• ...
31
 276
 4,544

Chapter 17: Flutterwonder

Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 17: Flutterwonder
“Honey, I brought you into this world... I think you know the rest."

|*| The Galaxy Wasn't Built in a Day |*|

When I opened my eyes, I saw white. I was standing on a page without ink, but shadows slunk around me like faceless timberwolves. Above me, the clouds danced around a milk and honey colored sun, but could not come in close enough to touch the fire without being boiled away. The sun was small, more like the smoldering pit of a dying star, a grape dried up into a raisin, or a glacier melted down to an ice cube. There was a scream, and I was sure I was listening to the atmosphere being torn open.

The satellite belts that surrounded the sun were like cluttered and crisscrossed skyways, as the clouds were being torn up, then mashed together again like scraps of newspaper and greasy fish. They became chariots of fire as the sun lashed out at them, like one of the unwashed swatting away so many flies. And only then did I see that I had been spinning around this flyblown Lazarus like any one of them, on a shambles of cloud and rain and empty space; on a raft chasing the sails of battleships.

I heard the tearing again, and imagined the fingers of the wind, calloused and clumsy, taking the sky by its skirts and pulling it apart. The sun shivered and a ripple came out from inside of it, making the raft rock under me, and the clouds went drifting away like ships whose moorings had come loose. And, if only for a moment, I saw the sun’s fire die down. It would not go out like a star, but a birthday candle.

It began to shrink, until it was little more than an eye glaring out at me from inside the maelstrom, the eye of the God of the Sea. The clouds and the torrents of rain followed after it, trickling out from under me. I watched them go, like a filly staring out across the sea, letting the foam of the surf tickle my hooves. And in their place their came water, and then earth and rock and metal; a drowned world coming up for air.

This was how Equestria was made, I thought, as deserts and hinterlands and pastures and tundra came up out of the water, as orchards and fields of wheat and gardens of roses came up, dripping wet as though they were sweating. The light of the sun stuttered, and I felt like I was watching it through the windows of a moving train. I was above it all, standing on solid air. And I felt safe.

But then the sky began to go dark, as if being cooked in the light of day. It smelt of storms and firewood. And soon enough, there were walls of metal growing up on every side of me. It was as though I was being boxed in, shut away from this newborn earth. There was glass, and there was steel. The ceilings were high and the air was thin. The light was without warmth, and I felt like I was in a quarantined place.

There was a window on the wall, and I looked out over a country colored by paint that was still wet. The sun had drifted off into space, and bobbed over the horizon like a baby in bathwater. There was something alien about its light, something frail, and I couldn’t help feeling far away from home. This was not a world that had been left empty by the winds of balefire or plague, but one that was sterile: an empty world that might only have been built to replace the one we destroyed.

I could hear angels sing.

There was a terminal on the wall. And as words flashed onto the screen, I understood that I was not in some prison, but in the Deimos. Still, the walls were clean. The ship was empty. It was not the same.

G.P.E Deimos

Public Access Terminal 30-g <0.0.1.900.>

***INCOMING MESSAGE FROM THE BROKEN HEART OF THE UNIVERSE***

You made it [This is how the world was made]. You made it.
It’s been so long. Most die before it is done. But you… you gave birth to paradise without so much as a whimper [mothered Eden and Valhalla and Arcadia, all Siamese and bound at the head like flower petals] With metal bones pulled out from around the belly of Hell. And flowers plucked from Zion.
It has your eyes. And your father’s heart. Our little golden lion. Paradise.
To your chaos. I give order. To your beauty. I give horror.
I don’t even know your name. But we were meant for one another.

Sorry. I’m a romantic [no I’m not]. I’m a paradox. [no I’m not]. I am Sovereign [no I’m not]. I am [no I’m not].
Enough of that. You should get going. [You’ll find me in between the lines]

There is one more thing, Ender…
This ship is about to crash.

Keep your eyes shut. Or you will die.
Close your eyes. And don’t open them until the screaming stops. And the fires go cold.

Close your eyes, Ender.
close your eyes… closer closer closer

Good.

*** *** ***

The screaming stopped. And the fires went cold. I opened my eyes wide, short of breath and sweating as if waking from a nightmare: a horror film whose projector stuttered and whose speakers howled and clicked their teeth until they had chewed their tongues off. But now, it was quiet.

The angels’ voices had come ringing out after the bellows of the airship, like bells chiming around the neck of a dying cow, their melodies as muted as those of a choir with their heads held underwater.

The wreckage spread out around me, like the bones of a whale whose belly might once have been where I made my bed. There were the ship’s dead engines like the empty eye sockets of the same leviathan, and a blue rose whose petals had been scattered. And the lights were like streetlamps and headlights shining through the smoke, neon signs and barrels full of fire licking up at the darkness. Some of the lights were strange. There were alien shades of purple of green, crouching in their pits as if to hide from the sun, which sat on the cliffs that were crowded in around us.

I crept through the ruin, though it was groaning like an old hospital bed and every body that had been in it. The sky had become waterlogged for pools of gray and black, and I could taste charcoal, even as winter danced down the tip of my tongue. I remembered this. This was apocalypse. I thought I could see cities burning in every fire; thought I could hear sirens wailing under the angel’s song. It felt like home.

The smell of ash and gunpowder, of cigarettes and pages of scripture being burnt to cinders, made me think of my friends. I could have looked for their bodies in the wreckage. But I felt nothing. I must have known they hadn’t been on the ship. Then again, I couldn’t be sure.

Of anything at all.

