Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat

Chapter Forty-Three: The Kingdom of the Blind

Chapter Forty-Three: The Kingdom of the Blind

“Are you not happy that your quest is complete and you can return to your studies in Canterlot?”


“I can’t believe this whole war has been about rocks. Gems. Coal. Rarity said something about a meteorite, but she got all evasive when she realized I had overheard. Whatever. (Like it was hard to figure out. Sometimes I’m slow, but I’m not stupid.)

“Dumb rocks.

“I used to think rocks were cool. I mean, my big sister has gems for a cutie mark. And Pinkie Pie once lived on a rock farm. We even used to play a game, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom and me. We found the rock that Rarity had gotten her cutie mark from, and I made Twilight Sparkle enchant it so that we can make it open and close (she kinda owed us for that whole Smarty Pants thing). We called it the Rock of Destiny, and we’d pretend that when it opened up, it would give us our cutie marks. Twilight made it so each of us could set a pass phrase to open it. Mine was ‘Dumb Rock’ so I could pretend I was just like my sister. (I changed it to ‘Apple Pie’ for a while, but then changed it back. Just as well. My sis and I haven’t been apple pie in a long time. Not since the Ministries.)

“I hope you don’t mind me using your place. I mean, of course you can’t mind, but I hope you don’t anyway. Sometimes, I just have to get away from all the noise. It’s so nice and peaceful here. And I really love your flowers.

“Anyway, I guess I’m thinking about rocks because we found chunks of that meteorite when we dug into Luna’s old foundry under the castle last week. It was all broken up because they’d taken all the ore out of it, and they’d sealed up the pieces. I felt kinda sorry for it. Ponies and zebras blame it for all sorts of stupid stuff. It’s not the rock’s fault. It’s just a rock. And I kinda know what it’s like, being blamed for stuff. (Seems, sometimes, everything I do just makes things worse.) So I had them make one of the bigger chunks into a cornerstone. As an apology or something, I dunno. Make it feel useful. Yes, I know that’s stupid; it’s just a rock.

“So… I guess not dumb rocks. Just dumb ponies and zebras.

“I came up here yesterday. Building the last Stable in Everfree was my idea, so I wanted to be here. Especially after we started having problems. (Rarity said that Everfree Forest is the one place she was sure the zebra’s wouldn’t attack; so I thought, ‘Why are we putting all the Stables in places we think they will attack? Doesn’t it make sense to put at least one somewhere they won’t?’ Yes, the forest is dangerous, but it can’t be that dangerous -- you lived here, and my sister and her friends used to go into it all the time. Well… just another of my ideas that ended up a mess.)

Apple Bloom had warned me about the poison joke, but was it always this… aggressive? It’s been really bad the last three days. Moonbeam said it’s like the excavation is attracting it. He thinks that either it’s vibrosensitive (which isn’t even a word) or it wants to be near people, but that doesn’t make any sense. It’s a plant, right? But then, Apple Bloom says you told her the plants want a laugh. How can a plant want something?

“I’m sorry. I know I’m rambling. I guess my thoughts aren’t too coherent. I’m just trying to work things out.

“I think…

“I think we’ve lost our faith.

“Does that make any sense? It’s like everything we’re supposed to believe in has gotten dark and crumbled. Like the air is heavy. No… that doesn’t make any sense. Like… I dunno. Like everything is too real. You know, like when you’re just a filly and you look up to someone and they’re your idol? But then you learn they’re not perfect like you imagined? That they’re flawed, just like everypony else? Maybe that’s just growing up though.

“It’s like we’ve forgotten how to have heroes. Only worse. We’ve forgotten how to believe in each other. In ponies. Even Scootaloo… she’s trying to fix ponies with all these experiments.

“I once told Scootaloo I thought she was trying to make ponies like they were when we were kids. You know what she said? She said, ‘Nostalgia is mostly just make-believe.’ Isn’t that horrible?

“I… um…

“I’ve started having second thoughts. Maybe we should just stick to saving ponies. Maybe it’s not right for us to try to fix things. But then, won’t it all be for nothing, like Scootaloo says?

“I don’t know anymore. Sometimes these experiments feel…. I dunno… wrong. I know they’re not dangerous. We’ve made extra, extra sure. But I still don’t feel right doing experiments on ponies who are just trying to survive. Isn’t that wrong? It’s not like it’s their fault… not most of them, anyway. (The ones in Stable One, maybe.) I just want to save them and give them a chance. Kinda like the rocks, I guess.

“I even almost told Rarity about the experiments. But I didn’t. Because… well… I’d be betraying Scootaloo and Apple Bloom if I told. And I’m not sure Rarity would do the right thing if I told her. I really don’t like the Ministry of Image. And if that’s what she is now…

“…Like I said before, we haven’t been apple pie in a long time. Sometimes, the little statue of Rarity that my sister gave me feels more like my sister than she does.

“Today, I did ask Scootaloo if Stable 101 could be made a ‘control’ Stable instead, but she and Apple Bloom both insisted the experiment here was too important.

“And part of me still thinks Scootaloo’s right. Like maybe we really do have to fix ponies. To figure out what went wrong so everything doesn’t get so… so… bad again. But how many times do we have to try before we get it right? And what happens when we fail? This time, the cost can be so much more than tree sap and pine needles.


“Scootaloo has been looking at me funny. I think maybe she knows I’m having second thoughts.

“Anyway… sorry for all the rambling. Thanks for letting me use your place. And thanks for listening. Apple Bloom is right. You really are a good person to talk to, Zecora.

“We’re all very, very sad about what happened to you. I hope you’re at peace.”

*** *** ***

You better take a look at this…

We all stared upwards, our eyes lifted above the dark silhouettes of the forest trees. The sky was a cloudy haze that glowed a hellish orange, lit from the fires that stretched for miles below. Our gazes were fixed on the massive black shadow slowly moving through the Everfree fire-sky, brilliant flashes of lightning erupting along its sides. It was moving towards us, but we were not its destination.

The Overcast.

This was a day too soon. Goddesses damn him, Colonel Autumn Leaf was jumping the whistle on his own attack plan!

“Muh brother’s on that ship.” Calamity’s tone was dour.

I pranced in agitation. This was not good. Why the hell would he…? A sudden wave of weariness passed over me. It had been far too long, and far too rough a day. I needed sleep. I wasn’t going to get it.

Above us, more lightning flashed as the four raptors moored to the Overcast began to pull away, their smaller thunderclouds pulling free of the Thunderhead warship’s massive ones. Two of them began to move ahead while the other two flanked the mobile siege platform.

“Okay,” I said, spinning around and addressing the others. “Change of plan...” I looked over the ponies (and griffin) who had followed me this far. Part of me dreaded what I was about to say. But part of me knew it would somehow be this way. “…We’ll have to split up.”

Before anypony could protest, I explained, “The Enclave is moving on the Cathedral now. They’ll be there in, what, a few hours?” I looked to Calamity who nodded at my assessment. “And we can’t all go. Xenith shouldn’t be moved anymore, especially not after Life Bloom uses his spell.” With a grudging reluctance, I added, “And neither should the hellhound.”

Velvet Remedy agreed quietly, staring back at her patients. Life Bloom was moving about Xenith’s bed, preparing to cast his trepanation spell.

“Life Bloom and I need to stay,” she intoned, sparing me the task of saying it. She smiled sadly to Calamity, “And you, love, need to go.”

“Pyrelight,” I instructed. “Keep them safe.” The balefire phoenix hooted, perching up straight and giving me a one-winged salute.

“Ah don’t know if Ah c’n do this…” Calamity admitted. “After all he’s done, after all the ponies dead... Ah know Autumn needs t’ be put down. But Ah don’t think Ah can…” He looked at me, his eyes wide and hurting. “Muh own brother.”

I remembered Pride’s change after learning the Enclave had marked Calamity for death. That, in fact, Autumn Leaf (his own brother!) had ordered my best friend’s execution.

“Then it’s a good thing you’re takin’ me with you,” Reggie said flatly.

Velvet Remedy gave a pained look.

“It’s a hard thing, goin’ against kin,” Reggie said. “T’ take down your own brother… I don’t think I could have done it if Kage had gone bad. Nobody blames you fer not takin’ that shot.”

Calamity watched her check the load on her guns, guns he had custom made for the adolescent griffin. “If it helps at all, you’ll be puttin’ a stop t’ his murderin’ ways even still.” It struck me that Reggie viewed those guns as a stand-in for Calamity -- a way for him to be part of what he needed to be but couldn’t -- much in the same way she carried Kage’s blades.

“So, Li’lpip, what’s the plan?” Calamity asked. “How the hell are we s’posed t’ make it through miles o’ fire an’ whatever else Everfree’s keepin’ in it’s back pocket, an’ get t’ Red Eye’s base b’fore they do?”

“We don’t,” I answered him simply. I raised a hoof to the sky, pointing towards the Overcast. “We’re going to hitch a ride. On that.”

*** *** ***

Calamity, Reggie and I made our preparations while Life Bloom’s horn glowed and he tried to work a miracle. We didn’t have a lot of time. We wanted to give the Overcast enough time to pass us by, but not enough to move out of sight.

“This is a stealth mission,” I proclaimed, wincing at the groans. “Hey, we’ve got this one in the bag. We’ve got two stealth cloaks now,” I pointed out, counting the albino hellhound’s cloak along with Xenith’s. “And I have the advanced StealthBuck.”

“Which only works for a few hours,” Velvet Remedy warned.

“True, but we shouldn’t need it for even that,” I suggested. “Once we get up there, we’ll snag a set of Enclave magically-powered armor for Calamity, and I’ll take the cloak.”

“Aw, crap,” Calamity muttered. He dipped his head, tossing off his hat. “Can’t be bringin’ this then.” He stared at his trusty black desperado hat. Half of it was badly burned from the Buccaneer Blaze. To be honest, it no longer really looked right on his head. In fact, it made me wince, remembering how painfully hurt he had been.

“Ah loved that hat.”

“I’ll take care of it until you get back,” Velvet Remedy promised, her words carrying a subtle insistence that he would come back.

Brilliant scarlet light flashed over Xenith then settled in a halo about her head, making her look like a sleeping angel. I remembered how she looked with bat-like wings the day she saved her daughter. The mental images combined strangely.

Life Bloom was sweating, straining in focused concentration.

Calamity dumped the contents of his saddlebags (which I swear took up more space in the hut than the saddlebags could possibly have held, and had apparently come to include several bottles and jars of desiccated herbs and dust that Calamity had scavenged from the hut itself) insisting he wanted to “travel light.”

“You won’t fight your brother, but you’ll be taking as much of his ship as you can carry, won’t you?”


Reggie, meanwhile, had decided she was as ready as she could be, and was leaning in the doorway, smoking another cigarette. Velvet Remedy huffed at her.

“Yeah, right,” Reggie said with a roll of her eyes. “I shouldn’t smoke. Might burn down the forest or somethin’.”

“You could at least show some respect for your health,” Velvet commented.

Reggie just lifted an eyebrow then waved a wing the direction of the ponies she had chosen to assist, particularly me. “Yeah. Cuz I’m well known fer makin’ healthy choices.”

Velvet opened her muzzle, a retort on her tongue, then closed it again as a look of heartbreaking defeat blanketed her body. “It’s too late, isn’t it?”

“’Bout the smokin’ or me followin’ you lot?” Reggie blew a ring of smoke. “Way I see it, if I quit, it would be like sayin’ I made a mistake in insistin’ on lendin’ a wing. An’ that would be like saying Kage made a mistake. An’, well… that just ain’t gonna happen.”

But Velvet wasn’t talking about Reggie’s life choices. She turned to me with a horrified look. “Littlepip… please… be honest…” Her voice was fragile. “The fire… how long before it reaches Fluttershy?” She swallowed hard. “It’s already there, isn’t it? She’s already dead. Or… or…” My lovely unicorn friend could not bring herself to say that Fluttershy was dying. But it was clear from the pain in her expression that she was imagining Fluttershy, burning alive slowly in utter agony. It was too cruel an end for too cruel a life. I couldn’t bring myself to say that, by my best estimate, the fire had been there since nightfall. Maybe it was corrupted kindness to be dishonest about this, but I just couldn’t tell her the truth. It would destroy her.

I opened my muzzle to lie. But I was interrupted before I managed the first word.

“Doesn’t matter,” Reggie told her, drawing stares and glares from everyone except Life Bloom, who was too deep in concentration to notice his surroundings.

“…” Velvet stared, muzzle open, her heart tearing apart in front of us. “…what…?”

Reggie looked taken aback. “Oh, wait…” She looked at us all. “You don’t know?”

“Know what?” Calamity said carefully.

“The fire ain’t burnin’ the trees,” Reggie announced. My jaw was not the only one to drop. She looked at us and shook her head. “Hells, it would be easier if I showed you. I don’t think you’d believe me otherwise.”

“What do you mean, the fires aren’t burning the trees?”

“Just that,” Reggie replied. “Got a good look after you all ran off and left me half-dead in a tree.” As she said that, her voice was not accusatory. If anything, she sounded amused. “Red Eye’s fire brigade pushed past my position. Saw ‘em hose down a moss-covered tree with one o’ their flamethrowers. I swear on my mother’s name that the flames went right through the tree like it wasn’t even there.”

“But…” Velvet’s voice betrayed her desperation, “But we saw the trees burning! When we were fighting the Wonderbolts, remember?” She looked at me, and I could sense that she wanted me to tell her it was just her imagination. That Reggie was right and there was nothing to worry about. I thanked Luna that this time I didn’t need to lie.

“Those trees were burning because of that trick Skydive pulled,” I reminded her. “That wasn’t from Red Eye’s fires.”

Calamity shook his head, looking at Regina. “An’ ya didn’t mention this b’fore…?”

“Hells, I thought you knew. Besides, I was totally focused on the rest of the freaky!” The griffin tossed her cigarette to the floor and ground it under a hindpaw. “The tree didn’t catch, but the moss on it sure ignited. Then it began t’ heave an’ thrash an’ tear itself off the tree even as it burnt up. I swear it looked like it was screamin’. I’ll have nightmares for weeks!”

“Well daymn,” Calamity whistled.

“The fire… isn’t burning… Fluttershy’s safe?” Warring emotions wracked Velvet Remedy.

“Yes,” I murmured, my eyes going wide as the gears in my mind started turning again. I had seen the reports of Red Eye’s research into Bypass Spells. His scientists had been working to apply a bypass to some sort of weapon effect. The full details had been redacted after the research had been successful. Xenith had told me she had worked in one of the buildings where they were creating flamethrower fuel, but I’d never put the two together. “At least… for now.”

“For now?” Velvet’s voice was small, but hopeful.

“Red Eye ain’t the sort t’ waste resources, is he, Li’lpip?” Calamity asked, clearly following my train of thought. “He’s cleansin’ the Everfree Forest, but he ain’t gonna burn down the trees. He wants the lumber.”

I nodded.

I could see a calculating light in Velvet’s eyes. Her quest now had a timeline that she could see. Xenith had to recover, and they had to brew a remedy that would save Fluttershy, before Red Eye’s forces finished burning the forest and proceeded far enough in their harvesting to reach the top of Killing Joke Hill.

“You want dis?” the hellhound interrupted abruptly, holding up his zebra stealth cloak; his bindings lay useless around him. “Ur not gitteen it less you give me sometheen back.” There was a dangerous glint in his eyes.

“What do you want in return for your generous offer?” Velvet asked diplomatically as she pointedly looked at the stump of a leg which she had treated and dressed.

“Them claw blades,” the hellhound barked, pointing at Kage’s hellhound claw knives strapped in Reggie’s belt.

“Oh HELLS no!” The young griffin flew almost within claw reach of the hellhound, guns drawn, before she was yanked short, her tail in Calamity’s teeth. “These. Are. My. Brother’s!”

“Uh figger they belonged tu one uh ur brothers before him,” the hellhound growled back, unimpressed and vicious.

“How jush holl on!” Calamity came as close to shouting as he could without letting Reggie’s tail out of his mouth. “Ah figger we c’n shoof ya an’ haf bofe!” He shifted, pointing his battle saddle at the hellhound.

Being an amputee had not made him any less dangerous; the albino hellhound was swifter than any of us expected. He had an arm around Velvet Remedy, his claws -- sharp enough and strong enough to slice metal -- right against her face! Their barest touch was drawing blood. Velvet eeped sharply.

“How fast?” he challenged coldly.

I levitated Little Macintosh in front of me. “Let her go, real gentle, or you are so amazingly dead it won’t matter.”

Astonishingly, the crippled hellhound stared down the five guns pointed at him and didn’t blink.

Velvet’s horn flashed. The hellhound dropped limply back onto his bed, one of his claws sliding across Velvet’s face as his hand fell away. Blood gushed from the wound, staggering her.

“Don’t shoot him,” she ordered as she stumbled back, holding a hoof to her face. The claw had barely missed slicing open one of her eyes. “Littlepip! Your spell. Please!”

We had used up all the healing bandages and potions that we had. There was nothing left to aid Velvet with but the dark spell I had been granted by The Black Book. Once again, I let myself draw on that knowledge to create a cast from Velvet’s own blood, wrapping half her head in a ruddy mask.

Calamity rushed to Velvet’s side, shoring her up. He growled at the hellhound and clearly really, really wanted to shoot the monster. But Velvet wouldn’t let him. Instead, she turned to her attacker and spoke with a touch of sympathy.

“I completely agree with how abhorrent it is that some ponies have made weapons out of your kind’s body parts.” She looked at us with the one eye not hidden under solidified blood. “And anypony here who doesn’t should try to imagine seeing a creature wielding a weapon made of pony hooves!”

Addressing the (extremely pissed-looking) albino again, “So in trade for the use of your cloak, we are giving you this…” Her horn glowed again, and Xenith’s hellhound-claw helmet floated over and rested upon the albino hellhound’s chest (ignoring the strangled sound of protest from Calamity). “… but you will not be taking Kage Grimfeather’s blades from Regina,” she added sternly. “I am sorry.”

She frowned. “And for your aggression, you will be spending the rest of our time together under the effects of this spell. It is never intelligent to attack your doctor.”

Velvet Remedy stepped away. Then her knees gave a little tremble. A moment later, she had dropped to them, breathing heavily, letting her panic wash over her now that the crisis had passed.

Calamity laid down next to her and held her, nuzzling her gently. She buried her face in his mane, shedding tears born from the rollercoaster of hope, despair and mortal danger that the last few minutes had thrown my friend through.

The scarlet glow faded, and Life Bloom staggered, slumping to the floor next to Xenith. Pulling her muzzle out of Calamity’s orange mane, Velvet Remedy immediately bombarded Life Bloom with questions about how it went; the only answer he could give was a weak, “We shall see. It’s up to her now.”

“Then she’ll pull through,” Velvet proclaimed, her breathing still a little shaky. She seemed to draw strength from caring for her friends. “Xenith’s a fighter. A survivor. More than you could know.”

I discovered I was smiling. Just a little.

Somewhere, somepony gave what sounded like a polite cough.

