• Published 21st Sep 2013
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Fallout Equestria: Ashes - Relyet



Another Fallout Equestria Sidestory. Two ponies walked across the wasteland, trying their hardest not to be heroes, not to make friends, and not to change the wasteland.

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Chapter 9: A Tangled Web: Part 2

Fallout Equestria: Ashes

Relyet

Chapter 9: A Tangled Web, Part 2



It was early morning before Cactus Flower came to let me out of my cell. Her gaze seemed distant, and she plainly avoided looking me in the eye.

“We’ve, uh… decided we can’t hold you any longer, due to a recent break in the case. You’re free to go…” I stepped out of the cell and she turned to the row of lockers to retrieve my swords and return them. I started to head out the door when she spoke up again “What are you going to do?”

I stood in the doorway and shrugged “Follow the stars.”

I found Abattoir, Air Heart, and Crunch waiting outside of the station. I trotted past them and onto the sidewalk, and they followed. It only took a few seconds for Abattoir to spring up at my side.

“So, how’d you do it?”

I kept my gaze fixed ahead “Do what?”

“How’d you hack the spritebot to deliver that video? I thought you weren’t good with computers.” she bounced with enthusiasm.

I snorted in derision and shook my head at the completely thoughtless explanation he’d hidden behind. I considered letting them in on the ‘big secret’, but decided it could wait for another day, I had work to do. “I didn’t. It’s complicated. Forget about it for now.”

Then Air Heart was at my other side, looking concerned. “But you’ve seen it, right? You know what happened to that poor filly? We’ve got to do something!”

“Yes, I know that.” I rumbled, crossing a street and turning to the left.

“I know we’re busy, but could you at least consider-… Did you say yes?” Air Heart fell behind a few paces, he was so surprised.

“I’m not concerned about the filly; I’m doing this because that… thing with the stars on its back has something to do with Xephaniah.”

Air Heart caught up again and let out a relieved sigh “Oh, okay then. But we’re still going to save her too, right?”

I turned again when I reached the entrance to a certain neighborhood, stopping to look at the sign. “Maybe. If we find her in time.” His face fell at that, but then he looked up at the sign with me.

Timidly, he asked “Uhm, do you want to know what it says?”

“No, I’m trying to remember. It was dark when I was running through here last night, but I think this is the place.” I started to trot into the once idyllic neighborhood and they followed.

“Why were you running through here?” Air Heart, of all ponies, seemed suspicious.

“Chasing something, just be quiet until we get there.” That got me a few minutes of sweet silence.

“Wait, so, what are we doing here again?” Abattoir asked after ignoring most of our previous conversation.

“Looking for a trail.” It was still too early in the morning for so much conversation.

“Uhm, do you really think it’s a good idea to bother-” Air Heart was cut off by a shotgun going off into the air and scrambled backwards so fast he tripped, while Crunch moved to put himself ahead of me.

“Don’t you come no closer, you hear?!” The shotgun belonged to the stallion standing on the front porch of the last house in this lane before the huge town surrounding wall cut through. It floated shakily in the air above his head, aimed generally in our direction.

“You shouldn’t wave that around like that, you could hurt somepony.” I said calmly. His face, which was already a deep maroon shade of red, started to turn purple. Before he could threaten us again, a mare burst out of the front door behind him.

“Beetroot, put that thing down!” The mare hissed at him and he dropped the gun, turning back to her. I saw his cutie mark, a beet that matched the color of his face before he started to calm back down and addressed his wife, who bore some kind of… leaf on her flank.

“She’s back Holly, she’s come fer’ another. Well we ain’t got anymore foals for you to take!” He raised his voice again, and Holly reached up and put her hoof on his shoulder, shushing him and talking him back towards the door. He went back into the house grumbling something that sounded like ‘mutant’.

“I’m sorry.” Holly began after welcoming us up onto the porch with her. “My Beetroot is a nice stallion, he just has a temper… and what’s happened to our daughter has really made it worse.”

“That’s why I’m here.” I said, choosing to stand while Abattoir and Air Heart sat on one of the wooden benches available. The mare sighed and rubbed her eyes, which I was just noticing looked puffy and red.

“And I’m real sorry you got arrested, I had no idea you… I mean, I just told Sheriff Cactus I saw somethin’ with these terrible eyes that glowed in the night, I didn’t mean to accuse an innocent pony.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “That thing wasn’t no pony though, I’m certain. The way it moved, the size of it, it was just…”

“I understand, forget about it.” I didn’t think I’d be able to stay if she started to weep in front of me, so I tried to keep my voice from sounding a harsh as usual. “The truth is I need to track down whatever that thing was, I was hoping to look around your yard for some kind of trail that might lead me in the right direction.”

“And find your daughter.” Air Heart blurted out before I could stop him. Holly’s face lit up and she seemed to be without words. Before she could get her voice back, the door opened again and Beetroot stepped out, his eyes downcast.

“Ah… Ah would like to apologize, I ain’t been myself since-” But Holly crossed to him and pressed her face against his neck.

“Root, they… these ponies are going to find our daughter!” She gasped, and he looked even more ashamed for a second before raising his eyes to look into my lenses.

“You… you really mean that? You’re gona find our Sunny?” I looked back into his hope filled eyes and slowly gave the answer I knew would probably shatter that hope.

“I didn’t say that. My companion here got a little ahead of himself…” I tilted my head in Air Heart’s direction and he shuffled nervously on the bench. “If I find your daughter, I can rescue her. But I don’t work for free.”

“Lumi…” Air Heart tried to say something, but I stamped my back hoof on the floor sharply, stopping him before he could do more damage.

Beetroot’s face started to redden again, and Holly seemed to have been struck speechless again. “You monster!” Beetroot’s shouting was the first to break the silence. “How dare you come here and try to squeeze caps out of us after what we just been through?!”

I let his rage roll over me, standing firm and waiting for him to pause for breath “I just thought I’d offer, since I’m going to chase down that creature either way. The price is fifty caps for a child, very reasonable.”

“And what if we don’t? What would you do when you found her then, just leave her behind?!”

“Yes.” That seemed to stun Beetroot, and he just gaped at me.

Holly regained her voice by then, and in the ringing silence left by all that shouting, her whisper seemed extra soft. “I’ll pay it.”

“Holly, you can’t-” She shook her head at Beetroot and pulled herself out of his embrace.

“Should we wait for the next wastelander to come along and make an offer? I just want our little girl back, and right now she looks like our best chance…” She turned to look at me again, with much less hope in her eyes “I’ll pay.”

“Well hold on then, we ain’t just gona give you the caps so you can waltz off and never come back, you can have them when you bring our daughter back.”

“If she brings our daughter back.” Holly reminded her husband, slipping around him and opening the door to her home. “Go ahead and have your look around back, just mind the garden…”

***

“What was that all about?” Air Heart asked after we’d been in the back yard for a few moments. I was trying to concentrate on finding anything left behind by the mysterious creature, and was in no mood for him.

“You opened your stupid mouth and got us into trouble. Again. I told you I don’t work for free.” The yard was large, even with part of the tall fence cutting through it. The grass was mostly neatly trimmed and healthy, and pressed up against the back wall of the house was a square of bare earth out of which a variety of vegetables was sprouting.

“Why is that so important to you? You don’t seem like you’re really greedy or anything, do you really need the money that much?”

I’d been examining one corner of the garden, where a cluster of other plants, mostly sunflowers, was growing instead, and where the young filly had apparently last been before the whatever-it-was snatched her. There was a partially trampled chain of woven flowers laying dropped in the dirt between some tiny hoofprints. There were other, strange tracks, they were very small and round, and there were so many of them grouped close together it was hard to count. But now I raised my head to stare at Air Heart, to get the seriousness of my message across. “Yes. I do. I’m saving up.”

He furrowed his brow and tilted his head “What for?”

“The most important thing of all” He opened his mouth and I raised my hoof “Don’t. This is one of those things you don’t ask questions about.” I turned back to the dirt. “Just take Abattoir and go look around the fence for… anything, I don’t know, just let me concentrate.”

I tried again to pin point the odd shaped prints in the dirt, but I heard Air Heart turning around behind me and realized a distinct lack of annoying background singing.

“She’s gone isn’t she?” I didn’t turn my head, I didn’t want to. But Air Heart wasn’t answering me, so I hard to turn around and do a scan of the yard. No sign of Abattoir, but the back door to the house was hanging open. I groaned and pointed “Go. Go get her, make sure she doesn’t make things even worse.”

Air Heart nodded and lowered his head, hurrying off up the back porch steps. I turned and decided to examine the fence myself. The weird trail led all the way up to it before the tracks grew slightly deeper, then disappeared. I craned my neck back and looked up at the towering fence, spotting some scratches in the scrap metal near the top.

“It nearly jumped clean over…” I turned to motion Crunch closer “Give me a lift.”

He approached, but first he seemed to have some things to say. He made a circle in the air with his hooves. “Yeah, he snuck up on me in the jail.” Crunch snickered, then waved both hooves in front of him and pulled them towards himself. “He just wanted the usual, trying to make me act like a… a hero for no reason, telling me to make friends with annoying ponies, same old crap…” I rubbed the side of my head. Crunch looked up at the fence and motioned at the scratches, then placed his hooves together and moved them in a line. “Yes, we’re going to follow them, even if we don’t get this job. Xephaniah has something to do with that star-thing, I’m going to find out what. Now give me a lift.”

Crunch rolled his eyes and stood with his side up against the fence, bending down so I could climb up onto his broad back. He rose up to his full height and I stood up as far as I could to get a closer look at the scratches. Stretching a little, I could even see over the fence into the rest of the uninhabited neighborhood beyond.

The gashes in the metal were fairly deep, but not grouped close together like the swipe of some clawed beast. Little help there, but I did spot one clue wedged between two overlapping folds of sheet metal, a large black fleck of something. I reached out with my magic and wiggled it loose, bringing it close to examine.

Whatever it was, it was thin but hard, and quite strong, as I found by banging it against the fence a few times. It was also sleek and shiny on one side, reflecting my lenses back at me when I turned it over in the air. “Hmm, what do you make of this?” I hopped down from Crunch’s back and showed him the flake. He squinted at it, then shrugged and placed one of his hooves on top of the other. “A shell?” I looked at it again. It did sort of remind me of the radscorpions, but no radscorpion I’d ever seen could have jumped that fence, not to mention none of them ever had stars on their backs.


“What do you think-” I was about to ask Air Heart if he had any input, when I again noticed a lack of background whining . I looked up at Crunch and grumbled “They’re not back yet, are they?” He shook his head and I huffed, turning towards the porch and still ajar door.

Inside was just like any other wasteland home, only slightly cleaner. I tried to listen out for voices as I made my way down a hall. Just outside of an open doorway I heard a clinking of plates and Air Heart’s voice.

“-not as bad as all that, she’s just scary looking. I mean, she acts scary too, but… the point I’m trying to make is she’s not really mean, just easily annoyed.”

“Yeah, she’s not always such a grump, sometimes she’s not so grump instead.” Abattoir added, and it sounded like she had something in her mouth.

It would figure I would walk in just as their conversation was turning towards defending me. It was enough with a stupid intrusive floating ball pushing me towards friends, but I didn’t need the universe doing it to me too. I didn’t need to hear any more of this, we had work to do.

I didn’t move my hooves just yet though. Sometimes a little extra information can turn out to be valuable, right?

“And if it helps, she takes her work very seriously. She’s… ruthless, and determined, and if you do pay her to do something she won’t rest until she’s done it to the end.” Air Heart said. It was all simple facts, but was I feeling nice that he’d said them? No, absolutely not. I shook my head and just focused on listening to Holly’s reply. She sounded much more composed now.

“That’s… comforting. I was just shocked somepony could be so callous as to charge for a filly’s rescue, but I understand ponies have to make a living.”

“Callous nothing, she’s a monster…” Her husband was there too, still on edge by his tone.

“But you two seem like such a nice young pair, why would you choose to travel with somepony like that? “

“She’s funny!” Abattoir shouted.

“It’s complicated…” Air Heart mumbled.

“Well, if you ever decide you don’t want things so complicated anymore, this town is a wonderful place to live… I mean, up until now.” Holly cleared her throat and sniffed. I decided then that I had heard enough, if these two decided to ditch me for this place, all the better for them. I heard movement inside the room and started to back up, but Crunch had snuck up behind me, and I couldn’t escape in time before Beetroot came around the corner and spotted me.

He stared at me for a moment before turning his head back to the room when Holly called out. “I’m just going to get more lemonade.” He told her, then motioned at me to follow him, and started back down the hall. I looked up at Crunch, then slipped around him and followed Beetroot into the kitchen. He was levitating a pitcher and filling some mismatched glasses when he looked over at me.

“So on top of everythin’ else, you’re an eavesdropper?” He said quietly, with little of the bitterness I’d heard before.

“I’d just come in to tell you I found something I wanted you to look at.” He put the pitcher away and looked at me closely.

“Tell me true now, can you find our daughter?”

I looked back at him. There was so much anger behind those eyes, but something else too. Something desperate. I had already driven home how unlikely that was, and this stallion was not Air Heart, who had a lesson to learn. He knew there was death in the wasteland, so I offered him what little hope I dared, while it was just the three of us here.

“Whatever took her leaves very distinct tracks. An easy to follow trail. If your daughter is alive at the end of this trail, I can find her. Once I collect my… companions, we’ll leave right away and if Discord wills it, we’ll find her within a day.”

He furrowed his brow and I realized perhaps I should have used the name of one of the pony Goddesses instead, but I think he got the gist and nodded “Thank you… better go get them then, c’mon.”

He picked up the glasses and led us back down the hallway. When he reached the doorway he called out “Look who I jus’ found with some news.” And so I had to follow him into the sitting room. It was another room like Fiddle Sticks’ living room, plush chairs and a coffee table and fireplace mantle with pictures. Holly and Air Heart looked up at us, and I reached into my bags with my magic to hold up the black chunk I’d found.

“I think this came off of the creature that was in your yard last night.” I stated, setting it down on the table next to a plate of sandwiches. I looked over at Air Heart. “Where’s Abattoir?”

“She had to use the bathroom.” He said, avoiding my gaze and slipping out of his seat to examine the fleck as well. “What is that?”

“Not sure. A shell of some kind, maybe. Whatever left it, it has… a lot of legs, and claws, I think. Or spines. Something sharp enough to cut metal.” I explained. Holly was tilting her head slowly and staring at the fragment on the table. She put her hoof on it and pushed it away, looking up.

“That’s definitely a piece of it. I remember when I saw it, it looked like it was wet or something, or shiny, like polished metal…” She sighed heavily and leaned back in her seat “So this is good, right? You know what you’re looking for?”

I shook my head “I don’t know what it is, no. It’s not any animal I’ve ever tracked before, but it leaves a trail, and that means I can track it down.” I turned to Air Heart again. “And the sooner we leave the better.”

He took the hint and stood up “Uh, right, I’ll just go get Abbey.”

I’ll get Abattoir, you go wait outside.” I pointed, and Air Heart headed in the other direction. I motioned to Crunch to go with him, and turned to look at Holly and Beetroot.

Holly put on a weak smile and nodded towards another doorway “Ah, the restroom is just upstairs, go down that hall.”

I went down the hall and climbed the stairs. I walked along the upper hallway, listening for a trace of Abattoir singing something or the sound of running water. When I heard her voice coming from behind some door, I went to it and raised my hoof to knock, but I realized with a start she wasn’t singing.

“S-shut up shut upshutup…” She sounded on the verge of tears, like Holly had a while ago.

“You shut up, you stupid bitch!” She suddenly snapped, her voice a whip. I’d never heard such spite in Abattoir’s voice, but it was her voice. No, that wasn’t true, I remembered that tone from somewhere… “Don’t be such a dumbass, that little filly’s probably gobbled up by now! You should just chop these two up and take all their shit.”

I remembered, it was back in that old house we’d spent the night in with Grinder and his crew. When she’d been protecting Air Heart and tricking that thick headed stallion, what was his name? I shook my head, it didn’t matter, something strange was going on behind this door.

“Girls, girls, let’s not fight… Abbey, don’t be so mean, eh?” Was that still Abattoir? It was her voice but at the same time it didn’t sound anything like her, was that who she was talking to? How did someone else get in the bathroom with her?

“Shut up, don’t call me that!” The second voice growled.

“GET OUT!” The first voice sobbed, and then I heard something. A sound just on the edge of hearing, but I recognized it. I’d been fighting far too long not to recognize it, it was the sound of blade and flesh. That was followed by a sudden hiss of air, then the sound of clattering metal, and the rushing of water from a faucet. I stood outside the door and listened for more, but when I heard her again, it was the voice of Abattoir that I knew. She was singing again.

“Mmhhn… Shipoopi, shipoopi, the mare who’s hard to get… Shipoopi, shipoopi, but you can win her yet…” The water shut off and then she opened the door. She didn’t seem surprised seeing me standing there, and grinned. “Hi Lumi! Time to go? Bathroom’s all yours~”

She skipped around me and disappeared down the stairs singing more of the nonsensical song. I stepped inside the bathroom and looked around. There was no one else there, no trace of anything that seemed out of place. Except a few tiny droplets of blood left on the tile floor.

***

“…Worried about this wound, maybe I should try stitching it.” I heard Air Heart fussing when I stepped out into the yard again. I saw him retying some bandages around Abattoir’s foreleg. I decided I would bring it up later, and called out sharply.

“We’re going to head out from here, make sure you’re ready.”

Air Heart looked up “Oh, well we bought some more food and water while you were… missing yesterday, but I don’t know if it’s enough for Crunch. And you.”

“We’ve got enough then. Crunch.” I motioned at the fence and he nodded, moving over to stand beside it and crouching down. Air Heart looked nervously, but followed Abattoir over, who seemed ecstatic, and jumped eagerly onto Crunch’s back. Before I could move to join them, I felt a hoof on my shoulder.

I flinched and spun around, finding Beetroot there to see us off. He pulled his hoof back and looked at it strangely, then met my lenses and cleared his throat. “I just wanted to thank y’all again, for both of us, and, uh... And I realized I’ve been acting mighty rude, and I wanted to apologize.” I got the feeling Holly might have had something to do with that, but he still looked properly abashed. “I’m sorry about what I said. You ain’t a monster, you’re… a kind pony, and I thank ya.”

“Don’t feel too bad.” I said, turning to take the stairs down from the porch. “You were right the first time.”

I left him with that and went to the fence. Abattoir had already vaulted up and over, and I could hear her calling out from the other side “C’mon, you can do it, no one’s lookin’!”

Air Heart was looking pleadingly at Crunch, but he was smirking and standing upright. I got what they were going for and I joined them, nodding at the fence. “She’s right, you need to start using those wings of yours. Get going.”

