Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat

Chapter Thirty-Nine: This Coming Storm

Chapter Thirty-Nine: This Coming Storm

“We all gotta go sometime. I was just hoping for something more… heroic.”


Souls are the spirit and essence of a pony, the fundamental core of their nature and the kernel of life that exists beyond the biology of flesh and blood and mental synapses.

I had seen empirical evidence of the reality of souls. Beyond that, my beliefs in an afterlife where the souls of dead ponies continued on in eternal peace and in the transcendent souls of Celestia and Luna as Goddesses who watched over us with love and pity and hope -- these surpassed the foundations of knowledge and were the architecture of faith.

But the two things I did know: souls had a living power, and a soul was a hard thing to kill.

There was no way I could know for sure if the Black Book had been destroyed. But if it was not, then it was either buried under rubble or fused into a crater of glass.

The Black Book hadn’t needed to be the conduit of some eldritch cosmic horror, or its pages filled with blasphemous magic, to corrupt those close to it. It was enough that the Book was the host to a wicked and twisted soul -- the soul of an insane, maleficent zebra.

The Black Book called out to those around it who were susceptible to its influence. Two alicorns walked into the throne room. One sensed the presence of the Black Book. The other did not. Calamity had not reacted to it when I had found it; my other friends had been near it as they traveled with me. But it had sunk barbed hooks into my mind even before I had retrieved it. We had encountered two alicorns who had been affected by the temptations of the Black Book without ever having seen it or opened its pages. Nightseer had been transformed by the Book’s proximity. She had been one of those who the Goddess had sent to find the Book. Did her telepathy leave her especially defenseless? Had the Black Book filled the void in her mind left by the absence of the Goddess?

I was vulnerable to it. My weaknesses -- addiction, curiosity and the shame of having only a single spell -- played to its strengths.

The soul of the Black Book had been particularly ancient and powerful. I had possessed the Black Book for less than two days, and it had already begun to tempt me. Clumsily perhaps at first; the Book wasn’t telepathic like the Goddess. Most of the horrors in my nightmare I had provided myself. The Book merely used the tools my fevered night terrors gave it. And still, I did not have the strength alone to withstand its first probing attacks. To be able to stand against that influence as it continuously tried to erode you away, to hold to any part of yourself after years with the book, much less to take its twisted gifts and create something noble and good from them… that would take a level of moral endurance and fortitude almost beyond comprehension.

Be unwavering!

How often had those six ponies from the past, through the radiance of their souls, given me insights I couldn’t have had myself, or allowed me to tap reserves of strength and will that I shouldn’t have been able to muster? They had saved me and guided me since finding Applejack in Old Appleloosa, their influence growing with each statuette I found. But it was only after I had brought them all together that they had been able to intervene on my behalf more directly.

I believe it was no coincidence that Rarity was the first to appear. My mind and soul had ever-so-briefly become the battleground for two warring influences. One powerful soul of evil and madness against six shards that shone with the virtue and hope of Rarity and her five closest friends. The shards of the statuettes were not truly those of the Ministry Mares -- I suppose they were more like Rarity’s soul wearing perfect disguises -- but they shone with the true nature of those other ponies. They burned with the love and compassion and virtue and nobility of each of the Ministry Mares in turn. They were eternal, metaphysical images of the deepest, truest nature of those ponies, lit up like beacons, fueled by a shining piece of Rarity herself.

Rarity, whose magical talent had always been in the shadow of Twilight Sparkle, must have seemed like easy prey to the zebra soul within the Black Book. It had been wrong. She was one of the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony for a reason. And when the soul images of the Ministry Mares were brought together, they brought the inner fire that fuels the Elements of Harmony with them. They had proven more powerful, even as mere shards, than the whole soul residing in the Book. Or, at least, powerful enough to give me the strength I needed to fend it off.

If the Black Book could not stand against the gestalt of the Ministry Mares souls when they were only shards, how could it have stood against the whole soul of Twilight Sparkle combined in Unity with three of the most magically powerful mares of her time? The Black Book was not telepathic, but it could sense souls around it, knowing instinctively whom it could manipulate… and whom it could not. That last temptation of the Book had an air of desperation to it. The zebra soul had no way of knowing I was about to destroy its soul jar. It had been reaction to something else.

The Black Book had sensed the Goddess. And it had been afraid.

What happens to a soul when it no longer has a body to hold it? Does it truly transcend? Does it spread out, no longer contained -- like the hydrogen in a balloon that has been popped -- until it is no longer truly a soul, indistinguishable from the environment?

What of the souls trapped together in the horror that was the Goddess?

My goal had been to destroy the physical reality of the Goddess, and free the souls trapped inside. To allow Twilight Sparkle, Trixie and the others the rest they deserved and had been denied. I had not expected the Goddess to try to save her children, but I had not expected the impact of the six memory orbs either. By showing those memories to the Goddess, I had awoken something in Trixie. The Goddess had become lost, and I believe part of her was able to find herself in those memories. The Star Orb had been created for comparison; by showing that memory to the Goddess, I had acted like Rarity’s mirror had for Pinkie Pie. Just like I had hoped the memories of the Balloon Orb might stir whatever still remained of Twilight Sparkle.

And what about my own soul?

If I died here, would Celestia and Luna welcome me, or turn me away in horror and disgust?

I knew what I had done. And my soul was blackened from it. I had finally taken that step off the cliff; I had sacrificed my own morality and goodness to save the Equestrian Wasteland. I was Red Eye now, through and through. And there would be a price for that.

Thirty-eight minutes would have been plenty of time, but that time was never meant for me. It was time enough for Xenith and Calamity to escape. I had been willing to forfeit my own life.

Thirty-eight minutes would have been enough for the alicorns of the Goddess to have scoured Maripony, found the bomb and disarmed whatever timer Red Eye had constructed for it. But the balefire bomb had never been in Maripony.

Thirty-eight minutes was not long enough for the alicorns to have fought their way through the maze of Hellhound warrens and found the bomb hidden dozens of yards beneath Maripony’s foundations. The balefire bomb had gone off in a subterranean detonation directly beneath us.

*** *** ***

I awoke in pitch darkness.

I felt sick, even worse than in the days past. My body was hot. My mouth was dry. My stomach was twisted painfully but there was nothing in it to heave. My body was covered in sweat. There was a crushing weight on my lower body that brought back memories of a nightmare: being trapped under a wall, crying out while I watched Calamity and Velvet Remedy walk away.

There was a hiss from the darkness below. The floor beneath me slanted away. I would have slid down into the hissing blackness, but I was pinned.

My PipBuck was clicking slowly.

For a few terrifying minutes, I had no idea where I was. Then I remembered the bomb. Remembered running for the safe room. Bucking the emergency button.

I didn’t recall a whole lot after that. My memories were a jumble. But I did remember feeling the almighty FWOMP!!! from somewhere underneath us. The feeling of the whole room being thrust upwards as the bomb annihilated everything above it. A brief moment of weightlessness and the rush of falling.

Click. ….Click.

I turned on my Eyes-Forward Sparkle, wondering when I had turned it off. A dozen warnings flashed across it. The safe room had survived two megaspells, one almost point blank. But there was a micro-fracture somewhere in its protective walls and radiation was leaking in. Considering how hot it must be outside, the fact that I was still alive and the room wasn’t an unbearable oven, spoke amazing praise of Twilight and her Ministry. But I was swiftly reaching fatal levels of exposure.

I floated a RadAway from my saddlebags, bracing against the horrid taste. According to my inventory sorter, the other medical supplies I had packed -- several healing potions and a vial of Xenith’s bleeding-stopper goop -- were all gone. I had been conscious before, but I had no recollection of it.

The magic of the safe room must have prevented me from being turned to paste by the concussive force of the blast alone. Even still, with the fall I must have taken, I was lucky I didn’t break my neck. Or anything else. According to my E.F.S., I was remarkably unbattered… for a mare who was dying.

Wait… hadn’t there been somepony else in here with me?

Peering into the darkness, I tried to remember. My E.F.S. compass was telling me I was alone. I lifted my PipLeg and turned on the light.

Oh merciful Goddesses!

My PipBuck light shone down a room, tilted at an insane angle. The terminal bank had torn from the wall. The concrete of the ceiling had collapsed in, revealing the shiny purple-tinted metal above it. A large slab of the concrete lay across me, pinning me in place.

Below, the lower third of the room was filled with discolored water, rubble and the mangled filing cabinet. A small spray was coming from a section in the wall which had torn open. Something floated in the dark pool beneath me.

It was a more spacious coffin than the healing booth. But I had been foolish to think this room would save me. I was trapped, locked inside. And even if I could escape, outside was instant death.

I’m out of food, and the safe room’s water talisman seems to have been corrupted. Twilight had said. At least, I’m fairly confident that pure water isn’t supposed to be that color.

The water talisman was tainted.

The body of what had once been Ambrosia was beneath that water… mostly. Her body had bulged and metastasized under the taint, straining against the armor. A blob of malformed flesh had pushed out through the open visor like a tongue.

A fleshy, grotesquely-misshaped worm floated on the surface of the water. I screamed as I realized it was one of my own hindlegs.

After several long minutes of terror, I realized I could feel both of my hindlegs. Barely able to breathe, I shifted my light, trying to look under the slab that was crushing me.

Both my hindlegs were there, intact and healthy… except one was the pink of exposed skin with only a light fuzz of a coat.

I had lost my leg in the fall… and I had regrown it!

I didn’t think it was possible to feel even sicker, but I did. A deep, soul-aching horror filled me as I realized that I wasn’t even a pony anymore. I was something else. I wanted to cry, to scream.

Was I a ghoul, transformed by the bomb? Or was this from my exposure to the taint? How far removed was I now from being one of the Goddess’ children?

At least the radiation would kill me before the room filled enough for me to drown. Unless I was enough of a pseudo-alicorn that the radiation wouldn’t kill me. I prayed that it was.

Please, please…. Celestia, I beg you…

Have mercy on me.

I turned off my light. It was better not seeing.

*** *** ***

Something wrenched the safe room. The concrete slab scraped against me as it shifted, drawing blood. The wounds were already closing as I tried to brace myself, worried that the slab might slide off. Then I felt the whole room lift, soaring into the air.

The tainted water washed over me as the room righted itself. The misshaped flesh-blob that had once been my leg washed up against me. I screamed in horror at the slimy touch of my desecrated former flesh.

A violent grinding filled the air, and the metal shutters over the windows pulled away, revealing a purple-tinted sky of clouds filled with blowing ash. The armored glass shattered, the razor-sharp shards hovering and then whisking away.

My PipBuck began to click rapidly.

Somewhere above, I spotted the dark silhouette of a wagon and a glowing light of green and gold. For a moment, I thought it was Pyrelight. But then I realized the glow was coming from a pegasus. Had my friends come to rescue me? How? And at what cost?

“Oh Calamity…” I thought, weeping without tears, “What have you done?”

But something was wrong.

A purple glow enveloped me, a second floating the slab off my leg. I was levitated out through the obliterated window.

The super-alicorn, her coat a dark purple to the point of black, stared at me with glowing eyes as she casually tossed away the safe room, performing telekinesis that would have overstrained me with effortless ease.

The clouds above seemed awfully close. I glanced downward. We were very, very high. Below, the second crater of Splendid Valley glowed in the aftermath.

With a beat of her wings, she flew up level with the wagon above us, bringing me with her.

I realized at once that the wagon was not the Sky Bandit. And the glowing pegasus was not Calamity.

“Ditzy Doo?”

The super-irradiated ghoul grinned happily at me, a sickly golden-green light emanating from her mouth and around her teeth.

The creatures of radiation do not merely heal in its presence. If they absorb enough of it, they grow stronger. More powerful.

Ditzy Doo had come into Splendid Valley looking for me. She had saved me. She and…

The super-alicorn set me on the front bench of the Absolutely Everything delivery wagon right behind Ditzy Doo. Without the glow of her magic, the purple tint vanished from the sky, traded for a sickly green. My PipBuck’s clicking went insane. We were high enough above the crater for the radiation levels to be merely bad, but Ditzy Doo was shedding enough radiation to make this a very short rescue.

The glowing ghoul smiled and pointed back at the wagon. I turned around, looking in through a small window.

Inside the wagon were crates of RadAway, the packets glowing an inviting orange. I quickly levitated several and began to drink, turning back to thank her.

I stopped as my eyes caught the cutie mark on the super-alicorn’s flank: a large, pink star surrounded by smaller white ones.

The super-alicorn was silent, impassive. Her gaze seemed fixed on my saddle bags.

I was struck by a flash of insight. The Goddess sent her children away. But she was telepathic, maintaining contact with them. When her body was destroyed, and the souls of the countless ponies who had been consumed into her were set free, some of them, the strongest ones, found their way into the bodies of her fleeing children.


But those bodies already had souls of their own. It was unlikely this could last. Already, the cutie mark on the super-alicorn was beginning to fade.

I scrambled. If this was Twilight Sparkle in any way, there was something she needed to hear. I turned up the volume on my earbloom and levitated it towards her as I found the file.

The voice of Pinkie Pie, tinny and distorted, crackled through the air.

“Hi Twilight. It’s me …

*** *** ***

“…I mean, I have you with me now, so you’ll kinda be with me anyway. But it’s not the same. I want the real Twilight Sparkle. I…

“I want my friend back.


“I’ll do anything…”

The super-alicorn had hovered, seeming transfixed by the sound, until the message ended. Then, wordlessly, she turned and began to fly away. The cutie mark on her flank was already completely gone.

“Twilight! Wait!” I cried out after the disappearing alicorn. “Star Sparkle is still alive! And Spike…”

But whatever part of Twilight Sparkle my words might once have been able to reach were gone now. Evaporated. Or, if my heart could hope, just asleep.

I wanted to cry. But my body couldn’t produce tears.

I drank another of those horrid RadAways as Ditzy Doo turned and began flying us out of Splendid Valley.

*** *** ***

Ditzy Doo brought the wagon low as we reached the edge of the valley. We began flying along the border, moving more slowly.

We were searching for something. I wanted to ask what, but Ditzy Doo couldn’t speak.

What did you do? What did you just do?

The voice of Ambrosia fluttered through my mind. I fought to remember.

I’d told her about the bomb. I was sure about that. I couldn’t recall exactly what I said, but an antsy mare with a magical energy battle saddle didn’t exactly engender a desire to lie.

Her response had been to try to call Harbinger through the broadcaster built into her helmet.

This room is designed to stop megaspells, I recalled telling her. Your radio isn’t going to penetrate.

She had looked at me with panic. I have to tell Harbinger! He has to get out of here. We have to pull back. Her words had sparked a burst of fear in my breast.

How many ponies do you have outside?

The ground passed slowly beneath us. I couldn’t remember any more.

I caught them on my Eyes-Forward Sparkle, friendly lights appearing on my E.F.S. compass, before I actually spotted my friends. As we approached a clearing not far from the devastated Red Eye camp, SteelHooves appeared, pulling camouflage netting off of the Sky Bandit. Velvet Remedy, Xenith and Calamity emerged from within.

They looked worn, weary and bedraggled. Calamity immediately took to the air while Velvet and Xenith scanned the skies.

Pyrelight was missing from the group. Where was Pyrelight?

“Didja’ find anythin’ this time?” my pegasus friend shouted. I tried to jump up, but my body just didn’t have the energy, so instead I waved. He couldn’t see me anyway. Ditzy Doo was too bright.

Ditzy Doo flew us in closer, pulling up and hovering at the edge of the clearing. I downed yet another RadAway as she waved Calamity back. I felt weak, sick, half-dead. My body was alien to me now. I wasn’t me anymore. But all of that paled in comparison to the wash of joy at the impending reunion.

I needed to get to Tenpony Tower. Get cleansed of the taint I had suffered, assess what was left of me, and… if Homage would still have me… spend a forever with her and my friends.

A short forever, unfortunately. I had cleared the way for Red Eye to ascend, and he had a host of unicorns he planned to sacrifice in the process. With the threats of the Goddess and the Black Book taken care of, I now had a new quest before me: to brave the Everfree Forest and rescue those unicorns from Red Eye’s Cathedral. I probably didn’t have a lot of time. Now that Red Eye couldn’t count on alicorns for protection anymore, he would likely act fast. But I was in no shape to fight a radroach, much less infiltrate a stronghold. My body was weeping for me to give it care and rest; I couldn’t push it further until I had done so.

“Hey! It’s Li’lpip!” Calamity shouted ecstatically. “Hey, everypony! Ditzy’s brought back Li’lpip! She’s alive!”

Velvet Remedy and Xenith began to stomp in applause. Velvet gave out a thankful shout.

SteelHooves whinnied. “Thank Applejack!” He turned to the others. “Okay, let’s get out of here. I don’t like being in one place too long. Especially this close to…”

The ground erupted. Fountains of dirt burst into the air as half a dozen hellhounds tore themselves out of the ground.

Ditzy Doo pulled up as one of them swung her magical energy rifle around and fired at us. Velvet Remedy let out a scream. Calamity spun in the air, kicking the lever of his battle saddle, switching ammo. One of the hellhounds closed on Xenith, taking a swipe. The zebra ducked, turning and bucking the hellhound in chest, dropping her. SteelHooves began to fire, his grenade machinegun tearing apart one of the hellhounds as she aimed a multi-gem magical shotgun towards Velvet and Xenith.

“Get to the wagon!” Calamity shouted as he took a shot, staggering a hellhound who was trying to climb onto the Sky Bandit.

The earth beneath SteelHooves blasted upwards as a hellhound lashed up out of the ground; the hellhound’s claw slashed in a long arc, slicing through SteelHooves armor.

SteelHooves’ armored body fell to the broken ground with a heavy thud. His armored head rolled a few yards away.

The world stopped.

The battle still raged, but it was someplace far away. All the color and sound seemed to mute, leaving just me, the beating of my heart, and the slow rocking of SteelHooves’ head.

SteelHooves was dead.

A cold, wet chill ran down my body. There was no coming back from that. I’d seen Xenith decapitate a Canterlot zebra. But the little pony in my head was shaking in denial. No, no, she insisted. There will be an ugly warping sound and he’ll be right back with us, just like always.

SteelHooves was dead.

I couldn’t move. Couldn’t feel. Couldn’t breathe. My mind was locked up, the gears jammed.

The hellhounds weren’t going to give me a moment to process, much less to grieve. The hellhound who killed SteelHooves stepped forward, skewered his claws through SteelHooves’ helmet, then spun and hurled the armored head of my companion, trying to knock us out of the sky. Ditzy Doo dodged and SteelHooves’ head slammed against her wagon next to me, splintering wood. The impact cracked his helmet’s headlamp.

Something snapped inside me.

My horn burst with light, layer upon layer of overglow, brighter than even Ditzy Doo. The hellhounds were surrounded with light as they shot upwards into the sky, all of them, higher and higher until they were nothing but dark specks. Then they weren’t visible at all.

“SteelHooves!” Velvet screamed, dashing to the fallen, headless body and wrapping it in her forelegs. All the others turned, eyes wide as they realized we had lost one of our own.