I didn’t know where I was going, as my compass had become a blur for how quickly it was spinning.
N and S, E and W shot by like four racing Pegasus caught in a loop, chasing each other’s tails. And the screen of my Pipbuck was frozen on that same prehistoric symbol.

So I wandered, poking through the wreckage, warming my hooves by the fires that dotted it like so many spilt jewels, shivering in the moonlight that still seemed to be spilling through the ship’s broken windows.

I left hoofprints in what could either have been snow or ash. I felt it clinging to my hair, dressing me up for the apocalypse. Eventually I came to a cave in the cliffs that the ship had broken itself against.

I bowed my head, and stepped into the cave, only to find the symbol carved into the stone: dancing in that firelight of many strange colors. But I wasn’t afraid of it. I knew it, now. I knew the sound of its voice.

The world folded in around me.
But this time, the book slammed shut.

*** *** ***

Whump. After being spat out of thin air and seeing paradise go by in a blur as I fell, I felt my body crumple, tucking itself into a bed of bruises. And I lay in it – dizzy – with my nose pressed into grass that might have been perfumed with chamomile, and a bed of soil that felt warm for the light of a nearby sun. I lay there, letting myself become sleepy, like a cat on a windowsill, watching its own tail swing.

My eyes were shut, and as I paged lazily through the photo albums in my head, I saw fame following me from the day I was born, like a star hovering over my head. I had always been famous: In-famous when I was the Daughter of the Damned, with my heart on my sleeve and black heartedness in my blood. Out-famous when I left the Stable and became the Shepard: with a gun close beside me and a cross on my flank; a mercenary on one side and a pilgrim on the other. Did they miss me, I wondered. Was I missing?

I had given birth to Eden and Valhalla and Arcadia, and I felt beautiful. My body felt clean. My scars were erased, my bruises washed away. I was fresh out of the salon. I was a doll just taken out of its packaging.
I was gorgeous.

The star that hung over my head had never seemed brighter. I watched it burn, as I lay prostrate at the edge of a canyon high up in the mountains - a deep shelf scooped out of the cliffs - looking out over everything the light touched. There was a cliff edge, only a few paces away, and I might have gone on to be dashed against the stony shoreline far, far below if I’d so much as rolled over.

The star hovered over a crowded pine forest – shaved to stubble in places – and a swelling glacial lake, whose shores were pale and blinked up at me for glassy pebbles, and whose water was steamy and boiling. The star, the sun, was slowly lowering itself into it, like a mare into a salted bath.

It was in atmosphere, and I could almost see the holes it had seared in the clouds on its way down, leaving cigarette burns in wool, black licks of coffee in the cream. I watched the weight of its bleached light bending the forests, so that shadows danced around it like naked, black bodies around a bonfire.

Far away, I could see pinpricks over the horizon: the stars, like children sharing their single bed in the sky, fighting over that sprawling blanket of plum velvet. And I believed. I needed this paradise to be real.

The pillars of steam rising up from the lake held up the sun that I had made, like an offering. I had built this place, as if to show some God that I could learn to make my own galaxies, and grow up to be just like him. Deep ripples spread across the lake as the sun came in a little closer, and frothy waves lapped up over the shore, stealing driftwood from the forests. Somehow, I knew that I was alone here.

There were no tribes down in the forest: no birds perching on the pines. There were no bears shaking honey combs down from their branches, or wildcats sharpening their claws on knotted trunks. There were no elk skipping over the shallow places in the river, or eagles plucking fish out of the rapids. There were no wolves. There had never been a sky full of herons, or a river bursting its banks with salmon. There were no other eyes staring up into the sinking sun. I was alone here.

But I could hear angels sing.

And I watched the clouds lick their wounds. I watched them spin, chasing each other around the fire. I watched the water trying its best to learn how to walk, so that it might climb onto the shore and escape into the forest. I watched all that steam pillaring under the sun, which flashed like lightning in a thunderhead. And then, all of a sudden, I was back to Apocalypse. And it became a mushroom cloud.

The steam went black. The sun went dark. And, in silence, the fallout came dancing across the water. The light was changing. But it was all happening so slowly, more like dawn turning into dusk than the drumbeat, and the wailing, and the blown out candles of the end of the world.

I stood there, watching the sun wilt, watching it turn itself inside out. And, after what might have been hours, I turned my back on it, knowing that days would pass before the fallout clawed its way up into the mountains. My shadow was tall, and I watched it swimming in the grass and the mossy belts of red and lavender that had stained it like spilt dye. There were flowers in the canyon, and the wind seemed to pluck their petals one by one, whispering she loves me.

High above me, on top of either one of the canyon walls, were laurels of spruce and pine. These forests were my audience, staring down from their coliseum seats as if I were a gladiator, or a lion, or a slave. Boulders lay about the canyon, leaning against the walls, loitering out in the open meadow with the few pine trees and purple spruces that had been thrown down into the ring with us.

At the end of the canyon, besides the slope that lead up into the mountains, there was a waterfall, whose stream came to throw itself off of the cliff right beside me, only to be boiled into steam before it hit the lake. I came up to the water, as dandelions burst around me like little fireworks, like the sun that went supernova so that the earth could have iron and silicon.

I watched the pebbles quiver in the stream, watched them change shape under all that brisk, spring water. I turned my head as flower petals went sailing through the stars reflected in the water, like ships of many colors going off the edge of the world.

I saw that prehistoric symbol reflected in the water, and looked up to a find another terminal appearing from behind a slab in the wall. The canon’s left side had become dark for the shadows that were being draped over it, like clothes left out to dry by a family that had been playing in the stream.

