• Published 13th Sep 2013
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Fallout : Equestria - New Roam Innovatus - Delvius



The land of the old Roaman empire is rife with a toxic wasteland, plagued by the remnants of the old world as well as the new. Finally, a Praetorian arises to protect the city like the legionaries of old.

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Chapter II - Tribute

Chapter II
Tribute
"All's fair in love and war."






Every Marediolanian thought the outside world was barren, dead. That any form of life that thrived out there was unnatural, abominable. We were told radiation storms tore up the landscape, that the air alone could kill you in minutes. We'd been led to believe that beyond our walls was hell itself, and we'd all bought it. Including me, especially me -- for me, all that could have been good was right there, in my home. Why ever think of uncomfortable, nasty things, like death by toxins?


Yet now that our door had been yanked down I realized I was wrong. I could see outside the doorway, though the view was obscured by a slanted metallic hulk, with a heavy-caliber cannon on top of its chassis -- an armored vehicle, the likes of which I'd seen pictures of back in history classes. I could see light bordering on its metal, the source dancing on the edges of my sight as I was hauled off, my paralysis ebbing away slowly. Next to these soldiers who looked almost exactly like us, and taking priority over even the foreign vehicle, that light was the next thing I was so curious about regarding the outside.


I was so intrigued by it I'd almost forgotten just what was happening, and what had already transpired. I only regained my senses after I was dropped in the corner like all the other stunned guards. Those who weren't were shoved towards the rest of us.


That was all I needed to see to remember, and to know what exactly it was I should have been feeling...

*** Roama Victrix ***

Shock and anger. The two emotions spun around in my head, winding me up to snap. None of them were stronger than the other, which rendered me without action. But they left me feeling restless and inexorably irritable, and very tense inside. For to be held in a corner along with your fellows, put under the threat of gun and told to stay put while your home was being strolled in by foreigners -- no one should have to go through it. But I complied, if only because I clung to the hope that there'd be a more opportune moment to hit these bastards. There had to be one.


"Can we not at least see our parents, or go to our siblings? What madness is this?!" Incluvius growled, stomping in frustration. He was staring right into the eyes of one of our captors, unfazed by their threats. Then he pointed at Excluvius sitting in the corner with others, holding a foreleg tightly to stop bleeding. "My brother, shot by you, needs medical attention! As do more! You can't deny us this in our own home, no matter who you are."


The zebra detaining us, though he came from the... that land beyond the door, at the very least had the decency to wince and sigh. "I know. Our medics are on their way from Campus Apollania. Please be patient, and we'll tend to your wounded." Then he gave a slight scowl. "Even though your people opened fire on us first, I might add."


"In defense of our home!" Incluvius spat and turned around, muttering darkly as he went over to his brother. There were many of us, and we were pressed into too small a space. Thus, clashes like what Incluvius had with our detainers were numerous, heated. It was a wonder none of it had gotten physical and resulted in more pain.


But I wasn't partaking in any of them, though the irritated and fuming pony in my head screamed for action. From observation alone I could tell that they weren't about to let us in on some context -- not who they were besides the 'Imperial Roaman Legion', and not their objective. Not even their names were revealed. So I slumped against the walls, dizzy, worried and sweaty from the new warm air that reeked of the musky scent of dust and dirt. My sole comfort was that these people seemed civilized, at least compared to the monstrosities and mutants I'd feared would barge through our door.


Then I glanced around, and caught one of the outsiders picking through the dead. At least he was doing it with a degree of respect, I thought with a grumble. Contrary to what I'd feared, death was not rampant; the many tiny bullets hadn't gotten through most of our shields, so we only had three casualties. The same number as they'd suffered. Then the zebra stooped down over a body adorned with a plumed helmet and red cape, and he turned it over.


For a moment he just looked down at the face, trying to make it out -- half of the flesh had been eviscerated by the storm of lead, leaving it looking sickeningly like smashed tomatoes. My exclamation of recognition died in my throat as my stomach lurched, tossing bile into my mouth. Gods, spare me the sight of such things!


The soldier snickered and called one of our detainers over. "Poor wretch looks just like Bovius the day he had his face torn up. And they even look like they could be the same age! The resemblance is uncanny."


The other scowled down at the mangled fl-… well, Horus’ face.. "You're right. Bastard. He's the officer of this place, I'm guessing. Means he's the one who ordered the attack on our greeting party." He scoffed and pulled away, shaking his head. "Deserves the death," he groused, then spat on Horus' face.


Oh, and how some of us didn't agree. Just seeing that made those who saw him raise their voices in rage. Tension built up as he approached, bearing a scowl directed at us. "Oh, quiet," he said. "We lost three good legionaries today to you people. If your leader here had more sense, he'd have spared six lives. Tell me I'm wrong."


Now I'd long recovered from the nausea, and his words only fueled a burning anger within me. That he didn't seem like backing down only compounded the rage. It didn't matter that they hadn't come in guns blazing; that they yanked our door down without any manner of consent was enough to warrant lethal retaliation!


I waited until he turned around before jumping up and bucking him right in the flanks. I felt something crunch beneath my hooves as he flew forward, a muffled cry escaping his throat as he face-planted into the floor.


"YOU DON'T GET TO DO THAT HERE!" I bellowed as his comrades rushed to his aid. He looked like he was unconscious, and his eyelids leaked with tears as he pressed his hind legs tightly together. I fixed them each with a glare, and I didn't care what they'd have done to me. I only wanted to expel them, painfully. "You... don't get... to just walk in, kill people, and start telling us what we should or shouldn't have done in defense of our own home. None of you do!" I shouted as I stepped forward.


They stepped back and drew their weapons. In my anger I didn't care I could have died, so long as it were in line with my duty. But then I felt hooves on my shoulders, pulling me back.


"Let's not get ahead of things here," someone said from behind me, slowly and reasonably; so much so I felt my fury diminishing with his each and every word. He stepped forward. The zebra looked back at me with a hopeful, 'don't do anything stupid' kind of expression before turning to the invading foreigners. "And let's not escalate things. Clearly this whole tragedy is the product of... of a misunderstanding, I'm sure. The lives lost cannot be replaced... but you people seem civilized; let us take our fallen and mourn them. All hostilities come to and end through reason on both sides. Already you have your legate in our home, trotting about the place like it were his. We are tense and worried for our families, and so are irritable. Let us at least return to our own quarters, for if you truly wanted us dead, we would be dead, and if you came in peace as you imply you did, then let us have peace. But what peace is there in holding us captive, only to escalate tensions?"


Such were the zebra's words. He said these words with such agreeability, that even I, the instigator of what very nearly could have been my final quarrel, saw the reason. For he was right, after all. These people... yes, they had a purpose for being here. Not genocide, lest we'd all be dead or dying already. And he made me realize that, while behavior such as mine was natural in such a situation, I was not helping to make things better. My approach was direct, brutish, and it shamed me now that I'd calmed.


Our captors looked to each other uncertainly. It was clear many of them had been swayed, though a few seemed to have differing opinions. But what mattered was their officer's opinion; in this case, he looked just like a decanus, with the backward-forward crested helmet. And he agreed to our request, though he warned us that any attempts to resist would be met with brutal retaliation. And as he warned us I saw that the vehicle that'd been just outside the door the whole time had its cannon pointed inwards. A chill ran through me as I realized what I could have caused: a massacre.


