• 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 8: Smoke and Mirrors

Fallout Equestria: Ashes

Relyet

Chapter 8: Smoke and Mirrors

So… You went back in time and didn’t change… Anything?


I was walking. That was a good sign. At first, all I could see was a white emptiness. I couldn’t see the ground under my hooves, nor make out the horizon I was trotting towards. Slowly, the whiteness started to fade, and shapes began to emerge. The ground became rocky, and the flat horizon became rolling hills. The white smoke drifting around me pulled itself together and started to form into pony shapes. I was walking in the middle of a small herd.

After the shapes settled, the colors started to bloom. I was in a red, rocky desert, surrounded by dirty ponies. And instead of the constant overbearing cloud layer, there was only a small collection of black clouds in the distance, and I could see the sun hanging huge and low in the sky to the left.

“Wuoah, trippy~”

Turning my head, I saw I was walking with Abattoir, who was trying to look in all directions at once. Checking my other side I saw Air Heart, looking terrified.

“Where are we?” He gasped.

“Relax. This is the memory.” He didn’t look relaxed as I explained.

“T-this… this is… amazing, is this how memories always look? It’s so clear; I can even feel the dirt under my hooves…” I looked down at the rust colored ground. I could feel it through my boots, and I could feel the heat from the sun on my back. “Are you sure we didn’t actually go back in time? What if we mess up the timeline?"

“I said relax, we haven't gone anywhere. I told you, Zebra memory magic works differently, it’s just very vivid.”

Over my shoulder, Abattoir scoffed, “Time-line? Time isn’t made out of lines. It is made out of circles. That’s why clocks are round.”

I sighed and shook my head. “I’m regretting this already. Come on, let's try and figure out what we're here to see." I looked around for any significant looking ponies in the group. They were all mostly earth ponies, with hoofmade leather barding and simple weapons. If it weren't for the occasional rifle in the crowd I would have thought this memory was from a time before the war, instead of just after it.

"These are tribals..." I craned my neck and tried to see to the front of the group. There were a couple of ponies ahead of us, setting the pace and leading. "C'mon, let's see who's in charge."

I took off galloping, passing through the other ponies like they weren't even there, and heard Air Heart yelp in surprise behind me. I came out at the head of the herd and continued up the gradual hill we were climbing, slowing down as I closed in on the pair. Abattoir caught up first, with Air Heart very hesitantly following, waving his hooves in front of him as he cleared the crowd.

I trotted around to get a clear look at the pair. They were a mare and a stallion, a pegasus and a unicorn; she had a hard but pretty face, with a silvery coat and white-blonde mane that seemed to reflect the intense desert sunlight. She was wrapped in a dress that was little more than a few swathes of silk, and through it I could clearly see she was pregnant, yet she still kept pace with her stallion. He was a deep crimson color with a jet black mane pulled back into a fierce braid, and an even fiercer look on his face as he climbed the hill. He wore a simple leather vest and tan pants, with an assault rifle slung across his back.

“Look familiar?” Abattoir asked as she joined me on the other side, looking them up and down. I stared hard, at the stallion in particular. I thought I felt a tickle, in the back of my brain, the same tickle I felt whenever I tried too hard to summon up memories before I started walking with Crunch.

Finally, I shook my head “No, I don’t think so. I’ve worked with a few tribes before, but I don’t recognize this one.”

Air Heart was panting lightly as he caught up, opening his mouth to say something. But he stopped and fell silent as well collectively reached the top of the hill and peered out on the herd’s destination.

The valley bellow was brimming with life. There were dozens, possibly hundreds, of large tents standing amidst tall yellow grass and tall skinny trees, their inhabitants milling around peacefully. I could make out a few crops surrounded by fences, and even some livestock in scattered pens. A river ran lengthwise through the whole thing, with even more of the valley’s inhabitants gathered along its banks.

“Wooow…” Abattoir marveled at the scene, while the pair between us finally spoke.

“It’s beautiful.” The mare said with a smile on her face. The stallion nodded solemnly, favoring her with the slightest hint of a smile and a kiss on her cheek. Abattoir ‘aww’d quietly into her hooves.

“More beautiful than I imagined. And, Celestia willing, it’ll be our home.” He reached out to lay a hoof across her shoulders. Then he spotted something on the horizon, and we all turned to face it.

A group of the valley’s inhabitants were sprinting towards us, and at once I realized what they were, and what we were looking at. Their muscular forms became more defined as the small scouting party closed in on the herd, cloven hooves throwing up dust. In moments they were up the hill, and the group of minotaurs loomed over the assembled ponies.

Who are you, what is your business?” Grunted the foremost minotaur, a young bull with a brown coat and black horns.

The red stallion held his head high and spoke firmly and clearly, establishing himself as the leader to the new comers. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak minos very well, do any of you speak equestrian?” He asked hopefully, then snorted out “Speak pony?

There were a few murmurs at the back of the group of minotaurs, but the brown bull raised his hand and silenced them, then lowered his head. “I speak your pony tongue. Who are you, what do you want?”

“Why didn’t he just speak in pony first?” Air Heart asked, tilting his head at me.

I answered before I could think to stop myself “Minotaur language is at least ten percent intimidation, he was testing him.” Then I cleared my throat and coughed “So I’ve heard... Be quiet, I’m trying to listen.”

“We come in peace, of course. We wish to see your king, to speak to him.” The stallion continued, motioning back to his herd.

The bull scanned the crowd, furrowing his thick brow. “Mmh, you bear no war banners, your weapons are few and your ponies are puny. If this were a trick, it would be a very poor one." He rose back to his full height. “Very well, you and yours are now guests of King Nerves of Steel!” He clapped his hands together and turned back to his scout group, motioning down the valley “We bring them to the King. You, send word ahead.

