Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat


Chapter Forty-Two: Into Fire and Darkness

Chapter Forty-Two: Into Fire and Darkness

“Stay out!! The plants kill!”

“You.”

As if in a trance, Velvet Remedy took a step towards the weeping willow with its buttery yellow bark and draping pink leaves.

“It’s… you…”

The tree creaked and groaned, an eerie wind blowing through the curtains of hanging pink, rustling them with a mournful whisper. The soft and airy whimper caught my imagination. I could almost believe the wind carried words.

Stay away!

Velvet Remedy moved slowly closer. “It is you, isn’t it?” she intoned in a strangled voice. She sounded like she was on the verge of breaking. Or screaming.

I picked myself up off the grass. I looked to my E.F.S. compass, hoping to spot the whereabouts of my friends, but saw nothing. My Eyes-Forward Sparkle had gone down in the crash. Or had I never brought it up? The fatal explosion of the Sky Bandit was still ringing in my ears, and I wasn’t thinking straight.

Xenith, crouching low, her belly against the grass, crept up to the stone bunny. She reached out a tentative hoof and touched it, her hoof pulling back instantly as if she had reached out to touch molten lava. The fierce stone bunny statue remained a fierce stone bunny statue.

I brought up my Eyes-Forward Sparkle. It flashed a notice at me: new transmission detected. My eyes fell to the compass, which was glowing entirely red. It was as if the entire forest was hostile.

Behind me, I heard Calamity call out, “Reggie, there you are! Seen Life Bloom?”

“No,” Reggie called back, her tone just a little snide. “Ain’t he the one with the invisibility cloak?”

Xenith reached out and nudged the statue. It wobbled and fell over. Her eyes widened and she leapt back defensively.

The wind picked up. The rustling through the leaves was a haunting sound. It made the weeping willow sound like it was sobbing.

“How… how can this… be you?” Velvet asked, her voice almost childlike now.

Xenith stood up, approaching the fallen bunny statue. With a strangely sad look on her face, she leaned her head down and picked it up in her teeth, setting it back upright. “Doombunny,” she said finally. “Turned to stone by a cockatrice. A worthy end for a worthy opponent.”

Only a cockatrice can reverse its own magic. I remembered. The one who stoned Fluttershy’s pet had surely died, if only of old age, lifetimes ago. He had stood guard here -- unmoving, unwavering stone.

Xenith bowed to Angel. “Doombunny, forever Fluttershy’s protector.”

The wind picked up, seeming to tear at the tree, the ghostly moans of its branches filled with misery and infinite sorrow.

“I’m here,” Life Bloom called out, appearing as he shook the hood back from his head. “Is everypony all right?”

“Yeah, thanks for askin’,” snarked the griffin.

The twisted, buttery-yellow tree creaked. The little blue vines shifted about its gnarled roots. Once more the soft, painful howl of the wind seemed to form words:

Get away!

Velvet Remedy took a step closer.

“Get away!” Xenith yelled, charging at Velvet Remedy and striking her with a forehoof hard enough to send her tumbling several yards down the sloped clearing.

Blue vines erupted from the ground in a shower of dirt and grass. Lashes of twisting, sinister ivy flailed after their victim. One of the blue vines brushed Xenith.

Suddenly there was so much blood.

The zebra’s body seemed to explode in sick gouts of hot crimson. It was as if each of her stripes had been flensed off her body, leaving gaping wounds of blood and meat.

The vines went after Velvet. Xenith collapsed with a wet thump and a barely audible moan, bleeding to death in a growing pool of dark red.

I had no time to think. I acted instinctively, in desperation drawing on the darkest strings of power. Xenith’s blood pulled itself from the grass, dripping upwards, swirling. If I could form a blade, I could form a cast. I spun the blood about her, hardening it into a full-body cast, leaving only her flayed muzzle exposed so that she could breathe.

“…killing joke…” she moaned weakly, “…stay away…” The zebra who had saved Velvet’s life slipped into unconsciousness.

Now that the unearthly dread that seemed to permeate the forest had something in my mind to attach to, the fear became palpable. Suffocating.

Scarlet energy enveloped Velvet Remedy, lifting her from the grassy floor as more vines tore up from the ground, seeking to touch. The vines which had attacked Xenith turned their attention towards me.

For just a moment, I froze. I stared at the writhing wave of blue as it whipped across the clearing. I could hear gunshots. Not Calamity. I knew the sound of his battle saddle. He knew better than to try to kill ivy with a bullet. Reggie then. Quick to act and unwilling to hold back.

Jokeblue’s a funny name. How’d she get that?

Birth defect, Homage had told me solemnly. Her mother was hit by killing joke while pregnant. Lucky either of them lived.

Xenith had seen the threat and understood it. Sometimes, I feel as if I am an earth pony and that my stripes are really great wounds.

The plant had somehow taken some random thing Xenith had said and turned it against her. Suddenly, I understood the plant’s name. It was a joke -- a sick, twisted, malevolent joke. The Everfree Forest was home to a mobile, aggressive, sadistic plant filled with transformation magic.

Vines of blue struck through the air and slithered across the ground, colliding against a field of shimmering light that interposed itself between me and them. Velvet Remedy’s shield spell. The vines struck at the shield, unable to penetrate, then burrowed into the ground again.

What have I said? I asked myself in mounting horror. After Arbu, I thought of myself as a monster. Did I ever say that aloud? Does it matter to killing joke if I did? Oh Celestia, did I ever call myself heartless?

“Littlepip!” Velvet Remedy screamed. The smoky air went a funny scarlet and filled with sparkles, like I was looking at the world through a red balloon dusted with glitter, and I felt myself lose weight, the grass dropping from beneath my hooves. I looked down in time to see blue ivy burst up through the grass I had just been standing on, grass that was rapidly sinking away from me.

Life Bloom started to run, his horn glowing with scarlet energy as he galloped back into the forest, levitating Velvet Remedy, me and the body of Xenith in front of him. Velvet extended her shield spell in a sphere around us. Pyrelight flew overhead, keeping pace as she weaved between the tree branches that clawed at her.

“Hell of a thing you did back there, Littlepip,” Life Bloom called up to me, an indefinable tone in his voice. He jumped a fallen log covered in mounds of blackish-green moss; the ground beneath the log tore open, vines of blue wrapping around it, reaching. “What kind of spell was that?”

“A last resort,” I told him as Velvet Remedy wasted no time in mummifying Xenith with healing bandages. Blood poured from the zebra’s muzzle. Velvet’s eyes were brimming with tears.

More blue vines tore up the ground ahead of us, lashing themselves between trees like a web.

“I got this!” Reggie shouted, shooting forward. She had holstered her pistols and was holding Kage’s hellhound-claw knives in her talons.

Panic shot through me. “No!” I cried out. “Don’t let them touch you!”

My heart skipped a beat as the Talon griffin drew up short.

“Let me!” I called out, wrapping her brother’s weapons in my magic. Reggie nodded, releasing the blades, content to let my magic guide her brother’s contribution to our survival. The knives soared through the air at my control, slashing apart the blue vines, clearing the way.

Life Bloom charged past the shredded barrier, jumping over the severed strands of blue ivy. All about us were gnarled, wicked trees and bizarrely-hued plants. Some of the trees were covered in bulging masses of blackish moss which often took on terrifying silhouettes. But I ignored all these, keeping my eyes trained for crawling strings of hateful blue. I had seen killing joke before. There were dead strands of it in Fluttershy’s bedroom. This stuff was everywhere in the forest.

Everywhere… but the killing joke was worst, I suspected, back in the clearing we were fleeing from. That place was a trap. And Fluttershy (for I was now convinced that the butter-yellow weeping willow was indeed the Mare of the Ministry of Peace) was its lure. And, more hellishly, its victim. Did Fluttershy ever say something about being tree-like? Or maybe joked about having a bark worse than her bite? Fuck, maybe she just said she wanted to leave.

Dark branches whipped past us. The smoke was getting thicker. Life Bloom coughed, slowing, as a change in the wind brought rolling waves of heat. We were headed towards the fire. I could see the bright flickers of orange between the thick trees in the depth of the forest ahead of us.

“We can’t go this way,” Reggie called out as I floated Kage’s knives back to her. Life Bloom started to change direction.

Three plumes of black cloud shot past us overhead, lightning crackling across the smoky contrails. I watched as the Wonderbolts flew past us, then split apart and started back.

“Aw hell,” Calamity moaned, kicking the lever on his battle saddle to switch ammunition.

Least stealthy assassins ever.

Only they weren’t assassins, were they? Nopony had called them that except the pony in my head. And she was trying to force them into the wrong frame. No, the Wonderbolts weren’t stealthy. But then, when had the Enclave ever been subtle? Stealth was not the Enclave’s way.

Everything we had witnessed pointed to the Enclave operating under a single, over-riding military philosophy: shock and awe. Overwhelming displays of power and dominance, spectacular and terrifying displays of force and skill that paralyze, demoralize and rout the enemy. The Enclave may have rejected Rainbow Dash, but they were still born out of the fighting force she had molded in her own image. And the Wonderbolts were their greatest and most glorified hunters. Not because they operated with a different methodology than the rest of the Enclave, but because the Enclave revered shock and awe, and the Wonderbolts were the best at it.

They were running us to ground, weakening us before the kill, trying to make us panic.

The smoke was like tiny daggers in my eyes. Life Bloom coughed again, a bad rattle in his throat. We couldn’t keep running much longer, and we couldn’t outrun the Wonderbolts anyway. But the idea of fighting them in this accursed forest seemed more insane every minute.

And the forest wasn’t done. Not by a long shot.

The Wonderbolts were being forced low by the smoke, flying at tree-top level. They could trace my tag, but that wouldn’t help them track any of the rest of us. And even their armors’ targeting spells were virtually worthless in the Everfree Forest. At any distance, my companions just melted into the sea of red lights that was our entire damn environment.