He looked back at me now and sputtered, glancing back towards the house, but Beetroot had gone back inside. “A-a-alright, just, give me a second.”

I gave him his second and turned, jumping up onto Crunch’s back and then rearing up to grab the fence and haul myself over. Landing on the other side, I turned.

“Ready?” I called out, and Crunch knocked on the fence. I tilted my head and focused my horn, reaching out with my magic and grabbing his large frame. He jumped and I grunted as my horn took the weight, and started to lift him up while he used his hooves to hurry himself along. Finally he breeched the top and hauled himself over, dropping down beside us with a heavy thump.

“Alright, your turn, and hurry up, we don’t have all day.” I called to the fence.

“O-o-okay okay!” I heard him suck in his breath, and then hop off the ground. There were a few moments of silence before he flapped his way over the fence. He passed over the top and started to descend, but I drew my sword and pointed it up at him, making him yelp and shoot back up a little higher into the air. “W-what is it, what’d I do?!”

“You’re not comin’ down. You’ve got those wings, you’re gona use them.” I poked upward with my blade and he squeaked, flying a little higher.

“Alright! H-how long do I have to do it for?” I slowly slung my sword but kept staring at him, thinking.

“Until you’re tired.” That should keep him up there for a while. I turned and started searching the ground. We had landed in yet another back yard, part of the last couple rows of houses that had been cut off when Cliffside put up that fence. I briefly wondered why they hadn’t just gone all the way to the edge and included them all.

I found more of the strange little tracks all over the yard, punching into the grass and flattening it. I started to follow the trail, glancing back every few steps to make sure Air Heart was still aloft. He was looking around nervously and chewing his lower lip, but he was still flapping. The tracks led me through the yard, towards a little side gate that had been knocked off its hinges. That led out onto the sidewalk, and I saw why Cliffside stopped their own fence where they did.

Behind us, the houses continued to the east and west, but directly to the north, across a short length of road, was the yawning chasm the separated the two halves of the city. There was a stretch of sidewalk, a flimsy chain link fence and then the ground just stopped. I crossed the road and stepped up to the fence, peeking through it and taking that glimpse over the edge that I didn’t get when we approached the first time.

The view was… impressive. I used my hooves and pushed on the links so I could lean out further and get a better view. I could see all the way down to the bottom of the canyon, where a thin trickle of a stream ran out towards the western sea.

I felt tugging behind me and turned back to Air Heart pulling me back by my tail “C-careful.” He motioned at the fence “That thing is really rusty, I wouldn’t put too much weight, you could fall right over…” I snapped my tail out of his mouth and he floated up, sputtering slightly.

“Just taking a peek.” He was right though, the metal was rusted, especially around the poles that supported the fence. I wasn’t going to be taking another look any time soon. Air Heart was still sticking his tongue out and making faces “What?”

“Your tail tastes funny… sour.” I rolled my eyes and trotted back across the street to pick up the trail again, passing Crunch and ignoring his smirk.

When the tracks reached the sidewalk they turned into distinct scratches, still easy to follow. Whatever this creature was, it wasn’t concerned about subtlety or stealth.

Or it wants you to follow it. That was also a possibility, I supposed. Was this a trap? That’s exactly what I needed now.

As the morning wore on, the tracks led out of the abandoned neighborhood and deeper into old Ciffside, where the buildings started coming in closer together. I paused when we started to approach an old shopping district. From this far up the road I could see primitive barricades that had been thrown up in the middle of the road, a pile of overturned carriages and various other bits of rubble. There was no sign of other ponies at the moment, and the tracks were still leading straight ahead, so I ditched caution and approached the barrier.

“Keep your eyes open.” I mumbled to Air Heart and Abattoir, noticing he’d returned to the ground at some point when I wasn’t paying attention. Probably for the best at that moment.

The tracks led right up to just ten paces from the blockade before they suddenly and sharply turned left, becoming further spaced. I noticed a small divot right before the tracks turned, and was about to go in for a closer look when a gunshot and a voice both rang out through the air.

-KAPOW-

“Stop right there!” I raised my head and spotted the pony perched on a rooftop glaring at me behind a smoking rifle. Several other appeared, poking their heads and guns over the rooftops. “What’s your business here?”

At least they weren’t raiders, I could tell by the way the shooter hadn’t put his bullet through my skull. I noticed I’d drawn my sword and returned it to the harness, raising my voice to be heard. “We mean you ponies no harm, we’re tracking an animal that came this way.”

I saw several heads turn to their partners and the pony who’d shot at me raised a device and spoke into it. After a moment he replied. “Which tribe are you from? Are you seeking the star-beast?”

I looked back at my companions. We certainly looked ragged, but I didn’t think we looked like tribals. Then I realized what he’d said. “We’re not from any tribe… wait, the what?”

He lowered his rifle and I saw a smirk on the pony’s face “We can continue this conversation at a reasonable distance, one moment.” He motioned, and then disappeared from the rooftop. Suddenly the street beyond the barricade came alive as ponies poured out of the buildings, apparently we were deemed not too much of a threat anymore. A pair of wooden pallets were raised by an unseen unicorn and stacked against the outside of the rubble, forming a ladder of sorts.

I took a step, but then hesitated, and looked back at my companions. Air Heart looked worried; Abattoir had a dumb grin plastered across her face. I thought back to my conversation with that stupid orb and cursed internally. “What do you think?”

“Could it be a trap?” Air Heart whispered.

“If it is, it’s very poorly planned out and sloppily executed.”

“We should go in, they might have food!” Abattoir ‘s grin grew.

“We bought food for the trip…” Air Heart started, but Abattoir shushed him with a hoof.

“But it tastes better when it’s freeeee~” she sang and bolted up the makeshift ladder.

I sighed and motioned for Air Heart to go after her and looked up at Crunch. “He thought they were my friends…”

Crunch smirked and I huffed, turning and taking the ladder. The pony from the roof was waiting on the other side with Air Heart and Abattoir. I heard the wood creaking behind me before Crunch landed with a thump, making our host look up. He was lanky, with a mossy green coat and a dirty brown mane that he wore long and up. He had armor on top of a purple and blue spotted uniform, and had his rifle across his back.

“All here? Good, come, walk and talk with me.” He started to trot us through the settlement. We started to follow him and I let my eyes wander around the little ‘village’. I saw bedrolls through the shattered storefronts, and tents out on the street, and a dozen ponies or more milling around. There was even one old store that was actually being used as a store.

“There’s so many of you, how do you live out here?” Air Heart asked, standing on the tips of his hooves to see further.

“We look after each other. It’s no more dangerous than any other part of the wastes.” He looked over his shoulder and smirked at Air Heart “Not that you’d know, of course.” Air Heart stumbled a bit and he chuckled and kept walking. “I can tell you ain’t been on the ground more than a week. How about we start with some introductions?”

“Great idea. You first.” I stepped around Air Heart and took up the trot right next to our host.

“Of course, how rude of me. Call me Stalker.” He looked sideways at me and nodded politely. “And yourselves?”

“Luminescence.” I motioned to the back of the line “That’s Crunch.”

“Oh, a beautiful name,” Stalker said before I could turn to Air Heart or Abattoir “For a beautiful mare, I presume?”

I gave him a hard stare until he chuckled into his hoof “Forgive me, it’s my nature to try and get on somepony’s good side from the first.”

“You can do that by making this quick.” I pointed back “That’s Abattoir and Air Heart.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Stalker smiled at them and started to trot again.

“Call me Abbey.” Abattoir said.

“Uh, hi.” Air Heart said with his head ducked.

“There, now everypony knows who everypony is. Now maybe you can tell me a little about why you’re out here in our neck of the woods.”

“We’re tracking something that came this way.”

“An animal, you said. And this… animal, has taken off with a foal, yes?” I didn’t answer, and he didn’t need me to. “You have my sympathies.”

“You said you know something about it?” I needed his information, not his sympathies.

“I believe I do. The creature you hunt, does it bear a field of stars upon its back?” I nodded and he bowed his head to sigh. “Then it’s true. The creature you’re after, it’s plagued this area as long as I’ve lived here, and from the stories I’ve heard, quite a long time before that too.”

He stopped and waved to a large, square tent, turning and trotting to open the flap. I ducked inside and my companions followed me, with Stalker coming in last.

“Sit, please.” There were some rugs scattered on the floor in front of a little blackened crater I assumed was a firepit. I stayed on my hooves while Abattoir and Air Heart plopped onto the rugs.

“I’m fine.” I said, and he shrugged, walking over to a large chest at the end of a mattress. He opened it and dug around inside. “Listen, we’re kind of in a hurry, do you have something important to tell us or are you just wasting-”

Stalker pulled out a huge claw and tossed it onto the rug. I looked from it to him, saw his smug grin, and sighed, kneeling down on the rug. “Alright, you’ve got my attention.” I took a close look at the claw. It was as long as my leg, slightly curved, and as black as midnight. There was a chunk of severed leg still attached to the base of the claw. I reached out to prod it, it was hard, like a shell, and covered little spikes. I leaned in close and rolled it back and forth, seeing it catch the light from my lenses as it rolled.

“Sleek…” I mumbled, digging out the shell fragment I’d found stuck in the fence. Definitely a match.

“Just like Holly said.” Air Heart said from across the tent where he’d scooted away when the claw was presented.

“It won’t hurt ya, lad, it’s dead as a door nail. The creature that left it, though…” Stalker started to say, but I stood up and brought his attention back.

“What can you tell me about it? Do you know what is actually is? Does it have a… a nest or a lair or someplace nearby where we can start looking for it?”

Stalker shrugged and bent to pick up the claw and stash it away again. “Well, if that didn’t give ya a good enough idea, I can tell ya it stood tall, tall as a carriage, but it moved fast. Wickedly fast. As for what it is? I can’t say for sure, I’ve never seen anything like it before, and hope I never do again.” I turned to give Crunch a look, hoping he appreciated that I wasn’t nearly as melodramatic as this stallion.

“It’s a monster, that much is plain. Some of the tribes even believe it’s a demon. Some hell-beast that feasts on children, but I don’t buy that.” Stalker thumped the chest. “Demons don’t get their bits shot off so easy...”

I sighed and shook my head. “Fine, it doesn’t matter then. What about the nest?”

Stalker stood silent for once and looked us all over slowly. I was about to ask again when he spoke up, sounding serious for once. “Why are you seeking the star-beast?”

“Because I have a job to do.” I answered without skipping a beat.

“And is this job worth your life, or the lives of your friends?”

“They aren’t my friends.” I hissed, and stalker shrugged, raising his eyebrow in Air Heart and Abattoir’s direction.

“Then maybe my warning will be more effective on them. The answer is no. It’s not worth it, whatever the pay. May I tell you ponies a little story?”

“I really wish you wouldn’t…” I groaned, but Abattoir started prancing in place.

“Oh oh oh, storytime. That comes right before naptime!” She hopped back onto the rug and tugged Air Heart back down. Before she got any ideas about reaching in my direction I sighed and knelt down again. Crunch landed next to me with a thump and Stalker nodded.

“Good. This won’t take long. You see, several years ago I came to this area following a caravan. I was a hunter and trapper, so I thought I could make some quick caps here off some of the local wildlife. But inside those walls the ponies are all growing their own crops, and got no need for grilled radroach or mantis legs, and the ponies outside the walls have got pretty good at catching their own supper. I was all set to ditch with the caravan, when the beast struck the village we were staying in. It was… terrible, but most of the villagers didn’t even seem to care, they just said it was unavoidable, if you lived in this area you had to get used to it.”

“I don’t think I like this story…” I heard Abattoir whisper to Air Heart.

“That wasn’t good enough for me. I went to see the so called Mayor, but she was useless, so I went from tribe to tribe until I found enough hunters willing to come with me to track the creature down. It left a trail as clear as day for us to follow, and we chased it back to the heart of this cursed town. Me and ten other ponies, good ponies, seasoned wastelanders all, went inside after that monster.”

He paused to give us a moment, scanning us across the tent, and settled his stare on me. “Guess how many came back out once we finally realized we were in well over our heads?”

“A-ahm, uh… a-all of them?” Air Heart stammered.

“Is this a trick question?” Abattoir asked.

I just stared back and waited for him to carry on, wondering how much time we’d wasted sitting here already.

“Two. Just two of us, me and… that smiling bastard.” He scowled briefly at the mention but continued, “So trust me. It’s not worth it. Find another job, give my sympathies to the filly’s parents, and get out of this city as soon as you can.” He turned away from us, finally silent.

I let the silence linger, as I got so little of it these days, before climbing up off the rug and clearing my throat. “I appreciate your concern, but we have a job to do.” I felt Crunch rise behind me, and moments later heard Abattoir and Air Heart scramble to their hooves. “So if you can’t help, we’ll be leaving now.” Maybe if Stalker didn’t turn around we get back on track and get out of this tent.

But he did turn back around. And he was smiling again. “Your confidence is refreshing... You’re either the bravest mare I’ve seen in a while, or just the most foolish.”

I decided to ignore that “So, does that mean we’re done here?” I vowed never to go into another strange tent again.

He shook his head, and I was that close to cutting it off, whence reached for the walkie-talkie on his belt. There was a bark of static and he spoke into it “Are you two still there?”

“Always, boss. What’s up? The outsiders giving you trouble?” Came the reply. Stalker grinned sheepishly at us and answered the deep voice.

“No, no, our guests have been perfectly behaved. They’re just about to head out, in fact.”

“So whatcha botherin’ us for?” That was a different voice from the first, higher and lacking the respectful tone.

“How would you two feel about taking a little walk?”

***

An hour later and I was still debating whether I should have gone with my instinct and beheaded him. Instead, I’d gone along while Stalker summoned two stallions and charged them with escorting us safely to the lair of the beast, the location of which he still couldn’t simply tell me. As we left him behind, a hoped, yet seriously doubted, that was the last I’d see of Stalker.

Now one of those stallions was trotting ahead of us, talking to Air Heart, and the other was bringing up our rear with Crunch. And neither of them would shut up.

“So after that we had to get the heck outa Appleoosa, so next time one of the big trade caravans came through, we signed up for guard duty and slunk out before she found out what happened to the brahmin.” The tall, lanky one was explaining to Air Heart, who chuckled uneasily. His name was Wedge, I recalled. He bore a wedge of cheese on his flank, so I supposed it was easy to remember.

“I told you it was a bad idea, you should have just asked her.” The shorter, bigger stallion said with an easy chuckle. He was called Biggs, for no reason that I could fathom other than because he was big. He wasn’t as talkative as his partner, but he did like to egg him on, so he received his fair share of my silent seething.

Wedge ignored his partner and continued telling what must have been their entire life story. “Anyway, that was a pretty fun gig, we got to follow that ‘van through a lot of Equestria, see the sights n’ things. We came down here with ‘em, in fact. By then we were once again longing for the fun filled life of urban survival, so we jumped ship and tried to get in with one of the gangs in the city, but they’re way intense up there. Ain’t that right, Biggs?” He called over his shoulder.

“Got that right, Wedge. Bunch of loonies.” The larger stallion affirmed.

“So we crossed that big bloody bridge.” Wedge made a nod in the vague direction of north “Did a few odd jobs around town until we met Stalker.”

“So you weren’t there when the... Thing happened to him?” Air Heart asked tentatively.

“When he lost his son?" That confirmed my suspicions over his true motivation for pursuing the star beast. "Nah, that was long before us. We just joined on last year, it’s nice work, sit on the roofs and watch out for suspicious ponies like you- no offense- and go out on the occasional hunting trip.”

“Have you ever seen it?” I spoke for the first time since leaving the village, the sound clearly spooking Wedge.

“Ah, me? No, never, Biggs did though.” The lanky stallion was quick to deflect my attention to his partner. I half turned back and looked expectantly at Biggs.

Biggs shrugged cooly at me “I was with the boss the time he landed that shot, the one that took the leg off. Don’t know what I can tell you that you didn’t already hear. Whatever it is, it’s all black and without those stars on it’s back it’d be totally invisible at night. Thank Celestia for that, eh?” He smiled at that, but I could see it was forced, and it disappeared when he continued. “It... screamed, when the boss shot it. It was horrible, shrill and painful, but almost like a pony’s scream, y’know? But it didn't bring Zapp back. Nothing will, and I think the boss knows that. S'why he didn't want to send you off after it at first...”

He trailed off, and Wedge crossed back down the line, withdrawing a silver flask from somewhere in his vest and passing it to Biggs. He took a pull and passed it back, clearing his throat. “Anyway, that’s all I got. Come on, let’s get moving, I plan to be back home before sundown.”

Air Heart looked back and forth between the two of them nervously. “You’re not coming with us?”

Wedge brushed passed him with a chuckle and took the lead again. “Hell naw. We’re just here to take you as close to the nest as we can while still bein’ safe, point you in the right direction, then tip our hats and high tail it home.”

I found that perfectly acceptable. “You know, if you just told us where that is, you could be on your way back already.”

“Nice try” Wedge smirked back at me.

And so I bowed my head and kept walking, resigned.

“So, what’s your story?” Biggs asked, coming up behind me a moment later.

“My story?” I glanced at him, considering. He shook his head and made a circle with his hoof.

“Your story. All of you. Everypony’s got a story. You heard ours. The talking will help the journey pass faster.”

“Not in my experience, and I’ve been walking a long time.” I stared back at him, but Biggs was stolid, and Air Heart and Abattoir were looking expectantly at me. I sighed and motioned at them. “Fine, go ahead, whatever you want.”

Biggs smiled, and turned his gaze forward to the three of them walking up ahead. Abattoir grinned gleefully at the opportunity to run her mouth some more, and broke into a condensed version of her life story that I tried very hard not to hear.

“Well, I was born in a hot, dry, sandy place, and it was really really boring for a long time. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, and there weren’t a lot of other fillies to play with, and my parents wanted me to take over the store but hardly anyone ever came by our town and it was sooo boring!”

“But then this big group of really cool ponies came to town, there were soooo awesome, they got free drinks at the bar and there was one who could throw knives and hit the middle of the old dartboard every time and this one mare had guns for hooves, it was sweeeet. I begged my parents to let me go with ‘em when they left, but they told me I was too young.”

“Well, they were just looking out for you, I’m sure-” Air Heart started, offering Abattoir a smile.

“So I killed them both!” Abattoir continued without skipping a beat, smiling back while Air Heart’s own smile curdled into a horrified stare. “I showed the cool ponies and they were really impressed, one of ‘em even barfed! They said if that wasn’t a good enough initiation, nothing was~”

“That’s even where I got my name, y’know?” She turned her head to smile at me and Crunch now “They said I made the inside of the store look like an abattoir, that’s a Phrench word, cool huh? D’you know where Phrance is?”

“It’s one of those far away lands across the boiling sea.” I said mildly, wondering where the thread of this unraveled tale was going to end up.

