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Chapter 14: When Doves Cry

Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 14: When Doves Cry
“Goodbye, Zion.”

|*| Diaspora |*|


Zion was burning. A hot mist curled around the pine trees, the forest moaned like a live animal over a spit, and the river babbled on. The Caesar’s laurels had been torn to bloody leaves in the whitewater. The wind would roll through the valley, stirring the sky like foamy milk, sweetened by a spoonful of honey for the sake of the rising sun.

I held my father’s automatic pistol steady, as savages sprang out from behind the pine trees like targets in a carnival shooting gallery, wearing plate armor and feathers that might have been plucked from a bloody Phoenix. They rattled as they went, heads as low as predators in the grasses of some savannah, but under the babble of the river the sound was no easier to follow than the chirping of a cricket.

One of them was wearing a cape, and I saw it, tattered and red, clinging to the trunk of an immense pine tree. The forest here seemed to be standing at a slant, as if kneeling to drink from the river, or bowing to peck at the earth. The savage twisted his hoof into some flowers, churning up white petals, and came pouncing at me, tongue over tooth.

I emptied a clip into his chest, and the Centurion’s bellow rose over the sound of the river as if bursting out of it. I clicked another clip against the pistol, fumbling as my magic shivered, and the savage closed the distance between us. He left a trail of petals, and they shone like rubies for the blood that was dribbling out from the cracks in his armor.

With all the strength he had left. The Centurion threw his weight against me, so that his spear tickled the fur on my belly and his chestplate bruised my collarbone. I pushed back, and let the automatic pistol cough against his forehead, like sick lips kissing someone goodnight. As he died, I felt the spear pressing into my gut and knew that, if it had been any sharper – if it had not become blunt in scratching gibberish onto the walls of Stable 23, or carving Gods onto the black legs of the mountain – then I might have been disemboweled.

There was an explosion then, and the valley shook. The pine trees threw their long skinny shadows into the west, and in between them, I saw a mushroom cloud of yellow and orange and red, blooming. It folded into itself, like the swollen skin of a marshmallow coming away from the fire.

From the clearing ahead, there came a voice, cursing in the same twisted tongues that had had rung out from Celestia’s Landing. I did not understand it, but there was something like language in it, setting it apart from the grunts and whinnies of the savages. So we ran towards the clearing, though rings of smoke had crowned it in the explosion. We were following the river so closely that I heard splashes and the sound of hooves slipping on the stone.

The last of the savages had come running across the valley, like animals on the skirts of a wildfire, or hornets from a nest full of smoke. I was not afraid of them, for they could be swatted away as easily as flies, and broke apart under Ash’s shotgun like clay pigeons. Still, as soon as we heard the voice and its echo against the mountainside, Caliber had wriggled out of her harness, and left the chariot that had for so long been a weight on her shoulders behind.

Now the mercenary went by me in a whirlwind of sand and the reddest spice, and broke the jaw of a nearby Lieutenant, leaving him to stumble into the whitewater. I was all but sure that these savages couldn’t swim. Our Stables had left us with that much in common, at least.

I hurried into the clearing, following that one, quivering white bar on my Pipbuck, which I would soon have calling me hero. There was another explosion as I came springing out from between the pines, and I had to hold a hoof over my eyes, and bow my head as if some new Goddess, whose hair was the color of sunset through a polluted sky, had just landed in Zion. Everything went so bright that it was as though a shooting star had been sucked into our atmosphere. It was as though a bullet had been fired from the gun pointed at the head of the universe.

My knees shook, and I had to stand still for fear of tripping over myself, and coming to the rescue with my flanks in the air and my face in the dirt. When the rambling of the river came up over the ringing in my ears, I looked up.

Hanging from one of the pine trees, swinging like a striped piñata, was a Zebra. He cradled an enormous weapon between his hooves, some kind of cannon, but looked a fool as he tried to spit the end of his tail out of his mouth. Watching him pass me by was almost hypnotic, though the branches creaked from the weight of the rockets wrapped around his belly, and a pair of savages snapped their teeth at the tips of his narrow, brushy mane.

After falling in and out of a trance, I remember the Tri-beam laser rifle at my side, and skirted great, blackened craters, around which flower petals lay like so many dancers thrown from a burning ballroom.

I knocked the closest buck down, using the barrel of my rifle to crack his chin like a nut under a hammer. The Zebra swung in through the space between me and the second savage. He looked to have become tangled up all by himself, as his belts of ammunition and leather straps coiled around the branches. It was as though the soldier had been marching over the valley’s canopy, before setting his hoof on a soft spot, and falling through it.

I was trying to line up a clear shot, staring into the savage’s dumb, milky eyes, when his body went limp. He began to convulse as buckshot pricked at his hide like a swarm of bees. Only when he became still, did I notice the burns that covered his legs like tribal tattoos, as if he and I had come from the same village; survived the same temple of trials.

The Zebra came twirling by, with one leg being twisted as the pine tree toyed with his body. Caliber reared up onto her hind legs, and steadied him as a boxer would her punching bag. “Keep your guns on him, ladies!” She called, over the ringing that might have filled every ear in Zion, as though the bells of a hundred churches were playing the sun onto its stage. “Can’t have him reloading that thing.”

The buck was wriggling, and looked to be working his way out of a cocoon as he tried to slide a rocket out of the belt around his middle, and into the cannon. But now, as three mares clicked at him with steel tongues, he froze up, but for the branches that were unfurling around his legs, and the pine needles that pricked him like so many stingers.

