Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat

Chapter Forty-Four: Galvanize

Chapter Forty-Four: Galvanize

“The spark didn’t work.”

“But it did. A different kind of spark... The spark ignited
inside me when I realized that you all are my friends!”


We are all called, at one time or another, to have faith.

Faith in the Goddesses.
Or faith in ponykind, as Velvet Remedy was struggling to regain.
Or, as with Homage, it is faith in heroes, and the value of the Good Fight.

Sometimes the faith you are called upon to have is faith in yourself.

Faith doesn’t require us to be willfully blind or dogmatically stupid. But it does require us to take risks. To put our trust in something we know might not be true. Even when the cost of failure could be very high.

Especially then.

For some of us, faith becomes our central reason for living, for pressing on. Faith is what allows us to believe in a happy ending, even in our moments of greatest sorrow. It is what allows us the hope of rescue even in the most suffocating darkness.

And faith, more than anything else, is what the Wasteland is ravenous to devour. More than kindness. More than innocence. The Wasteland does its best to tear away your ability to believe in anything other than itself.

When you no longer believe things can get better, when you stop trying, that’s when the Wasteland has won.

The Wasteland can kill us, but so long as we die trying… as long as we die believing… then its success against us is a pyrrhic victory at best.

I had been thinking of a story Spike had told us that night in his cave, one of many tales of the Mares before the Ministries. This particular tale was about a time when Twilight Sparkle’s magic had failed her…

Do you know any spells for turning a hydra into a mouse? How ‘bout a squirrel?
No! No small rodents of any kind.

…and she had been asked to rely on Pinkie Pie’s irrational Pinkie Sense.

You’ll be fine. It’s your only hope. You have to take a leap of faith.

I am, almost certainly, about to die.

This is my leap of faith.

*** *** ***

Two days ago:

“It’s time to end this.”

I thumped my forehoof on Zecora’s table for emphasis, causing my Sparkle~Cola Rad to bounce. The contents of the bottle fizzled brightly. I still had the soda from… from when? Just after Old Appleloosa, wasn’t it? Found it in the wreckage of Ditzy Doo’s original delivery wagon. Goddesses, that felt like so long ago. Well, I might as well drink it now. I wasn’t expecting a lot of opportunities later.

It was the wee hours of the morning. When we arrived at Zecora’s Hut late yesterday evening, Life Bloom and Velvet Remedy had done everything they could for Reggie. Fortunately, her wounds only mimicked those caused by magical energy; and through exhaustive work, they had been able to heal her. But the trauma and the restoration had taken a great deal out of her. Life Bloom had warned us that she needed rest, a lot of it, and wouldn’t be in any condition to continue with us for a good while. Right now, she slept on the cot next to Xenith’s. The one we’d kept the hellhound on the previous night.

Most of us, myself included, had taken the chance to get some sleep. Even Calamity took a nap after tending to very important hat-recovering. The escapees, those who hadn’t left on their own, had bedded down outside -- the followers of Red Eye on one side of the hut, everypony else on the other.

Several of the ponies from the Overcast’s prison had worked together to dig a grave for the foal who had died in captivity. The child’s mother fashioned a remembrance marker by pulling a stone from an ash-clogged stream not far away and wrapping it in vines of softly glowing phantasmal flowers.

“Ah’ve been waitin’ fer this,” Calamity whispered to Velvet Remedy, who turned her surprised expression from me to him. “While ago, Li’lpip promised me that we’d find a way t’ make all this death an’ destruction worth somethin’,” he explained as she opened her muzzle to ask. “Li’lpip’s got a plan.”

“Uh can’t believe yur planneen tu drink dat,” the albino hellhound muttered. I still wasn’t entirely sure why he was with us, especially now that he could run (or dig) away. I expected that he was why at least some of the ponies elected to stay outside, not that it would help should he turn hostile. But instead, he seemed almost genial, particularly towards Velvet, whose face he nearly severed not one day ago. “That shiny crud makes uh better ‘splosive than uh drink.”

Calamity’s ears tilted. “It make a better what now?”

“If she don’t drink it, Uh’ll show you.”

Calamity looked about as comfortable with and trusting of the newly friendly hellhound as I was. He turned his focus back to me, although he kept casting sidelong glances in the hellhound’s direction.

“Littlepip, what are you planning?” Velvet Remedy asked, sounding both curious and a little put out that this was the first she knew about this. Calamity quickly whispered assurances to the mare he loved, insisting that I’d been keeping everything hush-hush and that even he didn’t know.

“The Single Pegasus Project,” I told my friends (and the assorted strangers in the hut with us). “We’re going to bring back the sun.”

Only Calamity looked unsurprised, and there were a fair number of gasps.

“You’re going to… bring back the sun?” Life Bloom sounded like he couldn’t possibly have heard that correctly.

“Yes!” I thumped the table again, the Sparkle~Cola Rad hopping farther away.

“We could see Celestia’s sun? Feel her warmth again? Everypony?”

I looked at Velvet Remedy. “Something you said a while ago really stuck with me,” I told her. “You said that you can’t really stop something bad until you take away its reason for existing.” I watched as she sat down and slowly called on that memory of being in Calamity’s embrace, breaking down after the horror we stumbled upon at Fluttershy’s Cottage.

“The Enclave exists because of the cloud curtain. That’s the source of their control, through a stranglehold on crops and information. Without it, the Enclave will cease to exist.” I knew that was hardly going to be an immediate effect, and so did they.

“Open the sky and they won’t be able to stop all the pegasi who look down and then decide to buck off the government who has lied to them,” I proclaimed. “Open the sky and they no longer have a reason to slaughter ponies out of fear that one of us might remove their precious clouds.”

“Open the sky,” Velvet interrupted cautiously, “And the pegasi will starve. We can’t do that.”

I paused, then nodded slowly. “I know. And we won’t.” I smiled as I looked at my friends, a smile that hid the chill in my heart. “That’s what makes us different than Red Eye. Well, one of the great many things. Red Eye would have just blasted the cloud curtain away. We need to get in, analyze the situation, and trigger a cloud-sweep from as many of the towers as we can without causing famine.”

“Fer how long?” Calamity asked, clearly concerned. “The Enclave’s kept population down so that everypony c’n eat comfortably on what they c’n provide, plus food t’ stockpile. Ya cut the farmland in half, they’ll be able t’ make that up from stockpiles fer maybe a year. Then ya got a crisis. They ain’t ready t’ live on scraps like we do down here. Y’all will have ponies starvin’ t’ death while others hoard. Pegasi raidin’ parties takin’ what they can from towns below...”

Calamity shook his head, “Ah tell ya, we do this, it’s gonna be a bloody mess.”

“Maybe for just a little while,” I admitted, but I assured him, “I know a way to fix that. I just can’t talk about that part just yet. But I’ll tell you tomorrow. We’ve got to meet with some people first.”

Calamity leveled a prolonged stare at me. Then his expression brightened. “That’s muh girl!”

Velvet Remedy cleared her throat, and Calamity jumped to rephrase, “Not muh girl, muh girl. Ah mean, not like muh mare. Ah jus’ meant…” Then he caught her snicker and shut up, blushing.

Life Bloom was still wrapping his mind around what I’d said. “You’re going to… give us back… the sun!”

“Not just me.” I smiled at the buck. “I’m going to need all the help I can get.”

“When Homage started calling you the Lightbringer, did she know?” he asked, the question driving a wedge of pain in my heart. For a moment, I couldn’t speak; I could only shake my head.

“Two problems, Li’lpip,” Calamity stated, “First, ya can’t get in. An’ second, ya can’t even get in t’ get in. Not only is the S.P.P. Central Hub shielded by the grandmother of all alicorn shields -- somethin’ that nopony has ever been able t’ breach -- but it’s surrounded by the Enclave’s Neighvarro military base, an’ that’s shielded by the Blue Dome.”

“The Blue Dome?”

Calamity sighed. “Remember when the Enclave captured us and had us in those blue energy cages?” he asked, prodding my memory. The first thing I remembered was Ditzy Doo’s prodding of the field (zap, “ow”), and I had to prevent myself from snickering.

“The Enclave erected a huge protective dome jus’ like that over alla Neighvarro.” He glanced towards the sleeping form of Reggie. “Keeps out rogue griffins and the like.”

“Ya got plans t’ get through those?” Calamity queried.

“Stealth mission?” Velvet Remedy asked warily.

“Actually,” I admitted, “I was thinking something closer to a direct attack.”

Dead, stunned silence. Broken first by the hellhound. “Und you let her make the plans?” He leveled a wry stare at Calamity and Velvet. “Un purpose?”

I tried to head off the coming avalanche of protests. “Look, the moment they know we’re there, they will start bringing the full might of that military base to bear,” I claimed reasonably. “And we won’t last minutes against that.”

“Ah, and thus the full-frontal assault makes sense.” Life Bloom rolled his eyes. “Makes our deaths quicker.”

I shot him a look. “We’re not Red Eye. We don’t have the force for a sustained battle.

“The way I see it, we have two options. Either we pull off the most flawless stealth mission ever…” I could read in their expressions how likely they all believed that wasn’t. “…or we pull a smash-and-grab that gets us to our objective before they know what’s hit them.”

“Ah surgical strike,” Calamity suggested, pondering. “Could work. Assumin’ ya c’n find a way past the two shields.”

I nodded eagerly, looking to the others. “So, who’s in?”

“She asks, without even tellin’ us half the plan,” Calamity snarked, exchanging amused looks with Velvet Remedy. Smiling back to me, he proclaimed, “We are, of course.”

“Uh’m not.” The albino cyber-hellhound growled slightly. “Attackeen uh winged pony base en the clouds? That’s uh long way tu fall.”

I flinched. I stared at the hellhound, and he returned my gaze, his eyes boring into me for a moment. He knew.

“Still, Uh know someone who might be able tu help you,” he offered reluctantly. “Eef the winged ponies ain’t killed ‘er yet,” he added. “Und yu cun rescue hellhounds as good as you rescue ponies.”

I wasn’t sure if he was challenging my skill or my willingness.


“Fluffykins,” he said. “She wus a Warclaw, one uf ur fiercest. Used tu run the biggest pack en Old Olneigh… before your Enclave snatched ‘er up.” The albino shrugged. “Long time ago. Before they came with their magic noises.”

“A test subject,” Calamity concluded. “For the Enclave’s behavior-control experiments.”

“Most likely, she’s dead. But ef not, you let her loose, und she’ll take care uf any pegasi she cun find.” As an afterthought, he told Calamity, “Don’t be one uf ‘em.”

“Fluffykins,” Reggie chuckled groggily, surprising all of us. I had no idea when the adolescent griffin had slipped out of sleep. “Scourge of the Enclave.”

She looked blearily at all of us. “I’m in.”

“No,” Life Bloom told her. “You’re not. You’re not going to be in anything but a bed for at least a week.” The two of them glared challengingly at each other. I shared a look with Velvet.

Calamity, already focused on the task ahead, inquired, “Okay, Li’lpip. What first?”

“First…” I paused, tapping the tip of my hoof on the table. “First, we have to get the ponies outside to safety. I want to take them to Junction R-7. So, I guess, first we need transportation.”

I challenged Calamity, “Think you can get the Tortoise back up and flying?”

Calamity snorted. “An’ here Ah thought y’all might ask fer somethin’ hard.” He turned and nodded towards the wing Velvet had bound in a cast. “We don’t call ‘em sky-tanks fer nothin’. The armor o’ that thing damn near stopped a shot from an anti-machine rifle. If it hadn’t, I’d have lost more than just the use of a wing.” He frowned seriously. “Crash did more damage t’ us than the Tortoise, Ah’ll bet. But even if we get it fixed, Ah won’t be able t’ fly it.”

I nodded sadly. Then, on impulse, I trotted over and gave Calamity a fierce hug. “We’ll figure something out.”

There were a few pegasi amongst the captives we had rescued from the Enclave’s Thunderhead. Maybe we could ask one of them?

Velvet Remedy got up, walking past me. “Littlepip? Could I have a word with you? In private?”

I gulped. I gave Calamity a worried look, and he just shrugged. He was wearing the exact same expression I always pictured a father would wear while his wife insisted their daughter swallow helpful but icky-tasting medicine.

Velvet Remedy was walking out of the hut. I paused then started trotting after her.

As soon as I stepped hoof out of the doorway, the cyber-legged hellhound moved, swiftly crossing the room and taking up the doorway. I jumped back as he blotted out the light coming from the room inside, kicking up my Eyes-Forward Sparkle.

“Leetlepip,” he said with an almost whispering hiss. “Ain’t no small thing, you’re intendeen. Tu bring back the moon und the blanket uf gems.” Blanket of…? Oh, he meant the stars.

All this time, I had been so focused on the idea that I was bringing back the sun, I had forgotten that what I was doing would return so much more to Equestria. Or that there might be those for whom the gift of the night sky might hold much greater significance.

Goddess Luna, I thought, must be so very disappointed in me.

“You do this, und even Uh might forgive you… uh leetle.”

I stared at him, paralyzed. He did know!

As if reading my thoughts (hellhounds, can’t do that, right?), the albino cyberhound growled, “The Splendid Valley packs declared themselves at war with ponies. When you’re at war, you don’t git tu complain when the enemy kills you.” He glared at me sternly. “Uh don’t blame you fur them. But the Ghost Farm packs? The pegasi put ‘em down there tu die, just like Red Eye did with those unicorns…”

His next words hit like a sledgehammer. “Und Uh notice which ones you didn’t rescue.”

Autumn Leaf had forced peaceful hellhounds into battle and then had his own guns fire on their position. He had intended them to die while helplessly driven against their will. If anything, his unrepentantly callous discarding of their lives had been a final, clear signal that even as he cried out for rescue, he had no regard at all for the lives of others.

But the truth was, I hadn’t tried to save them either.

“I… I couldn’t,” I told the hellhound sadly. “They were violent. I don’t have anything like Velvet’s spell. And if just one of them slipped out of my telekinesis...” Something, I knew, that would have been all too easy -- all one would have to do was get close enough to a wall to shove off of it and they could push themselves out of my levitation field. “… and killed one of the unicorns, their collars would have gone off and we’d all be dead.”

The truth was, I couldn’t have saved both. And I chose the unicorns over the hellhounds. Unicorns who had been faithful acolytes of Red Eye and his new Unity over once peaceful hellhounds who had been tortured by the Enclave.

Yes, because then they will be free-willed, hyper-aggressive creatures who have just suffered mind-control at the hooves of ponies, Life Bloom had reminded us. Far less dangerous.

“I wish I could have,” I admitted. “But I couldn’t rescue both. And, yes, I chose the ones who wouldn’t likely slaughter the rest of the ponies I was rescuing. Or, hopefully, anypony else.”

Because if I had rescued them knowing that they would slaughter more ponies, just like if I had let Autumn Leaf go, then wouldn’t I be at least partially responsible for everyone they killed afterwards?

Zebra logic was, perhaps, not so insane after all.

Velvet Remedy was waiting for me at the edge of the glade of phantasmal flowers.

With a sigh, I lowered my head, my gaze turned up to the (semi-) friendly hellhound. “Your people have every reason to hate me, but I really am trying to do the right thing, the best I can.” That, I could only assume, was the coldest of comforts. But I had to say it. I had to say something. “I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to do better.”

Another thought occurred to me. “After this, the pegasi will have plenty of reason to hate me too.” I felt sudden empathy for Scootaloo. “To save Equestria, I’ve become the villain of the piece.”

I moved slowly away from him, turning my gaze to Velvet Remedy. As I started to move towards her, the albino hellhound hissed again. “You du this, you give us back the moon and the jewels of the night, and maybe we’ll have reason tu see you as more than just a villain too.”

He coughed hesitantly. Then added, “Und maybe Uh know another who could help you. Tell me where you are gathereen, und maybe Uh’ll send ‘im your way.”

I stopped, my body suddenly a battleground. My head loved the idea of another ally, a hellhound no less. And my heart leapt at a chance to do better. But my gut churned uneasily at the idea of giving the location -- a rendezvous for the ponies who had the fate of Equestria in their hooves -- to a monster whom I didn’t really trust.

The Enclave had enslaved them and sent them in to die. I chose not to help. And all this after Splendid Valley… the long history of that place and the way I had written its final chapter. Why would a hellhound ever help a pony?

I looked at the albino hellhound, my eyes drifting to his shiny new cyberleg, and I knew the answer.

Because of Velvet Remedy.

I wasn’t quite willing to trust him, but I was going to give him a chance. So I told him instead about a hardware store near a passenger wagon stop in Fetlock.

*** *** ***


The first shot was fired less than an hour after dawn. I don’t think anypony will ever know by who. But that shot lit the fire. Two massive armies charged forward over the badlands outside of Fillydelphia.

The orifices of the Enclave Thunderhead Glorious Dawn opened and spewed a black-carapaced plague that swarmed down from the sky. Hundreds of battle-armored unicorns and earth ponies, a great many of them survivors of The Pitt, galloped to meet them, firing assault weapons and high-powered rifles with enchanted bullets.

Griffins soared into the sky from the Fillydelphia Wall, anti-machine rifles firing at each target of opportunity. More than a dozen Raptors swooped in, their energy weapons turning Pinkie Pie Balloons into flying infernos. The first four crossed over the wall when Stern unleashed her biggest surprise.