The ground shook as the first hellhound fell out of the sky. The mangled, broken body oozed.


*** *** ***

Do you even know what balefire is?

Another flash of memory tugged at me as we approached New Appleloosa. We were flying low, moving quickly. Xenith stood on the Sky Bandit, watching the clouds. I got the impression we should be walking, but my condition was too severe for me to even try the journey.

“Ain’t safe t’ fly no more,” Calamity called out to me, flying as close as he could to the Absolutely Everything wagon without suffering Ditzy-exposure. “Damn Enclave have patrols everywhere, an’ anythin’ airborne tends t’ catch their attention. Not that the Sky Bandit exactly has a low profile, considerin’ our cloud breach last month.”

We just couldn’t catch a break.

“Ya sure it was Harbinger tha’ ya saw in Maripony?” Calamity asked as we began to slow.

“That’s who he said he was,” I called back, hating how much effort it took to shout.

“Damn. Ah figured this had t’ be big when a whole regiment o’ the Enclave descended on Maripony. Xenith an’ I barely made it outta there. But we blew up a member o’ the Enclave High Council? Ah could use one o’ yer creative swears ‘bout now, Li’lpip.” Calamity frowned. “Congratulations. We jus’ declared war on the Enclave!”

Ouch. But even as I grimaced, I realized that the Enclave had shown up knowing that Red Eye was plotting against the Goddess. If anything, they would suspect he had been behind the bomb, and I had been his agent. Which, on a very real level, was absolutely accurate.

From the Enclave’s perspective, Red Eye had just declared war.

I could see Pyrelight circling above the city, a single bird of prey. She let out a hoot as the two wagons landed, Ditzy Doo setting down a little distance from the Sky Wagon. Pyrelight dove out of the air, disappearing into the town.

“Maybe he got out?” I offered weakly.

“Not much chance o’ that,” Calamity called back. “Moment the alicorns were clear, a huge alicorn shield wrapped ‘round alla Maripony. I reckoned she was tryin’ t’ trap ya inside with her. Nopony got out.”

Or she was trying to contain the blast. Protect her fleeing children.

With a shield that powerful, generated by the Goddess herself, the only thing that would get out through it was her telepathy… until the second that the bomb killed her. That was, assuming she didn’t realize that the bomb wasn’t within her shield. In truth, the balefire bomb was planted far enough beneath the facility that it very well could have been outside her shield. And if she suspected that, maybe she was trying to save herself.

Either way, it didn’t matter. The megaspell-augmented balefire had proven greater than the Goddess’ power.

It’s magical fire, I had offered, answering Ambrosia even as I realized I really didn’t know what balefire was, other than green and radioactive.

It’s bottled, necromancy-enhanced dragon’s breath, Ambrosia had told me. The magical, disintegrative type of dragon’s breath that can send you someplace else. In the case of balefire, probably straight to hell.

Based on the possession of the super-alicorn (who had probably been a normal alicorn until Twilight Sparkle flew around new crater in Splendid Valley searching for survivors), Ambrosia’s guess was almost certainly wrong. But the concept was still chilling.

Something Rarity had said struck me: I even tried to have Spike burn it. All that did was send it to Princess Celestia.

I remembered thinking of Spike roasting an Enclave pony inside her armor. It was horrid and sickening to witness, but I felt a little better about it if I could imagine he was sending her soul straight to Celestia.

Which led to the hurting reality of the body being carried inside the Sky Bandit. Should we have SteelHooves cremated? Would Spike be willing?

“We can’t stay here,” Calamity said, the normal cheer gone from his voice. He looked at Ditzy Doo. “None of us.”

Ditzy Doo nodded sadly. She dropped one of her chalkboards and wrote on it. “Is this permanent?”

“Nah. Ah reckon it should bleed off, jus’ like when Pyrelight soaked in the Fillydelphia Crater,” Calamity assured her.

“But Pyrelight took days to return to normal,” Velvet Remedy reminded them. Her eyes were still wet and puffy with tears. She had been riding with SteelHooves’ body and head, keeping watch over him. “And Ditzy Doo has taken far more radiation than Pyrelight did. It could be weeks.”

The sweet ghoul mare looked panicked. She quickly erased her chalkboard and wrote “Silver Bell” in large letters.

Velvet Remedy nodded, smiling sadly. “I’ll stay here and watch over her.”

“You can’t,” I said, speaking up finally. “We’re not allowed inside town.”

Xenith looked up in surprise. “We are not?” she asked, her exotic voice betraying her own depression. “When did we offend this town?”

“B’fore yer time,” Calamity said. “Back when it was jus’ Li’lpip, Velvet an’ me.”

“Well, then I am not barred, it would seem,” Xenith asserted. Turning to Ditzy Doo, she too smiled gently. “It would be a pleasure to watch Silver Bell for you while you have to be away.”

Ditzy Doo forgot herself, swooping up to the zebra and giving Xenith a tight (albeit squishy) hug. Xenith stiffened but bit back any response. The ghoul pegasus swiftly backed away, writing “Sorry!” on her chalkboard.

“Hey, look, Ditzy,” Calamity offered. “Ah might know where y’all could get some help. There’s a mare up in Friendship City whose been researchin’ radiation an’ its effects on creatures. If anypony c’n help ya shed this off quicker, it would be her.”

Ditzy smiled brightly, one of her eyes rolling upward as she visibly fought her urge to hug Calamity now.

“Why don’tcha travel with us fer a spell,” Calamity offered. “Ain’t safe t’ travel alone, an we’re headed that way, ain’t we, Li’lpip?”

“Tenpony Tower.” I nodded, realizing we couldn’t cremate SteelHooves’s body. He wasn’t ours. “Fetlock first. We have to take SteelHooves back to Stable Twenty-Nine.”

The massive gate to New Appleloosa rumbled open. The griffin bodyguard whom I had seen with Ditzy Doo before flew out, Silver Bell scampering after him. Her eyes went wide as she saw Ditzy Doo.

“Mommy, you look like Pyrelight!”

The little lavender filly began to charge across the road between us, trying to reach her. Xenith swiftly caught her, holding her back.


I heard a strangled sound. I wasn’t sure if it was from Velvet or Ditzy Doo. The glowing pegasus rubbed her hoof against her chalkboard, erasing Silver Bell’s name, and wrote something else before picking the chalkboard up again.

Silver Bell struggled against the restraining legs of Xenith and began to cry.

Ditzy Doo trotted halfway to where Xenith was holding Silver Bell -- as close as she dared to get -- and set the chalkboard down on the street.

“Stay away, love. Mommy’s poison.”

*** *** ***

The clouds had begun to darken, threatening the Equestrian Wasteland with another storm.

Dark shadows moved just behind the surface of the clouds. As we watched, the shadows took the shape of great black warships descending beneath the cloud curtain. Each warship was a huge deployment hangar and platforms for massive magical energy cannons, flanked by blackest thunderclouds and moving through the air on a dozen propellers. Through my binoculars, I could barely make out the swarms of black dots that were armored pegasi flying in formations between the warships.

“Raptors,” Calamity announced grimly, watching as the warships descended lower, altering course slightly. “Dragon killers.”

I allowed my magic to expire, dropping my binoculars onto the ground next to me. I was at a loss for an appropriately colorful metaphor. Anything involving Luna’s horn now struck me as grievously inappropriate. My gaze found Ditzy Doo, the brightest point of light. She was enwrapped in a lead-lined cloak, something she had the griffin fetch from her shop. An old mailbag hung from her side. But her hooves, face and wings still burned like an emerald furnace.

I recalled something Homage had said as DJ Pon3, claiming a “mail pony” had delivered a letter from Ditzy Doo.

Beneath the anti-radiation barding Ditzy Doo had provided me, and my own barding beneath, my own coat was growing back over my hindleg… my new hindleg. Just thinking about that felt deeply wrong. I’d been drinking enough RadAway to purge most of the radiation from my system, even traveling in the back of the Absolutely Everything delivery wagon. But I still felt weak and twisted up inside.

We were just a hill back from Trixie’s cottage. In theory, we had stopped for lunch, but nopony was eating. I couldn’t stomach anything, Ditzy Doo didn’t have to eat, and neither Velvet nor Calamity had any appetite. They’d both just stared at their cans of beans until Ditzy Doo trotted up, dropping her chalkboard which said “Your poor beans are getting all lonely. They want to be with their stomach friends.”

Calamity had chuckled and nibbled a little after that. Velvet Remedy had just given a sad smile. I drank another RadAway.

“They’ve been comin’ down outta the sky like that the last two days,” Calamity informed me. “Ponies are freakin’ out. Goin’ inta hidin’. Whole damn wasteland feels like it’s under martial law.” He looked askance at me. “They took over the broadcasts this morning. Both Red Eye an’ DJ Pon3. Radio’s now all Enclave, all the time.”

I put in my earbloom and turned on my PipBuck’s radio, trying to ignore the squirming feeling in my insides. Instead of Homage’s music or DJ Pon3’s voice, I caught the end of a pegasus anthem.

“Greetings, ponies of Equestria. By now, you have seen our ships in the sky overhead. Perhaps our pegasi have even landed in your streets. But there is no need for alarm. Our scouts are merely assessing the current situation before we determine how best we can help you…”

I switched it off. I’d heard better propaganda from Red Eye.

“Ah’m tryin’ not t’ doubt muhself here,” Calamity admitted. “Ah left cuz Ah realized the Enclave never intended t’ rejoin the rest o’ Equestria. The Enclave wasn’t interested in helpin’ down here. Now Ah’m second guessin’ a lot o’ things.”

“They tried to make a deal with the Goddess,” I told him. “They aren’t here to help.”

“Yeah,” Calamity said dourly, “Ah didn’t really figure they were. This is just the backup plan.”

Calamity started packing up the camouflage netting again. “Where did you get that?” I asked.

“SteelHooves,” Calamity sighed. “When the Enclave first appeared, he procured this from Crossroads. Said we needed t’ keep the Sky Bandit covered whenever we weren’t movin’.”

I swallowed. I started to think of all the times SteelHooves had protected us. But ended up just thinking about his voice, that deep masculine rumble -- like Flutterguy’s voice, Watcher had claimed -- and how I’d never hear it from him again. My burning eyes wanted to cry.

“He was real good at that,” Calamity said solemnly. “Thinkin’ tactically.”

We shared a moment of silence.

Minutes later, we were flying again. We had been trying to keep low, but the terrain was about to make that difficult. Calamity winged us upwards, gaining altitude as we passed over the ruins of Trixie’s cottage.

There were several alicorns standing around it. They didn’t pay us more than a fleeting glance. If anything, I would have said they looked lost.

*** *** ***

“Tomorrow,” Crossroads told us.

I blinked with surprise. We were in the security center of Stable Twenty-Nine. A somber air hung over the entire Stable. SteelHooves’ body had been taken into the Crusader Maneframe room by an honor guard.

“Tomorrow?” I asked, swaying slightly. My body felt so weak; my hooves wanted a rest. My mind was fogged, but I was fairly sure that the new acting Elder’s announcement was abnormal. “Isn’t that… awfully fast?”

Star Paladin Crossroads neighed. “Every Steel Ranger outcast who would be able to make it is already here…”

“Applejack’s Rangers,” Calamity spoke up. At Crossroads’ querying look, Calamity explained, “Ah know that ain’t an official name, but that’s how SteelHooves thought of y’all.” Looking down at his hooves, he added, “Should honor it, ‘s’all Ah’m sayin’.”

The brown mare with the cropped yellow mane nodded. “As I said, all the Applejack’s Rangers who would be able to attend the Elder’s funeral are already here. There is no delay. It would be unseemly to allow his body to… go unburied.”

I imagined there were internal matters to address as well. SteelHooves had been the leader and symbol that all these rangers had rallied around. With him gone, Crossroads had to act quickly to keep the rangers from falling apart. Everypony seemed to expect Crossroads to step into the role of Elder, many already acted as if she was, but I sensed there was official protocol to be attended. And Crossroads was not willing to take those steps while SteelHooves remained unburied. Her love and respect for him were too much to allow that.

“Will you be able to attend?”

“Wild manticores couldn’t drag us away,” Calamity said. I quickly offered a prayer to Luna that Calamity’s words didn’t beg prophesy.

I nodded. “I couldn’t travel any more tonight if I wanted to,” I smiled grimly. I was having trouble standing. “We’ll stay the night, so long as it is all right with you. And you have a place Ditzy Doo can stay safely.”

Crossroads smiled grimly. “Your glowing friend? We can put her in one of the shielded rooms in maintenance.” She explained, “I’m not going to turn away somepony just because she is a ghoul, especially not on the eve of SteelHooves’ funeral; but I can’t have her trotting about the Stable either. She is dangerous to those around her.”

I nodded. I knew Ditzy Doo would understand.

“Where…” Nope, that was it. My legs decided that they were done with this standing thing and wanted to try something else. How about falling over? Yep, that sounded good.


“Li’lpip!” Calamity reared, his voice full of worry.

“I… I’m fine,” I told him quickly. “Floor’s nice. I think I’ll just stay down here for a little while.”

Crossroads stepped forward. “What’s wrong with her?”

“Li’lpip was in Splendid Valley when the megaspell went off,” Calamity told him worriedly. “She keeps breakin’ all the rules an’ survivin’ the impossible, an’ Ah think reality is kickin’ her tail fer it.”

“I’ll have our medics…” Crossroads was saying.

“Ah’m getting Velvet!” Calamity swore, turning and flying out of the room.

I sighed. All this fuss. I just needed to rest a bit. Just a little nap…

*** *** ***

Dark grey clouds hung over the Equestria the next morning. A cold wind blew across the grass, bringing the scent of impending rain. Soft rumbles of thunder growled in the depths of the cloud curtain. Somewhere in the distance, the cracking booms of some sort of gunfire echoed across the landscape.

We were gathered on the greens of the rolling hills near SteelHooves’ Shack. The wind rippled the dark water of the lake. Behind us, Ditzy Doo stood near a single large tree on the hilltop. She had draped a large black sheet over her lead cloak, her glowing face and hooves shining out from under it. The ghoul pegasus had somehow known to bring several such sheets.

I sat in a wheelchair just up the hill from the rows of armor-clad rangers that flanked both sides of the procession. I had been up for little over an hour. I had passed out on the floor of the security center and slept all night in the Stable Clinic. The rest had done me a world of good, but I still felt terrible, and alien in my own body. Velvet Remedy had washed me, hardly speaking a word the entire time, then insisted I attend the funeral off my hooves.

Calamity had created black dresses for both Velvet Remedy and myself out of the additional sheets provided by Ditzy Doo, again demonstrating his freaky knowledge of sewing. The cloth matched the color of my heart. I was drowning in sorrow, but I still hadn’t managed to cry. I felt like I was broken.

The Rangers on each side of the aisle stomped slowly in unison, a processional beat.

Six Rangers in ceremonial barding walked slowly down the cleared aisle, their mouths holding the rods that held up the platform upon which SteelHooves’ body rested. I noticed that Strawberry Lemonade was one of the pallbearers. Tears were spilling from her eyes as she kept step with the larger stallions, walking SteelHooves to the hole in the ground that would be his final resting place.

Somepony had welded SteelHooves’ head back on. Somehow, that was what got to me most. My breath caught, then came out in shudders. My whole body begin to tremble, wracked with sobs.

Velvet Remedy reached up a hoof and held me gently. She had been crying softly since we left Stable Twenty-Nine, and most of the trip here yesterday. Now she comforted me while the dam inside me broke. My eyes burned fiercely. I still had no tears, but my whole body did what my eyes could not.

Star Paladin Crossroads stepped forward as the pallbearers reached the pit. She began to say the words she had written the night before, words spoken on SteelHooves’ behalf.

“Applejack’s Rangers,” Crossroads began. “That’s what Elder SteelHooves called us…”

My mind drifted as Crossroads spoke. I went back to when SteelHooves first began traveling with us.

So… why are you still with us? I had asked SteelHooves

Maybe I have nothing better to do.

“…lived through more than any of us could imagine,” Crossroads was saying. “He survived more than we could fathom. And through the centuries, his heart never strayed from his love and commitment to one single mare…”

I’d doubted him. He had kept his motivations, like his feelings, close to his chest. I remembered with pain that there was a time I considered bucking him to the curb.

I follow you because you are a better pony than I am. And you remind me of somepony else. You honestly strive to help and protect other ponies. I believe she would have approved of you.

He’d said that when I’d called him into question.

I haven’t been faithful to my Oath for a long time. But at your side, I can be again.

“…nothing more appropriate than to repeat the words he spoke to us all,” Crossroads reminded the Rangers gathered before her. “In the words of SteelHooves: I call on you to stop and consider your Oath. Consider where you are and what you are doing. Do your loyalties lie with Applejack, the Mare of the Ministry of Wartime Technology, the creator of the Steel Ranger armor and the mare who by Her own hooves, the sweat of Her brow and the honesty of Her heart forged the Steel Rangers?...”

Another memory galloped on the hooves of the last. SteelHooves and I staring out over the harbor, looking towards Friendship City.

I need to thank you, Littlepip.

For what? I had asked.

For failing, SteelHooves had answered, surprising me. All this time, you have been somepony to look up to. You have made me want to be a better pony. But at the same time… you were too good. You were an impossible standard. Tonight, you have made it easier for me to live with myself.

I curled up against Velvet Remedy, burying my face in her dress.

“…Applejack was put in charge of the Ministry of Wartime Technology because She was the Bearer of one of the Elements of Harmony, and the ruler of Equestria recognized the caliber of that. Do you think it was the Virtue in Her soul or the jewelry on Her neck that made Applejack a Bearer?” the mare who was soon to replace SteelHooves continued to speak his words with the reverence they deserved. “Today, you must choose with whom your Oath lies.”

Another memory surfaced, filling me with fresh pain for my friend and for all he had lost.

It’s better that my child never knew me.

SteelHooves had been a haunted pony. The shadows of his past, his sins and mistakes, pressed down on him.

I’m sorry, Littlepip. I did everything I could to make them believe taking Stable Two was a mistake. I have been for decades. But after you two showed up, and they realized there was still a functional Stable down there…

I had been so angry at him, even though he had tried his best. Part of me had wanted to kill him on the spot. He didn’t resist or fight back. Instead, he had stepped up, become the better pony he had wanted to be.

Thank you, SteelHooves, Xenith had said. For helping my daughter’s village. I know it must be hard for an old soldier to help zebra kin.

Applejack would have wanted her Rangers to protect all good people. Not just ponies.

He had struggled with his own prejudice. And was finally beginning to overcome that too. He had taken steps on a path to recovery that he would now never be able to complete.

I tried to remember the last thing I had heard him say. A warning, urging us to move. But the words themselves slipped from my memory. Instead, the actual words I clearly remembered my friend speaking were: The rest of you can go ahead if you wish, but Applejack would not want her Rangers to ignore a cry for help.

“…carry on in his name and in his memory,” Crossroads said, concluding her eulogy.

There was a pregnant silence, broken only by the wind and the sounds of strange gunfire that continued in the distance, unabated.

