“Keep her in your sights. Keep a level head. Don’t let anything slow you down. Stay together. You’ll make it through. I promise.”
The only thing on my mind, in the middle of a certain death situation, was treasure. Now, I liked to think of myself as a normal, sane pony. I did a lot of things in the stupidest way possible, like jumping from a third-story floor onto a monster that wanted to eat me, but I was normal most of the time. So why was it that the only thing I could think of when looking at my first dragon, a monster bigger than me by a whole lot, bigger than our motorwagon, and as big as several buildings I’d seen recently, was treasure?
I guessed my brain had finally just checked itself out and fucked off. Thanks brain, I could handle this myself. I’d just break free, grab all those beautiful gems, snap the gold rings from his claws, and then I’d run as far and as fast as I could and get away.
I laughed the kind of laugh nopony should ever have to laugh. The whole situation was far beyond hilarious. Of course it was! We brought Xeno back home to give her brothers a proper burial. We brought her home for closure, because it was the right thing to do. I giggled a little, resting my head on the cold steel slab. Of course this would happen. Why didn’t I think of the worst and expect a dragon to swoop out of the- Wait I did think of this, back when we were driving through the mountain pass.
“Hah!” I shouted, stifling the laughter.
Lost, meanwhile, lost it. The irony of it wasn’t lost on me, and I just kept laughing. She stared up at the dragon, her eyes wide as saucers, with one eyelid twitching. Every few seconds her horn sparked, as she tried desperately to cast something. Though she was obviously in pain, and her horn was darkening more and more each time she tried to cast, she didn’t stop.
“Just stop, sis,” I said between giggles. “Maybe, hahaha, maybe we can reason with him.” I slammed my forehoof down, clanging steel against steel. It was fucking hilarious.
“Oh fuck. Oh shit,” she whimpered. “We’re going to get eaten.” She twitched, screaming and trying to cast something again. “Pleasepleaseplease don’t let us get eaten.” Her senses came back and she looked at me. “Hidden! What do we do?”
“Mister Dragon?” I asked, looking up at the monster and trying to put on my cutest face.
“Mmm, yes?” asked the dragon in his low, rumbly voice. He lay on the roof now, having settled down and gotten comfy. His massive tail swayed behind him, past his folded wings, as if he were bored. He slowly tapped one set of claws impatiently on the hoard of items held in them. His other arm propped his head up, with his claws dug tight enough against his skin to draw deep indents into his flesh. He watched the two of us, a smile across his muzzle.
Goddesses, his teeth were gigantic.
“Any chance you’d let us go?” I asked.
He lowered his arm and grabbed the edge of the mall. Leaning forward, he slid from the building and walked toward us. His movements were slow, weaving back and forth gently as he walked on three legs. With every step he took, caps, coins, and all sorts of other little trinkets fell from the gaps between his scales.
When he got close, he pressed his nose directly against my broken one. It hurt, but the snort of his hot breath through his nostrils made me think less of it. It smelt of burning flesh, a smell I was all too familiar with, since I’d been on the receiving end of a burning several times before. His golden eyes crossed and he looked at me. “No,” he said, then blew a puff of thick noxious smoke in my face.
“Hidden!” Lost shrieked. Chains rattled as she grabbed onto me. “Back! Off!” she shouted, the fear she’d had seconds ago gone, replaced by indignation that the dragon would do something so terrible as breathe smoke at me.
The dragon growled. It started low in his throat, very deep and ominous. He leaned back, still growling, and laughed. “It’s not often they give me two at once,” he said. “They must be desperate. Oh well, more for me.” His claws dug into the ground, cutting deep grooves across the dirt, and he picked up all the little pieces he’d dropped. One by one, he stuffed them back to their spots with the tips of his claws, and dropped the remaining dirt.
“What’re you going to do with us?” Lost asked. Her voice wavered, and she pulled herself as close to me as the chains would allow.
“Whatever I want. You’re mine,” he answered. Casually, he looked down at the ball of things wrapped up in his claws. “Just like all of this. Just like everything.” He stood high on his hind legs, stretching his wings out. “So, would you rather come living, or dead? I’ll be taking you one way or another.”
“We’re not going with you,” I shouted. Of course, I had no plan, or weapons, or way to get out of these chains. So really, everything I said was empty, but dammit, I had faith that something would go right.
“Yes, yes. I’ve heard that before,” he said boredly, settling back down on his haunches. “You’ll fight and you’ll struggle and in the end you’ll give in and just accept your fate. I’m bigger and stronger than you. So, be good little ponies, and I’ll add you two to my little town.”
“And, and if we’re not?” asked Lost. She shivered, but from the corner of my eye, I could still see her trying to cast a spell.
“You live until I’m hungry,” he said, matter-of-factly.
That nearly stopped my heart. He would eat us then? That just wasn’t fair. We’d done what we were supposed to, and this was our thanks? Fuck the Wasteland and fuck the ponies and zebras who caused it.
He blinked slowly and smirked. “I’m kidding, I don’t eat ponies,” he said. “Much too chewy. I prefer something with a crunch to it.” To demonstrate, he plucked one of the gems from his rings and tossed it in the air. Seconds later, his massive jaws clamped down on the jewel and he swallowed.
Both Lost and I breathed a sigh of relief. The fact that he wouldn’t eat me whole gave me a strange sense of relaxation. There weren’t a lot of worse fates than being eaten alive and digested. I glanced at my hoof. I’d had enough of me eaten, already.
“Why?” I asked. Stalling was the only thing I could think of. Hopefully the few seconds it would take to explain would buy us what we needed for Lost to come up with a plan. Or for the others to come get us. Hours must have passed while we were knocked out. Were they waiting for a written invitation?
“Why not?” he asked back.
That didn’t go as planned.
“We’ve already been slaves, owned by another,” Lost said firmly, “We’re not going back to that again.” She twisted a hoof, while shaking the shackle against it with her other one. If only they were so easy to get out of, but I’d tried that already. They never budged.
“Slaves?” he asked. After a moment, he leaned back and laughed. “Oh, you’re serious!” Still chuckling, he wiped a tear from the corner of one eye. “I don’t think of you as slaves. You’re just mine. There’s no reason to complicate it.”
Okay, so the dragon was stupid?
Fine Tune flittered into view behind the dragon’s leg. Thank the Goddesses. He held a holed hoof up to his mouth, motioning for me to be quiet. Behind him was Xeno, crouched down and walking in a nice wide circle around the dragon to keep from being noticed.
Lost saw it too, but said nothing. She kept twisting at the shackle, trying in vain to get it off. Her horn sparked again and again as she tried to force a spell out. “What did you mean by town?” she finally asked, forcing the words out over her strain.
“You’re not too bright, are you?” he asked.
From the side opposite Fine Tune and Xeno, I heard the muffled ‘fwump’ of a grenade rifle firing. The dragon heard it too. He snapped his head to the side, but it wasn’t enough time. The grenade hit and exploded. He roared in surprise more than pain, his voice echoing into the night. Trinkets, caps, bits, and all manner of things fell from his side where the grenade went off. He dropped his collection of items to the ground and spun around, looking for the source of the grenade.
“Where are you, you little pest?” he demanded, circling to the side. His tail swished back and forth as he stalked away from us, until he passed from sight. “Don’t go anywhere, now,” he muttered.
Fine Tune and Xeno ran as fast as they could to our sides.
“Thank the Goddesses, what took you so long?” Lost asked frantically.
“Worry later, chains now,” I said. We could explain at any time. But if he got back soon, we’d all get caught. Then he’d just have more for his little ‘town.’
Fine Tune just glared, his eyes dimming for a second, before lighting back up. He stabbed the lockpick section of his leg into the shackles and started twisting.
Xeno tossed down a bag, her eyes wide. “Youare marked for death,” she said as she looked at the lines painted upon our coats. She shook her head. “Your things. Iam sorry for taking so long.” As she talked, she grabbed things from the bag and passed them to us. To Lost she gave Loyalty, and she pulled my battle saddle out as well. Her satchel was amazing, to hold all that. While I was still chained up, she helped to pull it on and latch it in place.
“Thanks Xeno,” I said. “What do you mean, marked for death?” Persistence was already attached, and I kicked the lever to make sure she was loaded. I turned to look for the dragon.
Fine Tune kept working. When one shackle fell to the ground, free of Lost’s hoof, he moved to the next without a single chirp.
“The sigils on you, they are sacrificial marks,” she answered. “As I said, sadaka.”
I smiled at the mare. “Thanks for the warning, too bad we wasted it. What’s the plan?” I asked.
“Well, run for our lives or kill it?” Lost asked. She raised a hoof and scratched at the paint on her foreleg, but it didn’t come off.
In the distance, the dragon roared and breathed fire. It lit the night in a terrifying green that reminded me far too much of balefire. The sounds of battle followed, as Rose launched another of the grenades at him. The dragon’s body muffled the explosion. He roared again, and gave chase.
The ground shook with every step he took as he chased Rose. I could feel it in my legs. It hurt. I didn’t let the others see, though. I turned to Xeno. “Bring our armor and bags, too?” I asked.
“You wish me to put a bag in a bag, Hiddenpony?” she asked. “I could not fit your armor or jacket, but I brought what I knew you would want.” She pulled out a bottle from her satchel, one I recognized in an instant. She popped it open and passed me one of the tablets of Buck.
“Thanks,” I said, over the sound of another grenade exploding. I looked over at Fine Tune, who was working on the last of Lost’s shackles. “Hurry!” I snatched the Buck from Xeno as politely as I could snatch something, and tossed it into my mouth.
“Got anything for me?” asked Lost. She held Loyalty in her fetlock, and rubbed at her hind leg with the free one. “I’m pretty much useless without my magic, right now.”
“I didnot, Lostpony. The ingredients are rare,” she answered. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” she answered. The final shackle fell from her leg, and she jumped away. Her breathing was heavy, but things were finally looking up. She spun around to face the field where Rose and the dragon fought.
The two of them kept running. The dragon breathed fire at her whenever she got into his sight, but she was faster and smarter than him. For being a hundred years old or so, she was very spry, and managed to weave back and forth between his legs whenever he caught up with her. Grenades were fired up at his belly, but when they exploded, all he did was yell and flap his wings in frustration.
Dragons were supposed to be tough, I knew that. But Rose had good aim; she hit the same spot repeatedly. Despite that, she didn’t seem to be slowing him down.
“Xeno, let me see your rifle,” I demanded. Rose was a bitch, and she was the reason we were stuck here. I’d be damned if I didn’t help a pony over a dragon, though.
“What’re you going to do, Hidden?” asked Lost. She took a few steps back, closer to the mall.
“Shoot him in the eye,” I answered. Tough skin or not, eyes were always a weak spot. I took the rifle Xeno offered and trotted closer from her, to the very edge of my chains. “Fine Tune, back legs first,” I suggested. I laid down and stuck my legs out, and held the gun to my shoulder.
The scope didn’t help much. It was dark and they were moving. Why he didn’t just fly off and breath fire on her from the air, I didn’t know. Maybe it wasn’t his style? I waited and watched.
Grenade after grenade flew into the air at him. He batted some away with his claws, swiping at her mid-way. She ducked and rolled, then got back up and fire again. Really, she deserved respect for going hoof to claw with a dragon and not getting splattered in the first five seconds. It wouldn’t last though. I could tell from where I lay that the fatigue of running circles around him was quickly catching up to her.
His mouth opened. Green death flared from it again, lighting the entirety of the field up, from the mountains to the mall. His golden eyes were open wide, reflecting the baleful fire. My aim wasn’t the best when doing it manually, but I had the biggest target I could ever wish for.
I pulled the trigger.
The fire died. The dragon roared, letting out another torrent of flame as he did, and clutched his eyes with his claws.
Thank the Goddesses.
Rose ran for us.
I could feel the shackles on my hind legs, the ones the zebras put there, fall off one after the other. Fine Tune did exactly what I needed, but I didn’t have time to wait. The Buck was already kicking in. I could take on a dragon. I could run up onto him and smash his Goddesses-damned face in. I grinned and tossed the rifle away. “Thanks, Xeno,” I shouted.
The second the shackles fell off my forelegs, I took off running. A little pony in my mind said this was a bad idea, but she could deal with it all later. Right now I had a dragon to deal with. I moved as quickly as my burning legs would let me. Halfway there I passed a terrified-looking pink pony, another one I needed to smash to bits. Her time would come, but first I had a dragon to kill.
I bit down on my battle saddle and fired repeatedly. The bullets hit, I could tell, from where the gold scales on his side sparked from getting hit. He didn’t even notice. Really, this was one of my stupidest decisions, and another item to add to my list when it was all over.
If I survived.
The dragon looked down at me with his one good eye, and laughed. When I got close enough, he spun around and slammed his tail into me.
I went flying through the air, back the way I’d come. I landed behind my sister and the others, and tumbled several times, head over hooves. When I came to a stop, they all just stared at me.
“That was stupid, even for you,” said an out-of-breath Rose.
“I don’t see you with a better idea,” I said, wheezing. He’d knocked the air, and nearly everything else, out of me. I pulled myself onto my hooves and kicked my reloading lever. “So, plan then?”
“Go back inside, lock the door,” said Lost. She looked back at the dragon, who was slowly approaching.
He walked the same way Zorana did, with the knowledge that he was in control of the situation and nothing could stop him. His head bobbed side to side slightly, opposite his tail. He looked completely uninjured, and his glowing golden eye held nothing but rage. “Really, this would be much easier if you just came with me like good little ponies,” he yelled.
“If we go inside, he rips the roof off and takes or kills the entire tribe,” explained Xeno. “My mother was quite stern. You would be taken, and they would be free again.” She turned to look at the dragon, just like the rest of us.
He’d stopped, and was picking up the items blasted free by Rose’s grenades. As he picked each thing up, he put them back where they belonged in his scales and then collected the rest, the bigger things, into his claws. “Enough games,” he snapped. “Come. Now. All of you.”
