“Veterinary medicine?” Calamity questioned as we drew close to the building.
What had looked like scrap from a distance still looked like scrap up close. But it was clearly military scrap. Broken down military robots huddled around war chariots so rusted and decayed they were barely recognizable. Piles of empty ammo boxed littered one corner, as well as parts of several turret models. A much larger version of the flying contraption we had discovered in Old Olneigh was strewn across half the lot, upside down.
Stone pillars flanked the scant remains of a road leading into the yard around it. A cracked placard read “Angel Bunny Pharmaceuticals” -- the name was not so forgotten after all. I remembered Xenith’s claims that Fluttershy’s pet rabbit had created the combat drug Stampede, and found myself wondering if the rabbit had somehow built this company. Then I facehoofed at my own foalishness. Knowing what I did of Fluttershy, it was the most natural thing for the Ministry of Peace to have a branch dedicated solely to the welfare of animals. And of course she would have it named after her favorite pet.
“The military took over,” I surmised as I spotted the hulk of a sentinel robot. I wondered if part of this lab was repurposed for creating Stampede.
With a start, I realized that the poor zebras in this town were living under the shadow of Doom… bunny. The irony was so bitter I had to bite back a laugh.
“What about trade?” Calamity asked.
“No caravans stop here,” the zebra mare told us. “There is nothing here that any pony wants, and we have nothing to buy supplies with.”
Velvet Remedy gasped in horror as a zebra hobbled out of one of the shacks, teetering on only three legs. The remains of the fourth looked badly infected. “You… don’t have a doctor either, do you?”
We made the full circle. There wasn’t much of the town to see. Our host waved a forehoof. “Sleep wherever you want.”
“Is this… all?” Xenith asked slowly as another zebra walked by, eyeing us curiously. I found myself staring; the zebra had used charcoal to outline her stripes so heavily that she looked like a black-coated zebra with white stripes rather than the reverse.
“Don’t mind Gloom,” our guide told us dismissively.
Xenith shook her head. “Are there no other zebras here?”
The zebra mare shook her head. The other zebra mare, Gloom, turned. “The Nightmare Moons took them. Six nights ago. They are all dead now. Wish I was.”
“The… Nightmare Moons… took them?” I asked.
Our host nodded. “They came and took half of us. I do not know why. They have never paid any attention to us before.”
Xenith looked pained. “Was one of the ones taken named Xephyr?”
The striped mare blinked at Xenith. “Yes.” At Xenith’s stricken expression, the other zebra turned away, looking instead to Velvet Remedy. “She was our doctor.”
I pushed forward, catching the zebra mare’s attention. “Which way did they go?”
*** *** ***
“You do not have try to rescue them just because one of them is my daughter,” Xenith said as I reloaded my guns. “Nor because you feel you need to make up for the cannibal town.”
“No,” I agreed, slipping Little Macintosh back into its holder. “We need to do this because it’s the right thing to do.”
“Ayep,” Calamity agreed, trotting up next to us, clad in his Enclave armor minus the helmet. He’d spent a lot of his spare time since Old Olneigh juryrigging a way to fire the novasurge rifles without wearing the helmet. “Plus, Ah hate to say it, but this might be on us.”
I stopped. What? I stared at Calamity.
“Ah reckon the Goddess ain’t stupid,” Calamity responded. “She’s figured out she’s got a blind spot, and she’s… experimentin’.”
This… this had to do with the memories I had stolen from myself, didn’t it? “Well, if it wasn’t settled before…”
“I’m going to stay.”
I turned to Velvet in surprise. The unicorn shook her head. “These people need a doctor. Not when you come back with theirs, but now. It has been five days since the alicorns attacked Glyphmark, and that is five days too many.”
I could see it in her eyes. She believed that she had something to make up for. And she wasn’t going to turn away from another pony, or zebra, in need.
I stepped forward and gave her a hug. “Stay safe.”
“I should be telling you that,” she replied. Pyrelight landed on a rusty barrel next to us and hooted quizzically. Velvet gave the beautiful bird a nuzzle before saying, “Go with them, please, Pyrelight. Keep them safe.” The bird nodded, giving a little salute with one of her wings.
Looking to Calamity, Velvet demanded, “Bring them all back without any new holes.”
“Ah’ll do muh best,” he said, tipping his hat.
I released Velvet Remedy and turned towards Xenith and Calamity. “So, do either of you know anything about this place we’re headed, Zebratown?” The answer from both of them was an unsurprising no. Once more, we were headed into the unknown.
*** *** ***
It felt like it had been raining forever. I was panting as we ascended yet another hill, rethinking the wisdom of walking to Zebratown. Hearing that Zebratown was only an afternoon’s trot away, Calamity had suggested we travel on hoof and I had agreed, suspecting the Sky Bandit would be too visible, and the alicorns would be looking for it.
Now I realized the idea of trotting back over these muddy hills with freed zebras in tow and possibly alicorns chasing us was just stupid.
I heard a whistle from the air above us. (Didn’t help that Calamity wasn’t exactly traveling on hoof.) Looking down, I saw another little valley with spots of asphalt indicating a nearly-vanished road. There was an ancient stone hut down there amongst collapsed sections of fence. The body of a dead bloodwing sprawled over the roof and a second was impaled on the iron struts of what, until recently, had been a windmill. A figure was galloping towards us from the door of the hut, clad in metal armor striped in Applejack red.
“Whole big ol’ valley t’ land in an’ ya manage t’ hit the one hut!” Calamity shouted to him, grinning.
I raced down the hill to meet him, Xenith following at a more reserved pace.
“Watch out,” Calamity warned as I reached SteelHooves. “She’s gotten huggy lately.”
“I seem to recall it was you who hugged her,” the Applejack’s Ranger retorted, a welcome hint of good humor in his normally taciturn rumble.
Several minutes later, we stepped into the little two-room hut to get out of the continuing drizzle.
“Whoa,” Calamity said, echoing my own sentiment as he came to a stop, rainwater dribbling off the brim of his black desperado hat.
I’d seen enough of the ravages of time and the scattered refuse that was left behind after generations of scavengers. This wasn’t it. Pictures were slashed apart, furniture was smashed under hooves, small treasures were defiled.
I’d also seen the malicious destruction of raiders. The wreckage in the cottage was much closer to that, but this wreckage was old, bearing all the signs of predating the apocalypse. The torn pictures were so faded with age they were unintelligible. The furniture was rotting. The stuffing in the ripped pillows had turned to dust, presuming they were not stuffed with dust to begin with.
“It gets worse,” SteelHooves warned. I stepped farther inside, and the turn of a corner revealed the collapsed remains of a skeleton on the floor beneath a hanging noose. Any physical clue as to whether the owner of that skeleton had hung himself or been lynched had been obliterated by the past.
Calamity kicked over a pile of broken chairs, then trotted into the kitchen to see if there was anything worth saddlebagging in the fridge. A minute later, I heard the pop and hiss of an opening cola bottle. Clearly, his search had born fruit.
I poked at a terminal laying amongst the rubble, its screen smashed in by a hoof. Then stopped, taking a closer look. It was one of those newer models I had been finding operational everywhere. And upon closer examination, the terminal was still running. Whoever destroyed it had fallen prey to the common yet silly misconception that breaking the screen had any effect on the device’s spell matrix.
Calamity trotted back in, holding a Sunrise Sarsaparilla in his teeth and taking a swig.
I floated out a few tools and crouched next to the terminal.
SteelHooves regarded Calamity. “Are we on a date?”
Calamity spit his sarsaparilla, spraying it around the neck of the bottle as he choked. “What now?” he said, dropping the bottle, tears in his eyes.
I stopped what I was doing, stared, then collapsed in laughter. Served him right!
“I had assumed that you had seen the decoration on the roof and were coming to find me,” SteelHooves noted, “But now I see you’re all dressed up.”
Beating at his armored chest with a hoof, the pegasus shook his head, coughing. Once he had his breath again, he answered, “Naw. We’re headed on up t’ Zebratown t’ save a hoof-full of prisoners from alicorns.” I noticed he didn’t mention the prisoners were zebras. “So, ya with us, mighty alicorn hunter?”
I’d almost forgotten that title.
SteelHooves was strangely silent. I looked at him, wondering if I should be concerned. Was he thinking about Arbu again?
“Zebratown,” SteelHooves voiced slowly.
“I would… rather not.” There was an unpleasant tension in his voice. I looked at Xenith, who just shook her head sadly and walked back out into the rain.
“But I will.” SteelHooves sounded greatly displeased. “It is what Applejack would have her Rangers do.”
I nodded, feeling both sorrow and pride in our ghoul companion. I turned back to the terminal, connecting it to my PipBuck and running a quick diagnostic. My eyebrows shot up as I realized the terminal was safeguarded with some pretty heavy magical countermeasures. I was sure I could hack it, but the price of failure would be more than a simple lockout.
I turned away from the others and put my full focus on the terminal, hacking it through my PipBuck. After a few minutes, I had to back out and try again. I hadn’t encountered a terminal with this level of security since the Ministry of Morale in Manehattan.
Now I was intensely curious. Why would the pony or zebra living in such a humble hut have need for a terminal with security that rivaled that of the Mare of the Ministry of Morale?
A few minutes later, I backed out again, just barely avoiding tripping the security spells embedded into the terminal. This was insane! The damn password was thirty characters long. The fuck!
I tried a third time. And a fourth. By my fifth try, I was beginning to suspect that the terminal only existed to frustrate the living hell out of me.
Xenith returned, several strips of leathery flesh from the bloodwings’ wings dangling from her mouth. She shook, flinging water over the rest of us, then put the strips into her satchel, ignoring nasty looks from a dripping Calamity.
On my sixth attempt, I finally broke in. The password was “AstronomicalAstronomersAlmanac”. I felt a brief flash of empathy with whoever put their hoof through the terminal screen. The terminal had not weathered the years well, far worse than most similar models, but that was to be expected with part of its innards exposed. Still, there were a number of files that I was able to download into my PipBuck, including several entries from a journal.
*** *** ***
From the Journal of Midnight Shower
Today is the first day of my mission-imposed exile from the refined walls of Canterlot. I arrived in Zebratown at the stroke of eight, the royal guards dropping me and my bags off a small trot from the city limits. I did not blame them for not wishing to travel closer. And with Celestia’s sun shining above and a cool breeze coming off the mountains, the day invited a walk. My levitation spell is enough to care for my possessions for such a short distance and prevent the walk from being a burden. Although I admit I was a little concerned for the safety of the priceless heirloom with which I have been entrusted.
I would say that this is a fair town by Equestria’s standards, but Zebratown does not hold itself to such standards at all, now does it? Still, it is far better than the complete hovel I expected. I had heard that there was a town somewhere out in the dirtier parts of Equestria that the earth ponies had built in merely a year. Well, if that is true, then maybe there is a little earth pony in the zebras (and I do not mean that in an offensive or seditious manner), for in just a few years they have turned a poverty-riddled shantytown at the very foot of Canterlot into something rather impressive. Most impressive, I must say, is the elevated aqueduct that runs up the mountain and directly under Canterlot, catching the water which spills continuously from our glorious capital’s moat and distributing it not only through the town but the farmland beyond.
And to think that this entire place was not even a concept not so long ago. But then, there was no real need for segregation until the zebras massacred our children at Little Horn. Not that I believe the zebras who are upstanding Equestrian citizens should all be moved here, mind you. There are plenty of zebras in Canterlot. I even have a friend who is a zebra. But in the more backward, bumpkin parts of the kingdom, with the increasing anti-zebra war sentiment, it simply isn’t safe for them to be amongst normal ponies. It really is better this way.
That said, I was pleased to learn that the hut which Princess Luna has provided for the duration of my research here is actually a few miles outside of the town proper. As for the hut itself, it is… cozy. Far from the refinements and luxuries I have been accustomed to in the castle; but I am a scholar, not a noble, and so I have it in my blood to make do, being unburdened as I am with the nobility’s allergy to anything plebeian.
