• Published 14th May 2017
  • 437 Views, 10 Comments

The Black Monsoon - The Pree Sphee



Much time has passed since Nightmare Moon had reigned supreme over the Elements of Harmony, plunging Equus into the dystopia of her dreams. A mangy group of outcasts travels the grisly world in search of the six powers that could bring back the sun.

  • ...
3
 10
 437

Prologue: "It's that simple. The villain, for once, won."

"All forms of artistic narration feature two things: the antagonist and the protagonist. There's the pony who wants to rule and the pony who wants to fight. One always comes out on top, and only one, always - this is among the basic narrative knowledge of even the most scientific minds out there. But what if they aren't so much the Yin-Yang of the arts, instead the paradoxes of reality? Paradoxes, drifting in a society which is constantly dragging them together, preparing them for the the inevitable cataclysm, and the payment of the bystanders' lives and property. We cannot possibly pay the cost of being heroes, or villains, or anypony unlucky enough to find themselves between the two.

"This is the very reason why the paradox of the good mare and bad mare must cease to exist. It would create a world blessed with order and security, immune to the infectious exceptions of the legal system, often sugarcoated with the misleading word: 'mercy.' It would create a world immune to heroes, and their outbursts of violent kindness - villains, and their indifference to innocent lives being lost. It would create a world of justice and equity.

"Now I have found that world. Its name is Equus."

-Nightmare Moon, following her formal inauguration (1-iD).


"Ever heard of Project Greenhoof?"

The words jolted me awake from the murkiness of my abnormal sleep. For a brief and paralyzing moment I thought I had broken the moral and physical laws of nature and had awoken in my coffin to the sounds of disjointed voices. However, as my mind soon realized the darkness around me was not the product of a closed space six feet under ground, the first thing my eyes fell upon was a sky just as dark as the corners of the mind which I had previously resided in. The night stretched up as far as I could see before taking its length to even greater heights and above the average pony's comprehension of space. Gone was the cyan cap of the days before the past years, replaced with the thing it had kept us from: space; the dark abyss of black, stars, and moon just waiting patiently to suck us up into its eternal nothingness. No clouds were present in the void, perfectly giving off the night's expanse and adding no consolation to the mind numbing darkness which was the world of Equus. Even as I've woken up to this persistent sight again and again, it still shocked me to the core like a wound that blistered to life every instance you touched it.

Yet as the clouds were nonexistent, rain still fell. I felt it covering my body from head to waist, drenching my thin fur with the warm liquids of the sky. This precipitation was not natural, and fell from no clouds coaxed by no pegasi. The millions of tiny droplets glowed with a faint aura of dark purple, as if the weak reach of a unicorn’s magic was just barely taking a hold of them. Or, in this case, an alicorn. That fact gave away their alliance like a Night Guard's volatile armor gleaming through the darkness of our existence. I could tell that the rain’s inconspicuous glow could have faintly illuminated my surroundings, but I couldn't feel below my waist. If the past two years had taught me anything it was that that meant to stay as still as possible and hope so hard it would force the thought into existence. Still though, my curiosity - as historically unruly its timing was - slowly etched away at my inflicted caution. Sloth-like and plodding, but undoubtedly there.

There was the mechanical and consistent whirl of an auto-cart's engine, and I felt myself lightly joggling side to side, up and down. I physically fought my head to not lurch up out of defensive instinct, repeatedly telling myself that numbing drugs were used, and that meant that it was not even safe to act alive - experience hammered that fact again and again in my mind like a frustrated carpenter who just can't quite seem to get that nail deep enough. The carpenter must have been busy, because I felt solid wood on my back and its constant vibration told me I was mobile. Along with the sounds of metal and bars rattling against each other, the rain's efficacy at pouring onto anything solid, and the quick susurration of damp air just above me, I heard... voices?

Could it be? After all this time? This would be the first actual conversation I’ve heard in three years. Not grumbling from slaves, not sensual orders from Moon Worshipers, and not anything from my hopeful imagination, but the succulent voices of two ponies talking casually. The feeling which came over my body could only be described as a stone of hope being chucked up from my stomach into my throat, begging my body to let it fly into full-blown happiness. I did not care about the ponies' subject at hoof, I just enjoyed the sound of their voices: affable and concerned.

Almost like friends.

"...You mean that failed project about the glowing flower? Yeah, I think I heard something about it - itself and how ponies see one purple human in the room too many after a proper nose-full."

"As much as I'd just adore that, I'm sorry to disappoint. That privilege belongs to the foragers. I'm talking about our project - the Light Bringers' little input."

"In that case, never heard of it. Induuulge me.”

There was a brief pause. I stayed still, and I knew my eyes were inscrutable as they looked up into the blackness above. I wanted this so bad. Two ponies, talking with each other about something unrelated to attacking another herd or taking over another abandoned town. Their voices were feminine and saturated with personality. One of my fellow ponies, the one which brought up the so-called "Project Greenhoof,” had a blithe and optimistic skip to her voice. It was medium-pitched, and didn't hold the slur of induced drugs or alcohol. She sounded attractive (I don't know how somepony could sound attractive, but there it was) and young - I'd say she was in her mid-twenties. Her companion, meanwhile, was much older and black, and judging from her most recent verbal curiosity, sarcastic. She sounded like a solid 37, hosting an ill-willed resentment as an undercurrent. For a brief moment I compared her to the “bad bitch female antagonist” from the films pre-Renaissance. How could these two ponies know each other, and what could have brought the common theatrical foils to friendship?

But as of now it did not matter. Please, keep talking.

"...All of the anti-night organizations have their own little kinks,” the younger, attractive-sounding(?) one was reminding when I tuned back in. “Remember ours?”

The corner of my mouth twitched, almost curving into a hint of a smile. These were ponies I was with. Unaffected ones, still intact with what made themselves whole - what was so abundant pre-Renaissance, and what made the time before now such a joy to live in. It had no name, not even a word in the dictionary to describe it, but you could instantly tell when a pony had it just by talking to them (or in this case eavesdropping), and it made you… happy. You were talking with another being - another pony - who had lived a life of memories and wishes alongside you and who has had their own experiences and virtues, and who wants to spread their own happiness to you with the power of words and eyes, and who loves life just as much as you.

How meager in supply this virtue was in current times. My potential smile evaporated.

But for now? Just be calm and let this unfairly rare occasion, this unnamed adjective, gently feather into reality. Three voiceless years... coming to an end.

"Mm. Technology. Thanks, I forgot.” Sarcasm again. Snappy, underrated, essential character. How delicious it was to hear it.

"Well this'll really throw you a loop. We're taking it to a whole 'nother level... Mechanical. Limbs."

"...You mean prosthetics?"

"No, much more than that! Like an add-on to a pony's body. I'm not sure how it works exactly, but they're running tests for it right now-- maybe as we’re speaking, they just achieved a breakthrough! Cyborgs, man. They're coming, just you wait." The young mare paused, the atmosphere once again giving way to the pitter-patter of rain on the auto-cart's features, and for a split second of horror I thought she'd never speak again - that this was just the wishful product of another hallucinogenic drug forcefed to me... But, thank the Fallen Princess, it wasn't. She continued, "--Magic and technology. Workin' together. Hot damn. You know, they even have the blueprints for a new liquid magic-induced auto-cart--”

"Hey, SHIT! Watch the road!"

The moment had passed.

The auto-cart lurched to the side, leaving my body to catch up as the younger mare squeaked out of shock. Unfortunately a second was too long to spare, and I felt myself roll to the left before smacking into the wooden plank of a wall.

POP!

My vision flashed white, and suddenly I had feeling below my waist and in my right hind leg again. Immediately after I was reminded I was still alive, and I was still in this damaged body. Suddenly I wished this was a drug.

"There's not even a road!" the younger mare almost yelped as I held back one of my own. "We're in the True Darkness, dude! Free reign to drive wherever and however the hell I want! That annoying pedestrian that takes an eternity crossing the streets stands no chance now.” The raw pain flooded back into my system as nerves sprung to life in my lower body. I opened my mouth wide, breathing out a whimper before staying limp and dull. My upper hooves shakily rose into the raining and windy air and fell into my bush of a mane, as if the exercise would push out any inevitable excruciation. It was for naught, and I started to pant heavily and quietly. I had exercised this method over the past years whenever my leg would act up, among other necessary pains. For the most part these little movements had worked, but now it was only putting a thin cap over an erupting volcano.

"You... almost hit that hole," the older mare was breathing out, but I wasn't paying attention - the unnamed adjective was at the back of my mind now, and did nothing to help with the excruciating pain. “That hole, back there. There was a hole.” I was sitting up, clenching my eyes shut as I sucked in and breathed out. In and out, over and over as warm droplets of rain hooked into my mouth from the shaking lips above. My hooves caressed the bandaged appendage as I felt the old and stained cloth, which hadn't been changed for months, annexed with a brown crust I once dared to call blood. I opened my eyes to come to the familiar sight of myself writhing in pain due to my three year old injury, still unhealed. My eyes unintentionally picked up the rest of my surroundings through the gentle glints of purple light blinking in and out of existence.

I was in the True Darkness obviously, and the shaking headlights of the auto-cart, its backwards illumination bouncing up and down, caught my dark purple arms plunged into the nothingness of shadows as they held my useless leg just underneath the inadvertent light's reach. The fur on my arms were excited in the drenched wind, flailing roughly in the current of the air but taking occasional chances to momentarily flick to the opposite direction as if the individual hairs were in as much pain as I, jumping and mutely shouting in their own little language. Whenever the headlights endured a particularly rough bump and hopped up to shine a little more behind, I caught glimpses of the countless patches of scarred skin and old lacerations on my left arm, and the Spawn of Happiness on my right. It was a simple image branded into the skin, burning the fur and blood off the area around the enemy's symbol which adorned my starved forearm: a thin crescent moon running down the span of the part of my appendage with a plum-sized, six-pointed star on the left side of my upper arm just beside the moon's sharp edge. It was burned forever into my skin, injecting visions of the smiling enemy, emotions I could never recreate, and memories of the paralyzed muscles which I soon realized belonged to me. My mind did not even try to venture into the rage which was the memories of its acquirement, as I knew that inactable emotion would drown me in a sea of desperate anger and violence - then, and only then, would the enemy be comparable to myself. If their qualities were to come within a mile of my own, that would be the day I would put an end to myself for good.

Or become something I often relished in amusing the thought of back in those days: a monster.

“Liquid magic-induced wheels would've sensed the hole,” the younger mare muttered with the tone of a sneering filly. When the other mare didn't respond or laugh, she continued as I pushed the last of my initial pains out in the form of heavy breathing. "You know, I don't get you, Chill. Before our little adventure with that nest of joys and splendor--” Sarcasm. “--you were Ms. Drive-Hard, Guns-Blazing. Now you're concerned that I veer off some imaginary road? This is the True Darkness - no roads here, no Sir-ee Bob."

"I'm just tired.”

“Physically, emotionally, or are you leaving it ambiguous?”

Silence. It wasn't the awkward silence normal friends would sometimes be dragged into, or even the hurt silence when somepony hit the sweet spot of emotion. This was a different kind of absence of sound - I could almost feel the anger in the raindrops.

The younger mare tried to tune the conversation up again with a, "You know you can talk with me about anything, right?"

More silence. She wasn't the most notable example of a therapist.