When we didn’t walk over to him or offer ourselves up, he just growled.
I fought the urge to run in and get myself hurt again. The Buck might have been a bad idea, but I stood by it. I just needed one weak spot where I could run in and start breaking him. Snap a wing and ground him? Go after his eyes again? I had no way of getting up there. My legs tensed under me, trying to push off to go attack. One weak spot was all I needed.
Xeno walked forward. “Iwill go,” she said.
“No, I want all of you. Especially that one,” he bellowed, pointing a claw at Rose.
“Oh fuck you!” shouted the pink mare.
“That won’t work anyway, Xeno,” said Lost. “What reason does he have to not take us all? He could simply grab you then kill us and take the corpses.” She moved closer to Xeno, stepping in front of her. “We’re in this together. No matter what.”
“How cute,” rumbled the dragon as he stalked forward. “You’re right though. I’ll have you, dead or alive, all at once. Best just give in.” He opened the eye I shot him in. Though it was bloodshot, it didn’t look to be damaged, and glowed just as brightly as his other eye. “Now!” he shouted. He started for us again.
Mental note: his eyes were not weak spots.
Ignoring the desire to run and hit him as hard as I could, I listened to the smarter part of my brain. “Run!” I shouted. I twisted to the side and took off toward the motorwagon and the Solaris Energy building. Lost and the others followed, and together we made for the corner of the mall. If we could just get out of sight for a second.
“Fine, play. This is good exercise,” he rumbled. A huge gust of wind followed, as he flapped his wings and took off into the air.
This was a terrible idea and I wished Lost had something better.
“Plan? What’s the plan, Hidden?” Lost demanded. She ran up beside me, and stared me in the eyes as we rounded the corner of the mall.
The far side of the mall wasn’t any different than the one we’d come from. All around us was emptiness and markers for graves that belonged to zebras more than likely taken by this monster. So, they really weren’t full of corpses. At least I didn’t need to worry about feral ghouls any- Why was I worrying about that? There was a dragon after me!
“You’re the plan pony, Lost!” I answered. “I’m running on adrenaline here. My plan?” I jumped over a grave marker. “My plan! Hide! Buy time!”
“Better than standing in the way of flames,” added Rose.
Fine Tune chirped and took to the air. He flitted back and forth around us, then disappeared into the darkness of the night. A second later, the dragon roared as green fire not so different from his own slammed into his face.
“There, a few extra seconds!” I yelled. I prayed to the Goddesses that the poor changeling was alright. That little dive-bomb trick of his was nice, but if it got him killed I’d never forgive myself.
“If he doesnot catch us, what will happen to my tribe?” asked Xeno.
We kept running, dodging around the makeshift grave markers. Rose reloaded her grenade rifle on the way, and kept it aimed back at the dragon as he flew through the air trying to catch Fine Tune. “Who cares, they sold us out,” she said. “Let them die, then we take whatever I need for Idle and go home.”
The changeling did a good job staying out of his reach. While the dragon was big, Fine Tune was fast, and blended into the dark all around him. He zipped back and forth, dodging gouts of flame and slashing claws. After a dodge, he’d erupt into fire of his own and slam into the dragon. He kept aiming for the eyes, which did good to keep him busy. A dragon that couldn’t see, couldn’t chase.
On the ground, the distance to the next corner and where we’d parked the wagon felt like miles. We made it to the cracked and broken road, and things went faster. Wreckage of old wagons littered the ground, with skeletons of ponies caught in the last moments of the Equestria, locked forever in the same place they died. The only sounds were our panting as we ran, and the screaming roars of the dragon up above.
If any of the zebras inside thought it was still ‘the stars’ that kept taking their kin, they were either willfully ignorant, or stupid.
“Sorry, sorry,” I whispered, kicking my way through a skeleton and sending its skull skidding across the lot. I knew I should revere the dead, for they didn’t choose their fate, but I just didn’t have time.
“Plan yet?” Rose asked.
“Hide? Big guns? Make him eat the motorwagon and blow its engine?” offered Lost, between gasps for breath. “I’ve never dealt with dragons before.” She jumped through the shattered remains of a skywagon, ducking under one of the support beams that still bridged two sections. “They’re all supposed to be dead or something!”
“Well, that merchant-” I started, jumping over a chunk of engine. “Said there was a dragon with treasure back home, remember?” My legs hurt from running. I’d aggravated old injuries at the worst time. After this little adventure, I was taking a vacation.
“He was lying Hidden!” she shouted.
“What happened?” asked Xeno. She jumped the same engine chunk I did, with considerably less effort.
Before I could answer, the sky lit up in brilliant green with a deafening roar. Flames burst before us, tearing a line through the lot and setting everything ablaze. Even so far ahead of us, it burned hotter than anything I’d felt in my life. I’d been lit aflame by magic catching alcohol on my face, and by incendiary grenades. I’d had flamers pointed at me and let loose with abandon. None of them burned like dragonfire, and even from a distance, I worried I might start to melt.
Lost reared up and turned away. She screamed, spun and ran behind me. After what she’d been through, I didn’t blame her. We all stopped, and I shielded my sister from our greatest foe.
“Come on!” Rose yelled.
The flames died as quickly as they’d started, with help by Fine Tune bombing the dragon’s side once again. Everything he’d scorched still burnt, lighting things up around us like some sort of macabre celebration of death. Shadows from the skeletons danced all around us, twisting in the green light of the burning remnants of a world that didn’t exist anymore.
Fine Tune and the dragon toppled sideways, as the changeling finally managed to land a good hit on the monster. It only stopped him from breathing flames though, and with a powerful flap of his wings, the dragon threw the changeling away.
Fine Tune sailed through the air, his eyes wide and hooves flailing. Though his wings flittered, he couldn’t stop himself from falling. Flying past us, he slammed into the wall of the mall, hard enough to crack his carapace in several places and splattered his green blood onto the sides of the mall. With a groan-like chirp, his eyes went dark.
The dragon laughed. “Finally,” he said, his wings flapping gently and lowering him from the air. The ground shook as his claws slammed down. Caps and bits clattered to the ground, clinking softly as metal hit the shattered pavement. He started after us, sending the burning wreckage bouncing in the air with every weighty step.
Fine Tune fell to the ground, and without hesitation, we turned toward him. Lost said we were in this together. She meant it. Thick or thin, we weren’t leaving a single member to get taken or killed by that monster. I knew just how important it was that we stayed together. No treasure was worth the death of my friends or my sister.
“Grab him!” yelled Lost.
Rose tossed the grenade rifle into the air, her telekinesis disappearing and instead wrapping around the changeling’s body. She lifted Fine Tune’s limp form from the ground and pulled it through the air after us. He was breathing, but only barely. Blood trickled onto the ground, seeping from the shattered sections of his natural armor.
I grabbed Rose’s gun from the air with my teeth and kept moving. We only had to go a short distance before we reached the corner. That wasn’t near enough time to outrun a dragon that could travel the same distance we could in a fraction of the time.
“Dodge him,” Lost yelled. She took a sharp turn around one of the flaming wagons and got behind it.
As we ran past, following her lead, we split apart and each dodged behind another one. It became somewhat of a game, moving from spot to spot like I’d done in Idle. Behind us, wagons and skeletons flew through the air and came crashing back down. Fire burst through the lot, but missed us by inches. One blast nearly caught Xeno, but through her freaky luck, she managed to roll behind a wagon by the skin of her hooves.
“One at a time!” yelled Lost. She pointed a hoof to the corner of the building, where I could see the Solaris Energy building just around the corner. “Go, go!”
Rose went first. She ran from her cover.
“You!” shouted the dragon. He reared back and opened his mouth.
Before the fire could come, I slung Rose’s grenade rifle up and fired. Holding the gun in my hooves and not with a battle saddle felt more awkward than usual, given the size of it, but the mechanics were the same. I pulled the trigger.
With a muffled ‘fwump,’ a grenade flew through the air. It sailed, almost gracefully, through the flame-scorched lot and landed right in the dragon’s mouth. He’d better not spit it out.
It exploded, right as Rose rounded the corner and pulled Fine Tune past.
The dragon leapt into the air, roaring in pain. Eyes? Not weak. Mouth? Perfect target. Fire filled the sky as he bellowed and writhed. The flapping of his wings blew the burning wreckage toward us, and Lost’s plan fell apart. We turned and ran as fast as we could. Xeno brought up the rear, but both her and Lost quickly gained on me. I pushed myself, ignoring the old wounds that fought to slow me enough to get captured. They both ran past me, with Lost slowing to offer help.
“Go!” I yelled. “I’m fine.” I dropped to the ground after rounding the corner, feeling like I couldn’t move. Too much, too fast, and my legs were burning. I swore to never take another Buck in my life, if I could avoid it. Oh who was I kidding, I’d use it at the next chance I got. I reloaded the grenade rifle and aimed at the sky.
Seconds dragged on like hours while I waited for the dragon to circle around the corner. I expected to die, either by being eaten or burnt to cinders, but that’d be okay. The others were nearly to the Solaris building. I could hear Lost yelling something to the others, about engines and explosions, but I couldn’t make it out over the pounding in my ears. Damn Buck, a blessing and a curse.
Almost silently, the dragon approached. Were it not for the shadow of his legs cast by the fires of the wagons around the corner, I’d have thought he’d given up. For such a big sonuva bitch, he moved quietly when he needed to. He poked his head around the corner, near the roof, and looked more over the mall than around it. He looked side to side, before resting his sights on the Solaris building.
L.A. and Rose were gone, disappeared into the Energy station. Xeno though, still stood at the door.
The dragon smirked and dropped his bottom jaw. When he inhaled, I fired.
Following the muffled fwump, the grenade arced through the air and caught right in his mouth. I didn’t wait for the explosion. The second the grenade left the barrel, I scrambled to my hooves, dropping the gun, and broke for the building. The grenade went off once I’d turned around, and the explosion sent me skidding across the road.
I rolled onto my side as the dragon roared in pain and smashed the corner of the mall away. I forced myself forward, pushing through the pain. The second I got to the wall of motorwagons, sitting in their parking spots, I ducked and rolled. Persistence dug into my side, and I felt the lever underneath bend inward and dig into my back leg.
Fire lit the sky up, turning night to day for just a moment. “You little animal!” yelled the dragon, before letting out another blast of fire. The wagon atop me burst into flame, and the deck of it began to sag.
I swore under my breath and forced myself to my hooves. Ducking under the axle, I scrambled away from the slowly melting engine block. I ran for Xeno, who held the door to the station for me.
“Hurry, Hiddenpony!” she yelled, waving a hoof to beckon me faster.
I ran as fast as my legs would carry me, under the awning and out of sight of the dragon.
It didn’t stop him. He smashed several of the wagons, including ours, into the air and pulled his claws through the awning. It shredded to pieces and fell around me. With one massive lunge, he drove himself into the station.
I jumped in at the same time, a hair ahead of him, and slid in on chipped tiles like the ones at the mall across the street. I barely had time to see the surroundings, with a half-dozen aisles of empty shelves and a counter covered in garbage before the ceiling collapsed.
Everything went black, and all I could hear was the stone and mortar breaking apart and falling in on us. Screams of pain and fear echoed, but were overtaken by the smashing of bricks into the ground.
I huddled against the counter, praying to the Goddesses and to Xeno’s luck that we’d be safe, and not killed by the building falling in on itself. Bricks and chunks of stone landed on me, and I yelled in pain. I could take it. I could. I smashed my hoof against the counter, to remind myself I’d been through worse. Blood ran down my face and back, soaking my coat, but none killed me.
The dragon kept attacking, breathing fire and roaring in frustration. After an eternity, his roars silenced, and the ground shook. The sound of beating wings filled the air, and one final roar echoed through the night, distant, but still terrible.
I found myself in a small pocket, caught between rubble and the wall of the counter, with my rear legs pinned down by a support beam from the ceiling. I fought for breath, annoyed at just how cliché it was to be trapped under a wooden beam, but I’d be okay. I couldn’t feel anything broken, and I’d come to know the feel of a broken bone far too well. “Everyone okay?” I asked, weakly. I fought the urge to just pass out.
“Mostly,” answered Lost. “Fine Tune’s hurt, bad.” She sounded close, but her voice was forced. She must have been hurt badly too.
“Rose?” I asked, praying again.
“Where’s my gun?” she asked. At least she was alright. Flickers of light filtered in through the broken stones nearby, casting long lances of light through my little safe zone. “Ow, fuck!” she shouted. “Where are you?”
“Xeno?” I yelled, having not heard anything from her yet.
When no answer came, I yelled again, “Xeno!”
“I think we’re down a zebra,” Rose said quietly.
We sat in a small clearing, right in front of the ruins of the energy station. Wrecked wagons lined the lot, and the awning pieces lay all around us. Rose had lifted the rubble off my legs, and I took care of digging myself the rest of the way out. It took quite a while to get enough room open that I could crawl out, but I was just lucky to not be crushed.
After I got free, we dug out a bigger spot so Fine Tune’s unconscious body could be lifted out with magic, and then Lost crawled out herself. She tried to hide it, but I caught her limping and favoring her right hind leg as she crawled out. When she got into the clearing before the station, she sat down and covered her leg with her forehooves.
I stared off at the clouds in the sky, praying to the Goddesses. I’d looked, as hard as I could, but hadn’t been able to find Xeno. The second everypony else was accounted for, I turned the station upside down. There wasn’t a single trace of her, anywhere. Not a strand of her mane, nothing. It left a hole in my heart, but maybe, just maybe, she’d been taken and not killed.
I hoped, at least.
Rose walked over to me, her breathing ragged. She’d spent the past ten minutes sealing up the cracks in Fine Tune’s carapace. It took a lot out of her. Healing something she wasn’t used to couldn’t have been easy, but the former Ministry of Peace pony didn’t stop until she’d gotten every single crack taken care of and he was back in stable condition.
