“I do what I have to do, to protect those I love. Sometimes it isn’t what I want to do, but what I have to do.”
The mare moved her mouth, but no words came out. She turned back to me and my sister, waved a hoof, then pointed at her parents standing next to the fire. After several seconds, her hoof fell back to the floor and she hung her head.
I placed a hoof on her shoulder and leaned in close. “We’ll figure it out afterward” I whispered. Whatever was going through her head, I’d help her with it once we were finished. Right now, there were more important things to focus on than the fact that her mother was now in charge.
She just nodded.
I looked over at Lost, and we shared a worried look before lowering our heads as well. Fine Tune whistled a very quiet chirp, while Rose rolled her eyes. When I shot her a glare, she lowered her head too.
The red-painted zebra began to talk, her voice husky like Zolera’s, but with a distinctly feminine tone. She spoke in flowing phrases and verses, and repeated things occasionally. The tribe listened intently, their eyes focused on the mare. She looked to Zolera, and paused.
He said something, and the others repeated the phrase back. Whatever it was, the translation was lost on those of us who couldn’t speak the proper tongue.
The red-painted designs on the mare began to run, and though her voice never wavered, it was obvious she felt the same sorrow and regret that Xeno and Zolera had upon learning that her sons had perished in the Wasteland. She continued the service, stomping a hoof and steeling her voice. It was honestly amazing. Even through a language barrier, the way she spoke conveyed as much to me as the words she said must have to the others.
She finished her service by repeating the same word she’d said to start it, and the others of the tribe returned the phrase, including Xeno. Despite her disregard for superstitions, she followed along with the tribe to the letter. Maybe it wasn’t so much about her beliefs, so much as respecting what her brothers had followed.
I repeated the same phrase, to follow her lead, though I probably mispronounced it. I felt the intention was what mattered. I looked over to my sister, who smiled at me. It was a nice reminder that we were all in this together, and despite our differences, we worked together as a team to survive, and that each part was crucial. I looked at Fine Tune from the corner of my eye, and made a silent promise to myself to get to know him better, too.
For what felt like ages, we sat in silence in the glow of the fire, as the brothers’ spirits were tended to. Xeno’s mother and father stood, lifting to their hind legs and crossed their hooves before their chests. With their right forehoof closer to their chest, covered by the left, the two spoke in unison, repeating something that sounded quite solemn, before moving opposite one another and repeating the same phrases again. The rest of the zebras, and us ponies kept silent. The surprisingly sweet-smelling smoke billowing from the pyre rose through the air and out the open skylight, and everything else in the mall was still.
Finally, with one more repeat of her phrase, the mare snapped her hoof up and toward the fire. In that instant, everything went dark. By the time my eyes adjusted, all I saw was the charred wood and the cleansed bones of her sons.
Not a moment later, the zebras of the tribe began to move with a fervor I’d never seen before. Mares and stallions darted back and forth, their eyes filled with purpose. Xeno disappeared into the crowd, leaving the four of us without a guide in the bustling surge of activity.
“What now?” I asked in a whisper. As quickly as I could, I moved to a wall and out of the way of the zebras moving about.
“I don’t know,” Lost whispered back. She followed my lead and ended up a short distance away, against the store’s window. “And where’d the others go?”
“If I knew, I’d tell you,” I answered. I looked around, and saw the manes of both Rose and Fine Tune moving through the slowly-dispersing group of zebras. I’d had no idea there were so many in Xeno’s tribe. In fact, I’d never seen this many anything together at one time, well except back in U Cig. I shook my head to get that thought out of my head. “Wait, I see them.”
I waved my hoof through the air to get their attention, and luckily the two turned toward me. As the zebras parted, they made their way toward me. By the time the two managed to get to the wall, the majority of the tribe had disappeared.
“That was... weird,” I said.
“Zebras are always weird,” said Rose. “You should’ve seen them during the war.” She looked behind her, as the last few disappeared down a hallway, following the group.
“Do we follow them?” asked Fine Tune.
“Yes. We need to regroup with Xeno anyway,” said Lost. She waved her hoof and beckoned us to follow, then trotted down the hallway.
“Ever seen anything like that before?” I asked nopony in particular.
“No,” Fine Tune answered with a chirp.
“Once, but it was a lot different back in the day,” answered Rose. “There wasn’t any fire, and they didn’t speak a different language. Nor was the whole tribe there. They must have everyone out due to it being the leader’s foals’ funeral. Also they wore masks.”
We followed the tribe as they went down the hall, keeping some distance between us and the group ahead. The path took us to a different entrance than the one we’d come in. Everything was pushed out of the way, and the entire tribe grouped together outside.
The first thing I noticed about those we’d followed was that they now wore the same markings as Xeno’s mother. Their faces and coats were painted in multiple colors, instead of the solid red of their leader, in designs nowhere near as intricate as hers, while still showing dedication to making them look perfect, in their odd flowing way. It reminded me of Xeno and her sleight of hoof in how she managed to light cigarettes without so much as moving her hooves, that they had somehow all become adorned in something of a ritual garb in an instant. Maybe these were their replacements for the masks Rose mentioned.
Looking around, I noticed we’d ended up on the far side of the mall, away from the town we’d entered through. This side of the mall butted up against the barren emptiness I’d seen when we rolled through the mountain pass into town. I saw nothing but flat land from where we stood to the hills and mountains at the far end of the valley. It looked almost as if something had erupted from the mountains itself and wiped out everything above ground. Only small gravestones, made of rotting wood and covered in scrawls and symbols, broke up the flatness of the ground.
Far in the distance I could see the remains of what must have been civilization, before the War. Barely visible were toppled walls and shattered foundations, and a few holes in the ground that I guessed had been basements before, dotting the expanse of nothingness. A chill went up my spine as I thought about what might be able to do something like that.
Xeno walked up to us, now also painted with a design similar to her mother’s. She threw one of her forelegs around me, and the other around my sister, and squeezed tight. “Thank you,” she whispered. She released the two of us and gave Fine Tune a similar hug. Rose was the only one who got nothing, and I didn’t blame Xeno for not giving her the same treatment. “Itis time for burial. Iwill be needed to assist, then will come time for the tribe to discuss and honor their lives. There will be a feast.”
“Sounds good,” I said. “But... are you doing okay?”
She nodded. “Iam... fine. The shock of seeing my mother as the tribal leader has passed,” she explained, confirming my suspicions nicely. “Iwill produce you after.”
Lost frowned. “You’ll do what?” she asked. “Introduce us?”
Xeno nodded. “That too.” She turned her head as a voice called out from off to our left. She nodded to us again, then turned and trotted off.
“I wonder if her mother knows how to make that same horn-fixer potion she did,” Lost mused, tapping her darkened horn with a hoof. “Let’s find somewhere to sit.” She moved away and sat down behind a small group of zebra.
I followed suit, along with Fine Tune and Rose.
We all sat quietly and watched as the cloaked remains of Zahi and Zaki were taken to the front of the group, where several zebras stood with shovels before freshly-dug ground. They had dug two graves in the time it took us to find a seat. While more of the sermon given in their native language, the two bodies were laid to rest.
Xeno stepped forward and tossed the first of the soil back into the grave, first to cover one brother, then the other. When she finished, her father repeated the same gesture, tossing more dirt over their bodies. Finally, her mother did it, in a show of symbolism as the family put their departed to their eternal resting place.
The zebras of the tribe all repeated a short phrase, ending with the still mysterious word ‘sifa.’ The four of us, still out of place, followed their lead and repeated the words with them. Again I felt that participating, whether we understood or not, meant more than the words themselves. The ones who dug the graves filled in for Xeno’s family, and in a matter of minutes, the brothers were gone.
The red-painted mare said a new phrase, and the zebras instantly stood. Their leader passed through them, splitting the group in two, and they all turned and followed. Those at the front moved first, following the path she’d cut. Next went those behind the front-most zebras, until only the four of us non-zebras were left.
Before we started back, Lost and I walked to the gravesites.
“Goodbye,” I said, hanging my head. “I’m sorry for what we did.”
“The Wasteland is cruel, and we never meant to separate you from your family,” said my sister. She leaned against me and hugged me tight.
“They’re where they belong now,” I whispered, hugging her back. “It’s over.”
I looked to the sky, and at the cloud cover. Maybe, just maybe, they had their own Goddesses or someone they’d finally found their way to.
“Let’s go inside and meet up with Xeno,” Lost said. She nudged me, then turned and walked back to the mall.
“Right,” I answered absentmindedly, before turning and following my sister back inside.
Zebras bustled back and forth, talking among themselves. Zolera stood at the center of the group, behind a large table with several bottles of booze at the ready. He passed out drinks as each member of the tribe approached him, and smiled wide with every one he gave. It still amazed me how differently these people handled the death of family, compared to the ponies I’d seen deal with it. More and more approached to collect their part of the feast, and the chatter and background noise rose to deafening levels. Another zebra passed out food and the others gathered around a roaring fire, one that dwarfed the funeral pyre of the brothers.
I could smell something absolutely delicious, but had no idea what it might be. It was different than anything I’d smelled before, and was nothing like the two-century-old canned food, or Marshmallow Sundae’s cooking. The scent had a strange allure to it, probably spices from some far-off place brought out either for tradition or from wandering members of the tribe like Xeno’s father. Whatever it was, I knew I wanted a piece. Just the faintest whiff had my mouth watering.
There were no tables set out, and no chairs. The members of the tribe mingled with one another, sharing stories that I could pick out only from the mention of Zahi and Zaki’s names on occasion. For a tribe that hadn’t seen the three foals of Zolera for years, they certainly had their share of stories. If only I’d known the language, I could have learned more about the stallions whose lives we had cut short.
“So, what now?” I asked, looking at the others.
“We eat,” said Fine Tune, his blue eyes brightening considerably as he looked around the building. For half a second, I thought he might be drooling, but the feast he wanted wasn’t the same as the deliciousness I smelled.
“What do you mean by that?” Lost asked, raising an eyebrow as she looked at the changeling.
“Oh, my Queen,” he said, snapping back to reality. “They are happy, sharing stories. I can taste their emotions in the air, their love. Even their sense of community feels divine.” He panted, his eyes darting back and forth as he looked about the tribe. “I can feel it, deep inside.” He gulped, and looked up at her, as if begging her pathetically. “I need some...”
I stepped back and shook my head, remembering how horrifying it was when he’d fed on me. The hollow emptiness in the bottom of my heart started to creep back up, as if the claws that often teased at the back of my mind had instead decided to wrap themselves around my soul and tear it from my body.
“Will it hurt them?” Lost asked.
“Ask her,” interrupted Rose. She pointed a hoof directly at me.
“I-I... They’ll live,” I muttered. With all three sets of eyes on me, I suddenly felt very cold.
Lost snapped back to Fine Tune, her eyes practically glowing with anger. “Did you feast on Hidden?” she demanded.
“She offered,” he squeaked. With his queen angry at him, he shrunk to the ground, trying to make himself smaller. The predatory need in his eyes disappeared completely, replaced with a look of self-hatred at doing something to anger the one pony he looked up to.
“Is this true?” my sister asked. She looked back at me, and glared over the rim of her glasses. Before I got a word out, she faltered, and clenched her eyes shut. Bringing a hoof to her forehead, she groaned and gently rubbed the still-blackened tip of her horn. “I don’t care. Just don’t get caught, and no scaring a zebra. Wait until one’s about to pass out, or something,” she said.
“Of course, my Queen!” shouted Fine Tune. He clasped a hoof over his mouth immediately, realizing just how loud he’d been. With a few nods, he darted off into the crowd and disappeared.
“It’s horrifying,” I admitted. I could feel my legs shaking below me. “Like ripping a part of you out.”
“You’ll get over it,” said Rose. “Back in the day, I dealt with a few changeling feedings. A week or two and you’ll be right as rain.” She looked at a group of zebras that walked by. When they passed, she continued. “Just try not to think about what happened, and it won’t get to you. The minute you let the grasp overtake you, it’ll sink in and never let go.”
“How do you know for sure?” asked Lost.
“Look, I’ll teach you how to heal that sort of thing on the way back,” the clone offered. “Deal?” She held up a forehoof to my sister.
“Once I get my magic back in working order, it’s a deal,” answered Lost. She raised her hoof to meet Rose’s.
They shook on it.
“Hiddenpony, Lostpony, Rosepony,” called a voice.
Xeno pushed her way through the crowd, weaving back and forth between the chatting mares and stallions who tried to stop her to talk. In the politest tone I’d ever heard her use, she refused in her native tongue and moved to stand beside us. With the distraction of the funeral rites passed, I finally got to see the intricate designs on her coat. Strangely, they seemed perfect for her, and framed her face nicely. Even around the slashes down the side of her face, they just fit.
“The tribe’s leader wishes to see you,” she said, not mentioning that it happened to be her mother that wanted us. The formality struck me as odd, but that weirdness would probably be given reason soon enough, I felt.
“Of course,” said Lost.
“Finally,” muttered Rose.
I said nothing, but brought up the rear of the group as we all followed our zebra friend back through the crowd.
Dodging the feasting zebras was not an easy task. With so many zebras all jammed into such a small intersection of hallways, I found it difficult to keep sight of my sister and the clone pony. I gave up trying to spot Xeno, because even with her distinctive mohawk with the long tapered point at the front, her coloring blended in far too well with the others. Instead I focused on the dark pink mane of Rose, and my sister’s purple mane and black bandana.
Aside from accosting Xeno to share childhood memories or learn the stories of her and her brothers’ travels, the tribe largely ignored us. The diversity in the tribe still shocked me. Some were old, carrying several trays’ worth of food on their backs as they laughed and greeted those around them. One stallion had a gigantic scar down the side of his face and his neck, but seemed one of the happiest around. I had expected more like Xeno, with reserved personalities, talking in broken words as curtly as possible, but seeing them party shook me.
Was I really so closed-minded? They were just like ponies, with a different set of colors. We could accept everything from white coats and purple manes, to black with blue manes, so why were stripes so different? Almost every zebra had the same exotic and slightly slanted shape to their eyes, though I could see a few here and there with what I considered to be a ‘pony trait,’ in the way they were rounder like Lost’s. But what were cosmetic differences? A different shape of the eye, the cut of muzzle, and bi-colored coats weaving around one another instead of a single shade?
If we were so alike, why had we fought a war in the first place?