"Ambiguous it is, dark and brooding protagonist. I'll leave you to it. Now back to the subject at hoof: Project Greenhoof. Awesome stuff, cyborgs exist, the future is now. But I wanted to just kinda... elaborate on a certain somepony who could use that kind of help?"

"Baryn Haze?"

"No, hell no. And that's not funny.” She said it in a way that betrayed her own words. “I, uh... I mean a certain somepony that could use a spare leg. That's in the back of our auto-cart?"

"Stop the vehicle," I hissed loudly as my throat was shocked awake by talking. The two mares went dead silent at the sound of my voice, and the auto-cart seemed to join in at the surprise as the gas was lifted, slowing the vehicle for some time of recovery. I couldn't physically stretch - it was impossible for my lower body to perform such wishful thinking. Instead, I focused on flexing my back before steadily rolling over to my stomach. When the vibration below and gas still rumbling at a steady pace showed no signs of stopping, I narrowed my eyes and growled. "Stop the bucking auto-cart."

I looked up. In front of me was what I had almost come to expect: an auto-cart constantly racing after the blackness in front of its headlights, pulling me on an addon-wagon. While the wagon was a simple wooden, table-like structure with one cubit-high walls on all sides except the front, the vehicle which pulled it was much more complicated. My focus was not on the vehicle that pulled me, however, but the ponies who drove it. Two mares were in the driver and passenger seat of the open-aired automobile, both wearing something on their faces which baffled me before flushing my system with envy: night vision goggles. Illuminated by the white haze of the headlights and the oncoming mud, rocks, and the silhouette of a forest in the distance among the stars, I could make them out through the darkness. Under the (oddly) gray-glowing visors of her night vision goggles, the driver was a roguish-looking dark blue mare. Even more odd was her clothing: what looked like a skin-tight latex suit; the shade of the article was as dark as her actual fur, with profuse gray lines running through from around her hind legs in a circle to her front legs. The lines’ shade was the same as the goggles. The suit was almost full-body, if it hadn't been for her neck, which remained free from any loose uniform. Her fiery mane was a solid shade of navy blue and whipped back freely in the oncoming wind. The night vision goggles were a pair of large, gray, glowing ovals for eyes. A complicated-looking hunk of metal surrounded it as three hard leather straps, two running horizontally, starting at her cheek area and tightly stretching around to meet at the back and one going from the top of the metal to over her mane, leaving a dividing flatness as it went over. I supposed it all met at the interconnection at the back of her head, attaching the goggles to her face. Her feminine eyes were visible through the glowing glass, wide as could be as they stared at the stallion in the back of her vehicle as if I had just popped into existence.

Meanwhile, her companion was not so relatable. Her coat was silver and sleek, although recent injuries littered her body, and had vastly different attire. Whereas her friend's suit was furtive in style, this uniform was anything but. It resembled an armored jacket - silver in color as equally saturated plates of armor covered her chest, sides, and her left shoulder. Her right one was occupied with a lone strap of hard leather, and under further inspection I saw that it attached a heavy duty bag to herself, which looked full from how much I could have seen at that angle. Her night vision goggles glowed a bright cyan, although the design of the eyes was much different than her comrade’s. Instead of the bi-circular style comparable to the driver's, her visors were made up of two layers - a horizontal strip of a glowing screen ran across her mask at eye-level on the lower layer, while a rounded triangle of curved metal was attached on its top left. Three glowing circles were placed on it, the biggest (about grapefruit sized) being in the middle, the second biggest in the bottom right corner, and the smallest on the other bottom corner. I couldn't see her eyes through the thickness of the color, and as a result she almost looked like an unfeeling robot. Curiously, the only hair on her head was the continuation of her silver fur. It took my eyes a few a moments of squinting and waiting for another bump of the headlights before I realized she was bald.

My voice was frustrated and gravelly. It had been so long since I had last spoken real words - not counting my constant yelling and grumbling and growling. That, and I was baffled by the mares' bizarre choices of attire. Were they part of an organization? I felt like they might have mentioned so. Either way, night vision goggles were unheard of during these past three years of darkness.

...Our loss. In fact, it was a big bucking loss. I was almost angry the thought had never even crossed my mind, nor the ponies I knew beforehoof whose lives could have been saved if they had such a comfort. Once again, anger blossomed in my chest.

"...Thought the drugs weren't supposed to wear off yet," the driver mumbled to her companion, glancing to said pony's way underneath her visors. “Damn medicine magicians can't do their job, hmm?” I glared at the driver expectantly just before the passenger let out an abrupt shush and the conversation was ended. A hint of dominance spiked my view.

As if I was suddenly the most interesting thing in the world, the driver stared at me with a chagrined expression on her face - the face of a filly looking at her carelessly made toy tower collapsing. The passenger merely adjusted herself in her seat, and through her endlessly shallow lenses for eyes I felt her nausea focus on my right hind leg. I was used to that reaction - sometimes I found myself indulging in it, as if the shock of losing an appendage to lameness still hadn't worn off. As an understated victory, I raised an eyebrow at her bald head.

She didn't notice, predictably.

"No," the passenger finally deadpanned as the auto-cart continued on its way. Speeding up, in fact.

My stomach heaved and the blood in my head rushed as I attempted to stand on all fours. I had only gotten my forehooves to plant firmly in the wooden ground before a shudder from the auto-cartsent me back down roughly. "Then I'm jumping out," I assured, grimacing from the pain. It wouldn't be difficult - just a jump over a one cubit-tall wooden plank, then a brief but extremely painful tumble for a few seconds before being free to either die in peace or hopelessly wander to the next group of ponies. Anything was better than the Moon Worshipers, and anything was also better than what I knew was coming. Besides that, the initial feeling I had gotten from the two mares speaking was no more than a faint memory. Our words were back to business, “not friends, just co-workers” talk and the like. I almost expected to start hearing familiar verbal scenarios of past “business,” like Moon Worshiper Merchant ranks this, this-one-is-wounded-there's-no-way-he-costs-that-much that. The usual.

"What about the mon-ayy--?" the driver started to her partner, but a more impatient hush in the form of a punch to her shoulder shut her up. The driver turned her head and focused on the nonexistent road again, deflated. Disappointing. I could've used another one of those briefly satisfying moments of he-was-famous-pre-Renaissance-raise-the-price-again reactions.

But this? This was a waste of breath. They were not going to experiment on me. The passenger started to talk, probably to continue on about how “we’re here to help,” that strong-female-antagonist sounding voice and her, but I merely tuned the pony out with a twitch of my eye and attempted to lift myself yet again. Thanks to the illumination of the headlights, I was given a great view of the hard muck, sharp rocks, and the occasional startled mud lizard hurriedly rushing away from the passing auto-cart. It was the product of the constant deluge’s toil, these conditions - the common ground which spread throughout Equestria now.

The wet soil gave myself a reflection to look at, but I promptly avoided its unfeeling glare.

I took my first step, unblinking, and I think I would have actually gone through with it, but before I could walk off into the True Darkness the auto-cart's engine let out a loud squeal as its brakes were slammed on. My vision swam as gravity shifted inside my body, and before I could possibly get my bearings I felt two bars slam into my shoulders. When my brain caught up with my body, I came to the sight of the front innards of a stopped auto-cart and a very irritated driver’s shoulder just to my left.

The passenger lifted her leg from reaching across the vehicle's innards and onto the brake lever and gave me a venomous glare. I realized I was now sandwiched between the two mares, the one on my right's armor digging into my fur like a knife as sharp as her remarks: "You're not going anywhere, you ungrateful piece of fuck." Here comes the we’re-here-to-help. "I don't know if you remember, but we lost three mares and a stallion trying to free you and whatever other mentally challenged defectives we got from Moon Worshiper hooves. Not only that, but bullets are not bucking cheap - not with the switching currency issues, and we spent our fair share putting holes in your captors’ chest cavities, so show some bucking gratitude. Now, my friend and I did not go on another three day-long, exhausting raid on some psychos' little shit nest to save a pony that won't even make saving his life easy, let alone standing up on all fours. Yeah, I saw that. Now do yourself a favor and go back into the drugged sleep which you’re supposed to be in right now."

I met her look with an evenly deathly gaze as my nares flared with breath. I knew she could have easily wiped the floor with me given my health. At this point it was just a game of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

"Do not threaten me,” I spat. The passenger's visors were unreadable at that, and I felt a sudden urge to rip her goggles from her face to reveal her eyes - the passage to all ponies' thoughts. I let that thought steam my mind before pushing out of the auto-cart and back onto the addon-wagon. We stayed stationary however, and the rain kept pouring, individual droplets steadily trailing down the passenger's stoic, cyan visors. Her mouth, which was clearly visible, was a thin line as she looked back at me.

After a glance back to me, then the passenger, then back to me, the driver spoke up. "Alright, we've all gone through shit. 'Nopony knows how you live,' I get it. But what I think my friend is trying to get across is that maybe you could show a teeny amount of gratitude? I mean, we just saved your ass from a certain rape-happy cult of criminals. A simple 'thank you' would be nice."

"I will not be experimented on," I snapped, drawing my left hind leg closer to myself - my right one was stinging too much to move, courtesy of my sudden derailment. The engine kept whirling on its own, each click earning a twitch of my eye. "Never again. Not without a fight."

A fight I knew I couldn't give.

The driver's mouth opening slightly and her head leaning back told me she was confused. The passenger, meanwhile, turned back to the road which she imagined.

"I heard you talking about Project Greenhoof," I assured. "I'm done being somepony's puppet. I'm getting out. Now stop the auto-cart.”

"It’s already stopped,” the passenger murmured.

“I mean, you don't have to if you don't want to!" the driver spoke up. "I just figured that with your knee bone literally ingrown into the meat of your leg, you'd be a willing volunteer. Because shit, that needs a doctor. You know it's dangerous to stop magical first aid midway through, right--?”

"What do you mean by bullets not being cheap?" I asked in a sudden attempt to change the subject. The crippling thought of them being correct had briefly entered my mind, but it was quickly shot down. Let's talk about bullets.

The two mares in the seats' night vision goggles both turned my way. Even if it was just a conversation shifter, it was indeed a question which was starting to nag me from the inside out. "Do you use magic vials?” I prodded further, away from the subject of my leg. “Neither of you are unicorns, so how could you use a gun? What could you do, hold the gun in your mouth and bite the trigger? Hope to the Fallen Princess that it won't break every tooth in your mouth or break your neck from recoil?"

The mare on my right stayed silent before giving a solitary, turtle-like nod to her friend, as if saying, “This one is trustworthy.”

I don't know how, but it seemed like the driver’s visors, as if in replacement of her eyes, lit up. She said excitedly, "We use OEMPs!”

I blinked.

"Over-Expendable Mouth Pieces," she explained, before reaching into the dark depths of the auto-cart's glove compartment. Meanwhile, I was thinking of how much better the acronym sounded than the actual meaning.

A smile accompanied the driver’s turned away features as she dug through a variety of clink and clank-makers like a filly searching for her favorite toy. The heavy atmosphere which I was so used to but so sick of was gradually being lifted as her skippy voice continued with, "These babies were invented in 2-iD, just under a year ago. They come in SMGs, assault rifles, and shotguns to start with - and no, not the guns you see in the movies, but actually usable ones. Pistols are an add-on in the hardware if you're rich, which nopony is, considering how bucking cheap doits are from bits. This year they just came out with some new models: grenade launchers, sniper rifles, and LMGs. More are in the works... -- Ahah! Found it!" Ending her monologue (which I suspected to have postponed her sudden ability to find one of these OEMPs), the driver pulled something out of the glove compartment and proudly held it up for inspection. My head tilted.