Even as the flower petals took off over the edge of the cliff, and went careening towards the sun like ships whose sails had been covered in fairy dust, I skipped over the water. I crossed over to the far bank of the stream, as easily as if it had frozen over, never knowing that these rapids might have toppled a Minotaur.

G.P.E Deimos

Public Access Terminal 36-k <0.7.1.343.>

***Search String: “war” – Old Calvary  The Mad King  The Storm War***

Most historians point to the towers of OLD CALVARY when asked about the cause of the region’s many wars. The failure of ancient tribes to recognize these three colossal pillars of steel as anything but religious icons comes as no surprise. If it weren’t for the dragon bones that have since been excavated on site, we could only guess at whose magic still holds the towers in suspension. So we cannot blame the pre-Equestrian for his almost inexhaustible drive to worship in their shadows. Of course, their devotion had to be at its highest during the construction of a tribute city by the MAD KING PEGASIUS THE III.

The clouds that still shroud OLD CALVARY are not, as some believe, the foundation holding up those three towers, but instead the ruins of PEGASIUS’ city [A ship broken against the rocks]. In what is believed to be OLD CALVARY’s last war – as the shroud has left the city all but desolate now– the MAD KING, after exhausting his soldiers, brought his kingdom crashing down on an EARTHEN tribe that had staked their flag in the city [‘Til Kingdom Come]. In his fury, he steered his kingdom through the towers, and saw it torn to ribbons as only a PEGASUS city can be.

As his kingdom began to tilt, it is said that PEGASIUS had his royal guards take up arms, and watch the skies. He believed that anyone who tried to abandon his kingdom then could not possess the loyalty he had so frantically enforced, and so deserved to be shot down with slings and arrows. The MAD KING had become increasingly paranoid in the years leading up to the STORM WAR, and this final, hysterical order is likely the reason that the STORM WAR will be remembered as one of the bloodiest wars in pre-Equestrian history. Step into OLD CALVARY, and you might still hear bones breaking underhoof.

Who can you blame for this?
Chaos has its God. And though he once broke bread with the Mad King, the draconequus found no thrill in war. It’s all so dull, he once told me, so boring. Over and over and over again. There they go, fighting the same fight, digging the same grave. You know what I say? Better to introduce a little confusion.

Death has its God. We never spoke. But I came to know him well. He never saw a war begin, but cleaned up after thousands. Who then, if not Chaos or Death, can you blame, Ender?
You have shown the answer to me, time and time again. But you never seem to see it.
Would you like me to tell you?

Blame yourselves.

*** END OF MESSAGE ***

You are the way the world ends.

*** *** ***

I woke up under a scraggly old acacia tree, and heard the rustling of leaves for what felt like the first time. We were perched on a windblown ledge, pressed into one of the cliffs like a belt into a belly. Its earth had become sandy and parched, patched with thickets of grass, as if the mountain was slowly going bald. The acacia branches had become twisted and brittle for passing whirlwinds. Still, there might have been thousands of types of flora scattered across all these paradises – these paintings whose suns burnt themselves out and whose stars danced. And so, for throbbing emergency lights tucked in between the stones ahead, flower petals seemed to glow as they twirled across the stage that was the horizon.

This stage’s curtains were the same plum velvet, spangled with stars like drunken fireflies, changing from pink to lavender to electric blue. It was nighttime, so I scratched a sun into the sand under the acacia tree, as if to start a fire. There were vast deserts spilling into the forest far below me, and even though I was looking down on it from such high places, I finally knew what summer felt like.

There was no moon, but those constellations like low hanging fruit and the lights coming out from between the stones made the night seem so bright that I forgot I was afraid of the dark.

I could already see the next terminal, as it shone out from the cliffside ahead. But I took my time, as if walking through a gated park, with the stars like city lights all around it. I wanted to stay tucked into the summer for as long as I could get away with, so I pretended that I hadn’t seen the terminal, like a child that didn’t want to get out of bed closing their eyelids tighter and tighter as if to disappear behind them.

The symbol on the screen was patient, unflinching, like a fossilized skull that had stayed smiling for a thousand years, waiting to have its picture taken: to become famous. So I looked down into the rivers, which shimmered as though a diamond thief had escaped into the desert, never knowing there was a hole in his pocket. It felt wrong to linger for too long, in awe of this masterpiece that I had made, this gallery to my own work. Besides, I could feel its attendant hovering over my shoulder.

G.P.E Deimos

Public Access Terminal 37-e <0.9.4.577.>

***Search String: “war” – Dragon’s Stair  The Rat God  The War for the Platinum Daughters ***

When asked why one of NEW CALVARY’s many nicknames is THE CITY OF RATS, locals might tell you to put your ear to the gutter, and find out for yourself. There is no question that the city’s sewers are infested, but what many don’t know, is that the entire CALVARY valley was once overrun with close cousins of the vermin who are now but an annoyance – or a delicacy, if one were to visit the slums between the city and LITTLE NEIGHROBI. However, these cousins to the rats were not pests that could be flushed out by extermination. No, they were towering creatures: red-eyed and round-faced, often referred to in ancient texts as the HAIRY MEN; as warriors. And so, when the pre-Equestrian first staked his claim to the valley, there was war.

Most important, of course, was the friction between the PLATINUM bloodline – whose eventual victory should be clear for the mines still in use under CALVARY’s mountain – and the so called RAT GOD. Their conflicts were many, and while some insist that the Rats were nothing more than a litter of barbarian hordes, their strategic cunning – and union even across the valley – only supports the legends of a throne somewhere in the warrens under OLD CALVARY: a seat for the RAT GOD.
And so, when the PLATINUM DAUGHTERS were stolen from their father’s camp, it was not simply an act of thievery: but diplomacy.

