• Published 18th Jan 2012
  • 6,703 Views, 320 Comments

Fallout Equestria: The Ditzy Doo Chronicles - Ten Mihara



200 Years is a long time. It's time to tell my side of the story.

  • ...
28
 320
 6,703

Chapter 10: Fractured Facets

Chapter 10: Fractured Facets

“I'm just another warrior doing her job.”

Weak.

For a number of days after the ultra-dash incident, May was left weak and nearly helpless. The process of purging the drug from her system had been physically and emotionally taxing, and the road to recovery would not be short. While she had been abed, I scoured every inch of her clinic, finding and disposing of every dose of dash she still possessed. I knew that May would object, and I couldn't blame her, considering the psychological effects the addiction had on her. Even so, I was determined to make sure she never touched the stuff again, for more than just her own sake.

I stayed close to May while she tried to regain her strength. Out of curiosity, I asked her about the dash purging agent, having not been able to figure out any of what the recipe meant. She had told me that, aside from the obvious forced ejection of the drug from the pony's system, there were a few zebra herbs mixed in that neutralized the... she used a big word that I didn't understand, restating it as 'active ingredient' of dash, blocking it from having any further effect unless more of the drug was inhaled. She seemed resentful over that, until I reminded her that dash itself came from the zebras. She said nothing more on the subject.

The entire population of Trottingham waited on bated breath to see May return to health. After almost a week, she was finally up and about again. The first thing she did was tend to Rottingtail's leg, which had been in its brace for a week. She puttered and tisked over it, but spared him a lecture when informed that he had damaged it in the process of helping me find the dash purger. Still, using the same methods as before, she was able to patch up his leg and remove the brace without difficulty.

“I never actually thanked you,” May said to me as she shooed Rottingtail out of her clinic.

“To be honest,” I replied, “I wasn't expecting you to.”

May looked ashamed; “Hindsight is always perfect,” she muttered. “I just needed a good friend to show me where I went wrong.”

I pulled May into a hug. “Nopony's perfect. That's why we have friends; to pick us up when we fall, to give us strength when we're weak, and to occasionally give us a kick in the ass when we need one.”

May snickered and hugged me back. She let out a sigh; “You were right though. About Buttercup, and everything else. She never would have wanted to see me destroying myself when I could have been helping other ponies.”

“You weren't destroying yourself,” I countered. “You just made a mistake. The only thing that really messed you up was Flam's 'enhanced' batch.”

May shook her head; “It only hit me so hard because I've been using the regular stuff for so long. If I'd never started in the first place, this never would have happened.”

“You could just as easily blame me for that though,” I claimed. “I had plenty of opportunities to try and help you before, but I never followed through because I didn't think you were that bad. I thought it would be wrong to deny you a small pleasure so long as you could handle it.”

“It may have taken longer than either of us knew was better,” said May, “but you still did the right thing. Thank you.”

“It's not like I don't have problems of my own though,” I groused, telling her about how I had flipped out and nearly strangled Flam.

She seemed to think otherwise. “It's not that shocking really, considering how strongly you felt. Frankly, I think it's good for you to get mad every once in a while. Trying to force yourself or others to be happy all the time would be insane.”

I was a little wary of that. Sure, happiness wasn't something that could be forced, but it's not like I felt better about getting angry. “Still, I don't like the thought that I could flip out on somepony like that. Even if he did deserve it.”

May patted me on the shoulder. “I really don't think you have anything to worry about. Your heart was in the right place and you were doing it to help me. So long as you're still trying to help other ponies, I think you'll be alright.”

“Speaking of helping other ponies,” I nickered, “you should be getting back to work.”

“My goodness, you're right,” May replied jut as wryly. “If I recall correctly, you've got some work to catch up on yourself.”

Oh! May was right. With everything that had happened, I had completely forgotten to unload my wares from the caravan. Looking out the window of May's clinic, I could see my wagon sitting across the street in front of the Trottingham Trading Post. I shot her a smirk and then scurried out of the clinic and over to my shop. After a quick check to make sure nothing had 'mysteriously' disappeared, I began to move the supplies into my shop. It wasn't that I didn't trust my fellow ghouls of course, it was just a merchant's instinct.

It took me most of the afternoon to unload and store the contents of my wagon. The last thing I had to unload was some ammunition I had procured for Rottingtail and the rest of the militia. I moved my wagon around to the rear of the building before picking up the ammo boxes and flying over to the Sheriff's Shanty. Once there, I decided to spend the rest of the day with Apple Crumble and Rottingtail. I had been neglecting them while I was tending to May, and wanted to spend some long overdue quality time with them relaxing. Looking back, I was glad I chose to enjoy that evening, because it was the last peaceful one I would have for some time.

***

I awoke early the following morning in Rottingtail's room on the second floor of the Sheriff's Shanty. The ever napping ghoul sheriff was not roused by my wakefulness, but I left him be for now. I proceeded downstairs, finding Apple Crumble asleep on Rottingtail's hammock. It must run in the family, I thought playfully. I patted the ghoul colt's head softly before leaving the room, closing the door behind me.

Trotting around Rottingtail's desk, I decided to amuse myself by turning on an old radio. I fiddled with it, trying to find DJ P0N-3's broadcast. I came across music, but it wasn't anything that I knew to be on the DJ's playlist. The song was an instrumental number that was heavy on tuba, accordion and harmonia, a strange mix, yet mildly uplifting. It was the same music that had poured from the two sprite-bots I had encountered that were not inside the MoM Trottingham hub. It struck me again as strange that they had appeared all of a sudden, seemingly at the same time, and now their music was everywhere too. Then there was that strange yet helpful voice that had told me where to find the dash purger for May. The wasteland is full of mysteries it seemed.

I continued fiddling with the radio until I found the MASEBS frequency, although it was never called that anymore, not after four generations of DJ P0N-3 bringing music and news to the wasteland. I came in on the tail end of one of Sweetie Belle's more upbeat songs. It came to an end and the voice of a very enthusiastic buck took its place. The P0N-3 mantle had changed hooves a couple more times in the past few decades, although I hadn't known any of their names since Remix.

“Good morning wastelanders! This is DJ P0N-3 and this news segment goes out to all you early birds listening at this Goddessless hour. Now, I know you all hate bad news, so I'm gonna get this one out of the way first. The last surviving member of the Stalliongrad Seven passed away recently. He was found two days ago, and the cause of death is believed to be alcohol poisoning.”

My ears drooped, not simply because a drug related death made my mind turn to dark places involving May. The last two DJ's had talked about the Stalliongrad Seven; they had been a group of young colts and fillies living in Stalliongrad when the Iron Mare saved the city from manticores. Inspired by her, they had set out together after they had grown up. They became a group of heroes, trying to save the wasteland like their idol had. Most of them had suffered unfortunate ends, and the last two survivors had retired years ago.

“May Celestia and Luna see the seven friends reunited after their long separation. The Stalliongrad Seven will be sorely missed, but so long as there are ponies out there willing to step up and fight the good fight, they will never be forgotten.