Though badly wounded, Red Eye’s cyberdragon had survived the fight in Everfree Forest, and for reasons only it could know, it still fought for Equestria. And it was pissed. The first of the Raptors was torn apart in a whirlwind of violence.

The sound of heavy, cruel thunder drummed the earth as the Glorious Dawn descended into the fray.

*** *** ***

Two days ago:

“Calamity’s under the impression that you killed his brother,” Velvet told me directly. “I need to know: did you?”

Should I lie? Would that spare my friends pain? No, I’d been down that road before. Lying to my friends, especially Velvet, tended to turn out badly.


She stared at me quietly.

I was trapped in unpleasant déjà vu; hadn’t I just had this conversation? I interrupted her silence. “And before you try telling me I should have given him a chance: you didn’t see him down there. And you didn’t see Friendship City.” My voice was slowly rising. “He’d had chances. You have to want to change, or at least show a shred of remorse or decency or something…”

“Like you wanted to change?” Her soft voice sliced through the growing storm of my rant. I shut up, staring back at the mare who had shot me and in doing so saved me.

Deflating, I said simply, “If I had let Calamity’s brother go, he would most likely have sought revenge on all of the wasteland. He had no regard for the lives of others, and Red Eye gave him every excuse he needed to turn his Operation: Cauterize into something more like Quarantine and Incinerate.”

What was she suggesting we could have done? Kept him paralyzed while we tried to indoctrinate him with morals? Memory-therapy? My mind dredged up some of the less comfortable implications about the Ministry of Peace.

Then I stopped myself. Velvet Remedy hadn’t suggested anything. All she did was ask the question; I was the one who galloped off in a questionable direction, my mind still wrapped up in my talk with the hellhound.

Taking a deep breath, I said, “I’m sorry. What was it that you wanted to say about it?”

Velvet shook her head. “Well, first I wanted to see how you were holding up,” she told me. “And now I have a fair idea.”

I moaned, lifting a hoof to my face. She was concerned about me. And probably concerned about my friendship with Calamity.

I cantered over to stare at the beauty of the softly glowing phantasmal flowers, their vines covering the ground in what looked like a maze for insects. Well, there was plenty of concern to go around.

Attempting to shift the subject, I countered, “How about you? You let yourself be captured by the enemy to help the hellhound who tried to use you as a hostage.” I couldn’t hide my disbelief. Or my worry. That was not a smart decision. As the Princess of Stupid Decisions, I should know. “What were you thinking?”

“I imagined myself in his position,” Velvet Remedy confessed as she walked up next to me. She lowered her head to sniff one of the flowers before she continued. “Surrounded by hellhounds, missing a leg, my only chance of recovery dependent on somepony being willing to risk their life for my sake.”

She smiled, “Strangely, it wasn’t that hard to imagine.”

I blinked. Whoa. Hold those reins. “That wasn’t the same!” Not even close.

“No,” she admitted openly, “But there were enough similar elements that I had little difficulty imagining what the poor boy was going through.” Poor boy? The albino death machine? “And I knew that, while I could never be so selfish as to ask another to risk themselves like that, I would secretly be praying to the Goddesses that somepony would.”

The look she gave me reminded me a lot of the look she had given me back in the boxcar nearly two months ago. But this was a more mature, wiser version of that look. “How could I not do for him what I knew I’d be praying somepony would do for me? That he would do for me should our situations be reversed?”

I thought about that. As I did, my curiosity snuck up on me and I found myself with my nose in the phantasmal flower patch. The flowers did smell good. An ephemeral floral scent that held a suggestion of mint.

“He wouldn’t, you know,” I told her.

“Should it matter?”

I took a moment to reflect, thinking of the things I had done, and for whom. Thinking, most recently, of braving the Everfree Forest, the Enclave and Red Eye’s Cathedral to save unicorns who were, in many cases, willing followers of Red Eye who didn’t stick around to say thank you. Some of whom resented me.

I didn’t even notice the lack of thanks, more concerned with their safety as they departed alone into the Everfree Forest. And even now, I didn’t miss it. No, they would not have done the same for me. But that didn’t matter.


*** *** ***


“This is boring,” Reggie complained as she turned and plowed into another bank of clouds, driving it back. Below, a maze-like swath of grey appeared, a small glimpse of the ruins of Manehattan. “There’s an actual battle going on…”

“Just keep at it,” Gawdyna ordered. “These clouds won’t clear themselves.” It was proving harder than she had expected. The cloud curtain kept trying to seal the gaps, filling in almost as quickly as they tore them apart. “Blackwing, Butcher, watch your flanks. You have a black drift moving in.”

To make it worse, many of the clouds were charged. A thunderstorm had been building over Manehattan last night.

Reggie turned again, slicing into a thicker cloud with her right wing, attempting to cut it down into a more manageable bundle. She yelped as the cloud zapped her, making her feathers flare out awkwardly, smoke curling from the edges of her wing. “Dammit!”

The six-pegasi Enclave patrol seemed to come out of nowhere. Brightly colored beams of pink and green lanced through the air, two of them striking Gawdyna in the breast of her armor.

“Mother!” Reggie cried out in alarm, pulling out her twin Calamity guns and returning fire.

“I’m fine!” Gawdyna called back, drawing her tri-barreled, magical-energy shotgun as she dove behind a cloud bank. Three of the black-armored pegasi kept firing. Clouds were good for obfuscation, but made for useless cover. Their concentrated fire quickly vaporized the clouds.

Gawd wasn’t there.

The pegasi swung around, alerted by their E.F.S. compasses as Gawd burst up through the clouds behind them. It saved two of them. Gawd unloaded all three barrels into the breast of the third, burning through his armor and into his heart.

A crack of thunder tore the air and a second pegasus was ripped apart, severed limbs spinning off, the clouds misted with red. “Say hello to Little Gilda!” Butcher whooped.

The remaining pegasus on Gawd backed up, firing rapid blasts of blue and gold from the multi-gem mini-gun in her armor. Gawd grunted at the effort, forcing her body to move more quickly than it wanted to. Three of the strikes tore along her left leg, igniting her body in pain. She swept the magical shotgun around to fire again.

One of the other pegasi dived in at Reggie. She brought up her guns, but he was too fast, spinning and bucking her in the face as he fired twin beams of pink at Butcher. One of the beams struck the Talon heavy gunner squarely, and Butcher dissolved into pink ash, Little Gilda tumbling down through the closing hole in the clouds and disappearing from sight.

“Fak!” Reggie yelled, her head spinning, one of her eyes swelling closed. She spun, trying to recover, attempting to bring her pistols back up to bear. The pegasus looped around to face her just in time for the adolescent griffin to get her aim.

Reggie fired both guns into the visor of the Enclave trooper just as his poisonous scorpion tail sunk through her Talon armor and into her back.

The pegasus Gawd had fired on melted away in a liquid stream of green, dissolving in front of her to reveal her daughter as Reggie dropped down through the clouds.

“REGGIE!” Gawd screamed.

*** *** ***

Two days ago:

We had just started back towards Zecora’s Hut when the alicorns appeared. Leading them was a midnight blue alicorn with a flowing, silky mane of very light blues, like frost, that reminded me distinctly of Trixie.

I had dropped into a battle stance, ready to try to dodge lightning bolts, Little Macintosh out of its sheath. Velvet Remedy stepped forward, horn aimed. “What do you want?”

Dammit, we did not need this. I’d have to draw them into the forest, away from the hut and the ponies we had rescued. Couldn’t risk having any of them caught in the crossfire. Why the hell did this have to happen today?

“You,” the pretty-maned alicorn informed Velvet Remedy.

Oh hells no, I thought fiercely.

“We wish to continue. To make more of us,” the alicorn continued. “No more Red Eye. No more Black Book. You will fix this.”

“You want to… procreate?” Velvet said slowly. It was beginning to dawn on me that the alicorns were acting non-aggressively. I felt a little stunned. “But… you have no males.”

Pointing out the obvious there, Velvet. That’s the problem.

“You will fix this,” the other alicorns echoed the statement in a rather eerie chorus.

“I’m not sure we can help,” I said. After all the trouble I’d gone through to eliminate the Black Book and Red Eye’s apotheosis project, I didn’t want to see an attempt to resurrect either.

“Not you!” the lead alicorn said sharply, the others behind her neighing. “We know you. You are The Destroyer. We do not seek your aid.”

I wasn’t sure if I felt more relieved or offended. Mostly, though, I just felt protective of Velvet, my friend, whom they were clearly targeting.

Velvet Remedy stared at them, slowly cocking her head, her ears swiveling. “Why me?”

“We remember your compassion at Maripony,” the oddly-maned blue enlightened her. “You are The One Who Helps.”


“We bring you the Memories, so that you may fix this,” the alicorn stated, her horn glowing a frosty blue. I only now noticed that she wore a satchel, old and grotesquely stained. Her horn’s glow was echoed by one surrounding the satchel as she opened it and levitated out a PipBuck and what looked like a bundle of gore-encrusted wires with odd attachments. Including a mechanical eye.

Velvet Remedy gasped, taking an involuntary step back as the alicorn floated them towards her.

“So…” I said slowly, realizing what I was seeing. “Something of Red Eye survived after all.”

Red Eye had been dying when he fell into that vat, yes. But he wasn’t dead yet. And who knew how long the cyberpony’s enhancements would prolong the dying process. And this was Red Eye. Of course he had an escape plan. And I had given plenty of time before the star blaster bomb went off.

Not that it did him much good. Those were Red Eye’s cybernetics. He had been harvested.

I felt sick.

“We found his corpse in the Dragon Lair,” one of the other alicorns, a purple, claimed.

I fought to shove back the bile in my throat. As wicked as Red Eye was, this was a desecration he didn’t deserve. Instead, I tried to latch onto the more sterile facts the alicorns were presenting.

That made sense. The journal of Doctor Glue mentioned passages beneath the Cathedral, and the Dragon had to have been living somewhere. That would explain how it appeared so suddenly in the middle of the battle. And why Doctor Glue’s requests to use the tunnels to dump the bodies of his victims had received such slow accommodation.

“He had made it that far,” another alicorn explained, “before dying of his wounds and from the Holy Liquid.”

Velvet was staring at the machines torn out of Red Eye’s head with horror and revulsion. I almost expected her to faint. But when had she ever done that?

Memories, the alicorn had said.

Red Eye was recording everything. All his research. All his actions. Everything. His cybernetics were akin to black opal. The massive storage capacity of the PipBuck could probably store days’ worth of his memories. For the rest, he’d need multiple maneframes. I’d seen nothing like that in the Cathedral, but this was the stallion whose other headquarters was in the Ministry of Morale Hub in Fillydelphia. If any building would have the set-up to store that much spying…

Damn. That explained the sprite-bots too. He was probably using them as relays to transmit his “memories” back to the Fillydelphia Hub. I’d guessed before that he must know the real function of those robots, I had never envisioned them being utilized like that.

Velvet Remedy squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head forcibly. “No!”

A small blob of meaty red dripped off one of the wires.

The alicorns whinnied and stomped. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Calamity flying up, battle saddle on. Life Bloom was galloping behind him.

Velvet turned a softer gaze to them. “I mean yes,” she told them gently. “I will help you. But not like this.”

“There is another way?” the frost-maned alicorn asked, her voice surprised.

“There has to be,” Velvet Remedy assured her, reaching up a hoof to touch the alicorn’s face. “And together, we will find it.”

Calamity landed, his eyes darting between Velvet Remedy and the alicorns. Leaning close to me, he whispered loudly, “So… uh… they ain’t gonna attack us?”

I really had no words.

The alicorn heard him (not that doing so was much of a feat) and she shifted her gaze towards him, as did half the others.

“We have learned,” she admonished Calamity. “Siding with those who oppose The Destroyer and her friends leads to failure.”

I blinked. My own previous thoughts about the alicorns resurfaced in my mind: they never fell for the same trap twice.

*** *** ***


“Hold the line!” the Steel Ranger shouted, his armor speeding through a reloading cycle as he crouched behind the rubble that until ten minutes ago had still been a mostly-intact Java’s Cup. “Those winged bastards get no closer to Stable-Tec than right here!”

The zorching sound and the smell of ozone, melted metal and boiled flesh told him that he had just lost one more of his soldiers. Knights, all of them. Too young and too unprepared to be fighting for their home against enemies like this.

The reload cycle finished just as the squad of black-carapace-wearing ponies flew overhead. The Steel Ranger launched two missiles and watched them home in on a single target, blowing the Enclave invader out of the sky. The rest of the squad broke apart, swooping back to strike at him from all angles.

He couldn’t get them all, so he focused on the ones in front and to his left, opening up with his grenade machine gun. He had a clip of magical energy grenades scavenged from one of the patrols of these bitches his squad had taken down before. No better time to use them than the present. So he was rather shocked when one of the Enclave attackers closing in on his right was ripped from the sky with anti-armor grenade fire.

The Enclave ponies banked sharply away, reassessing the new threat. The Steel Ranger turned to see another earth pony in magically-powered armor standing on the ridge of rubble across the street. Armor identical to his, except that it was painted in bands of rich apple red.

Without a word, the Steel Ranger turned away from the Applejack’s Ranger, focusing on the enemy. The Applejack’s Ranger galloped in, shifting to cover his blind spots.

The two of them fought together, side-by-side, until the ground ripped open beneath them, pouring forth Enclave-helmeted hellhounds.

*** *** ***

Two days ago:

Dawn began to break on the horizon, sending streams of smoke-altered light through the trees. The flowers began to dim, their translucent green petals no longer appearing ephemeral but still no less delicate. The forest awoke silently, all the sounds of nature stilled, the creatures of the forest driven out or burned alive by the fires, their ghosts offering no sounds.

After Velvet Remedy had spoken with them a little while longer, the alicorns departed as swiftly as they had arrived. Or, at least, I thought they did. The lead alicorn’s horn glowed a frosty blue and the group of them blurred then vanished from sight.

“Whoa nelly!” Calamity whinnied. “We knew the blue ones could turn invisible, but they ain’t never turned other alicorns invisible too.”

“They’re learning,” I said, feeling equally shocked. “Growing.”

Velvet’s eyes widened at a realization. “They haven’t even begun to see their potential.”

There was a moment of silence as this new reality sunk in. Then, one by one, we started back towards Zecora’s Hut, the earthbound Calamity slowly trotting next to Velvet as she took the lead.


It was Life Bloom. He had fallen behind. And from the sounds of it, he wanted to talk with me. It was turning out to be that sort of day.


“I’ve been thinking about how you claimed you had a way to deal with the impending food crisis,” he began. “There’s a food-production megaspell, isn’t there?”

What? How did he…?

“It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

I hadn’t told anypony about this, except for Homage. And I had only breached my promise to Spike with her because she would be one of Element Bearers. I hadn’t even dared tell Red Eye.

“Or maybe a poison-cleansing megaspell,” he considered. “If you purge all the poison from Sweet Apple Acres, you could feed a lot of ponies. Not nearly enough, but it would be a start.”

Twilight Society. Of course. They did have access to much of Twilight Sparkle’s spell research, including several of the spells that were woven into the Gardens of Equestria.

“Something like that,” I admitted, trying to be intentionally vague enough to not betray Spike and Equestria’s most valuable secret. “Yes.”

“I’d like to see it,” he said next.

“No,” I replied swiftly. I quickly explained, “It’s not my place to show it. That’s up to someone else.” Then added, “It’s guarded.”

“Ah,” he said succinctly.

I began walking again, but he stopped me. “You’re not planning to just shut down the Single Pegasus Project, are you?” He looked at me seriously, his voice taking a slight edge. “You’re not planning on coming back, are you?”

Was it that obvious?

“Part of me wants to hug you and proclaim you my hero for what you are about to do,” Life Bloom granted. “But part of me wants to drop you, and keep you paralyzed until I can hoof-deliver you to Homage so she can buck some sense into you.”

I almost wished he would. It would be so much easier if this choice were taken from me.

“Somepony has to stay inside that place,” I explained to him instead. “The only way the Enclave will stop trying to eliminate everypony who could possibly take over the Central Hub is if it is taken over. And not just for a moment.”

Life Bloom nickered. “Well, maybe I’m just thinking with my friendship here, but have you thought about what this will do to Homage?” His voice was cross. “She’s already lost Jokeblue. What do you think this will do to her?”

My heart seized painfully.

“This will destroy her!” He stomped the ground for emphasis.

I rounded on him, my face scrunched in internal pain as my feelings of loss shifted into a gut-wrenching abhorrence at myself.

“I know.” I felt the first of many tears. I stared into his eyes while my vision blurred hotly. “But what if I don’t? If I selfishly put the two of us above all the wasteland and leave Equestria suffering for it?”

I answered for him. “She’ll lose her faith in heroes, maybe even in the Good Fight itself. And she’ll blame herself for it.”

Life Bloom looked stricken.

“I’m not going to betray her cause and the reason she loves me just to keep her.” My words were a knife. “That would destroy her too. That would destroy her worse.”

I was betraying Homage with my choice, yes. But that would be a far more horrible betrayal. “Homage deserves better.” And I was losing someone I had never deserved.

Life Bloom swallowed and turned his gaze away, ashamed.

