• Published 22nd Jul 2021
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Preunification Anon - Spooples



[RGRE] An inexperienced unicorn and her human bodyguard travel to the dangerous heart of Preunification Equestria. This "alicorn" filly better be worth it.

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III - Rats and Mud

This isn’t how it was supposed to go.

Your first time in the wagon’s interior was supposed to be the rest you had craved for the last three weeks. You would have driven to the nearest settlement, bought a map of the coast, and casted an ambient direction spell on the wagon before finally collapsing onto a soft bed. You would have maybe even picked up a few books from the settlement – if the lowercaste mares there were literate – to read during the journey. Feel a little piece of the life you had given up.

Who knows? Maybe you could have even read to Anonymous, or just talk with him. Give him the moment of peace he deserved, bond with the hyoo-men.

It wasn’t supposed to go like this.

Your body tingles as the regrettably familiar sensation of a paralysis spell renders it numb. The interior of the wagon is dark. The decorative lantern on the ceiling is unlit, leaving the only source of light in the wagon the orange glow of the raider keeping you still. The light from the outdoors sun is nothing but a fond memory now. All you can see outside is a crushing, gray mist, interrupted only by the gliding treetops.

The interior of the wagon is dead silent, your only companion bound in rope and lying unconsciously against your back. Anonymous’ breathing is scarily quiet, and if it wasn’t for the odd shudder or quiet mewl, you would’ve thought him dead long ago. Muffled hoofsteps and jeering can be heard from outside. They’re all thick with that ugly accent you want to make disappear in a poof of noxious gas. The workers at Free Valley were also cursed with that disgusting lilt. You should’ve left the moment they opened their dirty, lowercaste, lying mouths.

...You shouldn't be having these thoughts, Faust. Stop thinking like that.

Another rattle from the outside world sends quakes throughout the wagon much like the many occasions before it. This time, though, you almost skid across the floor from the sudden stop. The furniture shifts and swings precariously. You can hear indiscernible babbling from the cretins outside, followed by hurried shuffling. These raiders wouldn’t know how to drive a wagon if they were born with the reigns in their hooves!

The unicorn watching over you and Anonymous lets out an exasperated snarl of a sigh before slinging her blowgun over her withers and stomping to the window. Your Paardian armor jingles cruelly as it hugs her figure, sparkling in the dark like a treasure you could never reach. The unicorn peels back one of the curtains, throws open the glass, and shouts, “Would you flea-ridden idjits learn to drive, for Ancients’ sake?!”

You suppress a whimper at the new crack that adorns the window you had designed.

”Shut your crusty snatch, Sparrow!” comes an equally irked voice from outside. “We’re here anyways! Be grateful Sapphire Lily let you stink up the inside first.”

”That’s ‘cuz I’m the one who put the weird, hairless cat to sleep,” Sparrow snickers, closing the window in a manner no more gentle than her first encounter. As the sounds and vibrations of ponies unlatching the door echo throughout the wagon, the unicorn trots in your direction.

She knows you’re awake. She knows you can’t defend yourself.

You can’t even manage a whimper as Sparrow’s hooves get closer and closer… until she hops over you. She lands behind you with an almost dainty set of clicks before she whispers, “Here’s hoping you’ll be keeping me awake all night, kitty cat.”

Waste of a Ancients-given horn.

It slips out before you can stop it.

Sparrow lays a hoof on your cheek before she effectively punches your face towards her own. All you can see are her wicked irises as she whispers lowly, “Say that again, Lucky.”

The muffled shambling from outside is suddenly denuded as the door to the wagon is swung open. An oppressive gray light fills the room, but before it lands on Sparrow, she roughly shoves your head back to the ground.

You’re met with the yellow grin of Lily leaning into the door frame. Other unicorns wait patiently behind her. “Sorry for the bumpy ride,” she says before she steps up and into the wagon.

You instinctively try to kick with your hooves when the unicorns pull you across the floor and into the outside world, but it’s useless in more ways than one. Raiders surround you, both Casters and Swordsmares, even if their attention is turned away from you as if you’re an afterthought.

You don’t recognize the part of the forest you’ve landed in, and you can’t tilt your head to attempt to start. The unicorns are gathered around a circular clearing of dirt; besides that, and the discarded fake bushes beside the brown patch, your surroundings are indistinguishable from being lost in a misty forest. You can hear the calls of water birds through the mist, and the rhythmic waves of a lake somewhere close by.

”Careful with his head, you stupid cunt!” a raider whispers hoarsely from behind. “Lily’ll have your cutie mark on her wall!”

”Then you should’a told me telekinesis wouldn’t work first, whorse,” another responds.

“Anonymous?” you call out, but the unicorns behind you don’t respond as they descend from the wagon with a quartet of grunts. Their hoofsteps are heavy as they struggle under the weight of your housecarla.

”This colt’s heavy.”

”It’s all muscle, filly. Allll muscle.

Don’t touch him!” you shout, even if there’s nothing you can do. “Please! Please, I’ll pay you!”

There’s a cruel pause before you hear a cacophony of rough guffaws and laughter surrounding you.

”Is this your first time getting robbed, little filly?” one of the voices chuckles.

“I can pay you!” you plead. “I-I can pay with something I guarantee you’ll never find! Something of which only I know the location! Thousands of doits!”

”You wouldn’t happen to be talking about this bag your coltfriend is so in love with, would you?”

You freeze as your bag levitates in front of your eyes, dangling in the air like you would a toy over a baby. You were sure you hid the bag in a place they would never find. You casted an ambient invisibility spell on it. You casted a sleep spell on Tia. You casted a physical transparency spell on the bag! They would have never found it!

HOW DID THEY FIND IT?!

”I wonder just how much she can pay us to stop touching the cat," a raider murmurs.

STOP!” you yell, but it's too late.

Your bag is upended. Down falls all your belongings from the intraflated interior; the dozens of painstakingly counted 600-doit bags, the sealed box which contains your drawing utensils, your many supplies and food bags, your cosmetic items…

But no filly.

You can’t decide between feeling overjoyed or mortified as a voice booms over the cackling raiders.

HE SAYS HE NEEDS QUIET, YOU DAFT CUNTS!

You recognize the gravel in that voice.

The raiders around you grumble their complaints as they scoop your belongings aside. The crowd of unicorns have turned towards the troublemakers surrounding you, giving you a clearer view at the only pony who could fit that voice. Smooth Roads stands further in the clearing beside another pony, giving your purse purloiners a colty stink eye.

You never should've trusted her.

The unicorn’s earthy brown eyes flick to your own. Why hadn’t you seen it sooner? No… why hadn’t you heard it sooner? It was in the accent.

Scratch that. It was everything about her. She’s lowercaste scum.

…Why did you just think that, Lucky?

You swear you can see the fire in Smooth Roads’ face extinguish once she looks to you. Her body slumps slightly as she hurriedly turns back around. Roads whispers something to the pony besides her before the other one raises her head.

…No, his head.

There’s a stallion standing beside Smooth Roads. You had initially thought he was a mare because of how skinny he is, but now there’s no mistaking it. You can see each of the pony’s ribs striate and push against his wide, rustic orange frame as he settles down to his flanks. A few flecks of dirt fall from his disheveled mane as he sends a quick glance your way. That’s when you see it.

He’s hornless.

The glance lasts less than a second before the earth pony turns back to the clearing. He lowers himself to the ground. Smooth Roads follows suit slowly, a soft smile on her hard features as she whispers something to the stallion.

”Stop bucking teasing us…” you can hear Sparrow mutter under her breath as the colt turns away.

”Save it ‘til we’re under,” Lily murmurs in response.

You underestimated these ponies. Maybe it’s a testament to your naivety that you’re thinking that just now, with how they treated Anonymous. Or perhaps it’s the fact that you’re seeing their cruelty on a stallion first hoof; a pony stallion, who obviously can’t defend himself.

The soft smile on Roads’ face is suddenly gone as she snaps back to the raiders. “NOW YOU DECORATIVE CACTUS-BUCKERS HAVE GONE AND DONE IT!” Her voice booms across the clearing as if augmented. A few of the raiders closest to her and the stallion take a step back. Sparrow does as well, even if she’s nowhere near the two. “HE’S LOST HIS FOCUS! WHERE IN THE ETERNAL GRAZE IS OUR CLOUDPUSHER?!

Cloudpusher?

”Just finishing up, wagon wrangler!” a voice chirrups from above, and your ears plaster against your skull.

Oh no.

Oh, Ancients above, no.

Please, by the fleas which gnaw at the All-Father's rotting tuft, tell yourself you didn’t just hear the unmistakable chirp at the end of that sentence.

Please tell yourself you’re just imagining the sound of wings flapping from above.

Unfortunately, even your imagination isn’t strong enough to conjure up the sight of a pony descending from above. She wears a conceited smirk as she turns her head this way and that, inspecting the thick mist she’s most undoubtedly responsible for. You’d be surprised if the white cloud in her hooves wasn’t swooped in on and stolen by the sky rat’s dirty, thieving hooves.

