• Published 8th Oct 2012
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Fallout Equestria: Viva Las Pegasus - S3rb4n



A story of rise and fall set up in the post-apocalyptic city of New Pegasus

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Chapter 10: Self Control

Chapter 10: Self Control

“Is this on? Good, in that case I’ll start. My name is Bayou Cheval Leblanc, although everypony here calls me Auntie. Actually, I don’t think my name is of any importance here, since my name is well known to the only ones that will be able to hear this log after I have... well, after I have become a monster like the ones we fear so much.

I’ve had a long life, which has given me the opportunity to think long about what happened to our world and about what drove us into this madness, and what worries me the most is that I haven’t been able to find a convincing answer. Everything has gone so wrong that I fear that all the good in this world has vanished.

As I am recording this, I am watching myself in the mirror. I used to be a pretty mare a long ago. Even some years before the Flood took place, being elderly as I was, I still retained a bit of elegance and class; but now I can’t recognize myself. My mane is falling apart, my coat has started to become frail and dim, and my teeth are rotting from the inside out.

It’s not a new phenomenon to me. I’ve seen many of my friends and neighbors succumb to the multiple threats of radiation: all kinds of disease, fever, mutation, madness, and finally this. We are turning into something that reminds me of the old horror movies, those undead monsters that ate the ponies’ brains. Will we end up like that?

I suppose this is justice. Karma, equality, universal balance, call it what you want; but I think we deserved it. When I was young, things were different. We weren’t so proud, so arrogant. We welcomed the different, we valued sharing and caring. Now we kill each other because of the stripes or the flat coat.

When the Flood came, we celebrated our survival. We cheered and sung, because the tidal waves of death had spared us; but then we faced the hard truth. We had to start from scratch, having to live in an environment that had suddenly become alien and hostile; and having to rebuild our homes, which had been swallowed by the water. Since then, every day has become a struggle for survival.

And I ask myself, what for? The city is dead, our families and neighbors are dead, and the few that survived are turning into something we don’t want to become. I am starting to think that our punishment is having to endure in this world. Many days I get out of bed after a sleepless night, wishing the tidal wave had taken me as well. I just want to find peace and rest my weary bones, and I am quite sure that many of us think the same. Until then, we have no other choice than to carry on. Auntie out.”

With a subtle click, the recording ended.

I found myself looking blankly into an unknown point in the middle of the green dome above us, meditating about the words of Auntie. I still thought that she and her neighbors were nothing else than freaks of nature, walking abominations out of the laws of logic; disgusting creatures that had no point on existing. However, this recording had shown me there was, or had been, a pony behind the eldritch beast she had turned into.

The recording conveyed such sadness, such sorrow, that I felt my heart squirm. Her voice showed how much she had lost in the War, starting with the world she knew and ending up with her ponykind. I still planned to take them out, but it wasn’t out of hatred... it was out of mercy. She was asking for it, wanting to find peace in the only way she would find it in her condition. Nopony deserved to turn into a feral, blabbering beast.

It seemed that all of us had been touched to some point by the story of Auntie’s life. Nadyr looked to the ruins among us with an absent expression, while Rose was looking at her hooves with a worried face.

“It must have been so hard...” Rose muttered.

“I agree. But you already know life is hard, don’t you, Rose?” I asked gently. “You’ve been through your share of sorrow and suffering as well.”

“Yes, but I don’t think it’s nearly comparable to what they had to endure.”

“Everypony’s life is difficult in the Wastelands, Rose. I don’t see the point in comparing. If your intention is to feel bad because your life has been easier, go ahead, but don’t expect me to follow you.”

“Farsight’s right, missy.” Nadyr spoke with evident disdain in his voice. “Don’t compare yourself with anypony. Each one of us has a story, and none of them are happy ones. The Wasteland makes us all equal, more or less.”

“Equally disgraceful.” I added.

“Exactly. Now, if you don’t mind, how about we get moving? I’m starting to grow roots here!” Nadyr grumbled.

“All right, all right. Let’s go.”

I focused on the engine and my horn glowed dimly with a blue aura. The engine stuttered and started buzzing and vibrating. Soon, the small boat was moving at a light pace, surrounding the large island that was Harmony Hill. The vessel was a small craft, nimble and easy to handle; but it was also frail. I had to move rather slowly to avoid hitting any of the many obstacles that came out of the water.

The outskirts of Neighorleans were a flooded labyrinth of crumbled pillars and twisted beams, a true ordeal to cross safely. Even if the center of the sunken city was so close that we could almost touch it with our hooves, the path to get there was slow and tortuous. We had to drive the boat through narrow passages and across stretches of shallow waters, where a wrong move could leave us shipwrecked.

That wasn’t the only thing that worried me about the swamp. We all had grown used to the constant clicking sound of my PipBuck, but the truth was that the radiation was there, slowly undermining our health. Time was of the essence. Besides, there was something else, something that moved underwater, and that was definitely following us.

I tried not to think about whatever lurked beneath us, but according to Nadyr’s description of the local fauna, it would either burn us, poison us or eat us alive in a matter of seconds. It was a rather unpleasant perspective. However, there was fairly little we could do. I am a good shooter, rather good actually; but I can’t expect to hunt down an enemy I can’t see. In fact, I was wondering if it was my imagination tricking me.

“Nadyr...” I said.

“Yes, I’ve seen it. Keep moving and get us out of this labyrinth.”

“What is following us?”

“Are.”

“Are?”

“As in ‘they are’; we’re being followed by a swarm of them.” Nadyr was starting to sweat. I had never seen him that nervous.

“A swarm of what?” Rose asked, worried.

“Just get us out! I’ll explain later! MOVE!”

I put the boat engine on full power and the small vessel darted forward. The world curled into a tunnel of concrete walls and water floor as the boat navigated through the ruins at full speed. My senses concentrated on guiding the boat out of the labyrinth and away of our unseen enemy. Nadyr screamed ‘left’ or ‘right’ every now and then, trying to help me anticipate the coming turns, while Rose had crouched and formed a shaking ball in the middle of the boat.

The walls seemed to be closer minute by minute, as it appeared that we had chosen the narrowest way out of the maze of crumbled buildings. I had the feeling that it was only a matter of time that we crashed the boat, as I was having more and more trouble keeping it away from the towering ruins around us.

“Nadyr!” I yelled above the whizzing noise of air at high speed. “Are you sure this is the way out?”

“What is wrong?”

“This is narrow as fuck, Nadyr! I can’t keep the boat away from the walls!”

“Damn, Farsight! We’re almost out of this one! Keep it up for a sec!”

“That’s what I am trying, Nadyr, but I just can’t keep it straight anymore!”

“LOOK OUT!!!” Rose yelled suddenly.

I managed to get a glimpse of what Rose had warned us about. We were heading straight for a wall at full speed! I tried to steer the boat away, but we were too close, moving too fast. Impact was inevitable, so I ducked and prayed for a quick death. They say your life flashes before your eyes in these situations, but I can prove you wrong. The only thing I saw was a green wall coming closer and closer...

*** *** ***

“You all OK?” Nadyr asked.

“Just a bit shaken, that is all.” I replied.

“I’m fine.” Rose nodded.

We had been lucky, as lucky as one could be in these cases. The wall we had crashed into was made out of wood instead of concrete or bricks. Therefore, the boat had just punched a big hole through it and we had made it rather unharmed. At the moment, we and the boat were standing on a crackled wooden floor, trying to catch our breath after the rush of adrenaline we had been through.

Apparently, we had broken into the remains of a ruined apartment building, as the room we had landed in was decorated with a king size bed and some drawers. The far end of the building had crumbled as well, and we could see the rest of the swamp from our position. We would only have to drag the boat across the room and to the other shore, so to speak.

“Everypony stay on the boat.” Nadyr warned.

“Why? We’re not on water.” I replied.