I have spent this afternoon getting settled in, including the task of troubleshooting the new terminal. Why is it that any new piece of arcano-technology always seems to come with more headaches than the one that it replaces? Of course, a fair part of the difficulties may have arisen from the installation of the security spell sub-matrix, but considering the sensitive nature of my research, it would simply not do to have one of the striped with an unhealthy sense of curiosity go poking around in my affairs, now would it?
Tomorrow, I shall trot back up to Zebratown and try to get acquainted with the town and its citizenry. Being able to establish a degree of good relations will be critical before pursuing avenues of inquiry.
*** *** ***
“What can you tell us about Zebratown?” I asked SteelHooves, having to shout to make my voice heard over the distant roar of rushing water .
The Applejack Ranger’s response was, “Look up.”
I lifted my head, holding up a hoof to shield my eyes from the downpour. The drizzle of the last several hours had thickened, working towards another tempest.
Dark mountain cliffs rose sharply above us. As my gaze ascended, I saw Canterlot. The broken majesty of the castle and surrounding city jutted out of the mountainside almost directly above us. I had expected it to be shrouded in a haze of pink, but the rain painted the ornate ruins in the same palette of drab grays as the rest of Equestria. Multiple waterfalls, violently engorged by the rain, plunged down from above with the roar of a thousand manticores.
“Follow the largest of the waterfalls, and it will lead you to Zebratown,” SteelHooves informed us.
I watched the torrent plummeting downward parallel to the sheer cliffs until it met with a multi-arched structure (which reminded me oddly of the Fillydelphia roller coaster), washing over it with an unending, thunderous bellow. Although a few foothills still blocked our view of Zebratown itself, the village was very close now,
“What’s it like?” I asked.
The ghoul responded with a stereotypically laconic yet ominous, “Bad.”
“An’ here Ah expected him t’ say somethin’ even less helpful, like ‘wet’.”
SteelHooves didn’t rise to the bait. “You have been told what happened to Canterlot,” he said. “When the first missiles were inbound, the Princesses joined together to raise an alicorn shield over the entire city. The shield was massive. It had to be. They weren’t just protecting the castle. There is an entire city up there you can’t easily see from below.”
I nodded. The royal castle was only the most visible landmark from below. Ministry Walk was in Canterlot, as was Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns and who knew how much more. I could spot fragments of a winding road, switchbacks carved into the mountainside for chariots and carriages to make the ascent.
I was picturing it now: the Princesses’ potent shield being bombarded, awash with fire and shaken by explosions. I knew that alicorn shields hampered sound and vision, but still wondered what it must have been like for the ponies cringing inside.
“When the zebras’ megaspell went off, the shield filled with the Pink Cloud, so thick you could not even see the shadow of the castle inside it.”
In my mind’s eye, I now saw Canterlot replaced on the cliff side by a solid pink bubble, like a gargantuan bubblegum-flavored candy jawbreaker.
“Their shield continued to trap the Pink Cloud for hours while the Steel Rangers and others attempted to evacuate the towns in these foothills. Zebratown lies directly beneath Canterlot. It was hit the hardest when the shield went down.”
SteelHooves looked at me, “You may want to consider this a dry run for Canterlot itself.”
*** *** ***
From the Journal of Midnight Shower
My first attempts to befriend the residents of Zebratown were met with suspicion and guarded politeness, but no hostility. And, considering the state of things here, I regard that as a small triumph on my part.
Aside from differences in architecture, and of course the glaring striped-ness of the inhabitants, I could almost have believed I was in some extremely poor backwater pony town. Ponyville perhaps. Of the two things that stood out to me the most, the reluctant geniality of the population was something I could expect to find in almost any hub of civilization that has not yet ascended to the heights of society where the thinness and chill of the air requires an extra coat of snobbery.
The other matter was altogether more telling and more jarring, and that was how the war has left its hoofprint on Zebratown. Aside, that is, from the mere existence of this place. First, I found none of the patriotic posters or billboards that are beginning to dominate Canterlot. I hardly expected signs reminding the residents how much better and more virtuous they are than zebras, nor encouragements to join the war effort, but I was surprised not to find a single poster relating to any of the Ministries. In fact, the only hoofprint of the Ministries in all of Zebraville is the occasional patriotic song belted out by one of those new sprite-bots. There are a few of them bobbing around town. And just like the ponies of Canterlot, the zebras pay them little attention. Honestly, a song that inspires patriotism the first one hundred times you hear it will inevitably stop doing so within the first one thousand.
The other hoofprint is the presence of soldier ponies here. This, I am given to understand, is a very new development. Ever since the assassination attempt on Princess Celestia, the residents of Zebratown have been subject to harassment from ponies in nearby towns. Princess Luna has put Her hoof down, stationing some of Equestria’s Finest in Zebratown for the residents’ protection and safety.
*** *** ***
The road to Canterlot had become a raging river. Calamity held me as we flew over the muddy waves, my horn glowing. Behind us, SteelHooves and Xenith rode an arched stone bridge which floated through the air behind us, surrounded by the glow of my magic. Centuries of these storms had torn the bridge from its original moorings and washed it into the valley where I had found it half-buried in mud. Pyrelight flew along beneath it, taking advantage of the stone canopy, her occasional breaths of fire reflected by the churning water below.
Seeing the river that the road had become, I again re-thought our decision to leave the Sky Bandit behind. The little bridge had become my compromise; it was large enough to carry the prisoners we intended to free as well. And if the streets of Zebratown were flooded, the stone bridge was less likely to float away while we busy rescuing than the passenger wagon.
Suddenly, my head began to pound. I felt a terrible tightness in my horn. Strange red tint flooded my vision. My magic wavered, threatening to implode. I tried to focus harder, but the throb in my head rose to a scream.
Pyrelight let out a screaming squawk.
I was barely able to hear SteelHooves shouting to Calamity, “Up! Get higher! Fast!” I felt the tug as Calamity grunted painfully, flapping his wings harder. I could hear Xenith let out an agonized moan.
Then, as quickly as the torment had come, it was gone. The screaming pain in my head was gone. My hearing cleared. I gasped, blinking away tears and the swimming redness. I wiped the tears from my eyes and then stared at my hoof, aghast at the smears of red quickly washing away in the rain. I had been bleeding from my eyes.
I felt Calamity relax, his flying shaky. Behind me, Xenith’s voice seemed to shudder, “By the ballsacks of a thousand star-devils, who dropped the moon on us?”
Okay, that swear was just disturbing. Although her description was as apt as any.
“Broadcaster,” SteelHooves said, his voice betraying no hints that he had suffered as we did. “There are probably several scattered about, washed out of Canterlot by the rain.”
I glanced behind us at the river we had passed over. The broadcaster was somewhere under the waves. We couldn’t have seen it; I couldn’t even hear the static over the roar of the waterfalls. There had been no warning until the effect began to kill us.
I turned my stare forward again as we crested the last hill. Zebratown sprawled out before us. The ruins had been left undamaged by the war only to be slowly battered down by the hoof of time and constant floods. Most of the zebra huts had collapsed, leaving not even skeletons. A small maze of crumbling shops and zebra insulae lined the merchant roads, and a few larger buildings formed grey masses shrouded behind sheets of falling water.
The largest waterfall from Canterlot, engorged by the storm, crashed into the widening mountain cliff less than a quarter-mile from the edge of Zebratown, its roar filling the air. The pounded aqueduct stood under the onslaught, delivering part of the waterfall’s payload directly into the town along an elevated canal. But the structure which had survived hundreds of years under the falls had collapsed at several points within town itself, the water now pouring into the streets instead of flowing out to the hills which had been the zebras’ cropland.
As we flew over the streets of Zebratown, I saw veins of pink swirling in the water. The rain proved a double-edged sword, washing the Pink Cloud out of the air. We could remain outside safely, but we dared not set hoof in the shallow lakes that had once been streets.
At least we would be able to keep our armor on. I needed my PipBuck to locate the zebras.
I looked up at the Canterlot Ruins above us, wondering what the rain was doing to the city above. Clearly, rains like this had happened many times before, and the Pink Cloud always returned. SteelHooves would have told us if it were otherwise. But would entering Canterlot during a storm make our mission safer or more dangerous?
*** *** ***
From the Journal of Midnight Shower
I spent another day in Zebratown, acquainting myself with the proprietors of several of the businesses where I may make later inquiries, as well as presenting myself to the zebra constabulary within the Zebratown Police Station. The local law was quick to inform me that Zebratown operates under the same laws as the rest of Equestria and that the zebras are more than capable and willing to police their own. They offered to show me their vault of confiscated items and contraband if I doubted their efforts.
Believing I had gotten off on the wrong hoof, I swiftly assured them that I was not here on any matter of the Ministries or military, and that I was just conducting personal research for a thesis. I received even more suspicious looks at that, as well as a rather rude inquiry as to whether I was researching “inherent zebra inferiority”. As if anypony would want or need to do such a thing! No, I reassured them, confiding instead that I was doing a study on zebra astrology.
To my dismay, this produced an even worse reaction than the notion I was researching zebra inferiority, and it took all my not-inconsiderable charisma and social graces to assure them that my studies were benign. Still, I left the encounter feeling a little shaken and slightly alarmed at the task before me.
The thoughts I find most particularly disquieting are the images my mind conjures of the locals’ reaction should they learn the truth behind my research.
*** *** ***
“So where d’ya expect the zebras are bein’ held?” Calamity said as we flew over a large open area dominated on one end by a fountain with a statue in the form of Princess Celestia. Water pressure from the raging aqueduct was causing the fountain to blast streams of water from Celestia’s eyes, wingtips and horn like they were pressurized hoses.
I had my E.F.S. up, but the only lights on my compass were my friends and the occasional pulse of red. I could never get a fix on the enemy (or enemies) that my E.F.S. was picking up before they vanished again. It was making me nervous.
“There are not many structures left to hold them in,” Xenith said, the sight of the ruined zebra town having no apparent effect on her.
“I don’t believe the alicorns would choose one of the smaller shops as a base,” SteelHooves noted. “It doesn’t fit their sense of ego.” That narrowed down the search areas considerably. “On the other hoof, they could be using the Zebratown sewers.” And that just widened it a lot.
“Sewers?” I moaned.
“Tha’ would explain why the town ain’t even more flooded than this,” Calamity appraised. “Ah’m guessing they built ‘em t’ handle spring floodin’.”
“Amongst other things.”
My compass flared red again as we swept over the broken rooftops of a row of zebra insulae and flew out over what had once been the Zebratown Amphitheatre (and was now a large inner-city lake). Crumbling walls of columns and archways ringed the old amphitheatre; each column that still remained intact was crowned with stone-carved masks of alien and most unwelcoming designs. I cringed at the thought of attending a performance with those wicked-looking faces staring down at me from every column of the theatre.
Standing in one rain-shadowed archway was the near-black form of an alicorn. She saw us almost at the same moment we spotted her. Then she vanished with a flash.
Fuck. It was one of the teleporting ones!
“Expect company,” SteelHooves warned.
*** *** ***
We had to get out of the sky. We were too easy a target.
Calamity flew towards the largest intact structure, dropping me onto the cracked rooftop before setting down himself. Pyrelight darted out from under the stone bridge just before it slammed into the rooftop, spilling SteelHooves and Xenith. The Applejack’s Ranger landed in a graceless thud while the zebra somersaulted gymnastically, ending on all four hooves and turning to stare at the grumbling ghoul with a raised eyebrow and the slightest hint of a smirk.
“My fault!” I called out as SteelHooves pushed himself back up.
A loud groan rumbled through the roof underneath my hooves. I knew immediately that it was about to collapse. It had been on the verge of crumbling for decades, and our landing was the final insult.
Looking up at my companions, I whimpered, “I hate ceilings.” Ceilings, roofs, floors… anything that could tumble out from underneath me. In all the fucking wasteland, they were my greatest enemy. I started to focus, intent on levitating myself and my companions… and possibly laughing victoriously.
The roof caved in, sending plumes of pink gas upwards at us. My vision blurred, my head throbbed, my lungs fought for proper air. My spell imploded and I fell into the pink.
*** *** ***
My body hit the floor in a chamber of thick pink gas. The Pink Cloud had seeped in through cracks in the ceiling and collected here. The medical assist spell in my PipBuck started flashing warnings across my E.F.S. as my internal organs began to suffer. My heart felt strained, my lungs struggled to take in enough air. I could feel something terribly unpleasant in my bowels.