The younger minotaur he spoke to snorted is response and started to run back down towards the tents at high speed, while the other minotaurs moved to circle the herd and lead them in the right direction.

“What’s going on?” Air Heart asked as we started down the hill with the rest of the ponies who couldn’t see us.

“They’re going to see the king, obviously.”

“Is this sort of thing normal down here? I never heard much of anything about minotaurs at all.”

“Sort of. Tribes are common, ponies descended from ponies who didn’t end up in stables or caught in balefire attacks. They lived in the wild, learned the ways of the land, passed them on to the next generation. Minotaurs though, those are rare. I’ve never heard of a group of them this big.”

We reached the outskirts of the tent village, and word of the herds arrival seemed to have spread fast. There were several clusters of minotaurs of all ages in varying shades of brown and grey gathered around the entrance. Mixed among them, I started to notice the goats as well, laden down with saddlebags. I gathered snatches of conversation as we passed through, and learned that ponies didn’t often come through here, and never as many as this. Further in, families started to appear, standing in front of their tents and offering waves and encouraging sounding greetings to the passing herd.

So far, I had no clue why he wanted me to see this, and especially why he’d want my other companions to. I was beginning to wonder it was just a ploy to stall me or confuse me while he put more distance between us.

Before my thoughts could form into anything solid, I heard Abattoir calling out and saw her jumping up and down. “Oh oh oh, what’s going on over there? Fight, fight, fight!” She cheered, while I and much of the herd all turned towards the commotion.

We were being led past a large tent that had an extended awning to provide shade, with a fire deep inside it and several stone slabs to serve as tables. I knew they were tables because of all the minotaurs and goats eating blackened meat off of them.

But the source of the commotion was two minotaurs in particular who’s voices were raised. One claimed the other’s mother was a swine, and the other returned by implying his father was a sheep, then the first turned to the goat next to him and retrieved an axe.

He launched across the table at the other minotaur, swinging wildly. He was smaller, and caught his opponent by surprise with his speed. His axe drew a gash across the minotaur’s chest, but he shrugged that off and reached out to catch the axe wielding wrist in his grip and twist his arm. The first minotaur cried out and dropped his weapon, and was thrown to the ground. Sprawled on his back with the larger minotaur standing over him, I imagined he was starting to rethink his whole stance.

Then the larger minotaur lowered his head and impaled him with his twin horns, one through the neck and one through the gut. Several of the herd mares, and some stallions, (and Air Heart) cried out in shock. And just like that all the minotaurs returned to what they were doing before the interruption. Not one of them had rose to interfere with the fight. A portly minotaur stomped over to the victor, cursed at the corpse, then held his hand out and dropped something shiny into the palm of the other.

“W-w-what the… what just happened?” Air Heart gasped for breath, looking pale.

“If I had to guess…” I shrugged and turned away as two goats started to drag off the corpse “I’d say those two didn’t like eachother.”

The bull with the black horns had stopped to allow the herd to take in the scene as well, but was now resuming the tour. Air Heart sputtered and swayed on his hooves as he tried to keep up, and he was not the only one with questions it seemed.

“What was all that about?” The red stallion jerked his head backwards. The bull just chuckled.

“Minotaurs are known for their temper. Some can not control themselves.”

The silver mare moved up with her own curious look “What was that the other minotaur gave him? The one with the apron?”

The bull turned his head at that, raising his eyebrow and smirking. “Your mate sees much. I think that was the young one’s father, or just his employer. He was paying the Blood Price.”

The pair of ponies exchanged a glance and the bull laughed, and didn’t wait for them to ask. “The Blood Price is a code that all minotaurs follow, and tells us that when one ends the life of another, those responsible for the dead are obliged to pay. They set their own price, whatever value they felt the dead held to them.”

The mare looked aghast, while the stallion looked interested. The mare voiced her concern first. “So if a minotaur murders somepony else, their family has to pay him?”

The bull smiled again, slightly wider this time. “Not pony. Minotaur. Only minotaurs follow the Blood Price by tradition, but others may if they choose. And it cuts both ways, little pony.” He pointed back over his shoulder with his thumb. “If another wanted that minotaur dead, friends of the fallen maybe, it would be as simple as paying his Blood Price to any who would accept it. Then it would become their sworn mission to spill his blood. But the more dangerous, the more powerful the minotaur, the higher his Blood Price.” He nodded sagely.

“Sounds confusing,” The stallion quipped.

“Sounds barbaric,” Asserted the mare.

“Sounds like fun~” Giggled Abattoir.

“Might seem strange to ponies, but it is important to us. The Price was what separated us from the wild beasts and aimless marauders who shed blood for no reason in the olden days.” The bull shrugged and snorted.

The rest of the trip continued in near silence, the mare and stallion whispering something I couldn’t catch and the minotaur looking ahead stone-faced. Eventually he stopped at a crossroads, the widest path leading up to the largest tent. A smaller crowd of armed minotaurs was waiting there, and one murmured to the bull when he came close.