I caught Reggie’s movement out of the corner of my eye. She drew her guns at the speed of Rainbow Dash and had the twins pointed out the doorway in front of her.

“We got company,” she warned, growling.

Dammit! I was so hoping the Enclave would pass Zecora’s Hut without taking interest. I really didn’t want to fight right now.

Velvet moaned. Behind me, Life Bloom was trying to get up; but he was too exhausted to stand, barely able to keep his eyes open. “Enclave?” he asked. Pyrelight swept across the room to perch on Reggie’s head, glaring out the door with her.

“No,” Reggie said, wincing at Pyrelight’s talons. “Red Eye. One o’ his damned sprite-bots.”

True, it made sense he’d have some wandering this close to his home base, but I heard no music. Watcher!

“Wait,” I called out, waving. “Hold your fire. This might be a friendly.”

*** *** ***

Thunder rumbled overhead like the steady beat of war drums. The Overcast was passing directly above us, the massive siege platform blocking out the fiery light reflecting off of the clouds of smoke; the flowers ringing Zecora’s Hut seemed to shed even more beautiful bioluminescence in the deeper darkness.

Colonel Autumn Leaf was either oblivious to our presence, or he was too focused now to care.

“It’s been a long time since my home felt crowded,” Watcher was saying. With the mechanical monotone of the sprite-bot, I couldn’t tell if he was pleased or complaining. “At least half of the people you asked me to gather have already arrived.”

“Huh?” Calamity blinked. “Li’lpip? Ya asked him t’ what now?”

“We don’t have enough time,” I told my pegasus friend bluntly. “The Enclave is moving too fast; I can’t be everywhere at once…” Truth was, I was about to ask even more of Spike. And he wasn’t going to like it.

“Don’tcha mean we?” Calamity asked pointedly. My little pony scowled at me and virtually grabbed my head, making me nod apologetically.

“Yes… but, that’s kinda the point,” I offered lamely. “We need every ally we can get if we’re going to pull this off…”

“Ah note ya still haven’t filled us in on exactly what this plan o’ yers is,” Calamity groused. “Ah’m trustin’ there’s a good reason fer that.”

“There is,” I assured him. Yeah. Great reason: you would try to stop me if you knew. “In the meantime, I’ve asked Watcher to contact all the people we know who can help and start bringing them together.”

“And I’m afraid I have some bad news,” Watcher said through the sprite-bot. “One of your guests isn’t going to be able to make it.” I felt an icy cold wash through my mane. The obvious implication was that someone had died.

“Who?” I asked, the little pony in my head suggesting we really didn’t want to know. “What happened?”

“Homage,” Watcher said, and my world plunged out from under me, leaving me in a numbingly cold void. Luna… no…

The sensation was as intense as it was brief, dispelled by Watcher’s next words, “And nothing yet. But the Enclave has figured out that DJ Pon3 is moving from one S.P.P. tower to another, hacking in to make those broadcasts, and they’ve started parking Raptors above each of the towers, just waiting for her to make her next move.”

Thank you, Luna! Celestia please keep her safe!

A huge part of me wanted to dash off to her aid. But doing so could lead the enemy right to her. And I knew she would not approve of me abandoning the good fight just to make it to her side.

“Fortunately, the Enclave don’t have enough Raptors to spare for every tower, and she’s not making it easy for them,” Watcher explained. “But their dragnet is eventually going to catch her.”

“Not if we c’n help it.” Calamity stepped up beside me, putting a hoof on my head. “If Ah know Li’lpip, this plan o’ hers is gonna pull the heat offa Homage in a big way.”

I gave him a worried but thankful smile. He was right about that. We had to win now. We always had to, but now it was for more than just the wasteland. Now I was fighting to keep Homage safe. I realized how horribly selfish it was of me to place the safety of one pony as equal to the needs of tens or even hundreds of thousands of ponies. But I didn’t care. Homage was… Homage was Homage, and I was allowed to be just a little selfish when it came to her, wasn’t I?

“Homage herself insisted she can’t make it. She doesn’t want to risk drawing the Enclave to the rest of… the Resistance is what she’s calling all you guys.” Resistance Radio. That’s what the Tenpony residents had taken to calling DJ Pon3’s broadcasts. Clearly, she’d adopted the moniker. “I’ll try to have a sprite-bot nearby so she can talk to us,” Watcher offered. “And she told me to tell you that she’s sending some more allies your way.”

Allies are good. I liked allies. We could use all the friends we could get.

Then reality struck. The blow hit me, cold and sharp and hard, nearly knocking me over. Part of me had been clinging to the belief that I would see Homage again when I gathered everyone together at Spike’s cave… at that final gathering before I set my plan into action. A final respite before I galloped headlong into my destiny.

But Homage, the one pony I wanted and needed to see most, was not going to be there. At most, I might hear her voice. Speak to her. But she would not be there to touch, to hold, to kiss… goodbye.

My legs were wet noodles, utterly unable to hold the titanic weight of my breaking heart. I was never going to see Homage again.

With a burst of static, the sprite-bot started playing the heavy, ominous music of the Enclave. Watcher was gone. His time was up. I barely noticed. I was too busy crying my heart out.

*** *** ***

The drumming of the Overcast’s thunderclouds was receding. There was no more time. We needed to go.

I realized I could still hear the low horns and booming drums, the mournful tones of violins: the music from the sprite-bot. It hadn’t wandered away. It was watching us.

I knew there was no way that Red Eye had been using these things for so long -- had been running operations in Fillydelphia from a Ministry of Morale hub -- without knowing that these machines could be used to spy.

Grim resolve flooded through me, drowning out the agony in my heart. Not killing it, but just letting me not feel it for a while. I pushed myself to my hooves and strode determinedly over to where the sprite-bot was floating amongst the trees, still within sight of Zecora’s Hut.

Red Eye knew we were here. Knew where to find us. I wanted to make it clear that wasn’t necessary.

“We’re coming,” I told the sprite-bot, sure that I was all but addressing Red Eye directly. “That’s what you wanted, right?”

The sprite-bot kept playing music.

I stared at it for a long minute, possibly two, before turning away in disgust. “Calamity! Reggie! Let’s go hitch ourselves a ride.”

I started to walk away from the sprite-bot, then stopped. I trotted back around to it, my horn glowing softly as I announced, “Sorry. I have to kill you.” This time, however, I wasn’t addressing Red Eye, but the sprite-bot itself. My PipLeg was still dead, and I was going to use the little spy machine to reboot it.

My telekinesis opened the repair hatch on the sprite-bot and yanked its spark battery.

The sprite-bot dropped like a stone. Dead. Or the robot equivalent of dead.

Sitting, I proceeded to disconnect audio and video feeds then bring it back to life, a robot vegetable. (Or something like that. Whatever. Stupid robots, making all my metaphors awkward.)

I looked down at where my PipBuck was grotesquely melded into my foreleg. Miserably, I realized that maybe it was for the best that Homage never saw me again. Let her last memories of me be before the balefire bomb. Before Canterlot. And before Arbu.

Life Bloom approached me as I was rebooting my PipLeg.

I assumed he was going to offer comfort, or ask a question about Watcher or the gathering. I pre-empted the conversation, somepony else on my mind. “How did you meet Homage?” My voice sounded small to me. I didn’t have the will to hide the sadness that was leaking into it.

Life Bloom paused, then sat down next to me. “The Twilight Society assigned her to me,” he told me. “They thought I would be able to connect with her.”

Leaning forward on his forehooves, Life Boom gave me the story. “When she first gained residency in Tenpony Tower, she was in mourning. She’d lost the mare she loved, and she didn’t know if she could ever find love again.” He smiled gently. “I’m happy to see she was wrong.”

That only made it hurt worse. My heart was bleeding onto the ground and I could feel the tears building up behind my eyes. They felt like fire. Even worse, the little pony in my head didn’t really want to hear about Homage’s past loves. Of course she had to have had at least one. You can’t get to be as… good as she was without practice, right? But I liked being able to pretend otherwise. Even though I knew better. Even though I was pretty sure I knew who it was.


I wasn’t going to be jealous. Not of Homage’s dead beloved. I refused to be that horrible.

“We were the same age, and I’d suffered loss of my own that the others in the Society thought was similar,” Life Bloom continued, his tone suggesting that the Society was in error on that supposition. He explained, “I was kicked out of The Republic after they discovered I had a preference for stallions.”

I blinked in surprise. “W-what?”

The Republic, I remembered, was the little town that the raiders from Fluttershy’s cottage had massacred. A bizarrre, cult-like group o’ weirdoes, but not bad ponies according to the Wasteland Crusaders.

“They kicked you out because of that?” I was astounded. Since my youth, I had been resigned to my feelings for mares lowering my prospects for finding love. But I’d never experienced actual prejudice because of it. I couldn’t even fathom that. “Why? Why would they even care?”

“Fer the same reason, Ah’ll reckon, that the Enclave rewards it,” Calamity said, approaching us, his words prompting another wait, what? from the little pony in my head. “Population control. Small place like The Republic, Ah bet they needed as many babies as they could get.”

Life Bloom nodded, frowning. “And if I wasn’t going to contribute to the growth of The Republic, I wasn’t wanted.”

“And the Enclave?” I asked, driven by morbid curiosity. My PipLeg hummed to life, the screen flashing status reports. I brought up my E.F.S. and checked the most critical readouts.

“There’s only so much cropland above the cloud curtain, all o’ it ‘round those towers. Too many pegasi means famine. The Enclave keeps real tight reins on childbirth.”

Officially, y’all are probably dead already, Calamity had told Tracker and the other pegasi in New Appleloosa. By the weekend, the Enclave will ‘ave delivered condolences and new birth-approval certificates t’ yer families.

“Bein’ allowed an extra foal is one o’ the perks a pegasus gets fer enlistin’ with the Enclave,” Calamity admitted, “So while there’s nothin’ official, the Enclave has a little extra appreciation fer those officers who won’t be takin’ advantage o’ that benefit.”

I sat and thought about that for a moment. Then shook it off like a wet coat. “We really need to go.” I stood up, looking down to Life Bloom. “But when we get back, I’ll want to hear everything you can tell me about Homage.”

He gave me an odd look.

“I’m not prying,” I explained. “I just… I miss her.”

*** *** ***

Within minutes, we were soaring through the smoke. Beneath us, we could see the flames burning through the forest. True to Reggie’s claim, the trees were not burning, although occasionally it appeared they were as the moss or vines clinging to them were cremated.

We were all wearing scarves to protect us from the worst of the smoke, but it only mitigated the foulness. My lungs burned, my eyes were stinging and felt hot in my skull. Most of that was from the smoke, but not all of it. I was exhausted, even more so after hearing Watcher’s soul-crushing news. It took massive, almost monumental, effort just to keep my eyes open.


I yelped as something struck my left hindhoof, a lancing pain followed by a burning sensation. I lifted it, spotting a dart-like thorn impaling the underside of my hoof. The burning increased. Poison.

fwut fwut fwut fwut

“Goldangit!” Calamity hollered, banking sharply as the air filled with more plant spikes. A patch of forest vegetation was shooting at us! Goddesses, I hated this forest.

The plants stopped shooting as the fires reached them. Calamity braved thicker smoke in an effort to keep us out of the range of any more of Everfree’s hostile plant life.

The fire in my hoof started to climb up my leg, achingly painful. But I’d suffered so much worse. Hell, I’d been set on fire by a dragon. Compared to that, hell, compared to the plethora of hurts from the battle with the Wonderbolts, the plant spike poison was trivial.

We were catching up to the Overcast, but it was taking time. I held off activating the MG StealthBuck II for fear that it would run out before we had secured a hiding place on the Thunderhead.

I closed my eyes for a few minutes. I was using my levitation to make myself weightless in Calamity’s arms. I felt safe there. I could close my eyes for just a minute…

I was Rainbow Dash.

The clouds were a beautiful white, fluffy and soft under my hooves. And they stretched out forever beneath the warm glow of Celestia’s sun. I could see colorful pegasi flitting and flying about. There was a town nearby, but I wasn’t looking at it. I didn’t want to.

Instead, I looked at the ocean of white that rolled out beneath a canopy of brightest blue.

I was Rainbow Dash, and I was not a happy pony.

Everywhere under those clouds was Equestria. Or what was left of it. Everywhere beneath was a nightmarish hell where those ponies unfortunate enough to not be in Stables and not be killed in the onslaught were struggling and dying.

And I was watching ponies fly about, happily ignoring what was out of sight beneath what some ponies were beginning to call “the Cloud Curtain”.

It wasn’t right.

Nevermind that all my friends, all of them, were somewhere down there, and I didn’t know if they were dead or alive. I couldn’t just live up here and pretend Equestria didn’t exist anymore. I could understand the temptation, true. But I wasn’t that kind of pony. And it hurt more than my heart could bear that apparently the rest of the pegasi were willing to be.

I wanted to be disgusted with all of them. Instead, I just felt sad.

I was Rainbow Dash, and I was ashamed to be a pegasus.

If this was what being a pegasus meant now… well, maybe it was time for me to go.

I felt my wings flap, slowly lifting my hooves off the clouds. I loved flying, but today I could barely find the inspiration to lift myself. My head drooped low, my body hanging from my wings like dead weight. My hooves brushed against the clouds as I began to move.

I turned around, my back to the colorful flying ponies. I took one last glance backwards before flying away…

…I awoke in a coughing fit violent enough that Calamity crushed me to him to keep me from jerking out of his forelegs.

Below us, we were passing over part of the fire brigade moving through an already-burned part of the forest. I watched as a unicorn marched forward before a wing of Red Eye’s griffins, her horn glowing. The glow spread out over the ground in front of her, lighting up a large swath of blackened forest floor. A moment later, the ground churned, tearing itself apart.

The griffins swept forward with their flamethrowers, setting ablaze the tangles of blue vines that the unicorn’s tilling spell had uncovered.

“Whoa, there, Li’lpip!” Calamity comforted. “Ya okay there?”

“Y-yes. Sorry,” I apologized, bringing my levitating field back up around me. “Dozed off.”

“Yeah, Ah reckon when we get aboard, we’re gonna find a place t’ lay low an’ yer gonna take a nap.” Ahead of us, the Overcast loomed closer. We would be on it within a few minutes. “Ya might only get a couple hours, but that’s a couple hours better than none.”

I turned on my advanced StealthBuck. We were getting close enough that all of us needed to be invisible. Reggie and Calamity followed suit, donning the hoods of their zebra stealth cloaks.

A strange silhouette shot out of the sky -- a dark figure the size and shape of a pony but with leathery bat-like wings that reminded me strongly of Xenith and her flying amulet -- and impacted one of the Raptors like a bullet.

“What the hells was that?” Reggie’s voice blurted. “Either of you see that too?”

The Raptor began to veer off, moving away from the Thunderhead. I floated my earboom into my ear and quickly sought out the Enclave’s military channel.

“…been breached. I repeat, we have unknown hostiles aboard,” the voice from the Raptor’s communications officer sounded professional, unconcerned, even bored. “Disengaging from position to deal with the intruders.”

The Overcast was still hours away from the Cathedral, and attacks were already starting. I had no doubt that Red Eye was behind this attack, but something wasn’t right. Sending a single creature against them wasn’t going to stop them. It wouldn’t even slow them down. And that meant it wasn’t intended to.

“Acknowledged, Raptor Lenticular. Rendevous at the target as soon as you have exterminated the infestation.”

I suspected, rather, that Red Eye was just looking to soften the Enclave up a bit before pulling whatever big surprise he had hidden beneath his cloak.

Lenticular to Overcast! This time, the officer’s voice sounded panicked. “It’s the demon! I repeat, the demon is on board!”

The. What. Now?

Reggie started to say something but I waved a hoof for her to be quiet – which in retrospect was really silly since I was invisible -- my attention fully on the conversation in my earbloom.

Overcast to Lenticular. Please confirm. Are you reporting that the monster which downed the Mammatus is…”

The officer aboard the Overcast never got to finish his question, much less get an answer. A loud whine tore at my eardrum, and the Enclave’s inter-warship military channel became death.

I bucked in Calamity’s grip, my vision going red as agony tore through my brain and took hold of my horn. I quickly shut off my PipLeg’s radio, gasping and wiping blood from my eyes. Whatever was aboard the Lenticular had just infected the military channel with the Canterlot signal!

By Luna’s mane!

We had run into corrupted broadcasters in Zebratown. Even with Canterlot itself gone, any broadcaster that survived would still create a zone of malignant noise. Hell, still had one of those in my saddlebags. It had never occurred to me that somepony might think to use one of those devices to actually broadcast across a normal channel!

Fortunately for the Enclave, all they had to do to survive was turn their radios off. But this meant that they were about to fly into battle against Red Eye’s forces without communications.

The battle was engaged.

*** *** ***

The burning in my hoof had consumed my entire left hindleg before fading dully. My leg felt stiff and swollen, but the worst seemed to be over. The plant spike poison was far from lethal. At least, not to anything larger than a rabbit.

Aside from the earlier plant attack, the stealth mission seemed to be going perfectly. Nopony shot at us as we drew close behind the Overcast, all the Thunderhead’s dangerous magical weapons were pointing forward. We just needed to fly up to a hatch, pick the lock, and slip inside. And with Calamity’s knowledge of the Thunderheads, we found a hatch in no time.

I cursed the Enclave, the pegasi and the entire concept of wings the moment I saw it. Fucking cloud-locks.

“Ain’t gonna be able t’ pick this one,” Calamity said, his voice muffled. I wasn’t sure if he was talking about himself or me. Probably both.

“Rainbow!” I called out as loudly as I dared to this close to the Overcast.

“dash,” came the muffled response. Unlike StealthBucks, the zebra cloaks dampened sound: it was impossible to tell where Reggie was, but at least she was still close.

“Okay, back-up plan,” Calamity announced just loud enough for Reggie (we hoped) to hear. We couldn’t actually be sure where the griffin was, and had already resorted to call-response navigating. I had begun to regret not using rope to tie ourselves together. “We get up above this thing, near one o’ the landin’ bays, an’ wait fer somepony t’ open a door.”

With that, Calamity beat his wings, drawing us higher.

Below us, the hatch hissed open. “coming?” the muffled voice of the griffin asked.

I tried to exchange a look with Calamity. And, of course, totally failed.

“honestly, way you two act, you’d think littlepip is the only person in the entire wasteland who c’n pick a lock.”

*** *** ***

We were inside the corridors of the Overcast, the thrumming of its thunderclouds rumbling against hull. The vibration mixed with the hum of the lights; the hum seemed deeper here than in the Raptor Pyrocumulus or inside the Stables -- more ominous -- but that could have just been my imagination. The voices of pegasus ponies were omnipresent in all but the most isolated passageways.

The corridors were painted black, making the lights seem to provide stunted illumination. Colored stripes ran down the middle of the walls like an abbreviated rainbow, the paint reflecting the light that the rest of the walls absorbed, making them seem to glow. The colored lines weren’t solid, but had slanted breaks, and they would change, dropping away or being added as we moved through the ship. I gleaned that they were some sort of color-coded guidance stripes that would tell an Enclave pegasus if the hallway they were in would take them to the section of the massive ship that they wanted. There were monitors placed at intervals along the wall, each glowing with the Enclave’s symbol, an emblem of clouds and wings with a pair of eyes gazing out from the shelter of an arch, green and purple on black.

