• Published 17th Nov 2011
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Fallout: Equestria- The Last Sentinel - Adder1



It's hard to kill memories when you remember everything.

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Reflection Nineteen: Blood and Water

Reflection Nineteen: Blood and Water

“A civilization that does not remember is doomed.”

Welcome back, folks. Glad most of you still want to hear an old buck talk. You know...

He grunted, shifting into a more comfortable position.

I find it funny in a sick sort of way. Two-hundred-twenty-one years ago, the war drums were starting to beat. Forty years ago as I was telling this story up in Stalliongrad, so were ours. And even now...

Well, let's just say there's a reason I'm killing time telling you these stories, folks.

So let's kill some more.

Melt away.

* * *

Back to Stalliongrad for a moment, I watched as everyone filed back into the lecture hall's seats, many of them bearing nervous or suspicious looks. The low din of conversation filled the air, and hushed as it was, there was a sense of tension in the air. Many of the more seriously wounded were rubbing aching limbs from the rushed preparations. Everyone who could help, helped. Even Soraya, who showed no outward signs of fatigue, was taking deep if quiet breaths.

Hm. I could actually notice that. Luna wasn't lying then… I was recovering.

I glanced at Keperskaiya, a gaunt, stern earth pony mare with a faded gray coat and a dirty-blond mane done up in a tight bun. She met my gaze and nodded before standing and trotting to stand at the podium.

Clearing her throat, she spoke, “Everyone should have heard by now- the top leader of the Dead Boys is en route to Stalliongrad, ETA four to five days. We are in no shape for an evacuation of scale, as several of my trusted advisers and a few concerned... citizens...” She glanced to Rig and Soraya, “have made their case. Such a large group would be easily detected by Dead Boys scouts, and splitting up into small groups means that we cannot pool resources that we would need for survival. Neither can we hole up in what remains of the Stable- we don't have the food supply to hold out for long in such a condition.

“So if it's a fight the Dead Boys are looking for, it's a fight they'll get. We prepare, we fight. Priority one is fortifying viably defensible structures, followed by repairing whatever Katyusha rocket assemblies and Manticore assault bikes we can find, and lastly rigging factories with remote explosives. T-Thirty-Four tanks are for scrapping and salvaging purposes only as we are expecting pure urban combat. Frost.” She turned to me. “I trust you will instruct people how to operate the rocket launchers and bikes when you've recovered.”

“Yes, ma'am,” I acknowledged.

“In the meantime,” Keperskaiya resumed, “you all did good today. We've successfully reinforced Tozmash and Izmash factories still within our control. The sewer system is going to be the focus tomorrow, and we will send out recovery teams to obtain whatever useful aid we can from the nearby ruins. It will be even harder work, so until then, we rest. It's all you now, Frost.”

I nodded stoutly and removed the bandage covering my mouth. “Wonderful news, huh? At least the weary have rest now. So with that, folks… melt away.”

<===ooO Ooo===>

It was getting toward the end of the school year. The days were getting longer, the air warmer. Even as a cryomancer, I was brimming with anticipation for what was in store for me.

Rather, I would have been if it weren't for the final exam I had to prepare. It's funny- this time in a not so sick sort of way. Back when I was a student, I hated tests even if I usually scored well with my memory. Now, as a teacher, I hated making them- and grading them- even more. The more things change, the more they stay the same. And I still hate exams.

My place at Littlehorn was only an office in the vaguest sense. It had a desk, a few chairs, a file cabinet, and a terminal, but I hadn't had much time to really personalize it to the extent that, say, Egan did back in Canterlot between preparing for my customized lectures and grading the exams for those customized lectures. In a sense, I guess it did reflect my upbringing- simple, spartan, with only what was necessary to get the job done. It did, at least, have a nice view of the badlands. I mean “nice” in a different sense than what you might imagine. It wasn't much of a view. Desolate landscape and little else. But the way the sunlight or moonlight would poke holes through the clouds that rolled across it like rays from heaven made it seem beautiful in an alien sort of way.

I was in the midst of slogging through the exams when there came a knock at the door- a tinny one I knew all too well. “Come in,” I beckoned gratefully, happy for a break in the inundation of A's and B's and C's and D's and E’s and short answers and essays.

A blue-scaled baby dragon with segmented, rounded spines and miniscule wings opened the door and walked up to my desk with her tiny hands wrapped around a set of scrolls. “Mail call, Frost!” she called in a sing-song manner.

“Thank you, Crystal,” I said with a soft smile, firing up my horn and sprouting an arm to accept the parchments. “You checked for bile bombs this time, right?”

“YYYYeah,” she said with a sheepish smile, her violet, catlike eyes glancing away. “Sorry about last time. You... kinda had to admit you had to see it coming, though. Heard about the whole cell phone incident.”

“Hmph, if only there were more incriminating evidence...” I nickered softly as I inspected the first scroll. “This place reeked for a month, and I know it was that filly from Canterlot.” I recognized the seal of The Holy Zebrican Empire immediately- a two-headed, black bird of prey with its wings and talons outstretched amidst a yellow background, both screeching heads enveloped in halos. Power and the threat of death and the divine in one. “Oh, I see you received a letter from my contact. Thank you.”

“That one can wait,” Crystal chuckled, crossing her arms. “Think you might want to check the next one first.”

I arced a brow and- oh my, the Pony of Friendship herself. The seal of Manehattan! A letter from home! I unfurled the scroll and let my hungry eyes feast on the contents, widening them as I read.

Dear Dr. Frostbane Hokkaido Windchill,

The better part of me felt momentary unease. The worse part of me swelled with pride.

I must first introduce myself. I am Strikespark Thea, residing chairmare of the Northerner Cultural Committee. For eleven years now, I've watched memories shared and memories made during the annual Northern Lights Festival, keeping the fire of our Northern friendship burning strong.