“Your herd will be taken to be fed and given drink, the King himself has invited you to feast in his tent and hear your words.” The bull explained when he returned. The red stallion passed the word back, and most of his ponies turned to follow the minotaur guards, leaving behind only the silver pegasus and a hooffull of senior looking colts. The stallion nodded at the mare, and together they were led up the hill to meet the King.

~~~

The King’s tent was hot. Two goats pulled back the flaps as the small party of ponies approached, and a wave of heat and noise washed out. Air Heart coughed once and covered his nose. Once inside, the source became obvious, two larger fires over which more meat was cooking. The smell couldn’t affect me, but the air also rang with so many voices shouting and laughing at once, I briefly wondered if I could just wait outside for the rest of the memory.

There was one long table made from a single huge log, split in half and stacked end to end. Seated in rows along it were more minotaurs, more than I’d ever seen in once place. Goats moved in between them, refilling cups and plates.

And at the head of the table sat possibly the largest creature on two legs I’d ever seen. The minotaur king was massively muscled, as broad as a shed, and sitting down he probably would have been eye to eye with Crunch. His coat was grey speckled with black, and his horns gleamed and caught the light of the fires. Coming closer, I saw they were coated in silver.

I even stepped backwards when he turned in my direction and let loose a booming laugh, gesturing with his hands. “Ah, the little ponies come!” He announced to his table then shifted his tone. “Come ponies, sit, eat! You are so small, is funny to me!”

I tried to recover and remind myself that he could not see us, that he was talking to his guests. Some space had been left empty between the King and the minotaurs, presumably for the ponies to sit. The red stallion nodded his head and bleated out a polite “Many thanks” to the delight of the King, and moved to sit. I thought his accent was passable.

The silver mare joined him, then the rest of the ponies, and several goats placed some plates and stone cups in front of them. Peeking over their shoulders, I saw that while they had provided the ponies with vegetables, they had still been grilled first.

“We’re glad you chose to see us so soon, we were hoping…” The mare started, but the brown bull cut in suddenly.

“Please. It is custom not to talk of business before the King does so first.”

“Oh, my apologies, I did not know…”

“Fear not, little pony.” The King cut in, raising his hand. “My captain of guards forgets you are guests.” He flashed a broad grin and waved at the plates. “But I would still not hear you until you have filled your bellies, I insist.”

And so they had little choice than to dig in and eat their vegetables. At one point Abattoir leaned in and tried to snatch a turnip from one of the plates, but groaned when her hoof passed through it like a fog.

“So, does any of this make sense to you?” Air Heart asked, taking advantage of the lull in conversation.

“Not really. Just some random tribe that wants a favor from the minotaurs.”

“You don’t recognize anypony or anything?” He asked a little more suspiciously than I liked.

I shook my head. “No. Trust me, I’m trying to figure it out. I’ll let you know when I think of something.”

I sat back and continued to watch, hoping a clue of some kind would show up and help me figure out why we were here.

Then a clue strolled right into the tent. The King looked up from listening to one of the other minotaurs and laughed. “I wondered when you would come. Here to see the other ponies, eh?” We all turned to the front of the tent, where a large figure was trotting the length of the table opposite us. I couldn’t see him clearly behind the minotaurs, but I thought I recognized his shape with a sinking sensation in my gut.

Then he passed behind the ponies and I could see him. He was a pony, huge and thick with muscle. He stopped and turned to meet the King’s gaze, and I noticed he did indeed stand eye to eye with him.

“How did…?”

“Is that…?”

“Crunch?” I called in surprise. Then I shook my head. It couldn’t be him. Looking again, I saw I was wrong. This pony was similarly sized, but his coat was a light green, and his mane was bright orange. Most importantly, his cutie mark was a stalk of celery. I let out a long ragged breath and shook my head “No… No it’s not.”

“He could be related. Does Crunch have a brother?”

“He’s never said anything about one.”

Air Heart nodded at that, then a moment later furrowed his brow “…Wait.”

Laughing inwardly, I hushed him.

The Crunch look-alike had nodded in answer to the King’s question, and then turned to gaze silently at the seated ponies. They all regarded him with surprise, the silver mare offering a smile. “Uhm, pleased to meet you?”

He nodded his head politely and the King chuckled. “Waste not your breath, he does not speak your tongue. Or any tongue as I know it. This is Stalks, he is assistant to our shaman.” Turning his head and lowering his voice, the King continued “Is your master coming behind you?

The sinking feeling was back. Stalks nodded and I whipped my head around, saw the tent flap open and close again. Several of the minotaurs at the far end of the table stopped their conversations to watch as the shrouded figure crossed the tent. He came to stand beside his assistant, a thin equine shape under a red cloak. He reached up with black and grey stripped hooves and pulled back the hood, revealing the smiling face of a zebra. His muzzle was scarred, and his mane was long and unkempt, hanging around his shoulders.

“Lumi?” Abattoir’s voice pierced the raging storm that my thought process had become and I turned my head. I was back on my hooves and didn’t remember standing. I took a deep breath and backed up from the table as the zebra and the King started to speak.

I knew you would show yourself soon. You have just missed the feast, I am afraid. Come to frighten the ponies?

The zebra chuckled and looked amused at that “You wound me, your mightiness. I came to greet our guests.” He somehow managed to make the grunts roll smoothly off his tongue, then turned and bowed to the understandably shaken ponies. His ears jangled as he moved, pairs of thick ornate iron rings running through them. “Greetings, my friends, I have the pleasure of being Xephaniah. Shaman, far seer, and personal advisor to our good King Steel, and I welcome you to our peaceful valley and hope your visit is as pleasant as possible.”

In the awkward silence that followed, Air Heart placed his hoof on my shoulder. I didn’t take my eyes off the zebra. “You know him?”

I nodded and shrugged his hoof off.

“He the one who left the orb?”

I nodded again and brought my hoof up to my mask. Air Heart shut up.

“Ahem…” The red stallion cleared his throat and stood up. “I am Red Star, this is my wife Silver Wind.” The mare smiled politely. The ice wasn’t broken, but it was chipped. The other ponies introduced themselves. “I’m sorry, we just… have never met a zebra so close.”

“Other than on the battlefield?” Red Star lowered his eyes a little and the zebra laughed. “I understand, things are difficult between our two races. Many of mine would as soon attack as look at you, but I assure you I bear no ill will to any species. I have traveled the deserts with the minotaurs, roamed the plains with the buffaloes, even hunted alongside the hell hounds.”

“Sounds like you live an interesting life.” Silver followed his story with awe on her face.

“Lived. For now, I serve only our good minotaur King here. To that end, I am here to assist you and him come to a favorable agreement over whatever brings you to his lands.” With that, he trotted over to stand beside the King and waved his hoof at Red Star.

The stallion nodded, took a deep breath, and craned his neck to look the King in the eyes. “My ponies and I have all traveled long in search of a safe haven to call home in these dangerous times. Tales of your… peaceful valley and its splendor have reached our ears from other travelers, and we’ve been seeking it for half a year. Now that we’ve found it we humbly ask your permission to settle in your lands and live amongst your herd in peace and safety. My own herd would gladly offer up all they have in exchange, we have many earth ponies who know how to work the land and grow vegetables. He stopped to clear his throat again. “No offense meant to your farmers, of course.”

The King had remained silent, stroking his short beard while he listened, but that made him burst out laughing again. “No, you are right, our hands lack the skill for nurturing the earth your hooves hold.” But he quickly fell silent again, looking Red Star over.

“This is a difficult request.” The King finally said. “We have treated many ponies and allowed them a few nights of rest in our tents, but we have never had any who wish to live with us. If you were minotaurs it would be a simple matter…” The King trailed off and lowered his head.


Xephaniah leaned over to speak and I strained my ears to hear, as did most of the upper table. “My king, it seems you are facing a dilemma due to the ponies wishes clashing with your tradition, yes?

The King nodded silently, his eyes still on Red Star, who was still standing and looking hopeful. “In that case, simply ask the opinions of some of the elders.” He waved his hoof at the gathered minotaurs, the closest few murmuring and nodding.

I agree, it seems I can not come to the answer on my own this time.” The King stood and his voice boomed to the opposite end of the table “I will discuss the ponies request with my trusted few. Striking Iron, Bronzebeard, Rolling Thunder, come close.” He called out names and the minotaurs that answered them rose to join him at the head of the table, while the others started to file out of the tent, followed by the goats. The King jerked his head up as the brown bull started to leave as well, and added, “You too, Angus. I think your youthful viewpoint may be of assistance here.” The bull started, then regained his composure and returned to the King’s side. Xephaniah appeared like a black shadow at Red Star’s side and placed a hoof on his shoulder. For some reason this sight made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

“Come, this is a matter of minotaurs, we must let them lock their horns and butt their heads. I will take you to my home while we wait.” The other ponies exchanged glances then stood up to follow him out. I followed him as well. Listening to the minotaurs didn't seem nearly as important.

“What’s goin’ on?” Abattoir asked when we were back outside the tent.

“We’re following them.”

“I mean back there. What were they talkin’ about?” She jerked her head backwards. I shook my head at her.

“If I had to guess…”

“Why are you acting like you don’t speak it?” Air Heart cut in, brow furrowed.

“Excuse me?” I tried to sound put out. I wasn’t very good at it.

“Minotaur, or whatever it’s called. You can understand it, can’t you? I’ve seen some of that weird writing I saw on the terminal on signs around here, and you were following the conversation back there, I could tell by looking at you. Why are you trying to pretend you don’t know it?”

I fell silent, backed into a corner at this point. But they both just kept staring at me even when I tried to focus on the zebra and ponies ahead of us. “I just don’t like to talk about it, that’s all. It makes ponies ask questions.” I answered at last, shrugging my shoulders. There was no going back from there. “Fine. The King couldn’t make up his mind what to do, so he’s having a meeting with some important minotaurs. Something about tradition.”

“Huh. I hope he does allow them to stay here, they seem like nice ponies.” Air Heard gestured ahead at Silver Wind and Red Star.

“Yeah,” I nodded. “That would be nice, wouldn’t it…”