It looked like a mechanical mask for the lower face. A sturdy-looking loop of a leather strap was attached on the back of it, which I guessed was for keeping on the head of a pony. The mask itself was strange, though. Black was its primary color, making the details hard to make out, but I did catch the shape of two skinny, long cylinders on each side where the cheek would be underneath.

No matter how long a pony spent in the new Equestria, their eyes never adjust to the darkness. Whereas other species' irises widened and shrunk for absorbing more light, ours are more for emotional outputs and therefore were not so useful. My own were no exceptions, and when they laid upon the driver's happily gray goggles, I envied her for the second time of the night. Or day. Moon cycle.

I briefly acknowledged how the rain dribbled down her screens, unable to penetrate the eyes from just beyond, and I wondered just how much force it'd take to separate the goggles from her face.

A grunt and a nod from me. She probably thought I had as good of vision as her, being used to that constant gray glow. I would inspect it further later.

The driver gave an proud, almost pretentious smile. "Here you have a classic Light Bringer-made assault rifle OEMP. Just strap it on your mouth and bite the trigger lever inside to fire. God dayum, this thing can rip a mare apart." She shifted the mask so it stood upright on her hoof, pointing to the protruding cylinder as if I could see it as clear as day. "It shoots twin rounds from these magazines, and in the assault rifle's case, magic is used to keep aiming as accurate as possible with a crosshair which--"

"Well, don't you have the gift of gab," the passenger interrupted with a bit more gentle warmth than I was expecting, and I realized her cyan visors were aimed at me. "His ears are perfectly erect. He must like violence. And Light Bringer technology." She finished the statement with a look at the driver, and her female-bad-guy voice did what it did best and wiped any recurring thoughts of that previous warmth from the atmosphere. From the way the armored mare tilted her head forward and pursed her lips, I guessed she was glaring.

She really liked glaring. But, on the better hoof, that was the most emotion I've seen on her yet; there's still hope for that stoically depressed face of hers!

"How’d you like it if I just started interrupted you all the time?” the driver affronted. “I didn't even tell him about the projectiles!" She moved her shoulders as if about to throw her hooves up, but ultimately thought better of it with the driving wheel in front of her and all. "That's the best part!"

"...Those, then nothing else. Let's see if you blow up another webeloe nest by accident. Sit back down, you."

I sat back down, although only because I knew they had weapons ready. Meanwhile, the passenger reached over and pointed the mask's front portion away from us into the depths of the True Darkness as if it'd accidentally go off in her face. Or a webeloe nest, apparently.

The new angle gave me a bit more perspective on the OEMP. Inside the mask was an assortment of tiny wires which had flowing gray liquid magic inside, hugging the walls of the innards which came in from the outsides of the mask and connected to the cylinders and various other slits and buttons. They amalgamated at the very center of the mask like a spider web being twisted. The resulting gray light illuminated the metal bar positioned snuggly in the little space, which stuck out what looked like an inch so it'd be just in front of the potential pony’s mouth for clear talking. I guessed magic and technology workin’ together (“Hot damn.”) made the lever push forward whenever the pony wanted to bite down on it and fire.

The hard leather strap on the bar of the mare’s OEMP had bite marks on it.

"Projectiles, and the place they're launched from, depend on the model. They're activated by saying a password into the mic, which you would've been told about if my friend here hadn't so rudely interrupted. For assault rifles they have string bombs, and shoot them from the big ol' grenade-shaped hole in the front of the mask. The gearheads are trying to find ways to induce magic in them so they'd be redesigned and more deadly.”

"Grenade?" I asked seriously.

The driver, instead of giving me a correct response, substituted it with a weak smile. "You're, uh, kidding. Right?" I shook my head. The mare to my left sighed, repeating my head-shaking action before steadily speeding the auto-cart up, dragging the passenger and I with her.

There was a bit of an awkward silence, as if the driver was contemplating what she did to anger the Gods so she would become stuck with such an oblivious stallion. Either that or she was trying to think up the correct words to explain a grenade.

Speaking of which, the passenger once again reached over and tilted the OEMP away from in front of the auto-cart to the side. The driver gave a brief (and not so slightly embarrassed) “Thanks,” under her breath before speaking up again. "Little ball that… explodes, I dunno. Boom-boom? You know boom-booms, right?” The driver was drawling as if I was a school filly. I held down a snarl. "String bombs, my uncultured friend, are two of those attached to a rope--"

The passenger, who must be picking up a habit now, interrupted her friend with an unusually loud, "Oh, my dear, dead, Princess Celestia, he's not a bucking colt."

The OEMP responded to the words "Princess Celestia" with three consecutive beeps and a brief gray glow from the countless wires and screens in its innards. Instantly afterwards a dark entity was launched from the OEMP's front with a static smoke, bucking the driver's hoof to the opposite direction with a distinct Buh-DMPH! I flinched as a few memories of explosions flashed in my mind before instantly being snuffed out - not out completely, but to be added to the cemetery of horrible memories in the back of my mind

"SHET!" the driver exploded before barely regaining control of the wheel just as a magical blast of blue fire glowed in the distance with an ear-cracking BH-UMMT!

We all took a moment to collect ourselves; the driver recovered from almost squeaking out of fear while the passenger adjusted her position. The openness of her mouth suggested that she might have underestimated the consequences of triggering the OEMP. I, meanwhile, found out about my new ability to cower even tighter than already.

"You did that on purpose!" the driver snapped, glaring daggers at the passenger. The latter shrugged in an attempt to seem calm, but the shakiness of her voice betrayed her.

"Your fault for choosing the most cliché password in existence." The passenger turned away, unreadable. "Remember Baryn Haze?"

"Not my fault he's Manestralian," the driver defended herself with. She turned to me, speaking lightheartedly but fragile, as if still in shock. "You think we're in denial? Spend a weekend in the Down Under. Those guys say the Fallen Princess' name like it's a god damn spell to ward off evil. Give 'em my OEMP and they'll blow themselves up within the night.”

"What if I had said the password before now?" I asked, my eyes narrowing.

"And the most repeated question of all time is spoken," the passenger muttered to herself.

The driver held her chin high. "Aww, you guys are getting along! And also plow you for ganging up on me." "Watch the road."

"What road?"

"Watch whatever the buck is going on in front of us!"

The driver turned back to the True Darkness. I snorted before slowly uncurling from my ball of cowardice and limping to the back of the addon-wagon, rain showering every inch of the way. Used to the constantly pouring waters, I bent down and sat before resting my chin on the vibrating wooden wall. My teeth clattered softly in response.

As I looked into the solid blackness dashing beside us, yet always stationary, I felt as if I should be feeling something. Besides the initial emotions from sudden actions by the two mares behind me, I felt strangely calm, as if all of this was just in the swing of things. Any normal pony would have rejoiced at the very notion of escaping the past two years spent as something lower than dirt, but as I looked into the void of Equestria, all I felt was tired and frustrated. I had felt the same way when I was first brought into custody, saved from the first year into Darkness spent wandering the True Darkness alone only to be subjected to something even more horrifying.

I was no longer a living being, it seemed, but a leaf in a river, unable to change my inescapable fate. Was my freedom of choice just an illusion? Where had my previous spunk when I had heard I was about to be experimented on gone? I could only guess it was spite which drove my outburst, as if the mere implication of the ugly truth of confinement which I thought I had come to terms with was enough to send panic down my body.

It was ugly, this thing I called my mind.

"All right, I'm tired of this blank-face bullshit," the driver said over the growing volume of the mud spraying out from under the tires. "What's your name?"

I picked myself up to look at the driver. She caught a full whiff of my blank-face bullshit through the inner mirror.

"You got a name, don't you?”

I studied her for a minute before steadily returning to my position.

"Fallen Princess Almighty," I heard her mumble. "Ya know, we're about to spend a lot of time together, so let's tear down that 'Silent and Brooding Type' wall and get real for a second. You've got to start trusting other ponies if you want to stay alive from now on.” A pause, as if she was peering back at me. I could feel her gaze on my bare, soaked side through the rain. "Milk Dud is my name, just so ya know. Still not the best of friends yet? Alright, well hold onto your Moon Worshiper-owned butt."

"Shut the buck up," I snapped. I didn't have to put any effort in glaring at her - I knew that I had already instinctively shot my head in her direction, my eyes sharp knives. My voice penetrated through that thick skull, embedding the fact that I wouldn't mind one bit to turn that steering wheel and kill us all. She was to never mention that fact again. Milk-- no. The driver followed my order and quickly turned back to the mud in front of us, and the passenger suppressed a snicker. I must have waited a minute or two, because it felt like it, staying in that position: staring at them, paralyzing their remarks. When I realized my eyes were almost completely dry, I blinked hard and turned away, unwilling to let her last words infect my mind with memories any longer.

Even though I knew I could never forget them. The good memories, the pre-Renaissance memories, I had no trouble with unwillingly losing. But these ones were different. They were a looming, dark figure above my thoughts at all times, waiting patiently for the odd word out to trigger a brief flash of emotion. They were truly, horrifically unforgettable. I could only not think about them.

My vision was naught but black as with my surroundings: the True Darkness. The huge expanse of mud and rain occupied by Moon Worshipers and the endless night sky above, our memento mori, which made up the majority of this new, horrible Equestria. Between the herds, neutral zones, and any outpost with so much as a dim lantern for a source of light, this place was the breeding ground of the recently mutated animals and criminal ponies with morals reduced to instinct: food, pillaging, worshipping, sex. To the ponies in the herds around the world - these concentration camps, these you’ll-be-safe-heres, ruled by the Night Guard not far from the destroyed ruins of the former cities - the True Darkness was a death trap. And, to an extent, they were right. The darkness was infectious to anypony who so much as looked into the brutal environment and opened their damaged mind to the swamp of broken morales and mirroring rains by the name of Equestria. Few ponies could tell themselves or (by some miracle) others who were willing to listen that they had spent more than a few seconds in the True Darkness, before continuing to go home to their magic tent and not worry about instant interrogation or “nightly correction.”

I had spent the last three years in this unspeakable place, and it had done something to me. Gone was the spirit of ponykind - “spirit” would be the closest word to this unwritable marvel - to be replaced with an ugly rendition of a pony. I had little morals. I guessed myself being willing to acknowledge that was a start, but it was an impossible race. No matter what, though, I would still stay afloat. It was like puffing your chest full of air so you'd float on the pool surface, but being unable to move anything significantly. The reason for my small victory was simple: I was no Moon Worshiper. I had done what I had to to survive - not in the “strong, brooding protagonist” way, but the real one, when it damages everything you used to hold dear until you're reduced to a skinny, broken, unstable mess of somepony who would not bat an eye against drinking mud to survive. This inflicted fragility was real, and it had and continued to torment me from the inside out, rendering me useless in times of another pony’s life or death and sucking the eventual self forgiveness out of my brain out like a hungry tube.

If it was the True Darkness or the Moon Worshipers who did this to me, I would not know.