Abattoir giggled. “Close enough! But yeah, it means ‘slaughterhouse’, they said that’s what I turned the back room of the shop into, so it’d make a good name. Then we left on an awesome adventure, and I got to go all over Equestria and hang out with more cool ponies, and joined lots of different gangs. Most of them didn’t last that long though. Aaaaand that’s about it, you found me in the Bloodshot’s hideout and we became bestest friends!”

I sighed, turning my head to glare at Biggs. “You had to encourage her?”

But Biggs was not there. Looking around I noticed Wedge and Air Heart were missing as well. Crunch was still there beside me, of course, and he pointed back the way we’d came when I fixed my gaze on him. I turned back, and saw Air Heart several paces behind, mouth agape. Wedge and Biggs were hanging back as well, glancing at eachother.

“What are you waiting for?” I shouted. Air Heart’s wings shot up and he galloped to close the distance, but still stopped a fair distance away from us.

“A-abattoir, are you feeling okay?” Air Heart asked while Wedge and Biggs took their time rejoining the group, mumbling amongst themselves.

“Of course I am, why?” Abattoir asked with a crooked smile and tilt of her head.

“You just said... did I hear you say you just.. did you really kill your parents?” He looked from her to me, maybe for the first time having second thoughts. His brow was furrowed with confusion and concern. I could only hope to encourage that line of thought and shrugged.

“Sure did!” Abattoir proclaimed proudly.

“I’ve heard worse.” I added with impatience. “Are we done standing around?”

Wedge detached from Biggs’ side, returning to the head of the pack “Go for a little walk, the boss says.. foalsit some psychos, more like..” I heard him grumbling. I motioned at my two companions and we started to trot again.

A tense silence hung in the air. Air Heart’s voice trembled slightly when he asked his next question. “What about your friend?”

“Huh?” Abattoir asked, arching her neck back.

“Your old friend? The one who taught you all the songs?” Air Heart continued, “And I thought you told me about some brothers and sisters sometime...”

“Oh! Yeah, her, uh.. oh, maybe you misheard me, I had some... they were like brothers and sisters but..” Abattoir stopped again, we all stopped again, I noticed with irritation. She was smiling at Air Heart but it was a weary and strained smile, like it didn’t want to be there. She scratched her foreleg with her hoof. Her lower eyelid twitched slightly. She whipped her head to the side and pointed suddenly, shouting. “Hey look, a radroach! I’ll go catch it for lunch!”

“Wait-!” Air Heart reached a hoof out, but she was gone in a neon-yellowgreen streak, down some alley between two squat buildings. Air Heart dropped his hoof and looked back at me pathetically.

“What the fuck...” Biggs rumbled behind me.

I shrugged and started walking. “Well, you still feel like sharing your story?” I asked Air Heart sardonically when I passed him up.

He didn’t.

I enjoyed the silence for nearly half an hour. The buildings were growing bigger again and the street became more choked with traffic, as we made our way into the town proper once again.

“Do you think she’ll come back?” Air Heart asked me.

“Yes. She isn’t done tormenting me, whatever you said just freaked her out for the moment.”

“I just.. I can’t believe she really killed her parents.”

I sighed. “It happens. This is the wasteland-”

“No!” Air Heart cut me off “I mean I don’t believe it! She mentioned parts of her growing up before, when we were walking to Cliffside. It sounded much happier than... that. And she told me about her brothers and sisters, she had a lot of them.” He shook his head slowly, looking up at me. “And you were there when she said, an old friend taught her songs from the old Equestrian musicals.”

I thought back. I remembered that conversation. I still shrugged. “So what?”

“So it conflicts with what she said! Doesn’t that worry you?” Air Heart asked, exasperated.

“No, it doesn’t. Shut up.” I did think we had some things to talk about, but not now, there was work to focus on. And those two were still hanging around.

“She’s got a point.” Biggs said, as suddenly as if he’d been part of the conversation the whole time. “We’re entering bandit territory.”

That got him to clam up again and we crept further along the abandoned streets. This time, I kept my attention turned outward, on our surroundings. After the outcome from our last bandit encounter in here, I was not keen on another.

I’m sure you can guess by now how that worked out. I could see them moving behind the buildings, animalistic, stalking us. I looked sideways at Crunch for confirmation. He made an exaggerated stomp and pinned his hoof down in place for a few seconds, looking like maybe he’d stumbled or got stuck to any outside observer. But I nodded, we were in agreement. I spoke up, hushed and hoping the rest of them were capable of keeping their heads.

“Don’t say anything. Don’t make any sudden movements. We’re walking into an ambush.”

“What took you so long?” Biggs whispered, making Wedge chuckle.

“Wait, what?” Air Heart started to turn his head but I kicked a boot against his ankle and he stayed facing forward.

“Shush. Don’t let them see that we know.” I instructed him, hoping his face wasn’t betraying us. “Wait until they get closer. When the shooting starts, try and fly clear and come back from a different angle.”

“There won’t be any shooting” Biggs said from behind me.

“Why not?”

“Because they aren’t bandits...” Answered Wedge from in front of me, doing a strange sideways skip. I opened my mouth to ask what we were dealing with, or maybe I meant to scold him for making unnecessary sudden movements. It didn’t matter which.

Because then I stepped into the bear trap he’d dodged, and it snapped shut with a metallic shunk. I grunted through my teeth and looked down. Thankfully, it had closed above my knee, and avoided putting more holes in my boots. Oh, and it did hurt a fair bit.

No time to worry about it now, as loud guttural screaming signalled the fight was starting. They fell on us, some of them literally, jumping on top of Crunch and Biggs and landing in front of me. They brandished kitchen cutlery and shovels and rakes, and some with just their hooves. I drew my swords, igniting the new one, and slashing at the dirty, laughing ponies. With my leg in the trap, and the trap attached to a length of chain and staked to the ground, I couldn’t maneuver well, and their numbers were overwhelming. For every one I slashed or left scorched, two more lept in.

A scrawny mare landed on my back and sunk her teeth into the back of my neck. That left an opening in my attacks for more of them to rush in. They knocked my swords away and butted my head, kicked my sides and tackled me to the ground. Around me I could see the others not faring much better.

Air Heart was already down with his hooves over his head and a cackling mare sitting on top of him. Wedge was holding them back for a moment with bursts from his submachinegun, until a stallion with one ear jumped from the top of a cart and landed behind him, cracking a hammer against the side of his skull. This caused Wedge to turn his shotgun from the crowd and unload it at the offender. He dropped the hammerpony, but before he could reload they fell on him. Looking around, I could only assume Crunch was under the massive squirming pile of ponies off to the side.

Then another kick to my head brought my attention back to my own predicament. The stallion standing over me was filthy, and wore some ugly hide outfit and a necklace of teeth. The teeth around his neck were cleaner than the ones in his head. And judging by the way he and the others were staring at me, unreserved hunger plain on their faces, I figured I knew what we were dealing with.

“Cannibals, huh?” I said, unamused.

“Shut up!” Said the toothy stallion.

“Ughn.. yeah, they don’t usually come out in such numbers.” I heard Biggs voice from somewhere behind me.

“I’d just like to remind you you could have been back home by now if you’d just told me where to go.”

I heard shuffling and scraping, and Biggs was dropped in the middle of the street in front of me. Wedge’s still unconscious form was dumped between us right after, and Air Heart was tossed behind Biggs, leaving us laying in a neat row. The majority of the cannibal ponies all converging to help finish restraining Crunch, a few stragglers remaining to watch us.

“You seem awful calm. Can I assume you have some kind of plan?” Biggs said, spitting out a bit of blood and glancing me up and down. “Was stepping in the trap part of the plan or...?”

“You can assume anything you want.” I looked down at my leg in the trap again, and shrugged. “I’m not worried because I’ve been in this exact situation before. Any minute now Abattoir is going to show up from nowhere trying to help and annoy me, and we’ll be able to use that as a distraction.”

Biggs laughed again, until it turned into a grunt of pain. From behind him, I noticed Air Heart shuddering.

“Air Heart, are you dead?” I asked, making him raise his dirt and tear streaked face off the ground.

“You shouldn’t sound so hopeful when you ask that...” He sniffed and shuddered. “What’s going to happen to us? Are we gona die?”

“Some of us might.” I said, obviously far too casually for him. He dropped his head again and whimpered into the cracked concrete.

A moment later, Wedge started stirring and groaning. “Ooooohhh.. dear, sweet Celestia, please let this headache be from a hangover... please let me be sleeping off a wild night with a beautiful mare...” He rolled over limply and cracked his eyes open, one side of his head caked in blood, and looked into my lenses. “... Dear Celestia... you are a bitch.”

“Shut up” I snapped at him.

“All of youse shut up!” Barked one of the mares watching over us. The one who sank her teeth into my neck, I realized, making a special effort to remember her face. “Da big boss comin’!”

We all craned our necks to see. First I saw that they had finally climbed up off Crunch, leaving him wrapped in so many heavy chains he looked like some metallic golem. Second, I saw a big stallion strolling through the crowd. He wasn’t as big as Crunch, of course, but he was an imposing figure, dressed in a padded vest with chains wrapped around his forelegs, and more bear traps jangling from a belt around his waist. And third, I saw Abattoir. It took a moment for me to realize it was her. She was trotting along beside the big stallion. Her mane was pushed up into a spiked wedge running down the center of her skull, her eyes were beady and her teeth looked blackened and filthy, and she was wearing some kind of patterned prewar dress, also covered in dirt. Even the PipBuck around her left foreleg looked like it’d been recently pulled out of the bottom of a swamp. She looked exactly like any other cannibal.

“Ahaha, the sneaky stripe give some good info after all, eh?” The big stallion was musing with her, his voice deep and several layers thick with accent. “Thought me bro had gone ‘round the twist when he stumbled in with him, but here they is!”

“Fine work, Tank! Might be you let ‘im go too soon? Which way' d'ee go, I'll take some ponies an’ go chase him down, eh?” Abattoir cackled up at him, her voice just as thick and completely unrecognizable.

“H-hey, what’s the big id-” Wedge started to say, but I stuck my free leg out and kicked him.

“Shut up, something’s up here. Just keep quiet and follow our lead.” I implored in a hushed voice.

“Later, later, we'll talk business later. S'not everyday a dear friend of Missus Choppy pays us a visit and we make such good hunt! We takes 'em back, we have a feast, then we talk business!” The big stallion was saying, patting Abattoir’s shoulder with a massive, chain wrapped hoof.

“Fine, fine. After such a long trip, I have worked up quite an appetite...” She said with a dismissive nod, and approached us, making a show of scanning with her eyes before they fell on Air Heart and she thrust her hoof out. “Oh look, you caught a pretty birdy! Might be I'll keep him in a little cage to sing me pretty songs~?” She cackled as she closed in on him.

Air Heart, who’d been watching the whole thing in stunned silence, closed his slack jaw suddenly. He was too far away for me to kick, I could only hope he knew enough to keep his mouth shut.

“A-a-abattoir!?” He squeaked fearfully. She only pressed her hoof to his mouth and grinned.

“See? Even in the clouds, they know to fear my name!” She boasted, raising a laugh from the big stallion and several other cannibals.

But not all of them laughed, including one mare who jumped forward, standing over Air Heart like a predator animal guarding a kill. “Piss off! You didn’t even help with the hunt! We lost the last pigeon with the zeeb, but this one is mine!”

The sudden tension in the air coiled tighter, like the spring of an over wound clock, as they stared each other down. The hungry mare baring her teeth in a hungry snarl, Abattoir returning it with a sweet smile, the only sound was Air Hearts pathetic whimpers and hiccups.

Then, like a gun going off, Abattoir shot out and took the other mare in the face with her own muzzle, teeth sinking into cheek flesh. They both screamed and tumbled over, thrashing and kicking and biting. The gathered cannibals watched reverently, the big stallion nodding his head with an approving smirk.

I watched with dull curiosity. Gone was the flowy, graceful fighting movements I’d seen Abattoir use previously, she was fighting like a wild animal, taking nearly as many wounds as she gave. The fight came to an end just as quickly as it had started, with Abattoir standing over the other mare, blood and spittle dribbling from her chin. Abattoir was covered in cuts and scrapes. The other mare was bleeding profusely from a dozen more. The left side of her face was the worst, her left eye was swollen shut and everything from her cheek to her neck was bathed in blood.

“The pretty birdie is mine...” Abattoir panted, climbing off the mare. “But might be after I have my fill, you can have the leftovers.” Judging by the way the other cannibals hissed and jeered together, this was some kind of insult. Two of them rushed in to help her up, she snapped her teeth angrily at them but allowed herself to rise on their hooves, keeping her head bowed as she limped away.

The big stallion approached Abattoir and gave her shoulders another chain rattling smack. “Ahah, the fire in your belly burns hot indeed, no less than what I'd expected from a lieutenant of Missus Choppy! The feathered one be yours to gorge on how you like, and the others we'll take back and see how much meat we can carve off ‘fore they go the way of all flesh. The big one looks like he’s got plenty o' flesh to spare!”

The big stallion laughed again, but Abattoir shook her head. “No!” She said sharply, then changed her tone at the offended look he gave her. She trotted away from him, so she was looking at us, sprawled on the dirt. “No, for a hunt this good we must have a real feast! We’ll take them all back...” I realized she wasn’t looking at us, she was looking right at me, her manic purple eyes dilated so much they were almost all black and boring right into my lenses. “And we're gona pile up lotsa wood, and then we gona have a great, big, barbeque...”

***

“What in the blue fuck is going on?” Wedge murmured harshly when he was sure the cannibals counldn’t hear. We’d been joined by the hooves on the right side, in a row, and were being marched back to someplace the cannibals only called The Mart. “You know her better, does she usually act like a maniac bitch and stab you in the back?”

“I’ve only known her a week.” I tried to count in my head. It felt like a week. I shrugged. “I don’t think she’s betrayed us. I don’t think.” Either way I wasn’t terribly concerned. Hadn’t been since I heard what our grisly fate was going to be. I was more busy thinking over the snippets I’d heard from Abattoir and her new friends. The ‘sneaky stripe’ had come through and somehow talked his way out of the cannibals grasp, and he wasn’t alone. There was 'another pegasus' with him Air Hearts sister, and if I’d heard right, the big stallion’s brother. That part was a mystery and not worth puzzling over. Xephaniah didn’t often deign to travel with anyone else. The idea that he was bothering with not one, but two, when I was so close behind him was still unsettling me.

“Well, I don’t wanna be barbequed, so hows about we think of something, a plan?” Wedge said, annoyed and flicking one of his ears. “I think a chunk of my brain is rattling around in there…”

I just shook my head. “You heard the plan already. ‘Follow our lead’. Just keep your damned mouth shut and maybe we’ll all get out of this.”

That worked, and he clammed up for the rest of the walk. I looked back, beyond Biggs, to check on Crunch. He hadn’t been joined to the rest of us. Instead, they’d just joined several of the heavy chains together around his legs, then for extra measure, five of the cannibals had chained themselves to him.

I got the feeling even without whatever Abattoir had cooking, we… I did not just think that.

In spite of whatever Abattoir was planning, I thought we would have little trouble dealing with ponies that were this dumb. That’s better.
I sighed and shook my head again. All these distractions, and we still had to finish both jobs. I tried to look up through the clouds and pinpoint the sun. I had a feeling it was already past noon, if this took much longer the day would be over soon, then they would want to sleep, more distractions.

I gave up trying to get an accurate read on the sun, when some commotion ahead signaled we’d reached our destination. Up ahead, a broad building loomed in front of a huge concrete lot that had been turned into first a battlefield, and then a graveyard. Two deep trenches had been gouged, one on the far end that we were approaching from, and one opposite running the length of the the front of the giant building. The chunks of concrete rubble and demolished carts had been piled up to serve as walls. I could see more evidence of the miniature war that must’ve raged back and forth for control of this tiny slice of wasteland littering the trench, shoddily armored corpses and broken weapons and spent shells, as they herded us across a wide bridge that had been laid over it. I was sure, across the crater pocked lot, the other trench would look much the same. I briefly wondered if either side knew that all their hard fighting would amount to less than brahmin droppings when the cannibals claimed this place from whoever had won.

I glanced up at the towering sign topping the pole mounted on one corner of the building that so many ponies had fought over. It showed a smiling mare with a short mane and a basket in her teeth above the name...

“A Sooper Dooper Mart, huh?” Biggs said abruptly.

I was just getting to that part.

“I’ve heard of these, apparently they're all over Equestria, good haul if you can find one that’s not already occupied by raiders. They really seem to gravitate to them.” Biggs went on as we crossed the opposite bridge over the second trench. Air Heart stopped, and we had to stop with him since he was the front of the chain, and his gaze drifted upwards. Then he stumbled to the side of the bridge to retch, pulling Wedge, myself, and Biggs with him. I looked up to see what had got to him this time and saw that the trench on this side had had poles propped up along it’s length, with dozens of grisly, juicy looking things that used to be the corpses of ponies dangled from them. Unlike the nearly mummified bodies back across the lot, these were fresh, and they were ripe.

I couldn’t tell, of course, but a moment after Air Heart bent over the edge of the bridge, Wedge knelt down to give up whatever he’d had for breakfast as well. Biggs just stood behind me and grimaced slightly. “I wouldn’t take that mask off anytime soon, if I were you.”

I didn’t have any plans to.

We were led to the entrance, and through it. It was wide, wide enough for the whole group to file in quickly, and had at one point been blocked by four large glass doors that slid along tracks in the floor. Now there was no door of any kind, and I was reminded of Pyresteady. Places like this didn’t need to close their doors to keep ponies out. And I got the feeling once ponies came in here they didn’t come back out, unless to be put up on a pole.

The inside of The Mart was a nightmarescape of metal and meat and blood. The long shelves that had at one point formed neat aisles and held pre war delectables were now pushed together and stacked to form a segmented holding pen taking up most of the center of the sprawling building. I could see wooden board bridges laying over gaps on top of the shelves, over which more cannibals stalked like jungle predators, laughing and cawing at the captives below. And I could see the captives, through gaps in the shelves and the big gate that had been formed from dismantled and fused shopping carts. They looked exactly like haggard, hopeless ponies tortured at the hooves of maniacs would be expected to look, and the many dull eyes that peered out at our returning party were completely devoid of any emotion, even curiosity.

Beyond that gruesome centerpiece, I could see the places the cannibals slept, mostly on dirty rolls of cloth or even piles of what looked like the shreds of ponies clothes, and countless scattered saddlebags. There was maybe two mattresses in the whole building, no doubt reserved for the pony who most savagely beat the previous owner before stealing it, and started the cycle again.