We moved quietly, holding each other by the tails, Calamity taking the lead. My hindleg made walking unpleasant and a bit difficult. Fortunately, sneaking through the bowels of the Overcast didn’t require me to run.

I felt awkward and uncomfortably warm with Regina Grimfeathers biting my tail. I tried to focus forward, and immediately regretted it. It tasted like Calamity hadn’t washed his tail in weeks. (I knew that couldn’t actually be true. Velvet Remedy would never stand for it. But that didn’t change anything.) I fought a slowly losing battle against my gag reflex.

I survived about five minutes and two floors, waiting until we reached a secluded stairwell, before I had to spit my friend’s tail out and dry heave in a corner.

I felt Regina spit out my own tail, snarking, “Yeah, like yours was a picnic.”

If I was beginning to understand the Overcast’s guidance scheme, the striping that flanked the metal stairs suggested we were midway between the barracks and the Overcast’s medical bay, with a longer path towards the officers’ quarters. I would have expected such a stairwell to be in heavy use, but it was utterly empty.

“Hang on here, Li’lpip,” Calamity ordered. “Ah’ll go round me up some Enclave armor. The barracks are on the floor below, opposite the rec center.”

We had skirted what Calamity referred to as the rec center on our way to the stairwell, getting a good look at it through a set of large observation windows. It was a large, three-story open room filled with mares and stallions exercising, lifting weights and even flying through obstacle hoops, all out of armor and uniform. A third of the room was a cloudball court, and there had been nearly two dozen sweaty Enclave mares and stallions faced off in a friendly game. I’ll admit, watching some of those mares temporarily distracted me from the concentrated disgusting in my mouth.

Made sense that the ponies down there had suits of armor nearby. But…

“Alone? Into a barracks?” Reggie asked, echoing my concern before I had fully formed it. But then she added, “How ‘bout we just wait fer the next Enclave bastard t’ come down these stairs an’ take ‘im out? I’ll use Kage’s knives, real quick and quiet.”

“No,” I insisted, taken aback. Fighting the Enclave in battle was one thing. But that? That was murder.

“Muh brother needs t’ be put down, yes,” Calamity said sternly. “But most o’ these ponies ain’t evil. They’re jus’ followin’ orders. We ain’t killin’ anypony we don’t have t’.”

“None of these ponies are innocent,” Reggie hissed.

“Some o’ these ponies might be,” Calamity countered. “Ah don’t recall the Overcast gettin’ directly involved in the fightin’ anywhere yet.”

“That’s not how we do things,” I added, only for Reggie to scoff.

“Oh please,” Reggie repudiated, “I’m a child of Gawd, remember? I know all ‘bout what you did at Shattered Hoof. You’re an assassin when it suits your cause.”

I flinched. I really, really didn’t want to think of myself that way, but Regina was right. And I deserved the sucker-punch to my self-image to knock me off my pedestal.

Still mentally smarting, I changed tactic, “Okay, you’re right. But so is Calamity. We’ve already seen crew rebellions. There’s a chance that many of these ponies would side with us, giving half a chance and a touch of perspective.”

“But they sure as hell won’t if ya start slittin’ their throats in the stairwell.”

Reggie seemed to accept this. She fell silent.

I moved amongst a few Enclave crates stored beneath the stairwell and laid down, beginning to drift asleep. Calamity, I assumed, moved off to fetch the armor. I couldn’t really tell, but it was a safe assumption. But either way, he and Regina weren’t arguing or bringing up unpleasant points of morality anymore. Peace and quiet. Time for a nap.

Too quiet.

“Rainbow,” I whispered.


*** *** ***

I woke up when Calamity returned with the Enclave armor and, if I were to guess, most of the medical bay.

“Went smoothly,” he said, slipping off the zebra stealth cloak and passing it to me. I reached out for it and realized I could see my arm. The MG StealthBuck II had drained while I slept. Fortunately, nopony (or, at least, nopony observant) had used the stairwell since then.

Wait. “How long was I out?”

“Long ‘nuff fer him t’ make a few trips,” Reggie teased from someplace nearby. “Figured we ought t’ let you sleep.” Reggie shifted her attention to Calamity. “Don’tcha think your brother’s gonna notice his whole damn ship is missin’?”

I would have sworn one of the Goddesses had a love of ironic timing. Before Calamity could answer, we heard a door open several floors above us. Music flooded into the stairwell, hidden speakers coming alive at their entrance, pouring haunting orchestral music with an exquisite cello performance as its centerpiece.

“Aw hell,” Calamity moaned softly. “It’s Autumn.” At my querying look, he explained, “Who else would have the whole ship rigged t’ pipe classical music wherever he goes?” I noticed that he positioned himself, wings spread, so that he would feel if Reggie tried to pass him. I wasn’t sure if he intended to stop the griffin or just wanted forewarning.

Voices echoed down the stairwell.

“Again, sir, my deepest apologies,” the mare said, almost whining. “I still can’t understand how that monster got past us.”

“Teleportation, no doubt,” Autumn Leaf replied, his tone hard. “Two of those beasts that tried to breach Neighvarro a few years back were teleporters.” He added, “That little spell proved no help to either of them.”

“Sir, you know this is a trap,” a mare’s voice was saying.

“Of course it is a trap,” a stallion’s voice replied smooth as glass. Unlike Calamity’s other brothers, there was no trace of his family’s accent. “Red Eye is calling me out. There is simply no other explanation for that…” Autumn Leaf’s voice twisted in a snarl, “…mental violation.”

My head was spinning. Unless I was gravely misinterpreting what I was hearing, I hadn’t been the only one that Red Eye’s alicorns had “tested” with that vile mental rape.

Autumn Leaf sternly announced, “I do not intend to disappoint him.”

I now understood what pushed Autumn Leaf to jump the whistle.

“Sir?” the mare pleaded, their voices drawing closer, “With all due respect, I believe it will be a grave error for you to enter the battle yourself like this.”

“I do not doubt it,” responded the pegasus who had brought so much harm and devastation and death to the Equestrian Wasteland. “But there are some transgressions that absolutely require a personal reckoning.”

I heard another door open above us.

“If I die,” Colonel Autumn Leaf instructed, “Or I am taken hostage, you have your orders.” His voice receded as the two ponies walked away. I barely caught him add, “Besides, Red Eye is not going to see this coming…”

The door slid shut. When it closed, the virtual classical orchestra evaporated, plunging the stairwell into an oppressive silence.

“Rainbow?” I asked cautiously.

There was no Dash.

*** *** ***

I listened to my earbloom as I drank another of the healing potions Calamity had pilfered, blinking away blood-tinged tears. My headache and horn-ache receded, then disappeared completely. At least we were going into this magically restored to complete health. Even the swelling in my leg was almost completely gone.

Canterlot static from the Raptor Lenticular was still flooding the Enclave inter-warship channel. The fact that the Lenticular had managed to neither shut down its com array nor get far enough away for the Overcast to be outside its range suggested that the Enclave aboard had not been successful in dealing with the “demon”. I was willing to bet at least one of the other Raptors were trying to hunt the Lenticular down; but without communications, there was no easy way for them to coordinate efforts. I pictured Enclave soldiers flying between ships, relaying messages.

I had switched away from the channel as soon as I had heard it, but the concentrated blast of Canterlot static had still taken its toll. Now I was switching through other transmissions: the Enclave’s hellhound-control broadcast, the intra-ship classical music station (all cello, all the time), Red Eye’s broadcast (straight from the Cathedral, sans towers and thus free from Enclave takeover) and finally the normal wasteland broadcast (all Enclave, almost all the time).

Still no sign or sound of Reggie. It had been fifteen minutes.

“Ah got a few ice-cold Sparkle~Colas in the rucksack over there,” Calamity pointed. “That’s almost good as another couple hours o’ sleep, Ah reckon.” He turned to the Enclave crates under the stairs, opening the first unlocked one. “Oooh,” he whistled. “Grenades!”

I began to dig through the sack in question as the dour tones of fancy horns and kettle drums played in my ear. “You really need a PipBuck,” I whispered to Calamity with a chuckle. In his kleptomaniac enthusiasm, he had dumped the contents of who knew how many medical boxes and Enclave crates into his saddle bags and even more into military rucksacks. “If for the inventory sorter alone.”

The song on the radio changed. The new one was heavy on the string section.

“Ah shoot,” Calamity said, facehoofing his armor-clad hoof against his helmet with a thunk. “The armor’s got one o’ those.” Clearly, it had been a while since he’d properly used Enclave armor. The few times I’d seen him use his own suit, with the exception of a brief stint in Old Olneigh, he’d always had the helmet off.

I smirked, about to say something witty, when I found the ice-cold Sparkle~Cola. And, beside it, a couple tins of Mint-als. I stared, feeling a moment of cold shock.

“Calamity,” I asked, trying to sound casual, “Did you even look at the stuff you were taking?”

“Nope,” he said. I could almost feel his grin through the helmet. He had no idea what I’d just seen. “Reckon if Autumn wants it, best I have it.”

Right. I looked back into the rucksack, my mind insisting on replaying the taste of Party-Time Mint-als, the feelings of competence and intelligence, the certainty…

I took the ice-cold Sparkle-Cola in my teeth and telekinetically zipped the rucksack shut, the little pony in my head echoing Calamity.


I got to mentally celebrate my little victory for about a minute before I heard a door open below us. A pair of lightly-armed Enclave officers strode by, trotting up the stairs. Calamity whisked his scorpion-like armored tail around in a salute. One of the officers saluted back.

I watched them disappear up the metal stairs, following the line that led towards the officer’s quarters without even noticing it. Once they were well away, I shifted my attention back to Calamity. “Got a question for you,” I said as I opened the frosty Sparkle~Cola, enjoying the little fizzy hiss it made and the aroma of carrots and cola-ness.

“All right,” he said, alleviating another crate of its cargo (which in this case included somepony’s Wingboner Magazine collection, three hot plates, seventeen pre-war bits and a copy of the pre-war book Give Peas a Chance: the Vegetarian’s Guide to Cooking). “Shoot.”

Remembering Reggie’s snide remark about carrying healing potions, I started to telekinetically fill my saddlebags with a healthy supply from the rucksack.

“What kinds of defenses does the Enclave have around the S.P.P. Central Hub?” I questioned before tipping back the cola and taking a swig. (Yay, carrots!) I knew that the hub itself had defenses -- the most significant being the shield surrounding the entire structure -- but those were not under the Enclave’s control. The Single Pegasus Project was the core of the Enclave’s grip on the heavens. Even if nopony could get inside the central hub, I had to assume the Enclave had guards or at least some kind of warning system.

“Ya mean Neighvarro?” Calamity asked.

I almost choked on the taste of fizzy carrots. The healing potion I’d been levitating hit the floor. “Neighvarro?” I asked back slowly, setting the cola safely on one of the Enclave crates.

“Sonuva…!” Calamity nickered, giving a stomp.

“That’s yer plan?” he asked, spreading his wings. “Ya wanna take on the Enclave’s biggest military base?!”

Oh fuck.

“The base with a Thunderhead permanently parked overhead?”


“The base where muh father serves as drill sergeant?”

Luna shove my cunt full of moonrocks and call me home. The Enclave had built a whole damn base around it!

“Stealth mission?” he asked, his voice betraying the ludicrousness of my idea, “Or were ya just plannin’ on a full frontal assault?”

I opened my muzzle to reply, but all that came out was a squeak.

“Ayep. This is gonna be barrels o’ fun.”

He would have said more, but the sound of another door opening prompted him to clam up. We both waited, listening, striving to hear whether or not the pony or ponies who just entered the stairwell were heading our way. Our ears were greeted only with silence.

Moments later, we heard Reggie’s muffled hiss. “Dash.”

Calamity’s wings drooped. “Muh brother?” he asked, hesitating to speak further.

“Still alive, I’m afraid,” Reggie admitted. “Sorry. I got distracted.”


“I found they’ve got prisoners in here,” Reggie explained. “Anypony up for breakin’ ‘em free?”

Calamity chuckled. “Welcome t’ the team.”

*** *** ***

One pegasus in Enclave armor on a ship full of Enclave pegasi, flanked by two invisible and virtually inaudible companions. If we couldn’t pull this off, we didn’t deserve to win.

The Enclave music in my earbloom had changed again. This one sounded like a dirge.

“Howdy, partner,” Calamity called out jovially as he trotted up to the mare at the guard station outside the ship’s brig. I so wanted to facehoof. “Bored yet?”

“Hover and identify,” the guard pegasus ordered rotely.

“Windsheer,” Calamity lied swiftly, “Superior Communications Officer. Transferred from the Glorious Dawn last week.”

That was a dangerous gamble. If the mare knew about the Colonel’s family, using his brother’s name and rank would give his story a sense of legitimacy. After all, it was understandable that Colonel Autumn Leaf might want his brothers on his ship for this operation. And Calamity’s accent lent credence to the claim.

Would she buy a Superior Communications Officer wearing Enclave armor rather than an officer’s uniform? I had to trust Calamity’s instincts and Enclave experience on that. However, if she knew what Autumn Leaf’s brothers looked like, then not only would any glimpse beneath that armor tell her that Calamity was lying, but she would know his palette matched one of Autumn’s other brothers -- the one who was branded a traitor. The one that the Enclave was to kill on sight. Calamity’s ruse could put the mare in the perfect frame of mind to guess his actual identity.

“Superior Communications Officer?” the mare asked, immediately rendering my worries pointless. “So maybe you can tell me what the hay is going on with Raptor Lenticular.” She gave Calamity an exasperated look. “I mean, we’ve got the ship’s tag, right? And even if the infiltrators managed to take it out, we’ve got the tags for every pony in a suit of armor on board. Why don’t we just find the damn Raptor and blow it out of the sky?”

“Cuz we have Raptors to spare, right?” Calamity chided as he trotted up to the mare. “The ship ain’t turned about t’ attack us yet, an’ I reckon that means there’s still hope our forces will keep control. As fer trackin’ it down? My bits are on the infiltrators not actually havin’ the channel fer our communications.”

The control for the door had a cloud interface and required a code. Reggie and I teamed up to hack it, her talons and my savvy, while Calamity kept the guard mare busy.

He shook his carapace-helmeted head. “Nope, much more likely they’re blasting that necro-noise broadband, flooding out every signal comin’ from the Lenticular. Jammin’ the tags.” Calamity whinnied. “Hell, that might be the whole point, an’ screwin’ up our comms is jus’ icing on the cupcake.”

The password was “Fluffykins”. I wasn’t sure what to think of that.

“So, is the demon really, well, a demon?” the mare asked. “I heard rumor that it’s a monster released from hell by the balefire bombs.”

“Ah don’t believe in demons,” Calamity replied. “No more than Ah believe in goddesses. Way Ah see it, we don’t need outside forces t’ blame fer makin’ the world a shittier place. We do that well enough by our own hooves…”

I positioned myself behind the mare and slipped off my hood, giving Calamity a signal. Reggie entered the code while Calamity kept the guard’s attention. There was the faintest whirr as the lock cycled; our pegasus friend moved up to the mare, speaking more loudly to cover the sound.

“…Ah’m sure the so-called demon ain’t nothing more than a pony,” he said in a tone that suggested what he was saying was more than just his opinion: it was the Enclave line, and the mare was expected to believe it. “Or some monster twisted up by the byproducts of the war.”

Reggie and I slid inside the brig.

Before us was a corridor of cells, two floors high, each cell behind a glowing blue force-field identical to the magical energy cages the Enclave had thrown Ditzy Doo, Calamity and me into less than a week ago. The sound of weeping drifted through the air.

Most of the cells were empty. Most. There were ponies here, not just bucks and mares but foals too. Some prisoners paced in their cells, others huddled on hard metal cots. They were from the wasteland; they looked filthy compared to the stark cleanliness of the Enclave vessel. I recoiled as I found the source of the crying, a mare cradling a foal, the colt’s body limp in her hooves, having died in captivity.

There were two guards inside, standing at a rear airlock, and they both reacted to the door. “I thought I heard something,” one of them said as they moved from their positions, looking about.

I shifted, moving out of the way as one passed me, his tail swishing inches from me. Part of me wanted to draw out Little Macintosh and shoot him in the head, point blank. He deserved no less. But the noise could draw the whole ship down on us. I wished I had Velvet Remedy with her anesthetic spell with us, or Life Bloom, or Xenith with her paralyzing hoofstrikes. In their absence, I did the next best thing.

My horn glowed, giving away my position, as I wrapped my telekinesis about their necks and squeezed until they stopped struggling.

Reggie pulled back her hood and gave one of the limp guards a kick. “Help me disable these energy fields.”

I pulled mine off too, choosing to have faith that we could trust the prisoners to not give us away, and moved to the control terminal for the cells.

As Reggie and I began to work, I couldn’t help but comment, “If it makes any difference, I’m proud of you. You chose to help these ponies over your revenge.”

Regina Grimfeathers squawked a laugh. “Ain’t your approval I’m aimin’ fer, but thank you anyhoo.” At my curious look, she sighed. “Kage’s. Wherever my brother is now, I want his approval. An’ this is what I think he’d want me t’ do. What I think he’d do in my place.”

My mind flashed to the young male griffin buying a bent tin can from Silver Bell just to make her happy. “I think you’re right,” I offered. “I mean, I know I didn’t know him long. But from what I did see of him, yes, he would.”

Reggie nodded. “Revenge ain’t worth anythin’ if I dishonor his memory in the process.”

She looked at me, a small tear in one eye. “He was always wantin’ t’ do stuff like this, you know. Me too, of course,” she hastily added, “But I wanted t’ be the hero. He jus’ wanted t’ make somethin’ better o’ the griffins’ role in Equestria.” She smiled bleakly. “Sometimes, I think he took Stern an’ her lot as a personal affront, an’ wanted t’ try t’ balance things out.”

“You!” one of the prisoners called out. I rotated towards the voice and saw Tracker. The jade pegasus slammed his forehooves against the energy field, ignoring the feedback. “This isn’t how things are supposed to be! Get out while you still can. Before they get you too!”

“Not without taking all of you with us,” I said with a determined smile. More ponies were getting up, moving to the edges of the magical barriers, staring at Reggie and me with mixed expressions of hope and disbelief. “Welcome to your rescue.”

The sound of klaxons filled the brig. I spun to Reggie, eyes wide, certain that somepony had triggered an alarm, and we were about to be overwhelmed by Enclave soldiers.

Then we felt the first dull thuds vibrating through the floor. The brig was close to the Overcast’s exterior (I had a terrible inkling that the airlock was for easy, high-altitude disposal of prisoners), and we could feel the impacts of what had to be the Cathedral’s anti-aircraft cannons.

Reggie returned my gaze.

“We’re heeeere.”