“On a less depressing, if a bit more mysterious note, I'm sure by now you've all heard the strange other radio broadcast that started drifting across the Equestrian Wasteland. As well, you've probably come across one of the old MoM flying radios, sprite-bots a source tells me they're called, pumping this stuff out all over the wasteland all of a sudden. First of all, I want to assure you that this is not my doing. If I was going to use a bunch of flying radios, I'd at least play some decent music, not this brassy, pseudo-patriotic stuff.

“Where did it come from then, I hear you asking. Well, your pal DJ P0N-3 managed to trace the signal through a series of relays back to the city of Fillydelphia. Apparently the broadcast is coming from an old MoM hub located in an amusement park. Apparently the Steel Rangers, that enigmatic group of ponies in old magical power armour, have been fiddling about in the Fillydelphia ruins, and seem to be the ones responsible for starting the old bots up again.”

I cocked an eyebrow curiously at the mention of the Steel Rangers. They mostly seemed to keep to themselves, collecting and hoarding technology. I had only heard about them a few times in passing since meeting Gizmo all those years ago. Given the injuries he had suffered from radiation exposure and the amount of time that had passed, I suspected he was no longer alive. That brought a touch of melancholy to my heart, swiftly replaced by a curiosity as to what had become of little Emerald.

“Speaking of the Steel Ranger, I've noticed that groups of them have been popping up outside of Fillydelphia recently. Most prominently, a group seems to have settled themselves into a long opened and emptied Stable at Bucklyn Cross. That place is a little closer to the detonation crater than most folks are comfortable with, but the Ranger's armour seems to be helping them keep their cool.

“Now, I may be getting optimistic here, but I can't help but wonder if, after years of collecting old technology, they might be spreading out in order to start putting it to good use. Wouldn't that be the damnedest thing? One of my predecessors was concerned about their excessive firepower, but could you imagine if they started using it to clear out monsters and raiders and other horrors? As much as that would be nice, let's just keep our eyes on 'em for the time being. I'll let you know more as soon as I can get some solid intel.”

The news segment cut out to more music; all songs that I had heard countless times before. I was a little unsure about the broadcast. The Steel Rangers had been willing to help Stable Dwellers before, but even in Gizmo's case, they had wanted something out of it. If I knew that somepony like Gizmo or Steelhooves was in charge, this might be something to look forward to. Instead, I just felt worried.

***

The door to the Sheriff's Shanty burst open, admitting a unicorn ghoul that I knew to be a member of Rottingtial's militia. He was panting, looking exhausted, like he had just run a marathon. He had, in fact, run in from one of the patrols that circled our little town. Along his side were a number of small wounds that looked like either shrapnel cuts or small bullet wounds. He was wearing leather armour, but it looked to be in tatters. He wasn't carrying a weapon or battle saddle, which worried me.

“Are you alright?” I demanded. Obviously he was not, but I asked instinctively.

“We got trouble,” replied the militia member frantically. “The Steel Rangers are coming!”

My face twisted into an expression of shock. This had to be a coincidence, right? Before asking anything else, I flew back upstairs to wake Rottingtail. As much as he loved sleeping, it was very easy to rouse him when told that one of his militia members came back looking like he had been attacked. Rottingtail quickly donned his armour and battle saddle before heading back downstairs. The speed at which he descended the staircase made me worry he was going to throw his bad leg out again.

“What happened?” barked the sheriff as soon as he was in front of the militia unicorn.

“Group four was out on patrol,” replied the unicorn, his voice carrying the accent I now associated with Trottingham natives. “We were a few miles out when a whole mess of those Steel Rangers showed up. Didn't even stop to explain themselves, just started shooting at us. I got lucky, and managed to get away, but the rest of the patrol is dead.”

Rottingtail scowled. “The hell do they think they're doin'?”

The milita unicorn spoke up again; “I was able to outrun them because that heavy armour of theirs slowed them down, but they'll be here any minute now.”

Rottingtail nodded his affirmation. “Right, get yourself over to May's and have her patch you up. Then start rounding up the rest of the militia who aren't currently on duty. Get them armed and ready; if this comes to a fight, we're gonna need everypony.”

“Right,” replied the ghoul buck. He hobbled out of the Sheriff's Shanty and began heading towards May's clinic.

I turned to Rottingtail, managing to keep both my eyes focused on him. “Why would the Steel Rangers be coming here?”

The sheriff shook his head; “Ah've no idea. Ah know they don't look too kindly on ghouls, but they've left us alone this long. Yer guess is as good as mine.”

I glanced back to the radio, then told him about the broadcast I had just heard from DJ P0N-3. “Maybe they're just looking to set up a contingent here.”

Rottingtail looked unconvinced; “We know they hate ghouls, and they slaughtered that patrol without even thinking. I highly doubt they're here for a friendly chitchat.”

“Maybe there's something here that they want,” I suggested, though I wasn't sure how well I believed that myself. “We should at least try talking to them first. If this turns into a battle, a lot of ponies are going to get hurt. There's too much of that in the wasteland already; I don't want to start a fight if we don't need to.”

Rottingtail snorted, but relented. “Alright, Ah'll try talkin' first, but if they take the first shot, Ah ain't holdin' anythin' back.” I nodded, then he shot me a smirk. “Yer a bit too nice fer yer own good sometimes.”

I chuckled, but that was really just to cover my worries. Trottingham was the one place in the wasteland that was truly a safe haven for ghouls, and had been so for more than forty years. I really hoped we could keep it that way without the need to stain our community with blood.

Before leaving the Sheriff's Shanty, I flew over to a gun cabinet off to the side of the room. Within was contained Stronghoof's rifle, as well as a few other weapons the militia made use of. I kept the gun here because I preferred to use the storage space of my own store for general trade goods and supplies. I slung the rifle over my back by its strap and lined my packs with a decent quantity of ammo for it. I didn't want to have to use the weapon, but if the Steel Rangers wouldn't listen to us, I wasn't going to let them destroy our town to satisfy their bigotry. I seriously hoped there was at least one of them who thought the way Gizmo did.

***

Departing quickly from the Sheriff's Shanty, Rottingtail and I dashed towards the main gate as quickly as we could. I could see other militia members converging on the wall, roused by the unicorn from the patrol. I was only slightly relived that there hadn't been any shooting yet; we still had time before the Steel Rangers arrived. Rottingtail grunted as he strained his bad leg to keep pace with me, but didn't say anything. Not wanting him to injure himself before a potential fight, I took to the air and wrapped my hooves around him. Lifting him while he was wearing his battle saddle was tricky, but I managed.

I reached the gate within a few minutes, setting Rottingtail down at the dead center of the walkway that crossed the wall behind it. On either side I could see the heavy chain guns manned by militia ghouls. They looked nervous, and Rottingtail walked around to them, trying to ease their nerves. The wall was defensible and the fields surrounding Trottingham gave little to no cover. I was counting on the Steel Rangers knowing that a direct assault against the gate would be foolish, which would give us room to talk first.

I slipped Stronghoof's rifle off my back and braced it against the upper edge of the wall. Pressing my good eye to the scope, I scouted the surrounding fields for the incoming Steel Rangers. I spotted them in the distance, marching forward as a single unit towards our town. Not all of the ones I could see were wearing the signature magical power armour of the Rangers, but they were hanging back to keep pace with the ones who were. At their current pace, they would be within optimal sniping range, and I wasn't the only one on the wall with a scoped rifle. However, we did not fire first; we weren't going to be the ones who started the fight.