Beyond even that, I could see into the back of The Mart, one corner that had had a half dozen tables arranged in it, piled high with evidence of the cannibals demented hunger. Torsos, limbs, heads, piles of meat so badly mangled it was impossible to tell what it once was.

Air Heart hunched again and his back heaved, but nothing came out, and one of the cannibals that had been watching us get led in reached out and whacked his exposed flank with a pool cue.

“Don’t ee’n think ‘bout emptyin’ yer guts there, my cully! I jes’ mopped the floors, y’see? And they're slippery when wet, aye!” The stallion with a yellow bandana around his neck jeered, and spat on the floor, near where a terribly faded yellow sign stood, showing a black silhouette of a pony falling. Air Heart made a wordless whimper and stumbled forward faster, pulling the rest of us slightly off balance.

We were being led to the center pen, of course, while Abattoir and the big stallion and the rest of the hunting party drifted away to celebrate and gather materials for the barbeque. The guards walking the boards started shouting and jabbing down at the occupants in the section closest to the gate with their weapons until they all scrambled as far back as they could, while an overweight unicorn used a ring of key to unlock the large locks holding the chains and wrecked carts together. Then he turned on us and floated another key, pointing.

“I don’ think I hafta tell you not ta run, do I?” He asked with a grin that showed he had almost no teeth left. None of us said anything, and the chains around our legs were removed.

The gates were pulled apart with a rusty metal squeal, and the cannibal with the pool cue was joined by several others, poking and prodding us into the pen. Crunch came in behind us, still bundled up in the chains, and with a resonating, rattling sound, the gates were closed and re-locked.

I looked around at the ponies we were temporarily sharing this giant cage with. They were a dirty, weary bunch, many nursing injuries sustained from their capture, or their rough treatment. Some of them looked up at the newcomers, and more than a few shied even further away when they saw me looking at them.

Wedge and Biggs drifted away from me, talking amongst themselves, and Air Heart just stood there looking like a broken house on the verge of collapse. I walked around to his face and barked “That’s enough of that.”

He winced as if struck and whimpered “B-b-but...” He sounded the same as he had when he’d first been deserted by his fellow pegasi and left on the ground with us. I stamped my hoof.

“No. Remember what you said. ‘Be strong’. This is the real wasteland. If you can’t handle this then you should have just flown off long ago and...” I remembered the other pegasus the cannibal mare had complained about losing. “And given up trying to find your sister.”

I could see in his eyes that that had finally broken through his panic and touched the true steel hidden under his soft exterior. He sniffled and wiped his eyes with his wings, standing up a little straighter. “Uuunhh.. o-okay... I’m sorry, I’ll.. I’ll try to be strong...”

I nodded at him. There was a jangle of chains behind us and I looked up. Most of Crunch was still buried under the chains, but his eyes were still able to meet mine. He lifted one giant hoof and shook it slightly, then set it down. Not a stomp but a gentle settling back down on the filthy tile, despite the heavy chains weighing him down.

My lenses blazed back at him and I knew he could see it, but he kept on staring, and I concieded shortly. I raised one booted forehoof, hesitated, then touched it to his shoulder. He looked startled, and I left it there only long enough as I had to for him to get the message, that he should be proud, before pulling it back.

He cleared his throat and lowered his eyes. They followed my leg, the one that had been clamped in the bear trap. The bleeding had already stopped, but the holes remained. “Do you... want me to take a look at that?”

“No, it’ll be fine.” I thought a moment. “You still have your medical supplies?”

“Well, not all of them. They took my saddlebag too, but they didn’t search my, uh... uniform.” He rummaged inside the collar of the glaring pink former nurses dress and came out with a roll of gauze to show me. I was hardly surprised, these ponies were surprisingly dense. “There’s a couple more sewn in.” He glanced up, checking the latticework of boards overhead for spying cannibals, then emptied his pockets. There were a couple bottles of pills, including one of the Rad-x bottles from the stash Crunch usually carried. Had I given that to him? I couldn't quite remember. There was more bandages, a little suture kit, a single scalpel, and a pair of tweezers.

“When did you get all that?” I asked mildly.

“Oh, when we went shopping earlier... I thought I might, y’know… get to practice a little more.”

I noted that, then raised my head. I looked at the pitiable masses of ponies huddled around the walls, and hesitated again. Then I gestured.

“Them.” That was all I said. He looked up, looked at them, looked at me nervously.

“But... they...” He started collecting his supplies again before they could be noticed.

“They’re more scared of you than you are of them, no matter how scared you are. And I think it’d be better to take care of that sooner rather than later.” I considered the bottle of Rad-x when he swiped it up and put my hoof out. “And... give each of them one of those. Take one yourself. And tell them, when it starts, to stay calm and keep their heads down.”

He stared at me, the bottle still between his hooves. But for once he didn’t question, just went off on the task that would help keep his mind occupied and keep him from breaking down. I watched him wander over to Wedge and Biggs first, and heard him ask to borrow the conspicuous hidden flask Wedge had managed to hide from the cannibals lazy patdown. Something about needing the alcohol.

Then I turned my attention back to Crunch, who had been looking down on me the whole time. I met his eyes and his eyes met my lenses and we stared in silence for a long time. I saw his brow crease under the wrap of chains, concern. I hated the look of it.

“It’s the only way. I’ll be careful.” I assured. Abattoir’s plan, if it truly was a plan at all, was just like her, annoying. But it would be efficient, and quick, despite the... risk. I spared another glance around the pen, at the huddled masses, saw the eyes quickly darting away. I turned back to Crunch again and added. “Just be ready, incase...” I left the rest unsaid and he nodded. Then he lumbered away to find someplace to sit down and rest up until it was time.

Then it was only me, left standing right where I was at the front gate of the pen, looking out at our cannibal hosts as they hurried around, gathering up as much wooden debris as they could and piling it up the floor.

It took them well over an hour to complete their task, a fact that irritated me to no end. Early on I heard Air Heart timidly make his way around the ring, offering to take a look at that cut or clean up that wound and dress it properly, and so on. The ponies were reluctant to allow him to get too close to them at first, but eventually they warmed and he made his round, not forgetting to pass out the Rad-x and insisting they take it when the time came. Other than that I’d payed little attention to what was happening and just watched the cannibals build.

The structure they assembled in the space between the pen and the entrance was crudely put together, but looked like it would do its job perfectly well. It was a ring of concrete chunks that had been filled in with the wood, several piles of shredded paper from old books, and somepony had even managed to find some hay. Over the wood and kindling, and supported by the rocks, a metal grate had been laid. It looked to be made up mostly of fence pieces, with some patches that were clearly part of some old metal bed frames. Tall metal poles were spaced around the ring and supporting a web of barbed wire that would ensure there’d be no escape once inside. We would be placed in the ring, and somepony, probably Abattoir, would have the honor of lighting the fire. The kindling would catch, the fire would spread, and we would be roasted. Or so they thought.

Air Heart returned to me just before they came for us. He sounded much more calm, his voice didn’t quaver as much. “I’ve done as much as I can, most of them were just small cuts... oh...” He looked past me, at the completed structure. “It’s soon, right? We’re going to escape?”

I almost laughed. Almost. “No, we’re not going to escape.” Before he could open his mouth to ask, I looked back at him. “You don’t really want to escape, do you?”

His mouth opened, but no answer came out right away. He closed it, and I could see him working over the question in his mind. “I.... want to get out of this horrible place.”

“But you don’t want to just leave, do you? Neat and clean, with everything the way it was when we arrived.” I tried to prod him in the right direction, and saw something dawn on his face.

“... I don’t.” He said, furrowing his brow “But you can’t kill all of them!” I gave him a look through my lenses that made him lower his voice, and he looked abashed. “I... I mean, they are bad ponies, probably the worst I’ve ever seen, but I mean, you can’t really fight all of them at once and expect to win-”

“Can. Will.” I again tried to hush him with a wave of my hoof, as I saw that the time had drawn near and the roaming cannibals had gathered around the firepit. Abattoir was leading a group of spear wielding ponies towards the gate.

“But they’ll kill you!” He hissed at me.

“Does that bother you?” I asked dryly as Abattoir waved over the fat pony with the keys to join her, hoping the time he took to think about it would stretch until they reached the gates and then he would be too terrified to speak up.

“Yes!” He blurted without hesitation, and before I could help myself I looked back at his face. And what I saw there was more terrifying to me than any of the grisly scenes of cruelty and pony slaughter that surrounded us. That worried frown, that look of pure and genuine concern in his eyes, chilled me to my core and sent a shiver down my spine.

***

We were called out from the pen, myself and Air Heart, Wedge and Biggs, and Crunch laboring under the chains. Several of the ragged ponies left behind were watching, looking less dead eyed than when we’d arrived. I wondered briefly what Air Heart had told them. I didn’t look at him as we were led out at spearpoint to the outer ring of concrete where somepony had helpfully stacked some crates to make a staircase over the wire. We were prodded onto these and jumped down into the ring one by one. The crisscrossing metal bars under us rattled slightly as Crunch came down last, still bundled up in his chains. I looked down, and saw the jumbled mess of broken wood waiting to be ignited under us. Air Heart’s legs wobbled slightly and he inched closer to me. Wedge looked anxiously at Biggs, who turned and mumbled.

“This would be the part where you spring your brilliant plan and get us out of here before we’re roasted alive.”

I didn’t turn to meet him, I was busy focusing. “Just follow my lead...” I was looking beyond the ring, out into the avidly watching crowd of filthy ponies. They sneered back and laughed, and jostled for better views. Then they turned their heads as Abattoir appeared, brandishing a chair leg in her teeth, one end wrapped with cloth. She held it up and the big stallion produced a single thick match, striking it on the rocks and touching it to the cloth. The wrapping went up in flames, and Abattoir lowered her head, shoving the torch through a gap in the rocks, letting it drop into the kidling. I followed its progress, the flames spreading slowly along the outer edge of the ring, as that was where all the smaller pieces of wood were arrainged. As I was already standing in the center, all the others started pressing in around me, but I just kept still, turning my head just enough to watch the fire encircle us.

“Lumi... it’s getting hot...” Air Heart whimpered, nearly climbing up onto my back.

“Oh Celestia preserve us, I’m never leavin’ home again...” I heard Wedge say mostly to himself.

“Don’t call me that.” Was all I said, keeping most of my focus on maintaining the glow around my horn at a faint enough level to keep from being seen through the fire. It was high enough at the outer ring that it was getting hard to see the faces beyond, and was climbing higher and creeping in closer to the center all the time. In moments our little huddle was an island in a sea of flames, and I knew it was time.

“Let go of me.” I told them over the growing roar of the fire and the crowd, and squeezed myself out of the middle. I felt Air Heart grasping weakly at my tail as I trotted forward, pulling back when I stepped into the leaping flames. The cannibals saw, surely thinking that in moments I’d either fall screaming to the floor or gallop into the wire mesh in a mad panic to escape. When I kept on standing in the flames, still and stoic as a statue, I heard their raucous laughter and bloodthirsty cheers dying down, being replaced by confused murmurs.

Finally, somepony shouted “Why ain’t she roastin’?!”

In answer, I called back “Sorry to disappoint you, you scum... but I’m fireproof.” My horn erupted in green magical light, and I reached out. My magic touched the flames, and in an instant the orange light was replaced with sickly, sepulchral emerald. I pulled, and the fire swam away from the center where my companions were still huddled, pulling it all in around me like a warm, comforting blanket. I was inside the flames, and the flames were inside me. And it was good.

Then I was reminded of the work that needed doing, and galloped forward. There was sharp metal in my way and the fire slashed out, cutting it like twine. I leapt through the hole into the stunned crowd, dragging most of the conflagration with me like a trailing cloak. I came down hard and ponies scrambled backwards. The first pony I saw when I raised my head was the fat stallion with the keys around his neck, a knobbly club floating over his head. I sent a lance of flames into his face, boiling his eyes away and scorching his throat shut when he opened it to scream. He fell, but I still heard the screaming all around me. Whether it was me screaming, or the cannibals, or just meaningless echos of countless ponies gone past, I had no idea. I had things to kill.

Some galloped towards me, most galloped away. Either way I lashed out, whips of fire lashing them and seering them to the bone. My legs were moving, pushing me somewhere as I cut through the crowd, and in seconds I knew why. The cannibals had tossed all our bags and goods onto a pile with dozens of other saddlebags, waiting to be rifled through for goodies. My sword gleamed and threw back the greenish light as I reached out and wrenched it from the pile, bringing it back to my side where it belonged. I turned back the way I came and swung, both flames and blade cutting into the two ponies about to jump me.

I back tracked and found more ponies, climbing out of the smoking ring. A tickle in my head reminded me those were not the ponies I was supposed to kill. Why not? The flames asked me. Fire doesn’t discriminate, anypony can burn. Not them, I answered. The ponies looked at me and one of them said something. I galloped away before the fire could speak again.

I found more of the ponies I was supposed to kill. They’d gone to their stashes and dug out weapons, And when I came they turned them on me. Dully, as if from down a long corridor, I heard the bangs, and felt the thuds of shells and slugs and buckshot pierce my hide. But they couldn’t stop me. The foolish ponies had poured fuel on the fire, and now the fire was raging out of control.

I cut through them like a sickle through a field of wheat. Finally it looked like I had laid them all out -Except those ponies back there, and there’s more in the pens- and started to lower my magic. Then a gruff and guttural voice called out a challenge to me. I turned, my horn flared and the flames flared with it.

“Yee cunt!” The big stallion said, and leveled his weapon at me. No second hoof stolen rifle or rusty shotgun, but a multi-barreled monster. Something that could, maybe, tear me up enough before I could close the distance on him. Fire doesn’t fear, get him burnhimkill-

But luckily I had enough of my mind to myself to shift my sword from my side to my front, staking it into the floor moments before the pony’s massive gun whirred, and sent a thousand bullets flying my way. The broad slab of steel held fast, sending up bright sparks as each bullet struck and ricochet away.

The stream of bullets stopped, but the barrels continued whirring, and the big stallion uttered a coarse laugh. "Git on out from there!" Then, louder. "Don't just stand there, ya mangey cowards, get 'er!"

But his rousing cries fell on dead ears, most of his pitiful empire in flames around his hooves and his minions laying dead on the ground. It was just me and him, and he had me pinned. I would have to think of something soon before he figured out a way around my rudimentary defense.

Then a rock pinged and bounced off one of the metal plates making up the armor around his shoulders. He turned, and there was a pegasus with more rocks in his hooves, perched on top of a stack of old shelves. The big stallion growled and heaved the heavy barrel around, already spewing bullets before he even brought it to bear on the shelves, but the pegasus was quick and jumped off to take cover behind them. With his huge gun roaring, he couldn't hear the steady clop-jingle-clop-jingle that was growing rapidly louder until he stopped firing. He started to turn again, and a gigantic stallion mummified in chains bore down on him like a speeding train. The blow knocked him through the air to come down hard under the weight of his own oversized weapon, grunting and scrabbling his hooves on the dirty tile. And finally, the last cannibal appeared before him, a green mare with a knife in her teeth and bracelet that clicked loudly. He stretched out his hoof to her, his already thick voice coming out garbled and wheezy, crying out for her to help him up, they were gona kill them all, kill 'em for what they did. The mare put her hoof out and took his, pulling him up. Just enough to stretch her neck out, and drive the tip of her knife into it. As his eyes widened, I heard the mare say one thing, clearly. "Your name is dumb."

All this I saw peeking out from behind my sword. When the mare cannibal drew her knife back and the stupid, stunned face of the big stallion slackened, I yanked my blade from between the tiles and held it over my head again. The mare turned to meet me, a grin on her face and her bracelet still letting out that clicking noise, just standing there and watching me. I started to gallop towards her, raising the heavy edge of my sword higher, ready to cleave her in two and burn the pieces, when just as quickly I froze. Not this one, I said. This one isn't one of them, the fight is over. But you still want to end her all the same the weakening flames said, hungry for more.

Do I?

I had stopped with one forehoof raised, mid step, and brought it down again, meaning to advance on her all the same. Then my hoof came down in the spreading pool of blood that had seconds before spilled from the big stallions throat. I slipped, and tipped, and fell in slow motion. My gaze had enough time to find the nearby yellow sign, no doubt printed with the warning that the floors were 'slippery when wet'.

Then my head struck the tile and my magic guttered out. My sword crashed to the ground, and the the last of the flames around me winked out.

***

I laid there on the tile for a long while. My head throbbed, and not just from the impact. The voices I heard were muffled, as if my ears were stuffed with cotton. They were quiet at first, then one grew louder and louder as my head cleared, and I made out 'Lumi' followed by questioning gibberish.

"Don't call me..." I gurgled out as I started to get my hooves under me again. I raised my head and found Air Heart and Crunch standing over me. The former was conspicuously spotless as far as signs of the previous battle were concerned, and the latter looked like some ghastly machine oiled up in blood. And Abattoir was there, grinning at me. "I could kill you."

"I missed you too." She crooned.

"You are an idiot, I should kill you, what were you thinking, running off and... and what were you-" I tripped over my words the same way I'd tripped in the puddle of blood, still feeling lingering dizziness, and she cut me off easily.

"They knew we were comin'." She explained. "They were gona ambush us all, probably woulda eaten everypony right there on the roadside." She left the rest unsaid, and I slowly swept my head around to take in the scene of carnage around me for the first time, really seeing without my mind clouded. It was impossible to distinguish the former cannibals from the bloody husks they'd reduced their former victims to. What they might have reduced us to by the roadside, no barbeque, if not for Abattoir.

It pained me to do so, but I returned my lenses to Abattoir. I wouldn't wait for Crunch to urge me to do so, or worse, Air Heart. I ducked my head with a wince, and let out a sign. "I'm... sorry. That was quick thinking and cleverly done. Were it not for you I think we all would have wound up in the clearing at the end of the path today." I lifted my head, dreading a smug smirk or some stupid joke, but she was just smiling pleasantly.

"Don't mention it." She said, and I didn't think I would anyway.

I turned quick when I heard approaching hooves, thinking maybe the killing wasn't done yet, but it was only Wedge and Biggs, looking slightly singed and more weary than I remembered. "Sorry to break up the... reunion" Wedge started, nervously shooting glances at Abattoir. "But we still got someplace to be."

I almost laughed, but caught myself and turned the noise escaping my throat into a rough cough. "There's really nothing that could get you to cough up that location and turn back home early, is there?" Biggs shook his head and then, after a second, so did Wedge. I shrugged. "I guess I have to respect that. You're really not as weak willed as you look."

This I directed at Wedge, who grinned broadly, until Biggs poked an elbow into his side. Then he furrowed his brow "Hey!"

"What about them?" Air Heart asked, pointing. I turned and looked at the giant central pen, where every single eye was looking out at us now.