The sky rat bobs in a slow, annoying descent before touching down on terra firma. As she does, you notice a set of magical bands around her limbs and neck; an extra pair adorns her wings. You wish more pegasi had this one’s sense of fashion, if those bands are what you think they are.

”Isn’t that a tad bigger than needed, Max Gusto?” Smooth Roads drawls, sticking a hoof to the cloud in the sky rat’s vomit-inducing, lime green hooves.

Max gives a noncommittal shrug, shuffling the saddle on her back, before responding, “Guess it’s going in storage, then.”

”Whatever,” Roads sighs. “Just talk some sense into this colt.”

--Wait.

Hold your ancestors.

Max is wearing a saddle?

And nothing underneath?!

In PUBLIC?!

”She was slower today,” you hear Sparrow mutter to Lily. “I almost missed my shot on the colt. We might need to replace her soon.”

”We will,” Lily responds nonchalantly as Max and Roads continue chatting. “But later. If Essence hadn’t ‘gotten distracted’ and crashed our last wagon, maybe we’d have time to catch another sky wanderer. Real shame we had to burn it. I liked that wagon.”

“’I swear it on my father’s grave!’” Sparrow mocks in a sotto giggle. “’I saw it with my own eyes! The bucking Sun was pulled up by magic!’

The two ponies chuckle with each other before the clearing once again goes silent. You can’t help but feel tears threatening you from the back of your throat. Of course your wagon was never special to these ruffians.

How are you going to get out of this, Lucky Favor?

”Hey,” Sparrow whispers to Lily gravely. “Is it just me, or is the lake shallower than yesterday?”

Lily’s response is cut off by a slew of noises from the front of the raiders. The command of silence from Smooth Roads is ignored, or perhaps nonverbally revoked, as a din of sighs, cheers, and hollering echo around the misty clearing. You can also hear the earthly rumble and swelling of a landslide, but that wouldn’t make sense. You’re on flat land.

The sight of a moving forest is the only indication the unicorns have gripped your hindlegs and started to pull you forward. Your numb body can’t feel the dewy grass and moist dirt as they begin to slide through your fur. The silence of the clearing is replaced with a stampede of raiders’ hooves as they trot forward. You can also hear a few commanding shouts near your wagon before its wheels begin to crunch over the grass in pursuit.

”The earthpusher might also need a replacement,” Sparrow mutters.

”Sky wanderers are manageable enough,” Lily grunts as the smell of fresh soil tickles your nostrils. “But catching another mud horse? Between you and me, we got lucky with this one.”

”Lucky? The stallion is downright braindead! He doesn’t even struggle anymore when the gals and I have our fun. He spends all his free time with his head against the wall. Only ever opens his yap to Max.”

You can feel your throat going numb as bile threatens your tongue. These ponies are lowercaste scum.

”He gets the job done,” Lily says. “Even if he relies on the sky rat.” You notice a faint echo of her voice, getting closer with each passing second of dragging. Not the distant call of the forest, but something much more tunnel-like.

As the vision of the forest slants, you get your confirmation.

You know there wasn’t a tunnel here before, yet here it is.

”Max!” Smooth Roads’ shout echoes from somewhere you can’t see. “It’s as dusty as the All-Father’s rotten coffin in here! Do your bucking job!”

”Sure thing, cotton tuft,” the sky rat responds. You can’t feel the pressure of the pegasus flapping her wings forward, but you can hear it. You can also hear the sound of a thin sheet of rain peppering the dirt below following her.

Moist, brown walls rise to cover the open air of the forest as you’re dragged deeper into the earth. Every sound of the raiders around you – the clinking of their weapons, the rustling of your wagon, the low conversations you try and blot out – now echo and bounce in the dirt tunnel that’s materialized around you. The gray light of the outdoors is replaced with a crushing darkness.

Just as you begin to think Equus itself has consumed you, the orange glow of lanterns begin to paint the dirt and ponies surrounding you. More sounds join the fray, but they’re less brutish than your company. The volume and multiplicity of chatter and hoofsteps increases. The pulsating clanking of somepony hammering a disobedient weapon into shape slices through the crowd. The crackling of a far-off fire is concerning, but when you’re dragged into a large, dome-like dirt cave, you don’t see a puff of smoke above. All you see is a large amalgamation of fluffy, white clouds – as big as your wagon, in fact.

The voices turn to passing ponies as you’re dragged into the bizarre, underground hamlet, and you immediately discern they’re not friendly either. If their coat isn’t festooned with scars, home-made weapons trail above them in a magical grip, or mixed-and-matched armor hang from their bodies. None of the unicorns pay you any heed, but a few of them send a confused glance Anonymous’ way.

The tent in the center of the circular village suddenly bursts open in a flurry of fabric. The two raiders standing beside the entrance flinch as its occupant comes marching out. The moment the exiting unicorn’s eyes land on you, you’re glad you’re too numb to feel the beatdown that you know is inevitable. Fortunately, the mare’s glare nearly instantaneously shifts to Smooth Roads before she starts to trot over.

”I’ll do the damage control,” Lily sighs as she steps over your limp body and makes her way to Smooth Roads’ side. “Probably asshurt about the price…”

”H-hello, Alpha,” Smooth Roads nearly whispers, her voice almost indistinguishable from under the ruckus of the village. “Ya’ might be wondering why I brought two outsiders--…”

Whatever argument the trio of unicorns devolve into, you can’t catch before you’re dragged deeper into the underground settlement. Between the tents, ponies, and the bonfire in the middle of the site (you’re still unsure of how it hasn’t already turned the place into a smoke sauna), you catch a glimpse of a dirty orange pony. True to Sparrow’s word, the earth pony stallion sits far away from the gathering of the hamlet. You can clearly discern his spine through his coat as he slouches away from you, his forehead pressed against the dirt wall.

Before the view of the stallion is obscured by orange-tinted fabric of a tent, you catch a technicolor trio of mares approaching him.

NO!” you shout as you’re dragged across the first iron bar the cage.

You lose sight of the stallion. You urge your body to stand up, to flail, to teleport out of the metal cage to his side – to do anything -- but Sparrow’s magic still holds you tight.

Scum,” you snarl between gritted teeth uselessly. “Scum…”

”At least I’m not rotting in a cell,” Sparrow coos before the orange glow disappears and feeling returns to your body.

You scramble to your hooves and lurch towards the gate to the cage, but the bruises and aches of your trip catch up to you before you can. Sparrow giggles at your tumble before you’re locked in. She opens the flap to your tent to make her exit.

Through those folds, you see the unconscious body of Anonymous being dragged through the dirt, in no way aimed at your own cell.

“Wait!” you scream. “Wait, wait, please wait! Sparrow, relocate my housecarla to my cell! I’ll do anything!”

”Don’t worry,” Sparrow throws over her withers as she trots through the folds of the tent. “We’ll make the gentlecolt comfortable.”

STOP!” you yell out, but the mare is gone.

Your horn strains painfully from the effort of attempting magic against the ring. You push and pull against the gate with all the strength in your body. You turn and send buck after buck to the iron bars, hoping beyond hope they overlooked something. They had to have overlooked something. There has to be a way out of here.

With each metallic clang of your hooves connecting with the bars, strings of ambient magic snake around the metal in an oppositional glow.

You need to find Tia.

You can’t let Anonymous be hurt again.

This can’t be it. There HAS to be some way out of here.

The edges of your vision begin to blacken. It’s getting harder to breathe. The force from your next buck sends you tumbling into the mud. You try to scramble to your hooves to get back at it, but they’re shaking too hard to control, slipping through the pasty ground as your barrel falls once again. Your mind and heart beat you from the inside out as you begin to hyperventilate.

“There has to be a way,” you can barely hear yourself whisper above the ringing. “…Please, Ancients… Please show me the way… Tia…

”Wow,” a voice chirps from behind, snapping you out of your turmoil. “Tear-jerking performance. Bravo.”

When you’re sent into the great beyond, you are going to buck the Ancient Lady of Serendipity right in her stupid muzzle.

Your head creaks to the direction of the voice to see the sky rat from earlier. Immediately, three things stand out to you. One, she’s slouching her back against the far wall of the cage with a shit-eating grin. Two, there’s a plate of half-eaten dead fish in front of the pegasus. Three, she’s in the cage.

With you. Not out of the cage, but in.

…And she’s also naked. You can only hope her Y-7 gland is engaged, but you somehow doubt it.

“Was your cloud pushing so poor your friends had to throw you in here, sky rat?” you scoff as you shakily get to your hooves. Once you’re on all fours, you make your way to the gate of the cage once again, inspecting for any weakness. “Why aren’t you out there with the other thieves?”

The cage is overcome with silence as the sky rat keeps her muzzle shut. The raiders probably threw her in here to taunt you. That’s the one thing sky rats excel at.

”Uppercastemare!” Max suddenly pipes up.

You turn towards the sky rat to see that she’s up on all fours and making her way to you. Your hackles start to raise as you add a little more volume to your tuft. “What are you talking about?” you murmur.

