• 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 4: Begins with a single step

Fallout Equestria: Ashes


Chapter 4: Begins with a single step

Left hoof, right hoof, left hoof, right hoof, left hoof, right hoof...

Four ponies walked across the wasteland.

I was one. He was the other. She was behind us talking the ears off of him. He was a petite pegasus, his rose colored mane hung long and framed the sides of his soft, rounded face. But he was not a mare. After Abattoir had finished laughing and rolling in the dust I foolishly asked her why that was so funny, and how she (and apparently everypony else) had known already. She told me because she looked at him. Then when I didn't get it, she told me she looked at him. I decided that was enough of that conversation, but she proceeded to drag the still startled and irritated pegasus before me to show me he was, without a doubt, not a mare.

Is it my fault if I'm the only pony in the wasteland who's eyes don't immediately go to the backside of everypony I meet?

Aside from him, I saw his cutie mark for the first time, a fluffy cloud in the shape of a heart, with two wings spread out from it. Very masculine. After that unpleasant business, we were finally able to start walking. I sent Abattoir back to fulfill her new duty of keeping an eye on him, and she had started chatting. I hoped that alone would have him flying off in just about any other direction in no time.

That was about four hours ago.

He had listened eagerly like a schoolfilly.. err, schoolcolt, to her random, endless stream of babble. Now I stopped walking to look back.

"Alright, enough of that. Abattoir, you can.. I don't know, be on lookout for now. You... you, let's talk about something more important." I pointed at him vaguely, because I had neglected to learn his name. He frowned a bit as he started to step towards me.

"I have a name, you know." I kept staring at him. "... It's on my uniform." Of course it was, down there on the chest, probably. I just looked away and started walking again.

He caught up to my side after trotting a bit to close the gap. Before I could speak, Abattoir skipped past me to take the lead, taking her 'lookout' duty as seriously as her last.

"It's Air Heart, by the way~" She said as she passed, giving me a grin I found especially annoying.

I knew that.

"We need to figure out what exactly your skills are, and how you're going to be any help to us." I spoke sidelong at Air Heart while keeping my eyes on Abattoir and the road. She wasn't really in the lead, there was only one way for the road to go.

"Oh... right, of course." He suddenly seemed a bit nervous again, but nodded his head.

"What are you good at then? Can you shoot?"

"Uhm, I've only ever had target practice with a low powered laser. I did... okay."

"Explosives?" He looked shocked and shook his head emphatically.

"No way, I'd blow my hooves off!"

"Can you fight at all, up close?" I could feel my irritation growing. He furrowed his brow and looked at me.

"I... you were there on the ship. You saw how well I fought." I saw him hit me with a shocky-stick and then go down when Crunch punched him once. Hoof-to-hoof was probably out.

"Fine. What about medicine, or fixing up machines or... something, anything!" He winced back a little.

"M-mm-my mother was a nurse, I, uh, know a little basic first aid." He looked down at his hooves. "And I know how to change a spark battery, that's about it."

"How exactly did you plan on keeping that promise when you have zero skills?"

"I-!" He started angrily but then lowered his voice, kicking a rock ahead of him. "I didn't think... I was desperate, but I won't back out on it. I can learn!"

"We'll see about that. First things first, we need to find you a weapon." I looked at the uniform clinging to his back. "And some barding, I guess." Would have to remember, he wasn't super agile or a wall of meat, he was weak, and he'd need some protection.

"A w-weapon! I can't, I m-mean I don't know how-"

"He's already got a weapon, silly."

Abattoir had done that thing where she moves up close without anypony seeing, this time right up beside Air Heart. He yelped and jumped sideways, actually onto my back. He was surprisingly light, of course, but that wasn't the point, and I quickly shook him off. Abattoir snickered around the handle of the shocky-stick device Air Heart had briefly wielded.

"Where..." I began while she helped the pegasus up and turned the weapon over to him.

"You left it jus layin' there on the floor, duh. I just swiped it up, was either that or let one of JoeJoe's eggheads nick it." She beamed proudly.

He looked cross-eyed at the handle in his mouth a moment, clenching his jaw and making the rod extend with a clack. I could now hear the faint humming sound it gave off. He let it snap back shut and pushed it into a pocket on the front of his uniform.

"Uhm, thank you, I guess?" Abattoir grinned wider and moved in to hug him. I just started walking again.

"Can you actually kill someponywith that thing?" He yelped and tried to untangle himself from Abattoir's arms and catch up.

"Of course not, it's only for subduing targets non-lethally."

"Then we still need to get you a real weapon..."

I trailed off, looking off the side of the road at a large metal sign. Aside from the scant graffiti and some bullet holes, it also bore some arrows and some images depicting a bed, an apple, and a lightning bolt.

"Shelter coming up soon, probably." Signs weren't always reliable in the wasteland.

This sign had been, though. We came upon the rest stop after another half hour. It was a small semicircle of buildings off the side of the main road, consisting of a few restaurants, a hotel, and a sky carriage recharging station slash repair shop. From way up the road I couldn't see any outright signs of occupation, but I still told my companions to keep their eyes open.

We weren't shot at coming off the road, or while walking through the middle of the dirt street running in front of the row of buildings.

"Guess nopony's home." I said, scanning the fronts of the buildings. My eyes were drawn to the recharging station. It was a large structure, and mostly metallic, with a large overhanging roof protecting the charging docks, a few with abandoned sky carriages still rusting in front of them, and even a garage extension build off the side . I trotted up to the doors leading inside and could see nothing. A series of shelves had been pushed up against them from the inside. Crunch could probably have bucked us a way inside through them, but...

"Okay. Time for your first little job, Air Heart." The pegasus had been peeking into one of the dilapidated vehicles in the lot when I turned. "Fly up to the roof and see if you can find another way inside, then get the doors open." He chewed on his lower lip for a moment and looked up at the overhang.


"Yes. With those wings you have." I wasn't sure what kind of look that was on his face. I thought he was going to say something, but he just took a deep breath and started to flap his wings. It looked laborious, and he rose into the air very slowly. I could even see that his eyes were shut tight. "What are you doing?" I asked with a touch of irritation. I was beginning to think I'd somehow become responsible for the most unskilled pony in the wasteland, and this was not helping his image.

"I'm... Flying." He said through gritted teeth. Eventually he passed over the lip of the overhang and I heard his hooves clatter onto the roof. It gave a token creak as he clanked his way onto the main building to, hopefully, get inside and assuage some of my worries.

I turned to see what Abattoir was making of this and found empty air. After turning a quick circle to make sure she wasn't sneaking up on me from some other side, I looked to Crunch.

"When did we lose her?"

He shrugged. After a moment I shrugged too. I knew it was too much to hope she'd run off for good, but I could savor the few minutes she would be gone for. I moved over to the blocked doors and sat down, waiting and listening.