As the group of Steel Rangers came within range of the wall, I was able to see their ranks more clearly. There were two dozen of them in all. Half of their number were wearing the fully enclosed suits of magical armour, and they all seemed to be equipped with some variety of ridiculously huge battle saddle or another. Nine more earth ponies stood amongst them, more lightly armoured and armed. The small herd was led by a trio of unicorns, one of whom stood at the head of the others.

I trained the scope of my rifle on the lead unicorn. It was a mare with a dirty green coat. She was dressed in a battle dress made of light armoured mesh. She was an ugly, stern looking mare with a ragged, short cropped mane of aged silver. Half of her face was scarred horribly, making me think a grenade had blown up near her head. That face seemed to be constantly locked in a glower. She looked in my direction, as though she could tell I was looking at her. The look on her face suggested that, unlike Gizmo at Stable Sixty-Seven, she was not looking to play the benevolent envoy.

The unicorn mare stepped forward, her horn igniting with magical light. She belted out, the magic amplification of her voice identical to the spell that May knew. “Attention Trottingham!” She sounded disgusted at the very idea of addressing ghouls directly. I kept the cross-hairs trained on her head, already feeling that my hopes might be a bust. “I am Emerald, High Scribe of the Sword and envoy of the Steel Rangers. The Stable beneath this city and much of what remains above is rightfully the property of the Ministry of Wartime Technology. We have come to reclaim it, and will allow you to keep your wretched lives if you surrender and depart from the city immediately.”

My jaw dropped in shock; it couldn't be. My mind immediately conjured the image of the small, soft green unicorn filly from Stable Sixty-Seven. The innocent little mare who was willing to believe that I was under the curse of an evil enchantress. The one that I had given a slice of prewar cake to in order to help keep her calm. Gizmo's adopted daughter. This mare couldn't be that sweet little Emerald... could she? Surely there were other mares with that name. And that colour of coat. Right?

I was snapped back to the present when my rifle slipped from the wall, as I had stopped bracing it. The strap caught on my neck, causing the weapon to swing back and strike me in the chest. Beside me, Rottingtail stood on a crate to give himself a better view of the encroaching group of Steel Rangers. I reached to bring my rifle back up, but found myself hesitating. If this really was the same Emerald I had saved all those years ago, I couldn't hurt her. It just wouldn't be right.

Rottingtail didn't know who Emerald was, and only hesitated a moment before calling out in response. “You got some nerve. You kill one of our patrols, march on our city, and then demand that we leave?! Where in the hell do you get off?”

I was conflicted and torn up inside. A part of me wanted to believe that this mare who called herself Emerald was not the same young filly I had rescued from that Stable in Fillydelphia. The idea that such a cute, sweet filly could say the things she was saying, and have that cold, steely look in her eyes, was preposterous. The rest of me wondered, if they were one and the same, what had happened to make her so twisted? It was like the beautiful, multi-faceted gem for which she was named had cracked and fractured; turning into something hard and broken.

“I do not need to explain myself to the likes of you,” snapped Emerald, a touch of malice in her magically amplified voice. “Depart from the city now, while we still let you.”

“Ah'm tellin' ya right now, that ain't how this is goin' down,” snapped Rottingtail. “Now then, Ah'm Sheriff Rottingtail, and Ah helped found this town. A third of our residents come outta that Stable yer talkin' about layin' claim to. From what Ah know of the folk round here versus what ya'll have shown me so far, they're much more deservin'.”

“You abominations deserve nothing more than death!” roared Emerald. “You are a mistake created by some fluke of wicked magic, and the only reason I gave you the chance to leave with your miserable lives is that I did not want to waste resources that are far more valuable than your rotten hides.”

Rottingtail raised his hoof, about to object further, but was cut off as Emerald's horn ignited with a fresh surge of magical energy. A blast of lightning tore through the air from her horn, striking Rottingtail squarely in the chest. He grunted in pain as the impact sent him reeling. He toppled from his box and slipped off the gate entirely, plummeting towards the ground. I reacted instinctively, diving off the wall after him and flying underneath him. I caught Rottingtail's stunned form on my back, slowing ever so slightly in the air before we hit the ground. I coughed violently as the wind was knocked out of me, Rottingtail's body sprawled over top of me.

I forced myself to my hooves, panting. Rottingtail was groaning from the injury he had sustained, but he was alive. Everything was quiet for a short while. Once I had my hooves under me, I focused on trying to make my wings work. I winced as I tried to flap them; the fall had sprained my right wing, maybe even broken it. I folded it back against my side and began to run, still carrying Rottingtail on my back, towards May's clinic.

As I ran away from the gate, I heard Emerald voice boom out once more; “This is your last opportunity; make yourselves scarce or you shall be struck down just as-”

Emerald's voice was drowned out as the chain guns on the wall began to open fire on the Steel Rangers. They were loud enough to drown out even the magically enhanced voice, as well as any other gunfire that might have come from the militia ghouls positioned on the wall. Not even death cries of any Rangers struck down by the barrage could be heard over the din. What could be heard was the massive amounts of explosive ordinance that was fired in return by the Steel Rangers. Even while running away, I could hear the thunder and see the edges of the flash as the gate was blown inwards with the fury of a full contingent of Steel Rangers. Trottingham was besieged.

***

I had galloped a good distance away from the gate when Rottingtail became coherent again. “What happened?” he asked warily.

“Emerald shot lightning at you,” I replied, still galloping forward. “I'm taking you to May's.”

I felt Rottingtail squirm around on my back. The sound of explosions and gunfire were permeating the air all around us. “There's no time! Those Steel Rangers are ridiculously tough, and we're gonna need some heavier ordinance to take them down. We need to get to the armoury back at the Sheriff's Shanty.”

“You're in no condition to be fighting anypony,” I protested, “especially a small army of power armoured Rangers.”

“No choice,” he barked; “if we don't fight back, we're gonna get slaughtered.”

Rottigntail rolled himself off my back, forcing me to stop and turn around. He struggled to get his hooves under him, but couldn't manage to work his front legs through the injury. He reached back into his packs, pulling out a healing potion that he swiftly guzzled. I watched at the searing wound from the lightning blast began to mend. Once the burn had faded, Rottingtail was able to stand, although his bad leg still looked uneasy. He began to trot as quickly as he could, heading towards the Sheriff's Shanty instead of May's clinic.

As much as I wanted to object, Rottingtail had a point. The Steel Rangers never had any intention of backing down or cooperating with us, and Emerald's words had made that painfully clear. The only real hope Trottingham had now was to drive them away. Reluctantly, I galloped after Rottingtail, catching up to him quickly because of his hobbled gait. The sounds of the battle followed closely behind us, with a painful emphasis on the explosive and high calibre ordinance of the Rangers. I looked back at my sprained wing and grimaced. Neither of us were very fleet of foot, and if I could fly we'd have gotten to the Shanty already.

Rottingtail was galloping as best he could, pushing his bad leg far more than he should have been. “When we get to the Shanty, I'll gather up our heavier gear and start bringing it to bear.” He looked across to me sternly. “Ditzy, I want you t' take Apple Crumble and start gatherin' up as many of the civilians as y'can. Take 'em into the sewer tunnels; I don't want nopony who isn't fightin' to get caught in the crossfire. At least, not more'n we can help.”