The three Wonderbolts were moving slower and closer now, enough so that I could make out the ponies at the heads of those contrails. They wore modified versions of the Enclave’s standard magically-powered armor, their manes flowing out of a trench in the backs of their helmets, their muzzles visible through transparent breathing masks. The rest of the armor had the familiar carapace design, only theirs were a deep blue with lightning-like golden filigree.

Life Bloom poured himself into running, trying to put as much distance between us and the killing joke clearing. The three Wonderbolts (three? Weren’t there five?) had nearly reached us when dark forms burst from the treetops between us. They were reptilian, like miniature dragons, with leathery wings and wicked claws and strange, beaked heads with red eyes that glinted in malice.

One of them flew right at one of the Wonderbolts. Like it was playing chicken. The elite Enclave flyer didn’t flinch, didn’t veer off. Neither did the creature. But at the last moment, instead of the two colliding, the thunder cloud contrail stopped, the Wonderbolt falling out of the sky as the creature flew past. Turned to stone.

Cockatrices.

“Jet!” the other two Wonderbolts cried out in unison.

The fiery-maned lead Wonderbolt didn’t miss a beat, flipping about in the air and landing on her own contrail, the force causing the smoky cloud to unleash a blast of lightning at the cockatrice. The creature released a wretched, earsplitting squawk and retreated, tendrils of black smoke wafting off its singed scales.

Four more had launched from the trees. I heard Calamity fire his rifles, and another monstrous cry as his target dropped to the ground, thrashing and bloodied. A second rounded back on Calamity only to be knocked away by a flash of emerald and gold. Pyrelight dug her talons into her scaly, dangerous prey and breathed balefire.

I floated a healing potion out of Velvet’s saddleboxes and gingerly tried to pour it down Xenith’s throat. Her mouth was full of blood, her healing bandages were streaked with blackening crimson where my blood-cocoon had cracked and split.

The leading Wonderbolt shot overhead, her rust-colored mane whipped by the wind. As she passed us, she spun around, flying backwards. Streams of pinkish light tore from her battle saddle, slashing through the trees and underbrush. Several beams of her magical energy struck against Velvet Remedy’s shield, causing rippling patterns that reminded me of the sky over Canterlot in the Butterfly Orb.

Velvet’s spell collapsed under the strain. But we were once again too deep under tree cover for the pegasus to finish any of us off. With the shield down, we were blanketed by the ominous crackling and heat of the fires ahead.

Reggie had her guns out, firing bullets at two of the cockatrices simultaneously. Her shots finished the one Calamity had wounded, and winged another that was circling towards the Wonderbolts. Reggie swung her other gun towards that cockatrice as well, but she was denied the kill -- the monster’s head exploded, its blood misting the air. BLAM! The shot didn’t come from any of us, nor any of the Wonderbolts we could see. The Enclave’s premier sniper was one of the two Wonderbolts hanging back, out of sight but still very much in the action.

The cockatrice wrestling with Pyrelight twisted and thrashed, trying to turn about so it could look the balefire phoenix in the eyes. Pyrelight’s talons scraped against its scales, unable to claw through the monster’s tough hide.

Once again, I wished SteelHooves was with us. The former Steel Ranger would have made us a real challenge for the Wonderbolts. And he would have made short work of the killing joke. I suspect he would have enjoyed the opportunity to avenge one of Applejack’s closest friends.

Velvet Remedy cast her shield about us again, sweat beading on her brow. The strain was getting to her. Which was exactly what the Wonderbolts wanted. I saw tears streaming down her cheeks that probably weren’t from the stinging smoke. “Dammit, we need to stop running and start fighting them,” I called over the sounds of fighting and fire. “Divide and save, remember?”

“We need to go back,” Velvet Remedy announced.

“What?” Life Bloom called back, echoing my own thoughts. Go back to the field of transformative torture and death?

Velvet turned to me, her tear-soaked eyes filled with determination and pleading in equal measure. “We have to save her!”

Save who? …oh! My eyes widened as I realized just who Velvet Remedy needed to save.

The music of magical energy discharges wrenched my attention upward. As we passed between trees, I caught a glimpse of Calamity pegasus-fighting with the fiery-maned Wonderbolt.

Scorch marks covered Calamity’s barding and battle saddle; his left hindleg was curled up under him like it was in pain. But the Enclave elite had yet to consummate a fatal shot. She was an excessively better flyer, swooping rings around him, anticipating his every pitch and yaw. But the forest played havoc with S.A.T.S., and without her armor’s targeting spell, she had nowhere near Calamity’s caliber of marksmanship. Fortunately for the Wonderbolt, Calamity didn’t want to kill her. I knew he was just trying to draw her away from the rest, somewhere where Velvet Remedy or Life Bloom could strike her down with a spell.

A flying ball of thrashing scales and feathers shot through the forest past us. The cockatrice finally managed to pull itself free from Pyrelight, twisting about to turn its petrifying stare into Pyrelight’s face.

Pyrelight let out a blast of balefire, melting the creature’s eyes away and boiling its brain.

I was trying to pour a second healing potion into Xenith’s mouth. Her muzzle had stopped bleeding, scabbing over like a skin of dark crimson leather. Her breathing was ragged, but less so (I thought) than a moment ago.

The ground exploded underneath Life Bloom. Horrifying, pain-soaked memories of SteelHooves’ death flashed through my mind as the hellhound erupted from the ground beneath Life Bloom. The hellhound’s timing was a fraction off, his helmet slamming into Life Bloom’s underbelly, thrusting the unicorn upwards as the hellhound’s huge claws slashed at empty air. Life Bloom’s magic imploded, dropping us as the pony rolled down the back of the hellhound’s armored vest, collapsing on the broken ground behind him, stunned.

I lashed out with my own telekinesis, enveloping Xenith’s unconscious form, keeping her from hitting the ground even as I slammed into a nest of fronds on the forest floor. One of the plants slapped me across the eyes. I winced, one eye closed from the pain, and pivoted to look back.

The hellhound blinked in surprise, taking a moment to realize what had gone wrong, then spun around, lifting his claws above the staggered unicorn. Blossoms of red spouted from the hellhound’s chest, neck and just below his right eye as Reggie swooped up behind him, firing both of her Calamity-crafted guns as fast as the triggers would allow. Each armor-piercing round punctured the hellhound’s armor and hide; only three managing to escape. The hellhound fell.

Xenith’s body had come down in the ferns in front of me, but gently thanks to my magic. I didn’t know where Velvet Remedy had landed. The crack of the Wonderbolts’ sniper split the sky. I hoped the pegasus had been aiming at a cockatrice.

Three more helmeted hellhounds tore themselves up from the ground about ten yards away and began charging towards us, loping on all fours, magical energy rifles strapped to their backs.

I felt the earth tremble beneath me. Ground might tremble a bit; that’s all the warnin’ y’all will get before they rend ya apart. My heart stopped. There was a hellhound right beneath me!

I wasn’t dead yet. In the time it took me to think that, I should have been.

Life Bloom shook himself off and began running towards me. I thought I heard Velvet Remedy doing the same. Overhead, Pyrelight had abandoned her kill and was circling through the trees, looking for her favorite unicorn.

Ghosts don’t exist. Just landmines.

That was Ditzy Doo’s belief about the supposedly haunted farm. In a flash, I remembered the hellhounds’ tactic at Maripony. There was a reason the other three hellhounds had revealed themselves so far away.

“Stop!” I shouted. “Stay back! Mines!” I wrapped a levitation field around myself and Xenith.

The three hellhounds stopped their charge, ducking behind trees as they drew their weapons. Life Bloom threw the hood of the zebra cloak over his head, vanishing.

“Littlepip, don’t!” Reggie squawked. “If you move, you’ll set ‘em off!”

Purple light speared my reinforced Canterlot barding, knifing into my flank. The armor dispersed most of the magical energy, but that didn’t stop the searing pain. Physical hurt gave way to something deeper as I realized the shot had struck my cutie mark, possibly doing permanent damage. I wailed. I’d never loved my cutie mark, but the idea that I might have just lost it, even on just one of my flanks, was an excruciating cut to my soul.

It was all I could do to keep from stripping off my armor to see what damage the hellhound’s shot had done. With a voice filled with emotion, I screamed back at Reggie, “We can’t stay here!” We didn’t need to hold still. We needed to move very, very fast.

“Jus’ keep the two of you weightless,” Reggie shouted back as she dove behind a rock, taking cover from incoming hellhound fire. “I’ll shoot by and grab you the moment…”

A brilliant blast of light from above snatched everyone’s attention, making the smoky sky seem to glow. A rust-colored heap with an orange tail plunged into a nearby tree, trailing smoke.

“Calamity!” Velvet Remedy shrieked. Pyrelight winged over, zeroing in on her voice. A black-scorched, reptilian monster launched itself at Pyrelight from a nearby tree. The balefire phoenix jerked around to see her attacker and immediately turned to stone. The stoned phoenix dropped.

Velvet cried out in despair. Reggie spun in the air, taking swift aim. Only a cockatrice can reverse its own magic. “No!” I bellowed, my voice rasping from the smoke. “Don’t kill it! We need it alive!” That last word was disrupted by a fit of coughing.

Three down. We were losing this!

Four down if you counted the little pony in my head who could do nothing more than prance around in misery, crying: My cutie mark! My cutie mark!

The cockatrice dipped a wing, circling back through the trees towards us. As it came into sight, the monster was struck by a blast of magic from Velvet Remedy’s horn. It lost control of its body, smacking into a tree branch. The limp body slid from the branch, dropping into a purple fern.