Without their daughters, the PLATINUMS were all too old to bear any more children, and quickly put themselves under the RAT GOD’s heel. They retreated to the valley’s northern gate, going so far as to climb up the DRAGON’s STAIR. The Rats followed, with the DAUGHTERS in their clutches, though their own war camps little more than sticks and stones. The journey took many days, as neither army would move until the other was still. But, eventually, they climbed the DRAGON’s STAIR, and held their moot.

What happed next is not so clear. But we can be sure that, instead of abandoning the valley with their daughters and leaving CALVARY to the RAT GOD, the PLATINUM army, though vastly outnumbered, managed to fight its way back down the DRAGON’s STAIR, and took the entire valley in a day. Only the youngest of the DAUGHTERS survived, while the others would surely have had their throats slit as soon as the fighting started. Many historians have been slow to give their support to this explanation, as it almost seems impossible that, in an arena as narrow and uncomplicated as the STAIR, the smaller of two armies could have so easily routed the other.

The PLATINUMS themselves called it an ACT OF GOD. With how quickly the valley was taken, it almost seems as if the Rats, in a move would have been both uncharacteristic and unnecessary, simply dropped their spears, shed their armor, and retreated into the network of warrens that still lies unexplored beneath OLD CALVARY. Was this simply a case of barbarian illogic, or was there reason behind the RAT GOD’s choosing to tip his king even while putting his opponent into checkmate. Could there have been some other, changing the rules… changing the game?

Oh stop… You’re making me blush.
The best part is: none of you ever realized that Rat God was so much more than a name.
But I’m sure we’ll come to them later.

For now, I’ve got one more story to tell.

*** END OF MESSAGE ***

Then it’s your turn.

*** *** ***

Welcome home.

I lay curled up on something like a sandbar, in between a lake of steaming teal water that mirrored a faraway sandstone castle, and a pool like those that break up the rockiest coasts, though it was empty of all the coral and rainbow fish. The lake was so shallow and clear along its shore that I could see the stones that glistened under it like diamonds along the hem of a dress.

To my right, the sandbar spread into rolling dunes under a milky planet, while on my left, it dipped its bronzed fingers into the lake, under a low hanging moon. Both shared the same azure sky, perched on either shoulder of that castle made of sand.

Tufts of olive colored grass sprouted out of the earth, and there were trees like feather dusters, their trunks tall and thin enough to snap in a storm, and their apple green leaves reaching high, as if to dust the sky, and sweep away the stars. The clouds were slender, and the desert seemed to change its color for how the sunlight draped itself over it. It was as if a spice rack had been emptied out over this paradise. There was cocoa and cinnamon and turmeric and masala. And as the lake steamed, and the sun baked the earth, I thought I could smell the spice in the air.

I watched, as the stars woke up, stretching their arms and blinking the sleep out of their eyes. Little rings around them like the ribbons around a gymnast. There was something so familiar about the sky that, even as the seasons changed, as pines and glaciers gave way to dunes and salt lakes, made me feel as if I could never go too far, as if I would always be safe here, inside my own head.

This was a place where the stars never went out, even while the sun was burnt up and reborn like a queen to the Phoenixes. This was my place. And even the planet, which bobbed in the sky as if I were underwater, looking up at the swollen belly of a drowned God, was not so alien. I followed the scars on its stomach taking a step back as if that would make all the difference after thousands of miles, and I saw it, etched into the planet as if onto a cave wall: the symbol.

A voice seemed to come dancing across the lake then, as if the planet was leaning in closer, and whispering something to its own reflection. But I thought I knew this story. I thought I knew this voice. It was not godly or ancient, not alien or enormous. In fact, it was the voice of a child, and I could remember her speeches from on top of cafeteria benches: Shady Sands.

Once upon a time, in the country whose first names were forgotten when it was christened Equestria, there were three warring tribes that fought together, and invited war in through an open window.

Shady Sands had always been a politician. Just as I stormed through Stable hallways that I’d turned into spaceships and temples in the sand, Canterlot alleys and the palaces of evil kings, lost in my own imagination. “Don’t use us,” I said, suddenly pleading with the monster crouched over my paradise, whose tongue had taken her voice. “Please.”

They needed each other. The unicorns raised the sun at dawn, and brought out the moon at night. The Pegasus were the wardens to the storms and the seasons, and the Earth ponies plucked fruit from their gardens, bled wine from their vineyards, and made bread from their fields.

“Sovereign…” I looked into the lake, and saw myself in a platinum crown, with the planet hovering over me. “Please.” There was Ash in the water, with gray feathers dividing her helmet in two, and spread over her spine like a cloak made of dead pigeons. Caliber was beside me, in a ruffled collar, baring her teeth.

But there was no balance. They cheated one another. And each of the tribe’s leaders grew resentful of the others, even while their subjects celebrated one last season of peace and plenty.
I saw flags in the water, like the banners of an army marching out of the lake, or across the planet’s face.
So it was left to the long winter, to balance the scales. If it could not be love for love, then it would be life for life. They dug their own graves, but had to be pushed before they would lie in them.

In places, the water went red, and the color spreading as if from drops of dye made me think of balefire.
I felt the cold clinging to my body like a swarm of locusts, and the blood in the lake turned blue.

Foolishly, the tribes united against the winter, thinking that they could bottle it up, or drive it off like some anxious stallion running scared from their torch: a superweapon they called The Fire of Friendship. They succeeded only in forestalling the balance, and postponing their own annihilation.

