Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria...
Ten Years Later…
“Then I began, thinking…” she said softly, reading the very last lines of the book. They were also the first lines, although she wasn’t sure if any of her listeners had noticed. The story had come full circle.
These were the moments she lived for. Just spending time with the children. Seeing their eager, attentive faces as she read to them. The reading room was like an island of peace. No worries, no pressures, no ponies seeking her advice or counsel. She had never been comfortable in a position of leadership, but the ponies outside had put her on a pedestal. She hated the spotlight, and she knew she hadn’t earned the trust they put in her. The reading room was one of her favorite retreats.
“…If I’m going to tell you about the adventure of my life -- explain how I got to this place with these people, and why I did what I’m going to do next -- I should probably start by explaining a little bit about PipBucks.”
She gently closed the book, drinking in the tranquility of the ending. Yes, these were the moments she lived for. The peace and quiet before…
“What?” whined the little apricot pegasus sitting in the center of the other foals. “That’s it? It can’t end there! That’s a lame way to end the story!”
“Now Thunder Rush…” she began. Rush was Tracker and Mist’s filly, and had inherited her father’s disposition.
“I want action!” Thunder Rush interrupted. “And I want Rainbow Dash!”
A timid yellow unicorn offered, “I kinda like the ending.”
Rush rolled her eyes at her playmate. “You would.”
Well, it was tranquil while it lasted. “Now children…”
“It’s a true story, right?” the yellow unicorn, Flower, asked.
Even as she nodded in response, the filly Thunder Rush promptly disagreed.
“Of course not! It’s obviously just a fairy tale. Nopony could survive getting shot that much!” The filly rolled her eyes again with exaggerated exasperation. “And come on. You don’t really believe there were that many monsters in Equestria, do you?”
“Oh, but there were,” she responded, hating to interrupt. “I was there.”
The apricot pegasus just crossed her forelegs and sat down with a harrumph.
One of the colts in the back, a brown and white spotted foal, piped up, “Were you really a tree?”
She took a deep breath, fortifying herself to face the question that always came after this one. “Yes, Cliff. It’s true.”
She heard curiosity in Flower’s voice as the filly asked, “What was it like to be a tree?” And there it was. The question.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Fluttershy said, the words feeling rehearsed. There were things she couldn’t think about too much. And her time as a tree was high on her list of forbidden thoughts.
“Now why don’t you all go out and play,” she suggested.
Most of the colts and fillies didn’t need to be told twice. The far doors swung open, letting in a dazzling blast of sunlight. A miniature stampede left the reading room almost vacant in seconds. She blinked, realizing that little Cliff had stayed behind. The colt galloped up to her on his tiny hooves and threw his forelegs around her. She fought back the urge to jump away and hide.
“You’re the best storyteller, Miss Fluttershy!” he said happily. “Thank you for the story!”
Then the colt too was drawn by the pull of the midday sun and scampered off to join his friends.
Fluttershy stood in place for a moment staring out the open doors at the mission and at Junction Town beyond. These ponies, they called themselves the Followers of the Apocalypse. They knew of her past, her great mistakes, but they neither hid from the truth nor hated her for it. Instead, they embraced it as a lesson. And still, astoundingly, looked to her with a reverence she found uncomfortable.
Still, if she was going to be given a position of authority, she was going to use it. She’d spent two hundred years unable to do anything to help anyone. No more. She just… had to do better this time. And this time, she was going to stay close to her friends so that they could help her.
She spotted the Followers’ leader, Velvet Remedy. The charcoal-coated unicorn looked her way, smiling. She lifted a forehoof and waved. Fluttershy waved timidly back, her eyes catching the ornate golden PipBuck, encrusted with a nightingale-shaped gemstone, on Velvet Remedy’s foreleg. She remembered when that had been a necklace. Her necklace.
She found herself smiling, happy it had found a new Bearer. Although it had taken her a while to grasp the somewhat abrasive mare as a beacon of kindness.