”You’re an uppercastemare!” the pegasus repeats with a wondrous twinkle in her eyes. “You have to either be an ignorant uppercastemare, or a sniveling chick who’s never taken a step out of her village. Do you really not know what a cloudpusher is, little chick?”

“I have the nagging suspicion it has something to do with pushing clouds,” you harumph, standing your ground. “And at the end of the day, when you’re not needed, you’re reduced to nothing but another prisoner. Probably to keep your dirty, thieving rat hooves locked up.”

Max is in your face now, but for a moment she just stares at you. You smirk in victory, even if you desperately hope for the naked pony to take two large steps back.

Suddenly, the sky rat rears her head back and lets out an ear-splitting cacaw of laughter. “You really don’t know a thing!” she whoops. You keep your hard gaze on the sky rat, not looking away even as you feel a small strand of spittle land on your muzzle.

“Pardon me,” you growl, turning back to the cage. “But I don’t have time to waste on you.”

Could you dig through the mud underneath? No, a few swipes in and you see another set of bars just below.

“They don’t take ‘prisoners’ here if they’re not integral!” Max continues, oblivious to your too polite sendoff.

“Hmph,” you murmur as your eyes trace the bars of the cage. “Then why, pray tell, did they not leave me on the side of the road, if I'm so special?”

Max calms down enough to lower her hindquarters to the ground, tilting her head. “Huh,” she mulls over. “No idea! Considering there’s no way for you to clear the smoke when it gets too thick, or cover their trail with some nasty weather.—” You feel a soft tingle on your tuft, and look down to see that Max is stroking it with a wing. “—Or keep the place nice and moist for the express purpose of ruining your white coat, I can’t think of a single reason you’d be useful to them.”

You yip as you bat the unnatural appendage away from your chest and give the sky rat a glare. Dirt would’ve at least come off easy with a quick shake of your coat, but mud? Mud dries and cakes; mud needs to be scrubbed off in water, and even then you can’t do a lot of scrubbing with this ring on your horn.

Bucking sky rats…

“So you’re just a coward who does her captors’ bidding?” you deride, using a hoof to adjust the fur Max dirtied. Well, a small portion of the fur Max dirtied. “Whatever happened to that ‘freedom’ you pegasi won’t shut up about?”

”Whatever happened to that housecarla you wouldn’t shut up about?” Max immediately retorts.

Your blood boils and screams at you to break through the ring on your horn and rip this bird-bucking mutant apart.

Max tilts her head at you, her soft coo dripping with sarcastic concern, “Aww, is the conehead mad she can’t magic away her problems anymore?”

Everything about her drives you insane. The musky smell that cruelly tickles your nose whenever you inhale, the unnatural, mutant wings that hang from her sides; the unbelonging, masculine muscles striating through her body as she moves.

You want to hurt her. You want to hurt something. You want to show these lowercastemares just what separates the two of you.

That’s the thought that mellows you.

Instead of responding to the sky rat’s mockery, you simply close your eyes, turn away from the pungent pony, and take a deep breath. For all you know she could be lying about her occupation. She could be lying about everything. She could just be taunting you.

You can’t waste time on her. You need to find a way out of here.

Find Tia. Save Anonymous.

Whether your mind gets better at blotting the sky rat out or Max doesn’t open her yap again, you spend the next few hours in relative peace from the pegasus. You can’t see much of the underground hamlet you’ve found yourself in; you can only hear the commotion from outside. The large tent which surrounds your cage covers your surroundings behind an orange curtain.

At some point, a raider comes into your tent. You almost instinctively bolt when she opens the cage, but calm down enough to realize how pointless that’d be. You’re stuck underground, surrounded by a gang who’s keeping you alive for unknown reasons, and without any idea of where Tia or Anonymous are. It doesn’t stop you from asking the raider questions, however, but of course you get no real answers. The raider simply commands Max outside to clear out the built-up smoke and dust, leaves with the pegasus, and leaves you in a locked cage.

It’s only when you’re sure you’re alone that you can no longer hold back the tears.


You don’t know if the tent’s flaps being flung open wake you from sleep or a sleepless stupor, but you do know that you’re still on all fours. You blearily glare at the familiar unicorn as she enters the tent.

You flinch at the glow of Sapphire Lily’s horn, but the cold tingling of a paralysis spell doesn't follow. Instead, she pulls something out from behind her back that makes your breath catch. Without a word, Lily tosses your notebook between the bars of the cage. You habitually try to catch it with your magic, resulting in the book landing in the mud with a soft squelch. You curse yourself as you bend down to wrap it in your hooves.

”You’re literate, Lucky Favor?” Lily asks with the decorum of a father asking his child if she was the one responsible for destroying that expensive vase when he wasn’t looking.

Without saying a word, you gently graze the mud from the cover of your notebook. You give a nod.

”Well, that’s mighty fortunate,” Lily says with a chuckle and a mock ‘phew!’ gesture. “Looks like Smooth Roads did know what she was doing when she brought you and your coltfriend in.”

Your concern for Anonymous trumps your fresh hatred for Smooth Roads. “Please don’t hurt him,” you can only whisper, prompting Lily to give an evasive shrug.

”I give him to my mares,” she drawls, painfully slow, as if fully aware that each second she speaks is a second Anonymous spends away from you. “And my mares get him situated. Believe me, I’d like a little more time with the colt, but that’s the extent of my responsibilities. Now, back to business.” Lily goes quiet for a moment, either to organize her thoughts or torture you. “I’ll save you the complicated explanation and just say that we’ve landed in a tough spot. You’re going to be reading something to a few ponies.”

Your only reaction is a slow blink. Did you hear that right, or was your muddled brain playing tricks on you? “Pardon?” you say.

”The innerworkings of the Red Garden are boring and frankly not for your ears anyway,” Lily sighs. “You’ll just be reading a speech of sorts that’s going to be delivered to some of the honest ponies upstairs. We just gotta double-check its integrity through a neutral third-party.”

You’re on the verge of telling Lily to shove it until the grating laughter of Max cuts through the air from behind. Lily’s reaction is instantaneous. Gone is her confident, impenetrable wall, to be replaced with an exasperated glare.

”I thought you coneheads were supposed to be the smartest!” she guffaws. “Yet you need an outsider to read your own documents!

”You interrupt our conversation again,” Lily grits, her eyes never leaving your own. “Your fish will be soaked in piss next time, mule.

They need you to read something for them because they’re illiterate lowercastemares. For the first time since you’ve met Lily, you finally have the upper hoof.

…No. There must be a catch. They’re baiting you. This is too random. What if you’re reading a magical contract? Why would they ever consider you a neutral third-party? If they’re so willing to have you read it, how could it be so important? There must be at least one literate mare in this gang.

Choosing one of the many questions bouncing in your head, you hesitantly ask Lily, “What will I be reading?”

”Huh,” Lily says with a tilt of her head. “That’s strange, I could’ve sworn I was the one making demands, and you were the one in a cage. You’ll be reading your friend Smooth Roads’ work. Besides that, it’s better you find out on the fly.”

You wipe the exhaustion from your eyes. She’s acting rather defensive for somepony making demands. Could they really need you…?

No need to poke holes in your own thoughts, Lucky. She’s asking you for a favor. You might be able to turn this around. “I’ll do it on one condition,” you affirm, your eyes unwavering from Lily’s.

Without even the slightest movement, Sapphire Lily’s eyes glower into a predatory glare. “Or I can have my cohorts have their way with your housecarla if you don’t cooperate.”

The shock of her statement pales to the sudden warmth in your gut. This is the mare who lied to your face, stole your wagon, and hurt Anonymous. The mare who would use Anonymous as some kind of… object. You want to scream. You want to cast a spell. You want to wake up in your bed in the uppercastes and forget this ever happened.

You don’t register your notebook as it slides from your hooves and falls into the mud once again.

You want to kill Lily. For the first time in your life, you want to kill somepony.

”Well, that’s a shame,” Max Gusto sighs, and just like that, she’s joined Lily on your List. “All this threatening of yours has really spooked me to the core. I’m all choked up. I don’t think I can speak to our dear, braindead earthpusher after that display.”

Sapphire Lily’s threatening gaze snaps to Max for the first time since she’s entered the tent. “Max…” she growls lowly, but the pegasus isn’t perturbed in the least.

”Seems to me like you’ll have a completely braindead earthpusher on your hooves,” Max shrugs, giving you a sideways glance before her gaze returns to Lily. “You know, the one who can’t take an order from anypony but moi. I won’t be able to get to the outside, and the smoke’ll fill up this hole until we suffocate. All because you can’t listen to one little condition from a skinny, defenseless unicorn.”

Sapphire Lily glares at Max like a rabid animal stuck in its enclosure. Max only raises her eyebrows and throws her hooves behind her head. “Lahk ah’ sehd,” she drawls in a… rather humorous caricature of Lily’s accent. “Real shame, thayt. Mmm-hmm.