Quietly, we took away our fallen and departed. Now our frustrations had been replaced with a pensive melancholy. Summer Sands, though the poor stallion looked only distantly aware of the situation, helped carry the bodies, which we'd placed on a large tarp with just enough room between them so it didn't look like we were just piling them together like garbage. Horus we placed in the center. The more seriously injured some of us carried on our own backs; thankfully there weren't too many. Incluvius was looking the bodies over, hopeful for signs of life. I wasn't optimistic; they'd lost far too much blood, and their injuries simply seemed too... gut-wrenchingly horrible for them to have survived.


I directed my attention away from the looming cloud of sorrow weighing heavily on my mind and towards trying to undo whatever damage I could. I stepped closer to those holding the tarpaulin and, trying to emulate the zebra's voice of reason, pointed out whatever silver lining could come to mind. It wasn't much, but I could tell them that at least we hadn't lost as many as we feared... though our beloved centurion was one of them...


Then, "He's alive!" Incluvius breathed, his ear against the non-moving Horus' mouth. He pulled himself up, eyes wide as he looked us over. We all stared back, as if we hadn't heard just what he'd said. Horus was what? "His pulse... strong!" he said in a rush.


One of us holding the tarp looked to the mangled centurion's face in disbelief. "That's... gods, I-I really don't think..."


"Well if he's alive," I said quickly, "Then we have no time to waste." And with that I grabbed hold of the tarp as well. I pointed forward down the hall. "To the medical wing, go! Move!"

*** Roama Victrix ***

One liter. That's how much blood had been lost through the wounds on Horus's face. It was actually fairly little. He'd have lost more if the bullets had gone into his skull -- then of course, he'd be dead. Luckily for us, the lead had simply grazed his face, tearing away the skin and muscle and some bone, but none had actually entered his head. His left eye was lost, though. Our medics could do nothing for that, though some of us had grown desperate enough to ask, 'Want to give those damned outsiders a shot?'


It didn't matter. We were just glad, that against all odds, our centurion was alive. He was a good zebra, and many of our fondest memories were of him. Some of us were even driven to tears at the news; for them, Horus had become a second father. And for some of us who had familial problems, the guard was their new family, and they cried because we'd lost some of our own.


I felt their pain. None of them had ever grown very close to me, not even Horus. But these were the people I'd spent six months with, away from my family. It was hard at first, but I'd gotten used to the daily grind with the help of my fellows. We all cared for each other in Marediolanon. A single loss was a tragedy, no matter who it was.


Yet all things had a silver lining, even this intrusion. One of the foreigner officers had come to us as we crowded in the medical wing. Their leader, the legate Thanus, had convinced the populace of Marediolanon to not fight. Just as well, for few knew how to handle weaponry; attempted resistance may have just resulted in more bloodshed, and surely we would lose. And though my heart ached at the news that our home was now, essentially, a free-roaming ground for these outsiders, at least it meant my parents and relatives would be unharmed... or so I hoped.


Thus it was that we'd dispersed, leaving our injured to recover at the hooves of the bewildered medical staff. Summer Sands and I first went with a group down two floors, then the group fanned out until it was just the two of us. How coincidental that our parents were neighbors, just as Summer Sands and I were bunk-mates.


We stopped at the mouth of the hall, our parents' quarters down at the end. "I... I can't go down there, Goldwreath," my companion muttered dumbly, his expression blank save for an undertone of terror. "Not like this, no... not like this. Filthy and bloody and... scared."


I sighed and stepped right up beside him, once again nudging his pauldron with my own. "You can, and you should. Parents are the ones we can approach when we can't go to anyone else. You'll be fine, I'm sure-..."


"I failed!" he blurted, and gave a hiccup as his eyes narrowed, red and puffy. "I failed... we failed to stop them. Now they walk around in our own home like it's theirs. I can't... can't go in there like this. I'm ashamed of myself." He clenched his eyes and looked down, covering his face with a hoof.


I knew what he meant. As guards, we first and foremost were responsible for our community's safety. That we failed in our duty was a terrible blow to our credibility. I felt hollow inside just from the thought of it. Hollow and worthless. Had it not been for Thanus' convincing of my people's passivity, more blood could have been shed... and it would have been my fault, first for failing, then for being so aggressive.


I heard boots behind us, and turned around. There were two of the foreign legionaries there, down the hall. With them was one of their decanii. They were moving, guns drawn, down the walkways, almost like they were instilling a curfew. Then they disappeared around the corner, only to reveal more of them further down the hall. They were all moving cautiously, balking and hesitating at every doorway. Then when they concluded that the residents were all going to stay indoors -- if they were in their quarters at all -- they continued along, quiet and careful.


I turned back around, patting my friend on the back a few times. He'd broken into quiet sobbing, forcing in the tears as he went at it. Then he croaked out, "W-worst... birthday week... ever..."


My heart skipped a beat. Worst birthday week ever? Well, with all that was going on... no doubt. But I'd tried so hard to make it nice. The surprise party, the printing of the tarp... and all for naught. My heart crumpled like paper, and I felt my eyes go wet. Still, I nudged him again. "Come on. Let's... just go."


He didn't object this time as I pushed him along, guiding him down the hall. Along the way we passed by several doors. All the residential doors in Marediolanon had one-way see-through doors. And though I couldn't see if people were inside or not, just like how the legionaries couldn't, I knew they were in there, staring. I hurried us along, and knocked first for my friends' parents.


At first there was nothing. Then I heard a lock clank inside, and the door swung inward slowly. A hoof popped out and pulled it in further, and two light blue eyes peered out at me. The door opened completely, and there his father and mother were, two ponies colored gold and dirty white, respectively. I knew them from my colthood. My already pained heart sank even further into despair. These were the faces that had once happily offered me sandwiches, and now... now they looked like husks of their former selves, scared and paranoid. To think that just yesterday they were partying, and happy...


"Mister and missus Sands... your son," I told them, and nudged my friend forward. Summer Sands wiped his face and forced on a look of placidity. But these were faces he hadn't seen since happier times -- the day before. He couldn't help it. He broke into open weeping and fell forward.


Missis Sands dashed forward, catching her son and pulling him into an embrace, letting off a great breath of relief. Then mister Sands stepped forward, looking at me.


"Thank you," he said, gulping down a lump. "I don't know what happened. We were so scared, and so confused... but at least our colt's alive." He gave a little nod and sniffle. "Thank you far watching over my kid, Goldwreath."


I felt a pang inside, forming a pit that widened with each second. Seeing this... display of emotion was making me feel wanting. I needed my own parents. I needed them to tell me I hadn't failed. I needed them to tell me that it was alright...


I forced a crooked smile and rendered a little salute, "No problem... happy to have done it." And with that I turned, making for my own door. I hadn't even taken two steps when I saw my own mother and father there.


Dad's eyes was scanning the hall from behind a welder's mask -- practical to the situation, as he always was. As he did so, the sweet, kind voice of my mother asked, "He-hello Goldwreath... care for some cake, with way too much icin' on the top?"


I gave a snotty snicker. Ah mom... ever the humorist... even in times of trouble.


Yet despite the humor I almost cried as I replied, "I couldn't want anything more in the world."