She wasn’t surprised that the Element had taken a new form. After all, before it was a necklace, it had been a heavy, round rock. And the book did help explain why the Elements chose this new appearance.
Fluttershy picked up the book in her mouth and walked over to the bookshelf.
The Book of Littlepip was a good book, she thought, despite some of the darker parts that she had to skim over when reading it to the kids. The book had helped her understand things, answered many questions.
Xenith’s potion had reversed the curse of the killing joke, restoring her physically to how she had been just before it touched her. But her mind…
It had taken years for her to recover, and she had only been able to find herself again, to put herself back together, thanks to the constant attention and help of her friends -- both her new friends and her old ones.
Velvet Remedy had been right. The little statues of her friends had helped her put herself back together. Without them, she probably would have remained broken, insane, forever. The statuettes of her friends were the second set like that she had been given in her life. The first was from Rarity. The ones she had now were from Velvet Remedy. With them, she could weather the loss of her friends. And it felt sometimes like they were still right there with her. Sometimes, in her sleep, they would stand by her against the monsters that lurked in her head.
She hadn’t understood how or why until Velvet Remedy had given her The Book of Littlepip. Now, thanks to the book, she knew. It was, however, rather disconcerting to know that there were little statuettes of her out there somewhere, radiating the essence of her soul.
The statuettes were in her saddleboxes. She took them wherever she went, taking them out only to put them on the mantle above her bed at night before she slept. With Angel.
The eternally petrified form of her dearest pet and longest friend watched over her each night, guarding her. It was maybe macabre, maybe somewhat unhealthy, but she slept better with him there. He kept the nightmares away.
As she slid the book back into its place on the bookshelf, she again thought that, yes, it was a good book. Deeply painful at times. But it was nice to feel like she knew Littlepip. So many of her new friends did, and (despite some of her bad times) she seemed like such a nice pony.
Fluttershy had tried to talk to Littlepip once. But even being in one of the tower stations made her very uncomfortable. The Single Pegasus Project, she had to admit, freaked her out. Littlepip had called it “peaceful”, but Fluttershy had panic attacks at the mere thought of the place -- of being trapped, unable to move, watching helplessly.
She felt her heart racing and shoved the memory away. That place was on her list of things not to think about too much. Sometimes, her mind was like a minefield. She had to be careful where she stepped.
Still, she had recovered. Mostly. It had taken years, yes.
She smiled a little, the sort of smile you could only manage looking back on something from a great distance. Her well-intentioned friends had swiftly taken her to Spike’s cave, thinking it would help her to be with someone she knew.
Two hundred years as a tree had done nothing to dampen her phobia of dragons.
Of course, she hadn’t recognized him. He’d grown up! And, true, she’d seen him grown up once before, but that was an unnatural and temporary growth, not like the real thing. He looked completely different. He had wings, for one thing.
“I’m sorry I scared you,” she remembered Spike saying one day after she’d finally been able to more than squeak and cower in response. “It was the eyepatch, wasn’t it? Dammit, I was going for ‘jaunty’. But I think it just makes me look like a raider.”
It had not been the eyepatch. If anything, the eyepatch was… nice. Made him look dapper. She told him so.
Fluttershy lowered her nose and nudged the book fully into place.
Yes, she thought for a third time, it was a good book. Sometimes, though, she thought it had a bad title. In her mind, it was more than just the story of a single mare. It was a story of Equestria. The Equestria that had been, the Equestrian Wasteland that is, and the hopes for the New Equestria that was beginning to bloom.
“Maybe the story should have Equestria in its name?” she asked herself.
More than that, it was the story of the birth of the fledgling forces of good in the Equestrian Wasteland. The New Canterlot Republic, the Applejack’s Rangers, even the Followers of the Apocalypse had their origins in this story.
And she shouldn’t forget the Twilight Society whose megaspell had turned them into a superpower in the Wasteland. They were good and helpful ponies too. Mostly. Usually.