~~~

“-Actually just very territorial creatures. They mistrust ponies for the same reasons zebras do, because they assume they come to repeat the ills of their ancestors and come to take their homes from them. That is why if you ever encounter a pack of Hellhounds alone, it is key to make clear that you mean them no harm and that you are not there to seize their land.”

Xephaniah had been entertaining the ponies with talk of his various encounters across the wastelands since they arrived at his tent. His tent was off the main path that ran through the valley, and was instead very isolated at the far end of the village. It was formed from a large hide draped over a single bent tree, the inside decorated with countless baubles and trinkets sitting on shelves made from bone, or dangling from the ceiling by cords. There were two beds, one regular and one giant, and a firepit in the center. The ponies sat on one side and the zebra sat on the other, the light from the fire casting an eerie shadow across his muzzle while he told his tales.

I sat sullenly near the door as I listened.

“Soooo… is he an old friend of yours or somethin’? He seems nice.” Abattoir asked, laying on her side on the tent floor.

I grunted and shook my head. The two of them had been needling me endlessly ever since he started talking.

“But you know him, and he left you this orb to find? Why would he want to show us this?”

I shrugged and rubbed the side of my head. I had a hunch he’d done it so exactly this situation would happen.

Air Heart shook his head at me “Come on Luminescence, you’ve got to give us something. We’re in this together, for whatever reason.”

“Because it would’ve been too much trouble to convince you to leave while I watched it myself…” I snapped, and then sighed. “Crunch and I are chasing him.”