“Is there anypony else who wishes to speak?” Crossroads offered, the sadness soaking her voice, “Before we lower SteelHooves into his final rest?”

I pulled myself from Velvet Remedy and focused my magic, rolling forward. She walked beside me as we made our way to the front.

I turned towards the expectant heads of the Rangers. I opened my muzzle, but my voice caught in my throat. Another sob shuddered through me.

I stared down. Again, Velvet put a steadying hoof on my shoulder. “I…” I swallowed heavily. “I only knew Applesnack for a short time. B-but I may have k-known him better than anypony. He shared th-things with me. M-m-memories…”

I stopped. I couldn’t continue. Instead, I lifted my PipBuck-infused leg. Velvet Remedy’s horn began to glow.

“I… There’s nothing I can say to do him justice. But as Applesnack is lowered, I want to play this song. It was his and Applejack’s song.”

I started the music. Velvet’s magic amplified it beautifully, allowing it to carry across the grassy hills, wafting over the pits of sand and out across the lake like a breeze.

“I want to calm the storm, but the war is in your eyes.
How can I shield you from the horror and the lies?
When all that once held meaning is shattered, ruined, bleeding
And the whispers in the darkness tell me we won’t survive?”

As the song played, the knights stepped forward, setting down the platform where SteelHooves’ body rested, encased still in his Steel Rangers armor adorned with red trim and Applejack’s cutie mark painted on the flank. The platform rested over the pit, the poles resting on the edges of the freshly dug earth.

“All things will end in time, this coming storm won’t linger
Why should we live as if there’s nothing more?
So hold me ‘neath the thunderclouds, my heart held in your hooves,
Our love will keep the monsters from our door.”

The song was only marred by the rumble of distant thunder and the persistent sound of weapons fire. Strawberry Lemonade stepped away, her tear-reddened eyes meeting mine. Then she turned away, looking into the distance.

I heard the sharp intake of air as Strawberry Lemonade gasped. I lifted my gaze in the direction she was staring. Far, far away, I could see the mountain range that ran through Equestria, the silhouette of Canterlot jutting from the tallest cliffside, wrapped in a haze of pink that had been slowly bleeding away over the last few days. Dark forms hovered around the city, sparking flashes of colored light.

“For I know tomorrow will be a better day.
Yes, I believe tomorrow can be a better day…”

A few other Rangers were turning to look, although most kept their focus reverently on SteelHooves. Against the better judgement of my aching heart, I floated out my binoculars and turned them towards Canterlot.

Enclave Raptors, several of them, were firing on the Canterlot Ruins. No, I realized as a spike of disbelief and dread lanced through me. They were firing under the city!

Oh Goddesses! They couldn’t!

But even as I thought the words, the reinforced supports beneath the royal city gave way. The city above shifted, white towers cracking and breaking apart as the whole of Canterlot crashed down the mountainside.

The rumble echoed over all of the Equestrian Wasteland, almost indistinguishable from the rest of the distant thunder. A black pit swallowed my heart.

We’ll come back for her… I had promised. Until then, she’s safe here.

My last promise to SteelHooves. And now I would never be able to keep it. The Enclave had destroyed the Canterlot Ruins, casually killing everypony in Stable City.

*** *** ***

The wind cut into my mane as I stood before the gravemarker that one of the ranger ponies had already created. It was a beautiful, stately marker fashioned from a large chunk of polished rose granite that had been scavenged from the Fetlock Chamber of Commerce. Red and grey. SteelHooves’ colors.

Here Rests
Forefather of Applejack’s Rangers


…and a true friend.

Calamity stood beside me. Velvet Remedy just behind. “Xenith should be here,” I noted mournfully.

“Ayep,” agreed Calamity.

“She’s here in spirit,” Velvet Remedy reminded us.

I looked down at the base of the gravestone, and the special holder that had been fashioned there.

“She ain’t the only one,” Calamity said, following my gaze.

In that special niche rested the orange statuette with the blonde mane and tail which I had told Crossroads that she would find in SteelHooves’ shack. The words “Be Strong!” were barely visible where the base was set into the granite. His little pony would watch over him forever. The spirit of Applejack would never leave his side.

*** *** ***

I rolled slowly down the hall of Stable Twenty-Nine, my thoughts filled with shadows and regrets and pain. I’d failed SteelHooves. He was dead, and I had failed him. He’d only asked the one thing of me. He’d asked me to save just one pony. But I had left Star Sparkle in Canterlot, and now she was dead.

I wondered if the Enclave even knew they had wiped out a village of ponies. If they had bothered to check before they started their attack. If they even cared.

I reached the end of the hall and looked up at the lit banner above the door: Vinyl Scratch. I lifted a hoof and clopped it against the door. “Velvet?”

A voice drifted out from inside. “I want to be alone!”

“Velvet, please…” I knew she was taking the loss of SteelHooves hard, but I had begun to really worry when Calamity had told me she had locked herself in Vinyl Scratch’s room. “…it’s time for us to go.”

“I said I wanted to be alone!” she shouted from behind the door, making me flinch.

“Velvet?...” Something was wrong. Even more wrong than I knew. “Please, talk to me.”

I heard the door unlock. The metal slid away with a pneumatic hiss. Velvet Remedy was standing there, looking wrecked, a cross expression on her face. Her horn was glowing.

“You don’t want to talk to me right now, Littlepip. Now go.”

I focused, beginning to roll inside. She telekinetically threw something at me, hitting me in the chest. I looked down at the object which had bounced off me and fallen into my lap. It was a box of memory orbs.

SteelHooves’ memory orbs.

“You knew!” Velvet said firmly but surprisingly without accusation. “Calamity told me that much. But I didn’t realize SteelHooves knew too. All of you did.”

Oh Goddess! She’d looked at his memories. She’d seen him dying on the battlefield the day that Fluttershy first tested the megaspells!

“Velvet…” I began only to find there was nothing I could possibly say other than, “I’m sorry.”

“Just. Go.”

I choked. “I… I was trying… I should have…”

“Told me?” she questioned, a pained smirk crossing her muzzle. “I know why you didn’t. You were trying to spare me the truth. Trying to save me. And others, I suspect. That’s what you do, isn’t it?”

There was something in her voice I deeply disliked. I had been fearing this day for weeks, sure that the truth about Fluttershy’s role in the end of things would devastate Velvet Remedy. But I was expecting rage, screaming… not this.

“Fluttershy… she made a mistake,” I offered, wanting to tell Velvet that the megaspell bombs weren’t really Fluttershy’s fault. That all the death and destruction shouldn’t be laid at her idol’s hooves. That it was okay to still love Fluttershy. “She created…”

“Fluttershy created something beautiful,” Velvet Remedy interjected sternly, brooking no room for argument. “The only mistake she made was that she gave it to anypony.”

That… well, I should be relieved to hear her say that, right? So why wasn’t I?

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I want to be alone,” she said gravely. “I don’t think I can travel with you anymore.”

“What?” I breathed, my wounded heart breaking. I couldn’t lose another friend! Not now. “W-why?”

Velvet Remedy huffed, becoming truly cross. “You really want to leave, Littlepip, before I say something we will both regret!” She began to walk away, trying to close the door behind her. It refused to shut, sensing that I was in the way.


Velvet Remedy spun, stomping. “Fluttershy’s mistake was giving the megaspells to other ponies. She’d created magics of life and healing. How could I not love her for that?” She glared, “But it was beyond naïve to think she could give megaspells to anyone without them being turned into something horrible!”

I fought to respond but my brain wasn’t working. I felt paralyzed as I watched one of my dearest friends seem to self-destruct.

“Oh, I understand why she thought other ponies would use the spells for good. I’ve been just as stupid. I’ve spent all my life wanting to help ponies because I’ve held to this idiotic, naïve belief that, deep inside, we are inherently good. That we deserve to be helped. To be saved.”

Her words were giving me unpleasant flashbacks to Mister Topaz. “We… we are basically good.”

Velvet Remedy laughed a broken, nasty laugh. “Haven’t you been paying attention, Littlepip?” she scolded. “Did you somehow miss Arbu? How about Fluttershy’s Cottage? Or every other damn thing we’ve seen?” She shook her head. “Deep inside, we’re all raiders.”

My muzzle hung open. “No! That’s not true.” I knew Velvet Remedy was hurting. I prayed this was her pain speaking. I couldn’t bear seeing her like this.

“No?” she countered. “Even the best of us fall to evil at the drop of a hat. Do you know what the worst thing I have ever done in my life was?” I suspected she was about to bring up killing the raiders in Fluttershy’s home, but she surprised me. “It was when I tried to use you to make Calamity jealous. I knew you loved me, and I...”

She lowered her head. “It was horrible. What I tried to do was cruel and unkind. I didn’t deserve forgiveness.”

I wanted to reach out and hug her. To hold her. “But I forgave you,” I told her softly. “We all have moments of…”

“Evil?” she interrupted. “That’s the point, Littlepip. Hell, you’re possibly the most selfless, noble pony in the wasteland, and look at what you’ve done. We’re here attending SteelHooves’ funeral because you decided to set off a megaspell in their den.”

I reeled as if she had bucked me.

“Honestly, I know you just think of them as monsters. And I even know why you had to do it. The Goddess was a threat to everyone and everything. But… you blew up their home to get at her, Littlepip!”

Oh Goddesses!

“You massacred all those monster families with their little monster children.” Her tone was sad and without malice, but each word slammed into me with the force of a sledgehammer. “Honestly, what did you expect them to do? Roll over? Play dead?”

She looked directly into my eyes. “SteelHooves is dead because of what you did.” My whole body went numb. “And the worst part is that it was the right thing to do.”

All of this… SteelHooves’ death… it was all my fault!

“And you are the best of us.” She reached up and pushed me out of the doorway with a hoof. “I’m not coming with you, Littlepip. I can’t help save the wasteland if I can’t believe the ponies in it are worth saving.”

The metal door slid shut between us.

I fell out of my wheelchair and curled up on the floor, hurt beyond the telling of it.

Finally, the tears came. And they wouldn’t stop.

*** *** ***

Calamity came looking for me. I didn’t want to move. I wanted to just die.

“I… I did this,” I moaned, unable to cry anymore.

“Now ya stop that right now, y’hear?” Calamity ordered. “Ya risked yer own life an’ nearly lost it savin’ the Equestrian Wasteland from one o’ the biggest threats Ah could imagine. Yer a big damn hero, and Ah won’t stand fer none of this self-pity.”

“That bomb killed… how many?” Hellhounds, pegasi. How many unintended dead. Just to take out the Goddess. I imagined even Red Eye would be appalled at how I had discarded my morals.

“Way Ah see it, ya saved everypony,” Calamity told me. “An’ weren’t yer fault the damn Enclave showed up when they did. Nopony coulda predicted that.”

“How about the hellhounds?”

Calamity nickered. “Aw, dammit, Velvet!” He stomped. “The hellhounds are nothin’ but murderous, territorial monsters who kill ponies indiscriminately. They have been fer centuries. Y’all saved countless lives by wipin’ so many o’ ‘em out.”

He was right, but that didn’t stop me from thinking of magical dragon’s fire burning away monster families filled with helpless, screaming children.

“Let’s go get ya well, Li’lpip.”

I blinked, looking up at him. “You’re coming with me?”

I was actually surprised that the pegasus nodded. “Ah want t’ stay with Velvet. Be here for her,” Calamity told me, flapping his wings in his discomfort. “But y’all need t’ get t’ Manehattan. An’ it ain’t safe fer y’all t’ travel alone. A sick heroine an’ a ghoul merchant?” He shook his head. “She’ll be hurtin’ somethin’ fierce, but if Ah don’t come along, Ah reckon ya might not make it. An’ Ah ain’t aimin’ t’ lose any more friends this week.”

Manehattan. Homage. My heart was bleeding out. I needed her so badly. But the idea of seeing her again filled me with dread. How could she possibly want anything to do with me after all I had done. After what I had become.

He leaned down and gave me a nuzzle. “Especially not muh first one.”

I felt a brush of warmth against my bleak, dying heart. “Thank you. I… I’m sorry for pulling you away from her.”

“From what Ah gather, y’all ‘ave given ‘er more help than Ah could. If there’s any way outta the darkness she’s in right now, those little statue thingies are the best guides she could hope fer.”

Sometimes, my pegasus friend was startlingly wise.

*** *** ***

Calamity and I huddled together in the back of the delivery wagon, clad in anti-radiation barding. (Our ghoul friend had smiled broadly as she produced the second suit from the back of the wagon, this one tailored for a pegasus stallion. I was beginning to think Ditzy Doo really did carry absolutely everything we might need.) Calamity had strapped his battle saddle on over the anti-radiation barding, foregoing his normal armor. Even with the barding, we were having to consume RadAway at least once every hour. Calamity didn’t have to be in here with me, but he insisted. I was both thankful and annoyed with him for it.

Calamity didn’t want to risk taking the Sky Bandit into Manehattan. Crossroads had confirmed reports of a lot of Enclave operating within the city. So we would either have to go in on hoof, or in Ditzy Doo’s wagon.

The trip shouldn’t take more than a few hours. We were going to stop at Tenpony Tower first, drop me off. Then Calamity was going to go with Ditzy Doo to Friendship City. If Homage would still have me, I hoped to spend a week wrapped in her embrace.

“Aw pony feathers,” Calamity said, looking up from our fourteenth game. “Best of thirty-nine?” I was beginning to suspect he was letting me win. Really, nopony could be this bad at Tic-Tac-Toe.

I felt the wagon slow.

“Aw hell,” Calamity spat as two Enclave pegasi shot past the wagon and yawed, circling back towards us.

“Halt, pegasus!” one of them called out, her armor magnifying her voice and altering it with an intimidating reverb, “Identi… great leaders, what the hell is that thing?!”

Not good.

Tzzrartch! Tzzrartch!

“They’re shooting at us?” I gasped. The two Enclave pegasi had opened fire on Ditzy Doo!

The wagon went into an abrupt dive. Calamity and I tumbled against the wall of the wagon along with several crates. One, containing dozens of packets of RadAway, spilled open, scattering glowing orange packets. Several fell through the window that looked out the front of the wagon.

I pulled myself to the window and peeked out as the wagon began to pull up, twisting as Ditzy Doo made a hard turn, weaving through the piers of the Luna Line. Smoke curled off a hole in her lead barding just behind her left wing, glowing ichor seeping from her wounded flesh.

Tzzrartch! Tzzrartch!

Above me, part of the roof glowed, a hole the size of a foal disintegrating away. I floated out Little Macintosh, pushing myself onto a toppled crate until I could see one of the attacking pegasi through the opening. I slid into S.A.T.S.

Calamity launched himself out of the back of the wagon, taking wing as I fired several shots into the black carapace of the Enclave soldier. Two of the bullets glanced off the armor, but the third penetrated. I ducked back down, needing to reload with either armor-piercing or magical bullets.


The wagon shifted again, all of the crates sliding towards the open rear gate as Ditzy Doo tried to gain altitude. I cast out a levitation net, trying to keep Ditzy Doo from losing all the wares she was carrying. A bolt of magical energy flew into the wagon, striking one of the metal boxes and melting it, destroying whatever had been inside.

I could hear Calamity’s battle saddle firing. “Deadshot” Calamity. I was sure he hit his mark.

One of the Enclave pegasi was swooping in right behind us. The gems in her battle saddle crackled, glowing brighter as the pegasus switched to more powerfully charged sparkle packs. I lifted Little Macintosh, my targeting spell allowing me to lock onto the pegasus’ head. I hadn’t had time to swap bullets, but if I could hit the visor, I was sure my shot would go through.

I was thrown back violently as Ditzy Doo suddenly came to a complete stop. The chasing pegasus tried to pull up, but slammed jarringly into the back of the wagon’s roof.

We started moving again as the black carapace-clad pegasi dropped to the ground, unconscious.

I was cleaning up the crates, levitating them into order when Calamity flew back in.

“Sorry, Li’lpip, but Ah couldn’t bring muhself t’ kill the fellow,” he said, his muzzle etched in a grimace. “Ah grounded ‘im wi’ a shot through the wing, but we’re likely t’ have more trouble from that lot.” He looked away. Ah used t’ be one o’ those soldiers.”

I understood. “Do you want to talk about it?” Calamity shook his head.

“Not right yet. Let’s get ya better first,” he said, looking for time. “But yeah, Ah reckon Ah’m gonna have to talk ‘bout this, and sooner than later.”

*** *** ***

“Oh it just keeps getting better,” I groaned as we spotted the Enclave array on the top of Tenpony Tower. Ditzy Doo veered away, looking for a safe place to land, someplace out of sight. We would have to approach Tenpony on hoof. Or, more precisely, I would. The Enclave presence in Tenpony meant that it was no place for either of my pegasi friends.

A memory resurfaced.

Open it back up! Ambrosia had yelled, ordering me as the antenna-like weapons of her battle saddle had glowed threateningly. You open this room right now, or I swear by the Council I will teach you what it’s like to melt!

I can’t. I had tried to reason with her. I’m as trapped as you are. This room can only be opened from the outside. And, based on the videos I had seen on my first trip to Maripony, only by the Goddess.

That was all. Just a flash. A fragment of those thirty-plus minutes I was missing.

Ditzy Doo landed in the darkened mouth of a crumbling chariot-wash. She unhitched herself from the wagon, digging a healing potion out of the mailbag slung at her side.

“Ditzy Doo? Calamity? Would you wait here for me?” I asked plaintively. “Just a few hours. In case I can’t get in? Or something goes wrong?” In case Homage kicks me out.

Ditzy Doo nodded swiftly. Then dropped her chalkboard and wrote a single word:


I smiled. “If I can get Homage to bake some more, absolutely!”

A few minutes later, I was walking through the rubble towards Tenpony Tower. The building seemed so much more imposing from street level. It towered upwards, the only truly intact building anywhere close to its size, rising out of the graveyard of Manehattan like a lighthouse, serving as both beacon and warning.

My hooves trod between emptied cans of food, old campfires and a dozen other reminders that part of Red Eye’s army had camped around the tower, cutting it off from the rest of the Equestrian Wasteland, threatening to destroy it with a balefire bomb.

The balefire bomb I had talked Red Eye into sending to Splendid Valley so I could use it to kill the Goddess and destroy the Black Book. And kill countless others, including SteelHooves, in the act of it. The thought clawed at my heart. The little pony in my head wept quietly.

I stopped, leaning against a giant “S”, one of the more intact letters which had come crashing down from the face of the building. I wasn’t breathing right. I wanted to collapse again, and I couldn’t tell if it was from the sorrow threatening to overwhelm me, or the weakness that was wrecking my body. They felt like one and the same.

Ahead, I saw the main entrance to Tenpony Tower had been armored over. The whole lower floors were barricaded with a yard of magically-fused rubble. The only way in, other than the roof, was through the Four Stars station above me. I had known this, of course. But it didn’t make the idea of levitating up to the station any less exhausting.

I looked upwards, and saw the black, insectoid form of an armored Enclave soldier striding across one of the tracks above me. With a flick of my hoof, I turned on the MG StealthBuck II and became invisible.