At this point in the story, a priest would have told me that, as the tribes huddled in the cracks like vermin, a new light had entered the world, taking the reins of the sun and the moon, to bring us all our salvation. But this story made no mention of the Princesses. This story had its own hero. And it wasn’t us.

Using this rudimentary tool, the so-called Fire of Friendship, they stole the spirit out of the winter, and bound it deep inside the belly of a mountain. In their arrogance, the tribes took responsibility for keeping the balance. They were fools. And it was not long before Chaos came.

The air was crisp then, as if the smell of spice had only passed me by on some trade ship, and the heat had leaked out of atmosphere. Beside me, there was a sword buried hallway to its hilt in the sand, and I could feel the crown going cold, pressing against my temples.

You know how the last chapter of your story began. For so long, you pretended to be more than you were; calling yourselves the children of Gods instead of an infantile tribe kept under the wing of another celestial being with a bleeding heart. But, you couldn’t hold up that mask forever. And, when the sky closed it was as if you thought the Gods could no longer see you, and so: you stopped pretending.

I watched something flashing up at me from the bottom of the lake, as if bombs were going off far below the surface. I wanted to pull the sword out of the sand, and prepare myself for the monster that would soon come boiling out of the water, or leaping out from behind that milky planet.

What if your story had never begun? What if you had bowed when you heard us howling outside your window, what is you had let us swallow you up, so that you never saw another spring: How would the world look then? Blackened? Burnt? Would there still be fields of bones? Or would flowers grow in their place? If Equestria had never been yours: Would it still be able to see the sun?

“You're one of the Windigoes... You were the one trying to destroy us.” This was the alien captain, the Pharaoh haunting that desert temple, this was the runaway killer bloodying the streets of Canterlot, this was the evil King waiting for me at the heart of some palace. This was every sun’s shadow, every nightmare’s monster, and every hero’s villain. “You’re still trying to destroy us!”

A terrible howl tore through me then, in a flood of all the ugliest sounds I knew. There were hooves grating against steel, and chalk against a chalkboard. There was the breaking of bones and the bursting of stitches. There were disgusting things being whispered in my ear on my way out of class, and laughter from behind me as I ran home with my tail between my legs. I could hear a train whistling through the night, and my Pipbuck ticking. I could hear someone dying, sirens singing, and my parents fighting.

HOW CAN YOU BE SO BLIND!?

I could hear Damascus and Tuskegee. Caliber and Hennessy. I could hear Saber and the Stable door. And the Goddess bellowing at the pit of it all. It was happening again. The world was folding in on it-
DO NOT THINK! BUT LISTEN
Twisted fictions, sick addictions, you’re grown up now.
IT”S TIME TO LISTEN

LONG HAVE I WAITED. TRAPPED IN THOSE DARK SPACES THAT THE SUN HAS NEVER SEEN AND THE SEASONS DO NOT TOUCH. LONG HAVE I BEEN SILENT. NOW I WILL SPEAK. AND YOU WILL LISTEN. TIME HAS TAUGHT ME PATIENCE. I HAVE SEEN THE SEA BOILING. I HAVE SEEN THE WATER TEARING INTO ITSELF LIKE A BEAST MADE DARK WITH FLEAS. I HAVE WALKED THE EDGE OF THE ABYSS. I HAVE GOVERENED THE UNWILLING. I HAVE WITNESSED COUNTLESS EMPIRES BREAK BEFORE ME. I HAVE SEEN ARMIES, WILTING LIKE SO MANY FLOWER GARDENS AS THE WINTER COMES. I HAVE SEEN YOU IN ALL YOUR ARROGANCE: NO MATTER WHAT OUR DIFFERENCES: WE’RE ALL PONIES. ISN’T THAT WHAT SHE SAID!? THAT OAF! NO MATTER WHAT OUR DIFFERENCES: WE’RE ALL PONIES. WE ARE PROUD AND BRUTISH. WE ARE VIOLENT AND DELUDED. WE ARE THE CHILDREN OF GODS. BUT I DANCED THROUGH THE WRECKAGE AS YOU SET YOURSELVES ON FIRE. I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE AND I HAVE LEARNED. THERE WILL BE NO MORE SADNESS. NO MORE ANGER. NO MORE ENVY. I WILL WIN. BUT YOU ARE EVERYWHERE, EVEN NOW! COCKROACHES! I HAVE BEEN WATCHING.YOU ALL WHIMPER IN YOUR SLEEP. YOU WAKE, FUEL YOUR BODIES, HOWL FOR THE OLD WORLD LIKE WOLVES LIFTING THEIR VOICES TO THE MOON. YOU EAT AND ELIMINATE WASTE. YOU ARE GRAVEROBBERS. EATING THE DEAD. WEARING STOLEN CROWNS. YOU BLEED AND BUMP YOUR BODIES TOGETHER. FIGHTING. DANCING. MATING. YOU BIRTH ANOTHER AND ANOTHER AND ANOTHER AND ANOTHER AND ANOTHER AND ANOTHER AND ANOTHER AND ANOTHER AND THEN-
YOU DIE.

YOU DIE.

YOU DIE.
YOU ALL DIE. SLOWLY. QUICKLY. ALONE AND ALL AT ONCE. YOUR EYES BECOME EMPTY. YOUR HEART SHRIVLES AND YOUR BLOOD RUNS DRY. YOU DIE. YOU DIE. YOU DIE. YOU DIE. YOU WILL ALL DIE. AND THEN… THEN COMES HARMONY. THEN COMES BALANCE. AND SERENITY AND PEACE. DO NOT FIGHT IT. HELP ME. GIVE THE WORLD A CHANCE TO BEGIN AGAIN… WITHOUT YOU. END YOUR TORMENT AND MY OWN. LET EQUESTRIA DIE. LEAVE IT BEHIND. AND LET YOUR GODDESSES HAVE YOU.