*** *** ***

I had never seen such disciplined and orderly chaos as the Enclave mobile siege platform in the heat of battle. Every pegasus knew where to go, what to do, and they were doing it rapidly under the barked orders of their commanders. With the military channel down, officers had taken wing, brushing the ceiling with the tips of their feathers as they shouted down to the troops, and across the ship to each other.

Nopony questioned the apparently lone Enclave soldier moving with purpose through the corridors and out into one of the Overcast’s hangar bays, laden down with rucksacks.

“Where to, Li’lpip?” Calamity asked.

“You’ll like this,” I replied from beneath the zebra cloak. “You’re going to steal one of the Enclave’s sky-tanks.”

“Good.” I could almost hear the grin breaking across his face. “The Enclave owes us fer the Sky Bandit.”

“There’s an exterior airlock we need t’ pull up t’ once we’re free of the ship,” Reggie added. “Got some extra passengers t’ take aboard.”

The entire ship flooded with the tense sound of brass, drums and violins, the heavier classical music replaced by the stirring battle anthem Flight of the Shadowbolts.

“This is it, ponies,” the voice of Colonel Autumn Leaf boomed over the music. “This is the moment all your training and all your experience has prepared you for. This is the battle you were born for. It’s time to separate the pegasi from the griffins. It’s time to kick Red Eye’s ass, and teach him that crossing the Enclave, murdering our brothers and sisters, was his ultimate folly.

“We fight in the name of every pegasus ignominiously massacred in the Splendid Valley sneak attack…” The monitors along the walls came to life, the Enclave emblem replaced by a slowly scrolling names in red -- every pegasus killed by the Splendid Valley balefire bomb. I forced myself not to look, not to read each name. I knew I should. I was responsible… but if I did, I also knew, I wouldn’t be able to go on. “...We fight in the name of our loved ones, our home and our Enclave!”

As we made our way across the hangar deck towards one of the black-and-green armored tanks, the Flight of the Shadowbolts began to crescendo. The hangar door growled open to the smoky yellow sky. Explosions of black smoke pockmarked the haze as anti-aircraft shells filled the sky.

A squad of pegasi in black carapace armor shot past the opening, embattled with a wing of dark green, shield-protected alicorns. I could hear the sounds of magical energy discharges and automatic gunfire from the world below mixing into a nerve-wracking din. The first sky-tanks and bombing chariots took off, flying out of the throat of the ship and into the heart of the war.

Calamity opened the largest sky-tank we could find, one with multiple plasma cannons (the kind like the one Calamity had shot Topaz with, too big for even a battle saddle) and space for a dozen armored soldiers. He pushed himself to the front, strapping himself into the flight harness while Reggie and I took up places in the back. I noted the name stenciled onto the side of the sky-tank just before climbing aboard: Tortoise.

A pair of Enclave soldiers came trotting up to the back of the Tortoise, their helmets in their muzzles. They had seen Calamity strapping in and were expecting a ride. Reggie tossed back her hood, becoming visible for just a moment, grinning as I closed the door on them. “Sorry, bucks. This one’s taken.”

Their stunned expressions were priceless.

“Go now,” I told Calamity, tossing back my own hood the moment the door was shut. I looked over the door, the pony in my head panicking as I realized I had no idea how to lock it. “Now. Now is good. Go now!” I didn’t want to give the two bucks time to recover, open the door, and gun us down.

Calamity spread his wings inside the armored enclosure of the Tortoise’s cockpit, pumping twice, and I felt the tank lift from the hangar floor.

A moment later, we were shooting out the hanger door, the horizontal slit windows of the Tortoise glowing with the sickly golden light of Everfree’s dawn.

Beneath us was a massive complex of metal, stone and brown concrete: the Cathedral. High in its center rose an airy gothic structure of steepled roofs, flying buttresses and rosy stained glass. Ringing out around it was a heavily fortified castle -- thick walls, towers, battlements. Tower strongholds held anti-aircraft guns identical to the ones that had once protected Friendship City. There was even a moat, and I could see the shadow of something the size of three dozen ponies swimming about in it.

Beyond the castle’s outer walls and moat, the Everfree Forest was nothing but blackened ash and severed stumps for at least a mile in every direction. A deep gorge knifed through the land on three sides, spanned by only a single, fortress-like bridge.

The scorched land was filled with ponies. Not just dozens, not just hundreds. Thousands of ponies wearing Red Eye’s colors were engaging the Enclave in a ferocious battle. Red Eye’s troops fought from trenches and pillboxes, more soldiers lined the walls of the castle, pouring bullets into the sky. Red Eye’s alicorns and griffins met the pegasi in the skies.

It still seemed like a horribly lopsided battle. Bombing wagons rained high-explosives down on the fortress from high enough above to be out of range. The Raptors alone could level the Cathedral with concentrated fire. Goddesses knew what the Overcast itself could do.

Two of the Raptors from the Overcast had joined four more, encircling the Cathedral, bombarding it with heavy plasma fire. (I assumed the third Raptor was busy hunting Raptor Lenticular.) Three of the Raptors were showing signs of damage from the shelling, one of them was smoking badly and had begun to cant, drifting out of position.

Calamity circled us around, deftly keeping us out of the line of heavy fire. We drew up to the brig airlock. Tracker already had it open, waiting for us. I opened the door of the Tortoise as Calamity backed us up to the Overcast. The Thunderhead siege platform was barely moving now; jumping from it to our sky-tank would be more nerve-wracking than actually dangerous. I moved into position to help them; Regina climbed into the seat for one of the plasma cannons.

The first pony, a light grey mare with a shockingly purple mane, moved up to the edge of the airlook. She gulped, her knees shaking, her brow beading with the effort not to look down.

“It’s okay,” I coaxed. “You can do it.”

Our attention, and the attention of every pony in the battle, was suddenly wrenched downward by a horrific, Equestria-shaking bellow. Something huge, dark and horrifying rose up from the Cathedral, a black and monstrous shape against the smoke-filtered sun. Great, angry red eyes poured hatred down on us as it brutalized the air with massive, leathery wings.

Then it moved towards one of the Raptors, bellowing balefire. As it moved, I could make out pony-sized claws and spines and the two-tone green of its scales, marred by deep scars that looked more surgical than battle-borne. I glimpsed an odd, mechanical glow coming from inside one of the wounds which hadn’t fully healed.

There was a dragon in the Everfree Forest. And not just any dragon, the Luna-fucking granddaddy of all dragons. An ancient dragon so old it must have already been a huge, gigantic, terrifying, enormous, totally all-grown-up dragon back when Spike was only a baby!

And it was fighting on Red Eye’s side.

The dragon roared again, grasping the Raptor in its claws as three of the others turned their weapons towards it. Dragon-killers, Calamity had called them. Well, this was their chance to prove themselves worthy of the title. The dragon blasted the captive Raptor with choking black smoke, then howled as the other Raptors lanced it with bright pastel beams of magical energy. It flicked its tail, producing massive spikes that glowed with eldritch energy, and lashed out at one of the attacking Raptors, cutting deep grooves in its forward armor.

My jaw hit the floor of the Tortoise. Those spikes were magically enhanced. I stared at the dragon’s unnatural, glowing-red eyes and knew immediately who they reminded me of.

“Red Eye. Cybernetically. Enhanced. A DRAGON!”

I blinked, the little pony in my head petrified. Then spun. “Okay, that’s it. We’re getting down there right now!” I called out, wrapping the escaping prisoner ponies in my magic and floating them unceremoniously into the Tortoise. “Calamity, get us the fuck out of this sky!”

I closed the door, apologizing to the prisoners as I pulled myself into another of the plasma cannon chairs. The chair and controls were made for a larger pony, and I had about as much skill with magical energy weapons as I did with swordfighting, but as long as I didn’t manage to shoot the damn tank we were in, I figured even I could help.

Reggie was already firing, taking shots at other sky-tanks and Enclave bombing chariots. The high-pitched yelp of her plasma cannon was making my ears hurt.

“Oh YEAH!” Reggie shouted over the cacophony as one of her shots turned an Enclave bombing wagon into a cascading explosion of rainbow pyrotechnics. She was already swinging towards her next target before the fireworks had subsided. “I love me this turtle!”

Tortoise,” I corrected as I linked my PipLeg into the turret, downloading the sky-tank’s tag and maximizing the value of my targeting spell.

“Whatever,” she said with a dismissive wave of her wing. “Hey, Calamity. C’n we keep it?” Her next three shots took out two carapace-armored Enclave pegasi, freeing up a very surprised-looking alicorn.

Some of Red Eye’s troops along the Cathedral wall opened fire on the Tortoise as Calamity brought us close. I gasped in dismay as two of the escapees crumpled, dead, crimson flowers bursting across their bodies. Several of the other escapees screamed. The more level-headed ponies stepped in, trying to prevent a panic. Tracker belted out a command ordering everyone to lay flat on the floor and make themselves as small a target as possible. I floated open one of the rucksacks filled with medical supplies as I looked around the interior of the tank.

The bullets hadn’t penetrated the tank’s armor so much as ignored it completely. There weren’t even bullet holes. Red Eye’s troops were using bullets enchanted with an armor bypass!

I turned my plasma cannon on the troops along the wall, trying to clear a path for us to land without losing any more ponies. Suddenly, between that and the dragon, this battle was looking a whole lot less lopsided.

The dragon roared overhead.

*** *** ***

The noise of the battle outside barely disturbed the almost pietistic atmosphere of the Cathedral’s central building. The buildings surrounding it had proven to be barracks and military training grounds, now emptied as this half of Red Eye’s army engaged the Enclave invaders. The other half, the larger half as I learned from a few hacked terminals, were amassing in Fillydelphia. In just a few days, the Fillydelphia Ruins was going to become the site of the biggest battle in Equestria since (and possibly before) the pony-zebra war.

And thousands of innocents were going to die in the crossfire, or be exterminated by the Enclave, if I didn’t manage to stop it.

We had left the escapees in one of those barracks, instructing them to barricade themselves inside until we returned. I couldn’t help but think we had taken them from the proverbial frying pan into the equally proverbial fire, but there simply wasn’t anyplace in Everfree that was truly safe. Except maybe Zecora’s Hut, and I was sorely tempted to have Calamity fly them there while I pressed ahead. But my gut told me we didn’t have time for anything else. Once I freed the unicorns Red Eye intended to sacrifice in his damned ascension, we would need to leave very swiftly. I was already planning on levitating the lot of them in tow while Calamity flew the Tortoise as fast as he could go. With any luck, it would be the speediest flying tortoise in history.

The trio of us snuck through the Cathedral. Calamity had left the Enclave armor in the Tortoise and was back under a zebra stealth cloak. This time, it was Reggie who walked around visible. There were enough Talon griffins in Red Eye’s forces that nopony gave her a second look.

“Okay, this is kinda creeping me out,” she admitted as she strode by a squad of Red Eye’s soldiers who were running to garrison part of the building, one of them stopping to smile and wave to her as they passed.

We passed under an archway. Carved into the stone was the message: Equality is Harmony.

Robed ponies strode casually past us, humming a low tune and paying Regina no attention at all.

We saw two more up ahead, admiring one of the many pinkish stained-glass windows. A third walked up to join them, my ears catching the phrase, “Walk in the Blessings of Unity.” The other robed ponies parroted the hail.

“That’s Discord,” the new arrival told the other two. “The Spirit of Disharmony.” Her voice carried the authoritative tones of a professional know-it-all. “Red Eye was so impressed on his visit to Canterlot that he imported all the windows used in the Cathedral from the old Royal Palace.”

I stared at the window, ignoring the monster depicted and instead focusing on the pinkish tones of the glass itself. A surge of dread hit me as I realized that all the windows in the Cathedral were suffused with Pink Cloud. My little pony conjured up imaginings of the windows slowly leaking minute amounts of necromantic poison into the building.

“Never heard of him,” one of the robed ponies asked. “What happened to him?”

“Noooo pony knooooows,” the pony teased. Then straightened up. “No, really. Princess Celestia and Luna defeated him and turned him into a statue. He was still in Canterlot when the Apocalypse happened. Some say the attack on Canterlot woke him up, only for the Pink Cloud to prove as lethal to spirits as it was to the Princesses. Some say he has been a statue all this time, in which case he was probably destroyed when the Enemy obliterated the Canterlot Ruins…”

“And some say,” the third blurted out, “that Discord was released by the war, but he was so weakened that he’s now just an itty-bitty spirit running around the Equestrian Wasteland putting ammo and bottlecaps into random containers!” She grinned. Then paused, tapping her muzzle. “Or… was that the Ghost of Pinkie Pie?”

The other two ponies stared at her blankly for a moment, then burst into giggles. “Icicle, you’re so random!”

Up ahead was another huge archway with wide-open sainted glass doors, another bon mot from Red Eye engraved into the stonework, inlaid with bronze: Remember, you are not here because you are better than those who are not, but because you are better than who you were.

Beyond was the main theatre of the Cathedral, a voluminous room of pillars, high arches and towering windows of dazzling stained glass. The room was filled with robed ponies sitting in pews, their attentions on a mare standing at a pulpit.

“Do not be alarmed, my fellow Disciples of the New Unity,” she was saying. “Let not your heart feel dismay as we hear the roars and rumbles of the violence that surrounds us like a storm. Instead, rejoice. We have come to this place through fire and darkness. But today is the day we have all be waiting for. Today, is the day of Red Eye’s ascension, and the birth of the New Unity!”

I felt like I’d been hit by lightning. Today? Red Eye’s going to try to become a god today? Now? In the middle of all of this?

“Remember, Disciples, as you hear the screams and the thunder of weapons outside these halls, that Red Eye has told us from the very beginning that this day would be born just as we all were, covered in blood. That…” she pointed towards one of the towering windows as the passing dark shape of the dragon turned the majestic stained glass to shadowed greys. “…is not to be feared, but to be loved. That is a sign of our salvation! The dragon came to Red Eye weak, blind, dying of old age. And Red Eye gave him new life. And like the dragon, soon, we will all be reborn!”

Reggie pulled out a cigarette and lit it. “We are so fucked.”

I turned, knowing that there was a stairwell near here. We needed to go down. “This way,” I said as I spotted a familiar-looking tapestry.

I led them into a side hall that connected the chapel to the Cathedral’s school and nursery wing. Through open doors on either side of us, we could see the workrooms where the Disciples of the New Unity were creating schoolbooks and educational materials for the new schools that Red Eye intended to establish all across Equestria. The rooms reminded me severely of the Ministry of Image.

The doors to the school wing opened, several robed ponies herding a gaggle of colts and fillies, most of whom sounded more excited than frightened. Several of the children, I saw with sick alarm, were wearing alicorn costumes.

“But we wanna see the battle!” one little colt protested. “We wanna see the good guys win!”

“We already know Red Eye will win,” the adult intoned. “It has been ordained. Now move along. Red Eye wants you all safe in the shelter.” Another of the adult ponies was opening a side door leading to descending stone steps. That was the door we wanted. That should take us down to... cybersurgery? No, no, that was sublevel… two, I thought. What was sublevel one?

The colt whined. “We knoooow it’s ordated. But we wanna seeeee it!”

“Down that way,” I told Reggie. “As soon as the children are through.”

The adolescent griffin turned a gaze towards the emptiness of my invisible direction. “How is it that you know where we’re supposed to go?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “Have you been here before? Seen a map?”

“Sort of,” I admitted. “I’m working off fragmented memories I caught during my alicorns’ telepathic skull-fuck.” Oh, the nostalgia I had for the innocent days of Stable Two when I didn’t even know what skull-fuck meant, much less had a reason to apply the term to an experience of my own.

“Ugh… Well, I’m glad something good… came… of it.” Not a pun I needed. But at least Reggie had the good grace to wince.

The music in my earbloom erupted in a painful blast of static. I nearly tore it from my ear. I was immediately thankful that I did not, as the next sound I heard was possibly the most wonderful sound in the Equestrian Wasteland.

“Gooooooood morning, children!”

DJ Pon3! Homage was okay!

Or, at least, she was okay when this was recorded. Knowing her, the broadcast was rigged to occur hours after she had left. As Watcher had said, she wasn’t making it easy for the Enclave.

“I interrupt the Enclave’s depressing-ass music for a very special broadcast. Today, I have with me two members of the Wasteland Resistance, none other than the Enclave-fighting duo of Lion & Mouse. And I’ll be speaking with them about the good fight, the blows they have struck to the Enclave, and what everypony can do to lend a hoof. But first, the weather!”

I drank in her voice. Disguised as it was, it was still her. I could hear my Homage, feel her presence, behind every single word.

My heart stirred, taking strength yet splitting with sorrow. Never again…

I’d never see, feel, smell my Homage again.

Oh Goddesses, I pled under my breath, my body beginning to shake. Please don’t let that be true! I do anything, give anything. Please, just give me this one thing!

DJ Pon3’s voice, a miracle in the fire and the darkness, continued to break through.

“Completely cloudy, with a chance of big, black Thunderheads over the Everfree Forest and the valley between Manehattan and Fillydelphia. I predict one of those two cities is in for some really nasty weather very, very soon. So if you’re in the…*BZZZZZZTCHK!*”

The signal went dead. No DJ Pon3. No music. Nothing. The Enclave had shut the broadcast down completely.

My heart stopped. I stood frozen. Paralyzed…

…until the Cathedral shook under a mighty, rending rumble. The crippled Raptor had finally lost any semblance of control and was crashing into one of the battlements outside, gouging out an avalanche of sundered stone. The Raptor’s storm clouds dissipating in a hurricane blast that shattered the nearby windows into razor shards and fine pink dust. I instinctively lashed out with my telekinesis, pushing back at the debris, keeping it away from us and from the children, terrified at the consequences of breathing powdered Pink Cloud glass.

The children screamed and no longer needed coaxing to go down the stairs. We swiftly followed.

*** *** ***

The first sublevel beneath the chapel was dedicated to bypass spells and weaponry. The archway we had just passed beneath read: Productivity is the right of every pony.

Here, Red Eye’s disciples had enchanted almost a thousand firearms for his army. Like the barracks, these rooms were empty now save for the occasional guard or passerby, none of whom gave Reggie more than a second look.

“Just because a pony is born with wings or a horn does not make them inferior.” Red Eye’s voice played in my earbloom, part of an audio log stamped with the logo of Stable 101. I had spotted it amongst a stack of books on a shelf just inside the archway.

The audio log was apparently part of a recorded discussion between Red Eye and the Overmare of Stable 101, a remnant of his past that someone from the Stable had deemed to save. The debate was taking place over dinner at what sounded like a crowded table. The munching of food and the clinking of plates and glasses created a constant background din, and occasionally the voices of others at the table murmured into my ear, making it hard to pick out what Red Eye or the Overmare was saying.

“The first Griffinchaser was designed and built by an earth pony in a matter of minutes,” the Overmare countered silkily. “The entire town of Appleloosa was created by earth ponies in less than a year. Do you honestly think unicorns or pegasi could have taken us from muskets to machine guns in just a few decades?”

As we walked, I looked around, trying to shake loose memories of where to go next. Unfortunately, few if any alicorns had been on this level during their assault on my mind.