“Oh, and what is that thin layer of fluid on the floor? In my hood, that’s called water.”

“Yes, but the water isn’t deep enough for the boat to make it through. We need to drag it forward.”

“They’re still behind us. We can’t risk it.”

“Risk it? Do you hear this annoying click, Nadyr?” I pointed at my PipBuck. “This is radiation, which is ALREADY killing us! We need to spend the least time possible in Neighorleans, and this means we’re going to have to get the boat back on deep water.”

“But we will alert them if we get on the water!”

“Nadyr, how do they know we’re here?” Rose asked. “Since the water is so thick and dark, I doubt they can actually see at a long range.”

That was smart. Very smart. Very well thought.

“Well, I have the hunch that they can feel the vibration on the water surface, or they have some sort of sonar...”

“In any case, I am much lighter than you two. Maybe they won’t notice me.”

“It’s the best option, I reckon. Well, the least bad one, but you won’t be able to drag the boat with the two of us on it.” I said.

“Hm... I’ll go check the drawers. Maybe I can find something heavy enough to create a good distraction, so we can move the boat.”

With a skip and a hop, Rose jumped out of the boat and quickly walked on the shallow layer of water that barely wetted the wooden floor of the room. Her target were the old drawers in one of the corners. Suddenly, the sound of rustling water filled the air.

“What the hell is that sound?”

“I am afraid that Rose’s plan has failed.” Nadyr grunted. “Cock your guns, Farsight. We’re going to have to use them.”

I pulled out my rifle and checked the magazine. Loaded and ready to fire, as I always took care to have. Nadyr unholstered his revolver and checked the ammunition, then he closed the barrel and grabbed the hilt in his mouth.

“Farsight? Nadyr?” Rose asked, worried about our reaction. “What is going on?”

“Get back on the boat, Rose.” Nadyr’s voice sounded stern and dark. “Don’t waste a single second.”

“Why?”

“Get to high ground, Rose. Something is coming.”

Right when I issued the warning, a blast of water filled the room, as if another tidal wave had hit us from behind; and a swarm of little, horrid creatures surrounded Rose. Their appearance was eldritch, like out of a deranged mind’s nightmare: imagine a purple and green lizard as tall as your knees, add the fact that it has six heads with six mouths and lots of sharp teeth; and you’ll have the picture of the creatures that had been following us all the way to this showdown.

“What are these things?” Rose yelled, scared stiff. Nadyr dropped the gun from his mouth.

“They’re called scyllids, missy, and if you want to get out alive, you’d better climb to that bed!” Nadyr pointed at the old, mushy mattress.

Rose leapt aside to get over the seven or eight lizards surrounding her, but she tripped and fell to the floor. The swarm of scyllids opened and closed their maws in a macabre display of eagerness for pony meat.

“ROSE!” I yelled and drew my rifle. There was a high chance of hitting the filly, but something had to be done swiftly, or the lizards would eat her alive.

“Watch out, Farsight, you might hit her if you miss.” Nadyr warned me.

“I know...” I sighed in despair. “Rose! Don’t worry, I’m getting you out of there!”

I activated S.A.T.S. with the hope of seeing clearly where Rose was, in order to avoid hitting her. Suddenly, the overflow of marked contours made me blink twice. It was a damn swarm alright. Luckily for me, the green contour of Desert Rose shone clearly over the mass of small red shapes. I just had to aim my hollow rounds to those bastards far enough from Rose. That, and hope for the best, since I didn’t know what would happen after I fired my rifle. What I did know for certain, though, was that if I lost too much time Rose would be done for, so I breathed deep, rose my second prayer of the hour, and pulled the trigger.

BLAM!

A couple of scyllids burst into a cloud of crimson ichor as the hollow round broke into a myriad of metal shreds upon impact. The sound of their brethren’s death cries and the smell of their freshly spilled blood, as well as the echoing roar of my rifle distracted the purple and green predators from nomming Rose, who managed to get back up on her hooves and stagger towards the bed. She had been bitten in many places, and she even carried one or two heads of a stray scyillid hanging from one of her legs. Blood caked her coat, and her cloak had been torn to shreds.

With Rose standing above the group of pests, it was easier to take them down, and Nadyr joined the fray. With his revolver tightly held in her mouth, he aimed at the mass of lizards that regrouped on the floor. This time, they were heading for me, as they reckoned I was their biggest threat at the moment. Those bastards were smart, I had to admit that.

BLAM!

My rifle roared once again, and the group of wild purple creatures was heavily maimed by the blast. However, instead of making the rest back off, the ruthless massacre of their kin made them charge with greater anger at us.

“These bastards won’t give up!” I yelled.

“AIM LOW!” Nadyr barked. “FORGET THE HEADS!”

Forget the heads, right. Taking into account that the lizards had six of them, forgetting about the almost hypnotic movement of the scyllids’ heads was no easy task. However, I had been successful in shooting them down with my hollow rounds.

BLAM!

The shot went a bit high and it cut two heads of the nearest lizard cleanly off its body. The other four heads looked at the wound for an instant, and then hissed at me in anger. Even if there were only a few of them, they had us actually cornered in the boat.

BLAM!

I missed. The four-headed scyllid looked at me and croaked in something that resembled a laugh. Even the local fauna made fun of our lack of adaptation.

“No! It hurts!” Rose was crying on the bed, bleeding profusely from a wound on the lower neck. One of the lizards had been able to grasp her body and was starting to have meal, courtesy of the filly.

“Nadyr! Lizard on the bed, with Rose!”

“GOT IT!”

BANG! BANG! BANG!

Three shots in a quick volley cut the most of the necks of the scyllid that was trying to nom Rose, and the little predator fell to the mattress, convulsing in pain. Rose wailed in suffering, making me consume myself in anguish. I needed to help her, but the remaining reptiles had us pinned in the vessel. Sticking my hoof out would turn me into prey.

“Farsight! Two together, one o’clock!” Nadyr roared. Indeed, two lizards were very close to each other.

BLAM!

The hollow round of my rifle turned the two scyllids into purple goo. I let go a small grumble of satisfaction as I saw the remaining predators flinch at the roar of my rifle. Just two to go now, one of them being the one with four heads.

“Take the left!” Nadyr roared.

That meant I was going to face my scaled nemesis, the one that had mocked me before. Nadyr had centered his crosshairs on the remaining scyllid, and gave me a commanding look. Fire when ready.

BLAM! BANG!

Two roars at the same time, two bullets hurled at full speed, two mutated creatures leaving this world. We were finally free of those dangerous inhabitants of the swamp.

“Is it over?” I grumbled.

“For now...” Nadyr sighed. “We’ve only taken out a pack of them, but there are many more hiding in the swamp. It’s only a matter of time until other scyllids find us.”

“In that case, I think the best will be to get moving.”

“I agree. What happened to Rose?”

“She is lying on the bed right now... I suppose she has passed out. Start moving the boat, I am going to check on her.”

“Hey, why don’t you move the boat and I go check on Rose?”

“You said earlier that you were the muscle and I was the brain of this group, right? Well, use that muscle and find us a way out! I’ll use my brain and my magic to heal Rose.” I smiled smugly.

“Ugh. Me and my big muzzle.” Nadyr facehoofed and jumped out of the boat. I leapt out as well and galloped to the bed, where Rose had eventually blacked out.

*** *** ***

Rose looked rather bad, with her camouflage cloak torn to shreds by the attack of the mutant lizards, and with her small body full of bleeding bite wounds. Some of them had started clogging already, but some others had torn flesh and fur apart and needed to be taken care of. Ironies of destiny, the healer of our party was the one in need of medical aid.

I had no actual knowledge on medicine or magical healing, so I felt totally out of place while looking at the wounded filly. With my heart beating faster each second, I tried to think calmly and decide what to do with her. She was unconscious but breathing, which was a good place to start; but some of the wounds looked rather nasty, and the blood was already starting to form a small pool of crimson on the mattress.

