• Published 18th Jan 2012
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Fallout Equestria: The Ditzy Doo Chronicles - Ten Mihara



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

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Chapter 7: Sheriff Rottingtail

Chapter 7: Sheriff Rottingtail

“There ain't any ghouls but old ghouls. We're the first and last generation.”

Friends.

In the time before the war, I'd had friends. Granted, my appearance and associated lack of coordination were often the subject of ridicule (looking at you Rainbow Dash, wherever you are), but I still had a few close friends that I could rely on. Most of them died the day the megaspells went off. There was almost no way of knowing when or how, and by now there was little reason to dwell on it. All the rest had since met any number of possible ends, none of which I really wanted to contemplate. Even Fluttershy, the nicest pony I'd ever met, was gone.

I had made new friends, sort of. On the first day after the holocaust, I had met May, Gizmo, Stronghoof and Blinkie Pie, as well as a few other survivors. Of all of them, only May had stuck it out with me for the long run, or I had stuck with her, either way. Stronghoof had grown old, and seen the town in his charge come to the brink of ruin and barbarism. Gizmo had joined a society who he hoped could help restore Equestria, but many of them seemed unwilling to help anypony other than themselves.

The worst part in all of this was that I didn't seem to belong anywhere. I wasn't dead, but I wasn't really truly alive anymore either. I was a ghoul pony, cursed to wander the wasteland that used to be Equestria until I either went mad or got killed by somepony who thought I already was. May had been trying to find a cure or treatment of some kind for ghouls, but a lack of other ghouls to study (that didn't try to eat us) made that problematic. What I really needed was something to rekindle my hope.

“I'm really sorry about that,” stated Gizmo solemnly, shortly after Grumble was dismissed and Steelhooves had bade May and I to depart.

“It's alright,” I said, although I wasn't sure how much I meant it. “Most ponies shoot first, without bothering to say anything.”

Steelhooves had since left us, leading the ponies from Stable Sixty-Seven into the encampment that would be their temporary home. Despite May's desire to continue attending to the wounded, the Senior Paladin refused to allow her any further. I was thankful to him for that, as stepping into the camp would likely be a death sentence for either of us, judging by both his own words and the actions of Grumble. It was unfortunate, but it was time for May and I to move on.

I cast a longing look back at the Stable dwellers. Emerald and Tulip were running around gaily with a few other children. I really hoped they would be alright. Gizmo prodded me with a hoof, causing me to turn and face him. “I'll make sure they're looked after,” he said confidently. “The Elder's word is law, but the Head Scribe has a little sway. I can at least make sure they don't go through anything like that again.”

Gizmo looked up to see Emerald waving at him. He waved back with a soft smile. “Hell,” he muttered, “I might even take in that little filly, given that what happened to her parents is partly my fault.”

I looked at Gizmo quizzically; “How can you blame yourself for what those bandits did?” I demanded. He was in no position to be feeling sorry for himself... right?

Gizmo shook his head, apparently thinking so. “I should have gotten there sooner. I would have too, had I not been arguing with the Elder about an incident at another Stable we went to. Then, when we got there late, I rushed in blindly. My haste and lack of caution got Noodles and Violet killed. Not to mention the Stable dwellers that died while I was pinned underneath that rock slide.”

“That can hardly be put on you,” I retorted. “I'd say it was your Elder's fault for holding you up with... what were you arguing about exactly?”

Gizmo's face, ever so briefly, looked grim. He quickly caught himself and re-donned his softer smile. He was keeping something from me, but was at least willing to admit as much. “I can't tell you,” he said bluntly. “At least, not without violating my oath to the Steel Rangers.”

It seemed like whatever that argument was about, it was troubling him. Instead of pressing him though, I wrapped my forelegs around him in a hug. He hugged me back with a metal sheathed hoof of his own. “You still saved a lot of ponies today,” I reminded him, “don't forget that.”

Gizmo shot me a smirk. “Yeah, and don't you forget that you saved me so I could save them, not to mention that I would have been hard pressed to succeed on my own.” Gizmo took another look at the frolicking fillies. “Yeah, I think I will look after her. I always wanted kids of my own, but the radiation effectively gelded me all those years ago.”

I grimaced; that was surely unpleasant, and just a little awkward to hear from a stallion who was half my age. I quickly changed the subject, hoping to avoid further awkward moments. “What are you going to do next?”

Gizmo raised a hoof to his chin. “For now, I'll probably help with the salvaging of Stable Sixty-Seven, since it was my assignment to begin with. After that, I'll have to wait and see.” He then looked me right in the eyes, my lazy eye managing to stay focused on him. “I know what Grumble said must have been upsetting, but there are more good ponies here than just Steelhooves and I. It may be rough, but what we have here is probably the best chance Equestria has to recover.”

I nodded solemnly. “Well then, I guess it's time for May and I to leave.”

As I turned to meet up with May and depart, Gizmo leaned in close to my ear, whispering. “Trottingham,” he said, obviously trying to keep others from hearing. “Stable Twelve. That's all I can say, but you'll understand when you get there.”

Gizmo stepped away from me, walking over to May. He didn't say anything, but his visor bleeped, and the screen of May's Pipbuck flashed briefly. He had probably given her the location of Stable Twelve. He also floated a couple of small tools out of his armour and gave them to her. They were, I think, the same ones he had used to repair That Gun earlier. May nodded silently, taking the tools in her own magical grasp and placing them in her saddlebags. It looked like we wouldn't have to worry about it jamming again, at least not for a good long while.

***

Trottingham was, in so many words, Fillydelphia's opposite. Where Fillydelphia had stood as the center of Equestria's industrial revolution, Trottingham had shunned the often too rapid technological progress of the rest of the country. Of all the major cities in Equestria, Trottingham was perhaps the least steeped in the fruits of industry, instead retaining a pre-war stance, both in terms of the conflict itself, and the general direction in which Equestria was heading. It also just so happened to be on the opposite end of the country from Fillydelphia. None of which mattered when the zebra megaspell hit the city.

May and I had been to Trottingham once before, a few weeks after the end of the first winter in the wasteland. The city was utterly devastated; only the hoofful of newer buildings (most of which were Ministry hubs) in the center of the city remained standing. The rest of the small, rustic homes that had been kept around to maintain the city's pre-industry appeal had been vaporized or flattened by the megaspell. May and I had left when we found no pockets of survivors, or even other ghouls.