The changeling’s eyes were still dim, but he seemed alright for the moment. I knew how he felt, having been thrown into my share of walls as well. He stayed a changeling, and just laid his head against my sister’s lap.
“So, how does it feel having a building fall on you?” asked Rose with a raspy laugh. She forced a grin, then slumped down onto her haunches and started to heal me.
“Same as every other time,” I answered. “This is far from the first time I’ve been on the losing end of a building’s destruction. How about you?” I rubbed both my forehooves against my nose, holding it in place as she worked her magic around it and fixed the damage. I could feel, deep down inside, the strange-but-pleasant knitting feeling of flesh mending back together.
“I’m alive, aren’t I?” she asked, smirking. She moved her horn down and started on some of the smaller cuts and bruises I’d gotten. The process took only a few minutes, before she’d healed up the majority of my wounds. “There. Done.” Exhausted, she collapsed onto the ground and groaned.
I looked at Lost. “Plan?” I asked.
L.A. now sat on her haunches, leaned back against the collapsed remains of the awning. Idly, she petted the changeling’s head while he rested over her hind legs. “I have no idea, Hidden,” she said softly.
Fine Tune shifted slightly, chirping and looking up at her. The bright spots on his eyes flashed brighter, before dimming once more.
Lost winced when he moved, groaning quietly. She was covered in green blood, which matted her coat down and made her look almost alien. At least it covered up the sacrificial markings painted on her.
“Where’s my gun?” Rose asked again, now that we weren’t in immediate danger.
“Over there, somewhere,” I answered, waving a hoof blindly toward the edge of the mall. It hurt to move, at all, but all I could think about was finding the strength to get up and go get Xeno back.
“Alright, let’s get our shit, and go kill something,” Rose says. Every word came forced, as she gasped for air between them. She dragged herself to her hooves and walked off. She seemed more pony than clone, now, having proven herself. Maybe she wasn’t just a blackmailing bitch, after all.
“Good plan,” I said. With every ounce of strength I could muster, I pulled myself up to standing and limped over to Lost. I offered her a hoof. “Now or never, sis. Xeno’s not going to wait for us forever.”
“Alright. We can do this... right?” she asked, taking my hoof and pulling. She patted Fine Tune once, and he moved right away. With my help, she stood, leaning hard to the side and lifting her right back leg ever so slightly.
“We don’t have a choice,” I answered. “We’ll get your leg looked at, too.” I pushed against her side, and helped to keep the weight off that leg.
“Don’t worry about it,” she asked, sounding far too innocent for her condition. “I’m fine. Once you and Fine Tune are back in shape we can worry about me.” It wasn’t the best situation, but with Rose pulling healing duty for all of us after that, she had a point.
Fine Tune chirped, smiled, then waved his hoof. After what happened last time, it was probably a ‘does that make me Lost’ joke, that he gave up on.
I reached a hoof down and helped him up too. “Up, on my back,” I ordered. With a little more help from me, he managed to crawl his way up there and got comfortable. He wasn’t heavy, but the added weight wore on my already sore everything. I could handle it, though; I was the strong earth pony, right?
Rose returned, her grenade rifle slung over her back. “I like your plan. Right now, I want to kill all of them,” she said, still sounding far too gone to actually do it. Her eyes were half-closed, and she still breathed in ragged gasps.
“Only one deserves it,” I said. I started forward, pulling my sister along with me and carrying Fine Tune. The short walk took ages, but was worth every step. I kicked on the blockaded door when I reached it, and kept pounding until a zebra’s face appeared in behind the glass.
The purple-striped mare with the dreadlocks pressed her muzzle against the glass. Her eyes went wide and she backed away.
“Open!” I shouted, kicking again. Instantly, I regretted it. I wouldn’t let her see that, though.
She yelled something back in her native language, but it sounded to me like a ‘no.’
I kicked again, despite the ache. “Now!” I shouted. That felt like enough warning. “Blast it open,” I said, turning to Rose.
“My pleasure,” she answered. With her hooves, not her magic, she reached around and grabbed the grenade rifle from her back. She held it up with one hoof, holding it to her shoulder and aiming with the aid of her telekinesis.
The mare inside’s eyes widened further, and she waved her hooves back and forth. Twice she tapped on the glass, then pointed off to the side. After several nods, she disappeared from view.
“Well, that’s no fun,” said the clone. She dropped the grenade rifle to her side and walked in the direction the mare had pointed.
“Better this way,” Lost added. She limped along next to me as the three of us followed Rose to the far door in the massive doorway. Four glass panels later, and we reached a small opening in the blockade.
The door popped open, and the striped face of the mare popped out. There was terror in her violet eyes, but she said nothing. She waved her hoof a few times, then pulled back through the doorway.
Getting inside took a bit of work, given our injuries, but after lots of shuffling and juggling of the changeling, we got inside. The mare kept talking, her mouth running faster than I could understand, until Lost finally held up a hoof to silence her. She shook as she talked, looking back and forth between the four of us, before turning and looking down the hall. She looked like she wanted to take off and run for her life. Every time she shook or turned, her giant golden earrings would sway back and forth and hit her in the face.
“Fine Tune, what’s she saying?” L.A. asked.
The changeling looked at her and chirped. With a sigh, he lit his fires up and transformed into a zebra mare identical to the one before us. With her dreadlocks falling in her face, she repeated, “Survived, sacrifice, shouldn’t be, umm. Uhh, I don’t know that word.” The changeling mare took a few deep breaths. She said something in the zebra’s language.
The local started talking again, her eyes darting back and forth between Lost and me. The way they jerked back and forth, she was looking at the jagged painted sigils on us. With every word, Fine Tune nodded. They shared a few words, which was quite strange, but apparently it worked.
“Okay, umm,” she finally said. “She says, something, umm, the chief shaman said we were the offering, and we should be dead. She’s scared, thinks the stars will strike again. Heard noises... probably us fighting.” She smirked. “Me fighting... I, I actually fought!” Even through the zebra mare’s voice, it was obvious Fine Tune was quite proud of what happened outside.
“Anything about Zorana or Zolera?” Lost asked.
“Or our negotiations?” added Rose. She glared at her, her eyes flicking back and forth between the zebra and her gun.
Fine Tune asked something in the zebra’s language again. After a few seconds of back and forth, the changeling looked at us. “Zorana and Zolera are fighting. No, no, arguing,” she explained. The two had another back and forth. The zebra on my back laughed, though the laughter quickly turned to a hacking cough. “She wants to know why I look like her. And umm,” she said, going back to the other language. “She wants to know if we’re going to kill her.”
“Rose, stop threatening her,” I said in my most authoritative voice. I might not want to kill the zebra, but she needed to know I could if I wanted to.
“Tell her no, Fine Tune,” Lost added.
Fine Tune said something in the zebra’s language, and the two had another back and forth. The same phrase was repeated over and over from the mare, before she finally ran off down the hallway. Her hooves clacked against the tiles, as she rounded a corner and disappeared.
“She just thanked me repeatedly,” said Fine Tune. With a deep breath, she lit herself aflame again and transformed once again into the usual f-holes cutie-marked stallion form. “Can I die yet?” He sagged on my back, and his hooves hung limply.
“Buck up, soldier,” I said, jumping a little and forcing him back up. “No deaths yet.” If I wasn’t allowed to die, then no one was. “Gotta find Xeno first, then we’ll see about it,” I joked.
“Not funny, Hidden,” Lost said. “We’re running low on time. Let’s go find Zorana and get some answers.” She pulled herself from me and walked down the hall, limping slightly with every step.
“How long until you can heal her leg?” I asked Rose. Seeing her try and hide how bad her injury was hurt more than the physical pains I had. I’d hidden wounds like that from her whenever I could, and I knew just how much damage trying to downplay the severity could do.
“Soon,” she answered. Already she was looking better than when she’d fixed me up outside. All the practice over the past hundred years must have helped. With a curt nod, she followed after my sister.
I forced myself to move too, ignoring the dull ache in my legs that burned with every step. What a hypocrite I was, my legs aching so badly and me not mentioning it to any of them...
The walk was slow and empty. No zebras were out this late, and they were probably all hiding from the commotion outside. All it did was help the four of us get through the halls faster. No questions to answer and no harassment from locals. We made our way to the office, and even down the hall we could hear the yelling of two zebras in their native language.
Zolera’s deep voice cut through the silence with all the grace of a sledgehammer. He shouted something, and the blinds behind the glass windows shook. He must have been pissed.
Zorana’s voice answered with just as much rage behind it. With every word she spoke, the thin lines of light breaking through the blinds flickered, as if her anger alone were keeping her candles alight.
“They’re yelling about where Xeno went,” Fine Tune explained for us. “And I think I can walk now.” He slid off to the side on my back, opposite Persistence, and dropped to the ground. “Ugh,” he said, chirping once and groaning. On wobbly legs, he moved over toward Lost and pressed himself against her. “Are you alright, my Queen?”
“I’m fine. You did well,” she said. She patted him once, then banged her hoof against the office door.
The voices inside silenced. A half-second later, the door flew open and Zorana stared down at us. Her face scrunched up, going from relief to shock, then finally to pure hatred. She stomped her way out into the hallway, looked once down to see if any of her tribe were watching, then back to us. “You!” she shouted. “Where is my daughter?”
“If I were to guess,” Lost said, tapping her chin in the same way Rose had when preparing her sarcasm, “I’d say the fucking dragon got her!”
Zorana paled, so much that I thought the sigils painted on her coat might turn white themselves. She turned and screamed something in her native language, then looked back at us. “You little murderers, first you take my sons, and then you get my daughter taken from me?!” She jabbed Lost with a hoof, stepped forward, then jabbed her again. “You have the gall to come in here and talk to me. Why are you not dead? What pride do you have? Was it not enough to murder the ones I cared for, but to lose my daughter?”
I put a hoof up, blocking the third jab of her forehoof. “Touch her again and I’ll kill you,” I said. If Amble’s whispering voice wanted to call me a murderer, then I’d let her be right this one time. I put my mouth on my battle saddle’s bit to show I wasn’t joking. Persistence wasn’t loaded, but I didn’t think she’d dare to call the bluff.
It wasn’t needed. Zolera walked from the office right as I bit down, and pushed his wife out of the way. “I think, is time for shutting up,” he said.
“Finally, somepony says something sane,” muttered Rose. She trotted around behind Lost and lowered her head to her hind leg. With the distraction, she started to heal her back leg.
Lost eeped and looked down at her, but said nothing. She stared back at the two zebras. “We need our things, now,” she said.
“You think I’m going to give you anything? You’ve ripped my family apart!” shouted the shaman.
“I have things, will return them. Tell me,” Zolera said, staring daggers at Zorana. “What happen outside?” He lowered himself to our level, which had him nearly lying on the ground. “Xeno?”
“It’s not the stars, it’s a dragon,” Lost answered. She winced, closing one eye as Rose’s magic healed her leg. “He took her, after doing this to us.” She pointed to the blood splattered all over her back half, and the blood covering the rest of us.
“Green?” asked the stallion, his ears twisting forward and his eyebrows rising.
“His,” I answered, pointing at Fine Tune. “Don’t ask. We need to do this fast.”
“Tell me. I get what you need,” he answered.
Zorana shoved him over and put a hoof on his side to hold him down after he hit the ground. “No. We’re not going to help them. If the stars’ messenger took her, then she’s the one they needed. That’s the way things are,” she said, her voice cracking. She looked like she was trying to keep from crying.
“It’s not the stars,” I yelled. I stomped a hoof. It hurt, but I bit back against the pain. I needed a Med-X or something to deal with this. Maybe, maybe I’d just cut my legs off and... No. I was not ending up like that monster in my dreams. This recurring pain wasn’t going to stop me. I’d just push through it.
“You have no clue what you’re dealing with! Whether directly or indirectly, there’s more going on here than you could ever know,” said the shaman. She glared at me. “You’ve done enough damage. I won’t let my tribe suffer for my pride.”
“This is not about you,” said Lost. “This is about our friend, our family. If you truly cared about your tribe and your family, you wouldn’t be sacrificing your foals!”
Zolera looked up at his wife and shouted something while she stared at us in silent indignation. He rolled back onto his hooves and sent the mare toppling to her side. “Come. Your things,” he said. He turned and pushed the office door open all the way.
We walked in, and found our saddlebags sitting in a small pile under the chairs on the far side of the room. Atop the saddlebags were our sets of barding, and my jacket, too. A few minutes later, they were back where they belonged. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t get the sigils to come off our coats. Instead, we covered them, leaving only the lines drawn on our faces showing. We turned, ready to leave and gather up Xeno back from the dragon.
Zorana stood in the doorway, blocking our path. She snorted and lowered her head, spreading her legs to block us from getting around her. “You were meant to perish, not the last of my foals,” she spat at us. “Your lot is cursed. I see it in your past and I see it in your future.” The sigils painted on her seemed to slide, as if they were slipping from her coat. “You can’t save her. She is of the stars now. Your interference will doom my entire tribe. I won’t let you leave.”
“Wife. Move,” said Zolera. He shoved the mare out of the way and pushed past her. Stepping between us and his wife, he held a hoof out. “Come. Supplies await.”
“The stars will have their revenge,” said Zorana. She stood in the doorway again, blocking our exit. “You cannot go!”
“Fine Tune, how does rage and hatred taste?” Lost asked the changeling.
“I’m not a Windigo, so horrible. I could use a boost right now, even if it’ll give me an upset stomach later,” he answered. He looked at Zolera and asked something in the zebra’s language.
“Is safe?” asked the stallion. At Fine Tune’s nod, he backed away. “Yes. Feed,” He glared at his wife. “I think is best. Time out.” He moved out of the way to let the changeling through.