"We'll get to them soon... some business to take care of first. Gather up anything you'd take with you." I told Wedge and Biggs, then to my own party. "Same for you. Spread out, look for useful supplies. This place has been picked over by many hooves already, but there still might be something they all missed, or something left behind by our..." I glanced aside at the still corpse of the big stallion. "Our gracious hosts." Abattoir skipped off without a word, and Crunch started to lumber off in another direction, but I noticed he was still draped in the chains, and called out "And take those off already, you look ridiculous."

Crunch gave me a petulant look, then raised one hoof and caught the chains between his teeth. He tilted his head at the same time he chomped down, and the chain spit, the two ends landing on the floor. The rest of the chains went slack and unraveled off him, and he shook himself out of them like a snake shedding skin. Then he went on with the task I'd given him.

I turned back to find Biggs and Wedge sharing a look of astonishment. Biggs recovered first and narrowed his eyes at me. "Could he have done that at any time?"

Wedge turned to answer his partner for me, breaking into a grin. "Not at any time, only when it was funny."

I groaned and turned back, finding that Air Heart had stayed behind, and was looking at me nervously. "What?" I asked.

"Are you going to kill them?" He didn't need to tell me who he was worried for.

"Probably not." I answered him, then motioned with my hoof. "Go on, look near the back, these places usually have a pharmacy in them, you could make some use of it if there's anything left." He went, and I turned, first lifting my sword back onto the harness at my side. My head throbbed slightly when I used my magic, but not too badly. Then I trotted back the way I'd come, following my trail to the little treasure trove of stolen saddlebags. I found mine first, considered them a moment, then just slung them over my back. Then I found my other sword, the one I hadn't needed for this fight, and set it on my back. I picked out the tidy, smaller bags belonging to Air Heart, and the much larger pair of Crunch's, setting them aside. Then I started rifling through the other bags. Cannibals did not much want for caps and so had not been in a hurry to pick them out of the purses of the ponies they'd captured, so I found a small hoard of them, a little over a thousand it looked like. These I poured into a small sack I got from Crunch's bag.

Then I returned, finding them all waiting for me, apparently finished searching the place already. I started towards the pen, and they followed.

"You, uh, should let me look at you first, you have a... lot of bullet wounds." Indeed, I could still feel the numerous holes up and down my flanks and torso, and was aware of a slight woozines that still lingered. "Or at least..." Air Heart lowered his voice slightly. "Heal them yourself... you're not out of magic or something, are you?"

"I'll take care of them later." I said with an air of annoyance. I could stand them a while longer, but right now, looking like I did would help get my message across. I stopped a few paces from the gate, and the staring eyes quickly moved away from it. I drew my sword, and a whisper of gasps rippled through the crowding ponies. I swung it into the gate, making it crumple and fall off with the useless chains still in place.

I stowed my sword and waited, the first few bravest souls poking their heads around the newly opened hole in their prison, and raised my voice. “Listen up, all of you! As of this moment, you are all free.” That got their attention, surely. “You may return to your homes, if their are homes to return to, or you may find new ones. Frankly, I don’t care where you go or what you do from here, except for one thing.” More heads were poking out around the hole, watching me with guarded, hopeful, terrified eyes. “You will not tell anyone, anything, anypony, what you saw here or how you escaped. I’ll know if you do. And I will come find you, wherever you hide. Do you all agree?” The tone in my voice suggested anyone who did not would not live to enjoy the second chance they’d received today.

There was a hanging silence in the air, then ponies started to rapidly murmur to eachother inside the pen. After a moment several sets of hooves pushed a pair of ponies, a mare and a stallion, out of the opening, two hastily elected representatives. They looked at eachother, back at their former fellow captives, and finally at me.

“Uh, yes, yes, anything, we… we’re all more grateful than we can ever say, but we won’t talk…” The stallion began, nodding his head so fast I thought he might hurt himself.

“Won't say a word, aye, and everypony agrees, just p-please… don’t bring that terrible fire down on us.” The mare continued, not nodding her head but holding it low, not looking directly at me.

I was satisfied, and stepped aside, trotting back to my own group. Air Heart looked predictably horror struck, Wedge was looking at me warily, and Biggs just looked at me with a look of mild curiosity, one eyebrow raised.

Air Heart was transfixed by the stream of ragged ponies that all at once poured out of the pen. Then he regained himself enough to remember something, and looked at me. "I... have something to show you. I found... something." Then his eyes flicked back to the milling ponies.

"What is it?"

"Not yet. Wait until they're all gone." He motioned, and my own curiosity flared up slightly.

"Alright" I said, shrugging. Then, to the ponies, I pointed into the far corner. "Your saddlebags are over there. Or, somepony's might be. Find your own, or take one. Try not to fight over them." That seemed to be what the ponies were waiting for, and they all started to trot away, some of them bowing their heads at us or mumbling thanks as they passed.

Air Heart moved beside me, then turned his head "They look so... can I go talk to them? I want to make sure they'll be alright."

I considered for a moment. Could he do much harm? "As long as you don't say anything that contradicts what I said, understand?" He nodded, and I waved him forward with my hoof. He hurried out to catch up to the ponies, fussing over them, asking if there's more he can do to help.

I turned away, finding Biggs still looking at me in that odd way. "What is it?"

"I’ve heard of ponies who do good being a little modest, not wanting to take credit for this or that, but I've never heard of swearing a bunch of tortured escapees to silence under threat of death... To borrow a phrase from my partner, 'what up with that'?" He asked, one eyebrow going up.

“Would you believe I’m very modest?” I said dryly, and he chuckled and shook his head. “I would just rather not have some kind of… reputation rise up around me. I’m not some hero, and I’d rather not be mistaken for one.” I spat the word as I always did.

“Well, there’s no chance of that.” Wedge mumbled. Biggs went on, unperturbed.

“That’s understandable, but it’s more complicated than that. It takes more than a few good deeds to make a pony ‘good’ or ‘heroic’, the simple actions alone don’t make a pony one thing or another. Those things come from inside you.” I must have been staring, because he gave me a questioning tilt of his head. “You don’t agree?”

“Oh, no, you… sound like someone else I know.” I wouldn’t say somepony, and something would probably sound too suspicious. “I just know that’s not what I am. I don’t do good things just for the sake of doing good, I do what I do to get paid.”

I was rapidly growing tired of this conversation, and looked to see if Air Heart was finished with those pathetic ponies. He was still milling around them while they slipped on saddlebags and looked for mostly blood-free articles of clothing. Thankfully, Biggs seemed to be wrapping up. “That’s one reason for a pony to do something, I guess. Begs the question, does doing good things for a bad reason mean those things are any less good?”

I still don’t know why I answered, as annoying as the conversation was. But I did. “And what if you do bad things for a good reason?”

That made him chuckle again, though less enthusiastically. “Good question. And what’s your answer?”

“I don’t know. I don’t care.” I said quickly, then shouted across the battlefield The Mart had become. “Air Heart! Let’s go!”

Air Heart started, and said something apologetic to the last of the ponies he was talking to, and passed something over, before galloping back to me, red faced. “S-sorry…”

“Just show me what you found so we can get out of here and get back on track.”

He nodded, glancing once at our two guides, then started to trot. He led us around the pen that held the center of The Mart, then straight back. I saw a counter that had been built into the back wall. It had a metal shutter drawn down over the top of it, presumably to keep out would be thieves. There were a few spots where some small gaps had been opened, but mostly it was intact. “There’s also a side door down that hallway that leads in, and it’s also still locked.” Air Heart explained. Beyond the gate I could see why the extra security had been installed, this was the pharmacy.

"And you'd like one of us to fix that?" I asked, and he reddened a little, but pointed.

"Not just that. Look. On the back wall."

I looked. Despite the barrier keeping ponies out all this time, there was still signs of destruction inside, shelves and containers and lights shot out from this side of the gate. I guessed that some ponies, frustrated at the failure to raise the shutter, had decided to take their anger out on the goods inside. And farther in, above the back wall, almost all the lights had gone out. I could make out the faint shape of four of those little first aid boxes, and smeared over the front of one was something that glowed blue in the dim light.

"Discord take your eyes..." I cursed, and drew my sword, slashing. The gate defied me the same way it had defied so many others, my blade clattering off the flexible, metal mesh. I considered trying again, maybe working my sword between one of the gaps would work. Then I sheathed my sword and sighed. "Show me the door.

He took us to the left of the countertop, and down a corridor. There were other doors, and a drinking fountain that Abattoir stopped to drink from, despite Air Heart's protests. But the important door was easy to identify. It was solid metal and looked imposingly thick, the surface showing the scars of all the past attempts to open it, gouges and scratches and even black scorch marks from explosives.

"Crunch" I said, approaching closer to inspect the door, sliding one hoof across the surface. Crunch also placed his massive hoof on it and tapped in spots. After a moment he dropped his hoof and shook his head. "Won't budge?" He shook again. I expected that, and returned to staring at the door.

"Aren't we in a hurry?" Wedge asked, and I shushed him, thinking hard.

"You said there were more of these all over Equestria, you've been to them?" I asked Biggs. I'd only encountered one, but I moved on quickly. Biggs nodded, I could see him trying to pick up the thread of my thoughts. "Have you ever seen one like this?" I tapped the metal door with my hoof. He shook his head this time. I hadn't either.

"Never. Usually it's just the counter, and the shelves with old pill bottles, completely picked over." I nodded back. Of course this one mart would have this extra security, if it hadn't he would have found someplace else to put it, someplace else just as impossible to get into. Or almost impossible, because we were supposed to find it.

"A locked room..." I said outloud, pacing away from the door. "A locked room with strong doors... how do you get into such a room?"

"You could try melting the door!" Abattoir said, stalling my train of thought slightly.

I shook my head, too focused for once to get angry. "I don't think I can make it hot enough for that, that door is strong." The door. The door, the door, the door...

"What about the walls?" Air Heart offered meekly, and I almost tripped. We all turned to look at him, and he seemed to shrink under the gazes. I looked up at Crunch and he met my gaze. It was almost stupid, almost genius.

I pointed at the wall immediately to the right of the door and Crunch moved in, raising his hoof and ramming it into the wall. There was a crunch of plaster and wood, and when Crunch pulled his hoof back, we looked in and saw the walls were just slatted wood panels layered over with colored plaster.

I stepped back and waved to Crunch to go on, and he grinned back at me, moving to the small hole and rearing up.

While Crunch reduced the wall the rubble, I rounded on Air Heart so suddenly he jumped and yelped. And this time, I put a hoof on his shoulder without Crunch having to compel me. "Good thinking."

I didn't hold it there any longer than last time, but he seemed to take this one much better, nodding. "T-thanks! It was nothing really, I was just thinking about... clouds." When we all kept on looking at him, he must have figured that required some explanation. "Oh, well, y'know how we build buildings out of them, right? Well, special or important buildings, or anyplace you wana keep ponies out of, have to be made of denser clouds than normal, because with enough effort, somepony can just poke their way through the regular walls, locked door or not."

"Huh..." I actually hadn't known that. It was unlikely to ever be important, but I nodded and made sure to remember it. I turned back, and the cloud of dust Crunch was kicking up settled, leaving a roughly pony sized hole leading into the pharmacy. I trotted through and went straight to the back wall. There were four of those yellow and pink boxes on the wall, and three of them were open. The fourth had that same blue substance painted across it's surface, obscuring those pink butterflies with minotaur glyphs. The same glyphs as before, I realized, making out the same unhelpful message.

Follow the stars.

I shook my head. I was trying to follow them, but things kept popping up in my way. I trotted towards the metal box mounted on the wall and reached up to open it, and Air Heart practically flew into me when he hurried over, shouting, "Wait! It could be a trap like last time, we should take it slow-"

"Then you better stand back in case it is." I said, done taking it slow, and set my hoof on the latch, swinging the first aid box open. Of course it wasn't locked, we'd already been through enough just getting to it.

I had expected only one item inside, but there were two. The second item was a health potion. The first item was the large orb of white wood with green zebra sigils on it.

The tiny vestige of my good mood evaporated. I used my hooves to grab the orb and roll it into my bags. The potion I floated over to Air Heart "Here. Keep it with the others." And of course when he started to look guiltily at the floor and fumbled with the potion, I knew why he had been so long seeing the captured ponies off, and sighed. "Did you give them all away?"

"They were still wounded, and it's dangerous out there and I just wanted to help... you took all their money, I had to-" He blubbered until I stomped my hoof, his back legs crumpling slightly.

"Shut up! Just be careful with that one, then. It's the only one." I snapped. He looked at it in his hooves, then held it up at me.

"Then... you should take it. P-please?" For a moment I just stared at him, then I realized I must still be riddled with holes. The bleeding had stopped, but the wounds were still there, and I must have looked plenty ghastly. I pushed the potion back.

"Keep. It. And get up. We're leaving." He got up. I glanced once around the pharmacy. I was sure we could spend an hour looking through every bin and drawer, but I was tired of this place. I trotted back through the hole, waiting for my companions to follow. I stopped the pair from the village and asked quietly. "I don't have to say it, do I?"

Biggs shook his head. "No. Add this to the list of shit we can't talk about to anypony."

"I plan to blot this entire experience from my memory completely." Wedge added.

"Good idea." I said. They kept trotting, but I stayed in the corridor, motioning with my hoof when they stopped to look back. "Keep going. I'll meet you outside, I have to..." I glanced to the side, at one of the other doors in the hallway. The restrooms. "Use the bathroom."

They went on, and I slipped into the bathroom. Five minutes later when I joined them, the many bullet wounds were gone and the white orb was nestled securely in the rad-proof wrapping next to my remaining half empty water bottle. There was no sign of any of the ponies who'd been captive here, they'd all fled back to their own lives, such as they were. And with the sun low in the sky and already painfully close to the far western horizon, we finally started walking, and got back on track.

***

"-think I honestly might have nightmares after that, no offense." Wedge was saying, when the conversation had, inevitably, turned to the spectacle I'd put on in The Mart.

"It was kinda scary..." Air Heart admitted, with a short glance back at me. I gave no sign that I was paying attention.

"If Air Heart's not that scared of it, then you know you're just being a wimp, and that's sayin' somethin'! He was so scared the first time he slept in the wasteland he peed the cave-ach!"

Abattoir laughed and covered her head with one hoof while Air Heart buffeted her with one of his wings, completely red faced. "Abbey, you promised!" Then he looked sheepishly at the other two. "I-i-it didn't happen again..."

They responded with light laughter, that Abattoir and eventually Air Heart returned. When the laughter died down it was Biggs who looked at me. "Scary, yes, but something to be admired. I've heard of unicorns with magics strong enough to control the elements, but never seen one until today. Scary, but impressive."

Wedge considered his partner and then looked at me as well. "Yeah, guess he's got a point. Was pretty badass, glad it wasn't aimed at me."

I nodded my head after I decided they weren't mocking me "Thank you."

There was more talking as we walked, and the sun kept sinking lower. Abattoir joined in, making more comments that made them laugh. Air Heart laughed along, but whenever Abattoir turned away I noticed him looking at her oddly. There would be time later for questions, but not until these two were on their way back to their little village.

Just before the light of the sinking sun started to fade, I looked ahead where Wedge was leading us, and thought for the first time I recognized something up there. The feeling grew as she approached, and a sinking certainty started to fill my stomach. When the shape of the toppled over statue in the fountain became clear, as well as the other three roads leading out, and the buildings around them, I started to laugh. Croaky, rusty noises they were, but I was laughing.

Air Heart looked startled at me, Abattoir was laughing as well. Wedge stook a step back and Biggs just raised his eyebrow, slightly smilling. "What's so funny?"

"I just realized... why you couldn't" I stopped and dropped my head, taking a deep breath and stopping the laughter. "Couldn't... Why you couldn't just tell us where the nest is supposed to be, why Stalker couldn't either... I figured it out."

Air Heart was still looking concerned. I imagined he was worried I was going to start acting as crazy as Abattoir. I looked at him and waved my hoof around the square. "Look around. I bet even you could guess where it is. I should've guessed all the way back in Little Cliffside."

He furrowed his brow and turned to scan the square. He looked past a couple times, then settled his gaze and whispered "No way..."

"Yes, way." I said, and turned to the positively perplexed Wedge and Biggs. "You two can probably turn back now, we don't need you to guide us anymore." I raised my hoof and pointed to the big wooden building across from the library. The old town hall, with the smashed in front door. The place we were already going, where we would first have to climb all the way up to the roof to install Desert Rose's antenna thingy, then all the way down, to find the lair of some monster with stars on it's back. "That's where it is, isn't it?"

The look they shared with eachother told me I'd hit the nail right on the head, and it made me let out another short squawk of laughter. "You couldn't just tell us that, because that would have been too easy! If we'd known, we could have just found our own way, probably followed our old route and not have to bother with that sorry lot! We could have just come straight here, and probably be done already!" And never released the cannibals captives, or found the other orb, I reminded myself. All more evidence confirming that we were supposed to get sidetracked there all along, because he knew we would. "And that's the big joke. That's the big fucking joke." And with that, I fell silent.

"If I may say so, you're one messed up mare." Biggs said, the first one to shake his confusion. "Yeah, that's it alright, don't know what makes that so hilarious, but I guess it's best I don't. Come on, we'll at least walk you to the door." And we all started trotting again, crossing the square and swinging around the fountain with the corpse of some dead bandit in it.

We climbed the steps and reached the front entrance where the door had been smashed some time long ago. Now up close, I could see the gaping hole led into a long, dark hallway. Biggs and Wedge turned to face me, I and my group turned to face them.

"Well, here we are." Biggs said pleasantly, as if our journey had been a short walk up the street to the corner market. "It's been... it's been weird, honestly, and I don't think I'll forget what happened today in a hurry." Before I could say anything, he added "Won't tell anypony, but won't forget either. Farewell, you messed up mare. Farewell, Abbey, Air Heart, Crunch." And then he turned and trotted back down the stairs.

Wedge lingered, looking embarrassed, and just nodded his head at us. "Yeah, seeya 'round or whatever, and good luck." Then he hurried down the stairs and joined his partner.

I didn't want to, partly because we were already behind, and partly because it felt so terribly clichéd, but I stood and watched as they left. So did the rest of my companions.

When they reached the opposite street, the one we'd been on with Grinder and his gang the last time we'd come this way, Abattoir let out a confused, "Huh..."

"What's wrong?" Air Heart asked.

"Nothin', just... I was sure those two were gona die, y'know?" She said, and it almost sounded like she wasn't joking.

I turned away from the road and faced the hole, finished watching. "They probably still will. Everypony dies." As I said that, the sun finished setting, and the real darkness began to fall outside. I stepped into the even darker hallway and the green glow from my mane danced across the walls.