I looked at Rose’s saddlebag, which had been gnawed by the scyllids without much success. Rose was the one carrying the few medical supplies we could muster, so if there was something I could use to heal her, it would be stored in there.

“Let’s see...” I said, almost stuttering. “Bandages... check. Painkillers... check. Needle and thread? Oh, I guess that’s for sewing cuts together. Sleep pills... Who takes sleep pills? Rose?”

I picked a couple of bandage rolls and started spreading them out clumsily. I had the feeling of being doing something wrong, and that sensation made me doubt before taking any step. Once again, that was like a hammer to my head. I started panicking once again. I had no idea about what to do. I had no healing skills. But I had to do something... Or Rose... Urgh. I needed to think straight.

“AW, CRAP!” I stomped the floor in rage, cracking some of the wooden boards in the process.

“What’s wrong, Farsight?” Nadyr asked from the other end of the room. The boat was already waiting on the other shore, ready for us to leave. We just needed to patch Rose up and we’d be good to go, but I was incapable of doing anything.

“I just have no idea what I’m doing!” I roared.

“Just cover the biggest wounds and bring her over! If we stand here for too long, there will be more scyllids coming for us.”

The threat of having to face another horde of those small scaly monsters acted like a spark in my brain, solving the deadlock I had driven myself into. Trying not to lose any minute, I patched Rose up as good as my null knowledge of healing and medicine allowed me to; in order to leave the ruined building as soon as possible. Needless to say I felt pathetic while tightly rolling meters of bandage around Rose’s wounded body in a highly inefficient way, but with the certainty of an attack if I took too long those feelings were something I would have to live with.

Nadyr looked utterly nervous on the boat, both by the ever growing chance of coming across another flock of scyllids and by the small distance to our goal. Every now and then, he would look at me with an expression that urged me to hurry up, which didn’t contribute to my effectivity. As much as I liked having the half-zebra around, that facet of his personality was rather uncomfortable. When something was interesting for him, he would trample over anything that stood in his way. The only reason he didn’t leave Rose behind was because there was a hint of honor in him; but that wouldn’t stop him from bickering constantly.

“Are you done yet?” he yelled. “I’m leaving you two here, I swear to Celestia!”

“Nadyr, you’re not letting me concentrate!” I growled. “I’m almost done, dammit. Besides, you need magic to move the boat, so give me a minute, alright?”

“I’ve given you a hell of a lot of minutes, bro.” Nadyr grinned with irony. “Just bring her over. You don’t need to mummify her, Farsight, what you’ve done should be enough.”

I looked at Rose and saw the amount of bandages I had rolled around her. Indeed, Nadyr had a point when he mentioned I was about to mummify the little filly, so I packed the remaining medical supplies back into her saddlebag and with help of my telekinesis I put her on my back. She was surprisingly light weighted, and the short trip from the bed to the boat was less of a challenge than what I had expected. The half-zebra greeted us with a sarcastic smirk and a bow, to which I paid absolutely no attention; and I used my magic to power the engine. Time to go.

*** *** ***

I navigated the small vessel with an eye on the horizon and the other on Rose, as I was worried sick about her status. Nadyr was checking up on her constantly, but neither him nor I had the necessary knowledge to do anything more than praying to the Goddesses for her recovery. Silently, I cursed the idea of coming to this green hell, while I drove the boat around the remains of a high-rise building; a true labyrinth of rusted steel beams and crackled concrete slabs that tested my skill to the point of breakdown.

However, the piloting was almost automatic, as all my thoughts gravitated around Rose and our plan; which was rather simple. Explore, loot, return, profit; simple guidelines to get rich rather quickly; but they didn’t contemplate the situation the environment had driven us into. Neighorleans was a tough place for the healthy, so there’s no way a wounded pony could do it through this ordeal.

“Nadyr...” I mumbled. “Do you think it’s reasonable to carry on?”

The half-zebra looked at me as if he was looking at an alien.

“Farsight, are you fucking serious? We haven’t come this far to turn around right now, have we? Look!” he pointed forward, to the shadows of central Neighorleans. “We can almost reach out and grab the loot!”

“Yes...” I sighed. “You’re right, Nadyr, we’re almost there, but I’m very afraid about Rose. She’s still unconscious, and we can’t just leave her alone out here! Needless to say that we can’t drag her around like a meat puppet, either.”

“We’ll have to do something with her, Farsight... we can’t just leave.” Nadyr looked worried too, which made me feel a bit more of sympathy towards him. “I know you care about Rose, damn, I do too, but this is bigger than all of us. There won’t be another chance, and you know it.”

“Why don’t we turn around and head to Maretairie? I bet they will have something that we can use.”

“Oh, you’re suggesting that? Farsight, do you remember what brought us here? It was your big, fancy plan to climb the ladder!”

“Yes, so what? You seemed all fired up about having found Neighorleans!” I roared.

“Of course I was!” Nadyr gave me an angry look. “Because I know that there’s a big loot to be found here! Neighorleans hosts the last unsearched Bank Of Equestria!”

“So that’s why you wanted to come so badly.” I hissed. “Everything adds up rather clearly now.”

“No, it doesn’t add up, Farsight, not in the way you think it does. I wouldn’t have pressed to cross the portal if you hadn’t needed it; I just did so because it was beneficial to the both of us, for your plan and for my purposes.”

“Well, if it’s beneficial for your purposes, it will keep being beneficial even if we return to secure Rose’s life. That’s more important than money to me.”

“Money, Farsight? You haven’t understood a thing. I’m talking about your plan, bro. Your time is running out, and if we don’t act quickly the NER will forget about you!”

He was right, and I grunted in frustration. Indeed, we had been through quite a lot of trouble to get to the lost city, and I was suggesting we turned around. It was reasonable to be against that idea, and part of my mind wanted to push forward; but the other part was too worried about Rose. Come to think of it, I was starting to see Rose as a sort of daughter; taking great care about her wellness and her growth as a mare. That very vision was what conflicted with my plans and my logic, putting me in such a dilemma.

“Shit!” I spat in anger. “I know, and once again, I feel useless!”

“Useless?” Nadyr smiled peacefully. “Bro, you’re far from useless; but you’ll have to learn that you can’t be the best in every single thing you come across. Anyway, you’re good at thinking, so think in a way of making ends meet here!”

Nadyr gave me a friendly pat in the head when he said those last words, and I couldn’t help to feel my worries dilute a bit. I looked at Rose, still lying unconscious on the boat floor, and I tried to figure out a way of exploring the Neighorleans ruins without leaving Rose exposed to the local predators; and while my mind was convulsively trying to come out with a good solution, the filly shook lightly. It was a sudden and subtle move, not much more than a spasm, but it was there; and I saw it with my own two eyes.

“Nadyr!” I yelled.

“What?” The half-zebra leapt, startled.

“Rose has moved... Maybe she’s coming back?”

I stared at the filly, internally praying for her to open her eyes. There was no doubt that her status had changed, as her eyelids were shaking and her breathing had become deep and regular.

“You see?” Nadyr smirked. “She’s about to wake up, so your problem has solved itself.”

“Nadyr...” I smiled. “Has nopony told you that acting smug is rude?”

“Says the smug king of Freedom Field. Come on, bro, cut me some slack.”

We both laughed lightly, relieved by the upcoming recovery of our companion; who coughed dimly and opened her eyes. She fought with her own body, trying to come back into the world of the living; but she wasn’t quite making it. My initial happiness turned into anguish and quick heartbeats as I saw the filly move spasmodically on the boat floor.

“She’s not making it!” I grunted. “What should we do, Nadyr?”

“You’re asking me?” Nadyr seemed surprised.

“Of course I’m asking you, Celestia-dammit!” I roared. “I have no idea about what to do now, but if we don’t do anything we might lose her; so if you have any idea I’d love to hear about it!”