“Cee-lestia! Who taught you how to shoot?” Caliber asked, as her eyes rolled around the clearing, dipping into every one of the craters. “I killed more savages with this hoof than you did with one-two-three-four rockets!”

“Would you take aim – when beating on a drum?” The Zebra’s stripes crinkled under a scowl. I had the feeling he wasn’t all that happy to see us. “I have called to the river. And it will answer.” His eyes were a cold, sticky yellow, like a sweat stained hospital gown. And though he was upside down, I could see that he was ugly. At least, for a Zebra.

“Listen to the river,” He said, as Caliber left him to sway in the wind, to twitch with the leaves. “Listen to what comes.” The waters were crashing over themselves now, loud as an army of knights in shining armor, retreating. “Tell me then, would you take aim – When beating on a drum?”

“Listen to the river, children. Listen as it cries. Listen to the river, children. For the river never lies.” His head looked to have become swollen, as a blush rose from behind his stripes. It was like an overripe fruit, hanging low. “Do not drink the water. Don’t tempt what sleeps inside. For soon enough, and after all, its secret will not hide.”

“What did you do?” I whispered. The valley might have tightened its lips then, as the wind became dry and quiet. “What did you call here?”

What is this: a poetry reading?” Caliber whinnied, even as Ash and I stepped in a little closer, like children crowding around a storyteller. “Stop listening to him, Grace.”

“It is the valley’s keeper. Something older than its steel. You may see it sway, see it bend. But none will see it kneel.” The river began to swell and heave, breathing in and breathing out, bubbling like the cauldron of some witch. “Serpent, serpent, come to us. Serpent, serpent rise. Free us from these tired bodies, and cut our mortal ties.”

And then, the river gave birth.

I mistook what came out of the water for the draconic figurehead of a ship: a piece of some wreck being spat out like a fishbone. But it was the head and neck of a creature that went pillaring into the mist that had pooled over the valley, something living. It had the mouth of a horse, and the tongue of a serpent, whipping out at us under yellow cat’s eyes. Farther down its narrow reptilian body, pointed fingers groped at the air, treading it like water.

“Grace-“ Caliber began, before tugging at my sleeve. We were still so calm, staring up at the beast as the mist fell over its face like a hood, and the sail of its back burned red. “Get us out of here.” She said that as if I were steering us straight into a mushroom cloud at the end of a long road, as if I was sailing us into the mouth of some maelstrom.

Can’t, I mouthed the words, We haven’t saved the Zebra.

The serpent; the quarry eel; the dragon, whatever it was, began to bow. Its scales slid over each other like feathers made of glass, and I stood there, in awe of it. It was hypnotic. It was beautifu-

Whump.

Caliber’s hooves pressed into my belly as if into dough, and I went stumbling out of the clearing, even as the earth was torn up all around her. I lay underneath one of the pines as the mercenary danced around the serpent’s claws, and stars span around my head. If I were a tree, she would have knocked all of my apples loose.

I lay there for a while, watching the serpent scratch at the valley as though it had an itch that it couldn’t reach.

“Wake up, Grace: I need you!” Caliber’s voice had to push its way through all the dust and dried out leaves that hung over the clearing, but the words hit me like cold water and a slap across the cheek.

I heard her rifle barking up at the serpent, even as it took Equestria by its shoulders, and shook us. The Zebra cried out, as his leg was twisted and his body spun like that of a puppet on tangled strings. I could not get to my hooves until the serpent had reared back, clutching at the scales that Caliber had already cracked open.

Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum had disappeared. And I had to wonder if she hadn’t finally folded in on herself, like a paper cutout that had only been pasted onto the world. But, as the serpent leaned over and began pulling up the pine trees up like weeds, it seemed all too likely that the little paper pilgrim had been pinched at one corner and peeled off.

After stumbling over to the Zebra, I plucked the rocket launcher out of its battle saddle, even as the branches above him slowly began to snap, almost one by one. I slid two rockets out of the belt around his middle, and loaded the weapon as old sailors might once have done there cannons. There was a little diagram printed on its side, which just might have saved our lives. It said: Attention: Hold like this.

I heard the Zebra fall behind me, and looked back in time to see Caliber come pouncing out of the dust, to gather him up onto her back. Above us, the serpent swayed like the mast of a ship in a monsoon. For all its strength, the beast could not bend in such a way as to pluck us like berries from the edge of the forest. Instead, it had to swing its arms wide, and lower them to scrub wildly at the dirt, as if we were but stains to be cleaned off the face of Zion.

Worse still, with the view it had, we could be little more than ants in its eyes. But I was an ant with a rocket launcher. My legs very nearly fell out from under me, as I steadied that brute of a weapon at my side, and fired.

Leaving a trail of smoke behind it, the first rocket barreled its way through the mist, and hit the mountain. Someone may as well have struck a match against the heel of its boot. Still, those white flowers were turned to the color of fire, the water shone, and the serpent’s shadow passed over us as that of a dragon flying across the sun.

I felt Caliber’s lips on my collar, as she tried to pull me away. Her voice drowned in the water, as it slapped against the serpent’s belly, and spilled up over the riverbank, as bathwater out of a tub. I tried to keep the rocket launcher steady in my magic, even as she pulled me out of the clearing, as though I were a child who did not want to see the end of a long day at some pier or fairground on the beach.