I looked up at Stalks, who was also lurking near the door. Maybe this was Crunch’s father, and Xephaniah had done something to wrong him. I never questioned why Crunch was after him as well, and he never asked me. Air Heart and Abattoir were not so gracious.

“Why?”

I tensed up, but before I could decide whether to answer or dodge, Stalks turned his head and pulled open the flap, just in time for one of the minotaurs to arrive and stick his head in. It was the young bull, Angus. He nodded solemnly. “They have finished.”

He led the group back to the King’s tent through the growing darkness, the dark clouds having moved in outside the valley. The atmosphere entering the tent matched the darkness outside, far different from the first time. One of the fires had been put out, and there was no roar of many voices mingling together. The minotaurs were silent as the ponies were led up the table and returned to their seats.

The King broke the silence finally. “I have come to a decision.” He spoke slowly, looking each of the ponies in the eye as he did. “Though your intention seems peaceful and your need seems great, I can not accept you into my herd and my lands.”

Disappointment was plain across the ponies faces, including Red and Silver. One of the colts gaped at the King “This is outrageous!”

“Yeah, why not, you’ve got enough space!?” The pony next to him agreed, starting to rise from his chair with more angry words on his lips.

“Quiet!” Snapped Red Star before things could get out of hoof, in a voice so imposing and forceful even the King looked impressed. He shook his head at the two and faced the King, instantly calm again. “Your mightiness, I know it’s not our right to ask or your obligation to answer, but may we ask why you’ve refused us?”

The King looked around at the other minotaurs at his table. One with a thick brown beard woven in a braid, and another with a lightningbolt tattooed on his chest both shook their heads, while a third who wore a massive hammer across his back just crossed his arms and lowered his head.

They deserve to know your reasons” Angus spoke up from his spot beside the King, earning some glares from the others.

The King raised his hand to them “He is right, they ought to have an answer if we are going to condemn them back to the wasted lands.” The King sat up straighter and cleared his throat. “I am sorry, little ponies. I have refused to accept you into my herd because to do so would be to disrespect our traditions. As you have seen, my own herd has grown vast by consuming many others. But the only way two herds may become one is for the two Kings to do battle until one emerges victorious.” He stopped to let his words sink in. The agitated colts had calmed down, but still didn’t seem to like that answer. Meanwhile Red had his head bowed in thought. The King continued. “It is because of this I can not allow you to stay. To do so without a proper fight between Kings would be an insult to all other herds that were taken in before yours, whose kings fought valiantly for the right.”

Air Heart’s wings riffled up at his sides as he realized with was happening. “That’s so unfair!” I reached up and shushed him. I could feel something important was about to happen.

“What if we gave them a proper fight between kings then?” Red Star asked casually, rising to his hooves. “My herd has never called me ‘King’, but I am their leader, that should be good enough, right?. And if it’s the only way, then I have no choice.” He glanced once to Silver Wind before fixing his determined glare at the King. “I will fight you, for my herd’s right to live here in the valley!”

As if on cue, the red stallion’s bold announcement was followed by a rumble of thunder from outside, leaving a stunned silence in its wake. It was broken abruptly by the trio of older minotaurs bursting into uproarious laughter. This didn’t seem to faze him, and he continued to stare down the King.

The King thumped his fist on the table and snapped at the amused minotaurs. “Silence! This pony has made a bold challenge, and you will show him respect.” Then, after reigning in his temper, he turned back to the ponies. “Your words are brave, little pony, but I am not sure you fully understand their weight.

“If I may,” Xephaniah stepped out from the shadows at the edges of the tent, clearing his throat. “What his mightiness means is that a fight between kings is a sacred event, and the consequences may be more than you are willing to suffer. Should you lose, your herd would be absorbed, but you yourself would be cast out in exile. If you survive at all.” He smiled in a way that I assumed was meant to be comforting.

Red Star returned with a cocky smile of his own, “And, if I win?”

Xephaniah’s smile grew and he shrugged “If you emerge victorious, you would earn yourself a respected place amongst the minotaur. But it will certainly not be as easy as you seem to think. In traditional fights between kings, your modern firearms are forbidden, as it is not a fight to the death. You would be reduced to your own martial strength and one weapon you can swing and strike with.”

“Then either way, my herd will be safe… Are we going to get to the fight tonight, or what?”

That wiped the smile from Xephaniah’s muzzle, and made the King laugh and pat the zebra heavily on his back. “This is a brave little pony, it seems your words will not frighten him away. Very well then, I accept your challenge. But I would not fight you after you have been travelling all the day.” The King rose quickly and clapped. “Go now, make love to your mate, sleep and regain your strength, and we will do glorious battle by first light tomorrow.”

***

“Are we gona get to watch a King-fight?” Abattoir asked as we followed Red Star and Silver Wind. Xephaniah had offered to lead them to their sleeping tent, but was walking ahead with Stalks, both of them silent.

“It’s possible.” I was trying to listen to the conversation going on ahead, but the rain that had started to fall was making it even more difficult. Silver Wind was obviously concerned about her husband, but she didn’t sound like she was trying to talk him out of his decision.”

“Awesome! I’ve never seen a King-fight!” Abattoir hopped back on her rear legs, shaking a pair of pom-poms she’d acquired from… somewhere. “Go Red Team, woo!”

“Shutup.” I hissed as the group approached the small collection of tents, one of the several that had been thrown up for the visiting ponies.

Xephaniah pulled back the flap and waved his hoof, smiling his oily smile once more. “Here you are. Sleep well, my friends. Best of luck to you tomorrow.”

Red Star nodded, thanked the zebra and slipped inside, but the silver pegasus hesitated. “I’ll just be a minute, I’d like to ask you something.” She nodded at the curious looking zebra. The stallion inside the tent gave her a look, but shrugged, and the trio stepped away from the tents, with the rest of us following unseen.