*** Roama Victrix ***

Though the situation was grim and weighed heavily on all of us, there was of course cake, with far too much icing on top. I sat down around the small table I used to turn into a barricade when my friends and I played. Mother brought over the cake on my favorite plate, along with refreshments for all of us. Wielding a blowtorch and wrench, father quickly gave the hall a second glance before shutting the door close. Then he sat down with us around the table.


For a few moments I could only look around at my home... my original home, in which I'd spent years of my life. They'd changed little in my absence. My room was in exactly the same state as I'd left it six months back, that morning when my training ended: nice and clean and organized. I could tell they hadn't touched it because the dull metal gladius father had made for me using an industrial pipe, and some ingenuity, still lay atop my pillow.


Then I looked down at the cake. It looked so tasty and inviting... and in the advent of recent events was the only purely nice thing I'd seen. I couldn't resist taking in a bit, and then some more. It was so damned good... the sweetest flavor ever.


My mother gave a wrinkly smile when I had finished. Then she looked up at me with eyes I missed oh so much. Yet my joy at seeing them again was shredded by the fear they showed.


"So, dear..." she started softly, uncertainly. "... I've to ask, just what's happened out there? Heard the alarm we did, then the Sands were rushing into their quarters..." She gave a little hiccup and sniffled. "Then we heard clangin', loud, loud clangin'! Louder than a Bacchanalian party, it was. Then for a long while there wasn't a noise even father could pick up... no announcement whatsoever. But then we heard boots outside. Thought it was a guard, we did. The zebra looked like one, too. But the moment we approached 'im, he had a gun pointed at us! Your father and I couldn't do nothin' but just barricade ourselves in here until Eckris said something. But no, it wasn't Eckris that spoke. Someone else did, over the intercom... accent of Imperial was thick in his voice. Promised us safety if we just stayed in our rooms, he did. So we've been stayin' in here just hopin'... and then... then..." She blinked back a few tears and wiped off those that rolled down her old cheeks.


Dad moved his chair closer and wrapped a hoof around her, taking off his welding mask. He pulled her to his chest, then looked up at me with a sternness I feared was directed at me. "We've been holed up in here a while now," he said, his gravelly voice heavy with frustration. "Half an hour. And in that time, more of those 'guards' passed by. But they aren't guards, are they? They're foreigners, outsiders -- I've never seen any of their faces before. What the hell are they doing in here, son?"


I swallowed. How to address a question I didn't know the answer to without seeming even more incompetent? Well... it wasn't possible. Only the truth remained. "I... don't know." The words slipped out of me easily. I didn't even mount an effort to say them. Perhaps the months of conditioning had taken away whatever resolve I had to lie. "And I don't think anyone else knows, too. We were just sleeping, then Horus came in and ordered us over to the door. Then we were just... neutralized. We killed some, sure, and at the loss of some of our own, but... we couldn't hold the door." I slumped in my chair. "They rounded us up, kept us prisoner for a while. Then they let us go. They didn't even send some of their own troops in with us to make sure we didn't cause trouble -- they just told us not to, like they owned the place. And that's starting to look like the truth right now."


Dad's scowl softened, and he looked away. For the next few moments the room was plunged into a pregnant silence. Then I said softly, "But they're not here to just kill us." I let that settle in, and they both looked up at me. "If anything, I think they're to get something. I don't know what. Could be resources, maybe shelter. Supplies in general, maybe."


"But... why?" Dad asked.


I sighed and leaned forward, shaking my head. "I don't know. I really don't, Dad. Probably the only one who knows anything is Eckris, and he's... well, I have no idea where he is." It was a little over an hour ago since I'd laid eyes on our praetor. He'd barricaded himself in his office under his guards' protection. I'd been too distracted by the events in the entrance hall to notice what could have befallen him. Perhaps he was besieged and captured?


Mom collected herself, taking a sip of the grape juice she'd prepared. "We saw him. Went down the hall, he did. Atrium, I think. He... he was with two of them foreigners. I don't know what happened to him." She shook her head. "Pale as polished marble, he looked. Frightened. Poor thing; how terrible a fate!"


"Well, if he let this happen..." Dad groused, then snorted. "Damn zebra... I knew we couldn't put our faith in him."


I sighed. I wanted to believe that he had nothing to do with this. "Well if he's there, I suppose I can make myself useful and try to find him. Maybe try to get some context."


Mom gaped at me, shaking her head. "Goldwreath, don't go," she pleaded. "My child, I've not spoken with you for months now. All I got were glances, quick bits o' vision before you vanished 'round the corner on patrol. I... I know father and I allowed you to join the guard, since you wanted to so much. But you know, sometimes I just couldn't sleep wondering if you were alright or not."


She let out a shaky breath. "Son, I was scared for you when we were in peace... I don't think my heart could take it if you were taken from me in this chaos."


My heart sank into cold, aching hollowness, and my thoughts stopped dead. My feelings were reduced to absolute melancholy. "Mom... but I can't just..." I stuttered, then at the look she gave me stopped short. Those eyes... the eyes that had begged me to do my chores since forever, now... pleading for me to stay and be safe. How could I possibly say no to those?


Again the room fell quiet. Dad seemed to be staring off where he sat, and mom looked at me, still, with those eyes, as if she were simply cementing the impact of her pleas. I didn't need it anymore after the first half-minute; my mind had been convinced. I was staying, if against my own will.


Finally I got up with the intention of cleaning up the dishes -- ah, such a chore as had not been done in so long... oh, the nostalgia. But even as I moved to clear the table my father put a firm hoof to my shoulder. I froze where I stood.


"Now, listen here son," he said sternly, then licked his lips as if the words were hard for him to get out, "Your mother and I have been a dynamic duo since our marriage; we're different, but we compromise. And I respect her decisions and I love her. But..." he trailed off, looking at her. "... well, I don't agree with her this time. We can't keep you here like this, not unless it's in your heart to stay. Which I don't think is the case."


Mom looked to him, aghast. "Father! What're you sayin'? Goldwreath needs-..."


"To do his job. It's what he wants to do, it's what he's meant to do." He looked at me squarely. "Goldwreath's a guard now, dear. A guard. That's just one step down from soldier in my eyes." And then he looked right at mom. "Now it's absurd if something or someone's not used for their purpose. Our son's one of our protectors. Look at him -- he's trying to do his job, keeping the peace. I can see that glimmer of determination in his eyes. And when a person's got that kind of flame, well... nothing's gonna stop him, so long as he keeps his head on the goal. And I know our Goldwreath; he'll put himself up front as tribute if it meant saving people."


He gave a little smile and looked me over, seeming to settle on one spot of my body. Then he leaned over and said in mom's ear: "I didn't believe you at first, but you were right, love. That symbol of the Praetorian Guard on our son's rear has defined him since he got it."


I smiled bashfully and looked away, my gaze drawn to my posterior. Yes, the golden laurel wreaths and golden numeral 'III' on my flank was the symbol of the Praetorian Guard. I'd always fantasized that perhaps it meant I was destined for something big, something world-changing. But in the zebra-dominated Marediolanon, ponies observed a brutal reality: the marks on our flanks meant nothing. One could get a mark declaring their talent, but it didn't mean their time would be occupied solely by what they were good at. No, all Marediolanians served as necessary, whether they were good at something or not. Cutie marks weren't special. Cutie marks meant nothing. Such was the reality all us ponies knew, and such was the cause for my neglect of my own mark.