I frowned somberly. “Besides, I can only get one pony in. Myself. And I’ll have to be locked into that machine, put into an artificial coma, in order to run it.” I looked up at the smoke-tainted clouds visible through the treetops. “I need to analyze the towers and the pegasus farmlands. Set off only the right towers. I can’t do that by just throwing a switch.”

Life Bloom considered that for a good while. He was so quiet that I didn’t think he would speak again. I had almost started back, noting that the hellhound was once again in the open doorway of Zecora’s hut, this time having waylaid Calamity and Velvet Remedy.

“We have to do better, don’t we?” he asked in a soft, small voice.

“You are right. And you were right,” he continued, finding a little more strength. “We’ve done almost nothing to help. The Twilight Society. We’ve sat back, hoarding our secrets, telling ourselves… hell, we’re virtually the Enclave in miniature.” I swiveled around to see the crimson-and-scarlet maned, white unicorn staring at the dirt, downcast.

“Even my joining you was little more than a token…”

In Zecora’s doorway, the cyberhound was dangling my un-drunken Sparkle~Cola RAD in front of Calamity’s snout.

“We’re hardly deserving of the name we have taken.” Life Bloom looked up, his own eyes as tear-filled as my own. “We have to do better. We owe it. You and Homage… you’ve done so much, so freely. Hell, you’re giving up yourself for all of us.”

He paused, seeming unsure of what to say from there.

I merely nodded, turning my tail on him and trotting off. As much as my heart felt like it had been put through a blender, this was good. I needed Life Bloom thinking this way. I had a plan. And without Homage, it would be up to him alone to convince the Twilight Society to do their part.

*** *** ***


The ancient ritual chamber within Tenpony Tower was alive with light for the first time in over two hundred years. It had been two centuries since the megaspell known as Celestia One had been activated. The ponies inside had ignored the destruction of the city around them, intent instead on bringing the full power of the sun itself down on those zebra islands and coastal lands that those Equestrian ponies believed held the launch sites for the bulk of the zebra’s long-range megaspell missiles. The last time the chamber was used, entire islands had been plunged back into boiling oceans.

The attack had lasted less than half an hour before the pegasi had closed off the sun.

Now, once again, sunlight poured down the artificial chimney, through a well of multi-faceted mirrors that caught and reflected the glow of Celestia’s sun, bouncing it down into the bleached-white chamber below, filling the ritual chamber with a monochromatic kaleidoscope of light and shadow.

A line of robed ponies plodded into the chamber. In the lead was an older, mottled brown unicorn. Behind him, a younger, white one with a few curls of scarlet and crimson mane poking out from beneath his hood.

Each moved with purpose, striding to their positions within the intricate, arcane mosaic of polished white tiles. Though not a one of them had ever cast a megaspell before, and in fact most never expected the opportunity to do so would fall within their lifetime, each knew exactly what to do. This was something they had practiced by rote. But this time… they could feel the charge in the air. This time, it was real.

They looked at each other. A few tapped at the mosaic tiles with their hooves or whinnied nervously, still not sure that they were really doing the right thing.

*** *** ***

Two days ago:

I concentrated as best I could. This time, it was my turn to fly Calamity over the treetops of the Everfree Forest. We were going to locate the Tortoise, and I was going to levitate it back with us to Zecora’s Hut, the only safe place to really work on it.

“We shoulda jus’ brought it back with us the first time,” Calamity had commented earlier. I agreed. But yesterday, we had all been so exhausted and depleted by the time the Wonderbolts flew off that none of us were thinking that straight.

Calamity hadn’t said anything since. His sharp eyes were watching for shooting plants and other hazards while I tried my best not to drift off to sleep. The effort of flying was momentous. I’d only been up for a hoof-full of hours, but the last few days (hell, the last two months) had been so physically and emotionally excruciating that my body didn’t care. It wanted rest. And a lot of it.

Not now, I tried to think at it. Not yet.

Calamity nudged for me to widen our search pattern. I looked up at him, enjoying seeing his face, and gave him a small smile. Calamity was a good friend.

The way my morning was going, any minute now either Calamity and I were going to have a painful heart-to-heart, or we would be intercepted by a monster. Probably a chatty one.

I almost groaned when Calamity’s muzzle opened. I had so called it.

“Incoming!” he warned, eyes narrowing.

Oh. It’s the second option. Yay.

Even so, I was absolutely not ready for what swooped out of the sky in front of us. I found myself staring into the eyes of a reaper pony!

It had the body of a dead pegasus -- gaunt, coatless, its body a pale and sickly white -- but the eyes of a dragon -- fierce, glowing-yellow irises with cat-like pupils, full of power and fierce life. From behind its shoulders sprouted large, leathery, bat-like wings. And nightmarish armor growing out of its flesh.

My heart seized. The reaper ponies were real! I mean, really real! Oh Goddesses, I wasn’t ready to die! Not now!

“You are Littlepip!” the reaper pony proclaimed, its voice like an earthquake filled with knives. The creature shifted its fearsome stare to Calamity. “You are Calamity! Correct?”

Gah! It knew my name! The reaper ponies knew my name!

(And it wants to talk, my little pony rudely interrupted my panic. SO called it.)

“Y’all mus’ be the demon,” Calamity sussed out.

“LIONHEART!” it answered, nearly blasting us back.

Calamity flapped his good wing, backing us away from the reaper pony and its (quite possibly reaping) voice. That’s when I noticed the reaper pony had a PipLeg! With a broadcaster, just like the ghouls in Stable One.

“Whoa, there,” Calamity blurted. “Dial down the volume, will ya? It feels like you’re yelling at us.” He added, “With a hurricane.”

“That is not possible!” the… Canterlot ghoul? Reaper pony?... announced. “The armor of the Palace Guards was enchanted by Princess Luna Herself that we may always speak in the Royal Canterlot Voice, so that our words would carry the proper weight!

Okay. Not a reaper pony. A survivor of the destruction of Canterlot!

“But do not fear! We are here to help!”

“We?” Calamity asked cautiously, raising an eyebrow. “As in royal alicorn pseudo-goddess we?”

“No!” the Canterlot ghoul blasted. “We as in we!”

“Not followin’,” Calamity told him, looking around for a second bat-winged Canterlot ghoul. Or, for that matter, a second anything.

In response, a tiny white field mouse with cute little pink eyes scurried up the Canterlot ghoul’s hideous neck-armor and perched on his head, squeaking. The little fellow’s whisker’s wiggled cutely...

…and for some reason I couldn’t fathom, the tiny mouse struck an even deeper note of terror in me than the apparent reaper pony had.

Wait! my little pony insisted. I should know this!

My little pony slammed together bits of memory like a puzzle.

His name was Lionheart.

I remembered DJ Pon3’s broadcast after the Enclave attacked Friendship City. A broadcast focused not on the horror and tragedy, but on the heroic response she was seeing all across Equestria:

I have a tale here of two such heroes taking down one of those warships just south of Stalliongrad. Left a calling card: Lion & Mouse. Well, tell you what, Lion and Mouse. Drop by Tenpony Tower sometime.

The only Raptor taken down in a battle I wasn’t there to witness.

I recalled the rising panic of the communications officer on the Enclave inter-warship channel, just before it went deadly: Are you reporting that the monster which downed the Mammatus…

And DJ Pon3’s last broadcast, which even as I heard it I realized had been recorded hours if not whole days before. (Homage wasn’t going to make it easy for the Enclave to catch her, after all.)

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.

And finally, Watcher: Homage herself insisted she can’t make it. And she told me to tell you that she’s sending some more allies your way.

The allies my marefriend sent me took out the Overcast!

Holy hot sex with Celestia!

“…a field mouse?” Calamity blinked. “Ya brought yer pet?”

“DJ Pon3 sent us!” the ghoul announced, confirming what I had deduced. “As proof, she told me to give you this.” Lionheart produced a small, clear plastic bag with a memory orb inside along with a piece of paper which simply read: #8.

The mouse snorted, just a little, blasting the air with yard-long streams of terrifyingly solid pink.

“Oh,” Calamity muttered. “That mouse.”

*** *** ***


Aboard the Glorious Dawn, ensign Fancy Lad adjusted his headset once again, listening to reports from the southern detachment of Raptors. The bombing runs were proving effective at clearing out embedded clusters of enemies, but they were losing an uncomfortable amount of bombing wagons to sniper fire.

“Goddesses damn them,” he muttered. “They’ve seeded snipers amongst the slaves.” He reached a hoof to a switch beneath one of his terminal monitors. Raptor Nacreous was in perfect position, and otherwise only lightly engaged. He flipped the switch. “Senior Comm Officer, this is ensign Fancy Lad reporting. I suggest we send Raptor Nacreous to purge the slave compounds on south sector five.”

“Copy that,” the stallion’s voice responded. And those were the last words Fancy Lad ever heard. He spent the next ten seconds spasming as fatal static poured out of his headset, his brain melting out of his ears and nostrils.

Likewise, nearly all thirty other members of the Glorious Dawn’s communications center collapsed, many of them not even managing to scream. One of them, a mare who had put her headset aside to get a cup of coffee, now galloped for the elevator doors. With each yard, she staggered more painfully, her mind ripping apart from the soft hiss that flowed out of every headset in the room.

The mare collapsed, her eyes swimming in pools of blood, less than a hoof’s reach from the elevator, but no longer able to stand and reach the button.

The elevator door slid open anyway, pouring out a thick, blanketing mist of pink, revealing the bat-winged ghoul and his little friend standing just inside.

*** *** ***

Two days ago:

“Throw ‘em at killeen joke ‘till one uf ‘em sticks?”

Velvet Remedy’s eyes were shooting stilettos at the albino hellhound.

“Whut?” he asked, at least feigning ignorance. “Killeen joke turned uh male hellhound entu uh female pony.”

Velvet blinked. Her eyes widened. I could almost see the spark of innovation ignite behind her black pupils. “oh. Oh!” She pranced in place. “I-dee-ah!” she sang out, then galloped over to the doorway of Zecora’s Hut, virtually accosting Calamity and me.

“Oh, we just need to go to Stable Twenty-Nine!” She looked at us pleadingly. “Can we? Please?” Almost timidly, she added, “If that’s all right? And it won’t interfere with your clandestine plans?”

I nodded, walking through the doorway. “Of course we can.” After the gushingly thankful look she gave us, I couldn’t quite bring myself to tell her we would have been going there anyway.

“Greetings! You are Velvet Remedy!”

“Ohmygosh!” Velvet Remedy backpeddled as Lionheart’s imposing figure filled the doorway.

“Have no fear! We are here to…”

He was cut off by the pained yelp of the albino hellhound. We turned to see the cyberhound crouching in a corner, his paws clamped over his ears.

“Uh, maybe ya outta stay outside,” Calamity suggested. I suspected it was less for the hellhound’s sake than and more for ours; Velvet Remedy was already giving the whimpering cuisinart a poor-thing look.

I nodded to Lionheart. I wasn’t so nearly as concerned about the not-a-reaper-pony as I was about the “pet” he traveled with. She had managed to fill an entire Raptor with concentrated pink cloud in the space of less than two hours. The little beast could probably kill everypony in the hut with an accidental sneeze.

“Speakin’ o’ clandestine plans,” Calamity started, “Why don’t ya fill us in jus’ a li’l bit ‘bout what we’re doin’? What’s this big meetin’ ya got hidden under yer, er… horn?” The rust-coated stallion blushed a little. Apparently, there was a pegasus colloquialism that just didn’t apply well to unicorns.

I had two options: answer quickly if only for his sake, or delay by needling him about hiding things under my horn. The latter was so tempting.

“As I said, I’ve got a plan,” I began. “But we can’t pull it off alone. The way I figured it, we need the help of seven of the allies we’ve made these last two months. Two of them are currently at Spike’s cave, and one of them, Life Bloom, is with us already.” The curly-maned white unicorn who had been laying pensively near Xenith’s cot looked up at the mention of his name.

“Back in New Appleloosa, the night after the sonic radboom, I asked Watcher to use the sprite-bots to contact the others and gather them.” I didn’t bother mentioning that one of those crucial ponies, my beloved Homage, wasn’t going to make it. “We’re going to be gathering together at the cave in less than a day, and I’ll tell you everything else once we’re there.” Well, almost everything. “But there are some things we need to do first.”

“Spike’s cave?” Calamity raised an eyebrow high enough to knock back his hat. “Good thing we managed t’ get another pair o’ wings.” He winced as he tried to flap his bound and wounded wing. “Enclave tanks ain’t designed fer griffin pilots, an’ we’d never make that distance on hoof.”

“You will be delivered swiftly!” came the bellowing voice from outside, the open door banging from the blast. “While I served at Her Majesty’s pleasure, I would often be called upon to pull Her royal chariot!” (As if that would excuse using a powerful and dangerous ally, a hero in his own right, as nothing more than a chauffeur.)

“Oh that ain’t gonna get old,” Reggie snarked, rubbing her knuckles against her ears while the hellhound whined pathetically.

Calamity mulled the new information over a moment. “Alright, Ah’ll wait,” he told me, clearly getting a little antsy. “We trust you, Li’lpip.”

“Good,” I said sheepishly. “Because the next step in the plan is to piss off a dragon.”

Shocked silence, magnified by the soft clank as somepony dropped something.

Blinking, she-said-what level silence. To which a small squeak was added.

“Ugain, you let ‘er make your plans? Un purpose?”

Before anypony could respond, a small voice wavered up from behind us.

“Am I still a zebra?”

Xenith! She… she was awake!

“As best I can tell,” Life Bloom said, answering the bandage-enshrouded zebra’s question, “Yes.”

“Xenith!” came the resounding shout of joy from many muzzles, my own included, as we pounced the poor, barely-recovered zebra mare.

“Uh, should they be doin’ that?” the albino cyberhound asked, looking at Life Bloom with a disturbed expression, ears flattened back. He was already half-way out the door, his zebra cloak over his back. Between the new arrivals and Xenith’s awakening, the monster had apparently decided it was time to make good on his not-being-with-us stance.

“Oh yes,” he responded with a bright smile. “As a medical pony, I can definitely attest to the healing power of group hugs.”

*** *** ***


From the blood-soaked badlands to the embattled ruins, the sounds of battle and the stench of death burned beneath the angry, red-tinted clouds of Fillydelphia, threatening to drown out every last touch of hope or good that the hellish city had left.

Suddenly, a brilliant light of greenish gold burst into the sky, swooping up from the Fillydelphia crater like a rising phoenix, beating back the murderous red glare of the Fillydelphia skies.

But only for a moment. Then that glow of hope winked out, disappearing through the blackened cloud cover. And Fillydelphia was once again plunged into hell.

Too busy fighting for their own lives, almost nopony noticed.

*** *** ***

Two days ago:

“This… is it?”

I watched as Xenith struggled through her own crisis of faith.

The zebra was crouched down, staring hatefully at the strange, bluish rock from Sweetie Belle’s storage container. Life Bloom was stammering nearby, once again trying to persuade her that she shouldn’t be out of bed.

“This is the great nemesis of my people?” she said with a growl that would have done a hellhound proud. “This is what we suffered and killed and died over? It’s just a rock!”

Xenith stood up over the chunk of meteorite, her body swaying alarmingly in the wake of the sudden movement.

“Just a stupid… meaningless… ROCK!”

Her hoof came up and slammed down on the bluish stone in one focused blow.

I’d seen Xenith’s hooves strike bone-breaking blows to hellhounds and kill through Steel Ranger armor; even in my friend’s weakened state, the hunk of star-rock didn’t stand a chance. The meteorite was pulverized into a fine blue powder under her hoof.

Xenith stood there, breast heaving with panting breaths. Then wobbled and collapsed.

“Celestia have mercy!” Life Bloom ranted as he moved quickly to Xenith’s side. “Do you people ever listen to your medics?”

Velvet Remedy answered succinctly. “No.”

“You’re not in any condition to be exerting yourself,” he told Xenith sternly. Looking over his shoulder at Reggie, he re-iterated, “And neither are you.”

“Then make us so,” Reggie huffed.

“It doesn’t work like that,” Life Bloom stated. And didn’t I wish it did. I was barely able to stand. Only the adrenaline from seeing Xenith wake up was keeping me from hitting the floor and falling asleep and probably not in that order.

I kept telling myself I was going to have a nice, long, comatose sleep in just a few days. My body didn’t care and wasn’t listening anymore.

“Maybe your spells do not,” Xenith intoned slowly, her richly exotic voice almost hypnotizing to me in my weary state. “But there are plenty of herbs and powders here which I could mix for such effects and more.”

We looked around. To most of us, Zecora’s Hut was full of rubbish. Amongst the shards of pottery and broken glass were numerous bottles, vials and jars of what, to us, was nothing but preserved weeds and desiccated garbage. But Xenith was seeing more. Much more.

“This hut… this was clearly once the home of a great zebra alchemist,” Xenith informed us. “The wonders that these receptacles contain…” She trailed off.

“So…” Reggie said hopefully, “We’re not going to miss out on the big fight after all?”

Xenith’s gaze fell on me. “We will be ready for battle, little one. Just… could you help me stir?” She blushed slightly. “And stand up?”