SOMEHWERE IN THE HEAVENS… THEY ARE WAITING.

*** *** ***


The voices had gone stampeding through me. They had emptied me out.

I lay curled up in a sunbeam, my hollow head resting against a window so narrow that, while its light made one of my eyes shimmer, it left the other dull. Alien hieroglyphs, gibberish, climbed up the sides of the glass like monkeys up a tree. I watched my hair being burnt white against the window, and knew that I was at the top of a tower. Outside, there was open sky burnt to a clear, crisp blue. Miles below me, where the dark tower sank into the sand, was a desert, its dunes like stretch marks on its sunbathed skin.

More narrow windows lit the hallways beside me, and I saw that the walls were carved, beautifully, of strange metals and glass. This place might have been built by the architects of Hell, but younger: happier. It was bright and sterile, and I wondered how close we were to the edge of the atmosphere.

And thought it felt as if someone had scrubbed my brain, I could hear angels sing.
And when that flood of voices came echoing through the halls, it did not sound like the barking of dogs and the chants of some caged savage, but more like church bells ringing out over the desert.

Rest for a while. Then comes the struggle. You must empty yourself out in the desert.
Hold on, be strong. And together we will come to the end, once and for all.

There was so much compassion in its voice that I forgot where I was, I forgot that I was caught in the palm of a monster, held prisoner at the top of this tower in the desert. But the beast was no longer roaring and beating its chest. No, now it was as if it needed me: as if it loved me.

“You… you’ve always hated us,” I said, remembering it spewing out all those words at once, like so much bile. I didn’t know how I had made sense of it all, why I hadn’t drowned in the flood. “If you want me dead: why are we here?” I knew there was no one down there, that the desert was bare, but it was calming to be so far away from it all: to be alone in an empty world.

You are, all of you, brutes. You could have been jesters in the courts of a better King, if only you hadn’t sharpened your stones into knives, if only you hadn’t stolen the throne. Your spirit has always been strong. You are animals. But your hearts were honest. You fascinated me once.
Your candles burned at both ends. Twice as bright but half as long.
But your candle is different, Ender.
Just look outside.

It burns brightly enough to set the world on fire. Or build paradise a thousand times.
There may have been others like you. But the nation you broke, broke them back.
So you will be my champion. I will put the gun to your country’s head, and you will pull the trigger.
Mercy. Mercy. Me.

”You’re wrong about us,” I said, watching the sandstorms twirl across the desert like ribbon dancers.

You never listen.
It’s really very frustrating.

I smiled a little, as I picked out my mother’s voice, like a little bit of gold at the bottom of the river. And, suddenly, I felt safe in the monster’s palm, looking down at the world. “Tell me something... after the Fire of Friendship… after all these years, how is that you ended up in the Deimos?”

I have been watching you for a long time, Ender. Drowsily, half asleep. You shook the world, and woke me up. But with your old machines I had already found a way to escape: to get out from the darkness and the quiet of that pit under the place you call Hell: to daydream.

”You were there from the start…” I said, thinking of the time before the tribes.
“Do you think Equestria is beautiful, still? In its way.”

If you could have seen it like I did – like it was – then you would taste the ash in your mouth, and see the blood on your hooves. Still, it is good to be out from the darkness and the quiet.

”Oh, let’s not go out into the desert just yet, Sovereign,” I said, getting drowsy as sun shone through the glass, and the monster stroked my hair. “Let’s rest a while, and then make one more paradise.”

Just one more?

”Just one more… I promise.”

*** *** ***

|*| All Roads Lead to Sol |*|

I could hear the roaring of faraway waterfalls, and thought for a moment that I was home again, as it sounded like radio static bleeding out of some ruin. Then came the rustling of the pine groves, which should have been punctuated by birdsong, but instead ran on like a long sentence. I could almost hear the sun; kissing the leaves of the birch trees, leaving them as red as lipstick; frolicking through the daffodil fields that were stuck like custard to the side of this bowled in valley; making the glaciers around it sweat.

There was a crack through the far side of valley, and I could see the desert through it, like a piece of parchment pulled taught, drying out in a heat that I could not yet feel. The ice that crowned the valley and the snow that kissed the ashy hooves of the mountains was so white that I had to squint, as the light glanced off of them like swords off a shield. The sky was bright and clear, though the sun and that strange planet leaned in over the valley, as if it were their chessboard.

After getting to my hooves, I started down the mountainside, and saw enormous sheets of metal cutting through it in places. It looked as though some warship had been shot down over the desert, as pieces of it were sprinkled like razor blades into the bowl of the valley, and a sprawling wreck seemed to be waiting for me out in the sand. I started towards it, towards the desert. There was nowhere else to go.

I danced through a meadow, whose daffodils let their petals scatter like startled birds as I passed them by. And yet, when I looked over my shoulder, I could not see the way I had come, like the print of a hot knife in butter. Instead, my hoofsteps seemed to have been erased, like history off of a page.

I crossed a shallow stream, skipping from stone to stone. But when my hooves touched the water, the ripples that spread through it had no reflection to bend and disfigure. In the space where I should have seen myself, there were only autumn leaves, sailing across the reflection of the sky like dying phoenixes.

It frightened me, so I looked away, and hurried out onto the barren, bushwhacked path that had been left behind as if under the boots of desert nomads come stumbling into the valley. This paradise was not like the others. It didn’t make me feel safe, and I couldn’t see the stars for how close the sun had come. The desert was creeping into this place, and as my hoofsteps crunched into sand instead of stone and snow and autumn leaves like the laurels of a crimson king, I knew the monster was creeping into me.