“What? No! Don’t you even,” screeched the mare. Hooves scrambling, she pushed back away from the approaching unicorn stallion.
“You’ll be fine,” he said. Flames billowed from his hooves and enveloped him in green fire. A half-second later, they fell away, revealing the freshly healed shell of the bug pony. His horn lit up blue-green, and his eyes began to glow. He grinned wide, a needy look crossing his face. A tiny arc of green aura bridged the gap between him and the zebra shaman.
Her eyes began to glow, their normal green color lighting up bright enough to cast shadows across her face. She threw her head back and screamed in agony. Having been in her situation before, I felt terrible letting this happen, but she needed a moment to cool off. Her forehooves flailed before her, as the aura of magic pulsed.
The changeling backed away, cancelling the spell and letting her fall to the ground unconscious. He turned toward us, chirped, and let the flames cover him again. When the unicorn stallion reappeared as the flames faded away he said, “I feel much, much better now. I’ll feel it later, though.” With a spring in his step, he walked past us. “Let’s go, we don’t have much time.”
With Zorana safely stashed on her makeshift bed in her office, we left for Zolera’s home. I didn’t feel good about what we did, but the mare would’ve hurt herself otherwise, trying to stop us. She could believe whatever she wanted, but I didn't believe in the stars’ power any more than the next sane pony believed in them. While I wouldn’t knock her beliefs as wrong just because I could, I believed that she talked up every detail to give herself that edge against anyone she spoke to.
Still, with what she said, about the stars’ grasp and being caught between life and death. After that dream? I wasn’t really so sure. With her out cold, she couldn’t do anything to stop us. If she really cared about Xeno like she did Zahi and Zaki, then she’d forgive us for throwing her beliefs to the side to rescue our friend.
“I brew,” said Zolera, as we entered the Starbucked shop. “Not good with potion brew. My specialty? Alcohol.” He hopped the counter, landing with a heavy thud that shook the tables and chairs, and toppled things from the counter itself. “Give me moment. I make... something. Not bad, will work.” He ducked out of sight, and started tossing bottles, vials, and pieces of brewing equipment up and all over the place. Pieces clattered on the shelves behind him and over the counter, falling to the floor. He muttered something to himself in his own tongue while he worked.
Fine Tune twisted his ears forward, listening. Flames lit up the room as he transformed, only to fall away and reveal a perfect copy of Zolera, down to the massive size of the stallion. However changeling magic worked, I was extremely jealous. Cheater. He sat down and whispered to the three of us. “He says,... Hold on. Paraphrasing... This what I get. Dropping out of alchemy. Crazy tribe.” The zebra-formed changeling stopped and listened, leaning closer. “Damn mare. Heart. Umm, I don’t know that word. Love? I think.”
“Sounds like he’s regretting his marriage,” Rose muttered. She sat down in the nearest seat and rested her head against the wall. “I’m too damned old for this.”
“Yeah, me too,” I agreed. Fighting mechanical monsters, armies of clones, and dragons? Not how I expected to live my life. While we had the few minutes of rest, I got my battle saddle sorted. Bending the lever back out went quickly, thankfully, and I managed to get Persistence reloaded.
“You, Lost one,” said Zolera, poking his head from behind the counter. “Have magic, yes?”
“Not right now...” Lost whispered, looking down. “Xeno gave me something last time, an elixir that tasted terrible. It fixed the problem.”
“No good. Rose one, you have magic?” he asked, looking over at Rose. “Come. Help.”
“Why should I? You nearly broke my grenade rifle,” she spat back. Forgiving grudges didn’t seem to be one of Rose’s strong points. After a stern look from the rest of us, she finally gave in and trotted over to the counter. One hop later, and she made it behind with the gigantic stallion.
The two worked on something we couldn’t see, but from the clinking of glass and the muttering coming from back there, it had to be useful.
Lost nursed her horn, slowly trying to cast more magic from it. The tip sparked, but only glowed dimly each time she tried. She still winced in pain whenever the spell failed, but it took longer and longer each time before she would.
I dug through my saddlebags for something, instead. The ache in my legs was really starting to get to me, so I pulled out one of the syringes of Med-X I’d snagged before we left to pass the mountains. I quickly checked to make sure nopony was looking, then jabbed it into my leg between the joints in my armor, and pushed. A wave of relief washed over me as the drug pumped through my veins. I slumped down and pulled the syringe free, then flicked it down into the bottom of my saddlebags.
Zolera poked his head up from behind the counter and beckoned the three of us. When he spotted Fine Tune, still in the form of the zebra, his eyes widened. “You. You are me? Why!” he demanded, pointing a hoof.
Fine Tune pointed the same hoof, and made the exact same face as the stallion, answering in the same bewildered voice. “I am. Changeling. Translating!” he yelled.
“Stop. Strange changeling. Do not mock,” said the stallion, leaning against the counter and glaring at Fine Tune.
“Fine fine, if you want to take all the fun out of it,” Fine answered in the same deep voice. He leaned forward and glared back at Zolera, as the fires of his changeling magic overtook him. Through the breaks in the flames I could see him picking a new form, and when they finally faded, a ‘normal’ looking zebra stood there. This one had the black stripes on white coat I expected, with a mark on his flanks that made me twist my head to the side. It looked almost like the f-holes of his unicorn form, but with strange lines and symbols around them.
“Come. I have supplies for you,” said Xeno’s father. He beckoned us over with a wave of his hoof.
Below the counter were more of the machines, each with little pipes pouring various liquids into different jars and vials. He stood up and pressed a few buttons on the equipment on the counter with the very tip of his massive hoof, and stood back. One hissed as steam was blown out from a split seam near the top, but it tapered off after a second.
“I made drink. Good for relaxation. Wife good at alchemy,” he said, pointing at the vials below. “I not so good. Know enough. Potions, elixirs. They help.” As one of the pipes stopped draining he grabbed the jar in his fetlock and passed it to Lost. With his other hoof he twisted a knob to shut it off completely. “You drink. Magic might work. Might not. Best test? Real life experiment.”
“It won’t kill me, will it?” she asked, taking the jar from the stallion in her forehooves. Slowly, she swirled the liquid around. It didn’t move like water or booze. There were chunks in it.
“Drink. Will not kill,” said the stallion. “Xeno is in danger. My daughter. Go, find her. No time.” Angrily, he reached down and snatched up another of the vials. He slid it across the counter toward Fine Tune. “Basic recipe. Difficult to go wrong. Drink.”
Both L.A. and Fine Tune did as instructed, lifting the jar and vial up to their mouths and pouring the contents in. Lost grimaced, retching slightly at it. She slammed the jar down and forced a swallow. Fine Tune’s went down easier, and he smiled afterward.
“That was horrible!” she shouted, pushing the jar away with one hoof. With the other, she scraped at her tongue to rid it of the taste. “It’s like the time Xeno made me drink after my... Oh...” Realization hitting her, she reached up at tapped at her horn.
“Smart pony. Try spell,” instructed the massive buck. He grabbed the jar and tossed it back underneath the machine and turned it on again. “Lift vial. Push hard.”
Lost closed her eyes and tilted her horn in the direction of the vial Fine Tune drank from. Her face scrunched up as she focused, and a faint blue outline appeared over her horn. It sparked repeatedly, and each time she visibly flinched. After several creeping seconds, the vial tilted over, and fell onto its side. Lost’s eyes shot open and she stared at it. “Still not working,” she said, dejected.
I grabbed her with my forehooves and pulled her close. “Not true!” I nearly shouted. “You made it move, that’s the first step right?” I squeezed her tight, then reached over and set the vial up again.
She smiled and nuzzled my cheek. “I’ll try again,” she said. Moving over, she switched places with me to be closer to her target.
I looked at Zolera. “What about something for me? I’m all sorts of banged up,” I said. I waved a hoof up and down, showing the extent of my damage. It wasn’t obvious without knowing about what the steel hooves held beneath them, but the cuts and bruises covering me that Rose couldn’t quite heal were still very very visible.
He looked at me, then ducked down behind the counter. Several glass vials and jars rattled around, and he passed things to Rose, who grabbed them in her magic. As they were set on the counter, the zebra passed more to her, and finally reappeared. “Remind me. Hooves. Flesh or steel inside?” he asked. Slowly he lowered himself to my level, and pressed his muzzle against mine.
I flinched. The bone was still broken, even if everything had been set right when it was healed. It was still sore. I looked down at the steel hooves. “Both. One flesh, one steel,” I explained.
“None. Zebra medicines not work with your kind,” he said, pulling the vials away from me.
“And just what is that supposed to mean?” I asked, slightly offended.
“You are unnatural. Not of flesh,” he explained, sliding the vials and jars away. “Wife holds beliefs high. Do not mean incorrect. Dangerous for you.”
“This is for your daughter. I can take whatever happens. I’m already in pain,” I reached out and snatched the one that looked like what Lost had drank. “What’ll happen if I take it?”
He said something in his native language and placed a hoof over the top of the jar. “Worst? Death,” he said. “Least? Less death.”
“I vote she drinks it,” Rose said, and snickered.
“I think no. But...” he said, trailing off. Slowly, he lowered his hoof from the jar’s top. “Is meant to heal soul. Not body. Drink only half. Xeno not saved by your death.”
“Deal,” I said, grabbing it in my forehooves. I tipped the jar up and downed half the chunky liquid. It went down badly. I coughed several times, feeling as if I’d poured it into my lungs and not my stomach. Losing my grip on the jar as I retched, it fell and shattered on the ground. I lost my balance and fell off to the side, clutching my belly. Several coughs later, I found myself surrounded by Lost, Fine Tune, and Zolera from over the counter.
“Did it kill her?” asked Rose. At my next groan, she whined. “Aww, she’s still alive... Oh well. Let’s hurry up.”
“Hate... you…” I muttered through the pain. Every little twitch, every breath I took shot pain through me, down my legs, tail, and up my neck. A headache blossomed in seconds, and every muscle tried to flex at the same time. Memories of when Fine Tune fed off me surfaced, where something deep inside me felt like it was being crushed. Only, instead of my heart and soul taking the pain, my body did. My legs fought against themselves, shaking and twitching.
Around me the others moved, but the sound of their hooves on the ground didn’t match their hooffalls. Everything felt like it was spinning, where the ceiling suddenly became the floor, and everypony stood upside down.
“Hidden, are you okay?” Lost asked, grabbing me and pulling me close.
“Miss Hidden?” asked Fine Tune. He transformed again, flames wreathing him and falling to reveal the unicorn. “Are you alright?”
“Just give me space,” I said weakly. “No time to worry. We need to get Xeno.” With a wobbly forehoof, I pulled myself up against the counter, and shoved the others away. As much as I appreciated their comforts, I felt enough like the walls were closing in, and all I wanted to do was get out and run. I sat down and covered my eyes with my hooves. “I’m listening. You do the thinky pony thing you do and I’ll chime in when I think I need to.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Lost asked.
“Lost Art. Xeno’s life is on the line. Stop worrying about me!” I shouted. It took everything I had to not break down and cry.
She stepped back, going by the sounds of her hooves on the tiles. “Alright,” she said finally. “Well, we have no idea if or when he’ll come back. We need to be quick, but quiet. Right?”
“Makes sense,” said Rose.
“Those two don’t go hoof in hoof. You either go quick, or quiet,” added Fine Tune. “I’ve tried, trust me. That gets you caught.”
I half-listened to their discussion, trying my best to focus on it over the pain in my legs. The sense of my body fighting against itself faded slowly, but still I didn’t trust myself to deal with it. I just twisted one ear forward and listened to get through it.
“Dragons can fly,” Lost countered. “If we try a direct approach he could see, but we need to get there fast.” She held her head in her hooves. “Gah!”
“What we need is fast and unseen... and to know where he is,” said Fine Tune.
“Stealth cloaks,” said Rose. “Zebras in the War used them all the time. The right enchanted gem and we can sneak anywhere.”
I opened my eyes and moved my hooves away. The twitchy, clutching feeling started to fade, and I felt safe to look around again. I watched the four others, with Rose sitting on the counter and Zolera leaning against it. Lost stood next to Fine Tune, lifting a jar into the air and spinning it in little circles. The aura around her horn looked faint, but it was there, and that was what mattered.
I fought back a groan. A few more minutes and I’d be back to normal.
Zolera laughed. “Yes. I go. Ask Caesar for old-time equipments. Will only take weeks. Only short walk!” he said, laughing again.
“Sarcasm is my bit, zebra,” snapped Rose. “Any dark cloaks will do; it’s night.”
“If the merchant we talked to a while back wasn’t completely full of it, then we best head toward the mountains,” Lost suggested. “That’s supposed to be traditional ‘dragonhome’ places.”
“We’re in a valley, though. Which mountains?” asked Fine Tune.
I swallowed and forced myself up to my hooves. I felt okay to walk again, as the floor had righted itself where it belonged. With nothing spinning, I could stand. Headaches sucked, but I wouldn’t let that stop me from saving the mare who risked her life for us. “Center, of the emptiness,” I forced out. “Lost, you’re a thinky pony, you can figure it out.”
“Plan is enough. I gather cloaks. You go, now,” said Zolera. He turned, but stopped only a step away. Turning around, he pulled the striped combat knife Xeno always carried from behind the counter. “Take this. Give to her.” He passed the knife to Lost. “She is strong. Will be there. Wait here, I return soon.”
With supplies on the way, a rough plan set up, and my legs no longer threatening to rip out of my flesh, it felt pretty good. All we had to do was survive a dragon...
Despite arguments that my leather jacket would be more than enough to keep me blending into the darkness of the cloud covered night, I found myself wearing a cloak like the others. So what if my haunches were a blinding white and could be seen even in the dark. Only Fine Tune managed to get by without wearing one, by transforming into a version of his unicorn stallion form with a black coat instead of a blue one. My jacket was more than enough to keep me covered. Zolera stood behind us, at the door to the mall, seeing us off on the journey.