*** *** ***


Stern watched from the roof of what had once been Red Eye’s office in the Ministry of Morale, as the cyberdragon, surrounded by six of those damned Raptors, finally let out a death wail and fell, twisting in the air as it tumbled back to the earth. Its body crushed the ruined buildings beneath it, a bellowing cloud of dust and rubble washing through the streets.

As pure luck would have it, the dragon’s tail struck down against one of the Raptors, pulverizing the dragon killer’s starboard propellers. The dragon had taken one last one of those black horrors with it.

“Good for you,” Stern grunted.

The roof access door slammed open behind her. The griffin heard hoofs galloping out.

“What?” she asked, her voice filled with measured annoyance at the intrusion. The sleek black griffin turned her white-feathered head towards the source of the bother and stopped when she saw the battered and bleeding zebra in a tattered cloak and haggard saddle pouch. The zebra was panting heavily, her scarred body almost shaking with drive.

Stern stepped back, considering the zebra. “Wait. I know you,” she said after just a moment, her eyes lighting with recognition. “You’re that fighter from The Pitt. The one Red Eye let go.”

Stern was not a stupid griffin. She knew where the few zebra slaves she had captured had come from. And even if she didn’t, it was impossible to miss the burning hatred in this one’s eyes.

With a flap of her wings, she took to the air, carrying herself out of what she knew to be the zebra’s rather impressive jumping range. “Sorry you came all the way home for nothing,” she told the zebra flatly. “But I have more critical things to deal with than you and whatever score you want to settle. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re at war.”

The black griffin gave the zebra a dismissive wave of her tail as she turned towards the area of the cities where the Raptors were beginning to separate, two of them already starting to burn away her ground forces and her city with their powerful plasma cannons.

Xenith panted, snorting, as she watched the Talon griffin fly away. Then she craned her neck back, pulling her bloodwing talisman out of the pouch. Xenith tossed the talisman over her head and groaned in momentary pain as she grew wings of her own.

*** *** ***

Two days ago:

The day seemed to pass in a montage; I slipped in and out of sleep several times, mostly in transit aboard the Tortoise. Xenith had spent hours working on brews, most of which she had administered to herself or to Reggie (although one had been given to Calamity to help strengthen his healing wing). A couple of those brews, I knew from experience, were not merely of the healing sort. Once Xenith and Reggie were fit to travel, we began to move.

I barely remember Tenpony Tower, and I have only the haziest recollection of delivering the refugees to Junction R-7, save for one stark moment of clarity when I spotted our Overmare there. She was delivering the first of Stable Two’s apple orchard to Shattered Hoof.

Something, I thought happily, that was going according to design. I had high hopes for the future of this place.

But my longest period of wakefulness started when Lionheart touched the Tortoise down in Fetlock. “This is where you wished to be? Are you certain?” The Canterlot ghoul’s voice echoed painfully inside the sky-tank. “I see nothing here but rubble!”

“That’s cuz the real fun’s underground,” Calamity retorted, rubbing his ears. “And… ow!”

“Sorry!” Lionheart bellowed, not helping in the slightest. Velvet Remedy and I quickly disembarked.

It could have been worse. I had been concerned about taking a ride with “mouse”. She may no longer be a gigantic, terrible, teeth-gnashing, sharp scaled, horned, pink-cloud-snoring, could-eat-a-pony-in-one-bite dragon, but she was still one of the most dangerous creatures in the Equestrian Wasteland. Possibly, in a way, even moreso than before now that she was no longer confined to the Royal Treasury, trapped inside a fused horde of gold, gems and valuables. From what I had gleaned from Lionheart, “mouse” had survived the crumble and fall of canterlot by just being that tough. As if the transformation hadn’t somehow taken all that ancient draconic resilience and compacted it down into this new (and admittedly cute) form.

That was not what the spell was supposed to do. But then, dragons had magic of their own.

When I had put voice to those concerns, the former Royal Guard had responded by producing what I had at first mistook for a giant pink marble. On closer inspection, I had seen that the glass sphere had once been some sort of pet ball, the glass surface having warped so badly from the concentrated pink cloud inside that it became completely sealed.

“How does she get in and out?” I asked.

“How does she breathe?” Velvet wondered, aghast. She quickly checked herself. “Of course, she doesn’t have to, does she? She would be the ultimate Canterlot ghoul, I suppose.”

The gaunt, reaper-like pegasus had nodded to her, answering me cryptically, “Dragon magic.”

I went out on a limb and guessed he didn’t know either.

Velvet Remedy and I trotted carefully through the bleak rubble of Fetlock. I had my E.F.S. up, but my compass wasn’t showing any hostiles. It wasn’t showing any life at all.

A cold wind stirred up flakes of ash and debris. In all directions lay ruins which were once bright, happy homes for pony families. As we neared the waiting station for Sky Bandit Stages, my eyes caught black writing on a freestanding wall, centuries-old graffiti:

Everypony is gone.

I was moored in place by the overwhelming desolation of the Equestrian Wasteland.

My reverie was broken by the sound of a ponyhole cover scraping against asphalt as Velvet Remedy shifted it open with a hoof. She glanced at me sheepishly, probably realizing that would have been a better job for her horn, and then vanished into the darkness below.

I moved forward to follow her, but my ears caught a sound. A touch of… conversation?

Cautiously, I moved towards the shelter where I had fought my first manticore. As I neared, lights winked into existence on my compass and the voices became clearer. I breathed a sigh of relief as none of the new lights appeared hostile.

“…even got a fresh supply of Dash straight from the Angels,” I heard a stallion saying. “Just tell me what you need. The good doctor’s got your fix.”

“Uh?” replied a grizzled voice. “You’re selleen sticks? Uh don’t need sticks. ‘Specially sticks frum uh pony.”

“No,” the stallion repeated, skillfully hiding any hint of exasperation. “Fix. I have your fix. Drugs, my good doggy. Drugs!”

Rounding the corner, my eyes alighted on a pony dressed in what had once been high-society attire (probably from Tenpony Tower) before it had become so… well-traveled. He was accompanied by a brahmin and a griffin, the latter wearing Talon armor with an unfamiliar insignia -- neither Gawd’s nor Stern’s company -- carrying a rocket launcher over her back.

The customer that the stallion was attempting to engage in conversation was a heavily-grayed, elderly hellhound holding a brush gun modified with a scope.

The hellhound was crouched down, staring closely at the pony, a look of confusion on his face. “You got rugs? How you gonna stop they winged-ponies with rugs?” the hellhound barked. “Ur they flyin’ rugs?”

I cleared my throat. The stallion shifted an eye towards me, unwilling to fully turn his head away from the dangerous monster he was trying to sell to. A look of relief crossed his face.

“Doc Hoof, at your service,” he smiled nervously, taking a slight step back from the hellhound. “Don’t mind this fellow,” he added, not wanting me to provoke or shoot his customer. “He seems… genial enough. But I do believe he’s hard of hearing.”

Barkin’ Saw. Our albino “friend” had indeed sent someone who might be interested in helping us. The hellhound who had seen the Enclave enslave his whole town. The deaf and senile one.


Turning to Doc Hoof, I asked, “Do you have any healing potions or bandages? Medical supplies?” I might as well do something useful with the bottle caps I still had to my name.

“Oh yes!” the stallion whinnied proudly. “Ever since that Remedy lass invested, I’ve been able to procure quite the stock.”

Wait, what? Velvet? When? I shook my brain, but the only time I could come up with was while I was behind The Wall in Fillydelphia. My little pony chided that I shouldn’t be surprised. It wasn’t as if my friends just stood around idly when I wasn’t with them.

“Let’s just see what the good doctor has in his magic bag, shall we?”

What he had was impressive.

*** *** ***


Gawd stood on the dark grey cloud and stared into the quickly closing hole over Manehattan, favoring her wounded hindleg. A tear ran down from her good eye and over her beak, hanging on the tip of it before dropping off and disappearing into the same gulf that had swallowed her daughter.

The Enclave patrol had taken out two of their own, including her daughter, before she could finish them. And as a group of six more carapace-armored pegasi approaching from behind her proved, the first patrol had managed to send a warning before they were dispersed.

Gawd checked the load on her magical shotgun, a thin grimace drawing across her beak.

“Don’t move,” warned the Enclave soldiers as they drew near. “One wrong swish of your tails, and both of you are ash.”

Gawd traded a sidelong glance with Blackwing. The other griffin gave a slight smile that said all that she needed to say.

The two griffins swung around, aiming their weapons as the sky erupted in deafening thunder.

“Yee-HAW!” Reggie roared as three of the six Enclave soldiers were obliterated by the sheer force of Little Gilda.

Gawd blinked in disbelief. Then recovered, just a feather’s breadth faster than the remaining Enclave pegasi did. Her shotgun vaporized one of them. Blackwing struck down the second, but not before a beam of light struck out, hitting her left wing, dissolving two-thirds of it.

Gawd swooped to catch the crippled griffin as Reggie annihilated the last pegasus with the supergun.

“Blackwing!” she called out, dashing forward. “Hold on! I’ve got healing potions.”

“Where…” the griffin asked, trying to focus, “…the hell… did you come from?” That poison, he knew, should have killed her. Or, at least, paralyzed her. The fall would have done the rest.

“What?” Reggie teased as she fretfully dug into her bags, ignoring the looks her mother was giving her. “Never seen a zebra-augmented griffin before?”

Gawdyna wasn’t sure if she wanted to hug Regina or give her backside a thrashing.

“Now don’t you dare pass out on me,” Reggie told Blackwing as she poured the healing liquid into the griffin’s beak. “We still have some clouds to clear.”

*** *** ***

Two days ago:

“I know it’s not going to be as simple as turning a rock into a top hat,” Velvet was telling Elder Crossroads as I finally joined them in the bowels of Stable Twenty-Nine. “But I’m sure it’s possible.”

In the time it took to sound out Barkin’ Saw and determine that the hellhound actually was a potential ally -- a process which started by having to explain to him that I was the pony he was looking for, not Doc Hoof -- Velvet Remedy had talked her way into the AJ Ranger’s headquarters, gained an audience with their Elder, and pitched her request.

The new leader of the Applejack’s Rangers mulled it over. “Any friend of SteelHooves is a lifelong friend of the Rangers,” she began. “We’d be honored to lend our hooves… if you were asking any other thing.”

Velvet Remedy’s face scrunched like she had bitten something sour.

“But you are asking us to help propagate Equestria’s alicorn problem,” the brown mare with the cropped yellow mane continued. “You do remember that SteelHooves was known as the Mighty Alicorn Hunter, don’t you? There was a reason for that. Theses are not…”

“They are not monsters,” Velvet Remedy snapped. “They’re victims. Of the Goddess. Of Red Eye. And now, when they finally have a chance at freedom and individuality, you’re talking like they are a particularly unpleasant infestation that needs to be exterminated.”

“We need to do better,” I commented as I stepped fully into the room, my words echoing those of Life Bloom. My heart shared his sentiments. He saw how much the efforts of the Twilight Society had fallen short, how paltry they seemed. I was seeing my own in a similar light, particularly where the hellhounds were involved. Seeing Velvet and Crossroads, I sensed we weren’t the only two due for this awakening.

Elder Crossroads looked between Velvet Remedy and me, then compromised. “The research you desire access to really belongs to ex-Scribe Rattle,” the Elder decided. “Fortunately, he was one of the survivors of the Friendship City Massacre. He is still recovering at Tenpony Tower under the care of Doctor Helpinghoof. If you want access to his experimentation records and studies in transformation magic, you need only obtain his permission.”

Velvet Remedy found that agreeable. More so, it gave her an excuse to visit the good doctor again. (The real good doctor, not the wandering merchant outside selling Dash to passersby.)

“We have secured Bucklyn Cross as an Applejack’s Rangers outpost,” Elder Crossroads whinnied. “His research is largely in the maneframe there. If he is willing to help you, have him give you his passwords. We’ll see to the rest.”

The brown mare looked to me, “And did you want something as well? Or was this a social call?”

I steeled myself. “I need every Applejack’s Ranger you can spare.”

The Elder lifted an eyebrow. “Battle coming?”

I nodded. “The big one.”

*** *** ***


Xenith hit the gabled rooftop with a bone-cracking thud, skidding down the broken roofing tiles and thumping against the jagged remains of a chimney.

Stern landed on the apex of the roof with her hindlegs, cradling her shattered firing arm, and glaring down at the zebra who had dared challenge her in the air. Xenith had proven every bit the better fighter that she had shown herself to be in The Pitt. But being a better fighter isn’t worth much in “pegasus-fighting” when you’re up against a better flier.

And this zebra used her wings like she’d just grown them.

“This was a doomed fight from its inception,” Stern growled, deciding how best to finish the damn slave. Her preferred method, her anti-machine rifle, was no longer an option as the pain in her arm attested to. The zebra had seen to that. “Just who do you think you are?”

“I am no one,” Xenith said softly, coughing up blood. Stern’s eyes widened. Hadn’t this one been mute? Maybe she was thinking of the wrong zebra. No, that wasn’t possible.

“Then what made you think you could take me?” Stern hissed in disbelief, shifting carefully down the slope of the roof, silhouetted against the broiling red of the Fillydelphia sky.

“Because…” Xenith coughed again, moaning in pain as she tried to move, tried to get back up. “…I am not alone.”

“What?” Stern managed, eyes widening, just before the second zebra appeared overhead, the wind blowing back the hood of her cloak as she drove her hooves into the black griffin’s back with spine-shattering force.

“Don’t. Touch. My. MOTHER!”

*** *** ***

Two days ago:

Sunset spread out across the Equestrian Wasteland like a heavy blanket, the ruddy colors making the cloud curtain glow like a warning light. It looked like the clouds were bleeding.

Elder Cross had given us a full dozen Applejack’s Rangers and offered us access to their armory. I personally declined the latter; this wasn’t a battle that we could win with bullets. But I made sure that each of the Rangers was fitted for the fight of a lifetime.

“Paladin Strawberry Lemonade?” Calamity asked, sounding impressed.

“Junior Paladin,” the mare answered humbly. “But yes. And I’ll probably be a full Paladin after this.” She didn’t even know what “this” was, but that didn’t shake the faith in her voice. Her chipper voice became slightly more subdued as she explained, “Promotions tend to come quickly in wartime.”

“How is that struggle going?” Velvet Remedy asked demurely.

“Oh, the shooting has died down between us and the Steel Rangers. The Enclave Invasion sent the Steel Rangers back into their holes.” Based on what Crossroads had told me earlier, the Applejack’s Rangers, meanwhile, had divided their efforts between helping the rest of the wasteland against the Enclave, fortifying, and licking their own wounds. But I hardly expected the proud, young Paladin to put it that way. “Trottingham is ours. As is Manehattan. Fillydelphia is theirs, but it’s such a mess right now, why would we want it?

Because there are several hundred ponies there in desperate need of your help? Or how about just because it has the Stable-Tec Headquarters and their maneframe? Or just because it’s the right thing to do?

I tactfully didn’t mention those out loud. Elder Crossroads had priorities well in hoof. There was no need to rain on the patriotic enthusiasm of the young Paladin. Joy now. Grim realities would come soon enough.

I shifted, gazing out over the Equestrian Wasteland through the narrow window of the Enclave sky-tank, taking it in with my own eyes one last time. In two months, I had seen horrors enough to spawn a lifetime of nightmares, cruelty and despair that could kill the soul. The wasteland was like a corpse -- seeming dead and gone, nothing but an empty husk -- but crawling with terrible things feeding off its rotting flesh.

Things I had fought. And fought successfully, although all too often at great cost.

“I am Littlepip,” I declared softly, the conversation just between the Wasteland and me. “Damaged, but not defeated…” I looked for something else to say, but only one thing came from my heart. “You don’t win.”

A moment later, we burst above the cloud curtain, and the twilight sky opened above us, twinkling with stars.

*** *** ***


The little light of hope reappeared in the sky above Fillydelphia once again, punching down through the clouds of black and red like a shooting star. Streams of poisoned light flowed off of the star as it pulsed, each little flash brighter and brighter.


The little light of hope exploded in a blast brighter than Celestia’s sun itself, a ring of sickly colors erupting forth from that center, driving winds before it and tearing the hellish clouds away.

Sunlight, pure and clean, poured into the poisoned city of Fillydelphia from a brilliant blue sky.

The expanding toxic rainbow tore apart the remaining Raptors before striking a fatal blow to the already failing Glorious Dawn. The great, black siege platform seemed to collapse under its own weight, tearing itself apart, raining pegasi as it plunged out of the air with a sick rumble.

The tiny speck which was once the glowing light of hope, continued to fall, dropping at breakneck speed towards the Fillydelphia Crater from whence it had come.

The shape of something that resembled a pony, only gaunt and strange with leathery, bat-like wings, arched out of the falling corpse of the Glorious Dawn and sped through the air to catch it.

*** *** ***

Two days ago:

“NO!” Spike roared, the force of his shout threatening to blow the Tortoise back off the ledge outside his cave.

The giant purple dragon slammed a fist down on the mountain, standing in the entranceway of his home. “Littlepip! You know why I don’t allow Steel Rangers in my home! And you brought a dozen of them here?”

Piss off a dragon. Check.

“Spike,” I said calmly. “These are Applejack’s Rangers! They’re the good guys.” Pointing a hoof, I admonished reasonably, “And you should know that. You’ve seen the good they’ve been doing. You’ve been Watching.”