Eventually I heard shuffling, then grunting, then a metallic squealing as one of the heavy shelves began to pull free from the doorway. Looking through the glass, I saw the dark turquoise form of the pegasus struggling to drag the shelf out of the way.

"Crunch, give him a hoof." He moved to do so, pushing the slightly unbarred door open and sticking his head in, to push on the other end of the shelf. Air Heart made a startled noise and jumped back, watching a bit in awe. I followed behind Crunch and got a look inside the remains of the charging station's interior. It had also served as some kind of small shop, judging by the contents of some of the shelves that hadn't been pushed against the doors and windows. Empty snack boxes and tin cans littered the floors, and a few dirty, beat up mattresses were arranged in one corner.

"I think somepony else already lives here." Air Heart took note. I shrugged as I continued to circle the floor.

"Maybe, in the past. It is a pretty defensible position, but it's probably miles from anywhere. Whoever it was, they aren't here now. We'll only be here tonight anyway, don't know how far until the next good shelter." There was still a little daylight left, and I normally wouldn't have minded continuing into the night until finding a nice cave to let Crunch sleep in, but I doubted the other two could manage our pace. It was going to be a long while until we reached Little Cliffside. Speaking of other two.

There was a banging knock at the door.

"Yoo hoo, it's meee." I moved over to pull the door in with my magic, looking out at Abattoir.

"Where were you?"

"No no no, you gota ask for the password!" She looked crossly at me.


"The password, duh! So we know who to let in and who not to let in."

"We don't have a password. We just got here." My limited patience for the day was rapidly draining.

"Oooh, I see, you're tryin' to test me to see if I remember the password! Well jus' so happens I do, so ha! It's..." She cleared her throat a couple times and stood up straight as she could. Then rattled off something I'm damn sure wasn't a word. "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

I closed the door on her face and just sort of stood there, looking at her fuzzy outline through the dirty glass. Finally I opened it again. She was grinning at me.

"Where were you." I had decided the last few moments hadn't actually happened. I'd advise you to do the same.

"Shoppin'." Seemed she had too. She strolled inside, eyes quickly darting around and taking in our shelter. "It smells like butts in here. Do we hafta stay here?"

"You slept in a cave two nights ago. A few feet from a dead pony." She tapped her hoof against her chin at that.

"Yeah but. She didn't smell like butts."

I shook my head. Nowhere to go with that track of the conversation.

"You said shopping. Is there a merchant hiding out there?" That seemed to jog her memory and she turned her head to her amply drooping saddlebags.

"Kinda. She was kiiiiinda dead, so she gave me a pretty big discount. She was nice." She smiled and explained while opening her saddle bags and dumping out a pile of not-empty tin cans and snack boxes, and some other assorted junk.

Oh right. We'd have to carry more food around now too.

"Dinner is served!" She announced playfully. I poked around some of the boxes. I settled on one that seemed to dominate the majority of the pile, a dark blue box dotted with stars, and an image of Princess Luna enjoying a dark disk like object.

"Moon Pies?" Air Heart was looking at one of the boxes as well. Abattoir had already opened one and took a bite into the thick disk shaped cake thing.

"Yuh huh! They're my favorite, they come in chocolate and banana!" I spotted a few of the boxes that had Princess Luna replaced with Princess Celestia. Air Heart was poking suspiciously at the box.

"Oh... is it safe? To be eating this stuff, I mean?"

"Well there are some canned veggies in there if you're on a diet or somethin'."

"That's not what I meant!" Air Heart rolled his eyes. "I mean, isn't this stuff all a hundred years old?"

Abattoir stopped mid chew to stare at him. I turned away from the two of them, I didn't need to be there while she tried to explain how the food was full of preservatives and magic. I slipped behind the counter where a dust covered register lay on its side, and where the ladder to the roof was located. I left them just as Abattoir tried to convince Air Heart to just take one bite of her moon pie.


I pushed open the hatch to the roof and climbed out. Noon had come and gone while we were walking, and now the sun was inching towards the western horizon. Hopefully those two would keep each other occupied until nighttime, when they'd probably sleep. I had time to think back on the day. Among other things, I had managed to pick up not one but two extra companions in rapid succession, and that was two too many. With Air Heart, there was a slim hope he'd prove capable of something, be able to make the 1400 caps, and then be on his merry way and out of my life. But Abattoir was different, she had uprooted her whole life, little as it was, to cling to mine, probably for the foreseeable future. If things ever got too desperate I supposed I would kill her for real, and hope Crunch didn't mind too much.

Crunch. I wanted to blame, well, a lot of this on him, but that wouldn't be totally fair. I grudgingly had to admit my inability to kill Abattoir was my own fault, underestimating her and losing my cool. I did not admit that that made her even a decent ally though. I knew it had to be just a matter of time until her goofy ass caused me some huge trouble that would be beyond just annoying. Just thinking about it made me sigh.

But I could still blame Crunch for the pegasi, and I did completely, while I was making my way back to the hatch.

I returned to the little area of the storefront that would serve as our shelter for the night. The snack boxes and tin cans had been stacked into a neat little pile, and Abattoir and Air Heart were sorting through a pile of something else when I entered.

"Crunch, push those shelves back into the door." I barked at him before turning to the other two. "It'll be night soon, you two should get plenty of sleep, be lot more walking tomorrow." I saw what they were busy sorting through and walked around, towards the circle of mattresses. I picked one that was nearest to the corner of the room and pushed it even further into the corner, then dropped onto my side. In the background I heard the scrape of metal as Crunch blocked up the entrance again, and when I rolled over I saw Abattoir standing over me with one of the magazines in her mouth.

"I found a bunch a' these too, d'you want one to look at?" She dropped it from her mouth and grinned down at me. I just rolled back over the other way and fixed my gaze on the spot where the two walls met. I heard her scoop the magazine back up and trot back over to Air Heart and their little storage area. I also heard her murmur in a hushed tone. "Told'ya."

After that things passed quickly and uneventfully. The two of them chattered a little more, had something else to eat from the stockpile of food, then when the last of the filtered sunlight vanished, they bid each other goodnight and picked their own sleeping spaces. Soon, things were blessedly quiet again, aside from an occasional snore from Abattoir. I was enjoying it.

Then the silence was broken by the sound of some cans toppling over and a muffled yelp. I came back to full attention and listened. Abattoir kept snoring, I continued to feign sleep. There was a series of soft clunks, someone was stacking the cans back up, then I heard hoofsteps. Not creeping towards me, but away. Then hooves on metal, faintly, and growing fainter. Then the creak of the roof hatch being pushed open.

After a few moments of thinking, I decided I should at least take a peek. I rolled over and looked out from my corner. I saw Abattoir, sprawled out on her back, and Crunch, a dozing mountain. Air Heart's mattress lay empty. I crossed the room, careful to avoid the stack of cans, and made my way to the ladder. The hatch was still open when I looked up.