Fluttershy crossed the reading room and stepped out into the pure sunlight that poured down on Junction Town. She blinked, adjusting to the brightness as she felt the warmth of the sun penetrate her feathers and coat.
Ahead and to the left, Velvet Remedy was talking to some of the medical ponies near the clinic. To her right, the laughter of the playing children tickled the air. Straight ahead, at the far wall of the mission, she spotted Palette and her apprentice Silver Bell. The older mare was guiding the adolescent unicorn as she used her magic put the finishing touches on a stained-glass window. Fluttershy guessed the window was for the New Canterlot castle.
She closed her eyes, drawing in a deep breath. The scents of dust and lavender trees mixed with a hint of rosewood and cinnamon from Brandy’s cookhouse.
“Ohh, smell that air!” she said softly to her friends in her saddleboxes. It was the smell of everything being good in the world.
She turned to watch the children. Thunder Rush’s little brother was pestering the apricot pegasus. She tilted her ears to catch the conversation.
“I can name all the presidents of the New Canted-lots Republic!” the little one boasted, so cute he made Fluttershy snicker.
“Pfft,” Rush said, blowing her sibling off. “That’s easy. There’s only been two. Try something harder.”
The tiny colt tried again, “um… I can name all the Princesses of Old Equestria!”
“Ugh. Equally easy isn’t harder.”
Fluttershy sighed, shaking her head, and took a step.
She eeped as a young voice cried out, “Hey, Fluttershy!”
Turning, she saw the pink alicorn filly fly up unsteadily, her face wide and smiling. “Oh, hello Surprise,” Fluttershy greeted her. Surprise was the third alicorn to be successfully birthed, and the first alicorn to have a coat that wasn’t blue, green or purple.
“Look what I can do!” the alicorn filly beamed happily.
Her little face scrunched in concentration. Her horn flickered and began to glow, small sparks erupting from its tip. A blob of magical energy formed above the little alicorn; it melted down around her, forming a magical shield. The fragile magical sphere lasted only a moment before popping like a soap bubble, but the alicorn’s eyes looked up with glee.
“Oh that’s very good, Surprise!” Fluttershy cooed. “You’re getting ever so much better. Your parents must be so proud.”
Still, she couldn’t help but suppress an involuntary shudder, her eyes drifting towards the mountains… and towards Glyphmark. She knew better than to worry. Xenith, of all zebras, wouldn’t allow them to be anything but extra cautious. Still, the brew they created to turn alicorns male, the potion that allowed them to breed, required extract of killing joke as an ingredient. And that meant the Angels were cultivating it over there.
No. No. No. Stop thinking about things on the list. You know it’s not healthy.
Surprise squeaked in delight and fluttered away seeking another adult to show off to.
Fluttershy slowly walked down the cobblestone street that wove through the mission. She passed Brandy trotting the other way, pulling a cart of vegetables from the gardens. She exchanged greetings with the young cook, feeling fleetingly disappointed that she wouldn’t get to taste the soup and salad being planned for tonight. But she wasn’t going to be here.
The Equestrian Wasteland was producing enough food now for its population to begin to prosper, ponies and non-ponies alike. Three years ago, Littlepip had cleared the last of the cloud curtain. Her continued habitation in the Celestia Hub being as much out of dedication to a promise as it was for psychological and physiological concerns. (The former she empathized with all too well; the latter regarded the small mare’s development of a constitutional weakness, her multiple exposures to Pink Cloud and broadcasters having taken their toll.) Plus, while not constantly minded, the weather still needed to be regulated so that the farms could run at maximum production. And sadly, it would probably be generations before the rest of Equestria was willing to trust the weather to the pegasi again.
Yes, food was no longer a necessity that ponies needed to struggle or bleed for. The New Canterlot Republic ensured that the bounty was distributed generously to all, and the Talons kept the farms and caravans safe from gangs and other marauders who would attempt to seize control.