Spike’s snout twisted into a begrudging frown. He crossed his arms, snorting smoke. “Well, I still don’t see why you had to bring them here.”

I sighed deeply. Time to pull out the big, puppy eyes. “Don’t you trust me, Spike?”

The dragon groaned. “Ugh. Only for you, Littlepip.” Spike lowered his snout and glared at the front-most Ranger. “But behave yourselves. No wandering. Stay in the front room. Got it?”

“Y-yes, your scaliness,” the pony managed from inside her magically-powered armor; the slight attempt at remaining tough felt humorous considering Spike could completely enwrap the mare with his tongue.

The lot of us trotted into the gaping maw of the Dragon Cave, Pyrelight and Reggie flying above us, the little pink orb squeaking as it rolled along between our hooves, the shadow of the mouse inside barely visible.

The darkness of the opening gave way to the brightness of the interior. I drew up short, gasping at what I saw. Spike’s cave home starkly was not how I remembered it.

Spike’s piles of gems had been removed, but not far: they had become a glittering mosaic that covered every wall, depicting images of the Ministry Mares in the joy of their youth. I recognized some of the scenes from stories Spike had told us when we had visited him here several weeks ago. Strings of gems were slung across the ceiling and strung between the multitudes of bookshelves like decorations. The gems were enchanted to glow with soft, colored light. The walls glistened, reflecting those lights like an inverted mirror ball.

“Do you like it?” Silver Bell chimed, galloping up to us. “I made the cave pretty!”

I nodded, stunned. It was beautiful and more than a little overwhelming.

“Oh my,” Velvet purred. “Yes, you most certainly did!” She caught the little filly in a hug. I looked around and spotted Ditzy Doo not far way, smiling.


The cry came from Gawdyna, the older griffin bursting out of a group of ponies and soaring across the room reunite with her daughter.

Spike’s cave was crowded.

Seven. I’d tried to gather seven allies. There were… a lot more than seven people here! I spotted Blackwing and her team of Talons. I blinked as I recognized the white coat and electric blue mane of Morning Frost standing next to her sunflower-coated friend Sunglint. Was Tracker here too?

No, I learned quickly. But before vanishing into seclusion, he had contacted them. “We heard you were planning something big,” Sunglint said with a cheerful seriousness, “And we want to help. We feel just awful about everything the Enclave is doing! This… this just isn’t right. Ponies shouldn’t act this way!”

“I couldn’t agree more,” came the familiar voice of the amber-coated Wasteland Crusader.

My jaw dropped. They were here too? “Wha… huh… how?”

“Watcher told us,” she said with a stubborn stomp. “You didn’t think you were going to leave us out of this, did you?”

Well, yes, actually…

This was… I didn’t have words. Hell, I didn’t even know several of these ponies.

“You invited my daughter?” Xenith whispered into my ear, having spotted several zebras clustered in the crux of two towering bookshelves. It took me a moment, but I recognized Xephyr. And the zebra next to her, who had painted herself to be nearly black with thin white stripes, was Gloom.

Xenith looked slightly mortified.

I shot Spike a look. He just smiled and shrugged, deftly shifting blame. “This was more Homage’s idea than mine.”

Oh that so figured.

I waded through the room, feeling dazed. Every few feet, I was stopped by somepony (or zebra, or griffin) who wanted to greet me. All around me, conversations were bubbling.

Gawd thudded down in front of me, blocking my view of everything. Tears were flowing down her cheek from her good eye, and I could see her fighting to keep her composure. “Tell me it was worth it!” she demanded, her voice low and dangerous.

I froze. Oh Goddesses. She’d just learned about Kage.

“It was worth it, mom!” Reggie interrupted, flying up next to me before my brain could put words in my mouth. Gawd glared at her daughter, but Regina stood firm.

“Kage…” Gawdyna bit back a shout, tears flowing. “He was a fighter, a Talon. But he was my son!”

“He died like a Talon,” I offered, my words feeling lame as they slipped off my tongue. “Brave and steadfast to the very end.”

Gawd’s stormy demeanor did not improve. Reggie flew in front of me, nearly beak-to-beak with the larger and more grizzled version of herself. “Kage died strikin’ a fatal blow t’ the Enclave,” Regina told her mother. “Not an instant kill, no. But fatal. A slow death, like the thrust of a poisoned knife.”

Gawd did seem to appreciate that. But Reggie wasn’t done. “How many griffins died, mom, when the Enclave invaded the skies of our homeland? How many more do you think will die before they’re done if we don’t stop them?” Reggie brushed back her headfeathers. “This was our fight long b’fore it was theirs.”

The conversations around us had gone silent. Everypony (and dragon, griffin, zebra and phoenix) was watching. Reggie glanced back at me, giving me a small smile before rounding on her mother again. “An’ so far, it seems Calamity and his friends have done most of the fighting for us. Was it worth it that Kage, your son, my brother, actually got in a blow? Fuck yes!”

Gawdyna Grimfeathers wiped her eye and gazed at her daughter. The rest of the room seemed to be holding its breath. Then I heard a whooping whistle, and the amber mare started stomping applause. Soon, the whole room was thundering.

“Well… okay then,” Gawdyna said softly. “You didn’t need t’ yell. I am yer mother.” Reggie looked sheepish and then enwrapped her mother in an embrace.

“Huh? Whut’s goin’ on?” Barkin’ Saw asked nearby. “Whut ded she say?”

*** *** ***


We emerged from the cloud curtain right beneath Neighvarro. And flew directly into the path of two of the Raptors.

Spike tore past one of them, breathing green fire across its propeller array as he passed. Half the propellers exploded in flame, the others dissolved outright. The burning Raptor canted, out of control, and began to dip into the cloud curtain.

Victorious! This is Raptor Noctilucent!” a voice cried alarm over the Enclave military channel and into my ear. “We’re under attack! It’s… it’s a dragon!”

Spike swooped up through the second layer of clouds, drawing out of sight of the Raptors and their parent Thunderhead. He drew up, hovering just outside the wall of blue light that protected Neighvarro, his giant wings flapping slowly. Inside, pegasi were galloping out of barracks and buildings, staring up at the humungous purple and green creature who had positioned himself between them and the morning sun, casting his shadow across the eastern part of the base.

The Raptor Noctilucent tore up through the clouds, its weapons swiveling towards Spike, bright light building up inside the barrel.

Spike attacked the shield. The blue wall of energy buckled, warped and collapsed under the unstoppable force of Twilight’s number one assistant.

*** *** ***


Breakfast at Spike’s Cave. Spike didn’t have any tables for ponies, so we were all gathered on the floor, eating breakfast thoughtfully procured by Lionheart late in the night. I wasn’t sure where he acquired the rather large bundle of food -- which included fresh hay, vegetables and flowers -- but I had my suspicions, and I wasn’t about to ask.

The majority of Spike’s guests had traveled a long and often dangerous way to get to the top of the mountain, and most of us had been suffering various levels of exhaustion the night before. So shortly after the scene between the Grimfeathers, and with promises of long, important discussions and plans the following morning, most everyone had slowly found themselves a place to drift off to sleep.

Now, much better rested, and with the company of friends and heroes, those around me were taking to the morning meal with a lively energy. Calamity was in particularly good spirits. After Velvet’s and Life Bloom’s attentions and a good night’s rest, his wing had finally regained enough strength to allow him to fly. Not well, and not fast, but he was hovering everywhere like a pro.

“This world is way too filled with morning people,” Gloom mumbled, her mane drooping over her face, but not far enough to conceal her scowl.

“What are you bringing to the fight?” the amber mare asked Gloom with a level of enthusiasm that clearly did not sit well with the odd zebra.

“Before you get too ahead of yourself, her khaki-coated friend cautioned, “We don’t even know if there will be a fight.”

The amber mare rolled her eyes. “Of course there’s going to be a fight. It’s not like they’re planning to just give the Enclave a good talking to!” Shifting back to Gloom, “So are you a sniper? Medical pon…er, zebra? Fight with your hooves like Xenith? (Isn’t she awesome?)”

“If we are fighting, then I will fight,” Gloom answered gravely. “With blade and poison, and with my life until they kill me. Then probably rise up as a vengeful spirit and haunt whoever’s left.”

The amber mare raised an eyebrow, scooting slightly away. “Allllrighty, then.”

“If this is a battle,” Gawdyna said, sitting just a little ways from me, “then my Talons ‘ave much t’ lend t’ the fight.” Knowing Gawd, the word lend was meant literally. “We’ve been collecting a significant amount o’ resources an’ tools over these last few weeks.”

“Yeah, that orb vault had turned out to be the ultimate treasure map,” Butcher (who was now Blackwing’s second-in-command) revealed, ignoring a displeased look from Gawd. “Last week, we were able to break into an old zebra vault and get at its armory. Check out some of the exotic new weapons we found sealed up in that place!” Butcher showed off some of the Talon’s new equipment proudly.

“This nasty little melee number is something the zebra’s called a ‘chainsaw’,” Butcher announced. “Never gonna be a replacement for Little Gilda, of course! But… damn!”

After rolling her eyes, Blackwing also chose to ignore Gawd’s displeasure, showing off the new addition to her own arsenal.

Xenith identified the strange weapon immediately. “A crossbow,” she intoned. “An assassin’s weapon. Silent and deadly.”

“Like a fart?” Reggie snarked. Then suddenly her eyes lit up. She turned towards her mother.

Gawdyna pinched the bridge of her beak with her talons, her eye scrounged shut. “No.”

“No what?” Reggie protested. “I haven’t…”

“No,” Gawd re-iterated. “I ain’t lettin’ you have a crossbow so you can name it The Fart.”

Reggie whined, “But mom!”

I felt myself blush as I was suddenly reminded that the gun slinging griffin hero was indeed just an adolescent. I refocused on eating my flowers. Good flowers. Yes. Pretty and tasty.

“…just found an underground research facility where ponies were attempting to apply zebra alchemical techniques to coal,” Blackwing was telling Calamity. “It seems they were hoping to create everlasting coal. They never succeeded, but the did manage to produce an alchemically-treated coal that burns twice as fast. And about ten times as hot.”

“Word o’ warning,” Gawdyna said, leaning over to me. “If you ever think o’ havin’ kids, beware. No matter how much you love them, eventually, they will become teenagers.”

Next to me, Calamity snorted. I merely stammered, thrown a bit. “uh… no. Children… not really in the plans.” I mean, even if there was time, and even if Homage was here, it wasn’t like either of use was going to get the other pregnant! In fact, I was pretty sure pregnancy was right out with any pony I had ever fancied. Or griffin… oh, and aren’t these flowers delicious. Yes, stare at my plate. Munch, munch, munch. Yay for breakfast!

“Oh wow,” Gloom sing-songed. “Littlepip likes mares. You can tell.”

I nearly choked. “What? Why do you say that? I wasn’t doing anything.” My eyes shifted back and forth as I thought quickly. I was not checking out Gawdyna. Or her daughter. Or anymare. I’d made certain of it!

“You were eating flowers,” the strange zebra pointed out.

“So?” Xephyr butted in. “Gloom, I eat flowers. You eat flowers.”

“But it was the lesbian way she was eating the flowers.”


“That,” Xephyr informed her, “makes no sense.” Turning to me, Xenith’s daughter advised, “Don’t listen to her, Littlepip. Gloom is… strange.”

I nodded, unable to find my voice, a flower petal clinging to my lower lip.

Xenith’s exotic voice whispered behind me, “If you look at my daughter, I will paralyze you.”


I wouldn’t! Never. But… it didn’t help that sometimes I sneaked a glance at Xenith herself. I found myself blushing almost painfully as Homage’s tease about a threesome replayed in my forebrain. I spun around, but Xenith wasn’t there anymore.

So instead I sunk low and tried to focus on anything but mares (of any species)… or flowers.

Other conversations were continuing all around me. In a far corner, I saw Ditzy Doo engaged in a deep-looking discussion with Barkin’ Saw.

“You want tu know now?” Barkin’ Saw asked. “Whut kind uf buk es this?”

The ghoul pegasus scrubbed off her chalkboard and scribbled something in response.

My ears caught a plaintive draconic rumble on the other side of the chamber. “Mommy?”

Pyrelight had flown up to Spike’s eye level, the pink-filled mouse-ball clutched in her talons. The huge purple and green dragon was staring at the rodent inside with a wrenching mix of emotions.

“You’re not mommy,” he complained. “You can’t be.” He reached out and gingerly touched the pet-ball with a claw tip.

Pyrelight nodded sagely. The mouse simply squeaked.

“What sorta big plans?” Calamity was asking Gawd. I had missed a shift in the conversation. But I didn’t care. I clung to the new discussion like a life preserver.

“With Shattered Hoof under my wing, and the community you seem so intent on buildin’ around it, I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s time t’ hang up my holster,” Gawdyna admitted. “Mercenary work is a young griffin’s game.” She looked over at her daughter and the empty space next to her that Kage would have naturally filled. “I’ve accomplished more while runnin’ the Talons than I ever did in the field. I’d have t’ be blinded in both eyes not to see I have the opportunity t’ build something lastin’ here.” She added, “And to turn a handsome profit in the process.”

My ears perked up, my blush quickly receding. This had become interesting. I felt a spark of hope borne of Gawdyna’s words.

“It doesn’t take a tactical genius to realize that the Enclave is building up for a huge battle in Fillydelphia sometime very soon,” Gawdyna pointed out, “And I’d be willing to gamble by the timing that this little pow-wow isn’t unrelated. So here’s the deal: I’m offering the full support of my Talons and our resources, but in return I want total freedom to take over Red Eye’s resources in Fillydelphia.”

“Say what now?” Calamity asked as I fought to pick my jaw up off the floor.

“Cooperation would be appreciated,” Gawdyna said. “But in the very least, you and your allies don’t get in my way. An’ that includes the Applejack’s Rangers.”

“What… exactly are you planning?” I asked.

“Expand on what y’all ‘ave been pushin’ me t’ do,” Gawd claimed. “The area ‘round Shattered Hoof an’ Junction R-7 is becomin’ a civilization. We’re gainin’ a population, an orchard, a water talisman… everything we need t’ become one of the biggest thrivin’ communities in the wasteland.”

Well, yes. I had kinda been thinking along those lines, I had to admit.

“So, why stop there?” Gawd asked. “By takin’ over Red Eye’s factories, we could seriously have a shot at rebuildin’. A real New Equestria, not that poisoned Unity crap, with Shattered Hoof as its new Canterlot.”

I blinked. Well, Gawd’s plan was definitely ambitious. Still, “I’d love to see you take over Red Eye’s operations, but only so long as you don’t run them the way Red Eye did, through barbarism and slavery…”

Gawd waved a wing. “Settle yer mind, Littlepip. Ain’t lookin’ t’ become the new Red Eye. Wasteland’s seen enough o’ that kind o’ thinkin’.”

I felt myself let go of a tension I hadn’t realized was building in me.

“A new Equestria?” I pondered the idea. “A new Canterlot? But… who would be the new Princess?”

“You?” Calamity asked. “In Gawd we trust?”

Gawdyna Grimfeathers shook her head. “Monarchies are a pony thing. I’m lookin’ fer something more inclusive, more open t’ other people.” She looked to her daughter, warming to the topic. “A republic perhaps, fashioned in the image of the legendary Griffin Clan Council.”

“No Princess?” I said again, still trying to wrap my brain around the idea. “Not even an Overmare?”

“Nope,” Reggie said. “Just an Arbiter, for when the heads of the Clans can’t agree. Mother would be perfect for that.”

We don’t play politics and we don’t take sides.

A crooked grin spread across Gawd’s beak. “To be honest, I’ve already sent representatives to the buffalo, and I was hoping Xenith might serve as an intermediary with the Angels.”

“Me?” Xenith peeped, seeming once again to appear from nowhere. She seemed about to protest, but stopped, looking confused. “Angels?”

I’d heard that name before. Just recently, in fact.

“That would be us,” Xephyr called out, apparently having been listening in. Either that, or the name caught her attention. “After we started making Dash like you taught us, the others decided we needed a new tribe name. We couldn’t use dad’s anymore.”

Xenith’s eyes widened.

“They wanted to name us something fierce, a name that would demand respect,” Xephyr claimed, “So I thought, since we’re living beneath a giant Doombunny, why not name ourselves after him?”

“You… named the new tribe… after Doombunny…?” Xenith looked pale. (Which was quite a feat for a zebra.)

“Ah didn’t even know the buffalo still existed,” Calamity whispered to me.

Velvet Remedy chimed in. “Not everything Red Eye was trying to do was bad,” she claimed. “I too would like to take charge of part of Red Eye’s work.” Gawd scowled, opening her beak to protest, but closed it when Velvet Remedy said, “…his plans for schools and medical centers.”

“Y’all are dividin’ up somethin’ that ain’t ours,” Calamity warned the two of them.

“I was mostly interested in the factories,” Gawd admitted, “But I have the Talons and the ex-raiders of Shattered Hoof to help. No offense, but how is one pony going to build schools and bring education and medicine to all the wasteland?”

“I…” Velvet Remedy blushed uncertainly. “I think I have alicorns.”

Gawd blinked.