Because we had forgotten that friendship was what mattered, The Glowing One said. A war fought over something insignificant and petty, when camaraderie could have kept us all together and never ended the world.
I suddenly wanted to have a party in the Stables with Elder Drop Scone and her family, to see how they acted when they finally let loose and just enjoyed themselves without rank and duty getting in the way. When we returned and had free time, that would be the first thing I would suggest.
“This way,” said Xeno, pointing to the hall opposite where we’d entered initially. She pushed through the final group of zebras standing at the edge of the crowd, ignoring their words and laughter.
As I ducked between them, two of the stallions held glasses up and clinked them together above my head. Again, I was glad I wasn’t the tallest of ponies. Free of the crowd, I trotted forward so I could see my sister and Rose again.
“Any idea where we’re going?” I asked.
“I assume we’re headed for her mother’s office, or room, or whatever,” offered Rose. She shrugged and kept following.
“Correct, Rosepony,” Xeno said. She sounded crushed, as if she’d been beaten with a whip for a week. “Itis near.” She trotted faster, and rounded another corner into another hallway.
We followed, turning away from a massive department store that had once been called Shears. The entrance wasn’t accessible, as most of the ceiling had caved in and left only a small spot to slip through. It reminded me of our front door at home. Around the corner I saw the glass windows of a Mane Attraction salon, and felt the cold hoof of death trail its way up my spine and stop at the base of my neck, where a collar once hung.
I shuddered and ran past it, sticking close to Xeno. The others looked at me, then at each other and shrugged.
“You okay, Hidden?” Lost asked.
“Amble’s office was in a Mane Attraction,” I answered, not daring to look at it. Part of me feared that if I did, I’d see the same lineup of chairs, with the pink and purple mane of my former owner peeking over the half-wall near the back. I shook my head, trying to stop her whispering voice in my mind before it could start.
“She doesn’t have any hold on you, Hidden,” Lost said. She trotted forward and placed a hoof on my shoulder. “You’re stronger than that.” With a nuzzle, she passed me and walked next to Xeno.
“I hope so,” I whispered.
Rose walked by. She looked at me, shook her head, and kept walking.
The hallway ended with a half-dozen windows and a simple wooden door. Though warped and cracked at the top and bottom, it stood out with a large plaque near the top and center, that simply read ‘Office.’ The windows were all covered with long blinds that hung from the ceiling behind the glass, and all were closed as if to hide whatever might transpire behind the hallowed door.
Xeno walked up to it and knocked once.
“Enter,” said the husky, unmistakable voice of the tribe’s leader.
Xeno pushed the door open and beckoned us to follow her as she walked through.
We filed through, one at a time, to find a brightly painted office, lit by innumerable candles along the walls. A slashed couch on one side of the room showed signs of being a makeshift bed. A table rested in front of it, covered in ancient-looking scrolls of paper and a few books stacked on one side. Gems gleamed in a bowl on one corner of the table, and several vials of strangely-colored liquids filling in the remainder of the space. One stood out from the rest, a short, wide wooden bowl with a bright red fluid inside. Some still dripped from the lip, and a bleached white brush rested across the top. It’d obviously been used recently.
Two chairs sat against the far wall, along with more candles. The flames flickered out and all but disappeared, only to relight a split second later. From each of the candles, colored smoke wafted up and filled the air around us with a haze that smelled of something familiar I couldn’t quite place. Against the wall opposite the couch/bed was a desk covered in odds and ends. Much of it looked like pointless knick-knacks to me, but probably held more meaning to the serious-looking mare that sat behind them.
The blinds behind her were also closed, blocking out all but a few slivers of light that streaked across the floor and over the four of us. Sitting in the shadow, I almost couldn’t make out her features, but in the flickering light of the many candles, the immaculate red sigils repainted upon her coat in a new and different design shone like the eyes of the splinterwolves. She stared down at us, a frown on her lips, her hooves crossed before her.
“This is our Tribe’s Leader, Shaman Zorana,” said Xeno, introducing us. “Leader, these are my friends, Hidde-”
“Now, now,” said Zorana, cutting her daughter off. “Why so formal? You’re my only child now, we’re family. Why don’t you call me mom?” The corner of her lip curled up into a sneer, as she looked from the zebra mare to the rest of us.
I found myself shocked that she spoke my language absolutely perfectly.
“Of course, shaman, I mean... Mom,” answered Xeno, correcting herself. She hung her head and took a step back, moving away until she practically sat upon the candles in the chairs at the edge of the room. “They have a request, mother.”
Zorana’s half-smile-sneer-thing vanished. She pushed herself away from the desk and stood up. With the same slow, purposeful strides she’d used at the funeral of her sons, she walked around the desk and sized us up. The mare was tall, especially compared to Lost and me. She even towered over Rose, who had several inches on my sister and I.
Lost offered a hoof. “Hello, my name is-”
“I did not ask your name,” the tribal leader interrupted. She leaned to the side, then bent down and stared my sister in the eyes. Snorting, she leaned back and then turned to me. “Sisters, I see,” she said out loud, but obviously not to either of us. She squinted when she got close to me, and bared her teeth.
Only Rose seemed unintimidated by the tall red-painted mare, and to her credit, Zorana paid her exactly zero attention.
“A light in dark,” she whispered, looking at Lost. “Drawn to the flame and spark.” She turned her head and looked at me. “I see your prying eyes, the same as those who took my sons’ lives.”
I gulped and looked at my sister.
Lost stared back, her eyes wide with fear.
“You seek trouble, to throw yourself willingly to destruction,” she said, eyeing Lost once again. “And you,” she continued, looking at me, “Reckless, unthinking. You are a walking disaster.”
That hurt, even if she was absolutely right.
“You should not have come here,” she said. “Leave.” With that definitive order, she turned away and started to her desk again.
“We came here for a reason and we’re not leaving until we’ve gotten what I want,” said Rose.
“You bridge the gap between the living and the dead, a creature of flesh but not of soul,” answered the shaman, without turning back. “If I wished to speak to one in such a predicament, I would seek the soul itself, for the mortal shell is not what is important. I do not speak to your kind.”
Rose seemed to deflate. Even her mane drooped. She took a faltering step back. The purpose and rage she’d had in her eyes faded in an instant. She looked doubtful, hollow, as if the words had cut through her as a blade would. If she had no soul...
“Why did you bring these ponies to my home, daughter?” asked the zebra mare as she sat back at her desk.
“Theyare my friends, and while they were the ones who killed Zahi and Zaki, in self-defense, they made it their duty to return them home,” Xeno answered. “Theyare good ponies, who wished to help me put my brothers’ souls to rest.”
The mare grimaced. “Hmmmm,” she muttered, and looked over the three of us again. “You seek atonement for what you did to my sons?” she asked, after an eternity.
“Yes,” I squeaked, answering before I could stop myself. “Please.”
“Then seek the stars, and let them rip you asunder. There is no forgiveness for what you have done to my family and this tribe,” she said, her voice cold and even. She looked to my sister. “You are lucky I am not a follower of the Caesar. Your soul holds darkness in it; the stars will have their grip upon you one day.” Her gaze drifted to Rose. “You of no soul, you reek of arum lily, of death and rotting flesh. The curse of unlife hangs above you, blocking truth from your mind as the moon blocks the sun. You should be feared and cast out, like the abomination you are.”
“Harsh,” interrupted the clone.
Finally, Zorana looked at me. “A creature of steel and flesh, you will be cursed with a life unending, a sad fate that you truly deserve,” she spat.
“Mother,” Xeno whispered, trying to draw her attention from us. She looked up at the tall mare, her bottom lip quivering, but resolve once more in her eyes. “They are good ponies, even the clone. Theyhave come to make amends, not start a fight.”
“Your father and I taught you better than that. Cease speaking as if you were stupid,” Zorana said, before adding something else in her native tongue.
Xeno flinched, but nodded.
“I will let you leave, as a reward for bringing back my wayward foals,” the shaman said calmly. “Alive or not, my sons are now where they belong, with their kind, and not suffering in the Wastes with the likes of you.” She once again looked at Xeno and tapped her hoof on the desk a few times. “She has been gone many years, and many have asked about her. I’m quite sure Ziven will be glad to hear that she has returned, as a marriage can now be planned.”
Xeno’s eyes went wide. She blushed furiously, for the first time I could remember. “She is your assistant, why would...”
“There are two of the name Ziven in the tribe,” Zorana corrected her. “The stallion, you remember. Is that not why you fled?”
The three of us looked at the zebra mare. Even Rose seemed perplexed by the turn of events. Was that why Xeno kept saying she had no home to return to? Because her mom wanted her hitched with some stallion she didn’t know? Was that how zebra culture worked?
How fucking stupid could-
Zorana dragged me from my thoughts by her piercing eyes staring directly into my soul. Around her eyes, the red-painted designs shifted, twisting around in the flickering light, all leading the view back to her eyes... “Focus, Hidden Fortune,” she said. When had she learned my full name? “I’ve forgotten more than you will ever know, pony.” Was she a mind reader now, or was I just that transparent?
“What?” I stammered, once again lost in the conversation.
“You mean she didn’t tell you why she fled?” asked the mare. The sigils on her coat still seemed to move, swirling in circles and the lines shifting among one another. The candlelight reflected in her eyes and drew strange shadows across her face.
“That wasn’t why I left, mother,” interrupted Xeno. Her words snapped me from the strange illusion of Zorana’s decorations. “I left at father’s suggestion, to become my own mare.”
“Noble,” said Rose. A bit of life returned to her eyes. She, of all ponies, would know why somepony, or zebra, would want to become their own person by their own experiences and find strength in that.
Zorana laughed quietly. “And here I thought you were running from responsibility,” she said, a tone of venom in her voice. “Did you find yourself, in the Wasteland? Did running free and finding death for your family do anything to prove what you believed? Or have you finally come to terms with what is true, and accepted what watches over us?”
“Your beliefs are superstition,” Xeno said through gritted teeth.
The red-painted mare raised both eyebrows and blinked. She sat on her haunches and clapped her hooves several times, at a sarcastically slow pace. “Congratulations,” she hissed, “you’ve finally learned. You always thought it meant the stars would intervene personally, as if the lights in the sky you can see through breaks in the clouds would reach down and move you on strings.” She placed her hooves on the ground and stood up. Turning to the three of us ponies, she asked, “Do you feel that your Goddesses are truly a force that walks with you upon this world?”
“I don’t question my faith,” I answered. I had enough terrible thoughts going through my mind at any given time, between my own doubts and the whispers of a madmare telling me things that weren’t true. The last thing I needed was to worry about whether my faith in the Goddesses meant I actually thought Celestia and Luna put their hooves into my life personally, or if it was simply a matter of believing.
“Celestia and Luna lived and raised the sun and the moon,” Lost answered, without so much as blinking. “Twice Luna plunged the world into darkness. Of course they’re a force in the world.”
“I take it you haven’t heard of their demise?” the mare asked. “While I am nowhere near as extreme as those in my homeland, I can at least face fact. Perhaps it would do good to look at your lives.”
“We didn’t come here to talk about whether or not some higher power holds sway over our lives, we came to talk business,” snapped Rose. She glanced back at the grenade rifle that hung on her back, then grimaced.
I felt the same as her, knowing that if Zolera hadn’t damaged it, we might have had some leverage. This mare was a bitch. Worse than even the clone herself.
“Why should I do business with you?” asked the shaman. She turned away and snapped her tail at the pink pony before sitting down.
“Two reasons,” Rose answered. “One; I’m not going to leave until you do, and I can wait far longer than you can. Two; it’ll benefit both of us if we do, and save a lot of trouble for everyone.” She looked back and forth between Lost and I, then stepped forward. “Normally I’d work my way in and make threats until I got what I wanted, but you’re smarter than that. Your kind can make things that I need. I know you can, because I remember working with zebras personally during the war. We had a successful smuggling ring from your homeland.”
Did a Ministry of Peace worker really work hoof-in-hoof with zebras, even during the war? Why would anypony do that? I understood that we weren’t so different, but when both sides were killing one another, was it really a good idea to bring their influences and their vices into Equestria?
“I’m not joking,” the pink mare yelled.
“She wishes for your alchemical creations, mother,” said Xeno. “She’s a drug pusher.” It still felt weird to hear Xeno use contractions, and she had to twist her mouth slightly to force the words together. Was it really so important to live up to the image Zorana expected?
“We don’t make those anymore,” answered the tribe’s leader. “I’m well versed in the creation of potions to heal, elixirs to strengthen, and extracts one can use to reach new understandings of themselves. I’m not one to advocate the old recipes used to force mares and stallions into a rage, or to stupefy them.”
“You might not be, but I am,” Rose answered.
“She’s telling the truth,” I said. “She has a whole town addicted to different drugs.” Of course, I neglected to mention that I stood to benefit from this, with the possibility of getting a larger supply of Buck or Med-X for when I got myself in over my head.
“You say that like I want to keep them all wrapped in a haze,” Rose said. “You cut me so,” she added, sarcastically. She turned back to Zorana. “Anyway. My supplies are dwindling, and after a certain mare went on a rampage, I need more.”
Zorana looked up at me, then back at Rose. “I’ve already said I refuse,” she said. Once again the lines and sigils on her seemed to shift, as if following the shadows made by the candles in the room. They snapped back into place whenever I looked directly at them.
“And I said I won’t take that as an answer,” Rose growled.
“What about a trade?” asked Xeno. She stepped between the two, and pushed Rose back a few inches from the desk.
“I’m not normally one to negotiate, but if that’s what it takes, then that’s what it takes,” said the clone.
Zorana closed her eyes and rested her hooves before her muzzle. For a moment she was silent, and her eyes moved about under her closed eyelids. “You’ve brought back my daughter,” she finally said, quietly. “You allowed my sons a proper burial. There aren’t many ponies who would do that for a zebra, especially one they killed themselves. Though we are isolated, we have intermingled with your kind outside, and we know very well how the majority of ponies view us.” Slowly she opened her eyes and looked down at us. From behind her hooves, she smiled. “I’ll think about it. Go and ask the others what they think. If the payment is worth it, I’m sure the old recipes will turn up.”
Rose smirked. “Thank yo-”
“Leave,” said Zorana, interrupting the clone pony. She pointed a hoof at the door.
We filed out quietly, not a single one of us daring to say anything to invoke the mare’s wrath. The minute I passed the door, it felt like a weight had been lifted from me, and my head felt clearer. Xeno exited last, and quietly shut the door behind her.