I nodded solemnly. “Should I come back up and help afterwards?”

Rottingtail shook his head; “No, stay down there and keep guard over them. If things go bad up here, start leadin' 'em away.”

“But-” I protested. Rottingtail cut me off.

“The odds are against us here,” he stated firmly. “Ah ain't about t'see a bunch of innocents slaughtered cuz of some bull-headed bigots with big guns. We gotta fight back, show 'em we ain't gonna just lay down and take it, but most of the ghouls here ain't fighters. Those that are are already fightin' and diein', and there's no need for those who aren't to suffer for it.”

Before I could respond further, the roar of a rocket launcher sounded behind us. Without stopping to think, I tackled Rottingtail to the ground, rolling over each other as we tumbled. I heard the rocket whoosh past us, and my lazy eye seemed to follow it. The rocket had missed us, but had flown right into the Sheriff's Shanty, which was dead ahead at the end of the street. The entire first floor of the building lit up with an explosion that tore apart its foundations. The rest simply collapsed in on itself.

Rottingtail and I were back on our hooves and running towards the building again, driven by the hope that there might still be something to salvage from the wreckage. It was only when we reached the demolished building when the truth hit me. Apple Crumble had still been inside. When all this madness started, neither of us had seen fit to wake him from his nap in Rottingtail's hammock. All thought of the battle raging behind us fled as we scrambled around to the rear of the building.

“Crumble!” shouted Rottingtail, sifting desperately through the rubble and scrap metal that his former home had been reduced to.

While sifting through another pile of rubble, I found the tangled remains of the hammock. Next to them was Apple Crumble, the lower half of his body pinned beneath a chunk of concrete. “Over here!” I called, drawing Rottingtail close with a wave of my hoof.

Without responding, he bounded over to me faster than I thought he would be able to manage. He looked at Crumble, then to me, and finally at the chunk of rubble pinning his nephew. The ghoul colt wasn't moving. Wordlessly, Rottingtail threw his packs off in front of him and pulled out a pair of items. One was a bottle of buck, while the other a complicated looking injector that I had never seen before. He quickly opened the bottle of pills and downed three of them without chewing. He waited a moment for the drug to take effect.

As soon as the buck kicked in, Rottingtail turned his backside to the slab of concrete. He rose up on his front legs, which I knew couldn't be good for his bad one, and braced both of his rear legs against the debris. With a strained grunt, he pushed back with his hind hooves, lifting the rubble with strength I knew he wouldn't have possessed without the buck in his system. He pushed it up and away from his pinned nephew, who I immediately pulled free.

I gasped in shock as soon as I could see the rest of Crumble's body. There wasn't much of it. Both of his hind legs were gone, and everything below his waist was scorched and torn apart. Bits of his entrails had burst out of his side under the pressure of the falling concrete. He had almost certainly been dead before the building collapsed on him. I had to look away, unable to stomach the sight of his mangled body. My gaze fell on Rottingtail.

Rottingtail stared at his nephew's corpse blankly for what felt like an eternity. Then, all of a sudden, his face twisted into a look of the most intense, righteous fury I had seen in a long time. Before I could stop him, he dove for the injector that he had pulled out alongside the bottle of buck. He deftly pulled the needle up and jabbed it into his left flank, pumping himself with the entire contents of... whatever that was. Moments later, he turned his gaze forward, the injector falling to the ground. His eyes went wide; he raised his head back and let out the single most terrifying, ear-splitting, inequine scream of rage that I had ever heard. I had to cover my ears to shield myself from the horror of the sound. When it stopped, I looked up to see Rottingtail running off into the fray, my call for him to wait drowned out by explosions, gunfire, and the death screams of too many innocent ghouls.

***

I was suddenly and excruciatingly aware of how one sided the battle raging before me was. Within the range of vision provided by my eyes glancing in different directions, I could see that at least half of the shanty town we ghouls had built was ablaze. I watched as a militia unicorn whose name I had forgotten opened fire point blank on an armoured Ranger with an assault carbine, only for the Ranger to step back, entirely unfazed, and kill her with a back mounted heavy machine-gun. I watched as Scatter fired both of her grenade rifles at another enemy, only for the armour to take the brunt of the damage, allowing the Ranger to return fire with a grenade machine-gun, forcing her to dive for cover, hoping to avoid being blown apart long enough to reload.

I watched as an entire group of militia ghouls were mowed down by a Ranger with two miniguns built into his armour. The Ranger did not stop shooting after they were dead, sweeping his arc of leaden death to a large group of civilians that the militia had been trying to protect while they fled. I could only watch in horror as they were reduced to rotten meat. Ahead of the minigunner, another Ranger equipped with twin flamethrowers was spraying the inside of every nearby building with fire, agonized death screams following in her wake. As a large group of civilians move to flee, the flamer turned her weapons on them, and began to give chase, laughing in sadistic pleasure.

I wanted to scream, to cry out, to move, to do anything. I couldn't; I was paralysed, transfixed on the carnage playing out before me. I fell to my haunches, unable to do anything. The flamer Ranger closed in on the group of innocent residents of what was once a safe haven for them. Soon their cries could join the cacophony of death that filled the city. My right eye rolled up, catching a pink and brown streak falling from the sky, its front edge laced with green and yellow. The blur collided with the flamethrower Ranger, who promptly exploded. The fuel tanks of the twin flamethrowers ignited instantly, washing the fleeing ghouls nearest the back with flame. The rest were given a chance to escape.

It took my mind several achingly long seconds to process what had happened. Something had attacked the Steel Ranger, and the massive jet of flames had caught the attention of the other three nearby. There was a dark shadow moving behind the pyre that the dead Ranger had become. The figure that had fallen from the sky stepped through the curtain of fire. She was a glorious sight; the griffon from Canterlot had returned. Aside from being singed, she looked surprisingly unharmed considering her proximity to the massive explosion. I wondered if that armour fused to her body had shielded her.

After stepping over the corpse of the exploded Ranger, the griffon reared up on her hind paws. She held her talons aloft, allowing me to see what had caused the explosion. The arcano-tech device melded to her claws was alive with magical sparks, wreathing them in fiery green plasma. I had to assume that it also prevented said plasma from melting her claws off. The griffon let out a shriek. It was not as terrifying as Rottingtail's earlier cry; instead, it was a welcome crow of the first real chance of victory we had since the fight began. It also pulled the attention of all three of the Rangers I could see towards her. They opened fire.

The griffon deftly threw herself into the air, completely avoiding the volley sent at her. The grenadier's assault tore up the ground where she had just been standing, eviscerating what was left of their former comrade. She tore threw the air at alarming speed, dropping straight down on top of the explosive specialist. The Ranger's body crumpled under the force of her pounce, his spine almost assuredly broken. Making certain of her kill, the griffon dug her plasma laced claws into the Ranger's shoulders. The magical flames coupled with the razor sharp talons cut through the heavy armour like a hot knife through butter. She tore the Ranger's front legs clean off at the shoulder, leaving him to slump to the ground in a heap.

“Is this the best you canned dweebs can do?” She squawked, rolling away from a stream of suppressive fire thrown in her direction from the two Rangers still standing. “I've met corpses with more fight!” Was she referring to herself, or was I missing the joke?