I admit that my advanced age is starting to catch up with me, unfortunately, and I don’t know how long I have left. Though I will continue to plan and organize the festival as long as I am sufficiently able, eventually, I must pass the torch to a newer generation. As a member in good standing and a prominent equinpologist, I strongly believe it would behoove you to apply for my position.

I also strongly believe that while your articles and book on how the Age of Industry is affecting peoples worldwide are very informative, it would behoove you to eventually do some research at home. There are few Northerner equinpologists, and though Northerner culture is steeped in oral tradition, the written word may yet be necessary to chronicle our heritage and preserve it for the future.

Nevertheless, I still have at least a few years left in me. I hope you reach a decision soon and build a strong case for yourself should you choose to do so.

Regards,
Strikespark Thea

I found my smile fading as I read on until I finally rolled the scroll back up and leaned back in my chair.

“Something wrong, Frost?” Crystal inquired.

“Hm?” I glanced at her and shook my head. “No, no! Nothing of the sort, just...” She eyed me leeringly. Perceptive girl. “I've been an equinpologist for a long time, Crystal. All this time, I've been focused on other peoples rather than my own, and we might have the greatest need for our story to be told- and remembered.” I sighed mistily. “No… not just ‘might.’ Anyway, ah, thank you for delivering these letters. I'm glad to hear from home.”

The baby dragoness flashed a brief smile and curtsied before jogging out, passing by no other than Nightingale on the other side.

I smiled at her, grateful for her presence. “Hey...”

She smiled back and stepped inside. “Hello again. Hard at work, I see.”

I grimaced at the stacks of papers on my desk. “Hard at work, wish I was hardly working.”

The midnight mare chuckled softly as she trotted over to nuzzle my cheek, a gesture I affectionately returned. “I know the feeling,” she said. “How can you bear keeping Crystal around, though?”

“Her?” I huffed. “I just make sure she breathes out the letters before coming into my office. In any case, it's not often you visit me here. What's the occasion?”

“Well, it's only a few weeks until your trip to Zebrica,” Luna said with a smile. “I only wished to inquire if it would be too much trouble for me to tag along.”

I pulled away and stared at her. “You want to join me?”

She maintained her smile. “That's my intent, yes.”

“You're... sure you can do that?” I inquired. “You are a princess.”

“Do you imply that I haven't gotten my work done ahead of time?” she scoffed. “Honestly, I'm insulted you have such a poor impression of my work ethic.” She smiled slyly. “Sarcasm! Such... fun! In any case, do not worry about my royal duties, Frost. If anything happens to come up, I am more than capable of teleporting back to Canterlot if need be. So... what do you say?”

I leaned back in my chair, eyes turned up. Goodness, I was thinking of Hummingbird again, how she wanted to join me for my first visit to Avalon.

A member of the audience voiced her question, noticing the use of “first.”

The storyteller grinned.

You think I only visited Aldorna or even Avalon just once for my research? Hell, I'd be returning again in a few years.

That aside, I looked back at the midnight-black mare in front of me. “Well... I would enjoy your company.”

“So is that a yes?” she asked with a wide smile, leaning in closer.

“It's a yes,” I chuckled softly as she squealed in delight and swept me up in a hug.

* * *

“Heyyyy, buck! How're you doing?”

“Heh, doing great, Zoleks. Headed to Zebrica with Nightingale soon. You?”

“Finally getting the hang of these gem-powered bikes. About time, right? They're starting to get a little more interesting, too. Manufacturers are starting to sell ones with much higher gear ratios. I'm seeing people zoom around over forty, fifty kilometers-per-hour now. Well, when Manehattan traffic permits, heh.”

A soft huff. “Getting more business, then?”

“Yeah, yeah. Not as much as before, but it's definitely enough to keep everyone here afloat.” Sigh. “So... where in Zebrica are you headed?”

“Roam, primarily. Might check out other cities and towns, too.”

“Be careful there, Frost. Zebras there are damn tired of Caesar Raj'M'Kora. Things might get pretty tense in the capital.”

“Be careful how?”

“Just... I don't know, watch out for protesters, try not to cause trouble? Zebrica ain't Equestria or Aldorna, buck. Hell, you saw that down in the Almarinian Clockworks. They're... more militant than ponies or griffins.”

“Yeah, I'm well aware of that. They don't settle disputes with pie fights.”

“Pretty much... just be careful, aight?”

“I will. I'll make sure to call again, okay? Say hi to Namira and Jorund for me.”

“Okay, buck. Take care.”

“Yeah. Talk to you soon.”

* * *

The storyteller let out a soft, misty sigh.

And so it comes to this. A few days later, Luna and I were on our way to Zebrica by airship, flying high over the Equestrian Heartland, southward bound. It wasn’t my first time flying like that. That was way back with my first trip to Aldorna.

Another wistful sigh.

That was ages ago, ages ago even then. Way to feel old again, Frost. But this was my first time flying in a private airship. It wasn’t posh, no. It wasn’t a… ahem… “dick dirigible.” It was just a standard commercial airship, wood, metal, cheap padding and all- just reserved for Luna and myself. After all, recall that Zebrica was still closed to foreigners- save for Frost Windchill plus one. With her leaning against me, the cheap padding may as well have been the finest silks from Neighpon.

“So, Doctor Frostbane Hokkaido Windchill,” the midnight-black unicorn said with a grin, making sure to make each word come out crisp and clear, “what can you personally tell me about the Holy Zebrican Empire?”

“Ugh… Lulu, you know I don’t like being called that…” I murmured.

“Ugh, and you know I don’t like being called that in public…” she murmured back.

“Well isn’t the cabin soundproofed from us?” I asked. “I thought they were.”

“Still, it’s the principle…” Then she… ahem, booped my snout with her hoof. “And still, treat me as if I were one of your students in history.”

“I’m sure you’ve looked into it, though,” I said to her. “Don’t lie- you’re the studious sister.”