*** *** ***

“What do you mean, she’s not here?!” I cried as I followed Life Bloom.

Life Bloom led me though the secret parts of Tenpony Tower. Places that neither the citizens of the tower nor its new, armor-clad guests knew of.

“Just that, Littlepip,” Life Bloom affirmed. “The Enclave shut down her broadcast. Apparently, they have the ability to override whatever any of the rest of us are doing with those towers…”

But… it will still be my project, right? Rainbow Dash had asked. It will still be the Ministry of Awesome?

The Enclave didn’t control the central hub for the Single Pegasus Project, but they controlled who knew how many Ministry of Awesome hubs above the clouds. And Rainbow Dash had assured that the Ministry of Awesome had overriding authority.

I knew my Homage. She wouldn’t stand for being shut down. She would see the truth got out if it killed her. “When did she leave?” I asked, worried more for her now than I had been when Tenpony Tower faced Red Eye’s bomb. That, at least, I had been in a position to prevent.

“Yesterday morning, just a few hours after they took control of the airwaves,” Life Bloom told me as we reached the chamber where he would purge the taint still trapped in my body. “She took a bunch of those override devices like the one she gave you for the Fillydelphia Tower. Said she had an idea.”

“You go Homage!” I whispered, wanting to cheer for her despite my worries and fears.

*** *** ***

Ditzy Doo’s hooves touched down on the docks of Friendship Island.

“Oddly nice, bein’ able t’ approach Friendship City without bein’ shot at, ain’t it?” Calamity asked me as he hopped out the back of the wagon.

“Ayep,” I said, mimicking his accent decently. He chuckled.

Ditzy Doo detached from the wagon and shook herself, the lead-lined cloak fluttering. She had been disappointed but understanding about the lack of muffins. Calamity had been concerned when my stay at Tenpony Tower had proved so short lived. But without Homage, and with pegasi in black carapace-like armor walking through the public areas of the ritzy building, I had found myself without reason or desire to stay. Watching a couple armored Enclave ponies looking into the window of my locked-up former cheese shop as they chatted about how they should require “hero discounts” was the final buck that drove me back outside.

A guardpony was approaching us, her eyes shifting between the two pegasi. “So, it’s a visit from the great and benevolent Enclave, is it?”

Calamity coughed, stomping a bit. “Not hardly.”

“Really?” the guard asked, moving closer. “Then let me see your flank.”

I raised an eyebrow at that, but Calamity turned, taking the anti-radiation barding in his teeth and pulling it up over his flank, revealing the scar in the shape of a cloud and lightning bolt that had destroyed his cutie mark.

“All right then,” the guard mare said, relaxing visibly. “Welcome to Friendship City.” She gave us a pleasant smile. Her eyes scanned over the wagon then looked at Ditzy Doo, widening in surprise. “Ditzy? The Wasteland Survival Guide Ditzy?”

Ditzy Doo gave a happy clop at the recognition.

“DJ Pon3 had said you were a ghoul, but he never said you were a glowing one!”

Ditzy Doo set down her chalkboard and wrote on it before kicking it over to the guard: “Glow is new. Too much Splendid Valley. Friendship City can fix?”

The guard read the chalkboard and looked uncertain but hopeful. “Well, if there is anypony who could help, it would be Doctor Freshwater. She’s in charge of the science station built into Friendship Island. She created the water purifiers about a decade back, and has spent the last few years working on unlocking the mysteries of what she calls the Children of the Bombs.”

“Cheery,” I thought aloud, suspecting that I might very well fit into that category.

Life Bloom had magically purged me of taint, but I had been exposed to a lot of it, both through direct contact with the dirty I.M.P. lake in Maripony and later in trace aerosol amounts from the leak in the safe room. According to Life Bloom, all my internal organs were in the right places, and I hadn’t started to change size or grow wings, but the taint had altered me on a fundamental biological level. According to the unicorn, I was closer to being an alicorn than to being a pony.

I did not consider this a good thing. The Goddess claimed the alicorns were improved and superior, better suited than ponies to survive and thrive in the new world, and their natural successors. I just felt a stranger in my own skin.

The guard gave me a look. “And anything I can help you with, friend?”

I thought a moment. “We’re here to help Ditzy Doo, and we’ll be staying as long as that takes. Can you give us a quick picture of Friendship City?”

The guard nodded. “You bet I can. Basic rundown is this: Friendship City tries to be a good place for decent ponies to live with as much freedom and safety as we can offer. The Island makes that pretty easy. We don’t get much trouble from raiders or slavers out here. Usually, just the occasional sea serpent or radigator. We occasionally get refugees or folks looking to settle down. We do the best we can for them, although we’re beginning to run out of room. Raspberry Tart wants to start building shacks around the base of the main city, but Mayor Black Seas is impeding the expansion. She doesn’t want Friendship Island becoming a shantytown.”

I nodded, taking mental notes.

“Friendship City is run by a council of three august ponies. Doctor Freshwater, who I already told you heads up the science station, Mayor Black Seas, who speaks for the general citizenry, and Chief Lantern, who is head of the guard.

“If you are looking for temporary housing, your best bet is the Warm Smiles Inn. You can also seek refuge in the Common Room for free, but I don’t recommend it,” the guard scowled. “The place is run by Raspberry Tart. Mayor says she runs things crooked. Don’t know about that, but I do know she takes advantage of the lack of supervision she had fostered around that place.”

Ditzy Doo bristled and neighed, stomping a hoof. At my questioning look, she trotted over and recovered her chalkboard, erasing it with her hoof and writing: “R.T. does bad business. No muffins for her.”

The guard began to lead us around to the science station entrance which back-doored onto to the docks. Despite the city’s name, the entrance looked anything but friendly. Thick armored slabs operated by pneumatics sealed the science station with armor-shielded turrets covering the approach. There was no lock and no terminal. Just a camera. The door could only be opened by somepony inside. A little green mat of faux grass and white flowers lay at the foot of the door saying “welcome”.

“Raspberry Tart is the head of the merchant’s union. Mayor Black Seas says she’s building a case to get her thrown out of the city, but the others won’t act unless they have proof, for fear that she’ll take too many of the merchants with her.” The guard rolled her eyes. “That is, assuming she could even get out the front door.”

The guard waved a hoof at the camera, smiling. I heard the turrets power down as the thick slabs slid open with a deep-throated hiss.

“Now I’m afraid you will have to turn in your weapons at the door,” the guard mare cautioned, “Friendship City is a friendly place, friends, and we want to keep it that way. You’ll get them back once you leave. I recommend you take a moment to introduce yourselves to Mayor Black Seas as soon as you get Ditzy Doo settled in. You’ll find her in Black Seas Supplies.” She then smiled to Calamity. “And I imagine you’ll want to be paying a visit to Radar, our resident Dashite.”

Calamity gaped in dumbfounded surprise. “Radar’s still alive?” he gasped. “An’ he’s here?

“Yes indeed. Ancient as dirt, but still flapping his wings. He was in charge of the science station back when Friendship City was founded. Helped turn the city into the place it is.”

I blinked, suddenly remembering a chapter from the Wasteland Survival Guide on the founding of some city somewhere. I had only skimmed the chapter at the time I read the book; after all, I had been more interested in basic survival tips than grandiose concepts like settlement building. And then I remembered Calamity’s assertion that a pegasus had helped string up the rope bridges connecting the freestanding sections of Friendship Bridge.

The guard grinned at Calamity’s expression. “I take it you weren’t really expecting to see another Dashite in your lifetime.”

I giggled at my companion. “Might want to pick up your jaw before you come in.”

*** *** ***

Calamity was turning in his battle saddle at the guard station just inside when a water-blue unicorn pony with a short shock of raspberry mane and a matching short tail trotted up with a sense of urgency. Dressed in her lab coat, she looked very scientific.

“Hello, everypony. Welcome to the Friendship City Science Station, where we’re making a better tomorrow for all ponykind. Please, please come in,” she encouraged. “I’m Doctor Freshwater. This is my facility. Please make yourselves at home. Don’t touch anything.”

She shook my hoof then spun immediately to Ditzy.

“Ditzy Doo, is it?” Doctor Freshwater asked, floating on a pair of glasses and trotting over to get a closer look at our glowing ghoul pegasus. She floated out a small device that began to clickity-click just like the radiation sensor on my PipBuck.

Ditzy Doo nodded, apparently at ease with the abrupt invasion of personal space.

“Let’s quickly get you to the radiation testing chamber, shall we? My, your output is impressive. And this is a new condition? When did you become like this? Where did you get such exposure? No, no, don’t stop to write anything, just come along.” The doctor was already trotting away, motioning with her tail for Ditzy Doo to follow. “Let’s get you all hooked up.”

Ditzy Doo glanced back over her wings, giving us a look that I couldn’t interpret because her eyes were doing that weird thing of hers again. Then she fluttered off after an impatient Doctor Freshwater who seemed eager to poke and prod her in the name of science.

“She’ll be all right, won’t she?” I asked a passing lab pony.

“Oh, yeah sure,” the pony drawled. “Once she’s got da glowin’ one strapped in, she’ll stay on da safe side of da glass.”

“I meant Ditzy Doo,” I said crossly as the lab pony ambled away.

“Ah’m sure she’ll be fine,” Calamity assured me as he flew up next to me, battle saddle-free. “Doctor Freshwater seemed a bit odd, sure. But if she c’n help Ditzy Doo go back t’ Silver Bell any faster, Ah’m sure the ol’ mare will be happy t’ put up with the tests.”

I shuddered, disliking the idea. This was why we were here, why Ditzy had wanted to come, but that didn’t make me feel comfortable with it. I hoped they did right by her.

*** *** ***

“Zebra potions,” the elderly pegasus insisted proudly when Calamity rather bluntly asked about his longevity. Radar thumped a sienna hoof against his chest (wincing slightly) and exclaimed, “Ain’t nothin’ better. Them stripers have unlocked all manner o’ secrets with their brewin’s. Yew’d be amazed!”

“Actually, I can believe it,” I told the wrinkled, old sienna pony whose close-cropped mane might have been white even before the turn of the century. I chuckled, eyeing Calamity who looked caught between an urge to dash and a desire to break into squees of “ohmygosh”. It was a reunion he had never expected with a pony he had never known, but the mere idea that he wasn’t the only Dashite in the Equestrian Wasteland seemed to have overwhelmed him.

“That darned upstart youngin’ Freshwater may have usurped my position on the city council, even taken over my place as head researcher, but she can’t force me t’ retire! Not while there’s plenty o’ life an’ mind in me,” Radar insisted. “I’m as fit as I ever was.”

To prove it, the old pegasus stretched out his wings and flew halfway across his loft in the back of the science station. He made it three full yards before having to land, wheezing frightfully.

“Whoa there,” Calamity said, the spell he seemed to be under breaking. He flew up to the wobbling elderly pegasus, trying up to steady him. But Radar pushed the younger Dashite away.

“I said I was fit. Don’t need no help!” He looked between us. “Now, who are yew folk and what can ol’ Radar do yew fer?”

“Ah’m, Calamity,” my friend said warmly, “An’ this muh best friend, Li’lpip. Ah’m a Dashite, down from the clouds fer ‘bout seven years now. Ah thought Ah was the only one around. Ah mean, Ah heard stories o’ ya, but ya left the Enclave so long ago…”

“And now they’ve come back,” Radar pointed out. “Helluva bad bit o’ timin’.” Calamity nodded morosely. Radar looked Calamity up and down. “Tell me, what d’yew think they’re here fer?”

“Ah don’t know,” Calamity admitted. “But Ah don’t think they’re here t’ ‘Save the Wasteland’.”

The elderly pegasus smirked. “Ahh, so yew don’t buy the horseapples they’re shovelin’ over the radio none either.” Calamity shook his head. “Good buck. I was beginnin’ t’ think it was jus’ me.”

“And yew, what’s yer name,” Radar turned to me. “And how ‘bout yew, youngin’? Yew think they come down from the big ol’ sky t’ save yer tail?”

“Littlepip,” I reminded him. “And no. No I definitely don’t.”

Radar smiled, nodding sagely. “Well, way I see it, it’s got t’ do with the Sustainable Pegasus Project. That’s the key t’ the Enclave’s power.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Agriculture, yew silly ‘corn,” Radar stated. “Without the towers, the Enclave can’t feed the ponies. The pegasi wouldn’t be able t’ survive cut off above the cloud curtain.”

Remember when ya asked about what we ate up here, an’ Ah joked ‘bout cloud seedin’? Calamity had told us, referring to a conversation we had the morning after the Pinkie Bell farm. I dunno what them towers were originally meant t’ do. But Ah know what the Enclave has repurposed ‘em t’ do. And that’s t’ enchant the clouds fer miles around ‘em so that we c’n grow crops right up in the sky.

“Without that,” Radar insisted, “the Enclave falls.”

“Red Eye plans to take control of the… S.P.P. He wants to control the weather.”

Radar scoffed, muttering under his breath. “Good luck with that.”

I remembered what Calamity said back in Spike’s Cave:

Only time they c’n act as one is when they’re feelin’ threatened.

“Then, from their perspective,” Radar surmised, “It’s him or them.”

“Luna’s shuddering moonquakes,” I cursed (getting a raised eyebrow from the elderly pegasus and a whispered “she does this a lot” from Calamity). “We could have seen this coming.”

I looked at Calamity in sullen weariness. “When we first learned that Red Eye was messing with the Fillydelphia Tower, we could have at least guessed the Enclave would be stepping in sooner or later. By the time we had left Canterlot, we should have known for sure.” I bit my lower lip.

“It was only a matter of time. The moment they cottoned on to Red Eye’s plan…”

“Ain’t like the Enclave ‘as been payin’ the Equestrian Wasteland all that much attention,” Calamity told me. “Least it never seemed like they did t’ me. Few scoutin’ parties every year...”

“Wait!” Radar suddenly flew up to me, his snout pressing against mine. “Yew said yer name was Littlepip?”

“Y-yes,” I stammered, taken aback.

“Yew ever been t’ the Ministry o’ Awesome? Before the grand an’ mighty Enclave tore all o’ Canterlot down from the mountain?”

*** *** ***

I watched the monitor as Radar keyed up the sequence.

“Y’all ‘ave been in the Ministry o’ Awesome?” Calamity asked Radar, unable to conceal his shock.

“Yeah, I was,” Radar replied. “Was decades ago, not long after they burned my cutie mark off me. I was hopin’ t’ find answers.” He looked at us as the monitor came to life, showing first static and then a scene of the MAw basement, the shield dominating the center. “I didn’t get no farther than the security station, and I zoomed outta there leaving the whole damn place on high alert behind me. But I did manage to snatch up this little gem from the security logs.”

I watched the monitor. The timestamp on the log was old. A few years post-apocalypse.

“What did you mean, ‘good luck with that’?” I asked as I watched the minutes tick by on the recording.

“What now?”

“When I said Red Eye was planning to take over the S.P.P.,” I reminded him. “You said ‘good luck with that’.”

Radar made a sound of understanding. “Well, the whole damn Enclave’s been tryin’ t’ get inta the central hub fer generations now. If they can’t do it, I don’t see how Red Eye has a chance.”

“He’s got a plan,” I said confidently.

“Does he now?” Radar scoffed. “Well, I’d love t’ hear it. Cuz that place is locked up tighter than my ex-wife’s anus…”

Oh Goddesses, how I did not need the images that conjured.

“…Place has the best defenses Equestria could build. Has a super shield ‘round it so powerful nothin’ had been able t’ penetrate it. S’pose it has super guns too, but they’re all inside the shield and that shield is so overdesigned that they’re pretty much useless.”

“Ah know that the Enclave has built a whole base ‘round it,” Calamity added. “Whole mass o’ troops just t’ guard a place nopony can get into.”

Radar chuckled, grinning at Calamity. “Never found anypony who could get through. Enclave High Council figures the shield’s keyed only t’ Rainbow Dash herself. An’ Dash had no survivin’ kin. So when she left, she pretty much screwed the powers that were outta their prize.”

“Bet they took that well,” Calamity grinned back.

“Deemed her a traitor, what they did,” Radar spat. “Sent griffin mercs t’ kill her and bring back her head. Hoped somepony wearin’ Rainbow Dash around their neck might be able t’ walk through.”

Calamity and I both gasped in horror.

I turned from the monitor. “The Enclave wanted… that’s… Goddesses!”

Radar agreed grimly, correcting me in one point, “Well, they weren’t ‘xactly the Enclave quite yet. But they were gettin’ there right quick.”

“What happened?”

Radar stated simply, “Well, either they ain’t never got her head, or they did and it didn’t work.”

“Pinkie Pie?” Rainbow Dash’s voice floated up from the monitor. I shifted back to see the rather bedraggled cyan pegasus walking into the basement. The security camera zoomed in, following her. “You here?”

“Pinkie Pie?” she tried again, sounding so small in the vast room. “I brought them, just like you asked. What’s this about?”

Her words echoed off the walls. The light of hope in her wide eyes slowly diminished.

Rainbow Dash stopped a few yards in front of the shield, the magical light painting shadows across her features as she looked around. “You weren’t kidding about the health potions, by the way. I’m down to my last one, and I still need to make it out of that pink stew outside. That stuff is… awful.”

The room remained still and silent. The light in her eyes went out entirely, her expression becoming painfully sad. “You’re not here, are you?” Rainbow Dash asked the emptiness around her. “I guess that means you didn’t make it either.”

Rainbow Dash stepped solemnly through the shield. She walked up to the little pedestal sitting at its center and the memory orb box resting upon it, its lid slightly ajar. Rainbow Dash nudged it open with her nose, revealing three memory orbs and spaces for three more. The second, third and fifth were missing.

“I don’t know what you needed these for, or who this Littlepip you mentioned in your note is, but I hope it’s as important as you said it is,” Rainbow Dash frowned, her voice soft and sad. She reached into her saddle bags and pulled a memory orb out with her teeth, gently setting it in the spot reserved for the butterfly orb.

“Wasn’t easy getting these things, especially with Gilda on my tail. But even she isn’t brave enough to follow me into what’s become of Canterlot. Much less my own Ministry.” She put the star orb into its resting place. “But she’s waiting for me out there, and after that pink crap, I’m not sure I can take her.”

Rainbow Dash fished the final memory orb, the one to be placed in the holder with her own cutie mark. She paused, staring at the little emblem of the cloud and its rainbow lightning bolt. Then sighed and put the orb into its place.

Rainbow Dash shifted her attention to the orb in the fourth holder. The balloon orb. “But I trust you. You know that. You said this was important, and I believe you And I wouldn’t leave my friend hanging. Even… even after she was…” the last word was barely a whisper, “…gone.”

A single tear trailed down her cheek as she gave a weary smirk. “One last prank, right? Together as always.”

She lifted a hoof and pressed the orb box closed, the click of the lock loud in the sepulcher room.

I reached out and touched the monitor screen, tears welling in my own eyes.

Rainbow Dash turned and started to walk away. As she reached the inside of the shield, she stopped. Her face screwed up with determination.