One of the hellhounds kept firing, pinning Reggie as the two others moved to closer trees. Then they opened fire while their companion left cover. The ground squirmed beneath them. A tendril of bright blue wormed out of the forest floor, wrapping itself around the ankle of the last hellhound…

The hellhound was gone, his helmet and rifle dropping into the underbrush. In his place stood a stunned, blinking earth pony mare, her flowing purple mane cascading over her pristine, pearl-white coat. She has no cutie mark, my little pony fixated on.

The earth pony let out a wide-eyed meep.

The two other hellhounds spun to see the pony who had apparently snuck up behind them. With unthinking aggression, they jumped at her, claws flashing.

With thoughtless instinct, I telekinetically shoved the new pony backwards. The two hellhounds collided almost comically. Seeming to grasp at least some part of her situation, the pony spun around and galloped into the forest, crying.

The two hellhounds picked themselves up and gave chase. More vines of blue tore themselves from the ground, trying to reach them, but the hellhounds were too fleet of foot to be snagged.

I blinked. My mind conjured the image of the hellhound casually commenting to his brothers “Sometimes I wish I was a pony” …or something like that. I could see the joke. It was almost comical. Ha, ha, we got your family to murder you. Almost comical, yet still fucking sick.

Birth defect. Killing joke had attacked the mother of Homage’s closet friend while she was pregnant. Probably killing her, and forever scarring the unborn baby. The filthy notion settled into my head that the plants probably did something that caused the mother to die during childbirth, murdering her on what should have been her happiest day and stealing Jokeblue’s mother from her forever.

I realized I hated those plants. Not just feared them. Loathed them with spectacular intensity.

I felt myself yanked away, Reggie’s talons digging at my barding, Xenith in her other clawed grip, being held by her saddle-pouch. The ground shot below me in a blur just before it erupted in a paroxysm of melting magical energy.

Reggie set us down a dozen yards beyond the magical firestorm. Life Bloom appeared almost immediately, his horn glowing as he began to cast medical spells over Xenith. I realized we had completely lost track of the Wonderbolts.

“This… is bad,” I moaned. What were they doing? Why weren’t they pressing their assault?

“You! Will! Fix! Her!” Velvet Remedy growled, threatening to strangle the barely-conscious cockatrice wrapped in her magic as she thrust it towards a Pyrelight-shaped stone half-imbedded in the forest floor. The cockatrice let out a plaintive squawk. Pyrelight’s body slowly became flesh and feathers again, the stone seeming to wash away.

“Don’tcha… let… that… rascal go...”

Calamity dropped out of his tree with a groan. His coat was singed and burned away in places, revealing red and blistered skin. His hat was half-burned, the remains of his mane was still smoldering. My dearest friend was in agony. My nerves cried out in sympathetic pain at the sight. I covered my mouth as I gasped.

“Fucker… weaponized the Buckaneer Blaze…” Calamity complained through gritted teeth as Velvet galloped to him, giving the suspected minefield as little of a berth as she thought safe, the cockatrice hauled behind her. The heat from the fires was oppressive against my own coat and flesh. I couldn’t imagine how much it must be aggravating Calamity’s wounds.

Gingerly, as if stepping closer to him could cause more pain, I approached Calamity. “Are you…” I stopped before asking Equestria’s dumbest question. Instead, I turned to Velvet. “Will he be all right?” The charcoal unicorn was pulling out a super restoration potion. One of our last. Part of me wondered if Xenith might need that even more. A much bigger part of me wanted to beat that part of me up for even asking. I had to trust Velvet and assume that Life Bloom had healing spells that likely put our potions to shame.

Reggie landed next to us. “No sign of our ponyfeathered friends,” she commented. “But the fire line’s less than a hundred yards ahead, an’ Red Eye’s griffins are leadin’ it. My guess, the Wonderdolts are regroupin’. Forest took out one o’ their own before they even engaged us, so they’re prob’ly givin’ their plan a re-think before tryin’ t’ fight us where they could draw Red Eye’s forces inta the skirmish.”

Thank Celestia! We needed the break, even if it was going to be very short-lived. But more than that, we needed to get somewhere safe. The heat was draining our strength almost as much as the fighting. The smoke was burning my eyes and throat, making it hard to breathe. Our struggle against the Wonderbolts had become a three-way battle, and the Everfree Forest was winning.

I really wanted to walk up to them, waving a flag of truce and calling out: Hello? Look, I know we both decided to do this thing in the Everfree Forest -- hoping we could use the environment against each other and all that -- but we were clearly stupid. Think maybe we could call a time-out until we all get away from the pony-murdering woods?

Obviously, that wasn’t going to happen. They didn’t need help getting out of the Everfree Forest; all they had to do was fly up. Hell, if they wanted to, they could probably just wait us out. Maybe that’s why we didn’t see them anymore -- they had figured that out themselves.

Fuck.

*** *** ***

The ground shimmered beneath us. Velvet Remedy had spread her shield spell over the patch of ground beneath all of us, creating a barrier to protect us from the killing joke. So far, it hadn’t tried to attack us again. Life Bloom suggested that the detonation of the mines might have scared it off (although he didn’t put it in those terms -- something about them finding targets by sensing vibrations and whatnot). My own wild theory was that the plant was slithering away from the approaching fire line. The wind had shifted again, blowing the fires away from us; but the flames looked another ten yards closer, and we could occasionally hear the shouts of Red Eye’s forest-burners. Even working against the wind, they’d make Flutter… tree by nightfall.

“Those… those horrible vines,” Velvet Remedy whimpered, holding onto me. I was fighting a strong urge to push her back, strip off my armor, and check my flank. But Velvet needed to be held, and I knew that if my cutie mark had been damaged by magical energy, no amount of looking was going to help. Velvet was more important. My friends were more important. And did I really want to know?

“They trapped her up there, h-high on the h-h-hill where she could see what happened to her Equestria. As it was p-poisoned, and destroyed…” Her tear-filled eyes stared into mine. “Pip, they made her watch!”

I hugged the kind unicorn who had once been my idol and who had become one of my dearest friends. I couldn’t bring myself to mention my own heartbreaking suspicions: that for centuries, the killing joke had used her as bait, luring victims to the clearing and torturing them in front of her. It was intentional cruelty, I was sure of it. How could plants be so vile?

“They’re torturing her! Torturing Fluttershy!” Velvet buried her head against my neck. I held her, not knowing what else to do.

Not far away, a heavily bandaged and medicated Calamity was morbidly instructing Reggie to cut the paws off the hellhound she had killed. “We might be able t’ use those claws.” The pegasus sent a glance our way. He should be the one holding Velvet, not me. But even touching him would cause him searing pain. The thought pulled my attention to the burning in my own flank. A biting pain that I was doing my best to ignore.

Farther still, Life Bloom was tending to Xenith as best he could. The zebra had yet to regain consciousness. I heard a sad hoot from Pyrelight. I believed the balefire phoenix had come to enjoy being a healer, following in Velvet Remedy’s hoofsteps. But unlike Ditzy Doo or SteelHooves, neither Xenith nor Calamity would find their health restored by Pyrelight’s radiating on them. Instead, she stood guard over the bound and blindfolded cockatrice. Velvet’s prisoner.

“W-we have to save her, Littlepip!” Velvet sobbed, pulling back, shaking me. “We have to!”

I fished for something to tell her. I wanted save Fluttershy too. But how? How do you save a tree? If anything, the approaching fires might be a mercy.

“We’ll… do whatever we can,” I promised her, leaving quiet the caveat of not being able to do anything.

Life Bloom stood up, staring down at what was hardly recognizable as a zebra. “She’s in bad shape, but she’s stable. And that’s more than I would have expected.” He looked back at me. “That last resort of yours saved her life.” With a frown, he added, “But she’s in a coma. At best, it’s going to be up to her whether she wakes up.”

“An’ at worst?” Calamity asked.

“At worst…” Life Bloom paused, looking at us, judging how much to say. “I have a spell. Think of it as the opposite of Velvet’s bone re-growing spell.” Several of us nodded. Velvet tensed against me. “I may have to use it to relieve the pressure in her skull… by dissolving part of it.” Almost unnecessarily, he added, “And that is risky.”

Velvet and I silently turned our heads to gaze upon Xenith. Her bandages were completely soaked in blood, the crimson life drying into a blackish shade that made her look like a pony-shaped bruise on the earth. My eyes shifted to Velvet. She knew much better than I did what realities hid behind Life Bloom’s diagnosis. All I knew was that it was very bad, and we might not have Xenith with us much longer. More than ever, I wanted to see her return “home” to Glyphmark. To be with her daughter. To help and aid her tribe. Teaching them medicines and survival skills and…

A memory flittered through my mind. I halted my train of thought, focusing on it, trying to grasp the fragment of the past that had just shaken loose.

Finishing her grisly work, Reggie slammed one of her brother’s knives through the shield and into the ground, the claw-blade sinking up to the hilt. “It should be Kage here, not me.” Before any of us could misconstrue her statement, she looked up, her face etched with sadness. “Kage was better at all this fucked-up wilderness crap.”

Regina’s voice was damp with nostalgia. “Kage actually wanted t’ study this shit. If I’da let him have his way, we’da been on a tour t’ all the most fucked-up parts of Equestria. Splendid Valley, Canterlot, Whitetail Wood… and, of course, the Everfucked Forest.”

The memory seemed to dissolve even as my mind grasped for it. I stomped the ground in frustration; I was sure it had been important.

“Littlepip?” Velvet queried.

Sighing inwardly at the loss, I turned to Reggie. “I… I’m sorry. About Kage.”

The griffin didn’t look at me. “You already said that,” she said crossly.

“Whitetail Wood?” Velvet Remedy asked, picking up on the one name we hadn’t heard before, asking more for Regina’s sake than her own curiosity.