Rather, the national concern had turned once again to power. The Gardens of Equestria had given back their farmlands, but had stripped them of the radioactive materials necessary to run Red Eye’s engines. For now, most of the energy used by the NCR was generated from devices drawing on star batteries (a donation from Calamity, she had been told). But these resources were finite and heavily strained; the needs of the nation would soon far exceed the limited power they could produce.
Fluttershy cringed at the notion that Equestria’s power might soon become dependant on irradiated rocks and other materials that could only be found in foreign lands. She’d seen the land she loved go down that road before. It did not end well.
Getting Aqua Cura was bad enough.
Several field mice scampered across the street. Fluttershy flapped her wings, lifting her hooves off the cobblestones, giving them space to pass. An iridescent bird of golden and emerald plumage shot down out of the sky, snatching one of them up. The balefire phoenix shot into the air, lifting up ten yards, and dropped her prey onto the stones below, the fall breaking the little mouse’s back.
“oh… h-hello, Ph… Pyrelight,” Fluttershy squeaked as Pyrelight dropped onto her prey and started to eat.
For a moment, she had almost called the balefire phoenix Philomena. But Pyrelight wasn’t the same bird as the one that had been Princess Celestia’s pet. At least, she was pretty sure they weren’t the same bird. But the similarities were striking enough that Fluttershy was sure they were from a common family. Cousins. Maybe even sisters.
Pyrelight looked up at Fluttershy, mouse intestines dangling from her beak, and squawked pleasantly. Fluttershy bit back the urge to grimace, smiling approvingly at the predator instead. She had been with Velvet Remedy through Pyrelight’s last two natural renewal cycles, the first time helping the unicorn accept the seemingly horrible decline of her pet’s health.
Fluttershy flew past, landing a few yards ahead and continuing on her way.
Ahead, she noticed that Palette and Silver Bell had paused in their work to watch Surprise show them her shield bubble.
A chime sounded, crystalline and clear, ringing across the mission. She perked up, looking to the sky above the gate. Other ponies trotted about her, headed to see. Silver Bell galloped past her, her mentor trotting more leisurely behind; Velvet Remedy joined her side. Surprise followed the promise that there were more adults to show off to. One of the caravans was home.
Even before she recognized the silhouette, the glints of metal under his wing and on his foreleg told Fluttershy that it was Calamity who had come home. It was good to see him again, and not just because he was going to be her ride this afternoon.
She’d always been a weak flyer, even in her youth. And she wasn’t young anymore. The only pink in her mane now was from the streaks Silver Bell had put in it while practicing cosmetic spells.
Fluttershy felt confident in flying across Junction Town, maybe even to where they were building the new castle. But not all the way to Bucklyn Cross.
The heavy gate doors squealed, pulled open by ponies on pedal-machines made from old Griffinchasers. As Calamity landed inside, the caravan he guarded began through the doors. She trotted forward, her eyes moving to each pony, counting manes. She breathed a sigh of relief she didn’t realize she was holding in as everypony was accounted for. She supposed she’d been a little worried. The trip to Thunderfall City and back wasn’t as dangerous as it used to be, but it was good to see them back and in one piece.
“Aww,” Silver Bell pouted. “I was hoping it would be mom and dad.”
Ditzy Doo’s caravan was due back today as well, she realized, and from a much more treacherous journey. It was for the ghouls of Equestria. Their bodies could not heal without radiation, and after the Gardens of Equestria had been activated, there was no radiation in Equestria anymore. Every week, brave caravans like Ditzy Doo’s were making the trek beyond Equestria’s borders to the rad-pits in the blighted neighboring lands, filling barrels with the irradiated water that the ghouls at home needed to survive.
(Ditzy Doo was, however, the only one to have decided to brand her water deliveries. Absolutely Everything was Equestria’s source for Aqua Cura. Free on request with any size of purchase, no matter how small.)
“Dirty water” caravans were all too often targets of bandits and other awful ponies. She understood Silver Bell’s anxiety.
The caravan was already crowded by ponies when she reached it. Some were helping unload. Most were just eager to hear about the trip.