“Just calm down, Farsight.” Nadyr started searching through Rose’s saddlebags.

“Calm down? You want me to calm down? She’s dying on us, for Luna’s sake! Don’t ask me to calm down.”

“Uuuuhhhhn...” Rose emitted a faint moan, and my heart froze for a second.

“Don’t worry, Rose, we’ll bring you back.” I whispered at the filly’s ear, while I urged Nadyr to do something.

“Here, have her eat one of these.” Nadyr gave me a blister of small, round, brightly colored tablets.

“Dash?” I looked at the half-zebra in a mixture of perplexment and anger. “DASH? Are you out of your mind? This is a damn drug, I’ve seen what it does to ponies!”

“Stop whining, Farsight. Dash, by itself, is nothing more than buffed-up adrenaline. Ponies get addicted to it because it gives you the boost you need without almost any side effect. I’m just saying you give her a small dose to help her.”

“How do you happen to know all that?”

“I was raised on a zebra village, and Dash is a zebra drug, remember? I wouldn’t know how to brew them myself, but I do know what they do and their dangers. Just trust me on this one, please.”

I huffed, considering the pros and cons of trusting my companion on this one. The cons of not doing so were very clear, as Rose’s life was on the line; but the risks of giving Dash to the wounded filly were evident. I had witnessed the effects of the overuse of Dash on an adult pony, so the damage it could do on a filly’s body was probably far greater. Still, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if she didn’t make it; so I decided to take the risk.

“Sorry, Rose.” I sighed, as I slid the tablet into her muzzle, and then I poured water from my canister down her throat, forcing her to swallow.

We stood in silence while we waited for the drug to cause its effect on the unconscious filly. Nadyr seemed calm and confident, but I couldn’t look at Rose without feeling a rush of guilt and regret, as she had been badly wounded because I had been unable to protect her from the scyllids, nor had I been capable of healing her properly. Suddenly, she convulsed and coughed, and I leapt forward to grab her in my forelegs. Her eyes opened wide and she stared blankly into space, but she was back in our world. I couldn’t hold back the tears.

“Rose...” I hugged her carefully. “It’s so good to have you back.”

“Farsight...” she mumbled. “What happened?”

“You were wounded badly by the scyllids, remember?” I tried to keep my tone calm and relaxed, but I still was too shaken to effectively achieve that. “You blacked out, and we had to patch you up in a hurry... I’m sorry.”

Rose looked at her body, almost covered in bandages, and smiled dimly. All her movements were slow and heavy, as if she was floating in some dense liquid. She was obviously very weak, but she tried to keep cheerful. I couldn’t help but to admire her spirit.

“It’s OK, Farsight... You used too many bandages, but that’s fine... don’t worry.”

“Thanks, Rose. Now rest, you’re still too weak.”

Rose nodded clumsily and I returned her to the floor of the boat, where she tried to catch some sleep. Nadyr had been watching the whole scene with a face of annoyance in his face, as if all my worries for the filly were nothing more than a nuisance.

“Are you done yet?” he growled. “She’s fine now, so let’s hit the town.”

“She’s not fine, she’s very weak.” I replied, rather angry at him for his evident disdain. “What if she blacks out once again? Are we going to stuff her in Dash?”

Nadyr slammed his hooves in anger against the boat, and looked at me with a fire I hadn’t yet seen in his ambarine eyes.

“All right, bro. This is how things are going to go from now on. You’re obviously new to extreme environments like this swamp, whereas I’m used to them. Therefore, you’re letting me handle things and tell you what to do and what not. Our agreement was meant to provide benefit to the two of us, and until now you have been the only one profiting from it; so I’m claiming my part. We are going to raid that bank, understood?”

Nadyr exuded violence and anger from every pore, and I had witnessed what he was capable of doing when he was enraged. My instinct of self-preservation kicked in, so I swallowed my pride and accepted his lead. Only for that time, though.

“Understood.” I nodded.

“Perfect.” Nadyr grinned. “Get the boat moving, I’ll lead the way.”

*** *** ***

It had taken us a long while, but we were finally getting into the center of the lost city of Neighorleans. Ever since Rose had woken up, I had kept an eye on her, piqued by a mixture of fear of how she might evolve and happiness for her recovery. During the whole trip she had been dozing off on the floor of the boat, her small body twitching every now and then as her mind tried to get over the traumatic experience she had suffered.

I kept on checking on her every now and then, and at the same time followed Nadyr’s directions to navigate the boat across the ruins of the city. This time was the first time I wasn’t leading the expedition, and it made me feel rather resentful. Nadyr was acting out of pure greed, moved by the expectation of finding a treasure that might not even exist. After all, whatever that bank could be holding, it wasn’t worthy enough to die for, since pre-War bits had no value nowadays. Even the copper-nickel mixture they were made of was of no worth to the traders. I guess that, if we had had a place to melt the coins, we could have obtained raw copper and nickel, which Rose would be able to sell; but we lacked the technology.

This brought me to consider whether Nadyr knew something he wasn’t telling me, and that shook me from the inside. Shielding himself in the purpose of working for me, he had provided himself of helping hooves to bring a scheme of his own into happening. My anger grew even bigger because of Rose’s condition, and I swore to myself that if anything were to happen to the filly I would make him respond for it.

Anyway, another part of me saw things devoid of all feelings and worries. Whatever Nadyr held in his mind was for all of us to share, as that had been our mutual agreement, so his welfare was my welfare. Besides, he needed at least a living unicorn to move around the swamp, so his dominion over me was biased. In the very end, if things got too ugly, I had the winning hoof; although I frankly didn’t want to resort to it. Even if I was mad at him, the half-zebra had proven to be a worthy sidekick.

Speak of the devil, Nadyr stood on the prow of the boat, looking forward with obvious excitement. At that very moment, he resembled a small foal waiting to receive his presents on Hearth’s Warming Day. His head moved from side to side, piercing into the dim light of the Neighorleans Dome, looking for his promised target; and he barked orders from time to time. Obviously, he was so carried away by the perspective of a quick fortune that he didn’t care about the state of Rose, who seemed to become weaker minute by minute.

The filly’s condition was my first and only worry at the moment, as I considered myself responsible of what might happen to her. We couldn’t return to Maretairie anymore because of two reasons, the one being the long distance and the other being Nadyr’s unveiled menace. However, we couldn’t risk heading straight to the Bank, since we didn’t know what we would have to face or how long it would take us to return. Maybe, if we managed to find some medical supplies around town, we would be able to raid the bank with some guarantee of success for the three of us.

However, that implied convincing Nadyr about making a stop, and I wasn’t too sure about his disposition towards that. We were already navigating within the old town of Neighorleans, and the ruined high-rise buildings had been substituted by smaller households in a far better state, most of them two or three levels high, of bright colour, the majority of them being red or green. A common characteristic of the houses were the balustrades of white coated metal that formed intricate patterns.

We kept navigating down the channel, across the colorful houses of old Neighorleans. The silence was amazing and rather creepy, to be honest. As we approached the bright and magnificent houses of the city center, we saw that something had been celebrated the day it all stopped forever. Garlands hung from house to house, crossing the streets in a colorful display of little flags and decorations. The street lamps were covered in confetti and serpentines, and bright colored festoons hung from the balustrades. All that festive environment, frozen in a two century old photograph, delivered a sad, gloomy feeling to me. I couldn’t help remembering Samedi’s tale of how the Curse had fallen upon Neighorleans the day of Maredi Gras, and I felt shivers go down my spine.

All the party gear scattered in the streets was a discordant point in the city. Everything added up in the form of some sort of macabre joke, having turned Neighorleans into some kind of celebration of death and devastation. We were travelling between the lovely houses and beneath the creepy festive decoration, and while I was looking for a safe place to leave the boat and start exploring I happened to find a hole in a wall of the nearest building.