The mercenary could only snap her teeth, as I slipped away from her, and looked up into the eyes of the serpent. This was a comic book villain, seconds away from flipping the switch on their newest doomsday device. Rescue would not be enough. I had to stop it. As the monster opened its mouth, its tongue spilled out, and twirled at the tip like a thin moustache. I dug my hooves into the dirt, tilted the rocket launcher, and fired.

This time, the serpent knew what was coming, and splayed its fingers out in front of it. But it was too slow, and even as the waters began to calm far below it, the rocket slipped through the gap in between its palms, and into the open space between claw and tooth. Its eyes went wide; boiling over, yellow with fear.

It took the blow like a punch to the chin, and cocked back, so that the scales across its belly were pulled taught, like buttons about to pop off. The beast began to reel, like a boxer hanging his head, to let blood trickle from his nose and stars dance around his swollen forehead. It swayed, its arms as dead weight on either side, and I pumped a hoof into the air, watching it sink into the river like a ship into a whirlpool, or the bones of a fish being swallowed tail first.

Then, even as I smiled up into the mist that it had torn to ribbons, the serpent’s fingers began to scratch at the clearing again. It was looking for something to hold on to, like a foal who had spun in one too many circles. And, before my smile could wilt, its palm came swooping down on me, shutting out the sky. And I remembered that, no matter how loudly I beat my war drum, to this collapsing tower of a thing, I was an ant; to be squashed.

Whump.

*** *** ***

I woke up in a pit. The clearing had been turned inside out, and was littered with scales and pine trees like bare fish bones. My back ached. My head felt as though it had been flushed with soapy water. Caliber stood over me, and though the light of midday had given her a glowing red crown – one that might just have been pulled out of some blacksmith’s forge – I could still see her crooked smile.

“You’re not gonna make this job easy, huh?” She cocked her head, and I could almost see the sun, pressing down hard on the storm. “Had to buck you good that time. Just hope I didn’t knock too many of your apples loose.” She spun a hoof around her ear. “You’re already a little short of an orchard.”

“Did we win?” I lit my horn, and soaked myself in anesthetic magic until I was lightheaded, as though I was filling myself up with helium. I kept myself high enough to float up and out of my broken body. “Where’s Ash?”

The mercenary nodded back into the clearing, and I made out a little lavender smudge in between the blurred lines. The pine trees were long and black around her, and seemed to quiver like the strings of a harp. She lay against one of the serpent’s scales, hanging her head. Caliber helped me up, and we limped out of the pit.

“She’ll be alright. But I’d giver her a full tank of that novocain if I were you. Y’know, just to take the edge off.” I winced, and tried to light my horn again, though it went out like a match in the wind. Caliber laid me down underneath one of the pine trees, and brushed the dirt off her shoulder. “I didn’t get to knock her out of the way.”

“Equestrian fools!” The Zebra came crawling into the space between Ash and I. His stripes looked to have been snipped, like velvet ribbons, as streaks of red and purple covered his body as though he were a drunk, soaked in wine. “You might have killed the serpent…”

Caliber rolled her eyes. “Well I’m real sorry, Jack. But your little poem didn’t paint that thing as the most neighborly mutant in the wasteland. Free us from these tired bodies, and cut our mortal ties? That’s some pitiful, roll-over shit.”

“You dare!” The Zebra recoiled, with a gasp and a hoof pressed to his chest. I couldn’t help giggling myself dizzy then, for how easily he’d have fit in with a crowd of high society ladies, as Caliber trod all over their sensibilities.

“Caliber, how dare you!” I said, thickening my voice, as if I had a mouthful of pastry, and a glass of the finest champagne bobbing in my magic. “How dyah you!”

The Zebra lurched towards us, and screwed up his face as if he had just stepped on a thorn. “Ah – I see now. Of course the words can only be wasted on you hardheaded, slack jawed, loudmouthed-“

Loudmouthed!?” I repeated, very loudly, cracking myself up. Ash rolled onto her back, her eyes as wide as tabloid spaceships, as my magic went out like an old light bulb. I lifted a hoof, as if to screw my horn on a little tighter.

“Rein in it, pal! We saved your stri-ped behind, remember?”

Saved me?” He recoiled again. How dyah you! “Do you know why I called to the river? No? Then hear this… I would rather have been taken into the belly of the Serpent, than die by pony hooves, or bleed out on soil that the name of your nation has soiled.” I floated out a Stimpack, and only just stopped myself from suckling at it as though it were a baby’s bottle. “You have done nothing but rob me of my pride. To be saved by you is to be humiliated.”

“Then I’ve got news for you, Gimpy.” She snatched the Stimpack out of my magic, stormed over to Ash, and began collecting the little pilgrim off the ground. “That pony over there – the one dribbling all over her collar – was the one who put the kibosh on your little Stable problem: the one who saved Zion.”

As the buck gawked at me, I raised both hooves in the air, more like a foal asking to be picked up than a hero at the front of a parade, trying to catch confetti. “Now, we were just on our way out.” Caliber lifted a few dozen pounds of pilgrim onto her back, without so much as a grunt, and then emptied the Stimpack into her side. “I’ll let you head on home now, so you can get started on all the poems they write about us.”

From the look of his twisted leg, the Zebra couldn’t have walked away if he was magicked into the heart of Canterlot, only to be surrounded by the Ministry Mares, as they all chanted Equestria! Equestria! Equestria!