I was in awe of the Canterlot-ghoul. I didn't know much about the Talons, other than that they were mercenaries, but apparently being a ghoul didn't slow this one down. She was incredibly agile; able to weave in and out of sprays of bullets without stopping. I was tempted to cheer her on, but I worried that I might be a distraction. She wasn't fast enough to avoid all of the massive amount of ordinance being fired, possibly owing to the fact that her wings were decayed and featherless. However, that impressive armour she wore seemed more than capable of preventing any fatal hits.

“Seriously,” she called out tauntingly, “you fuckers think you're so big because you've got all the big guns and fancy armour.” She leapt into the air, diving towards the Ranger with the back mounted heavy machine-gun. “But really, all you've ever fought before are small fry. Did you think you would always be the biggest badasses out here?”

The griffon, whose named I still hadn't learned, landed with catlike tread in front of her intended prey. I made a mental note to at least ask her name when this was all over. The Ranger's weapon came to bear, but clicked on an empty chamber. I could see the griffon smirk; she had planned that. She jabbed into the armoured pony's breast with a talon, the plasma lined claw punching deep into his body. With a powerful shriek, she pulled the pony's heart clean out of his chest, the plasma roasting the organ even as she held it aloft like a prize. As the dead Ranger toppled over, she consumed the heart in a single gulp. I had to look away to avoid vomiting.

And then she was dead. The minigunner had reloaded while she was eating the pony's heart, and had fired on her, pinning her under a stream of heavy fire. While her armour proved as impressive as ever, the fact that she could not get out of the way of the constant fire led to her perforation. The minigunner did not stop firing until his guns were completely emptied into the griffon. Despite this, she was still mostly intact when she slumped to the ground, riddled with bullets.

On her own, the griffon had killed three of the power armoured Rangers. Two more, I would learn later, had been cut down at the gate by the chain gun sentries before the gate had been destroyed. It dawned on me that those wearing power armour were the crux of the Steel Ranger's advantage. If they could all be taken out, then we might have a chance to win after all. The cost had already been too great; we couldn't just give up and lose everything.

I brought the scope of my rifle up to my good eye, closing my bad one and bracing the rifle on a nearby chunk of debris. Through the scope, I watched as the Ranger trotted cautiously closer to the griffon's corpse, wanting to make sure he had killed her. I trained the cross-hairs on the Ranger's head, which I was currently looking at from the side. I tongued the trigger, my rifle letting out a resounding crack. A heartbeat later, the shot struck the Ranger with a heavy clang.

I could see the Ranger stagger sideways from the impact of the shot, but it had not punched through his helmet. The armour Applejack had created was meant to be virtually indestructible. I shuddered at what she might think if she knew what it was being used for now. The shot had stunned the Ranger momentarily, but it had also made him aware that I was here. I lined up another shot as I cocked the custom bolt of the rifle, bringing the next round into the chamber.

I heard a loud series of clicks as the Ranger's miniguns reloaded. If he started to fire, I would be reduced to pulp. I didn't plan on giving him that opportunity. I fired off my next shot, aimed at the visor of the armour's helmet. I hoped that it was thin enough for a rifle as powerful as this one to be able to punch through without armour-piercing ammunition. The shot struck the Ranger's helm just below the eye; my shot had slipped a quarter inch when the rubble I was bracing on shifted slightly.

However, my shot was not without merit. When it connected, the Ranger's helmet began to spark violently around the eyes and neck. The Ranger took a step backwards, his helmeted head looking about frantically. I must have damaged something, as the Ranger began to hoof at the helmet, looking like he was trying to remove it. I cocked the bolt of my rifle once more; as soon as his helmet came off, I was taking a shot right at his head. I didn't get the chance.

There was a sound I could only describe as 'unholy', and the griffon got back up. In spite of being shot full of holes (and dead moments earlier), she grabbed the chest of the minigunner with her talons, dragging him up to eye level with her. “Here, let me help you with that,” she snarled.

The griffon brought up her free talon, the arcano-tech device sparking to life and igniting a fresh wreath of plasma. Using a single claw, she cut a line across the face of the Ranger's helmet. Then, with brute strength alone, she bent the metal back and tossed the sundered helm aside, glaring directly into the eyes of the rather terrified looking Steel Ranger. In the process of removing the helmet, she had gouged out one of them. His miniguns fired a burst, but the bullets all flew over the griffon's head at that angle.

“Let me ask you something,” snarled the griffon, holding a flaming talon close enough to the Ranger's head to cake the blood that was streaming from his destroyed eye. “You guys came here thinking you were pretty hot shit. Did you ever stop to consider what would happen if you ran into someone who was better than you?”

“P-please,” stammered the Ranger, “I surrender!”

“Not an option,” snapped the griffon. “You start a fight, you got no right to bitch when someone else ends it. Now, getting back to my question; there will always be that one person that, no matter what you do, will always be better than you. What do you think you do when you pick a fight with that someone?”

The Steel Ranger had no response; he simply squirmed, trying to loose himself from the Griffon's grasp.

“Time's up,” she squawked. “The answer is: you die! Just like I did. You should be thanking me though; at least you won't have to live with the shame of being killed by me for the rest of your unlife.” With that, she tore the head of the Steel Ranger cleanly off, dropping the body in a pool of blood that widened as the headless corpse bled out.

***

Before moving off to fight elsewhere, the griffon began preening herself. She checked over her armour, occasionally plucking out a bullet lodged inside with her talons. I took the opportunity to gallop over to her. She tensed when she saw me coming, raising a talon, but lowered it upon recognizing me. She looked away from me, glancing down at the decapitated Ranger. She spat a wad of pinkish phlegm on the corpse. In spite of her previous attitude towards me, I was tempted to tackle her into a hug.

“Y'know,” she said, smirking at me, “I never would have expected a wall-eyed feather brain like you to be such a crack shot.”

“You saw that?” I asked, stopping short in surprise.

“Heard it,” she replied conversationally. A small part of me was annoyed that she was so quick to drop her combat seriousness, but I couldn't help but be curious. “Two shots, both connected with his head. Most ponies aren't good enough with that kind of firing bolt to pull that off. It's a griffon design.”

“I custom fitted the bolt to make it easier to fire,” I noted, looking down at my weapon. I had not known it was a griffon made weapon. However, I had a more pressing confusion; “How are you not dead?”

The griffon actually chuckled; “Canterlot ghouls are really hard to put down. That's necromancy for you.”

I nodded, not wanting to press the issue, considering it had been part of her rant at the now headless Ranger. “I never got your name before,” I noted, reminding myself of what I had told myself earlier.

“I never gave it,” she sneered in response; “...Gilda.”

Was that the name of the griffon that had once come to Ponyville? It would explain a lot, but it was so long ago that I couldn't remember clearly. Still, pleasantries aside, I needed to ask her; “How bad is it out there?”

She snorted, but responded anyways; “I did a flyby before jumping into the fray. Your gunners at the gate managed to drop two of the heavies before getting blown apart. With the four I took out, half of them are dead.” That was good, wasn't it? “Unfortunately, most of your militia is toast. Those left have been doing hit and run while trying to get the surviving civilians into the tunnels.”