I poked my head out and scanned the roof. I spotted Air Heart on the farthest edge of the overhang, sitting with his head tilted back, gazing up. I don't know what I was expecting to see, but I stayed to watch for a minute. Just before I was ready to start back down the ladder, he stood up, spread his wings, and shot into the air.

This time, his flaps weren't the jerky, awkward flaps I'd seen when he was trying to get up on top of the building. They were full, and strong, if his speed was any sort of indication. Well, that's that settled then, make me think he was an incapable flyer, then take off into the skies while we slept and save himself some embarrassment. No skin off my hide, and one less pony for me to foalsit.

But he didn't continue straight upwards, and that made me hesitate on the ladder instead of climbing back down inside. All of a sudden he stopped ascending and spread his wings wide, tilting backwards into some kind of backwards air summersault. He looped out and continued to glide, upside down it looked like. I climbed off the ladder and onto the roof. I watched this odd display for a few minutes, as he went on swirling and spiraling in the air. His moves were methodical, graceful in a way, and reminded me of something I couldn't quite put my hoof on. When he made one last swoop and started to aim back down towards the roof, I saw his eyes were closed.

Then he opened them, and I knew my lenses stuck out in the night like a cucumber in an omelette, so he saw me right away. He gasped, and his wings seemed to lose all coordination. Had he not already been gliding over the roof, I think he would have dropped all the way to the ground. Instead he just dropped onto the roof on legs that didn't want to support him, and crumpled onto his face.

I sighed.


After making sure he hadn't hurt himself, I helped Air Heart up and told him I had a few questions.

"Dancing?" I asked incredulously. Air Heart was sitting timidly on the cold metal roof and fidgeting with his hooves.

"Yeah... Sky dancing, is what it used to be called."

I nodded. I wasn't too terribly familiar with dancing but I knew it was something ponies used to do, for fun or something. I didn't know it could be done in the sky too. "So, you're good at it?"

He lowered his head and shook it "Oh, well, I don't know if I'm all that good, I mean, I like to think I have a little bit of talent but nothing to brag about or anything-"

I put my hoof up to stop him. "Well, it's not exactly a skill, but it is something. So why couldn't you fly like that before, is it some kind of secret?"

He shook his head faster. "No no, nothing like that! I have, uh... I guess... stage fright? You could call it that." He cleared his throat quietly and looked up at the darkened cloud layer. "I've never been able to fly my best in front of others, even up there. My wings just freeze up and it's like trying to fly underwater... I'm sorry." He hung his head again.

"You're going to have to get over that if you want to survive down here. Especially if you still want to pay me back." I stood up and walked towards the open hatch. He just nodded his drooping head and rose to his hooves as well. "And you'll still need to learn some actual skills. Hopefully before your first firefight."

I approached the hatch and made to stick my hooves out, but stopped when I realized I was hearing something. Something that wasn't Abattoir's snoring. I was hearing voices, wafting up from the station. Then came a loud crash of metal toppling over, one of the shelves I figured.

"What..." Air Heart began, but I shushed him and crouched down over the hole, inching my head inside and perking my ears.

"-bitch tried to lock us outa our own hideout, but we knows th' way in, don' we my cullies?" A harsh voice, full of malice, answered by a chorus of similarly cruel voices jeering and laughing. "Keep 'em pointed at the big un' lads, don' want 'im interruptin' anythin', 'ee looks a bit peeved we woke 'im up."

Well, shit. I pulled my head back from the hatch. "Change of plans. Get over it now, and follow me, we've got trouble. Keep your shocky stick thing ready." And I jumped through the hole, ignoring both the ladder, and Air Heart as he tried to tell me it was called a baton.

I landed behind the counter and glared into the suddenly crowded station. I counted about six of them, four standing in a circle around Crunch with their guns leveled, one who had his teeth clamped onto Abattoir's mane and was in the middle of dragging her around one of the free standing stacks of shelving, and one who was just coming around the counter to investigate the ladder. Alright then.

My horn lit up and my magic enveloped the long forgotten register on the counter, swinging it over and cutting off the raider's surprised "The hell?" with a satisfyingly loud metallic clang. Three of the four gunponies turned their heads at the noise, leaving only one unlucky raider aiming at Crunch. Crunch rose and lunged, putting all that considerable weight and force into a headbutt that flipped the raider onto his back.

"Oi, I said keep 'em-" The apparent leader barked at the commotion, then when he realized all hell was in the process of breaking loose, he spit out Abattoir's mane and turned tail to run off into some far end of the station lobby.

I didn't have time to focus on him though, as the three trigger happy raiders started shooting in my general direction, two with small sized pistols, and one with one of those more dangerous guns that looked like a pistol but poured out a lot more bullets in a lot less time. I ducked down and pressed into the counter for cover, looking around for something to use while a hail of gunfire rained overhead. Nothing but old junk and empty cans littered the floor, and the groaning stallion with a register on his head. Well that'd have to do.

I wrapped the barely conscious raider in my magic and waited for the dangerous one to stop and reload, then blindly heaved him back towards the gunshots. I heard one raider yelp and two more dive away, then jumped to my hooves to vault the counter. My sword was out, but I didn't remember when I'd drawn it. I landed before the raider who had toppled under his comrade, and took them both out of the equation with two quick slashes. The other two were recovering, one leveled his pistol behind me and squeezed off two shots before Crunch bowled into him from the side, blood speckling his hooves. I was left with the other, who sunk one bullet into my shoulder before I separated most of his muzzle from the rest of his head.

And just like that it was over. Almost.

Crunch walked over to me from the mashed pile that used to be a pony, looking slightly annoyed.

"I was on the roof. Something was up." Wait, was that a pun? Off in one far end of the station I heard giggling and groaning, and called out. "Abattoir, don't kill him yet." Then back towards the ladder and the open hatch. "Air Heart, get in here."

"...Is it over?" The pegasus' legs appeared on the rungs, trembling as they carried him down. His eyes were shut tight. He tripped over the register trying to navigate around the counter, falling forward and recovering, only to open his eyes on the pony with the front of his skull showing where I'd sliced at it. He shrieked and scrambled to his hooves, using his wings to lift himself faster, and tried to gallop away. Where to was anypony's guess, but I snagged his tail with my magic when he came close and tugged him with me, following the sounds of Abattoir's mirth.

I found her sitting atop the pony who had formerly been in charge. He was a pale tan color, with a filthy piss yellow bandana wrapped around his head and covering one of his eyes. And he had a knife in his torso.

"P-p-pleeease, ye wou'nt 'urt yer ol' pal Gasher would ye, 'ee di-n't means wot 'e said!" He was blubbering and wriggling. Abattoir snickered and smiled at me.

"Can we keep him too?"

Absolutely. Not. Happening.

I didn't even bother saying so, just pushed her off and took her place, standing over him and pressing one of my hooves down on his throat. Air Heart stood watching, confusion and terror fighting for control of his face. My horn lit up, and Gasher's dropped pistol floated towards Air Heart. He backed away from it but I persisted.