"...I was a carpenter," I heard from the auto-cart’s driver. My eyes narrowed and I turned to shut her up again, only to come to the image of something unique. The passenger seemed to retreat back to her own seat, as if she was thinking of doing my job for herself. Yet, when my eyes fell upon what the driver's right hoof was holding up, I understood the passenger's silence. Its silhouette was given off from the headlights of the auto-cart, further designed by the gentle glow of the driver's goggles like a caring mother’s gaze on a newborn. "I was born in a little town near Horseshoe Bay - before it turned into what it is now, of course. My dad was a carpenter and my mom was a psychiatrist. Weird mix, huh?" She was trying to lighten the mood with an awkward introduction, placing the object down in the darkness of the auto-cart. I had a guess as to where this was going, which the passenger translated wholeheartedly.

"You don't have to tell your life story," the mare in the right seat said, although it came out like a question doomed to failure.

"Hang on, I'm getting somewhere." Milk Dud took a moment of silence, as if it took effort to remember her own life. "Steady Hammer and Mind Breeze. My old stallion was your exact equivalent of a big teddy bear, and was the first gleaming smile newcomers would see when they got into town - little did they know just how short his temper was with his wife! Breezy, meanwhile, was a little on the high-strung side, but would jump in front of a bullet for her husband. Can't really say the same for me. Because of something that happened in her childhood, she actually wanted a colt… A little on the ‘unrealistic expectation’ side for me, but I guess the gender ratio must’ve interested her for the challenge. It didn't work out in her favor, though - when she had me, she was physically damaged too much to have another child." I caught her gleaming smile in the clattering rear view mirror. She was shaking her head with an emotion I didn't know existed, even with my expertise. "Loved my parents to death, but boy could they fight! I'd stay up nights to the sounds of them constantly lashing out at each other, then backing down, only to hit the sweet spot again and ignite the flames. They never got divorced, though. Just fought one night, made up, and went a week or two before coming up with more reasons to passionately strangle each other. The neighbors were worried sick about it all, but it was their relationship’s character, I guess. I know I'll understand someday."

I used the rear view mirror to study the driver. I couldn't see much from under those gray night vision goggles covering her visage. Yet, her eyes still shone through, brighter than the literal gaze of the visors leading her vision. Besides that, I could see her smile, which was enough to stop me from actually asking her if she was, indeed, beautiful. It might have not been the right question to ask, anyway - my social skills haven't exactly had time to sharpen over the past years.

I nodded to myself. Milk Dud would understand a relationship’s ins and outs someday.

"I earned my cutie mark when I was eight, living in Baltimare at that time. Pretty good age, my dad says. I still remember the moment: I had just built my first life-size replica of a medieval trebuchet for a school fair. Mind Breeze told me not to get too excited, though - 'You're no prodigy' she made sure I knew. ...Well, anyway, I can't show you the image 'cuz of this Light Bringer Assassin suit--"

"Stop giving away our info!" the passenger interrupted, before I took the liberty to interrupt her with an irritated:

"Shh."

The cyan irises steadily flowed my way. I couldn't see much of her facial features because of the visor culprits themselves, but the auto-cart's headlights gave way to her mouth completely. It wasn't a dropped jaw per se, but it was still a damn satisfying shock. Milk Dud suppressed a giggle and glimpsed at me through the rear view mirror, and I felt some weird twitching at the corner of my mouth. Was that a smile?

"...Anyways, this Light Bringer Assassin suit, made with magically concentrated latex and hard cow leather, originally designed by Sacré Rouge, who is also the founder of the Light Bringers, organized in 1-iD, is blocking the view of my cutie mark. It's a 2-D wooden table with a saw through the top left side. Or is that information classified as well?”

"You're children," the passenger mumbled before burying her face in her hooves (or trying her best to, considering the hunk of metal and glass which covered more than half of her face). "The both of you. Children. You do realize we have to kill him if he doesn't apply for the Light Bringers now, right?"

If I wasn't already so used to threats of that caliber, I would have had a reaction.

I took another glimpse at the rear view mirror and spotted Milk Dud's grinning face once again. I might have imagined it, but her playful eyes flicked away from making contact with my own.

My eyes narrowed and I cowered tighter. A brief, fresher memory flicked in and out of existence:

(“One glimpse is just a natural movement. The crazies do that sometimes. When they look at you twice, though, don't sleep in the same bed that night. Hide.”)

"Well,” Milk Dud continued, her real face replacing the ghost of my past. “I joined my dad's business in carpentry after that. That did not bode well with Mom, though, and she pretty much shut me out. Moved away, back to Horseshoe Bay to start working for herself. She had a lot of success there because of all the foreign curiosity about Equestrian psychiatry. She came over to rough up Sturdy Hammer occasionally, to keep things steady between the two, but as the years passed she came less and less.

"Mind Breeze's name became literal eventually, and soon she was missing birthday parties. That's a big no-no for Dad, and he left to have a talk with her alone one day. I was seventeen, then, when the sky stayed black--..." Milk Dud's speech grew quiet. For some time the atmosphere was absent of her voice, and was instead vibrant with the engine's rumbling and wheels’ sloshing. Rain still poured from above, shining us all like metal and gravestones. Soon, though, a sigh escaped Milk Dud. "Everypony knows the story now. The Elements of Harmony try to save the day, but... Nightmare Moon won. It's that simple. The villain, for once, won.

"There were two types of ponies that day. The oblivious ones and the paranoid ones. I was oblivious. Kept on running my father's business with a black sky above, figuring Princess Celes -- urhm..-- the Fallen Princess, had made an honest mistake. Or was sleeping in, or something like that. I was building a cart at the time - one of the old carts, without engines - when my parents both arrived back home. My father gave me a hug and my mother did the most logical thing she could think of: run around the house, screaming and hollering that something was wrong. Guess she was one of the paranoid ones."

I saw Milk Dud's body grow shaky as she breathed, recounting the memories which we all shared. "Then the Speech Across the World happened. ...You all heard it, and saw it, loud and clear. Thousands and thousands of Nightmare Moon's image, running up and down the sky like a grid of sickening smiles on TVs, speaking from nonexistent speakers in all of our heads. Announcing the Fall of Canterlot." Milk Dud lowered her head and stayed silent. I readjusted myself, genuinely interested in her story. "...My mom flipped. Took a kitchen knife and came at the nearest thing to her: me. She came at me with all she had, but it was nothing compared to my father's rage. But I did get the message her eyes were sending. She wasn't a bad pony, just... mad. I guess that's what happened to Equus, too. Good ponies. Just... mad." She sniffed before wiping her nose and looking into the True Darkness. For a few precious moments, I wanted to comfort her.

That thought was quickly shot down and burned at the stake. I am not capable of that anymore.

"My dad subdued her, and then she just accepted it. He had to tie her up and went to call for Celestia’s Guard… but I guess that's when reality finally crashed down on him. I remember asking my father, 'What now?'

"'Guess we'll just make of it as we will,' he said - his exact words. We didn't know what else to do. So we continued to be oblivious. I know it was a shitty idea, but we tried to continue business as usual. What else were we supposed to do? We had no survival skills, we were just normal ponies. The most useful thing I had was a Filly Scout’s badge in camping." If that was an attempt at humor, it didn’t work. Now Milk Dud was really tearing up. She held her hoof to her snout as her voice broke more and more, oblivious to seemingly everything. Her eyes were glossy underneath her gray visors, staring into the darkness as if it’d hide her tears. "Baltimare was gonna be leveled and rebuilt into a herd - some... collection of tents, with a fire and some Dictator to order us around. My mother talked about fighting, but my dad couldn't bring himself to do it. He was scared. All of us were. Besides, what could a few ponies fighting an entire world accomplish?

"We must have stayed days, witnessing our own neighbors turn against each other, scream themselves to sleep... until the Night Guard came to our home. The moment I saw their gleaming armor, I thought it was death itself on our porch.” She shivered as if the memory was only minutes old. “Seeing those thousand-year-old faces, these ‘ponies’ who had joined Nightmare Moon over a thousand years ago during her first attempt, and who had been banished to the moon with her consequently… It's indescribable, seeing those campfire story monsters in real life, on my front porch, facing my own family... It wasn't the crazy ponies down the street they were after, it wasn't the no-lifes, they weren't targeting the drunkies in alleyways, there was no contextual victim like in the movies, it was us they sought after. It was a nightmare reincarnate.

“But these ponies, these living fossils, these… killing machines wanted something worse than our demise: our partnership. They wanted to hire my father to help build the tents. --" Milk Dude snorted, before looking to her left into the the expanse of night, once again trying to hide her features and failing. Her snout contorted and her breath hitched a few times before calming. "...F-Fallen..." She intentionally shook her head before focusing on the road again. Her sentences were short and exact, her head swaying forward with each fresh memory. "...He refused. They persisted. He refused... again. Their unicorns drew weapons, pointed at me, and... Mom stepped in front of me." Milk Dud's swaying gradually ceased.

The passenger was looking into the True Darkness sickly. She must have heard this story more than once, judging by her silent sympathy. The two mares must have gone through much together.

The driver took a minute to calm herself. No visible tears were shed, and the sniffing eventually drowned to silence of her own. "I still don't know why she did it," she said. "Maybe I'll understand someday, like her relationship with my dad. But for now I guess I can just keep on wondering, because I don't think she understood, either, until that last moment.

"When Sturdy Hammer saw that, he..." Milk Dud shrugged. Now her attempts of neutrality were gradually seeping into effect. "...Well, I'm not full of bullet holes, now, am I? He picked up the closest thing to him - a hammer on the shelf to his left - and went insane. I saw my first fill of blood that day. Or night. Moon cycle. What-bucking-ever." She seemed to focus on the blackness ahead, through those pretty gray eyes of hers. She continued thoughtfully, "It was weird. When I was younger I thought if I was ever in some situation like that, I'd stick with my father 'til the end. Help out, defend my family. But when the opportunity finally presented itself? I was just terrified. It's weird how those moments can just creep up on you and plow you up the ass, you know? Your whole life thinking you're strong enough to handle it, to stand up and fight it, to whip out that gun in that alleyway and point it at that robber and say, ‘No way, bitch.’ But when it actually does happen, and you experience... that, and that robber, that moment of fight or flight, pulls out a knife and puts it to your throat and says spread ‘em, things in your mind happen too quick. It's all just too sudden and unfair. You don't have a choice. You do whatever your body makes you do, and then you have to live with the choice you didn't really make, but you did. That's when you truly know if you're really that strong.

"Sturdy Hammer killed most of them, and I won't even try to explain what the sight of my own father killing somepony made me feel. It just can't be done. First he used a hammer, then when that broke he used his own hooves. Meanwhile, I was just trying to get over the shock of it all - how my oblivious, pre-Renaissance life ended so quickly, and how I didn't have any time to think, and how my mother… Well. Guess the Night Guard were getting their full share of that moment of strength, too, 'cuz they were practically shitting themselves before they finally put him down. Took not one, but two drop vials before he was asleep. You know what a drop vial is, right?” I nodded, catching her eye in the rear view mirror. “Then they dragged him off. And I ran." Milk Dud's jaw straightened, and her nose wrinkled. "I couldn't see much, but… he was alive. I know he's out there now. Under the Night Guard's watch or not, he's alive. Ponies like him simply don't go down without leaving their mark on history."

My ears perked at that. I knew those ponies firsthoof. "You're looking for him."