"Oh, don't bring that up again, Dad. I'm protecting our home because it's my duty, not because of some symbol on my flank..."


"Perhaps. But you got that mark for a reason, son. All things happen for a reason. Its meaning may not be significant or clear to you any time in the near future, but it has a role in your life. You'll see. And if nothing else, use it as inspiration. An ideal to strive for. The Praetorian Guards were an elite, Goldwreath. So even if you don't believe me because our home doesn't give a damn about it, you're meant to be like them. You're meant to do more."


He placed a hoof on my forehead. "And you can start now. Your mother is concerned for you, and so am I. But if we let that concern get in the way of your purpose, then we're hindering you. So go, Goldwreath, with my blessing. Do your duty. Let nothing stop you."


I nodded, glad to have been allowed to go and do my job. A part of me felt elated at what my father had said, being meant for something more and all that. I'd always wanted to believe I was greater than just being another pony, that I was special. And while obviously all people were, the environment Marediolanians lived in simply wasn't conducive to the development of the extraordinary in people, especially for ponies. I believed what my father was saying then was simply what people deserved, what they should get. I was just lucky enough to get the proper amount of encouragement at the right time, not limited to the parameters of my society.


I smiled and hugged them both. "Thank you," I said, sniffling. It had been six months since I'd hugged them. Now I was leaving again, once more of my own will. But this time it hurt more. This time I was forced to leave, because it was either I leave and do something, or stay and revel in their presence yet be tormented by an uneasy conscience. I made sure to give them both a kiss before I went back out that door.


"Quite a set of words you said there, father," mom sniffed.


"Well, he needed the talk. Our boy's something else. You know it and I know it, and he feels it. He needed the extra push. More to him than just a guard of some shelter. He'll change the world some day."


Ah, Dad. How he did love to speak that way, always with the grand-scheme-of-things kind of ideas. I was like him, in some ways. I liked to think of the larger picture, too. How proud he must be, then, wherever he is at the moment, of all I've achieved...

*** Roama Victrix ***

I trotted along briskly down the halls, trying to track down the hub of the outsiders' activity within Marediolanon. I felt heated, tense, but in an adrenaline-fueled kind of way. Everything I saw, from the paranoia of the Marediolanians stuck in their quarters to the unfitting emptiness of the walkways, served only to fuel the burning resolve to protect my home. If these people thought they could become our superiors in just one day, then I aimed to prove them wrong.


If my people needed someone to stand up for them, then I would be their defense. So I swore as I moved along.


To my relief, I was not alone in the endeavor. I only caught glimpses around corners, but there were at least a few other guards making their way to the atrium. The suspicion was finally confirmed when, at the foot of a staircase I had to ascend, I caught sight of a zebra guard up top, just about to make the turn. I recognized him.


"Excluvius! Hey!" I called. He stopped abruptly and turned around, paranoia in his eyes as he held his hoof where the bullets had wounded him. "Why are you out of the clinic?" I asked as I climbed the stairs.


He breathed in relief and smiled, then nodded over his shoulder. "Brother's gathered a few of us to look around, see what the foreigners are up to. I'm headed to the atrium to join up with them, seeing as a wounded leg wasn't enough to stop me." He smiled bashfully, "The poor overwhelmed mares over at medical didn't protest to my departure. I think I saved them some trouble." Then his smile turned sly, "I'm very considerate like that."


I urged us along, rolling my eyes at that last bit. "That's good to hear, but you must be careful. If worst comes to worse, I fear a wounded leg may be the gateway to more serious injuries. But come; I am of like mind to your brother. We can't fight them now without inviting genocide, but we need to keep watch still. We must do our duty."


"Oh, you mean serving Eckris," he grumbled. "Not sure if I want to, then."


"I mean protecting our people," I replied, looking around. Good, no foreign legionaries to meddle with us. At least they weren't walking all over the place like it was theirs just yet. We still had a chance to prevent that. As we trotted along, we neared the 3rd level entrance to the atrium. "We're still guards, Excluvius. Beaten and sent off like scolded foals, but still guards. We have a duty, and gods damn us if we let one defeat stop us."


We went forward, passing underneath the metallic, arched doorway and moving onto the atrium's 3rd level balcony. Up here we saw the entirety of our recreational center -- it was a wide, mountain-deep rotunda, domed with an oculus up top that beamed down artificial light onto the single olive tree we possessed. Here there were four levels, with each one specializing in a different kind of entertainment or social facility -- the first bore a park and plant life; the second, media facilities for movies and old shows; the third, shops for merchandise or services; the last was dedicated to our cultural heritage as Roamans: it was a museum, and one filled with all kinds of ancient documents and equipment.


"There," I pointed over at one of the 'C' shaped benches under the olive tree, two floors below us. "There's Eckris, with that legatus, Thanus." The two were engaged in light argument, with the foreigner waving a hoof around and then slamming it onto the table. Eckris seemed frightened, and understandably so given the legionary century standing nearby, surrounding the two with an octagon of controbernia facing outwards. As soon as we saw them some of the legionaries below spotted us as well, pointing hooves and having an observer keep a constant eye on us.


"Aw, Tartarus," Excluvius groused. "They're keeping tabs on us. Damn. There goes getting closer and picking up their plans."


I gave a little grumble and pulled us both from the balcony. "Well, we're not just giving up like that. We'll need to-..." I glanced over at the doorway behind us and spotted a small red dot of light, moving around in circles. We looked over across the atrium to the other side and spotted Eckris' elite, hunched down and keeping themselves inconspicuous. The one with the laser sight on his rifle mouthed something over and over until I made out its meaning: 'How many?'


He probably hadn't taken the risk of exposing his troops, given that the sight of eight zebras with guns spying on the invaders very well could have ticked them off. I drew the number '80' in the air, and he scowled. Then he faced his troops and made a throat-cutting motion, and they gave a similar reaction.


I looked to Excluvius, then back across the atrium as the soldiers left with as much discreetness as possible. "Well, we're not the only ones trying, at least... too bad they can't do more." I glanced around. "Now, where's your brother? You said he'd gathered others."


He didn't reply for a moment, then he grinned sheepishly. "Heh, I said I was going to join up with them here in the atrium... but he never did tell me where he was..."


I facehoofed. "Oh, gods damn it, Excluvius..."


He hung his head. "Okay, so I was hoping I'd be able to look around for them; you know, act normal..."


"With foreigners strolling around our home like they own the place?"


"Give me some slack, my head's running on anesthetic."


"That's no damned excuse!"


"Ugh, you sound just like my brother..."


I pulled my hoof away and grabbed him by the collar of his cuirass. "Listen here, you immature little shi-..."


Suddenly there was a commotion on the first floor. Excluvius' eyes were locked on me, fearful and shocked. I grumbled and let him go, then moved over to the edge of the balcony. Excluvius came up right beside me.


Two legionaries threw a guard to the floor right in front of their leader and my own. The beaten-looking zebra was then joined by two more Marediolanian guards, both similarly beaten-looking. Then the guard who'd been first thrown to the ground was yanked up and made to kneel before the legate.


Thanus shook his head and sighed, then stood up and grabbed the zebra by the jaw, examining him. "My my..." the legate mused, putting on a look of scrutiny that just dripped with irritation. "A guard. And one so bloodied. I'll not say your state is undeserved. I thought that we'd sent a clear enough message after the entrance hall to not resist, but it seems we've not." He glanced at the other two, then looked over to Eckris. "Tell me my satrap: how many people did you lose?" he asked unconcernedly.