"Take it. Not the ideal situation, but we'll take what we can get. Try and shoot him." He looked more terrified than Gasher did, and Gasher was dying with a knife sticking out of him. I urged the bit of the pistol closer again.

"What! B-b-but-but but I c-ca..."

"Learn. Be strong. This is your first step. Now take it."

His teeth were chattering, but he parted them and took the bit into his mouth, breaking my magical field. He inched closer, trembling anew, while Gasher looked on and swapped between mock weeping and pathetic simpering.

"Oo's gona shoot ol'e Gasher, eh? Ee' ain't done noffin', 'ee was only playin'!" When Air Heart was close enough for his good eye to fix upon, he started laughing even with my hoof pressing into his windpipe. "This purty piece o' crumpet? Aye, then you be'er shoot straight, my cully, 'afore I get up, 'cause when I do Ima gonna chew the pretty cunt right offa ya!" He tried to laugh louder, but I pressed harder and he started gagging instead. Air Heart was glaring down at him, and was trying to steady the bit between his teeth and talk at the same time. No easy task, I've been told.

"I'mmh... nomhp m'mare!" He managed, and closed his eyes tightly before squeezing the trigger.

And, you know, because he had his eyes closed, he couldn't see where he was shooting, and a bullet sunk into my leg. I just looked down at the fresh hole it had put in my favorite boots (and me, I guess), then back up at Air Heart. His mouth gaped open and he dropped the pistol.

"I'm s-s-s-so-!" He started, but Gasher found the breath to start laughing uproariously. Very quickly, I levitated the pistol to his forehead, and put two new holes in it. And then there was no more laughter.

"Was that so hard?" I meant to ask Air Heart. But he only stood transfixed on Gasher's corpse for a moment, then turned and galloping into a corner to retch up Moon Pies and canned peaches. "Oh, for Luna's sake..." I groaned and dropped the gun, climbing off the corpse. Abattoir was still laughing as well, and I so very much wanted to shoot her in the head for it too. "How did they even get in here?" I asked her instead.

She pointed in the direction Gasher must have been galloping before she caught him. I trotted closer and saw two shelves that leaned against each other like an upside-down V, obscuring another door. I crouched down and wormed under the shelves, pushing out with my hoof. The door opened outward, so the shelves did not block it at all. Beyond was the garage extension of the station, I could make out the rusting hulk of a dismantled sky carriage, and also see a thin sliver of light across the way, one of the garage doors that had been raised just enough to allow a pony to slide under.

I slid back out and returned to find a pale Air Heart barely standing and keeping his eyes very strongly fixed on the ceiling. "I'm so sorry..." He mumbled at my approach.

"It's fine, you'll have other chances, probably. There's plenty of ponies to shoot in the wasteland."

He looked dismayed at me before turning his gaze away again.

"No, I mean, I shot you!" Oh, right. I looked down at the bleeding hole just below where my foreleg bent, and the other in my right shoulder.

"Oh, it's fine."


"It's fine, I'll take care of it. You two just get back to sleep, still a few hours before sun up." We trotted back towards the little sleeping area. Air Heart's eyes kept flickering towards the various scenes of carnage, and he shivered each time. "Crunch, don't forget to de-corpse the place first, I guess. I'm going back to the roof, I slept enough so I'll take lookout, make sure there's no more coming." Crunch snorted lightly and moved away from the mattresses to grab the faceless pony by the neck and start hauling him towards the door. There was a flicker of relief in Air Heart's face when I turned back, but he sheepishly looked away and lowered himself onto the bedding. Abattoir excitedly ran off to help Crunch with the corpse duty, so I just nodded at him and trotted back to the counter.


On the roof, I first leaned over the edge to peer under the overhang and indeed make sure there were no more ponies waiting outside. Once that was done, and after making sure the hatch to the roof was closed behind me, I peeled off my boot to look at the damage. At least it hadn't made it all the way through and put two holes in my boot. I dug the radiation proof bundle out of my saddlebags and floated one of the bottles of cloudy green tinted water over. I poured a bit into the hole in my leg, then turned my head to splash some onto the other shot I'd taken in the shoulder. I went to sit down and felt a sudden throb in one of my haunches. Sure enough, another bullet wound marked the area just above my cutiemark, I hadn't even noticed that shot. I poured the last of the bottle onto that wound until it closed, and sat down again. I looked at the single remaining bottle nestled in the radiation blanket and sighed.

In the morning (or close enough to it) I headed back down the ladder. Abattoir was up, riffling through the stack of canned goods for breakfast. She raised her head at my approach.

"Mornin' Lumi. Whatcha fancy, applesauce? Or beans?" She beamed.

"I'm not hungry." I swept my gaze to the other two mattresses. Crunch was slumbering soundly. Air Heart was barely visible under a heavy, rust red cloth. I tugged at a few folds until he stirred, then eventually woke in alarm.

"Grace?" Was the first intelligible thing that left his mouth, before he blinked away the sleep and looked up into my lenses. "Oh... good, uhm... Good morning."

I stared down at him, silently. Unease grew on his face the longer I held the silence, broken only by the sound of Abattoir grinding the tin opener around the rim of a tin of applesauce. Finally, I pointed. "That's mine."

"What?" He shifted and looked around himself, then started and shrugged back more of the cloak. "Oh! I, uh, I'm sorry, I was... cold, and Mr.Crunch-"

"Mister who?"

"M-mister Crunch? Your friend." He gestured vaguely towards the slumbering mountain. "Abattoir told me your names. A-anyway, he let me... borrow it, I guess. I'm sorry." I trotted around his mattress.

"It's just Crunch. Try not to listen too hard to anything Abattoir says, it's bad for your brain." I came to Crunch's side and gave him a quick kick in the ribs. He rolled onto his back and opened one eye. "You're pushing my buttons lately. A blanket?" He closed his eye again and snored at me.

I kicked him again and turned back. Air Heart was standing and rapidly trying to fold the cloth into a neat square with his teeth. "M'shorry, I di'nt mean to-"

"It's fine, just don't get it dirty or lose it or something, I still need it." He raised his head and looked at me again, chewing on his lower lip. His gaze drifted down slightly and he looked more intently. At the bandages, I guessed. Before replacing my boot, I had retrieved a little used roll of gauze from my saddlebags and lightly wrapped my leg, and my left shoulder, looping around my torso a few times. He seemed like the more observant type, compared to Abattoir anyway, so he'd expect to see them.

"I'm sorry for that too." He nodded his head and averted his gaze. Abattoir gave him something else to look at when she pushed the tin of applesauce into his hooves.

"You apologize too much."

"I'm so-uh... I'm, uhm... Oh." He filled his mouth with a spoon and we were both glad for it.

A half hour and a simple breakfast later, we emerged from the station, and sitting right in front of the door was a large wooden waggon filled with crates.