There will be pockets where the Pink Cloud has settled and pooled, SteelHooves had warned us. 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.
I pulled up my PipBuck’s automap, checking my orientation towards the nearest door. “This way,” I tried to shout, my voice fighting for volume. “Follow me!” I charged for the door, praying that the room beyond was safe. If it was not, I would likely be dead before I could find another.
I hit the door, throwing it open. To my dismay, the hallway beyond was curtained with the same cloying pink. Half of the doors along the way were open, offering no salvation. The Pink Cloud would kill me before I reached the end of the hall.
Galloping to the first closed door, I screamed wretchedly as I found it locked. I was in no condition to pick a lock. I hurled myself at the next, my heart feeling like it was about to explode. My lungs were burning. My vision was getting dark.
The door opened. I tore into the next room, praising Celestia as the pink cleared, only to thud against a stone railing. My E.F.S. was still flashing warnings and the compass was all manner of red. I needed a health potion to reverse the damage the Pink Cloud had done, and fast before my organs started to fail.
With severe alarm, I realized that Velvet Remedy still had all our medical supplies.
My vision was dark but clearing. Calamity shot past me, hovering in the air just beyond the railing. As SteelHooves and Xenith galloped through the doorway behind me, I heard a crunching sound from beneath. Looking around, I realized we were on a semi-circular stone balcony overlooking a cavernous tiled room flooded in water. Much of the water was shallow enough to wade through, but there were sunken pockets where it was very deep. Streams of pink swam like ribbons all about the floor. The room below us had several small tiers, the steps between becoming waterfalls, and hosted many balconies and exits. A dozen zebras looked up at our appearance with hostile expressions and dead eyes.
“Lovely choice,” Xenith intoned, sounding terribly weak. “If we wish to avoid the poisoned water, what better place than a bath house?”
The balcony shifted under our hooves. “Not again,” I groaned, throwing my spell around myself and my companions as the tiled floor beneath us canted dangerously.
The semi-circle of stone tore from the wall, smashing down into the tiled floor below, shattering a hole in it. The four of us hovered over the bath house interior, surrounded by my magic.
“HA!” I yelled down at the ruins of the balcony, ignoring the odd looks I was getting from Calamity. “Ha, ha, ha!”
In response, a host of voices whinnied strangely from below. Several of the dead-looking zebras galloped towards the exits in room beneath us. Water had begun to gurgle down into the hole created by the fallen balcony.
The air filled with explosions as SteelHooves opened fire with his grenade machinegun, the grenades tearing the bodies of the zombie zebras apart. The room was filled with blasted water and flying chunks of tile and concrete.
At lease three of the “dead” zebras had made it to an exit, but most died in the onslaught. Xenith cried out as one of the escapees came charging up the pink hallway and leapt out the still-open door behind us, waves of pink mist curling out after it as it soared through the air and impacted with SteelHooves, knocking them both out of my levitation field. The zombie zebra and the ghoul plunged into one of the pools below with a splash.
“Well, he could use a bath,” Xenith commented as we floated above the pool, watching the dark figures of the two hoof-fight under the water, neither of them able to drown.
“Y’all figure he needs any help?” Calamity asked. We both shook our heads.
“Where’s Pyrelight?” I asked, suddenly realizing we were down a party member.
Calamity scowled, blushing a little. “Still flyin’ ‘round outside, Ah reckon. Bird’s smart ‘nuff not t’ fall through a roof when she ‘as wings.” For Calamity’s sake, I tried not to smirk.
The floor around the pools was slowly draining. Casting about, I spotted a row of yellow medical boxes. Salvation! …assuming there were any health potions to be found inside. Telekinetically pulling myself from the others, I flew up to the medical boxes. The first was unlocked, yet still full of medical supplies. Zebratown had not suffered the looting that had emptied nearly every unlocked box in the wasteland. If this is what Zebratown was like, how about Canterlot? I suddenly understood SteelHooves’ concerns about distractions.
My head was still throbbing. My breathing was painful, fast and shallow. My gut twisting inside me as something seemed to shift, burning in my bowels. I didn’t need the medical assist spell to know I was on the verge of something inside me failing. And I was the first out of the Cloud; my friends had to be worse. I floated the healing potions I found inside up to Calamity and Xenith, planning to use the first one I found in the next box myself. The next was locked.
My vision slowly darkened further as I focused on the lock. A new red light sprung up on my E.F.S. compass. Turning, I saw a zombie zebra push through a doorway, its seemingly lifeless eyes fixing on me, flaring with unholy light.
I whipped out my zebra rifle, sending three bullets straight into its head. Pfft. Pfft. Pfft. I could see the flare of orange flame as the corpse’s brain burned. The zebra thing stumbled and went down like a sack of flour.
Turning back to the medical box, I finally got it open. Celestia lick me like she loves me! There was a super restoration potion inside! I downed it quickly before my vision could fade entirely and I lost the ability to focus anymore.
At once, my vision started to clear, my breathing became easier, my heart started to beat more strongly in my breast. My ears filled with an unnatural, grating sound. I turned as the dead zebra was lifted back to its hooves in a swirl of unholy energy.
But… but I shot it in the head. With fire!
The “Canterlot” zebra proved just how much it didn’t care as it struck out at me with a hoof. The impact bruised through my armor, sending my weightless body flying backwards. My head struck one of the medical boxes, exploding in pain and stars as I collapsed into the water. I could hear Xenith splash down as my magic imploded. I felt a sticky warmth in my mane; the medical assist flashed warnings of head trauma.
Between my previous concussion and the weakening from the Cloud, I feared I my have suffered permanent damage. The fear washed away as I passed out.
*** *** ***
From the Journal of Midnight Shower
Bearing in mind the extreme security on this terminal and the sensitive nature of the charts and documents already stored within, I have decided that it should be safe to record the particulars of my assignment and the discussion which led to my being thrust into the cultural wasteland. (And by that, of course, I mean anyplace that is not Canterlot.) I wish to do so now, while the words of the Princess are still fresh in my head, before time and events further mar the memory. I suppose I could have a memory orb treatment, but such objects are terrifyingly lacking in proper security. Any unicorn could get into them.
I should first note that I took this assignment willingly, even eagerly. There are some things that are simply more important to a pony than proper surroundings, proper meals and proper company. And for every pony, the foremost of those things is their special talent, as magically emblazoned on their flank by their cutie mark. Sadly, there are ponies whose only talent in life is to be a stuck-up bore, or a rock farmer, or something equally as awful. But I had the unique misfortune of having the cutie mark of an event that would never occur within my lifetime.
The last centennial meteor shower occurred over Ponyville ten years before I was even born, and the next is not scheduled to occur until decades after I am likely to have passed away. So the ability to not only see but actually touch that very thing my cutie mark represents, to hold it in my hooves, was too overwhelming a gift to possibly turn away.
Being the Royal Astronomer comes with many benefits, not the least of which is being within the same orbit as the Princesses. I have been in the position to observe Them in less than entirely formal company, and had even had occasion to speak to Princess Luna or Princess Celestia in years prior at Their beckoning. As such, I believe I have constructed a better assessment of the character of each of the Princesses than most anypony other than perhaps Their Royal Guard, each other and some of the castle staff.
For example, Princess Luna is the younger sister. She is also the smaller and the cuter sister. As a result of these traits, I have seen many ponies fall prey to the notion that She must also be the weaker and the more innocent of the two. It is a misconception I have seen the Princess Herself play to on more than one occasion, usually with devastating precision. If anything can be said of the Night Princess, it is that She is the darker of the two.
In my personal estimation, ponies are often inclined to suspect Princess Celestia is capable of acts that our benevolent Princess could never commit, and equally inclined to underestimate what Princess Luna is capable of.
It was with these things in mind that many within the castle were fearful of what was to come after the zebras attempted to assassinate Princess Celestia. For days, Princess Luna locked Herself away in Her chambers, refusing meetings with every pony save Her Sister. On the fourth day, She called Her cabinet to Her and the Six Mares met with the Princesses for most of that day and the fifth. After they left, I was summoned.
To my surprise, Princess Luna was neither wrathful nor cold nor overcome with remorse. She was, if I had to put a word to it, contemplative. She invited me in, offered refreshment, and made sure I was comfortable. (Which I was, aside from being dreadfully nervous.) And then She opened up to me, telling me things I do not believe She has likely shared with any other pony outside of Her inner circle, if only because it is a subject matter She chooses not to discuss.
I shall endeavor to transcribe the words of Her Majesty, Princess Luna, as best I can recall.
“If you were to listen to the old pony tales, they would have you believe that the conflict between Celestia and Myself happened over the course of an evening… which, after a fashion, I suppose it did. But it was not a typical evening. The way it is told, one would think I threw a tantrum. Or that My Sister hurled me to a lunar prison at the climax of a breakfast squabble. Celestia did not choose to harness the most powerful magical energies in all of Equestria and turn them against Me either lightly or swiftly. In my insanity, I gave Her no other choice, and She still tried every avenue to reason with Me. Nor was the attack unexpected and unprepared for.
“What the history books gloss over and the myths leave out entirely is that the morning I rebelled lasted longer than what would normally be considered a week. There are also those who mistakenly believe that because Celestia raised and lowered My moon for a thousand years that She is more powerful and that Her banishment of Me was petty and unnecessary as She could have just taken control and lowered My moon Herself. That is not the case. She could only raise My moon all those centuries because I was not there, as I would be able to raise Her sun in Her absence. When it comes to the night, to use an ancient term, My power trumps Hers. I held my moon high and forced Her sun to stay down for over a week’s time, and She could do nothing about it.”
I cannot properly convey the sense of sorrow, bitterness and remorse that hid behind Princess Luna’s voice. Yet regardless of how much private pain this revisiting inflicted, the Night Princess persevered.
“By the end of it, Equestria had entered a deep winter, the freezing cold was killing plants and wildlife alike, and ponies everywhere were suffering and facing death from cold or starvation. I did not care. I was in a great rage, and I wanted to punish.
“My wrath did not just spill out onto our lands. Before the end, both the griffins and the zebras had sent agents to assassinate me. But between my power and the protection of my armor, they stood no chance and I laid them low.
“Celestia did what She had to do. And even She could not break Me of My madness. Even My Sister was not powerful enough or pure enough of heart to save Me. It took others to do that. There is a… spark that is required to power the Elements of Harmony to their fullest, and it is hard to generate that spark if One is acting alone.”
Words cannot express the depth of emotion I felt at these revelations. The wonder and the horror of them was beyond expression. Princess Luna gave me time to digest these things and finally to dare ask why She had chosen to confide them in such a lowly pony as myself. To be honest, there was a part of me that feared for my life. Such secrets were not for the likes of mere astronomers, royal or otherwise.
“I wish you to understand the context that I suspect surrounds the task I must ask you to undertake,” She told me.
“You must understand two things. First, that the conflict between Celestia and Myself did not happen, dare I say it, ‘overnight’. I had planned. Made preparations. I had anticipated that Celestia would use the Elements against Me eventually, and that others would try to stop me even sooner. So I had mystical armor fashioned for myself out of the rarest and most magically stalwart of all metals. What I did not foresee is that My Sister would banish Me. I had expected Her to attempt to strike Me down, and my defenses were designed around such an assumption. I had expected My Sister to be as cruel as I had become, and thus I lost.”
With that she produced a small, plain lockbox. She used Her levitation, floating the box at a distance as if loathe to touch it. Setting the lockbox before me, She opened it with yet another spell, revealing a charred and twisted scrap of metal.
“This is a piece of Nightmare Moon’s armor.” She bade me to take it, examine it. The metal was light and cool to the touch, pale blue with an extraordinary sheen that put silver to shame. I asked Her where in Equestria had She found such metal.
“The metal is not native to Equestria. In fact, it is not native to this world at all. Every one hundred years, the skies of our world are graced with a meteor shower. There was one in the year Nightmare Moon was set free and I was saved… on the longest day of the one thousandth anniversary of my incarceration.