“I hope you liked my mom,” she said.
We left and trotted down the hallway back toward the rest of the tribe’s shops and homes. The zebras looked subtly different now, far more casual than they had been during the funeral. I managed to pick out little things I hadn’t noticed before. One mare sitting next to an open window wore several golden necklaces, stacked up from withers to chin. She looked at us as we passed, barked excited words at Xeno in their language and held up a set of golden earrings. Another shop held another mare, who looked nearly identical to the first, selling amulets and charms inscribed with letters and pictures I didn’t understand or couldn’t read. As I looked around, I noticed several other zebras with similar adornments. It was different, more befitting of what I expected of a ‘tribe.’
Without a response we passed by, only to see a stallion across the hallway trading with another. The two bartered with goods, rather than caps, one offering more of the paint I’d seen being worn. The other stallion offered a jar that looked exactly like the kind Xeno kept in her satchel, which I guessed was probably full of spices or an exotic ingredient for the alchemical concoctions they were supposed to be so proficient at crafting.
One rather glamorous mare, with a mohawk curled at the tip and a smattering of color painted over her eyes stood right at the door to a shop full of dresses. Though the Wasteland seemed to eat clothing for breakfast, given the damage to my jacket, one zebra seemed intent to try and bring some fashion back. Through the window of the shop were several patterns unlike anything I’d seen before, with flowing designs and sleeves that stuck out as if stuffed. They were designed in the most fanciful of colors, so much so that I’d never ever wear anything like them.
Already back to her normally bitchy self, Rose went right about her work. We followed her as she made a beeline for a shop that Xeno pointed out. With Xeno as a translator, we made good time going from shops to residences, and even spoke to some zebras in the halls. Within the hour, she found three different zebras (through several hallways and stores) that knew the recipes she needed. All of them hesitated to accept her offer, and only after she offered much greater payment were they swayed.
Xeno, of course, made a wonderful mare to translate between the clone and her potential business partners. Now that we were free of her mother and the overbearing nature and lashing out, Xeno got back to her normal self. I still found myself shocked to see her express so much emotion, since I’d always known her to be so reserved, and could only hope that when we headed back to the other side of the mountains, she’d truly let us into her head and meet the real mare.
Assuming she came back with us at all.
Lost and I weren’t able to help much, and instead discussed in hushed whispers what Zorana had said, trying to figure out what it really meant. Every stallion that passed us, we examined critically, as if Xeno was really our sister and we needed to protect her from her own kind. It kept us both busy during the business hunting. At least it made things go by faster. Without us interrupting, they were able to get work done quickly, and Lost and I spent a few minutes just being sisters and talking. Honestly, it felt somewhat naughty to gossip, as if we should be paying attention instead of scrutinizing the flaws of those around us.
I couldn’t stop myself thinking about Xeno though. What if she wanted to stay?
Truth be told, I had assumed they’d planned an arranged marriage for her. Even if everything Lost and I chatted about meant nothing, it felt nice to have a break from the constant stress of the Wasteland. Only the cut on my muzzle reminded me what we’d be heading back to when we finished.
“Xeno, you have a minute?” I asked. I hooked a steel hoof around her leg and tugged her away from Rose.
“Yes, Hiddenpony, what is it?” she asked as she stepped back away from Rose and let the cloned mare walk off without us.
“Can you really talk normal?” Lost asked. I flinched. That was her opener?
“Thisis normal for me, Lostpony,” answered Xeno. “My mother is a perfectionist, and Iam not to her standard. I understand your ‘contractions,’ but they donot feel natural to me. Itis not the way of my language. I do whatis comfortable to me.”
“Who’s Ziven?” I asked, dragging things back on track. I looked past the zebra at Rose, then pulled her around a corner. “And why’d you always say you never had a home to return to?”
Lost nodded, moving along with us. She rolled her hoof in the air, beckoning an answer from the mare.
“Heis a stallion from my youth,” she answered. “One of red eyes and dark purple stripes, a stallion of desires.”
“So one you find desirable?” asked Lost. “Why not go for it then?”
“You misunderstand, Lostpony,” Xeno said, shaking her head. She sat and pressed herself against the wall. With a sigh, she looked up at the skylight in the ceiling above. “Not my desires. He is one of avarice, of greed. I donot like him, but that isnot why I left. That isnot why I didnot wish to return.”
“Please, just tell us what’s going on,” I begged. “You’ve been so open lately. We care about you. You can tell us.” I hugged her, and got a grunt in response. Lost nodded too.
“What my mother said is true,” she said when I let her go. “My father suggested I leave to find who I am, to see whether the beliefs my mother follows are true. I found myself suffocating, as if those beliefs were designed to press the spirit from my body as they would the air from my lungs. There is much of what you would call ‘sameness’ here.” She looked back at her flank and rubbed her hoof over the swirl emblazoned on her, following the lines. “I must go, expand, learn. That is my calling.”
“But you seem so happy to be home,” Lost said, a tinge of sadness in her voice. I knew what she meant. We had no real home to go back to, no community we grew up in to provide happy memories.
“A day at home is good. A week is punishment,” Xeno said, staring at Lost. “A lifetime would be akin to your time with the slaver.” Her eyes flicked to the side, looking at the Mane Attraction salon. She shook her head, closed her eyes and wrapped her forehooves around herself. With a heavy shudder, she opened her eyes and stared at the floor. “Iam ready to leave now, if you were to run from the pink mare.”
“As much as I want to, there are still the mares from Skirt to worry about,” I said, wishing I could take the offer.
“We’re here for you Xeno, thick or thin,” said Lost. Her eyes crossed and she looked up at the charred tip of her horn.
“Then let us hurry. The sooner we finish, the sooner we may leave,” said the zebra. She smiled and stood. Her dark coat seemed to shine, as if a something lit up inside her. She looked happy, and her dark blue eyes practically sparkled.
With a nod, Rose turned from the zebra merchant, a mare living in a store full of vials. “That’s all we need,” she said. “I got my rifle repaired too, so I’m happy with how this afternoon went. Let’s head back to your glorious leader and get proper negotiations taken care of. This has taken far too long already.”
We’d only been wandering the halls and talking to the locals for a few hours, which seemed like far less than ‘too long’ for a mare who’d lived for more than a century already. Still, given that it had taken us the entire night to get from Idle to the Stables, and then another half-day to get across the mountains and to this city, I could understand. The afternoon wore on slowly, as time often did when I was bored, and we’d only have another day to make the long trip back. If we had enough time, I would consider it a miracle.
“Anyone wondering where Fine Tune is?” I asked, trying to push the worries out of my head.
“Doesn’t matter,” Rose said. “We don’t need him for the negotiations.” She pushed her way past me and lifted the barrel of her grenade rifle with her magic, then pointed it at me. “Time’s-a-wastin’.”
“He’s a big changeling, sis,” Lost said. “He’ll be okay, right?” She turned to follow Rose, even though she scowled at the pink mare.
“You don’t know what it’s like when he feeds on something,” I said. “I do. I’m not worried about him, I’m worried about others knowing and having caught him.”
“There hasn’t been any hysteria, and no one has made a fuss. I’m sure everything’s fine,” she answered. “I believe in the little guy.” She walked off. “How about this? You go with Rose back the way we came. Xeno and I will take the other hallway. We’ve the whole length of the mall to walk back at this point.” She pointed down another hallway that led off in the side direction, but met up with the main hallway at its endpoint. “One of us will find him somewhere.”
I looked at Rose. I did want to ask her about what happened when talking to Zorana, and get to the bottom of exactly what had her so harrowed, so it felt like a good plan. “Deal,” I agreed. I hugged Lost. “See you when we get to the office.”
“See you- Oh hey,” she said, catching herself mid-sentence. “Let me use the PipBuck, I might be able to snag him sooner.”
“Umm, sure,” I agreed. I held up my hoof and watched as her horn sparked several times.
Groaning, she gave up and hung her head. “Alright, that’s not going to work,” she muttered, crossing her eyes and glaring up at her own horn. She turned to Rose and, after an explanation that included far too many magical and technical terms that went over my head, had the clone pony swap the PipBuck across.
Lifting her own leg, the PipBuck clasped onto it, encased in a aquamarine haze. With a tap, Lost started it up, then blinked a few times as the E.F.S. came to life. “Thanks. See you on the other side,” she said, and hugged me tight. With a reassuring smile, she ruffled my mane and turned to Xeno. “Let’s go.”
The two mares walked off, their hooves tapping against the tile and their tails swaying side to side behind them. Really, there wasn’t much better backup I could ask for. But it gave rise to those worries Zorana had raised, about Lost being gripped by the stars.
I shook my head and trotted after Rose. Superstitious nonsense shouldn’t sway me, since she probably just wanted to hold something above us, to put herself in a position of power in the conversation. After all, if she acted like she knew something we didn’t, it’d make her look more important and keep us below her.
Of course, if she was right about any of it, would that mean she was right about all of us? I looked down at my hooves, one encased in metal and the other replaced entirely. Would I really become a monster of steel and flesh that couldn’t die?
Immortality had its upsides, I supposed.
“Are you alright?” I asked as I trotted up to Rose.
“That’s a stupid question,” she spat with a glare. Softening slightly, she slumped her shoulders. “I’m fine.”
I looked around, not wanting to seem like I was pressing the matter. I did need to look for Fine Tune, after all. We walked past a few ancient stores, most of which were still open, though now with new owners. Some had cracked glass, and the outlines of old advertisements, long since torn away. The zebras seemed fairly open, as a culture, since they technically lived in what amounted to ‘glass houses.’ A couple walked past Rose and me, talking in their native tongue.
Since the funeral feast died down, the mall seemed much more like a regular town. Zebras went about their business, walked from place to place, tending to their lives. Just like anypony would do.
“Is it true?” I asked, looking back to the clone.
“Of course it’s true. I’m quite happy,” she answered. “We’ve got the proper personnel to make what I need, and if everything works, we can start a trade. My original will be happy. I just need to relay the information to another copy to send it back home.”
“I meant about you not having a soul,” I clarified.
She stopped, her hoof still in the air. Her pink coat seemed to fade, as if the color somehow drained from it. She set her hoof down. “Yes,” she said. Turning away, she sped off.
I walked after her, passing another zebra and weaving past a trash can. “So what happens if you die?” I asked, pushing just a little.
“I die,” she answered. “So, nothing.” She sped up, walking faster but not quite breaking into a trot.
“I’m sorry,” I said, still struggling to keep up with her.
“Why? You owe me nothing, and you’ve treated me like shit since we started this escapade,” she snapped at me. “I don’t need your fucking pity.”
I trotted ahead and jumped in front of her. “I mean it,” I said. “I’m not the smartest mare around, but even I can tell that it bothers you.”
“Of course it fucking bothers me!” she yelled. “You try being a century old.” She prodded me in the chest with a hoof. “Try becoming your own mare.” She prodded me again, pushing me back a step. “Learn more about yourself than you ever did as a fat slob stuck in a bed.” She jabbed me harder. “Try knowing that when you die all that remains of you is a ‘she died’ message popping into her head, and bam, she makes another one. No more Rose number two-oh-three.” Tears welled up in her eyes, and with another jab of her hoof, broke free. They rolled down her cheeks, matting her pink coat. She sniffled and jabbed me a few more times. “Nothing!”
Zebras poked their heads from their shops, and others who’d been walking by stopped to stare.
“I’d remember you,” I said quietly.
She bared her teeth and stepped forward, pressing her muzzle against me. For a second I feared she might hit me. Her hot breath washed over me as she snorted. I realized she was fighting the urge to break down, to cry louder and just let it out.
“For what it’s worth, you’ve made an impression,” I whispered, pulling away from her a hair. Her muzzle stayed glued to mine, as we stared one another in the eyes. I could see my reflection staring back at me. I looked so unsure. “I’m sorry.”
The clone pulled herself back and abruptly sat down. Her rump hit the floor with a thud, and she grabbed onto her mane with both forehooves. Slowly, she twirled the hair back and forth between them. “When I die,” she said slowly, quietly, “I’ll fade away, as if I never existed. My memories, my experiences...” She sniffled and wiped an eye. “A hundred and some odd years of life by myself, since she spawned me, will disappear.” With a deep breath, she looked up at me.
I moved to sit next to her, and angrily waved the staring bystanders away. This was private, even if we were doing it in the middle of their home. “Go ahead, let it out,” I whispered.
“I told you before, right?” she asked with another sniffle. “There’s no hivemind, no presence or anything.” Her hooves worked faster at her mane, twisting it around and tugging at the curl on the end of her forelocks. “So when I die, all she knows is that I’m gone. She’ll send another. That new one will be a carbon copy of her, down to the memories... Anything I did, she won’t remember. And I have no soul, I’m just a meatbag. If you cut me, I don’t even really bleed...!” That set her off again, and she started to bawl. Her tears hit the tiles and formed a small puddle, as she sobbed and coughed, sniffling every few seconds.
“Is there any way to fix that?” I asked. I knew I was pulling at straws. There probably wasn’t a magical way to clone a soul too, was there?
“No. I just have to try and live and never die,” she said, before bursting out laughing.
The zebras I’d shooed away returned, and from the corner of my eye I could see them watching. Their ears swiveled toward us, even if they weren’t actively looking. Seeing and hearing strangers to put on such a display was probably prime material for gossip later.
The pink mare kept laughing. She fell onto her side and kicked her hind legs. Her eyes teared up again as she held herself and giggled. “She’s... hahaha! She’s been with servant copies so long,” she said, through bursts of giggling. “I doubt she remembers how to get rid of us.”
“That’s good right?” I asked, once again grasping at straws. “She can’t just erase you from life, so you can be safe and keep living!”
A few more giggles, and one more kick of her hind legs, and she nodded. “Yeah...” she said, then giggled again. Reaching to her head, she wiped the tears away and let out a long slow breath. “Yeah...”
“You gonna be okay?” I asked, holding out a hoof to help her up.
“As long as you don’t shoot me in the head,” she answered solemnly. Her fetlock hooked around mine and she pulled herself back to sitting. “You’re not so bad, y’know that?” She hit me gently in the shoulder with a hoof, smearing the remains of her tears across my jacket.
“I’ll try not to,” I said, returning the gesture, without smeary tears. “But I meant it. You’ve made an impression on me I doubt I’ll ever forget.”
“Thanks...” she whispered.