All the cloak did was mess with aiming Persistence. I pulled the hood of it up over my head, which mashed my mane down over the side of my face. The cloaks were nice, at least, once I got past all my protests. They hung just to the ground, after being cut to size for mine and my sister’s smaller size. Rose’s was the proper size, given that she was slightly taller than the two of us. Hopefully all this preparation wouldn’t be needed, and we wouldn’t see the dragon in the sky at all.
Fine Tune lit the night sky up again, casting a green light on the mall behind us. When it faded, he’d darkened his normally red mane to black as well, and even with the dark brown barding he wore, he blended into the darkness completely. Were it not for his eyes, glowing slightly, I would have lost sight of him. He turned away from the mall and started walking.
“So, you can see in the dark, too?” I asked. My headache had died down right as we walked outside and got the cloaks fitted. Surprisingly, the pain in my legs and everywhere else had faded. I felt better than I ever had before. Whatever Zolera made, he should start selling it as a cureall. The pain was worth feeling like a million caps afterward.
“Yeah, one of the perks of being a changeling,” he answered with a grin. “Aside from my good looks and fighting skills.”
We all laughed.
“Go. Be fast. Be safe. Bring Xeno back,” Zolera said, turning back to the mall. “I stay. Watch wife.” He pulled the door open and walked inside. A second later, his head poked back out. “Please, save daughter. I have faith. Trust. Be safe.” With a muttering in his native tongue, he pulled his head back.
“What’d he say?” Lost asked Fine Tune. She tugged at her hood and then adjusted the cloak around her leg so she could get to Loyalty easier.
“Good luck,” the changeling answered. “Which direction? I’ll lead the way.”
Lost looked back and forth in the darkness, slowly taking in the details. She moved back and forth a few times, before sitting on her haunches. “Given what I saw earlier,” she said, more to herself than anypony else. “It’s a big half-circle, from there...” She pointed off into the darkness. “To over there.” She pointed in the other direction. “So... most likely? It’s that way.” She pointed forward, to the highest peak’s outline in the distance.
Rose grunted. “Sounds about right, if that’s the mountain I think it is. I’ll tell you more when we get there,” she said.
“Let’s go then,” said Lost. “The mares in Idle aren’t going to- Wait. Rose?” She turned to the mare as we all started walking.
“No, I didn’t get hold of her,” answered the clone pony. “I tried for hours to find somepony, but none of the usual places had any signs of life. At all.” She shrugged. “It’s been a decade and a half, at least, since I’ve been around. They might have just moved.”
“I wouldn’t blame them, with a dragon flying around,” I muttered. Sidestepping gravemarkers, I kept up by watching Fine Tune’s flank.
“Mmm, he shouldn’t be enough to get them to move,” she answered. “There are standing orders for all of us.” Her horn lit up, glowing under the hood of her cloak. With a flick of telekinesis, she pulled her grenade rifle out and started to reload it.
“Standing orders?” asked Lost. She gave the mare a strange look and raised both eyebrows above her glasses’ rims.
“Yeah, to stay the fuck put. Let’s hurry,” she shot back. With her rifle full, she dropped it over her back and started to gallop. Her horn dimmed, bringing everything around us back to darkness.
“Yes, ma’am!” I shouted. I sped up, running after her at the same pace.
Fine Tune and L.A. both got the hint, and sped up to keep going at the same speed. The changeling pushed himself and got out in front. Whenever he dodged to one side, we did as well.
The trip went smoothly, which was strange for me, but I couldn’t ask the Goddesses for a better run. The cool air felt nice on my face and through my mane. All I had to do was keep in the line we formed, and everything would be alright. Fine Tune led us, weaving back and forth around the few most distant grave markers, and calling out whenever we needed to sidestep the remains of a house or the basement holes left by the dragon snatching everything up.
I kept one eye on the sky, just in case. If the dragon flew by, we’d need to stop right then and keep from getting seen. One mistake and the whole thing would go up in smoke... hopefully not literally. Every shadow I saw across the sky sent a chill up my spine.
“Stop,” said Fine Tune, before chirping loudly. He twisted on his hooves and skidded to a stop. It sent a cloud of dust up around him, as he crouched down and closed his eyes tight. Rose slowed to a walk and then stopped. Lost and I did the same.
I looked to the sky. Something passed overhead, something big.
Holding my breath, I reached up and pulled the hood of my cloak closer. With my white muzzle the most noticeable thing in the vast nothingness around us, I dared not look up. I waited, barely breathing. “Is it safe?” I whispered.
“No,” whispered Rose. “Stay still.”
From above came the beating of wings, powerful but distant. The sounds got louder and louder, as the dragon flew by. Minutes dragged on, before the noise began to quiet again, and the dragon finally passed overhead.
I risked a peek. I pulled the cloak back just enough to get a view at the sky, but saw nothing.
“We’re good,” whispered Rose. She stood up and looked back to where we’d come from. “We’d better hurry; he’s going to turn around at some point.”
So we ran. Hooves thundered against the dirt, kicking up dust behind us as we put every inch of distance we could between us and the dragon flying through the sky. I stared at my sister’s haunches, not daring to look at the sky again.
At least an hour went by, and nothing went wrong. Somehow, acknowledging that felt taboo, like it would jinx our run. No matter how far or how long we went, the mountain didn’t seem any closer. Right next to us, basement holes and little bits of wreckage and rubble passed quickly, but the distance between us and the mountain was so extreme I felt like we’d never make it.
If only I could just fly there like the dragon could.
Then I’d get there alone, without a gun that could get through the scales or armor, and no plan. Best to stay with the group.
“I see lots on the E.F.S.,” Lost yelled. She looked back and forth, the hood of her cloak waving in the wind. “Nothing red yet!”
“Don’t trust that thing,” I yelled up to her. I’d had enough bad experiences, and Gunbuck had shot her when we weren’t hostile to him. “What about behind us?” I yelled, hoping to not deal with the dragon again so soon.
“I don’t see any...” yelled Fine Tune. His voice trailed off, lost somewhere between the front of the line and the back.
“I don’t thi- DUCK!” L.A. yelled. Without bothering to stop running she dropped to the ground. Rolling end over end, she pulled the cloak tight around her and curled up.
I didn’t bother to look back. I dropped to the ground and pulled my legs up under me. Ahead, I could see Fine Tune and Rose doing the same. The dim blue glow of Fine Tune’s eyes disappeared, and suddenly everything was black again.
We waited. Around us was nothing. There wasn’t any reason for the dragon to land or take a break. I watched from the corner of my eye as he casually flew through the sky. He swooped down, close enough that I could see one claw clutching rubble and the shattered form of a motorwagon.
He stopped in the sky, great big golden eyes staring down at us.
“Please please please,” I whispered, “Luna, Celestia... Don’t let him see us.”
“Shh!” hissed Lost. She shot me a glare from across the dirt field, but didn’t dare move. With dedicated slowness, she looked back up. Her eyes widened so much I thought they might pop out of her head.
The ground shook, and I was bounced into the air. A low rumble filled the air, followed by snorting. The dragon folded his wings back and walked past us, coming inches from stepping on Rose and crushing her. He moved on three legs, still clutching the junk in his claws. I could see the Solaris Energy sign between two of them.
I held my breath. If he heard, or smelled, or anything... We could end up flattened in an instant.
He looked around once, and his lips pulled into a smirk. Did he know we were there and just wanted to toy with us? Without a word, he leaned down and stuck his free claws into the ground. Digging around, he pulled out a small taped-up box. Setting it with his other prizes, he pulled out two more nearly identical boxes. “Missed some,” he rumbled. With one last look around, he flapped his wings and took off into the sky.
I shut my eyes tight and bit my tongue, trying not to make a sound as my cloak fluttered around me from the force of his take off. It wasn’t until I felt a hoof on my side that I opened an eye a crack.
“Come on, we need to hurry,” said Lost. She offered a hoof, and when I took it, pulled me up.
“We’re making good time, let’s go,” said Rose. She looked in the direction the dragon had taken off. “I don’t trust that thing.”
I looked over where he’d taken something from the ground, and saw the faint outline of a house’s basement. If his eyesight was that good in the dark, how hadn’t he seen us? “I agree, he’s toying with us,” I said.
We took off galloping again.
Time went by quickly, and even as I kept an eye out for the dragon, I let myself wander off into my thoughts. The run was good exercise, and my legs felt wonderful. All the horrific aching and tension from before was completely gone, and for the first time in days, I felt comfortable and able to just gallop the way a pony should.
I looked around in the darkness, remembering all the places I’d seen as we crossed over from the mountains. Plants growing? A massive lake? Plus all the towns Gunbuck had been to before. I needed the PipBuck back so I could dig through them. I might learn a bit more about him, and find out exactly who the stallion I’d killed was.
Maybe he had family nearby? A mare or a stallion I could ask, I could apologize to... I could show them the grave I-
“Ahh!” I yelped, tripping and tumbling face first downward. I slammed into something hard and dark and very solid. Groaning, I wobbled and fell forward, toppling down onto my back. “Ow ow ow...” Patting around, I checked to make sure I hadn’t lost anything in the process. Cloak, saddlebags, steel hooves, Persistence... okay everything accounted for. I rolled up onto my hooves, feeling fine even after the fall. “Hello!” I yelled as quiet as I could while still calling it yelling. I didn’t need the dragon being the one who found me. “Anypony!” I really wished I could see in the dark.
I looked around. I’d fallen into the basement of what used to be a house. A few odds and ends were tucked into the corners, but for the most part it was completely barren. Well, there was an open door at the far wall, and a wooden staircase that led downward. A cellar maybe? I wondered why a pony would need two basements.
I walked closer, my desire to find something I could call treasure from the past overtaking my sense of urgency to find my friends. I called up out of the basement just in case, “Hey! Somepony! I fell and...” I didn’t see anything worth taking down there, not that I could see anything at all. Turning away, I quickly checked the sky to make sure I wasn’t calling down a dragon. Seeing nothing ominous, I did another pass at the basement. The staircase that once led to the main floor was gone, with only the bottom few steps still in place. “There’s no way up from down here!”
Doing one more circle around the room, I checked in the darkened corners for anything I could use. Most of my checking involved digging my hooves into the darkness until I smashed my sore nose against a wall. Finally, I turned around and jumped onto the remains of the staircase up. “Hey!” I yelled. I jumped a few times, going up to the top-most remaining step and trying to reach the edge to the ground.
Several jumps and lots of hoofwaving later, I managed to hook my fetlock onto the edge, just barely. “Lost! Dammit! I need help!” I yelled as I tried to pull myself up.
“Hidden!” yelled Lost back, her voice quiet and distant. The sound of hooves on the dirt filled the air.
“I’m back he-ahh!” I said, yelping as my grip fell. I slid down the wall, landing hard on the stairs and shattering them. I slammed into the floor, sending wood everywhere with a loud crash. “Ow, FUCK!” I screamed. “Good job Hidden,” I whispered to myself, “Fall on your back so the dragon can pick you up easier...” Steel hooves were not the best for grabbing. Stupid, numb, worthless things.
Lying on the ground, with a chunk of wood digging into my back, I took a moment to reevaluate the choices I’d made in my life. Well, I tried to, until I heard a sound coming from the open cellar. It sounded like changelings, but hundreds of them and far far away.
“Fine Tune, is that you messing with me?” I asked through a groan. Rocking slightly, I rolled onto my side and stood up. I didn’t feel anything broken or any bones poking through, just sore. The pile of wood lay there completely unusable, not that the stairs were completely smashed. I took one step toward the cellar. “If that’s you, come out- EEP!”
Dozens of tiny little things flew from the cellar, chirping much like changelings but looking unlike them in any way. They had withered skin, were covered in white spots and had blotches of orange-and-white balls all over them, with pockmarks covering their bottom halves. Their heads had beady eyes, and were covered in scraggly fur that seemed to be falling out. Tiny wings of leather stretched between bones flapped so fast I almost didn’t see them, and they screeched their little chirps constantly with every new one that came from the cellar. One alone was quiet, but dozens nearly deafened me.
“Bloodwings?” I asked myself, backing up against the wall. The feeling of my blood running dry came back full-force, as if I could ever forget something like that. I pushed myself as hard against the wall as I could, watching as the little winged monsters flew into the sky, trying to be as small as possible.
With so many flying from the cellar, they toppled over one another, with several being knocked from the air. When they stood still, lying around on the ground, I could tell they weren’t bloodwings. They looked similar, but at the same time looked like some of the fruits and vegetables I’d found before in houses, ones that hadn’t been preserved in tins or jars for centuries.
More flew from the cellar and into the distance, disappearing beyond my field of vision outside the edge of the basement. This was bad. Very bad. Of all the things that could happen this was the worst possible thing. The little bat-things were the equivalent of a big flashing ‘RIGHT HERE’ sign for the dragon.
The few on the ground flapped their wings, one rising into the air after another as the main group finally dispersed into the distance and disappeared. The screeching and squeaking finally quieted, and I could hear my sister calling for me again.
“Down here!” I yelled, praying she’d get there before the dragon did. My bellowing got the bats’ attention, and they took to the air after me. “Oh, fuck me,” I whined. The first to get to me got a steel hoof to the head, and then stomped clear into the floor. It splattered underneath, squishing grossly and making the air smell foul.
Others latched onto me, little claws at the tips of their wings digging through the fabric of my cloak and teeth biting sharply. None broke the skin, but I wasn’t going to let them tear me apart like that. I twisted, grabbing the cloak with my teeth and pulled. Flinging it through the air, I caught two more of the bats in it as they flew for me.
Not stopping, I swung the cloak around hard and slammed it into the wall. Several squeaks and chirps came from the cloak, and three of the multi-colored bats fell to the ground. I slammed myself against the cloak, shoulder first. My barding made short work of those still trapped inside, squishing them like the over-ripe fruit they really were. Blood oozed along the wall and soaked through the cloak.