Xenith scooted closer to Velvet. “If you do this, then would you please start in Glyphmark? Glyphmark needs a school. And a medical center.” She looked over at Xephyr. “It has a doctor. And…”

Xenith looked back at Velvet Remedy, her face hardened with determination, “I have decided. I wish to become their teacher. This is something I can do for them.”

Velvet’s eyes widened, as did her smile. She moved to hug Xenith, but the zebra had anticipated this and swiftly tapped the ground; I heard something break and the zebra vanished in a puff of unhuggable smoke. Velvet plopped back down, looking shocked for a good ten seconds before recovering.

“You’re right, Gawdyna,” she finally said. “Even if I do have alicorns, I will still need help. So I’ll make you a deal.” The griffin raised an eyebrow in response, all ears.

Velvet offered. “You help me do this, and in honor of Kage, I will use the name he came up with. And I’ll name the Fillydelphia school after him.”

“Uh…” Calamity tried to caution, then seemed to give up. Leaning towards me, he muttered, “Ah really hope yer plan involves defeatin’ both the Enclave’s an’ Red Eye’s armies in Fillydelphia.” He looked at Gawd and Velvet Remedy uneasily.

“The… name Kage came up with?” Gawd asked, confused. She looked at her daughter questioningly.

“The Followers of the Apocalypse.”

*** *** ***


Walking on clouds was… weird.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to truly get over my discomfort. I just had to accept the general wrongness of it and press on.

“Ya sure about splittin’ up like this?” Calamity yelled over the driving wind and the sound of the defense array. Above us, Spike was wheeling and dancing, trying to keep away from the blasts of the defense cannons by placing the attacking Raptors between himself and the base.

“Don’t worry about me,” Velvet Remedy called back, smiling. “This old unicorn’s still got a few new tricks.”

“Old unicorn?” Calamity called back. “Where? Hidin’ behind Velvet?”

A cacophony of rending metal and explosions marked the second Raptor to be taken out by friendly fire. Fortunately, the Enclave soldiers left to operate the defense array were proving too novice to skillfully avoid their own ships and still hit Spike.

Unfortunately, a few of their shots were indeed hitting Spike. And his cover was dwindling.

“We need to go,” I called back to the two of them before charging off.

“Y’all better be okay when Ah find ya again,” Calamity told Velvet sternly.

The beautiful unicorn smiled and shook her head. “Of course I will.”

“They’ll come fer ya,” Calamity said, not for the first time.

“Let them,” Velvet replied. “They’ll underestimate me. Everyone underestimates me.”

Calamity and Velvet Remedy paused, looking into each others’ eyes, embraced in a passionate kiss.

A minute later, they broke apart. Velvet galloped off in a second direction, and Calamity in a third.

*** *** ***


“Sorry I’m late,” the most wonderful voice in Equestria apologized. “Did I miss the briefing?”

Homage’s voice brightened the room, lifting my spirits. It was as if my heart was being held aloft by a flock of butterflies.

“Nope,” Calamity said to the sprite-bot that the voice of my love was coming from. “We were jus’ about t’ start. Glad ya could make it.”

“Oh thank you!” I gushed at Spike. My eyes began to tear in joy. I was going to have one last time with Homage. Maybe not physically, but this was still more than I had hoped.

He stroked his spines back, looking a little embarrassed by the volume of emotion I was pouring out. “You’re welcome.” Everyone else in the cave was staring. “It was nothing, really.”

“Oh, but it isn’t nothing,” I insisted. “It’s everything!”

I couldn’t help it. I threw myself around one of his ankles. “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

“If you start kissing Spike,” Homage said, her voice sparkling with amusement, “I’m leaving the room.”

I stopped, my eyes turning to the crowd, a blush rising.

“Uh, Li’lpip? Y’all were sayin’ ‘bout how the Enclave depends on the cloud curtain?” Calamity reminded me tactfully. “Y’know. The plan?”

“Oh, oh yes. That.”

I pulled myself back up, brushed my mane out of my face and stared back at all the eyes turned towards me. This was it. This was The Plan.

Still, the little pony in my head wouldn’t stop bouncing around like Pinkie Pie, cheering Spike and crying out Homage’s name.

“The Enclave will annihilate every living soul in Fillydelphia and bury the industrial progress made there under melted rubble if they aren’t stopped,” I reminded them. “If Red Eye’s forces win, the surviving pegasi will end up enslaved or with their heads on pikes.”

“And Stern’s Talons aren’t likely to stop with just one successful victory,” Gawd added. “With Red Eye gone, she’ll be looking to take over his whole operation. Defeating the Enclave’s biggest force? She’ll take the war back to the clouds once she smells weakness.”

“This is the griffin who wiped out father’s tribe, isn’t it?” Xephyr asked. Xenith scowled, nodding affirmatively. “Well, then they can’t win,” the younger zebra insisted.

“Do we have any idea when the Enclave are going to attack?” one of the Applejack’s Rangers asked.

“Yes,” I told him. “Tomorrow morning.” The news was greeted by several voices of dismay.

“It will be the largest, fiercest battle Equestria has endured since the great war,” I re-iterated. “And, unfortunately, I’m going to miss it.”

“WHAT?!” The sound was a chorus.

“We have a chance to end things,” I told them. “Not just one battle, but the entire threat of the Enclave entirely. Forever. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to lead a group into the Enclave’s military base in Neighvarro, break into the Single Pegasus Project, and tear down the cloud curtain.”

“Wait,” Morning Frost said, tossing up a hoof. “You’re going to take on Neighvarro? I was stationed there, you know. It’s biggest military base we’ve… they’ve got! Do you know how many troops are stationed there? How about the Thunderhead and the Raptors? The shield? The defense array?”

“The Enclave brought the war down to us,” Lionheart announced, sending Silver Bell as deep as she could get beneath Ditzy Doo’s wing. “We are bringing it back up to them.”

“Most of the troops won’t be at Neighvarro,” I claimed. “We have two advantages going in. First is the element of surprise. The Enclave isn’t expecting forces from below to actually attack them on their home… turf?” Had to be a pegasi-appropriate word for that. I pushed forward. “This will be an unexpected tactic.”

“Y’all c’n say that again,” Calamity neighed.

“Second is the fact that tomorrow morning Neighvarro will be functioning on a skeleton crew,” I revealed. “Every available pegasi from Neighvarro has been used to bolster the military force poised to hit Fillydelphia. Until that battle is over, there will be almost nopony left at the base.”

I looked to Gawd. “This is the information Kage gave his life for. The one opportunity, the one window of weakness that we can exploit to take the over the S.P.P. and kill the Enclave for good.”

Gawdyna Grimfeathers drank that in without comment.

“Once inside the S.P.P. shield, it might take hours to figure the place out. We can’t count on what I’m going to do in there happening in time to save the people of Fillydelphia.

“So I need your help, most of you, in the battle for Fillydelphia,” I told them. “I have a plan. But… look, what I am about to ask of all of you is more than anypony has the right to ever ask of anyone. But for the sake of everyone else in this room, and everyone out there, both below and above the clouds, I’m asking… no, I’m begging you to help.”

“We wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t already said yes, kid,” one of the Applejack’s Rangers announced. “Get on with it.”

There were whinnies of support all around the cave.

I took a deep breath. And, with that, I laid it out. Starting with the part I felt worst about.

“Ditzy Doo,” I said solemnly, focusing on the ghoul pegasus. She was listening from the back, one wing wrapped around her adopted daughter. “I hate this more than anything, but I need to put you right in the heart of the battle.”

My heart seized as Silver Bell’s eyes went wide. “Mommy?” she asked timidly.

Forcing myself forward, I told her, “I need you to perform another sonic radboom. This time, right in the middle of the conflict.” I quickly added, “But I want you to do so with as little risk as possible. If you can take out some of the Enclave’s ships, that’s wonderful. But the goal is to clear the clouds over the battle zone. So if you can pull it off at a higher altitude, keep yourself out of the firefight, that would be best.”

Silver Bell was looking at her mother with a painful expression. “But… who will catch you?”

“Lionheart will,” I managed. Looking towards the royal Canterlot ghoul, “I’m sending you and mouse into Fillydelphia. Your mission is to wreak as much havoc amongst the Enclave as possible, keeping their focus off Ditzy Doo. And to catch her if she needs it. Once the sonic radboom happens, I want all three of you out of the area as swiftly as possible.”

I had to admit, I was feeling a lot better about sending Ditzy Doo to Fillydelphia than I had in the days before now that we had “Lion and Mouse”.

“But for now, I need you to get Ditzy Doo to the Fillydelphia Crater.” To Ditzy, “Wait there until it’s time. Nopony should bother you in there, and you should be glowing again in no time.” I hated this. But there was no other way. Looking at the loveable ghoul pegasus, I whispered to myself. “We can’t lose you.”

I realized I was banking an awful lot on Ditzy Doo being able to explode twice.

Ditzy Doo gave a cute little salute, then turned to Silver Bell, writing something on her chalkboard. The little filly nodded, embracing her new mother in a teary farewell. I sent all my prayers to Celestia and Luna that they would only be apart for a day.

Velvet Remedy wrapped her tail around Silver Bell as Lionheart trotted up to her. The little pink ball wheeled across the room in their wake as the two ghouls walked out of the cave.

“Hold on,” I called out to them. They two ghouls stopped, looking over their shoulders. The little ball smacked into Ditzy Doo’s left hindleg and rebounded with a squeak. “Before you go, I will need to speak to Ditzy Doo in private.” I need them to wait just a little longer. “Don’t worry. It won’t be long.”

Ditzy Doo nodded patiently and sat down. Silver Bell pushed herself free of Velvet’s tail and scurried over to be with her wall-eyed mother.

I swallowed hard and steeled myself for the rest. One of the worst parts was over.

“Gawd, I need you and your Talons to clear the sky over Tenpony Tower and keep it that way.”

Reggie protested. “We’re not going to be in the battle?” Hopefully not, I thought in response.

“You’re critical to it,” is what I told her. She didn’t seem particularly mollified.

“And what are you offering in return,” Gawd asked. A few of the ponies around us murmured unpleasantly, but I knew Gawd wasn’t trying to squeeze me in a time of crisis. She just needed an offering, if only just a token one, to save face. After all, the Talons weren’t crusaders. They were a business.

“How about an opportunity to expand your influence into Tenpony Tower?” I offered. “I own what used to be a cheese shop. Perfect place for Gawd’s Talons or New Canterlot to set up a satellite office.”

Homage’s voice rang out over the sprite-bot, sounding slightly tinny. “Oooh, Littlepip. What are you planning?” From her tone, she already knew.

“Life Bloom…” I turned to the one member of the Twilight Society that we had with us. “You’re going to have to convince your friends at Tenpony Tower. Once the clouds are cleared in both places, we need the Twilight Society to bring the power of Celestia One down on that battlefield.”

Life Bloom blinked slowly. Then nodded. “You can count on me.” He added, “On us.”

“What’s Celestia One?” one of the Wasteland Crusaders asked. Life Bloom explained, leaving out the finer details. But the reality was quickly clear. Tenpony Tower had the ability to enact a megaspell capable of tactical precision, and I was going to unleash it against both sides.

“We’re taking back what they stole from us,” the amber Crusader said in awe. “And then using it as a weapon against them.”

“Yes.” I let myself smile just a little at the wonder in her voice before continuing. “Meanwhile, a group of us will be hitting Neighvarro. Once we get to the heart of it, the S.P.P. Central Hub, I’m going inside. I’ll be analyzing the cloud curtain and then using the towers to tear away as much of it as I can without threatening the pegasi with starvation.”

Morning Frost and Sunglint objected.

I shared a glance with Spike before confiding, “There is a final step to this plan, one that will compensate for the loss of crops, but that’s going to take extra time to implement. Possibly months. But we do have that covered.”

I looked to Morning Frost. “You were stationed at Neighvarro. Why don’t you and Calamity give us an overview of what we are attacking.”

Morning Frost floated up her PipBuck and brought up a map of Neighvarro from its database. Velvet Remedy concentrated, her horn lighting up, the illusionary magic she previously used for her concert light shows now trained on presenting a mirage of Neighvarro that everyone could see. It looked like a cloud-bisected egg, the small red alicorn shield of the S.P.P. Central Hub at the core, the blue Enclave energy field surrounding the base like a shell.

We could make out several clusters of buildings including the barracks, the science center and even a collection of solar dishes like those outside of Hope. The base got its power from a combination of those dishes and a field of thunderclouds, the former largely powering the blue dome and the defense array.

Neighvarro was set into a higher patch of clouds than the cloud curtain itself. Between the two, the ominous bulk of the Thunderhead Victorious stalked the sky, barely moving. The Victorious’ four Raptors prowled about it.

“And that’s our target?” Paladin Strawberry Knight surmised. “We’re here to help you take on that?” She sounded impressed. And a little confused. “How? We can’t fly.”

“Yeah!” The amber mare jumped up. “How can we help? The Wasteland Crusaders are ready!” Her two friends whinnied their affirmations.

I had no answer for them. I honestly hadn’t intended for them to be here.

Pyrelight gave a little hoot and swooped down to whistle into Velvet Remedy’s ear. Her eyes brightened. “Maybe you could,” Velvet Remedy suggested. “Well, not fly, exactly. But Spike,” she shifted her attention to the dragon. “Did you tell us that Twilight Sparkle had a cloudwalking spell? Would there be any chance that spell is somewhere in all these books?”

I’d forgotten about that. With a thrill, I realized that the cloud-walking spell should also allow me to hack into the Enclave computers. Wouldn’t help me with their locks since it wouldn’t alter my telekinesis or my tools, but this was still a huge improvement.

Spike coughed then puffed up proudly. “Hey, I was the number one assistant of the nerdiest unicorn in all of Equestria. Have you seen this library?”

“Wonderful!” Life Bloom jumped up with a grin. “Point the way. If you’ve got it, I can learn it.”

Velvet Remedy cocked her head, staring at him. With a playfully put-out voice, she asked, “Really, is there any spell you can’t learn?”

“Not so far,” he admitted.

Spike looked the white unicorn over curiously. “How is that? Is your special talent… is it magic?”

Life Bloom laughed and shook his head, his crimson and scarlet curls quivering. “Oh nonono. I’m nowhere near as powerful as even Littlepip, much less a pony like Twilight Sparkle.” Powerful? Me? Since when? “But I am exceptionally versatile. Turns out, that’s my special gift: learning.”

Blushing a little, he confessed, “I can learn pretty much anything I set my mind to if I have the resources.”

He could have learned anything. And he chose to become a medical pony. A healer.

Wow. I hadn’t even… wait. Idea! “Spike? Do you, by any miracle, have the Ministry of Magic’s research into Spell in the Box?”

“I… think so,” the dragon said. “After the briefing, I’ll see if I can’t find it.”

Xenith spoke up gently. “And I can craft some bloodwing talismans,” she offered. “But I will not be joining you in this fight, Littlepip.”

Calamity, Velvet and I all turned towards our zebra friend in surprise.

Xenith shook her head solemnly. “My place is in Fillydelphia. Stern murdered my husband, destroyed our tribe,” she reminded us, no longer trying to hide who she was from Xephyr. “Enslaved me and thrust my foal into the cold, brutal wasteland without protection. If this battle is going to be the end of Stern, then I must be there.”

I nodded, frowning a little but accepting that completely. Xenith was right. This was her story to play out, no matter how much I might wish her by my side.

“Now remember, folks,” Calamity spoke up, stomping a hoof for attention before flying into the center of the room to hover above the floating mirage of Neighvarro. “These soldiers ain’t the bad guys. They’re the enemy only in that they’ll be shootin’ at us. An’ it ain’t like we ain’t invadin’ their home.” He stared over the assembled ponies and others. “These soldiers ain’t done nothing wrong. Many o’ ‘em will be fresh recruits still bein’ trained. They ain’t done nothin’ t’ harm Equestria or its people.

“The ones who have? They’re all gonna be in Fillydelphia. An’ the pony in charge…” he choked just a little, “…Colonel Autumn Leaf? The one who ordered the Friendship City Massacre an’ almost every other atrocity? He’s dead, folks.

“We ain’t goin’ inta Neighvarro lookin’ fer blood. We kill only in self-defense.” Calamity’s words were forceful and brooked no argument. “We ain’t goin’ in t’ slaughter. We’re just punchin’ a hole.”

Another reason I didn’t want Lionheart involved in Neighvarro.

And now came the other hard part. I turned to Strawberry Lemonade and the eleven other Applejack’s Rangers. “And to answer your previous question: no. You’re not going to be part of the assault on Neighvarro.”

“Fillydelphia then?”

Again I shook my head. “You’re going to be here.”

“Here?” Strawberry Lemonade asked, sounding disappointed.
“HERE?” Spike blurted.

I nodded. “Yes. Here. Right here in this cave.” I looked up at Spike. “The group of you are going to defend this cave, and its extremely important secrets, from anyone who might take the opportunity to attack while Spike’s gone.”

“Gone?” Spike repeated in disbelief.

“Yes,” I told him. “We need you with us. We can’t do this without you. Spike, it’s time to stop watching.”

He looked between me and the Applejack’s Rangers. “But…”

“What would Twilight Sparkle have done?” I asked. From his expression, I didn’t need to say anymore.