"You bet," Milk Dud piped up, a lighthearted smile planting itself on her features illuminated by her gray visors. Once again, it was as if her emotional outburst did not happen. "And I'm not gonna stop until he's safe. Then he can see how far I've come." When her persistent message was sent, the blue mare glanced up into the invisible sky. I turned my head to follow her focus, and only saw blackness with the occasional star. But when I felt the passenger's simple glare on my fur, I returned the gesture with vile.

"If you think about it, this really isn't all that bad," Milk Dud continued. "It's only been three years. Things can still change. Granted, the wildlife got bucked up after the Dark Magic Act, but at least they're not running rampant through the herds, am I right?" She chuckled nervously at that last slip of the tongue. I was almost tempted to join in. The Dark Magic Act was the ultimate failure of Nightmare Moon’s post-inauguration aggression, illegalizing all forms of magic except for the Night Guard. An unimaginable ocean of liquid magic, sucked from all the unicorns of Equestria individually, rendering their horns useless; was dumped in the Everfree Forest to be forgotten. Except it wasn't - it was absorbed by the soil, the trees, the grass, and the domino effect won over the wildlife shortly after, “bucking them up” indeed. The law was quickly revoked, only to be replaced by another equally preposterous course of action.

There was a certain madness to Nightmare Moon when she had first become ruler, as if she knew her victory would be short lived; that the heroes would surely rise again, and she needed to damage Equestria beyond repair before the Elements ultimately defeated her. Well, mission accomplished. Now we were only waiting for the Elements to follow suit in this prophecy.

Milk Dud, seemingly reading my thoughts, continued her optimism. "This isn't some dystopian future that we find in young adult novels. Those realities take time to form." Her focus shifted back down to the road ahead. "Nightmare Moon? Just another villain in desperate need of an ass-whoopin' by a strapping group of Equestrians. She might've won once, but in the end, the hero always triumphs."

"Ponyville thought that way," the passenger put in blightingly.

Milk Dud grew silent at the mention of Ponyville. I recognized her silence - it was a special kind of thought, as if her mind was suddenly oblivious to her seemingly unwavering optimism. The poison was quick to quiet, and the passenger recognized that she had hit a sweet spot. Both ponies' minds were unreadable as the road continued for some time.

I hated the silence, suddenly.

"You'll know me as Rain," I uttered. Said concept kept pattering across the auto-cart as it drove, although the driver of the vehicle's focus was slightly derived from the course ahead. Milk Dud's head was turned so she could get a good look at me through the rear-view mirror, and even the passenger's ears perked in surprise. "It's a nickname, not my real one, given to me by my sister, Goldbuck. Again, a nickname."

I also stole a view at the mirror. Milk Dud was suppressing a toothy grin by biting her lips from the inside while the passenger tilted her head my way. They were interested, and I narrowed my eyes before looking down directly at my smirched body. I was almost ashamed that this was happening. It felt as it should: I was opening up to another pony after years of telling myself to never share information about myself to anypony again. Was this all it took for my constant battering to dissipate?

I bit my lip and narrowed my eyes. Of course I had to share this with Milk Dud after all that she had just told me. Yet the passenger was just as evident as the mare I was in debt to. She was almost the elephant in the room at this point, a shadow of Milk Dud. Nameless, dark, and always there to bring her down when she deemed it appropriate to do so. She was hateful, more so than I was, and I detested her for that along with many other reasons.

Did she have a story too? Or was she just the shadow by Milk Dud's side? I knew no such type of pony existed. If I saw her in front of me, right now and alive, that confirms the fact that she has been on this world. And, judging from a few more aspects than just her voice, she has been on this world for much longer than I. But the thought pestered myself as I could sense the passenger's dark existence; it was listening and attentive. I could feel her ears perked in the wind, disrupting the flow of the air and the gusts inside my own head. I did not want to tell her anything.

Still, the better part of me felt it was time to take Milk Dud up on her advice - to trust other ponies. It was just us, on the edge of the True Darkness, after all. Adding onto that, they were indeed the ones who had saved me from the Moon Worshipers.

A heat rose in my chest as my mind, inexperienced in other ponies but all too experienced in the lingering spirits inside, felt the possibility of a friendship. I was not outwardly grateful, but I knew I owed both of these mares more than just my life. A reward insignificant as that is an insult to their efforts.

I would keep it simple - for their tolerance, and my execrable social skills.

"I was born on September 17, 21-bD, in Fillydelphia, Equestria." The passenger's shoulders rose and fell intentionally. I didn't know how to take that and continued. "And... I don't remember the entirety of my childhood, except my cutie mark appearing." I did not make a move to reveal the icon located on my haunches. My mouth feeling dry through the entirety of my awkward testimony also did not help my uncomfortable condition.

Before I was set victim to my withdrawn tone again, I was saved by Milk Dud. "Explain it," she suggested.

Her request turned out to be bemusing. It had been years since somepony asked about that story every one of us shared: our cutie marks appearing. And even when it was among the few memories I held onto throughout Tartarus and back, her request was disputatious at the least. I was almost angry she had asked; that I barely knew her (then again, I did know her now, didn't I?), and that she had deemed it worthy to share life stories so early. Yet it procured our relationship, didn't it?

I narrowed my eyes, focused on the wet air in front of my snout, and told the story.

"I was an actor," I told, a few memories briefly flicking in and out of existence from the word. At that, Milk Dud raised a hoof as if she had just discovered something unknown while the passenger took a double take at me. I avoided both of their gazes by never moving. "Well, a starting actor. I was twelve years old at that time. Older than usual for the cutie mark-getting age, but I looked young. I was in the play...--" I took a moment to think and remembered the name of the play. Still, I did not share it. "--...I can't remember. Where the Something-Something. It had an original name - something that the audiences were curious about."

Where the Angels Fall. Directed by Lyles McStage. Starring Sugar Grape, Gene Trotters, and Étoile Mending. Nominated for two Shining Light Prizes: Best Use of Choreography, and Best Supporting Child Actor.

Me.

"...And I was good. For my age. I didn't have a comedic or dramatic role, but an understatement of both. Lighthearted and intense, and still young. I don't know what the director was going for, but it worked in my favor in the end.

"My cutie mark appeared during the curtain call. I had already bowed, earning a standing ovation from the audience, when Raucous Wind, our music director, noticed the flash of white first. Soon after was the rest of the cast, then myself, then the audience, then the press. It's a pair of Thalia and Melpomene masks. Dominoes were invented, and that's how my career started."

"Wait a minute," Milk Dud interrupted suddenly. "What'd you say your name was?"

"I never told you my name," I stated firmly. "But, to you, my label is Rain."

"The hell does that mean?"

"He's deranged," the passenger huffed. But her two cents could not buy the derailment of Milk Dud's friendliness.

"Nickname it is," the driver concluded. "But... god dammit, I think I know who you are! I used to watch some of your stuff back in the b-D's! Shit, what's your name...?"

A white-hot ball formed in my chest, and I blinked simply. For some time we sat there, me unbelieving of Milk Dud's connection. I knew I was successful in the acting industry, and even mixed some modeling in as well, but to meet somepony who had seen you in something is a special feeling. Perhaps, someday, she could tell me what "stuff" I had been in? I couldn't remember much about that part of my life, just the overview of my career.

It was only Moon Worshipers and survivability techniques and the sickening nightmare of that mare’s “Rain, you coward, help me!” and more cries of betrayal. Nothing else but these three scars and my barely existent pre-Renaissance recollection to keep me from storyless faces in a crowd.

“So,” Milk Dud unintentionally interrupted. “How'd you get that nickname, Rain? Be honest, did you just say that because you’re in love with the rain?”

“Uninteresting story,” I said, recovering from the dissipating faces in my head. “I just got it one day. I'm used to rain at most. Most ponies who are ‘in love’ with the rain are just being pretentious, trying to come off as the thoughtful, misunderstood character.”

Milk Dud laughed at that like a colt who just heard “Mommy Daddy Fun Time” for the first time.

I compared her to a child a lot, I realized, and it was ever so fitting.

Changing the subject, I plunged back into my life as she calmed down, and I sensed a warmer than usual gaze from the driver. "My father is a radiologist. Mother, magical researcher. Sister, nurse. None of us know where I got the talent from, but that wonder was lost on my father." I furrowed my brow. "He wanted me to become a doctor or a scientist. I know it's stereotypical, but clichés come from some form of truth. 'Imagine a wasteland,' he would say. 'And you're wandering through it alone, starving and sick. You come across a shelter and ask to be let in, but the ponies inside are low on supplies and only welcome the ponies who would be important for others' thrive, like teachers, cooks, and doctors. They need ponies who are trained to help themselves and others, and whose expertise is valuable and useful. When you mention that you act like somepony else for a living, they'll turn you away.'”

A sting of irony shot through me like a bullet as I thought of that wasteland.

"His philosophy turned to a strong belief, and through drinking turned into stone fact. One day, that stone exploded in all of our faces, and my parents separated. He took custody of my sister, and my mother me. One of the things I remember was what she used to say, my sister: ’Tomorrow’s a new day.’ It was kinda funny; that was her way of saying ‘Everything’s going to be okay,’ but sarcastically. My mother and I moved to Canterlot after that."

If Ponyville was a trigger for hushed voices, Canterlot was a switch of dead silence. It was a worldly monument, the home of the Princess of the Sun, and a symbol of order and light to the world, protecting us from darkness and shielding us from villains. Now it was reduced to a hill of rubble at the foot of the mountain it had once ruled from. A terrorist attack that resulted in the ultimate defeat.

I nodded my head and my snout twitched. I felt the heaviness behind my eyes, the want to cry at the memories of everypony's lives being shattered, shattered, shattered. I hated Nightmare Moon. I didn't know if it was the fact that she was crazy enough to attack Canterlot, or the fact that she was a corrupted form of innocence, or the fact that Celestia did not fight when her castle tumbled, or the fact that she had captured the Elements and spread their prison locations across Equus, or the fact that she won. She bucking won.

If I was ever put in a room with her, I would kill her. I wouldn't even bat an eye. Like eating mud.

To mask my rage I spoke brusquely and shortly. "I was there when it happened. I awoke to the sound of wailing and explosions, and… I should stop trying. Nopony could recreate what happened that night with words. Not if they saw Celestia’s Castle crumble in person.” The two mares nodded, stunned. “My older sister was there. Goldbuck was there, I don't remember why or how, but she was with me that night and tried to help me get away from it all - get away from the Night Guard invading Canterlot, get away from Nightmare Moon circling above us in a carriage, get away from the… chaos of it all.

“I remember a flash of cyan and an unbearable heat, like I was in an oven. And my leg breaking." My right hind leg was slowly lifted, and for the first time I knew the ponies I was talking to wouldn't lower the price on me after seeing it. “My sister put on a magical healing pad over it, but it must have been knocked off when I fell off Canterlot Falls.” Three years it had spent only partially healed. Three years it had spent unable to be infected, but unable to complete its process of rehabilitation. Bone merging with flesh, nerves numb with pain, and clouds infecting my mind with nausea every time I merely tripped.

“That’ll do it,” I heard Milk Dud murmur.

Meanwhile, the auto-cart’s tires seemed to be not sloshing as much mud… it was slowing down. My head craned up to see that Milk Dud was enveloped in the scene before us - the passenger, her eyes on me. Both scenarios were dark and complex, for the Everfree Forest lay in front of us.