A smirk crawled across Reggie’s beak. “Yeah. Kage used t’ call it the most poisoned place in Equestria.”

“Ah thinph Canforloph erf thaf,” Calamity mumbled. We turned to see our pegasus companion, half-mummified, wind blowing at the trailing strands of gauze, standing in a patch of fronds, the ponified hellhound’s dropped energy rifle clutched between his teeth.

“Whuf?” he asked innocently, taking in our stares. “If worph sumechinn.”

I rolled my eyes. Next to me, Velvet Remedy stifled a laugh.

“Canterlot’s unique,” Reggie told Calamity. “Well, was. Whitetail Wood’s poison is just excessive.” The adolescent griffin gave a slight, smiling shrug that admitted she didn’t really know. “That’s what Kage said, anyway.” The griffin pulled Kage’s knife out of the ground, wiping it off and slipping it back into her belt with its twin. Her eyes turned once again to the corpse of the hellhound she had just dismembered.

“Hey, check this out,” Reggie called, holding the dead hellhound’s helmet in her talons. I slipped away from Velvet. As I approached, I could faintly hear some sort of throbbing hum coming from the helmet.

Crap. When I’d first brought up my Eyes-Forward Sparkle, my PipBuck had notified me of a unfamiliar broadcast. Slipping in my earbloom, I switched to the new frequency. My ear was met with a strange, pulsing hum (throbbing in time to the sound from the helmet). Over the hum were other notes, an odd chorus of artificial sound that cycled in disharmonious patterns. The underlying oscillation reminded me starkly of the Enclave array in Old Olneigh.

Lensflare. Also top of his class, focused in arcano-tech, Calamity had said. The Wonderbolts were using magically laced sound to control the hellhounds. This was the other beat of the Wonderbolt’s plan. They knew we were expecting them to attack from above, not below.

I told the others what this meant.

“Then we’ve got t’ go back t’ that farm,” Reggie said, “Take out the transmitter.”

Calamity spit out the magical rifle. “Or, y’know, jus’ take their helmets off.”

“Yes, because then they will be free-willed, hyper-aggressive creatures who have just suffered mind-control at the hooves of ponies,” Life Bloom pointed out serenely. “Far less dangerous.”

“Well, muh plan sucked. Again.” Calamity shook his head, staring at the grass beneath the shimmering shield.

I couldn’t wait another minute.

“Littlepip,” Velvet gasped. “What are you doing?”

Stripping out of my armor to look at my cutie mark. That’s what I was doing. And I had never gotten undressed so frantically. I bucked away my armored barding, craning my neck to see my flank.

No.

My coat had burned, my flesh had warped and bubbled, twisting like a corkscrew. The cruel, destructive magical energy had pierced my barding just below my cutie mark, devouring nearly half of the cute little PipBuck on my flank.

“No.” I didn’t scream. I felt I should have. But it was like a rusty hook had been plunged into my gut and torn back out, eviscerating my emotions. Leaving a gaping black pain that was beyond loss. The feeling wasn’t rational. I knew I still had my cutie mark on the other flank. But I couldn’t engage that part of my brain.

I heard Velvet Remedy gasp. She sounded strangely distant. Gritting his teeth against his own agony, Calamity stepped towards me. “Li’lpip…” he began, wanting to say whatever the fuck he thought would help. But I swung a hoof at him, making him back away.

“Don’t you dare tell me how cutie marks don’t matter!” I hissed. Calamity didn’t deserve that, but I couldn’t push through my own grief enough to care.

The Wasteland had attacked me, body and soul. Carved me up. The taint had twisted me up inside, changed me. I re-grew a leg! Then there was my PipLeg and whatever else the pink cloud had done to me. But more that that, the Wasteland had taking my innocence, my naïveté… had sliced away one piece of my soul after another. But this was something it had no right to take. The Wasteland couldn’t steal from me what made me special, no matter how insignificant that specialness often seemed -- and an attack on my cutie mark felt like exactly that.

Rounding on Velvet, I demanded, “Can you fix this? Tell me you can fix this!”

Velvet swallowed, the sad, shifting look in her eyes betraying the truth. Still, she offered, “Maybe… if we cut away all the damaged flesh…” I willfully ignored those eyes, that look which told me no.

“Do it!” I insisted, virtually thrusting my flank in her face. “Quickly!”

“L-Littlepip… no…” Velvet tried to be reasonable. “Look where we are.”

“I don’t care!” I snapped, my vision blurring. I realized I was crying. When did that start? “Cut it away!”

Velvet Remedy stood up, her expression shifting to displeased determination. “No!” she barked back sternly. “Not. Here.” Turning away, she informed me, “If you want me to cut you up, you’re going to have to wait until we are someplace safe.” She added, “And at least halfway sanitary.”

I wanted to hit her.

I knew it was wrong of me to feel that. But it was as if all the pain and hollowness had shifted, filtered through the lens of her refusal, becoming rage.

“Whoa,” Reggie said, seeing the change in my demeanor.

I rounded on Velvet, lifting my forehooves as I opened my muzzle to scream at her, give her one more chance to…

A flash of magic interrupted me. The pain in my flank disappeared. As did the feeling in my legs… and everywhere else. It was like my body had been dissolved away, leaving me a floating spirit. I didn’t even feel myself hit the ground, registering my collapse only as a drop in perspective.

“Somepony needs a time out,” Life Bloom said, his horn glowing. The anesthetic spell. He’d taught it to Velvet Remedy, hadn’t he?

Everyone stared at me. I felt even more angry. Now I wanted to buck even more of them. In the face. (With radishes, my little pony suggested bizarrely.)

Calamity looked away, preoccupying himself with strapping the magical energy rifle to his battle saddle.

Velvet Remedy leaned down and nuzzled me gently. “We’re sorry, Littlepip. We understand,” she gave me an odd but kind look. “I know how long you fought to get your cutie mark. To not be upset would be… damaged.”

She laid back down next to me. Not touching, but giving me the support of her proximity whether I wanted it or not. My rage and hurt didn’t fade. But after a few deep breaths, the focus of my anger began to trickle away from Velvet Remedy and more towards myself. The world became blurrier until it was nothing by watery shapes.

I cried onto Velvet Remedy’s floor-shield, the tears crackling softly as they fell.

*** *** ***

“Now then,” Life Bloom suggested calmly, having poured healing spells into Xenith and Calamity. My pegasus friend was moving without pain again. Xenith hadn’t stirred. “Let’s see what we can do about saving this one.”

My anger had dissolved back into that wounded, hollow feeling. The transition was enough to allow the more rational part of my head to take over. Yes, my cutie mark was gone. Well, gone-ish. But I had never understood it or cared for it. It was, after all, not much better than a cutie mark of a cutie mark. And I still had its twin.

I felt ashamed. Reggie was dealing with the loss of a real twin, real family, better than I was dealing with the loss of a stupid picture on my flank.

I also felt woosy, lightheaded. I was dehydrated. My vision was still blurry, even though I had stopped crying -- I couldn’t move my forelegs to wipe my eyes. The heat of the burning forest was drying my tears, turning them hot and extra salty. I coughed on the smoke, my throat feeling raw. I wondered how close the flames were now. I couldn’t get up to see, but the crackling was louder than ever; it sounded closer. Everfree Forest looked brighter than before, bathed in an unhealthy orange glow.

(And, of course, there was a tiny, lingering embarrassment over having laid helpless as Velvet Remedy re-dressed me. She and Calamity weren’t about to let me lay around in the Everfree Forest unprotected. It was not enough for them that I had been armor-adjacent.)

The white pony with the red and scarlet mane turned and pointed his glowing horn back towards the forest. A reddish glow formed somewhere deeper into the woods, beyond where my ground-level perspective allowed me to see. The glow intensified as it drew closer.

Wrapped in the sparkling red sheath of Life Bloom’s magic, the stone statue of a pegasus in Wonderbolt armor floated over the ferns and set down on the shielded ground before us.

Jet, they had called her.

“Daymn,” Calamity whispered with a resurgence of hope. Maybe his plan wasn’t a total wash after all.

Velvet Remedy levitated the bound cockatrice over. “Now listen close,” she whispered, her voice somehow both kind and menacing. “You restore this pony and you promise not to go around turning innocent creatures to stone, and we’ll let you go.” Unspoken promises of what would happen should the cockatrice refuse dripped from the offer.

Life Bloom lifted a questioning eyebrow, mouthing to the others: let it go? I wanted to chuckle, or at least to nod. Life Bloom didn’t know our Velvet.

The cockatrice complied. (At least, regarding the first part.) The grey, hard lifelessness of stone washed away, leaving the ebony-coated, violet-maned, blue-armored pegasus blinking in bewilderment. Before the mare could drink in the befuddling change in her environment, Life Bloom stepped forward, lowering his horn towards the Wonderbolt’s helmet, lifting up her visor and touching his horn to her forehead.

There was a sparkling red flash. The Wonderbolt’s eyes widened as Calamity’s memories flooded into her.

Somewhere nearby, I heard shouts. Red Eye’s fire brigade was closing on our position.

“Daymn,” Calamity muttered again, this time with disgust.

Life Bloom was locked in concentration, casting into the ebony Wonderbolt’s head. Velvet Remedy released the cockatrice, which immediately fled with an indignant squawk, its leathery wings propelling it away from the oncoming wall of fire.

Regina took to the air, only to drop back to the ground almost instantly after clearing the treetops. “uh, Pipsqueak?”

“Littlepip,” I corrected, my name strangely slurred from a muzzle where I couldn’t feel my tongue.

“That tag thing the Wonderdolts are followin’ you with? Gotta reckon they got the tags fer each other, right?” I didn’t think I liked where Reggie’s too-casual speculation was headed. “Whatcha bet when their girl down there got un-stonified, they all got some sort of signal?”