”The moment we catch another pegasus,” Lily snarls between her teeth. “We’ll hang you by your sockets, Max Gusto.”

Lily’s eyes shift back to you. Within an instant, she’s back to her confident self, tilting her muzzle upwards so she’s looking down at you. “If your oh-so important condition isn’t too outlandish… fine.”

Maybe you were wrong about Max Gusto.

“I want my housecarla to be repositioned immediately to my cell,” you proclaim. “And the earth pony stallion.”

Sapphire Lily is unmoving for a few seconds before she rolls her eyes. “How noble,” she mutters as she gets to her hooves. “If the earthpusher is needed, though, we’ll take him. Roads will come get you when you’re needed, Lucky Favor.”

With another flourish of orange fabric, Lily is out of your tent, leaving you in relative solidarity once again. The world spins as you fall to your haunches.

“Th-thank you,” you gasp lowly to Max.

”If you wanna thank me, explain what you were going for with this one,” Max responds.

You turn to find your notebook, open and still muddy, in the green hooves of the sky rat. She turns your notebook towards you, pointing a hoof at an unfinished drawing. It’s the night scene whose subject you hadn’t yet decided.

…G--…” you stutter as your insides are set ablaze. “…GIVE IT BACK, YOU THIEVING SKY RAT!

You charge at the sky rat, but before you can grab hold, she zips across the cage with a gust of her wings. All the while, her chirruping laughter grates against your ears.

“You are a delinquent and a coward!” you spit, giving chase. “The entirety of bird-bucker kind follows suit! You enshroud yourselves in the clouds, preclude the progression of ponykind, and swoop in to purloin whatever your cold, black hearts desire!”

”You have a serious thesaurus fetish, uppercastemare!” Max only laughs harder as she floats above each of your jumps after her, somersaulting through the air. “But I can’t lie! I have swooped in and stolen my fair share of stallions back in the day.”

Back in the day?! You’re speaking like a barren grandmother! Have you been trapped here for so long your mind has rotted, sky wanderer?!

You had never heard the words “sky wanderer” before today. You had never even read about them in in the uppercastes. You didn’t know how strong the effect they would have on the pegasus would be. It just slipped out, like all the other names you called her.

Max’s reaction to the word is swift. Her wings stop dead in the air, leaving her to descend back onto her haunches.

”Hey,” she warns, her voice strangely level as she glares at you. “I was just kidding around.”

“My notebook is no kidding matter,” you bark as you grab the book from her hooves. Max doesn’t put up a fight. “And if you can’t handle some simple name calling, maybe you’re the chick here.”

Max makes no move to respond. It wouldn’t matter anyway; a commotion from beyond the tent steals your attention.

”I’m warning you, we’re not afraid to hit a colt!” a raider yaps between the grunting and pulling. “If you behave we might even-- OW!

Your entire body snaps to the entrance of the tent. Its flaps fling open moments later to reveal a struggling quartet of raiders as they lead your hyoo-men inside. The earthpusher is just behind, although he follows quietly with a bowed head.

“Ancients above!” you stagger before collapsing to the wet ground in relief.

”Back off or we’ll paralyze you again,” one of the raiders snarls at you and Max as she flings open the gate. Anonymous is pushed in unceremoniously, yelling out swears against the fabric in his mouth. The earthpusher merely stalks inside, not even flinching when one of the unicorns gives him a parting spank before slamming the cage shut. “Bucking blue beaners…” she mutters as the raiders leave the tent.

You notice an extra shadow on each side of the tent entrance. It looks like your cage is now in need of some guards.

Tears of joy rim your vision as you approach Anonymous. “Oh, thank the Ancients above!” you cry before immediately getting to work on his bindings. “Anonymous, are you okay? Did they hurt you?! D-did they touch you?!”

There doesn’t seem to be any new wounds on the hyoo-men’s body, but you do notice that he’s even more haggard than before. His body shakes from exhaustion, even though every part of him screams in an animalistic rage. His peach skin seems to be paler, and his beard is wet with a liquid you desperately hope is his own.

The moment the ropes on Anonymous’ arms are undone, he snaps away from you with a muffled yelp. His hands claw away the fabric from his mouth before he’s immediately back on his feet. “I’ll fucking kill them,” he growls as he limps away from you.

“Anonymous, dear?” you try, but the hyoo-men ignores you as he paces this way and that. You try to stand in front of his course, but he simply turns away from you, snarling obscenities all the while. “Anonymous, did anything happen? Please, talk to me!”

Your ears flick towards Max as you hear her mutter, “I know. I’m sorry.” The pegasus is wrapping an arm around the earth pony, who seems to be in his own world as he glares at the ground. He mutters something too quiet for you to hear. Max responds with a solemn, “I know you were busy. We just had to be sure you were safe.”

Anonymous doesn’t acknowledge you as he continues to pace around the cage, staring daggers at anything that crosses his path. His eyes have a bloodthirsty craze to them. You can only imagine what’s racing through the hyoo-men’s mind.

“Anonymous, are you alright?” you try again, reaching a hoof to stop his advance.

Anonymous backhands your hoof away hard enough to make you yip and back off.

”Wait, so I’m confused,” Max says, her voice devoid of whatever sympathy she had shown the earthpusher, once again filled with that enraging, misplaced confidence. “Is his name Tia or Anonymous? ‘Cuz you were crying about a Tia earlier, but now you’re calling him Anonymous.”

Anonymous stop pacing. He slowly turns to you. You’re made painfully aware of the height difference between the two of you as he approaches. “How does she know about Tia?” he speaks in a low whisper.

“She doesn’t!” you plead. “I never brought her up! She must’ve—” Oh. Right. “…She heard me talking to myself earlier. Pegasus hearing. She only knows her name, though.”

You can’t tell if your answer satisfies Anonymous. His expression doesn’t change as he leans dangerously close. Despite yourself, you can feel your cheeks slowly warming from the closeness. “Do they have her, Lucky?” he whispers.

“No,” you assure, glancing at the way his lips part as he speaks. “I’m sure they don’t. There would’ve been chaos if they had found her. I don’t know where she is, Anonymous. I don’t--...”

You can’t speak anymore. The world blurs as tears flood your vision. You bite your tongue to keep from sobbing and glare at the ground. There’s no way in Tartarus you’re letting a sky rat see you cry.

You feel warmth envelope your hoof. You try to snatch it away, but Anonymous merely grunts and his grip tightens. You cringe as he inspects your bruised limb. He doesn’t speak, merely inspects your hoof. You should’ve known better, expecting an apology.

…Expecting an apology for anything. Yet your heart still thumps against your chest warmly.

You’re so pathetic, blushing like a schoolfilly in these circumstances. You need to mare up, Lucky, or your journey may very well be over before it even starts.

”I’m confused,” Max says. “Are you two in a herd or something? Or are you two mono?”

”Fuck off, wing-horse,” Anonymous responds curtly.

”Meh. You’ll be thanking me on your knees soon enough,” Max mutters, but Anonymous doesn’t catch that.

But after whatever Anonymous went through, you’re not letting it go. “What do you mean by that, sky rat?” you shoot, removing your hoof from Anonymous before trotting in Max’s direction.

Max’s figure puffs up when you near the earthpusher. “I’d take a few steps back right about now, Lucky.”

“You’re welcome for saving your coltfriend, by the way” you snap, not slowing your approach in any way.

”Not my coltfriend. Back off, Lucky. Seriously.”

“Tell me what you meant about my fair lord Anonymous on his knees,” you snarl. “Tell me or I’ll—” You’re not good at threatening, so think of something quick! “—I’ll hurt you!”

”I can tell just by looking at your coltfriend that he’s been in more scuffles than you.”

”Stop it,” a masculine voice says quietly.

You do a double-take to confirm just what you had heard. The voice had come from the earthpusher, now giving you a neutral gaze. You slow to a halt. Instead of elaborating further, the earthpusher’s ear flicks at Max. The pegasus gives you one more glare before turning away with the stallion. When they begin to whisper to each other, that’s when you first feel a low, hungry anger.

I am so sick,” you breathe lowly, lowering your head towards the sky rat. “Of ponies talking behind my back…

”Lucky Favor?”

Anonymous’ grumbling ceases at the almost tentative voice behind you. Max Gusto and the earthpusher both give a glance before returning to their private conversation. When you turn to the owner of the voice, you swear you can feel something snap inside.

“Well, if it isn’t Smooth Roads!” you almost cackle as you can feel a few strands of your mane go loose. The unicorn’s brown eyes are downturned as she stands just outside arm’s reach of the cage. “The second unicorn who threw me to criminals this past week! How can I be of service to you, my dear fiend?”

”Lucky, I need you to listen to me.” Roads’ voice virtually scrapes across pavement with how low it is.

“Oh, a new batch of lies and deceit? Do tell!” You smile as you approach the bars of the cage between yourself and Roads. “I’m just a naive uppercastemare, after all. Manipulate away.”