“But you know what, Pinkie? Since you’re not here, I’m changing the rules.” Rainbow Dash spun around and trotted over to the maneframe on the far side of the shielded area. “If somepony comes poking around in here, I want to know. I’m setting an alarm to go off in every Ministry of Awesome hub. If I’m still alive, I want to meet this Littlepip of yours.”

Dash paused. “Sorry Pinks,” she said, looking back over her shoulder. “I hope you don’t mind.”

I watched the rest of the recording in stunned, comprehending silence.

*** *** ***

Friendship City rose above us -- concentric rings of stores and homes, connected by walkways and platforms that spun out from a central spiraling stairwell ascending through the chimney-like open space like a plume of smoke rising to the head of the Pony of Friendship.

Crowds of ponies moved up and down the spiral stair, diverting onto the catwalks and merging with the traffic that surrounded the layers of scavenged-material structures built into the interior walls of the massive statue -- a city built from junk, a fair portion of it pulled from ships which had sunk in the harbor. A small forest of support beams further congested the lower levels.

Ponies gathered around a watering hole called Sparkle’s, run by a friendly but slightly frazzled mare with the cutie mark of a Sparkle~Cola on her flank. Her assistants moved between tables nearby, taking orders and delivering homogenous, deep-fried foodstuffs. From a radio nearby blared the sound of heavy horns, marching drums and rumbling thunder. Enclave music.

Ponies stopped to stare at us as Calamity and I walked through Friendship City. Conversations died on unfinished sentences. For once, their gazes weren’t oppressing me; it was the presence of a pegasus in their midst that snatched their attention. Invariably, their eyes would quickly search out Calamity’s flank.

We no longer wore the anti-radiation barding, having left it with one of Doctor Freshwater’s more amiable assistants. Without barding or battle saddle, Calamity looked strangely naked beneath his desperado hat. At the sight of Calamity’s Dashite brand, nervous faces broke into smiles. We were soon mobbed by strangers wherever we went, all offering friendly greetings to my pegasus friend and his little mare companion.

I had garnered no attention at all until two Friendship City Security guards approached wearing heavy barding in cheery pastel colors that closely matched their manes.

“Welcome to Friendship City, Calamity,” one of them smiled, offering a hoof. Word of our visit had spread faster than the crowds had allowed us to travel. “And you must be the Stable Dweller that DJ Pon3 keeps cheering. It’s an honor to meet you, miss.”

I felt myself blushing hard as I stared up at the security pony.

“Sorry ‘bout shooting at you last week,” the pony said, looking chagrinned, offering me his hoof.

I was reaching out to shake it when his dour partner groused sullenly, “I’m not.” I froze.

The guard looked to his partner in dismay, but the other guard pony stood her ground. “She shot those foals’ parents right in front of them,” she said, glaring at me. “With bullets of fire.”

My hoof dropped back to the scrap metal floor.

“They call you hellmare, you know,” the guard glowered. “The kids.”

The other guard, the buck, put a hoof over his face in embarrassment. “All right, Night Bright. Let’s just go.” He looked at us regretfully. “Sorry ‘bout that, folks.”

As the two guards moved away, Night Bright looked back over her shoulder and mouthed slowly: Bullets. Of. Fire.

*** *** ***

“Welcome to Black Seas Supplies,” the black-maned indigo mare at the counter greeted us genially as she took in the sight of us. “My name’s Black Seas. I’m the mayor of this fine city, and owner of this fine store. And you must be Littlepip and Calamity.” She smiled. “Word gets around. Thank you for stopping in. What can I do for you today?”

I looked around, feeling dazed. The small cargo ship that Black Seas Supplies was built out of had been cut apart and imported into the Pony of Friendship, then rebuilt almost completely. Metal flooring and rows of shelves had been welded into the hold. Narrow metal stairs led up to the living quarters which had once been the captain’s cabin. An old-model precursor to the terminal -- a combination of monitor and intercom system -- was built into the wall behind a counter that looked like it had been scavenged from a diner.

Calamity fluttered forward to greet Mayor Black Seas. “Pleased t’ meetcha,” he grinned back affably. “Mind if Ah take a poke ‘round yer store? Ah’m lookin’ t’ do some tradin’.”

“Well, that’s a damn fine coincidence,” Black Seas grinned back. “That’s what Black Seas Supplies is here for, after all. We got about everything you might be looking for. Here, let me show you…”

I watched in foggy amusement as Black Seas and Calamity dove into business, my pegasus friend looking to unload a lot of what he scavenged from the Ministry of Image in return for bottle caps, ammo and medical supplies (with an emphasis on RadAway). Black Seas was a skilled and charismatic barter mare though and soon had him shopping for a gift for Velvet Remedy. Something to touch her heart and remind her that there really is good in ponies worth fighting for.

My thoughts were still drowning in the cold reminder of Arbu, leaving me detached from my surroundings and the conversation in front of me. I barely reacted when the door opened and an arsenic-colored stallion brushed by, carrying a walking stick in his muzzle. I only reacted when the stick transformed into a magical energy blaster and he fired it at the mayor.

“Tarf sayf heffo!”

Calamity was faster, flying into Black Seas, knocking her out of the path of the shot and into a shelf of lunchboxes, sensor modules and garden gnomes which rained down on the indigo mare. The blast of lethal magic struck a display of steam gauge assemblies, pulverizing it.

My first reaction was to pull out Little Macintosh, but with a start I realized my most trusted weapon was not with me. Calamity pivoted, hooves dropping to the floor as he stood between the assassin and Black Seas. The stallion shifted to get another shot, realizing he would have to take Calamity out to get at his target.

I lashed out with my telekinesis, lifting the arsenic-colored pony and pushing him against the far wall where two shelves blocked his view of both my friend and the mayor mare. I wrapped my magic around his neck, squeezing. The stallion kicked and flailed, his eyes bulging, the magical weapon dropping to the floor with a clatter.

Black Seas was climbing back onto her hooves, a couple garden gnomes rolling off her back, as the assassin lost consciousness. I released him. The mayor blinked slowly, shaking her head.

“Well, looks like your reputation as heroes is well founded,” she said, wincing slightly from a sprain. “Thanks for saving my life.”

“It’s what we do,” Calamity said, more for my benefit I suspected than hers. “Why ya reckon he was out t’ kill ya?”

The mayor frowned. “I’m pretty damn sure Raspberry Tart was behind this,” she proclaimed, trotting over to the old terminal. She pressed one of the buttons under the monitor and barked, “Tart! I need to speak to you right now!”

The indigo pony tapped her hoof impatiently. Glancing to Calamity, “Would you be a dear and tie that bastard up?” Her eyes dropped to the magical energy weapon on the floor. “How the hell did Lantern miss that?”

I stepped up to where the weapon had tumbled, floating it upwards to examine it. It was a model I had never encountered before, but then I was barely knowledgeable about magical energy weapons. “You might want to ask Grandpa Rattle about that,” I suggested. The spell disguising the blaster as a stick was too similar to the old buck’s magical research to be a coincidence.

I have a shotgun.

I couldn’t imagine Grandpa Rattle working with murderous ponies though. At least, not willingly. I was suddenly fearful for the crazy old buck.

The monitor flickered to life, showing the face of a grossly overweight, pomegranate mare with a yellow mane and an overly-charismatic smile. “Ooh, Mayor Black Seas! How good it is to hear from you.” Her words virtually oozed out of the speaker above the monitor. “And to what do I owe the honor of your call this evening?”

“You know exactly why I’m calling, you murderous bitch,” Black Seas spat, stomping her hoof. “You just sent a pony to kill me.”

“Laaaanguage!” she chided, her smile un-phased by the accusation. “Now, now. It is hardly befitting the mayor of our glorious city to use such foul sentiment. Or to go slinging such dreadful false accusations.”

“You deny it then?” Black Seas narrowed her eyes. “Well, seeing as the would-be assassin failed, I’m sure we can put this to rest after Chief Lantern has a day or two with him in her interrogation room.”

“Oh?” the blob of a mare looked surprised. “He survived then? Good. The sooner the Chief can ferret out the true culprit, the better, no? Although it will cut into your opportunities for slander. More’s the pity.”

I trotted up, floating the intended murder weapon in front of me. Black Seas looked at it, then back to Raspberry Tart. “And I don’t suppose you have any idea how a weapon like this could have found its way into Friendship City?”

“Shouldn’t you be asking that of Chief Lantern?” she suggested.

Black Seas nickered, “We both know that anything that finds its way into Friendship City behind her back has gotten in through you.”

The pomegranate mare feigned offense. “Despite what you claim, mayor, the Common Room is not a den of smugglers and thieves. And, as the voice of the ponies, I would think you should have more faith in them.” Her words washed over my ears like slime. “Besides, let’s be honest, if I wanted to kill you, I would never use so crude a method. I’d poison your food.”

Raspberry Tart got the reaction she was looking for. Black Seas’ eyes widened just for a moment before narrowing again. The overweight mare virtually purred in pleasure.

I was beginning to deeply and egregiously dislike Raspberry Tart.

“Now, be a darling and keep me informed, would you, mayor?” Raspberry Tart pressured. “As head of the merchant’s union, I have a right to know about shenanigans that threaten the peace and safety of all our little ponies.”

“Of course,” Mayor Black Seas groused before cutting the connection.

The mayor’s expression was cloudy. “Slimy worm of a mare. Now Chief Lantern will have to spare guards for this viper, just to make sure he doesn’t have an unpleasantly life-ending accident before he can be questioned.” She kicked one of the scattered garden gnomes. “And I’m going to be obsessing over where I get my food.”

“Any way we can help?” I offered.

The mayor raised her eyebrows. “Can you get a confession?” She shook her head. “You’ve already helped me more than I could ask. But…” She thought a moment. “If you can sneak a listening device into her office above the Common Room, I may be able to catch her saying something about this mess that I can take to the council.”

I grinned, crossing my PipBuck-bonded foreleg in front of me. “Sneaky is one of my specialties.”

*** *** ***

My plan was simple. “I’ll use my StealthBuck to turn invisible. Slip past Raspberry Tart’s guards and defenses. Even if she’s in the room, I’ll be able to plant the listening device and get out unnoticed.”

I looked down at the MG StealthBuck II set into my PipLeg. I’d already used it to get in and then out of Tenpony Tower. The device hadn’t had much time to recharge, but if I moved swiftly and all went well, I would only need about ten minutes.

“Ah don’t like the timin’ o’ this,” Calamity said, flying over me as I pushed my way through Friendship City towards Sparkle’s. My innards had stopped queasing after Life Bloom had purged me of taint, and over the last few hours, my stomach begun to rumble, reminding me that I hadn’t swallowed anything other than water and RadAway in days. At least half of my weakness was from starvation.

“You think the attack on the mayor has something to do with us?” I asked. Calamity had echoed my own concerns. For the attack to take place right after we walked into the store was a hell of a coincidence, and I was growing un-fond of coincidences.

“Well, no,” Calamity admitted. “Not us, particularly. But ‘tween Red Eye an’ the Enclave an’ the death o’ the Goddess… there’s just to much goin’ down right now fer me t’ believe this is jus’ happenin’ now by chance.” He let out an growl of frustration and drooped in defeat, hanging limply from his wings. “Hell, fer all we know, the hellhounds might be plottin’ this. Ponynappin’ and coercion ain’t ‘xactly outside their limited vocabulary.”

“So this could be my fault,” I moaned, staring at the floor. “Add it to the list.”

“Hey now,” Calamity perked up, landing in front of me. “None o’ this is yer fault, girl. Red Eye has been plottin’ ‘gainst the Goddess an’ the Enclave since long b’fore y’all stepped outta that Stable,” he argued with confidence. “He was workin’ on ways t’ get inta the Ministry o’ Awesome an’ chances are he’d already found one.” He did already have griffins to help shut down the security systems. “All ya did was bump up the clock on the Enclave’s arrival. An’ Ah reckon that’s prob’ly a good thing if it throws a bump under Red Eye’s wagon.”

I turned away, but Calamity grasped my head between his hooves and made me look at him, his wings flapping as he lifted back off the walkway.

“Yer blamin’ yerself fer those dead hellhounds? Maybe even SteelHooves?” My wince betrayed me. “Well, ya c’n jus’ stop that nonsense right now, y’hear? Ya got that bomb away from Red Eye an’ used it t’ take out a genocidal threat. What d’ya think Red Eye woulda done with it if ya hadn’t?” He stared into my eyes forcefully. “At best, he’d o’ done the same himself. At worst, he’d ‘ave used it on a pony population center strong ‘nuff t’ stand in his way. Hell, he was already threatenin’ Tenpony Tower with it.”

I realized I was crying.

“Awww dammit, Li’lpip,” Calamity said, his expression softening. “Come ‘ere, now. Let me getcha somethin’ t’ eat.”

I followed him obediently.

The crowd had thinned around Sparkle’s. The waitress mares were looking thankful for the respite. The music on the radio had been replaced by an authoritative voice:

“…colluding with a monstrosity in Splendid Valley which called herself The Goddess. This Goddess was the mother of the horrific alicorns who have been tormenting the Equestrian Wasteland, endangering the lives of all good ponies like yourselves. But the fiendish plot of Red Eye and the Goddess made the murders at alicorn hooves and magic pale in comparison…”

My face slapped into Calamity’s backside as the pegasus stopped abruptly, his ears up, listening.

“It was their intention to rip you from your homes and from your families. To force you to endure an agonizing, taint-driven transformation that would render you into mindless slaves. Red Eye and the Goddess have been working together not just to take your freedoms or your lives, but to annihilate individuality and to devour your very souls.”

I stumbled back, shaking my head. Then joined Calamity, wondering what the Enclave was up to. “If they thought the Goddess was so bad,” I whispered to my friend, “Why did they try to ally with her?”

“Naturally, the Grand Pegasus Enclave could not let this stand! We may have been gone for a while, but we have not forgotten our unicorn and earth pony brothers and sisters. And we were not about to allow these abominations to violate and destroy all of you.

“That is why we detonated a megaspell beneath the home of the Goddess, the Maripony facility in Splendid Valley…”

My jaw dropped, the world seeming to spin out from under me.

*** *** ***

“Who the hell are you?” Raspberry Tart spat as she saw me. “What the hell are you doing in my loft? How did you get past my guards?”

I had planted the listening device and had been halfway out the door when the StealthBuck died.

The tub of pony flesh wobbled around to face me from her place on the lounge bed behind her desk. “Gizmo, get in here!” I felt a pony move swiftly behind me, blocking my exit.

“Gizmo, escort our uninvited guest out,” the bulbous pomegranate mare requested of the stallion behind me. “Preferably through a window.”

“Wait,” I said, thinking swiftly. “I’m here about the contract on Black Seas.”

Raspberry Tart raised a mocking eyebrow. “What contract? Ah, now I remember you. You were standing in the background when our good mayor called me up to start slinging accusations.” She hefted up one of her slab-like hooves, signaling the stallion behind me to wait. “What do you want?”

The gears in my head spun. “The pony who tried to kill the mayor was sloppy. And stupid. And now the mayor trusts me.” I gave her my best conspiring smile. “I could do the job easily. And correctly. But it wouldn’t be cheap.”

Raspberry Tart sighed. “Do you really think I’m that stupid? Did you really think you could pull the wool over my eyes that easily?”

I found myself picturing the attempt to cover her with wool -- the rolls of fat, the massive jowls. “Not enough sheep in the world,” I muttered aloud before I could stop myself.

She rolled her eyes. “You know, I really don’t like being insulted, especially from home invaders. Gizmo, tear the little pony’s legs off, would you?”

Oops! I cantered, circling to see Gizmo. My eyes widened as I took in the surgical scars and the mechanical wings. Gizmo was a cyberpony. Almost certainly a refugee from Stable 101.

Gizmo spun, spreading out his wings to slash at me. I dodged to the side, the blades of those wings whisking through the air inches from my eyes. I couldn’t guess if those cybernetic wings would actually allow the earth pony to fly like a pegasus, but the feathers were razor sharp.

Gizmo somersaulted, his wings lifting and slicing through the air at me as I dove for cover, casting about for something to use as a weapon. Gizmo spun again and bucked, turning the chair I had moved behind into a battering ram that knocked me over. My armor took the blow, leaving me winded but unhurt.

“Gizmo, stop playing with your food,” Raspberry Tart ordered lazily. “Just finish her already.”

I scrambled for the door. Gizmo jumped up onto a couch and leapt into the air, spreading out his wings. Maybe he couldn’t actually fly with them, but they allowed him to glide. He swooped across the room and landed on me with all hooves, driving me to the floor.

I focused, my horn glowing. I was weak and weaponless. But I’d fought my way through Canterlot, dammit. And Old Olneigh. There was no way I was going to fall to some two-bit crook’s augmented mook!

I felt a hoof press down against the back of my head as Gizmo shifted so he could angle a wing at my neck. Then I heard the squelching sound as I telekinetically drove my screwdriver down through his ear and into his brain.

Gizmo collapsed off me, twitching. It took him almost a minute to die.

Pushing myself back up, I turned towards Raspberry Tart. “All right. Let’s try that again.”

“Or I could just finish you off myself.”

“I don’t think you could,” I snarked. “I’m not a pie.”

My horn glowed as I levitated Gizmo’s body, pointing one of his razor wings towards her broad throat. “Now, one last time.”

Raspberry Tart took fresh stock of me. “You might just be useful after all.”

*** *** ***

Chief Lantern was waiting with the mayor when Calamity and I returned to Black Seas Supplies.

“Did you get all that?” I asked eagerly the moment I trotted through the door.

“Yes,” Black Seas informed me with a heavy tone, her expression cloudier than ever. I drew up short. This was not the demeanor of a mare who’d just had her rival floated to her on a silver platter. “And almost immediately after, I got a call from Raspberry Tart, reporting your attempt to barter for my murder.”

I stammered. “What? Wait… I wasn’t… I was just trying to get her to say something that… I wasn’t actually offering…”

Chief Lantern waved a hoof. “Don’t worry, girl. We know that. It would take an amazingly stupid assassin to negotiate a contract against a target she knew was listening through a device she planted herself.”

Oh! I breathed a sigh of relief.

“But Raspberry Tart covered her tail. Made it look like she was just playing along in order to bring another wanna-be assassin to justice. We can’t use anything she said to you against her.”

Calamity bristled. “Well, how ‘bout her sickin’ that cyberpony on Li’lpip.”

“You were invading her home,” Chief Lantern told me.

“Anyway, it doesn’t matter now,” Mayor Black Seas claimed. “We’ve got bigger problems.”

Calamity whinnied. “What now?”

Mayor Black Seas moved over to the terminal. “Just after she called us, Raspberry Tart made another call…” She pressed a button. An unfamiliar stallion’s voice sounded through the speaker.

“Hello? Who is this?”

“Well hello to you too, darling,” Raspberry Tart’s voice slithered. “We’re all set for your visit. I’ve cleared the way. When your boys get here, the doors will be open and waiting for them. The… package… they’re looking for doesn’t suspect a thing. But we have had one small setback…”

“Those aren’t words I like,” the stallion informed her coolly. “You shouldn’t be telling me words I don’t like.”