“Nadyr, we need to stop.” I said.

“Say what now?” Nadyr looked back, surprised.

“Rose’s condition is worsening. I won’t carry on until we find some medical supplies.”

Nadyr grumbled and nodded.

“Fine, try getting close to that house! It’s a good place to start with.”

I nodded and moved the rudder to approach the house as carefully as possible, since the boat had already taken some damage from our trip through a wall in the outskirts. I glanced at my companions as I navigated the vessel, and I saw Nadyr looking rather displeased with that stop. In her uneasy sleep, Rose had managed to untie most of her bandages, leaving only the essential ones on her. The amount of discarded material on the floor of the boat showed how useless I was as a combat nurse, but I had the feeling that it could become a rather stable lash to hold the boat in place.

With a soft clunk, the boat touched the wall of the building and I grabbed the bandages. While I tied one of the ends to the boat, Nadyr leapt agilely out of the skiff and into the building; then I hurled the other end of the bandages to him and he secured the boat to one of the beams of the house.

“All right, everything fixed!” Nadyr grunted. “Let’s get cracking!”

“Rose, you stay here.” I said to the filly. “Have some rest, we’ll be back soon.”

The wounded filly replied with a senseless moan, as she was still in an uneasy sleep; but I took that as a yes. I looked at her and felt a sting of anguish, seeing her badly patched up and curled into a ball; knowing that all of this was my fault. I crouched to give her a soft pat in the back when Nadyr’s voice brought me back to our task.

“You coming or what?”

“Yes, yes.” I nodded. “Coming.”

I jumped to dry soil and took a look around at the place we had landed at. It was what remained of a two-room apartment, furnished in a similar way to those I had scavenged at Freedom Field. However, dampness had taken its toll on the contents of the household, and most of the clothwork was ruined and rotten; the wooden furniture had grown all kinds of fungi and the exposed metallic materials were covered in a layer of rust.

“You’re the master scavenger, Farsight.” Nadyr said. “What should we do now?”

“We’re going to spread out and start searching. I’ll take this room; you search through the other room, which appears to be a bath. Remember, we’re looking for medical supplies. Good hunting!”

“Alright then, Farsight.” Nadyr nodded.

The half-zebra strutted carelessly out of the room with a tune in his lips, while I headed to the nearest closet to see if there was anything worthwhile in it. In the meantime, I could try to find out more about Nadyr’s reasons, and whether he was hiding something from me or not.

“Hey, Nadyr!” I called out. “I’m worried about something.”

“Something that isn’t Rose?”

“Yes, something that isn’t Rose.” I was annoyed by his evident lack of interest in the filly. “What is in that bank that is so important to you?”

“Nothing.” Nadyr’s reply was swift.

“NOTHING?” I roared. “Are you positively telling me you’ve dragged us down here, putting Rose in risk in the process, to go looking for nothing?”

Nadyr’s laughter came clearly from the adjacent room.

“No, no! Not that kind of nothing... I meant that there’s nothing special, nothing specific I’m looking for. Just the usual loot you’d expect to be hidden in a Bank’s vault.”

“But Nadyr, paper money, or metal coins for that instance are worthless nowadays. The raw materials they’re made out of are more valuable than the bits themselves.”

“Farsight, I ain’t talking about bits or notes. I’m talking about real valuables: jewels, works of art, precious gemstones, gold, silver, platinum! That would make us filthy rich in no time!”

Nadyr sounded honest enough, and his reasons, once unveiled, seemed quite straightforward. However, his anxious drive towards that bank was really dangerous, and Rose’s health was more important to me than money. Of course I wanted to become filthy rich, as Nadyr had said, but it was a matter of costs against benefits; and Rose’s life was a cost I wasn’t willing to incur.

“I keep thinking it’s too dangerous. Rose might not make it through this one.”

“You and your damn filly once again!” Nadyr grumbled. “What happened to your master plan, Farsight? Are you in doubt?”

“I am not. Rose must live, and I’m willing to send any plan down the drain if it means a present danger for her.”

“Whoa, whoa, since when have you become her daddy?” Nadyr snickered.

“Ever since I realized she was my responsibility!”

“What, didn’t she have a father?” Nadyr’s tone was becoming more and more impertinent.

“No, she had no parents, and she needs a father figure, dammit!”

“Says who?” Nadyr yelled. “I had no father figure, like you say, and I’m perfectly fine!”

“Of course, you’re perfectly fine. That’s why you’ve become a hired gun.”

“Look who’s talking! You’re as low down as I am, Farsight. Don’t teach me lessons in ethics, you’re not entitled to do so!”

Nadyr was starting to sound rather disgruntled, so my practical sense kicked in to avoid greater damage.

“Listen, this argument is pointless. You want the money and I want to keep Rose safe. Neither of us is going to convince the other to change his goals, so let’s work fast and try to find whatever we can use.”

I felt anger and resentment bubble inside me, but I knew those feelings weren’t of any use now, so I tried to focus on my task; that was to find any possible loot in the furniture of the room we were in. Most of the closets had been torn apart by the same tide that had open a hole in the wall, but some of the cupboards had resisted, even if badly damaged. The drawers hid all kinds of objects, ranging from pre-War tools to clothing, but most of it was useless for us. The clothes were rotten and falling apart, the few tools and materials I could find were all rusted and broken; and the money found had no value nowadays.

“Any luck, bro?” Nadyr asked. His face showed that he wasn’t too pleased about his findings.

“What have you found?”

“A couple of pure adrenaline shots. I don’t know who lived here, but either he had a serious health problem or he loved to get high. Anyway, these will be more helpful than Dash. What about you, Farsight?” Nadyr asked.

“Nothing yet, but hold on a minute.” I opened the last drawer and saw something shiny inside. I lifted it with my magic and found myself staring at a holotape. “Why hello there!”

“What is it?” Nadyr took a nervous step forward.

“Calm down, Nadyr. You won’t be able to sell this, it’s an ages-old holotape.”

“Aw, crap.”

“Anyway, I’m curious about its content. Let’s see what it has to say.”

I activated the tape, and the room was flooded by the sound of light static, caused by the old age of the recording. Unlike Cheval’s document, which had been preserved with care over the years, this new holotape had been exposed to the dampness and the radiation for more than two centuries. However, when the voice came out, it was clear enough to be understood. A stallion with a deep and singing intonation, similar to Nadyr’s, spoke to the recorder.

“Dearest Cypher,

I’m really looking forward to this year’s Maredi Gras, so that we can meet again. I received your letters some days ago, and I’m really glad that you found a job in Canterlot. After all the time you took and the effort you made; you deserved to get something in return. I’ve missed you, I always will, but over all I want you to be happy. As long as we can see each other every now and then, I’ll be fine.

I don’t know how the war machine is affecting Canterlot and the Court, but here in Neighorleans things have changed quite a lot for worse. I guess that as the city has a large zebra population, the Government must have thought this is a nest of vipers. The Ministry of Morale is all over the place, conducting ‘investigations’ and questioning the ponies and zebras around. Remember our friend Kuma? She had a meeting with Pinkie Pie’s ponies, and from how she looked the day after, I wouldn’t say she had a good time.

Anyway, I suppose this is what happens in a war, isn’t it? After all, we haven’t been in a war before... Changing subject, you do know who is coming to Maredi Gras, don’t you? You will surely know, as you live in Canterlot, but just in case you haven’t heard, I’ll break it up to you. Rarity’s coming to town! Apparently, she has been invited to the opening party of the Rising Sun hotel, and then she’ll take part in the Grand Parade. I’m going to try and get a good spot to see her in all her magnificence. You know me, Cypher, I’ve always liked her.

Anyway, Cypher, dear; I hope this transmission gets to you in time. I’m saving a copy in a holotape, just in case the lines get cut.

Stay safe and come back soon.