”I know ya’ don’t have the faintest reason to trust me,” she almost whispers, her head turning so she could glance at the guards outside the tent. “And I can’t explain everything proper right now, but just know I’m on your side.”

“Oh, Roadie-Roo, darling. I can think of at least one other unicorn who claimed to be ‘on my side’ for seven days before she ordered me killed. And I’ve only known you for one, so you’re gonna—”

”Fine, if you wanna act so uptight,” Smooth Roads grunts. She approaches the bars to the cell, keeping firm eye contact with you. “They’re waiting for you to read that draft. If I were you, I’d pay very close attention to—”

Smooth Roads doesn’t get to finish her sentence before a hyoo-men arm shoots out of the cage and grabs her horn. She yells out in pain, and the two shadows outside the tent react instantly. The guards aren’t quick enough to stop Anonymous before he bashes Roads’ face against the bars of the cage.

”I bucking told you to keep your distance!” one of the guards yells to Smooth Roads before a dagger is embedded into Anonymous’ hand. It doesn’t get far since the guard’s magical hold is extinguished once the steel makes contact, but it’s enough to make Anonymous release Roads’ horn.

Smooth Roads rears back from the cage. Her blue muzzle is stained a bright red as blood starts to pour.

Snap his leg!” one of guards yells out.

”No!” Roads interjects, causing the guards to pause. She pulls her hoof away from her muzzle, inspecting the warm red liquid as it slithers down her arm. Her next words are slow; much slower than her initial outburst. “Lily won’t take too kindly to any more injuries on him.”

Anonymous is back to pacing deeper in the cage, not bothered in the least by his bloody hand. His eyes narrow dangerously at one of the guards as she opens the cage gate. “Come on then,” she gestures to you as the other guard points her horn at the rest of the occupants.

Without much else of a choice, you “hmph!” and jut your chin up before making your way through the gate. You don’t give Smooth Roads a sideways glance before she turns and leads the way out of the tent and into the little hamlet. She gives a rough sniffle before spitting a red glob to the ground.

An amalgamation of sounds once again echo throughout your surroundings, but you don’t let your focus drift to the camp of scoundrels. That warm feeling in your gut hasn’t gone away yet. Anger still pounds inside your skull, but you bite it down to keep from doing something profoundly stupid. Even if you could break through the ring on your horn, free Anonymous, and somehow even find Tia, you’d still be trapped in an underground dome, surrounded by hostile unicorns.

Then again, going out in a blaze of glory doesn’t sound that bad.

Your trot slows, prompting a cold metal weapon to tap against your flank impatiently.

You didn’t seriously just think that, did you? What’s gotten into you, Lucky Favor?

…Ancients above, why didn’t you at least say goodbye to Anonymous?

Why do you simultaneously want to take a deep, dark nap and strangle each and every one of these unicorns you pass?

You need to focus, Lucky Favor. Even if you have no idea what you’re about to read, or why they need your help when Smooth Roads is apparently just as literate, or where in the darkest depths of Tartarus Tia is, or a multitude of other questions bouncing around in your head, you need to focus.

You’re led to a large tent in the center of the hamlet; the same one you saw that unicorn who accosted Smooth Roads come from. The “alpha.” The unicorn who didn’t take prisoners unless they were useful.

Your heart skips a beat as a stray thought enters your mind. You aren’t the only literate unicorn here; Smooth Roads is trotting just in front of you. Could this be where they take useless prisoners to be executed?

You approach the tent. Smooth Roads teeters off to the side before pulling the flap open, confirming that you’ll be the only one entering. You start to shake as you duck into the tent.

You wish Anonymous was here.

”Lucky Favor!” Sapphire Lily exclaims from a table in the center of the tent. She sits between two ponies; the alpha, and, to your surprise, the blind mare Anonymous had hit. “So glad to see you made it okay. With all the ruckus from your tent, I’m willing to bet your hairless cat friend had another episode.”

Your eyes stare at the heavy war hammer in the corner of the tent as you slow to a stop. Would that be what they use to kill you? You can feel the pair of eyes from the alpha and the discerning silence from the blind unicorn bore into your fur.

Lily taps on the opposite side of the table, a rolled up scroll bouncing subtly from the impact. “Let’s hear those reading skills. And remember, lying might just cost you a housecarla.”

You trot to the table and sit. The unicorns beside Sapphire Lily still haven’t said a word, only gazing at you neutrally while you unfold the scroll. Without knowing what to expect, you begin reading.

As you read, you begin to realize just why they didn’t want Smooth Roads to be the one to peruse the scroll. Even without written context, you’re able to glean that the raiders of the Red Garden don’t particularly trust Smooth Roads, working with the honest ponies upstairs half the time. This just confirms it; it’s a letter to be read to the workers at Free Valley Carpentry in relation with the noticeable drop in their wages, and you’re here to confirm she doesn’t slip any sensitive information in. She must have already signed a magical contract which forbade her from saying anything not on the scroll.

You give a glance to Sapphire Lily to see an attentive smile on her features. The Red Garden didn’t just steal your wagon. As is custom, they also stole a percentage of the overall cost you paid for the wagon; the cost that would’ve gone to the workers. This has only been a minor problem in the past. Easily looked-over when your workers are too uneducated or lazy to count their money, but due to the large sum of three-thousand doits, the lower wages have become impossible to ignore.

“…guarantee that this unFortunate accident will be handled swiFtly, and at the same standards Free Valley Carpentry strives for every day.”

You do a double take as you read. Three capital F’s in the same sentence; two of which not even making grammatical sense. The blind unicorn’s ear flicks, and you hastily delve back into the scroll. There’s horse crap about how their employees will be recompensated and then some. The cynical part of you is certain that your 600-doit bags will be donated to this cause.

”…I know this may come at a pressing time for some, but I swear on my honor as a carpenter It will be met with…”

Your heart quickens. Three I’s in the same sentence. One of them grammatically incorrect.

"I'm on your side,” you hear Smooth Roads’ voice echo in your head. “If I were you, I’d pay very close attention to--…”

Were you wrong about Smoot Roads? Is she really on your side?

The blind unicorn’s ear flicks again.

You suppress a smile as you continue to read. This has to be a hidden message. You aren’t saying a dishonest word about what’s on the scroll, yet it still flies over these three illiterates’ heads.

Another combination: G.

You begin to read quicker, hungrily scanning the page. Your speech begins to slur, but you instantly put a stop to that after Sapphire Lily clears her throat.

H…

Wait.

Your head tilts as you read the second to last combination.

T.

F-I-G-H-T.

The last sentence of the scroll makes your blood cool.

”…our productivity will return to MAXimum levels.”

F-I-G-H-T MAX.

”Thank you for your time, Lucky,” Sapphire Lily says with a sickeningly sweet smile before she turns to her cohorts. “What do you think? Amber Gaze? Alpha?”

Fight Max.

”Her heart was beating like a rabbit,” the blind unicorn susurrates. The giant war hammer in the corner of the tent lifts off the ground in a silent, invisible aura of magic.

”Yet she was still honest,” the alpha says as you shakily get to your hooves. The war hammer returns to the ground. “Much easier to read than Smooth Roads as well.”

Fight. Max.

Smooth Roads isn’t on your side. She’s taunting you.

You don’t feel any different when the paralysis spell hits you after you’ve left the tent and you’re dragged back to your cage.

You’re sick of this… hopelessness.

The tall dirt ceiling above you transforms into a shallow orange when you’re pulled into your tent.

You’re so Ancients-damned sick of it.

The clang of the cage gate shutting echoes in your mind as your vision begins to blacken.

You’re…

”Lucky?” Anonymous whispers.

You’re tired…

You collapse into something warm before succumbing to your exhaustion.


”…Non… …ere…”

Muffled voices tickle your ears.

You don’t even have the energy to groan. Flattening your ears against your skull feels like pulling two wagons by your lobes. You creakily roll over on your stomach. The mud feels so soft against your face…

…It’s getting hard to breathe.

Every bone in your body aches as you slowly push yourself up. Your surroundings are darker than when you had gone to sleep, but they’re still washed in the orange glow of various lanterns placed outside the tent. You can no longer hear the crackling of the bonfire.

You can’t bring yourself to care as the mud falls from your face to the ground below. Your coat is unfamiliar to yourself, a white canvas splotched in dark brown splashes. Like a cow.

You look like a cow, Lucky Favor.

”…sure that they…”

More voices. You’re bleary, but awake enough to distinguish that they’re spoken in hushed whispers through the gate of your cage. While your head is arduously rotating towards the commotion, though, you see the state of the area.

Mud cakes the tent walls just outside the cage. One of the bars are bent, despite being magically enhanced to withstand the hardest of bucks. Through the reflection of orange light off the mud, you swear you can see the unique consistency and color of blood.

Anonymous is nowhere to be seen. Neither is the earth pony.

“…I told them where to look. They’ll be here tomorrow, I’m sure of it.”

You feel a burning anger in your stomach as you turn to see Max Gusto and Smooth Roads whispering to each other through the gate of the cage.