She merely huffed and crossed her forelegs at that, turning away from me.

“How about this?” I brushed her back. “Have you had the time to look into the history of Equestria-Zebrica relations?”

“Current relations, yes,” Luna answered with a soft sigh. “We were in good terms up until the oil and gem shortages.”

“But what about the history of that international relationship?” I asked with a smile, then snorted as she faced me. “Oh now you turn around.”

“Oh shush, you,” she nickered, giving me a kiss which I gladly returned. “Now, what can you tell me?”

I inhaled and exhaled cool breath, getting into the mood. “Well, what can you tell me about the Everfree Forest?”

“It is simply that- ever free,” Luna answered. “Nopony, no one can control it. Its growth can neither be accelerated nor slowed by earth ponies. Its weather runs wild regardless of pegasi. Many varieties of plants and some animals immune to unicorn magic exist within its borders.”

“And how it got there in the first place?”

She frowned. “Didn’t it use to be larger? It’s been a long time since my last history class.”

I pouted.

“Oh stop it, you,” she nickered. “I meant before yours.”

“Heh… well, yeah, you’re right in that regard,” I said to her. “Everfree Forest is but a remnant of what used to more or less cover the entire planet.” I watched her make the ‘ah’ expression and slowly nod. “Now it’s all coming back, isn’t it?”

“Yes, the Age of Struggle,” she answered.

I nodded. “Mm-hm. We’ve got to go aaaaaall the way back to the Age of Struggle. Back then, all of equinekind was living in uncentralized, secluded tribes in the harshest environments- The Far North, The Dune Sea, and The Hadean Scar. Why? Because back then, Everfree wasn’t just a forest. No, it covered almost the entire world, creating a vast Wild Unknown that was home to the stuff of nightmares. Paleontologists are still digging up fossils of incredibly deadly creatures from that epoch, and some live on to this day. So now you see why all of equinekind- ponies, zebras, and griffins- originate from such harsh environments so cold, so hot, and so high. It was there that the Wild Unknown couldn’t touch them, and they were safe from its many dangers. We certainly didn’t flourish, though. Evidence dating back to that time suggest that our territory back then was as much as a tenth of the size following the end of the next historical epoch. We lived for millennia in fear, unable to push forward when we were so undeniably weak compared to the many dangers that awaited just beyond our borders. But then…” I smiled and sprouted an ice arm to tap the tip of her horn.

“We all discovered magic,” Luna answered.

“Exactly,” I said with a smile, tapping her nose and chuckling as she scrunched up her muzzle in response. I continued after sublimating my arm. “Earth ponies slowly wrested control of the land and its creatures, unicorns harnessed magical spells to push back the hungry growth, and pegasi slowly starved them of sun and rain. Zebras used alchemy and essence grafting to create simplistic but powerful weapons to push back against that which they once feared. Griffins harnessed the power of fire and lightning and iron to lay waste. And so they ventured forth, no longer cowering in fear of the Wild Unknown, torching the growth and beating back the creatures that they were once powerless against.

“And so came the Age of Exploration as ponykind, zebrakind, and griffinkind staked out the brave new world they could enjoy and plundered its spoils. Inevitably, they began to form societies and... warred with one another- both within species and between.” I looked toward the direction we were flying in. “Sound familiar?”

Luna sighed and nodded. “It’s a story I’ve heard before.”

“But that was the first encounter between all three species.” I went on. “More relevant to our current topic, it was first contact between ponies and zebras. Fast-forward to the Age of Empires, when The Principality of Equestria, The Holy Zebrican Empire, and The Griffin Kingdom of Aldorna were founded. War and peace, trade and treachery. The rise of global superpowers, each with their own global agendas. But something was… off. It wasn’t until our current historical epoch, the Age of Industry, that we started to notice what we once took for granted.”

“You mean the Wild Unknown?” she inquired.

“The Wild Unknown which we thought we’d been rid of for good,” I answered with a nod, glancing to my left. “Right on time. Look out the window.”

And so we looked out together into what I hope none of you folks will ever have to see in your lifetimes.

We were just starting to fly past Shattered Hoof Ridge, the location of Equestria’s then-largest gem mine after Sparkling Shores. Industrial mining equipment clogged the land, as did an enormous facility that spanned the width of the Equestrian border with Zebrica. At that point erupted a gigantic curtain of white flame that completely cut off what laid beyond, stretching for kilometers and kilometers. There was no smoke, no massive heat wave that caused our dirigible to drift off course or burst. The pillars of flame burned pure and clean.

And what did it burn? What did that flaming curtain protect us from? Not zebras, no. Hundreds of kilometers away, the zebras had an identical curtain protecting from the opposite direction. Beyond the flames was a swath of our world was something so horrible that we’d all better be damn thankful those burners survived The End.

Beyond it was a swath of something that could not have been of our world. Grisly, steel-gray trees rose up from blackened earth, each constricted in a swath of bluish, tentacle-like vines that gave off an unearthly glow. So thick was this growth that it nearly blotted out the blackened earth below. And the vines moved, slowly writhing and undulating in great ripples that spanned the entire dead forest. There was clearly life other than those vines both above and below. There would be a flicker of movement here and there, a glint that caught the eye, or a flock of dots that took off from the blue canopy. The very sight of it all chilled me to the bone, even if I’d seen it before in books and video.

“The Zebrican Wilds…” Luna murmured to herself.

I nodded. “You know what brings people together faster than a common resource? A common enemy. Every continent has a remaining vestige of the Wild Unknown. We have the Everfree Forest. Aldorna has the Blackwater Anomaly. Zebrica…” I simply motioned out the window.

“It’s… beautiful in a strange sort of way,” Luna whispered.