"Where did this come from?" Air Heart circled the thing while I climbed up inside and had a go at one of the crate lids. It was loosely held in place, and the inside was filled with assorted knick knacks and wasteland goods. This one was full of hats. All the contents seemed somewhat organized, far too neatly for the type of ponies we'd encountered last night.

"I think they stole it." I clamped the lid shut on a small box of metallic scraps and spare wiring. "Crunch, think you can handle it?"

My largest companion stepped in front of the waggon where two poles extended with a simple harness between them. It would be a tight fit, but he got himself into place and started to trot. The waggon rolled easily, and I jumped out, trotting along the side. Air Heart caught up and started to say something, but Abattoir was at my other side, she had a song on her lips, and she was much louder.

"O-ho the Wells Fargo waggon is a-comin' down the street, oh please let it be for me~"

She seemed to be prancing to some tune in her head as she sang. I just willed Crunch to go faster so we could put some distance between her and us. I turned to Air Heart and grumbled. "She does this. Until I figure out how to stop her you'll have to get used to it." But he was looking past me, at Abattoir, with another strange look. This one was just full of strange looks.

"I know that song!" He exclaimed, cutting Abattoir off mid verse. Her eyebrows were raised. "It's from... The Music Mare, it's it?" Wait, the what? The earth pony's grin grew explosively and she noddedher head enthusiastically.


"What's a music mare?" I was quickly losing any idea I had about what this conversation was turning into.

"Oh, it's a musical." Air Heart practically gushed at me. "About a clever conmare who tricks a town into thinking their new pool table is a threat to the moral fiber of their foals, and the only way to save it is to buy up a whole set of marching band equipment and uniforms, from her of course! Oh, it's a classic..." He slowed down when he noticed I was staring at him and had stopped trotting.

"A what?

He looked confused now, and cocked his head slightly. "What... uh, did... Was I going too fast?"

"Musical? A musical what?" That was about where he had lost me.

"It's like a play, but with singing and dancing too."

I continued to stare. Air Heart and Abattoir exchanged glances, then set about explaining plays and musicals to me.


"So, let me get this straight." Several minutes later, and after catching up to Crunch and the waggon waiting on the road, I was still trying to work my brain around what I'd been told. "A lot of ponies, up on a big stage, and they... act out a story some other pony came up with?" Abattoir confirmed with a quick nod to my left. "And sometimes with singing and dancing?" Another nod. I shuddered.

"That's the idea. Before the war they were a really big thing, popular all over Equestria. The Enclave Historical Society has a ton of old preserved scripts, and sometimes the entertainment committee gets enough of a budget to put a few on..." He smiled while he explained this, before his expression turned curious again. "I'm not surprised you don't know about them, but how did you know? The song, and before that, your password was from Mary Cloppins." He directed this to Abattoir, who grinned impishly.

"Oh, an old friend taught them to me~"

Seeing where this was going, I quickly trotted out of the way and let them have their confusing conversation. I caught up to Crunch's side as Abattoir began another song.

"Crunch." He grunted in greeting. "Kill me. Quickly. Please." He rolled his eyes at my melodrama. But the sweet release of death didn't come for me, and we walked.

After a while it seemed even Air Heart had had enough of Abattoir, and he joined me the front of the waggon. There was a short squeak and bounce behind us as Abattoir climbed into the back. "Soooo..." He began "Why did we bring the waggon?"

"Because it's useful, and full of supplies." What a dumb question.

"Right, true... So, they're our supplies now, then, is that how it works?"

"If the owners are dead. The real ones that Gasher and crew stole it from, I mean."

"And if they're not?"

I turned to glare at him but said nothing. Maybe for once somepony would get the hint. He stared back for a moment then smiled and stomped his hoof. "Ah-ha!" He sounded triumphant. "You plan to find them and give it back, don't you? Like any decent pony would do?"

Without skipping a beat I craned my neck back. "Abattoir." Her head appeared from amid the boxes. "Pull out all the ammo you can find in there. And anything else extra valuable." Air Heart furrowed his brow at me and shook his head. That must have taught him to shut his trap, and he followed in silence.

But at least somepony was having a good time, judging by the sounds Abattoir made while raiding the supply crates.

For a while I was able to enjoy the walk in near-silence.

A few minutes (or maybe an hour) later, I came back into focus when a new voice crackled out from behind me, a loudness in the middle of the quiet stretch of wasteland road.

"Gooood afternoon San Pal wasteland, this is Desert Rose, hopin' all y'all little ponies out in there are treatin' eachother right. I'll get back to the music soon, but first I got some good ol' fashioned news for y'all to chew on, so sit tight."

The voice was a mare's, energetic and warm. I spun around and found Abattoir propped up on one of the larger boxes, beaming at her pipbuck, out of which the voice was blaring. "I knew it had a radio!"

"Turn that off." I hissed. She pouted.

"But I just figured out how to turn it on!"

"Turn it down then!" She grudgingly fiddled with a dial until the voice was no longer blaring.

"... and that's why you should never put landmines in a toaster. And finally, for some news a little closer to our own slice of the San Pal wasteland. I'm sure a lot ah y'all remember the Bloodshots, lowlife band of raider scum that been harassin' south side folks for weeks? Well you can put your worries to bed! An anonymous, and might I say, daring scavenger reported distrubin' sounds and spooky green lights from the outskirts of the Bloodshot compound, and hung around to investigate. My source had a good look around the place once the sun came up, I'll spare y'all the finer details, but hoo boy, I think I might have nightmares for a while.

"Whatever mysterious group of ponies put down the Bloodshots, I gota say: I don't much care for your methods, but the folks of Cliffside are grateful to ya. And now that I've thoroughly talked your ears off, here's Fiddle Sticks with a new instrumental piece for y'all to enjoy."

And just like that the voice cut away, and a few moments later a tune started to waft out of the device clamped around Abattoir's foreleg. The music sounded scratchy, and upbeat, some kind of instrument I had no hope of identifying. I was more focused on the snippet that had come before, somepony had been spying on us on the job after all. It wasn't disastrous, but it was potentially troublesome. I looked up from giving the device a glare and found Abattoir's purple eyes and wide grin.

"Didja hear that?! We're on the news!" That was much more close to disastrous.

"There's still radio down here? And music? A-a-and you're on it?!" Air Heart was looking between Abattoir and me.

"There's still a lot of things, but they aren't important. And no, we were not on it, and that's what you're going to tell anypony who asks, aren't you Abattoir?" I took a step towards her. She furrowed her brow and crossed her forelegs.

"What! Why would I do that?"

I held back a moment. I could have tried to silence her at swordpoint, but doing so in the past had proved less than successful. I needed a different approach this time.

"Because... you could get recognized? Wouldn't that be annoying, ponies constantly bugging you for your hoofprint?" That's what happened to celebrities, right?