“Then we have everything we need,” Roads whispers. “You ready for this, Max?”

Max takes a deep breath, ruffling her feathers. “No, honestly. We were supposed to have more time. We just met them, Roads.”

“They’ve provided us with an opportunity out of here. It’s the least we can do. And now we don’t have much of a choice. We’re running out of time.”

“What if it fails?”

“Then we go to Plan B.” Smooth Roads glances behind her, through the flaps of the tent. “He’s been preparing that one for months.”

”I’ll keep it as a backup… but I want to see that look on her face, just this once.” Max shakes her head, stomping a hoof. “Damnit… We wouldn’t be on short notice if Anonymous didn’t put up such a fight!”

You start seeing red.

Smooth Roads isn’t on your side. Max Gusto isn’t on your side. Nopony is on your side.

Nopony but Anonymous.

You’re alone. Underground. Surrounded by cowards and traitors. Anonymous is gone. Tia is gone. Your journey hadn’t even started yet.

The low, hungry anger boils throughout your entire system before your body rushes forward.

SKY RAT!” you howl moments before Max turns to meet you head-on.

You tackle Max to the ground, and the two of you are transformed into a single flurry of fur and wings. You’ve never fought somepony before. Max is stronger than you. Even now, she doesn’t even think you’re worth defending against. This all only makes the blood in your skull pound even harder.

You let out a wordless scream as you punch her across the jaw, as your hindlegs slash against her underbelly, as you bite at her wings. You swing your head like a spiked wrecking ball as you try to gouge out her eyes. All the while, Max doesn’t match your ferocity in any way.

Paralyze them!” somepony shouts from somewhere.

The bands on Max’s limbs and wings suddenly glow a deathly gray. She gasps before slumping into the mud, limp. You cackle as you go for her throat, only for the cold numbness of a paralysis spell to render yourself useless.

NO!” you scream as you try to tear from the spell, but it’s useless.

”Ancients-damnit, that bar’s bent!” another piece of scum barks.

”Bring them outside!” the third pile of dung yells from somewhere far away. “And fix that bucking cage!”

“I’ll gouge your throat out, sky rat,” you snarl at the green fur your face is smushed in before you’re both dragged through the mud. “If you hurt Anonymous, I’ll gouge your throat out. I swear it on all the Ancients watching over us, every follicle on the All-Mother’s coat, and every offering placed on the All-Father’s grave, I will gouge your throat out, sky rat scum.

”Ohhhhh,” Max coos as your body is flipped so you can only see the far ceiling of the dome, the white blend of fluffy clouds hanging overhead. “I was wondering why you were acting so weird. You fancy him, don’t you?”

You don’t have an answer to her taunting. That’s all it is, anyways. All she’s good for. Taunting.

Your heart pumps so fast it’s painful. Your head hurts. Your everything hurts, despite the paralysis spell. You’re on the verge of just screaming at the top of your lungs until you hear Sapphire Lily’s voice punch through your anger.

”So close…” she sighs forlornly. “But duty calls, I guess.”

Your breath accelerates like a runaway wagon as you’re sat up against a rock. Lily sits on her haunches, giving you an unimpressed glare. She’s stripped of her armor, leaving her blue coat naked and in the open.

”Free the cloudpusher,” Lily says. Her goons get to work. “But keep the unicorn paralyzed.”

WHERE’S ANONYMOUS?!” you shout between your heaving.

Lily simply raises a hoof and daintily swipes off some undetectable imperfection from her tuft. “In my tent,” she says. “Waiting for me to give him the rutting of his life. Sparrow’s keeping him company until then.”

Your heartbeat is the only thing you can hear as your jaw shoots open to scream, but a ball of fabric is shoved into your mouth. You scream into the gag anyways, your death glare never leaving Lily.

“Usually, we’d just up and kill you for attacking our only cloudpusher,” Lily continues, giving said cloudpusher a raised eyebrow. “But since sky wanderers are so hard to come by, and you, Lucky Favor…”

This is it. She doesn’t have a use for you. Not anymore, anyways. You’re definitely not worth keeping around until they rob the next literate pony.

”…are equally as valuable,” she finishes.

BULLSHIT!

THAT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH!

SHE STOLE YOUR WAGON, SHE HURT YOUR HOUSECARLA, YOU WERE TAKEN PRISONER BEFORE THEY KNEW YOU WERE LITERATE! SHE’S JUST TORTURING YOU BEFORE SHE KILLS YOU!

”I dunno, Lils,” Max says as she inspects you, her voice somehow reigning over the pounding of your blood. “Literate ponies are a lot more common than pegasi. Why are you keeping her alive, I wonder?”

Sapphire Lily gives Max an unreadable gaze. “Pegasi?” she asks with a tilt of her head. “We don’t keep any pegasi around here. All I see in front of me is a lonely, vagabond sky wanderer.”

There’s a pause from Max, as if she genuinely has no response, until she snorts. “Sky wanderer,” she chuckles lowly. “Sky wanderer… okay. Alright.”

Max raises her head to meet Lily’s gaze directly. The pegasus and unicorn don’t say a word for an agonizingly long time before Max speaks. “You know, it amazes me to this day, the integrity and chivalry of the ponies of the Free Valley Carpentry.”

Lily blinks.

“When they see a colt and his lady accosted by a group of raiders in their own shop,” Max continues with a glance to you. “I’d bet they would put down everything to come and make sure they made off all right. And when they come across the crash site, I doubt they’d be able to sleep at night without finding out just what caused it.”

Lily’s lips twitch into a smirk. “The wagon didn’t crash,” she says. “We stopped it. With your help, might I add.”

”Maybe so,” Max shrugs. “But you certainly crashed your last wagon. And I doubt those unicorns could tell the difference when it’s been burnt to a crisp.” The smile on Lily’s face seems to teleport onto Max’s. “A little birdie might’ve pointed them in the right direction this morning. Along with the location of a few fake bushes.”

Your heart begins to slow at this news. Even as the rest of the Red Garden takes a step back, or whinnies, or looks to Lily uncertainly, your eyes are glued to the lime green pegasus between you and Lily.

After a dramatic pause you’re now sure was intentional, Max continues, ”And that same birdie might be able to point them in a different direction, granted you meet her demands.”

Sapphire Lily’s face hardens into a scowl. Her eyes flick to the rest of the gang as uncertain mumbling echoes throughout the dome. They then settle on Max Gusto, inspecting the pegasus for any signs of dishonesty, but finding none.

Then, Lily’s eyes land on you, and her scowl disappears.

”Tell me,” she questions, her gaze returning to Max. “What were the carpenters wearing?”

Max’s booming cackle echoes throughout the dome, and for the first time, you’re happy to hear it. “W-what were the carpenters wearing!” She doubles over in laughter, planting a hoof on her forehead for stability. “You’re asking – SNRK SNRK – a nudist pegasus what – AHAHAHA! – What the mob of angry ponies coming to kill you and your pathetic gang – HAHAHA! – are WEARING!

”Were they wearing overalls or armor?”

Max takes a moment to calm herself down to a few errant giggles. ”I’m a sky rat, Lily,” Max chuckles as she wipes a tear from her eye. “A naked, nudist sky rat! I don’t know what the bucking difference is! But even then, I’m not stupid! They were a ‘group of workers’ heading in this direction from the Free Valley Carpentry. I flew down and had a quick chat with their leader, and that’s what they told me.” Max gives a shit-eating grin as she leans towards Lily. “I win, Lils.

”So they were wearing armor, I take it?” Lily quizzes with an innocent tilt of her head.

…No…

”Yeah, whatever,” Max chuckles, waving her hoof at the gang. “Armor, schmarmor. Same stuff any of you landlubbers wear around here.”

”And this ‘leader’ you talked to, what was her name?”

”Listen, are you gonna keep asking questions? Because from where I’m standing, I’m the one making demands. And you’re the one trapped in a cage.”

Max’s eyes widen hungrily as they inspect Lily’s reaction, but she gives none.

”What,” Lily enunciates calmly. “Was. Her. Name. Sky wanderer.

Max gives Lily a long, hard glare before she speaks. “I think my demands just got steeper. Fine, since you’re so set on delaying my victory. Her name was Red Letter.”

Sapphire Lily leans away from Max with a satisfied smile on her face. Max tilts her head at her display. “Is this bitch crazy or what?” the pegasus asks as she turns to you.

The look on your face makes Max blanche.

This is the sky rat you were working with to escape?” Lily giggles. Max glares at Lily before turning back to you.

”Lucky?” she asks quietly.

You can’t respond. You can’t even breathe.

“You’re right, Lucky,” Lily says with a venomous smile. “Literate ponies are easy to come by. What’s not easy to come by, though, is a pony and her bodyguard who are wanted by the entirety of the Plumsteed housecarlatel.”

Whatever rage had infected every cell of your system is nothing but a sick numbness now.

”…L-Lucky?” Max asks again, her voice wavering. “What’s she talking about? I did good, right?”