“I can see you have done the math. It is worth noting that on rare occasions, perhaps once every dozen showers, not all of the meteors burn up in the sky. There have been impacts. During the meteor shower which occurred in the year I was banished, there was one such impact in the Everfree Forest, not far from… the old castle.
“I believe the zebras’ name for this is starmetal, and they have considerably more myths about it than we do. I want you to go to Zebratown… you may take this with you… and learn all you can of those myths.
“The zebras’ reaction to My position has been more extreme than We had anticipated. For the sake of all of Equestria, I need to understand why.”
*** *** ***
Reading that passage while I recovered may have been a mistake. I had never envisioned what Nightmare Moon had done before. Never ever tried. Now that I did, the vision shook my soul with horror.
I was in a great rage, and I wanted to punish. I felt myself grow pale.
I thought of myself tearing through one of the shops in Arbu, telekinetically throwing the ponies inside up against the ceiling so I could see their Arbu marks. Then opening fire with the zebra rifle and releasing their burning, flailing bodies to fall to the floor.
There it was. I was Nightmare Moon in miniature.
But, if Nightmare Moon could become Princess Luna again, if She could lift herself from such abysmal depths of monstrosity to become the loving and love-worthy Goddess of our worship, then there really was hope for me. The words in the journal gave me the confidence that my hopes were more than just wishful thinking.
At the same time, they were a reminder that the stain of my fury-driven murders would never fade away. SteelHooves was right. Like Princess Luna, I would forever remember what I had done. And like the zebras remembered the actions of Nightmare Moon, there would be those to whom I could never be anything but that monster.
Xenith gave me the last of the healing potions. The third medical box had been locked as well, but it turns out lockpicking isn’t required when one of your friends has a hellhound horn capable of slashing through metal with the ease of slicing an apple. I drank it, watching the medical assist warnings on my E.F.S. slowly die away.
“Next zombie zebra gets a missile up its kisser,” SteelHooves grumbled. I had gleaned that the battle in the pool had been frustrating, his armor refusing to allow him to fire his weapons underwater. The mental picture of two creatures who could not die from anything less than massive bodily harm being reduced to throwing hooves at each other underwater struck me as darkly amusing. I didn’t think SteelHooves would appreciate it if I snickered.
Soon, we were moving again. The bath house was not the prison we were looking for. The plethora of “Canterlot” zebras and the absence of alicorns told me that. But the basement of the bath house gave us an entrance into the sewers; and as much as I hated the idea of exposing ourselves to the water here, we couldn’t ignore one of the most likely places for the alicorns to be holding their captives. Fortunately, since both Xenith and I had both landed in the bath house water with no discernible ill effect, I suspected the concentration of pink in the rainwater was low enough to be reasonably safe. Or, at least, that is what I kept telling myself, as soon we were almost belly-deep in flowing rainwater, pushing our way through the huge, dark tunnels beneath Zebratown.
*** *** ***
From the Journal of Midnight Shower
Today, I availed myself of one of the more unique buildings in Zebratown. The zebras have made an interesting effort to blend their cultural heritage with a more proper Equestrian aesthetic. One of the results is the (in)famous bath houses of Zebratown. Water is piped in from the aqueduct, and several of the pools are boiler-heated. Patrons move between hot baths and cool as they mingle and discuss the matters of the day, or enjoy a poolside brunch at the provided tables. As utterly uncouth as bathing publicly is, I must admit that the experience provided by these bath houses is luxurious, both physically and socially.
I was astonished to discover there were ponies living in Zebratown. Only a hoof-full, I am told, but there are ponies who have chosen to live their lives in this place. On purpose. I had the opportunity to converse with one such pony at the bath house, a delightful peasant mare named Daisy. It is Daisy’s assertion that she chose to live here because the zebras need to be reminded that not all ponies are, in her words, “xenophobic bigots.”
And on the matter of irrational fears, I found myself the subject of just such sentiments when a zebra mother screamed and pulled her foal from the bath (and soon the bath house entirely) upon the mere sight of me. When I endeavored to determine what I had done to provoke this rather extreme response, most of the zebras would not meet my eyes out of embarrassment. One finally explained, her face reddened with shame, that the mark of the three streaking meteors on my flank was the source of the zebra’s terror. It would appear that the myths of the zebras have such a hold on the psyche of some that my cutie mark alone is cause for such reaction.
Upon leaving the bath house, I noticed several zebra colts quickly attempting to hide an inhaler, looking for all the land like they had been caught by their parents reading an issue of Wingboner Magazine. I am hardly a pony to know about such things, but I suspect they were using illegal zebra-imported pharmaceuticals. Perhaps the constables need to be keeping a better watch.
*** *** ***
Twin missiles shot out from SteelHooves’ armor-integrated battle saddle and barrelled down the sewer tunnel. More than enough firepower to kill even a Canterlot zombie-zebra.
The rockets exploded against the alicorn’s shield with almost no effect.
Ahead of us, the cave-like tunnel continued beyond a gridwork of heavy iron bars which blocked our way. SteelHooves and Calamity tried to occupy the purple-coated alicorn as I hacked a wall-mounted terminal that controlled access to a heavy metal door inset in the side of the sewer tunnel. I worked as quickly as I could, hacking through the system, scanning strings of data for possible passwords.
The door clanged and slid open as I found and entered the correct passphrase: not_a_rainbow.
We charged blindly inside, SteelHooves hiding a proximity mine on the backside of the terminal before closing the door behind us and plunging us into darkness.
Several pairs of glowing white lights flickered in the darkness. My E.F.S. compass was showing four red lights. I slipped into S.A.T.S. and locked onto the first zombie zebra, aiming Little Macintosh right for the deadlights of its eyes.
The powerful little revolver echoed in the metal chamber. SteelHooves’ helmet spotlight burst to life, revealing a long, amateur laboratory filled with tables of ancient chemistry sets. The zombie zebra I had shot lay dead, most of its head removed. I really hoped it couldn’t get back up from that. Three more stood about the lab, one of them holding a spear in its mouth.
SteelHooves opened fire, turning one corner of the lab into a blast zone, filling the room with smoke, heat and shattered glass. I quickly averted my eyes and bucked over a table, crouching behind from the backblast of SteelHooves’ attack. Calamity and Xenith joined me.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Calamity yelled out, covering his hat with his forelegs.
SteelHooves, thank the Goddesses, stopped firing explosives. A second later, the spear struck into the table, the metal blade gleaming green as it pierced through the table, slashing my shoulder. I cried out, pressing a hoof to stop the bleeding. Calamity flew up, firing his novasurge rifles while Xenith pulled out healing bandages and treated my wound.
I heard another explosion, but this was from outside the door. The alicorn had tried to use the terminal and set off the mine. She wouldn’t be getting in.
I felt a wave of dizziness. My fear of permanent damage to my head resurfaced. But then the dizziness was joined by a gut-wrenching feeling and I doubled over.
“Poison,” Xenith said simply. “Fear not. I know this brew. You will suffer, but only a little. Then you will be as good as new.”
As I doubled over in agonizing cramps, I found myself strongly disagreeing with Xenith’s definition of a little.
I heard the horrible, necromantic sound of the zombie zebra I had shot getting back up. Calamity fired again and I heard it liquefy.
The last zombie zebra leapt over the table, turning to face Xenith and me. I tried to focus, aiming Little Macintosh, but a tearing, twisting pain in my abdomen obliterated my concentration, leaving me gasping for air and praying for unconsciousness.
Xenith moved swiftly, striking at the zombie zebra with a hoof. I saw her eyes widen in fear as the monster failed to be paralyzed, taking advantage of her attack and sinking its teeth into her back just beneath one of her shoulderblades.
“Don’t touch me!” Xenith screamed, twisting away, her coat and flesh tearing bloodily as she pulled herself from the teeth of the monster. She whipped her head about, the hellhound horn slicing at the zombie zebra. Her attacker’s head tumbled from its body and rolled, stopping in front of my face, the deadlights in its eyes fading out as it stared lifelessly at me.
Xenith screamed again, pounding her hooves against the corpse. A moment later, she speared the dead zombie’s head with her hellhound horn and flung it across the room. It hit a box full of inhalers, knocking it over and spilling them across the floor.
Xenith collapsed next to me, trembling and breathing hard, blood flowing down her back.
*** *** ***
From the Journal of Midnight Shower
Inquiries are proceeding at an abysmal pace. Very few zebras seem to know much of their homeland’s folklore. (And I have received more than one admonishment for using that phraseology, the zebras insisting that Equestria is their homeland.) It would seem that a large portion of the town’s population are either unschooled in their heritage or have chosen to abandon anything that would tie them to the zebras we are fighting, including an adamantly feigned ignorance about any aspects of their homeland’s culture and religion.
I cannot blame them. There have been a number of small incidents since I have arrived. These have mostly been spray-painting, broken flower pots, trampled gardens and other minor harassments. But I do understand that a constant air of intolerance, perpetrated by an insignificant few, can have an impact on the general psyche.
The soldiers who are charged with protecting the residents from such incursions are more worrisome than the hooligans themselves. I have come to learn that a few of the newly assigned mares and bucks served at Shattered Hoof Ridge. I will be writing a correspondence before the week is out, suggesting that perhaps it would be better to rotate out any member of our military recently involved in battle with the striped.
*** *** ***
“Remember this place, little one,” Xenith said softly as Calamity inexpertly applied Xenith’s blood-stopping goop and the last of our bandages. “I will want to return here.”
I nodded as I opened the laboratory’s wall safe. I had hoped for more medicine, but instead found a revolver, ammo, a few decaying books and a recipe for making Dash. I gave the last to Xenith, taking the ammo for myself.
I took a moment to mark the lab on my PipBuck’s automap before trotting up to the wall terminal that operated the door on the opposite side of the labs. This one was a lot easier to hack. The door slid open.
Xenith moved slowly, letting the bandages mend her wound as best it could. The zombie zebra had gotten more flesh than meat; but she still needed a healing potion, and we had used all we had scavenged burning off the effects of the Pink Cloud. She edged up to an intact chemistry set and opened her satchel, pulling out jars of ingredients and strips of bloodwing leather.
Seeing that Xenith was preparing to brew, I turned to Calamity, “SteelHooves and I will scout ahead. You stay with here with Xenith.” The pegasus’ Enclave weapons had proven the best we had against zombie zebras in an enclosed space. There were two puddles of glowing goop on the floor that would never get up again.
I closed the door to the laboratory behind us. Now that I knew the passwords, access would be easy, and I didn’t want to give our enemies easy access. We moved forward. Water spilled into the tunnel through countless pipes and gutter holes. Thunder echoed through the sewers for long seconds after each crack from the sky outside. With all the noise, even SteelHooves was almost able to be stealthy.
We turned a corner and stopped, seeing the glittering wall of an alicorn shield covering the passage ahead. On the other side of the shield, the water level had built up until it filled the entire passage. Two dark green alicorns sat motionlessly in front of the shield, flanking the tunnel like guardian statuettes.
“What in the…?”
With a burst of light, the dark purple teleporter appeared between her two green sisters. She was bleeding from wounds caused by the terminal explosion. SteelHooves dropped into a battle stance. I pulled out my sniper rifle, kicking on my targeting spell, hoping I could get a shot off before she put up her shield.
“Gotcha!” she grinned wickedly, her horn flaring as she vanished in a flash, taking the two other alicorns with her. The shield spell disappeared and the wall of water came rushing at us.
*** *** ***
I kicked, fighting to break the surface of the rushing river as it washed me violently through the Zebratown sewers. My head pushed above water, and I gasped for air in the moment before I was pulled under again, my body twisting about in the swift, churning water, my sense of direction torn away.
I felt my body slam into a set of iron bars. My head began to throb, a terrible pressure building in my horn, agony filling my ears. I tried to use the bars as a guide and push myself to the surface, lungs burning, desperate for air. Instead my horn hit the floor of the sewer, sending a spasming pain through my head. I gasped, drinking water into my lungs, beginning to drown.
In a panic, I reversed my direction and pushed myself up as hard as I could. My head burst through the water, the rushing underground river pressing me hard against the grating. I coughed up water, my head splitting in pain, my horn feeling like it was about to explode. My eyes were red with bloody tears.