Oh fuck.

Both Red Eye’s forces and the Wonderbolts were going to come down on this spot in minutes! We needed to move. I needed to move! Lifting a hoof would be a good start.

The glow around Life Bloom’s horn faded, the memory spell complete. Life Bloom staggered back, wiping sweat from his forehead. “And Twilight Sparkle could do that at least five times in one day?” he asked weakly.

Jet stood, blinking, shaking herself off. The ebony Wonderbolt stared at us, her eyes wide, her face openly displaying her internal conflict, expressions of confusion, dismay and revulsion chasing each other across her features (the few we could really see).

The Wonderbolt mare spread her wings and, without a word, fled.

“Well shucks,” Calamity said, staring at the empty space Jet had filled moments ago. “Ah reckon Ah was bein’ a silly pony t’ hope she’d jump t’ join our side.”

“She didn’t attack us,” I pointed out. “That’s something.”

“Great. Somebody grab your mastermind an’ your zebra, and let’s get outta here,” Reggie growled, checking the load on her guns. She launched herself into the air, clearing the treetops and nearly colliding with one of the four pegasus-tipped thundercloud contrails that ripped the sky overhead. Too late.

The rust-maned Wonderbolt cartwheeled in the air as she flew past Regina, firing a spray of pinkish light that bombarded Regina, the light seeming to explode on contact with the griffin. Regina crashed back into a treetop.

I found myself engulfed in a magical field the color of Velvet Remedy’s nightingale cutie mark. If I lose both my cutie marks, the pony in my head mused worthlessly, will my magic change color? Velvet Remedy floated me off the ground, her shielding spell dissipating, and began to run. Life Bloom broke into a gallop behind her, floating Xenith ahead of him. He quickly overtook us, a faster runner than Velvet, and floated Xenith’s seemingly lifeless body carefully onto Velvet’s back as he passed. I saw his red and scarlet tail running in front of us for just a moment, streaming out from beneath his cloak. Then he vanished.

I twitched. Life Bloom’s spell was fading; I was beginning to feel my body again. I swung my PipLeg, my movements less like a pony and more like a ragdoll (the sort that would come with its own notepad and quill, a little voice told me). Fumbling, I marked on my PipLeg’s automap where Reggie had fallen. We’d come back for her, I swore, before the day was out. But right now, we were just trying to get some distance between us and the fire.

A cloaked figure appeared amongst the trees ahead of us. At first, all I saw was the zebra stealth cloak, and I wondered why Life Bloom had stopped and turned. But the shape under the cloak was all wrong. My heart skipped a beat.

The figure rose up, the hood of the cloak falling back to reveal the helmeted head of a white-furred hellhound. He raised his magical-energy cannon towards us, aiming down the sight with one of his alien-looking red eyes (a sure sign of albinism -- be smart!), and touched the trigger.

The albino hellhound’s shot went wild -- a crackling ball of unstable energy that arched upwards maybe a dozen yards before exploding into an omni-directional spray of magical flak -- as the still-invisible Life Bloom barreled into him, horn first. Even a full gallop, Life Bloom didn’t have the strength to penetrate the toughened hide beneath the hellhound’s fur, but his momentum sent the monster flying backwards, tumbling and sprawling.

Life Bloom hadn’t ended the charge particularly gracefully either. He was on his back, hood down and cloak bunched up around his neck, kicking his legs in the air in an embarrassing and almost perverse position.

The Wonderbolts flew back overhead, splitting off in different directions. The Wonderbolt mare with the rust-colored mane shot straight up.

Life Bloom rolled over, struggling to get to his hooves, getting tripped up by the cloak. The albino hellhound was faster, flipping back onto his feet and diving for where his magical flak cannon fell.

I couldn’t move properly, but I was far from helpless. Little Macintosh floated out in front of me as I took aim at the hellhound through the trusty revolver’s scope. Without S.A.T.S., hitting an erratically moving target was damn hard, but I wasn’t fresh out of the Stable anymore. I had lots of practice.

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!

I missed the hellhound, two of my shots going completely wild. The third struck his magical weapon just as he was drawing it up. The hellhound was either acting faster than he was thinking, or he hadn’t noticed the hit. He aimed the cannon at Velvet Remedy, pulling the trigger.

The gun began to crackle, engulfed in a sheath of unstable energy. The hellhound hurled it as far from himself as he could, the magical flak cannon landing in a grove of grotesquely moss-covered trees and purple ferns. It cartwheeled, bouncing through the fronds…

KRACCCK-PRUW!!!

Flashing blades of solid magic sliced past me. One struck through Velvet’s mane, sending tufts of white flying, but blind luck and the forest shielded us. The explosion shredded several trees but mercifully claimed no pony victims.

“Break!” shouted Calamity. “Scatter!”

Velvet canted, shifting her gallop in a new direction, drawing me away from the others. I looked back, glimpsing Life Bloom, who had finally made it back onto his hooves, sprinting in the opposite direction.

Something blue shot down out of the sky. The forest exploded.

The shockwave slammed into me, making my insides feel like jelly as it picked Velvet and Xenith up off the ground and hurled us all brutally forward. A ring of crackling, electrified black smoke followed the shockwave, as did the roar emanating from the mushroom-like cloud that rose up behind us.

My whole body felt bruised even before I slammed into the ground. I thanked the Goddesses that Velvet had put my reinforced Canterlot Police Barding back on.

The Wonderbolt shot out of the mushroom cloud, opening fire on her downed opponents, The air between us filled with beams of frantic pinkish light. Biting back a moan, I rolled behind the splintered remains of one of the flak-shredded trees, taking cover.

As the Wonderbolt shot past us, I realized to my dismay that the explosion hadn’t even been a weapon. It was an aerial maneuver. But… how? I knew that pegasi and possibly even earth ponies had their own inherent magic. (Well, duh! Have you met Pinkie Pie?) Pegasi could walk on and manipulate clouds, after all. But this was beyond the pale. I was forced to quickly reassess what “the best at shock and awe” might actually mean.

I pushed myself up, coughing wretchedly. My coughs were wet and hot and tasted like copper. I ran my PipLeg over my muzzle and found myself looking at a screen smeared in blood.

“Not good.”

Shakily, I got onto my hooves and limped towards the crumpled mess of Xenith. Her scabs had all broken and she was bleeding horrifically again. I drew on the Black Book’s spell one last time in a desperate bid to quell the blood loss.

I stared into the blood-streaked screen of my PipLeg, using the inventory sorting spell to find the last healing potion I had in my saddlebags. As I fed it to Xenith, I tried to spot Velvet Remedy. Rarity’s battle dress should have protected her, she should still be alive.

Life Bloom, I realized, had been much closer to the explosion. I was certain that Velvet was searching for him. Dreadfully, my mind imagined Velvet, stumbling and hurt, walking right past the cloak-shrouded body of Life Bloom as the unicorn bled out.

Hating my mind, I shook off the horrific image. I wasn’t going to let pain or despair stop me any more than I was going to let the Everfree Forest or the Wonderbolts win. I had a destiny. I had a mission. I had friends to help and unicorns to save and a sky to clear. No more self-pity. No more misery. Let the Wasteland and the Enclave throw whatever the fuck they wanted to at me. I’d made it this far. I’d survived Fillydelphia and Canterlot, and that was before I even knew my purpose. How was it going to stop me now? I was going to…

(Be awesome!)

…be awesome. Yes. That worked.

The rational part of my mind told me that if one of the Wonderbolts could do that and fly away, they could probably all do that. And they could just keep doing that until they had torn us all to bloody ribbons, flattening the Everfree Forest in the process if necessary.

I told the rational part of my brain to shut the hell up.

The next thing that came shooting down out of the sky was going to get a bullet through its visor before it could pull off any fancy-schmancy aerial tricks, courtesy of Little Macintosh.

Soon as I spotted where Applejack’s old revolver had fallen.

I looked up, trying to spot dive-bombing pegasi through the large gap in the foliage created by the… whatever the hell that explosion was. Instead, I saw Calamity once again pegasus-fighting with a Wonderbolt. This time, a gunmetal grey buck with an electric sea-green mane and what looked like an anti-machine rifle built into his battle saddle. Their sniper.

If there was one good thing about being this close to the fire, it was that the thick smoke rendered that bastard’s advantage useless. He was still a better flier than Calamity, and at least damn near as good a shot.

A familiar blast of sparkling red energy struck out of the forest, enveloping the gunmetal grey Wonderbolt, turning him instantly from a graceful aerial fighter to a pony-shaped sack of fail. Calamity stopped, hovering as he watched the other buck drop into the forest, paralyzed by the anesthetic spell.

That spell came from Life Bloom! That meant he was okay, and we had now taken down two of the Wonderbolts. I felt the urge to cry out in elation.

Instead, I coughed up more blood. Stumbling forward, I began to search for my friends. My hoof bumped into something solid and metal. Little Macintosh! Thank you, Luna. It felt like things were really beginning to turn around.

I found Velvet Remedy. She was fighting to save the life of the albino hellhound with the zebra cloak. Of course she was.

The hellhound had been caught in the blast, the Wonderbolts apparently not caring if they destroyed their tools. His leg had been blown off, his body ending in bloody tatters of shredded meat and broken bone inches above where his left knee should have been. The hellhound was whimpering gruelingly, his body shaking in shock, the grass beneath him wet with blood.

When I came upon them, Velvet Remedy was using a stick and a length of old surgical tubing to craft a tourniquet.

“She… does this a lot?” Life Bloom whispered, appearing at my side, surprised by Velvet’s aid to the enemy.

“All the time,” I replied, shaking my head. Part of me wanted to be mad at her. We had wounded of our own. But what good would it do? Velvet couldn’t see a creature suffering and not try to help. It was a virtue, her virtue… even if it was occasionally damn frustrating.