With the eyes of a dozen zebras watching, I made friends with somepony I’d considered an enemy, and actively sought out to murder as often as possible. “You’re welcome,” I whispered back.
A now-composed Rose and I walked down the last hallway toward the office Zorana called her home. Through small-talk after her breakdown, we’d gotten to know one another a little better. Despite our heart to heart, I still thought she was a gigantic bitch. One moment of breakdown didn’t exactly make up for holding the lives of innocent ponies hostage in an effort to make us supply her town with more drugs to placate the townsponies. But as much as she’d done wrong, this particular Rose copy wasn’t so terrible. She’d learned a lot in a century, and explained some of the details that made her different from the original.
While the original liked the drugs she pushed, and used them often back during the days of the War, this copy didn’t like much aside from the occasional drink and a good smoke when times were tough. She remembered watching her original home crumble and become just another ruin, years after the War, when a particularly bad radioactive winter rolled through decades ago, something the first Rose hadn’t been there to witness. She surprised me, with the little details and distinctions that made her become her own pony. Apparently, if ten Rose copies went out into the Wasteland on their own for a year, every one that actually made it back would be completely different; that was how easy it was to change their personalities. It made sense, when I considered that they really only had copies of memories, and those were probably overwritten the easiest.
While I still didn’t trust her as far as I could throw her, I didn’t hate her.
I didn’t see Lost, Xeno, or Fine Tune in the hallway when we walked closer. So, we’d beaten them back? I didn’t feel comfortable seeing Zorana all alone, given the way she talked circles around me. The weird way her sigils seemed to swirl around made it all the worse, because I couldn’t tell if it was my mind or my eyes playing tricks on me.
The office door hung open, just a crack.
“Well, we could always just listen to her plans?” Rose offered, pointing to the bottom corner of the warped door. It left the tiniest of gaps one could eavesdrop through.
“Quiet!” I snapped. “Usually I get caught doing stupid shit like that. And why would she be talking in our language, anyway?” We could just ask if Lost, Xeno and Fine were back yet. I reached over and knocked on the door.
“Spoilsport,” Rose groused as she stood up and backed away.
The door opened all the way, and Zolera popped his head out. When he saw who we were, his eyes lit up and he smiled. “Good! Come in, hurry,” he said, waving a hoof for us to come in. He pulled the door open the rest of the way, showing us a much nicer-looking office. The candles were put out, and the outside blinds were now open, letting in quite a bit of light and making everything look far more pleasant.
Surprisingly, Lost and the others were already in the room. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I guessed. It meant less time wasted, and more time we could use getting what we needed so we could save the poor mares back in Idle. The sooner that happened, the sooner we could deal with the fat slob Rose and get back to safety.
Or go hunting for more treasure.
I shook my head to clear my thoughts and trotted in to stand next to my sister.
“Hey,” Lost said, waving a hoof. “What kept you?” she asked, concern in her voice.
“Rose and I had a heart-to-heart,” I answered. The answer got a raised eyebrow and a confused look. Lost patted me on the head and turned back to the zebra in charge of the tribe.
Fine Tune waved to me, a gigantic smile plastered across his face. His eyes damn-near glowed, and he looked incredibly proud of himself. After a chirp-like whistle, he said, “Hi!”
“Have a good meal?” I asked, trying not to laugh.
“Mmhmm!” he said, nodding his head.
Better some poor sap than me. At least they’d be okay in a few hours. I hadn't gotten that sickening emptiness in the pit of my soul since I got to sleep overnight on the motorwagon, at least.
“Did you find any willing to help?” asked Zorana, who still sat behind her desk. None of her sigils seemed to be moving this time, much to my relief.
“Yes,” Rose answered curtly. She stepped forward and stood up. With her forehooves planted on the desk, she stared at the mare. It was a relief to not be the one doing negotiations with mares who obviously wanted nothing to do with us. “They’ve offered their help, and I can get a generous payment to each of them, and to you. We’ll call it a finder’s fee.”
“Do you really think it will be so easy?” asked the red-painted shaman.
Zolera whispered something to his wife. It stumped me how such a jolly zebra, who so passionately loved his drink and other simple pleasures, could find this condescending and outright mean mare worthy of his affections.
Zorana snorted. Her hoof shot up to cover her mouth. Squinting, she shot the stallion a look.
“I think it’s well within our powers to work together on this. You’re the only thing standing in the way,” said Rose. “Tell me, what exactly is the problem?” She swung a hoof out, knocking some of the odds and ends from the mare’s desk.
“Oh dear,” I whispered.
Xeno’s eyes went wide, and she took a step back.
I braced for it, but Zorana did nothing. She looked down her muzzle at Rose, and smirked. “Tell me, where will we get the ingredients for all these drugs and potions and chemical concoctions you desire so much?” She pushed herself from the desk and moved her chair out of the way. With a flick of her hoof, she pulled the blinds away completely.
The window faced the far fields, the same way to the graveyard where Zahi and Zaki were laid to rest earlier, and the barren nothingness that stretched on to the mountains. The view itself was magnificent, but she raised a good point. It took all sorts of things to make what Xeno made, and were it not for Fine Tune having arrived, we’d have run out long ago. Without ingredients, whatever they may be, there wasn’t a way to make what she wanted.
“Ihave some supplies,” Xeno offered. “Itis not much, but...”
“Unnecessary,” snapped Zorana. “And stop talking like that. I told you already, we didn’t raise you to act as if you were afflicted with a curse of tongues.”
“Kindness, love,” said Zolera. He rested a hoof on her shoulder and shook gently.
She looked over to him, the ghost of a smile appearing on her lips. “Sorry,” she said. With a deep breath, she continued. “Whether I’m the one standing in the way or not, there’s more to this than you know. We have our own troubles here, and cannot spare anything.
“Losing two of my own hurts, but the fact is, it hurt the tribe more than just me,” she explained. The mare leaned against her husband and rested her head against his shoulder.
“Scouts, scavengers. Scraps,” Zolera explained. He wrapped a hoof around his wife and squeezed tight. “We survive on little. Feast? Special times only.” He squeezed Zorana again, enough to make her squeak just like Xeno had when he squeezed her earlier.
She hit him in the chest and pulled back. Clearing her throat, she glared at him. “There will be no deal, no matter how much support you gather from my tribe. Zolera speaks the truth, we get by on what little we can. This has been a time of famine.”
“Trade with buffalo and pony alike has dried up, as few dare to come this close to our lands,” she continued. “I’ve sought many options, communing with the spirits, seeking enlightenment in drink, and spending my time with those like Zoan’s daughter.” Zorana sat at her desk once again, blocking my view of the mountains outside. “While we are able to make much from little, I still have an entire tribe to think about, before I go throwing our resources to another.”
“What about in Blackhoof?” I asked. “There’s plenty there. The city and its suburbs might be ruins just like here, but I always manage to find a little more.” I took a step forward, hoping... “Even in places that seem empty.”
“She’s right,” agreed Lost.
“I’ve seen it,” added Xeno. “Hiddenpo- Hidden has pulled treasure from nothing. The city has what we might need to survive.”
“Yes, we,” Zorana said, eyeing her daughter. “I will take that under consideration, provided you stay here.”
“What?” Xeno and my sister yelled at the same time.
“We have nothing to spend the bottlecaps you ponies use for trading on, they’re worthless to my tribe,” Zorana explained. She trotted around the desk and rested a hoof on Xeno’s shoulder. “What my tribe needs is to stay together. We are stronger together. Our resources are limited, and every set of hooves is necessary.”
“Rose already got everything and everyone that we need, and all we need is your stamp of approval. You're holding us up, just so you can get your daughter hitched to some random stallion?” I asked, completely taken aback by what just happened. Zorana was a bitch to us, and I felt like half of what she said was just posturing to hold something over us. But this was worse than, well it was worse than Rose holding four innocent mares hostage.
“Zorana,” said Zolera in a quiet voice. He stepped forward and pushed the two mares apart. He said something to his wife in their language, and they started to argue.
“What just happened?” I asked.
Lost shrugged, looking just as confused as I did.
“We might have just been fucked,” said Rose.
“I don’t know, but it’s not good,” Fine Tune said. He took a few steps back, his ears pinning to the back of his head. “I can feel it, and it’s bad.”
“Look you stupid bitch,” yelled Rose. “It’s simple. You name a price and we go get what you want. How hard is it?” She jabbed the one of the red sigils on Zorana’s flank.
The mare reared up the second the hoof tapped her. She backpedaled away and dropped down. With one hoof she shoved the much larger Zolera away. “How dare you touch me, you abomination!” she shouted at Rose.
“Just because I have no soul doesn’t make me less of a pony,” shouted Rose. “I’m trying to work with you here! If I wanted to, I could bring an army down on you and take what I wanted.”
“Whoa, Rose, calm down,” I said. I grabbed her and pulled back, hoping to keep a fight from starting.
“You think you can just walk into my home and make demands?” yelled the zebra mare. The sigils on her coat shifted again, as if her moved by her anger alone. “We have no need for your trinkets and toys! There are zebras that have lost all, and have given up finding new life in their time on this world. We are under constant attack from the outside, and our resources are sacrificed at all times to continue as we are with crumbs!”
“Stop,” said Zolera, his deep voice resonating off the walls. He placed a hoof on Zorana and pulled.
“No, this time I will put the dead mare in her place. I was easy on them before. Look at her, she reeks of arum lily,” she said, pointing a hoof accusingly at Rose. “She insults me, treating me as a foal. You understand her language, and the threats she has made, do you not?”
He said something to her, whispering it into her ear.
“Look, we want to work together,” L.A. said. She moved between Rose and Zorana. “We have ponies that we need to help too, and working together will benefit us both.” Her eyes darted back and forth, questioning. I knew what she was thinking, whether it was right to tell her what we’d done back at Idle, and what we would do once the situations were all taken care of.
“My ancestors’ allegiances lay with ponies, and we fought against our own,” said the shaman. “But the pact has been abandoned. Our trade contacts have disappeared, seasons have gone by with nothing. We need zebra to survive, not your pittances.” She spat on the floor.
“Hey, no need for that!” I yelled. Suddenly, I wanted to be the one to take care of this mare. No one spat at my sister like that.
“We have worked together with ponies before,” Xeno said. “Times of struggle can be overcome by working together, it can be a boon for the village, if you would cease your stubbornness.”
“Why do you need more zebras?” Fine Tune asked. “There’s dozens, maybe hundreds here. I can feel love between them. I don’t know how your kind create more, but it should not be hard for a Queen like you to issue the call for more.”
“I don’t think it works like that, Fine Tune,” I said, holding a hoof up to the side of my mouth. That suggestion might be a little awkward.
He had a point though, I hadn’t seen a single foal since we’d arrived.
“Look, there are lives at stake on our end here, too,” Lost said, holding a hoof up. “If we don’t work together, ponies will die. Ponies we promised to help.” She pled with the tribal leader. I hoped it would work.
Zorana just laughed, a laugh that made my sister’s hopeful look shatter. “Others? Like this one?” She pointed at Rose. “I deal with those who have souls, not monsters of flesh.”
“You can stop rubbing that in,” snapped Rose. “If money isn’t what you want, then what can I offer for a deal?”
Zolera said something to his wife, and tugged at her.
The room darkened, as the light coming through the window was suddenly blocked. For only a second we stood in the dark room, eerily still with no candles casting strange shadows about. As soon as it disappeared, the light returned.
The color drained from Zorana’s face. She regained her composure almost at once and looked us over, very obviously checking to see if we’d noticed the sudden change in her appearance.
Only Fine Tune scrutinized her, his eyes squinted as he looked at her face. His own face scrunched up, as he mimicked the exact expression she’d had for that split second when the light returned.
“What was that?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Probably nothing,” she snapped. Turning from me, she glared at Rose. “This is not up for negotiation. I will not sell out my tribe for your gain.” She pointed at the door of her office.
“No,” said Zolera. He moved between the door and the rest of us. “Deal. We must-”
“I’ve offered her everything I can, and she hasn’t given me a straight answer about what she wants,” said Rose. She pushed past the zebra, ducking around him and leaving the room. “Call me when she decides to be reasonable. I’ve got more time than she’ll ever know.”
“We want to work together,” Lost said. “There’s a lot at risk, and this can work out for both of us.”
“C’mon Xeno, let’s get out of here,” I said. I turned and trotted out. Once out, I turned to watch Lost and Fine Tune follow me. “Please?” I begged, as my zebra friend stood there, unmoving.
“I cannot,” she said. “You must understand, Hiddenpony.” She waved a hoof, and whispered something I didn’t quite understand, but it sounded a lot like ‘sadaka.’ She lifted her hoof, and just barely pointed at me. With the slightest twitch of her hoof, back and forth, she pointed to Lost, then back to me.
The door slammed shut.
I paced back and forth down the empty hallway. Every few paces, I looked back at the office door to Zorana’s room. All that posturing, and the refusal. It made no sense. We wanted to help her and she could help us. Was there really something so horrible about what we were offering? I knew drugs and addictions were bad, but dammit, this was to help innocents that needed saving. How could she be so callous and just not care?
“You’re going to wear a hole in the floor if you keep that up,” said Rose.
“I don’t care, I’m trying to figure out exactly what happened in there,” I snapped. I knew I wasn’t a thinky pony and a lot of stuff went over my head when I got lost in thought. I knew I tended to jump to conclusions, but this all had me flustered. What more did she want? And exactly what did ‘sadaka’ mean?
“It’s simple: she’s a bitch,” said Rose. She shrugged and walked off. “I’m going to go find some more of myself, and relay a message. This looks like it’ll take a lot longer than I thought.” She looked back at us and smiled. “As much as I don’t want to admit it, you’re helping, and those mares shouldn’t get enslaved because the zebra won’t work with us.” She waved and continued down the hall. “I’ll meet up with you afterward.”
“We’ll be around,” answered Lost. She sat against the wall, staring a hole into the office door. “We’re not going anywhere without Xeno.”
“Damn right!” I yelled, more to myself than to L.A. or Fine Tune. Snorting, I walked over to my sister and sat down next to her. With a sigh, I asked, “What do we do next?”
“We wait, I guess,” she answered with a shrug. “I didn’t see another door out of that room, and they can’t stay in there forever.”
Fine Tune trotted back and forth, looking quite antsy. “Something’s wrong,” he said, his voice shrill. “Emotions clashing, happy, sad, angry. I can feel too many. It’s driving me mad!” He trotted back and forth faster. “Can we move away? Too much, overload. Please, my Queen?”