Oh Goddesses! A broadcaster!
I was pinned. I couldn’t swim away. Gasping, my mind crying in the most exquisite pain, I forced myself to dive back down. I opened my eyes, looking around in the murky, fast-moving water, and quickly spotted the skeletons of several ponies (or possibly zebras) who had washed up against the iron bars. One of them had a PipBuck on its foreleg. As swiftly as I could, my vision doubling as the pony in my head screamed, I tore the skeletal foreleg away, PipBuck and all, and twisted it, pushing it between the bars. The torrent washed the PipBuck and its corrupted broadcaster away.
I lurched back above the waves, coughing heavily, the pain in my head instantly gone save for a lingering headache. Through the iron bars, I could see the cold grey light of the stormy day, the water spilling out the end of the drainage tunnel I was trapped in. I panted harshly, letting the water pin me against the bars until the deluge lessened into a breast-high stream.
Something hard and metal dug into my rump. I moved and then felt in the water with my hooves. My sniper rifle.
A few minutes later, a single white light cut through the darkness of the tunnel behind me. At first, I thought it was a one-eyed zombie zebra. But then I recognized SteelHooves’ helmet spotlight. My friend trotted towards me, splashing in the sewer river.
*** *** ***
From the Journal of Midnight Shower
My research is beginning to bear fruit. Apparently, the most knowledgeable zebra in town regarding the old tales is currently being held prisoner in the Zebratown Police Station, although the shopkeeper I spoke to was either unable or unwilling to comment on the crimes for which he is being held. I will be attempting to gain an audience with the prisoner tomorrow.
Nearly a month into my exile and as much as I miss the castle, there is something about this strange, dirty little peasant town that is growing on me, albeit not in an altogether pleasant way. The shopkeepers no longer look at me with suspicion, and I enjoyed a crisp hay lunch with Daisy this afternoon.
However, it is becoming increasingly clear that, despite the constables’ insistence to the contrary, this town has a deeply embedded contraband problem. There have been three deaths in the outlying farmlands within the last three weeks that can be connected to a newly-banned drug called Dash. The deaths involve one overdose and two shootings, the latter both by the same individual who was high on the drug at the time she committed the murders. Combine this with a few of my own observations within the town, and I am becoming confident that Zebratown has its hooves deep in either the distribution or possibly even manufacturing of this dangerous substance.
On the way home, I noticed a couple ponies trying to sneak into town carrying what looked like bottles of liquor. Their behavior was suspicious enough that I stopped them and began asking their business in town loudly enough that one of the nearby soldiers couldn’t help but take note. Unsurprisingly, the ponies quickly remembered an appointment elsewhere.
*** *** ***
No more exploring the sewers. At least, not until every other possibility had been exhausted. The alicorns had shown just how easily they could turn it into a deathtrap.
“Since when do alicorns say ‘gotcha’?” I asked, standing shakily on the cobblestone street of Zebratown in a few inches of water. After what I had been through, I wasn’t so concerned about getting wet anymore, no matter how many ribbons of pink I could see in the water.
Pyrelight circled overhead, seeming happy to see us again. We had managed to get separated from Xenith and Calamity, and I was dreading having to go back down to find them. No, better that I send SteelHooves to fetch them. He, at least, couldn’t drown.
I looked around, realizing I had lost track of my metal-clad companion. The Applejack’s Ranger had been standing right next to me a moment ago…
Turning, I spotted him standing at the edge of a side road, staring at his hooves silently. I trotted up, asking if he was all right.
“I died here,” he said before falling into a long, strange silence.
*** *** ***
From the Journal of Midnight Shower
I was on my way to meet with the local constabulary when I was forced to alter my normal approach due to several large, pony-drawn wagons blocking the street. Not being in a rush, I decided to take the scenic way around, taking the opportunity to locate and browse a store I had heard of, nestled in a back corner of Zebratown, which reputedly sells replica ceremonial zebra masks. I believe the proprietor of such a store would naturally possess a wealth of knowledge about zebra customs and, by extension, beliefs.
My plans for the afternoon were disrupted by a quickly muffled call for help. Apparently, a few of “Equestria’s Finest” decided to have their way with a rather comely zebra mare. By the time I arrived on the scene, the bucks were on the ground, sprawling before their very angry commanding officer -- a sergeant by the name of Applesnack whom I later learned was one of the soldiers transferred here after Shattered Hoof Ridge.
From the way one of the soldier bucks held his ribs as he limped away, it was clear the sergeant had chosen a non-vocal means of intervening in the would-be assault, although he certainly had some choice words for them after he had bucked them flat.
What had the greatest impact on me, however, was what happened after. I was taking note of the sergeant’s name with intention of recommending some manner of commendation when the zebra mare, shaken and sobbing, reached out a hoof to thank him. Sergeant Applesnack rounded, pushing her away and informing her that he stopped those bastards because they were a disgrace to Equestria and most emphatically not for the likes of her.
I feel another letter is in order, this time addressed directly to the Princess Herself.
*** *** ***
SteelHooves’ gaze was fixed on the stones of the road before him. In the cobblestones I saw four hoofprints. They looked like they had melted into the stones themselves. Slowly, SteelHooves stepped forward, placing a hoof into each of the indentations. I felt an odd shudder as I saw they matched him perfectly.
He looked upwards towards the spectre of Canterlot directly above us.
“I was here the day Equestria died,” he said slowly. I stood still, listening.
“We knew the end was coming. Applejack and I were here evacuating every pony and zebra we could. Stable Three was locked behind the Princesses’ shield, but there were others nearby.” He turned to me, “You cannot imagine what it was like to look up and see the missiles slamming into the shield around Canterlot, trying to break their way in and kill everypony inside.”
He looked away. “Then we got word that the zebras had wiped Cloudsdayle out of the sky. Applejack excused herself and raced to Ponyville. I…” He gave a shuddering sigh. “I never blamed her for leaving. Or for ordering me to stay. There was no pony to blame but myself.”
From the timber in the stoic ghoul’s voice, I could tell my friend was actually crying. My heart went out to him, unable to bear hearing my stalwart Applejack’s Ranger finally unable to hide his hurt.
“We had been trying to repair our relationship ever since the night she had seen the darkness in me. I wanted to save us, but the damage was too deep. She could hardly look at me anymore. I didn’t understand why she was fighting to keep us together when I didn’t deserve her. …But then, I didn’t know she was pregnant either.”
I wanted to hold him. To comfort him somehow. But I knew he wouldn’t be able to feel it. That armor of his separated him from the rest of us. All I could do was be somepony who was here and who would listen.
SteelHooves tried to shake off his sorrow. “I remained here. She left me in charge of the evacuation in her absence. I had been in Zebratown before; I knew the place. None of the other troops had that familiarity with Zebratown. I was the logical choice.”
He looked up, remembering as he spoke. My mind’s eye insisted on painting a picture from his words.
“The Princesses’ shield was huge,” he reminded me. “Several hundred yards above the city, the shield bisected the waterfalls that pour down into Canterlot. All that water came down and had no place to go. It pooled in the bottom of the shield as the missiles began impacting from above.
“Water absorbs the Pink Cloud all too readily. When the shield collapsed, that water fell down on Zebratown like a tidal wave from the sky. Except the water was saturated pink. That wave washed over the town and everypony… everyone left inside it.”
He looked down again, stepping back from the indentations in the cobblestones, his voice carrying a pained nostalgia that told me just how much he didn’t like being in this place. “I was standing right there.”
*** *** ***
From the Journal of Midnight Shower
My correspondence to Princess Luna continue to go unanswered.
I took the starmetal into one of the town’s jewelers for their appraisal, only to find myself kicked out of her shop and told never to return. This, from the same mare who swore not six days again that she neither knew nor cared a thing about the old zebra tales.
I was just leaving when a chariot raced by, drawn by a very familiar-looking pony as two others hurled burning bottles and shouted anti-zebra epitaphs too foul to sully myself repeating. One of the bottles crashed through the window of the jewelry shop, setting it ablaze. Doing what any good pony would have done, I tried to gallop to the shopkeeper’s aid, but she fought me off, tossing a silver tea set at me before fleeing out a back entrance.
I suffered smoke inhalation and some minor burns, but nothing serious. The shopkeeper likewise was relatively unharmed. Not all were so lucky. A small zebra filly was caught in one of the fires and remains in the hospital, badly burned. The hospital here is poorly equipped and sparsely staffed, but they are doing what they can with healing poultices from zebra recipes you likely won’t find in the books of the Athenaeums of the Ministry of Arcane Sciences.
The zebra filly shares the hospital with one of her attackers. Two of the ponies are being held in the Zebratown Police Station until a transfer wagon arrives. Again we have Sergeant SteelHooves to thank; the sergeant responded to the attack by drawing his sidearm and shooting the mare pulling the chariot in the leg.
I must take a moment to praise Zebratown’s firefighting force who had the flames under control before the fires could spread to nearby buildings.
I spent most of the evening with the local constabulary, repeating endlessly my account of events. I attempted to use the opportunity to learn more about the zebra prisoner they have sealed in isolation, my efforts at gaining an actual audience having come to naught. This evening, one of the zebra constables deigned to inform me that the prisoner was charged with smuggling contraband into Equestria as well as another charge that I believe can best be translated as “heresy.”
When I questioned whether the contraband was related to the increasing number of Dash-related incidents, the constable abruptly denied any connection between Zebratown and the local drug problem, proclaiming the influx of Dash was almost certainly coming from someone associated with the nearby veterinary pharmaceuticals company.
Instead, the constable insisted that the contraband, in this case, amounted to a book. When I asked if I might see the book in question, stating that it might shed some light on my research, the zebra informed me that he would be more than happy to oblige me were it not for the unfortunate fact that the Ministry of Image confiscated the book, removing it from their contraband vault a scant few days before.
*** *** ***
Heresy. I had a very dark suspicion of what that meant. And what book had been taken from the zebras’ contraband vault. We were headed into the Canterlot Ruins to get that Book, that very black Book, from Rarity’s secret safe at the behest of the Trixie-Goddess. I did not know what my plans were from that point, but I had made it very clear to myself that getting The Black Book to Maripony was crucial.
Calamity and Xenith had rejoined us, and now we were crouched in the ruins of a nameless shop, staring across the cobblestone plaza at the Zebratown Police Station. Thanks to the journal of Midnight Shower, I had gotten the idea that this was the best place to look for the alicorns and their prisoners.
I heard a soft ding behind me as Calamity raided the store’s bits register. I didn’t even bother shaking my head.
I pulled out my binoculars, looking the Zebratown Police Station over. The aqueduct ran right behind the station, and part of it had collapsed, taking about a fourth of the building with it. The remains of the Zebratown Police Station stood in two separate sections connected only by the basement. I spotted an alicorn on the roof of the larger section. This was the place.
I looked at the front door and realized immediately that we would need another point of access. Not because of guards or a lock, but because the metal of the double-doors had warped, fusing into each other. I suspected that the collapsing aqueduct had poured a heavy amount of Pink Water into the police building, causing all manner of mischief.
“Which section do you believe they are holding my daughter in?”
“Oh, that's easy,” Calamity answered for me. “Whichever section we don’t try first.”
*** *** ***
From the Journal of Midnight Shower
My efforts to find the little shop that sells zebra ceremonial masks have again been thwarted by a combination of obscure local and conflicting directions. To an extent, I can understand and forgive the zebras for the aggravation. Any business steeped in the heritage of their native land would increase the negative perception of Equestrian zebras and likely become a magnet for attacks like the one yesterday.
I was able to encourage a young buck to speak with me in return for my discretion regarding a transaction between himself and several foals wherein inhalers where exchanged for bits. Not only do I have a possibly more accurate description of the store’s locale, but the buck divulged a few slippery tenets of the striped’s mindset regarding Princess Luna. For example, according to zebra folklore, the Princess Luna’s madness and “depths of evil” could only be explained by (and he said this in a derisive tone, clearly scoffing at such superstitions) “external forces”.
When I queried him further, asking what he meant by “external forces”, he laughed and responded, “The stars, you silly pony. The stars!”