“Unicorns and pegasi have their own special talents which they bring to the table,” this younger-sounding Red Eye countered. “For example, without unicorns, we wouldn’t have healing potions. Without the pegasi, Equestria would have been ravaged by wild weather. Each race of ponykind adds to the whole, no one greater or more important than the others. It is a vital gestalt, requiring all three. It is wrong for earth ponies to set themselves up above the others.”

Above us, the Cathedral was rocked by a succession of heavy explosions. The stone ceiling tiles cracked, dust raining down. Reggie looked up, guessing, “One of the bombing wagons. Much more of that, and they might punch through.”

“Magic,” the Overmare chuckled. “Let me tell you a little about pony magic. As it so happens, there was a particularly magical earth pony in my ancestry. His name was Joe, and he worked in Canterlot as a craftsman making coffee cups. Though he was no unicorn and knew no spells, the coffee cups he crafted would always be clean, they would never stain, and it took tremendous force to make them chip or crack. Why? Because making these cups was a labor of love, and that natural earth pony magic infused each of his creations.”

We reached a locked door. No cloud controls this time. Just a good, old-fashioned tumbler lock. Seeing it made me absurdly happy, and I telekinetically picked it before I realized I intended to.

I opened the door, hoping for a stairwell down. And instead found a storeroom. Full of assault carbines, shotguns, ammo and more. Calamity looked like he had died and gone to heaven.

I sighed. “Take just what we can grab quickly…” Calamity became a flying rust and orange blur. “…and that won’t slow us…” Calamity stopped in front of me, every single damned weapon slung about his body and an assault carbine in his mouth. I heard an impressed “wow” from Reggie.

“Wanph one?” he asked innocently. I went ahead and took the (slightly drooled-on) assault carbine and several magazines of ammo. It would be good to have a backup for Little Macintosh.

“First, the magic of pegasi and unicorns are flashy shortcuts to hard work; and without hard work, where is the drive for innovation? When has a pegasus or a unicorn ever needed to be creative? Second, the magic of pegasi and unicorns are selfish. The shortcuts they provide, the labor they save, is only for themselves. Whereas the innovations of earth ponies can be shared by all ponies and be built upon by future earth ponies.

“Finally, the magic of pegasi and unicorn ponies is demanding. I’d even say crippling. Where earth ponies can throw themselves directly into their work, the pegasi of the past needed flight camps, and the unicorns needed magical schooling just to be able to use the magic they had been born with. Time that could be spent learning other skills were spent instead mastering their magic.

“Not so with the earth ponies. Our magic is inherent, and innately applied to the work we do. While the unicorn’s magic is spellcasting, and the pegasus’ magic is impossible flight and prancing on clouds, our magic is to be superior at what we do. Earth ponies are inherently superior because that is our gift!”

“Hey,” Reggie called out, standing at another door. “I think I’ve found the way down.”

“Shortcuts,” Red Eye offered smoothly, “Are sometime useful. Critical, even. Sure, the earth pony way builds things that last, but it is a slow process, and sometimes you need a quick fix. Take, for example, poison. An earth pony may be able to test your blood, identify the poison and brew up an antidote. But all of that can take hours which you do not have. Isn’t it better to have a unicorn on hoof who can cast a spell purging any poison away?”

“Red Eye,” the Overmare sighed drolly. “I am not impressed with this new-found ‘insight’ you claim from your scouting missions. I speak in sweeping truths and you argue isolated examples. Exceptions that are not sufficient to disprove the rule. Now I…”

The Overmare fell silent. There was a pregnant pause before the voice of the young Red Eye asked casually, “Overmare? You were saying?” Then, even more casually, he added, “Is something wrong?”

“I… why haven’t…”

“Yes?” he prompted. “I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

The sounds around the dinner table died away. I imagined everypony was staring at Red Eye and the Overmare. I suspected the latter had suddenly gone alarmingly pale. Very softly, the Overmare murmured, “…I just noticed that you haven’t so much as tasted your drink…”

*** *** ***

The Cathedral. Sublevel three. Cybersurgery. A plaque on the wall read: Until all of us can be free, none of us should be free.

The hall we had emerged into announced “Research and Surgery” in one direction, “Administration” in the other. Both paths seeming otherwise equal, I had chosen the former, suspecting that there was a fair chance of running across Red Eye himself in Administration. And that wasn’t my goal. I was here for his prisoners. His sacrifices. Not him. I was more than happy to leave him to the Enclave.

I was regretting that decision now.

The smell of blood, spoiled meat and disinfectants hit my nostrils like a buck to the face, making me turn and gag. Reggie recoiled and I could hear the muffled sound of Calamity’s many, many guns clattering together as he staggered.

The walls of the surgical labs were a gleaming, disinfected white that made every flaw and discoloration and old stain stand out. The floor tiles were cold and felt unpleasantly damp.

There were highly advanced machines built into the walls and ceiling, half of which I couldn’t even guess the purpose of. There were vats of strange liquid, and floating within them were a variety of cybernetics. My eyes took in a mechanical snake that resembled a pony’s spine, a robotic leg that clearly wasn’t for a pony, metal arms that could have been torn from a cleaning robot, and more esoteric devices -- strings of wire ending in arcano-tech baubles.

There were three exits. One was the way we came in, the hallway leading to the Administration section of the sublevel. The one opposite it led to the stairs down. The final door, directly across from me, was open to what the sign claimed was a “storage” room. Huge glass tubes displayed creatures and monsters, subjects of cybernetic experimentation. All were dead, many still splayed open from surgery. Everything from radroaches to manticores. There was even a hellhound. Or, at least, half of one. The left half.

At the back end of the room was a cast iron hatch marked “Disposal”. Most of the stench was coming from that “storage” room. Only a little from the… meat… on several of the tables surrounding me.

“And how may I help you,” the thing in front of us asked. It (he?) had been a pony once. But now he was more machine than flesh, the whole lower half of his body replaced by a robotic chassis that reminded me of the brain-bots in Ironshod Firearms. Mechanical arms, like those from the hovering spider-bots, each ending in a different tool or manipulator, flexed and moved about him, carrying out unspoken tasks of medicine and science.

It only saw Regina, but my heart began beating like a frightened rabbit’s every time it looked my way.

Reggie flinched away as one of those arms moved towards her, probing. “N-nothing. I’m fine.”

“Fine? Yes, I suppose,” the creature said. “But you could be better.” I felt myself cringe.

“Better?” Regina questioned skeptically. “Like you?”

“Indeed. You should have seen me before the grenade.” The creature chuckled. “I know the looks take a bit to get used to, but ol’ Doc Slaughter has never been better.” Several of the arms paused in their tasks to wave. “And you can’t imagine just how useful these are! Well, maybe you could, being a griffin.” His chassis turned, extending one arm in particular, one that ended in mechanical talons. Reggie took an involuntary step back, looking repulsed.

Doctor Slaughter. I knew that name. Oh, and tag her to see Doc Slaughter. She’s got one of them leg terminals that are a bitch to get off. He was in Fillydelphia. I narrowly avoided losing my PipBuck to him.

“You… created the cyberdragon, didn’t you?” Reggie surprised me by asking.

“Oh yes. Possibly my best work,” Doc Slaughter said proudly, his chassis spinning back as the arms scurried about their tasks. “A most unique opportunity. Poor thing’s body was failing right out from under it. He was blind when Red Eye brought me to him, and he could barely fly, failing ticker. Red Eye offered the dragon new eyes, and more, for half his gems.” He purred wistfully. “And just look at him now. Stronger, faster, more powerful and lethal than he was in his prime.”

“If he wanted this new life so badly, why is he out there risking it?”

“My dear, you say that as if he might be harboring a death wish or something,” Doc Slaughter said, the tracks on his chassis spinning, delivering him from one side of the lab to another. “But that’s not the case at all. He simply has no other choice.”

No other choice? Red Eye enslaved the dragon?

We heard explosions and the sounds of rapid-fire magical energy weapons. They sounded like they were coming from the floor above us.

“Red Eye wasn’t going to have a creature that powerful and dangerous in the Everfree Forest without having it on a leash, you know,” the cyber-doc explained, ignoring the battle that was quickly catching up to us. “So when we replaced the dragon’s heart with a newer, better one, Red Eye had me install a matrix-disruption grenade in there with it. Red Eye sends a signal, the dragon turns off.” The griffin-arm clanked its talons together. “Just like that.”

“That’s… horrible,” Reggie gasped. “And really, really stupid. Now he has a super-powerful dragon who hates him.”

“Hates him?” Doc Slaughter laughed. “Not at all. The dragon loves his new body. And Red Eye isn’t foalish enough to abuse the situation. The dragon’s cage is very gilded.” Another explosion caused the lights to flicker and a few tiles to drop from the ceiling. This time, even the cyber-doc reacted. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to seal up this lab. I’m expecting a new patient, and we can’t be disturbed.”

Suddenly, dangerously familiar classical music began to pour through the intercoms. It was followed a moment later by Red Eye’s voice. The voice of the older, Wasteland-hardened stallion I knew too well.

“Now that our esteemed guests have arrived, I thought I’d help make you feel at home. This is one of your favorites, right Autumn Leaf?” His tone was pleasant, as if the whole battle and all the pain and blood that came with it was nothing more than a rapping at the door. “I admire your taste, Autumn. May I call you Autumn? And I do agree that Octavia never played a more splendid and perfect recorded performance. Yes, I know her works well. Grew up with them.“

In a softer, wry voice, he couldn’t prevent himself from adding, “She was an earth pony, after all.”

As we scurried to leave, the cyber-doc added, “He even let him keep all his gems!”

*** *** ***

The Cathedral. Sublevel four. We were almost there. Almost where I was sure we needed to be. The markings on the doors labeled this level as “Meta-Pony Testing”. The inscription over the main door read: We ascend together or we fail together.

The walls were a mottled brown stone that seemed to be secreting a thick layer of slime.

Reggie grimaced in disgust. “This place just gets worse and worse.”

“Whatcha think that means, meta-pony testin’?” Calamity asked, his voice suggesting he knew the answer and really hoped he was wrong.

“I think it means exactly what you think it means,” I answered gloomily.

There was only one way to go this time. And that was through a sealed vault door up ahead. An access terminal was mounted on the wall nearby. Once again, no clouds. Just regular, hackable goodness.

“The way you talked, I didn’t think your stealth missions tended to go this smoothly,” Regina commented, pulling out her guns and checking the loads. “I ain’t complainin’. Jus’, I’m ‘fraid if I don’t getta shoot somethin’ soon, I’m gonna forget how.”

Unity. The password was “unity”. I felt cheated. He wasn’t even trying.

Entering the password gave me access to the terminal’s contents. The first option was to unlock the vault door and open it. But beneath that, I was surprised to see a number of scientific journal entries. Curiosity pushed me to glance at the first. The contents drove me to read the others.

Entry #5

What a fucking waste of my valuable time. Now I have to scrap the whole mothercuntfucking I.M.P. experiments. Red fucking Eye wants to take the research in a “new direction”. One failure too many. Like you can make a fucking omelet without a few generations of dead chickens.

I told his imminent god-ness that the guidance factor may be more than just genetic, but what the fuck do I know? I’m just a motherfucking scientist. He’s a glorified fucking scout. How can I argue against that?

Now he’s got me looking at some him-damned piece-o-shit rock. Like I don’t have better things to do. Do I look like a fucking geologist?

Entry #4

The cumulation of two years of experiments, and I can write what we learned on a fucking napkin. You know what that tastes like? It tastes like a cunt that’s been shit upon.

There are five stages of Impelled Metamorphosis development in a viable subject. The first three levels are well documented in my research journals, the most significant being incremental changes to the subject’s relationship to and tolerance of radiation.

Radiation-induced regeneration, even to the point of regrowing limbs, begins at the first stage and radically improves in the second.

When the subject reaches the third stage of Impelled Metamorphosis development, the subject’s body actually becomes stronger and faster in the presence of radiation, similar to the “glowing ghoul” and a precursor to the “super alicorn” phenomenon. The subject’s healing becomes so advanced that the natural aging process is all but halted.

The fourth stage involves underlying physiological changes in preparation for the fifth and final stage: complete metamorphosis. For example, the pony’s body and mind begin to grow the necessary neurological structures that will allow the pony to utilize the new horn and/or wings that the final stage will bestow, as well as other substructure changes in support of the less obvious but more radical alterations that accompany becoming a fucking alicorn.

It is at this stage that everything goes to fuck-all on a speeding enema. The Impelled Metamorphosis Potion was never intended to be administered in stages. The most pleasant of the side effects to stage four can be described as “phantom limb syndrome”. The false sensations experienced by the subjects appear to be constant and amazingly painful. Subjects in fourth-stage are inevitably driven to seek out more exposure, or simply driven utterly bloodwing-shit insane. All too often, both.

The real problems comes with the extremely narrow bridge between the third stage and the fourth, and with what I have deemed the “Guidance Factor”.

First, it has proven virtually impossible to expose a pony to enough I.M.P to bring them to the third stage without crossing the threshold into the fourth. The few examples of successfully stable third-stage subjects have all been in the wild under unrepeatable circumstances. Which is too fucking bad, since stable stage threes have capabilities that give Doc Slaughter’s vaunted “enhancements” a run for their bits.

Second, I have determined that successful metamorphosis requires more than just sufficient exposure. It requires a sort of “guidance” through the process. In the case of the existing alicorns, this guidance is given by the Goddess. Whether this is a product of some intentional nurturing, or an environmental response is unclear. Well, it’s unclear to fucking me. Red Eye has this “template” theory and has pretty much stopped listening to any-fucking-thing else.

As a side note, I hate that freak-o-nature bastard upstairs. You know, maybe when a grenade blows your legs off and tears up the whole underside of your torso, that’s a sign for you to just fucking die.

Entry #3

Fuck. I lost another assistant. Not to a lab accident this time. No, that little cancerous prick decided to bail on me and pursue his own demented “research” some-fucking-where else. Him and his fucking manticore fixation.

What a tail full of shit. He was a useful assistant. Particularly since he didn’t have to sleep. Now I will have to autopsy subjects #128 and #129 myself. And I’ll have to refill the fucking lanterns on my own. Yet another waste of my time. I’ll be missing the fucking bastard by tomorrow.

Won’t miss his stink though.

Speaking of stink, they’re finally putting in the new disposal chute. Slaughter’s getting his part put in tomorrow. It’s going to take them a fucking week to get around to putting in mine. I swear that fucker Red Eye gives preferential treatment to cybernetics.

And then he comes down here clamoring for results. Says he’s getting sick of sending me ponies only to have them tossed out with the waste. Like Red Eye should fucking talk. At least my research is doing something fucking useful.


Entry #2

Finally perfected the Induced Metamorphosis Potion recipe. Would have done it sooner if that psycho Twilight Sparkle hadn’t been so fucking O.C.D. with her notes. Now that we’ve got that manticore shit out of the way, the bucks downstairs can start whipping up whole vats of the juice. Still not sure why the fuck his self-importance Red Eye wants that much of it. He plan to go swimming?

Be funny as hell if he did, actually. I’d love to see the fuckers whole body become a bloated, misshapen blob of metastasized, living cancer. That would be fucking hilarious!

So far, the initial numbers have held. We have a solid 18% benevolent effect manifestation in test subjects. Not ideal, but I’d say it’s a fuck-ton better than we really could have expected. And more than enough excuse to increase the scale of our tests.

My assistant has expressed particular interest in one of our failed cross-species tests. Of course, I fully expected all cross-species tests to fail. I.M.P. was crafted specifically for ponies, after all. But the effects on other creatures could continue to yield enlightening results.

The test that my assistant is most interested in, however, is the one that produced the least results. In fact, it produced no results at all. All the other creatures tested had at least some reaction, most of them violent and fatal. But I might as well have been shooting a concentrated fucking placebo into that manticore. Unless looking pissed off was an effect, I.M.P. failed to have any affect on it whatso-fucking-ever..

On that note, I’ve ordered a more convenient waste disposal system. We’ve got passages under this place that dump into the gorge. Why don’t we use them to flush some of this stink out of here?

Entry #1

New project today. About fucking time. Last one was a pointless disaster. Why does the world want to fucking keep wasting my valuable fucking time?

Got a good feeling about this one though. That pompous prick Red Eye got ahold of some pre-war fancy-mane’s recipe for the crap that Taint is made out of, the shit that the Goddess uses to fucking create alicorns.

So far, four out of five test subjects have responded with the most grotesque, body-warping deaths. But that last one-in-five? Very promising, indeed!

The entries were stamped from the personal files of Doctor Glue, head of Meta-Pony Research.

I stepped back from the terminal feeling cold and hard. “Subject #129,” I whispered hoarsely. This pony had murdered over a hundred ponies in his experiments for Red Eye. Probably double that, and other creatures too. Tortured them to death. With Taint.

I felt a ruddy darkness seep across my vision, a drive to violence mounting in every beat of my heart, the likes of which I hadn’t felt since Arbu. My nerves were on fire.

I kicked on my Eyes-Forward Sparkle -- barely taking note of the new signal it had discovered, or the fact that it helpfully announced I had found “Stable 101” -- and ordered the terminal to open the door. I was really hoping Doctor Glue was behind it. Because I was going to kill him. A lot.

The door opened into a chamber of horrors. A catacomb for the horrifically malformed and mutilated byproducts of Doctor Glue’s experiments, lit sporadically by mounted lanterns, many of which were dark and cold.

Ponies with massive tumors enveloping their heads. Ponies whose internal organs had been pushed out through their coats by the cancerous masses evolving inside them. Ponies who had dissolved into bubbling, leathery slugs that looked like a hospital horror’s miscarriage, discernable only as ponies by the warped remains of their cutie marks. Worse.

The strains of classical music were being piped down here as well, a twisted counterpoint to the vileness. The music was defiled by being played in here; I didn’t think I’d ever be able to enjoy Octavia’s artistry again.

Regina Grimfeathers was vomiting in a corner. I wanted to clamp my eyes shut against the horror, but I was afraid I would still see them. So I covered my face with my PipLeg instead, staring at the screen.

My Eyes-Forward Sparkle was picking up a flood of red lights ahead.

“Oh muh soul,” Calamity whimpered. He had tossed back his hood and was staring in dismay at a body whose bones had undergone a rapid and twisting growth, bursting through muscles and flesh that had turned black and slimy. “Ah think this used t’ be a griffin.”

Reggie’s head shot up. She approached the body, spitting the last of the vomit from her mouth, her breast heaving heavily. “What?... How?” And with mounting rage that echoed my own, “Why?” She swung around to Calamity. “How could any pony do that? What was the point?”

“Ah couldn’t say,” Calamity began, taken aback. Then his voice grew sharp. “But as muh gal Velvet would say, anypony who would do that ain’t a pony.”

Voices echoed from within the catacombs ahead, and one of them was recognizable.

“Fan out!” Colonel Autumn Leaf ordered. “The coward ran this way. And if you find him, do not kill him. Just wound him. Excessively. But that bastard is mine!”