***

It was dark inside the walls of the old town hall. I cast enough light to see by, but it was still dark. This was because there was a decided lack of windows to let wha little moonlight there was in, and because there were no lights inside that worked. I could see the lights, the strips overhead where they had been, but most of them had been smashed. And some of them were just gone all together.

The walls and floor were wood, dark wood that creaked occasionally. There had been a single strip of carpet in that first hallway, but it had ended when we came to the first turning point. There were signs on the walls and doors, as there usually was in big important places like this (I had no doubt there was one or even many doors in this place with the word 'Administrator' on them), and at the turning point I looked up and found one with the little zig-zag symbol that always meant stairs, and took that route.

The stairs were wide, and we all started climbing them together. “We’re going to the roof first?” Air Heart asked, and I heard more wood creaking.

“Yes, and be quiet. We’re probably not alone in here.” He quieted, and we continued up the stairs. The second floor looked much like the first had, and the third floor looked much like the second had. I caught glimpses of movement a couple times when I moved my head and swung the disks of light from my lenses around, but nothing stopped to bother us.

We found the door to the roof at the top of another set of stairs, and it was locked. It was no giant metal monstrosity, and I was about to have Crunch kick it open when I thought better. "Wait." I said, and motioned Air Heart to follow me. The very end of one of the hallways up here had been capped by one of the few windows I'd seen, and I pushed it up and open now. "Go up to the roof and try to unlock it from there."

He looked at me, and I could see him thinking about protesting, but he nodded and wormed his way through the open window, glancing around the dark building tops outside before jumping off and spreading his wings. He flapped clumsily and started to rise, so I just sighed and shut the window, returning to the stairs and the others.

"What's up?" Abattoir asked when I came back up the stairs, cocking her head.

"I just think we're going to want to keep that door intact, this building is not exactly safe." I said, and waited. While we were waiting, I remembered something I'd been meaning to ask for a while, and looked at Abattoir. "What was that big stallion's name anyway?"

Abattoir grinned at me slightly. "Septic Tank."

I thought for a moment, then nodded my head. "Yeah, that is a stupid name."

After a moment more of waiting, I heard Air Heart's voice through the door.

"Oh, Celestia..."

"What is it?" I asked.

"N-nothing, just... be careful coming out the door." Came the answer, and then I heard some scratching sounds and the clunk of a lock being unlocked. Air Heart pulled the door open and jumped back a bit. I poked my head out and looked left. Nothing but the open door. I looked right, and saw the skeleton in a metal suit slumped against the side wall beside the doorway with a rectangular case propped up beside it.

"Seriously?" I asked, stepping all the way out and shaking my head.

"It spooked me!" Air Heart protested. After Abattoir and Crunch followed me, I closed the door behind us and turned the switch on the knob, locking it again.

"It's just a hundred year old tin can~" Abattoir said, leaning over the body and grinning.

"Even rusty old cans can have sharp edges. Get away from that." I said, lighting my horn and pulling her back by her tail. She pouted, but followed. "Come on, sooner this part is done, the better." I looked around, and it didn't take time to find the antenna. It was a tall metal tower that came to a point, with more thin spokes branching off of it at intervals. It looked a bit like a metallic tree to me. Sitting at the base was some large boxy thing with a rusty handle on one side. I tried it lightly, then bashed it with my booted hoof a few times, and it gave. The front panel swung out like a door, and I saw...

A lot of stuff. A lot of wires and holes and metal things that meant nothing to me. Down near the bottom I saw the blue hole and the yellow box I was looking for, and drew the lunchbox from my saddlebags. I opened the lid and drew out the thin blue wire and the thick black and yellow one. I plugged them in like I was told, and something inside the lunchbox started to hum slightly. I set it down in a space at the bottom of the panels and shut the hatch again. I had to bash the handle again to make it lock back up into place, and when that was finished I took a step back.

"All in a day's work." I said, thinking I might have to talk about adjusting my previous fee with Desert Rose. I turned around to Air Heart and Abattoir. Air Heart smiled slightly.

"And now we go save Daisy?" He asked, his wings opening and closing slightly.

"No" I said, and his eyebrows shot up so fast I thought they might fly off his forehead. "Not yet. First we're going to... sleep."

He looked a little relieved, but still uneasy. "R-really? Why?"

"Yeah, I ain't even sleepy yet!" Abattoir added before loosing an exaggerated yawn into her hoof.

"Because it's been a long day. And it promises to be a long night too. We won't sleep long, a couple hours at most. I want... us all refreshed when we go down there." I had meant to just tell them that we were sleeping because I'd decided we were, but found myself giving the softer response.

Air Heart nodded his head, turning for his saddlebags and drawing out a blanket. I stared at it, it was easy to recognize in the dark, it'd been in the dark the last time I'd seen it too.

"Is that the blanket from that house we stayed the night in?" He jumped slightly when I asked, and shrugged.

"U-uhm, maybe? I just took it 'cause I thought I might need it again, like, if we ever had to sleep in another cave or something. It's big enough to share if... you wanted." He was turning the rolled up blanket over in his hooves. I shook my head.

"That's... there's nothing wrong with scavenging, first of all. Second, no, you two can have it. Crunch keeps his own bedroll and I... I'm fine." I said, and Abattoir laughed and took the cloth in her teeth, snatching it and running over to another large metal box, this roof was full of large metal boxes. She shook her head and unfurled the blanket, spreading it out in front of the box, then sprawled out with her back up against the box. Air Heart lingered, looking at me and smiling.

"I think you should come sit on the blanket with us anyway..." He said slowly and carefully.

"Why?" I asked, putting an edge in my voice.

He winced, but didn't back off. "Because you're going to watch the orb, aren't you?"

Fuck.

"No." I said flatly.

He rolled his eyes, still an odd gesture to see on his innocent face. "I'm not stupid, Luminescence... You never want to stop and rest, then this comes out of nowhere. We were there with you for the first one, we should be there for the second!" He put on a face that he must have thought stubborn and confidant, but to me just looked like a slight scrunching of his muzzle.

"You were there this afternoon, yes? You saw me roast a few dozen ponies alive in..." How long had that been? "In a couple of minutes?"

He stepped back once, but swallowed hard and steadied his wavering hooves. "I-if you wanted to k-kill me o-or Abbey then, you would have..."

If you only knew I wanted to say. But I met his glare and found my usual readiness to draw steel and brandish it at him to finish the argument flagging. They had already seen the first, and honestly my old hunch that they were supposed to anyway still itched the back of my mind.

"Fine" I said, and Air Heart breathed his sigh of relief so hard he almost fell over.

"Thank you" he said as I walked around him towards Abattoir and the blanket. For not arguing or for not cutting his head off, I wondered.

"Daaaang Air Heart, you're gona have to let the hem of that uniform out a little more..." Abattoir said a I approached.

"What? Why?" Air Heart said, following behind me.

"Because your balls are getting huuuuuge!" She said with her hooves cupped around her mouth, then broke into a giggling fit and rolled over onto the blanket.

Air Heart blushed and stumbled past me, mumbling, and I stopped. He sat on one corner of the blanket and looked back at me.

"One second." I turned away and trotted back to the armored corpse by the roof door. I found what I was looking for and lifted it with my magic, carrying it back to the blanket and setting it down in the middle.

Air Heart looked at the former Steel Ranger's helmet warily. "Is that a good idea?"

"He's not using it." I said, shrugging. Abattoir chuckled. I fished around in my saddlebags and drew out the white orb, making sure it was the fresh one I'd just found in The Mart. I eased myself down onto the blanket, prepared to draw my new sword, realizing it really hadn't seen much use yet, and stopped. There was still something missing.

Turning my head, I found Crunch standing far off, one one corner of the old town hall building, looking down at the square below.

"Not coming this time either?" I asked, and he didn't move. I sighed, and it was a good, long one. Things were getting more and more complicated around me, and I hated it. These sudden orbs and Crunch's mysterious refusal to visit them. Air Heart growing more confident while also growing into more of a thorn in my ass. Abattoir and her... Abattoir-ness.

I shook my head and drew my sword, the one with the talisman. I held the orb in my hooves above the tip of the little gem pyramid, focused my magic into it, and kept it there until the white wood caught. I dropped the ball into the helmet where it started to smoke, sheathed my sword, and settled in. The white smoke billowed up out of the open neck of the dropped helmet, enveloping the three of us but remaining neatly contained to our little square of the roof.

Magic was nice like that, I thought lazily as the smoke started to seep into me, whiting out my vision and carrying us backwards to witness another slice of some unknown past.

~~~

This time, when sensation returned in the endless white void, I was standing instead of walking. Glancing around, I confirmed Air Heart and Abattoir were both standing next to me. The smoke slowly started to take shapes around us, forming a wide circle that resolved itself into the dark tan walls of a tent. Finer details started to form, becoming decorations on the walls of the tent. A rack of weapons. A large wooden chest. An enormous bed that would have slept eight ponies. Or one minotaur.

It turned out there were only two ponies. One was standing in front of a very tall mirror, looking at himself. The other was sleeping in the large bed. The red stallion was staring at himself hard, and even if we hadn't been invisible observers, I don't think he would have noticed us.

"These two again..." I said, stepping forward. I came up behind him and noticed me and my companions were not even reflected in the mirror.

"Were you expecting something else?" Air Heart asked, shuffling side to side on his hooves and looking unsure of what to do next.

"I don't know, I thought last time was just to show us something about him, I didn't think these two were very important..." I was still looking at the stallion's face reflected in the mirror, when something glinting in the sunlight caught my eye. Turning, I saw the sword resting in a stand, a lighter toned twin to my own.

"This was his tent..." I murmured.

"What?" Abattoir asked, standing up on the bed and trying to bounce on it.

Before I could answer, a voice I knewdrifted in from the front flap of the tent. "Your mightiness, have you awoken?"

Red Star turned, first to look at his sleeping wife, then to trot after the voice. I followed him.

Outside the tent, the sun was brighter than it had seemed through the thick walls. A single path led from the front entrance of the tent, all the way back down to the valley, and from our spot up on this high hill I could see nearly every inch of it.

But I was not interested in the valley, I was interested in the hooded zebra who had called Red Star out here. He was standing in the middle of the path, with the massive stallion who shared Crunch's image on one side, and a minotaur on the other. I recognized the minotaur as well, after a moment. It was the young one with the brown fur and black horns, Angus.

"Good morning, Xephaniah." Red Star said amiably, and nodded to the other two.

"Did you sleep well, your mightiness?" Xephaniah asked just as pleasantly.

Red Star considered the three before him for a moment, then uttered a low sigh. "Honestly... it feels like some kind of punishment, having me stay here." He said, glancing back at the large tent, and at us.

"That tent belonged to the former King, and now it belongs to you." The zebra explained calmly.

“Yes, yes, so you’ve told me. Everything that once belonged to him now belongs to me, his home, his belongings, his… subjects.” He glanced towards Angus for a moment, then returned his stare to Xephaniah.

“It is the way things are done around here.” The zebra simply shrugged. “You slew the king in combat, and you must now collect your Blood Price…”

“But it was an accident!” Red Star said with a shake of his head. “Everyone and everypony saw, he fell on me. If not for that sword he would have flattened me!”

Now Angus spoke up “What we saw was Discord smiling upon you, and the minotaur have great respect for those Discord smiles upon.” He didn’t seem to be too offended by the pony king’s lack of knowledge, judging from his smirk.

“You must try to remember the things I teach you, your mightiness.” Xephaniah went on. “They will help you make your reign a successful one.”

Red Star glanced between the minotaur and the zebra, then looked hopefully up at Stalks, the Crunch look-alike. And just like his mirror image, the towering pony had nothing helpful to say.

He sighed and nodded, stepping onto the path. “Very well… another walk, another lesson, then.” Angus stepped aside and stomped past the trio, and past us, to post himself in front of the tent’s opening flap. Red looked back at him. “Keep an eye on her.”

The minotaur nodded, and crossed his muscled arms. Red Star started walking, with Xephaniah and Stalks on either side of him. I picked up my hooves and fell in with them.

“This is kind of interesting, it’s kind of like a storybook from olden pony times.” Air Heart said as he caught up.

“Yeah, kings and swordfights and everyone talks kinda fancy, I can’t wait to see what happens next~!” Abattoir added, grinning at my left.

I didn’t tell them, but I very much agreed.

We followed the trio as they entered the valley proper, passing small sleeping tents, larger opened walled pavilions that served as gathering places. I saw the first of the farms as well, large fenced in squares with whatever the minotaurs had managed to grow sprouting up in rows. And we saw the minotaurs, of course. And the goats and the ponies, most of the latter heading to and from various farms or speaking to very attentive looking minotaurs.

They all stopped to give the passing group a quick wave and a bright smile. Or a greeting bleat, in the case of the goats.

“So, there’s herds that pick their leaders using a deck of cards?” Red Star was trying to wrap his head around something Xephaniah was explaining.

“Indeed, though that's simplifying it a bit. They feel the luck of the draw is the truest way to hold to Discord’s plan, but obviously it makes for some occasional very bad very bad years, but such is the plight of the devout.” The zebra shrugged.

Air Heart brought a hoof up to his temple “I guess it’s a good thing these minotaur are the more sane kind… relatively.”

“Do they not believe in anything up in the clouds?” I asked, not too worried about missing anything between Xephaniah and Red, it seemed to be random snippets of minotaur culture or history so far.

Air Heart looked at me oddly, then blinked “Oh, you’re really asking… yes, that’s how most pegasi are. I mean, I believe in the princesses, but that’s not typical…”

“And what makes you praying to a pair of dead alicorns any less insane than the minotaurs who pray to Discord?” I asked with a slight chuckle.

Air Heart looked agast, dropping his jaw then bringing it back up so hard his teeth clacked. “Ah, it’s… that’s… you shouldn’t say things like that…” He furrowed his brow slightly. “What do you two believe in?”

“Strength.” I said.

“Fun!” Abattoir said.

That shut him up for a while.

"Do we have to worry about any of them threatening us?" Red Star was asking, and I assumed they were still talking about other minotaurs.

"The most zealous minotaur herds are found much further to the south, deep in Caledonia, and they won't bother us. But there are other threats to us more close by, which brings me to my next point. Starting tomorrow, a few more lessons will be added to your daily routine. Striking Iron, elder and mightiest of the blacksmiths, will want to test your skills with many different weapons, and Rolling Thunder may teach you to turn your very hooves into weapons, should you ever find yourself lacking. I will continue your mental training and we will see if we can't make a proper King out of you yet." Xephaniah capped this with a thin smile that barely flashed his teeth.

Red Star absorbed this quickly, nodding his head and looking much more confident than he had standing in front of the tent a short time ago. For the sake of his subjects, I guessed. "I see, I'm prepared to train hard, I won't let my herd down. These threats you spoke of, are any of them serious?"

"That depends on your outlook." Xephaniah said, raising his eyes to the vast blue sky overhead. "Other minotaur herds will be your biggest concern, because they'll have Kings of their own, the only other minotaur who would dare raise a fist to you now. They'll be hungry for your kingdom and they'll underestimate your strength, that's why we must make you ready to meet their challenges."

"What does he mean, other minotaurs won't fight him now?" Air Heart asked suddenly. "Does it have to do with their weird rules?"

"Yes, it's all about the Price. Red Star is a King now, so at least as far as the minotaur are concerned, he's worth the most. It would literally cost a King's ransom to pay an assassin to attack him, something none of his own herd would be able to pay. Only another King, with his own subjects and wealth and kingdom to barter with could challenge him to a fight." I didn't see why the two of them had such a hard time understanding it.

"What if somepony hired an assassin that wasn't a minotaur and didn't care about their crazy rules? Like a griffon?" Air Heart said thoughtfully.

I shrugged. "That King would be dead in a heartbeat, if the killer was good enough. That's why there are no great minotaur empires left."

"I really am starting to understand the Discord thing with them." Air Heart said, huffing. I shushed him so I could tune back into the conversation, but it was nearly over. They had taken a path that brought them in a circle, back around to the road that led up the hill, and the whole thing had taken less than half an hour.

"Well, why must it wait until tomorrow, there's still all of this day left I could spend training." Red Star asked, his eyes on Xephaniah.

The zebra's eyes were cast up the hill. "Because today is already going to be a very busy day for you, your mightiness." He said in a voice that was almost a whisper.

We all, both past participants and future observers, looked up the hill and saw that the area in front of the tent was empty.

Red Star broke into a gallop and I followed suit, leaving my companions to catch up. I looked back and saw that Xephaniah was still trotting at the same pace, but he turned and said something to Crunch. No, Stalks, who turned and galloped back towards the valley.

Before we reached the tent, Angus reemerged, his usually stolid face gone ashen. He raised his large hand when Red Star came skidding into the dust in front of the tent flap.

"My wife, is-"

"She is alright, thank Discord that you returned when you did though, for her time has come. You must go and fetch a midwife..." The bull said urgently.

Red Star's face washed over with a look of mingled relief and fear, and he let out a single croaking laugh. “Is that all? Thank Cel.. umh, I don’t think that’s necessary, I don’t know how minotaurs have their foals, but a pony mare is usually capable of handling herself.”

Angus was looking confused, and started to slip around Red Star, when Xephaniah caught up, raising his hoof. "Calm yourself, Angus, the king speaks true. None the less, I have sent Stalks ahead, and he will be back with the wives in no time."

"Ah, I... thank you, Xephaniah." Red Star said, his voice wavering slightly and his eyes drifting to the tent.

"Just doing my job, your mightiness." The zebra said, and flashed that same hollow smile. "Is something the matter, you seem a little less than elated at this happy news." Red Star opened his mouth, but Xephaniah didn't wait for the answer to come out "May I hazard a guess? She is early, is that the reason for your worry?"

I wondered just how much 'guess' was in that guess, but the king's mind seemed to be elsewhere.

"Yes, not by very much, but yes. I've heard that's something that can happen from time to time, it could be something serious or it could not be... I'll be alright, as soon as help arrives."

And help did arrive swiftly, Stalks returned up the path leading not one but a trio of minotaur females in white cloth aprons. From behind him I could see the movement in the valley down below had picked up speed, no doubt the story was rapidly passing from ear to ear, the pony queen was having her baby.

"Hey." Abattoir said, tugging my shoulder slightly and pointing at the approaching midwives. "What are they called?"

"Huh? The midwives?" I thought she must have spaced out and not been paying attention. She shook her head.

"Noooo, I mean, they're not 'mares', right? But they're girls. What do they call them?" Behind her I saw the trio slipping into the tent, followed by Red Star and Angus.

"I... this... cows, they're called cows, boys are bulls, and this is not the time for this conversation." I said, slipping around my companions to follow the line into the tent.

"No, out, all of you out!" I heard the chilly whip crack of a voice as soon as I passed through the flap and for a single second I thought somehow I'd been seen, or the memory had become far too real, but then I realized I'd come in just on the heels of Xephaniah, and it was at him Silver Wind had shouted.

The pegasus had moved out of the bed she shared with Red Star, and though she was laying on her side on the ground, she was looking at Xephaniah with such a powerful glare he took a step back. Red Star looked back at the zebra, then at his wife. "Dearest, what's..."

"I do not mean any offense by it, but I do not wish to be observed in this, Xephaniah. Please, leave our tent."

There was no smile on the zebra's face after that. He nodded with his head slightly cocked and continued trotting backwards. I moved to avoid him walking through me. "None taken, your wish is my command, your gracefulness." He turned his head to the three cows who were standing near the wall, looking as confused as Angus had at their apparent uselessness. “And you three, you’ll do well to stay back. As you can see, a foaling mare can turn quite aggressive...

He backed up to the flap before starting to turn. Stalks moved to join him, but then he spat something in zebra and the towering stallion stayed put. Xephaniah slipped back outside and the tent seemed to brighten, but I wondered if I poked my head outside if I would see him there, peeking through the wall.

Silver Wind started to breathe heavily, her side rising and falling steadily, and she fixed her eyes on her mate. "I told you... I did not want him near me..." She spoke the rest through clenched teeth. "Out, the rest of you, please..."

I wasn't interested in watching the inside of the tent, so when the cows ushered Angus and Red Star and Stalks out of the tent as well, I started to follow.

Air Heart was still looking at the pegasus mare, seeming almost frozen in place, and his eyes started to grow wide before Abattoir clapped her hoof down over them and pulled him after me. "Uh uh, c'mon now, we have to protect your innocence~"

"Ah, I wasn't... my mother is a nurse, I've seen a birth before!" Air Heart declared in his defense but shuffled along blindly.

I ignored the stammering outbursts and witty jibes between the two of them and stepped through the flap again, finding the stallion and the bull facing eachother, Stalks sitting with his back to them, and no sign of the zebra. I hurried up and pressed myself in close, listening to their low conversation.

Angus glanced at the empty path, perhaps expecting to see Xephaniah still departed and finding it still empty, before starting. "Forgive me for speaking so bold, as it is not my place to say so, but the queen is right to want him nowhere near this sacred ritual. He is..." Angus glanced at Stalks, a good distance away and watching the clouds overhead with the same stony face. "He is an unholy creature. He is wise, yes, but his wisdom comes from dark places, and you would do well to keep him at a distance... I tried to warn King Steel as well but he laughed my warnings off and now he had gone to the clearing at the end of the path."

Red Start regarded the young minotaur again, and spoke softly in return. "I... don't trust him either, but I fear that might just be the leftover resentments between our two kinds. I will not condemn him in my mind so quickly, but I will take your words to heart and be careful around him. Thank you for your help and… thank you for before, for speaking in our favor when the king called you to.”

Angus shook his head and held out his hand. “I am not as blinded by our beliefs as some of the elders are, I simply saw you were ponies in need and wanted what was best for you.” He brought his hand to his slightly tufted chin and stared down the path. "Though I wonder now if I had any idea what was truly best for you..."

The pair said no more, and in less than fifteen minutes, one of the cows poked her head out of the flap. "It is done. The queen says you may return, all but the zebra."

"Ooouh boy oh boy, we get to see the baby!" Abattoir said while clapping her hooves, and while she trotted towards the tent she pressed one hoof to her snout and said, in an odd, nasally voice "Lumi, you gota see the baaaby~"

Air Heart looked at me and shrugged slightly, then followed her in. I waited a moment, still watching. Angus bowed his head and held his hand out toward the tent, and Red Star reached up to put a hoof in the middle of his muscled chest.

"Please, my friend, I would invite you to come see as well." He said, and when he turned and headed for the tent, the minotaur went at one side and I followed silently at the other. Stalks came last, quiet as a ghost.

Inside I found Abattoir and Air Heart crooning together, and trotted up to stand beside them and see.

Silver Wind was standing over her freshly born foal, gently nuzzling and licking her clean. Dully, I heard Air Heart explaining to Abattoir "That's to help start circulation, and also helps the foal bond with it's mother immediately..."

"That's kinda gross but also super adorbs..." Abattoir murmured back.

I just watched in silence, as did the rest of the tent's occupants. I first took the foal's coat to be red, but the more the mare cleaned, I realized that was just blood. The foal's coat and mane were a pure, dazzling white and she sat docily with her eyes closed. She was a unicorn, I noticed, and nodded my head. Beautiful coat from her mother, magic from her father. Then she opened her eyes, and my heart skipped a beat, and the last thing I saw before the vision ended abruptly in a swirl of white clouds was the foal staring right up at me with those dazzling green eyes.