The newest thing anywhere near the city was Stable Twelve, the only one in the vicinity of the relatively small settlement. Gizmo had included a few notes along with the location of the Stable, although he seemed to be remaining deliberately vague on what we would find there now. Considering the distance from Fillydelphia to Trottingham, May had begrudgingly agreed to let me fly us there. Her eagerness to find out what Gizmo had hinted at helped suppress her fear of heights. It would take me four days to fly there, compared to the weeks we would spend getting there on the ground.

Of course, I couldn't just carry May on my back. Not only would there be a risk of her falling off, but it would also make flying more difficult. Thankfully, I knew a way around that. I had made deliveries to Fillydelphia before many times, and I knew where a number of post offices were. It didn't take long for me to fly into the city and find a delivery cart suitable for carrying May. The tricky part was rigging up a makeshift safety harness for her, as she would not leave the ground until I had put something together.

While nowhere near Gizmo's level of ability with machines, I possessed some basic tailoring skills. I had done something similar back in Manehattan all those years ago when I rigged up a harness for myself. I was able to pull together something May was satisfied with. After strapping her in, I hitched myself to the thankfully intact harness of the cart, and took off.

***

While we were flying, May attempted to remove herself from the experience as much as possible. I occasionally looked back to find her either staring at the floor of the wagon, or simply clenching her eyes shut. I snickered, wondering why heights was the thing that frightened her the most after all we'd been through. As well, despite the rushing air impairing my hearing, I could hear DJ P0N-3's broadcast playing out of May's Pipbuck, presumably at maximum volume.

The voice of Sapphire Shore gave way to that of Remix. I was still getting used to the stark difference between her and her father, but despite being new to the position of DJ P0N-3, she was doing remarkably well.

“Salutations children, this is DJ P0N-3 and that was Sapphire Shores with a personal favourite of mine. Now, before we get back to the tunes, I've got a bit of news for all you out there listenin'. About a week and a half ago I told you that some of the old Stables were opening up, bringing new ponies into out midst here on the surface. Unfortuantely, a few bad apples saw this as a chance for personal gain, rather than fighting the good fight.”

I listened intently, swivelling my ears back to catch as much of the broadcast as possible. It almost sounded like she was talking about Stable Sixty-Seven.

“Out near the recently established settlement of Hoofstomp-" Not Stable Sixty-Seven, I mused. "-a Stable opened up, only for an unruly band of brutes to barge in and seize the place for their own. Way I hear it, they weren't the kind willing to share with several hundred Stable dwelling ponies.”

I grimaced; Gizmo had been quite serious when he mentioned similar incidents to Sixty-Seven. Looking back, I could see that May was equally disgusted. Still, Remix continued.

“Now, while this may seem dreadful, all is not lost children. Shortly after the invasion, a mare dressed in spiky metal combat armour dove into the Stable after the bandits, and single hoofedly routed them. She emerged with the Stable's survivors and brought them to Hoofstomp; effectively tripling the population of the fledgling community. Sounds like the town will have a much easier time getting its hooves under it now.”

“Now, I don't know too much about this Iron Mare, but whoever she is, I can tell that she's lookin' to fight the good fight. Many well deserved thanks to the Iron Mare for doin' the right thing. You're the kind of heroine this blighted hellscape needs more of. Best of luck to Hoofstomp too. Now let's get back to the tunes...”

As a song by Sweetie Belle began to play, I looked back at May. She seemed to be mulling over the news as well. At first, I wondered if the 'Iron Mare' that DJ P0N-3 had mentioned was a Steel Ranger. However, based on what I had experienced with Gizmo, a Steel Ranger would not have gone in alone. As well, the 'spiky' metal armour that she had been described as wearing didn't match the appearance of any of the three Rangers I had seen, nor any I had encountered prior to the holocaust.

“What do you think?” I called back to the cart.

“I think it's nice to not be the only ponies out here who give a shit,” replied May curtly. “Between ponies like her and the Steel Rangers, I think bandits might actually get that raiding Stables is a bad idea.”

I wholeheartedly agreed. Even if there were bad ponies out there, the good ponies would step up and make things right. Remix was right, this was just what the wasteland needed. Over the course of the flight from Fillydelphia to Trottingham, Remix brought up the 'Iron Mare' a few more times. Each mention was accompanied by talk of some recent act of heroism performed by the armoured heroine. She seemed to have a particular love of protecting pockets of ponies from rampaging beasts. May seemed quite enamoured with the idea of such a heroine, which seemed to be doing wonders for her as well.

***

According to the directions May received from Gizmo, the entrance to Stable Twelve was located inside the Trottingham city proper. More specifically, it was in the sewers. It would be possible to reach it through any of the sewer entrances, but Gizmo had marked a specific ponyhole cover that was closest to the actual Stable. I figured I could put the cart down right on top of the cover, but approach over Trottingham showed me otherwise. In the time since May and I had been there before, life had returned to the city. After a fashion.

Curiosity, both mine and May's, drove me to set down a half mile outside the edge of the city. While most of the old city had been flattened, new structures had been erected. Most of them were little more than scrap metal shacks, and there was a wall around the perimeter made of thick metal plates. I could see ponies moving around the wall; guards. Along with the wall, they were keeping the community I had seen in my flyby safe from the rest of the wasteland.

I detached May from the harness in the cart, only for her to leap out and kiss the ground once it was beneath her hooves. I rolled my eyes (in opposite directions) as I allowed her to get reacquainted with her old friend. Once she was finished, we made out way towards a large gate that stood in the middle of the steel wall. A pair of guards caught our approach and galloped to meet us, both armed with assault battle saddles. They stopped us just short of the gate, and I was shocked at what I saw.

Both of these guards were ghoul ponies! From a distance, particularly with my lazy eye, I hadn't been able to tell. Up close, their hairless bodies and rotting flesh were impossible to miss. One of the guards was an earth pony, the other a unicorn. Was everypony here a ghoul? Would there be another pegasus? The thoughts raced through my mind one after another as we approached the two ghoul guards.

“Halt,” called the earth pony ghoul. May and I stopped. He and the other guard observed us, but it didn't seem like they were immediately hostile. Considering the attitude ghouls often faced, I couldn't really blame them for being cautious around newcomers. It also became immediately apparent why Gizmo had wanted to be secretive about this place, considering the attitude of other Steel Rangers.