Love,

Wheat Tower”

The tape clicked and went mute. I felt surprised about the fact that one of the Ministry Mares had been in Neighorleans the very day of the Curse, assuming the recording referred to that year; although taking into account the mentions to the War I would bet my caps on my assumption. Questions filled my head and my curiosity urged me to investigate deeper, but we were here on a totally different mission. As the tape was useless, I discarded it and returned it to the drawer.

“Well, that’s all to be seen here.” I shrugged. “Shall we move on?”

“Bro, I thought you’d be willing to know more about what the tape said. It’s not like you to leave ends open.” Nadyr smiled.

“Well, to be totally honest, I do want to find out about this Maredi Gras day and the Curse, but we’ve come here with a clear mission; and we can’t waste our time here. Rose is waiting and Geiger’s ticking, remember?”

“You’re right, I almost forgot about it. Let’s get moving, then; we’ve got a lot of apartments to check!”

I almost galloped out of the flat, wanting to check as many rooms as possible in a short period of time. Nadyr shared my hurry driven by different motives, but at least we agreed on something, probably the first thing since we arrived in the swamp.

*** *** ***

After a couple of hours, the apartment building we had landed in had been thoroughly searched; but we didn’t manage to find much. Nadyr managed to retrieve a couple of silver earrings that somepony had left behind, while I had managed to find some painkillers and some really old potions.

Back at the boat, we found Rose awake and waiting for us, looking reasonably better than before. She even smiled when she saw us arrive. I couldn’t help myself and jumped to the boat, rocking it dangerously, then grabbed Rose in a tight embrace.

“Rose! Are you alright?” I asked. I knew she wasn’t, but I couldn’t avoid the question.

“I’m... a bit battered, but I’ll get over it.” Rose smiled. “Thanks for caring about me, Farsight.”

“It’s the least I can do.” I replied. “You seem to have recovered rather fast.”

“I drank a vial of healing potion I hid for emergency cases... I never thought I would have to use it myself. Still, I’m far from being fine.” Rose’s voice broke and she staggered.

“See?” Nadyr asked. “She’s in working order now. Sorry for being so harsh, missy, but I came here with a purpose, and I want to fulfil it.”

“Don’t worry, I understand.” Rose nodded and smiled dimly.

Her kind soul made me hope for a better world every time she spoke. Nadyr smiled and gave Rose a soft yet caring embrace, and my resentment towards him washed away; as I saw that in the very deep, beyond his greed and selfishness, he cared about Rose. In the meantime, I kept thinking about the last tape we had found and the presence of Rarity in town right before the Curse fell. It couldn’t be a coincidence.

“Farsight, what are you up to?” Nadyr asked.

“Nothing really, just thinking about the Curse and the tape we heard.” I shrugged once again. “Never mind, though. We have other things to care about. Where to, Nadyr?”

The half-zebra hissed and frowned in disgust.

“I just don’t know, bro. I know the bank is here somewhere, but I have no more directions. We’ll have to explore from here, I’m afraid.”

“Don’t worry.” Rose said calmly. “We will help you, right, Farsight?”

“Of course we will.” I nodded. “Do you know how the building looks like, just to narrow down the search?”

“Sorry, bro, I know that there’s a Bank in Neighorleans, but I don’t know anything more.”

“Fair enough.” I nodded. “We’ll have to economize effort and look as carefully as possible. Is that OK with you, Rose?”

“No problem, Farsight.” Rose smiled dimly.

I nodded and started the engine once again, orienting the boat slowly towards the center of town. If there was something big to be found in Neighorleans, just as Nadyr wanted, it should be close to the center. If not, well, we would return empty-hooved. We navigated through streets covered in garlands and flags announcing the Grand Parade, some of them showing the three diamonds that composed the emblem of the Ministry of Image, as well as Rarity’s Cutie Mark.

“What do you think about that?” I asked, pointing at the emblem of the diamonds.

“About what?” Rose asked back.

“About the tape. Rose, to put it in a nutshell, just know that Rarity was here the day the Curse fell. I think there has to be some relationship between the Curse and Rarity’s presence in Neighorleans. It can’t be all a large coincidence.”

“How so?” Nadyr asked. “Have you got anything that proves otherwise?”

“I have no proof, but according to the Book of the Light Bringer, Rarity died in Canterlot when the Pink Cloud was cast. Therefore, if she was here, she must have survived the Curse; and given the deadly nature of the Curse, the only way she could survive it was that she knew about it.”

“Bro, sorry to break it up to you, but the Book of the Light Bringer is a novel, pure fiction. That is no real proof.”

“Nadyr, I have the feeling that there is a lot of truth to the Book. In fact, I believe the Book to be actual history, even if it has been spiced up to make it reader-friendly.”

“Meh... Have it your way, Farsight, you might as well be right. Just don’t get too hyped up with conspiracy theories, alright?”

“Fine, fine.”

“Erm, excuse me, please.” Rose said. “Could this be what we are looking for, Farsight?”

I looked at the building Rose was pointing at, and found myself staring across the street towards an old and distinguished construction, different from all the others around it; as it was built in solid pink granite and white bricks. The front end of the building had a classic look, with a colonnade embracing large paneled windows with carefully crafted stained glass windows that depicted scenes of pre-War Equestria. In the middle of the façade, a single granite arch surrounded a large circular rosette with a solar pattern on it. The construction was, indeed, astonishing, but what made it really interesting was the sign on top of the central arch: “NATIONAL BANK OF EQUESTRIA”.

“I think we just hit the target.” I smiled. “Good job, Rose.”

Rose smiled happily. “Thank you!”

“Damn, that’s the grand prize indeed!” Nadyr pranced in joy. “Let’s go, bro, we have no time to lose!”

I nodded and drove the boat towards the bank. It seemed that our luck was right about to change for good.

*** *** ***

The broken window opened like a portal to a new world, as we crossed the vine-covered frame into the stillness of the Bank building; carefully steering the boat to avoid the menacing crystal shards that remained attached to pieces of metallic lattice. The bank had been flooded up to the first floor, and the tellers and offices of the low-end workers laid under three meters of thick, dark swamp water. I drove the skiff forward, zigzagging between the hanging ornate lamps, towards a marble staircase that popped out of the water.

“All the lower floors are underwater.” I mumbled.

“So what’s the problem?” Nadyr asked, surprised.

“Well, I suppose the vaults will be in the basement, right? If they’re flooded, we can’t reach them.”

“That’s where you’re wrong!” Nadyr smiled and gave me a pat. “In the swamplands, the important stuff is stored in the upper floors, as the swamp may flood the houses anytime. Not to this extent, really, but the concept is the same. My bet is that the security vaults will be in the top floor of the bank.”

“Well, let’s just hope you’re right, Nadyr, or all this journey will have been in vain. Rose, this time you’ll have to come with us. If we need to move or carry stuff, it’s better to have two unicorns than just one; and you’re the party healer after all. Will you be able to keep up?”

“I’ll try...” Rose mumbled, as she got out of the boat with an unsure step. She had become visibly weaker in the last minutes.

Carefully, the three of us trotted upstairs, with all our senses in tension. The upper floors of the Bank were covered in wood panels, and valuable yet old rugs laid on the floor, muffling the sound of hooves against the floor. We walked along a rather long corridor sunken in darkness, as the doors to the offices along it were closed. The light of my PipBuck showed us what stood before our muzzles, but we couldn’t make out if there was anything waiting for us further. Anyway, my E.F.S. showed no traces of activity close to us.

We had started a thorough search of the building, checking office after office, trying to find any directions to the main vault of the bank, but we were having a rather tough luck. All the terminals were disconnected or useless, and the notes we were finding stored in the different desks were unreadable because of the everlasting dampness.

“So much work for nothing!” Nadyr bucked the floor in anger.