“Deceptively, if that’s how you see it,” I huffed. “Three-hundred years ago, that used to cover only a few square kilometers. Then, all of a sudden, it spread- and aggressively, too. All those blue vines? They’re related to the ‘Poison Joke’ and the ‘Toxic Tongue’ found in Everfree and Blackwater. No playful names for this one. It’s straight up called the Cordyceps maaier- the Reaper. It doesn’t mess around with magical trickery. It straight up consumes and kills whatever it comes into contact with that doesn’t have an evolved resistance or immunity to it.”

“Alright… not so beautiful then,” she murmured.

I clicked my tongue, not blaming her the least. “With how deadly the Reaper was- and the creatures spawned by the rapid evolutionary arms race to grow resistance or immunity to it- both Equestria and Zebrica had to come together to neutralize the threat. The problem was that even with magic and alchemy, the Zebrican Wilds grew faster than they could torch it. Eventually, a common solution was found.” Now I motioned to the flaming curtain. “Whitefire. Burns pure, burns clean with localized intensity almost as hot as the surface of the sun. I’m actually sure you could see it from space.” I huffed. “And they only halted its growth. They’re all sustained on a combination of imbued longevity runes and the highest-grade diamonds. Theoretically, they should burn forever, and we should hope they will- both ponies and zebras haven’t found the necessary materials for a longevity rune since.”

“They… couldn’t possibly be tampered with on the Zebrican end, could they?” she asked in a worried tone. “The minotaurs, if pushed to extremes… no, doubtful. I’m sure there are extremely powerful wards placed on those burners.”

“Most powerful known to equinekind,” I said with a nod. “Small wonder that something like this resulted in our alliance and the Equestrian-Zebrica Trade Agreement, hm?”

“And recalling the Colony Wars, our alliance has held up all this time,” Luna murmured. “Thank you, Frost.”

I smiled back at her. “Mm-hm. So… hungry?”

She turned back and smiled in turn. “I’m a little peckish, yes. A shame they couldn’t even provide lunch for us like this… if it were a full airliner, they would have. Reduced costs if buying in bulk and all that.”

“Pretty sure the pilots are feeling the same way,” I chuckled softly, huskily, biting my lip as I removed the lunch pail from my saddlebags, offering it to her.

My heart was picking up now, my chest swelling as I inhaled deeply. She accepted the box, oblivious to me as she popped it open. And then her eyes widened. And then her forehoof fluttered up to her mouth, covering her gasp. And then my heart swelled further as my icy hands reached inside. And then produced another box from within. But smaller. Black. Velvety. And then I swept from my seat. And then I kneeled on the floor. And then I placed my fingers on the lid.

“It’s been a long time coming, my Nightingale. It’s been years since we first met at Blaring Beats, and it continues to lift my spirits waking up with you against me. We’ve shared such powerful experiences, and- with hope- there will be many more in store for us. So, my Luna, my Nightingale...”

And then I lifted.

“Will you marry me?”

The storyteller smiled sadly, a twinkle in his slitted eyes as they glanced downward, tunneling backward through the years.

She just… made this girlish squeal in delight as if all those millennia melted away in an instant, sweeping me up in a tight embrace.

He chuckled softly.

Almost lost the ring during it. Hadn’t planned for that in the rehearsals. But soon we were holding one another in a tight embrace. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, oh, yes, oh, yes…”

I smiled wide, still holding her. “You know what this means, right?”

“Mm…?”

“This is going to be our honeymoon.”

And there came that squeal again, and we hugged each other tight once more.

He sighed softly, mistily, wistfully.

So there you have it, folks. Princess Luna wasn’t just my marefriend.

She was my wife.

* * *

Hoo… damn. How the hell do I top that?

The storyteller inhaled and exhaled deeply.

I don’t think I can, honestly. I don’t think I can, knowing how the rest of my story goes. That was the happiest moment in my life. Nothing else ever came close.

He shifted slightly on his haunches, gaze turned downward. When he looked back, his eyes were hard, pleading. His words came out strong and slow.

Folks, I… I want you to pay close attention now. Listen up. Close your eyes. See with heart and soul.

If you take away anything- anything at all from my story so far...

Remember. Remember everything I told you about how good things were back then.

Remember the Northerners. Keep alive the culture we remembered, the tears we shed, the hope we spread. Don’t let those countless millions die a second time.

Remember Manehattan. Don’t forget those larger-than-life buildings and those larger-than-life people, the lights, the music, the nightlife, the seedy underbelly, the welcoming attitude. Don’t let those Lights and Legends ever dim, ever die.

Remember the Mumei. Every deed leaves a seed that remains- your legacy. Don’t make the same mistakes I made.

Remember the Mancers, who harnessed the natural energies of their world, who are the reason I still live to tell their story. Don’t forget them or their power, which could flow through any one of us.

Remember Canterlot. Picture those porcelain spires, those whites and violets and golden hues, the elite both sweet and sour, and the school of magic that built me stronger. And remember those countless stars by night. Don’t let those Hopes and Dreams die.

Remember the changelings, misguided with ill intent. But so were we, only decades later.

Remember Avalon. Home to the most innovative, reaching forever higher, impossibly higher to touch the stars and tower above all else. Remember all that industry, all that intellect, and yet all that equinity. Don’t let The Skyward City come crashing down.

Remember the buffalo. Always playing catch-up with a world that can’t wait. Remember their struggles, for they continue to this day, some severed forever from their ancestors.

Remember Ponyville. Remember the stone and thatched roofs, the soft, wet grass; the clean, fresh air that lifts the mood. Remember, and drink deep of its Sunshine and Smiles. Because you can never starve with a bellyful of laughter.

Remember Shropshire. Endlessly committed to an ever more imaginative future, to cunning and creativity, with brass and glass, with steam and smoke and steel. And while we want to remember what the birthplace of the Age of Industry gave us, never forget what it led to in the end.

Remember Littlehorn. Bathed in twilight, harkening back to a simpler day and age, it gave promise to the future for so many. Never forget those bright young minds glistening like so many stars.

And remember…

Sunny and Blustery Days. Split Skies, Cherry Oak, and Pick Pack. And Song Spinner.