“Mayor Black Seas is still going to be a problem,” Raspberry Tart whined. The mayor and the security chief exchanged glances as they listened.

I could hear a heavy sigh through the speaker. “The mayor of that rusty monument you call a city was your responsibility. We’re more than ready and capable of doing things the hard way if we meet any resistance.”

“O-of course,” Raspberry Tart said, sounding a little worried now.

The stallion neighed. “Personally, I would prefer the hard way. Tends not to leave loose ends.”

“No, that won’t be necessary, darling. How long until we can expect your arrival?”

There was a snort from the unidentified stallion. “Our Raptors are eighty minutes out. Should give you plenty of time to fix your little problem. Or flee the city.”

*** *** ***

The Enclave was coming for Friendship City.

“I… I could just turn myself over to them,” I offered meekly. The ponies gathered in the council room with me stared appraisingly.

“What makes you think you are the one they are after?” Doctor Freshwater asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well…” I grimaced. I had no reason for my assumption other than the timing and the fact that it always seemed to be me. “Who else would it be?”

“Aw hell no!” Calamity spat. He turned to the others. “Y’all ain’t handin’ over anypony t’ the Enclave!” He paused, his determination melting into hope, “…are ya?”

The door opened behind us and Chief Lantern marched in, followed by several security ponies. “Raspberry Tart’s gone. Looks like she took one of the boats.”

“Good riddance,” Mayor Black Seas nickered. “We can’t worry about her now. Question is, do we fight, evacuate or both?”

“Do we have enough boats to evacuate everypony?” Doctor Freshwater asked, turning to the security chief. The pony shook his head sadly.

“Maybe we did about five years ago. But not anymore. We can get maybe a third of the population packed into the boats we have. Slightly less, seeing as Tart took one of them.”

“To be fair,” I noted disdainfully, “She kinda took a whole one up herself.”

Calamity shook his head. “If their target might be on one o’ those boats, they’ll sink ‘em all.”

Chief Lantern growled. “We fight then. That’s what we have those harbor guns for.”

Doctor Freshwater looked at the others. “Are we seriously not going to put negotiation on the table? Based on that recording, they only want one pony. How can we put the lives of everypony in this city at risk for just one?” She stared at us imploringly. “Shouldn’t we even ask who they want?”

“And if it’s you?” Calamity nickered. “Then what?”

The doctor frowned. “Well, then I try to get away. Alone.”

“Can we try to communicate with them using Raspberry Tart’s terminal?” I suggested.

If I was the Enclave’s target, I was more than willing to give myself up to spare the city. And I was sure Calamity felt the same. But letting the Enclave close in on the city while we waited to find out who they were after felt like a tactical disaster. Not for the first time, I wondered what SteelHooves would recommend…

Have recommended, the little pony in my head reminded me, bringing heavy clouds of sorrow.

Chief Lantern shook his head. “Already tried that. They’re not responding.” Not a good sign.

“Sounds t’ me like they’ve decided t’ do this the hard way anyhow.”

*** *** ***

I turned on my PipBuck radio, listening to the Enclave’s overriding broadcast in my earbloom. I didn’t expect to glean any real clue as to what they were up to, but I felt I’d better start keeping appraised of what they were saying. For the moment, I was only getting dark, funeral-esque marching anthems. SteelHooves’ funeral had been this morning, the loss of my friend wrapped my heart in chokingly tight sorrow, and the dour tones of the music were cutting at me like sharp metal wings.

Calamity was off assisting Chief Lantern. A quick inspection of the harbor guns had revealed sabotage -- apparently part of Raspberry Tart’s “clearing the way” for the Enclave. The damage had been inexpert, and Calamity was certain they could have at least half of the harbor guns working again before the Enclave arrived. But they had to work fast.

I followed Doctor Freshwater to the observation room and stared through the anti-radiation window. Greenish-yellow light poured brightly through the glass. Inside, Ditzy Doo saw me approach the window and waved a wing.

A device mounted into the wall clickity-clicked, reading the ambient radiation inside the room.

“Let’s try it again,” one of the lab technicians, a cream-coated unicorn with a cornflower blue mane, spoke into a microphone. “Focus…”

The unicorn technician began to walk Ditzy Doo through the mental exercises that young unicorn fillies and colts used to practice telekinesis. But Ditzy Doo wasn’t a unicorn. She had no magic. What could they be expecting…


The radiation counter squealed as the light in the room became momentarily blinding. Ditzy Doo tumbled to the floor comically, the burst of energy from her own body knocking her off-kilter.

“Oh very good!” the unicorn technician cheered into the microphone, clopping his hooves together in applause. “Keep that up, and you’ll be able to purge yourself of this radiation in just a couple days.”

Inside the chamber, Ditzy Doo pranced joyfully.

“Now, let’s go again,” the unicorn said with a happy chuckle. “But this time, try to keep centered so you don’t keep knocking yourself over.”

I smiled to Ditzy Doo and applauded too. Somehow, watching her joy made the storm clouds over my own head scatter, if just for a little while.

The music in my earbloom ended, and a voice began to speak. I turned away from the glass, listening. I didn’t want Ditzy Doo to see the expressions I expected to play across my face.

“Greetings, ponies of the Equestrian Wasteland. The Grand Pegasus Enclave embraces our earth-bound brothers and sisters.

“I know many of you are mourning the loss of Canterlot, such an iconic symbol of the Equestria That Was. But that royal city was destroyed centuries ago, and all that remained was a breeding grounds for monsters and poisons. Sometimes, in order to allow the body to heal, we must cut out the infected flesh…”

I could feel the scowl forming on my muzzle. I didn’t like where this was going. It felt like more than just excusing their attack on the Canterlot Ruins.

“...burn away the diseased areas before the infection spreads…”

I winced as a blast of static cut through the broadcast, nearly making my kick off my earbloom.

“Goooooood evening, chiiiiildren!”

DJ Pon3’s voice burst over the airwaves.

“It’s me again, your old pal, DJ Pon3! Comin’ to you from a secret location somewhere in the Equestrian Wasteland. You didn’t think I’d abandon the Equestrian Wasteland just because of the Enclave, didja children?

“Now, ol’ DJ Pon3 ain’t got a lot of time before big sister Enclave shuts this down, so let’s get right to it shall we? That’s right, it’s time for the news!”

YES! The little pony in my head was bouncing around gleefully. Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

“Now, first up, the truth about what went down in Maripony. Now I’ve got my information from irrefutable sources here, children. And I’ve got to admit, the Enclave is right about one thing: the Goddess was as big and bad a threat as they’re making her out to be. But that’s where the truth stops and the lies begin.”

Irrefutable sources, I assumed, meant she’d been watching from the towers. But wait…

“Now I don’t know what the Enclave were out at Maripony for, but it sure as hell wasn’t to take out the biggest threat the Equestrian Wasteland has ever known. No, that deed was performed by none other than your and my favorite heroine, the Stable Dweller!”

My ears were burning, but I was too happy just hearing Homage’s voice (disguised as it was) to mind.

“And the bomb she used to do it was the very one Red Eye was threatening Tenpony Tower with for weeks. Turns out, our heroine talked Red Eye into giving up his big trump card...”

…oh! Irrefutable sources. Homage had watched my memories!

“So that casts serious doubt on the whole Red Eye-Goddess alliance the Enclave has been spouting off about. They’re lying to you, children. Plain and simple. Now DJ Pon3 still doesn’t know what they’re up to, but I can tell you this: the Grand Pegasus Enclave are not your friends!

“Now keep an ear out, cuz I’ll be…

Another burst of static and DJ Pon3’s voice was gone.

I floated off my earbloom and held it to my breast, basking in the knowledge that Homage was out there, still alive and fighting the good fight in her own very important way.

*** *** ***

“Attention, citizens of Friendship City!” the armor-altered voice boomed over the city’s public-address loudspeakers. “We are here to take into custody a pegasus wanted for crimes against the Grand Pegasus Enclave. His name is Radar. You can recognize him by the following brand on his flank…”

I stared up at the nearest loudspeaker, a grey box attached to one of the support beams outside Sparkle’s. I had just made it back to the watering hole and was waiting for Calamity’s return when the Enclave announcement started.

I checked my PipBuck’s clock. The Enclave was early! We had almost twenty more minutes. The mayor had made her own announcement, urging ponies to return to their homes, less than ten minutes ago. Mayor Black Seas had called it an “exercise”, knowing that panic would cost lives. But an “exercise” didn’t have a lot of motivating power. The central “chimney” wasn’t anywhere close to cleared.

Our Raptors are eighty minutes out.

But their armored troops were much faster.

“…Failure to produce this pegasus and turn him over to the Enclave will be considered an act of collusion. Prompt compliance will be rewarded. Refusal will be met with force.”

The ponies who had stopped to stare and listen began to panic. Ponies began racing up and down the stairs, pushing into each other. A cobalt-coated buck screamed as he was knocked over the railing, falling three stories to slam heavily into the ponies racing about the floor below.

Somewhere, the voice of a scared foal cried out.

I launched out of my seat, looking around for the source of the voice.

With a bang, the doors into the central chimney swung open and the nightmarishly-armored forms of four Enclave pegasi moved in, their scorpion-like tails curling slowly, the antenna-like integrated weapons of their Enclave armor pulsing with colored light.

“Everypony stay where you are!” one of the pegasi. “We are the Enclave. We are here to bring one pony to justice.”

Many ponies stopped, frozen in their tracks. Others raced for the nearest doors, diving inside. I could hear the foal crying under the thunder of hundreds of frightened whispers.

“We will be searching the premises,” the pegasus informed the crowd. “Do not attempt to hide. Do not attempt to flee. Do not attempt to interfere. Obey, and we will be out of your manes in short order.”

The pegasus beside him stepped up, as the two behind started to fan out, moving through the crowd. The pegasus called out, “Any pony with information leading to the swift arrest of the pegasus Radar will be rewarded with a finder’s fee of five thousand bits!”

To their credit, not a single pony in Friendship City stepped up to take the offer.

“Fuck you!” a mint-coated buck shouted from the spiral stairwell.

The Enclave pony looked up at him. The gems on her armor glistened.

Fzzzzzat! The ponies around the buck scattered as he was turned into a glittering pile of ash before their eyes.

Two more ponies in the crowd broke into a run, trying to make the door of one of the shops.

Fzzzzzat! Fzzzzzat!

The glowing bolts of magical energy threaded the crowd, striking down their targets. One of the ponies vaporized, her ashes scattering across the door she had been trying to reach. The other collapsed onto her side, screaming in pain.

“I repeat: do not attempt to hide, do not attempt to flee, do not attempt to interfere. Obey.”

I was trembling. If I had my sniper rifle, all four of them would be dead right now. One of the black-clad pegasi started to move through the patrons of Sparkle’s. She stepped close to me, walking around behind me as she looked me over. I forced myself to stand there silently, knowing any action could put ponies in danger.

She paused, her visor turned towards the PipBuck melded to my leg. “Everfree winds!” she whispered in revulsion, moving quickly past.

I caught sight of the little, wine-colored filly curled up under the foot of the spiral stairs, shivering and whimpering. My heart went out to her. I started to inch closer, hoping I could comfort her.

I made it halfway when she saw me, her eyes opening wide with utter terror. “Hellmare!” she screamed, scrambling up and fleeing from the sight of me.




The foal’s momentum had carried the glistening pink ash as she glowed and disintegrated, fanning it out across the metal floor.

My world shattered apart. I collapsed, my hooves raising to my muzzle as if they could contain my screams. “Noooo!”

“Brightwind, you shot a filly!”

My whole body was shaking and couldn’t stop. The tears couldn’t stop. Oh Goddesses, no!

“Fly steady, soldier.”

“Fly steady?” The second pegasus rounded on the first. “You just shot a filly!”

Hellmare! I’d killed the filly, just as surely as Brightwind had. I’d killed her by trying to help. The image of her vanishing in a spreading cloud of pinkish glitter kept playing over and over in my mind. I couldn’t think of anything else!

The first pegasus, Brightwind, turned to her accuser. “We had our orders, and you will obey them. Now fly steady!”

“She wasn’t running to warn Radar or to hide him! She was just scared!”

I take it back! I cried out silently to Celestia and Luna. I take it back! I didn’t try to help. I didn’t let her see me. Please, bring her back. Please! Let me take it back! But no amount of regret or pleading with the Goddesses would make the sparkling ash spiral upwards and be reborn in a flash of light.

“W-we can’t know that, soldier,” Brightwind insisted defensively. “Now either shut up and fly steady or get your tail back to the Raptor and I’ll deal with you later!”

“I didn’t sign up for this,” the pegasus said, turning away from Brightwind and flying back the way they came.

*** *** ***

The thunder of the harbor guns signaled the arrival of the Raptors. Friendship City had not given up their resident Dashite. The Enclave began a full attack at the sixty-ninth minute mark.

I had crawled over to the ashes of the Arbu filly, gathering them together with my telekinesis. That’s as far as I’d gotten when Calamity found me, flying in loaded down with all our weapons.

“Li’lpip! What are ya doing?” he shouted as a lancing blast of crimson magical energy speared through the upper levels of the Pony of Friendship, slicing through homes and catwalks. The pegasus grabbed me, dragging me away as chunks of walkway and scaffolding came raining down.

“I… I couldn’t find anything to put her in,” I said, looking up into the eyes of my friend, showing him the glowing ball of ash wrapped gingerly in my magic. It was so small. It seemed hardly enough to have been a filly.

Calamity sat me down in the shelter of Sparkle’s as another blast from one of the Raptors’ magical energy cannons burnt a hole the size of a chariot through the side of the statue, engulfing Warm Smiles Inn. If there were any ponies inside, they were incinerated within seconds by the fuchsia-colored flames.

Calamity looked at the ash I was holding, his bewildered expression shifting to wounded understanding. He looked around and dug an empty Sparkle~Cola bottle out of a trash bin. “Here, Li’lpip. Put her in here.”

My world had become that ash. With gentle reverence, I magically funneled the filly into the bottle. It glowed a soft off-pink. I floated out a bottle cap, screwing it on tight.

“Okay, Li’lpip. She’s taken care of,” Calamity was telling me. “Now Ah need ya back. Ah know it’s hard, and Ah know it hurts, but we need ya here an’ now.” I stared at him, wondering how he could be so close and yet so far away.

“D’ya understand me, Li’lpip?”

All around us, ponies were fleeing in terror, trying to get to the exits. They didn’t care that there weren’t enough boats. The thundering of the harbor guns was thinning out.

Calamity slapped me. Hard across the face with his forehoof.

I gasped, lifting a hoof to my cheek in surprise.

I could hear screams and nearby explosions.

“Ponies lives are countin’ on ya, Li’lpip,” Calamity said, drawing my attention to a focus. “Y’all gotta pull yourself together. Hurt tomorrow, help today.”

I slowly nodded, coming to my senses like a swimmer fighting her way to the ocean’s surface.

Tucking the bottle of ash into my saddlebags, I looked to Calamity. “W-What can I do to help?”

Calamity smiled, looking ready to collapse in relief.

*** *** ***

“They came in with three Raptors,” Radar told us as we reached one of the sniper platforms in the crown of the Pony of Friendship. “Harbor guns took out one o’ them.”

I looked into the sky at the two dark warships hovering over Friendship Island as dozens of pegasi swarmed about the statue. Chief Lantern and two security ponies fired at the attacking Enclave soldiers as quickly as they could find targets, ducking behind low barricades as the pegasi returned fire. Beside me, Calamity swiftly assembled Spitfire’s Thunder.

The cannons of the left Raptor flashed, sending magical energy blasts into the statue, tearing through its reinforced copper skin and into the city beyond. The other Raptor floated impassively.

“That second Raptor stopped firing after taking out the last o’ the harbor guns,” Radar informed me. “We need t’ take out that last Raptor!” Shaking his head, he added, “Really wish I knew why they were so hot t’ get me.”

Radar looked at me apologetically. “I would o’ gone out myself, but Freshwater wouldn’t let me. Threatened t’ shoot me if I tried.” He looked up. “I’d go now, but it don’t matter anymore.”

He was right. The Enclave had gone this far. They weren’t planning on leaving survivors.

An Enclave pegasus pulling a war wagon dove towards the ponies spilling out of the statue. With a kick of her hoof, a door beneath the wagon snapped open and bombs began to fall. Helpless ponies below were rent apart, their bodies flung in tatters by detonations of savage energy.

Calamity stood up, taking aim. Spitfire’s Thunder tore at the air, the shot piercing the war wagon. The explosion ripped apart the sky.

“Good shot,” Radar praised gently.

Calamity was breathing heavily, looking near tears himself. “Not fast enough.”

“Ain’t none o’ this worth me,” Radar said.

I followed his gaze down to the blasted ground, bloodied with the shredded bodies of innocent ponies. The crushing grief that had overwhelmed my soul was breaking apart, slowly replaced with a building war cry.

This wasn’t right. This was evil. And I had to stop it.

“I think yew c’n turn this whole thing ‘round if yew can shut down that last Raptor,” Radar repeated. “I’d do it myself but…” He looked down. “Not as fit as I used t’ be.” Looking up again, he added, “And not a word o’ that t’ Doctor Freshwater, yew hear!”

“We’ll do it,” I told Radar. Turning to Calamity, “I have a plan.”

*** *** ***

I stared at the burning wreckage of the docks. The Enclave had bombed the ships. No pony was getting off the island by boat.

The delivery wagon for Absolutely Everything was scattered in burning fragments across the water and along the sagging, demolished piers.

I looked to Ditzy Doo in empathetic horror. But the glowing ghoul merely shrugged, writing “It’s just a wagon” on her chalkboard.

As the glowing pegasus flew out over the devastation, my eyes caught sight of something crimson and green floating in the water. A pony’s forehoof, bloody and ragged.

A memory bubbled to the surface of my brain.

Help me! Ambrosia had rasped. She had been dying inside her armor, pinned by part of the terminal bank, half-sunk in the tainted water that was spraying into the room. Her body already twisted and malformed.

I hadn’t been able to reach her. I had barely been quick enough spreading Xenith’s goop over the ragged stump of my hindleg before I had bled out. I’d downed every healing potion I had, but the loss of blood had left me so weak and dizzy I couldn’t levitate anything heavier than one of the coffee cups. My blood had left a wet crimson river pouring out from beneath the slab that was holding me down, flowing down into the tainted water, making it pink in the light of my PipBuck.

Heeeelp meeee! she had whimpered, her voice filled with torment. Pleeeeeease! Kill meeeeeee!

I had wanted to. For the love of merciful Celestia, I had wanted to. But shy of trying to beat her to death with a coffee cup, there had been nothing I could do.

Then a voice in my head had reminded me that wasn’t true. There was one thing I could do.

I remembered focusing my magic, lifting up her visor. Her eyes hadn’t been in the right places anymore. Only one of them, engorged and strange, had stared out at me, tortured beyond the telling of it.