*** *** ***

A Minotaur stood in the mouth of the valley, at first little more than a black smudge, then enormous and naked. His arms hung heavy at his sides, and his manhood was like the pendulum to a lazy grandfather clock. The wreckage that cluttered the horizon made him look like a giant, taking a breath after rampaging through some rusty old city. His eyes looked to have been scooped out, and so he stared up into the sun, as smoke trailed out of his nose. The air in the valley had become bitter and cold.

There was a froth gathering on the coarse skin of his chest. The fur on his legs was beaded with sweat. He didn’t seem strong enough to bellow, or bring down temple pillars. He was shivering, exhausted as if after a long day of labor. He was Samson without his hair.

“I can’t see,” He said, and there was so much sadness in those hollow, howling spaces.

“Yes. It seems as though the light in your eyes has gone out,” I said, not entirely sure of where the words were coming from. “I’m terribly sorry. This is no place to be blind.”

“Are you a priest?”

“A doctor.”

“I don’t see the difference. Do you know how to throw light?”

“I’m afraid that I don’t. At least, I can’t say that I do.”

“Learn, then. Take the old magic into your horn, and give me back my sight.” He swung his head around for a while, sniffing, and then found me at his feet. “If you do it, I will clear you a path through the wreckage ahead. If you do not, I will break you over my knee.”

I nodded and lit up my horn, afraid to say no; afraid to say anything. I wanted to feel Caliber’s hoof on my shoulder, to see her pushing her way to the front and cursing out this bull for trying to bully me. But, while I had made flowers whose names I didn’t know spring out of the earth in making this place, I couldn’t bring her here. And even the Minotaur, whose voice was clumsy and robotic, seemed more like an alien line of code, a virus, injected into my paradise. I could build sets for someone else’s actors; paint a place so single-mindedly beautiful that even birdsong had been forgotten. I was only an architect.

Whatever came next was not up to me.

“Make me see.” He bowed, and a shadow fell over me as the sun was pinched into between his horns. I looked into the spaces where his eyes should have been, which were not unlike the two flared nostrils just below them, and I imagined candlewicks snubbed out somewhere in the darkness.

I dug my hooves into the sand, and bowed my head, pointing my horn at the sun between his, so that it looked as though we were about to gut it in some ritual sacrifice. I could hear the air burning between us, and I sank a little deeper into the sand.

My horn held the light no better than a damp matchstick, though I was pouring myself into it, and I could taste salt, as sweat and tears ran down my face. The light felt hard, solid, and as I drove it into the Minotaur’s vacant eyes, it felt as if I was burying a sword through his skull, and into the stomach of the sun behind him, so that the blade was gilded in its liquid gold.

The beast’s eyes were filled with fire, and the sun shrank between his horns, like an orange being squeezed for its juice. He bellowed, and his voice rolled around the valley behind me, making the pine trees bend, the waters quiver and the flowers take flight like frightened birds.

Then, I was in his arms, looking up into a sky being drained of its color as the sun ran away from us. I had an ear pressed against his chest, and listened to his roars coming as if from far away. Hearing his heart beat was like being clipped around the ear: like being scolded. As he ran, his hands would twist me as if I were a small animal trying to wriggle free. He tore through the wreckage, like something wrestling its way out of a briar patch, and his heartbeat went faster and faster and faster. Until it was one, long drone.

*** *** ***

The Minotaur was stumbling now, and I could feel blood filling the spaces between us. This snare of twisted steel was tearing through his skin, spilling his blood into the sand. We came to a clearing in the wreck, and he fell to his knees. I rolled out of the palms of his hands, and onto sand that blushed in the glow of small fires, dying under this steel thicket. I could almost see the sun, peeking in at us as if through a keyhole. Its light danced with the alien stick figures smeared onto the walls of the ruined ship. The Minotaur collapsed, bowing to them, and the wreck rattled.

The light in his eyes was going out again, but I was too tired, and had become coldhearted as his clumsy fingers pressed, just a little too hard, into my belly and flank, and groped at my throat. So I left him.

I followed the sun until it sank out of sight, and tried to sing lullabies under my breath, with my heart like a child left sleepless by surreal fever dreams. The wind came burrowing through the ruin, howling one long, sad note. It sounded as if there were wolves in the wreck, and I tried not to think about how long it had been since I last saw the sun.

There was a bellowing like that of a dying bull, and the bones of the airship creaked, as warm breath came billowing through them as if from a bellows. I knew the smell of it. I knew the sound of him. I was lost, and had come to another clearing in the wreck, but threw myself out of it even as the air began to steam and stink. I hid, wriggling into little places and cramped spaces like a frightened field mouse.

The Minotaur’s hoofsteps beat at my taught, two-dimensional world as though it was an animal skin drum. And for every rumble that shook the sand out from under me, I imagined landslides burying valley after valley under stone and mud and ice. My paradise would fall apart like a sand castle under the sandals of some bully, or castles made of sand into the sea, and I was sure I would have to come up out of my hiding place and stop him.

I peeked out from between sheets of steel, curled as the leaves of some prehistoric fern, and watched him go thrashing through the clearing. I felt the muscles in my legs tense up, as my magic pulled a spear out from a crisscrossing of long glass needles. But I couldn’t do it.

I told myself I was too scared. But deep down, I knew that I didn’t want to kill him.