Abattoir placed a hoof under her chin, and I could see the gears grinding in her head. I was considering silently sending a prayer to Luna when she smiled and nodded. "You're right, I can't handle that kind of attention, it'd get in the way of adventuring, wouldn't it?"

I kept my relief to myself and nodded, sticking an elbow out to nudge Air Heart until he nodded as well. Now that that was settled, I gave Crunch a poke to get him walking. The cart started rolling again, and we all started walking. I tried to ignore the music and focus on what else I had learned from the energetic mare on the radio. San Pal, she had said, for the San Palomino Desert, which meant we must have officially crossed back into Equestria at some point. That could also be troublesome, but more than likely just annoying. I tried not to think about it, as one strange song gave way to another, and fixed my eyes on the cracked road that stretched off into the horizon.


We didn't find another convenient rest stop before the light of the sun started to fade, so I directed Crunch of the road towards some foothills in the east.

"What are we looking for?" Air Heart squinted into the distance. I had dug out a pair of binoculars from the waggon's supply.

"A place to spend the night. Unless you think you can keep going."

"In a cave? Is that safe?"

I shrugged. "We've had good luck and bad luck with them, depends on the cave. You're welcome to fly ahead and find something better if you like." I gave him a pointed look. He couldn't see it, but trust me, it was very pointed.

He trailed off with a mumble and I continued searching the approaching hills. I could see several promising locations, with only a few signs of critter inhabitants. I picked out one that looked comfortably large and pointed it out to Crunch. Another few minutes and we were drawing up in front of a cave mouth with few lumbering reptilian creatures snuffling about outside. A few brave ones came close to try their luck and hiss at me, but I gave the biggest a few whacks with the flat of my blade until he gave, and the rest scattered after him. The cave was ours, for the night at least.

I caught Air Heart looking off in the direction the geckos had fled while I was helping Crunch maneuver the waggon in front of the cave so it would at least prove some sort of a blockage should anypony stumble inside. "What now?"

"Huh? Oh, I'm just... glad you didn't kill them, that's all."

"They were just dumb animals, and I didn't really want a big fight on our hooves. Plus, blood on the ground outside would attract even worse."

He gulped and nodded, looking off into the horizon again.

"Ooouh, I wonder what's in this one." Speaking of dumb animals. Abattoir was making the waggon moving task all the harder by still being in the waggon, going through the boxes. I was about to ask her again to get out when she peered into another crate and grinned. "Oh, way cool, I found... Oh, nevermind, you wouldn't be interested."

Yeah, that's not suspicious. I sighed, and climbed up on the waggon to push her away from the crate she was halfheartedly trying to hide from me. Inside, I was greeted with stacks upon stacks of books, and some loose scrolls and sheets in between. I could hear her snickering into her hooves, and desperately wanted to chop those hooves off and feed them to her. Instead I settled for levitating up the nearest book from the stacks and giving her a whack upside the head. She tumbled onto her back but kept laughing.

"You're a pest." I replaced the book, and reached out for some long blue scrolls in one corner of the crate.

"Thank you!" She beamed from her back. I plucked out one of the scrolls and unrolled it, looking at the faint white lines that formed a grid across it, with pictures of bits and bobs and how they could fit together. I'd seen some of these scrolls before, they were recipes for weapons. None of them had ever interested me too much, and this one was no different, some kind of oversized rifle. I rolled it back up and pulled out another.

"Ouh, whatcha got, gona whip up somethin' new with yer very own hooves?" Abattoir had recovered and was peering over my shoulder at the plans for some kind of lunchbox explosive thing.

"Maybe. Probably not." I shrugged and returned that scroll, plucking out the last one in a haze of green magic. This time I took a much longer look at the images inside, this was a new one I'd never seen before. I rolled the scroll up and slipped it into my saddlebags. Maybe indeed.

After getting the waggon situated and getting everypony on the inside of the cave, Abattoir and Air Heart had something to eat again, and we all found someplace in the cave to lay down and rest. The cave extended deeper into the hill, but I was the only one equipped to explore it, and nopony was in any particular rush to do so anyway, but I made sure to tell the others not to wander. I made sure to set my own space down closest to the entrance, and didn't take my eyes off the moonlit stretch of wasteland all night.

And unbelievably, morning came without any further trouble. I wanted to wait for one of the others to wake up first, but after almost an hour of sunlight seeping into the cave entrance, I pushed myself to my hooves and trotted down to the yellowgreen lump that was Abattoir, giving her a thump on the side.

"Wake up."

She rolled away with a sleepy murmur and kept on dozing, happy as a clam. I prodded her in the back a few times but got no further response. Before I could get frustrated, another part of my brain pointed out that this could be a perfect opportunity to cut her throat while she was in such a deep sleep. No, I thought, it would be too easy, and I could already see Crunch's disapproving glare. So I resigned to jus giving her another good kick, raising my foreleg, but she roll back towards me with her eyes half lidded and bleary.

"Mornin' mum, I'll have pancakes an' eggs an' bacon with orange juice..."

I reigned in my kick until it was more of a sharp poke, delivering it to her midsection. "Wake up, we're wasting daylight." She let out a grunt and a chuckle, gathering her hooves under her and sitting upright.

"You're not mum... " She rubbed at her eyes with her forelegs, then blinked them a few times and furrowed her brow. "What's that smell?" I stared down at her from behind the lenses of my gasmask for a long time until the bit dropped and she snickered. "Oh, nevermind. Well, it smells like a toilet. Have you had a bath in a while?"

I ignored that for now and turned to one of the remaining sleeping masses, the one wrapped under the rusty red sheet. I approached slowly and could see a bit of the cave floor under Air Heart was still darkened with damp. I reached out with my magic and started tugging at folds of the makeshift cloak turned blanket until he stirred, first slowly, then rapidly as his senses came back. "Nnn-nh no no nn... don't shoot... dddnh, don't, I'mnhuph up up, I'm up, I'm... where am I?"

"You can keep the blanket now." I intoned after he untangled himself from it in a clumsy rush. I could see the lower half of his uniform was also still damp, and when he noticed he quickly squirmed out of it and tossed it down, gaping wordlessly.


I stomped my hoof to try and get his attention. "Don't start that again. Just calm down and try to dry off or something."

"I'm sorry, this never... I just kept seeing it!"

"Seeing what?"

"That... that pony, his head! It just... went... all over the floor and, and you, and... and..." A violent shudder went through his body, and he looked on the verge of crying, or throwing up again, or both. That was almost a day ago, I had to wonder why this was coming up now of all times. "How can you two just... do something like that and not... ugh?!" He squeezed his eyes shut.

"Practice." I said simply.

"Good aim." Abattoir had finished waking up and joined the conversation at my immediate left. A smirk was spreading across her muzzle, and she pointed with a hoof. "Did Air Heart really wet the, uhm, cave?"