It was an expanse of green. That was the only way to describe it. Trees and ferns, mud and rocks, infected plants and infected animals. All residing in that cesspool of everything bad in Equestria, its entrance currently sitting just ten or so cubits in front of us, that haunted house your friends dared you to knock on, that ten paces to the alter. From left to right the green ran, no stop in sight, and I wondered if it had just suddenly materialized in front of us or if I had just never noticed it. The trees directly in front of us were acting as curtains, only partially hiding the algal cave just beyond - trees curving into blackness as our visions went on, muddy grounds eventually succumbing to grass and blood within the black boundaries to be sucked up like a delicious meal into the void of Hell on Equus.

Milk Dud sat still, almost methodically, and let the sounds engulf her perked ears. Rain hitting leaves. Webeloes clicking and barking. Rain hitting rocks. Giant spiders scuttling through the mud and trees above. Rain sloshing in the mud. Tree basilisks rumbling lowly. She seemed to be calculating her chances, and by the looks of her eyes through the mirror she knew we didn't stand much of one if we stopped to take in the surroundings inside.

“We're going through,” her paralyzing remark rang. I was too shocked at the thought to even begin to think of a protest. Milk Dud started to murmur to herself: “We have to. That's what she ordered, Ordermare Sugar Charm, that's what she said. ‘I’ll explain when you get back,’ that's what she said...”

After a glance to the same mirror as my own eyes, she lifted a hoof to the right side of her night vision goggles and seemed to press something. Instantly afterward, her eyes disappeared in a new layer of gray light - out of sight, joining the same invisible realm as the passenger's. She stayed in that position, her hoof not leaving the right side of her goggles, as if enveloped in a trance. The passenger, meanwhile, turned away from me and back to the subject at hoof. As if it didn't inflict her in the least, she merely shook her companion from her trance. "The sooner we get out of this, the sooner we can look back and laugh. You're the driver.”

Milk Dud nodded solemnly before her bottom hoof pressed on the gas again. The auto-cart rumbled a response, steadily rolling forward without so much as a hint of regret. Milk Dud seemed to take refuge in that fact, that something on our side wasn't afraid, her figure straightening before reaching down into one of the glove compartments of the auto-cart. Through the increased glow of her night vision goggles, I could make out one of those "OEMPs.” This one, however, held no cylinders on the sides and looked plainly dull - a solid shade of gray as its main color with a black slate on the top and glowing, green wires with some sort of liquid magic flowing through them protruding from its sides and ending in the muzzle-piece. Almost like an inverted assault rifle mask.

"Put it on, please," Milk Dud said. "It'll act as a gas mask, like ours. You won't have to worry about the Kind Dread."

I gave an understanding nod before reaching forward and taking the OEMP. Her hoof brushed my own, and it sent a warm shock through my arm. Ignoring the almost painful feeling, I took the face mask and sat up to wrap the horizontal straps around my head. I found out they were connected by a metal clip.

"I really do know you," Milk Dud murmured in the meanwhile. Her bodacious comment was a breath of fresh air in the overwhelming sense of dread which infected my system each time I peered into the abyss of the forest. I had heard stories of the Kind Dread Infection.

Surprisingly, it was not relatively contagious (if the host’s innards aren't subjected to the air around them; the pathologists found that out the hard way). But the knowledge that there was no cure for the coughing, internal bleeding, and inevitable death was enough to confuse and traumatize ponies for the remainder of their suddenly short and painful lives. Their own despair tore them apart, and the betrayal of their own thoughts was more effective than any sickness could hope to achieve. It was almost unfair, hearing stories of this slow and excruciating death, but never ones about the victims lying on their deathbed with teary-eyed family members crowding around, passing away peacefully like in the films. They were always stories of madness: a pony stealing Night Guard armor and weapons and going on a one-mare killing spree aimed at the Former-Baltimare Herd’s Dictator, only to be shot by a kill vial after her first stab. Or the other infected pony in the Crystal Empire, spreading her disease throughout the city in a suicide bombing, ultimately reducing the once flourishing empire to a quarantine. One more story popped in my head: a colt, not even with a cutie mark yet, becoming the most notorious serial killer in Equestrian history up to that point.

It was Equestria's first lethal infection, and needless to say we did not take it well. The Kind Dread only sprouted in the Everfree Forest, and no matter how long or hard doctors all over the world searched, the infection had unnaturally persisted, harnessing the low level theory that it was a curse rather than an organic disease. Some ponies think that's what happened to the Moon Worshipers. I know better, though - never were they good ponies, but they sure are mad.

I finished putting the OEMP on and my lower face was enveloped in a warm and humid environment. When the auto-cart entered the Everfree Forest, we were at the mercy of Nightmare Moon's Equestria.


The change of environment was instant. An overhang of green swallowed us whole as we entered, surrounding us with a darkness much more potent than the True Darkness' hostile companies. The rain's persistence decreased exponentially, reducing to a few drops felt on my ears and head, then disappearing altogether. My eyesight now completely failed me, unable to pick out any objects besides the sickly black sky above - when the dark green ceiling allowed it. And, besides blocking the view of my surroundings, the crooked life looming over us sent oncoming sounds bouncing back: the chirping, howling, and barking of a mutated rainforest echoed around and over us, as if the animals were just above us, just waiting to pounce down and start tearing. To me, however, these signs of life - these alarms of predators - were muted out. My ears had been covered long ago, and now they remained in their deaf state. Anything to lessen the blow of the paralyzing fear which echoed in my head.

I had been like this since I could remember entering this lush swamp of a killing chamber. Shutting myself out from the outside world, protecting myself - a method I was used to now. Before any longer, though, Milk Dud noticed, judging by her simple remark over the rumbling of the engine and crunching of leaves and mud, somehow as clear as if I was listening contently, "Oh, yeah. Almost forgot."

Something metallic nudged my forearm. I instinctively drew back until my eyes fell upon the three glowing shapes just in front of me.

A warmth stirred in my chest, and before long I was smiling. I took the night vision goggles with a simple, "Thank you," and started to examine the shapes. They were as the passenger's were, being one glowing horizontal visor covered by another stack of metal, hosting three lights in the pattern of Medium-Large-Small, matching the pony to my front right. The glowing circles of light were a dark green in color.

"You weren't supposed to get a Demomare pair," the passenger said to Milk Dud, irritated. Meanwhile, I slipped the goggles on and my world lit up luridly.

For the first time in three years, I could see clearly. It was like the darkness of the Everfree simply did not exist anymore at the switch of a button. But instead of the much needed sun above, the light which aided my sights came from a blaring, persistent green haze. Mixed with the green was the light my night vision goggles gave off. I could see, but it came at a cost. A paralyzing cost.

I could see.

Gone were the dark green masses zooming past us, replaced with ghastly overhanging trees - vines and branches just out of the auto-cart roof's range, looming above furiously as their rage was cut short by the equally lengthy chance they had to snag us from our seats. The ground was now shining more intensely, green mud and puddles and the occasional pile of bloody animal feces. With just as much quantity as their post-meal businesses, I caught glimpses of the mutated wildlife scurrying away as our auto-cart sped toward them, only to eventually be completely out of mind and out of sight yet again. It was their speed, though, not the darkness which reduced them to quick flicks dashing away from the approaching vehicle, nothing more than rustles of bushes and fallings of leaves. These were the smaller animals which were so quick - the bigger ones, I guessed, were watching from just above, perhaps pouncing seconds after we passed.

And then I looked up.

I saw, through the cracks of leaves and breaks of branches, the night sky. It was no longer black, but now a calm pool of dull green with stars and distant planets speckling its infinite deepness, perhaps just waiting to suck us up when we were in the open. And then there was the looming moon above. That simple, large body of space cut my curiosity short.

I was instantly filled with hate.

"How're ya liking them?" Milk Dud asked quizzically and genuinely. "I figured you'd like the green pair. Doesn't match your eye color exactly, but it's better than running around with red goggles. Their colors don't come in twos. Or... fades." I looked back down and saw Milk Dud turning back at me, smiling plegmatically. I could tell she was bubbling with excitement underneath her coolness, or maybe she was bubbling with excitement because of her coolness. “It must be pretty cool, huh? Looking around, seeing Equestria clearly for the first time in three years. It's changed a lot, I can tell you that much. You know, I almost expected to see the same old Equestria I was used to when I first put these on, like it was all just a bad dream. And by the way, are your eyes real or--?”

Milk Dud’s voice steadily fainted in my ears, and for the first time in three years, that was when something caught my eye. At first it started off as a pixilated brown among the green haze, but after the speed of the auto-cart caught up with me, I saw that it was something different: a tree, speeding toward the nose of the auto-cart like a freight train.

"Milk Dud watch OUT--!" the passenger yelped before the arrival of the oncoming tree snapped us all into a new world.

The last thing I saw before the sudden chaos threw me forward was Milk Dud jerking back to see the road, although it was too late. Through the swimmingly green haze of my new vision, I saw the world turning and spinning as my body suddenly felt gravity shift. For less than a fraction of a second I was in the air, surrounded by the sounds of the shredding of metal and the splintering of wood. Then I was thrown painfully into the metal bars of the auto-cart. This time, though, I was not fit between Milk Dud and her passenger; I was yelling out as I slammed into the hard cylinders and the meat of my leg started to bleed anew. I stayed stuck to the three bars which had almost put a dent in my bones, before slowly sinking into the space between the auto-cart and addon-wagon, unable to move an inch. Rain was falling on me yet again.

In those next moments, minutes could have passed. Or seconds. Or even moon cycles. My deranged mind didn't dare try to register what had just happened. It was only me, my cheek against a vibrating bar of the auto-cart, my injured right leg hanging from the open space of the auto-cart's hotshoe, and the rest of my body being supported by the still wood of the wagon I had previously resided in. But as more time passed, my mind became unaccepting to my numbness and began to pick up the many facts which I now had to face.

I was drenched again within seconds of being exposed to what I guessed to be a small hole in the arboreal ceiling. I felt a familiar, thick, warm liquid slowly trickling from the blazing inferno of pain on my right hock to the pastern, where it then split into two separate streams. The blood dripped from my hooves, making a gentle pit... pit on the wet grass below, only partially masked by the deluge around me yet again.

My muzzle twitched and my nostrils set to work. I smelt blood, wood, and burning metal. My fur prickled at the feeling of a warm body looming over me from my bare side. I heard foreboding noises. They were all around me, at all angles, and at all distances. Rain hitting leaves. Webeloes clicking and barking. Rain hitting rocks. Giant spiders scuttling through the mud and trees above. Rain sloshing in the mud. Tree basilisks rumbling lowly. The sounds of the Everfree Forest.

At that moment I realized my eyes were closed. I tried to pry them open but my brain kept them shut - to protect me, I knew. But whatever it was in front of me, I knew I had seen worse.

My eyelids twitched, closing even more. I persisted, though. My mind asked myself, "Are you sure?" and my answer was to twitch them again before the curtains withdrew.

My eyes remained foggier than the lenses which fronted them, but with that fog came knowledge - I found out my head was tilted upwards, a growing puddle on my visors blurring the green screen in little pools. Over the liquid mess, though, was an opening in the mass of trees. It gave off to the lurid moon above - a massive white sphere in the sky, replacing the natural forms of life.

I shut that moon out of my mind.

"...Oh, no," a shaky, unfamiliar voice suddenly whispered, making my ear twitch and my eye blink.

Her voice was unfamiliar, yet recognizable.

"...Oh no, oh shit, oh buck," the passenger continued, thick with horror. "No... Celestia, why.. Milk Dud.."