“How may I help you, my friend? This rain is getting worse, I wouldn’t want to keep you out in it too long.” Xephaniah asked when Silver Wind stopped walking.

“Maybe, I don’t know... I wondered if you might be able to… see something for me?”

The zebra arched an eyebrow and smirked. “My eyesight is nothing particularly impressive.”

Silver Wind sucked in her breath and closed her eyes. “No, no, I mean… you mentioned you were a far-seer back when we met you. I’ve heard rumors about zebras with such powers, and I… I hoped you could…”

“Aaaah, that's your game…” His smarmy tone made my hide crawl again. “You are anxious about the fight tomorrow, and you want me to use my ability to peel back the veil of time and tell you whether your husband is going to die tomorrow?”

Silver Wind sighed and lowered her head. “I’m sorry, I must have offended you, and I’m just scared. I know I’ll never be able to talk him out of the fight, he’s searched too long for a safe place for me… for us. I was just looking for something to set my mind at ease.”

She started to turn away and Xephaniah chuckled. “No need to apologize. Many have come to me desperate for answers when they learned I possess the gift of sight.” Silver looked back, her eyes wide and full of hope. “However, the process of divining the future is long and taxing, and one does not need to converse with the stars to know that your husband is clearly outmatched. He will most certainly lose tomorrow, the only mystery is whether he will perish in battle, or submit and be sent out into the desert in disgrace.”

The way the hope utterly drained from her face, and the way he continued to smile despite it, made me wish my hooves weren’t so intangible at the moment.

“W-w-what… what…” Air Heart struggled to find the words to express himself properly.

“What a dick.” Well put, Abattoir.

“Hopefully that answers some of your questions.” I waved my hoof for quiet as Silver Wind found her voice again.

“Is there nothing you can do to help him? I... I would do anything, just… please…” Even in the darkness of the night I could see her cheeks burn red, and she pulled at one of the straps of her silken dress. Xephaniah cocked his head to the side, looking at her critically. Stalks moved in from behind and gave his master’s side a nudge, growling dangerously at him.

“Your little pony body does not hold anything that could possibly sway me, do not embarrass us both…” He muttered after shaking his head. “The best I could do is convince my King to go easy on him, not break too many of his bones. Maybe you could try praying to your ‘Goddesses’?” With that he threw his hood back up and spun around, trotting away quickly. Stalks lingered to give the pegasus a silent look, then followed after him. Silver stood alone in the rain for a moment, watching them go, then made a choked noise in her throat and turned, half galloping, half flying back to her tent.