~~~

When the white smoke cleared, we were back on the rooftop, and the eyes that stared at me were purple and gold, Abattoir and Air Heart.

I could see the confusion and the questions burning in those eyes, but I held up my hoof before they could voice the first one. It looked like the whole scene hadn't even taken an hour, that was good. "You two should sleep. We've still got a busy day ahead."

"Ah... alright, later I guess..." Air Hear said, shrugging and looking at Abattoir.

I tipped over the helmet and the blackened wooden orb rolled out into my hoof, then I tucked it back into my saddlebag and left them on their blanket, trotting to the corner of the roof where Crunch sat, exactly where he'd been when we entered the memory.

"I don't suppose you have anything you want to tell me yet." I said as I sat down beside him.

He looked sideways at me and said nothing.

"It was the same group as before, that stallion that looks like you was there with Xephaniah again... Why is he showing me this? Is he trying to distract me, are they just desperate temporary delays while he gets further ahead?"

Crunch's eye drifted off me again, and rose to a point high and far off, and I followed it. I couldn't be sure but I thought he might have been looking at the lighthouse off in the distance, looming over the coastline. It was lit again tonight, I noticed, the circle of light lazily sweeping over the mostly sleeping city and the sea out to the west.

I sighed and shook my head "Of course, how would you know... You should go sleep too. I'll wake you up in... two hours."

Crunch stood up, but before he left he looked down at me again, and brought one of his massive hooves up, to my chest. "What?" He just stared, and even with my own light shining on him his expression remained shadowed. Then he tapped his hoof three times and set it down. I let out a long sigh and nodded "Oh, alright... three hours. Go, go on"

He trotted away and left me to take over his vigil on the rooftop. I sat upright and fixed my gaze on the lighthouse again, and wondered idly just who was over there in it, and why they had it going in the first place.

***

Three hours later, I stood up again and made my way across the roof to the blanket Air Heart and Abattoir huddled. I considered them for a moment, how easy it would be to leave them on this roof, and remembered Air Heart's words from before, assurance that my unlikely death at the hooves of the cannibals would bother him. And Abattoir somehow sipping into their ranks and impersonating some important mare and steering them down the path that would let me slaughter them, at great risk to herself no doubt.

"Wake up, it's time to move on." I said, gripping the blanket with my magic and tugging it slightly. Air Heart sat right up, but Abattoir only stirred and mumbled.

"Wuzzah?" He said, blinking his eyes at the darkness. I let the cloth drop and said it again.

"Wake up. And get her up too." I nodded at Abattoir and turned, finding Crunch already rising from his spot across the roof. I left Air Heart to wake Abattoir and trotted to Crunch, lowering my voice. "I think something is wrong with me."

Crunch started to stand, both eyebrows going up.

"I can't explain it, but those two..." I glanced over my shoulder quickly. Air Heart was trying to pull Abattoir to her hooves. "I don't... it's harder to think about killing her or leaving him for dead than it was before, and it doesn't make any sense. Do you think Xephaniah's orbs are poisoning me or something?"

Crunch looked at me long and hard, then his lips parted in a wide grin and he let out several grunts that I realized were laughter. "It's not funny!" I said sharply, turning and growling and trotting away while he finished rising.

"What's not funny?" Air Heart asked.

"Nothing."I said, returning to him folding the blanket up. After a moment, I asked. "Where's Abattoir?"

Air Heart pointed, and I followed, spotting Abattoir back by the roof door, standing over the Steel Ranger corpse. I sighed, thinking she hadn't even been awake a full minute and she was already causing trouble, how could I NOT want to kill her?

"What are you doing?" I barked, approaching and seeing she was fiddling with something on the front of one of the metallic forelegs.

"This thing's got a PipBuck built into it." Abattoir said, moving her head, and I saw the screen jutting out of the armor. It was lit up now.

"Why are you messing with it?" I asked, letting the annoyance slip into my voice, but she didn't notice.

"B'cause it might have neat stuff on it!" And she went back to fiddling, both with the Ranger's PipBuck and her own upside down one. Before I could tell her to quit it, she pressed a button and there was a bark of static from her own PipBuck. Air Heart and Crunch trotted over in time for the static to resolve into a voice.

"...Hey Star, it's Peri... At least, I hope it's you hearin' this. If you're not, I just hope you're pony, and not a filthy stripe..." The voice stopped to cough a few times. "I came up where you said, and I was ready to wait for ya like ya said, when a couple'a your old buddies spotted me in a pass. They were fast, but not fast enough... Got a couple shots into me though. I s'pose I coulda opened your present and used it for a better shot, but I didn't wana dirty it up before I gave it to ya." Again the voice stopped, this time to laugh. "Guess that was a little stupid... Oh well, it'll be nice and clean when you come to pick it up, I'll sit right here and watch it until ya do... Oh, and the combo on the case is the date we met, so I hope you didn't forget it, and if you're somepony else and you manage to get it open... Take care of it." The voice let out it's breath in a soft sigh "Seeya 'round Star."

The recording returned to static then cut off completely. I turned and caught Air Heart wiping his eyes on his foreleg. "What?"

"Nothing!" He said hastily.

There was another burst of static, and a voice crackled out of Abattoir's foreleg. "Hello? Who is this, who's using this channel? This is an authorized Steel Ranger frequency only, state your rank and number. Hello?"

"Hi there, I'm Abbey!" Abattoir squawked, holding her foreleg up. I sighed and reached out, planting my hoof on one of the little dials and turning it, and the confused sounding voice disappeared. I left Abattoir snickering and trotted towards the roof door.

"What was that?" Air Heart started asking, but I shook my head.

"Wrong number. Abattoir, don't mess with those things" I reached the door and turned, but Abattoir had started fiddling around again, this time she slid the propped up silver case over onto the ground, and examined the four dials on the front. Then she leaned over the armored skeleton and started poking her hooves around the neck hole.

"Now what are you doing?"

"I wana see what's inside there, don't you?" Abattoir said, not looking at me.

"What did I just say?" I was about to ask again what exactly she was looking for, when she found it. A locket on a chain around the neck of the pony that had died on this roof. She worked it off over the bare skull, and held it up for us to see.

She opened it, showing two pictures. On the left, a stallion with a light bluish coat and wearing a brown cap. On the right, a griffon with deep indigo feathers.

"Yeah, and?" I asked, impatiently. Abattoir just smirked and turned the locket over. On the backside, there was an inscription. I ignored the words and focused on the four numbers at the bottom, 05/06.

"Lucky guess." I said as she giggled and spun around to enter the numbers on the dials. When they were lined up she pressed the latch and there was a hiss of some decades old seal popping, then she threw up the lid and revealed a rifle.

Not just any rifle, though, some kind of sniper rifle. It's body was deep, dark wood, and the metal parts were all covered in some fine silvery engraving, all the way up the very long barrel. It was bolt operated, and mounted on top was a huge scope made of bright, shiny bronze. I usually ignored most weapons unless Crunch and I needed some spending cash, and we were on a tight schedule, but even I knew this one was one of a kind. I noticed some word had been carved delicately into the butt of the rifle and pointed at it.

"What does it say?" I asked.

"Stargazer... that was the griffon's name." Air Heart said, and it sounded like he might cry again. I rolled my eyes, and pulled open the door.

"Alright. Crunch, you carry it." I said, and Air Heart jumped so hard he almost took to the air.

"No, what, wait!?" He looked from me to Crunch. "W-w-we can't, he said... it doesn't belong to us, we shouldn't."

"It's a very good gun, that mare in Cliffside would probably pay very well for it." I explained, and he grew even more frantic.

"You want to sell it?!" When I nodded he trotted past me and put his hoof on the lid of the case. "Ohh, can't we just... leave it here where it belongs?"

"Somepony else might come and find it." I said, lighting up my horn.

Air Heart bit down on his lower lip and looked at me, then dropped his eyes to the rifle. "T-then... then let me have it!" His head shot back up and he smiled. "Please? I'll take it and I'll take care of it like he wanted, and... and I'll learn to use it?"

I stared at him, and his desperate smile, then looked at the sky. It was still dark but probably wouldn't stay that way much longer. "Alright, fine, whatever." I levitated the rifle out of the case, along with the magazine, noting that it was already loaded with long, polished rounds. I slid the magazine into the rifle then dropped the rifle onto Air Heart's back. His legs wobbled slightly, then straightened.

"Show me that you can at least hold it right, then we're getting back to work." I said, taking a seat on the rooftop. Air Heart flushed slightly, then started reaching back to slide the rifle into his forehoof. I saw him struggling to hold it with one hoof while the other kept him standing, and sighed. "That's a big gun, and it was made for a griffon. If you want to use it, you'll either have to get a battle saddle, or..." And though he couldn't see it, I smiled as I said. "Or you'll need to be flying when you draw it."

The way his jaw dropped slightly was quite satisfying, but again I felt that absurd twinge in the back of my head, telling me that was a little mean. I banished it with a shake of my head.

Meanwhile, Air Heart grappled with his own issues and sucked in a deep breath, spreading his wings, and flapped them enough to bring him a few meters into the air. Both forehooves free, he manipulated the rifle on it's strap and brought it forward, holding it clumsily at first, then more confidently as he figured out where his forelegs were supposed to go. He scrunched one eye shut and pressed the other into the cup of the scope, and gasped.

"This is incredible! I can see so far!" He marveled as he slowly swung the rifle in the air, peering intently through the scope. "I can almost see the city, wow... I see some ponies on the big bridge, they're camping and eating... looks like beans."

I turned my head in the direction of the bridge, the massive skeletal frame in the distance, and thought I could very vaguely make out a spot of light somewhere along it's length. "That's some serious scope." I mumbled, then glanced around the roof. "But I think we should wait for your first target practice, we're on a mission here and we don't want whatever's down there knowing we're coming."

But Air Heart was still looking through the scope at whatever party of ponies was camped on the bridge. I thought about raising my voice or reaching up with my magic to pull him back down, but before I could decide he gaped again. "There's something... look out!" He shouted, and his hoof moved to the large trigger faster than I would have thought possible. I looked on helplessly, the moonlight caught the swirling silvery engraving along the length of the barrel as it lifted slightly, then the explosion of light and sound as the bullet sped off towards the bridge.

The shot also sent the pegasus flipping backwards, and I thought he might keep spinning until he backfliped himself right into the roof, but his wings stuck out and Air Heart recovered quickly, righting himself in the air and pressing his eye to the scope again. He let out his breath in a quick sigh "I-I-I-I got him! I did it!"

I looked off towards the bridge again, and now I could make out more spots of light blooming and fading rapidly. I reached up with my magic and yanked Air Heart down, marveling that for once, I didn't want him exercising his wings. "What did you just do?"

"T-t-there was a pony with a gun, he was sneaking up on them, he was going to... But I hit him!" He was trembling on his hooves, and had almost dropped the rifle when he landed, his chest heaving and his eyes fixed in the air across the bridge.

"That was... impressive. Let's hope that gunshot didn't wake up every single thing in the floors below us, or I'm going to toss you off that bridge when we get to it." I released him from my magical grip, and Abattoir skipped in and tossed her foreleg over his shoulder.

"That kicked ass! You're a natural!" She said while Air Heart blushed and tried to get the rifle onto his back again. "Too bad you just found it, and we're goin' underground, it'll probably be kinda useless down there~"

Air Heart blinked at that revelation, and stared at Abattoir. She was grinning. He cracked a grin as well, then started to snicker. Then they both broke into absurd laughter, and though I kept it under my breath, I shared a short burst of chuckles, then shuddered slightly. Oh Discord, what was happening to me?

***

"I'm going to throw you off the bridge." I said as I stepped down off the last step, not from the roof stairs, but the stairs that led down to the basement level of the old town hall. When I had stepped off the roof stairs, I'd stepped on a radroach that had been milling around there, crunching it under my boot. The dozen or more others that had filled the long hallway turned at the sound, and since then we'd been fighting off sporadic waves of bugs. Despite my certainty that what we were looking for was deeper down, we still poked through several rooms on our way back down. On the second floor we'd found the Mayor's office, and another flimsy safe that Crunch helpfully kicked open. There were bits, which I took, a box of ammo and a little pistol, the ammo Air Heart took because I told him to, and lastly two bottles of vodka that Abattoir took even though I told her not to.

Then more roaches on the second floor and we fought through to the first, where the halls were suddenly flooded with mantises, of all things. They were quicker than the radroaches, and flew around with more ease, but of course they were very little threat aside from the absurd number of them.

"I'm sorry, but I had to do something!" Air Heart apologized while I surveyed the basement corridor. Knowing our luck, this floor would be scorpions.

"You absolutely did not, those ponies were a mile away and not any of your business." I took a step down the concrete walled hallway. The basement was already much darker, much quieter, and much colder than the upper floors. I couldn't hear any more scuttling yet, and the whole floor seemed conspicuously empty.

"Stay on your guard." I advised as I reached the first door and pulled it open. There was a clatter as something moved towards me, but I still had my sword out, and I slashed out quickly, taking the head off...

"It's a mop, Lumi." Abattoir said after I jumped backwards. The head landed with a dusty pomf and the shortened pole clacked to the floor moments later. I looked inside the closet and saw more mops stacked against the wall, as well as metal shelves of cleaning supplies and other equipment.

"Don't call me that." I said as I shut the door again, kicking the mop out of my way and continuing down the hall. I came on another door and was ready this time, opening it on another closet. This one had some vacuums in it. The next door didn't open on a closet but a room housing an ancient metal boiler that I didn't think had seen any use for decades even before the war.

The last door in the short corridor had a lightning bolt symbol on a yellow sign on it, and the room inside was much larger. There were more shelves of tools, and several boxy metal contraptions that had vents sprouting out of them and into the ceiling.

But my eye was drawn to the pair of metal cylinders at the far wall that had once been connected by thick cables. One of the cylinders had been toppled over when something had burrowed up and out through the wall behind it, leaving behind a slightly sloping tunnel that led back down into the earth.

"Just like the one in the basement…” Air Heart said, following me when I trotted over to peek into it.

“Exactly.” I said, stepping over the rubble and over the rim of the hole, into the tunnel. “C’mon, the sooner we find where this leads, the sooner we find the filly.”