It was interesting how the seriousness of Gilda's tone changed so drastically when she began talking about combat. Probably came with being a mercenary. “Do we have a chance at all?”

The griffon rolled her eyes, apparently thinking the question stupid. “Were you watching me? I'm gonna have to do most of the work, but all these guys have is fancy gear. Haven't seen one yet who has the ca-hones to match me in a straight fight. Although...” she noted, glancing at my rifle, “I wouldn't mind some cover.”

***

Before we had the chance to go find more Rangers to fight off, Gilda tensed again, turning away from me and facing down the smouldering street. Two more Steel Rangers were galloping towards us, bringing the fight right to us. One of them was Emerald, the other one of the unicorns that had stood with her at the head of their herd. She came to a stop several yards short of the two of us. She looked to me, then the griffon, then down at the Ranger she had decapitated. She slowly scanned the area around us, taking in the bodies of her fallen comrades.

Emerald turned her cold, stern gaze on the griffon. The unicorn next to her seemed shocked; “By the Goddesses, what is that thing?”

“Just another abomination, Scribe Cottage,” replied Emerald, not taking her gaze off Gilda. “Though it seems your suspicions about Paladin Torch were correct.”

Gilda sneered at the unicorns; “This abomination just wasted four of your paladins on her own. I'd watch what you say.”

Emerald seemed neither intimidated nor impressed; “The fact that they fell to you means they were simply undeserving of their titles and ranks. Scribe Cottage Cheese, please note that Paladins Torch, Geiger, Lead and Lily are all posthumously demoted.”

Gilda gaped at the Steel Ranger unicorns; “Wow, and I thought I was a bitch.” Emerald said nothing in response. “Still, you've seen what I can do. I recommend getting out of my way before I carve you into mincemeat. Might wanna take the rest of your so called 'paladins' with you before they get post-whatever demoted too.”

Emerald was unfazed; she actually too a step towards the griffon. “I shall be dealing with you myself. Scribe Cottage, see to it that the tags of the fallen are gathered for recording in the archives.” The smaller unicorn nodded fervently, but seemed unwilling to approach the fallen Rangers while Gilda stood in his way.

Gilda actually burst out laughing; “You? You're going to fight me?” A wide, yet ugly smirk grew across her beak. “You're a scribe; an egghead. What makes you think you have ANY business challenging a Talon with over a hundred years of combat experience?”

Emerald said nothing more, she simply lowered her head and kicked at the dirt. Gilda rolled her eyes; “You're kidding, right?”

Emerald was not kidding. She charged towards the griffon wordlessly, her head low and her body limber. Gilda took that as foolish, and pounced towards the unicorn, talons outstretched and once again wreathed in green flame. When the griffon was nearly on top of her, Emerald nimbly rolled onto her back, using her momentum to continued sliding underneath Gilda, who had now overshot her. She thrust a forehoof upwards into the griffon's breast with enough force to actually make her gag. I heard the crack of ribs breaking. Gilda crashed and skidded close enough to the scribe called Cottage to make him prance backwards a few paces. Emerald came out of her slide with another deft roll, righting herself and looking back towards the fallen griffon.

Gilda forced herself to her feet; groaning. She clutched at her breast with a talon, using the other one to steady herself. “Okay, not just an egghead then. Read a few zebra martial arts books have you?”

Emerald again said nothing, focusing completely on Gilda's movements. I was transfixed; I had seen Gilda fight, and it now seemed that Emerald was no slouch either. I was momentarily tempted to take a shot at the other scribe, but like me he seemed intently focused on the other two dueling in front of us. Neither one of us could hope to be a match for these two warriors.

Gilda pushed herself into the air, freeing up her talons. They sparked briefly as they were once again sheathed in plasma. Emerald did not move, her horn glowing instead. A cascade of glowing lights appeared around her, forming into arcane missiles, which she launched towards the griffon. Despite being caught by the surprise ranged attack, Gilda rolled nimbly through the air, avoiding the cascade of arcane death. Emerald launched another wave, only for the griffon to dive under them and charge through the air at her.

Emerald was blindingly fast; when Gilda was mere inches away from her, she turned on the spot in what looked like a ballet twirl, reared up and slammed both of her hind hooves into the griffon's face. There was a crack, and Gilda's neck twisted unnaturally far from the force of the blow. The flames on her talons died and the odd pink light behind her eyes faded as her neck was broken. Carried by momentum, she slammed into the ground and slid to a halt next to me. Emerald turned back around and observed Gilda's body, not showing any signs of contentment at her apparent victory.

After a few pregnant moments of quiet, that unholy sound came again, and Gilda stood up. Using her talons, she forcibly cracked her neck, pushing her head back into it's proper position. “Ow,” she groaned. Still, not even this seemed to faze Emerald, who simply observed the resurrection in silence.

“Are you alright?” I asked; concerned. The griffon had 'died' twice in a short time.

“Never better,” she grimaced.

I could tell she was lying. Between being pumped full of bullets and having her ribs broken, she had gotten slower. Emerald was presently unharmed, and had proven lethal at both close range and a distance. The only real advantage that Gilda had left was that she couldn't die. Emerald seemed to be taking stock of the Canterlot-ghoul, trying to find a way to make her stay down. I was really hoping there wasn't one. I had lost all perception of the battle consuming the rest of the town, as though the duel between these two would be the true decider of the entire conflict.

Gilda took to the air once more, unable to move as effectively on the ground. As soon as she took off, Emerald's horn lit up again. This time though, the magical energy that she summoned did not take the form of eldrich arrows. Instead, they formed into thin, crescent shaped magical blades that made a wicked whistling noise as they cut through the air. Gilda weaved around them, but slowed for a moment, clutching her injured breast. In that instant, one of the blades clipped her left wing, slicing half of it clean off. Gilda shrieked in pain and tumbled to the ground.

Even as the griffon fell, Emerald charged towards her. She hit the ground with a painful sounding thud, immediately struggling to get her legs back under her. Just as she was standing up, Emerald reached her, leaping over the griffon with a single bound. While travelling over her, Emerald stuck out with a hoof, hitting the griffon right where her neck met the base of her spine. She landed deftly and turned to face Gilda's hindquarters. The griffon did not move. She couldn't.

Emerald did not waste the opportunity she had created for herself. Summoning a single magical blade, she launched it over Gilda's back, the magic slicing cleanly through the griffon's exposed neck. She toppled over as her head rolled away. “And stay down this time,” growled Emerald.

***

Looking at the now headless Canterlot ghoul, I had a sinking feeling that words cannot describe. It was over; she wasn't getting back up after that. However, permeating my despair was a feeling of anger. So many innocent ghouls had died, and now the only one who might have given us a chance at winning back the city was gone too. After my long silence, I finally found my voice again.

“Emerald!” I screamed, pulling the unicorn's attention to me. Her expression remained as cold and neutral as it had been throughout her entire fight with Gilda. I knew she could kill me without any effort, but I still needed to confront her. “What the hell happened to you?”

Emerald spent several long seconds just looking at me. Then, her face broke into a cruel, malicious smile; “Well I'll be damned. Of all the places I could have met you again, Miss Ditzy Doo, to think it would be here.”