As I stood near the docks, watching that bobbing, severed hoof, I recalled thinking: maybe not a sword, but there is enough blood for a dagger.

The memory broke, leaving me shaken. I tried to dredge up what had happened next, but there was only blackness where the memory should have been.

It took her less than a minute fluttering about the debris and floating crates before our friendly ghoul returned to me, her eyes looking in different directions, a smile on her muzzle and a StealthBuck in her hooves.

I shook myself from my morbid reverie and added the StealthBuck to the other equipment I had acquisitioned. I shuddered. What had happened to me that I could look at a poor pony’s dismembered stump and not want to scream? The Equestrian Wasteland had poisoned my soul.

Above us, the hostile Raptor fired a blast at the crown of the Pony of Friendship, engulfing one of the sniper platforms in deadly magic. I pulled Ditzy Doo with me, taking cover against the copper robes of the statue as chunks of burning flesh rained down.

Calamity swooped up next to us, dodging falling debris as he dropped two sets of Enclave armor at my hooves, scavenged from the bodies of pegasi taken out by the snipers.

“Two?” I asked him. “I can’t wear one of those.” I pointed out dryly. “Horn. No wings.”

Ditzy Doo jabbed me with a hoof.

“What?” My eyes widened as I literally put two and two together. “Wait. Ditzy, you can’t come with us! We’re going into a fight!”

“She’s lived two hundred years,” Calamity reminded me. “Ah reckon she c’n take care o’ herself, li’l miss two-months-outta-the-Stable.”

Ditzy Doo leveled a look at me as explosions shook the island. Calamity hefted up Spitfire’s Thunder, searching for the war wagon on a bombing run.

“Okay, fine. You’re coming,” I acquiesced, locking the StealthBuck into my PipLeg and locking everything we weren’t taking, including Calamity’s battle saddle, in a nearby crate. “Suit up.”

Ditzy Doo gave me a one-hooved salute and started dressing, hiding her brilliant, ghoulish body completely inside the black, insectoid armor.

*** *** ***

“This is Raptor Pyrocumulus to Raptor Altostratus. Respond immediately.”

As Calamity and Ditzy Doo, disguised as Enclave soldiers, flew us closer to the black maw of the attacking Raptor’s hangar, my PipLeg had latched onto a new signal -- one which wasn’t playing the Enclave’s continuous public broadcast -- and decrypted it. I found myself listening to the pegasi’s inter-warship military frequency.

“This is Commander Thundersheer of the Raptor Pyrocumulus to Commander Ice Break of the Raptor Altostratus. Why have you stopped firing?” the authoritative voice of the commanding mare asked, clearly attempting to communicate with the unresponsive second Raptor. “You are required to respond.”

Calamity landed on the Raptor’s lower flight deck, dropping my invisible self and the sacks I was carrying onto the black metal floor lined with small, pulsing guide lights. He trotted up to the hangar door, looking over access terminal. I moved up next to him, Ditzy Doo watching our flank, as he attempted to hack into it. As expected, the access terminal had a cloud interface. I could offer him advice, but once again I was denied the chance to do this myself.

“Commander Thundersheer, this is Commander Ice Break. The enemy is defenseless. The battle has been won. Raptor Altostratus is standing down,” a second pegasus mare replied in a dignified, reserved voice. “A wing is standing by to retrieve the prisoner as soon as Raptor Pyrocumulus disengages.”

Ditzy Doo gave a little dance in her armor. Apparently, she was picking up the transmission too. The rebellion of the second Raptor filled her heart with delight.

“Almost got it,” Calamity grunted. I turned back to the terminal, scanning the lines of code he had brought up. Somewhere in that matrix was the password.

“Commander Ice Break, those are not your orders! Resume firing.”

“With all due respect, Commander Thundersheer: no.”

After two failed tries, we located the correct password. Pragmatism.

The heavy blast doors sealing the hangar slid open. Inside, the high ceiling was laced with humming lights identical to those I grew up with in Stable Two, but more sparsely placed, leaving the hangar feeling dark and cold. Large, heavily armored windows along the roof let in the grey twilight of late evening between mounted magical energy turrets. I imagined that the hangar would have been bright and almost pleasant if those windows were letting in the pure sunlight of mid-day above the cloud curtain.

Enclave technicians and internal soldiers wearing the light combat version of Enclave armor moved above busily. Rows of war wagons lined the edges of the hangar. Red fire boxes were mounted at intervals along the walls. Racks of bombs stood between the observation windows at the far back. On the other side, Enclave officers split their attention between watching the hangar and monitoring the war chatter.

“Dammit, Ice Break! Operation Cauterize is in effect. This is straight from the Enclave High Council,” the mare commanding the Raptor we had boarded reminded her peer. ”You have your orders. Now lock your targets and resume firing or you and your entire crew will be guilty of Disaffection!”

Ditzy Doo and Calamity moved off together, moving like they had a purpose, like they belonged. So long as they didn’t do anything suspicious, they should be ignored.

Meanwhile, I galloped silently towards the first war wagon. I only had one standard StealthBuck’s worth of time to do this, and I had already spent half of that just getting up here and inside.

“Raptor Pyrocumulus, the ponies of Raptor Altostratus regret to inform you that we will not slaughter helpless ground ponies, no matter what our orders say.”

I reached the first wagon and bucked the switch that opened its bomb door. Floating two of the homemade bombs out of the first sack, I wedged them up next to the war wagon’s payload.

The bombs had been built using the schematics for the “bottle cap mine” that Ditzy Doo had given me (it felt like ages ago). But instead of cherry bombs and bottle caps, these lunch boxes carried explosive munitions used in the (now destroyed) smaller-caliber harbor guns. Mayor Black Seas had donated the supplies. Ditzy Doo had helped me make them. A lot of them.

“Ffft. Bwah?” Commander Thundersheer sputtered in disbelief as I moved to the next war wagon. “By our great leaders, this is mutiny, Ice Break! Think about what you’re doing. They’ll have your crew for treason.”

There was no response from Commander Ice Break or the other Raptor. I planted two more bombs and moved to a third war wagon.

Shadows played across the hangar. I looked up, watching through the ceiling windows as the huge magical energy cannons mounted on the Raptor’s top deck swiveled to the left. I could hear the belly-mounted cannons still firing on Friendship City.

“Raptor Altostratus this is Raptor Pyrocumulus!” the commander barked. “You will lock your targets and resume firing or we will fire on you!”

Finishing with the third wagon, I dashed to the first of the bomb racks, setting bombs as quickly as I could. I spared a glance towards Calamity and Ditzy Doo. They had been waylaid by an Enclave officer who was demanding something of our speechless ghoul.

“She can’t talk,” Calamity was saying, prevaricating swiftly, “Battle wound t’ the throat.” Beside him, Ditzy Doo nodded, eagerly backing Calamity’s story. “Look, Ah’m her C.O., so anything ya need t’ ask her, ya c’n ask me.”

The Enclave officer, a youthful grey buck with a black mane and a quill for a cutie mark, looked between my two disguised friends, insisting, “We don’t have any soldiers on Raptor Pyrocumulus with that kind of injury.” He stared at Calamity suspiciously. “And I don’t recognize that accent. Where did you say you were from again?”

Everypony in the hangar froze, turning their gazes upwards, as Raptor Pyrocumulus opened fire on her sister.

I scrambled to place my makeshift explosives on the second and third bomb racks. I was getting close to where the officer was interrogating my pegasus friends.

Calamity flapped his wings in irritation. “Look…” he grumbled, “We’re from the Altostratus. Command over there’s gone disloyal. We got out while we could…”

“Well, that is to be commended,” the buck told him, wrenching his eyes from the windows above. “But under the circumstances, I’m afraid I’m going to have to place you both in the brig until the battle is over.” The young officer revolved in place, looking for the closest soldiers. “Your loyalty will be determined by a tribunal once we are cloudside again.”

“Aw hell,” Calamity hissed as he stepped back, striking down the officer with a sting of his armored tail. Ditzy Doo back-trotted, her body language betraying shock.

“Time t’ go!” Calamity shouted as bolts of colored light whizzed throughout the hangar, the soldiers and defense turrets reacting swiftly. I floated the signal detonator out next to me, dropping the sack of lunchbox explosives at the base of the last bomb rack, and galloped.

Beams of magical energy struck at Ditzy Doo and Calamity, peeling away at their protective magically-powered armor. One of the shots disintegrated a plate of Ditzy’s armor, the sickly yellow-green light of her irradiated ghoul body shining out of the hole in the black carapace.

I kicked the StealthBuck out of my PipLeg, giving the turrets and soldiers another target.

Thunder rumbled through the hangar from outside as one of the Pyrocumulus’ cannons struck something vital in the Altostratus.

Calamity and Ditzy Doo shot out of the hangar, several pegasi in hot pursuit.

I felt the first scorching blast lance off my Canterlot police armor, sizzling it, as I reached the landing platform. I wrapped myself in my magic, making myself weightless, and jumped.

Beneath us, the canted form of Raptor Altostratus was bellowing smoke, its left-side thundercloud dispersed, gaping holes glowing in its framework as it dropped slowly out of the sky. One of the Pyrocumulus’ belly cannons swiveled and fired on the ruined warship as it crashed into Friendship Bridge, tearing apart catastrophically.

I triggered the detonator. Behind me, light and heat erupted from the hangar of the Pyrocumulus, a draconic roar building with the cascade of explosions. A blast of fire buffeted me, sending me spinning through the sky, my magic imploding as the bomb racks went up like a volcanic armageddon, magical fire rending the Enclave warship in half.

This time, it was Ditzy Doo who caught me. Her Enclave armor was perforated, her helmet gone. Glowing ichor seeped out of numerous painful wounds. But she was grinning, one of her eyes staring at me as she gave a squeaky victory cheer.

My heart lifted at her jubilation. But then sank again as I looked out at the burning Pony of Friendship, the smoke of an incinerated city and murdered ponies blackly bellowing out of glowing wounds carved by destructive magical energy.

*** *** ***

We almost made it into Fetlock before the Enclave caught us.

It was the dead of night. Thunderclouds above rumbled angrily, still threatening a terrible storm.

We had fled Friendship Island (after magically snatching up the crate with all our belongings), drawing off as many of the remaining Enclave soldiers as we could. Most of them had abandoned the fight when all of their warships had fallen, but a few had been determined enough to continue “mop up”, and were engaged by the remaining security ponies.

Thanks to our help, a little over a quarter of Friendship City’s population still survived. Radar and Chief Lantern were not amongst the living. Both were killed when the Pyrocumulus took out their sniper platform. Calamity had become withdrawn and laconic since the news.

The survivors were still trapped on the island. The Pyrocumulus had destroyed the docks and boats. The crash of the Altostratus had wiped out a section of the bridge. Once we got back to Stable Twenty-Nine, we intended to enlist the aid of the Applejack’s Rangers. I was certain that the needs of nearly two hundred suffering ponies would draw Velvet Remedy out of her shell.

But Ditzy Doo was wounded. More than she let on. And as we drew close to the edge of Manehattan, she had begun flagging. So we landed in the ruins of a building which, based on the plate-and-silverware design still visible on the badly deteriorated and half-buried sign, had once been a diner. (Or, from the horseshoe motif running along the top of its one standing wall, possibly a shoe shop.)

When the ruins had turned up empty, Calamity had taken Spitfire’s Thunder and had flown into the rubble of the apartment building next door, searching for food, RadAway and anything else he could find. This left me sitting on the edge of the ruins, staring across the street. Ditzy Doo had discarded the ruined Enclave armor and was splashing playfully in a glowing puddle of radioactive waste spilled from the back of a wagon bearing the M.A.S. logo.

I couldn’t help by smile at her antics as the glowing ghoul rolled in the waste, the radiation healing her wounds. This wasn’t helping her condition, but now that the doctors of Friendship City had taught her how to relieve herself of the build up quickly, Ditzy Doo was considerably less worried.

Catching my eye, she shook herself off, flinging glowing goop all over the wagon and the rubble around her, then began to trot back to me, closing her eyes and concentrating as she did so. Her body pulsed with a flash of radiation that drove her face-planting into the broken asphalt of the street. She stood back up, her eyes reeling in different directions, then giggled at her own clumsiness.

As she reached me, she set down her chalkboard, scribbling out, “Absolutely Everything does not have boats. Must fix.”

“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “We’ll get those ponies to safety.”

Ditzy Doo nodded happily and kicked her chalkboard up, dipping her head and expertly catching the neck loop so that it hung again against her fleshy breast.

“Do not move,” the armor-augmented voice cut through the darkness. I immediately cursed myself, bringing up my Eyes-Forward Sparkle up. “We have you surrounded.”

There were red lights all over my compass.

I looked towards the crate that still held most of my weapons. I had retrieved Little Macintosh, but the zebra rifle and sniper rifle were still inside. I did a quick mental calculation of how many armor-piercing bullets I had left for my favorite gun, how long it would take to reload, and the chances they would kill my now-unarmored ghoul companion before I could take them down.

With a heavy sigh, I responded. “We surrender.”

*** *** ***

Ditzy Doo poked at the blue field of our magical energy cage with her hoof, making an “ow” sound. (Something she didn’t need a tongue for.) I stared through the field at the Enclave soldiers milling about outside. A technician pegasus sat next to the terminal which controlled the energy cages -- there were others, but ours was the only one occupied. I noted glumly that it had a cloud interface. Next to it was an Enclave crate where Little Macintosh was imprisoned.

My PipBuck was clicking steadily. Being locked in here with Ditzy Doo was bathing me in radiation. I noticed gloomily that the scrapes and bruises I had acquired in Friendship City were all fading away, and that my stomach was beginning to churn unpleasantly, threatening to divest me of my precious lunch.

Poke. “ow.” Poke. “ow.”

“These ponies aren’t from the attack on Friendship City,” I observed with a whisper, watching an Enclave officer toss her emptied bottle of Sunrise Sarsaparilla into a trash bin that was beginning to overflow. I had glimpsed an Enclave antenna array as they marched us to the cages.

“They’ve been camped here for a while now.” I looked to Ditzy Doo. “Any guesses as to what they’re up to?”

Ditzy Doo looked to me and shook her head, the last wisps of her mane flapping about. Then she turned back to the blue, cracking wall in front of her. Poke. “ow.”

A mustard-coated pegasus in the light Enclave combat armor (identical, I noted, to the armor I had first seen Rainbow Dash showing off to her friends) stopped his walking patrol to lift his visor and glare at Ditzy Doo. “Would ya cut that out?” he growled. “Y’all are givin’ me a headache.”

Poke. “Ow!”

“Hey,” he barked to me. “Can’t ya make yer little monster knock it off?”

“Nope,” I replied, as I caught movement in the corner of my eye. Gazing out, I saw Calamity moving up on a high ridge of rubble. Our cavalry had arrived.

I shifted away and lowered my head, trying to look forlorn and pathetic, burying my face in my hooves to allow myself to serendipitously watch Calamity without alerting any of the ponies keeping an eye on us.

Calamity shifted Spitfire’s Thunder into position, peering down the scope at the pegasi all around us. I waited, my nerves alive with anticipation.

Calamity stared at the other pegasi. And did not fire.

“Calamity?” I whispered to myself.

Slowly, Calamity pulled back, sliding Spitfire’s Thunder away, and disappeared.

Ditzy Doo dropped her chalkboard next to me: “He isn’t going to rescue us?”

Calamity? I thought, feeling apprehensive and a little hurt. What are you doing?

*** *** ***

Two pegasi in fearsome onyx armor marched Calamity into the camp at the tips of their viciously sharp tails. The rust-colored Dashite walked in front of them, wings held high.

Oh dammit, Calamity!

“Up you go,” one of the pegasi ordered as the technician lowered the field around one of the magical energy cages. She prodded Calamity up onto the platform. He cantered around to stare at her as the blue field washed up between them.

I moved as close to him as our cage would allow. The shielded cage was beginning to feel uncomfortably warm. “Calamity,” I hissed. “What…?”

Calamity just looked at me sadly. “Sorry, Li’lpip. Ah… Ah jus’ couldn’t.”

“Even after what they just did? Are you serious?”

Calamity shifted uncomfortably and nodded, offering no explanation. But an explanation was forthcoming.

“Well, look who we ‘ave here!” It was the pegasus buck who had growled at Ditzy Doo. He was trotting up, looking like a colt who had just gotten his cutie mark. “If it ain’t my little brony!”

His little what now?

“Hello, Pride,” Calamity said sourly. “Ah see they’re lettin’ just anypony inta the Enclave these days.”

“Hey,” the mustard-coated pony hissed. “Ah ain’t the traitor here.”

“No,” Calamity jabbed. “Y’all just washed out. Three times, no less.”

“You know him?” I asked.

Pride turned to me with a grin, “Oh, are y’all friends?” He looked from Calamity to us and back in exaggerated astonishment. “Well, what d’ya know. Li’l Calamity actually managed t’ make some friends.” He rolled his eyes, adding, “A munchkin mare an’ a monster.”

Pride smirked at us. “Y’all should really chose a better friend,” the Enclave buck said nastily. “Calamity here’s a flyin’ disaster.”

Leaning close to me just beyond the blue field, Pride nickered like he was about to tell me a secret. I stood up, glaring through the energy barrier at him. “Ya know why father named him Calamity?” the buck asked far too loudly.

Father? Pride was Calamity’s brother? No wonder he wouldn’t shoot!

I suddenly flashed back to the first argument Velvet Remedy had with us about eating meat.

Oh, we c’n eat meat all right. Jus’ don’t much like to. Ain’t really good for our diet, Calamity had asserted. Muh brothers used t’ challenge me t’ hotdog eatin’ contests. Which mostly meant them shoving the disgustin’ things down muh throat.

Calamity’s brother grinned maliciously, “Cuz he killed our mother comin’ out.”

I dropped back on my haunches, the cruelty of Pride’s claim knocking the wind from me. The little pony in my head cried at the pain such vicious words must be causing my best friend.

But Calamity only looked bored. “That again?” he drawled, unimpressed. “Ya ain’t seen me fer six years, an’ in all that time, ya ain’t come up with anythin’ new?” The orange-maned pegasus shook his head. “Back when Ah was a blank-flank colt an’ y’all would tell me that, Ah’d bawl fer hours. But case ya ain’t noticed, that was a long time ago, an’ Ah ain’t a li’l foal no more.”

Pride sneered. “Really? Strange. Ah don’t see no cutie mark on ya, baby brother.”

Calamity rolled his eyes. “An’ ya know why,” he spat.

The mustard-coated Enclave pony laughed, stomping a hoof on the ground. “That Ah do!” He peered into Calamity’s cage at his little brother. “And Ah should be thankin’ ya. Brandin’ that mark off yer flanks was muh rite o’ passage inta the Enclave.”

I reeled. Calamity’s own brother had branded his cutie mark off?!

“Then again, y’all should be thankin’ me,” Pride snarked. “Who wants a picture of a hammer on their flank anyway?”

He swiveled back to Calamity, “Ow, that’s gotta sting, knowin’ ya abandoned yer own kind, became a filthy traitor, when all ya had t’ do was wait a few more years?”