“Greetings,” said May, stepping forward and nodding her head courteously towards the two of them.

“Greetings ma'am,” stated the unicorn. He spoke with a Trottingham accent, vaguely reminiscent of what I'd heard from Pipsqueak's last message at the Ponyville Stable-Tec outlet. Although, his voice was still tinged with the gruffness most ghouls had. “Please state your names and business here.”

“I'm Mayflower Cure,” my companion replied casually, “and my friend here is Ditzy Doo.”

The unicorn ghoul shot me a curious look. “Never seen a pegasus ghoul before,” he stated. I didn't think he meant to offend me, but the statement hurt a little. It looked like I was still the only pegasus below the clouds.

May continued; “My companion and I here were told by an old friend that we should come here. We were not actually aware that there would be others here; our friend simply told us that we should look into Stable Twelve.”

The earth pony guard shook his head; “Well, there's nothing down in the sewers and Stable but a bunch of zombies. All of us who kept our minds are up here on the surface now.”

“The Stable is full of zombies?” I blurted, interrupting the guards.

“Yes,” continued the unicorn. “Nopony's got the whole story on how or why, but the door of Stable Twelve didn't close properly. The Stable survived the megaspell impact, but a tiny gap at the door allowed radiation to bleed in. It took months before it became a problem, but even then there was nothing we could do about it.”

“That's awful,” moaned May. I was inclined to agree; May and I had been blasted with huge amounts of radiation all at once, but these ponies would have suffered through the sickness and pain of radiation poisoning over an extended period of time.

“We figured we'd all die down there,” continued the unicorn. “A third of us did. The rest of us ended up like this. Most of them went crazy, turning feral, and they're the only ones down there now. Those of us who kept our minds made our way back up to the surface.”

The earth pony ghoul concluded the story; “We stayed here, fearing what any regular ponies might think of us. However, when other ghouls started showing up, we felt obligated to lend them a hoof they weren't likely to find elsewhere, and occasionally some... mercy. Grew into a regular necropolis once the word started spreading amongst ghouls out in the wastes.”

I nodded slowly, taking in everything the ghoulish guards had told us. After an unfortunate accident in Stable Twelve, Trottingham had become a sort of haven for ghoul ponies, who were largely shunned and feared by the rest of the ponies on the surface. The possibility that it could be a haven for May and I as well was not lost on me. Especially when the sane ghoul population here would give May plenty of opportunities to study other cases of the condition, and maybe even turn her hope for treatment into a reality. I could tell just by looking at her that May was thinking the same thing.

“I don't suppose you have a doctor here who's been studying the ghoul condition?” enquired May.

The unicorn buck shook his head; “Used to, but not anymore. Doctor Fixit studied the development of the condition for a while, along with the regular progression of radiation sickness. Sadly, he went crazy after turning ghoul himself. Any research he might have documented would be stuck down in the Stable clinic with him.”

May was noticeably disappointed by this news, but undaunted. “Would it be possible to retrieve his research?”

“You got a death wish?” interjected the earth ghoul. “Zombies attack anything that moves, except for other zombies. Even other ghouls if they're not also feral. It's like they can smell fear or something. There's a good three hundred of 'em down in the sewers and Stable.”

That certainly put a damper on that. I heard May curse under her breath. “Regardless,” the unicorn ghoul cut back in, “if you're looking to stay for a while, then you should go talk to Sheriff Rottingtail. He's more or less in charge around here, and likes to be introduced to any and all newcomers.”

“Is there anything we should know before heading in?” I asked plaintively.

“Same as any other town really. We keep things civilized here, and Rottingtail told us never to turn away any of our own. Just don't go stirring up trouble.”

***

After our conversation outside the city, the two ghoul guards escorted May and I through the gate, then provided directions to the Sheriff's office. Walking through the town, I felt strangely relieved. Everywhere I looked there were other ghoul ponies, and unlike my previous encounters with them, these ones were all still sane. Before, I had begun to worry that May and I were the only ghouls that weren't insane, or that it was only a matter of time until we lost our minds as well. Perhaps the loss of a ghouls mind had something to do with how they handled the transformation. At the very least, having a community definitely seemed to have a beneficial impact. I could feel that much myself.

Upon finding the Sheriff's office, I suddenly felt that May and I would have been able to do it without directions fairly easily. It was the only scrap metal building with two stories, and there was a rather large wooden sign out front declaring that this was indeed the 'Sheriff's Shanty'. The door was fashioned after an old time frontier door; venetian wood and capable of swinging both inwards and out. It vaguely reminded me of our brief stop in Appleoosa, except that the old frontier town was actually in sturdier shape than this place.

Pushing past the door, we found the front room of the Sheriff's office unoccupied. There was sound coming from the room in the back that I could almost mistake for snoring. Of course, ghouls didn't really need sleep, so the thought of one taking a nap in the middle of the afternoon... turned out to be completely accurate. The back room was empty, save for a hammock and the pony sleeping on it. It was an earth pony ghoul, wearing a stetson that was tipped over his face and a vest that was adorned with a silver, star shaped sheriff's badge.

May politely rapped on the open door with a hoof. “Sheriff... Rottingtail, was it?”

The snoozing ghoul let out a loud snore and rolled over on his hammock. Considering that ghouls didn't need to sleep, it was quite odd to see one sleeping so soundly. May and I both tried knocking our hooves on the floor, trying to wake him. He made no response.

“Dangit, not this again,” came a voice from behind us. The voice was soft and childlike, but tinged with the gravelly quality that afflicted all ghouls. I turned to see a young ghoul colt (youngest ghoul I'd ever seen) standing behind us. “Uncle's always slackin' off.”

The young ghoul, who had a few scraps of green mane hanging over his forehead, trotted past May and I up to the hammock. “Ya gotta do it like this.” As he spoke, the colt reared up and bucked the hammock as hard as he could manage. The hammock spun comically in place, depositing its occupant roughly on the floor before flopping to a stop. The Sheriff's eyes rolled as he shook off the impact.

“Crumble,” grumbled the unseated stallion, his voice carrying a country twang similar to that of the colt, “how many times Ah gotta tell ya'll not t'wake me when Ah'm-”

“We got some newcomers,” cut in the colt, apparently named Crumble. “Saw 'em come in from the second floor window and figured somepony would need to buck ya outta yer nap.”