“Yeah, as long as we can still see the door, that’s fine,” said Lost. She pushed off the wall and dusted herself off. Smiling, she offered me a hoof. “We’ll figure this out, then we’re heading back.”
“Do things by force if we have to?” I asked as I grabbed her hoof. I pulled hard against her fetlock and righted myself. A bolt of pain shot up through my foreleg, reminding me it was still extremely broken inside the steel hoof Praline gave me.
“Only if we have to,” she answered.
The three of us walked down the hall, away from the majority of the tribe. We ended up near another entrance, this one also blocked off with a makeshift wall of benches, sign poles, and garbage cans. It had a doorway to a service room off to the side, just inside the doors. It was small and full of old cleaning supplies, but that made it perfect for a spot we could talk in private. After Fine Tune shuffled in, I followed, and Lost sat by the door to hold it open.
To keep myself busy, I picked through the old boxes and crates. I found soap, brushes, and a broom. There was a bucket in the corner, which I turned over to sit on. They weren’t much, but I was sure the Steel Rangers wouldn’t mind having more to help clean out the Stable. I even grabbed an air-freshener, to put on the motorwagon, so we wouldn’t have to deal with the stench of the dead. The distraction helped, as I loaded everything into my saddlebags. The less I had to think about all the horrible things that might have caused Xeno to leave this place, the better.
“Do you have any ideas?” I asked as I sat back on the overturned bucket. Digging through the supplies really only killed a few minutes.
“I don’t know, really. There’s a lot of little things that could be going on,” Lost answered. “There’s a lot more than what we’ve seen so far.”
“Like why the cold, distant, creepy-ass shaman is together with the super-nice, gigantic boozehound of a stallion?” I asked, laughing.
Both Fine Tune and Lost snickered at the joke.
“He makes her laugh,” said the changeling. “She was... different when he was there. You saw it, didn’t you?” With a flash of green fire, he transformed into an approximation of Zorana, but without the painted sigils on her coat. The changeling let out a squeak, the same sound Zorana’d made when Zolera squeezed her in a hug. The same expression she’d made followed, where she regained her composure, up to and including the motion where she’d hit the stallion. When he finished his one-bug show, he transformed back to a unicorn stallion.
“There’s more going on than we know,” repeated Lost. “Xeno said they were superstitious, but I haven’t seen any of that so far. This whole thing about a Ziven is all new to us, and we don’t know anything about it. Really, we just need to talk to her...” She leaned out through the doorway and looked down the hall again.
“So we wait, that’s all we can do?” I asked. I rested a hoof on one of the cleaning solution bottles and rolled it in a little circle, to occupy myself.
“She didn’t leave us when we were in U Cig, and things were a lot worse there. If it takes a week, we’ll wait here for her,” L.A. answered. “Thick or thin, we’re here for her.”
“What if she wants to stay?” asked Fine Tune. He watched as I moved the bottle back and forth, like a predator focusing on his next meal.
“If that’s what she really wants, we don’t stop her, but do you think she wants to be here?” my sister answered with another question. She didn’t look at us, and instead kept focused on the hallway.
“No, I don’t think so. But I think if all we do is sit and wait, we’re not going to get anywhere. We need to actually do something!” I said. I clanked my steel forehooves together. “I’ve taken on worse odds. We can charge in, get her, and run!”
“What about the mares back in Idle, then?” she asked.
“I can just transform into Rose and trick her into freeing them?” offered Fine Tune.
Lost blinked several times and looked at the changeling like he’d just shot her. “Why didn’t you do that in the first place, then?” she asked.
“Well, umm,” he stammered, tapping his forehooves together. “We weren’t really in a position to do that at the time. If I’d disappeared, she might have thought something was up.”
Lost grimaced, then sighed. “You’re right,” she said. “This all sucks.”
“Eeyup,” I added, once again rolling the bottle back and forth. It felt good to keep my hooves busy.
“What was it she said when the door closed?” asked Lost, after a moments pause. “Sataka?”
“Zataga?” I offered, shrugging. “I don’t know her language.
“No, it was something else, zataka, or sataka,” said Fine Tune. He rolled his tongue around to the side of his mouth, trying to pronounce it properly.
“Well, it wasn’t a word in any language I know,” I said, neglecting to mention that I only knew one language. “You know a bit of hers right? What might that translate to?” I rolled a hoof, hoping.
“Hold on, hold on. Let me think,” he said. Both forehooves went to the sides of his head. He closed his eyes and tilted his head down.
“Take your time, we’ve got all day...” sighed Lost. She stared out and down the hallway, a frown firmly planted on her lips. “Hidden, how’s your face?”
I crossed my eyes and looked at the slash down my muzzle, then looked down at my hooves. The cut still hurt, but really wasn’t that bad. “I’ve had worse,” I said.
“I’m sorry I can’t heal it,” she said absentmindedly.
“Don’t worry about it, Rose tried while you were out. It didn’t work,” I said, remembering when she tried. That whole exchange had been far too awkward.
“Well, shit,” she answered. Her hoof went to the spots she’d been bitten on her neck. “I guess I get another scar to add to the one Gunbuck gave me...”
Without warning, the room erupted in green as fire swirled around the changeling. “Sadaka!” Fine Tune yelled upon the flames falling, now looking identical to Xeno. She threw a hoof in the air in triumph, then with another flashing of fire, she returned to the form of the blue unicorn stallion.
“But what’s it mean?” I asked. “She’s never used that one before, at least not to my knowledge. She pointed to Lost and I, too. Does that mean anything?”
“Hold on, I gotta remember. I’ve really only dealt with zebras once or twice before. They’re rarely buyers,” he said, waving a hoof to quiet me. “It’s, umm.” He chirped.
“Was it something they said when buying?” Lost asked. She turned her attention to the hallway to the two of us in the small room. “Context is important, right?”
Fine Tune stood, as flames erupted around his hooves and engulfed him. When they receded, the blue unicorn had been replaced with a tall, lanky zebra stallion. He looked ancient, with the mohawk of his mane nearly gone, and the white of his coat turning yellow. His gaunt face seemed to show a stallion who’d seen too much, as he stared, unfocused at the wall. “I will take the two crippled,” he said in a raspy voice, “it matters not for sadaka...”
“Well, that’s context alright...” said Lost. She looked over her glasses at the stallion Fine Tune transformed into, in shock.
The flames rose again, turning everything in the room a sickly green. As they faded away, the unicorn stallion sat back down. “I think it means... charity?” he said with a shrug. “Why would she think we’re charity?”
“She doesn’t,” Lost said. “What if it doesn’t mean charity... What if it means offering something to charity?” She looked back down the hallway and bit at her lip.
“Like, they feel like they’re giving something and not getting a return?” I asked. I didn’t want to think about how slavers operated anymore. Those memories hurt, and I knew they bought. That one strange colourful zebra I saw. It could make sense though, right?
“No... I remember. It means sacrifice,” whispered the changeling.
I stared at the page on energy conversion in Lost’s Intermediate Spellcraft book. Really, I had no idea what any of it meant, but this was how she’d made her arcane blast spell into the fire spell. At least that’s what she said. There were descriptions of how each type of ‘energy’ felt and what sort of concentration was needed to cast a spell. Graphs filled half the page with notes scribbled in with little formulas. Thinking about certain things helped to decide what kind of spell was cast? I turned the page and found a spread of pictures that looked almost like musical notes to me, with lines drawn connecting them and an explanation about where and how to focus, and what each ‘note’ meant for different energy and how to move from one ‘note’ to another. They even wrote down little incantations and rhymes for casting.
Suddenly, I was a lot happier I didn’t have to worry about cheater magic, because none of it made any sense to me. Unless there was a spell to fix the holes in my jacket. That one, I’d be interested in.
I flipped the page again, and read the last few sentences of the chapter. All they told me was that I needed to concentrate and that magic was fickle. It might happen, it might not, and that the only thing a unicorn could do to was try.
I crossed my eyes and looked up at my forehead, where a horn would be if I had one. Mom was a unicorn, and Lost was a unicorn. So maybe if I tried hard enough. I clenched my eyes shut and thought about it, as hard as I could. I peeked an eye open.
I didn’t even get a headache from the effort. All I’d done was waste a few seconds and hurt my jaw from grinding my teeth.
“Here’s your book,” I said, passing it back to my sister.
“Understand now?” she asked, taking it back with her hoof. She slid it back into her saddlebags and smiled at me.
“Not at all,” I admitted. “Run it by me again?”
Fine Tune perked his ears up and turned to Lost. “Can I do it, my Queen?” he asks. He looked so hopeful, it was nearly pathetic. When she nodded, he burst out in a grin and jumped to his hooves. With a swirl of flames wrapping around him, he transformed into a copy of my sister, though without the glasses
She looked exactly like Lost, down to the scars on her neck., though she looked somewhat out of place without the glasses across her nose. He could copy the bandana, but not those? Weird.
Lost snickered, and took her glasses off. She flipped them in her hooves with surprising dexterity, and set them on the bridge of the copy’s nose.
“It’s quite simple,” said the Fine Tune-Lost Art. “For example, telekinesis? It requires simply thinking about picking something up off the ground, and the innate spellcasting ability all unicorns have does the rest. There’s no real trick to it, you just have to know the right feeling for it, like flexing a muscle you didn’t know you had.” With the first part of the explanation finished, fire swirled again, leaving the unicorn stallion standing there. He passed Lost her glasses back.
“There’s not an easy way to put it into words, if you can’t feel it yourself,” my sister continued as she put her glasses back on. “You know when you go to hit something with your hooves, and you just know how? Your body takes care of moving muscles?”
I looked down at my forehooves. I remembered that all too well. The question of ‘how do I move my hoof?’ when I always just did it, hurt my brain. It took me nearly a week to figure it out, and even then I cheated by moving both my forehooves together, using one to rig the other into movement. Was it really like that? A part of you that you just somehow knew? “Like learning to walk?” I asked.
“Sort of,” she answered with a shrug. “Mom taught me, remember? She’d set a book in front of me and tell me to pick it up, but not with my hooves. Think about picking it up, imagine it lifting into the air in front of- Ow.” She winced and tapped her horn. “Old habits, I guess.”
“When I transform,” added Fine Tune, “I picture the pony I want to be, all the little details. Coat color, cutie mark, eye color, mane style and color. I put a picture of that pony in my mind, and close my eyes. I know it’s different because I’m a changeling, but she’s right. It’s something you’re born with, a part of you that you can’t lose.”
“What about a unicorn that loses their horn?” I asked. Personally, that’s where I always aimed, because I knew it took them out of commission for good. Unicorns tended to use their magic as a crutch, and I could exploit that, even if it made me a bad pony for going for that specific weakness.
“That’s just the focus,” Lost said. She reached up and tapped at her horn a few times, right where the black charred part started. “Remember The Glowing One?”
“Her horn was shattered off, all she had was a stump,” Lost reminded me. “She cast magic just fine.”
“Good point,” I admitted. I looked up at the tips of my mane and blew at them, making them flutter back and forth. “I still don’t understand how you do it.”
“It’s magic, Hidden, you don’t have to understand,” she said with a smile. “I’m sure mom would have taught you too if sh- Wait.” She stuck her head out the doorway and looked down the hall. “She’s out.” Lost jumped to her hooves and ran from the room. “Hey! Stop!” she yelled.
I looked over to the changeling and shrugged. “Let’s go!” I said.
He jumped up and trotted after her, chirping when he left the room.
I got up slowly. From sitting too long, my legs had locked in the position they were in, and since everything already hurt after the past few days, I didn’t want to do any more damage. Once on my hooves, I walked after.
In front of the office door stood Zorana, staring down at my sister. She nodded, saying something I couldn’t hear. Neither Zolera or Xeno were with her though. The sigils on her body had been repainted in a different design, this one with wave-like curves going up and down, instead of the spirals and lines that she’d had when I first saw her.
I got to her halfway through her sentence.
“...couldn’t help but feel terrible for how I treated you earlier,” she said. “Let’s go have our evening meal outside, and we’ll discuss a deal. Where’s your pink friend, the one of arum lily? She’ll be interested in the offer I have, no doubt.”
“She’s getting in contact with the ponies back in Blackhoof,” Lost answered. “She’ll be back soon. We can wait here.”
“Where’s Xeno?” I asked. There wasn’t time for playing games and I didn’t feel like being separated from my friend any longer. I stomped a hoof, and ignored the pain that lanced up my leg.
“She’s with her father, being prepared for other things,” explained the shaman. “There’s much to do to prepare her for Ziven, and I can’t have such a long-awaited date go wrong.” She trotted off, her long tail snapping behind her with each step. Without turning around, she continued, “Come. We’ll have a nice meal, and talk of plans for the future.”
“Ah, alright,” stammered Lost, obviously taken aback by the sudden kindness shown by the zebra. When Fine Tune walked past her, a hoof shot out to stop him. She leaned in close. “Wait here for a while, please? See if you can find Xeno for us? I don’t trust her,” she whispered.
Fine Tune saluted. “Of course, my Queen,” he whispered back.
“Good luck,” I whispered as I walked past him.
The changeling trotted off and disappeared back into the maintenance room we’d been waiting in. He peeked his head out so just one ear and one eye were past the edge of the doorframe and watched.
Smart little bugger.
“I did want to thank you,” Zorana said as we walked down the hallway. “For bringing my daughter back, that is.” She looked at the zebras in their homes and shops as we walked by. “It’s a shame what happened with my sons, but they are where they belong now. The stars must have had their light cast upon them, and it’s a terrible crime that they were taken from us so young.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“They’re home now,” she said, casting a glance back at the two of us. “Their spirits are where they belong, and I have said my goodbyes to them.”
“Can you actually talk to the spirits?” Lost asked, her tone skeptical.
“It’s what I do. The tribe looks up to me because of my abilities,” she answered. She sped up, forcing us to trot to keep up with her longer strides. “They believe I will lead them from the darkness. Even my name prophesied my abilities. I don’t know if I’ll be able to, but I will do everything in my power to save my people from the grasp of the stars.”
We passed the hallway intersection where the funeral had been held. Already the skylight had been closed, sealing the roof shut. The small building in the center sat alone, with none of the other zebras walking around the halls getting near it. We walked past, and headed down the same hallway the ‘cleansed’ corpses were carried through after their burning. Zorana lead us to the same doorway and held it open with a hoof.