"S-satrap!" Eckris yelped, fuming as he stood up. "Outsider, I'll have you know that-..."


"Please," Thanus interrupted. "Pardon the term, but answer the question. I'll have a full account of things before I consider what next to do with this... place. And of course, its people." My befuddled praetor didn't answer, though, as he struggled to calm himself, who so clearly looked to be panicked and unsettled.


"We lost three," the beaten guard said. The voice made Excluvius nearly push me aside as he got himself as close to the edge as he dared. "We lost three of our people, you outsider bastard!" Incluvius rasped, panting.


His tone made Thanus balk and take a step back. "Three? Well now... that's at least less than what could have been. And in all fairness, is equal to our own casualties." He took another step back and sat down once more. He eyed Incluvius with sardonic amusement for a moment. "Tell me, guard, these people you lost... do you think their deaths were necessary, or that perhaps were the result of some foolery on your people's part? I personally believe it to be the latter."


"Brother, don't listen to him," Excluvius muttered, shaking his head. "He's just trying to twist you up. You've warned me of these kind of people. Don't listen to him..."


One of the other two guards spat, "Foolery on our people's part, eh? Heh, that's funny... apparently it's foolish to just mind our own business. Why don't you crawl back to the dust outside, you dirt-loving maggot-eaters?"


"Silence now," Thanus replied curtly. "Such words are not necessary. Rather, speak with reason and a desire for peace, for peace alone will ensure your people's survival within the Legion. Be of like mind to that zebra who, I am told, swayed the hearts of my troops. Insults are so barbaric, and believe me when I say they'll only make things harder for you later on."


The guard snorted in contempt. Thanus shook his head, then looked over the atrium with a tired, irritated expression.


Then his eyes caught us. "Oh, look! More guards!" his voice echoed up to us, sounding all the more annoyed. "Please don't tell me you've come here hoping to devise a why to expel us, too. That will just be detrimental to a peaceful solution, and I do not need more hindrances now."


"This is our home, you pompous piece of shit," Incluvius growled, sparing a glance our way. "Expect more hindrances. Even if it'll all just amount to headaches for you, we'll give resistance. Don't think you can just take our lives from us."


Thanus sighed, looking more agitated than before. He glared at the soldiers who'd brought them in in the first place, and they shifted uneasily. Then he gave a huff and irritatedly waved the beaten guards off. The legionaries who brought them in hurriedly took them back out, throwing them like trash out the exit and closing the door on them.


Excluvius turned and galloped out, hurrying down the nearest stairwell to get to to his brother.


Thanus looked around again, and once more spotted us. He smirked and shook his head. "All these annoying hindrances..." he said aloud. "Alright, to any other dwellers of this place that are spying on us right now, whether I've spotted you or not: listen here. I'll have you all know that this shelter belongs to Roam. To the Legion. The purpose of your lives is to serve in our ranks. And you should all know this. Yet your leader tells me that not a single generation that has lived in here has prepared for nor ever even known of our eventual coming." He turned and looked right at Eckris, his gaze so heavy with contempt that the other zebra shrank in the seat. "Now... why is this?"


"We were never told! We never knew!" Eckris cried, backing away as far as he could get.


Thanus put on a look of utter disgust and disdain. "You never knew..." he said disappointedly, tiredly, and then clicked his tongue. "Yes, yes... you've told me several times now. 'We know nothing of Imperial Command number one', yadda yadda..." He let off a groan of annoyance, then waved a hoof at him dismissively. "Fine then, you don't know. Then get out. Prepare your people for a... gathering. I have much to discuss with your ignorant populace."


He trotted over to one of his legionaries, this one with a purple cape and a helmet engraved with an eagle. The legate whispered something into the zebra's ear, and the caped soldier left hurriedly, taking some other legionaries with him. Then Thanus sat down and glared at Eckris until he scurried off, per Thanus' instructions. The legate then looked over at me where I stood. "I said get out. That includes you too, red pony. Do as you wish, but mind you that if you attempt any kind of insurrection, well... you're only going to bring a world of pain down on yourself. You don't want that."


He dispersed his soldiers, who then took positions all over various parts of the atrium. I left the moment some of them started to come up the stairs that led to my position. I felt much like what Eckris would have: demeaned, belittled, and insulted. But what could I have done? I came to the atrium hoping to gain context, or to find a something to use against these outsiders. Instead I saw only how little tolerance their leader had for resistance.


But there was still some hope, even if it was not one for independence or sovereignty. Their leader wanted to speak to all the people of Marediolanon. Maybe shed some light on things and put some concerns to rest. That sounded logical, reasonable. And I would get them ready for the gathering.


I just had to make them realize that what they would say and do would determine the fate of their home and of themselves.

*** Roama Victrix ***

"Denizens of Marediolanon, please proceed to the atrium. Bring only yourselves; any possible arms and armor will be confiscated at the entrance. That goes for the guards as well, and goes especially for the guards."


"Gods, that's getting irritating," Dad grumbled.


It was morning according to Marediolanon's artificial illumination. It had been almost two hours since the atrium, and by now I had cleaned and freshened myself. Even with the occurrence of the extraordinary, my mother's instinct to pester me into bathing remained, much to my own relief. I'd feared she would never be the same after what happened, yet there she was... still baking, still making little jokes.


Now my parents and I were trotting through the halls, in a crowd of many others. Summer Sands was there along with his own mother and father. Some of the guards were going on by themselves, unarmored, unarmed, and inconspicuous. Even the staff of out facilities were present, save a few -- for example, Lighthouse, our chief engineer, was absent; probably for the best, for Marediolanon required constant maintenance. The presence of the other engineers was enough. It was good that many of us were going, and it comforted me to know some of them. But most of the people were the everyday folk of Marediolanon that I only served, never knew.


"Just don't let your irritation show too much," I told him. "This meeting is our chance to really get something from these people. Context, reassurances of safety, promises of prosperity -- I'll welcome anything. Let's not let our temper ruin things."


"As if the shots fired just a couple of hours back didn't ruin things enough," he retorted. "But I understand what you mean. I can keep my head together son, don't worry. I'm where you get your cool-headedness, after all. What I'm really concerned about is how the others will go about saying their thoughts..."


"They'll do their best to keep civilized. I spread the word of their leader's irritability after I saw it for myself; those who got the message will hopefully... be cautious." I furrowed my brows and sucked in a breath. "Oh, I sure hope they will be."


As we moved along in the crowded halls, many of us scared and all of us tense as we bumped into and writhed against one another, I was by chance pushed to be right against a familiar looking zebra. He was the one who'd saved our sorry flanks earlier, and spared me the consequences of my uncontrolled rage.


"Hey there," I half-yelled beside him, voice straining to get just loud enough to be heard over the crowd. He caught my call and turned his head, then mouthed a greeting. "I just wanted to say thanks. For earlier. I wasn't really in control of myself and all that, see..."


He narrowed his eyes and nodded, refocusing his attention to working his way around a slower bunch of older zebras. "Do not dwell on it, Goldwreath. I know you meant well... for us, at least. Rage can be difficult to control in any case, most especially in the extraordinary, unexpected situations. I'd have done the same."