And that was it, he actually was crying again, and crumpled down onto the cave floor, trying to hide his face and his tears in it, I supposed. I sighed heavily. My life had literally devolved into foal sitting. Abattoir had her little chuckle at the moment, but then she swooped down and was suddenly hovering over him. She still wore a half smirk, but it didn't look as mocking, and she was prodding his head with a hoof.

"Awh, I'm just teasin', c'mon, we gota getcha cleaned up."

Understandably, he wasn't convinced, and shied away from her. "Just leave me alone, just leave me in this cave and go away!" Before I could reply 'gladly', Abattoir took his ear between her teeth and used it to draw him to his hooves in a surprised squawk, then lead him towards the waggon. I was mildly curious where this was going, so I followed.

She drew him up in front of the broad side of the waggon and released his ear. He sniffled and rubbed it, but stayed put, watching her climb in and push aside crates. She singled out one crate with a symbol that resembled a raindrop painted on the sides and lifted the lid on dozens of bottles of water, selecting a few of them and pulling them free.

"W-wait, I'm sorry Abattoir, but we can't, that's not our-Achk!" She gave him a generous splash in the face with the first bottle, then walked in a circle around him, drizzling the water onto his back. When that bottle ran dry she opened another, despite his protests, and continued dousing him. Luckily he was a petit stallion, and it only took her about three bottles to have him completely soaked.

He sniffled once more, then raised his foreleg and sniffed it closer. "Is this water clean? It smells funny..."

"This should help with that!" Abattoir returned from another dig through the crates bearing a brightly colored box, and trotted in a circle around Air Heart, sprinkling him with a white flaky substance from inside.

"What is that?" He looked at the flakes sticking to his coat dubiously.

"Soap, silly!"

"What kind of soap?"

"Uhm... The clean kind?"

"Why does the box have plates on it?!" Before he could be further outraged by her use of dish soap on him, she slipped a round brush onto her hoof and fell upon him scrubbing at his sides and back, lifting his wings up to clean under them. He immediately started squirming and gasping, then laughing in full and trying to escape Abattoir while she worked the flakes into a lather. A ticklish stallion he was indeed.

I just sat back and watched the whole strange display in a sort of disbelieving fog. I felt Crunch beside me and turned to look up at him. "What in the name of Discord's beard is going on here?"

He smirked sidelong at me and shrugged, helpful as always.

Abattoir dropped the sudsy brush and grabbed up another bottle of water to start rinsing the soap out. Air Heart was left looking flushed, shivering in the middle of a soapy puddle on the cave floor. But he didn't look like he was going to cry, so that was preferable, I guessed.

"I smell like lemons..." He finally spoke, sniffing at himself again. "I mean, thank you Abattoir, I, uh... it won't happen again."

She placed both her hooves on his shoulders and stared intently at him, that little half smile was back on her face. "It's nothin'. Now listen." He was listening. "There really are some bad ponies out there what do deserve gettin' shot in the head. And some nice ponies what don't, but they do anyways. Lotsa ponies die down here, and thinkin' too much about it makes your head hurt, especially after they already been shot. But those ponies back there woulda done lotsa wicked nasty stuff to us if they'da got the chance, so you shouldn't go sheddin' tears on account of that lot, kay?"

She kept him from turning away with her hooves as she delivered her message, releasing him only after he nodded in agreement. "Kay... sorry, I understand."

Her typical wide grin broke through and she hopped back from him, nodding. "Good, then c'mon lemon drop, we've got walkin' to do, right Lumi?"

"Don't call me that." I'll never understand ponies.

After the three of them had breakfast, we guided the waggon out of the cave entrance and set off to find the road again. Out of everything Abattoir was able to find in the waggon's inventory, she couldn't find anything even resembling a towel, so Air Heart was left to air dry. He walked along the side of the waggon occasionally shaking out one leg or flapping a wing awkwardly.

The road was right where we left it, and we were soon rolling along it at an even pace. Today I kept my eyes on the move, scanning the hills around us as we traveled and even glancing behind us a few times. The third time I looked over my shoulder, Air Heart cocked his head to the side and then turned it for a look as well.

"What is it? Are we being followed?"

"Nothing. No, probably not. Just making sure."

He really was more attentive than Abattoir. Troublesome.

I was focused enough that I spotted the change in the landscape much sooner than I usually would have, and Crunch didn't even have to grunt at me or anything. The road was starting to curve ever so slightly, it was easier to see at a distance, and way up ahead I could see the point where the curve became the most pronounce, looping to the west and disappearing beyond further hills. Continuing north would be impossible, as the land simply stopped. After digging out my binoculars and climbing onto the back of the waggon, I could see it wasn't just a simple gap, that we were on the southern edge of a massive canyon.

It took almost an hour to reach the curve, by then we could all see the distant point where the land was abruptly cut away. The chasm continued as far as the eye could see into the east and west. It was faint, but I felt a curious urge to keep going off the road, to take a peek over the edge of that vast canyon, and see it up close. It would take too much time, of course, so we just followed the curve of the road and continued west.

"Amazing, isn't it?" Air Heart spoke up after a few minutes. He was gazing out at the canyon as we walked.

"I guess so."

"I mean, just imagine how long it must've taken to form..."

I shrugged and looked forward again. "Couple hundred years, maybe?"

He actually gasped at me. "Couple million years, more like!" I glanced back at him. He had a mixture of shock and annoyance on his face, but it quickly faded and his eyes darted away. "Uh, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have! I mean, Abattoir told me-"

"And I told you you shouldn't listen to the things Abattoir says." I quickly cut him off and trotted a few paces ahead of the waggon, taking the lead for now. I was done gazing at the chasm now, it was time to focus on the landscape ahead.

The landscape ahead looked much the same as the landscape behind, a long stretch of cracked road running through sandy scrubland. I figured it'd be at least one more day before we would be trotting into Cliffside, I couldn't even see a hint of the town that lay somewhere at the end of this road. So I just let my gaze drop, focused on the road, and walked.


"Luminescence?" Air Heart was right next to me, his brow wrinkled with concern.

"What is it?"

" Are you okay?"

"...Is that all you came up here to ask?" His forehead furrowed further and he glanced up the road. I followed his eyes and saw the back end of the waggon. Abattoir was riding in it again, and she waved at me. Oh.

"Sorry, but you weren't answering."

"I'm fine, did you want something?"

"Oh, no, not really..." He started to drift away, but Abattoir waved him back. "Well, we were wondering if we could stop somewhere, maybe, and have lunch, if that's okay with you..."

I glanced up at the cloud layer for a guess at the time, but it stumped me. I wasn't sure how far back the curve was either, it must have been a fair distance. I shrugged. "Sure."

Crunch pulled the waggon off the road and we navigated though the brush until we found a section sparse enough and flat enough to rest on. Abattoir hopped out of the waggon and broke out her collection of tinned foods and snack goodies. I took a seat on the outer edge of their little ring, facing the road, and waited for them to finish.