“Newcomers eh?” said Rottingtail, finally getting to his hooves. He turned to face May and I, taking in the sight of us. To my surprise, he whistled at us (this was all the more surprising because most ghouls don't have lips). “Well Ah'll be,” he remarked, “Ah guess I can forgive ya this time, considerin'.”

“Considering what, exactly?” I asked, curious about the sudden change in attitude.

“Why, considerin' that our newcomers are quite possibly the loveliest pair of ghoulettes I've seen in a good long while o'course,” replied the Sheriff.

May snorted derisively, but I found myself suddenly feeling very warm in the face. As I've stated before, I never settled down and had a family of my own, but that wasn't exactly for lack of trying. I had never been considered the prettiest mare around, but I wasn't ugly or anything, at least not before becoming a ghoul. I'd had coltfriends and relations before, but most of them never went anywhere in the long run. Ever since becoming a ghoul, I had figured such things were no longer feasible, so I suspect you can understand my shock at being dubbed 'lovely'.

However, I shook off the initial shock, convincing myself that his smarmy comment was just him being friendly. “So,” I began, trying to get my hooves back under me, “you're the one in charge around here?”

The stallion responded by plucking the hat off his head and sweeping is across his breast, bowing his head to me. “That Ah am, m'lady. Sheriff Lone Star, at your service.”

May looked at the Sheriff curiously; “I thought your name was Rottingtail.”

“It is, sorta,” replied the Sheriff, placing his hat back on his head. “Ah chose to go by Rottingtail after... this happened,” he gestured to himself, indicating his ghoulish physique. “However, in the company of kin, close friends and the ladies, I stick to the name pappy gave me. Got the idea from a few others 'round here who did the same.”

“You don't sound like you're from around here,” I observed casually.

“Ah ain't,” he said simply. “Ah actually hail from Appleoosa.” I winced as he mentioned the name, remembering what May and I had found there a week prior. “Stayed there a few days after the megaspells went off.”

“Why did you leave?” May asked. It seemed like a good thing that he had, otherwise he'd have died with the rest of them. However, considering what had happened to him, he was arguably not that much better off.

In response, Rottingtail pulled Crumble close to him with a hoof, the same one he he used to take off his hat. When I focused on his other hoof, it became evident why. His right foreleg was skeletal, the skin and muscles having been almost entirely flayed off by something. There were only faint amounts of muscle and sinew still holding it together; it was little better than a peg leg made out of bone. I found myself wondering if May could do something about it.

“This here is m'nephew,” stated Rottingtail, drawing my attention back to the conversation. “Apple Crumble's his name, son of my brother-in-law, Braeburn of the Apple Family. Ran the Appleoosa orchard before he became a bigwig at Ironshod. Lost contact with him when the spells hit.”

“So you went looking for him?” I supplied.

“Eeyup,” stated the stallion sheriff. “Was worried 'bout him and muh big sis, since they'd left Crumble in muh care to attend some big business meetin'. Left m'pappy, Sheriff Silver Star, in charge of the town. However, we got caught up in the thick of an irradiated sandstorm while crossin' the badlands, which is how we ended up ghoulified. I also got muh leg messed up shieldin' Crumble here from the worst o' it before we could find shelter.” Rottingtail gestured to his desiccated foreleg with his good one.

As Rottingtail told his story, an odd thought popped into my head. I wondered why I hadn't thought of it before, but I did say I wasn't the most clever of ponies. “Hold on,” I interjected. “If Apple Crumble was there with you forty years ago, how come he still looks like a colt?”

“Same reason you and I haven't died of old age;” stated May, looking at me like a foal caught napping in class. “I told you before that constant radiation exposure effectively halts the natural ageing process.”

“I know that,” I protested, “but you'd think that he still would have grown up a bit after all this time. When I first saw him, I thought he'd been born like that.” I grimaced internally; the thought of being born a ghoul was not a pleasant one to consider.

“Nope,” refuted Rottingtail; “Can't be born a ghoul. Din'cha know? We're all barren.”

***

I don't know how long I sat in Rottingtail's office, staring blankly at the ghoul stallion. It had been a long time since I'd been in a relationship, and longer still since I'd thought of settling down and starting a family. The prospect had not been in my head at all since becoming a ghoul, but still... being suddenly and bluntly told that it was never going to happen hurt on a deep level. More than I could have possibly anticipated. I slumped to the floor and wrapped my forelegs over my head, not wanting any of them to see me crying about something that I really knew shouldn't hurt as much as it did.

May lay down next to me and place a leg across my shoulders. Had she known about this and never told me? Or had she, like me, not even considered the possibility? It didn't really matter; I wasn't mad at her, or even at Rottingtail. I was just sad, and I appreciated May's attempt at comforting me. I was glad that she wasn't upset by Rottingtail's declaration, but that was probably for different reasons.

“I'm sorry,” I stated a few minutes later, picking myself up off the floor.

“Ya'll got nothin' to be sorry fer,” stated Rottingtail, tipping his hat to me. “If anythin', Ah'm sorry Ah went blurtin' somethin' like that out without thinkin' that it might hurt yer feelin's. Guess Ah live up to muh new name.”

“Everypony else here knew already,” stated May, defending the sheriff. “You couldn't have known any better. If anything, I should have told her about it a long time ago. I just had other things on my mind, and it seemed trivial.”

“It is trivial,” I said, though my eyes were still red and puffy. My lazy one slid down absently. “I just wasn't expecting it. Caught me by surprise, that's all. It's not like anypony would want to have kids with me now anyways.” I smiled weakly at my own poor attempt at humour. I just didn't want the others to beat themselves up about it so much.

May wrapped her forehooves around me in a hug; “Still, I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner.”

“It's okay,” I said, wrapping my forelegs around her, returning the hug. I wanted to make sure she knew I didn't blame her.

“Still,” cut in Rottingtail after May and I let go of each other, “Ah feel ashamed of muhself fer hurtin' yer feelin's, even unintentionally.” He strode towards the door, gesturing for May and I to follow. “So, allow me to give ya'll the grand tour. It ain't much, but it's all ours.”