It was starting to seem like we were going to leave him behind, to go marching out of Zion, and I was about to suggest going back for the chariot. But then, as if Celestia was calling her upstairs for breakfast, Ash began to wriggle her way off of Caliber’s back and, like the pulp of so many roses and lilacs being emptied out of a lawnmower that had swallowed up a garden, the mares collapsed in a heap.

Whump.

*** *** ***

“Well, this about settles it,” Caliber said, as she pulled the chariot over another rib of stone, which pressed out of the earth like a bone under the skin of the starving. Ash and I, with our eyes low and ours heads in the clouds, would have been rolling over each other and the Zebra soldier, had we not been weighed down under the saddlebags, and tucked in between barrels of Zion’s pristine water. “I’m an ambulance.”

The Zebra named Dakarai, who had said his name with one hoof pounding against his chest, snorted, as I watched the wind run its fingers through Caliber’s mane. “You are nothing but a mule: pulling vegetables to market.”

“Then you’re one funny colored watermelon.”

“Equestrian Brute!” He moved as if tangled up in a thorn tree, as every flinch sent a prickling up and down his legs, and twisted up his face. His stripes seemed to crinkle at their corners. "Say that to my face!"

“Why does it have to be this way?” I asked, raising my voice, and lowering my brow. “Can we all get along?” The Zebra just glared down at me. “Equestria doesn’t want to fight you anymore. The war is over: We won.”

“You what?” The chariot lurched, and though I could see his hooves tightening around my neck, I felt nothing, even as I began to choke. If I were any more lightheaded, I might have floated away.

“Hey!” Caliber was shouting, and I even heard Ash chirp as the Zebra trod on her hair: a streak of lilac over all this black and white and red all over. “Hey!” I looked up at into the sky. The pine trees seemed to have scattered, like frightened birds, and I saw only a wide, white nothing, spinning far above me. Still, there were the leaves and the last stricken branches of the canopy, in the corner of my eye, reaching out as if to find another forest to pull in close.

Knock it off!” I heard something like the sound of bone striking bone, and his hooves went loose around my neck. My lungs swelled up, and the sky stopped spinning. “Grace…” Her eyes were the color of mud and earth and barren stone, like two planets yet to be given shape, yet to have life breathed into them. “Grace!” She was shaking me by the shoulders, and I heard the Zebra groan. “I need you to get your head out of the bathwater, baby.”

“Wuh?” I asked. I didn’t understand what she was saying, what was happening, but then, Dakarai pounced, and the two of them went rolling out of the chariot. It was as if a hole had been drilled at the base of my skull, and I felt the fog beginning to clear, as so much lather and soapy water spilled out of me.

Then, there was something cold running down my face, trickling down my collar, and pooling over my chest. I had been slapped across the cheek with a clump of snowmelt, almost water, thrown up at me as if by catapult. I looked down to see Caliber, with one hoof pressing the Zebra’s head into the mush, and another cocked back, with snow trickling down it like ice cream down the side of a cone.

I fell out of the chariot like a stack of books, and found myself, with pages sprawled and spine creased, at the bottom of a wide riverbed. Its soil was pale, almost sandy, and felt coarse as I rolled onto my back, and stared up into the storm. A great, white whale seemed to be crossing over the valley then, as all that was left of the mist had been molded into the shape of a leviathan, swimming north, towards the open sky.

The riverbed, a strip of silt that would once have run wider than the serpent’s river, was littered with a broken chain of islands, whose shores were all rock and snow, and whose pine trees stood crooked, often naked on one side, wearing their needles like hospital gowns. Behind me, was a narrow island like a shipwreck, as if the river had been pulled out from under it. The treetops prodded at the great whale as it crossed the valley, like harpoons.

I felt trapped, as if the mountains, blue on one side and black on the other, were closing in around us; as if the forests that stood on each of the riverbed’s banks had chased us here, into this open grave for old islands. Then, as I listened to the Zebra choking on that pulpy snow, with Caliber’s hoof pressing him into the earth, I wondered if we would ever get out. Or if Zion would close its mouth, and swallow us.

“Caliber…” I lay a hoof on her shoulder, and her scowl went soft. “Let him up.”

“Savages!” He gasped, and I could almost feel my lungs swelling, my limbs aching, right along with his. “Murderers!” His voice came out waterlogged; soft in the middle, and I ignored him, helping Ash out of the chariot. She stepped down onto the riverbed like a fallen starlet, with her mane over her eyes and her body moving as if it had just been shocked awake by flashing cameras and fake smiles. I would have washed her face in the snowmelt, to clear her mind, but the little pilgrim was already shivering so much that it was hard to keep my hoof on her.

I took off my father’s coat, and lay it across her shoulders. She walked slowly, as if the world was upside down, and she might go falling up into the mouth of the whale. The wind rushed by us like clear water, and I held her close. Zion was not a warm place, even for the embers that had filled the air like fireflies, all through the night.

“O.K. I’m sweeping my chips off the table.” Caliber straightened out het scarf, and I had to picture her in the rumpled suit and tie of a gambler whose hot streak was freezing over. “Deal me out of this fucking valley, Daquiri.”

“Dakarai.” Suddenly, the buck was smiling. “And I don’t think that will be a problem. It seems you have caught the attention of the sentinels.” He tilted his chin to the west and even Ash turned her head, though she didn’t stop there, and kept spinning like a dog chasing its tail. “Your hedonist kingdom had a saying for this, didn’t it?”