Then the edges of my vision filled with white smoke again. I barely had time to turn and find Air Heart’s and Abattoir’s surprised eyes before the smoke closed in and I was left in the void again.

~~~

Thankfully it didn’t take as long to come out of it this time. The smoke rolled out and the valley took shape before my eyes again. Shapes and figures emerged from the fog, color and sound rushed back in, and I found myself standing outside a large bare stretch of ground still damp from the rain, with a purple sky above. And I wasn’t alone. The minotaurs and ponies had assembled in the twilight and were all fighting to get the best view.

“What just happened?” I almost didn’t hear Air Heart over the commotion the crowd was causing. I turned to find him right next to me again, and Abattoir a few steps away trying and failing to splash in a puddle. And standing just ahead of us inside the clearing, was Red Star and Silver Wind, the latter standing with one of her wings draped across her mate's back.

“Seems there’s still more to see. Did you expect to have to wait out the entire night?” Air Heart opened his mouth to answer, but nothing came out, and he shut right up again.

Directly opposite us, the crowd parted, and King Nerves of Steel emerged, towering over all and wearing some kind of cape across his back. Under it, his shoulders seemed even more unnaturally broad. As if waiting for his entrance, the sun’s first rays peeked over the tops of the far hills, making his metallic horns gleam brightly.

The noise from the crowd grew explosively, shouting and stomping the ground and shaking their fists in the air and rendering any more chit chat impossible. Even the ponies joined in, stamping their hooves together and cheering for their leader. Just when I thought I couldn’t take any more, the King raised his hands and the crowds quieted.

My friends! My loyal subjects! The time has come, yet again, to test the strength of two mighty kings, and see which is mightier!” With practiced ease, the King worked the crowd back up into a frenzy as he announced the impending battle, then just as easily quieted them again and turned to face Red Star. “Are you ready, little pony?"

"Yes, I am!" Red Star answered, raising up to his full height and brushing Silver Wind off. With one last look, she turned and trotted back into the crowd. The King nodded and beckoned with his arm, and one of the minotaur I'd seen at the meeting, the one with the hammer, crossed the field towards the pony. Slung across his back instead of his massive hammer was a lumpy, jangling bundle wrapped in red cloth.

"Since you have no weapons other than your arms of fire, I have had our best smith, Striking Iron, prepare some of his best stock for you to choose from." At the King's words, Striking Iron unfurled the bundle at his hooves, revealing an impressive collection of weaponry. I saw spiked hammers and curved daggers, and several assorted swords and daggers, but nothing that-

My breath caught in my throat as Red Star made his selection, and levitated a hefty broadsword out of the mix. It was my sword! The metal gleamed in the rising sunlight, the steel shining bright and silver instead of deep grey-black, but I’d recognize my own weapon anywhere.

“Hey, y’know what that looks like?” Abattoir piped up, having got bored with the puddle and rejoining us.

“Yes, and no, I have no idea why he’s got it.” My head was starting to hurt again as I watched Red Star swing my blade in his magic a few times before affirming his choice.

“Well, where’d you get it in the first place?”

“I’ve always had it.”

“Yeah but-“

“Just shut up, it’s starting!”

Striking Iron had retreated from the field, and a suspenseful silence fell over the crowd. Red Star stood with his sword at the ready and the King reached up and unclasped his cape, letting it fall. With a start, I and all the other ponies saw that the extra bulk had been caused by the King's own weapon, which he reached back and drew. It was an anchor from some old ship, a huge hunk of metal with a broad head and two curved prongs that he wielded with one hand. If this sight gave Red Star any cause for concern, he didn't show it. The two combatants stared each other down, and everyone and everypony present seemed to hold their breath.

Then Striking Iron raised some kind of horn and blew a single loud note from it, and they charged.

King Steel closed the gap with frightening speed for such a large target and swung the anchor in a downward arc that would definitely have pulped the stallion if he hadn't dived out of the way. The King wrenched his weapon out of the muddy ground and pursued Red Star, who scrambled to his hooves and thrust out his sword widly. The King easily deflected the clumsy attack and almost knocked the sword out of his magical grip.

Red Star rolled away from another deadly swipe of the anchor, and looked to be recovering from his early surprise, getting back to his hooves and holding his sword more steadily. He was ready when the King came at him this time, diving toward him instead of away from him and ducking under his attack, swinging the sword up and drawing a gash across the massive minotaur's side. The crowd cheered, minotaur and pony together, as the King dragged his fingers across the wound, looking at the blood on them.

"You must forgive me, little pony!" The King rounded on Red Star again, laughing and raising his anchor in both hands. "I have underestimated you! I see now you intend to give me a proper challenge."

"I intend to do more than that, your meatiness!" The red stallion taunted, causing the crowd to gasp collectively and me to sigh. The King laughed again, then bent his knees and started to charge once more. Red Star responded in kind and galloped out to meet him.

The fight lasted longer than I expected, the stallion and the minotaur trading blows and jeers while the crowd looked on. King Steel was bleeding from a dozen slashes across his muscled form, and Red Star was bruised and beaten, one of his eyes starting to swell from a nasty punch he had taken from the King. But every fight has to end sometime, and for once he was too late to dodge away from one of the King's powerful two handed swings, then Anchor lifting the stallion off his hooves and tossing him through the air. He landed on the ground with a wet splash, half in a puddle, and the minotaur portion of the crowd roared with cheers.

He still looked to be breathing, and his sword had landed in the mud beside him, where he was trying to grasp it with his teeth. The King lumbered towards him, his boisterous tone gone. "I tell you this, little pony, I shall not forget this fight for a long time. You have battled well, but I think the time has come to finish this."

He stood over Red Star and clenched his fist, ready to deliver the final blow. As he wound up to swing, several different things happened very quickly. Red Star managed to close his jaw on the handle of his sword and raise it to point at the minotaur King before he thrust his fist out. The King saw this and tried to pull back his punch, and stepped back. Back, into the puddle Red Star had landed next to, making his hoof slip. His balance thrown off, he continued tipping forward and fell on the upraised sword, his weight driving it deep into his chest.

Then he collapsed on top of the stallion and Silver Wind cried out, galloping onto the field. After a second of hesitation, I followed after her. Several other ponies and minotaurs rushed out to the pair, where the King had managed to roll himself over onto his back. I was not familiar with minotaur anatomy, but I guessed by the amount of blood the King was coughing up, something vital had been pierced.

Silver Wind knelt over Red Star and tried to help him sit up, while the minotaurs stood over their king. "P-p-potions..." She gasped, holding her husband up and looking at the wounded King. "Don't we have any potions? We have to help him!"

King Steel raised his hand and waved it "Hush, pony..." He croaked, still grinning. "Your magic drinks can do nothing for me now... do not trouble yourself, it was a good fight..." His heavy head drooped back into the mud and he gazed up at the minotaurs that had gathered.

“”What do you wish us to do, your mightiness?” Striking Iron asked, kneeling at his side.