“Wait,” Calamity said. “Yer sending Spike inta battle against the Victorious an’ four Raptors?”

“Doesn’t the Enclave call those dragon killers?”

Spike chuckled wryly. “Guess this was pre-ordained. To be honest, I always found that name insulting.” He made a wave with his claws, “Part of me always wanted to put them in their place for that.”

Morning Frost looked at Velvet Remedy’s illusion of Neighvarro. Then stared up at Spike. “Do you think you can take down the Enclave shield?”

Spike lowered his head, staring at the data on her PipBuck. “Magically enhanced Type Six photonic resonance barrier. Let me do the math…” Assistant to the most geeky unicorn indeed.

He sat up, making an elaborate show of counting on his claws, occasionally mumbling something like “carry the three”, before leaning back and giving us a wide, dangerous, sharp-teeth-filled grin.

“Oh yeah,” he purred. “Probability of hindrance: zero percent!”

I couldn’t help but grin.

“And you three,” I said, turning to the Wasteland Crusaders. “I want you here, helping protect this place. Just in case.”

“And what are the chances of someone attacking this cave in the few hours you are gone?” the olive-coated buck asked.

“Hopefully, none,” I prayed. “But while I can’t explain why, this cave is the single most important place in Equestria. And it must be protected at all costs.”

Paladin Strawberry Lemonade shook off her disappointment and stepped up. “Then we will guard it with our lives. You can count on Applejack’s Rangers. None shall pass.”

Yes. Everything was shaping up better than I could have expected.

“I’m pretty sure I can’t get through the shield around the Central Hub though,” Spike added cautiously. “What are you going to do once you get there?”

I opened my muzzle, then shut it again. In truth, the whole thing was a gamble. An educated guess, fueled as much by faith as fact. “I’m going to do what I do best,” I told him simply.

“Drop somethin’ heavy on it?” Calamity asked.

“Get shot full of holes?” Velvet Remedy offered wryly.

“Stare at flanks?” Reggie snarked.

The voice of Homage floated out of the sprite-bot. “Orgasm?”

Eeep! “Homage!” My ears and cheeks burned like Celestia’s sun. When had I fallen on the floor and why were my legs twitching like that?

Scribbling swiftly, Ditzy Doo offered up: Squeak and blush?

I could hear the giggles.

Arrrugh! “Okay, fine!” I whimpered, giving up. “I’m going to do something I’m sort of good at.” I sighed, covering my face. “Gawd, what I have to deal with…”

“Hey, leave me out o’ this one, kid.”

*** *** ***


Velvet Remedy was the first to reach her destination: the Enclave Broadcast Station where the Enclave was tied into the Radio Override System of the S.P.P.

“I’m sorry,” she sang out, “Pardon me. Excuse me…” as she dropped each of the technicians in turn with her anesthetic spell. She turned around and propped the doors open wide behind her, then proceeded to look over the controls.

“Now, if I were a shut-down-everything button, where would I be?”

She glanced up as the propped-open doors swung shut again. Then went back to her work. “A-ha!” With a jab of her hoof, the R.O.S. began to reboot. Within two minutes, the overriding Enclave Broadcast was back on the air.

Velvet Remedy trotted over to a microphone, checking the settings on the soundboard, then cleared her throat.

“Hello Equestrians. And good morning,” she said sweetly.

“Now I know I’m not DJ Pon3, but I am a good friend, and I’m sure sh-sure he wouldn’t mind if I entertained you all for a little while. I have some wonderful new music that I wrote myself, but first let me tell you a little about what’s going on in the Wasteland today...”

The doors to the station banged open, half a dozen Enclave soldiers bursting in.

Without skipping a beat, Velvet purred, “…starting with the young bucks and mares of the Enclave who just came in to shut me down.” She waved at them with her tail. “Pull up a place boys. Let me play some real music for you.”

“Back away from the controls, lady,” one of the Enclave soldiers ordered. “Surrender. You’re unarmed, and if I see your horn start to glow, we all shoot. Don’t make us kill you.”

Velvet Remedy looked put out, pouting with her lower lip and fluttering her eyes. “But boys, I don’t need guns or magic. I have something with me that’s much more powerful than those.” Velvet smiled pleasantly. “Kindness.”

The Enclave soldiers looked at each other. One of them started to laugh.

“Kindness? What the hell kind of weapon is that?”

There was a flash in the center of the room. Within the flash appeared a purple alicorn, her horn glowing, her hooves ringed with all the ammunition and power packs from the Enclave soldiers’ magical armor.

The air shimmered behind the talkative one, revealing a midnight blue alicorn with a silky, frost-colored mane. The oddly-maned alicorn leaned close and whispered, “The kind that earns you friends.”

*** *** ***


“They need to see,” I told Spike after the mission briefing had broken up.

I expected resistance. Instead, Spike agreed readily. “I’ve already shown Ditzy Doo,” he confessed. “As one of the spirits of the Element of Harmony, she deserved to know.”

“One o’ the what now?” Calamity questioned. He and Velvet Remedy were standing with me, along with Spike, Ditzy Doo and the floating sprite-bot that channeled Homage.

I opened my muzzle to attempt to explain, but Spike suggested we just show them.

Ten minutes later, we were standing before the wonder of the Gardens of Equestria, the sun shining down through the mountain’s natural chimney and glowing off the spine of the Crusader Maneframe and its web of cables. The Elements of Harmony seemed to shine in the glow of Celestia’s sun, resting on their pedestals.

I had explained it all. Everything.

Ditzy Doo sat at the pedestal holding the Element of Laughter, staring reverently at the necklace with the little balloon-shaped gem.

Calamity was the first to speak. “The spirit o’ Loyalty?” He seemed overwhelmed. “That’s… a lot. Ah’ll try t’ live up t’ that…”

“You already do,” I assured him.

“The Elements of Harmony require many things,” Spike reminded him. “But they don’t require you to be perfect.”

“Kindness?” Velvet Remedy sounded faint. “But… Are you sure?” She leaned closer to me, speaking hesitantly. “In case you haven’t noticed, Pip, I can be a bitch sometimes.”

I thought back to Velvet’s kindness to the dying alicorn at Maripony. To her taking a stance against attacking the hellhounds. To her holding Silver Bell back in her barn.

It had taken me far too long to recognize who was right in front of me. To see both my friends for who they were. In truth, I should have seen it back in Tenpony Tower, when they explained how they felt about each other, both of them expressing what they saw in the other in terms of their own virtues.

“Yes,” I affirmed. “I’m sure.”

“But… what about Fluttershy?” Velvet Remedy pleaded.

The dragon answered, “The Elements of Harmony are passed on, sometimes even while the former Bearers are still alive. It happened with Celestia and Luna. You’re not taking it from her. This is natural.”

“You mean… even if she comes back?...”

Spike blinked. “If who comes back? Celestia?”



Velvet Remedy explained. “We can save Fluttershy. Bring her back. Maybe… it’s risky but…”

“Fluttershy’s dead,” Spike said, sounding fairly certain.

“No,” Velvet Remedy corrected him. “Fluttershy’s a tree.”

Ditzy Doo fluttered over, landing between us. She kicked off her chalkboard and took a piece of chalk in her muzzle, scribbling: What’s going on?

“Velvet Remedy thinks Fluttershy’s a tree,” Spike explained.

Ditzy Doo cocked her head, one eye focusing on Velvet while the other seeming to stare up at Spike. She rubbed her hoof on the chalkboard and wrote, “Fluttershy was a friend.” Ditzy added, “You know she was a pony, not a tree, right?”

“She’s not a tree, Velvet,” Spike insisted.

“But she is a tree!” Velvet Remedy exclaimed. She turned to Calamity and me for support.

“Ayep,” Calamity said.

“Killing joke got her,” I explained, affirming, “Fluttershy’s a tree.”

It took Spike and Ditzy Doo quite a bit of time to process that. This was somepony they knew, a good friend, particularly to Spike. One of his mares. The idea that she was still alive, and that she might even be saved, was a lot to take in.

Meanwhile, I had unpleasant news to break to the others. “After tomorrow, your top priority will have to be finding the two remaining ponies with the virtues needed to use the Elements of Harmony and set off the Gardens of Equestria. By your estimation, Calamity, you’ll have about a year before things get really bad. I hope you can do it by then.”

“Wait,” Calamity waved a hoof. “Y’all say that like yer not comin’ with us.”

My heart felt like it was being squeezed. “I’m not,” I said, feeling tears. “I can’t.” I explained to them, as I had to Life Bloom, that the Single Pegasus Project needed a pony. And that saving Equestria required that pony to stay.

“Why you?” Velvet complained.

I sighed heavily. “Because of all this.” I glanced around at the Gardens of Equestria. “Because, in the end, I’m expendable. And you’re not.”

“Not to us!” Velvet insisted vehemently.

“It’s okay,” I consoled her softly. “This is… it’s the right thing for me.” I smiled, tears dripping down my cheeks. “I finally know what my virtue is.”

“It’s not fair!” she whined.

It does not matter that it is unfair, Xenith had once told me. It still is.

Zebra wisdom.

Velvet Remedy leaned into Calamity and cried.

Calamity wrapped a wing around her. “Ah agree with Velvet. Ya ain’t expendable. Y’all are a big damn hero, an’ our dearest friend.” He tipped off his hat. “Y’all do what ya have t’ do. But take this with ya. Ah want ya t’ have it.”

Seeing Calamity’s gift, Velvet Remedy floated out the Fluttershy Orb. “And this. From me.”

“One year?!” Spike’s head jerked towards us. “That’s insane! I’ve been looking for over two hundred years.”

“An’ Li’lpip’s found four o’ us in jus’ under two months,” Calamity smiled, looking at Spike with lidded eyes. “Perhaps y’all are doin’ it wrong.”

Ditzy Doo held up her chalkboard: He found Littlepip.

Spike sputtered, stared, and slapped his palm cross his eyes, dragging his hand down his snout, bending it until slipped from his hand and snapped back with a boing. “I’ve been so stupid!”


“I’m so sorry,” Spike looked to me apologetically. “You’re not unimportant, Littlepip. You’re the most important part.”

What now?! No. I needed to be unimportant. I knew my virtue and it wasn’t any of the ones the Elements of Harmony were looking for.

“I told you that your group wasn’t the one that was needed because it was obvious to me that you and SteelHooves weren’t ever going to be Bearers,” he explained rapidly. But it takes more than just being loyal or honest to be a Bearer…”

Oh crap. You’re going to make it more complicated now?

“…just like it doesn’t require that the Bearers be perfect paragons of their Virtue. There’s more to it than that.” He looked at us all. “I mean, it’s not like the ‘destined few’ just happened to all live in Ponyville. Fluttershy, Applejack, Rarity... I’m sure there were plenty of ponies with the same virtues, but it wasn’t enough to just have the virtues. That wasn’t what made them suitable to be Bearers.

“It was only when they accepted the call to act, and became friends in the process, that they became worthy in the eyes of the Elements.”

“The Elements ‘ave eyes now?” Calamity questioned, taking it a little too literally.

“I’ve seen it before: the Elements won’t work for ponies who don’t possess the right virtues, true. Or who aren’t friends. But they also don’t work for ponies who aren’t willing to stand up and truly fight against disharmony and evil.”

“They have to fight the Good Fight,” Homage agreed.

Spike continued, “It was when they all stepped into the Everfree Forest, braving it together, that they truly started to become friends.”

“Well now,” Calamity said, “Ah reckon any set o’ good ponies who were willin’ t’ brave danger an’ face down evil together are likely t’ become friends.”

“Exactly,” Spike agreed. “There’s a word for accepting that call to action: galvanize.”

I was lost.

Spike turned to me again. “I was so fixated on how it happened with Twilight Sparkle that I forgot. But even Nightmare Moon thought the spark didn’t work, and she was Luna, who with Celestia had been a former Bearer. The only way she wouldn’t have known better was if the very nature of the spark changes each time.”

I began to glean where this was headed, and opened my muzzle to protest. But the dream-words of Twilight Sparkle and her friends floated through my mind.

It’s happening differently this time, isn’t it?

Well duh. Do you think it was the same when it was just Celestia? Same is boring.

Ah reckon it’s diff’rent every time.

“Last time, it happened inside Twilight. Last time, the spark was an epiphany. This time, the spark is a pony.”

Spike stared at me. “Littlepip, you’re the spark.”

But… what… how…

“A different kind of spark.”

“Daymn,” Calamity whinnied. “When the Five are present, a spark will cause the Sixth to be revealed.” As everypony turned to him, he grinned sheepishly. “Hey, Ah was payin’ attention!”

I dropped to the floor, my head swimming in cloudy confusion… then suddenly clearing like the little pony in my head had performed a sonic rainboom.

At that moment, I finally realized what most of you probably figured out right from the prologue: the true meaning of my cutie mark.

A feature not to be forgotten: PipBucks keep track of the location of tagged objects or people. If a pony somehow got lost, it could help find them.

Like I had found the Ministry Mares. Their stories, which cried out to be remembered. And through the statuettes created through Rarity’s sacrifice, the mares themselves.

Like I had found Velvet Remedy, even without the aid of a tag. And I had found each of my friends… and a whole lot of good, heroic people, many of whom were gathered in the main room of this very cave.

I had gotten my cutie mark when I had found that little foal and reunited him with his parents, the first worthwhile thing I had ever done in my life.

My special talent was finding the right people.

“But… don’t this mean we still need Li’lpip?” Calamity asked suddenly. “We ain’t got but four.”

Velvet Remedy answered with a hesitant but conviction-filled “No.”

She smiled sadly, wiping tears from her eyes. “Have you seen the next room? Littlepip has done her part. We know where to start looking.” The lovely charcoal-coated unicorn looked up at Homage’s sprite-bot. “And even if the other two aren’t in that room, we know where to look next. We look to each pony who has been galvanized to action, to fight the Good Fight, by the example of the Light Bringer that DJ Pon3 has beamed into every corner of Equestria.”

*** *** ***


A spectacular explosion of effervescent purple ripped through the New Hope Solar Array.

“Now that’s how we do it down in the wasteland!” Calamity whooped as the defense array fell silent. The rust-colored buck’s well-placed explosion had severed both the power connections to the active dishes and to the nighttime reserve batteries as well. Fortunately, he was all but an expert at repairing things, and the knowledge of how to dismantle them came with it. Plus, he had come with a sack full of explosives looted from the Overcast, and one special little surprise.

Calamity sniffed at the air. “Well, what do ya know. It’s like the end o’ an empire… with radishes.”

Above, Spike roared, signaling his thanks, as he turned to engage the Raptor Noctilucent.

A blast of yellow light scorched Calamity’s mane and burned his right ear, the bulk of the grazing shot hitting the wall of the solar tower next to him.

Calamity spun, searching the air above and the spaces between the solar towers. He had flown into the New Hope Solar Array with several pegasi on his tail. Practiced in stealth, he was able to lose them long enough to rig the detonation. He had hoped the explosion would keep their attention as he made his escape.

He spotted the two Enclave pegasi as they opened fire again. They weren’t power-armored elite fighters. Just recruits on guard duty.

Calamity dove for cover, darting between towers. His recently healed wing ached badly, protesting the workout. And his body was beginning to feel the lack of sleep from the night before. If they cornered him, he was dead. Or they were. Most likely the latter.

He didn’t want to kill these ponies. And that mean running away. Or hiding.

More shots passed above and below him. One struck his armor just above his battle saddle. Dammit. If he could just lose the damn pursuit…

He spotted a door. It could be a dead end, trapping him. Or it could be the perfect place to hide. Or even an escape route.

Calamity made a snap decision.

Dodging and wheeling, he pulled his attackers farther away, then the moment he had some cover, made a hard loop around for the door. His wing screamed in protest, threatening to fail.

Calamity reached the door, only to find it was locked.

“I think he flew back this way,” he heard one of the Enclave guards say.


Calamity heard a heavy barrage of magical energy erupt somewhere overhead. He looked up to see Spike tearing into the plasma cannons of the Raptor Noctilucent. As he watched, one of the smaller guns got off a horrific lucky shot, sending a beam of deadly magical energy right into Spike’s right eye. The dragon howled, twisting as he slipped off the Raptor, tumbling out of sight.

The door beside him opened, a guard pony flying out to see.

Calamity bucked him over the head, knocking him unconscious, then dragged him back in through the door, closing it behind him.

The rust-colored pony’s eyes went wide as he stared at the shelves of tiny, glowing, alien energy cells, each about a hundredth the size of the alien battery used in the star blasters. Above the shelves was a placard, reminding the Enclave pegasi: Remember, you are first and only line of defense between Equestria and the things that fall from above.

“Hol-lee shit…”

*** *** ***

Last Night:

“I’m so sorry…” I told Homage, my voice trembling. My friends were all off making their own preparations. It was just me and her, me alone with the sprite-bot in a secluded corner of the cave.

“For what?” Homage’s voice was soothing. “You did good.”

“I’m sorry for leaving. And… because…” I thought of the dead, all those I didn’t save back in the Everfree Forest. “Not good enough.”

“Stop focusing on the few you couldn’t save and remember that they all would have been dead if it weren’t for you.” Homage chided. “You saved the wasteland from Taint. And not just what would have been spilled. By obliterating both Maripony and Red Eye’s Cathedral, you’ve protected Equestria from all of this happening again.