“Have patience, Nadyr. We still haven’t searched all the building.” I looked at the map on my PipBuck and checked our route. “The whole East wing of the bank awaits us.”

“I can’t believe you still want to carry on, Farsight. There’s nothing here, bro, can’t you see it?”

“All right, go ahead, leave! However, if I happen to find anything, it’s mine to keep. You aren’t getting a single cap!” I frowned to emphasize my words.

Nadyr found himself in a catch, and stuttered a quick reply.

“A-all right. I’ll follow you.”

“Good, let’s get back on track, all right?”

Chirrrrrrp.

“Wait a minute, what was that?” I asked, surprised by the sudden noise.

Chirrrrp. Chirrrrrrrp.

“My E.F.S. isn’t picking any signal? What is that noise?” The three of us looked around, dazed and confused, trying to find the source of a sound that was becoming more and more constant over time.

“I don’t know!” Rose was shaking badly, both of weakness and of fear. “Nadyr, any idea?”

“I have no idea!” Nadyr yelled, picking his gun from the holster. “They sound like some sort of Sprites, but I didn’t know there were any in the swamp!”

“Lovely, a new menace.” I grumbled and picked the rifle. If we were about to fight Sprites, though, it wouldn’t be all that useful.

Chirrrrp. Chirrrrrrp. Chirrrrrrrrrrrrp.

The chirping sound echoed through all the building, making it impossible to tell where they were coming from. The only sure thing was that it had to be a lot of them, judging from the roaring noise. The three of us stood back to back, our weapons ready, waiting for the enemy to come; while I nervously checked the E.F.S. with no success. The radar was blank.

Suddenly, a clanging noise echoed in the emptiness of the bank and a small pack of colorful balls flowed out of the ventilation ducts on the walls; balls about a hoof wide, with two big composed eyes and insectoid wings that fluttered rapidly. Even if there were less than two dozens of them, we found ourselves outnumbered by the Parasprites, chirping and rapidly flying in circles around us.

“Parasprites...” I whispered. “I thought these are harmless for ponies.”

“Not anymore, bro. Most parasprites have developed a taste for pony meat.”

“You can’t be serious.” I felt my heart almost stop at the sudden realization. We were doomed.

“I’m very serious, bro. Just keep your mouth shut, you don’t want any of them buggers eating you from the inside out.”

“Wh-Why haven’t they attacked yet?” Rose stuttered. “What are they waiting for?”

“Oh, what the hell, it’s not a duel of honor. Take cover, Rose. Nadyr, let’s blast them!”

“With pleasure.”

The two of us aimed our guns to the fluttering insects, and with a silent prayer for a lucky shot (as I had no way of getting a good aim), I pulled the trigger of my rifle.

BLAM!

My rifle and Nadyr’s gun roared at the same time, sending hell to our tiny yet dangerous foes. Suddenly, around five or six of the sprites blasted into a purple cloud of ichor and innards, while the rest of them held still for a second; time that we used to break away of their pin.

“Nice shot.” I said to my companion as we rushed out of the room followed by a mob of angry sprites.

“Yours wasn’t bad either. Hey, sprites, whatcha gonna do now?” Nadyr roared in satisfaction.

The sprites stopped and breathed deep, and then they vomited a massive green flame, almost scorching our tails. Just what we needed, fire-breathing sprites. Besides, the wooden panels in the corridor had caught fire and thick smoke started to fill the air.

“Aw, cock. Dragonsprites.” The name was totally unintended, but it sounded catchy.

“They breathe fire?” Rose whined.

“It seems they do...Any ideas on how to handle them?” Nadyr asked.

“I think the time for subtleties is over, don’t you agree, Nadyr?”

“Oh, you read my mind, bro.”

I told Rose to get to cover while Nadyr and I prepared to make our stand. The half-zebra had stuck his revolver in his muzzle and looked at the coming cloud of sprites with the fire of excitement in his eyes. I checked Lily’s magazine state, inserted a last bullet to fill it properly, and aimed the cannon to the fire-breathing insects that buzzed towards us. I cursed my E.F.S. for not working in this situation and got ready for the showdown.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Fire at will.” Nadyr winked.

The sprites were already within their attack range when we cocked our guns and pulled the trigger. The air filled with the cacophony of explosions and the smell of gunpowder; and the sprites blew up to pieces. I can’t tell whether my shots were well-aimed or not, but the dragonsprites had the bad habit of exploding in a flame of balefire when shot, what caused that a single shot could take out several of them at once. We both unloaded our magazines and out of habit, we hastily started reloading our guns; but we noticed that all the sprites had been wiped out.

“Well, so much for those bastards.” I smiled.

“Erm, guys...” Rose whispered. “This place is starting to burn, so we should consider moving on.”

Indeed, the flames provoked by the dragonsprite horde were starting to slowly spread down the corridor. The dampness slowed the process down, but it couldn’t simply take out the fire, so our quest had a new time limit.

“We need to find the vault as soon as possible. Double time, folks!”

*** *** ***

“Try a bit harder, Nadyr.” I said calmly. “If it doesn’t budge, we could try hitting it at once.”

Nadyr huffed and panted, then slammed his hind hooves against the sturdy wooden door. The frame shook and the gate emitted a nagging creak, but it didn’t open. We had been trying our best against it, but the door leading to the Vault room wouldn’t give in. I had an eye on the door and another one on Rose, who was weaker minute by minute. I noticed that she was shaking slightly although she tried to hide it, and I couldn’t avoid worrying about her. However, we were too close now to turn back.

“I wish I had brought the drill with me.” I mumbled.

“What drill?” Nadyr asked, puzzled.

“It’s a long story... when I first started scavenging in Freedom Field, I used a drill I found to break the locks open. It’s far more useful than the lockpicks most Wastelanders carry around.”

“Yes...” Nadyr sighed. “A drill would have been very helpful here.”

“But you have no drill.” Rose sighed. “So forget about it, you two.”

I was surprised about Rose’s harsh reply, but I had to admit that in her state I would have been harsh as well.

“What do you propose, then?” I asked. “Brute force isn’t working here.”

“Of course. Brute force doesn’t work almost anywhere...” Rose sat on her flanks in exhaustment.

“And you have any ideas, missy?” Nadyr clenched his teeth in anger.

“Enough!” I stood between them, looking sternly at both of my companions. “I don’t know if you have noticed, but the smoke smell is becoming stronger minute by minute. The fire seems to be spreading, we have no time to lose.”

Nadyr and Rose sniffed the air, checking what I had just said.

“You’re right, I’m afraid.” Rose nodded. “Why don’t you shoot the door open?”

“Isn’t that brute force after all?” Nadyr frowned.

“Nadyr, enough.” I said cuttingly. “If you have a better plan, speak up. Right now, I can’t come up with anything more convenient myself. Nothing? Good, let me handle this.”

I lifted the rifle and aimed at the keyhole. Holding my breath and keeping the grip as steady as possible, I pulled the trigger.

BLAM!

The shot echoed across the corridors, until the rugs managed to muffle the sound completely. When the smoke cleared, I took a look at the results of my “lockpicking” attempt. The brass lock had been shattered by the bullet, but the door remained closed. However, it didn’t seem as sturdy as before, and when I touched it with my forehoof, the door creaked and moved.

“Nice shot, bro.” Nadyr smiled, as we watched the door opening slowly.

“Let’s move, before this place burns down.”

We hastily entered the Vault room, willing to know what was stored in the Security chamber. Nadyr raced forward, blinded by promises of gold and jewels, works of art and other kinds of riches; whereas I cared more about Rose, who seemed to be slowly burning out. The effect of the potion had long worn out and her condition was dropping quickly. Anyway, I also had a pinch of curiosity about the hidden secrets of both this bank and this city; and my mind was already getting ready for a showdown with a terminal or an automated lock. What we saw was the last thing we would have expected, though.

The safe deposit was open.