Well, he knew my name. It was a polite gesture on his part. It was time to return the favor. "What's your name?" I asked, feeling silly that I didn't know one of my own fellow guards.


"Gravetanicus," he replied, looking back to me. "We were partners back in training. For that one game, 'Identify the Speaker'. Won second place, us. Remember?"


"Ah!" I said, remembering it well. "Yes, yes I remember now. So Gravetanicus... why didn't you do the same?"


"Hm?"


The crowd stopped moving, and from the looks of it those far up front were making slow progress. Made sense. A single entrance to the atrium was small on its own. We'd have used more of the many entrances if the first batch of instructions that made us aware it was time for the meeting didn't specifically say to use the first level entrances only.


"You said anger is hard to control, and that you'd have done the same. Why didn't you? How were you so calm?"


He looked away bashfully, smiling somewhat. "Ah, well... it's really simple. I just kind of follow a saying. By Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Roam. He said and I paraphrase, 'The refusal to imitate is the best vengeance.'" He looked back to me. "Had it not been for that little piece of wisdom, well... I'd have joined you in your raving. But I like to think of lots of ways to solve problems, not just a single one. Violence should always be a last resort."


"Should always be a last resort..." I mused, licking my lips in preparation for response. But I didn't say anything. His last sentence spoke for itself, and needed not be expounded upon. I smiled at him. "Thank you, Gravetanicus. I'll... remember that."


"Glad to hear it." He pointed a hoof forward, over the crowd. "Now let us hope for more. Let us hope that those you wisely warned of their leader's irritability will keep to prudence in the coming deliberation."


It was minutes later when everyone finally entered. From my spot within the crowd, my parents behind me and Gravetanicus beside me, I could understand now why they had us use only the first level entrance: they had poised themselves to gun us down in case the situation escalated. The balcony Eckris' elite had perched themselves upon earlier was just one of their firing positions. Now almost every single elevated platform bristled with the shining metal of guns and melee weaponry. Banners with the symbol of the wartime Imperial Roaman Legion hung off the ends of poles.


As the crowd writhed and pushed against itself in the now-cramped first floor, with any stragglers in the halls being herded in by more legionaries, who themselves then shut the doors on us to prevent escape, Thanus entered. Perched on the safety of a second level balcony with an apparent group of his own elite guards protecting him, the look on his face was a mix of both disgust, amusement, and simple boredom.


Now tapping a headset mouthpiece twice to test the device's functionality, he spoke with a voice that bore down on us from the many hidden speakers of our atrium. "Greetings, citizens of Marediolanon. I see most of you have answered my call to meet. That is good, good indeed. Perhaps now I can sort this mess out..."


No sooner had his last sentence ended than he was bombarded with retorts and scoffs, all charged with contempt and fury.


"Sort out this mess, he says! That zebra's gone mad!"

"Yanked down our door, you did! Have you gone insane? You couldn't have knocked gently first?"

"And maybe you can give my son back the life he lost, fucker!"


As soon as the frenzy of yells started, I covered my face and sighed. Well, what a lovely way to start negotiations...


"Settle down!" Thanus shouted, but kept his tone without the tension or contempt that he was being bombarded with. "I understand the confusion and anger you are going through. Believe me, I do. And believe me, also, when I say that I didn't intend it. You were supposed to know of our arrival! The problems we face now, we face because you did not know of us to begin with. And that itself is the source of our current hardships."


"Really now? And just how were we supposed to 'know of you to begin with'?" someone asked sarcastically. "If you know us so well, you'd know the door is impossible to open! Welded shut and all that; only time it was ever a two-way path was when our ancestors were galloping through it to escape balefire!"


Thanus clenched his jaw and closed his eyes. If there was one similarity between us at that exact moment, it was that we both knew diplomacy was going badly.


And as if sensing this similarity, he looked at me. As in, right at me; it was uncanny, unsettling. He relaxed immediately, straightening his posture and pointing a hoof at me. "You there. Red pony. What's your name?" he asked calmly, and suddenly half a hundred eyes were on me. The legionaries up top were staring my way, as if ready to put lead in my brains.


I gulped out my answer. "It's Goldwreath, sir."


"Sir?" he asked, just as surprised as those who'd heard me say the word were. My father's eyes were wide in shock, like I'd insulted him. "Well, now I've heard all this place has to offer! Insults and raving, questions and snarkiness... and now some actual respect!" He smiled, leaning against the railing and pointing at me again. "This kind if attitude, Marediolanians, will ensure the rapid return to normalcy. Cooperativity! Truly, I can imagine him speaking like that diplomat of a zebra I was told of."


Gravetanicus smiled and glanced my way.


"Therefore!" Thanus continued, "I shall base on him, who is so clearly one of the less thickheaded people here, the decisions I shall make for this place. Now tell me, Goldwreath... you're a guard, yes? I saw you earlier, I believe."


"I am." I thought about the people we lost at the door, people whose names I could still learn but whose person I would never know. Missed opportunities at friendship; wasted chances at happiness. And then I thought of those they had lost, as well. Soldiers, fighters -- brothers in arms, locked together in blood and battle. That such kinds of people had their lives end on cold steel was a waste and a shame.


A waste and a shame that could never be rectified. I could still see their blood around their lifeless bodies, and even then at that moment it made me shudder. But perhaps I could make it so that their deaths weren't for naught.


"I was at the entrance hall," I announced, making sure to be heard. "I saw what happened. I saw blood for the first time, spilled on my home's own floor. And I saw death, horrible death... for that, there is fault on both our sides. That much cannot be denied, and I'm sure that, for fairness' sake, both our peoples will make amends somehow. But you must understand that my own people are simply too confused, too shocked, and some have even been stricken with loss, to welcome cooperation. You will have to explain why you have done all you have, for their sakes."


He nodded, suppressing a grin of relief. "True enough. I was going to get to it, but I wasn't in the mood to bother... until now, that is."


With that he withdrew from the railings and cleared his throat, his attention now going over the whole compact crowd. "People of Marediolanon, here me now! You want answers? I shall give them to you. I'll not delay with pleasantries and formalities, so here is the situation as it should be: there should have been a file in this place's databanks, describing in scrutinizing detail what we of the Imperial Roaman Legion call Imperial Order One.


"This Order," he elaborated, "Was left by the last Roaman emperor, Titanius, as his final instruction for the rebuilding of the empire after the apocalypse. It states that at a time of our preparedness, the Legion would rise up from our own shelter and contact each of our fellow but far-flung bunkers. One such bunker is you, Marediolanon, the 50th in the series. From your population, like from the others we went to, we were to obtain useful resources of all kinds -- equine and non-equine.


"Yet for some strange reason many of these bunkers were not aware of this Order. Many claimed to have not known it at all, as you people claim. Why? I can't say... and I am highly disturbed by it. But in the ideal situation, it would have come to pass that once a shelter's door was down the populace would be cooperative. Having prepared for us, they would have almost immediately and seamlessly integrated themselves in our military and civic system. They would have been outposts across the Zebrican wasteland, garrisoned and protected by the Legion from the hazards of the wastes. With their help, the reclamation of Roam from its destitution would be speedy, smooth. Sadly, it's been... less than smooth. For months now. Every delay hampers us greatly."