***

Rottingtail's grand tour was indeed a tour, although describing it as grand might have been a stretch. There wasn't much to the Trottingham ghoul settlement. A number of scrap metal shacks served as housing for the hundred and change ghouls that lived there. They occasionally ventured into the intact city center to scavenge things from the Ministry buildings, but otherwise spent most of their time down here. There was a smithy where a few of the ghouls worked on the scavenged items and build the metal parts of their homes, although they didn't tend to build new shacks unless they had new residents.

There was a water pump where we stopped for a drink. The well was not that deep, the water coming it irradiated, although that didn't really matter for ghouls. However, I was in the mood for something with a bit more flavour. Rottingtail led May and I to a small... cafe would be a charitable description. Watering Hole worked better, especially considering that was its name. May noted upon our arrival that it was close to the ponyhole Gizmo had marked as closest to Stable Twelve's entrance.

Rottingtail, May and I seated ourselves inside the Watering Hole at a small table. I was surprised (and a little thrilled) when the barkeep brought us each over a bottle of Sparkle~Cola RAD! “Found a cartload of this stuff in the city center,” Rottingtail explained. “I think it was heading for a bigger city when the spell went off, leaving it here for us.”

May politely declined the RAD (I remembered her saying she didn't like radishes), and was given a bottle of the regular carrot flavoured cola instead. As we sat and enjoyed our drinks, we exchanged stories. May and I told him about our travels through the wasteland, her documentation of the effects of radiation on animals and her studies on the ghoul condition. Rottingtail gave her credit for trying, but he seemed sceptical towards the idea of a cure. He seemed more interested in the psychology aspects of treating ghouls.

“Sad truth is,” stated the Sheriff, “any time somepony round here starts to go, it falls on me to put 'em to rest. Can't have 'em goin' round chewin' on those of us who are still sane.”

“That's terrible,” I claimed, remembering a number of times I had been faced with the need to kill our feral kin.

“Indeed,” chimed in May, “which is why I've been trying to study the mental degradation as well as the physical malignancies. We shouldn't have to live with a sword over our head like that.”

“Yer damn right we shouldn't,” barked Rottingtail. “So if somepony starts to slip, we've tried to council 'em first, but only been one time that actually worked, and even then it only delayed things. The rest of the times its a matter of safety. Plus, we want to set ourselves apart from those who have lost their minds. Way too many smoothcoats can't be bothered to make the distinction.”

“Smoothcoats?” I enquired. I had never heard that term before.

“Y'know, breathers, normies,” Rottingtail attempted to explain. I looked at him, nonplussed. “Slang for non-ghouls,” he finally stated. “Popped up around here a while back; practically a part of our vocabulary. Most folk 'round here are a bit resentful of those who ain't cursed like we are. Not all of 'em are bad though, like that Ranger fellow who came here a couple months back.”

“Gizmo?” I asked. I was sure it was him, but wanted confirmation. “He's an old friend of ours, and was the one who told us to come here.”

Rottingtail nodded. “His name were somethin' like that, yeah. Most of his lot don't look well on us, but he seemed a decent feller. Promised to keep this place beneath the notice of his more radical associates.”

The mentioning of old friends brought two new discussions to the table. The first was Rottingtail's story. He explained how he and Crumble had ventured away from Appleoosa in search of Braeburn and Sliver Sand, his elder sister and mother of Apple Crumble. They had chased after rumours and hints from a number of Ironshod facilities, but had come up empty in the end. Most likely, the two had been killed, and would probably never be found. After that, he had taken in Crumble as his own and brought him here to Trottingham.

The other topic was Stables, with May drawing the conversation back to them in order to see if a venture was possible. “Yer nuts, y'know that right?” chortled Rottingtail.

“I know it's risky, but the research of Doctor Fixit alone would be worth it,” retorted May. “He studied the process as it was happening with proper medical equipment. The insight it might give could go a long way in helping all ghouls.”

Rottingtail smirked; “Hold on there pardner, Ah didn't say Ah disagree. Ah've been wantin' to get down there muhself, if only so I could put to rest the unfortunate souls stuck down there.” He gestured to his desiccated leg, only the shoulder of which he could actually move freely. “Ah just weren't in fit shape to do it alone, and most of the folks up here ain't interested in lendin' a hoof. It's grim work, and they don't like thinkin' about what they might become. But with ya'll here, Ah reckon Ah got some proper support.”

“So you'll do it?” May's eyes shone with a tinge of hope that I hadn't seen in some time.

“You bet Ah will, just gotta go get properly equipped.”

The three of us got up from the table, having finished out drinks a while back, and moved to depart the Watering Hole. Before I could make it out the door, a voice on the radio brought me to a stop. I had barely noticed the radio had been on before, having heard all the songs countless times. They tended to blend in with the background noise, but the voice of DJ P0N-3 always caught my attention.

“Good afternoon fillies and gentlecolts, this is DJ P0N-3 and I think you know what time it is. Got reports from the area of Fillydelphia about a group of ponies clad in old MWT magical power armour helping to relocate residents of a Stable outside the city. Seems like one of them helped protect this Stable from another bandit incursion like the one near Hoofstomp. They seem to be a good lot, but I'm always a bit wary about ponies with that much firepower. Don't mind me though, I'm probably just paranoid.”

I smirked; this time she was talking about Gizmo. May and I didn't get a mention, but I couldn't really blame remix. Gizmo had been the real hero.

“And speaking of Hoofstomp, I've got more news about their local heroine, the Iron Mare. As you know, she's been venturin' through the wastes helpin' the pony folk. What's she done now you ask? Oh, not much, just fought off a whole flock of manticores! She ran into a gaggle of them outside Stalliongrad lookin' to make a meal out of the town. However, she's currently holed up there with a bad case of manticore poisoning. All our hopes go out to her; which I'm sure will be enough to get her up and around again in no time.”

I was pleased to hear about the further actions of heroism of the Iron Mare (whoever she was), but it was unfortunate to hear that she had been left in grave condition as a result. May had already left the building, so it seemed she didn't hear. I'd tell her about it later, ignoring the manticore poisoning part until she was confirmed as getting better. Just before stepping outside, I rushed back to the barkeep and grabbed another couple Sparkle~Cola RADs to go, slipping them into my saddlebags as I exited the Watering Hole.