“Lost! Hurry!” I yelled through the cloak. I didn’t dare shoot Persistence, just in case the noise would alert the dragon. Instead, I jumped to the side, dodging as one of the rotbats flew at me.
It swooped around and latched onto my now-exposed flank. I bucked, trying to throw it off. Tiny claws dug into me, but weren’t enough to hold on when I kicked. I flung the cloak back about, knocking several more from the air. Just how many stopped to try and eat me? I kicked one of the few who fell to the floor before, smashing it clean in two. They were tiny and vicious, but two centuries of ‘rotting’ hadn’t left them particularly strong.
I stomped again, killing another rotbat. In the darkness, I started to lose track of them. My eyes had adjusted long ago, but I could only see so much while stuck in the darkness under the cloud cover. They moved too fast to follow easily. I kept looking around, trying to find the few that escaped me so far.
Another latched onto my side, but bit into the barding under my jacket. I threw myself against the wall again, since I couldn’t reach. Hitting it didn’t hurt too much, thanks to Zolera’s elixir, but it still knocked the wind out of me.
“Hidden,” said Lost. The basement lit up with light from Rose’s horn as the two unicorns reached the ledge. “The dragon’s comi- Oh, Goddesses what are those!” She leaned back, covering her nose.
She had a point, they smelled horrible. I slammed my cloak into the ground several time, smashing the remaining rotbats within it until I felt that nothing could survive. Breathing heavily, I dropped the cloak. “Hey, nice timing,” I said, gasping. “Just finished cleaning up a mess. Can we get out of there? Right now.”
“Are you alright?” she asked. When I nodded, she lit her horn up and wrapped her telekinetic field around my neck. “Don’t ever do that again!” she shouted. She turned to the other unicorn. “Rose, help me get her up.”
A second haze of magic wrapped around me, at my hind legs. I bit down on the cloak I’d been made to wear, and pulled it up with me. When my hooves touched solid ground, I trotted away from the basement. “Trust me, I never want to do it again,” I admitted. “That wasn’t a fun experience.”
Lost hugged me and said, “Just stay sa-”
I pressed a wet hoof against her to silence her. In the sky behind her, I saw the outline of the dragon against the clouds. Ignoring the disgusted look my sister made from being smeared with rotbat goo, I pulled us to the ground, slowly. With my other hoof, I caught my cloak and pulled it flat around my legs and haunches. I ducked my head under my sister to keep out of sight.
Rose followed my lead. Fine Tune wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
The dragon stopped above us. “You’re being too noticeable, my future pets... I know what you’re doing,” he said, his voice shaking me to the bone. “I can’t see you, but I know you’re there.”
I didn’t breathe, and neither did Lost. We just held onto one another, and I prayed. “Please Goddesses,” I whispered. “Please...”
“Shh,” whispered Lost back. She wrapped a hoof around my head and squeezed.
“All you’re doing it making it easier for me,” he rumbled, flying past us. “I’ll have you all eventually, my little ponies.” He laughed. “Thank you, for doing all my work for me.”
The air filled with the sound of his wings flapping. None of us moved until the sound faded from the sky.
Lost released her grip on my head, and looked to the sky. “I think we’re okay,” she whispered. She pushed herself to her hooves and shivered.
“This is...” I said, unable to find a word to properly describe how I felt. Xeno better love us forever after this. Or maybe, just maybe, count us even for all the trouble she went through to save our flanks back in U Cig.
I stood up and grabbed my cloak from the ground. Throwing it into the air, I ducked underneath and let it fall back on. It landed softly, but felt wet and sticky from all the blood or... juices... or whatever those things had in them. Bits of splattered rotbat pieces smeared across my coat, and I felt the fangs and teeth of the remains catching. The cloak bulged and something darted across my skin. “Eee!” I yelped, feeling little claws digging in and pulling a wet spot across my back.
Lost smacked me in the side, trying to flatten the rotbat underneath, but it crawled away. She swore under her breath and swatted the new spot. Welts started to rise on my side, but it kept dodging away, over my haunches and to the far side away from Lost.
Clinging onto my flank, it bit me right below my cutie mark on my left side.
“Ow!” I yelped. I pulled the cloak back, only to find a rotten red-bodied bat clinging to me, with its fangs sunk right into my skin.
A muffled gunshot went off, and the head of the bat splattered into pieces. The body fell to the ground, and Fine Tune trotted over. “You okay?” he asked, smiling wide.
I nearly had a heart attack. “Don’t sneak up on me!” I shouted. The changeling blended into the darkness far too well. I held a hoof over my heart, still trying to catch my breath.
Lost stared at me, her jaw near the ground. “Hidden!”
“Well, I don’t feel like it sucked any blood out. I’m fine,” I answered. And really, I did feel perfectly fine. I really needed to thank Zolera for that zebra brew.
“No, I’m Fine. You’re Miss Hidden,” joked the changeling. Seeing my deadpan look, he sheepishly grinned. “Sorry, I had to...”
“Ew...” I groaned, realizing I’d just smeared rotbat goo all over my face. I wiped my forehoof off in the dirt until it was reasonably clean, then tried to wipe as much as I could from my face. Once I’d gotten the majority off, I turned to the group. “Okay, can we please just go?”
We all started running, Fine Tune leading, Rose following. I was third, with Lost behind me for emergencies. I prayed to the Goddesses I wouldn’t run into anything like that again.
I stared at the mountain in the distance, annoyed it wasn’t getting any closer. We’d run in silence since the issue with the rotten bats, and the disgusting ooze they had for blood made the others keep their distance from me. It stank something fierce. There wasn’t much to talk about anyway. Galloping as fast as we could kept the wind in our ears, and it took all my focus to keep in line and not fall into another basement.
Fine Tune made quite the skilled leader, given he was the only one with any skill at seeing in the dark. With clouds covering the moon and stars above, I could still only barely see the outline of old basements and wreckage as we passed them. I liked to think of myself as well-adjusted for moving in the dark, especially after all the practice we had with mom, but without cheater magic keeping a dim light... Well, the situations were very different.
I wished Lost and Rose could light things up for us. I really did. I didn’t like running blind. The lack of control over where I could go reminded me of the shackles on my back legs. Instead, I tried to think about what we might find when we got there. Would there be a trail up toward the mountaintop? Would the entrance be at the bottom of the mountain itself, like the cave we found Stables Twelve and Twenty One in?
“Anything on... the E.F.S.?” I asked, yelling loud so Lost could hear me. I felt just a hair more comfortable raising my voice, with the knowledge the dragon wasn’t going to swoop down and snatch us up the second he saw us.
“Lots of... green!” she yelled back. She sounded as tired as I felt. The sooner we got there, the better. “One red!”
One red? A hostile? I felt my lips twist into a grin. Good, something to break up the monotony. “Enemy ahead!” I yelled to Rose and Fine Tune.
Rose repeated my call, and Fine Tune whistled his acknowledgement.
I slowed down, nearly heaving. We needed a break and this was a good excuse. Together we all slowed, moving from a flat gallop to a trot, and finally slowing to a walk. Forming a little circle in the darkness, the four of us all took the time to gather our breath. Crouching down, Lost passed a bottle around, and we each took a drink between pants. “Good run, everypony,” she said.
“So, what’s on the E.F.S.?” I asked after taking a drink. I passed the bottle to Rose.
Lost looked around, doing a complete circle. There was nothing there. No sound, no bats in the air. Fine Tune hadn’t warned us about anything, either. “Just a red marker, it’s in the same direction we’re heading,” she answered with a shrug.
“That thing needs a distance indicator,” I complained. “Whatever it is, it could be on the other side of the mountain and we’d never know...”
“I haven’t seen anything up ahead,” said Fine Tune. He took the bottle Rose offered and passed it back to Lost. “I check each basement we pass. They’re all nearly empty... Sometimes I’ll see some boxes, but nothing anypony could live on.”
I looked back the way we came. The mall sat in the distance, so small and insignificant with how far we’d run. It stood out, a marked contrast to the terrifying emptiness around us. I spun in a circle to orient myself, and once again found myself amazed. This must have been a suburb or a town at one point, but now? Now it was barren. I did a second pass around, and found myself in awe at how flat it looked. I expected to see the holes of more basements from removed homes, but we’d gotten so far that even those fell away. All that surrounded us was old dirt. Were we really so far out?
Fine Tune was right, nothing normal could live here. We just had to play it safe.
“How much longer?” asked Rose, changing the subject.
Lost lifted the PipBuck and checked the map. “We’re more than halfway,” she said, holding her other hoof over the screen to dim the light from it. Clicking the PipBuck screen off, she took the last drink of water and stuffed the empty bottle back into her saddlebags with her magic.
“Glad to have your horn working again?” I asked, trying to sound pleasant about it.
“Yeah, even if it’s just the levitation. I don’t think I’ll be trying any more fire spells for a while,” she answered. “Let’s go. Xeno might be hurt.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for anything that looks dangerous,” said Fine Tune. He turned away and ran off, pushing to a full gallop quickly. We followed, in the same order as before.
As we ran off, the ground began to shake. Dust filled the air, as did the muffled voices of ponies I couldn’t see. Ahead of me, Fine Tune toppled over. He rolled head over hooves and slid to a stop.
Rose jumped at the spot he fell, and when she landed, she spun around. Her horn glowed aquamarine, as she lifted her grenade rifle from her back.
Before I reached the same spot, the ground erupted. Dust filled the air as ponies appeared on either side of us. L.A. backpedaled and pulled Loyalty from its holster on her leg and spun around. Yells carried through the air as raspy-voiced ponies screamed and hollered gibberish. Deafening thuds drowned those out as the ground fell back into place, throwing more dust and dirt into the air.
Hooves grabbed me in the chaos and threw me to the ground. Others did the same to Lost.
Rose didn’t let them take her. With a cry of rage, she smashed the barrel of her grenade rifle into one of the attacking ponies, cracking it across the mare’s face and sending her to the ground. She bucked, hitting another in the side and knocking the wind from a pony.
I followed her lead, and hit the stallion holding me down as hard as I could. His scream of pain didn’t stop me, and I rolled onto my back and bucked him up and off me. Coughing from the dust in the air, I forced myself up.
Looking around, I couldn’t make hide nor hair of what was actually happening. I saw Rose beating a pony to death, while Fine Tune scrambled away from the group. Lost struggled against another mare, holding the mystery pony’s head in her hooves and pushing back.
Others that I didn’t recognize ran around fighting, but not with us. They looked more like they were going after one another. But, who should I attack then?
The choice was obvious. I charged and rammed the mare on top of Lost. Throwing her off, I turned and offered a hoof to help my sister up.
The ponies around us looked ragged, even for Wastelanders. They wore no armor and had no weapons, and I could see their ribs through their coats. Given the rasps, I thought they might be ghouls, but the solid hooves that grabbed me didn’t feel like it, and they didn’t look to be rotting. It answered how anypony could live out here: barely.
I backed up against Lost. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“Who cares, kill them!” shouted Rose. She rammed the barrel of her grenade rifle into a pony and forced her to the ground. When the pony tried to bite her gun, she fired it.
The mare exploded, sending blood and gore everywhere. Some splattered on me, but given that I’d already been covered in the remains of the rotten bats, I didn’t even flinch.
“Good idea,” Lost said. She pointed Loyalty at two others, who were busy fighting with each other and pulled the trigger. With a blinding green flash, and an ear-splitting B-KEW, the two disappeared. A green, glowing puddle of ooze remained on the ground where the two ponies had been. “Get Fine Tune, I’ll back Rose up.”
“Do you need to fire?” I asked. The dragon worried me. All this noise, light, and fighting would bring the bastard down fast. We needed to get out of here. I ran from my sister, letting her handle the others. Jumping over the splattered-open torso of the mare who ate the grenade, I made it to Fine Tune. With both steel forehooves out, I hit the stallion on top of the changeling as hard as I could.
He didn’t even scream when he died. His throat collapsed and he crumpled to the ground, his neck snapping loudly under the force of my steel. The unicorn mare across from me looked up from Fine Tune, and smiled.
Several of her teeth were missing, and her eyes didn’t quite seem in focus. She licked her lips once and pounced, flailing her hooves at me.
I braced myself. When the mare hit me, I barely felt it. She was weak, but she attacked my friend. Old conditioning rose in my mind. Kill when necessary. She attacked my friend. I reared up and stomped as hard as I could.
The sound of her spine shattering sang like music in my ears. I hit her again. And again. I slammed my forehooves down on her back until I broke through and her ribs flew into the air on either side. With the feeling of bloodlust raising in my mind, I turned to the others. Two down, a half-dozen left to go.
Ignoring Fine Tune, I bit down on my battle saddle’s bit and fired off three shots. They tore through the stallion sneaking up behind Rose. The hungry look in his eyes faded in an instant, replaced by feral terror. Dropping down, he looked up and wailed in pain. I put another two bullets into his head.
“Murderer,” whispered a voice in the back of my mind as the stallion’s head exploded.
“Damn right,” I whispered back. I had a good reason to kill these ponies. They attacked us out of nowhere. In my mind, that equated to raider. I fired another two shots, not aiming any more than necessary to not hit Rose or my sister.
“Miss Hidden?” Fine asked. He placed a hoof on my leg.
I raised it, a kneejerk reaction. Glaring down, I looked at the unfamiliar all black stallion below me. Were it not for the fearful look in his pupilless eyes, I’d have stomped him dead right there.
Instead, I hesitated.
Murderer. Necessity. He wasn’t a threat.
My leg flinched. It tried to attack, all on its own. I pulled back, fighting it. A sudden bolt of pain lanced through me. From my non-existent hoof to the back of my head. While my sister and Rose fought around me, I fought with my own body to keep from killing somepony I knew to be a friend. Somewhere deep down inside, conditioning pushed me.