The riverbed now seemed like the parched tongue to Zion’s mouth, and there, stepping down from the stones and the driftwood and the timber that were its teeth, with rifles glowing at their sides and skulls stamped onto their faces, were soldiers. Their banners had once stared down at us from the other side of a war. “The House Always Wins.”

And then as Dakarai stepped around us, and his faceless bannermen became as still as a firing squad, I couldn’t help feeling like we’d been pulled into it again: like mares on a stage, repeating history.

*** *** ***

The soldiers herded us down the riverbed, keeping us boxed in between their striped bodies, and clicking their tongues whenever Caliber tried to tell them that we were heroes. There was a road running along the northern riverbank, and the driftwood there had been stacked into neat piles, like pale corpses and a funeral pyre. There were lanterns, hanging over the road like fat yellow fireflies, bobbing in the glow of this stormy afternoon.

“How is it that savages travel faster than good news in this place?” Ash asked, at a whisper. Our minds were clear, as adrenaline had run the anesthesia out of our blood. Still, there was a stormcloud hanging heavy over my head, angry and spinning. I felt cheated. They were treating me like a piece of litter, to be swept out of the valley. They had not heard the cheers. They didn’t even know that somewhere, in the west, their war had been won.

I should have kept the Caesar’s laurels. I should have worn them like a crown, if only to be treated like a King. I should have let it got to my head. For there was nothing more sobering than being knocked down from a pedestal. There was nothing more sobering, than a bitter drink, served up instead of a toast of milk and honey.

For once, I was as surly as the mercenary at my side, and tried to screw my face, stealing her scowl. Dakarai had thrown us under the wheels. He had cried Exile, and the soldiers had nodded their heads. That is, after all, what they wanted to do to every Equestrian: run us out of the country. We were lucky he hadn’t screamed bloody murder.

We were eastbound, and might have been walking for hours, as brilliant ribbons of sunshine slipped over the valley, to paint glassy skyscrapers onto the mountains, and make neon lights out of the leaves. I almost felt peaceful then, as I watched the sun come sliding out from behind the storm.

I didn’t have to turn away, to know that we were all marching with our heads cocked over our shoulders, as though our queen was waving down from a balcony, watching us go to war.

“Never really saw the sun down south,” Caliber said, as if we weren’t at gunpoint. I turned, and saw that Ash was still staring ahead, to where the riverbed began to narrow, and shone as if littered with the pieces of a broken mirror.

“You got to see this every night?” I asked her, with something like jealousy in my voice. She looked bored. This was the greatest show on earth, and we had front row seats. But the pilgrim had seen it, time and time again. I wondered if it made her think of her congregation, if they hadn’t bowed to the sunset or dipped their heads in its reflection in the lake that crowned the Great Plain – I could already see it on my Pipbuck, as its shore came close enough to kiss Zion on the mouth. “Sunset over the water… every single night.”

My hoofsteps quickened, if only to match my heartbeat. We could still make it in time; reach the edge of the valley, and look out over that same lake stretch out over Equestria’s northern border. We could watch it swallow the sun.

“It doesn’t mean anything now. It’s just lights and clockwork,” She said, sending a shiver down my spine. It felt like blasphemy, like going up to some Zebrican priest and shouting: God is an Equestrian. “The Sun and the Moon are wild horses, whipped into a frenzy; running on though their reins hang loose.”

“Huh,” Caliber said, as a few of the soldiers grunted around us. “That’s not the way Damascus tells it.” I nodded, knowing that the Stable wouldn’t have taught him that story… that he hadn’t taught the Stable that story. Either way. “He figures the Princesses still have the run of things up there. Hell, I’ve heard him say they dip their hooves into this dogfight of a wasteland from time to time. You know, to keep us straight.”

“My Pilgrimage made the same mistake. And this Damascus is no less of a fool for it.” She sounded frustrated, knowing that his was another mind that she might not change in time, another soul that she might not save. “To believe that our Goddesses would do so little, that they would stand over the world as if it were a… dogfight. And do nothing but make their bets, prodding at the beasts in the ring. That’s nothing short of heresy.”

“You don’t think they’re…” I paused, knowing to tread lightly. “-gone, do you?”

“Of course not.” She looked up into the sun, and her eyes went watery, so that I could see it setting into shallow tears. “Somewhere in the heavens… they are waiting.” And then, for just a moment, as I watched the star burning a hole in those midnight eyes, I believed it. “This place is ours now. And only by following in their hoofsteps, can we escape it.”

I looked around, and saw the Zebras as if for the first time. And, as they looked up into the sunset, and back at the girl who thought so little of it, even the skulls painted over their faces could not mask the curiosity in their eyes: the wonder. We were all carrying the same question like a weight around our necks: What if she was right?

“What would your Damascus say, if he knew how wildly they spin?” She asked, still staring up into the empty eggshell of a Goddess. “If he knew that there were times when the sun and the moon shared the sky.”

Caliber froze up. “That’s… that’s an old tavern story.” There was fear in her eyes. “A wasteland legend.”

Finally, Ash looked away from the sun, and what she said next made me wonder if she hadn’t been staring into it to hide her tears. “My Pilgrimage… never believed me. Never believed that chaos and war are the only Gods this bitter earth has left – just as it was in the beginning. But I saw it. I watched the sun and the moon cross each other, and knew that they were adrift: like empty ships on the tide.”

“That’s why you didn’t jump.” I breathed out the words. “You knew what the alicorn was.” A child of the war; some kind of super mutant. “You knew that it couldn’t be her.”