***

I found May waiting at the ponyhole cover that would take us down into the Trottingham sewers, and then into the Stable. I was feeling invigorated from the RAD I had drank, and offered one of the others I had grabbed to May. She declined again, but I didn't mind. More for me. Or maybe Rottingtail would want it, either way. Rottingtail had gone back to the Sheriff's office to retrieve something. I presumed it was armament, since going into a hostile area unarmed was just stupid.

While we waited for Rottingtail to return, a few of the passing ghouls gave us odd looks. I gave one of my own when the oddest ghoul I had ever seen stopped to look at us (or glare, by the look in her eyes). It was immediately apparent that she wasn't a pony, but it took me a little while to figure out that she was a griffon. Even then she was strange; she was wearing combat armour that almost seemed fused to her decrepit flesh and feathers, with blades on the tips of her wings likewise melded. Her eyes had an odd pink sheen to them. Catching the staring, the griffon ghoul snorted and stretched out her large, malformed wings, flying off. A small puff of pink vapour escaped her beak when she did.

“Don't mind her,” came the voice of Rottingtail, pulling my attention away from the strange ghoul. “She's never really pleasant.”

May and I turned to look at Sheriff Rottingtail, now looking much more deserving of his title. He had exchanged his vest for armoured barding, although he still had the silver star badge pinned to it. He still had his hat, but was now equipped with a battle saddle. On either side was a lever-action repeater rifle. There was also a quick draw holster at his shoulder that seemed to be built into the saddle. An ivory handled revolver stuck out from it. It looked to be marked with the symbols found on playing cards.

“So,” smirked Rottingtail, “like what you see? Custom ordered for the Sheriff of Appleoosa from Ironshod Firearms. Braeburn 'imself had this made for my pappy, then he passed it on t'me.”

“It is rather impressive,” I stated, knowing full well that Ironshod's custom pieces were always top notch. At present, I had Stronghoof's rifle strapped to my back. Strong and sturdy, but nowhere near as fast as a revolver or repeater rifle.

May floated out That Gun and checked it's load. Rottingtail let out an impressed whistle (I was honestly a little jealous that he could do that) at the gun. May smirked at him and re-holstered the revolver. “So, here's the plan,” she stated firmly. “We should head to the clinic first. The medical supplies there and Doctor Fixit's documentation should be prioritized.”

“Ah reckon that'll work,” agreed Rottingtail, nodding affirmatively, “but we gotta get through the zombies down there first. Ah've got the most firepower, so Ah should probably lead the way. Can't run too fast though, cuz of muh bad leg. Can one of ya'll cover me?”

“I have a bit of a different idea, actually,” said May. She looked a little unsure, but I motioned for her to go on. “There are about three hundred ghouls down there, according to the guards we spoke to earlier. With only three of us, even against mindless zombies, that's not a good ratio. Not to mention the fact that once we start shooting it'll probably bring the rest of them stampeding after us.”

“Hadn't thoughta that,” muttered Stronghoof, placing his good hoof on his chin.

“Did you have something in mind?” I asked, hoping May had a way to handle three hundred feral ghouls safely.

“Hiding in plain sight,” she said with a smirk. “We're all ghouls too; we look and smell pretty much the same. However, we can still think for ourselves, and that is our best advantage. If we move amongst the zombies with the same shambling they do, and without speaking, we might be able to get past unnoticed.”

“As much as that sounds clever,” interjected Rottingtail, “zombies still attack sane ghouls.”

“I think they only attack what's different,” countered May, “which is why they don't attack each other. So, if they don't perceive us as being different, they'll leave us alone. I've been looking for an opportunity to try this out,” she admitted. “If it doesn't work, there should be enough room in the sewers to run and gun until we can get back to the surface.”

Run and gun didn't seem like such a good idea, considering I couldn't gun and Rottingtail couldn't really run. “If it would help, I can stay back and cover you guys while you try to sneak in.” I nodded to the rifle on my back. “I'm only really good in a fight if I can use the scope.” My lazy eye drifted as if on cue. “If it works, I can follow you in.”

May gave me a relieved smile. “Thanks Ditzy.” She took a deep breath, then lit up her horn with magic light, removing the ponyhole cover and setting it aside. “Alright, let's do this.”

***

May made her way down the ladder into the sewers on her own. Rottingtail attempted to climb down as well, but his bony leg was stiff, causing him to slip when it caught on the ladder. I flew down into the sewer after him and caught him, setting him down gently He smirked awkwardly and thanked me quietly for the catch. The interior of the sewers was fairly spacious, enough for me to hover in the air above May and Rottingtail. I was glad for this, since it allowed me to move more quietly than on hoof.

The sewers were huge, round tunnels, with a shallow, sloughing stream of water at the bottom. Along either side was a ledge that would have previously been used by workers. The top of the tunnels housed water pipes and electrical cables, all of which were long out of use since the destruction of the old city. The smell of sewage, when mixed with the decayed flesh of the zombies, assaulted my nose. The size and shape of the tunnels carried sound well, and although there were no zombies immediately around us, the sounds of their shuffling and moaning reached my ears. Thankfully, the dim emergency lights hanging above us provided enough illumination to make our way around.

Sticking to May's plan, she and Rottingtail began to walk slowly through the sewer tunnels. May shambled forward, deliberately dragging one of her hind legs. She opened her muzzle and let her tongue hang out, a low rumble coming out of her throat. Rottingtail didn't need to fake a limp, his desiccated foreleg providing enough of one to be convincing. I flew to the upper part of the tunnel, hoping that the zombie ponies wouldn't be looking up. I took Stronghoof's rifle off my back and grasped it in my mouth, closing my lazy eye and following May and Rottingtail through the scope.

I watched through the rifle scope, focusing on May and Rottingtail as they shuffled through the sewer, rounding a bend. Not too far ahead, according to Gizmo's information, was the entrance to Stable Twelve. I started moving ahead when my friends rounded the corner. Thanks to the quietness of my flight, I was able to move ahead quickly enough that the other two ghouls didn't stay out of my sight for long.

When I got around the bend, I could finally see the zombie ponies that inhabited the sewers and Stable. There was about a dozen of them milling around. Despite their attempts at matching the shambling movements of the zombies, May and Rottingtail looked grossly out of place. May's holster and saddle packs, and Rottingtail's battle saddle seemed painfully obvious. I lined up the cross-hairs of the rifle with the closest zombie pony, keeping my tongue close to the trigger. May and Rottingtail shambled past it... and kept walking. The zombie pony shambled across their path behind them without taking notice. It looked like May's plan was working. Sadly, good things never seem to last in the Equestrian Wasteland.