“Life Bloom, Xenith… please…” I pointed in the direction of my zebra friend and the Twilight Society unicorn trotted quickly away. Life Boom was filthy, his cloak and coat smeared with dirt and blood, but he appeared surprisingly unscathed from the explosion.

Calamity flew up above me, looking around. “Hey, Li’lpip! Ya see where Gutshot fell to?” I shook my head. Gutshot? So, their sniper was the pegasus who took second place to Calamity in the Best Young Sharpshooter competition four years running. I should have guessed.

“Well shoot. Wanna get him t’ Life Bloom b’fore that spell wears off. Boy woulda had me if he wasn’t so insistant on shootin’ me.”

Come again? I gave him a confused look.

“Gutshot coulda taken me down a dozen times over with his fancy flyin’. But unlike Skydive, he was so fixated on gettin’ the best o’ me with a bullet, he all but defeated ‘imself.”

I frowned as Calamity flew off, continuing his search. That didn’t sound like the sort of rivalry that was going to be fixed with a memory spell. I had dragged myself back to Xenith and (the miraculously healthy) Life Bloom. When I reached them, I kneeled before my comatose friend. Life Bloom had stopped the bleeding and was casting a replenishment spell.

“How… how bad?”

“We really need to get this girl out of the battle zone,” Life Bloom frowned. “I’m using nearly every spell I have just to keep her from slipping away. All this extra trauma isn’t helping.” The unicorn frowned, shaking his head. “If she doesn’t come to on her own soon, Velvet’s going to have to make the call.” It took me a moment to realize he was referring to the magical operation. Dissolving part of Xenith’s skull to ease the pressure on her swelling brain. Velvet Remedy was the only one of us who knew enough about medicine to make an informed decision.

Do we risk Xenith’s life by having Life Bloom cast the spell? Or do we risk it by telling him not to?

“How’d you survive that explosion?” I asked, changing the subject to something I could better handle.

“I took cover,” the unicorn explained. “Dove into the hole that hellhound came out of.”

One of the Wonderbolts, a cloud-white mare with a flaming orange mane, flew overhead. I recognized her as Skydive, the one who had bucked her own contrail and had felled Calamity with her lethal Buckaneer Blaze. Always front and center of their formations, I suspected she was their leader. She stopped, hovering, then shot up into the air disappearing into the smoke directly above Xenith’s huddled form.

No.

“Run!” I shouted, wrapping the bleeding, butchered zebra in my magic, my brain ignoring that my body was in no condition to gallop.

A rust-colored blur shot out of the sky. Calamity had me in his hooves, racing between the trees with strands of gauze flapping in the wind behind him. A moment later, the world behind us exploded in a fiery mushroom cloud. The smoky ring of electrified stormclouds struck us, lightning sizzling across my body, making me convulse. My magic imploded, dropping Xenith once again into the forest at bone-crunching speed. (Goddesses, at this rate, we were going to kill her!) Calamity and I crashed into a large patch of purple ferns with long-stalked, bulb-headed plants growing out of them. We tore roughly through he plants, fronds lashing at us like whips, until we slid to a stop, Calamity laying half on top of me.

I coughed, blood spraying on the ferns and grass. My body felt torn up inside. My E.F.S. was sending me severe internal injury warnings.

The plant stalks’ bulbs, each the size of a stallion’s head, languidly swiveled down towards us. A magical barrier washed over us a split-second before those bulbs broke open, hosing us with clouds of dusty plant matter. Spores. I turned to see Velvet Remedy charging towards us, her horn glowing, her shield having saved us from Goddesses-knew what horror.

The fiery-maned Wonderbolt burst out of her explosion, her contrail on fire as she shot towards Velvet Remedy. The bulb-headed plants rotated towards the oncoming unicorn. Their bulbs broke open again and spewed.

Velvet tossed up another shield, sliding to a graceful stop. Wonderment splashed over me as I realized just how fast she had gotten with casting that spell. And this was the first time I had seen her manifest two shields at once.

“Muh mare’s got skills,” Calamity grinned, echoing my thoughts as he lay half on top of me, recovering from the brief electrocution. I pushed him off, looking about, hoping that Xenith had either landed far from the spraying plants or that Velvet’s spell had protected her too.

The Wonderbolt shot over Velvet, her contrail causing trees to burst into flames in her wake, and soared over us, setting the bulb-headed plants on fire. The burning plants seamed to scream, writhing and collapsing, the fire spreading to the ferns all around us.

Something plummeted down from the sky.

It wasn’t a dive-bombing Wonderbolt. It was more like some sort of missile -- a mechanical device sheathed in red-painted metal that embedded itself in the ground with a mighty WHUMP.

Calamity grabbed me again, flying us out of the bed of ferns being slowly consumed by fire. He coughed as he inhaled the acrid black smoke bellowing up from them, and the little pony in my head recalled earlier fears of dangers in the Everfree smoke. As we landed again, I began to heave, coughing up blood in large, wet splotches.

“Dammit, Li’lpip!” Calamity scolded, fishing out a healing potion. I downed the potion, feeling the warmth of its magic spread through me. There was a slight hint of peaches and alcohol, telling me that Calamity had purchased this bottle from Candi in New Appleloosa. As the potion started to work, I quickly felt less gruesome inside.

The three remaining Wonderbolts flew up, staring down at the strange intruder into our battle.

A plate on the missile slid open, a strange-looking turret with a diamond embedded in the barrel slid out. It turned, aiming up at a sky thick with smoke.

Velvet Remedy screamed.

I threw her a questioning scowl, assuming that something about the mysterious missile had set her off, and did a double-take of horror. The tree next to her had been set ablaze by the Wonderbolt’s fire-contrail, licking flames spreading through its branches, burning leaves falling about her. But that wasn’t what had horrified her. The tree was one of those wrapped in grotesque, bulging patches of blackish moss. And one of those patches, roughly the size and vaguely the shape of a pony, was ripping itself off of the tree.

The moss-creature fell to all fours, looking even more pony-like. But the way it moved, twisted and boneless, was like something from a nightmare.

At first, I hoped it was just fleeing the fire. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw more dark, misshapen forms pulling themselves from the trees.

Calamity drew the magical energy rifle and fired several bursts into the moss-creature as it lumbered towards Velvet Remedy. The creature incinerated colorfully.

A clicking whine sounded from the missile, and the turret’s diamond began to glow, projecting the image of a huge, cybernetic red eye against the smoke. The eye jerked back and forth, seeming to watch us. We all heard Red Eye’s voice.

“Congratulations, Wonderbolts, on an excellent strategy,” Red Eye said amiably.

“Oh yeah,” one of the Wonderbolt bucks deadpanned, “This ain’t supervillain-y at all.”

“Red Eye to the rescue?” Calamity whispered to me as a burning leaf drifted past us.

Red Eye continued, his voice never straying from a pleasant, conversational tone. As if we were sharing tales over tea and apple slices. “Unfortunately, too good. I’m bored. And frankly, I have my own plans for the little unicorn you are tracking…”

Fuck me.

“…So I decided to even up the playing field a bit.” The missile let out a pulse and my E.F.S. alerted me that the hellhound-control broadcast had just been silenced.

The Wonderbolts stared from the red eye in the sky to the missile and back. The fiery-maned, cloud-white mare shouted, “Jet’s not here. Situation’s changed. Tactical retreat.” The Wonderbolts began to fly upwards.

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Red Eye said calmly, the Wonderbolts stopping as if something had them by the tails. “First rule, no flying.”

“First rule?” a Wonderbolt buck asked.

“Fuck that,” the fiery-maned mare retorted before flapping her wings and shooting up through the smoke, right through the projected red eye, in a burst of speed.

The other Wonderbolts waited a heartbeat. The moss-monsters began to move towards us with twisted, jerking steps.

The Wonderbolt’s leading mare plunged back down through the smoke, driven downward by a dark green alicorn who slammed her into the ground hard enough to knock her unconscious and nearly kill her.

Calamity spun, firing on a moss-monster that was getting alarmingly close. It turned to ash in a flash of magical energy.

More green alicorns few down through the smoke, landing in the forest around us. A shimmering red alicorn shield swept overhead, forming between them, trapping us and the Wonderbolts inside. I suddenly felt I was back in The Pit.

“Ah’m not sensin’ a whole lot o’ rescue in this rescue,” Calamity muttered as he checked the load on the magical-energy rifle. The moss-monsters were unlikely to be as vulnerable to bullets.

Something fluttered against my thoughts like a bat. I turned about to see the one alicorn inside the shield, standing over the fallen body of the Wonderbolt’s leader, her eyes burrowing into me.

I felt her in my mind. The intrusion was intimate and unwanted.

You are the one Red Eye wants. Her voice was royal and powerful in my head.

Well, I thought back, he can’t have me.

We shall see. In an instant, her voice was joined by a dozen others, all whispering in my head at once, flooding my thoughts with their voices.

They were all green. The daughters of Gestalt and Mosaic. As the tide of voices mounted into a tsunami, I wondered if the green’s natural telepathy made them more stable, more capable of coping with the loss of their Trixie-Goddess… or less.


I fought to hear myself think. What were they doing? And why were they helping Red Eye? What did the alicorns get out of this? What had he promised them?

Males, the voices responded, reading my thoughts. Continuation. Survival. Mates!

Oh. Clever stallion.

The sea of voices increased. Not just dozens. Scores. Red Eye had coaxed almost half of the green alicorns to serve him in exchange for the male alicorns he would create as their new God. And most of them were here in Everfree Forest. At the Cathedral.

I heard Calamity fire the magical rifle again, but I wasn’t seeing him. I was getting flashes of what they were seeing. Muddled glimpses inside the stone walls of Red Eye’s fortress, all overlapping, too chaotic to make sense of.