Vani Windfall. Silva Hound. Shinespark Whitney.

Freemane. Jim Egan.

Cadance. Shining Armor.

Karanika Chrysaor. Vivian, Nichols, and Phoebe Windfall. Iphicles Nephelegeretes. Lorraine Kitrel. Grimm Asher. Marie Silverclaw.

Braeburn. Little Strongheart. Thunderhooves. Sifting Sands and Swift Swallow. Eternal Blossom and Running Temper. Sharp Hooknose and High Mountain.

Ditzy Doo. Lyra and Bonbon. Vinyl Scratch. Zecora.

Inkblot.

Dawn Treader.

Pinkie Pie. Applejack. Spike. Twilight Sparkle. Fluttershy. Rainbow Dash. Rarity.

Modeba and Vinija. Zoleks, Namira, and Jorund.

Diamond Ki Dust. Natural Chouju Cure.

Hummingbird.

Celestia.

Luna. My Nightingale… my wife.

Remember all of them. Keep them close to heart. For they’re memories of the world that I keep alive, now shared through my words to you. They’re memories of the world I miss so much, that I wish with all my heart that I could to return to.

Remember, everyone. Please. Remember those olden days, golden days.

Remember all that honesty, all that kindness, all that generosity, laughter, and loyalty. Remember all that magic and majesty and music, all that beauty.

The storyteller paused, eye downcast once more as he took a deep, shaky breath, steeling his resolve.

Because now I’m going to tell you the rest of the story. You will watch that honesty turn to deception, that kindness turn to cruelty, that generosity to greed, laughter to hurt, loyalty to betrayal. You will watch magic and majesty and music turn to machine and mayhem and malice.

And you’ll watch that beauty become a blasphemy of the world it used to belong to.

Because now this is the story of how the world died. And I want you to remember that, too. Because history means nothing if we don’t learn from it.

Don’t fail them.

* * *

There was a saying back then: “Roam wasn’t built in a day.” Meaning sometimes slips away between the grains of the sands of time. Back then, people thought it to meant that monumental accomplishments don’t come instantly- they’re accomplishments a long time coming. It’s a good interpretation to be sure, but historians like me know the true meaning. And it’s that Roam never stopped building.

As our airship approached the eastern Zebrican coastline far from the Wilds, before us was urban sprawl like no other. Where Avalon reached forever higher, Roam aimed to blot out the countryside. Manehattan, Stalliongrad, Fillydelphia, Shropshire- nothing came close to the immensity, the pure scale of the city that could have swallowed them up... and then some. Originally founded by the Seven Tribes of the Seven Hills, it grew to roll over dozens more. Buildings of all sizes- tiny apartment homes to wide-stanced office buildings and everything in between- dotted the landscape. There were no skyscrapers to break the ebb and flow either- everything was thirty meters or shorter by decree. It wasn’t monotone either- hell no! Roam was home to nineteen tribes, and each had their own flavor of architectural design to add to the feast for the eyes. Pleated tiles, pinched spires, arches and domes both big and small… and while the sturdier of the buildings had been around for ages, more modern constructs of metal and glass also speckled the cityscape. I’m no architect, but if I were, it’d be something out of a childhood fantasy for me. Shades of browns, grays, and blacks were there to be sure, but some tribes added a splash of color to it too. Red clay, white chalk, tarnished and golden yellows created a veritable color wheel of the city. Tribal banners ran from rooftop to rooftop, adding deep violets, golden yellows, verdant greens, bright blues, and so many other colors that flowed in the gentle breeze, making Roam less of an unsightly urban sprawl and more a rolling, rippling tapestry of metalwork and masonry- and majesty. It was as if the city itself was alive and breathing. And the way the sunlight just caused all of those banners to shimmer and glow, and the way the patches of mist, smoke, and steam just roll over the city…

The storyteller let out a soft, misty sigh and smiled.

Roam, The Eternal City. Takes the breath away, even now.

Shortly after touching down on the modern airstrip and disembarking, Luna and I were approached by a zebra stallion garbed in a beige duster that covered most of his form. “Hujambo,” he greeted in a guttural but clear tone, and we meeted to clasp forelegs and butt shoulders.

Hujambo, hujambo,” I greeted with a smile. “Good to meet you in person at last, Viediv.” I swept a hoof over toward the black-furred unicorn at my side. “Nightingale, this is Viediv, my contact and equinpological cohort here. Viediv, my ‘plus one,’ Nightingale.”

“Ah, so your marefriend, then?” he asked with a slight grin, making a fluid transition to Equestrian.

“A little more than that now,” she answered with a grin of her own.

“I’m getting the idea this is more of a honeymoon than an equinpological venture,” Viediv huffed to me.

“I assure you this is still first and foremost a business trip,” Luna said with a soft smile and a light.

He nodded to her. “As you say.” The zebra buck then grimaced as he turned back to me. “You come to Zebrica at a bad time, my friend. I know we had this planned months in advance, but I strongly advise against visiting the Forum- perhaps going home altogether.”

“What’s the situation?” Luna inquired before I could even register that something was amiss.

“A number of legates within the Legion have… how you say, rebelled?” he answered, turning to me. “No, protesting. They’re protesting against Caesar Raj’M’Kora. It’s not rebellion, at least not yet.”

“Wouldn’t that be seen as an act of treason?” I inquired, suddenly not feeling so keen about this trip.

“It would be if it weren’t for the fact that both the Senate and the Court no longer support the Caesar,” Viediv replied. “I would have tried to contact sooner, but I just learned about all of this. Your airship is still docked, Frost, Nightingale. I strongly advise heading home. A great storm approaches, and I don’t speak of the weather.”

I shared a worried glance with Luna. I opened my mouth to speak, but again she answered in my stead. “We’ll be staying.”

Kiongozi, are you sure?” he asked, sharing a similar look of concern. “Though, I’d think Frost would have more of a say in this. I mean no offense, Nightingale.”