The name of my friend jolted me out of my developing trance. I saw my head shift to my left (the developing puddles followed suit, dripping off my visors), before giving away to the ghastly scene of Milk Dud, slouched down in her seat so her mane almost scraped her legs, unmoving. I started at her incapacity, using my skinny arms to wrap around the bars in front of me and pull myself up into the wagon, but my right leg unluckily scraped the bottom of the wagon, and my pain sent me to the same position as before. My head tilted upwards in preparation to scream, but I swallowed the pain. My words, though, were not so containable. "Is she dead?"

My question went without a direct answer. Instead of replying, I heard the passenger breath heavily, and whisper “Thank you,” - and cry. She kept asking Milk Dud's name, as if those two words would bring her back, and I could feel the absolute horror in her voice. No longer was she the stolid pony that sat beside Milk Dud, or the masculine female antagonist, but a mare who had just lost a friend. The sting of the implement that she was a pony did not go unnoticed, but I stayed silent.

I should have known better.

Before long, the passenger stopped her pitiful behavior altogether. I stayed put, my mouth clenched shut underneath my OEMP, and my eyes narrowed hatefully at the sky above. I should have known better.

Once again, it was all in the flow of things. Nopony should be let in.

"Rain," I heard the passenger mutter passively. The stoic of her demeanor in her voice was no more than a fresh memory. Instead of an unemotional statue, she was a mare - and now I recognized her quiet as pith. "We need... to get out of here.”

Rain hitting... Webeloes clicking and barking. Rain hitting... Giant spiders scuttling through the mud and trees above. Rain sloshing... Tree basilisks rumbling lowly.

The sounds of the Everfree Forest.

Realization hit like a cargo train. My blood was instantly pounding, and I looked down to shakily assess myself. My arms were useful. Skinny and disfigured, but useful. My core was also functional, as bone-like the dark purple fur was. Neck not broken, brain as concise as could be. I was ready to move, to escape this tomb of the innocent-- that was fact enough, until I looked down, and in that moment I knew I was going to be left behind.

The rushing blood now accelerated as if to run from the unamenable reality. Suddenly I could feel my life rushing back into my system - I was not a shadow of a broken slave anymore, I was a pony! That fact woke me from every conceivable exhaustion. Even if it was a bit too late in this existence.

"You're stuck," the passenger suddenly exclaimed, as if I were her only friend in the world. I looked to my side to see that she had made her way over to my right, acknowledging how my wounded leg was sandwiched between the auto-cart and the addon-wagon, swinging gently in the nonexistent wind at each twitch, bleeding for every mile we spent off that nonexistent road. I couldn't feel anything below my cannon, but the immense pain easily compensated for the lack of feeling.

And then that twitching reminded me: I was a pony now.

Without much of a choice, I suddenly bent over and wailed in agony. I could feel it now. I could feel the way the destroyed muscle in my quad convulsed into the popped kneecap - I could feel the unrelenting pressure twist my nerves in agony, each twitch sending a shock of excruciation throughout my system and through my throat. That wound..

That... bucking wound!

The Moon Worshipers left their mark. The Renaissance left its. But this mark, this burning pit of flame on my physical body, was a mark of my own stupidity. The raining, the clicking, the barking, the chirping - all that was deafened to my cries of sorrow, and the sudden bombardment of memories echoing in my mind.

(“I jumped off Canterlot Falls.”

“I left my sister to die.”

“I let myself be subjected to this world alone.”

This is my mark - my own mark, reminding me of the many mistakes I am accountable for, of the ponies I’ve failed, of the memories of my life lost. Of my own self.”)

Suddenly, a hoof ripped off the OEMP located on my mouth - fresh air drilled into, but instantly out of, the open hole; it only lasted for a second. Something warm, solid, and furry clasped around my mouth, rendering it to a pathetic, muffled cry of loss.

I was already dead.

"Rain," I heard the passenger suddenly whisper in my ear. Her word was simple but powerful, making my cries die down to sobs. The fountain of blood - the foundation of my guilt - it hurt.

But despite the pain and despite the horrifying sorrow, her voice came in. Rarely had I ever let anypony talk to me with this much sincerity - only when I knew they shared my burden.

"Rain," the passenger repeated softly, the fetlock of her arm still covering my mouth. I couldn't sob, and I couldn't cry. Now I could only whimper, my leg twitching and my chest constantly and repeatedly convulsing. Yet I let her voice in. “...Rain.”

I let her voice in.

Little by little I calmed myself, and then I slowly bowed my head. The terrible guilt which had afflicted me, which had been with me for the last three years, subsided temporarily. Soon my despondency won over the pain, and then lukewarm anger won over my despondency. But I was quiet.

And the rest of the forest was quiet, too.

"You need to listen," the passenger said softly as her hoof remained on my muzzle. I peered up at the pony I had hated, and saw nothing but a predisposed need to help. This simple urge was recognizable in her eyes.

The cyan visors had lost a layer. Now I could see her eyes through the luminous, dripping visors - a crack ran down her horizontal visor, making the screen fizzle and show static like a broken TV screen. Her eyes, the orbs I could now recognize her from, were experienced and downtrodden, infected with the memories of past adventures and guilts, of oppressed happinesses and ruling maleficence. Perhaps she was no likable protagonist, but for now she wanted to help somepony else.

"I'm going to get you out of this, okay?" the passenger spoke simply. Her voice stopped for a moment, giving away her genuine shakiness. She couldn't recover from what she had seen. "You... But you need to let me. Okay...? It's going to hurt. ...A lot.”

The sounds of the Everfree Forest were no more, leaving only the pouring rain’s voice to fill the air. An eerie silence replaced what I now missed, and the sudden transition terrified me to the core. A matter of seconds was all I had before the hosts of silence would meet us and rip us apart. Eyes all around digged into me from all angles, making my already puny significance shrivel and die. I had seen the remains of ponies who had encountered webeloes, or the shriveled and grotesque skin of the ones who had met a shadian widow spider. Seeing those empty shells of ponies, with details I try again and again to suppress at night, haunted me to this day.

So I gave a weak up and down of my head before strapping the OEMP back on.

"Okay," the passenger nodded to herself more than to me. That was the last gesture I caught before I clenched my eyes shut. I attempted to enter of unfeeling state of mind I had somehow perfected over these years, the morphine which I had used to live through what many other ponies had deteriorated from. But the numbness of mind would not come.

I was scared. The years beforehoof were spent feeling only anger and guilt, but never fright. That was enough to chase away the ability to extinguish all feeling.

"Hey," the passenger uttered suddenly, and the silence around us amplified her voice's superiority. I opened my eyes and came to the sight of the passenger, standing right in front of me, her eyes reflecting nothing. After a while of thinking, she nodded to herself again before revealing, "My name is Chillstep."

I stayed silent.

"Okay," she whispered to herself again before hurriedly walking around the addon-wagon which held me, looking for any way out. The pain was a stinging silhouette, never leaving as a shadow and never ending as a hole. To focus on something besides the inevitable cataclysm, I tried looking up, to fall up into the night sky, the feeding grounds of my enemy; but as much as I tried to lose myself in the innocence of the bright stars overhead, the moon would not let my mind be at rest. Every second I spent with my head craned, my visual field having that reminder of our defeat in it, was a second filling up with hatred and nostalgia.

The pain stayed while Chillstep's hoofsteps around the addon-wagon stopped. I had to hurry.

I tried to find something else. The addon-wagon and the auto-cart? Marvels of technology and magic - one of the first inventions post-Renaissance. It solved so many problems - it helped so many ponies. It connected the herds. It...

It aided the Night Guard.

More hate. More rage - rage at what was happening, and why it happened. Rage that something unnatural had occurred: the villain had won, and had gotten her way. The innocent pony, the pony with a mission, was killed. But I had to cool the anger down, down into the depths of my heart, sibling of despair - which I immediately felt after Chillstep slowly trotted to the addon-wagon. She had found her spot.

The Everfree Forest? A killer. The ground? Altered and littered. Chillstep herself? Nearing my pain.

Milk Dud?

...The very mention of her name was enough to turn my head. I had to briefly adjust myself, momentarily bumping my right leg into the addon-wagon again. It brought pain, but I wasn't focused on such temporary things.

Milk Dud's body was limp. She was slouched under the driver's wheel so her mane covered her OEMP and night vision goggles, which illuminated a gray light into the interior of the auto-cart's pedals like a projector's light. Although, the projector was splotched to shadow in the top right of the image, slanting downward until cracks were seen. A protruding branch from the tree had crashed through her goggles and went through her right eye, killing her instantly.

I felt the addon-wagon below shift and grind. I focused on Milk Dud, my friend. I focused on the way she was still, the way she had laughed. She had known me pre-Renaissance. I felt my teeth grind against each other. I remembered that she was beautiful, and that she had a father out there, somewhere; and that she had a story, and that this was not how stories ended, and...

Without warning I felt my body swing to my right as the addon-wagon's grip on me faltered, but it quickly regained its footing on my body as it snapped back. When my upper body hit the soaking leaves on the forest floor, I heard a distinct KNOCK! as my knee cracked and split.

I didn't know what happened to make it split. All I knew was that I couldn't breath suddenly, and my vision started to fade into black. I tried again and again to suck in precious, moist oxygen, my right cheek feeling the push of the OEMP and night vision goggles' weight onto the leaves below, but the face mask felt like it was blocking the air from reaching my mouth. I couldn't feel my leg at all. I was so paralyzed in fear, pain, and anguish that the thought of the entire appendage just falling off briefly entered my mind, amusing itself lamentably. I tried to move my arms to at least push myself up, but the simple absence of control took over.

Numbness blossomed from my throat, and I started to sweat tremendously. That numbness spread up through my neck and into the gums of my mouth, and my stomach squelched as I vomited onto the ground before me - if the OEMP hadn't stopped its journey. The mask cupped its departure, sending the orange spew spiraling back at my entire lower face. The excruciation seemed to drain out of my mouth and dribble down my chin and neck, almost sending me into a faintness I couldn't bear to describe.

But my body would know no rest. After some mildly sharp armor brushed against me, Chillstep's arms wrapped under my elbows and I felt the sickening feeling of puke ooze onto the metal of her forearm. She pulled me only a few feet before another sickening feeling in my leg caught us. It was all I could do to not faint.

"Buck," Chillstep whispered to herself, before steadily lowering me to the ground. I couldn't move, so I stayed in that position, my cheek resting on the hard metal OEMP, sandwiched between the murky liquids of my innards and the hard ground. My vision gave off nothing but the moist leaves that I laid on, and all was still silent. I couldn't feel my lower body - a condition I thought I'd be used to by this point. But having Chillstep worry this much, and being unable to see my own condition both built to the inevitable grief that came out as a simple question by the passenger.

"Do you want it to be quick?”

The Everfree Forest answered. My ears twitched as they caught the distant sound of the sporadic thumping on branches, leaves, and dirt. They acted as a mud lizard, vigorously making their way forward to their prey one second, and stopping to inspect their surroundings the next. But these were no mud lizards.

An ice-cold fear gripped my heart. The now-enticing feelings of fainting were chased away just as quickly as the next few beats of my heart. I could imagine the monsters approaching, but I couldn't even start to think up the horrific fate I was yet to meet. I would rather think that the moment these creatures showed up and saw me, the screen would turn black, cutting to the next scene.