I took the lead, with Air Heart and Abattoir behind me and Crunch bringing up the rear. What little light had been flickering overhead in the previous room faded fast as we descended, leaving only my mane and lenses to light our way.

"What do you think made this?" Air Heart asked, his voice slightly quavering.

I tilted my head to scan the walls and roof of the cave. It was surprisingly large, wide enough for three ponies to walk side to side, and tall enough that Crunch didn't have to stoop, amazingly.

"The creature, most likely." I said, drifting to the side and letting Air Heart and Abattoir trot beside me. "It could be even bigger than we've been lead to believe."

We trotted in silence for a while, five minutes by Abattoir's PipBuck clock, before the tunnel widened out into a larger cave, with several other holes branching off into other tunnels.

"Huh, if only we had some bread." Abattoir said, wandering towards one of the tunnels.

"You're hungry again already?" I asked, and Air Heart snickered into his hoof.

"No no, it's from an old pony-tale, two little ponies get lost in the woods, so they leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find their way back." He said, trotting around me to peek into a different hole in the cave wall.

"Does it work?" I asked while I poked my head into one of the holes, casting light ahead of me and revealing a tunnel that was identical to the one we came down in.

"Nnnnnot really, they still get lost and end up caught by a witch and... well, it's one of the stories in the big book Abattoir bought. After we teach you a little, you could try it out..."

I turned around, the cave growing brighter as my horn lit and I grasped my sword. "Excuse me?"

Air Heart exchanged a quick glance with Abattoir, then took a step towards me. "We talked about it before, in the desert, remember?"

Back when life had been so simple, I recalled. When I could shut these two up, or shut them out at the very least. I nodded.

"Well, it still stands, we'd be very happy to teach you to..."

"I'm fine." I growled, and he winced slightly.

"O-okay... b-but reading is... it's so much fun!" He said, holding one hoof out. "And useful, not just for books, being able to read is like, essential!" I started to draw my sword, but what he said next made me freeze. "What did books ever do to you anyway?!"

My magic fizzle slightly, and I dropped my weapon on the cave floor. "What did you say?" I growled, and he flinched away again. I was about to ask again, more forcefully, when Crunch put his considerable bulk between me and him. I lifted my head, the focus of my rage landing on him now. "What?!"

He returned my stare placidly, shaking his head slowly. I tried to sidestep around him, and caught a glimpse of Air Heart backing up again. Then Crunch shifted and blocked me again, pointing at the ground with one hoof. I turned and saw I'd dropped my sword on the ground. All at once my anger came to a point then popped like a soap bubble. I knelt down and gripped it with my magic, easing it back up and brushing the dirt off before sliding it into the harness at my side.

With that done, I let out a low sigh and spoke past Crunch. "Air Heart."

"W-what?" His voice came back.

"I'm..." I looked up at Crunch, and he nodded. "... Sorry. For once it was not your fault. I just..." Crunch nodded again, but this time I shook my head. "It's a long story... maybe you'll hear it someday."

Crunch didn't look pleased, but he moved to the side of the cave again. Air Heart looked at me apologetically, and Abattoir had moved back to stand next to him. "S-so it's okay?" He asked.

"Speaking of stories, I think I'll give her the first lesson, just in case." Abattoir said, winking at me.

I stomped my hoof, lightly. "We'll... talk about this after we get out of this, okay? Right now we need to focus on finding which way to go."

They both looked at eachother, then nodded at me. I sighed again, and turned to look at walls again, thinking there might be some symbols or something to tell direction by.

"I hear something." Abattoir said suddenly. I turned back and she had one ear lifted towards one of the tunnels. I moved closer and craned my neck, and after a moment I heard the odd scrabbling sound.

"Quick."I said, turning back to the tunnel we came through and motioning for the rest to follow me. They crossed the cave and joined me a few steps away from the mouth, and I tried my best to hide behind them and hope my glow didn't spill out too far.

The scratching sounds steadily became louder, and in no time at all the source came trundling into the cave. Dozens of radroaches in a stampede, some breaking off down other tunnels, many rushing towards us. I almost drew my sword, but Crunch stayed my hoof and they all rushed around us, up the slope. Just as quickly, they were gone, but the scraping sounds remained, and I knew something else was coming, whatever have driven all the other bugs above ground. I held my breath.

When the creature entered the cave I was glad I did, otherwise I would have gasped. The figure before had the lower body of a great spider, and stood tall on eight black legs that ended in wicked spikes. It had a large rounded bulb attached to those legs, but jutting out atop that bulb was the upper half of a pony. It looked like a mare. I could see it had not just the normal two eyes a pony had, but six more black orbs above them on it's forehead, totaling eight. There was a horn jutting out, but it was not like a typical unicorn's horn, it was curved and more sharply pointed.

This strange, unknown creature stalked across the cave, sniffing loudly and peering around with it's many eyes, and moved a little further backwards. It settled it's gaze right into our tunnel and I was sure it could see me, or smell all of us, sure it would pounce at any moment, and got ready to grab my swords.

Then it hissed, revealing a pair of long fangs, and turned about, fleeing down a different path. As it did, I saw them gleaming on it's bulbous backside, and stretching up onto it's pony half. Stars, bright and glowing blue as they receded down the passage.

Star... Spiders?

I snapped out of my stunned state and jumped out of the tunnel. "Come on!" I hissed at my companions, and took off galloping after the creature. I heard their hooves behind me, and Air Heart's strained voice.

"What was that?! What are we doing?!"

I almost laughed again at the fact that he even had to ask. After what felt like the longest day ever, after so many distractions and annoyances, we were finally on the verge of our goal. We just had to follow the stars.






Footnote: Level up!

New Perk: Pyromaniac: Emphasis on maniac. You do an additional 25% damage with fire based weapons.

Skill note: Magic 75





(PHEW! Once again, just barely made my deadline. Well, another chapter out, and between the last one and this one, LOTS has happened. Mainly I moved, but also, I just, as in just today, passed 500 views, which is awesome! Also some of you might have noticed, the story has a legit cover image now, done by the amazingly talented Sw1tchbl4de, over on DeviantArt, and paid for by the awesome bloke, No One, thanks!

Speaking of thanks, time to thank each and every one of you readers, and also everyone whose favorited or shelved the fic since the last chapter, I hope this monster isn’t too big, and that it was worth the wait. Thanks to the staff at Wasted Days, and thanks always to KKat for starting the ball rolling. See y’all next time!))

Comments ( 32 )

OMG new chapter YAY!
Definitely going to listen to this either at work during lunch break or when I get back home.

Excellent timing on the update -- just got caught up with Murky Number 7 and was wondering where my daily FoE fix was going to come from now. Good chapter!

This chapter alone is really close to novel length! Plenty of action-adventure, and some cases of flipping challenges around to see them from another side, like with the door thing. I'm amused at how much Lumi stuck through with Abby's plan. If she had been wrong, that could have easily been a total party wipe for everyone except Lumi. And maybe Crunch.

Also, I am 120% convinced that Abby is a basically a ideal ace MoM agent that got her destiny displaced due to the whole megaspells war thing or something. She's a little creepy and unpleasant, but her tendency to immediately join every group ever clicks very well with what MoM apparently morphed into late in the war, and constant side-swapping secret-agent shinangans sounds like it'd fit her either right with them, or with MoA.

Then again, it's probably not going to be a case of Steelhooves Gets It Right.txt

Last line I read before writing this comment was:

“They will help you make your reign a successful one.”

On that note, try reading that aloud:

...your reign a suc-.”

(I'm still on Text to Speech.)

In any case, I have been entertained. Thanks again!

LUMI IS A FIREDEMON. or a firelemon. Or a firemelon. whicheverone.

Just finished up the last hour. I frankly don't feel entirely comfortable with the relative hastening of shift in group dynamic. The general idea of them warming up to be friends is cool, but AH's jump to sniper position is bound to not end well- He's very likely to end up on the Calamity side of a Littlepip-Calamity first meeting, and doesn't seem as likely to bounce back from such a mistake in a hurry. Especially if fatal.

Lumi's in an awkward way. I've got mixed feelings, because a side of me insists this is better than bitchy-Lumi, but then the awkward bits are also kinda uncomfortable. I dunno.

Overall though, I've had fun with the chapter and still want to find out what they do next and how they solve resolve their objective.

Thank you for the update! This chapter gave me so much to think about for character development! If you remember, I sent you a PM a few months back about Lumi and I have to say; AWESOME!!! The hints about Abattoirs' past really set me thinking as well. I can only say 'keep up the phenomenal plot line.'

I did notice more grammar errors, but that is understandable due to the size of the chapter. If you want me to fix, I am more than willing, just PM me.

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5918744
This chapter eats other smaller chapters for breakfast! Anyway, always glad I've managed to entertain! And just because it worked doesn't make it a good plan.
As for Lumi, no comment.
You're probably not the only one the new group dynamic is making uncomfortable, but that's probably the point.
And I'm suuuuure Air Heart is going to be fiiiiine :raritywink:
Have no fear though, bitchy-Lumi will always be bitchy-Lumi. I couldn't write her any other way.


5919454
I'm glad you enjoyed it too! And I'm sure it's still littered with errors, I was quick to get it up and out and there was lots of backtracking and moving around in this chapter, so I haven't been through with my fine tooth comb yet, if you wana slip me a little list of the major errors in PM I wouldn't mind.

5919770

This chapter eats other smaller chapters for breakfast!

A year from now we'll come back to the chapter listing and find out that Tangled Web Part 2 had been going out for snacks every night and has successfully managed to consume over 300 short fics all over the internet.

Also, it just occurred to me that A Tangled Web if taken as a whole instead of two separate parts, does actually meet the description of a novel, except for the whole serialized-publication bit. Or. Something. idk, I just found it amusing.

5925957
If I wasn't such a doof they would have been published together, but eh!

"Yeah, she’s not always such a grump, sometimes she’s not so grump instead"

HEY I'M GRUMP!

"and if Discord wills it"

I approve.

"Girls, girls, let’s not fight… Abbey, don’t be so mean, eh?”

Multiple personality disorder, or magical fuckery, it is hard to tell sometimes. Thise whole scene reminds me a bit of Gollum from LOTR.

"Your tail tastes funny… sour."

Yummy!

" Abattoir ‘s grin grew.” "

There's a mysterious qutation mark here, you should delete it.

"Air Heart asked, standing on the tips of his hooves to see further."

Would this even work?

"His name was Wedge" "He was called Biggs"

Jeeeeeeezeee

“So I killed them both!”

Creeeeepy. Sometimes it is easy to forget that she's a death machine.

"Phrench" "Phrance"

Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

"“So it conflicts with what she said! Doesn’t that worry you?”"

I am leaning towards magical fuckery

"The kindling would catch, the fire would spread, and we would be roasted. Or so they thought."

Oh yeah, she can control fire...

"but I’m fireproof."

She is Danaerys Targareyn, The Unburnt, The Mother Of Dragons, breaker of chains, Khaleesi of the Great Gras Sea, Queen of Mereen, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven kingdoms and protector of the realm, and she will have the Iron Throne through fire and blood!

" I things to kill."

Missed a word here

"Why not? The flames asked me. Fire doesn’t discriminate, anypony can burn."

Oh good, everyone is insane

"I don't think I'll forget what happened today in a hurry."

Didn't he say earlier he was going to wipe it from his mind? Or was that Wedge...

"those dazzling green eyes."

Babbi

" With that done, I let out a low sigh and spoke past Crunch. "Air Heart. "

Missed an end quote

"but jutting out atop that bulb was the upper half of a pony."

Chaos Witch Quelaag? Can I have your chaos sword plz?




Thoughts: The Cannibals thing seemed sort of random but it had a purpose so that was good, still a bit out of the blue. Were they mentioned before? Because that was a lot of ponies to be in a cannibal crew for so few people to know they existed, yanno?

Air Heart is still the best, but I sorta hope he doesn't go all murder happy with his new rifle.

Everybody is crazy.

Spider mother has totally been kidnapping kids due to some tragic past that's haunting her and she wants children. 98% sure of that.

Man, after catching up from the start, I gotta say that Luminescence is the only character here I don't like, which is a shame seeing as she's the MC. It's really becoming (or really i should say, has been) trite and boring to keep hearing how she hates everyone else and wants to kill them throughout every damned chapter. Sure, she has issues and I get that, but Jesus Christ is like she has no settings beyond "bitter homicidal cunt" and "cynical, bitter homicidal cunt"

Abby's a crazy fuck with some mental problems and what I'd guess is DID, but she's a creative thinker, and cares for her friends and is quick to step up to the plate to protect them or help them.

Air Heart's naive idealist, which is understandable given his lack of Enclave indoctrination, but at the same time, he has become less of an overall fuck up. He's really trying to make himself useful, and is brave/stupid enough to risk his life for others just because they need help.

Crunch...Eh, he's ok. No strong feelings either way.

5956595
Always like to get comments on the story! And yeah, Lumi ain't a very likable person, but that's just what she's going for, I'd wager.
I love to hear everyone's theories on my characters, and I'm sure I'll get a bunch of new ones after this chapter. It was good to remind people, after several chapters of stable friendly Abbey that she isn't entirely on top of things either.
Air Heart is fun to write, he's so nice, and seems to be a fan favorite.
And Crunch just sorta fades into the background, so I understand feelings for him being a bit muted for now.

6064137
They've got a thousand and one uses!

6072677

Eeey, always love to hear from new readers :o

I've gotten a few pieces of fan art but none of Lumi because she's no one's favorite but mine. As for her style of mask, it's pretty typical, two round eyeholes, and a large round filter located on the front.

This was way early on in writing, so that 'death isn't funny' line is actually completely quoted from one of my favorite sitcoms that I thought I'd just squeeze it because it made me laugh. I know a bit better now.

Glad you're enjoying it, do look forward to hearing more about whatcha think as you go on.

6074875
I did always like to think up little reasons for why dead characters had some of the more interesting things in their inventories while playing through fallout.

Also, maybe she just really really reeeally doesn't want to take it off.

6075393
Good idea, I don't even think I'm allowed to call her Lumi.

You'd think things are pretty clear but you got a couple more chapters to go.


Lovin' your comments and such, keep 'em comin' and thanks for readin'!

6079345
Yeah, I really like Cactus and Grinder.

Sword sits on the board of directors, of course!

And keep in mind Air Heart doesn't know dink about the wasteland.

Also also, if you don't immediately drop everything and carve the tail, you aren't doing it right.

Now that I think about it, how does Watcher pick the ponies he talks to?

“Yeah, she’s not always such a grump, sometimes she’s not so grump instead.”

If I keep giving you virtual high-fives every time you make a clever reference, they'll lose their value.

I realized perhaps I should have used the name of one of the pony Goddesses instead

Oh yeah, in other FoE fics the Minotaurs worship Discord. Forgot. Even before that, he seemed a fitting diety for Luminescence.

There's no way we're leaving this town before meeting this so-called useless mayor. It's a rule of storytelling I noticed.

If you ever want to know what it's like to command flames like that, fill up Krieg's Hellborn skill tree in Borderlands 2. So good at burning you'll incinerate even enemies naturally resistant to fire. No one will not be on fire. Not even you.

They went on, and I slipped into the bathroom. Five minutes later when I joined them, the many bullet wounds were gone and the white orb was nestled securely in the rad-proof wrapping next to my remaining half empty water bottle.

Why didn't she fill the bottles while she was - oh, she used the water. I think of those Super Duper Mart bathrooms, and I think of the irradiated water in the facilities there. A fact that will be forever burned into my mind, for that is the exact bathroom where I discovered what happens when you "Activate" a toilet.

Bookmarking. Saving the rest of the chapter for when I wake up.

Fun story. Can't wait for the next chapter!

I've been gathering clues and suspicions about Luminescence, but none for Abby. The mysteries surrounding her deserve it, but she just feels like one of those things you shouldn't question. Similar to the "It's Pinkie Pie" rule.

When the creature entered the cave I was glad I did, otherwise I would have gasped. The figure before had the lower body of a great spider, and stood tall on eight black legs that ended in wicked spikes. It had a large rounded bulb attached to those legs, but jutting out atop that bulb was the upper half of a pony. It looked like a mare. I could see it had not just the normal two eyes a pony had, but six more black orbs above them on it's forehead, totaling eight. There was a horn jutting out, but it was not like a typical unicorn's horn, it was curved and more sharply pointed.

pre03.deviantart.net/0816/th/pre/i/2014/150/e/d/spider_rarity_by_danmakuman-d7kcvqk.png

All caught up. And now.... we wait.

6083026
I don't know squat about how guns and bullets work either so eh. And yeah, I love me some references.

I like to think Watcher keeps tabs on multiple ponies all around equestria at the same time, any one that shows the slightest ability to survive and get things done in the wasteland, and tries to corral them onto the right paths and so on.

Also Krieg is the greatest character of all time, the pre sequel was lacking without a replacement.

Delicious suspicions!

Glad you enjoyed it, I'm hard at work on the next chapter, it shouldn't be nearly as lengthy so hopefully you won't have to wait too long.

6098044
Woooah :o

Can't say I've ever heard of him, but that's awesome, more fanarts! Thanks a bunch for sharing, s'really cute.

6371304 Thanks fo the fave first of all

I'm all about secrets, and also things coming into light later, so you'll probably get what you want.

I also miss chapter one Lumi, but she was significantly harder to write. Or maybe I'm getting better as I go, who knows.

I'm glad to hear I can keep someone intregued well enough to sit and binge for five hours too, that's awesome!

Is this on haiatus, or are you juat preparing another insanely long chapter? (Not that i dont like long chapters)

6770924
I don't think it's on an official hiatus, it's just been taking a bit longer to get this chapter finished because I've recently been creatively divided between this and two other projects, but after the start of the new year I'll try and shift my focus back this way more often, thanks for stickin' in there so long!
I should probably make a blog post about this.

6771421 oh thank god, dude its getting soooooooooooooo good and im on my last 20 or so pages please don't leave us hanging.
misfits just straight up quit when it was getting awesome please, please, please finish what you start. your story's too god to just abandon.

7813513

More like resting.

It's been a really long year, full of changes. I'm still chiseling away at this, I've just had too many other things on my plate. But thanks for still being interested in this at all, it's hella appreciated.

Well hope you continue this story really enjoyed it so far would like to see it finished

I'm gonna hit it with the defibrillator one more time, max charge.

Pls Relyet, dont let one of my favorite side stories die.

9417922

I'm sorry, I know that I probably COULD finish this story, the entire outline is still there in my head, but it turns out my interest in ponies just isn't there anymore, as much as I still love FoE by itself. I've gotten into other things and have recently started writing elsewhere, so I think I should put this on 'indefinite hiatus' and make a journal post about it.

I was wondering if people can continue your story?

Crazy how I always seem to think about this story around winter, Miss it and wish I could see it through. Hope you're doing well Relyet.

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