“Yes.” Her eyes might have caught the fire of the sun, as they still burned. “For having seen the other side of twilight: I was saved.”

“That can’t be true.” Caliber was shaking her head now, rolling her hooves around it as if to stir away the confusion. “That can’t be true. Nothing would fit anymore. The days, the seasons… the galaxy. It would all fall apart.”

“I saw it.” We had come to a stop. Zion was no longer trailing away beside us. And the Zebra were striking flint against steel, lighting torches. “And no one can take that away from me.”

“Silence!” As a Lieutenant raised his voice, the soldier’s hooves clicked together all at one, like rifles before a 21 gun salute. I felt cold, though their torches burned, and the sky blushed. “Here is an Equestrian place: a sore on the lip of Zion. Here is where you will answer for your crimes against the scout Dakarai, and the serpent that has for so long been a trial to the Buffalo of the plains: something for their young warriors to test themselves against. Without it, they would surely run into Zion, looking for striped hides instead of scales to be their trophies.”

I could hardly believe it. The Zebras were afraid. And did nothing to hide it. They saw no shame in fearing the Buffalo. “Here is the place from which you will be thrown into the wastes.” Thrown?

The faceless Lieutenant lifted a hoof, and pointed over the pools of water which broke up the riverbed, all honeyed or bloodied by the sunset. Over a broad courtyard of shallow water, there was a gateway that opened out over the lowlands of the Great Plain. And lording over it, lifting off in a ballerina’s pirouette, was a statue, whose wing was raised in a salute the east. “Here is the Pegasus Bridge.”

*** *** ***

Great, steel bulwarks rose up around the drowned courtyard, which was littered with pieces of the broken Pegasus. Its right wing had snapped off at the middle, and lay in ruins, like chewed food on Zion’s tongue. And when the sun cast its shadow over the riverbank, it looked like a long, quivering sickle, as if Death’s hand was shaking as he leaned over the Pegasus Bridge. As if Death, now so close to finally catching me, was trembling with anticipation.

Ahead, I could hear the low trickle of what would once have been a terrible waterfall. The valley was drooling like a baby, or someone in a coma. I couldn’t know how high Zion sat, how many stairs pilgrims from the Great Plain had climbed to come to this place, or how far we would have to fall to escape it once and for all.

Our hooves coasted through the water, like oars, sending ripples through the calm. And no one spoke. It was as though there was an electricity in the air, like that before a thunderstorm, and I could hear the wind, sending shivers through the pine trees that had been hidden away behind the bulwarks.

And then, there was lightning. And I was the only one whose nerves weren’t plucked into a panic, who didn’t pound at the water and send languid ripples to spread out around us. For a while, I was Damascus on the Road: a runaway from the city and the fallout, watching the dogs go by as lightning danced across the sky. I was one of the first out. And I was fearless… for a while.

The soldiers turned their rifles up at the statue, and their fence fell apart around us. But, like lambs stunned by the sight of a thunderhead, rolling and flashing over the hills, we didn’t even think to make our escape. There was a hole in the sky there, and the lighting came springing out of it, while a voice like thunder rolled off of the valley’s tongue.

AND SO… THE LAMB OF BABYLON BARES HER NECK.” I was Damascus in the sand: a pioneer coming into the valley of death, watching dogs come up out of the earth while something soaked my head as if in wine. It was her voice, but as different as wildfire is to candlelight. The Zebras fired up at the hole in the sky, which had widened so that we could no longer see the statue, but their bullets crumpled against shields that were as bright as neon. There was a silhouette at the heart of this new storm, and I mistook it for the stone Pegasus, blackened in the sun.

LISTEN WELL, SHEEP WOMAN: AND KNOW THAT YOU HAVE SHAKEN THE CRIB OF A GOD!” But then, as a volley from Caliber’s rifle plucked inky feathers from its wing, and I heard Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum screaming Abomination, I understood why the words had to come bursting out as if from a pit somewhere inside my head. I had taken a knife to the throat of this maniac alicorn, and cut out her voice.

AND IN ITS TANTRUM, IT WILL TAKE THE WORLD AS A RATTLE -” The voice was cut off, as Ash threw up a tempest of shrapnel and the ugliest words in the Faith’s ancient language. The alicorn had disappeared like a magician in a cloud of smoke and glitter, but Ash would not stop firing until all the embers left behind by that black magic had come sinking down into the water. Her face was streaked with tears, dotted with some kind stardust. Her mane was a field of lilac set on fire for the setting sun.

We stood there, all of us, shaking. And it was quiet, until Caliber flashed the bewildered Zebras a smile as crooked as that stone Pegasus, and shrugged. “Sorry about that… I guess it followed me home.”

Before they could train their rifles back onto us, there was a ripple in the air behind me, and a whisper in my ear, though it came from the inside out. “COME, LAMB OF BABYLON, AND SEE WHAT YOUR WARS HAVE WOKEN.

And then, just before she cut another slit into the fabric of the sky, and threw us through it, I heard the rattle of plate armor, the rustling of red feathers, and the yelping of a den of savages, emptied out over the Pegasus Bridge.

JUST TO KEEP THEM COMPANY WHILE WE’RE AWAY.” The alicorn had rolled a battlefield off of her back, and I almost felt cheated, as she took me into her magic, and warped me away from it.