Velvet Remedy had moved up to us. She’d said something about Xenith, but I didn’t catch it. The minds of the alicorns pressing against my brain were making it hard to keep connected with the real world in front of me.

Above us, the Wonderbolts were circling the top of the shield, flying faster and faster, their thundercloud contrails spinning spirals behind them as they drew closer with each pass. Above them, Red Eye’s red eye shifted back and forth across the clouds of smoke, watching the show.

The flood of other-thought was becoming overwhelming.

Then, suddenly, it focused.

FLOAT OUT YOUR GUN, the voices demanded in unison.

I found myself levitating Little Macintosh. It was such a simple request, after all. And I really wanted to. The voices in my head told me so.

AIM AT THE UNICORN.

Okay… What? Wait. Velvet? No!

But the pressure on my mind was like a physical force. The weight of several dozen alicorns pushed me to swing the barrel of Little Macintosh towards Velvet.

AIM AT THE UNICORN.

I fought back, the revolver shaking in the air as I tried to assert my own will. But the alicorns were determined to consume my will, submerge it in their own until I was cut off from it completely. In my head, my little pony was fighting a losing battle as dozens of little alicorns swarmed her, piling up around her like a mountain.

Little Macintosh swiveled in the air, its barrel pointed at Velvet Remedy’s skull.

“Littlepip?” Velvet Remedy asked timidly, finally seeing the gun floating in a sheath of my magic, shrinking back from Little Macintosh. “Why are you…?”

KILL THE UNICORN.

Overhead, the Wonderbolts suddenly angled towards each other. They expertly missed colliding in a threesome, their contrails crossing at a focal point perfectly centered above the missile, releasing a star-shaped explosion of electrical energy.

Red Eye’s projector went dead, his eye disappearing from the sky. At the same moment, my Eyes-Forward Sparkle collapsed, my PipLeg’s spell matrix crashing.

Be awesome!

KILL THE UNICORN.

My little pony was buried under a rising hill of little alicorns, crushing her, stealing her breath. But they weren’t the only thoughts pressing on my mind.

Be strong! Be unwavering! Be smart!

This wasn’t the first time I had felt the influence of outside entities. The Black Book. The statuettes. But whether those outside thoughts bore good intentions or ill, I had never let them control me. Influence, yes. But I never lost myself to them.

KILL THE UNICORN!

The mountain of little alicorns filling my head blew apart, their influences scattering as my little mental pony gave them all a mighty buck.

Nope! I pulled Little Macintosh away from Velvet Remedy, firing instead at the alicorn inside the shield. Not gonna happen!

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!

The alicorn was dead by the second shot, but I didn’t stop until I had completely unloaded the weapon. Turns out, if you pour enough bullets into a creature’s brain, it really is almost like decapitation.

Beside me, Velvet Remedy looked shocked. She was trembling… no, wait, that was me. The alicorns minds were still in my head, but they were quieter now. One by one, they slipped away from me. The very last left a stray thought behind.

Tell Red Eye she passed.

The intensity of my trembling jumped an order of magnitude, my mind filled with violation, pain and rage. Lowering my head, spitting at the ground, I let out a primal scream.

*** *** ***

Movement above caught my eye.

Velvet had found Xenith near the edge of the shield, and the three of us had made our way to her before I had buckled from heat exhaustion. The others weren’t doing much better. Velvet had given me the last of her water after pouring most of it gently into Xenith’s mouth. I had taken it without argument, but I was regretting it now.

I looked up to see Reggie pounding against the alicorn shield. She’d recovered, but was trapped outside.

“Reggie, yer okay!” Calamity shouted up to her, his voice cracked and rasping. Most of the trees inside the shield were burning now. The Wonderbolts had rebreathers in their armor, but we were dying of smoke inhalation.

“Of course,” she called back. “I carry plenty of healing potions. I’m not an idiot!” Yeah. What kind of morons would wander the Wasteland without each having their own load of them?

Before the griffin could say anything else that made me question my intelligence, I directed her to start killing the statuesque alicorns sitting just outside the shield.

“An’ be careful,” Calamity warned between fits of coughing. “When the shield goes down… this fire…” He collapsed in a hacking fit that sounded like he was trying to get rid of his lungs through his muzzle. Reggie nodded sagely and flew off.

Life Bloom had crept over to the unconscious leader of the Wonderbolts, shoving the still-bleeding corpse of the alicorn off of her.

WHUMP! The blue-armored form of a Wonderbolt dropped out of the curling smoke in front of us. I recognized her rust-colored mane and red-coated snout -- the Wonderbolts’ heavy gunner. I swung Little Macintosh towards her, trying to focus through the smoke stinging my eyes, trying to remember if I had reloaded or not.

“Dammit, this is just too easy,” she said, casually batting Little Macintosh out of my telekinetic grasp with her wing.

Dark, shifting shapes moved out of the smoke, shambling towards her. “Look out,” Calamity rasped as the moss-monsters closed in on the Wonderbolt.

The Wonderbolts’ heavy gunner turned, spraying pink energy across the black moss creatures, dissolving two of them in flashes of pink ash. The third was huge, a giant shadow towering over her. A splash of icy horror trickled down my spine as I realized the moss-monster was vaguely manticore-shaped. These… these plant-things had once been living beasts, many of them ponies. This black moss infected them somehow. Consumed them. Became them.

The Wonderbolt dodged as the moss-monster lashed out at her with what had once been a manticore’s scorpion-like tail. It was aiming for her head, trying to get inside the narrow split in her helmet which her mane flowed through.

The rust-maned mare opened fire, spraying the moss-manticore with pink light. Parts of the creature dissolved in flashes of ash, but this one wouldn’t die so easily. The moss-manticore slashed out with startling alacrity, raking claw-like appendages against her armor, trying to rip off her visor and get at her eyes.

The Wonderbolt staggered, blocking the blows with her wings, keeping the creature off of her face. She fired again, a few beams of pink lancing out before her weapons ran dry.

The moss-manticore exploded into green flame.

The Wonderbolt stumbled back, turned towards us, and was hit by Velvet Remedy’s anesthetic spell before she could speak, much less reload. She collapsed in front of the burning monster. A gaping pit opened in the black moss where the manticore’s mouth should be, and it screamed silently, green fire burning up through the hole to consume its mockery of a head.

Pyrelight landed on Velvet Remedy’s head, looking particularly proud of herself.

“Sorry about that,” Velvet apologized to the downed pegasus.

Beyond us, Life Bloom was getting back to his hooves. He wobbled slightly, the toll taken by the memory spell mixing with the heat and the smoke. The Twilight Society unicorn stumbled away from the Wonderbolt and towards a patch of ferns, looking like he was about to pass out.

A bulb-headed stalk rose up out of the ferns as he reached them, spraying its cloud of spores directly into the unicorn’s face.

I cried out in alarm, the scream tearing at my throat, but the sound was lost in the sudden conflagration as the alicorn shield dropped and the fires started by Skydive’s flaming contrail exploded outward to greet the fresher air.

*** *** ***

Night was falling in the Everfree Forest. We had managed to put at least a mile or two between ourselves and the fires. There was a hellish orange glow in the broiling sky above. The world below became all shadows against deeper darkness. Only the light of our horns, Velvet Remedy’s and mine, were truly lighting our way.

Life Bloom doubled over again, retching. Bile and filth poured out of his mouth and nose. He had cast a purging spell on himself, trying to get rid of all the spores before they could settle in and begin to slowly kill him. The effects were extremely unpleasant and debilitating, but still far better than the alternative.

We pushed through the forest. I floated Xenith next to me. Velvet Remedy was levitating the wounded albino hellhound. The monster had passed out, and Velvet had simply insisted, “If we leave him, he’ll burn alive.”

Calamity had insisted he be bound, and Velvet had at least relented on that. I was unsure how much good bindings would do on a huge monster with long, armor-slicing claws.

The hellhound groaned. Xenith was utterly silent.

We had managed to pull off Calamity’s plan with three of the Wonderbolts: Jet, Skydive and Strafewise, their heavy gunner. None of them had joined up with us, although Strafewise at least admitted it was “a lot to take in and a lot to think about” before she and Skydive left us. If there was a truce, it was unspoken. The Wonderbolts’ two bucks, Lensflare and Gutshot, were unaccounted for. From what little I knew of each of them, I doubted Calamity’s memories would be enough to alter either of their minds. Lensflare was his eldest brother’s friend and lover; the buck had yet to engage us directly. Gutshot, on the other hoof…

“Whoa,” Calamity whistled, pulling me out of my reverie. Ahead of us, the Everfree forest was filled with beautiful plants which glowed a bioluminescent green. Pyrelight flew ahead, dancing amongst the plants, singing merrily. They grew along vines that wrapped around the trees and snaked across the forest floor.

“Yes,” Velvet chuckled to the balefire phoenix as Pyrelight swooped back to her, one of the flowers tucked into her feathers by the stem. “It does go nicely with your plumage.”

“What d’ya figure they are?” Calamity asked as he flew cautiously into the area. “Think they’re safe?” Personally, I wasn’t ready to count anything in the Everfree Forest as safe.

“Safe-er, maybe,” Reggie commented. “I’ll tell you what I ain’t seein’. Little vines of blue evil.”

“That’s cuz…” the hellhound rasped, startling us all enough that Velvet’s magic imploded, dropping him. He landed on the soft grass without a grunt. “…phantasmal flowers ur deadly tu killeen joke.”

“Deadly how?” Life Bloom asked, the only one of us not focused entirely on the fact that a member of a race of vicious pony-slayers had just woken up in our midst. I didn’t want to have a conversation with this monster. The little pony in my head was screaming at me to launch it to the moon. Or, at least, as high as I sent those of its kind who murdered SteelHooves.