One thing I learned as a gang leader… and then suddenly finding myself not-a-gang-leader: don’t tempt fate. So I turned to Luna and opened my mouth to apologize and tell her we would be headed back.

“I think we can risk it,” I said to Viediv. “Just steer us clear of any trouble spots if possible.”

The storyteller paused, looking from one end of the audience to the other. One finally coughed into her hoof and questioned why he said different. The old, armored unicorn canted his head.

Said what different? I knew I couldn’t risk the honeymoon of a lifetime- plus the only chance I had thus far to set foot in Roam for research.

Then she replied, yes, she could get that, but what about the part about learning as a gang-

I didn’t think anything like that. I’m the storyteller here. Would you kindly avoid putting words in my mouth?

Then he… smiled.

Moving on, Viediv gave me an odd look. “Are you sure, my friend? Nobody has died, maybe, but many have been hurt.”

“As ponies, should we be worried?” Luna inquired.

“You… could say that there is some feeling of blame towards Equestria,” the cloaked buck answered with a frown. “Coal pirates continue to strike our vessels, and the gem shortages are curtailing weapons production needed to fuel the war effort and our own efforts in controlling the Wilds.”

“So it’s a war with the minotaurs, then?” I asked.

He merely huffed. “I hope you don’t follow the media’s footsteps. It’s no mere ‘uprising.’ But yes, if you’re sure you want to stay… we’ll have to watch our steps. I’m your guide and accomplice, Frost, but don’t try to push things.”

“Let’s just get to a place to stay for the night for now,” I said to Viediv.

“Alright,” he sighed. “I’ll try to find cloaks, dusters, or some such. Anyone that looks close will be able to tell you’re a pony. You can’t hide a pastel-colored face among zebras, but at least you won’t be singled out from a distance. Now come on. Let’s get into my wagon.” He started off, but he quickly paused and turned back. “I want to make this clear. If anything happens, you do as I say, alright? I am not fooling around here.”

I nodded firmly to the zebra buck as he proceeded off of the dusty airstrip. Luna and I shared a glance. There was something else hidden in those eyes, those eyes full of everything.

I wasn’t the only one with business in Roam.

* * *

“Roam wasn’t built in a day” indeed. Having such a firm grounding in equinpology, I couldn’t help but look in amazement and pure wonder at the city about us as Viediv drove us in his old wagon. It still had rubber-lined spokes for wheels, but at least it wasn’t too rickety and the passenger compartment was more or less covered, allowing both Luna and me to look out into the streets undisturbed as we clattered through traffic.

As a city eternally building both newer and further, there were both dusty stone ruins- some protected under law as historical sites- and modern, squat office buildings in the city. In many places, they were side-by-side. Imagine that! There was no “business sector” or “residential area.” It all blended together into the rippling sea that was The Eternal City. Only government buildings and the Bazaar actually had a designated area in the Roaman Forum. That meant a few things.

First, only locals would know what’s what. It’s tough to find solid ground in a liquid city, and the walls were forever rippling in Roam. As the city grew, so did its nooks and crannies along with it, soon filled in with still more homes and businesses. Roam was alive and breathing, constantly evolving. If we didn’t have Viediv, we would be completely lost.

Second, there was no chance for gentrification to take hold. With Canterlot, limited space and prime real estate raised prices higher and higher until Celestia- and later Luna- personally had to step in. With Roam, they’d just follow where hammer struck and sparks flew. Work would always be available whether you wore cloak or collar. It led to an interesting arrangement where both the rich and the poor lived alongside one another. Remember what I said about the welfare system in Equestria, saying how it was amazing but obviously had its faults? Roam didn’t need to give government assistance to the poor. Between a culture grounded in ties of responsibility from person to person, group to group and forcing the rich and poor to confront the reality of the gap that yawned between them, the zebra people did a damn fine job making their own welfare system. No higher-up needed to tell them to do it- they just helped one another out. The only time the people had been brought to their knees was the recession over thirty years ago that forced Zoleks and his family from the country to find work. It took a major economic event to render the rich unable to help the poor and the poor unable to help themselves, and since then, it seemed they were back on their feet. This alone made me particularly interested in finding out how industrialization affected Zebrica- Roam in particular.

One of the members of the audience raised a hoof to interrupt, remarking how he had seen posters in different cities saying how zebras were cruel and mean-spirited and such- complete opposites of ponies. The storyteller merely grinned.

Like I said, folks- truth is always more interesting than propaganda.

Third, and also particularly interesting to me- the city itself was history come alive. Each time we passed by rows of homes and businesses, there would suddenly be a break in which there was a house-sized space where a dugout of a ruin or an entrance into the catacombs remained. I wanted to explore everything the city had to offer, knowing full well I would die before I would ever be able to.

… ah… choice words there.

Fourth, as Roam swallowed more and more hills, it also swallowed what used to live there. Not only did it absorb the different tribes- it absorbed the local flora and fauna itself. Patches of exotic plants rose up in the crowded alleyways, and blade-like trees created shade from the intense sun. Animals roamed freely in The Eternal City, if you forgive the pun. Everything from farm animals- and yes, there were terraced fields for farming interspersed between businesses and homes- to wild animals walked the streets and above. By above… I didn’t mean just flying. More on that later.

As Viediv skirted the wagon around a mare leading a peacock across the street, I couldn’t help but chuckle huskily to Luna, “Can’t tell who’d want to be here more- Fluttershy or Rarity.”

“Obviously, Twilight would want to be here the most,” she chuckled in turn. “Forever the student.”

“Heh… so Viediv, how have you been holding up?” I asked, calling up to him.

“Well enough, Frost,” he answered as he blared his horn to clear a stray dog out of the path of his wagon and turned onto one of the main roads that spiraled out from the center of Roam. “Finally,” he whispered as he shifted up a gear and we picked up speed. Then louder: “The family is doing good.”