I’d killed those I cared about before. What was one more? If he hadn’t tripped, we might not be in this mess. He got us into this danger, and that was enough. If Lost died because of him, then how could I justify letting him live?
It would be quick. Painless. Snarling, I lunged forward.
“Please, don’t do it!” he yelled.
I stopped my hoof an inch from his face. I could see myself in him. I heard my own voice, begging Vice Brand and Slipstock to stop.
Despite the fighting around us, it felt like time had stopped. “What did- did she call you?” he asked. His voice broke halfway through, and even though his eyes glowed unnaturally, I could see his fear. I could see mine.
“Miss Fortune,” my mouth answered for me. I wasn’t under orders to keep a secret. Something inside me started to hurt, a dull ache that not even crazy zebra elixirs could fix. Just saying the words made it feel like I’d ripped my own heart out.
“Miss Fortune,” he whispered, gulping after. “Please don’t kill me.” The black stallion lowered his head and covered it with his forehooves. His ears pinned back and he closed both eyes.
I looked up, at my sister and the clone. Two more shots rang out and a stallion fell to the ground, his hind legs now useless.
A blast from Loyalty finished him off, leaving only a glowing pile of goo.
The fight had continued around me while I stared at the changeling, my friend, and thought about ending his life. I thought I’d gotten past this, past the desire to just obliterate anything that I felt might be an enemy. After what I’d done to Rose’s other copies. After that breakdown.
With a swing of the grenade rifle, the last of the attacking ponies went down. Her jaw hung in an unnatural way, and blood drained from her nostrils. But she was still breathing. Sloppy.
Rose and Lost both turned and looked at one another. They shared a nod, then walked over toward Fine Tune and me. Rose casually swung the grenade rifle around with her magic, smashing it into the still-living mare and caving her skull in.
“Why are you crying?” asked Lost. She raised a hoof and tapped it against my muzzle.
I felt something wet on my cheek, and raised my own hoof to feel. Cold steel pressed against me, but it felt nothing. I pulled the hoof away and in the dim light of Rose’s magical aura, I saw the steel was wet. When had I started crying?
“Everything’s fine,” said Fine Tune. He pushed himself up from the ground and walked over to stand behind Lost. “Right?” He sounded desperate.
“Right,” I agreed. I shook my head, clearing the memory of what just happened. I didn’t want to think about it. Ever. Suddenly, the freaky nightmare had a tinge of hope to it. I’d just replace every part of me Amble had a hold on...
L.A. gave me a scrutinizing look. When I forced a smile, she just frowned. “Alright, okay. Let’s go. We’re running out of time,” she said. She walked off, away from the scene of the fight. As Fine Tune and Rose took off toward the mountain, my sister looked back at me, her face filled with concern.
I ran past her, as fast as I could.
After ages of thundering hooves galloping along the plains, Lost yelled, “We’re almost…. there! PipBuck says... we’re entering... the Starswirl Caverns Campground!”
Ahead, the mountain loomed, much much larger than it had been the last time I actually looked up. It made me feel incredibly small. The thought of climbing up that thing without wings or some way to actually get to the peak terrified me. I prayed to the Goddesses the entrance was at the ground. Last time I ran up a mountainside, I’d been nearly killed by two snipers taking potshots at me.
What would I have done if I’d met Amble before we went to Pommel Falls? Would I have killed Xeno just like we killed Zahi and Zaki, just because of how she looked? Would the conditioning have told me to view her as a threat, because the other two zebra with her were, even though all she did was sit there quietly staring at the distance?
We didn’t bother to stop running as we entered what must have been the campground. Aside from a subtle change in the way the ground felt under my rear hooves, I didn’t notice anything different about it. With no markers, no buildings or signs, it all just looked like the same barren Wasteland to me. I still wanted to thank the Goddesses that we were close.
I slowed to a walk. Pushing my thoughts and fears away, I focused on breathing. With a glance back the way we came, I again found myself in awe at how much ground we’d covered. I could barely see the mall in the distance. It looked so tiny, like a foal’s toy from Equestria before the war. Turning, I looked up at the massive mountain.
I didn’t want to climb that thing. At all.
Lost walked up beside me and pressed herself against my side. “Feeling any better?” she asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I answered. “The conditioning popped up again. That’s all.” I looked back up the mountain. “Do we go up there?”
“Yup,” answered Rose.
I slumped, turning back to the others. “Okay, so... how do we get up there?”
“Well, the PipBuck said this was a campground. Is there a path up?” L.A. asked Rose.
Rose walked over with Fine Tune. “Yeah. This place was pretty popular back in the day, a nice getaway. It used to be a tourist spot for anypony who lived this side of Ponyville,” she explained. Cocking her head up to the side, she looked up and pointed a hoof at the peak. “I visited once. The entrance is up at the peak, it’s a cavern system that runs through the whole mountain in a big spiral. They named it after Starswirl.” She added under her breath, “Along with everything else.” Clearing her throat she continued. “That was two hundred years ago. I don’t know if a path up even still exists.”
“Well, we’re going to have to get up there somehow,” Lost muttered.
“What’s the path look like?” asked the changeling. “I can go look for it.”
“I haven’t been here since before the War broke out,” said the clone pony. “I don’t remember every detail, especially since all the old landmarks like which tree is what, and which rock was where, were all blown to shit by Balefire.”
She had a point. All around us was a whole lot of nothing. Even the mountain towering above us didn’t have any defined features like it would have when Equestria was around. In the darkness, all I could see was the massive outline against the clouds. I sighed.
“Let’s just hurry before the dragon finds us,” I said solemnly. I looked back at the sky behind us, skimming over it, praying to Celestia and Luna both, that I wouldn’t see the dark outline of wings flapping their way close to us.
“If we find the path, we’ll follow it with the PipBuck. Let’s get looking,” Lost said.
Fine Tune saluted, and his eyes began to glow brightly. He turned and trotted off toward the mountain’s base.
“Fuck!” I hissed, trying to keep my voice down. I pulled my hoof back from the edge and stared down. Were it not for the fact that I could feel ground under me, I’d have thought I was back in my nightmares, floating in a sea of nothingness. Gently, I set my hoof down and looked ahead at the darkness.
The wind had shifted the clouds above. Less light got through, making it impossible to see ahead of me. “I don’t like this path,” I said quietly, more to myself than anypony else. My side was pushed against the rocks, and I had to put one hoof directly in front of the other to keep from falling off the edge. I missed the lower parts of the pathway we were on, before it had thinned out to a narrow ledge covered in fallen rocks I kept slipping on, or the larger rocks I had to clamber over.
Through a combination of Fine Tune’s night vision and Rose’s vague memory of the old hoof trail up to the cavern entrance, we’d managed so far. Every step I took felt like it could be my last, since I couldn’t see anything in the darkness all around me now. Stupid wind, stupid pegasi, closing off the sky and blocking out all the light.
“I don’t either, but I can’t control rockslides that happened who knows how long ago,” said Rose. “If you don’t want to take this path, you can wait at the bottom of the mountain for us.” Well, the bottom of the mountain meant less chance of falling off the edge.
Every step brought my heart to a stop as I felt the rocks shift underneath my hooves. Having steel ones that couldn’t feel more than ‘you hit something, stop moving’ scared me to death. It wasn’t like I could go up the mountain backward.
Wind whipped around us, furling cloaks into the air and sending a chill up my spine. Nights in the Wasteland were always cold, and were it not for a safe spot to hunker down in, or a campfire to keep one warm, there was a the fear of not waking up the next morning. But this wind? This wind cut me to the bone, more so where the now ice cold metal of my steel hooves met my flesh.
If I could see at all, I’d have sworn my breath was frost.
“So, how much longer?” I thought out loud. I looked up and saw a whole lot more nothing. Miles above I could see the peak, a tiny little outline of darkness against clouds that let through only the tiniest specks of light.
“Not much,” answered Lost. Her voice was carried by the wind, and sounded like it was coming from all directions at once. “And be quiet, we’re running from a dra- Eep!” she screamed. Rocks shifted and clattered down below us.
“You okay?” I asked. My ears skewed side to side, listening for a thump or any noise indicating that she wasn’t perfectly fine.
“Yeah, I- I just slipped,” she answered. “I think we need a light...”
“No, you said it yourself. Dragon. We’re close. Just follow the mountain edge,” said Rose. Her voice carried, echoing against the mountainside in the moment of calm from the wind.
We kept walking, going terribly slow. I kept myself sane by counting the steps between each slip. The highest I got was three.
“Rock,” called back Fine Tune. He tapped the side of the mountain a few times with a hoof. The hollow sound echoed around, and I couldn’t quite tell where it came from.
“Be more specific?” I requested, yelling above a sudden gust of wind. It whipped my cloak around me, snapping the fabric against my sides and leaving it half above my head. “I can’t see shit!” I leaned hard against the rocks to my side, crouching down to keep from being blown clear off the side of the mountain.
“None of us can,” said L.A. Rocks skittered against rocks in front of me, followed by a grunt. “Dammit.” I heard the sound of hooves on loose stone, running.
“Sis?” I asked, pulling the cloak back down over my head. My weight shifted... “Fuck, fuck!” I yelled, my rear hooves sliding out from under me. Toppling sideways, I scrambled my hooves for something anything.
I jumped. My hooves clattered against pebbles. I kept jumping, praying the next time I landed I’d find my balance. Every landing, I pushed back off. The ground shifted under me. My balance went wide and I felt myself sliding off the path. “Lost. Lost! Help!” I yelled, shifting my weight hard to the other side. I prayed to the Goddesses I’d feel the rock wall against my side and not fall to my death.
The warm glow of my sister’s magic wrapped around me. “Hidden... Don’t move,” she said. Her eyes were wide, but I couldn’t see whether she was afraid or angry, since the dim glow of her horn put a glare on her glasses. Drops of sweat formed on her brow and she clenched her teeth.
I held perfectly still, not daring to disobey her. Slowly my balance returned, as she righted me back on the path. Before her horn cut out, I looked down.
“Thank you Celestia and Luna, for cheater magic,” I whispered. “I’d not be here right now without it.”
I looked down and prayed to find a way back down to the campground below. Instead, I only saw the jagged rocks of the cliffside fading to blackness. For the first time in my life, I wondered if there was a way to staple a pegasus’ wings to my back so I wouldn’t ever need to worry about falling off a cliff.
On the other hoof, I could just never go near cliffs again. That struck me as a much better plan. This entire adventure was absolute madness.
Following my brush with death, we moved slower. Rose spent most of the time grumbling, but she slipped the least. Her falls were the most obvious, because her horn would light up and she’d swear loud enough to cause an echo.
“I can transform and fly you up one at a time,” offered Fine Tune. He looked back at us, his eyes betraying his position. The two glowing orbs seemed to dance when he talked, slowly moving up and down with every word. “It’ll only take a minute or two.”
“Only if somepony falls. You catch them and fly them back up. We are trying to hide from a dragon, remember?” Lost asked. “We’re doing okay for now.” She took another few steps in the darkness, and sent more rocks down the mountainside below. “Just be ready to be the hero if we fall, then you can save us.”
“As you wish, my Queen,” he agreed, reluctance heavy in his voice. The glowing blue of his eyes disappeared as he turned around.
Ice cold wind sent my cloak up again, and I shivered as it cut through even my jacket and armor. I’d personally take the quick flight if he offered again, but Lost was my big sister and that meant she was in charge. Pushing the cloak back down with a hoof, I looked up again. I could barely see the edge of the mountain’s shadow above me. It just seemed to blend into the sky, stretching higher and higher the longer I looked. Despite all the walking, all the slips, and all the wind, I couldn’t tell if we’d made any progress. It still looked so far away. Leaning against the wall of stone beside me, I looked out at the landscape beyond.
Far off in the distance, I could see specks of light, dotting the landscape. They seemed so small, off in the distance so impossibly far away. Some were faint and flickering, most likely camp fires set by ponies who didn’t have real homes. The C-building, on the same edge of the valley as us, showed the most life, with the flashing lights on the edge of the sign giving off the most light around. It was too bad we were now behind it, and the light didn’t go far enough. Darkness still surrounded me, as if it wanted to choke the life from me. What I wouldn’t give to turn the PipBuck on so I could see just a little.
I suddenly felt sick, realizing just how isolated from everything we were. If one little thing went wrong, we could die and nopony would even find us. I tried to comprehend just how much space sat between us and the closest thing to civilization, and I couldn’t. There was so much emptiness all around, miles and miles of pure black all around where the only thing left was the open pits that used to be basements, full of feral ponies and rotten bat-things.
The silence around me sent a chill down my spine. Were it not for the whisper of the wind and the hooffalls nearby, I would have felt lost in the void.
I looked back at the mountain, at the size of the peak looming overhead. Once again, my legs went weak underneath me. Sitting down slowly, I stared out at the Wasteland before me. Even entering Buckatello, I wasn’t able to appreciate how truly small I was in the great big expansive world around me. It could have been miles that we traveled so far tonight, and I’d never be able to tell exactly... I just knew that the lights from the mall we’d left, even the lights from the ‘closer’ landmarks were just miniscule and so incredibly far away.
The mountain that towered over me might reach to the sky, but I was just one tiny little pony. One little pony trying to go somewhere that no others had traveled, by hoof, in two centuries. How many more hours would it take to walk up? I turned and started up the trail again, pretending to think about something, anything, else.
“There’s a turn up here,” said Fine Tune. He clopped his hoof three times against the rocks. The glowing blue of his eyes appeared and he cocked his head to the side. Then he disappeared completely, around the curve of the mountain and out of sight.
“Thanks,” whispered Lost, walking off behind him. Her faint outline disappeared completely. Thank the Goddesses Rose and I could follow the sound of their hooffalls against the stone.
I followed, behind L.A. and Rose, stepping over stones and resting my hooves gently down to keep from slipping. I kicked rocks away to find solid ground, and looked ahead. My ears skewed forward, I followed by sound.