May and Rottingtail made it past four of the zombies in the tunnel when I looked up in front of them. I could see the entrance to Stable Twelve up ahead, the massive steel door hanging half open. A loud thud drew my attention back to my friends. Rottingtail had caught his bad leg on something and tripped, slamming face first into the sewer floor. All of the zombies, and May, immediately turned to stare at him.

“Thuk,” I muttered under my breath, the rifle occluding what I meant to say. I brought the rifle up, training the scope on the zombie closest to Rottingtail. If they charged him, I wasn't going to give them a chance to get to him before he could get back up and start shooting back.

Rottingtail slowly picked himself back up, several clicks echoing as his rifles loaded. A few of the zombies took tentative steps towards him. May matched their movements, trying to remain unnoticed. Through my scope, I saw the sheriff smirk. With a movement that was surprisingly fast, he snatched the revolver out of its holster and fired off six shots in rapid succession, felling the two closest zombies, including the one I had been aiming at.

The other zombies roared out together, running towards the gunslinger ghoul. He was just as quick re-holstering his weapon as he turned on the zombies that were charging him. He bit down firmly on the bit of his battle saddle, causing his rifles to fire off alternating shots. I counted eleven sets of shots before he stopped, kicking his saddle to start it reloading. Three more zombies fell, viscous blood oozing from their wounds.

Next to him, May had drawn out That Gun. Her movements were slow and precise, unlike Rottingtail's erratic firing. I could tell she was using S.A.T.S., picking off two more of the zombies with precise shots to the head. Wanting to do my part, I followed one of the zombies charging towards Rottingtail with the rifle's scope. I tongued the trigger, a sharp crack echoing through the tunnels. A gaping hole was ripped in the torso of the zombie I had shot, dropping it in a spray of blood and rotten flesh. The recoil from the shot threw my head back, knocking it against the roof of the sewer. My eyes spun in their sockets.

By the time I recovered from getting knocked in the head, Rottingtail had killed off the remaining zombies with another volley from his repeater rifles. There weren't any more coming, at least not immediately, so I flew down to where my friends were standing, waiting anxiously for more zombies.

“That went well,” nickered May.

“Muh own fault,” claimed Rottingtail, sounding disappointed with himself. He glared at his bad leg; “Can't do nothin' with this bum club.”

“Are you two alright?” I asked, setting down next to Rottingtail.

“We're not hurt,” replied May, “but it looks like my plan is a bust.”

“Not entirely,” I said, trying to reassure her. “It was working, and we might be able to use it in the future.”

“Not if Ah'm around,” sneered Rottingtail. “Can't do nothin' right cept shootin'.”

I placed a reassuring hoof on the buck's shoulder. “We would have had to end up fighting eventually. We just wanted to try being sneaky to make it easier on ourselves. Besides, your quick shooting will probably be of more use than May or I when it comes to that.”

Rottingtail gave a small smirk. “Fastest shot in Appleoosa, next to m'pappy anyways.” Dropping the smirk, he looked around at the corpses of the dozen zombies we had put down. He let out a sigh. “Once this is taken care of, I wanna see their bodies properly laid to rest. Ah may not be from 'round here, but Ah got friends in the town whose kin are down here. They deserved better'n this.”

I felt slightly shamed by Rottingtail's comment. May and I hadn't gotten around to telling him about Appleoosa yet, and the fact that we hadn't done anything for ponies that might be Rottingtail's kin weighed on me. I didn't like feeling guilty, especially when it might get in the way of what we came down here to do. “Lone Star, there's something we should tell you...”

***

Rottingtail took the news about Appleoosa better than I expected. “Ah can't say Ah'm too thrilled about it,” he muttered, “but after this long I weren't expectin' muh pappy or any of muh old friends to still be around. It's a damn shame, especially 'bout the youngins, but Ah don't hold nothin' against you two fer it.”

“Still,” I commented, looking away from Rottingtail (my lazy eye rolled back towards him), “I feel like we could have done more.”

“Ya'll were thinkin' bout helping folks what were still livin',” Rottingtail noted. “Just like yer tryin' t' help the folks 'round here. Ah can respect that.” He shot me a small smile. I returned it. “It's the way things are out here, like it or not. You gals are plenty good in muh book.”

May rolled her eyes, turning to face the Stable door ahead. She seemed to be using her E.F.S. to check for other zombies nearby, although I could never really be sure without a Pipbuck of my own.

“What's got her tail in a twist?” Rottingtail asked, leaning in close to me.

“Oh it's not you, don't worry,” I said, letting out a soft chuckle. “She just has eyes for mares only, that's all.”

“Oh, so her barn door swings th'other way,” muttered the buck. “Shoulda figured that'd be the only way somepony could resist muh charms.”

I snickered at that. It was a little odd, considering the unintentional hurt he had caused not two hours past. May turned back around, looking at us with a mix of wry amusement and slight irritation. She chose not to comment on our banter. “C'mon, the entrance hall is clear. We should see if we can get information on where the ghouls are inside.”

I blushed a little before falling in behind May. Rottingtail followed beside me, smirking. She led us in slowly, scanning the immediate area inside the Stable. May's Pipbuck began to click more loudly, indicating that the radiation was more concentrated inside the confines of the shelter. The entrance hall was clear, but the open doors on either side carried the low moaning sounds of nearby zombie ponies. May floated That Gun out silently, but apparently the zombies in here hadn't noticed us yet. It struck me as a little odd that they were so oblivious to the gunfight we had put on outside.

My lazy eye drifted of its own accord again, this time settling on the door to the right of the entrance hall. As I caught sight of it, a zombie stumbled through, bashing its head on the door frame a few times before managing to canter into the entrance. It stopped briefly, looking at the three of us, all standing stark still. Without moving, May floated That Gun towards the zombie. It watched the gun, drawn to the sight of movement. May moved the gun towards the zombies, although now it followed the telekinetic light back to May's horn. Before it could react, May pressed the pistol into the zombie's temple and pulled the trigger. The sound of the gunshot was muffled by the zombies flesh as the shot tore into its head. It dropped to the floor with a meaty thud.