“…on our way there, we ran inta raiders out near Hope,” Calamity was telling Velvet Remedy, shaking his head sadly. “They hit the outpost there. Weren’t much left o’ it when we reached it.”
“Raiders?” Velvet gasped. “But… we haven’t seen those in years! Are you sure it wasn’t one of the gangs?”
“Gangs don’t do t’ ponies what these monsters did,” Calamity snorted, drawing down his silver cowpony hat. “But don’t worry. They won’t be doin’ nothin’ t’ anypony ever again.”
Fluttershy watched as the two married ponies began to sketch out plans to send a group out to properly tend to the dead at the Hope Outpost.
“Ah’m off wi’ ‘Shy t’ Bucklyn Cross this evenin’. Might want t’ get some o’ the Talon boys t’ provide cover,” Calamity suggested finally. “Ah got ‘em all, Ah’m sure of it. But better play it safe. Jus’ in case.”
The rust-coated cyberpony turned to her, “Ah’ll be ready t’ go in an hour, iffin y’all are ready.”
“Oh! Yes, thank you. If that’s okay with you.” She paused, then asked, “Do you think it will be dangerous?”
“Shucks, no,” Calamity smiled. “We’ll likely get a few rogue winds, but the Junction Town to Bucklyn Cross is one o’ the safest routes in all Equestria.” Well, now that bloodwing mating season had passed, at least.
“It’s Homage’s birthday, so sh’e up in the Celestia Hub with Li’lpip,” Calamity informed her. “Ah hear they’re spendin’ the whole day in the Autumn Vestibule.”
“Ohh,” Fluttershy squeaked. “How romantic.”
Calamity turned to his wife with a smirk. “Homage wanted me t’ remind ya that this is the last birthday she’s got before she’s officially old an’ decrepit.” He playfully poked Velvet Remedy with a hoof as she scowled and pouted. Fluttershy’s eyes were drawn to the golden PipBuck on his foreleg, the two jewels embedded in it taking the shapes of a hammer and a screwdriver.
“What’s decrepit?” Surprise piped up, looking to the adults curiously.
“In this case?” Palette answered, lowering her head to mock-whisper to the little pink alicorn, “It means the same age Velvet was when she left her Stable.”
Velvet Remedy tossed her mane back and nickered indignantly.
*** *** ***
Dusk was settling over Equestria. The dipping sun glowed between the skeletal monuments of Manehattan’s ruined skyscrapers. Dingy light and fading shadows stretched across Fetlock. The wind sent ripples across the lake and through the lush hills of grass.
She stood in the back of the sky chariot, staring down as Fetlock passed below. She could see the lights of the settlement built around the Applejack’s Rangers’ stronghold, a bastion of life in a sea of wreckage.
“Did you see Ponyville?” she asked suddenly.
“Ayep,” Calamity answered as he flew, pulling the chariot behind him. “They seem t’ be doin’ alright. Fer hellhounds. Not even raiders are stupid enough t’ wander near Ponyville.”
Ten years ago, a megaspell destroyed the hellhound’s home in Splendid Valley. A few dozen of the survivors had surfaced in the ruins of the town that had once been her home. The home of her friends. Now, it was home to maybe a score of hellhound families.
As Calamity guided the sky chariot towards those hills, Fluttershy knew where they were going. Part of her mind insisted on envisioning this place as it once was. She and her friends had once gone golfing on these very hills, back before the war was even a whisper. She remembered Angel had gotten bored and started gnawing on the canopy of their golf cart until she cajoled him to stop.
But this place wasn’t a golf course anymore.
Calamity brought the sky chariot down on the wind-stroked grass and unhitched himself. Fluttershy spread her wings, dipping her head to pick up the bundles of flowers that had accompanied her for this much of the journey.
The two pegasi approached the five tombstones. Fluttershy dropped the flowers at her hooves, letting Calamity pick up several of them to place at the gravestone of Elder “SteelHooves” Applesnack. She scooped up the others, and began reverently placing them at each of the other four graves which fanned out behind that first one as Calamity took a few minutes of quiet with his departed friend.