*** *** ***

Together, we went down a path that only Gods could walk. We sailed through nebula, span around the pillars of creation, slipped through an hourglass, and were pulled down the throat of a horsehead. We were stirred into the milk of the galaxy. And then, spat out into open space, left to drift into the spaces between the stars.

It was dark. And I would never know if all those lights had been stars, or the spots that float across one’s eyelids after staring into something bright. I was in a steel chamber and beams of something as clean and as pale as moonlight shone down from the narrow windows on the walls. I could feel her standing over me, her breath warm on my neck.

O SOVEREIGN LORD!” Her voice filled my head, so that it felt as though it would burst, repeating the very words that had come out of the abomination’s throat just before I slit it. “I HAVE DONE IT. I HAVE FOUND THE ONE THAT SET THE WORLD ON FIRE.

I looked up, only to find a broad terminal screen built into the wall, staring back at me. It flickered, and a thousand voices seemed to whisper to me, coming from everywhere and all at once, their language scrambled. Who wrote the page put to the pen of a thousand writers? Who killed the king put to the knife of a thousand turncoats?

BUT-“ Something was speaking to her. There was a voice in her head – voices – and I could hear them spilling out of her ears, out of her mouth. There was anguish in her eyes. Whatever they were saying – it was hurting her; insulting her. She was not a slave taking lashes across her back, or a lover being thrown out with stained sheets. She was a child, being told that she was unwelcome in the world; that she had been a mistake.

The screen was filled with a boiling, angry white, and I heard the voices come out of her, wailing. The alicorn was crying, staring up at the screen, as if her eyelids were being held open by little hooks. “I… I DON’T UNDERSTAND.”

Symbols began to flash across the screen, and slowly took on the shape of our Equestrian alphabet, as if the machine was only just learning our language. And, only then, did I begin to think of it as a child; to take the babble at the back of my mind as the gurgling of a newborn. And the flashing lights as the beating fists of its first tantrum.

Metaphor.

The word blinked at the middle of the screen. Shivering and lonely as the first star in the sky.

She is not a slave or a lover
She is not a child.

And then, together, we found the answer.

She is a toy, being outgrown.

The abomination’s shadow filled the room, as she was pulled up into the air, and splayed out like a screaming marionette, as if strings had been stitched into the tips of her wings. NO. The word pounded into the machine’s cold whispering, and punched a hole in it. NO. NO. NO. My head felt crowded, and I caught myself looking for a way out.

But there was no escape. There was no way out of the chamber. At least, not that I could find.

I saw a pinprick of light at the tip of her horn, and as she screamed, as her feathers were plucked, I watched the light grow, like that hole in the sky. She was opening a door, and I would be damned if I didn’t follow her out.

I threw myself towards the alicorn, and leapt up at her naked chest as if to embrace her: to feel her heart beating against my cheek - to feel her magic taking me in like a bubble might the point of a needle, just before it popped - to run away with her. To quiet. To Zion.

To galaxy.

*** *** ***

It was bright. And a battlefield unfolded all around us. The water shone as it was thrashed up under their hooves, and there were flowers of fire, all red and black and angry, opening up to the sun. At least a dozen of Zion’s savages stood around us, and Dakarai fired out at them with his shouldered rocket launcher. When the bubble finally popped, there was hysteria: howls and gunfire, curses and the clicking of empty rifles.

The alicorn fell to her knees, as her wings were weighing her down like a wet ballgown. She had only just gotten her hooves off the ground, when Ash ran over to us, emptied out a barrel of fire into her belly, and leapt up onto her back.

“Abomination!” She cried, as if it were a name. “You will soon know if dead gods can dream.”

The pilgrim’s hair was so wet that it had become black, and clung to her forehead like seaweed, even as the alicorn bucked and pushed tired wings through the smoke. But, as Ash beat another drum against the bottom of her shotgun, I saw the alicorn horn light up like a match, and could only watch in awe as she knitted herself a pair of neon wings, and splinters of her shield magic came to replace those plucked feathers. Then, still together, they took off.

Caliber threw her weight against me, her hooves slipping for what might have been the first time. I could feel the heat of her rifle on my belly, and tried to count the dead, as they bobbed in and out of their shallow graves.

Dakarai and his Lieutenant stood, as little more than silhouettes before their pillaring, red flares. Caliber wrestled the last of the savages away from me, even as he tried to climb over her like a fanatic admirer, clutching pen and portrait, over a bodyguard. She cracked his head open against a stone, and the water went red around our hooves.

I looked up again, and saw the alicorn like a butterfly with a broken wing, dancing around that ancient statue, even as the pilgrim on her back was pinched between those glassy feathers. “Goddesses…” I said, as the abomination came to hover over the bridge that drew a firm, silver line over the mouth of Zion. “They’re going to go over the edge.”

“Say the word, Grace!” Caliber sounded desperate, and the water made it so that she had to fumble with her rifle, looking down its scope like a clumsy assassin. “I’ll shoot that bitch down!”

But it was too late. She was casting her spell, and it already looked as though she had skewered the sun on her horn.

The alicorns’s wings seemed to shatter, and she let herself fall. Two silhouettes went sailing over the sunset: one like an enormous bird with an arrow in its breast, and the other like a baby that had slipped out of the stork’s beak. The abomination was limp, and Ash’s bandages trailed behind her like a torn blanket.

There was a flash. But only one of the figures disappeared in the folds of that bottomless magic.
Then, like a coin tossed into a fountain, Ash hit the water, and sent ripples down the sickle of the Pegasus Bridge.