Rose rounded the corner and the sound of her hooves faded. She screamed, “Fuck!” The sound of rocks and hooves on the stone clattered noisily.
I rounded the corner in time to see the cloak-covered form of the clone mare topple off the edge of the mountainside.
“Rose!” I shouted, ignoring the need to keep quiet. Running and jumping, I dropped and reached off the edge. My hooves flailed, as I tried to grab her from the air.
She stared up at me, her eyes wide and full of terror. Against all the things we’d decided, all the stealthy hiding, not using spells or PipBucks for light, to stay hidden... Her horn lit up and she threw the grenade rifle into the air.
I grabbed the barrel of the gun in my forehooves and held on as tightly as I could. I slid, my belly dragging against the jagged little rocks between me and the stone path. Clenching my eyes shut and biting back against the pain, I curled my hooves and held the gun in my fetlocks.
“Thank you,” whispered the clone.
I opened my eyes and looked. The strap she used to hold the gun on her back was hooked around her foreleg, just barely twisted at her curled hoof and caught in the fetlock. She hung at my mercy, and with a single flick of my hooves, I could drop her to her death and we’d be free of her blackmailing and her escorting. I nodded, and held on for dear life.
A sound that shook me to my soul carried its way across the wind. The beating of wings, slowly getting louder, overtook everything. In the distance, against the dimly lit cloud cover, a massive shadow approached. Great golden eyes looked over the horizon, casually scanning before looking down at the claws only he could see. His voice carried across the winds, “...promise I’ll treat you well. Just call out to me.” Was he talking to himself?
“What’s going- Oh, fuck,” whispered Lost. She stared at Rose and me, but tore herself away the second the dragon’s voice hit her ears. She dropped down to the ground, curling against the stone wall and pulling the cloak tightly against herself. In the distance, Fine Tune did the same.
I followed her lead, shaking my head so the hood fell to cover my face and muzzle, and stared up through a small gap where the fabric folded. Every shake terrified me, as the subtle shift might be all it took to make me slide off the edge of the world with her. The gun shifted and slid in my hooves, still slick from the ooze and blood from the ponies and rotbats I’d killed, making me grip it tighter and pull as hard as I could to keep from losing her forever. I looked down at Rose and said, my voice barely audible to even myself, “Sorry...”
The dragon flew by, forearms up and counting his treasure in his claws. Little flecks of gold reflected the dull glow of his eyes, as he picked up the pieces with his claws and dropped them back down. It seemed more like he was taunting me, daring me to go after it. Had he seen the look of desire I had when he first appeared?
“I know you’re coming,” he said, his voice rumbling and carrying across the distance. Still he flew closer. He didn’t look up at us, and simply passed by in the air. “You can make this go faster.” He moved to another spot on the mountain, far on the other side from us. “Wherever you are, I’ve been around a long time... I know what your kind is like.” He landed at the campground below.
The steel of the barrel slipped. Metal hooves weren’t the best for holding against metal guns. The band that held the wooden stock to the barrel caught in the joint between hoof and leg, and I squeezed my legs together.
Rose whispered something to me. It was too quiet to make out, but I knew she’d begged me not to drop her. Why shouldn’t I though? She’d lived a longer life than most ponies could ever dream of, and she was the copy of a mare who had us by the tails. One ‘slip’ and we’d be free of the little problem... We could run back to Idle and save the mares and be done. No more Rose, and no more jagged rocks digging into me.
I looked down, watching as the dragon walked around the old empty camps below. He stopped every now and then, lifted his snout up and snorted smoke. “Come now, my little ponies. My cave isn’t so bad,” he teased, growling between each word. Wings flapping, he took to the air once more, and circled around the mountain above us. His movements were slow, as he looked through the darkness for us. “Life as property is nice. I promise. I bring presents, you sort them for me.” He flew upward, turning to look over the plains we’d just run through.
Did that mean he kept them alive?
I didn’t have time to think about that right now. I pulled as hard as I could, working my hind legs side to side to pull myself back up. I looked over at my sister. “Please,” I whispered. “I need help...” My legs didn’t ache from the weight. In fact, I couldn’t really feel anything in them from all the exertion.
Frantically, Rose looked back and forth between me and where I’d looked at Lost. Bending her leg, she pulled herself up, and hooked her other fetlock into the strap. It made the gun shift, and I lost my grip. Her eyes widened as the strap moved and her fetlock fell free.
I imagined her falling, hitting the ground, as if it were actually happening before my eyes. Gritting my teeth, I pulled my numb hooves closer together and squeezed the gun. I couldn’t drop it. She might be a bitch, but she’d become a friend in the time we’d known her. She wasn’t that bad.
We needed her to help stop the dragon anyway. If Xeno really was alive, if she’d survived the collapse of the Solaris building, we’d need Rose’s help to get her free. And maybe others were trapped too, and better four of us save them than three.
But how would we stop a dragon?
“Sneaky little pests,” mused the dragon, one claw going up to scratch at his throat. “I’ll get you yet... I always do.” He flew off, the dark shadow across the sky getting smaller and smaller. As he disappeared into the distance, he started his speech again, “I know you’re coming. You can make this...” His voice faded, but he probably meant for the speech to be heard wherever we might be.
The second the dragon turned away, Lost jumped. She waved to Fine Tune, who followed her. Lost stood to my side, her horn glowing and wrapping the blue aura of her magic around Rose, just past her forelegs around her barrel. “We need to hurry,” Lost said, her voice straining. “We don’t know if he’ll turn around again.”
“Umm, umm, okay!” answered Fine Tune. Rather than add his magic to the group, he instead transformed. With a blinding wreath of green fire, he did the riskiest thing possible. Transforming back into his changeling form, his thin wings flittered, and he dove off the edge of the pathway. He grabbed onto Rose, and together the three of us pulled and lifted until I could wrap my legs around her. With the scrambling of hooves and the shifting of bodies, we managed to get her back onto the ledge.
“I should have stayed in Idle,” rasped Rose through her teeth as she hyperventilated. Taking the grenade rifle back in her hooves, she hugged it so tight her legs started to turn white. She nuzzled it, before looking up at the three of us. “Thank you,” she said, sounding truly sincere for the first time since I’d met her.
“It’s what friends do,” I said. “Kindness, right?” Offering a hoof, I pulled her back onto her hooves.
“Let’s just get up there as quick as we can,” she said as she righted herself. Throwing the grenade rifle back over her shoulder, she started forward again, but this time much, much slower.
“Better late than never,” Lost sighed.
“How long has it been?” I whined, quietly. While my hooves and legs hadn’t started to ache from the long climb up, I’d gotten more than tired of running the same hoofful of worries about whether Xeno would be okay or not through my head. Eventually I settled on the fact that I’d find out when I found out, and not a second sooner. That didn’t do much to silence the worries in the back of my mind. I was actually surprised the little nagging claws and whispering voices weren’t toying with my emotions about it. I wasn’t about to ask them to start, either.
“It doesn’t matter. We’re nearly there,” answered Lost. She spoke just above a whisper, and looked over the edge of the path toward the darkness of the field beyond.
I did too, just in case. If the dragon decided to arrive now, it could spell disaster.
“I can see the cavern entrance!” said Fine Tune, chirping loudly afterward.
“SHH!” Lost and I both hissed at the same time.
“Finally,” Rose whispered. She hadn’t said much since her brush with death, and to hear her actually talk with us was a relief. The remainder of the trip she’d kept her head down, moved slowly, and muttered to herself about clones and the original Rose. Out of privacy for her complicated ‘life,’ I decided not to eavesdrop.
The four of us walked up the last few yards to a flat ledge. On the one side was the massive entrance to the caverns within, and on the opposite side lay the ruins of a wall. At one point, it had been used as a lookout for ponies sight-seeing, but now the mechanisms lay shattered and without the wall. Standing too close to the ledge could only lead to another scare like the one we’d had down below. The best part though, was the fact that we could see and stand on a flat surface.
Light shined from inside the cavern, dull and soft. It cast no true shadow, but came from deep within and out of sight. The four of us trotted forward and into the dim glow of whatever lit up the inside. The floor of the cave was trodden smooth, with only the slightest of steps at long intervals that led down a twisting corridor. Lining both sides of the cave walls were what could only be the homes from the valley. The fronts of each building faced us, with the window glass missing and the doors jammed shut. Through holes in the sides, and through the windows, I saw mountains of trash and old-world possessions more than likely pilfered by the dragon over the past few decades.
We walked past the houses slowly, and I gently lowered by steel hooves to keep the noise down. None of us spoke, instead listening both forward and back for any signs of life, or for the dragon’s return. From deep in the caverns came the quiet echo of something. It sounded almost like voices, but whatever they were, I couldn’t make them out.
Once there’d been guardrails to keep ponies safe and within specific areas, but they now lay on the ground, flattened by dragon claws and smashed so far down they’d become a part of the floor, only shown by their differing color. The light seemed to shine from everywhere and nowhere, and I wondered exactly how it worked. I figured the dragon probably snatched up unicorns and had things enchanted with their cheater magic to produce light.
What I really wanted was to pry one of the wedged-shut doors off one of the smooshed homes and dig through. It was obvious the dragon had just pushed and shoved until the side walls splintered, leaving what should have been homes that housed entire families of ponies as thin slivers of their former selves. It left us with lots of room to walk through, but felt eerie all the same. I could see all sorts of things inside the houses through the windows and gaps where the siding had broken off. Beds, the legs of chairs or couches or tables, clothing, and a myriad of other household items poked through, held in place only because there was just so much stuffed into such a small place.
I wanted to dig through it so bad. It was all I could do to keep myself from drooling onto the floor. I could practically smell value here. While the dragon was certainly trouble for us, he had good taste in that he snatched up everything. Surely something valuable passed his gaze. I could dig for months and never see the end. At one point I tried counting the number of homes smashed together against the walls, but lost count once I passed fifty.
“Does the map say how deep this cavern goes?” I asked, finally snapping myself back to reality.
“No, it just shows Starswirl Caverns,” L.A. answered. She looked at the PipBuck, then shook her head. “I found a Local Map setting, but that just shows what it looks like around us, zoomed in really close. So all I see is the outline of the mountain.”
“If memory serves, these caverns go through this whole section of the unicorn mountains,” mused Rose. “Now, the last time I was here was two and a half centuries ago, and it wasn’t even really me.” She shrugged, finally pulling down the hood of her cloak and shaking her mane free. “There were three main caverns that branched out from the entrance. They wind around for miles though.”
“So... We could be down here for weeks searching?” I asked nopony in particular.
“Let’s just say the guardrails were there for a reason,” answered the mare. “If a pony got lost down here, they might never find the surface again, without help.”
We rounded another corner, only to find more old Equestrian houses smashed up against walls and filled to the brim with things that were centuries old. I could see down the tunnel a short ways that one of the walls disappeared.
“We might be able to see something from there,” Fine Tune said, having seen it as well. He pointed a hoof in the same direction I was going. He looked down at his extended black hoof and rolled his eyes. Green fire flashed around him, casting a tint to all the lights around us, and turning the entire cavern green for a split second. When it faded, the blue-coated unicorn stallion with the spiky red mane looked at me. “Let’s go!” he said happily.
The four of us trotted down, and the sound of murmuring voices echoing along the walls got louder and louder. With a spot to look down below in our reach, it became clear that we just might find Xeno and end this without a problem.
What we would do with any other survivors of the dragon’s, well, I had no idea.
Clambering to the ledge, the four of us looked down. A smile formed on Lost’s lips, and Fine Tune let out a celebratory chirp. Even Rose looked happy at our discovery.
Below, surrounded by a cavern with several branching caves, lay a massive pile of gold and bits. Mixed in with the gold were gems and other treasures I couldn’t even identify from where I stood. The hoard reflected the pale light back up at us, and looked so incredibly magnificent. Were it not for the fear I’d break my neck landing a jump from so high up, I’d have dived in and swam through the bits.
“Xeno!” yelled Lost at the top of her voice. It echoed across the cavern walls, coming back and repeating several times. She held a hoof to the side of her mouth and yelled again. “Xeno!”
The quiet echoing of voices below went completely silent. Seconds later, from the various caves, and even from some of the houses pressed against the wall, emerged ponies, zebras, and all sorts of other creatures. I recognized one changeling, and even saw a few buffalo. As a group, they looked up, and gaped at us. From one of the caves walked Xeno, limping slightly. A large group of foals surrounded her, each with stripes tinted ever so slightly by the light coming from the caves themselves.
They bowed to the ground, pressing their muzzles down and closing their eyes. Only Xeno stood, staring up at us. She waved a hoof, before one of the foals latched onto her and pulled her down to the ground.
“About time,” rumbled a voice behind us. “Welcome."
Footnote: Level Up!
New Perk: Explorer – Wait. You call yourself a treasure hunter, and you're just now getting this? We went over this with the Scrounger perk ages ago! Look, you gain +10 to Survival, and you get a bonus to finding 'special encounters' and hidden places. Don't spend it all in one place.
New Perk: Shadowtrot – You have mastered silent and subtle movement, allowing you to move quickly while still remaining quiet and unseen. You gain +5 to Sneak and you can Sneak at full speed with no penalties. You gain additional bonuses to Sneak when in poor visibility conditions, up to a maximum of +5.
“Lost, I want it. I want it all.”
“No, Hidden, we’re here for a reason.”
“I know but I want it. Look at all the treasure. We could be rich forever! We’d never have to adventure another day in our lives.”
“You like adventuring, and do you think it’s a good idea to steal from a dragon?”
“Depends on the dragon, the ones in the War would fuck you up. You need to catch them while they’re asleep.”
“Okay, how do we give a dragon a nap?”
“Crii... I liked the idea of treasure, we could buy all the slaves and free them.”
“See! Perfect plan!”
“Except for the dragon part...”