Well, at least she recognized me. That was a start. I tried to stare her down as best I could, despite knowing that this was likely going to get me killed. “Why?” I demanded.

She actually looked amused. “Why?” She smirked coldly. “I said this back at the gate; you ghouls are nothing but abominations who don't know they've died. Your existence is a blight on Equestria that we aim to end.”

“I saved your life,” I shot back. “This is what you decided to do with it?” I knew she wasn't telling me something. I'm not sure how I knew, but I was so certain of it. “What would Gizmo think?”

Emerald's cruel smirk faded instantly at the mention of her adopted father. “There is so much you do not know, and yet presume to understand, Ditzy Doo. What I stated was simply the way our current Elder likes to put it. But rather than explain my own reasons, perhaps I should show you.”

Before I could question what she meant, or even say anything other than 'bwah', Emerald charged towards me, her horn glowing. She was on me before I had time to move out of the way. She stopped just short of impaling my bad eye with her horn, which she instead pressed to my forehead. The world around me fell away with a strange flushing sensation.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

I had used a recollector before, and I had even had my own memories recorded a couple of times. This was similar, but not quite the same. Instead of reliving the memories in real time and exact detail, they played through my mind like a montage. I still absorbed all of the details of the memories, but in an extremely condensed form. What follows is the most important parts of what I saw in Emerald's memories.

The first experience was back while Emerald was still a foal. It was an odd feeling, suddenly being back in the body of a young filly, as well as being a unicorn. It can't have been long after I had rescued her from Stable Sixty-Seven. She (I? We? I wasn't sure if there was a proper way to address oneself inside somepony's else's memories) milled about the other survivors of the Stable. She was looking for her parents. When they were nowhere to be found, she approached Gizmo, asking if they could go back to the Stable and look for them. Gizmo shook his head and told her the truth. I could feel the tears streaming down her face as she wept; seemingly without end.

The memories sped forward, depositing me at a time further ahead. I was playing with Tulip, the yellow coated earth pony that had been her best friend, somewhere in Fillydelphia. We stopped as suddenly, a single shambling figure emerged from a nearby building. It was a ghoul pony. Tulip had gotten the same explanation as Emerald regarding ghouls from me, and trotted up to the ghoul merrily to introduce herself. This ghoul was feral, and it killed her. I watched in horror as the ghoul tore her apart, devouring chunks of her flesh. I ran away screaming for help, only able to get away because the ghoul was occupied with its meal.

Another flash forward deposited me in an audience among the Steel Rangers, looking up to a podium as Gizmo was appointed the new Elder. Emerald was now old enough to have her cutie mark, and I could feel the armoured scribe's robe draped over her body. Gizmo's first declaration as Elder was to say that the Steel Rangers should use what they have for the benefit of all the innocent ponies out there who were suffering. He took a group of Rangers, Emerald included, to a small settlement to try and treat with them. The settlers were paranoid and skittish, refusing to have anything to do with anypony outside their community. A sniper somewhere in their midst got spooked and took a shot; that single bullet tearing through Gizmo's visor and into his eye. As he slumped to the ground, Emerald ran to him, but he was already dead. The rest of the Steel Rangers, enraged by the loss of their Elder, assaulted the town. The destroyed everything, and left nopony alive.

Another skip, and we were at Gizmo's funeral. His successor addressed the Rangers, vowing that never again would one of their number be killed by primitive tribals, vile raiders or any other wasteland horror. They would devote themselves to being the strongest group in the wasteland, content to let the others fight and die while they waited to step up and claim their rightful place as vanguards of the Equestria that was. The new Elder also declared that two new sects of the Scribes would be created, the order of the Sword and of the Shield, to focus specifically on the knowledge of the past that fell beyond the reach of the earth ponies that founded the Rangers. Emerald stepped forward, the first to volunteer for the Order of the Sword.

The next memory was the first mission of the Order of the Sword Scribes. They, along with a contingent of Paladins and Knights, stormed an old library in Fillydelphia. The place was infested with raiders, but they fell swiftly and brutally to the onslaught of the well armed Rangers. Though most of the books were destroyed, I watched through Emerald's eyes as she accessed a secured terminal that held the entirety of the library's collected works. She downloaded the entire contents into a portable storage device.

One more memory completely skewed my perception. I was balancing on top of a pole on my head, upside-down. I had a strange feeling flowing through me that I assumed was Emerald using magic. There were a number of objects floating around me: two books, a pair of quills and numerous scrolls of paper. One of the books was about zebra martial arts, the other about magical combat. My eyes scanned both books rapidly, transcribing the words and diagrams from the badly damaged copies to fresh scroll. In the process, she took in every word, every motion and every spell, learning all of them in their entirety.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

I came out of Emerald's memories feeling like my heart had been torn in two. In a matter of minutes, I had experienced nearly every major loss she had suffered throughout her entire life. I couldn't stop myself from crying, the burning tears streaming down my face. I fell flat on my stomach, my legs unable to support my weight. It was too much too fast, and my own emotions were a mess from the experience. I vomited, the sight only making me look and feel even more wretched.

Emerald stood over me, leering down with contempt; “You see Miss Ditzy Doo, what I have just shown you is the quintessential truth of the wasteland that is Equestria. And I have you to thank for bringing me into it.”

The weight of Emerald's words hit me like a ton of bricks. She was right; everything that had happened to her came from my rescuing her from Stable Sixty-Seven. Tulip would never had tried to talk to that feral ghoul if she hadn't believed my story about being cursed. Gizmo might never have been killed if I hadn't convinced him to try and spread his positive influence. In turn, the new scribe orders would never have been created, and Emerald might never have come here to massacre Trottingham.

Emerald continued to speak, heedless of me; “The one great truth of the wasteland is this: the weak perish. The Equestrian Wasteland is a gauntlet of pain, suffering, hardships and death that only the strong can survive. My parents, Tulip, and even Gizmo were all too weak to make it in this blasted hellscape. This foul little necropolis of yours was weak too; its militia poorly trained and improperly armed. So I devoted myself to becoming strong; becoming a weapon that could stand against the wastes.” Her horn lit up, and I felt my heart wrench in my chest. It was as though it was caught in a vice. “And now you too shall perish. If you have anything left to say, do so now.”

I felt like I was drowning, which compounded with the pressure Emerald's spell was placing on my heart, leaving me feeling utterly crushed. My survival instincts panicked, trying desperately to find anything, anypony to hold onto in the tide of pain and despair. I was awash in a sea of regrets, pity, hatred and futility all at once. As soon as I went under, it would all be over. Somepony tossed me an obtrusively pink life preserver. I had no idea where it had come from, but I grabbed it, clutching tightly with all the strength I could muster.

Then, the life preserver became a sponge, sucking up the entire ocean's worth of negativity. As it inflated, it changed shape, becoming a face, then an entire pony. I knew this pony; she had been my friend. Hell, she had been everypony's friend. Pinkie Pie. Here was a pony who's sole goal in life, who's one true calling, had been bringing happiness and smiles to her friends. Even in Equestria's darkest hour, in the depth of a war that ended up destroying everything, she still took the time to remember every little foal's birthday and throw them a party. She devoted every last ounce of herself, her time, and even an entire government Ministry to trying to make everypony smile, even when it seemed that all hope was an illusion, waiting to be dispelled. She wouldn't let anypony tell her that there wasn't room for laughter in the world, no matter how dark things had gotten.