"Uhm..." I looked back. Air Heart was there, that concerned look on his face again. "Aren't you going to have any?"

"No, I'm fine." I looked out on the road again, but when I didn't hear his hooves moving away, I looked back again. He was still there. I snorted and shook my head. "I mean it. Go, before Abattoir eats all the moon pies."

"...Okay, but while we're resting, you should let me change those bandages." Oh right. I stood up quickly and looked around our little temporary rest area.

"You eat. I'll take care of it." I levitated out the roll of gauze to show him, and headed for a slope of land that led up to a flat looking shelf of cliffs. Hopefully it would put me out of sight. I didn't hear Air Heart following me, and after climbing up high enough to step out onto the rocky ledges, I looked down and saw my three companions sitting together, Abattoir and Air Heart chattering away. When I moved back a few paces I was completely obscured from below. I unwrapped the bandages from my left shoulder, and pushed down my boot to get at the length of gauze around my leg. I tossed the dirty bundles of cloth to the side and rolled out fresh ones, rewrapping them tightly and replacing my boot. Then I just sat for a moment, on the edge of the low cliff, and thought. How long would I have to keep this up, I wondered. How long does it take a bullet hole to heal on a pony? It'd probably be suspicious to ask him, maybe I could find a real medical pony. Maybe he wouldn't know, he only said his mother was a nurse.

I sighed and made my way back to the slope, it was no good to worrying about it now. Just before I started my descent, I thought I heard something higher up in the cliffs. A snatch of a sound, some kind of horn, being played ever so briefly then cut off with rapid quickness. I whirled and scanned the redish rocky formations above me, but there was nothing to see.

I figured there was a decent chance I was just imaging things now because I was worried about other things, and decided to get back down on the ground right now. I rejoined the others, still in the middle of their meal, and moved back to my spot on the outside edge. The road was exactly the same as I left it, and that was comforting.

An hour after lunch we got our first glimpse of our destination. Actually two glimpses. The road had moved around the mountain that had been blocking the view for the past few miles, and now we could barely make out the glimmering outline of Little Cliffside in the distance. But closer than the actual city was a billboard displaying an idyllic image of the distant town, put up before the war to entice visitors I supposed.

It showed the town at sunset, split between the two masses of land with a massive bridge between the gap, rows and rows of little cottages and cabins on the southern side, slightly larger apartment buildings on the north. The sun was huge, and it's rays were exaggeratedly beaming golden light across all the pristine looking homes and well manicured lawns. There was something written across the skyline, arcing over the whole image like a rainbow.

I was able to see all the details with my binoculars. I lowered them and slid down the small hill I'd climbed to get a better vantage point.

"Sooo?" Abattoir cocked her head. I didn't much like that tone or that smirk.

"We're almost there."

"What does the sign say?"

I hovered the binoculars towards her. "You can see for yourself."

"Oooh, yeah, I can... So what does the sign say?"

I stared at her, her face so close to the hovering binoculars, and wondered if they were sturdy enough to bludgeon her with.

"That we're almost there. Cliffside."

She sat down and clasped the binoculars, peering into the distant hills. "Uuuuh huh... What else does it say~?"

"Shut up. Get back on the road." I started towards the road where Crunch was waiting with that waggon, but Air Heart had to open his big mouth too.

"Stop that Abattoir, it's not nice to make-." I spun back around, drawing my sword in a furious flurry and closing in on the terrified pegasus.

"I do not. Need your help. Back on the road." I brandished the blade in the air above his head to punctuate my words. He stammered and I could see his knees start to shake, but he went on talking.

"I-I-I only m-meant... It's n-n-nothing to b-be ashamed of..."

The blade came closer. "What isn't, exactly?" I leaned closer to his cowering face, venom dripping from every word.

"Y-y-you can't read..."

I touched my sword to his cheek. Not the blade, but the broad flat instead. The steel was cold, and he still let loose a shriek, jumping backwards and ending up on his back. I loomed over him.

"I can read just fine. End of discussion." And they couldn't prove that wrong. I stowed my blade and turned back to the road, catching a glance at Abattoir as I did. She wasn't smiling anymore, and that was good. She swooped down to help Air Heart up, while I finally reached the road and hissed at Crunch. "Get moving."

We walked. It was only a short time before the silence was broken. I was sure of that because there was no drifting in and out of focus this time, no matter how much I would have wanted to.

"M'sorry, Lumi." Abattoir was behind and to the right of me, notably out of hoof's reach. "I didn't mean to tease ya so much."

"And I'm sorry for... being presumptuous. I shouldn't have assumed anything, we were always taught ponies on the ground were... Uhm, anyway, sorry."

I just kept walking, kept my eyes forward, on that so very distant town, willing it to be closer.

"And we'd be totally happy to teach ya, if, y'know, you ever wanted to learn, right Air Heart?" That clearly wasn't something they'd discussed before, judging by the way Air Heart stammered. Then again maybe he just always talked like that.

"W-what? Oh, uhm, yes, of course! We'd be happy to try, I mean. If we're going to be partners, it's the least we could do to help eachother out..."

"We're not." I didn't look back when I cut him off, there'd been too much talking and stopping and wasting time already, that's why Cliffside was still so far off in the distance, that's why we wouldn't be reaching it before the end of today.

"... Erm, what?"

"We're not partners. We're not teammates, companions, comrades or amigos. You stubbornly created some kind of contract for yourself and put yourself into my service, and I accepted. If I need something from you, I'll ask for it, otherwise, you're just annoying me. And if it turns out you annoy me too much, I might decide to terminate your contract. Understand?"

I heard one of the sets of hoofsteps behind me stop. I didn't look back, just kept going forward. I'd only see him if he decided to fly past and beat us to Cliffside, but more than likely he'd pick any of the other directions, maybe cross the chasm to the north and continue into Equestria proper, that'd probably be best.

His voice was distant, but clear, not the quiet wavering he usually spoke in, it sounded like he was talking more to himself than me. "I said I'd be strong... I need to be strong. And I will!" Then, softly, softly, the sound of hoofsteps again. One in front of the other, again and again and gaining speed as he galloped after us until he was following behind me again.

I just kept my eyes on the horizon and let out another sigh.

Footnote: Level up too? Sigh again.

New Perk: Insomniac: You don't need to sleep as often as other ponies do, and don't suffer from any of the negative side effects of going extended periods without sleep. Probably.

Companion Perk: Beginners Luck: Whenever Air Heart is in your party, trying new skills has a 25% better chance for success. Mutually Exclusive with the Cursed perk.

(Today's chapter was brought to you by references! Thanks for reading, everyone, I'm still learning my writing pace at this point but if this chapter is any indication, that pace is 'very slow'. As usual, I gota give thanks to KKat for spawning the FoE universe, and the cool cats at the Wasted Days sim. I'll see y'all after Halloween)