“Wait for me here, I will speak to the others and find some food for us,” she said kindly as we walked through. “There’s a spot just outside that will suit our needs perfectly.”
“You want us to eat in a graveyard?” I asked. The idea of eating while surrounded by the dead terrified me in a way I wasn’t quite sure I knew how to handle. I wasn’t very superstitious, but something about that just felt wrong.
“Don’t worry, it’s not in the graveyard. Most of the graves are cenotaphs. They are empty, merely symbols. They represent those the stars took from us away from home,” she explained. “Not all of the Imani are lucky enough to be escorted back to their home to be laid to rest. The spirits are most comfortable here, where they belong with their kin, which is why we offer them a place to rest.”
“The false grave is a beacon to home?” Lost asked, one eye squinted in confusion.
“That’s a way to put it, even if not completely correct,” she said. “Go now. I will meet with you when I have food ready.” She pulled her hoof from the door and it slammed shut with a clang.
“So, she didn’t say anything about Fine Tune not being with us,” I said, turning to look for the spot she’d mentioned.
“She noticed. Something’s up,” Lost said. She huffed. “There’s nothing we can do at the moment. When Rose gets back, we need to come up with a plan.”
“Stall her?” I asked. A free meal wouldn’t hurt, either.
“Yeah,” Lost answered. She walked off and around the corner. “Let’s check over here.” After a short pause, she called back. “You know this is probably a trap, right?”
“Yeah, I’m keeping Persistence at the ready just in case,” I said. It might have felt weird to be walking around a town battle-ready, but after all we’d been through, it seemed appropriate. If Zorana had something planned for us, she’d have to deal with a shower of lead, steel, and plasma to get it. I followed Lost around the corner, looking around for the place the shaman mentioned.
Past all the grave markers lay a large slab of steel, looking like it’d been ripped from the side of a building. It rested in a clearing, covered in only a simple, dirty white cloth. Cracked plates and perfect cups sat all around the cloth, with a single bottle filled with dark red wine sitting in the very center. I counted, six places set. Lost, Fine Tune, Rose, me... Zorana. The last would either be for Xeno or Zolera. Just what did she have planned?
Lost and I walked over cautiously, taking slow steps and looking at the grave markers as we passed. All of them had words scrawled upon them, written in letters I couldn’t hope to read. I felt as hopeless as I had when looking at the spellbook. They must have held significance for the zebras, but to me it looked like gibberish.
The slab of steel actually looked much the same. In a perfect circle, around the cloth, was more of the writing. It trailed as one long sentence, with no significant place that could signify a break from one part to the next. At the spot where the sentence ended, it broke the circle only slightly, and curled up to start another row. By the time I’d stepped onto the cloth set out for us, I could see that it wrapped around a dozen times, with several of the symbols repeating every so often, in a gigantic spiral. It reminded me of Xeno’s mark, the way it seemed to lead the eye on to read it, despite the lack of meaning to me.
The last few inches on the outside edge of the spiral, at the very end of the writing, looked new. There were still filings sitting atop the steel, where they hadn’t yet been swept away by zebra or the wind. I half-expected to see my own name there, or my sister’s. It still felt off, but when I looked around, I saw we were alone.
“Well, this is ominous,” whispered Lost. She walked in a circle, following the writing around the spiral. “Reminds of me Xeno’s cutie mark, or whatever she calls it. I guess we just wait.” Shrugging, she sat down at one of the places set out, and grabbed Loyalty with her teeth. She plucked it from its spot on her foreleg and checked the spark cell inside. “Ready for anything?”
I looked down at my forehooves, then at Persistence. I knew she was loaded still. “For whatever they throw at us,” I answered.
Sitting at our chosen places, we waited and planned.
The meal Zorana and Zolera brought to us seemed... lacking. While I hadn’t expected anything as glamorous or special as Marshmallow Sundae’s cooking, I had at least hoped they’d bring us the best they had. Then again, what they brought might have been the best they had. Aside from Zolera’s alcohol and the glimpses I’d gotten of the zebras at the funeral feast, I had no idea exactly what the resources here were. If they were anything like Zorana implied during her negotiations with Rose, they’d pulled out all the stops to bring us whatever we could have wanted.
Zorana herself served the four of us. One of the zebras from her tribe had brought the food out when she and Zolera joined us, but left shortly after dropping off the large platter. Zolera, meanwhile, poured the wine into each of the mugs before us. Lost had suggested they might not stage an attack of force, and instead try something like poisoning us. Given the alchemy and the brewing, I didn’t think she was wrong. The suspicions I had waned slightly, knowing we’d all be eating the same food and drinking from the same bottle. In the end, we’d decided to tough it out and get whatever answers we could in the event Lost’s suspicions were correct. That meant small bites and little sips, and only eating what Zorana did.
Nothing on the plate they gave me was preserved from the old world. They offered us what looked like leaves of a plant I’d never seen before. They were so brittle and warped, I could only imagine how much radiation they’d soaked up from the time they grew to when they were plucked. Half the plate was covered in what looked like meat, sliced thin and heavily salted. The remainder of the meal was a small amount of bread, made by hoof with what little ingredients it seemed they could spare. To drink they only offered the wine that was left for us when we arrived.
Marshmallow Sundae had really spoiled us...
Two places at the cloth sat untended, with Fine Tune missing in his search for Xeno, and Rose off communicating with the other copies of herself. Across from my sister and I sat Zorana and Zolera, both quietly eating the food they’d brought for us. Sharing a glance with my sister, we both patiently waited until they’d eaten one of everything sitting on the platters. With the sudden shift in how they treated us, it wasn’t a chance we were willing to take. I hoped Lost was wrong about their plans, but better safe than sorry.
I still found it strange that Zorana hadn’t mentioned anything about Fine Tune’s sudden disappearance, and instead simply sat there chewing a piece of her meat. It took everything in my power to not start demanding things and asking questions, to try and figure out exactly what she had planned. The fact that all this was already set up, even though we’d been watching the door the entire time, unsettled me.
Maybe they’d always had it set up, and just waited?
What if the writing was some sort of obscure zebra magic she would use to kill us once we were fattened up? All the little possibilities of betrayal and murder, acts of revenge for killing her sons. Zolera was with us, though, and he wouldn’t let something like that happen. The giant stallion seemed far too nice to let another be killed.
What if that was a part of the act?
I shook my head and took a small bite of the meat they’d provided, feeling marginally safe after seeing the two of them eat it as well. I couldn’t let my imagination take over, or I’d come up with all sorts of unreasonable and far fetched ideas on whatever evil plans might come from the zebras. The meat wasn’t bad anyway, even if it didn’t look that great. The salt gave it a nice taste, and it had just the right amount of chewiness to it. It reminded me of bacon, and I took another bite.
I tried to eat as little as possible, while still being polite. Just in case.
“I wish your pink friend was here,” Zorana said quietly, between bites of her own serving. “Where’s she headed off to, again?”
“She’s contacting her ponies, to try and buy more time,” Lost answered. She looked around casually, glancing behind the two zebra and back past me. “So, why the sudden hospitality? When we met, you called my sister a walking disaster and said we willingly searched for destruction.” With a glare, Lost bit down on the bacon she’d been given.
“Again, I apologize,” Zorana stated. She leaned against the zebra stallion and looked at the cloth on the ground between us. “I found out I lost my sons this morning, and then had demands made of me by a stranger traveling with the two who killed them. Am I not allowed to grieve?”
“Mmm,” Lost groaned, still chewing agonizingly slowly. Rather than respond, she bit down on the bacon and ripped another small bite from it.
“I understand how you feel,” I said. “We’ve lost our family too, all we have left is each other, and our friends.” I set my own piece of bacon onto the plate. “Like your daughter.”
“As harsh as I am to her, she’s a good foal at heart,” Zorana admitted. She leaned down and ate the greenery from her plate in the second daintiest manner I’d ever seen. “It is such a shame she chooses to struggle against our ways. We’re not so bad, if you just take the time to look at things from both sides.”
“Ironic, coming from you. You insulted our faith that the Goddesses watch over us the first time we talked,” I reminded her. “We came here to fix the damage we’d done in the only way we knew how, not to start fights. Trust me, we’ve felt loss many times in our lives, from our father to our mother, to other friends we’d come to depend on. We don’t have a community like you do. We get by on what we can.”
My mouth felt so suddenly dry, and I looked down at the mug before me. Swallowing a few times, I pushed the desire back. I needed to hold out, just in case. I hadn’t seen them drinking the wine yet. I looked helplessly at Lost.
“Perhaps you should seek out a place then, somewhere more... permanent?” the shaman suggested. She looked over to Zolera and whispered something to him in her native tongue.
The stallion looked away and answered the same. He sounded almost as if he were pleading with her. Reaching down, he hooked the mug in his fetlock and lifted it. Still looking into the distance, he downed the entire thing in a single gulp.
I looked at my sister, to see if she’d noticed too.
“Are you offering us a home here?” Lost asked, looking at me and nodding slightly. Having seen Zolera drink of his, she looked at the cup of wine before her and scrunched her face up. Her horn sparked once, a tiny light flashing from the very tip. The cup didn’t move, and she clasped her hoof to the side of her head, crying out in pain.
I hooked the cup in my fetlock and lifted it up for her. “Here, sis,” I said, smiling weakly.
She took the cup from me and sipped the wine from it. “Thank you,” she whispered, not daring to look up from the mug.
“Sure thing,” I answered as casually as possible. I turned back to the two zebras. “We couldn’t stay here if we wanted to, we have obligations at home in Blackhoof. There are ponies we consider family there. All we want is to make amends for what happened, and let Xeno make her own choice on if she wants to come back with us.”
“We love her like a sister,” Lost added. “She’s walked through fire for us, and we’d do the same for her.” She pointed to the slash across my muzzle with one hoof, while the other pointed to the red spots on her neck where the splinterwolf bit her. “We fought to get here, because we care about her and owed her a debt. After what we did...”
“Thank you,” rumbled Zolera. “It means much.” He finally looked to us, and the corner of his mouth twisted up in a small, but genuine, smile.
“Xeno’s place is here with her tribe, as much as it would be nice to let her roam the Wasteland on her own,” said Zorana, after another bite of her food. “There’s more to our kind than you know, and probably more than she’s willing to tell you. We’ve lost countless members of our tribe to the wilderness, to raiders and hunters who see stripes and attack without thinking of allegiances. The stars do have a stake in what happens to my kind, whether directly or indirectly. Were you to stay a night, you would understand.” She looked to the sky, at the cloud cover. It was getting late, and if this dragged on any further, her words might become prophetic.
“Iz that why the tribe had moved from where Xeno had lasht known?” asked Lost. She took another drink of her wine and set the cup down. As she reached for another bite of her food, she yawned.
The dryness finally got to me. Without thinking, I grabbed my own cup and downed a good portion of the wine. It tasted horrible, but the burn killed off any aftertaste. I hated alcohol. Setting the cup down with one hoof, I grabbed some of the salted bacon-meat and took another bite. It was a never-ending cycle, but I could stand the dryness. The bite from the wine? Not so much. I tried to take small bites, hoping I could resist anything the zebras might have thrown at us. I prayed Lost was wrong, since they’d been eating the same as we had.
“Correct,” she answered. “The mall here was unused, but the enclosed space is safer for us. You can see, the land itself seems to be against us here.” She looked behind her and waved a hoof at the barren emptiness all around. “This isn’t natural, and many fear the stars may be responsible. I’ve yet to find evidence to tell them otherwise.” She turned to Zolera, prodded him in the side, and said something in her language.
He nodded, looking off into the distance.
I followed his gaze, and watched for what felt like ages. I couldn’t hear anything, until something jumped in the distance. My focus snapped back, but nothing nearby had changed in the slightest.
“Despite whatever you have againscht Rose, and whatever 'of the arum lily' means, can't you make a deal with her?” Lost asked, pointing a hoof. “She's a copy of a real pony, and she can make dozens, perhaps hundreds more. If money iz worthless here then what about labor? Her copies can work in exchange for your expertise. They can gather the supplies you needs as well as the ingredients needed for her chems. All without putting your tribe at rishk...”
Zorana raised a hoof to her chin and rubbed it several times, looking quite thoughtful. Something in the corner of my eye moved, just the tiniest bit, when I turned away from Zorana, I saw nothing but the tombstones and emptiness. “...admit I was hasty in my dismissal of her. Perhaps if we have a chance to talk,” she admitted after a pause.
Huh? What? I missed something, what was a dismissal of who? Maybe Lost was right. I gulped and took a deep breath. I just needed to focus.
I took another sip of the wine, and forced it down to keep up appearances. “Szo, what’s this Ziven thing about?” I asked, my curiosity finally piquing. “Arranged marriage, or... What?” I grabbed the bread and took a bite. It wasn’t as good as anything Marshmallow Sundae made, but it sure tasted better than two-hundred-year-old canned food. Once again I looked past the zebras, and casually glanced at the... umm... she called then cenotaphs? I glanced at the cenotaphs around us as I felt the weight of my hooves seem to lighten. I saw nothing, no ponies or zebras approaching.
“That’s a very long story,” explained Zorana. “He was a very intelligent colt, but somewhat demanding, so I understand why my daughter might not have been interested, but he’s calmed quite a bit since she left.”
“So it’s an arranged marriage or something?” I asked, cutting her off. It made little sense for Zorana to force her daughter into a relationship when she’d gone off and married a zebra who traveled from Roam, and not a member of their tribe. Right? That’s what she said, I think, and it made sense at the time. Shaking my head, I tried to focus. I was stronger than whatever was in the food. I just needed to keep conscious. Rose and Fine Tune would show up soon.
“Whatever gave you that idea?” Zorana shot, raising an eyebrow. She said something else, but I missed it.
Things suddenly seemed to be moving very slowly. I could hear words, but the zebra shaman’s mouth moved so slow, like she were speaking both my language and her own at once. The words didn’t sync up to how she moved. Her red-painted sigils started to shift around again, moving up and down her muzzle.
“What? I misshed that part,” I said. I think I said. I tried to say that, but all that came out was muttering gibberish. I looked around, but saw no zebras closing in. We’d been so focused on something from the outside, trusting too much in seeing that they ate what we ate.
Lost lay asleep, her head on her hooves and her eyes closed. She drooled slightly on the cloth. Apparently we weren’t as strong, stubborn, or prepared as we thought...