“Feed off the same psychic energy, Uh think,” the hellhound said, then barked as Calamity immediately retreated from the flowers. “They’s harmless. Tu dogs en ponies, Uh mean. But tu killeen joke, they’s like weeds in the worst way.”

We looked at each other. Reggie finally shrugged. “Well, if you’re willin’ t’ take the word of a one-legged slice-n-dice…” Without further words, she flew into the gently glowing stretch of the Everfree Forest.

Velvet Remedy wrapped her magic around the hellhound again, lifting him up.

“Uh, Velvet?” Calamity asked, wondering just what she was doing. “Ah c’n see not leavin’ him in the middle o’ a fire. But why don’t we leave him here?”

Velvet gave Calamity a honey-sweet smile which she slowly turned on the hellhound as she spoke. “Because we should leave him someplace safe, and if in those flowers is as safe as he says, he won’t mind coming with us.”

“Pony,” the hellhound started, addressing Velvet as she floated him back off the ground. He was still bound, but I couldn’t help but notice he hadn’t really tested his restraints yet. Hell, he hadn’t even tried. “Why save me?”

Velvet Remedy replied without even having to think. “Because you were hurt.”

“Ponies don’t heal,” the hellhound countered. “Ponies kill, destroy, take.”

“Strange,” Velvet retorted. “That’s what ponies say about hellhounds.” Wonderful. Why don’t we just poke the hellhound with a stick.

“Hey!” Reggie called back to us, having gotten a bit ahead. “There’s a… something up here.”

Moving forward beneath the glowing orange sky, we discovered a hollowed-out tree, almost as gnarled and twisted as Fluttershy, draped in thick vines and glowing with hundreds of phantasmal flowers. At the foot of the tree, littered amongst its contorted roots, were ancient and fearsome wooden masks carved in faces that looked demonic. Strange bottles and flasks hung from the branches along with a wind chime made of bones. The phantasmal flowers spread out from the tree like ripples from a stone dropped in a lake.

Wait... (be smart!) …I’d seen this before. Places like this. In a dream.

“Shelter?” Life Bloom suggested hopefully.

“Or deathtrap. Our luck, could go either way.”

*** *** ***

“Drink,” Velvet Remedy commanded with her usual bedside manner as she lifted the bottle of to the albino hellhound’s muzzle. “If you’re waiting for sparkling water, you’ll die of dehydration first.” The hollowed tree was a refuge, a home crafted by zebra magic. The bottled brew had come from the refrigerator. Most of what was in the fridge had succumbed to mold, although not of the black and ambulatory kind. Only a few bottles remained unbroken and theoretically safe. “Look, I’ll take a sip first, if it helps.”

Calamity gazed at the glowing green flowers whose vines embraced the ancient zebra home almost as much inside as out, snaking about all the decaying furniture and hanging from the ceiling. Beautiful and serenely eerie.

There was an old terminal, long dead, amongst the rotting boards that had once been a desk. Or possibly a bureau. The spark battery still had some magic left, and I was hoping I could jury-rig a way to reboot my PipLeg from the remains of the arcano-tech device.

“So, what all d’ya know ‘bout these here phantasmal flowers?” Calamity asked. Velvet Remedy hissed at him, eyes narrowed. Talking hellhounds weren’t drinking hellhounds. “What?”

“Zebra plants. Used tu make powders tu conjure up frightful illusions,” the hellhound told us. “Never kud get that tu work urselves, but mash them up just rite und they make uh fine gloween paste.” He grinned, showing lots of very sharp teeth. “Slather it on un old sawhorse covered en brahmin skins and jerk et around on strings like uh puppet, und watch the ponies scream und run from the headless horse.”

“Why would you do that?” Velvet Remedy asked.

“Why would anyone be scared o’ that?” Reggie wondered.

The hellhound grinned again. “Cuz ponies ur stoopid.”

We all glowered at him, except for Reggie who was too busy snickering. Calamity muttered something about the stupidity of saving him, earning another dark look from Velvet.

Finally, the hellhound offered, “Not all dogs want tu kill ponies. Most du. But some of us just want tu be left alone.” Scowling, he told us, “Ur alphas wanted war with the old ponies und with the new ponies und with the Goddesses. So we left Maripony. Made ur own home. Made ghosts und the headless horse tu scare ponies away.”

Well, better than having them shoot at us.

“That is, till you ponies flew up en one of yur big, black cloud-boats und dropped that damned antenna en ur yard. Made us all sit still while you put those damned helmets on us. Make us go where you want. Kill who you want…”

My hoof hit my face. Perfect. The one group of hellhounds in the entire damned Wasteland that might be friendly, and the Enclave went in and fucked with their heads.

“…All but Barking Saw. That old dog might have the best eyes en the Wasteland, but he’s old und senile und, best of all, stone deaf. Took out a mess of you ponies with his sniper rifle already. Bet he’s still back at the farm, shooteen anything pony-shaped that pokes its head out.”

Well, that would be why the Wonderbolts used the Hope Solar Array to hide in rather than the farm itself. “Why doesn’t he just shoot up the broadcasting array?” I asked as I tried futilely to make the terminal do something useful.

The albino hellhound scowled at me. “What part of deaf und senile you don’t git?”

“Ouch,” Reggie whispered.

I tossed aside my work with the terminal in frustration, turning instead to a locked chest in the corner of the zebra home. It was metal and looked out-of-place with the rest of the age-tattered décor. And unlike the terminal, I knew how to make the lock do what I wanted it to. Out of nostalgia, I floated out a bobby pin and my screwdriver.

Velvet once again pestered the hellhound to drink. I began to suspect his refusal was more a game of piss-off-the-pony to him than borne of any actual concern about the contents.

“Velvet,” Life Bloom said, gently putting a hoof on her shoulder. “We need to talk about Xenith. She hasn’t woken up yet. The swelling is getting worse. If I’m going to use my trepanation spell, I should do it now.”

The lock yielded to me without a fight. I lifted open the chest, looking inside. A stone plate with a carved inscription, an old audio recording, and an oddly-hued hunk of pock-marked rock. Everything else in the chest was decayed into slime and dust. The inscription on the stone was in an archaic pony script, like zebra glyphs, but using symbols including horns, lightning bolts, horseshoes and unicorn busts. I had no idea what it said.

Reggie looked over my shoulder. Then called back, “Hey, any of you know how to read Pretentious?” I snorted, quite sure that wasn’t the proper name of the language.

“eh… nope,” Calamity said succinctly. Life Bloom and Velvet Remedy strode up to look.

“When the Five are present, a spark will cause the Sixth to be revealed.” Life Bloom read. “It’s talking about the Elements of Harmony,” he said. “A slight variation on a passage from The Elements of Harmony, A Reference Guide. Probably the original. From the looks of the stone, this plate was part of the Castle of the Sisters.”

“Then what’s it doing here?”

I took a closer look at the chest, searching it until I found the gear-shaped Stable-Tec logo stamped onto the bottom corner.

“Stable-Tec built a Stable under the ruins of that castle,” I mused. “They must have torn quite a bit of it up to do so.” I floated out the audio recording, wishing my PipLeg worked. Or, at least, the terminal.

“If none of you have a particular need for that stone, the Twilight Society would appreciate the right to claim it,” Life Bloom said before he and Velvet Remedy returned to discussing Xenith.

“Pfft,” Reggie pffted, “What would I want with a dumb rock?” To bad there isn’t an Element of Snarkiness, the little pony in my head snarked back.

“Ah prefer decorations Ah c’n read muhself,” Calamity said, flying away to one of the windows.

The memory that had slipped from my mental grasp earlier returned to dance in front of me. “Velvet!” I spun to face her. “I think…” I paused. Better slow down. This is by no means a sure thing. “I believe there might, and I stress might, be a way to save Fluttershy.”

The beautiful unicorn mare’s eyes opened wide, glistening with eager hope. “How?” she asked, followed promptly by, “Can we do it now?”

“There’s a book I read, Supernaturals. It’s full of old remedies, one of which is to reverse the transformations caused by something called poison joke,” I said carefully. “I still have the book back at Junction R-7.”

Velvet Remedy smile thankfully, but I was already having serious doubts. “And you think that will turn Fluttershy back into a pony?”

“No,” I admitted. I was sure that killing joke was a mutated, vicious cousin of the plant described in Supernaturals. But they were vastly different, even in their magical touch. The book said the transformations caused by poison joke occurred overnight, but killing joke inflicted its cruelty instantly. In the very least, it was a far more potent magic. “Not as it is. But I think the recipe is the starting point for creating a cure.”

Velvet Remedy nodded, looking grimly determined but still hopeful.

And if it could? Was this really a good idea? What if the cure turned Fluttershy back into a two-century-old pony? And even if she was restored physically to her prime, was there any chance her sanity would be intact? I reluctantly voiced my concerns to Velvet Remedy, only to be surprised by her resolve.

“If that is the case, then I will do what Fluttershy needs me to,” Velvet Remedy stated flatly. “But one way or another, her torture ends.”

The room fell quiet.

A realization passed over Velvet’s face. She turned to Life Bloom. “Now it’s not just my friend’s life you hold in your horn, but the life of the greatest of ponies too.” She bit her lower lip. “Xenith is the only one who knows enough about herbs and alchemy and magical plants to know how to create a new recipe from Littlepip’s old one. Do what you have to do. And may the Goddesses’ hooves guide you.”

Having said those words, Velvet Remedy slowly walked over towards where Calamity was standing, watching her. Her last steps faltered and he moved to support her, holding her close.

Calamity nuzzled the weary unicorn lovingly, then turned to stare out the window at this eerily beautiful patch of the Everfree Forest.

His expression slowly hardened.

“uh, folks. Ya better take a look at this…”


Footnote: Maximum Level