The King chuckled, a pained sound that brought up more blood "I wish you to be calm, my friends. I am going to the clearing at the end of the path, where we will meet again someday..." He summoned the last of his strength to raise his head one more time and look Red Star in the eyes. "Guide them well... little pony..." Then his head fell again, and this time he didn't lift it.

The crowd grew gravely silent. The ponies looked around with fear and confusion, trotting in close to their own injured leader in the center of the field. No one spoke, no one moved, for several minutes, not even my companions watching the memory play out. Finally the black horned bull Angus shouldered his way through to stand over Red Star.

"I... I didn't mean to." The stallion started to say, but Angus clenched his fists, bowing down and placing them both flat on the ground.

"The Blood Price must be paid.”

“W-what? We can’t… we don’t have anything to pay with…” Silver Wind stammered, clinging to her husband protectively. Around them, more of the minotaurs were copying the bow, kneeling and thrusting their fists into the ground.

“It is not you who must pay.” The bull spoke while his head remained lowered. “It is us. The life of a King is worth more than we can ever pay. We are now your subjects, and everything that was his is now yours.” He finally raised his head, fixing the startled ponies with a hard stare. “Long live the King. Long live King Red Star!”

“Long live King Red Star! Long live King Red Star!” Echoed the minotaurs, the chant starting from the center of the ring and spreading out as the minotuars rose and looked at their new king. And though I knew I was only observing something that had already happened, even I felt a twinge of fright looking around at the towering monsters all chanting together. Even when they started to dissolve into white smoke again and fade away into the void, that droning was the last thing I heard before I lost consciousness.

***

“And they were both right there, dead all along?” Fiddle Sticks asked, sitting back in one of his overstuffed chairs.

“Yes, killed each other by the look of it.” I answered, sitting across from him on the couch, with Air Heart and Crunch on either side. “A disagreement about your ancestor’s choice in partner, I think. Or just a jealous stallion who lost his temper. Doesn’t really matter at this point.” I shrugged.

Fiddle Sticks nodded, bringing his glass to his lips and sipping quietly. “I suppose not… and this lover of his, she was definitely a zebra then?”

“Yep, got pictures!” Abattoir called out from across the room where she was examining junk on Fiddle Sticks’ mantle. Air Heart cleared his throat and pulled out the book from the library, opening it to the page with the pictures of the trio.

“These aren’t the best quality, but we’ve seen other pictures in a newspaper. She was a performer or something, and he fell in love with her.” He passed him the book, and then dug out the old journal and the other pages we found and gave him that too.

“I see… I must say, I’m impressed. I expected you to find a few clues, but nothing this concrete.” He flipped through the journal slowly. “Honestly, I was hoping my grandfather would be proven wrong. She really was a zebra then…”

He lapsed into silence and stared at the papers, and I looked at him more closely. Then I realized what was so strange about the way he looked, seeing Xephaniah again made it easier to see. Fiddle Sticks had stripes, faint rings of lighter colored orange between his usual coat.

“Stripes.” I said suddenly, making him look up. I cleared my throat a few times “I mean, you… I didn’t notice before.”

He smiled, amused, and nodded. “Really? Usually it’s the first thing ponies notice about me. I used to tell them it was just a mutation, since half-breeds usually tend to be shades of grey and black. But with this, I suppose I’ll have to accept it, finally.” He picked up the book again.

“You were hoping we’d prove them wrong?” Air Heart asked uncertainly.

“Well, I’m not ungrateful; this is more than I could ever have hoped to know, but to be honest I would have much preferred something to suggest a more equestrian background. Something I could take back to Manehatten…”

“Manehatten?” Air Heart furrowed his brow.

“Tenpony Tower. They assumed you had zebra in your blood and wouldn’t let you in.”

“And it seems they were right all along.” He snapped the book shut and shrugged. “Oh well, you completed the job far and above what I asked, and you didn’t come back to hear me waffle on about the past. I’ll go get your payment.” He rose up out of his chair and trotted out of the livingroom.

I sighed and rested my head back on the couch. I was still processing everything I’d seen in the orb, I think both my companions were. Air Heart was looking down at his hooves and fidgeting and Abattoir had picked up something from Fiddle Sticks’ mantle. I turned to look at Crunch and found him avoiding my eye still. As soon as we had all come out of the orb, an hour before sunrise, I went to find him immediately. I had some questions.

“Do you have a brother?” He nodded. “I think I saw him. He was with Xephaniah.” He shook his head hesitantly. I asked a few more things I saw curious about before I got to the main question. “Do you know what memories were in that orb? Is that why you didn’t want to watch?” And he hadn’t answered, stoically turning his head away. I guess I deserved that.

He remained that way all through the trip back. He’d found a mine cart to harness himself to and pulled us back to the station, and from there it was a short jaunt back to the north gate, and from there to Fiddle Sticks’ home.

I raised my head when the orange unicorn returned, floating a sack. “Here you are, four hundred caps plus a bonus for being so thorough, and my most sincere thanks.”

I accepted the bag, gave it a cursory glance, and slipped it to Crunch for carrying, then rose to my hooves. “Welcome. Unless there’s anything else, we’ll get going. Come on Abattoir.” I looked over to make sure she was paying attention, noting the suspicious lack of the little trinket she’d been ogling. She hopped up and smiled, humming a tune as we all filed out the front door.

“Well…” Air Heart started “I think that went well, for my first job.” He smiled hopefully at me.

“It wasn’t bad. Could’ve been simpler, next time it’ll pick something that’s not so…”

“Heavy on bookwork?” Abattoir snickered, Air Heart chuckled into his hoof, and before I could stop myself I laughed once.

Then I got myself back under control and shook my head “Shut up, Abattoir. And hurry up, we’ve got things to do today. Air Heart needs a weapon, we need to find another job, and… I need to ask around about Xephaniah.”

They shared a glance and looked back at me. “What if we-“

“I. Not we.”

“Fine…” Air Heart stumbled a bit. “What if you find something? What then?”

“Then I’m going to follow it. Catching up to him is the most important thing.” I sighed and let my voice soften. “But I probably won’t find anything right away. He’s very careful, doesn’t leave much of a trail unless he wants to. For now, let’s just focus on those few tasks ahead of us.”

Despite the challenges ahead, I allowed myself to feel a twinge of optimism. Air Heart proved not completely helpless in combat, Abattoir hadn’t sung a song in over an hour, and there was a slim chance of getting back on Xephaniah’s trail. I could even see a bit of the sunrise through several gaps in the clouds off in the distance. Yes, surprising as it seemed, I was feeling pretty good about the day ahead.

So I really shouldn’t have been surprised that I got arrested before the day was out.




Footnote: Level Up?


Skill note: Unarmed 20. Paid close attention to that fight, did you?



(Phew! This was another tough chapter, been rolling this one around in my head a while. Had a lot of trimming and hammering out of the minotaur traits to do, but I’m happy with how it turned out. We’ll be back on our regularly scheduled adventures next chapter! For now, thanks as always to KKat for starting this whole thing, thanks to No One for the help and for the help and props, thanks to the folks at Wasted Days for the Little Cliffside locale. And of course thanks to you readers for stickin’ it out this long, I hope I can keep you comin’ back. See y’all next time <3)