“Finally,” said Zorana.
I hit the steel slab hard, and everything went dark.
I shivered as a cold wind blew through the field. Lunch break was almost over, and I didn’t want to be late clocking back in again. Last time I was late, the forepony chewed me out for ten solid minutes. The clouds just looked so pretty, floating by in that cool, gentle breeze. I rolled onto my side and scooped up my trash into my lunch tin, then snapped it shut. I had a few minutes...
I lay in the soft grass, tail twitching gently, resting. The mornings’ work sucked, and unlike the engineer unicorns, us earth ponies spent our time doing the heavy lifting. What I really wanted was to work on the next project. Construction was nowhere near as fun as destruction, and the demolition job they had scheduled for next week was the perfect chance for me to smash steel hooves to wood beams and destroy some things without getting into trouble.
Wait, steel hooves?
I lifted my forehooves and looked at them, and at the clouds moving through the sky behind them. Both flesh. So why had I thought they were steel for a second there?
No matter. I dropped my legs back down and looked at the blue sky. The cloud above me looked like a phoenix. I laughed and pointed at it, where the head was. Whoosh! A phoenix, flying majestically through the sky.
Then the sky turned grey, dark. Had the pegasi called for a storm today? I reached over and grabbed my hardhat and tin. Putting the hat on, I jumped up and ran toward the building site.
“Guys! Guys! I think a storm’s rolling in!” I yelled, hoping they’d hear before it started raining. The house in the distance disappeared, replaced in the blink of an eye with a gigantic steel door, shaped vaguely like a gear. “Gu- What the?” I stopped short and looked around. We were building a house today, not much bigger than a cottage. So where’d this giant steel door come fr-
The clouds kept swirling closer, and the sky grew darker and darker. What little light broke through disappeared. The ground shook, and I struggled to keep from falling. Something fell and crashed behind me, and I jumped. Where’d the field go? We were-
The sky closed up so much all light disappeared. I couldn’t see my hoof in front of my face. “H-hello?” I asked nopony, silently praying I wasn’t alone. I didn’t do well alone...
I reached up to grab my hardhat and pull it off, but all I felt was my mane. My hoof hit hard. “Ow!” I yelped. I didn’t mean to hit myself. Where’d my hat go and why was I suddenly wearing boots? The click of a light turning on answered for me. Ear twitching at the hum of electricity powering the bulb above me, I stared at the glinting reflection of steel on my forehoof, completely encasing it.
“What the hay?” I demanded. And why was there a light above me? I looked around, searching for something familiar, but found myself in a cave. Lights clicked on in front of me, showing as little glowing orbs in the air in a straight line as far as I could see. They didn’t glow bright enough to show me what was around, just... Little glowing dots in the void. I found more behind me, trailing off endlessly as far as I could see.
They went on forever, getting smaller and smaller.
“Hello!” I yelled. “Anypony!” I trotted in little circles, not sure which direction to go. Anything outside my tiny sphere of light seemed a million miles away, like the lights were getting further and further away. It was just me, the ornate boots I somehow wore, and the cables connecting my bulb to the slowly disappearing bright spots in the distance.
I grabbed my right forehoof in my left fetlock and tugged. There wasn’t any reason for me to have these boots on, and they weirded me out. It was stuck, but after an eternity of twisting and pulling, I popped it off.
“Eep!” I yelled, falling back. “Okay, that was on way way way too tight.” I threw the steel boot away and pushed myself back up. “Hello hoo- Oh Celestia!” My hoof. It was. I turned and threw up on the floor next to me. I could see chunks of bone and hanging bits of flesh. It looked like I’d let an Ursa Minor use it for a chewtoy. I turned away and hid it out of sight. I couldn’t look. But. But I had to.
I pulled the hoof back out, only to find it encased in steel again.
The floor disappeared from under me, and I fell into the darkness. My little circle of light got smaller and smaller as I fell, legs flailing and tail whipping about. I tried to scream, but found I couldn’t. I just watched as darkness took over.
Lightning struck, and I slammed down onto something. “Ahh!” I yelled, my back cracking several times. I bounced, and landed with a thud on my side. Tears welled up in my eyes from the pain. It felt like- like something I couldn’t even describe. Something dancing on me? I didn’t know how to explain it, like my brain couldn’t even process it. I coughed, trying to get my lungs to start up again. Instead, I just covered my muzzle and the floor in blood.
A massive Steel Ranger walked over to me. With every step, the floor shook and I felt every broken bone inside me jostle around. His visor lit up, glowing an eerie, sickening shade of green. The armor itself began to grin, the edges of the muzzle lifting up and twisting the metal.
“Perfect,” said a stallion’s voice, sounding as though a terminal’s programming were talking. It wasn’t natural. The light from the armor’s visor flickered as a line appeared in the center, then expanded down through the muzzle and up over the housing for the mane. The sound of metal shredding filled the air, and Wirepony’s face split clean in half, vertically.
The stench of death filled the air, as a black mass of wires fell to the floor. Little pockets of twitching and writhing, white rotten flesh splattered down amid the wires. They twisted and writhed, wrapping around the armor’s legs and curling up around the body itself. The armor kept opening, splitting clean in two, and chunks of flesh that looked exactly like my hoof fell to the floor.
Every, single, piece. Every piece was my hoof. Over and over again. It looked identical, with the same chunks hanging open, the same flecks of bone. When they landed, they bounced about, like the floor was electrified.
I wanted to pull away. I needed to pull away. Whatever it had planned for me, I didn’t want any of it. I tried to move my legs, but none of them would move. My muscles didn’t respond. I could feel them trying, but no matter what I did, they couldn’t budge.
The severed hooves all righted themselves, and slowly trotted around me by hopping around. I found myself surrounded by a circle of them. In unison, they twisted to face me.
Wirepony’s armor finished splitting in two, and just melted. The glow of the visor pierced the sky, swaying back and forth as it sunk to the ground in a mass of molten metal. Then the wires lunged. They flew through the air and wrapped around me, cocooning me in thick, black, pulsing wires. I felt the breath forced out of me as they tightened and tightened.
The molten metal lifted into the air, oozing about all on its own. A silver blob undulating, rolling like water downhill toward me. A wave of it washed over me, and I flinched.
It burned. Every nerve ending I had fired off at once. I smelled burning flesh. My hooves tried to kick on their own, but nothing happened. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t escape. I just lay there while it encased me. Finally I regained control, and screamed. The burning steel reached my head, it covered my mouth.
I could taste it. I screamed until I couldn’t hear anymore, when the metal covered my ears. Then the world went black again, when it encased my eyes. My screaming stopped, not because I wanted it to, but because the metal had gotten inside me.
My eyes shot open and I stared in a mirror.
A mare looked back at me. She looked like me, but not like me. Her hooves were my hooves, steel and rubber, with the intricate etchings the Steel Ranger, Knight Praline, had traced around them. But the rest was... it had to be somepony else.
A visor covered her eyes, and her bottom jaw reflected the image back against the mirror with its polished finish. Wires wrapped around her legs, from the hooves all the way up to the armor that encased her chest. It was metal, I could tell, but transparent. I stared at the organs, veins pumping blood and a heart that beat so slow at first I thought it wasn’t moving at all. Other organs, ones I couldn’t identify by sight alone, twitched and moved around one another, with wires snapping around them.
It couldn’t. I couldn’t. A monster of flesh and steel.
I had a gun. I was a gun. It was mounted to me, to my side, with a half-dozen barrels of enormous size. They started to spin as I stared, unable to take my eyes off them. With deafening bangs, the gun erupted, firing bullet after bullet at the mirror. The mirror didn’t break, the glass didn’t shatter.
Instead, when they hit, I felt it. They ripped through me, tearing apart the clear armor that housed my still-beating heart. I screamed in pain, twisting the metal jaw in unnatural ways. The visor fogged up, and suddenly I couldn’t see myself in the mirror anymore. I just felt the blood run down my legs, channeled to the floor by the grooves between the wires.
Two stars floated onto the mirror in the corners, and the gun stopped firing. The two stars shifted around, swirling in little circles until they came together, right in front of the visor. Where eyes would have been, they stopped. For a second, they disappeared, only to reappear with black dots in the center. Several more times, the star-eyes blinked, and a smile appeared below them, this too made of stars.
“Wake up,” said the hollow, airy voice of a mare.
“I want to!” I screamed. “Please!” I begged, and tried to move forward, but my legs wouldn’t let me. I felt the muscles inside tense, pull against the steel that bound them to the floor. Nothing worked.
Black tendrils erupted from the glass of the mirror. Little spots of light, more stars like the eyes, filled them. They wrapped around my neck, my body. They pulled hard, and the floor shattered away. It fell to nothingness, until only the mirror and I were left.
I focused on the eyes, praying to the Goddesses above. Maybe the zebra superstitions were right, maybe the stars were waiting to grab my sister and me. They could lead us to oblivion.
They pulled me through the mirror, which shattered into millions of pieces around me.
Suddenly I floated through the skies, far above the ground. I could see the cloud cover below me, and even the ground below that. I could see Blackhoof, but not the Blackhoof I knew. Instead I saw a bustling city, with skywagons flying through the air pulled by pegasi, and troops running around a gigantic wall that housed what had to be the R.E.A. Academy. A ring of buildings in the very center, The Cinch, looked so out of place, but strangely perfect.
Then it stopped.
Time froze, the wagons in mid-air hung still, and the wings of the pegasi stalled mid-beat. The little ponies off in the distance didn’t move from their spot, hooves in the air and mouths open mid-sentence. A green speck of light appeared in the R.E.A. Academy, tiny and inconsequential.
Realization hurt, and I begged it to stop. The stars who pulled me here. The Goddesses around me... Well, the Princesses? They were still alive, weren’t they? Couldn’t they do anything to stop this? Instead, I hung in the air, some abomination of metal and meat, and watched that tiny, little, almost pleasant light grow.
It expanded slowly, getting bigger and taller, and the buildings all around it seemed to disappear. They weren’t blown outward, or thrown away by the force. It happened too fast, before even the metal and wood that held the Academy together could warp. Instead they just disappeared in a green envelope of light.
In the blink of an eye, the light took over half the city. I could see my home, somehow from this distance, I knew exactly which house it was. I saw earth ponies and unicorns staring at the light on the horizon, as it got bigger and bigger. They gasped, hooves over their mouths. But it was too late for them.
I had to watch.
Another explosion, at the edge of The Cinch on the opposite side of the Academy, bloomed to life. The Cinch buildings, all protected by the best of the best the Ministries and the government could provide, withstood the blast. Instead, it tore through residences and factories, shredding the city apart and creating a death-trap I remembered all too well.
Gravity started again, and the tendrils of the stars let me go. I twisted in the air, falling with hooves up, and staring into the heavens. Tears fell around me, as the stars moved in the sky and became an outline of Lost. Her tears fell around me, toward the explosions of the end of the world below.
“Goodbye, Hidden,” she whispered, her voice mixing with that of the stars.
All I could do was wave. My mane whipped around my head, and my legs flailed wildly. If I’d been a pegasus, I might have stood a chance, but as things were...
I hit the ground.
That didn’t stop me. It shattered the metal, the wires, all of it off me. I fell through the ground naked and afraid. Above me I saw an inversion of everything I knew. The buildings became deep pits that sunk far past what I could see. Ponies walked at super speeds around, though all I could see were their hooves striking the ground. The explosions disappeared a second later, and I seemed to float through an expanse of bright white, in so many ways the opposite of the bleak darkness I found myself in before.
Grabbing the air with my hooves, I only managed to clutch at the exposed organs. I wrapped my hooves around them, praying I could hold myself together. I clasped my mangled forehooves around my heart, felt it beat in my legs. It was weak, as if I’d stop at any second and this horrible existence would come to an end. If it did though, I didn’t know where I’d end up. Would I find myself in a dream world, or would I just stop altogether?
Maybe, if I was lucky, I’d end up with the Goddesses?
My hooves tightened around the pulsing muscle, and as much as I tried to stop them, they kept clutching, tighter and tighter. I clenched my eyes shut, to keep from watching the world fall up away from me. Was this what it felt like to be caught between life and death? A pony with a head and legs, but nothing between? Did I lose my eyes, and somehow learn to see without them, since they were metal just moments before?
Momentum faded away, and I found myself floating in the middle of the great white emptiness all around me. I spun in circles, kicking at the air around me as if I were swimming. I looked around frantically, trying to find something I could use as a landmark, to tell whether I was right side up or not. Above me, and below me, the city was gone. I was alone.
My hind legs began to float away, and no matter how hard I tried to tell them to kick, they just hung limp and drifted off. Only when my intestines were pulled taut, did they stop moving away. There I hung, with half my body so far away from me that I couldn’t even move it. I twisted around, letting my heart go to use my forelegs. It too floated off, completely disconnected and swirling in the sky. Little red lines came from it, droplets forming a river of blood that somehow kept me alive with no veins. I watched my lungs float off in a different direction, followed by a half-dozen other organs that separated into parts and decided to go their own way, with only the trickle of fluids between them keeping one another attached.
I felt like somepony had taken a saw to me, and let the pieces float into space. Funny enough, I didn’t feel any pain.
I looked at my hooves, surprised they hadn’t floated off. The steel was wrapped around both of them again, but there was more. No hooves were inside either, it was just hollow metal. My legs faded away, turning black and disappearing like so many of the Rose clones I’d killed off. When a new section disappeared, more metal grew from the hooves, until it connected where my chest used to be. I turned and looked at the pieces of me, floating away.
The red of my blood had turned black, into oil or something of the sort, a liquid that never belonged inside a real pony. One by one, pieces of me turned metal. My heart became a cylindrical pump, which didn’t beat, it just cycled liquid through a little piece that rotated inside. My lungs disappeared and became rubber, they moved slightly, but not in the way I expected them too. There wasn’t any expansion to pull air in, or contraction to push it out. I knew the feelings well, and I could feel that the new ones were wrong.
Just like the metal of Wirepony, everything was slowly replaced with steel and rubber. Once all the parts were, they flew together again, clanking as they connected, hissing steam where the seams were, and bolting against one another to become one peice. Then the mass of metal and rubber organs slammed into me with so much force my vision went out.
When I found my sight, I knew I wasn’t me anymore. I felt nothing, and wondered if I even had a real brain left. Lifting my hoof to my face, I looked in the reflection, and saw nothing but robotics.