Eyes wide with recognition, Calamity vanished under the hood of his zebra cloak. I scooted against the wall and Reggie moved amongst the bodies, playing dead, as two Enclave soldiers galloped around a corner and charged past us. Reggie stepped out behind them as they passed, leveling her guns. But then lowered them, letting the two soldiers disappear.

“Stealth mission,” she groused. “I bet bits t’ bottlecaps I’m gonna regret that later.”

*** *** ***

“Get the fuck out! Get your hemorrhoidal fucking asses out of my laboratory!”

Doctor Glue bellowed at the four ponies surrounding him, three of whom appeared to be Enclave elite guards. We could see them through the security glass window set into the lab door. Glue was a wizened old stallion with a pale grey coat and a stringy charcoal mane. His cutie mark was a blasphemy.

Beside me, Regina was furiously trying to pick the lock with her talons. I could have opened it easily myself, but I knew the moment I did so, she’d go charging into that room, twin guns blazing. And we wouldn’t win that fight without casualties.

Behind me were the catacombs. To my left was a stone archway and stairs leading down to a vault door flanked by mounted terminals. I couldn’t picture the room beyond, but the fragmented alicorn memories told me that Red Eye’s prisoners were down there. Angrily, the little pony in my head pointed out that we were almost there, and we were getting distracted.

But not without good reason.

“No, no. I think we will keep you company while my mares hunt down your master.” The reply came from a pony in magnificent jade carapace armor, exquisitely crafted and embellished with ebony filigree and a scarab motif of leaves in iridescent bronze and copper. I didn’t need to see any part of the pony to know who it was. The voice was unmistakable.

Colonel Autumn Leaf sneered casually as he strolled around the Glue’s lab of horrors. “Just in case he doubles back.”

I was watching two mass-murderers. The scope and heinousness of the evil in that room was breath-stealing. Truth be told, I wanted to charge in there guns blazing too. Or worse. there was enough blood in that room to fashion a guillotine for each of them. My little pony was horrified that such a plan crossed my mind, more so by just how appealing it was.

“Fffwhat?” Doctor Glue exploded, yanking my focus back to the window. “What the fuck did you just say?”

“You heard me.”

“Red Eye is NOT my master!” he exploded again, shaking with rage. “And he’s not coming back!” he added. “So you can take your fucking goon squad, shove them up your sphincter, and prance the fuck out of my lab! I’ve got important fucking research to do and you’re wasting my time!”

“So you say,” Autumn Leaf dismissed. He moved past chemistry labs, skirting a wall of cages filled with dead animals, and stopped at a machine I could not identify.

Regina growled and took a swipe at the door. “Fuck this,” she muttered, drawing one of Kage’s hellhound-claw blades. “Why am I pickin’ the lock when I could cut right damn through it?”

I felt Calamity press up against me, the ponified hellhound’s energy rifle held in his muzzle. I floated out Little Macintosh, then paused. “Wait, I have an idea.”

Regina stopped, her expression still seething but her voice calm and smooth as polished steel. “Okay, Littlepip. Your way.”

“Get away from that!” Doctor Glue barked inside the room. “That’s a very delicate analyzer.”

Autumn Leaf pulled the front panel open just a little too hard. I heard something snap. Doctor Glue roared and threw himself at the Colonel, only to be forcibly blocked and pushed to the floor by the guards.


I floated out the assault carbine and slid in one of the magazines, then pulled off the zebra stealth cloak, passing it to Regina. “Both of you, get back at least two corridors.”

“Aw crap, Li’lpip. What are ya thinkin’?”

“I’m thinkin’ that if these bullets are enchanted with a bypass, then they’ll go right through that door and right through their armor,” I told my friend. “One spray, and they all go down.”

“An’ if they ain’t, yer givin’ away our position an’ bringin’ the wrath of heaven down on yer mane.”

Yeah. That was the problem. Regina’s expression showed she had the same concern.

“I’ll draw them away while you two remain hidden,” I told him. “I still have the advanced Steathbuck. I’ll trigger it once I’ve led them far enough away, then circle back to you.”

I looked back into the window, comparing their positions to the red lights on my E.F.S. compass. I would get a few five-round bursts with this weapon while using S.A.T.S., and I wanted to make sure I took down the armored ponies first.

My breath caught as Autumn Leaf produced a hunk of twisted, blue-ish metal. “This? This is your critical research?” Was that…?

The Colonel’s next words confirmed my darkest fears. “You are researching starmetal for Red Eye.” It wasn’t phrased as a question. I didn’t know which filled me with more dread: what Red Eye’s interest in starmetal was, what Doctor Glue’s experiments might entail, or the fact that Autumn Leaf knew about starmetal and could recognize it on sight.

”Don’t touch that!” Doctor Glue demanded, struggling against the guards. “Get the hell away from my fucking experiments!”

Autumn Leaf tossed the chunk of Luna’s old armor between his forehooves. “What are you doing with this? Shaving off slivers and feeding it to ponies to see what will happen?” Autumn Leaf no longer sounded bored or pleasant. “Or perhaps you are making cybernetics out of this metal? Is this what Red Eye has inside him?”

Regina moved up beside me, the cloak draped over her shoulders but the hood down so she could look me in the eyes. “No, Littlepip,” she whispered, holding out her talons for the assault carbine. “Let me do this. For Kage.”

Inside the room, Doctor Glue was spitting. “Are you fucking retarded? Is that how the En-fuck promotes? Based on the number of your brain cells that have been replaced by diarrhea? Who the fuck is going to put bizarre-ass metal with unknown properties from motherfucking space in their fucking bodies? I still can’t believe anypony was willing to make armor out of it.”

Taking a breath, he seethed, “And cybersurgery is one floor up, you fetid asshole. Seriously, how long has it been since you were euthanized?”

I looked at Regina. She looked so much like her brother; I could see him in her. And that brought visions of him crumpling, dead from the weapon of an Enclave soldier. Killed on a mission that I led. What she was asking was for me to put her in equally grave danger. Yet, did I have the right to say no?

The weight of the assault carbine suddenly felt much heavier, even though it was floating weightless.

“We c’n play rock-paper-scissors for it,” Reggie suggested confusingly. I looked at her like she’d just spoken in zebra. “Griffin game,” she explained with a sigh. “Rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper, paper beats rock. I’d win. Ponies can only do rock.”

I still had no idea what the hell she was talking about.

“Aw hell,” Calamity said, tossing back his hood. I saw he’d put together Spitfire’s Thunder; it was laying on the ground at his hooves. “This ain’t gonna happen this way.”

Pushing past us, Calamity marched up to the door and pounded a hoof on the window. “Hey! Brony! I wanna talk t’ ya!” he shouted. “Ya got some things t’ answer fer!”

Swinging around to me, he suggested, “Run.”

All hell broke loose.

“Calamity? Colonel Autumn Leaf turned towards the window, startled recognition ringing clear in his voice. His recovery was swift, immediately followed by an order to his guards. “Bring me that traitor! Dead or alive!”

The elite guards jumped up to follow orders, spinning towards the door and unleashing a massive volley of magical light. The door heated up brightly, flooding the hall with plasmic light -- it was like standing inside the Goddess Celestia’s mane! -- and promptly began to melt. The stonework around it started hissing and glowing. The air near the door became blisteringly hot and the powerful odor of molten slag and magic overrode the stench of blood, rot and spoiled meat from the catacombs.

Regina snatched the assault rifle out of my levitation field, swinging it towards the melting door and returning fire. The sounds of gunfire and battle saddles filled the room, drowning out the classical cello music. One of the red lights on my E.F.S. compass winked out.

I floated out Little Macintosh, using my compass to aim and waiting for enough of the door to slough away for me to take a shot. The light from the door was almost blinding.

Calamity didn’t have to wait. He flew back from the door, kicking Spitfire’s Thunder off the ground with a forehoof and catching it in his muzzle. The crack of the shot split the air. Another red light on my compass went out.

The door collapsed, lancing beams of lethal magic filling the corridor. I fired a single shot as I scrambled for cover in the stairwell. Calamity and Regina dove behind the nearest deceased monstrosities crafted by Doctor Glue’s “research”. Reggie let out a screech as one of the beams struck her right arm, burning away an inch of flesh, leaving a blackened and charred wound. The griffin dropped the assault rifle and collapsed behind a mound of misshapen flesh and barely recognizable limbs, tears streaming from her eyes as she dug healing potions out of her supplies.

But this was magical damage, I realized as I watched her hold a healing potion in her beak, tossing her head back and gulping the magical liquid as her left talons drew out one of her pistols. At best, this would be a bad scar. More likely, she wouldn’t ever be able to use her trademark two-pistol style effectively again.

Assuming we all lived through this. “Ever again” might be really short.

I spun back towards the entrance. Two of the three elite guards had dropped. Calamity shifted Spitfire’s Thunder, pointing it directly at his older brother.

Doctor Glue, no longer being held, jumped up and galloped past Calamity’s brother, snatching the starmetal shard in his teeth as he fled.

The Colonel stood his ground, staring through the door at Calamity. A hatch on the back of his jade magically-powered armor popped open and a small turret emerged, taking aim at Doctor Glue. The weapon built into the turret was bizarre yet familiar, made of gleaming blue metal and a glowing power core.

Colonel Autumn Leaf’s star blaster fired at Doctor Glue. Unlike Homage’s weapon, the beam of energy was a cruel orange, and Doctor Glue was incinerated in a puff of fire.

The Colonel hadn’t even needed to aim. Xenith was right. The weapons wanted to kill.

Regina leaned around the pile of bloated bodies she was using for cover, trading shots with the remaining guard. A pulse of blue magic struck her in the back, staggering her but failing to penetrate her Talon armor, as the two Enclave soldiers came charging up from behind us. I spun around, slipping into S.A.T.S.


One of them went down. The other swiveled to face me, the rainbow barrage from her multi-gem cannon forced me to change cover, one of the shots passing close enough to blister the flesh on the back of my neck. I could smell the scorched hairs of my mane.

I returned fire, forcing her to duck back around the corner she had come from. As I reloaded, the classical music was cut, replaced by the last voice we expected to hear.

“Calamity?” Velvet Remedy asked, sounding distressed. My pegasus friend gasped, dropping Spitfire’s Thunder to the floor in shock and worry.

Autumn Leaf turned the alien fire blaster on his own brother.

“Velvet?” Calamity asked, momentarily oblivious to anything else. “What are ya doin’ here?”

Only Reggie and the other guard seemed unhindered by the voices on the intercom. The guns Calamity had crafted for her were proving capable of punching through Enclave armor. The Enclave guard was already bleeding from several wounds. He kicked over a chemistry table and took cover behind it, trading shots with the griffin.

“I invited her,” said the cool, casual voice of Red Eye. Autumn Leaf spun towards the sound of Red Eye’s voice and fired, blasting one of the intercoms. “Don’t worry, Calamity. She’s in good…” his voice paused as if unsure which word to use, “…things with Doctor Slaughter.”

I’m expecting a new patient, and we can’t be disturbed.

Red Eye… brought my friend right into harm’s way? As what? A distraction? Leverage?

What’s that cyber-psycho doing to Velvet? my little pony cried out as I ducked out of cover long enough to keep the Enclave soldier pinned. And what happened to Xenith?

What about Pyrelight? She was guarding them. What did Red Eye do?

“Now, now, Colonel. You can’t kill me that way.”

“Where are you!” Autumn Leaf roared. In response, I heard a door slide open somewhere out of sight in the room beyond.

“Come and see,” Red Eye offered.

Calamity scooped up Spitfire’s Thunder, whipping around and firing a single shot through the helmet of the Enclave soldier as she shifted to fire again. The carapace-armored pegasus dropped with a dull thud.

“Y’all go ahead,” he shouted to me. “Ah’m goin’ after Velvet!”

Autumn Leaf paused for just a moment, then chose his mission over murdering his brother. He reared and flew away from us.

“He’s getting away!” Reggie shouted, firing shots at the retreating pegasus. Sparks flew where her bullets ricocheted off his jade armor.

“Go with Calamity!” I yelled back to her as I turned and galloped down to the vault door at the bottom of the stairwell.

*** *** ***

Metal catwalks over glowing vats of I.M.P.

The room at the nadir of Red Eye’s Cathedral was a nearly perfect replica of the Goddess’ chamber in Maripony. There was even a catwalk stretching out between the vats, ending in a pedestal with a cup. The room shimmered with rippling light emanating from the glowing liquid filling each of the open-topped vats. This was Red Eye’s ascension chamber.

The door at the bottom of the stairwell had opened to a pony-sized platform, like a diving board, providing me with this dizzying view of the room below. After all the tight corridors, the abrupt spaciousness of this room had managed to kick up a lingering wisp of dread. Oh agoraphobia, my old friend.

I was suffering from vertigo mixed with severe déjà vu. If this place hadn’t been recently constructed -- if the metal wasn’t shiny and new, and the floor lacking the detritus-clogged lake I remembered so well -- I might have started worrying there could be a balefire bomb beneath us.

The giant cage dangling over one of the vats like a piñata filled with unicorns… that was different too.

It had taken me two minutes to hack the terminal. And that was a minute and a half more than I would have actually needed if I hadn’t been in denial. Really, can it ever be a good thing when your name is the password on somepony else’s terminal?

There had been one last journal entry (Entry #6) from Doctor Glue on the terminal. This one was an audio log that I downloaded to my PipLeg. Now, I started it playing as I wrapped myself in a field of levitation and floated myself over to the cage.

“Normally, I fucking hate field reports. This sort of shit should be left to underlings. No good reason I should have to go wandering about the Equestrian Shithole to get my work done.

“Normally. But this time, I’m really fucking happy I didn’t have anypony else to trust this to. What I’ve found… this is too important to let some half-wit in a lab coat fuck up. Investigations into the origin of Red Eye’s mystery rock took fucking forever, but it did eventually lead me to a place called Zebratown, where I recovered a chunk of what I believe to be actual, alien fucking metal. I can’t wait to get this thing into my lab.”

I was passing over the vats. There were at least two dozen unicorns littered the inside of the cage, not a single one of them moving.

“While I was at it, I got a good look at some of the prevailing theories surrounding that meteorite. Not the zebra craziness, but conclusions by ponies working under Princess Fucking Luna herself. Opinions seem split between ‘the meteorite ain’t nothing but a rock’ and ‘falling stars are vessels for fucking spirits to come to our world from outer-fucking-space’. Because, they reckoned, folks like Discord had to come from somewhere. And, they pointed out, the zebra civilization fell into centuries of bloodshed and strife after a meteor shower.

“Which is, of course, fucking stupid. The zebras didn’t need evil spirits from beyond the sky for them to plunge their country into chaos and war. I mean, had these ponies even fucking met zebras? I’ve seen one of them fighting in the Pitt, and she was all I needed to see to know they’re fucking barbaric animals. The real mystery is how the hell they built a fucking civilization in the first place.

As I drew closer to the cage, I could see the slow breathing of the caged ponies. They were not dead, but they were all unconscious. Drugged, I assumed. I couldn’t imagine they naturally all went to sleep at the same time. I sent a prayer of thanks to Celestia.

If it was anypony other than me, rescue would be impossible. But I didn’t need the ponies to be awake and moving in order to lead them out.

“Brought up the old theories to Red Eye in passing and even he laughed. ‘If there’s a spirit here,’ he told me, ‘It’s the Spirit of Progress!’

“Looking at my research, for once I agree with the fucker. And actually sharing an opinion with Red Eye makes me want to gut myself with a rusty scalpel.

“Anyway, both sides were totally fucking far from the mark. Based on my own analysis, the meteorite did bring something, all right. But it wasn’t some fucking asinine evil-star-demon-thing. More like… an infection. A virus that got into our ecosystem and mutated. That’s not quite right, but it’s a hell of a lot closer than star-spirits or it’s-just-a-fucking-rock.

“No wonder they blew up the world. Ponies were stupid as shit back then.”

My insides felt like they were twisting up when I realized he had been talking about Xenith. I was not sorry that Doctor Glue was dead. No, not one iota. Not a single hair in my coat worth of sympathy for that disgusting blight on ponykind.

And Red Eye had employed the monster.

As my hooves touched down on the top of the cage, the door that led out onto the central catwalk slid open. I cringed, making myself as small and unnoticeable as possible, when Red Eye galloped in through the open door.

He was alone. And once inside, his gallop dropped back to a trot. Then a walk. Despite having been running, regardless of the war raging above his Cathedral, Red Eye looked unfazed. Confident. His mane and coat neatly groomed. He wore a heavy scarf and his black 101 cape fluttered listlessly behind him.

The door slid shut. As I watched, he stopped and looked around, then activated a StealthBuck in his PipBuck and vanished.

I at once felt both alarmed and foalish. Red Eye was in the room with me and I didn’t know where or what he was doing. And why was I flattening myself against the cage when I had a StealthBuck too? A much better one, at that.

I activated the MG StealthBuck II, removing myself from sight.

And not a moment too soon.

The door whisked open again, and Colonel Autumn Leaf swooped into the room. He beat his wings, ascending to get a pegasus’ eye’s view of the ascension chamber.

“I know you are in here,” he said gruffly. “There was no other way to run.”

“By intention, I assure you,” Red Eye’s voice floated out of a dozen speakers. “And now that we’re all here…”

There was a flash of light from the open doorway, and a film of magical energy washed across the walls and over the floor and ceiling. An alicorn shield!

Colonel Autumn Leaf spun about to see the dark-green alicorn sitting statuesque just outside the doorway. Another alicorn, a purple one, had just teleported the two of them in, and was wrapping both of them in a shield of her own. Looking up, I saw an identical two just outside the door I had entered through.

“Well, you clearly have me where you want me,” Autumn Leaf admitted, flying down to land on the catwalk. “So why not tell me what this is all about? What is the big plan?”

There was a moment of drawn out silence. I began to search for the lock on the cage. I finally spotted it. It was on the bottom, and picking it would cause the bottom of the cage to swing open and dump the helpless unicorns into the vat of swirling green and purple below.

Of course it was.

Red Eye spoke again, and this time he actually sounded surprised, although hardly displeased. “Did you… Did you just invite me to monologue?”

No, I thought. He invited you to waste enough time talking that your StealthBuck drains, you become visible, and he can kill you.

“So you are going to become the new Goddess,” Autumn Leaf surmised, looking at the vats. “Is that it? Replace the one you killed?”

“That’s… not wrong,” Red Eye admitted.

“And what does this have to do with the Sustained Pegasi Project?” Autumn Leaf prompted, taking to the air to peer beneath the catwalk, searching for the hiding earth pony.

“Oh, everything!” Red Eye proclaimed, clearly warming up to the conversation. “You see, I’ve finally found the way inside.”

“Oh really?” the jade-armored pegasus perked up. “Do tell? Because, from my understanding, it is impossible. And that makes you a liar.”

“Impossible? Hardly!” Red Eye’s voice proclaimed from the dozen speakers. “There are several things that can get through an alicorn shield, even one that powerful. Telepathy. Telekinesis. Certain types of dragon magic. And, most importantly, anyone that the shield is enchanted with a bypass for can walk or teleport through. Or, as you know, anyone sufficiently related.”