"...Rain, answer my question," Chillstep could barely whisper, and I could feel the chill of fear in her own voice. I tried to speak once, but the vocal cords didn't respond to my pleading. They were frozen and brittle, and I feared that if I spoke now they could shatter. But the haunting chorus of approaching death meant that I had to answer, and fast.

I could feel the ground vibrating, but didn't know if I was imagining it or not. The constant scuttling merging with the quiet clicks of the creatures clung to my very being like a cold, dripping shadow.

"Rain!" Chillstep suddenly exploded, before she yelled out of frustration and started to march away. The sound of her exit fueled my determination and I slowly craned my neck, my vision swimming with the static and green I did not have the luxury of getting used to.

"Y-yes," I whispered quietly and pathetically. I could hear her hoofsteps around the auto-cart, her pattern disrupting as she suddenly stopped. I breathed out a sigh of relief as the squelches of her hoofsteps came marching back, and stopped just above me. But as soon as I had learned how to close my eyes, something splashed down just in front of me.

It was Milk Dud's assault rifle OEMP.

"Do it yourself," Chillstep murmured, her eyes unreadable. “You know the projectile password.”

The irregular pounding in the distance. The clicking of oncoming predators. The thumping of my heart. My ears ringing with a sudden rage, and my face blossoming with a hot anger. All of these helped with fueling my strength as I shook my head pitifully. "I can't," I croaked, but it was for naught. The passenger started to walk away. My heart kept pounding as adrenaline rushed into my system, powering my skinny arms as I suddenly lurched up onto the appendages and stared daggers at the departing pony. I could not see her face, only her back as she sped up to a trot. "I can't!" I repeated as the sounds of approaching monsters filled my ears, and I was almost deaf with rage. I felt my body shake, and I started to pant harder - drool started to leak from my clenched teeth, and Chillstep started to run. "I CAN'T DO IT!"

In just a few seconds the backside of Chillstep was out of sight, and my energizing rage went with her. A cold dread welled up in my eyes as I heard the traffic of carnivores, and saw the sight of Milk Dud's OEMP on the ground just in front of me. I collapsed, not caring about the searing pain which gnawed at the flesh of my right hind leg. Without so much as a grunt, I craned my neck downward to see that my wounded leg was still stuck - this time upside down between the two vehicles, the bloody leg sticking up into the air like a beacon of food.

I had wanted to die, but now I was too much of a coward to let it be like this.

It was not bravery or determination which fueled my sudden survival instincts, but fear. Fear of death, the very thing I had begged for so many times. But now that it was here, staring me in the face, opening its long arms for a wholehearted embrace, I couldn't even look it in the eyes.

My hooves started to recede to underneath the addon-wagon before pulling me under. The stretching muscle of my right hind leg hurt, but I shut that out of my mind.

"Tomorrow's a new day," is what my big sister used to say.

My night vision goggles gave off my scenario perfectly. I was just barely underneath the addon-wagon, the rain collecting and cascading down from the walls of the cart, splashing mud and wetness into the visors. My leg couldn't allow any more closure, lest I would pop it completely out of its socket. The stretching of my stifle felt as if it was about to snap, but I stayed put, channeling my pain into readiness - readiness for what, though? Sounds of the Everfree Forest seemed to gradually resume at my hiding. Now, the waterfall around me resumed its tenacious splattering of the ground, leaves, and rocks - almost masking the approaching monsters. Clicking and squeaking were their only form of words, yet they made sure I knew every syllable they meant. The only part of my body that was not soaking from the mud was my right hind leg.

Then again, I couldn't feel anything anymore.

"Tomorrow's a new day," I reminded myself briefly. The thought of Goldbuck saying that to me brought a smile to my face. It was an inside joke between her and I - we would wave a hoof in front of the other's face and susurrate it like it was a genuine comfort, imitating her own actions when she was a filly. It'd be done when the other was upset about something that was as insignificant as the villains in stories, doomed to fail like all the others.

Tomorrow seemed so far away now. Did it even exist?

BU-THUMP!

The sudden disturbance erupted from just behind me, and following it came the spread of ice throughout my system as I lay half-dead underneath the now shuddering addon-wagon. For what seemed like hours, whatever it was behind me did not move. I could sense it was there - a giant black mass in the surrounding green, looming precariously over the situation it had found itself in. It did not say anything, and it did not move. I was frozen solid. No matter how much my mind begged me to turn or to just think of what I was up against, my muscles would not obey their commander. It was as if I was under a spell; a spell which restricted my breathing to short, quiet, and wide gasps of air, to savor what little oxygen I could get in for that brief moment, and make it last for as long as I could. The monster, though, had no need to be as dead as I was.

BU-THUMP!

Before I could even begin to calm myself, I caught just a glimpse of a sharp, skinny, and hairy appendage landing just in front of me before soaking me with mud and water, rendering my visors useless for a short eternity. During that time my breathing divided itself in half, and my heart in pieces. My leg, which protruded through the air like a gravestone, suddenly felt a lot more bare, for it was as good as gone now. When my visors cleared, my brain took a minute to process just what I was looking at.

It was a skinny, muscled stick, close enough for my drenched and shivering snout to breath warm air onto - even less distance when counting for the thick OEMP which filtered my rapid breathing like an electronic pipe. Razor sharp, pitch black, and prickled with cactus-like and hideous needles every inch up the appendage. Eight of them, the others being placed in the depths of my brain which I couldn't bear to even glance at. They all shone from the pouring rain above, glistening like ready swords among the green muck of the setting. They all extended up above the addon-wagon's ceiling, and I felt myself feeling woozy just thinking about the impossible size of these spiders - spiders, which could have easily been squashed just a matter of years ago, now hunted me like an eagle hunted a mouse.

The gigantic legs seemed to be statues for some time, unmoving as their host calculated its surroundings and the two meals which lay before it. It was its lucky day. A full mare, and an extra stick of bone and meat jutting out from just behind her. The only thing blocking its passage was the other spiny arachnid just across from the dinner plate.

Spiders were territorial, right? They always ate and hunted alone. At least, that's what they were like pre-Renaissance. Just three years ago, spiders were territorial, they were small, and the sun shone down on them along with us all.

The spiders made no verbal sounds. Instead, I heard a distinct thu-thu-thu-thump... thu-thu-thu-thump... just behind me. Panic gripped my system. My mind amused the thought of just sucking it up and trying my absolute best to pull my leg under the auto-cart, but I knew that would mean immediate death. Or did it? I didn't know what senses these spiders used - was it smell, sight, or sound? All would be at least a little obscured by the pouring rain, but not by much. I didn't even know what spiders used pre-Renaissance. I hadn't spent any time of my life in a herd, letting a Night Guard Prof teach me about the new age's survival skills. No time in an anti-night organization base, where they taught about all creatures in the True Darkness. I only heard tidbits from listening in on the Moon Worshiper Merchants, Savages, and Pilfers with mischievous, late friends, but if I had heard anything about spiders, the memory had escaped me.

With the sacrifice of useful memories, however, came others: Milk Dud's OEMP.

Suddenly the auto-cart shifted, sending a mild creaaaak... The pressure on my hind leg intensified, and I had to bite my tongue from squeaking out in pain. Wood and metal grinded against bone, and more blood leaked from the upturned limb, streaming up my body before dripping onto the floor below. My blood froze at the sound until I realized there was no way the monsters could hear the gentle pats on the leaves underneath the constant downpour on top of them.

Yet the shifting and creaking of metal continued, little by little. I realized that was not the weight of the spider, but of only one of its legs. I felt dizzy at the realization, and I had to once again resist the urge to pass out.

It was nothing, though, compared to when the legs just in front of me suddenly lept up into oblivion, and I let out one breath before all of its weight smashed onto the addon-wagon.

POP!

To hold in that scream was like putting the force of an explosion in a jar and holding the cap shut with all of your might. I had to scramble my front hooves up to the OEMP which I wore, tear it off, and physically push my muzzle in to restrain the scream. The humidity and moisture of the Everfree could not even break through the clenched knot I knew as my hooves, and I did not breath through my nose, either - for dread and death were now on two battlegrounds, waiting for my lungs' exposure to the bloodletting air. I squeezed with all my might, and let the tears flow as a substitute, but nothing would satisfy the blackness edging in from the corners of my vision. So, in that very moment, I was given a choice. Both tasted horrible in my mouth, but I knew I had to choose.

Milk Dud's OEMP. Or death.

It was adrenaline which saved my life that moon cycle. Adrenaline - at first a match of hot colors acting as a wall to protect myself from the blackness, but soon transforming into a red, fluctuating outline in my vision. The green haze which infected my view turned into a wealthy ally, mixing in with the red, clearing up my sight, and giving me strength. Slowly I removed my right fetlock from my closed mouth and blocked nose. No breath was taken. The fuel of my adrenaline was exact and limited, or I would succumb to the Kind Dread. I didn't move quickly. It was physically impossible. When my right arm crossed the miniature waterfall in front of me, the overwhelming chill which engulfed my right hind leg before was quick to greet. Water bounced off my fur into my visors and my face, but I would not relent.

Left arm forward. Reach through the waterfall. Bend. Lay on the ground. Keep shaking down the contained savage that begged to be let free, to destroy itself and its host. Keep mouth shut. Clench teeth until they crack, and then keep clenching... Clench harder as right hind stifle droops to the floor with a faint splut... Pain exploding everywhere in my body...

I couldn't look back. I could only look forward.

Hold back screaming as I pull myself from underneath the addon-wagon. See Milk Dud's OEMP. One hoof in front. Pull. Other hoof in front. Pull. Ignore the pain... Ignore the sounds... Ignore death... Can't look back. Can only look forward. Milk Dud's OEMP, just ahead...

I couldn't move another inch. And yet my body did it for me, leaving my mind behind in the infected smog. One hoof in front of the other. Drag back uselessly to my chest. Repeat... One arm... drag... death...

I heard shuffling from behind me over the sounds of flesh being ripped apart. The hitting of thin appendages on metal.

The chill of the spider's eyes on my back.

The adrenaline fading, the blackness attacking preemptively... The ice cold fear of the fact that I was going to die. This was no theatrical act of courage, but a gritty and failed movement of desperation.

Princess...” I croaked weakly, and instantly the effort of speaking was felt. The OEMP in front of me started to glow at half of the light when it had first shot, as if asking me, ”Sorry, didn't catch that?”P--... Princess Celes...--”

I couldn't.

I collapsed into the mud, and the moment my visors were smudged a dark brown and I took my first few breathes, I heard something I think I had wished for so many times beforehoof. The racketing off of an assault rifle OEMP. Squealing and clicking for a brief moment, before the resounding thumps of two heavy bodies on leaves. Then, nothing but the sound of rain clouding my senses, pooling in my ear canals.

Before long realization set in, although I was too faint to share my gratitude. I did, however, hear a solitary voice before the derelict night came crashing down on my skull - the first sign of the coming new life.

Chillstep’s voice, too faint for targeting a certain emotion, stung in my ears like a bee: “Oh… Did you think this would be like one of your movies?”

83010360שЏsS2

Author's Note:

Thank you for checking out The Black Monsoon! It's been an adventure in itself creating this story. The better part of two years have been spent planning, revising, and solidifying this universe and adventure, so constructive criticism is always appreciated and highly encouraged. I read and try to reply to every last comment.
Pleasantries aside, I hope you'll enjoy. :yay:

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!