“Do you have any children?” Luna inquired.

“Oh no, not family like that,” he said with a short huff and grin. “Equinpologists don’t make much money. Frost should know.” He jerked a hoof back toward me. “I can’t be responsible for a wife- Caesar forbid a child! Hah! I just live by myself.” I looked at his partially visible reflection in the rear-view mirror and watched his smile fade. “Speaking of which, since I understand your hotel is overlooking the Forum, it may be wise to cancel your reservations.” He glanced up at me in the mirror. “I have a guest bedroom. It’s crowded, but I’ll try to make you comfortable, my friends.”

“While we appreciate your generosity, Viediv,” Luna spoke up, “you don’t have to go out of your-” I rest my hoof on hers and she cut off, turning to me. I gave a tiny shake of the head. “Something wrong?”

“Zebras are bound to one another through ties of responsibility,” I explained quietly. “It’s how their families, businesses, and government are organized, leading all the way to the Caesar. Viediv is now responsible for us as his guests.”

“Ah, so rejecting it would be the same as…” She looked back at him. The unspoken words, we both knew, were “insulting him.”

“You did not know, my friend Nightingale,” he said, smiling pleasantly as he glanced up at our reflection in the mirror. “The fault does not lie with you.” His smile slipped. “But Frost is right. In Zebrica, ties bind us. You know the saying, ‘blood is thicker than water?’ The whole saying is ‘the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.’ I am responsible for you and your safety now, and that means avoiding the Forum for the duration of your stay. I’m sorry.”

Luna glanced away and nodded, though I had this oddly nagging suspicion it was meant for someone else. “Very well, Viediv. I appreciate the concern- even if it is your culture- but we had plans, and we intend to stick with them.”

The zebra buck opened his mouth as if to protest.

And there was a flicker of something else in the rear-view mirror.

“Very well, Nightingale,” he said with a nod, that look of protest gone in a flash as he started making his way to the far lane to pull into a U-turn at the next intersection. “I must inform you that I had cancelled my reservations in advance.”

“They will be arranged for,” Luna said with a… smile. “I’m sure zebras can be just as accommodating as any other person.”

I now looked at Luna with both rising concern and mounting suspicion. I opened my mouth to speak, and…

“How much longer till we get there?” I inquired.

“Maybe half-an-hour,” Viediv replied. “We’re going to hit heavier traffic at the Forum no doubt.”

All of the major roadways in Roam led to the Forum. It was where all the major government buildings were located- and the world-famous Roaman Bazaar. The traffic got much heavier as we neared, as Viediv claimed. Soon, we were moving along at snail’s pace, and it began to smell like Manehattan in rush-hour traffic with all the fumes. We made small talk, exchanging snippets casually to pass time. Eventually, someone had to bring up the obvious…

“Is the traffic usually this bad so close to the Forum?” Luna inquired. “We probably could have made it there by hoof by now.”

“No, it’s not usually this bad,” Viediv answered, standing up on his hindlegs, craning his neck to peer over the sea of wagons inching along. “Kiongozi…

“What is it?” I asked. The zebra equivalent of blasphemy was never a good sign.

“It’s a military checkpoint, and I think they’re with Legate Khotek,” he answered, grimacing as he sat back down and turned to face us. “Alright, remember that part about doing exactly as I say? That’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to try to pass you as native Zebricans. Frost, you both came from the Wirani Province, alright? Your tithe is to Senator Harawa, and you’ll speak Zebrikaans. No Equestrian whatsoever, understand? Nightingale, don’t make eye contact, and let Frost speak for you. Just keep looking at the floor.”

“Alright,” she acknowledged. “And what happens if they discover we’re not natives?”

“Pray they don’t,” he answered, frowning as he faced forward once more. “All non-natives have been long expelled from Zebrica since the war with the minotaurs started. They may think of you as, ah, spies.”

She glanced to her side. “You think they might really do that?”

“Zebrica has a history of recurring conflict, more so than Aldorna and especially Equestria. We have a different mode of thought. And even if you declare yourselves as tourists or being here on research, I doubt they’ll take the time to check it out with the government they all hate.”

“So if we’re spies, what would they think of you?” I asked.

Viediv looked at me through the rear-view mirror and uttered a single word: “Proditor.”

I let out a deep sigh as my mind began to race. Words… don’t fail me now.

After several painstaking minutes, our wagon drew up to an overpass, where members of the Zebrica Legion had set up a hasty but well-fortified checkpoint. Sandbags limited traffic to one wagon at a time with a separate lane for foot traffic. A manual guard arm barred progress, as did a spike strip rolled out underneath. Armed Legionaries populated the checkpoint. Their armor was a combination of traditional and modern designs- it bore a scaled look made famous by movies and history books, metal plating and all. However, as we drew closer, the scales looked to be made of modern ceramic-laminate plating interwoven for maximum protection. The metallic pieces were deflective alloys rather than iron or steel. No shields, no gladii, no polearms. They were all walking in bipedal manner, toting assault rifles and military-grade magical energy rifles- none of the flimsy-looking Equestrian models you’re used to seeing. They were bulky, rugged, and downright intimidating. And all of them sported bayonets- these long, thick, tapered blades clearly meant for the traditional Roaman stab. This was the modern Legionary, a blend of old meets new. So many familiar things compared to the Equestrian and Aldornan military, yet so… utterly alien with the way they looked and the way they moved.

One of them approached from the side after we stopped. He caught sight of Luna and me, and given his stern look, I was very grateful that we had long stowed our bags in the trunk.

“Name and business,” he barked in Zwahili.

“I am Viediv, and this is Frost and Nightingale,” my friend answered in kind. “We’re just here to browse the Bazaar, sir.”

“And where are you from?” the Legionary questioned.

“I am from the Aemilia borough of Roam,” Viediv answered. “My friends are from Wirani.”