“You're... wrong,” I choked, barely able to speak. My heart struggled to beat; if these were going to be my last words, then I was going to make them count. “Equestria will prevail... so long as there are ponies out there... willing to fight against the darkness...”

The tightness in my chest evaporated. Suddenly I could breathe properly again. I opened my eyes, locking both of them on Emerald. She was still staring down at me, but her horn had stopped glowing. “You can't be that naive,” she scowled. “After everything you've been through. After everything I've shown you. After everything that this fucking wasteland has thrown at you, how can you still think otherwise?”

Emerald's words lashed at me like a whip, but I clung to that precious pink preserver. I rose to my hooves, speaking with all the resolve I could muster. “Because I have hope. I've met good ponies in my time; some of the best. No matter what happened, they never stopped believing they could make things right. Even after everything went so horribly wrong, there are still ponies who do everything they can to make things better.” The image of May, the real May, who had put her Ministry of Peace training to use on everypony she could, flashed in my mind. “No matter what, so long as those ponies exist, then Equestria will be restored. Even if it takes another hundred years, I guarantee that it will happen.”

Emerald's horn lit up again. She was going to kill me now. I gave her the best smile I could muster, even if it was just to make sure she knew she hadn't killed my hope. My lazy eye rolled away from her, landing on a nearby ponyhole cover. It was wrapped in the glow of magic from Emerald's horn. “You have an interestingly strong resolve,” said Emerald. Her face was still locked in a glower, but her words surprised me. “Stronger than even mine. Leave now, but remember my words. When that resolve of yours finally breaks, remember what I told you.”

“It won't,” I stated defiantly. I dove into the open sewer, leaving Emerald behind.

As I moved down the sewers away from the slaughter above, I heard Emerald's magically amplified voice calling out over the decimated town. “Brethren gather unto me. This day is won. Scribe Cottage Cheese, gather the tags of our fallen for recording in the archives. The rest of you gather up these fetid corpses so that we might burn them. I won't have them festering disease in what is to be our new citadel.”

***

Down in the sewers my resolve began to fade; the burning intensity of it dissolving into worry as I searched for survivors. I had hurt my wing further simply by using it to glide down into the sewers, and had been forced to walk. I trotted through the sewers, listening for any signs of life. The tunnels beneath Trottingham were vast; the city having shunned the more modern water recycling and purification systems that the rest of Equestria had adopted during the industrial revolution. I hoped that my inability to find anypony owed to the fact that they had gotten away safely.

After a few wrong turns and going around in a circle, I finally found them. A group of survivors had gathered in a pipe junction a half mile from the entrance to Stable Twelve. My heart ached at how few of them there were. Just this morning Trottingham had a population of around six hundred ghouls. There weren't even three dozen in front of me. I truly hoped that others had simply moved on; this couldn't be all there was left. They tensed when I came around the bend, but relaxed when they saw it was me.

Among the survivors I could see Blackhoof. The scorched forehoof that he had taken his name from was gone, severed crudely above the knee. He was laying in the polluted sewer water, letting the radiation in it soak into his stump, cauterizing the wound. The trickle of ichorous blood from the stump slowed before my eyes, eventually stopping. Standing next to him was Scatter, her right side torn up by a number of small shrapnel wounds. Her right side grenade rifle was totalled, but she had trained the other on me, presumably looking to protect those left from any Ranger who tried to come down here and finish them off.

Scatter approached me slowly. “Ditzy, thank the Goddesses you're alright.”

I nodded solemnly; “Are there any others?”

Scatter shook her head; “There's a couple scouting the tunnels further ahead, looking for a way out, but that's it.”

“Where are May and Rottingtail?” I asked, not sure I really wanted to hear the answer.

Scatter didn't respond, just looking away. I put a hoof around her neck, drawing her close but taking care not to agitate her wounds. Scatter looked about to burst into tears, but shucked me off when the sound of hoofsteps echoed from further down the tunnel. I turned to watch, ready to pull up my rifle if I needed to. I wanted it to be more survivors, but I wasn't going to let the number that there were drop either.

It was May. Her horn was aglow, a field of magical levitation wrapped around a form floating next to her. It was Rottingtail. As May drew closer, floating Rottingtail alongside her, I thought he was dead. He wasn't moving, but a closer look at his eyes showed them to still be alight with much of that same rage as before. As May drew closer, she looked at me, her face flushing with relief. She closed the rest of the distance quickly, Rottingtail's limp form following behind her. Rottingtail snarled and snapped, growling at us. My lazy eye rolled onto his bad leg; which was nearly as badly mangled as when I’d first met him. Large chunks of flesh were hanging loose and i could see part of the bone. He didn’t ever seem to notice.

“He hasn't gone feral has he?” I asked, pained by the thought.

May shook her head, allowing me to breath a sigh of relief. “Pumped himself full of stampede. I had to use an anaesthetic spell and drag him down here to keep him from getting himself killed. He did good though; distracted a group of them long enough for some civilians to get away. Even managed to kill a couple of the more lightly armed ones.”

May set Rottingtail's limp body down on the cold concrete of the tunnel. She looked past me to the small smattering of surviving ghouls. She looked around in all directions, as though doing so would allow her to find more who were hiding somewhere nearby. When she didn't, she began to cry. She threw her hooves over me and wept. I knew how much she was hurting; the ponies of Trottingham hadn't deserved this. We had lost our home, our one safe haven, and too many friends. I cried too, holding May down there in the sewers for a long time. Many of the other survivors joined in our tears as well.

***

“Children, I have some terrible news for you today. Remember that report I gave yesterday about the Steel Rangers? How I hoped they might be coming out to do some good in the wasteland? Looks like my hope was misplaced children. The Steel Rangers are nothing more than well armed, well organized raiders.

“I'm sure you've all heard of the necropolis of Trottingham at some point in your travels. It's a city full of ghouls just trying to live in peace away from the persecution they face in much of the rest of Equestria. More than that though, they were good folks. They were more than willing to trade with the rest of the wasteland, using a water talisman they got from somewhere to provide clean water to anypony who needed it. Or at least, they used to.

“Yesterday, the Steel Rangers set their sights on Trottingham with the intention of setting up shop. But these bastards weren't willing to share, and saw fit to slaughter the town's inhabitants. No word yet on any survivors, but one thing is perfectly clear: the Steel Rangers are not here to help. If you have something they want, they will take it from you, and your life is worth less than nothing to them.

“So, if you see these armoured goons, stay out of their way. That, my little ponies, is the truth of the matter.”

Footnote: Status Update!

Current Status: Non-Feral Ghoul
Lucidity: Low

Ghoul Tip: Better Safe than Sorry – Do you feel hungry all the time? Do you think your mind is starting to slip? Don't be afraid to seek help; the earlier you look for help, the better the odds that the descent into feralism can be avoided.

Bonus Perk Added: Hope Survives – With a little luck and some help from a certain pink pony, you were able to say just the right thing to pull yourself out of a tight spot. During certain situations, unique dialogue options will become available that allow you to reduce or eliminate hostility. This perk is ineffective against raiders, feral ghouls and wild animals.

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!