“Right,” Autumn Leaf agreed. “Too bad Rainbow Dash had no descendants.”

“Ah, but Rainbow Dash wasn’t the only one the S.P.P. hub’s shield was designed to let through,” Red Eye countered, and now he had Colonel Autumn Leaf’s full attention. “It was also designed to let the Princesses through!”

Wait. What?

“I have a hard time believing you will be in any condition to go anywhere,” Autumn Leaf pointed out, “Judging by the late Goddess.” I guessed that behind his visor, he was rolling his eyes.

“True. But I will be able to maintain telepathic control over one of my children, who will take control of the Central Hub as a vessel of my will.”

Autumn Leaf began searching for Red Eye again. “If you are thinking that one of those sorry excuses for alicorns can get through the shield, then you are pathetically mistaken. Several have already tried.” The alien fire blaster swiveled as he scanned the room.

“Oh I know,” Red Eye almost purred. “We sent them. I will admit that Nightseer’s failure did send me back to the proverbial drawing board…”

Nightseer? It took just a moment for the name to conjure a face. The crazy alicorn in the Royal Castle, the one who had fallen under the influence of the Black Book and was wearing Luna’s skull as a necklace! That was the alicorn who the Goddess and Red Eye tasked with getting through the S.P.P. shield? And she failed?

That… actually explained a lot, in a very twisted way.

“…But it was from her failure that I discovered just why the Goddess’ alicorns couldn’t make it through. And what was needed. It was just like you said, they are sorry excuses for alicorns. They are flawed -- missing something vital to what an alicorn should be. And thus too far removed from what an alicorn should be, and thus Celestia.”

Almost as if he wanted to assuage the feelings of the alicorns maintaining the shield, Red Eye kindly added, “No fault of their own; it’s the failing in their templates.”

“What are you blathering about?” Autumn Leaf asked. He had made a full circle around the room, checking behind each of the vats, and was now landing back on the central catwalk.

“If you understood the creature your High Councilor tried to make friendly with, you’d understand,” Red Eye chided. “The essence of the Goddess was formed out of the souls of four dominant ponies. And these ponies, in turn, provided the metaphysical template for the alicorns to follow.”

Red Eye wasn’t saying anything I didn’t already know, and we weren’t apparently going anywhere until his StealthBuck ran out or something else changed the status quo, so I focused my attention on the unicorns.

They seemed healthy. Unharmed. Even surprisingly well-fed. Far more than the slaves in Fillydelphia. It occurred to me that some of these unicorns might have volunteered. If so, they were either fanatical disciples or severely misled.

I also noticed that each one was wearing a mechanical collar with a tiny red light. The collars were locked shut.

“Unfortunately,” Red Eye continued, “The templates lacked a certain critical diversity…”

Yeah. They were all females. The Goddess had a plan for that. It involved a really, really bad book.

“…They were all unicorns.”

Oh. Never thought of that, but I supposed it was true as well. Twilight Sparkle, Trixie, Gestalt and Mosaic: all unicorns.

Whoah! Pull back the reins!

“To create alicorns that can bypass that shield, the templates require a certain… unity.”

Each race of ponykind adds to the whole, the voice of the younger Red Eye whispered in my head. No one greater or more important than the others. It is a vital gestalt, requiring all three.

Oh no.

“A new deity needs to be created with templates from all three races,” Red Eye revealed. “Which meant I needed to find a pegasus and a unicorn who were strong enough in mind and soul to become dominant aspects with me in the new Godhood.

”We’re all going to get to know each other very well, you in me.”

Oh FUCK no!

Colonel Autumn looked appalled. Then he broke into uncontrolled snickers. “What?” Colonel Autumn Leaf laughed, “You are expecting me to take a swim with you?”

He cantered to the edge of the platform, asking, “Or were you planning to drop me in like what happened to Trixie?” He flapped his wings, hovering above the catwalk, showing off. “Yes,” he added, answering the unspoken question. “I did my research.”

“As did I,” Red Eye told him. “Poor, little Autumn Leaf. A middle child, trapped between the perfect son, the loser and the mistake. So you took the only path left: the over-achiever.

“You have the drive, the ambition, not to mention the charisma and force of will, to become the leader of a massive military force. One of the highest ranking officers in your entire country. And yet… it’s all born out of a desire for approval.”

Autumn Leaf hovered silently. Then slowly spoke. “You know nothing.”

“Not from your father, not anymore. You’re now the obedient servant of much more powerful ponies than him. But for all your power, you’re still just a dog responding to his master’s call, hoping to be petted.” Red Eye purred cruelly, “That’s what makes you perfect. You’re a powerful enough soul to become a template, but you’ll never be able to challenge me for true dominance.”

The room was utterly silent and still, save for the flapping of Autumn Leaf’s wings.

“Sorry, Red Eye,” he said finally, his voice feigning jovial dismissal. “But you lose. I am not drinking your cup of delusion.” He looked pointedly into the cup on the pedestal. “Find somepony else.”

The cup erupted in a crackling blast as Red Eye set off the matrix-disruption grenade he had hidden inside it. Colonel Autumn Leaf’s armor went dead, and he dropped onto the platform with a resounding clang, utterly paralyzed.

Red Eye disengaged his StealthBuck, appearing on the catwalk less than two yards away. He walked up and nudged the incapacitated Enclave leader with a hoof.

“I’ll admit, you did surprise me,” Red Eye offered generously. “I needed the Enclave to send some pegasi within my reach, but your insane level of overreaction caught me entirely off-guard.” Red Eye lowered his head to Autumn Leaf’s helmet. “I’ve spent more time scrambling to adjust to your Enclave’s massive overkill than I care to admit.”

“What in the name of whatever you hold holy did you expect,” Autumn Leaf growled, trapped within his armor like SteelHooves had been when I first talked to him. “What you are planning is nothing short of annihilating an entire country’s crops. Your megalomania threatens the pegasi with massive famine and starvation. You are attempting to become the greatest mass-murderer in Equestria’s history just so you can claim credit for a sunny day!”

Oh Goddesses. Is that what I was doing too? My own plan was not so far different. Was that the cost? Compared to the cruelty of that, the paltry help I had given the ponies of the wasteland paled to insignificance.

“To resurrect Equestria,” Red Eye answered bluntly, “Sacrifices must be made.”

The callousness of his words struck me. Yes, I was also planning to take control of the Single Pegasus Project. The Enclave needed to be stopped. And Velvet Remedy was right: you can’t stop something until you take away its reason for being that way. Furthermore, the ponies of the wasteland deserved to see Celestia’s sun again. To know that warmth and hope that only a sunny day could bring.

But I wasn’t the sort of cold, uncompassionate creature I saw in both of the ponies below me. I knew something that neither Red Eye nor Autumn Leaf knew, a game-changing factor that made it possible for my plan to succeed without doing unspeakable harm. I knew about the Gardens of Equestria.

“Although, in the end, the Enclave’s actions… that is to say, your actions… have served my intentions nicely,” Red Eye gloated gently. “You’ve made yourselves so much the villains that our new Godhood will be celebrated as a savior when I end you.”

Colonel Autumn Leaf began to swear. “Maybe I will be the one ending you!”

“Interesting fact,” Red Eye said over Autumn Leaf’s threatening string of curses, “Four ponies became the templates within the Goddess, but they didn’t form the Goddess equally. The Goddess was dominated by one mind, one will. And it wasn’t the most powerful of the four. No, that would have been Twilight Sparkle. Instead, it was Trixie. And not just Trixie, but Trixie the Showpony. The most charismatic of the four.

“I’ll be sharing Godhood with a martyr who wants to save everypony and a gutless tool.” He smirked. “I’m feeling pretty confident in my chances.”

Red Eye turned his gaze up towards the cage. “You can come out now.”

What? my little pony stammered. I… but… oh, forget it. Her head slumped in defeat. I disengaged the StealthBuck and stared down at the wasteland’s other Stable Dweller.

Red Eye smiled at me.

“Not a chance in hell,” I told him bluntly.

“Up to you,” he said, surprising me.

“Wait… you’re giving me a choice?”

Red Eye walked up to the catwalk railing, placed his hooves on it, and peered into the swirling colors of the vat beneath. “Of course I am.”

“Why?” I had to know.

“Because I’m going to have a hard enough time struggling against him,” he tilted his head towards the collapsed body of Autumn Leaf. “I don’t want to be fighting both of the other templates. And I figure there’s a far better chance that you’ll spend Godhood actually trying to help the wasteland through your benevolent rule, rather than trying to undermine me out of petty revenge, if you actually choose to be there. And finally…”

Red Eye paused, seeming to consider what he wanted to say. “…because unlike him,” he said, whipping a tail towards Autumn Leaf, “It doesn’t have to be you.”

I blinked. My name had been his password, and now he was saying he didn’t really need me? That I really wasn’t special after all? I felt as wounded as I felt relieved.

“There are twenty-five unicorns in that cage,” he pointed out. “Twenty-five hoof-picked chances for a good unicorn template. One of them is bound to be sufficient. But you…” He snorted bemusedly. “You’re a sure thing. Imagine my surprise when fate dropped you right in front of me at the seventh hour. A unicorn who not only had all the qualities that guaranteed a strong template, but who would volunteer to become part of the Godhood, and whose rulership would actually make our New Equestria a better, richer place.

“I’ve always known that I was taking a gamble. No matter how much I researched, planned and created contingencies, inevitably all my efforts would come down to a roll of the dice. You just allowed me to hedge my bets more than I would have thought possible.”

My mind caught on one word in all that. Volunteer? “Why the hell would I ever…”

“Because you don’t want to risk what will happen if you don’t,” he said simply. “You already know what he’s like. You’re not going to run the risk that the Godhood will manifest with him in charge. Or some third pony you don’t know who might be just as bad.”

“You said he couldn’t possibly challenge you,” I reminded him plaintively.

“Oh very true,” Red Eye told me. “But I’m not the one who will be ruling Equestria. I told you before, I’m too much of a monster for the world we are creating. I have no place in it. That will be your job, remember?” He chuckled. “Besides, I’m going to have my plate full controlling the sun, moon and weather.”

My jaw dropped.

”Oh dear,” Red Eye laughed. “How else did you think I was planning for you to take over my work? My forces and my followers aren’t going to be loyal to a new leader just because I tell them to. But they will be loyal to the new me, and any part of me.”

I reeled.

“Really, Littlepip, did you ever take the time to seriously think this through? Or did you just assume I was lying?”

I felt numb, removed, like the world was a distant, far-away place. I was in a cocoon of else-ness, staring out at reality through hazy gauze.

The paralysis broke when Red Eye hefted one hindleg over the railing.

“Stop!” I ordered as I floated out Little Macintosh, taking aim.

“You’re kidding.” Red Eye looked up at me, shock dissolving into contempt. He stared down the barrel pointed between his eyes. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No,” I told him sternly. “I’m taking option three. The one where I don’t have to worry about what the ponies in the Godhood are like because there isn’t a new Godhood at all.”

“Take the shot!” Autumn Leaf growled. We both ignored him.

“Really, Littlepip?” Red Eye asked. “Would you doom the ponies of Equestria to the Wasteland? To another two-hundred years of futile struggle, poverty and hardship… all ending in death, usually at the whim of the Wasteland’s raiders and monsters? They need us, Littlepip. Where will they be without our leadership? What will become of them without our guidance?”

“They don’t need us. They don’t need a God to save them. They can save themselves.”

“I admire your faith, Littlepip. So… childlike. But now it is time to grow up.”

Was it? Was I just being naïve? “No,” I said slowly, not sure where my thoughts and words were going. “Maybe… I think… it’s time for them to grow up.”

I thought of the Twilight Society sitting on a treasure of magic and not using it to help anypony. Of the Steel Rangers preying on other ponies in their selfish drive to hoard the technologies of the past. Of New Appleloosa willing to trade with slavers and not lifting a hoof about the horrors of Old Appleloosa not so far from their door.

“It’s time for the ponies of the wasteland to stop being so selfish and short-sighted. To start caring about their fellow ponies. To raise their hooves in aid and communal support. To work together to build something bigger and better, not because they’re being forced to, but because they want to, for themselves and for their children...”

I remembered the words of Life Bloom: This is us helping.

“…It’s time for the ponies to tell the wasteland to buck off!”

I thought of the Applejack’s Rangers, and SteelHooves’ words in Stable Two: Today, you must choose with whom your Oath lies. Surrender this ignominious goal and join by my side, reaffirming your Oath to the protection of the citizens of Equestria.

I remembered Homage’s broadcast: And I’ve got more reports coming in. Heroes all the way from Shattered Hoof to Hoofington have been holding the line against the nightmares from above.

“And you know what?” I continued. I couldn’t have stopped; it was like an avalanche had started inside of me. “I think they want to. They’re ready to. You’ve shown them that rebuilding is possible. I’ve…” I’ve what? I knew what. I’d been an example. I couldn’t listen to Homage without her drumming it into my head. But saying it, accepting it, was another thing entirely. I knew I was nothing special, but my reputation had become something powerful.

“…I’ve been their Lightbringer.” I said finally, coating the concept in Homage’s words and hoping it didn’t sound conceited. “We’ve done what we can…”

Well, I wasn’t quite done yet. I still had one big play to make. But I was done here. With him.

“…and now it’s time for Daddy Red Eye and Mommy Littlepip to get the fuck out of their way.”

Goddesses. That’s where my thoughts were going? Ick. Most dysfunctional family ever. I mentally divorced myself from Red Eye.

Red Eye chuckled, a good-humored sound, having a laugh at my bizarre little speech. “Dear Littlepip. You can’t truly believe that. Not after all you’ve seen. If ponies were capable of that, they would have done so already. They wouldn’t have needed us in the first place.”

He stared downwards into the glowing, swirling liquid. “If left to their own devices, without us, they would collapse back into the same routines that have kept them under the hoof of the Equestrian Wasteland for two hundred years. Ponies…” Red Eye snorted. “Ponies never change.”

“We’ve made mistakes,” I countered. “Ponies do that. We all make mistakes. We all have flaws and weaknesses. But we are stronger when we are together.” I felt the comforting weight of the Ministry Mares in my saddlebag. “And together, we can be better than this.” We have to be better than this, my little pony added. “We’re ponies.”

“Stirring,” Red Eye quipped, straddling the railing. “Inspirational, even. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an ascension to bathe in.”

I cocked Little Macintosh warningly. “Back away from the edge or I will put you down.”

“No. No you won’t,” Red Eye stated flatly. “Two reasons. First…” He reached a hoof up to his scarf and pulled it away, revealing a collar identical to the ones on the unicorns. “…because I’m wearing this.”

Little Macintosh lowered ever so slightly as I stared at him in confusion.

“Bomb collars,” Red Eye explained. “Zebras used to put them round the necks of prisoners of war and set them free. They’d wait for the prisoner to make it back to other ponies, then BOOM!”

I felt queasy. My eyes lowered to the unicorns in the cage, each with a deathtrap around her or his neck.

“These particular bomb collars are linked. If one is disarmed, or the pony wearing it dies, then BOOM! All of them go off.” Red Eye leveled a gaze at me. “You kill me, you kill them.”

The new signal my E.F.S. had notified me about, I realized, had been the bomb collars’ shared frequency. Every time I thought I knew Red Eye…

And if something hadn’t gone according to plan? If Autumn Leaf had gotten off a lucky shot and killed him before this point? Boom. Just by wearing that thing, he was toying with the lives of the unicorns beneath me in a whole new, disgusting level.

“You’d have to disarm them all simultaneously,” he told me. “You? You might just be good enough with telekinesis to perform separate delicate operations on two dozen devices at the same time. But how skilled are you with explosives?”

He had me. Dammit, he had me!

Hell, I could barely disarm a grenade bouquet.

“And second, because if you were going with that option, you would have shot me already.”

I really, really hated Red Eye.

This was really happening. I… I was actually going to do this? The little pony in my head was telling me I couldn’t just let Red Eye win. But that sounded more like childish rivalry and stubborn pride. And I wasn’t going to sacrifice these unicorns, much less the future of the wasteland, for something so selfish.

Really, in a way, it wasn’t that different from what I had intended, was it?

No, it really was.

I was trying to bring hope to the wasteland. To banish a very real darkness. And I was willing to lose everything I had, even Homage, to give that to the ponies of Equestria. I wasn’t trying to gain anything. I wasn’t putting myself on a pedestal or on a throne. But that’s what Red Eye wanted.

“And besides, I do have your friends,” he reminded me. “After all, repetition is magic.”

“What about my friends?” I asked harshly. “Where’s Xenith? What have you done to Velvet Remedy? What…”

“Don’t worry,” Red Eye assured me, “They’re fine. All of them. I sent one of my best purples to invite them here. She gave them an offer they would be hard pressed to refuse. And they’ll continue to be fine as long as you don’t do something stupid.”

“Right. They’re all helpless, at the mercy of my choices.” My little pony snorted. Red Eye had a terrible habit of underestimating my friends.

I thought of my friends. How would they feel about this? What council would they give? The answer hit me like a bucket of ice water.

SteelHooves would not approve. SteelHooves joined me because I represented a chance to do something better, to be a better pony. He died pursuing that belief. And he would be utterly disgusted that I was even contemplating Red Eye’s offer. I owed him better than that.

Once again, I remembered sitting with him, staring out over the bay at Friendship City. The city of ponies, I noted, that Colonel Autumn Leaf had ordered burned off the map. But then, hadn’t I annihilated a town myself? How could I allow the pony who razed Arbu to become ruler of Equestria? Look at the mistakes I’d made. The damage I’d done. Monterey Jack. Party-Time Mint-als. I couldn’t take the role once held by the Princesses!

Red Eye thought I’d be unable to trust anypony else with that power. I knew I couldn’t trust myself with it.

Red Eye was appealing to my virtues, both corrupted and true; he knew me better than I knew myself. He always had.

But what Red Eye did not understand -- had never understood -- was friendship. Alone we were weak, at the mercy of our failings. But together, as friends, we were strong. We buttressed each other. We shared our strengths, protecting each other from our vulnerabilities. Even when apart. I thought of my friends, and I thought of their virtues. Loyalty and kindness, perseverance and humility. Red Eye’s offer flew in the face of all of them.

Red Eye jumped.

I concentrated.

A moment later, the red-coated stallion floated up, wrapped in my magic, until he was level with my position on top of the cage. His legs flailed at the air helplessly, struggling to get down. Then Red Eye let out a heavy sigh, head drooping.

“Forgot you might do that,” he admitted. He sighed again, giving me a plaintive look. “Why?”

“Because the ponies of the wasteland deserve a better ruler than me,” I told him. “And a better God than you.”

My E.F.S. compass suddenly came alive with a swarm of red lights.

“There is something else you are forgetting,” a voice called up from below us. Autumn Leaf had been silent long enough that I’d forgotten he was conscious. “Scissors beats paper.”