Lily’s cold smile freezes your blood as she says, “After I’m done with your human friend, he will be sedated until Red Letter’s arrival and brought up to her in chains. The reason you are not rotting in the dirt somewhere upstairs, Lucky Favor, is because you will be joining him. Dead or alive, though, depends on your answer to the following question.”

Sapphire Lily walks slowly towards you, leaving Max a pale, whispering mess. Lily gives a quick flap of her ear, and the glow around your body dissipates. Feeling returns, what little is left, but even then you can only stare as the unicorn in front of you transforms. Her face contorts from her satisfied smirk to a neutral, calculating stare. Her eyes gleam like a timberwolf cornering its prey as she sits on her haunches just in front of you. Her face is completely level with your own now, but the thought of pulling back and striking her never enters your mind, as if even thinking about it would reap consequences.

Lily exhales slowly before she speaks. “What else was in your bag, uppercastemare? And where have you hidden it?”


”Stupid colt, using your hands like that on Smooth Roads…”

You are stupid.

You caused this.

It’s happening all over again because of you.

It’s your fault.

You can’t move.

You can’t blink.

You need to get away.

You can’t get away.

”You’re lucky. If I had known you were male back at Free Valley, I wouldn’t have been able to help myself. You deserve this for hurting my herdsister, Nonny.”

”You’re lucky you ran into me,” she said sympathetically.

”If I had known you were male,” she said as she hugged you. “I would’ve given you a home sooner.”

”You deserve this, Nonny,” she said as her pale yellow eyes sank below view. “You need this. Let me make you feel good.”

It’s Red Letter all over again.

”It’s been so long since Blitz passed on to the Eternal Graze. You have no idea how… frustrating it all is. But don’t worry, Sapphire Lily likes to take her time with the unscrupulous prisoners. Are you ready for your punishment?”

Punishment.

Punishment for letting it happen again.

Punishment for not fighting harder.

Punishment for trusting a mare.

Punishment for being Anonymous.

Sparrow’s orange eyes descend from view, and there’s nothing you can do stop it.

Your lips tremble in an ugly, indiscernible curl. Your shallow breaths drown away the screams at the back of your throat. Your eyes stare vacantly to the far side of the tent; the furthest place away from it all. Your hands shake in their binds. Your left foot flexes and strains against its rope in a pulsating bounce. Your right leg hurts so much. You don't know where they took your splint.

It all hurts so much.

”Oh! Hey there, dirthead. You promise not to tell Lily, don’t yo-- GHK!?”

Sparrow’s voice is interrupted by a wet choke, and you yelp from the familiar noise.

What follows next, though, is not familiar. Sparrow continues to choke and gasp for air as her horn vibrates and sparks in a desperate buzz. You hear a masculine grunt among her struggling.

You peer your head over your chest to see Sparrow clawing desperately at the rustic orange arms strangling her neck. The earth pony stallion plants his hindquarters firmly on the ground as his deceptively strong body keeps the panicking unicorn in place. Dirt and musk shower his surroundings as he counteracts every quick movement from his victim. Before long, the terror in Sparrow’s eyes fade to aloofness. When she’s finally limp, the earthpusher lets her body haphazardly fall into the mud.

The earthpusher wastes no time as he trots to your place on the bed. He gnaws loose each of your bindings, and the moment you’re free, you flinch to the other side of the bed and cower from the pony.

If he was the least bit put off by your display, the stallion doesn’t show it. He gently holds a hoof out to you. You stare at the stained hoof suspiciously, but…

The stallion’s blue eyes are condoling, and the smile he wears is warm and empathetic. His ribs rise and fall slowly through his orange fur. He makes no move to grab you. He only waits.

Maybe it’s the broader, boxier way the stallion’s muzzle is shaped from the mares, or maybe it’s because you remember how the raiders assaulted him while you watched. But you can’t find a hint of malintent in that smile.

You don’t make a move to reach for the stallion’s hoof, but you do give him a slow, appreciative nod. He seems to understand as his hoof retreats, but the smile on his face never falters. “Follow,” the stallion says in a smooth, honeyed whisper. “We will leave this place, brother.”

The look on your face is all the reaction he needs.

”Our plan has already begun,” he insists. “Right now, Max Gusto is talking with Raider Sapphire Lily. We are almost free.”

You turn to the sliver of an opening of the tent and hear voices. One of them, though, makes your heart quicken. A sudden, enraged scream from Lucky Favor is cut off as a ball of fabric is shoved in her mouth.

You hobble off the bed and make your way to the tent’s exit, but the stallion’s voice stops you.

”Patience,” he says. “You cannot fight them. Let Max Gusto have her closure. Your friend will not be harmed.”

Friend?

You don’t know if you would call Lucky Favor a friend. She’s your lady; your responsibility as a housecarla. She’s the one who stands behind you when there’s trouble and fills your pockets with doits.

But for some reason, you can’t get the image of last night out of your head. Tia in your arms, Lucky Favor humming as she draws quietly, the night sky illuminating your camp in a cool, blue glow.

...Right before you fucked everything up for no good reason at all.

“You can’t know they won’t hurt her,” you say neutrally. Lucky Favor’s limp body glows with paralysis magic as she stares daggers at Sapphire Lily. She’s heaving for breath through the clot in her mouth like a muzzled animal. Her eyes have a bloodthirsty craze to them.

This isn’t the same mare who sat across from you last night. This is the mare Lucky had kept suppressed last night, after you hurt her.

No, that's not right. Lucky didn't need to suppress anything with you. Even when you deserved nothing more than to be abandoned in that forest and have your mind slip completely, she only wanted to help you.

You burnt her drawing. You dropped Tia. She magicked up a bed for you, and offered to talk things out. And you burnt her drawing.

”She is a good friend,” the stallion speaks lowly. “She cares for you.”

“They all ‘care for you,’” you mutter almost automatically.

”You are not very intelligent, are you?”

You glare back at the stallion behind you. He sits on his haunches as he gazes at you, his emerald eyes bored and unassuming. As if he hadn’t just insulted you, he reaches forward and taps the mud in front of him.

”Come and sit,” he says. “We must get ready. If Max Gusto can’t convince Raider Sapphire Lily, we must be ready to move. Carpenter Smooth Roads is waiting for us at our exit.”

You study the pony but are unable to find any reason to distrust him. Plus, the prospect of meeting Roads without iron bars between the two of you tickles you something fierce. Still, you ask, “What do you mean, ‘come and sit?’”

”I mean exactly what I said,” the stallion says, once again patting the space in front of him. “I speak much more directly than the average unicorn or pegasus. How could you possibly misunderstand?”

You snort before giving the meeting of unicorns and pegasus one last glance. Max is talking to Sapphire Lily now, puffing out her tuft and looking all kinds of confident. Without much else of a choice, you slink back to the stallion and sit.

”Keep your bad leg straight,” he says. “And cover it with mud.”

“You’re fucking with me," you deadpan.

”I would never fuck with another male. That is degenerate and ineffective. Copulation is a sacred practice, meant for procreation and expressing one's love to their foalbearer. Now hurry.”

You feel the overwhelming urge to punt this little horse. You shake your head as you begin scooping mud onto your leg. From behind, you can hear the booming laughter of what had to be the pegasus’, judging by the chirping mixed in.

“What’s your name?” you idly ask as you pat the mud onto your leg.

The stallion gently rests his forehooves on your mound, careful not to apply force. Although, despite his best efforts, you start to feel an odd pressure building. Not painful just yet, but also not able to be ignored.

”Apple Seed,” he replies softly. “Be silent, brother. I am working.”

He’s most definitely fucking with you.

You grit your teeth as your fingers ball into fists. You’re about to rear back and sucker punch the mental defective until he bows his head closer to your leg, revealing something that gives you pause. There’s a part of his mane that’s burnt away, and the fur underneath is blackened in the familiar pattern of a lily insignia.

He’s a victim, Anonymous. Are you once again going to let your paranoia hurt somepony who's trying to help?

You turn to glare at the unconscious form of Sparrow and spit. A glob of saliva lands on her cheek, trailing down her fur to the mud below.

The pressure around your leg is still building.

“What the fuck—” you start, but when you look down at your leg you fall silent.

The mud around your appendage is no longer mud, but a peach-colored clay. It rumbles and squelches lowly as it seems to condense and draw around your leg. It stings as the interior hardens and nicks your knee, but as if it senses your discomfort, it shifts and pulsates so as not to touch the sensitive spot. The clay slowly hardens, its slimy peach coloration desaturating to a stone gray.

Your leg is now entombed in a stone cast.

”I am no body mender like the ones from my village,” the stallion murmurs. “But I can still help.”

Your time on Equus has long desensitized you to sights that you would’ve only thought possible in fairy tales. This succeeds in preventing you from crying out in surprise, but it doesn’t stop the wonder in your eyes, if Apple Seed’s understanding smile is anything to go by. “I’m immune to magic,” is the only thing you can croak out.