“They can speak for themselves,” the armored stallion said, turning to me. “You. Where are you from?”

Speaking under pressure was nothing new to me. Minus the threat of death. Speaking in Zebrikaans, I replied, “We are from the Wirani province, sir.”

He pursed his lips momentarily, switching to Zebrikaans as well. “Duration of stay?”

“A few days,” I answered, attempting an easy smile. “Can’t see all the wonders of the Bazaar in just one.”

“Hm… and who is your senator?” he inquired.

“Senator Harawa,” I responded. “Hopefully he makes that seventh term, yeah?”

The Legionary grunted softly, then turned toward two of his compatriots. In Zwahili once more: “Check the trunk. You, the undercarriage. Get the hound.”

Oh shit. They were going to see our travel bags. My heart rate picked up, but the only way I let it show was a shared glance at Luna as well. She knew.

One of the Legionaries dipped back around the blockage and returned with a warhound, this dark, mottled creature that was less dog and more wolf and bear combined. It was easily the size of a small pony, and its large teeth- blunt with the intent to crush and snap- poked past its lips. Despite the ferocious appearance, it walked by its handler’s side tamely- a testament to the bond they shared. The moment it neared the wagon, it suddenly looked right at us in the back and pulled back its lips, fully revealing its teeth, and growled lowly.

The zebra buck dropped to a crouch and murmured to his companion, who went rigid before barking savagely, pressing against the door with its predatory eyes shrunk to pinpricks. Panic finally seized me and I reeled from the door, heart pounding and a chill running through me realizing that something bad just happened.

Then we were moving along toward the Forum at the usual highway pace, the checkpoint long behind us. Viediv let out a sigh of relief, and Luna held a calm demeanor.

I shuddered and rapidly shook my head. “What the hay just happened?”

“What do you mean?” Luna asked.

I sputtered, heart still pounding away. “That… the… the hound started barking at us and, and…”

“What?” Viediv glanced back at me through the mirror. “Are you okay, Frost? Nothing of the sort happened.”

“But… what?” I looked between the two of them. Luna simply looked puzzled. “But there was… there was…”

[“Down, down!” the Legionary handler ordered in Zwahili to his warhound, who backed out of the way as the others brought their weapons to bear. Panic took hold of me and I devolved to instinct, the chill consuming and controlling me as I could only hold my forehooves up in fear. “All of you out of the wagon right now! All of you out and down on the ground or we will fire!”]

[“Out, out, out,” Viediv uttered hurriedly, eyes wide and mouth slightly ajar. I could only look back at Luna as she inhaled and nodded. We exited the vehicle and laid prone on the ground obediently. Ground- my old friend under an old name.]

[“Kodavi, secure them,” one of them ordered. “You see any sign of magic, shoot to kill. Understand?”]

[“Sir!” the other complied. I swallowed hard.]

[Then the warhound started barking again. Its handler dropped to its side again. “Hey, easy, boy, easy!”]

[It kept barking, even as others moved to secure us. No doubt the others on the motorway were starting to get anxious at the sight, craning their necks out of their windows to get a better look.]

[“Easy, they’re out, they’re out! We’re going to search! There’s nobody left in the… in…”]

[I chanced a look back the warhound and the handler as the zebra above me shifted onto my back to bind my forelegs. It was still barking. But not at us.Not at the trunk or the undercarriage.]

[There was someone else in the back seats.]

[Someone, something that nobody but the hound could see.]

[There was shouting, hurried shouting that I couldn’t hope to translate in time. All of the zebras were up on their hindlegs, weapons aimed at this someone, something.]

[And then everything stopped. Everything was dulled to grayscale tones. Everything but Luna, me, and Viediv. A figure rippled into view. Someone- definitely someone- stepped from the back. I couldn’t tell who or what this person was. It was as if I was trying to look at someone past a smoky veil. The person drew up close to Viediv, whose look of fear suddenly vanished as he stood as if in a trance.]

[Then in a voice neither of a stallion’s or a mare’s, the warped figure said, “When I clap my hooves, you will get back in, and you will drive for the Forum with Frost and Nightingale. You were let through the checkpoint without any trouble.” The smoky… something backed away from Viediv, who swayed on his hooves but otherwise made no response.]

[The figure motioned elsewhere behind us along the roadway… and then came to me. A single, piercing eye cut through the fog, gleaming a brilliant amber. Its slit-like iris was all I could focus on.]

[“And you will all forget this ever happened.”]

[And then came an unearthly ding.]

<+=0o/=\>

“There was what?” Luna asked, eyebrow arced, jarring me from my trance.

I noticed suddenly that we both left enough space for the far back seat to be left available. I stared at the seemingly empty space.

The smoky figure returned, but this time, clearly visible was the silhouette of an armored pony. What kind of pony, what kind of armor I couldn’t discern, but what I could discern was a hoof rising to the muzzle.

“Shhh…”

I swallowed and glanced back at Luna, her expression hardened and saddened. She flattened her lips and turned forward with a glance that cautioned me to speak nothing of this.

I wasn’t the only one with business in Roam.

* * *

Footnote: Frost- Level Up! Level 19 Reached!
Perk added: Extra S.P.E.CI.A.L. (2)- Intense training? What’s that? In any case, you get an extra point to allocate to one of your attributes.
Attribute selected: Perception

Unlockables added: Soundtrack- A Little More History

Soundtrack- The Zebrican Wilds

Soundtrack- The Happiest Moment of My Life

Soundtrack- End of an Era

Soundtrack- The Eternal City, Roam

Soundtrack- The New Legion

Soundtrack- Silence

Author's Note:

And about time. Nearly three months without updating... ugh. Well, hopefully nothing like this happens again. I hope you enjoyed this installment, and I hope you stick around for the next one. Please leave feedback, as any kind is greatly appreciated- critique especially. My thanks to the FoE community and Lazer726 for pre-reading.

Until next time,
Adder1

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