“What in the living fuck is this?” Nadyr yelled in despair, leaping into the metal-plated room. “IT’S OPEN AND EMPTY! FUCK!”

“Calm down, Nadyr. This was something that could happen, and you know it.” I tried to reason with him, but he was way too altered.

“So what, Farsight? You’re telling me that we’ve done all this trip for nothing? This city was supposed a living treasure!”

“We might not be the first scavengers here. Somepony might have come and looted this before.”

“Bullshit.” Nadyr spat.

“Have you got any proof that we’re the first ones to reach this room?”

“Uh... maybe I do.” Rose whispered. She had crawled all the way to the huge metal door of the safe deposit, that upon a second look, reminded me of the geared Stable door. “Look at the layer of dust on the safe door edges. It hasn’t been moved for a very long time.”

I checked what Rose pointed out and noticed that, indeed, the door edges were covered in a thick layer of grey dust that claimed that the metallic gate had been in that position for a really long while.

“If that’s so, there must be an explanation as to why this safe was emptied before the Curse.” I concluded. “This has to be related to Rarity’s visit, no doubt.”

“What do you suggest to do, then?” Nadyr asked, resigned.

“Let’s go check the Bank director’s office. If there is some explanation, it should be over there.”

*** *** ***

A few minutes later, we were standing in the director’s office, a luxurious room decorated with taste and care. Wooden panels covered the walls, costly delicate rugs spanned across the floor and the furniture was all matching and elegant. Made out of mahogany, the desk, the shelves on the walls and the meeting table in the room would have been sold at exorbitant prices in Freedom Field, but there was no way we could carry that back, needless to say that the boat wouldn’t take all that weight.

The desk was located in the far end of the room, back to back to three large arched windows leading to a balcony over the sunken surface of Neighorleans. The few light that filtered through the dense foliage cover sipped into the room, giving it an eerie green look. On the desk, humming with an electric buzz that made me feel comfortable, stood a working terminal. Whatever we could find, it would have to be in there.

“A working terminal?” Nadyr asked. “It’s the first thing that has power in this town.”

“Yes, it’s surprising for me as well.” I nodded. “I assume it will be working out of some independent generator; probably a small gemstone-powered arcano-generator. Those things last forever.”

Nadyr shrugged and started snooping around the shelves while I focused on the terminal. Its green glow and its hum welcomed me, and the jack of my PipBuck was answered with a soft beep by the computer. While my hoofheld device battled the security protocols of the director’s terminal, I took a look at Rose. She had sat down to rest a bit, but she was having obvious trouble to keep conscious. She acted like a zombie, with her eyes partially closed and looking towards infinity; while her muzzle was slightly open and drooling. Knowing that time was of the essence, I turned my PipBuck hacking system to manual control and started leading the battle myself.

It took me my time and my sweat, but I finally managed to unlock the system. Once inside, I found myself staring at countless memos about management meetings, customer satisfaction policies or investment lines; all of which was worthless to us at the moment. Something did catch my eye, though. An encrypted file was looming there, apparently unrelated to everything else, almost demanding me to uncover its secrets. Once again, I activated all my hacking protocols and took the file head on; and after twenty minutes of trial and error I was faced to a really shocking revelation. My face must have shown it clearly, because Nadyr got close to me and asked.

“Bro, what is wrong?”

“You should take a look at this. It pretty much explains everything.”

Nadyr got close and looked at the screen. Even if he was beside me, I couldn’t help reading the text printed green on black out loud.

Classified Document MOI_00267567

Subject: Operation Masquerade.

Priority: Top.

Warning, this document is for your eyes only.

Dear Sir/Madam,

The following document is a reminder of the actions your organization must execute in order for the operation to be a complete success. Needless to say that the following information must be kept in complete secrecy and within a circle of trust.

As you know, the nation of Equestria is suffering the effects of a long and ravaging war, and while we strongly believe in the final victory, we are aware that the glorious capital of Canterlot is more exposed to enemy attacks than ever before. In consequence, a series of plans have been developed to secure key assets for the welfare of the Nation from enemy hooves.

Operation Masquerade’s ultimate goal is to relocate the entirety of the Equestrian gold reserves from Canterlot to a safer destination, in this case the city of Neighorleans. As chief of the local branch of the National Bank of Equestria, you are required to cooperate in this endeavour.

Your task in this operative will be that of overseeing the construction of a high security Vault on the previously defined location (view document MOI_00264511) and to move all the contents of your safe deposit to this Vault. When the final checks have been made, you will be required to cooperate with the Government Agents in order to oversee the final transport of the Gold into the safe vault.

Remember to delete this document according to the standard protocol.

There was the explanation we needed, and it did effectively connect Rarity to Neighorleans in the context of a covert operation. It did also justify why the safe deposit was empty, and it prompted another question: if Neighorleans was a pot of gold, where was the end of the rainbow? The file was prompting us to check a second document, but there was no trace of it within the computer.

“Bro, where’s that file?” Nadyr asked, excited. His eyes gleamed with greed. “We need to find that gold.”

“It’s not here.” I shook my head in resignation.

“What do you mean it’s not here?”

“I mean it’s nowhere to be found! It’s gone!”

“Come on, bro! Find it! I’m not leaving this place barehooved!”

“Just calm down, Nadyr!” I grunted. “It could have been in another computer, in a networked server, anywhere as much as I know! By putting pressure on me I’m not going to find it any quicker!”

“Uhn... Farsight... I...” Rose muttered and tried to get up, but she stumbled and fell to the floor, unconscious.

“Rose!” I yelled, and leapt towards her.

Her light body was lying on a rug like a broken puppet, and when I grabbed her I noticed she wasn’t breathing. I shook in despair as I tried to think about what to do. Last time we had used a tablet of Dash, but that time she was only unconscious. Dash wouldn’t work this time.

“She’s not breathing, Nadyr!” I cried.

“Has she got a pulse?” the half-zebra asked.

“A pulse? Who the fuck cares about a pulse? She’s not breathing! Isn’t that enough?”

Nadyr took a step forward and grabbed the filly’s forehoof, while he seemed to be trying to feel something. Then, he smiled and sighed.

“Bro, I don’t want you to be my combat medic. She has a pulse and she IS breathing, although she is very weak.” Nadyr looked through Rose’s saddlebags and picked an adrenaline shot. “Use this, straight to her heart. It should give her enough energy to carry on.”

“In her heart?”

“Yes, you need to thrust it strong enough into her to get through the breastplate and into the heart.”

“Are you sure about this?”

“Just trust me.” Nadyr grunted. “It worked last time, didn’t it?”

“Yeah, alright.” I huffed. “Where’s the heart?”

Nadyr took a look at Rose, flipped her over and pointed at a spot on her breast.

“Over here.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ve seen my share of pony corpses to be able to locate the heart. I’m sure.”

“I really, really hope you’re right.” I lifted the shot with my magic, the needle menacingly pointing to Rose’s body. “Let’s count to three, OK?”

“Right.”

“One... Two... THREE!”

I thrusted the needle into Rose’s body, and I found out to my surprise that it penetrated deep without much resistance. Almost shaking in fear, I unloaded the shot into her body and carefully removed the needle. While holding her close to avoid blood from spilling, I waited to see if the adrenaline did any effect on the filly. Seconds seemed to last for minutes, minutes seemed to last for hours; but all of a sudden, Rose shook and gasped for air. What would happen next was completely unexpected.

The filly started levitating, with her eyes opened wide, but showing no irises or pupils. Her blank eyes stared at the walls and her mouth opened in a silent scream; and before any of us could do anything, we were hit by an unexplainable force. I felt my mind explode as it was swept away by a shockwave of energy coming from Rose’s body, and then everything went black.

#

Note: Perk added.
Swamp Dweller: The negative effects of the “Swamp Newcomer” perk are removed, and you get +1 Perception in swamp environments.

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