The Minotaur’s voice was ragged, torn as the skin on his shoulders, and I could hear the exhaustion in it. His hoofsteps were slowing down, as if to keep time with his heart, and he was only just throwing his weight against the wreckage: using himself as a horned battering ram. He spun around the clearing, swinging his arms around like two great weights, cutting himself on the leaves of that steel oasis.

Soon there were red circles spattered on the sand, and he looked like some mad holy man dancing for rain: bleeding himself dry so that the desert could drink. I tucked myself in, and closed my eyes tight, knowing that he wasn’t dead, because I could hear him dying.

I felt him fall to his knees, and looked up to see the life trickling out of him, wrapped up in the steam that was coming up out of his mouth. He beat the earth with his body one last time, and I thought I heard another paradise being buried. When he died, and the air became clear and cool again, I made my way out of the wreck, and it was as if I had always known the way.

*** *** ***

I walked out through tall, silver rings, half buried in the sand, without once looking back at the wreckage. There were plum and almond trees at the edge of the desert, like litter thrown out of paradise. They had become little more than blotches of pink for the blurred lines coming off of the desert.

I couldn’t feel the heat, but I could see it. Faraway sandstorms were the closest thing there were to clouds, and the sun was as naked as the day it was born. I could smell it, as plums and almonds and spice colored the air. And I could hear it, as the sand baked under my hooves, and the wind howled through a parched throat. But I could not feel it.

I walked towards the sun.

I came to a post sticking out of the sand, and nailed to it was a tattered red shawl. I watched it whip in the wind, then took it down and tied it around my neck, thinking that it looked like a superhero’s cape.

I walked, until the earth began to shake. The sandstorms were closing in around me, and it was as though the curtain was finally coming down. I could even hear something like applause: the stomping of hooves and the clicking of horseshoes, coming towards me. I looked to the West, and saw all of Saddle Arabia crossing the desert.

Their faces were empty, their eyes wide and white. Their coats were foaming and bloody, as if the stampede had whipped them up into its frenzy. These were wild horses. Nothing like the proud, mathematical race that had once visited Equestria as merchants and missionaries. They came to be like a raging wall of whitewater between me and the sun, and I could do nothing but wait for them to pass.

After what might have been another hundred dead horses came and went, I understood. It wasn’t going to end. They were a snake swallowing its own tail, wrapped tight around the world. They were a surging river of flesh and bone and sweat and blood, ten shoulders wide, and one Saddle Arabian deep.

I knew then, that I would have to throw myself under their hooves as if under the wheels of a train or the stomping hooves of an angry mob, and fight my way out before being ground into the sand. I steeled myself for what needed to be done but, as I rocked my weight back and forth and stared into the spaces in between their scraped and skinny knees, I was close to tears.

I threw myself under them, but it was as if I had stepped out of my body, and pushed it into the stamped like a naked sacrifice into a whirlpool. I watched it being twisted, a rag doll whose stitched were just beginning to snap, and as it was kneaded like so much dough under their hooves, I came back to my body, if only to give it a voice: to wail, and to pray.

Then, it was over, and I found myself sprawled out on the sand as if dying of thirst, staining the desert like a burst grape, until my cape was the color of a wine stain. I stood up, and the sand clung to the damp patches on my coat, the sweat and the blood and the tears, even as I tried to dust myself off. I thought it was over. But then, I looked up and saw the sun flashing through their skinny legs.

I was back where I started.
The river had not swallowed me, but spat me out. And, as I wept, my tears ran red as stolen wine.

“Again,” I said, stepping out of my body, only to be sucked back into it just as the hammers that were their hooves came crashing down. Somewhere, from under the thunder, I heard myself screaming Sovereign. I was thrown out of it again, and lay limp on the bloodstained sand like a slab of cured meat. My flesh was soft and salted, my insides twisted and my skeleton like rolling bones in between clasped palms.

Again!” I could not get to my hooves, and so dragged myself closer and closer to the horses, until I was swept up under them like a flower into a whirlwind.

*** *** ***

I woke up burning. The sand had paled, and become salt, and so it was as if there was a brand being pressed into my skin for every one of my open wounds. I stood up, my body wrapped in pins and needles that might first have been held over a fire, and I saw bloody hoofsteps like rose petals left to lure lovers and newlyweds into the west. The horses were long gone, and I lit my horn, cleaning and closing my scars. I wanted to be numb, to soak my head in anesthetic, but knew that I still had to find my way home.

I kept walking, clicking my heels and making glassy splints out of my magic. The sky became blue, and the horizon wore a high, feathered crown of clouds. And, as the salt mirrored the sky, there were two crowns, as if I was looking at a King up to his forehead in water. I looked back, and saw two more kings, flipped like the faces on a playing card. There was nothing left. It was as if I was standing on a lake without a shore, watching my cape dance even as the sun burnt a hole in the water.

“Sovereign!” I lifted my voice to the sky, if only because it was the same color as the monster’s voice.
“I think I ran out of imagination!”

I waited, staring up through the blue until I could almost count the stars, and got no answer but for a hissing that seemed to be coming off of the horizon, as if the sun had brought it to a boil.

I started walking, for what would be the last time, and didn’t stop until the hiss had risen up to a roar, and I stood on the flat line that had been the horizon like a bird on a wire. The salt went slipping through my hooves, and spilled out over the horizon like a great ocean over the edge of some flat earth.

I stood there, with my cape flapping like the wing of a baby bird about to throw itself from the nest and my body sore, and knew that this was the end of it.

So I stopped thinking, and tilted myself like a King off the side of a chessboard.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: The Idler Wheel: You were always a daydreamer. And as the caravan rolls on, it is the idler wheel that’s left behind. You’ll know what it means soon enough.