*** *** ***

I held the pistol steady, keeping Dakarai and his Lieutenant still as Caliber waded through the water, and began towing in the shipwreck that was Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum. The Zebras stared through me, scowling at a postcard of Equestria. To the northeast, the sun was cooling its belly in an enormous lake, and the statue arched its wing over it, as if to wave goodbye to the mountains and the pines as they marched down onto the shores of that glacial water.

Here we were again, in a beautiful place: at war.

I heard the pilgrim coughing up water, and the sound was like music to me. Ash was still alive. “Alright, Doc…” Caliber lifted her hoof, and pushed my father’s automatic down. “Doesn’t look like she sprung any leaks. But once we break even with what’s left of The House here: You’d better give her a good going over.”

“I will see you scrubbed off of the tongue of Zion!” The Lieutenant stomped his hoof, as if to sound out an exclamation point. “You brought that demon down from the stars! You killed my men!” Caliber had confiscated his rifle, only to find that its glyphs had lost their color, just as his belts of ammunition ran dry. Now, the weapon had half of its barrel buried in the sand, and stood like a lonely cross over the graveyard behind us.

Caliber rocked her weight back, like a dog about to pounce, and I had come to know the mare so well that I heard the words rolling off of her tongue even before she spoke. We just saved your ass!

“Lieutenant.” Dakarai stepped forward, and bowed his head. “It’s over.” The two of them locked eyes, and even for how sunken they had become in the skulls that masked their faces, I could see something unspoken pass between them then. The Lieutenant looked away from Equestria, whose false God had spilled enough blood to paint this place’s water the color of wine, and whose heroes had clouded its skies with smoke. He turned back to the graveyard: to the anemic glyphs that spun around his empty rifle, like doves around a cross.

“It’s over.” Then, without so much as a glance back at us or the sunset country whose highways and wheat fields we would soon escape to, he began to march into Zion, with Dakarai falling into step behind him. One held his head up high, while the other let his hang, forgetting his pride and reminding me that, in the end, we were not so different. At the end of the war, we were all survivors.

Caliber watched them go through narrowed eyes, suspicious even though they had given their weapons up to their own watery graves. I left her, and went to sit down beside the pilgrim, who lay on her back, and stared up into the storm. I could see its weight bending the pine trees that dotted the lake’s shore, could see it sending strange ripples to fade out across the water, like radio waves into open space.

Ash was so still, her eyes so full of sky, that I thought she might have slipped away.
But, as far as I knew, the dead couldn’t cry.

We’ll get her, Ash,” I said.

“I know.” She looked up at me, and the sun was in her eyes. “I was ready to die today… But we were meant for each other.” At the time, together there in the water, I had thought she was talking about us.

I felt Caliber glowering at my side, as one might feel the warmth of a fire. “That was fucked.” Her breath came out as steam, and she was so close that it felt hot on my neck. “This whole valley is fucked.” Her collars fluttered, as a draft came rolling through the bulwarks, as if to say: If you don’t like it: Leave. “I can’t stand it… I just can’t stand it.”

She went on, lighting a cigarette, as I helped Ash out of her tattered vest. “Biblical shit’s popping out of thin air; the winning hand is getting passed around like a drunk nun… You can’t breathe in too deep for the smoke. You can’t drink the water. Hell, I bet if you stopped to smell the roses, you’d end up hogtied and hallway to a ritual sacrifice.”

There was panic in Ash’s eyes, as I started to peel her bandages, which the water had all but ruined. “What are you doing?” She started to rock her weight from side to side, like a turtle flipped over onto its shell. “Stop!”

I put on my best this-isn’t-going-to-hurt-a-bit smile, even as I shot Caliber the same look that had passed between a thousand doctors and nurses before us: Get the sedatives. Instead, the mercenary pinned her down by the shoulders. And, with the cigarette in her mouth and the pistol hovering at my side, we must have looked more like a couple of thugs pilfering a tourist who had taken the wrong turn.

I wouldn’t have been so rough on the shy little mare, if it weren’t for the long, ugly bruises that had been left across both sides of her ribcage, like the final, striking lines through a prisoner’s calendar. The alicorn’s glassy feathers might not have broken through her skin but, like any firm pinch, they had left their mark. I knew the beast was to blame, but pictured Gravity digging its talons into her sides, and pulling Ash down towards the end of her pilgrimage.

“This would be a lot easier if you would. Just. Stop. Moving,” Caliber said, as she wrestled with the pilgrim, who had become as slippery as a muddy piglet. But then, the mercenary’s eyes went wide. And, as I ran my magic along the bruise, dabbing at it just as Doctor Cross had with her cloths and salves, I knew why.

A bone had stopped one of the alicorn’s feathers from slipping through Ash’s ribs, and piercing her heart. A bone that, but for the grace of the Goddess, should not have been there.

“Ash…”

The Pegasus covered her eyes, and began to weep, as if she was jealous of that old statue for being left with at least one of its wings.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Equestrian Imperialist: You don’t take kindly to raiders, junkies or tribals trying to “settle” or “stay alive” in civilized lands.Against anyone who is just a little too ‘different’, you do +15% damage and have a bonus chance to hit in S.A.T.S.

Companions:
Ash is now Loyal!
Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum is a mechanical genius, and probably doesn’t know what a doubt feels like.

While she is in the party, your Repair skill is effectively 100, and your equipment will degrade half as quickly.

END OF BOOK III: LEVITICUS