With that he stepped back and let off a heavy breath. His eyes tired, he said slowly, "I don't blame you people. Perhaps some manner of apocalyptic chaos erased the file somehow, I don't know. But surely some of you must have thought on the possibility of governmental intervention in your lives. Certainly the first generation that lived here had been informed of the possibility of being reclaimed by the nation. Governments that split itself apart must consolidate eventually, yes?"


With that he ended, wisely stepping back to let us process what had been said -- the ramifications, implications, and immediate effects on our lives. The uproar of shock and confusion that followed was understandably chaotic. Thankfully it didn't reach the point of becoming violent. Families bickered, within and without, among themselves. The staff of different departments immediately took the information with technical concern. Would it mean, then, that we were to share what we possessed with these people? Support their efforts in 'reclaiming Roam'? Offer our quarters, our time, our supplies and our skills? Or were we to cast them back out, still, or at least reject them and that for which they came? Only one person among us had the power to make that decision.


"My people!" Eckris' voiced boomed over the atrium, quieting the chaos. Hooves were pointed and calls rang out until we all knew just where he was: on a balcony, directly opposite the one Thanus stood upon. With him was a handful of his own elite guards; they looked uncannily similar to the purple-caped legionaries guarding the foreign legatus. They couldn't have been distinguished at all if it weren't for the more weather-beaten look the outsider soldiers' armor bore.


Seeing that we had noticed him, our praetor took only a moment to collect himself before declaring, "Listened I have, with all due concern and prudence as required. And a conclusion, I have reached." His own headset wrapped about his head, and with the microphone close enough to his lips we heard him gulp, he said slowly, "We were the offenders here, I regret to say... and with even greater sorrow, I can blame only myself. Unfair are our accusations that they did not contact us beforehoof, for they did."


Cutting off the brewing uproar with his voice, Thanus barked, "Aha! So you did receive our messages. Why did you not react? You could have saved us all so much trouble!"


Though he'd interrupted it, his choice of words and tone only fueled the sudden anger and disdain the Marediolanians seemed to have for Eckris. Even I couldn't hold back my astonishment as I yelled and demanded answers. The nervous zebra shifted his gaze from side to side, as if nervous he'd catch a bullet from his own guards.


Then at last, "I didn't believe it, is the reason!" he cried. "Yes, I did not believe it. Filled with much useless junk, my computer is. Hundreds and hundreds of archived transmissions from the outside. And useless, almost all of them are! Mad threats of destruction; claims to right to entrance using false codes; random audio files of music -- none significant! No single file named 'Imperial Order One' did I find. Not even using the deleted files recovery system."


"Well, so you didn't know of the order," Thanus growled. "But all my transmissions... why would you ignore them? I used the correct codes and phrases -- tell me I'm wrong. And weeks! I contacted you once a week for two months with the same message: prepare for our coming! What manner of IDIOCY moved you to do the exact OPPOSITE?!" he shouted, his voice thrumming with all the pent-up frustration he'd had to bite back.


Eckris cringed back, then looked solemnly and sadly over the assembled crowd. "Didn't... didn't think much of it, did I. Thought you were just a lucky waster..."


Most of us glared back, uncaring for his side of the story -- to be fair, his defense was quite weak. I didn't want to, but as he stood there doing nothing and saying nothing to attempt to right his wrong, I couldn't help but let the respect I'd brooded for him ebb away into nothingness.


He stood there for almost a minute in silence, while we waited anxiously for some sort of resolution. None came.


"Very well, then," Thanus said, tiredly but firmly. "Seeing as there seems to be no compromise brewing from the both us, I shall have to determine the course of action myself. And I shall try to be fair, to the best of my abilities." That said, he placed both forehooves on the railings and put on an expression of thought. We all bunched together and moved closer. He was an outsider for sure, and one with a hazy background and a possible lie of an explanation. But he at least seemed capable to act on the moment's notice. Not at all like our praetor.


"In all fairness," he said, looking over us, "I suppose neither of us can truly be blamed for this travesty. The deaths, for sure, will have to be recompensed by both sides. But I'm sure you all understand that this place is still meant for something more than just being a shelter."


"You mean helping your Legion?" someone asked.


Thanus nodded. "Exactly. It was the purpose for which your home was made, whether you like it or not. And me, I have been sent to collect." Then he paused, and his gaze turned wary, cautious. "That is assuming you people are willing to give of yourselves? I cannot force you to cooperate, though it would be a turn of good luck if you did..."


I scanned his face, eyeing his expressions. Underneath his mask of calm I sensed an indomitable determination, a relentless fervor. I realized that, though he was giving us the illusion of choice, there was only really one response he would accept. Perhaps he wouldn't gun us down if we refused. Perhaps he would bite his tongue and smile in acceptance. But somehow, he would solicit something out of us. Somehow, he'd get what he wanted. He had the means to enforce his desires, and perhaps the diplomatic savvy to convince us to let him do as he would. He had clearly gone through far too much trouble to simply let us get away with our liberty.


Their could only be one choice. To accept, or to become a client state in everything but name?


The crowd was conflicted. Arguments broke out. 'We must accept; it is our purpose!' 'Sit down, you old fool!' 'We cannot refuse their force of arms!' 'And what of liberty? I'll have my son grow free!'


The clamor escalated. Zebras and ponies alike started waving hooves, scowling and yelling. Trapped together in a cramped space, we couldn't escape, couldn't dilute or own wrath. Our pushing and shoving soon turned to brawling. Screams rang out as people fell, then were trampled, and then disappeared under a blur of hooves. Some tried to stop it, but the rift sown between us was widening with every second. Verbal demands were useless, not even from our own elders.


Mom screamed. I turned and saw her being yanked into the fray by angry zebras, but then Dad shoved them off and pulled her close. Alone, surrounded by anarchy, he protected my mother, his wife.


But I couldn't focus on it. Chaos was growing, and the people were destroying themselves. As a guard, I had to settle it. Not through stopping the fight, but by destroying the reason. I also had to be fair.


And in order to be fair, their was only one choice.


"I volunteer!" I yelled over the crowd. The clamoring slowed, then ceased. Everything was left as quiet as a vacuum. Hundreds of eyes stared at me, making my skin crawl and my breathing erratic. But I'd already said it; there was only going forward, now. "I-I volunteer as tribute to the... to the Imperial Roaman Legion."


Thanus' eyes were wide with wonder and total bafflement. This time I could tell that he was hiding no motives or plans; he was simply, totally caught off-guard. "Say... say that again?" he requested.


I felt like I was swallowing a stone. Gods, the way the people were looking at me... and especially the gazes of my parents. I'd have melted away in embarrassment if I hadn't been trained as a guard to stand firm. "In... in all fairness..." I stuttered, then swallowed again. "In all fairness, as we have agreed, both sides must provide recompense. My people are torn between active cooperation or total rejection. Therefore I give of myself, and only of myself. That way I can represent my people's apologies for at least one of your casualties without involving all of my home -- those who do and do not wish cooperation -- in the process. It is a compromise."


For the longest moment he just stared at me, completely without response. But then finally he broke into a smile, one almost maniacal. "Such... courage!" he said. "Such... initiative! Such selflessness!" He gestured a hoof over the crowd and pointed at me. "This is something for the stories, my friends! Let it be known that in the 50th shelter of Marediolanon among the chaos of half a thousand equines and when members of the 4th legion were outnumbered by anarchy, it was the pony Goldwreath that ended the violence! Let it be known that when the legate Thanus Decimus Meridius called for a civil response from the isolated people, it was Goldwreath that first raised hoof!"