In an attempt to engender camaraderie, I suggested that if he really wished to rebel against the foolishness of his elders, he could always get a star-shaped tattoo. To my surprise, he grew upset. His words, minus the unnecessary and rather crude epitets, amounted to “I mock their old religion because I am smarter than they are, not because I am stupid.”
After that, I could get nothing further from him.
This brings to mind a tangentially related bit of local gossip. The mare who took a bullet to the leg died last night. The official statement claimed ill-defined “complications.” If the rumor is true, she went into Dash withdrawal during surgery. In a small way, the attack was the zebras’ own fault.
And on that topic, I passed Sergeant SteelHooves on my way to the markets. The stallion was busily scrubbing down his combat armor. Some pony had vandalized it most egregiously by painting stripes on the protective plates and scrawling “Zebra Lover” on one of the boots.
I offered my commiseration. It was completely unfair that he should be suffering ridicule for the stalwart performance of his duties, something I feel the majority of the soldiers here neglect more often than not.
Tossing the scrub brush, he spat and told me, “I hate this town and I’ll be happy to leave it. Place like this makes it hard to simply hate zebras and love ponies.” We conversed a short while, and during the course of the discussion, I found myself proclaiming the belief that these zebras were Equestrian citizens like any pony and deserved no less love and friendship. After all, it is not their fault that they were born with stripes. They had no choice in the matter. (If they did, I am sure they would have chosen to be ponies; it is not as if they are making a fashion statement.)
I have always been a very open-minded and egalitarian pony, after all.
He replied, “True. But I’m a soldier.” He spoke as if it behooves a soldier to only think of zebras as the enemy and nothing more. Perhaps there is wisdom in that, but if so, it makes me thankful that I am not a military pony.
“This is the last you’ll see of me. I’ve volunteered for a special assignment with the Ministry of Wartime Technology. My wagon pulls out this weekend, and I will never set hoof in this wretched town again. Equestria willing, I’ll never have to play pleasant with a zebra again either.”
Zebratown, I suspect, will be worse off for his absence.
*** *** ***
I stopped reading, my ears perking at the sound of exploding missiles at least two blocks away. I whispered a quick prayer for SteelHooves. Surely, the Mighty Alicorn Hunter wouldn’t have difficulty taking down one alicorn… I hoped. I quickly chided myself for worrying. SteelHooves was the most resilient ghoul-pony-creature-thing in the entire damned Equestrian Wasteland. I should have more faith in my friends. But… still, I worried for their safety any time a plan called for anyone other than me to be the one taking risks alone.
Calamity would probably clop me upside the head if he knew what I was thinking. Hell, Homage would… well, actually, Homage would probably clop me someplace else and make me like it, and I really shouldn’t be thinking about things like that at a time like this. Focus, Littlepip. Focus!
Calamity, Xenith and I pushed through what had once been an interior door in an upper floor of the Zebratown Police Station. The collapse had left the door exposed to the outside, giving us our point of ingress. Pyrelight flew in behind us silently. At this point, our efforts relied on stealth, so SteelHooves had volunteered to draw away the rooftop alicorn as we snuck inside.
I found myself struggling to both like and dislike Midnight Shower. I suppose it didn’t matter either way. The pony was long dead. Maybe I cared because the royal astronomer had been given the amazing gift of enjoying the presence of Celestia and Luna personally. Or maybe it was because this was somepony who had known SteelHooves at a rather difficult and important time of his life, and had made the effort to be at least cordial. However, the pony’s civil bigotry continuously jarred me. And to think this was a member of the royal castle.
Before leaving him behind, I had asked SteelHooves about his first time in Zebratown, letting him know that the journals from the ravaged hut had mentioned his name.
“The attempted assassination of Princess Celestia and the heroic death of Big Macintosh struck deeply at everypony. Amongst those affected the worst were those of us in Big Macintosh’s company. After the Battle of Shattered Hoof Ridge,” SteelHooves had told me, “Princess Luna ordered all the soldiers involved to be stationed closer to the heart of Equestria and away from the front lines for at least half a year. A reprieve from the war, combined with the offer of counseling.” His assignment had been in Zebratown, keeping the peace.
There were faint hints of pink in the room beyond. The effects were minimal, making me feel vaguely sick rather than the swift and cloying death that the concentrated pink we had experienced in the bath house. Still, we had to move swiftly. I prayed the alicorns weren’t keeping the prisoners in a contaminated section. If so, the zebras we were here to rescue were probably already dead.
The first room opened into a narrow hallway. Calamity spread his wings only to have them hit the walls on either side. “Well, now that just ain’t fair!” he grumped. “Stupid zebra architecture.” He looked at Xenith apologetically. “No offense.”
We crept forward, moving from one room to the next. Pyrelight and I took the lead, my self-levitation allowing me to clear away tripwires and disarm pressure plates that the alicorns had set up all over the upper floor. Again, the alicorns’ tactics struck me as unusual.
I heard voices up ahead, the strangely majestic voices of the pseudo-goddesses. Only this time, the voices were strangely different. I couldn’t put my hoof on exactly why. I waved a hoof at those behind me, motioning them to stay back, and I slowly crept forward, listening.
“We have enough striped ponies, right?” one of them said. “We have…” she beat her hoof on the floor eight times. “That many.”
“No, we have this many,” another said, hoof-tapping seven times. “The scrawny one died when they went through the pink below, remember?”
“All the striped ponies are scrawny,” the first complained. “Let us just take those we have and leave this Goddess-forsaken place.”
There was something odd about the way they referred to themselves. Hell, the whole conversation was bizarre.
“We hate it here…” a third alicorn spoke up.
I froze, realizing a whole damn wing of the creatures was in the room right next to me. I started to back up, trying to think of another way around. We couldn’t fight them, particularly not in such cramped quarters. We were thoroughly fucked.
“…This Goddess-forsaken place makes us remember things. I hate remembering things,” the third voice continued, and all at once I realized why their voices sounded strange. I wasn’t hearing them in my head. Just with my ears. “Last night, I remembered I used to be a buck.”
Luna spank my withers! The Pink Cloud was messing with their telepathy! They were cut off from Goddess’ influence here. No wonder Trixie needed us as her agents in Canterlot.
Then the other hoof fell. The Canterlot Ruins were supposed to be full of alicorns. And those alicorns didn’t know we were supposed to be friendlies. We were all sorts of fucked.
I turned back, motioning the others back down the hall.
*** *** ***
From the Journal of Midnight Shower
Today was an amazing day.
After two more store owners refused to speak to me about the starmetal, I finally located the ceremonial mask shop and met with the proprietor. This time, I was cautious not to produce or even mention knowledge of the metal, instead asking about zebra legends surrounding the meteor showers, explaining away my curiosity with my cutie mark.
In return, the old zebra mare told me plenty, albeit in hushed tones and only after pulling me into a back room and closing up her store.
She spoke of how the zebras believe that the stars themselves are the visible avatars of unholy entities so unfathomable that our minds would crack should we perceive more than a notion of them. Beings of such primordial and loathsome will that all the evils of our world are no match for their vileness and cruelty.
Much of this I had heard before, but not in so chilling a fashion nor with such utter conviction.
Amongst the most interesting of her tales was the story thousands of years old, telling of one of the first zebra cities and how it was destroyed by several meteor impacts during the earliest recorded meteor shower. The city had been the zebra’s hub of trade and politics, and its destruction plunged the nation into hundreds of years of tribal civil wars.
I do believe that the events of this tale, if true, represent the historical roots of what has become the dominant zebra mythology.
I had settled down on a park bench near the Celestia fountain (a zebra’s rather hoof-forward way of saying “we’re Equestrians too”, I suspect) when one of those huge, new-model whirligigs -- a Griffinchaser V -- descended out of Canterlot, landing on the far side of the Zebratown commons. Now despite my position as Royal Astronomer, I had never actually seen one of the Ministry Mares. Today, I saw two. Fluttershy, Mare of the Ministry of Peace emerged from the passenger compartment along with eight other ponies, five of whom were carrying pink suitcases.
Pinkie Pie, Mare of the Ministry of Morale, stepped down from one of the six pedal positions, and ordered the heavily laden ponies to follow her as she marched through the front gate leading to one of the zebra huts, opened the door and went inside. Fluttershy politely requested the company of the remaining three and departed straight for the hospital.
Half an hour later, Pinkie Pie’s five ponies emerged from the house, stowed their suitcases in the Griffinchaser, and began going door-to-door throughout the neighborhood. Not long after, Pinkie Pie herself emerged from the house, closing the door behind her, trotting up to the front gate, and planting something at the base of the gate underneath netting designed to look like dirt. Then kicked dirt onto it for good measure.
Then, the Mare of the Ministry of Morale proceeded to disguise herself as a trash can… with a fake beard. I must admit that it was amusing.
I will admit that I allowed my curiosity to get the better of me. I sat on that bench for over an hour, watching the bearded trash can watch the empty and apparently booby-trapped hut. My patience was rewarded when Fluttershy and her ponies returned, escorting a happily stunned zebra couple as their little filly dodged about their legs. I had not seen the filly until after she had been horribly burned, and it is doubtful that I would have recognized her even if I had, as zebras all tend to look alike. But it was not difficult to deduce who the filly must be.
Likewise, it became swiftly evident that the hut invaded by the Ministry of Morale earlier was her home. Even then, I was not ready for the explosion triggered when the little filly stepped onto Pinkie Pie’s concealed pressure plate.
I suspect they will be cleaning up confetti from the Zebratown commons for weeks. Not to mention streamers from several of the rooftops. The little filly was utterly delighted… after she crawled out from behind her parents’ hooves. (The blast of trumpets nearly had me cowering under the bench.)
Zebras poured out of nearby huts, although I was not sure how many did so on account of the invitation and how many were just trying to make sure the town wasn’t being bombed. But the vast majority of them joined in the festivities regardless.
It all brought a smile to my face. Even if zebra fillies have a very different preference for party music than a proper Canterlot pony. The only one, in fact, who was not smiling was Pinkie Pie herself. But I suspect that may have been because she had thrown such an amazing party and didn’t have the time to stay and enjoy it. The two Ministry Mares and their company were lifting into the air on that six-peddle-pony flyer before the filly had even gotten to cut the cake.
*** *** ***
I crouched at the lock of the Zebratown Police Station’s contraband vault, thinking as I worked:
Pinkie Pie took surprise parties to a whole new level.
I found myself thinking of the party trap on the roof of the G.R.H.A.S. building, wondering what sort of party she might have been setting up. A “welcome back, sorry the alligators bit your leg” party for one of the hatchery’s staff, perhaps? Or merely a birthday party for somepony working there? Or maybe just a birthday party for one of the alligators? I shook my head. No, I couldn’t imagine even Pinkie Pie throwing a party for an alligator. That would just be silly.
The tumblers moved into place, and the door opened. I stepped inside, turning on the light of my PipBuck and taking a deep breath as I enjoyed the stale but pink-free air inside.
My eyes fell on all the weapons and I stopped, stunned.
“Whoa! Nelly!” Calamity whispered. I could only nod. I was pretty sure the zebras were never supposed to have this kind of armament. If the ponies of Canterlot had ever had any idea that the striped Equestrian citizens just beneath them were stockpiling something like this…
“They was fixin’ t’ fend off an invasion,” Calamity said softly.
Xenith nodded. “Most likely, they feared the ponies of Canterlot would eventually come for them.”
“The guns are in real bad condition,” Calamity said regretfully, “But Ah reckon Ah could fix up some right good ones out of the parts… maybe ‘bout two dozen.”
“Take them all,” I said, suddenly getting an idea. I started unlocking one of the weapons lockers. “Everything you can repair into something good.”
A moment later, I had the locker open and was staring at the… thing inside. “What is this?”
Xenith peeked over my shoulder and said simply, “Balefire Egg Launcher.”
A WHAT?! I rocked on my hooves.
Sure enough, one of the ammo boxes I unlocked later held several barefire eggs. Taking them, I floated up the B.E.L.
“I’ll be right back,” I told the others before creeping back into the pink. A few minutes later, I had made my way back to the hall doorway. The alicorns were still talking inside.