“New look?” asked a familiar voice. “I like it.”
A pair of manticores sat in front of me. They looked like mirror images of one another, each with a chipped fang and a scar across their face. Both looked at one another, then to me. They inhaled deeply in sync with one another.
“No, you don’t smell like a lily,” said one.
The other shot the first a confused look. “Wait, what’s that even supposed to mean?”
I looked underneath me, half-expecting to find myself potted like I was in the last nightmare I had involving these manticores. This manticore. Whatever. Instead I saw the two manticores flying underneath me, still working as perfect mirrors of one another. They looked back, and waved. Behind them flew by dozens more, some complete, others with body parts missing and covered in blood. Somehow their wings and paws moved perfectly, even when they had no legs or bodies to connect it.
The ones with eyes stared at me accusingly. Weapons floated along with them, dozens of pistols and grenades, with little bullets spinning in the air after their wings. The little popgun I’d used when Persistence was empty stood out, striking something deep inside me. I knew all too well what it was, and I didn’t want to admit it, admit how easy it was. As the realization washed over me, the bodies became clothed, wrapped in the spiked makeshift barding of raiders.
Then they looked like me. Each whole and smiling, covered in blood and holding as many weapons I could get my still-flesh hooves on. She opened her eyes, but they weren’t green like mine. Instead, the magenta eyes of Amble stared at me. She floated toward me and whispered, “Murderer...”
I shook my head. It felt weird, like I wasn’t moving myself. Instead I could hear the whirr of gears and cogs spinning, powered by something deep inside me that didn’t feel right. The longer I moved, the worse the sound got. It overpowered everything else, and my head just kept spinning, in a giant circle far past what I felt I should be able to move.
Two massive paws grabbed onto the sides of my head and jerked it around forward. The first two manticores pointed up. “It’s time,” they said.
A wedding dress flew through the sky, with a veil on the front of it. From the bottom of the dress rained vials, pills, and syringes. They fell from the sky, and into the manticores’ waiting paws. With a flap of the forelegs, the flying dress twisted around and looked at me.
I saw Xeno’s face in it, then that of her mother’s. She laughed, but not happily. Her laugh was sad, distant. It was the laugh of a mare who knew too much loss.
Then everything went black.
When I woke up, the first thing I noticed was that both Lost and I were chained down to the ground. My heartbeat sped up as I noticed new shackles above the ones I’d had on my rear legs since U Cig, and new ones wrapped around my forelegs. Lost’s legs were all bound the same way, with chains running from both of us down to a little pit in the very center of the steel slab. Looking around frantically, I checked for ponies or zebras or anything that might have taken advantage of me while I was asleep. I pulled hard at the chains, causing pain to shoot up my legs.
To keep from hyperventilating and coming up with every horrible possible scenario, I decided to keep myself busy by revisiting my good old list of ‘things I never wanted to do again.’ Any distraction would help.
The last time I had updated it, I added not getting caught by slavers, which still ranked pretty high. The entry for going somewhere without any knowledge about it first got a little mark added, as a reminder to actually ask if anything might have changed since that information was given, because Xeno’s intel on her home was way off. For fun, I added a new line for ‘being drugged,’ with a little mark added to that one, because some drugs were actually really fun when they didn’t knock me out and give me horrific nightmares. Somewhere on the side was a note about trying to outlast a drug and it not working, but that part was pretty hazy.
I moved my fear about getting operated on by Praline up too, because I did not want to become any more metal than I already was. Alternatively, I could just accept my potential future and embrace becoming a murdering killbot. Wirepony did really good while it was around, so maybe I could continue that legacy. Eventually, in my old age, I’d bite the hoof off another pony, and the cycle would repeat.
I could add plenty more of my bad experiences to the list, but I felt I’d calmed down enough. Nopony had come to try and do anything terrible yet, so I could just... I could just relax...
We lay on the same steel slab we’d eaten our meal on before, but without any of the cloth, plates, or food. Lost lay next to me, her glasses on the ground next to her and her bandana twisted up around her head. On the bright side, her mane had started to grow back. It was short at the top, and looked incredibly fuzzy. Looking down from her slowly regrowing mane, I noticed that she was painted with red designs, almost like Zorana’s. The ones covering her legs, sides and face were different, and didn’t have the gentle flow I’d seen, or even the same designs as the zebras at the funeral. They were harsh and jagged, as if drawn on in a rage.
“You awake?” I asked, reaching over and nudging her. The chains clattered against one another loudly, so I just asked again. “Lost, you awake?” My leg was covered in the same designs, and the etchings in my steel hooves were filled in with red. Looking back, I saw exactly what I expected. My sides and rear legs were also covered in the designs, and once I crossed my eyes, I could see a line opposite the slash from the splinterwolves.
“Yes, shut up,” she said. Her eyes clenched shut and she grimaced. “My headache’s back.”
“I think we have bigger problems right now,” I said, raising the chain and clanging it against another. I fought back against a shiver. “How long have we been out?” I looked up at the cloud cover, but with the sun completely blocked out, I couldn’t tell what time it was.
“Too long,” she whispered.
“I want to apologize,” said the husky voice of Zorana. She trotted from behind us, over the gap where I chains ended, and in front of both of us. The painted sigils on her coat had been redone yet again, in a slightly altered version of the ones Lost and I both had on us. They had the same jagged form, but were obviously done with more dedication and less haste. “I adulterated the wine you drank, and it’s been a few hours. It’ll be nightfall very soon. I just wanted to wait for you both to get up so I could explain what was going on.”
Why hadn’t I seen her before? “You drugged us?” I demanded. “But I saw you and Zolera drink the wine and eat the food too!” More important matters rose in my mind. “Unchain me, now,” I snapped. Tugging on the restraints did nothing but jangle them around and make a lot of noise. And hurt.
“It’s not that easy. Just, listen,” said the shaman. She sat a short distance away, still on the steel. “First of all, we zebras have been drinking that wine a very very long time. It affects your kind a lot more harshly than it affects any of my tribe. Call it, insurance. Second of all, you brought my daughter home, and made sure my sons got to their final resting place. That’s the only reason I feel like I owe you an explanation at all.”
“Where are Xeno and Fine Tune!” I shouted. I wasn’t asking anymore. I needed to know exactly what was going on and where they were so I could beat this mare senseless, collect my friends, and head back to Idle.
“Don’t worry about them, my daughter is safe and so is your changeling,” she answered. “If you listen, everything will make sense, understand?”
Grinding my teeth, I nodded. Explanation, then beating.
“We moved because we began to lose members of our tribe to the wilderness. At first I felt it might be the stars, returning to get some sort of twisted revenge,” she explained. As she talked, she waved her hooves about in ways that seemed meaningless to me but probably mattered to her. “Xeno is correct, that we are superstitious, and it was decided, as a tribe, that we should move somewhere safer, where the stars could not grasp us. The mall became the perfect place, with a roof over even the walkways between homes. It was somewhere that gave protection even the clouds could not.”
“The stars don’t matter. Give me my friends back and let me go!” I yelled. I pulled on the chains hard and tried to get to my hooves. Halfway up, my legs gave out under me. They burned something fierce, like my bones were on fire and burning the muscles inside up.
“Shut up and listen or I’ll put a muzzle on you!” she shot back.
The threat quieted me, reminding me again of the other nightmare about being chained and muzzled. My tail slid under me, covering myself just in case.
“Our losses stopped when we moved, for a time,” she continued. “The stars take everything from us, slowly. Moving only delays it. As more and more of our members disappeared, a bargain was struck... The members of the tribe wanted to stop losing their families, and we began to give offerings. Everything we had, we gave to the stars. Sadaka worked, offerings to the sky, to the stars... It helped.”
“So, why are we here?” I asked, trying to sound as calm as possible.
“Because what little food we had wasn’t good enough,” she answered. “Our weapons and barding were not good enough. Still members were picked off, disappearing as the sun set and they returned home. I believe him to be a messenger from the stars.”
“Him who?” Lost asked. “If you’re being held hostage or something, just point Hidden at him. You said yourself she’s a walking disaster. Weaponize her!”
I shot Lost a glare, but looked back at the zebra. “It’s not a bad idea...”
Zorana didn’t look amused. “It will not matter, there have been those that offered to do the same, whom have never returned. This is what must be done.”
“So you’re sacrificing us to save yourself?” asked my sister. She glared at the mare with as much hatred as I knew she could muster. “You’re a monster.”
“You’re right. I am. I gave up all but the bare bones, I gave away our protections,” she said, hanging her head limply. “I gave our foals. I’m running out of things to give, to appease the skies above, and keep the stars from taking us. If I could, I would send my bravest stallions, my bravest mares, to stop the stars. But as I told you before, those that offered to go never returned, and it never stopped.”
“And so... We’re the next sadaka?” I asked, once again pulling against the chains. The pain didn’t matter, I just needed to get out so we could keep from being killed by whatever she believed in.
“Correct. This is the way of the world, and we do what must be done,” she said quietly. “I don’t do this because I hold you ill will. I do this because it is all I know, all my tribe has ever known. We cannot leave our homes, not again. The tribe has been here in this valley as long as we can remember, since the world ended. We built a community, and cannot let that go. It’s what defines us, and its all we have.”
“Xeno managed to leave and find something better. We care about her and she cares about us,” I said. I stomped a hoof, sparking steel against steel. Once again I tried to push myself up, only to find my legs refusing to cooperate.
“One zebra can do much, a tribe does not move so easily. If you stop whatever is happening, and return, we will hail you as heroes,” she said. She stood up and walked a few paces away. “If you wish to turn your anger on something, turn it on that which makes us do these things. The why is more important than the what. Your lives are a small price to pay to keep my tribe safe.” She turned away and walked off. “If you see your Goddesses in the afterlife, give them my regards.”
Fuck the greater good.
The sun sank behind us, disappearing behind the mountains and casting impossibly long shadows over the ground around us. They swept up from behind and darkness stabbed at the walls of the mall before us.
I looked over at Lost. “What now?”
“We wait? Rose and Fine Tune will be here to get us out of this,” she said, looking back at me. “I hope.”
I could only nod. We lay there, watching the shadows slowly overtake everything, until finally darkness fell completely, and the last light inside the mall disappeared.
With my saddlebags missing, and Persistence stolen from me, I had only my hooves to use to try and break free. I struggled constantly, pulling at the thick chains with all my might. Pain tore through my legs, and I knew I was pushing myself too much. A few hours’ rest after overdoing it for days wasn’t near enough. I couldn’t stop though, I was a strong pony and I knew it. I could break this.
Unless somepony like Praline made them, in which case I was more likely to rip my own leg off than break the chains away.
If I could get out, then I could save Lost too. She didn’t move much, but held her head with her forehooves. Several times she tried to cast some spell, any spell, to get us out of the situation. Her horn would light up, spark, and fizzle, leaving her crying in pain and holding herself afterward. Waiting for Fine Tune, Rose, or Xeno wasn’t something we could count on.
If Zorana managed to get us like this, she could get the others just as easily. She already had Xeno, and she’d pegged Fine Tune as a changeling even through his disguises.
Creatures around us started to howl, and I could see bloodwings in the distance flying through the night, looking for prey. While the knowledge we were close to ‘civilization’ helped, in that it would keep the animals and beasts away, I didn’t want to know how long until their curiosity overcame their desire to stay away from potentially armed opponents. We were easy kills at this point.
Unless that was what she wanted. The thought that the stars were to come and snatch us into the sky was absurd, but the dangers of the ground were just as bad. A stray manticore wandering nearby would rip us apart, or a bloodwing could appear and drain the blood from our veins in seconds. That happened to me once before, and I never wanted to experience something like that in my lifetime again. I’d sooner give up my blood for oil than feel the cold grip of the grim reaper pony wrap around me and turn me into a lifeless husk.
“Why aren’t they here yet?” I asked Lost. I tugged on the chains again, and bit back against the pain. I forced my forehooves underneath me, and pushed up. The chains held me down, but if I were to die, I’d die standing.
“I don’t know,” she whispered. Her breathing came in ragged gasps. She tried her magic again, but while her horn sparked and crackled, nothing came of it. She cried in pain, and clutched her head again.
The ground lurched underneath us, knocking me from my hooves and toppling me face first into the ground. I yelped in pain as my nose hit steel with the force of my whole body behind it. I felt blood, warm and wet on my snout. Whatever just happened, it broke my nose.
“Sis...” whispered Lost.
I looked over at her, smearing blood across my face.
She stared behind us, her eyes wide and her glasses hanging sideways on her face. “Dr-dr...” she whispered, pointing one chained hoof.
Something gigantic stepped over us, blocking out what little light came through the clouds. It jumped into the air, and massive wings spread out from its back, to catch the wind and gently glide it down onto the top of the mall. With steps both graceful and soft, it turned around and laid down on the roof. Gold-tipped claws dangled off the edge and tapped slowly. Rings rested at the finger joints, gigantic and covered in gems larger than my head.
Part of me wanted to be free just so I could grab them, steal them, and leave. I’d be a happy mare with a gemstone that big.
One arm held onto several objects, ranging from the trunks of dead trees and the wheels of motorwagons, to ancient, golden, pre-War bits that fell through his claws like garbage. Before they could fall to the ground, the gold-tipped claws of the other arm snatched them from the air and held them up. He stared down at them, counting, before adding them to its pile again. Massive chains made of steel, gold, and silver hung from around its neck, dangling and caught in the scales. Once all his possessions were back where they belonged, he looked back up from them, directly at us.
A deep voice, so much deeper than even Zolera’s, rumbled out a laugh. “This is the offering they leave?” he asked, flashing teeth taller than I was with every word. “I haven’t had pony in a long time. This’ll be quite the treat.” Glowing golden eyes looked back and forth between my sister and I. The fangs reappeared as he smiled. The pointed muzzle lifted up, and he looked into the distance behind.
“Lost... Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” I asked. I didn’t know whether to be terrified, or drooling.
She nodded, her jaw nearly on the ground.
The green-scaled head tilted back down, and an eyebrow raised. He licked his lips, slowly and deliberately. “What’s got you so surprised, my little ponies? Never seen a dragon before?”
Footnote: Level Progress: 50%
“Lost, it has treasure.”
“And it’ll probably kill us.”
“But it has treasure!”
“Yes, and it’s still alive. Do you think it’ll just offer it up?”
“Maybe. But treasure!”
“Are you gonna just ask nicely?”
“It might work...”