A soft pang filled her heart as Fluttershy wished she had found the time to know Applesnack better. She stopped at the gravestone nearest to Applesnack’s, reading the inscription:
PALADIN STRAWBERRY LEMONADE
Brave, Loyal, True
She gave her life that Equestria may blossom once again.
The other three markers had similar epitaphs.
The wind began to pick up, tugging at her silvered mane with its streaks of pink. She planted the last of the flowers and turned back to Calamity.
The stallion was staring upwards and towards the east. She followed his gaze, spotting the gaunt, flying forms of two ghoul pegasi pulling a water-cart, leading the other water wagons as the caravan flew towards Junction Town.
She knew one of those lead ghouls would have a golden PipBuck on her foreleg with seven diamonds arranged like bubbles. Ditzy Doo, the Bearer of Laughter. Who ever could have imagined?
It warmed her heart that her old friend had found love in the Equestrian Wasteland. If anypony in Equestria deserved happiness, Fluttershy thought, it was her. As she watched them pass, she believed she saw the pale stallion beside Ditzy Doo glance at his love, the Canterlot ghoul’s normal grimace fading into a look of silent adoration.
He caught her. His little falling star.
A strange thought crossed her mind as she mused that Ditzy Doo and Lionheart reminded her, just a little, of Applejack and Applesnack.
As if reading her thoughts (a very disturbing notion!), Calamity stepped next to her, expressing, “Ah ain’t normally the religious type, but Ah’ve seen ‘nuff t’ know souls exist. So part o’ me likes t’ imagine that somewhere up there, SteelHooves an’ his gal are smilin’ down on those two.”
Fluttershy nodded quietly.
The winds continued to blow, making the trees creek and the water of the lake lap at the shore.
*** *** ***
Sunset poured out its beautiful palette across Equestria, painting the sky in oranges and purples, blues and golds. Sunlight glinted off the broken windows of the dead Manehattan skyscrapers, looking like a scattering of jewels, and shimmered on the river that flowed around Bucklyn Cross.
The butter-yellow pegasus stretched her wings, standing on the edge of the fortress, her eyes looking out over the river, watching the slowly gliding boats, then lifting beyond. She could see Gummy’s home from here. Like Ditzy Doo, another strand of the past that persisted in the present, tugging at her heart. Painful, but still precious. Like anchors that kept her from blowing away in the wind.
She glanced downward, seeing the black scar of the Arbu prison. Calamity was down there somewhere, visiting a pony he had described as “an old friend who looks a lot like me”. It saddened her that there was still a need for such places in Equestria. But not all ponies in the Wasteland were willing embrace their better virtues, to be good ponies.
Every pony, she still believed, had goodness inside them. But she had learned the hardest possible way that you couldn’t assume ponies would do the right thing. Which made those who did all the more wonderful and precious.
She felt the presence of the hellhound as he came up behind her. The old cyberhound crouched down next to her, his cyberleg giving a metallic whine. At last, the aging albino spoke, “You ready fer this?”
She would not allow the new age of Equestria to be born out of genocide. The hellhounds were on the precipice of extinction, and it was (largely) the fault of ponies.
Wanted or not, warranted or not, she had been once again put in a position where her words carried weight. And as much as she hated being looked to as a leader, she wasn’t going to shy away. Not after everything. This is something she must do. She must.
The Applejack’s Rangers weren’t going to be happy about it, but she would convince them. The Hellhound Sanctuary was the right thing to do.
The elderly albino hellhound got back up as she turned around, and followed her as she marched toward the council hall.
A stiff wind cut through her feathers, chilling her. The sun began to sink beneath the waves.
Fluttershy took a deep breath. The day was almost over. And it had been a day without gunshots. A peaceful day. A better day.
“In a world filled with misery and uncertainty, it is a great comfort to know that, in the end, there is a light in darkness.”