“Muh loyalty was, and has always been, t’ the ponies o’ Equestria,” Calamity glared back. “Ain’t muh fault the Enclave’s allegiance is only t’ itself. If they were what they pretended t’ be, they’d a been down here with me.”

“Still spoutin’ them horseapple, li’l brother?” Pride jabbed. “We’ll, case y’all missed it, we’re here now.”

“So, Pride,” Calamity asked tiredly, “What’s this really all about? Cuz it ain’t the Grand Pegasus Enclave swoopin’ t’ the rescue. Ah ain’t seen a single civilian. This is a military operation, through an’ through.”

Pride nickered. “Haven’t y’all been listenin’ t’ the radio? There’s a bastard pony named Red Eye who’s messin’ with shit that ain’t his t’ mess with.”

“Ya mean the Sing…” Calamity quickly corrected himself, “Sustainable Pegasus Project?”

“Ayep. Somethin’ he did alerted the higher-ups an’ they started diggin’ into all the shit he’s been doin’ with one o’ our towers. None too bright, that Red Eye. Left all sorts o’ clues as t’ what he’s been dippin’ his hooves in.”

I frowned. Careless wasn’t Red Eye’s nature. On the other hoof, if the Enclave could override DJ Pon3’s signal from the M.A.S.E.B.S., they could very possibly be able to access things Red Eye reasonably expected to be secure.

Or Red Eye could be setting them up somehow. From what I saw in Friendship City, the Enclave was sowing the seeds of their own destruction just being here.

And that was before taking into account what my friends and I were going to do to them.

“An’ what’s that gotta do with blastin’ the royal city off the side of the mountain?” Calamity questioned. “Why don’t y’all jus’ fly over and kill ‘im? What’s Operation Cauterize?”

Pride pulled up short. “Where’d ya hear that?”

“Ah have muh sources,” Calamity said cryptically, holding a hoof to his breast.

Pride glared at my friend for a good spell before finally saying, “Don’t do the Enclave no good t’ jus’ kill the bastard. Even if we take ‘im down, somepony else might step inta his hoofprints and try t’ finish what he started.”

So, what, they had to take out Red Eye and Stern?

“T’ protect the Enclave an’ the pegasi race, we gotta take out Red Eye, those he may have told an’ anypony else who might know ‘bout the Sustainable Pegasus Project,” Pride stated firmly. “An’ get rid o’ the last earth-side hubs o’ the damned Ministry o’ Awesome so’s nopony else c’n ever stumble ‘cross what Red Eye did.”

Goddesses. That’s why they were after Radar. He’d been in the MAw. There would be Enclave troops hunting us down for the same reason.

The gears in my mind started churning. Homage was a target too. Who else? The little pony in my head started piecing together a picture that filled me with dread. The Enclave had tried to wipe Friendship City off the map. Tends not to leave loose ends, the voice I now recognized as Commander Thundersheer had said. He didn’t want to just murder Radar; he might have told other members of the science team. And they might have told friends or family. In Thundersheer’s mind, the whole city was “infected” and they all had to perish.

How many degrees of separation before the Enclave wouldn’t consider somepony a threat? How far were they planning to go?

“Y’all are talkin’ ‘bout mass murder,” Calamity breathed. “Ain’t no way the Enclave thinks it c’n be Equestria’s savior after this!” His eyes narrowed, his gaze sharper than a dagger. “But then, they don’t ever plan on rejoinin’ Equestria, do they?”

Pride gave Calamity a pitying look.

“So, what’s the plan then?” Calamity stomped. “The civilians gotta see somethin’s up. The Enclave plannin’ t’ write this off as a big scoutin’ mission? ‘Oh we thought that maybe it was time fer us t’ descend, but after a prolonged exploration, we realized that jus’ ain’t feasible. Best we wait ‘nother two hundred years’?”

“Somethin’ like that,” Pride said dismissively.

*** *** ***

We sat in our magical cages in silence as dawn began to color the horizon. I was supremely tired, but none of us actually felt like sleeping. Calamity had apologized again, several times in fact, until I had nearly shouted at him that it was okay.

I’d spent the last two hours contemplating how I could levitate the weapons I could get my magic on and use them to wipe out the camp. Right now, while most of it was asleep, I figured I had a good chance of pulling it off.

But then, we’d still be stuck in these cages.

I wiped the sweat from my forehead, trembling slightly. My E.F.S. was warning me that my radiation exposure had reached critical levels. I had to try something, but it would have to be something that worked. I wouldn’t survive in here long enough to get another chance.

Ditzy Doo was huddled on the far corner of the cage, keeping away from me as best she could. But in this small a space, it really didn’t matter.

Calamity was laying down in his cage, looking morose.

“I’m sure Pride was wrong,” I told my friend through the shields between us. “About your father, I mean. He wouldn’t have named you after the death of your mother.”

Calamity’s muzzle gave me a wry smile. “Ah could never bring muhself t’ ask. But, knowin’ muh father, he prob’ly did.”

Luna’s mercy. That was… horrible. “I… I’m sorry, Calamity, but I kinda hate your father right now.”

Calamity smiled, sitting up. “That’s okay, Li’lpip. He’d be happy t’ hear it.” I winced. “Everypony hates muh father. That’s his job. Most loathed bastard in all the Enclave.”

“Your father is Enclave too?” I breathed, my mind suddenly conjuring images of Calamity’s father as a member of the Enclave High Council. Possibly even the stallion behind Operation Cauterize. Goddesses… don’t put Calamity through that. It’s not fair!

“Ayep,” Calamity said, a grim little smile playing over his face. “Drill Sergeant at Neighvarro.”

He stood up, raising his wings and dropping his voice mockingly, “A HAMMER? Yer cutie mark is a fuckin’ HAMMER? That had BETTER be to HAMMER down yer enemies, boy! Or yer the SORRIEST EXCUSE fer a SON that Ah EVER did see!”


Calamity sat back down, chuckling a little despite himself. “Ayep. That’s muh dad.” He shook his mane, looking at me. “Any surprise all four o’ his bucks ended up in the Enclave?”

Suddenly, my mother felt like a blessing.

“So…” I said, trying to strike up conversation while I searched for a solution to our predicament. “Your cutie mark was a hammer?”

Calamity looked up. “Ayep. An’ a screwdriver.”

“Your cutie mark was tools?” It was not what I had expected. I would have imagined my friend with crosshairs on his flank. Or a bullseye. Although that would hardly be the best thing to be sporting on your flank in the Equestrian Wasteland.

Still, this was Calamity. The pony who delighted in fixing up the Sky Bandit and making it fly again. Who put on armor and a pony rack. Who repaired everything from firearms to dresses. I thought of him as a sharpshooter; but thinking about it, I realized that every weapon he used aside from Spitfire’s Thunder was a weapon he had modified or built himself. He’d even jury-rigged his Enclave armor to allow him to shoot it without wearing the helmet.

Ditzy Doo trotted up, pressing her chalkboard against the shield, making it crackle.

Calamity peered, reading. “Story?” He looked at me, baffled.

Cocking my head at Ditzy Doo, I guessed, “I think she wants to hear your cutie mark story.” With a smile, I added, “I think I do too.”

“Cutie marks don’t matter,” Calamity told us drearily.

“Come on,” I encouraged, clopping my hooves on the floor of the cage. “Story! Story!” Ditzy Doo joined in.

Calamity rolled his eyes and shot me a look. “Fine. But y’all gotta share yers too.” He tipped his desperado hat, thinking.

*** *** ***

“When Ah was a li’l colt,” Calamity began, “All Ah wanted t’ do was make muh father proud o’ me. Which was nearly impossible, even fer muh big brothers. Ah was never gonna be as big or strong as ‘em, so Ah practiced shootin’. First year Ah tried the Young Sharpshooter’s Competition, Ah came in third.

“Father was so disappointed.”

I winced.

“I tried t’ tell ‘im that Ah tried muh best, but he told me that meant muh best was pathetic. I said it wasn’t muh fault. That the old gun he’d given me was all weighted funny an’ hard t’ aim. He told me that Ah shoulda fixed it better then.”

Calamity shook his head, digging a hoof at the cell floor. “So’s that’s what Ah did. Ah spent all year tinkerin’ with that gun. Fixin’ the sights, buildin’ a custom muzzle grip, addin’ weight t’ the shoulder brace so it was more balanced.

“Next year, Ah placed first.”

Calamity looked up at me, tears in his eyes. “Th-that was the first time muh father ever smiled at me. First t-time he ever told me Ah’d done good.”

He stared into the morning sky. The rising sun was painting the clouds with glorious oranges and pinks and golds. “When Ah got home an’ took off muh competitors bardin’, there they were. A hammer an’ a screwdriver. Best day o’ muh life.”

He looked down, reaching back a hoof to ruffle his mane. “’Till Ah met ya an’ Velvet, o’ course.”

*** *** ***

“I was dead last amongst my peers to get my cutie mark,” I told them. “All the other colts and fillies who had been in my class had gotten their cutie marks a full two years before, and the Overmare wanted to put me to work.”

I explained, “Normally, in Stable Two, we were assigned the jobs we would have for the rest of our lives based on our cutie marks. Without mine, the Overmare couldn’t assign me. So she drew on some ancient bylaw created by Stable Two’s first Overmare which allowed her to have me temporarily apprentice under a variety of positions until something sparked my cutie mark to appear. Mostly, she had me try out a number of administrative and technical apprenticeships, since those were the areas most unicorns were assigned to anyway.”

I looked down at the PipBuck grossly infused into the flesh of my leg. “We were supposed to get our PipBucks after we got our cutie marks and our job assignment.”

Biting my lower lip, I thought back. “One day, while I was apprenticing with the head PipBuck Technician, a worried couple slipped into the PipBuck Technician’s stall. Their son had gone missing. He had run off during his Cutie Mark Party. Somehow, he’d gotten himself lost in the Stable and they couldn’t find him.”

Calamity was staring at me, a little bewildered. He remembered how small and enclosed the Stables were compared to the outside world.

“One of the most overlooked capabilities of a PipBuck is that it can track tagged objects. Mostly, this is used for the automapper. My PipBuck came loaded with a whole slew of preset location tags. I’m still getting surprised by occasional ‘you are here’ messages on my Eyes-Forward Sparkle.” I smiled a little, remembering how astonished I was that my PipBuck knew the name of Sweet Apple Acres. “Every PipBuck has a tag, allowing anypony with that tag code and another PipBuck to locate them.”

“My mentor was… asleep. Which was not uncommon for him. So I hacked into his terminal and downloaded the tag code for the colt’s new PipBuck into one of the ones I had been working on. I took the tools that allowed me to unlock it and put the PipBuck on, bringing up an Eyes-Forward Sparkle for the first time. Keying the E.F.S. compass to the colt’s tag, I slipped through the Stable until I found him.

“The colt had managed to get himself locked in the maintenance shed for the Apple Orchard. It was after hours, and nopony had been around to hear his banging and yelling. I didn’t want to get the colt in trouble, so instead of fetching one of the gardener ponies, I picked the lock and got him out myself.”

I gave a weak grin. “Of course, he went and told everypony how I had ‘rescued’ him, and so I got in trouble for appropriating the PipBuck and picking the lock. But at least my mentor covered for me about the hacking. And the Overmare wasn’t going to press the issue, seeing as my new cutie mark dictated that I would be with him for a good long while.”

Smiling softly at the memory, I concluded, “It was the first time I had ever felt I’d done something useful. Something really… good.”

*** *** ***

I don’t think either of us had been expecting Ditzy Doo to join in the storytelling -- hell, we couldn’t even tell what the ghoul’s cutie mark had been -- so both Calamity and I were surprised when the glowing pegasus dropped her chalkboard at my hooves and prodded me to read. (And then prodded me harder, reminding me to read aloud so Calamity could hear.)

It took a great many pauses while Ditzy Doo wiped the chalkboard clean and wrote a few more words before her simple story was told:

“Uncle owned a moving wagon company.

“Uncle let me help. He didn’t let me do too much carrying. Said I was clumsy. But he let me ride around on the wagon and called me his little mascot.

“I liked it. It was fun to help ponies move into a new home. I liked seeing them happy. Especially families.

“Super especially when they had fillies or colts my age.

“Once, there was a family who was sad about moving. They had a little filly and a littler colt, but they were scared of me because my eyes are different. So I made funny faces and got them to laugh at me. Then they were happy.

“Then I took them back to where uncle kept all the packing supplies, and I showed them the most fun thing in the entire world: bubble wrap.

“They loved popping all the bubbles, especially little Pokey. We had fun all day long.

“Uncle told me that was when I got my cutie mark. But I was having too much fun to notice.”

*** *** ***

I had almost come up with a plan when Pride snuck past our cages and to the terminal. Poking it with a hoof, he brought down the walls of magical energy.

Calamity jumped up, leaping off the cage platform. “What the hey?”

“Just go,” Pride hissed.

I whispered to Calamity, pointing at the Enclave crate that Little Macintosh was locked away in.

“Open that,” Calamity said, pointing his hoof, “And we will.”

Pride nashed his teeth in exasperation and went to work on the crate.

“So…” Calamity said as the crate hissed open. I floated out Little Macintosh and the few other items they had taken from Ditzy Doo and me. “…we escaped?”

“Somethin’ like that. Ah don’t know. But y’all gotta get.” Pride looked around nervously. “Listen, word just came down. Operation Cauterize has been extended t’ all Dashites. Next time Ah see ya, Ah’ll be shootin’ ya. Understand?”

Calamity nodded. “Gee, Ah ‘ave the sudden, unnatural urge t’ hug ya, big brony.”

Ditzy Doo moved up, holding her chalkboard in her teeth with two words written across it. “New Appleloosa?”

Pride gave us an ugly look. “Red Eye’s favorite tradin’ town? The one that gave ‘im the bomb he set off, assassinatin’ a member o’ the High Council? Enclave dispatched a full regiment there at first light.”

Ditzy Doo stumbled back at the news, the chalkboard dropping from her open muzzle.

“Monster,” Pride said darkly, “Ah’d be surprised if there’s even a crater left by now.”

Ditzy’s eyes were wide, her pupils huge and centered dead ahead, seeing something beyond Pride, a strangled squeak coming from her throat. She didn’t need to speak for me to know the one thing on her mind: Silver Bell!

I heard the little lavender filly’s voice from two days before, crying out: Mommy!

Ditzy Doo broke into flight, headed for New Appleloosa. Calamity scooped me up, giving chase, diverting only far enough for me to telekinetically scoop of Spitfire’s Thunder from the rubble where he’d left it.

*** *** ***

Four Raptors were positioning themselves over New Appleloosa, squads of black-armored pegasi flying about the sky between them. The town was still standing, but we could see Enclave soldiers swooping to strike down ponies who were trying to flee the walls.

Ditzy Doo pulled up, hovering in the air, a look of dismay etched on her face.

Calamity bristled, his eyes narrowing in anger as a pegasus dove at a running mare, opening up with a rapid-fire burst of light that turned the fleeing pony to glowing blue dust.

“Dammit, Li’lpip! We gotta stop this!” He was near the breaking point. I could hear it in his voice.

Before we could react, Ditzy Doo zoomed forward again, flying right into the heart of the Enclave forces. The pegasi whipped about as the glowing one shot past them. They started chasing her, but quickly stopped shooting after their first blasts missed and hit one of the Raptors.

Calamity set me down and started off after her, but I grabbed him by the tail with my teeth. “Whoa! That’s suicide,” I knew we were about to lose Ditzy Doo, and probably Xenith and Silver Bell. I was damned if I was going to lose Calamity too. “We need a plan!”

Ditzy Doo had stopped in the center of the Enclave forces. They had her surrounded, but they couldn’t shoot without risking hitting their own. Several armored pegasi moved in, their tails curling to strike as soon as they got within range.


The burst of light and radiation from the glowing pegasus sent the encroaching Enclave pegasi reeling as Ditzy Doo shot almost straight up into the air, beating her nearly featherless wings as fast and hard as she could.

The Enclave pegasi gave chase. They started to fire again, but Ditzy Doo repeatedly blasted out radiation, each time blinding her pursuers as it shot her up higher.

Two of the Raptors swiveled their topside cannons around, scorching the air with magical death. But the huge weapons were too inaccurate to hit their quickly ascending target. After half a dozen missed shots, they left the escaping ghoul to the black-armored soldiers chasing her.

The glow of Ditzy Doo illuminated a patch of the dark storm clouds as she disappeared into them. Then the glow faded and she was gone.

The ponies following her stopped, hovering in the air. Several began to turn back.

Inside, I knew that she would any moment break through the top of the cloud curtain and see true sunlight for the first time in probably two hundred years. The little pony in my head shed a tear.

Then reality snapped back. Ditzy Doo had distracted the Enclave. She’d given us a window. And we were missing it!

“Okay,” I said quickly to Calamity as I slipped the MG StealthBuck II into my malformed PipLeg. “Here’s the plan…”

“Whoa,” Calamity said, looking up.

I turned, following his gaze, as a spot of golden-green light dropped out of the clouds. I knew what it was, but I still lifted my binoculars to be sure. The first drops of the promised storm began to fall.

Ditzy Doo had broken back through the cloud curtain, shooting past the top tier of hovering Enclave soldiers before they could react.

The ones who had started back down turned and sped in to catch her.

PFWOOSH! The pulse of radioactive light sent the black-armored pegasi spinning out of control as she shot ahead like a rocket.

The other pegasi were reacting now, chasing after her, firing beams of multi-colored light. Most missed. I gasped as some did not.

PFWOOSH! Ditzy Doo jolted ahead, moving even faster. She was aiming right for the center space between the Enclave’s Raptors.

The Raptors were in position now. Their belly cannons were taking aim at New Appleloosa below, preparing to cleanse the town off the face of Equestria.

My plan was forgotten as quickly as I had formed it. All I could do was watch.


Ditzy was beyond the reach of her pursuers now. But not, it appeared, beyond the reach of their weapons. One of the Enclave ponies fired twin missiles at the ghoul pegasus as she streaked by, seeming nothing more than a glowing blur. The missiles spun, magically locking onto her. They spiraled around each other leaving a double-helix of smoke in their wake, as they chased her.


The missiles were undeterred and gaining speed, closing the distance as Ditzy Doo beat her wings, arrowing down at the Enclave about to destroy her town and kill her daughter. She was moving so fast the odd air of the Equestrian Wasteland seemed to be warping about her. Her body was glowing brighter and brighter as she focused, building up for another burst. The sickly light pouring from her body was rippling in the air, sheering off of her in washes of unearthly, diseased colors.

The missiles seemed to reach her at the same time she reached the Raptors.

Ditzy Doo exploded.

Footnote: Maximum Level
Quest Perk added: Touched by Taint (3) – Exposure to Taint has further altered your physiology. You are 20% faster and stronger whenever you’re basking in the warm glow of radiation. Your Action Points regenerate faster and faster the higher your level of radiation sickness becomes. Your natural lifespan has increased dramatically.