The alicorn shield collapsed as Enclave-helmeted hellhounds tore through the alicorns at the entrances, their claws slicing easily through the purple alicorns’ protective shields. More gouged their way in through the walls, the ceiling and even the floor. One of the vats began to drain as at least one hellhound had the misfortune of digging up into the room directly beneath it.

Hellhounds beat alicorns.

“NO!” Red Eye shouted, seeing decades of carefully laid plans torn apart.

A heavy, muffled thud vibrated through the ascension chamber. Followed by another as something began to hammer the Cathedral from above. A whole new level of bombardment. The Overcast, I realized, had started bombarding the fortress with its heaviest weapons.

One of the hellhounds charged onto the catwalk, pulling out a magical energy rifle, and fired. The purple pulse struck Red Eye, dissolving a plate-sized chunk of his scarred, cutie mark free flank. His pony eye opened wide in shock.

Red Eye began to die.


I couldn’t save him. He’d be dead in seconds, and he was going to take all of us with him.

Inspiration hit, born of panic. I pulled the MG StealthBuck II out of my PipLeg and swapped in the Canterlot broadcaster, setting it to broadcast on every frequency I could before turning it on.

My head exploded as death-tainted static poured into the room. My magic imploded, dropping the dying Red Eye into the vat beneath us as a vice clamped down on my horn. My eyes began to bleed. The unicorns beneath me moaned in agony. Inside his suit, Colonel Autumn screamed. Several of the hellhounds howled, collapsing and writhing. More than a few managed to tear off their helmets.

More beams of light slashed through the room. One of them struck into the cage, dissolving one of the tranquilized unicorns, the glowing ash spilling down into the I.M.P. pool below.

The bomb collars didn’t go off. Like on the Lenticular, the Canterlot static completely flooded the collar’s channel, preventing them from sending the trigger signal.

I turned the broadcaster off again, fishing out a healing potion and downing it swiftly. I then focused on the cage’s lock as I wrapped the unicorns in a telekinetic sheath. We were too exposed here. I needed to get us out!

More heavy thuds shook the chamber. The Cathedral was being pulverized.

“Take me with you,” Colonel Autumn Leaf commanded. “Save me!”

“Go with your hellhounds,” I shouted back.

“They haven’t been ordered to do that,” he admitted, pleading. “My first officer is about to turn this place into a crater.” And the hellhounds were acceptable losses. There was no provision in their orders for self-preservation.

The lock clicked. The bottom of the cage swung open, the twenty-four remaining ponies floating in place above the vat of swirling I.M.P. below.

“Look, I’m good with explosives,” the Colonel bargained. “I can walk you through disarming those collars. But only if you take me with you!”

I glowered, staring at the pony who had been behind the destruction of the Canterlot Ruins, the murderer of Star Sparkle. The pony who had ordered his own brother, my best friend, to be hunted and killed. Who had sent the Wonderbolts after us. Ordered the attacks on Friendship City, New Appleloosa, and more.

“On one condition,” I told Calamity’s brother.

“Anything!” he agreed readily.

“Tell me how to rig that star blaster’s battery to explode!” I ordered. Doctor Glue had indicated there were tunnels beneath the Cathedral. The hellhounds were already spilling taint into them. How much worse would the Everfree Forest become once this room was torn apart and all of this, a million tons of pure I.M.P. released into the environment? I couldn’t even imagine what that would do to Equestria. It would be more devastating than a megaspell.

It wasn’t enough to let this room be destroyed. It needed to be vaporized.

*** *** ***

My head was pounding, my brain trying to claw its way out of my skull. There was a warm, wet stickiness dribbling out of my ears and nostrils. My abused horn protested, the effort it took to pick the lock on the last collar seemed more than it took to once float a boxcar.

The collar snapped open, and I shut off the broadcaster one last time, slumping against the wall. We were in what was left of Doctor Glue’s laboratory. My gaze lingered over all the unicorns. I had only turned on the broadcaster for a few second for each collar, but the cumulative toll was devastating. I was out of healing potions. And four of the ponies hadn’t survived.

The rational part of my brain (or as much of it that wasn’t trying to leak out my ears), told me that I had saved twenty lives. Out of twenty-five. And that four out of five wasn’t that bad.

The little pony in my head was weeping, mourning every one of the five I had failed.

The powerful thudding overhead caused part of the ceiling above to give, raining down dirt and several blocks of stone, reminding me that I hadn’t saved anypony yet. Until we were out of here, all I had done was delay their deaths.

I wiped my PipLeg across my eyes and it came back smeared with red. My gaze shifted to the limp form of Autumn Leaf, trapped in his unique jade Enclave armor. I had refused to reboot it until he had fulfilled his part of the deal. I didn’t want to be incinerated by that alien weapon as repayment for my helping hoof.

I crawling over to him, turning my attention to the alien fire blaster. “Okay. One more bomb to deal with, and then I’ll set you free.”

Removing the alien fire blaster and rigging its power core was far more complex than I had imagined. It spoke volumes to me, realizing how skilled Homage was to have done what she did. I felt a happy pang in my heart, pride in my mare mixing with the hurtful reality that I would almost certainly never see her face again.

There just wasn’t enough time. There was never enough time.

The homemade explosive hummed to life, the charges from the bomb collars ringing the bright orange glow of the star blaster’s power core. I set the timer and floated it out and down the stairwell, guiding it into the ascension chamber. I knew the room well enough that I didn’t have to see it to place the bomb right into Red Eye’s cup.

I gave us ten minutes. The hammering above shook the room, but I didn’t think the Overcast would be able to blast down this deep quite that quickly.

“Okay then,” Colonel Autumn Leaf said. “Reboot me, and let’s get the hell out of here.”

I turned to Calamity’s brother. The butcher of the wastelands. Setting him free… it wasn’t a question of whether he’d do more damage, but how much. How many more ponies was I letting him murder by letting him go.

A realization swept over me. A determined frown crept across my muzzle. I crouched down to him, telekinetically lifting his visor so I could look into his eyes. Autumn Leaf had fiery hazel eyes. Calamity’s eyes, the realization struck me painfully. But they were tinted crimson, streams of blood running from the corners, matting his coat and pooling in his helmet.

“There’s something you should know about me,” I told him sadly. “I’m not the Bearer of Honesty. But I know her. And I love her.”

I floated out Little Macintosh. Autumn Leaf’s eyes went wide.


Standing back up, I slid Applejack’s gun into its holster and began floating the twenty still-living ponies in the room.

For the longest time, I had thought of myself as Red Eye’s reflection (granting one of Pinkie Pie’s particularly warped funhouse mirrors). But I was comparing myself to the wrong pony. I wasn’t Red Eye.

I was Applesnack.

*** *** ***

All my friends were already waiting at the Tortoise when I galloped up, twenty still-unconscious unicorns floating in tow.

“Well, all right!” Calamity whooped. “Let’s get this show on the wing!”

The Cathedral was nothing but rubble, only a few of the barracks houses still halfway intact. The Overcast was hammering the ground with blasts of multi-hued energy, pulverizing its way through the sublevels. The Thunderhead itself was heavily damaged, pouring smoke from multiple breaches, the rumble of its thunderclouds no longer steady or harmonious. The dragon and alicorns were nowhere to be seen. Any of Red Eyes troops who survived had fled into the Everfree Forest. Which, I imagined, was just waiting to eat them.

Calamity had gathered everyone into the Tortoise, friends and Overcast escapees alike, and relocated to the shelter created by one of the downed Raptors. From the shredding of its hull, I suspected the dragon had taken it down. Fortunately, I had the Tortoise’s tag on my PipLeg, so (after a brief spark of panic) I had no trouble finding it.

“Autumn Leaf?” Calamity asked as I arrived, panting, dripping with sweat.

“He didn’t make it,” I said, choosing not to elaborate. “Neither did Red Eye.”

A pained expression settled on Calamity’s face. “Fer the best, really,” he said, turning towards the sky-tank’s cockpit.

My heachache was pounding hard enough to rival the Overcast’s bombardment, and it spiked to teeth-gnashing intensity with each epic boom. I wanted my friends, a bed, and a pony-sized healing potion.

I opened the back, and was immediately yanked inside and into a hug. “Littlepip, where have you been? I’ve been so worried!”

Relief flooded me and I hugged her back. “Learning to play rock-paper-scissors,” I told her. I thought of the star-born explosive I’d left behind, due to go off any moment now, if it hadn’t already. “Bet on rock.”

My relief was replaced with mane-raising alarm as I spotted, over her shoulder and through wisps of her mane, the sleeping form of the albino hellhound. Despite how crowded the Tortoise was, the other ponies were cringing back, avoiding touching the creature. I hoped he was under Velvet’s spell and thoroughly sedated to boot. My eyes drifted down over the body to lock on the shiny, cybernetic leg where, hours ago, nothing had been.

“You let yourself be taken prisoner in order to help the hellhound, didn’t you?” I said dully.

“We had everything under control,” Life Bloom piped up from where he was tending to Reggie, the scarlet glow from his horn matching the glow around Reggie’s crippled arm. “Xenith’s back at the hut. There isn’t anything more I can do for her, and we didn’t dare move her. Fortunately, the alicorn didn’t seem to care.”

They left her alone?

“Pyrelight’s back there watching over her,” Life Bloom added.

Okay, I thought, remembering my time in Fillydelphia. Not alone then. That I could accept.

“Yes, and Calamity was sooo gallant,” Velvet cooed. “You should have seen him! Those Enclave hellhounds guarding us never stood a chance.”

My head hurt. A lot.

I moved for one of the rucksacks, fishing for a healing potion, as Calamity strapped himself into the harness.

“What in tarnation is that one doin’?” he asked suddenly, craning to look upwards out of his armored window.

I turned around and stuck my head out the open door of the sky-tank, looking upwards at the massive Thunderhead above the pulverized remains of the Cathedral. One badly damaged Raptor had re-melded into the Overcast’s stormclouds, and a second was moving up, trailing plumes of black smoke behind it as it struggled to keep altitude long enough to dock. The shadow of a third Raptor was visible through the smoke, approaching from the far side.

Approaching awfully fast.

I looked around, counting four downed Raptors. Three apparently from the cyberdragon and one from the artillery cannons the Cathedral used to have. That left two, the Lenticular and the Raptor that had gone off chasing it.

I floated in my earbloom, bracing myself, and turned on the Enclave’s inter-warship channel, ready to turn it off at the first hiss of static. Instead, I heard the voice of a mare.

Raptor Lenticular! This is the Thunderhead Overcast! If you do not respond, we will shoot you out of the sky!”

There was no response. Several of the Overcast’s guns swiveled towards the incoming warship.

Raptor Lenticular! Cut your engines. This is your last warning.”

The Raptor did not cut its engines. If anything, it looked like it was speeding up.

“Whoa nelly!” Calamity shouted out. “That bird’s gonna ram ‘er!”

The Overcast opened fire. But it was already too late. The blasts of super-intensified magical energy slashed holes into the Lenticular, causing the ship to bleed; but it stayed its course, not slowing.

I stared, my eyes growing wider and wider as I realized what I was seeing. The Raptor was bleeding! Pinkish vapor was pouring out of its wounds.

The Raptor Lenticular was full of Pink Cloud!

The Overcast had stopped its bombardment and was trying to move, but the massive ship had the speed and agility of a turtle. A new voice -- a gravelly stallion’s voice -- boomed over the military channel with an almost supernatural power. “FOR CANTERLOT!”

The Raptor Lenticular struck the Overcast with a rapturous explosion. Whoever was aboard had frontloaded the ship with every bomb on board. The explosion blew out both of the Overcast’s thunderclouds on the struck side and tore a massive hole in the side of the mobile siege platform, the Raptor wedging into the bigger ship like a poisonous dart.

I spotted the silhouette of a pony-like figure flee from the rear of the Lenticular, flying away on bat-like wings even as pegasi started to pour out of the mortally wounded Thunderhead, abandoning ship.

Beneath the Tortoise, the ground shifted, collapsing downward. The bomb I had created had gone off, silently vaporizing the earth beneath us. And now the ruins of the Cathedral were collapsing into a massive sinkhole.

Calamity needed no other encouragement. He beat his wings and pulled the Tortoise into the air, fleeing the scene with a tank full of escapees and twenty floating unicorns in tow. I turned and sat, looking out the back door, drinking a health potion.

*** *** ***

We almost made it back to Zecora’s Hut.

I heard the crack of the shot. And Calamity’s yelp as the bullet from Gutshot’s anti-machine rifle pierced the cockpit and struck into the wing-muscles on Calamity’s right side, crippling him. The Tortoise dropped, smashing into treetops. My levitation spell imploded as I was thrown against the back door, which flew open, scattering ponies into the forest below.

My body slammed into a thick branch hard enough to snap it, breaking ribs, bruising my abdomen and knocking the wind out of me. I tumbled through the tree, feeling like I was being viciously pummeled by raiders. My right hindleg hit a branch badly and I heard a snap, followed by searing pain. I slammed into the ground on my back, my E.F.S. flashing warnings, and blacked out.

When I came to, Velvet Remedy was standing over me, her horn glowing as she focused on my broken hindleg. Reggie was standing at my side, her bad arm bandaged in a sling, blood pouring down a series of gashes along her head and flanks. She was staring forward, glaring daggers.

My eyes caught one blue suit of carapace armor, then another and another. We were surrounded by Wonderbolts. And they were having a heated argument. There were voices all around me. Two of them were Calamity’s.

“What the hell is this?” Calamity’s voice asked.

“Ya fell inta the blue plants, didn’tcha Gutshot?” Calamity snapped back wryly. “Ah knew it burned yer feathers t’ be second best, but Ah never imagined you’d want t’ be me!” His voice was slowly rising. “Have ya met me? Have ya seen muh life?”

I turned, following the voices, to see a bleeding and bedraggled Calamity staring down a mirror image of himself in Wonderbolt armor, the anti-machine rifle of his battle saddle pointed between my best friend’s eyes.

“Gutshot, stand down,” Skydive ordered, stepping up beside Calamity.

“Like hell I will,” the Calamity-doppleganger shouted. “We still have a mission.”

“Yes,” Strafewise countered, approaching to flank the real Calamity on the other side. “But not this one. We’ve run the clock.”

“Back away!” Gutshot shouted, trembling. They weren’t blocking his shot. But he seemed unwilling to take it while they stood against him. “We can’t fail this one. I can’t fail this one!”

“We will be failing a lot more than orders if you pull that trigger,” Jet spoke up, her voice low and rich like dark chocolate. “Things are not the way we thought they were.”

“What the hell has gotten into you!? He’s the enemy! Deadshot’s a traitor!”

“Deadshot?” Calamity said, swaying from blood loss. “Dammit, are ya so fixated on that ya can’t see what’s right in front of yer face?”

A scream erupted right beside me. Everypony spun around to see Regina Grimfeathers slump over, a gaping hole in her breast, smoke rising from it. The light of life was fading quickly from her eyes.

Exactly like her twin.

“No!” I whimpered, my ears pasting back.

“Who fired that shot?” Skydive barked, but no shot had been fired. I saw the little tendril of blue wrapping around Reggie’s right hindleg. And the others, coming for Velvet and me.

It should be Kage here, not me. Regina had said that; what else had she said that I hadn’t heard?

“NO!” I shouted, leaping into the air, grabbing all three of us in telekinetic magic. Velvet Remedy reacted just as swiftly, throwing her shield spell over the ground, trapping the squirming vines beneath it.

This was not going to happen again! I was not going to lose Regina like I failed her brother. We had Velvet Remedy with us this time. We had Life Bloom. This was NOT going to happen!

“Life Bloom!” I shouted, but he was already ahead of me, casting a stabilizing spell on the griffin, halting her slide into death.


I spun around at the gunshot.

Calamity had Little Macintosh in his mouth, smoke coming from the barrel. His doppelganger, Gutshot, was trying to shoot back, unwounded. But nothing was happening. Calamity’s shot had disabled the Wonderbolt’s battle saddle.

With a roar, Gutshot threw himself at Calamity.


Gutshot fell to the ground, clutching his crippled foreleg. The other Wonderbolts moved in to surround him.

Calamity spat out Little Macintosh and looked at them apologetically. “Ah reckon there was no avoidin’ that,” he said glumly. “Everfree Forest was muh idea. An’ Ah ain’t never had a plan yet that didn’t amount t’ shootin’ muhself in the hoof.”

*** *** ***

We had a long trek back to Zecora’s Hut. Velvet Remedy’s shield shimmered beneath us as we walked. Between the crash and the Everfree Forest, we’d lost ten more of the ponies I had rescued, most of them unicorns.

Of those who survived, four had wrapped themselves in cloaks of denial and galloped off. Red Eye couldn’t be dead, after all. He was going to be a God. He was going to bring Unity. The others were trudging along with us, shell-shocked, not speaking a word.

None of us felt much like talking either. The only sounds were the distant crackling of flames, the plodding of pony hooves on a magical shield, and the mechanical hiss that the albino hellhound’s leg made with every step. He was walking with us, at least for now.

The Wonderbolts had helped us find the ponies our crash had scattered across the forest. They weren’t ready to act against the Enclave, but they were going to sit the rest of the conflict out, not helping the Enclave either. Skydive promised to “look us up” after the dust settled.

They had also helped find the rucksacks full of medical supplies. About half the supplies had survived the crash, and most of those had been used repairing the wounds inflicted in the crash.

Tracker had taken off with the Wonderbolts when they left.

Red Eye was defeated and gone. Autumn Leaf was defeated and gone. And yet, I didn’t feel the least bit victorious. I felt like I had managed to mitigate failure.

I had to do better than this. Ahead of us lay Neighvarro and the Single Pegasus Project. At the same time, the Enclave was mounting a massive assault on Fillydelphia. Calamity assured me that the Colonel’s death wasn’t going to prevent that. They had their orders, and another pony was already groomed to step into Autumn Leaf’s position. The Enclave wasn’t like a Canterlot ghoul. It didn’t die when you cut off its head.

After an hour, we stopped to take a break. Catch our breath. Life Bloom had been floating Reggie along above him, and now he and Velvet Remedy turned their healing attentions once again to the horribly wounded adolescent griffin. She was stable, thanks entirely to Life Bloom, his spell putting her into a sort of suspended animation. The same magic used by Cottage Cheese’s medical pod. And by the control pod in the S.P.P. Central Hub. Non-idle curiosity pushed me to stare, wondering what it would be like; I had to force myself to look away.

Turning my attention instead to my PipLeg, I realized that I still had an audio recording I hadn’t listened to. The old audio log we had found in the Stable-Tec chest in Zecora’s Hut. I slipped in my earbloom, turning it on.

“Um… hello?” a sweet, familiar voice sounded in my ear.

“This feels weird. I know you can’t actually hear me, Zecora. But Apple Bloom says that you were always a good person to talk to. And I really needed to talk. I can’t bring this stuff to Apple Bloom and Scootaloo, and I don’t really talk with my sister anymore, so…I hope you don’t mind.

“This is Sweetie Belle, by the way. Not that you can hear me. But if you can, and didn’t know…

“I’ve been thinking about things. And I know this is going to sound silly, but one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot is…



Footnote: Maximum Level