He smiled down at me as pulled something out of a satchel, then threw it down at me. I barely caught the pouch. A jingling came from within.


"That's five-hundred denarii," he told me with a smile. "And you will need it for your new life above, believe me. Now," he turned his attention to everyone else, "Goldwreath here has given of himself. He will be taken outside to our camp, where he will immediately be lectured, trained, and outfitted to be a good Legion auxiliary. For those concerned, no harm will come to him that he cannot handle, and for the first few weeks of his enlistment he shall be allowed to visit here as often as is allowed by his new schedule. And assuming he is assigned as a local vigiles, he may stay in the area permanently as part of a garrison."


He turned to me again, then said something into the ear of one of his purple-caped guards. Immediately the zebra left, and moments later a nearby door opened, and he stepped out. Carrying a presence of calm sternness, he marched over.


"You will come with me now," he said plainly, and trotted off. I followed, steps slow and sluggish as a manifestation of my reluctance. I realized just then the gravity of what I'd just signed up for.


... your new life above...


Mom and Dad tried to stop me. They kept me at the door for an agonizing minute. But it didn't take much to get them to understand, and to let me go. Really, I think they knew it had to be done... they just didn't like it.


"But you will not be going off with that 'detachment' without my blessing," Dad said sternly, holding back tears. "I will not let my son be take from me by a... a wasteland."


There wasn't much holding me back after I got past them, at least physically. But the mental anguish, now that was keeping me back. I felt like splitting apart, an aspect of me going along with my own bravery (or was it folly?), and another aching to stay. The rift in my mind made me shake, made sweat bead down my cheeks as the tension in me swirled into a vortex of panic -- panic I barely held back. The soldier I followed served as my only guide in a time when the hazy image of my home's empty halls would have driven me to snap.


I thought about all I was leaving behind. My parents, my few close friends, those I idolized. Faces I would potentially never see again. The familiar sights and smells. I knew it was all silly -- I still had the chance to find a way to be assigned merely as permanent garrison; for that goal, I would do all I could. There was no point panicking and breaking down now that I had made a choice; I had to follow through with it, and keep a level head. It was illogical to regret something that was clearly for the better, especially if that regret could only hinder my efforts to ensure I would stay.


Yet I couldn't help it. I choked back my sobs and blinked back my tears. It was all I could do as I absent-mindedly followed.


Finally we reached the door. I stopped where I stood, eyes widening and mind clearing of my anguish. The vehicle that had earlier blocked view of the outside world was gone, revealing a... gods, how I couldn't describe it then. Now that I can, I can say it was afternoon. It was so foreign then, but that was the first time I saw light. Real light -- and it was orange, dousing a new world in the color of flames. Long shadows crept along the scenery, like horizontal pillars of black.


"Come now," the soldier said. "I've little time to waste on your gawking. Really, I'd like to grab some food before returning, and for that I need time. Hurry."


I wrested control of myself. Well, it was an... an eye-catching first glimpse, for sure. Not as bad as I'd thought, which was a comfort. We stepped outside. Immediately a strange, hard crunching crackled beneath my hooves.

Rocks. I'd only ever heard of them in documentaries, seen them in books. Now here they were... so brittle and dusty, crumbling underneath my touch... if I were in any better mood, I'd probably have made a game out of crushing them.


Of course, there was much more to look at than just bits of solid minerals. As I knew, Marediolanon was built into a mountain. The entrance was at the top of that mountain, so we were told, and it held true. It was not a wide-topped mountain by any standards; really, the slope was gentle enough to allow for perhaps a few dozen people to make a small camp. The gentlest slope allowed would permit a single vehicle to roll up. From my elevated perch I spotted a flattened section of the mountain below, like an enormous stair step, but it was circular.


I found myself fixating on what had been built upon that formation. A large camp, spanning the entire circumference of the earthen circle, protruded from the rock and dirt with such colors and variety as to stand out immediately -- light-brown walls that shone like gold in the strange new light surrounded tens upon tens of tents, divided by the dozens by color and size. Banners of the Legion bore their symbols with pride as the cloth danced in the air. All about and within the camp was activity of all sorts. I could only see them as ants, but I could tell there must have been hundreds of zebras down there, working. Two vehicles patrolled a nearby dirt road that could lead up and down the mountain.


"That is Appollania," the soldier said plainly as we continued along. "The 4th legion's camp in this region. Small as of now, but that will change with time. Hopefully."


I felt a shock jolt through me. That was small for them? I spluttered, bewildered, and was about to let loose a torrent of questions.


That's when I was blinded.


It was not a painful blindness, not like what I encountered earlier. It didn't last as long, nor was the light as intense. Soon enough my eyes adjusted, and I looked off to the right. Through a haze of distant blur, I spotted a brilliant orb hiding behind the crooked landscape of distant hills. It was already dim, and its light was getting softer and softer, darkening the world I stood in...


"What is that?" I asked instead, not quite sure what to make of it. It was beautiful, yes... and that's why I cursed at the distant lands for hiding it. "An... explosion? A-A megaspell?" I asked in a rush.


"Ha!" the zebra barked. "Oh, you sheltered equines. We at least had the sense to read of the world we would eventually conquer. Conquer again, that is. That was the Sun."


"The Sun?" I blinked. The Sun. The source of all life on the planet -- the provider of warmth and happiness. I'd never seen it beyond videos, and even now it eluded me. "Is it... okay, so it was setting, that means... it's going to be night soon?"


"Correct," he nodded, seeming amused by my naivety. "And soon you will see stars."


"Stars?"


He smiled. "Yes, beautiful stars. They come in many colors, in case you don't know," he said as we made a turn on a vague dirt path that gently lead us down the slope. "Red, orange, white. I hate the green ones. Ah, but blue! My favorite color."


I stopped. I don't know why I did. There was just this... creeping sense of power around me, like the air had been charged with electricity. Sounds seemed distant, sights were more vivid. I could think of nothing, yet in the void of my mind I felt a rush like I'd never felt before.


He turned and looked to me, eyes glowing softly with blue. Then the glow faded, and they were just regular zebra gold again. Everything turned back to normal as the sensations ebbed away.


He gestured over at the camp, smiling confusedly. "It's over there, the camp. Why are you staring into the twilight? What, did the mention of stars turn a few important gears in your head -- or, as it seems, stop them?"


I shook myself to awareness, and we continued along. Soon the dark-orange sky with its wisps of dirty-white clouds shifted to dark violet, then to near-black. Thousands of tiny points of light filled up the sky. But as we trotted along down the slope, I noticed something.


He'd said stars came in many colors. But... that didn't seem true. There were thousands of stars, but they were all blue across the vast, limitless heavens.


"Come now, Goldwreath," he chuckled, not sounding... quite like himself, "You have a life ahead of you. A life not... quite what you are used to."


Even now, I find that to be the single biggest understatement I've ever heard.







Entry #2
Orator. Heh, my friends tell me I'm good at being one. Maybe they're right. But Megaphone's the real orator; me, I just take some tips off him. Still... maybe I could take some lessons. You never know when something like that could come in handy.

Speech -- 25+10/100