”This isn’t magic, brother,” the stallion hums. “It’s a mutual understanding and exchange between denizen and provider. Magic is artificial.” You can detect a hint of a growl under Apple Seed’s voice as he speaks. “Magic is… disgusting. It is the manipulation of nature and particles. Magic is easily detectable and read by an earth pony.”

The stallion’s eyes hold your own as he takes a step back to let you remove your cast from the residual mud. “Like an ambient spell, casted on a peculiar filly in an invisible bag.”

Your eyes narrow dangerously as you hobble onto your feet. Making sure that he’s reminded just how much bigger you are than him, you ask Apple Seed, “Where is she?”

”Waiting at our exit as well,” Apple Seed blinks, unmoved. “I would never hurt a child. Even if a unicorn would.”

“Yeah?” you growl. “What makes you different? Especially if that child’s just dripping with that magic you hate so much?”

The sound of something blunt slamming into someone's snout snaps your attention back to the scene outside the tent. Lucky Favor is being swarmed by raiders holding her down as Max Gusto's laughing attitude is dead and buried. Sapphire Lily just giggles to herself, trotting in a short roundabout as she holds her muzzle in one hoof.

"Suppose I owe you at least that," she says jocularly, peering down at the red smear on her frog.

”Max Gusto has failed, it seems,” Apple Seed says as he approaches the two folds of the tent. “We are out of time. I cannot explain everything just yet. Do you see Smooth Roads over there?”

You turn to see a particularly punchable unicorn standing at the far end of the dirt dome. She has a familiar sac attached to her hip. Tia isn’t anywhere near her, and you somehow doubt she’s being held in the bag attached to the unicorn who’d kill her at first sight. You growl in helplessness before giving a low, “Yeah.”

”Find your way to her after you’ve retrieved Lucky Favor and Max. They will no doubt be paralyzed by the time you reach them. Do not worry, the filly is nearby, but I couldn’t risk Smooth Roads seeing her and overreacting. Are you ready?”

Max’s face turns to Apple Seed across the clearing. The stallion gives her a nod.

“I don’t trust you one bit, Apple Seed,” you murmur brusquely.

”I don't care,” he responds. “Meet us at Smooth Roads’ location as quick as you can.”

As quick as a bullet, Max Gusto suddenly bolts upwards. The raiders bellow out orders to paralyze her, but you lose sight of the pegasus as she disappears into the white cloud above.

The collection of clouds suddenly rumbles before exploding throughout the entirety of the Red Garden. You flinch and cover yourself as the impenetrable mist wraps around you in a moist, gray embrace. The rustic orange of Apple Seed gallops forward into the overwhelming fog and you lose sight of him before he takes his second step.

Ancients-damnit!” a stentorian voice yells. “Paralyze them and quick! Don’t lose sight of them!

You see two glows shine through the mass of gray and panicking raiders. One of them falls from the top of the dome and plummets to the mud. The other lies limply against her rock, unmoving.

Lucky and Max. You limp forward into the grayness, avoiding every dark splotch of a distant pony you pass. As you near your first target, you can hear sniveling.

”…A-Amber!” you hear from behind. You curse under your breath. Sparrow is already awake and calling into the mist. “Amber Gaze! Sapphire Lily! Anonymous is gone!”

Find them!” Lily’s voice echoes. “Cast a luminescence spell and find them, for Ancients’ sake!

Dozens of glows illuminate throughout the hamlet one by one as the unicorns inspect their surroundings. None of them are in your way now, but they’re something to avoid.

The moment you’re within range of the first glow, you reach out your hand and grab Lucky’s arm. She squeaks and pulls away. That’s when she realizes she can move.

WHERE’S LUCKY FAVOR?! IS SHE STILL PARALYZED?!

Lucky is nearly catatonic. She doesn’t even react as you grip her horn to slide the anti-magic ring off. The only sound that escapes her is a single, choked sob as you pull her along to the limp body of Max Gusto.

Suddenly, the gray around you is set ablaze in a violet glow. Lucky gasps out in a choked pant. You react immediately, wrapping your arm around the surprised raider’s neck and choking. The glow once again gives way to the mist.

…H-HE’S… he--…” is all she can croak before she collapses into the mud.

Lucky is still panting. You turn to see that she has a hoof on her chest as she tries to steady herself, but the hyperventilating is almost inevitable at this point.

You hobble down to one knee so you're head-level with Lucky Favor and you hold her face still. Her eyes are wild as they stare at the unconscious raider, then any number of the increasing glows from the luminescence spells, until finally, they land on your face. "You're okay, Faust," you whisper, and Lucky's eyes glue to your own. "Tia's okay. We're getting out of here. I'll protect you the whole way."

Lucky Favor's panting slowly subsides as you hold firm in your gaze. You'd call yourself a left-wing extremist before you'd call yourself good pep talker, but you said everything you needed to say. Lucky eventually regains control of her breathing and gives you a shaky nod. You give her a firm pat on the withers before you're both moving through the fog once again.

You're going to protect this mare, Anonymous. Don't fuck it up.

Once you reach Max, you press your palm to her withers. The moment the magic is cut off, she gasps in fresh air as her muzzle darts up from the mud.

”Holy shit,” she pants as you remove the deadened bands. “I almost drowned in ankle-height mud. That’s bucking wild.”

Once she’s free of the bands, she’s up on her hooves and shaking herself vigorously. “Follow me,” Max whispers as she stalks away. She glances back to make sure you’re following her snow white tail before she slinks through the gray mist.

”W-where’s Tia?” Lucky Favor whispers so quietly you might have imagined it.

Before you can respond, Sapphire Lily’s booming voice echoes throughout the dome.

YOU’RE TRAPPED IN HERE, ANONYMOUS!” she yells. “YOUR OWNERS WILL BE JUST OUTSIDE THE ENTRANCE BY NOW! MAX’S TRICK IS ONLY TEMPORARY! SOON, THIS MIST WILL DISSIPATE, AND YOU’LL HAVE NOWHERE TO HIDE! DAMNIT, AMBER GAZE, GET OUT THERE AND FIND THEM!

”Pretentious cunt…” Max grumbles. “Don’t listen to her, guys. Look, we’re here.”

You take a few more steps forward before reaching out with a hand. Your palm lands on the dirt of the far wall of the Red Garden. You hear the rumbling of a roaring river just beyond the wall.

”Looks like it all paid off!” Max whispers happily to Apple Seed. You can barely make him out through the mist, sitting with his head against the dirt wall. “You didn’t just make a river, you made a rapid!”

”Focusing,” he responds monotonously.

You’re willing every fiber in your being to not launch yourself at Smooth Roads before you feel a stronger rumbling from the wall. You whip your hand back as the dirt begins to cave in and fall over a small pocket. When the last of the dust finally settles, you stare.

”There was no other place to hide her,” Apple Seed mumbles half-mindedly. “She is still asleep, so I didn’t think she’d mind.”

TIA!” Lucky cries out. The dirty filly is lifted out of the hole in the wall and into Lucky’s embrace in a cyan glow. She squeezes the unconscious filly so hard you’re afraid she’ll break her, not caring one bit about the dirt ruining the last remnants of her white coat.

The small smile that tugs at your lips is snuffed out when you notice that the dome has gone oddly quiet. No raiders are yelling out commands or panicking anymore.

”Lucky Favor?”

“Shh,” you say habitually before you realize who was talking.

Lucky’s entire body flinches before her horn glows. Tia is transparent within the moment. Lucky slowly levels a glare at Smooth Roads. You can’t blame her. You have to take a few steps away to keep from punching the unicorn’s snout into her skull. Roads’ head is bowed, her usually commanding nature wilted and meek. With a glow of her horn, Lucky’s bag floats in front of her.

”I was able to retrieve your belonging,” Roads whispers. “…Well, most of them. There’s only a little money--”

Lucky snatches the bag out of the air. “Anonymous said to be quiet,” she breathes.

Apple Seed lets out a low breath before a few splashes of stones falling into the river can be heard from the other side of the wall. Equus itself seems to groan as dirt, roots, and rocks begin to tumble from the earthy dike. The mist around you breathes and wisps away into the new opening of the wall, revealing the roaring river in all its ferocity. It flows down a steep tunnel, reflecting the surrounding stone and mud in a frothy, blue glow.

Max turns to excitedly say something to you, but another noise makes you react. Despite the silent aura of Amber Gaze’s magic, you can still hear the way her weapon whistles through the misty air, aimed squarely at Lucky Favor’s head.

Without thinking, you shoot the closest part of your body out between your lady and the hammer.

SNAP!

Lucky Favor yells something to you, but you can’t hear her over the sound of your screaming. You fall to ground, clawing at the cracked, hyperextended cocoon that holds your leg in an agonizing angle. More yells echo throughout the mist, and luminescence spells are pointed your way.

Somebody grabs you from behind. The last thing you can make out before Lucky tackles you into the dark, freezing depths of the rapids is the Red Garden’s enraged residents as they gallop towards you.

A stone falls to seal off the hole, and you’re left in a jumble of pain, water, and yelling.