“And if you have to count, be sure to count all the ponies whose lives won’t be ended in horror or murder because of the evils you have put an end to.”

I wept.

“I’m not coming back,”

“I know,” she replied, her voice slightly tinny but still the most beautiful thing in all of Equestria. I grasped the sprite-bot between my forehooves, holding it closer and leaning my forehead against its grill, my horn brushing one of the antennas.

“What is the most important thing I give you, Littlepip?”

I was surprised by the question.

“It’s not the orgasms, is it?” she prodded.

“No,” I quickly insisted. “It’s…” I paused, trying to find the words. “The solace.”

“Well,” Homage told me through the sprite-bot, “Then I think you are a very silly pony.”

I blinked back tears. “What?”

“You’re about to plug yourself into the central control for all the Towers,” she pointed out. “The same towers I use for my broadcasts. You’re not leaving me, not where it counts. The S.P.P. is what I do.”

I… I hadn’t thought of it that way.

“And you’ll have access to the entire network,” she added. “You’ll be able watch over all of the Equestrian Wasteland.”

I blinked. The little pony in my head made a quick note to access those records as soon as possible and check in on all my friends. Especially Xenith and Ditzy Doo. I would need to see what happened in the battle for Fillydelphia. The Central Hub should have at least a few recent hours of stored data.

“You’re not going to be losing me at all. We’ll be closer than ever.” Then, bemusedly, she noted, “Although I guess this means I’ll need to find a second home.”

“What?” I asked softly, still processing the new reality.

“Someplace I can modify the way I want, so I can take my showers outside...”

Huh? Why would she do that? To enjoy the sunlight? I opened my muzzle to protest. It didn’t seem safe. A monster or raider with a rifle…

“…you know, where you can watch.”



From the floor, I whimpered, “Have I mentioned how evil you are?”

*** *** ***


“...Imagine when the battle’s won,
And we raise our faces to the sun…”

Velvet Remedy’s voice sang, sweet and defiant, in my earbloom as I galloped down the gleaming white hallways of the Enclave science center, protected by the field of the MG StealthBuck II.

She was singing to all of Equestria now. The entire wasteland, wherever there was a radio, they were hearing her voice. The song was a rousing anthem, something to embolden the spirits of Equestria’s fighters. To give them strength.

“…Equestria will live forever!”

Something to galvanize.

I reached the cell block with a few minutes of invisibility to spare. A quick sweep of the area told me all I needed to know. The cell doors had no accessible locks. They were operated entirely from the terminal in the guard office. It had a cloud-interface.

Fortunately, I could do those now.

I slipped into the guard room and started hacking while the two guards were busy talking about the attacking dragon. My ears perked when one of them claimed the defense grid had gone down. My heart leapt. Calamity had been successful.

Which meant that the albino hellhound’s little lesson in explosives had probably paid off. Maybe it was a good thing I didn’t drink that glowing soda after all. I hated to think what it would have done to my insides.

The password was “invincible”. Right.

The terminal brought up the door controls as well as a host of guard alerts. Most of them were from the last twenty minutes and had to do with the currently ongoing attack.

One of them was not.

Disposal Order #34. Subject: Fluffykins.

I didn’t need to read it. I knew what it was. The order was dated this morning, three hours ago. Assuming the guards here weren’t any swifter than they appeared, that meant Fluffykins the Warclaw was still alive. And that the Enclave was about to execute her. After all, their hellhound control had just been field-tested and battle-tested successfully. They didn’t have any need for her anymore.

It was with a sense of justice bordering on pleasure that I opened her cell door, then moments later trotted past, floating a present across the gulf of clouds to the small metal platform she was confined to.

“A present from a friend,” I called out as my invisibility failed. Part of me wanted to linger, if only long enough to see Fluffykins open it and make sure she realized what she could do now. There was a note with the present, but I wasn’t certain Fluffykins could read.

But I couldn’t do any of that. It was time to run. No looking back. I could only hope that I had made a difference. That I had given her a way out that was better for her than what she had been given before.

I wanted to do right.

*** *** ***

Last Night:

I had a big day ahead of me, and the talk with Homage had wrung the last of the energy out of me. I really just wanted to sleep.

The party in the main chamber was not co-operating. I could feel the heavy pounding of drums as much as I could hear them, and Velvet Remedy’s chocolate-sweet vocals swam into my ears.

Tonight was the last night before a big battle. One that would define the future of Equestria. And many of them might not be coming back. The party had been Silver Bell’s idea, naturally. But none of them were going to spend their last night reading a good book.

“Raise your hoof!” Velvet Remedy’s voice called out repeatedly, part of the famous Vinyl Scratch and Pinkie Pie duet.

I tried to bury my head under a pillow. Apparently, Spike had a lot of pillows.

“Hey, Littlepip!” Spike poked his head into the Gardens of Equestria chamber where I had slipped away. “Silver Bell’s starting Pin the Tail on the Pony. Wanna play?”

I groaned.

“Whoa. Déjà vu,” Spike said. “You really should join everyone. It’s the last night before… you know. You should spend it with your friends.”

I groaned again, but tossed off the pillow and sat up. Maybe Spike was right.

Against my real wishes, I followed him back in the very bright, very noisy main chamber.

And was promptly swept up in the games and festivities.

There was Pin the Tail, and pillow fighting and piñatas. Toy races and table tennis. A bookshelf had been turned over and used as a snack table, covered in every sort of preservative-laden, centuries-old sweet that anypony could get a hoof on, including a huge mound of MoM-approved snack cakes. Velvet Remedy, in all her glory, was belting out one fierce dance tune after another, her horn providing full musical accompaniment and a dazzling light show.

I danced with more ponies and griffins and zebras in one night than I ever imagined I would in a lifetime. And the little pervert in my head got a fair helping of flank-staring during the conga line.

And there were presents. Very special presents crafted by Life Boom, who has spent most of the day studying up on Spell in a Box. Cloudwalking presents.

But most importantly, it was fun.

That night, that party… I think it was the most pure fun I had ever enjoyed in my life.

Spike had been right. This was better, and so much more important, than sleep. These were moments of joy with my friends.

At the end of the party, Life Bloom passed me one last present, wrapped in a pretty bow. “It’s what you asked for,” he told me. “I need to go back. I’m hitching a flight with Ditzy Doo and Lionheart. If I’m going to make it to Tenpony Tower in enough time to give the little speech I’ve prepared, I need to go now.”

I floated the gaily-wrapped box onto my back. “Thank you.”

“Who’s that fer?” Calamity asked, trotting up to me as Life Bloom trotted away, swiftly moving to where Ditzy Doo was once again saying goodbye to Silver Bell. A few hours should be more than enough for her to get her glow on, and she hadn’t been about to leave before Silver Bell’s party.

“It’s a gift for Fluffykins,” I told him.

Calamity sighted. “Li’lpip, y’know we ain’t gonna have time fer that.” Calamity was right. We each had our targets within Neighvarro, and we had planned our attack to avoid the barracks. We had to move quickly. No time for sightseeing. But…

“Just this once,” I told him, “I want to do right by one of them.”

Calamity frowned, shaking his orange mane. Little flakes of color rained out. “Ya ain’t gonna be savin’ ‘er, Li’lpip. Ya let that monster loose, an’ she’ll rip through every pony she sees ‘till they put ‘er down.” He pointed at the box. “This ain’t gonna give ‘er her life back.”

“I know,” I confided. “But if she’s still alive, it’s what she’d want.” She was a Warclaw. She wouldn’t want her life to end imprisoned and tortured to death. Who would?

“An’ when did ya start factorin’ the wishes o’ hellhounds inta yer plans?”

I looked into Calamity’s eyes. “When I saw how Autumn Leaf treated them.”

“Well ouch,” he winced. Calamity gritted his teeth. “That was a li’l low. Ah know he was a mass-murderin’ bastard who needed t’ be put down, but he was still muh brother, and Ah’m mournin’ his loss.”

I knew Calamity felt the pain of his brother’s death, but the idea that Calamity might be in mourning hadn’t really sunk in. “I’m sorry,” I said regretfully.

“Well,” he replied, accepting the apology, “Ah asked.”

“You’ve got confetti in your mane,” I told him.

“Ya do too.”

*** *** ***


“Hold it right there, ya traitorous, thievin’ scumbag! We’re under attack, an’ you think it’s a good time t’ pilfer supplies? You’re stealin’ from the ENCLAVE ya worthless shit. NO PONY steals from the Enclave!”

Calamity had just finished relatching his saddlebags when the voice tore through the air behind him. “Hello, dad.” He turned around to face his father.

The drill sergeant froze, staring.

Calamity stared back, eyes locked with his father.

Then he sighed. “Ya know, Ah always reckoned Ah’d have loads t’ say t’ ya iffin Ah’d ever have the chance,” he said wearily. “But now that Ah do, Ah got nothin’.”

The older stallion glared. “Calamity?” Then he raged. “You?! You’re the one attackin’ yer country? Yer own kind? Yer with the damned DRAGON? YOU!?”

Calamity simply shook his head. “There are so many things wrong with that, Ah don’t know where t’ start.”

“And ya came here, killed ponies, why? Jus’ t’ steal?”

Calamity glanced back at his saddlebag before answering. “Ah came here t’ save ponies, dad. An’ these? They’re jus’ a li’l insurance policy. Somethin’ where all muh friends better leave here alive if the Enclave ever wants ‘em back.” He pushed past his father, heading for the door.

“Hold it RIGHT THERE, you traitorous piece of FILTH!” the drill sergeant bellowed.

“Or what?” Calamity asked. “Ya ain’t gonna shoot me. Fer all yer faults, ya ain’t Autumn Leaf.”

“Ah’ll BEAT YER ASS till ya WISH AH HAD!”

Calamity looked back at his father, considering this. “Ey-nope. Ah’m pretty sure ya ain’t nothin’ but a loud old buck, all bark an’ no bite.” Calamity offered, “But feel free t’ prove me wrong. Ah’m bettin’ Ah’ll trounce ya. An’ that will prob’ly lose ya whatever respect the troops have left fer ya.”

He turned away, walking towards the door. “Bye dad.”

“THAT’S IT?!” Calamity’s father swooped past to block the door. “Ain’t ya got nothin’ t say fer yerself, ya…”

Calamity cut him off before he could find more colorfully derogatory language to spew. “Ey-nope.” Then, with a second thought, he added, “Ah’m sorry mom died. Ah’d say somethin’ ‘bout how badly ya dealt with it, but Ah reckon ya already know.”

My best friend pushed past his father and opened the door.

“Ya got her mane, y’know,” his father said softly, letting his traitorous son past. “Ah really liked her mane.”

Calamity spread his wings and flew away, saying nothing.

*** *** ***

This Morning:

“So, Barkin’ Saw,” I asked. “Feeling ready to ride a dragon?”

“Really not comfortable with this,” Spike re-iterated as he lowered himself down enough for the hellhound sniper to climb onto the makeshift saddle Calamity had cobbled together while I was talking privately to Homage.

Within minutes, we were flying over the clouds. Spike had me in one of his hands, and I was floating Velvet and Calamity behind us. My pegasus friend could fly on his own, but not well enough or fast enough to keep up with a full-grown dragon.

The world above the cloud curtain was breathtaking. The air was crisp, fresh and warm in Celestia’s light. The sun gleamed off the clouds, a rolling canvas bright, clean white. I felt a little wretched knowing I was bringing war here.

As we passed other mountain tops, I spotted one that looked like it had been gutted. All that remained was a gleaming skeleton, like the mountain was a carcass whose bones had been picked clean. I called over to Calamity, pointing it out.

“That there was Stable Ninety-Eight,” he informed us. “Weren’t many pegasi stables. Most o’ the ones we did ‘ave were built inta the mountains. Clouds ain’t much protection against megaspells, an’ pegasi ‘ave more need o’ vertical space than most ponies, callin’ fer a different design.”

The bare, exposed remains slipped behind us. “Enclave stripped all the ones they could find down t’ the last plate o’ metal ages ago.” He added, “An’ they been takin’ what’s left from the frameworks as needed.”

Several minutes later, we caught sight of a pegasus city. The stark contrast between those buildings -- gorgeous monuments to the past -- and the ruins I was used to picking through broke my heart. It was a window back into the beautiful, sunlit past of Equestria as much as any memory orb.

But something felt wrong. The city, for all its splendor, was achingly hollow. The ancient, towering buildings and flowing rainbow waterfalls dwarfed its scattering of inhabitants in both scale and grandeur.

The pegasi felt like termites in a tree. Or like mice, carving out their own little mouse-holes within a much greater home.

It was not the thriving civilization I had envisioned.

Spike lowered into the clouds, the dampness plastering my armor to my coat and matting down my mane, the vision of the preserved world immediately gone, replaced with a haze of grey and white. We would travel the rest of the way obscured by the cloud curtain until we were virtually under the base itself.

*** *** ***

Ten Minutes Ago:

Brilliant, blazing light erupted across the sunlit skies over Fillydelphia. Beams of purest sunlight, thin as tree trunks, rained down from the crisp blue like white-hot javelins, incinerating everything they touched.

The Twilight Society guided the megaspell’s power judiciously. Instead of bringing the megaspell’s full power to bear, destroying the landscape, they wielded it with surgical precision. Celestia One struck down the worst, the most dangerous, on both sides. The goal was not to win the battle, but to end it. And to save as many of the innocent and the helpless as possible.

In the end, the ponies in the ritual chamber decided, they had chosen to do the right thing after all. Not the pleasant thing. Not something, if they had their preference, that they would ever do again. Not something that would make it easy to sleep at night. But the right thing.

*** *** ***

Right Now:

My hoof hit the hard red barrier, sparks of energy crackling out from it. The shield felt as solid as a steel wall under my hoof.

I reared up and slammed my hoof against the shield surrounding the S.P.P. Central Hub once again, and fell on my tail when I rebounded.

I wasn’t going through!

But… But I had been so sure! I was three-fifths alicorn. More importantly, I had something nopony who had attempted this had brought: I had a perfect replica of the soul of Rainbow Dash!

Of all of the Ministry Mares, actually. Right here in my saddle bags. If the bones of Luna hadn’t been enough to get through, if the Enclave’s goal to use the severed head of Rainbow Dash had been attempted and failed, then it stood to reason that the shield’s bypass was designed to register something much more important than mere genetics.

I had to be the one who could get in. I had been promised this. I had it all worked out!

This was my purpose. My destiny!

I began to cry. Right now, so many were fighting, probably dying, because they had faith in my plan. Faith in me.

How could I have been wrong? Again?

Sunshine and rainbows, she had promised. I heard the sound of explosions and massive energy discharges from the remaining Raptors. My crying became weeping.

I had put so much, risked so much… and on what?

Don’t listen to her! the potted plant had insisted. She just wants you to fail.

Oh Goddesses! What have I done?

Pinkie Pie’s voice came back to me. Everything will end in sunshine and rainbows! she announced gleefully. As long as you’re willing to face the fire, that is.

Face the fire?

I looked up at the heavens, the bright blue of an endlessly deep sky.

“What fire?” I whimpered. I’d already been through Everfree Forest. I’d faced Canterlot, the Enclave, and so much more. “Haven’t I already been through enough? Can’t I please just win now?”

A dark shadow washed over me.

As long as you’re willing to face the fire.

“Spike!” I shouted, waving my forearms desperately! “I need you!”

As the huge purple dragon banked and landed, I wanted to run to him. I wanted to ask him if he trusted Pinkie Pie. Trusted her predictions and her advice.

But I didn’t. It wouldn’t matter if he trusted her or not. This wasn’t about him.

This was my leap of faith.

“Whatcha’ need, Littlpip?” Spike asked. He looked bad. The Raptors had gotten several good strikes in on him. His scales were scorched or slagged over much of his body. He was having a difficult time sitting up straight. Spike had lost several of his scales, and was bleeding from the blistered pit where his right eye had been.

I walked up to the shield and turned towards the wounded dragon, pressing my body back against the hard field of crackling energy.

“I need you to breathe on me,” I told him flatly.

“WHAT!?” Spike roared!

“Please. Just do it. Quickly.”

“No!” Spike reared back. “You’ll die! I’m not going to kill you!”

“Please. You have to.”


Oh Goddesses. Why are you making me do this.

“I lied,” I told him.

“What?” He looked confused, hurt and deeply worried. In the middle of all this…

“I lied about Twilight Sparkle,” I confessed, my heart ripping apart.

I told him the truth. The whole truth, every awful, soul-wrenching detail.

“All…” Spike stammered finally, his voice just a whisper. “…all this time…”

His face was an apocalyptic storm of emotions. He hated me. And he hated me for making him hate me. In the end, he did the only thing he could do.

He roared.

I was blinded by the blast of greenish flame. The pain was beyond unbearable. I screamed, and my lungs filled with fire. I could feel my skin bubbling and searing away.

I tried to hold onto my most precious memories, my memories of Homage. But one by one, those memories burned away like my flesh, consumed in seering agony until just one was left. The memory of Homage’s last words to me as DJ Pon3, addressing me across the wasteland.

You are my message.

Then that too was gone. And everything else. Even pain.

Footnote: Maximum Level