I stepped around the corner as S.A.T.S. activated, and was pleased to see one of the alicorns was a purple one with a recognizable set of wounds.
*** *** ***
From the Journal of Midnight Shower
I received an official decree from Princess Luna today in response to my latest reports. By this document of authority, signed by the Princess Herself, the local constabulary is required to let me interview any prisoner in its custody.
I noticed an oddness about the town. It was as if the entire place was abandoned. All the stores were mysteriously closed. I proceeded directly to the Zebratown Police Station, only to find the doors shut and locked from the inside. It occurred to me that today must be some zebra holiday. Considering the dark and ominous tones to most of their mythology, it does stand to reason that their holidays would be somber and fearful affairs. Although even then, the closing of the police offices seems exceptional. Ponies would never shut down vital services just because of a date on a calendar.
*** *** ***
In my dream, I was Littlepip the zebra. I trotted about the zebra city… not Zebratown which attempted to blend zebra heritage with Equestrian aesthetics, but a real zebra city. A city formed in a hillside forest, the trees themselves molded into homes and buildings after their roots had been tended with the most ancient and sacred of magical brews. The homes were marked with masks of friendship and welcome. There were no fences. Just carvings blessing the home and warding off monsters. Gardens of vegetables and herbs stretched around each home, and flasks hung from the branches. I wasn’t sure how I knew this is what a proper zebra city looked like (Be Smart!), but I knew it all the same.
I looked up at the bright starry night and smiled at the moon. My eyes caught a streak in the sky. I blinked, unsure of what I had seen.
But then there was another. One of the stars had fallen from the sky!
I heard gasps and murmurs from the other zebras around me. I had not been the only one to see it. Other zebras, my friends and neighbors, were staring up into the sky. Their eyes were wide as more stars fell, some of them streaking through the air towards us before winking out.
One particularly bright star fell from the heavens and did not wink out. Instead, it slammed into our forest village in a flash of light and sound and dirt, blasting apart homes and shaking the ground beneath us.
The stars were attacking us!
Another star fell from the sky, tearing a great fiery swath through the city, murdering dozens of my fellow zebras. Now there was panic. The streets were filled with my neighbors as they fled their huts, not knowing which way to run.
I felt the ground shake from another impact. The forest was burning now. I looked up, horrified, my hooves refusing to move as if I was glued to the ground. Another star, the brightest yet, tore from its rightful place in the night sky, shooting down right at me…
*** *** ***
I awoke with a gasp!
I looked around at the rubble. Blowing up the three alicorns with a balefire egg was delicious overkill. One of them had even been fast enough to get her damned shield up before I could fire. Didn’t help one damned bit.
But I had been unprepared for how big the explosion would be. I’d been cautious, aiming for the wall behind the alicorns. That wall was no longer there. Nor was the floor or ceiling. The room that the alicorns had occupied, as well as the rooms to each side, had become a gaping maw open to the rain.
I had fired and dived back behind the wall. That wall had blown into the hallway, collapsing, trapping me between it and the other. I checked the medical assist spell and was surprised to find that, while battered and bruised, nothing was broken. I was lucky that I wasn’t a smear.
I looked around. The B.E.L. lay crushed under a chunk of wall. It was worthless now, although Calamity might be able to strip parts from it to repair another should we ever find one. I concentrated, wrapping the concrete chunk in a levitation field and lifting it away. I took the B.E.L., then used my levitation to make the broken wall weightless and pushed it away.
I was dragging myself out from under the floating rubble when Pyrelight landed next to me, Calamity and Xenith not far behind. Calamity was dragging a huge sack full of weapons.
*** *** ***
From the Journal of Midnight Shower
This is no holiday. For three days, Zebratown has been like a ghost town for me. For three days I have sought audience with the constabulary, and for three days I have been denied.
I know there are zebras here. I can see their shadows moving behind their windows. I spotted one zebra mare pulling her welcome mat inside before slamming and locking the door at my approach. Another hurried her filly indoors, her expression aghast as the foal attempted to smile at me. The horror. The horror.
Enough is enough. I have an official decree from Princess Luna herself, and I am going to wait outside this door until I am recognized.
*** *** ***
We waited at the bottom of the stairwell for Calamity. Our pegasus friend was using the gaping hole I had blown in the side of the police station to fly out and stash everything he and Xenith had taken from the vault.
Calamity had been right. The prisoners were not in this part of the Zebratown Police Station. I had scouted the rest of it with Pyrelight after assuring my friends that I was not as bad off as I looked. We found a few medical boxes in the station’s bathrooms, and a few boxes of ammo, but no more alicorns and no zebra prisoners. They were in the other section. To get to them, we had to cross to the other section through the basement.
Xenith drank one of the three healing potions I had scavenged, letting it work on the zombie bite. She caught me watching her and smiled. “Fear not, little one. I will be fine. It is good that you cannot catch zombie from a bite, no?”
I nodded. Still, something in her expression felt off to me.
You do not have try to rescue them just because one of them is my daughter. Nor because you feel you need to make up for the cannibal town.
Wait, had she actually tried to talk me out of doing this? I turned to my zebra friend, asking cautiously, “Are you all right with us doing this?”
“What do you mean?” she asked, not following my train of thought.
“Rescuing your daughter,” I said carefully. “You want to do this, right?”
Xenith glared at me a moment. But then her expression softened. “Yes, of course I do. I wish my daughter to be safe.” Then, dropping her voice, she admitted, “I just do not know if I am ready to do this.”
“What do you mean?” Okay, this place was bad. There were all manner of ways to die here. But this morning I had seen Xenith leap from a flying passenger wagon onto the back of a bloodwing in an effort to save people. It didn’t seem like Xenith to be afraid of charging into danger with us.
“If I save her,” Xenith said simply. “I am responsible for her again.”
I remembered all those things I had dismissed as crazy zebra logic. But to my friend, they were not crazy at all. This was how things were in her world, and she was feeling cornered by impending responsibility that she didn’t believe she deserved or could handle.
“Xenith, we have to.” I explained lamely. “We can’t let them die, even if rescuing them costs us something we aren’t ready to give.”
“I know that, little one. It does not make this any easier.”
I nodded. “Then try to put it out of your mind for now. Focus on what we have to do, and we’ll deal with the consequences when they come.”
I unlocked the basement door and pushed it open with a hoof.
The basement was full of Pink Cloud.
I closed the door again, taking a few breaths. Then looked at Calamity, Xenith and Pyrelight. “Ready for this?”
*** *** ***
From the Journal of Midnight Shower
I waylaid one of the constables as she attempted to sneak home after her shift. Cornered, the zebra mare admitted that word had spread throughout town. Every zebra now knew that I was in possession of starmetal; worse, they had somehow surmised that it was a fragment of Nightmare Moon’s armor which I had brought with me from Canterlot.
I was immediately anxious, knowing that the proliferation of this information would put the valuable heirloom entrusted to me in great danger of theft! The next words of the striped constable, however, revealed that the reverse was true. No zebra would be willing to venture close to the “accursed” chunk of meteor metal, nor would they abide my presence due to my association with the heirloom. Insanely, in the zebra mind, my “prolonged exposure” means that I am somehow contaminated, as if I have contracted a dangerously communicable disease. No stores will do business with me. I am unofficially but quite effectively shunned.
It is just a damned piece of metal!
Thrusting my papers into the zebra’s face, I dragged her back to the station and demanded that she facilitate my access to the prisoner. I will admit to having been perhaps excessively loud and more physically forceful than is befitting a pony of breeding, but my efforts did provoke a response. Finally, the head of the constabulary opened the door, if only enough to poke out his head between the heavy chains that prevented me from forcing the door open farther. He took one look at my papers, agreed to the authority they provided me, but “regretfully” informed me that the prisoner had slain himself two nights before and would not be speaking with anyone, pony or zebra.
I was not satisfied. I demanded to see the body for myself. I suspected that the zebra was lying. Or worse, I suspected foul play to prevent me from speaking with the captive zebra.
To my surprise, the head of the constabulary capitulated. He withdrew and closed the door. I could hear the chains being removed. When he opened it again, all the constables had left the room. I saw them watching from adjacent rooms like nervous foals peering into the darkness under their bed.
The head constable led me through the Zebratown Police Station, unlocking the door into the dimly lit stairwell. We descended, passing by the floor containing the normal cell blocks and plunging farther down until we were in a sub-basement where the iron behemoth of their boiler was held. Beyond it, across from the coal room, was a small room, no bigger than a closet, with a heavy iron door. Inset into the door was a small, barred window of thick glass through which I could look into the shadowed chamber.
I could see the prisoner. They zebras had not moved him. They had, I am inclined to assume, been unwilling to even open the door, much less share a space with the body of the striped inside. I could not make out the writing on the wall but I immediately knew he had painted the scrawling letters in his own blood. I recoiled as my gaze fell upon him, certain without doubt that the zebra had taking his own life in a fit of insanity. He had chewed through his own forehooves, continuing to gnaw, muzzle pressed into his own blood, until they were attached to his forelegs by only thin strips of meat. I have no idea what unholy drive allowed him to survive long enough to do the same to both of them.
*** *** ***
The cell was midway through the basement. By the time we reached it, my heart was threatening to seize and my lungs refused to work. My head was being ripped apart and my flesh felt like it was trying to peel away from my meat. I couldn’t make it to the far end and I couldn’t make it back, but the cell was free of the pink. All I had to do was unlock it.
I fumbled, screaming in agony, and tried again. My companions pressed close, dying.
This time, the door opened. We all stumbled inside.
The torture melted away, but my E.F.S. was flashing all the worst messages. Without healing potions, we couldn’t go back out. And we only had two left.
Two of us would have to stay behind, trapped in this cell until the others could get back with healing supplies.
“You two go ahead,” Calamity rasped, waving a wing limply at Xenith and me. I opened my muzzle to argue, but he pushed it shut with his hoof. “It’s yer mission more’n mine, an’ it’s only proper y’all should be the ones t’ see it through. ‘Sides, you two are the be best skilled fer jailbreakin’ anyhoo.”
Xenith wobbled, looking stricken. “No, it…” Then she stopped, her eyes going horribly wide, all the remaining color draining from the skin beneath her coat. She wasn’t staring at Calamity. Her eyes were locked on the wall behind him. I nudged past my pegasus friend and looked at the wall. There were words there, scrawled in the rusty color of blood. But the words were strange, the letters in no language I knew.
“Xenith, what is it?”
“A prophecy,” she intoned softly. “In the old language of our people.” Swallowing, she slowly read, a tremble in her voice:
By the light of Our stars, We illuminate your end,
And shine on the graves of all zebra kind.
A hundred thousand Nightmares will descend upon you,
The armies of Our Dark Child will fill the skies,
And foes from impenetrable cities will fall upon all your lands,
Shielded by armor crafted from their very souls.
Rejoice with Us. For every single one of you shall die.
I froze, transfixed to this spot, a slow bubble of horrified realization crawling up into my mind from the blackest abyss.
The prophecy was wrong. It was a lie.
But surely, as much as the zebras loathed anything they associated with the stars, surely a prophecy like this would have gotten back to the zebras’ Caesar and the religious leaders of their land. I’d seen Four Stars. I knew there were zebras loyal to the homeland and ponies loyal to their cause. This would have gotten back…
And when the zebras saw megaspells and alicorn shields, would they not have made the same assumption as Fluttershy did about how the spells could be used to protect entire cities?
When they learned The Black Book had fallen into Rarity’s hooves, and even heard her suggest using soul jars to create invincible armor, would they be able to believe that she would abandon the project?
How about the new pegasi armor? And how would they react if they discovered what Twilight Sparkle was up to?
The prophecy was a tailor-made doomsday lie designed to drive the zebras to the worst possible extremes.
But… how did the zebra know? How could he predict, twisted and distorted, things that were not even set into motion until after his death? The acquisition of The Black Book, in fact, was set into motion by his capture.
How...? Okay, it wasn’t impossible. I had seen precognition-level abilities before. Maybe the stars... or something... gave the zebra something equivalent to Pinkie Pie’s unusual senses? Maybe it was some influence from The Black Book, or spells that had been woven into it after it was turned into a soul jar? Maybe the zebra had been on Mint-als... or something more potent than Mint-als. The zebras were the ones who created those drugs after all, right? Or maybe...
Maybe it didn’t matter. No, not maybe. It didn’t matter.
The constables here had been so terrified of this insane zebra they hadn’t been willing to unlock the door to remove the body. I looked down; and sure enough, the skeleton was still here. Midnight Shower hadn’t been able to see the entire prophecy from the window. Perhaps no one ever did. It was entirely possible that we were the very first people to see the writing on the wall.
And the worst part was, it didn’t matter. Even if this prophecy never made it out of this room, the zebras didn’t need it. The Ministry of Magic had cracked the zebras’ Bypass magic just a few mere weeks before the end, and already they were using it to create shields that only specific individuals could get through. Twilight Sparkle was starting pony testing of the alicorn-creating I.M.P. formula the very day of the strikes. Once those advances happened, it was only a matter of time before Equestria had impenetrable defenses and an army of advanced alicorn fighters... and the zebras would lose.
The zebras had already lost. Equestria had won. It was only a matter of playing it out. Checkmate in a predictable number of moves. And if the zebras truly believed that there was no possibility of surviving a surrender, that they were facing annihilation or worse under Nightmare Moon... and they did truly believe that... then the only move left was to blow up the board.
The zebras didn’t see any other choice.
*** *** ***
From the Journal of Midnight Shower
Day Thirty-Six, addendum:
I am almost finished packing. There is no point pursuing my research here. I will get no more cooperation from the zebras of Zebratown. To my dismay, not even Daisy will respond to my knocking, although I suppose she could legitimately be out of town. It does not matter.
I have sent a message ahead to Princess Luna, informing her of my failure and my imminent return. I have ordered a royal chariot to pick me up in just under two hours. That should be enough to pack up this terminal and the last of my possessions. I want to be rid of this place and back in my own bed before midnight.
And there is the knock on the door. It would appear my ride is early. Well, they will have to wait. But I will not make them wait long.
And now they have upgraded their knocking to banging. Now I worry that Princess Luna is disappointed with me and wishes to see me before I have time to pack. Or perhaps they have invitations to a soirée in Canterlot and fear I will make them unfashionably late. Doesn’t matter. I’ve decided that I don’t really need a lot of this junk anyway. I can always buy new things once I am back in the lap of a society of reasonable ponies. Actually, all I really need are those things already in my bags, as well as the heirloom’s lockbox and this terminal. I will be ready to go as soon as I have finished writing this entry and I have shut...
*** *** ***
Xenith and I gazed upwards. The entire stairwell on this side of the building had collapsed, taking a fair bit of each floor with it. We were at the nadir of a four-story pit, looking upwards through where ceilings and floors used to be. Three floors up, we could see a jail cell and the young adult zebras trapped inside... barely. The cell was behind a shield being generated by two familiar dark-green alicorns sitting in front of it like guards, unmoving, unblinking.
On the floor above, three more alicorns stood watch.
Well, at least the Pink Cloud hadn’t seeped into this part of the building and become trapped here. I was still getting nasty medical warnings on my E.F.S., despite having found a couple more healing potions in the constable’s locker room medical box and imbibed one. Xenith drank the other. I felt slightly bad for not saving it, but by the time the two of us made it out of the basement, we couldn’t have rescued any zebras. If we hadn’t found those two potions, we would be needing rescue ourselves.
I really hated the Pink Cloud.
Five alicorns. Fuck. I should have seen this coming. Alicorns normally work in groups of three. There were three in the other wing. One on the roof. That meant at least two more, and five made even more sense. How the hell were we supposed to do this? There was no way to sneak up to the cage. And we were hardly in prime fighting condition.
I was working on a brilliant plan. I almost had the start of one when I heard Xenith gasp softly.
I eeped in surprise as Xenith’s teeth bit down on my mane and she threw me onto her back. The zebra charged into view of the alicorns, shouting a battle cry.
One after the other, the three alicorns ignited their shields and jumped down, swooping towards us.
Xenith turned and ran... but not far. “Hold on, little one!” I wrapped my forehooves around her tightly, wondering what she intended to do. She spun, lowering her horn, and started charging to meet the closest of the alicorns as it sped towards her.
“You’re... kidding, right?”
At the last moment, Xenith leapt. The zebra sailed through the air with me clinging to her back for dear life. Her hooves hit the alicorn’s shield and pushed off of it, keeping momentum, leaping to the next, then the third.
The zebra landed on the third floor in front of the two green alicorns; I was still hugging her tightly, looking back down at the three utterly surprised alicorns who had just been used as jumping platforms.
Xenith reared and slashed her head to one side then the other, slicing her hellhound horn through the throats of the two alicorns in front of her. The shield dropped.
“Open the door, little one!” she demanded. “Hurry.”
I blinked, still feeling stunned, and slid off her back. I reached out with my magic, picking the lock on the cell door with casual ease. The alicorns below us were shaking off their surprise and soaring back up towards us.
“Do you have any more of those memory orbs, little one?”
I nodded. “Yes, but they... won’t fall for the...” But these alicorns were cut off. They might just fall for the same trick! “Stand back,” I warned.
Xenith dove past me into the cell, pulling off her satchel and dumping its contents before the wide-eyed younger zebra bucks and mares. As I floated out all the memory orbs I had, I heard her say “The ones like this one... each of you take one and put it on. Swiftly.”
The alicorns were flying up at us. Staring down through the ruins at them, I flung the memory orbs into the abyss, yelling “Balefire eggs for every monster! Yay!”
The three alicorns scattered.
Behind me, I heard the young zebras suddenly start crying out in sharp pain! I spun around, turning my back to the chasm in alarm. “What...?”
I stopped, stunned yet again, not believing my eyes.
And some of the zebras have magic fetishes that can allow them to fly, Rarity’s voice chimed sweetly in the back of my mind, speaking to the three bucks harassing Rainbow Dash. If you think it’s impossible for an earth-bound mare to fly her way into Cloudsdayle with the right magic, you have tragically short memories.”
All eight of the zebras in front of me, including Xenith herself, had grown large, bat-like wings.
“Wow... that’s... when did you?...” My gaze fell to the strange talisman hanging from Xenith’s neck, formed in part from an inhaler, and the identical ones worn by each of the other zebras, several of whom were still wiggling and writhing as their wings grew in. I realized what the bloodwing strips were for.
Xenith smiled at me with feigned innocence.
“You realize those are kinda creepy, right?” I finally said, smiling just a touch.
*** *** ***
Once again, I was riding Xenith’s back, this time with my forelegs wrapped about her neck as her wings flapped to either side of me. Rain cascaded over us, soaking us both. The seven other zebras were soaring behind us.
We had a slight head start. But none of this lot were anything more than the most novice of fliers. The same could not be said for the three alicorns pursuing us. They swooped up out of the Zebratown Police Station behind us, tossing up their shields as soon as they were airborne.
Bright light and thunder cracked the air, and one of the zebras screamed as an alicorn lightning spell struck him. He fell from the sky, trailing smoke. “No!” I lashed out with my magic, grasping him in a telekinetic net, and drawing him back towards us... but the young zebra was already dead.
Twin missiles launched from somewhere in the Zebratown ruins below, striking against one of the alicorn shields. The monster turned her attention to SteelHooves.
The Zebratown Police Station exploded.
The blast tore upwards through the larger half of the police station, rending the building apart. The force of the blast slammed into the three alicorns, causing their shields to fail and knocking the one diving towards SteelHooves out of the sky.
The shockwave hit us, and Xenith lost control. Behind us, I heard SteelHooves taking full advantage of the alicorns’ moment of vulnerability. I threw my magic around Xenith, myself and the six surviving zebras, pulling up, trying to soften the crash.
We landed in the amphitheatre lake with a percussion of hard splashes.
I gasped, struggling to paddle my way to the surface, no better at swimming than Velvet Remedy. My head broke the surface once, barely. I sucked in a mixture of air and water as a wave hit across my muzzle.
The last thing I saw was a swirling burst of green and gold flashing in the sky over where the Zebratown Police Station used to be.
*** *** ***
“You. Did. WHAT?!” Velvet Remedy shrieked.
The rain had finally stopped, leaving the wasteland cool, grey and wet. There were no rainbows, but the air had a fresh smell that was utterly pleasant.
It was our second day back. We had arrived late in the evening, just after the rainstorm ended. Our return was heralded with surprise and celebration amongst the zebras of Glyphmark, but we spent the night sleeping and the morning recovering and (metaphorically) licking our wounds. I had wanted a funeral for the two zebras that we failed to save, but the Glyphmark zebras didn’t want to spoil the first bright moment in their recent lives with thoughts of mourning. Instead, we turned our efforts to helping this town in the ways we could before we left. This time, I wasn’t helping those in need only to walk away.
Calamity looked up from the military robot he was repairing and tipped up his hat. “Ah blew up the big ol’ boiler they had in the basement.”
SteelHooves worked alongside Calamity, accessing the robot with his magically-powered armor through a PipBuck technician tool I had let him borrow. The Applejack’s Ranger was reprogramming each of the robots in the Angel lot that Calamity could get working right, turning them into guards for the town of Glyphmark.
Velvet Remedy stammered, looking utterly aghast.
“Hey, Ah knew Ah couldn’t make it t’ either o’ the exits, but Ah figured Ah could make it the three yards from the cell t’ the boiler, throw all the right switches and turn all the right knobs, and make it back t’ the cell before keelin’ over.” He grinned sheepishly, adding, “An’ y’know, open the furnace up so Pyrelight could fly inside.”
Pyrelight cooed happily. Of the lot of us, she was the best for wear, having been nicely incinerated in a fire of her own making.
“Well, Ah figured Li’lpip an’ Xenith had their saddles full as it was, an’ we didn’t want anypony gettin’ dead tryin’ t’ save us,” Calamity explained. “So Ah thought, hey, a boiler explosion is mostly steam, ain’t it? And we seen how the rain washes away the Pink Cloud, so Ah reckoned a steam explosion would clear the basement o’ Cloud right quick.”
“But... you could have been killed!”
“Well, the cell looked real sturdy. Ah figured it would hold.” Calamity grinned, blushing. “Course, we got a helluva bigger bang than Ah was expectin’. Good thing the blast mostly went straight up.”
“That’s INSANE!” Velvet Remedy stomped, trapped between relief that Calamity was alive and the desire to strangle him for enacting such a reckless plan.
The soft voice of Xephyr intoned, “That is the friend of yours whose name is Calamity, right?”
Xenith trotted past Calamity with Xephyr and several of the other town zebras in tow. Her daughter stared at the pegasus as they passed and Calamity tipped his hat forward and bowed. “Pleased t’ meetcha, Miss Xephyr!”
Xenith was leading the group of zebras down into the labs beneath Angel Bunny Pharmaceuticals. I wasn’t sure how I felt about Xenith teaching the town of Glyphmark how to manufacture Dash, but I had given in to her argument that the town needed something they could sell to merchants in exchange for food and supplies. This was her way of trying to be responsible for them.
We were losing Xenith, but only for a short while. She was going to stay behind in Glyphmark, spending some time with her daughter and helping the Glyphmark tribe while the rest of us tackled the Canterlot Ruins.
The Canterlot Ghoul paused in his work, looking up at Calamity. “How did you know the boiler would still work?”
“Kinda countin’ on it not workin’ right, actually. That’s kinda how ya get ‘em t’ explode.”
Velvet turned and hissed at Pyrelight, “I can’t believe you would take part in something so... so... insane!”
The balefire phoenix looked slightly abashed but no less proud of herself. Velvet Remedy tossed her mane back, stuck her nose in the air and harrumphed.
I listened to them, a smile on my face. Then turned back to the zebras standing in a line next to me. Each was wielding one of the firearms Calamity had rebuilt from the mess of weapons we had scavenged from the police station’s contraband vault. “Now watch closely,” I instructed, beginning their first lesson on marksmanship and firearm safety.
They looked at me intently, eager to learn how to defend themselves and their town. For the first time in the Goddesses knew how long, there was a sense of hope in Glyphmark.
Footnote: Maximum Level