I let out a breath I had been holding when no other zombies immediately swarmed us. May looked to the room that one had come from. If the Stable's layout was anything like sixty-Seven, then that room might hold a security terminal that we could use to scout the rest of the Stable. Without saying anything, May clopped a hoof on the floor twice. I could only assume that meant she saw two more zombies in the room on her E.F.S.

“Ditzy, come with me,” May whispered, “Rottingtail, you guard the door while we're taking a look. Try not to shoot unless you have to though, we don't want the entire Stable coming at us at once.”

Rottingtail nodded wordlessly, then moved behind me as the three of us approached the side room. His bony hoof made soft clanging sound as he walked on the metal Stable floor. May slipped in first, dispatching the two zombies quickly with S.A.T.S., then moved beyond the door. I flew in after her as quietly as I could. Rottingtail brought up the rear, turning to cover the door with his twin rifles.

There was indeed a terminal in this room, and May was tapping the keys with her magic. “Horse apples,” she muttered, “it's locked.”

“Can you get in?” I asked. I didn't know much about terminals, having only ever used them a few times. Gizmo had gotten past a secured terminal

“I can try,” May said a bit reluctantly, “but I'm nowhere near Gizmo's level. We'll be lucky if I don't break it.”

I tried to give May an encouraging smile as she worked the terminal. She spend a few minutes just staring at it, as if that would help. Maybe it did, because after that she tapped the keys and made a soft whinny of amusement. “How about that,” she nickered, “the password was 'pony'. I don't think they were trying very hard.”

“Or maybe they just didn't think it needed to be all that secure,” I suggested with a shrug.

May chuckled and pulled up the Stable layout from the terminal. As it turns out, it was remarkably similar to Stable Sixty-Seven, at least at a glance. That made sense really; too much variation would compromise the integrity of the shelters. “The medical bay is a little larger than Sixty-Seven,” remarked May. Not identical though, it would seem. “Maybe this one was meant to stay closed longer, if the door hadn't malfunctioned.”

May poked around at the terminal for a few minutes more, pulling up the information she wanted. She then drew Rottingtail into the small room, closing the door with a hiss behind him. The room felt rather cramped with the three of us in here, and the claustrophobia I felt in Stable Sixty-Seven started to creep up on me again. Hopefully May had a plan that wouldn't take too long to explain.

“It's not that far to the clinic,” she noted, “but there's a good number of zombies between here and there. I would have thought about sneaking through before, but that didn't go so well. Going in guns blazing would be bad too, since it could bring more of them down on us than we could handle.”

“Where's the biggest herd of zombies?” asked Rottingtail. “Ah reckon if we take out a bunch of 'em all at once, it'll make dealin' with the rest of 'em easier. Especially if we bottleneck 'em somewhere.”

“We could do both,” I suggested. May and Rottingtail both looked at me like I had just exploded. “May was good enough at fooling the zombies on her own, so maybe she could sneak towards the clinic. At the same time, Rottingtail and I could start taking care of the zombies somewhere else and draw them away from you.”

Rottingtail smirked at me. “Did I mention lately that yer crazy?”

***

It turns out that the largest concentration of zombie ponies was in the Stable atrium. It always seemed to be a center for activity, living up to its name even under the most morose situations. The security information May had pulled from the terminal indicated that of the close to two hundred fifty zombies in the Stable, a hundred or so of which were in the atrium. There were another two dozen along the way there that Rottingtail and I would have to deal with.

There was one thing working in our favour though; the zombies seemed to have difficulty with the pressurized doors of the Stable. We discovered this when we found the body of one crushed down the middle under a closed door. If a group of zombies tried to rush us, we could 'bottleneck' them, as Rottingtail had called it, simply by closing doors. Numbers don't have as much meaning in confined spaces. I just had to hope the confined spaces wouldn't inhibit me as well.

As we moved further into the Stable, the low whine of the lights was joined by a faint grinding noise that seemed to be coming from the lower levels. The lights themselves were flickering erratically. “Prolly a busted generator,” suggested Rottingtail. “Not surprisin', considerin' it hasn't gotten any maintenance in a few decades.”

I nodded silently. I was flying slowly, making as little noise as possible. It almost felt like a wasted effort when Rottingtail made a rapping sound with each step of his bad leg. The ceiling was annoyingly low; clearly these Stables had not been designed with pegasi in mind. That thought struck me as a little odd, considering the Stables were meant to save as many ponies as possible. Had there been different Stables specifically for pegasus ponies? Or had Stable-Tec simply thought that the fliers would do... exactly what they had done. Strange.

Rottingtail gave a soft chuckle; “Yer thinkin' too hard about somethin'.”

“Wha?” was all I said, not sure what he meant.

“That eye of yours seems to wander more when your mind does,” he noted.

Did it? I had never really noticed. I was about to object when Rottingtail rounded a corner and immediately tensed. I flew as close to the ceiling as I could and rounded the corner, hovering above him. It was immediately apparent why he had frozen. There was a zombie in the hall, but it was just a colt. Not only that, but a few strands of its mane that hung off the back of its head were the same colour as Apple Crumble's. I had not been expecting to find foals down here.

The zombie colt was walking across the hallway directly in front of Rottingtail, growling softly. I wasn't sure if it had noticed him. The sheriff's mouth was just in front of the bit of his battle saddle, but he wasn't moving. I didn't think he could. There was a look of confusion in his eyes, and I felt for him. I wondered if any of the ferals he had put down before were children. My heart wrenched uncomfortably; nopony deserved this.

My thoughts were derailed when the zombie colt finally seemed to notice Rottingtail. It observed him momentarily before letting out a gurgling growl and lunging at him. It clamped its muzzle down hard on Rottingtail's good leg, eliciting a pained yelp from my new friend. The act snapped him out of his daze, and he started shooting, but the colt was too close to hit with his rifles. He flailed around, trying to loose the zombie colt, while reaching for the holster that held his revolver.

I brought up the rifle, scope to my eye. Rottingtail was thrashing around too much for me to get a clear shot. I moved the crosshairs to the sheriff's left and tongue the trigger, hoping for the best. The shot rang out with a crack that reverberated through my skull. The zombie was torn roughly from Rottingtail as the shot struck its flank, blood oozing from the torn flesh of the bite. Ever so briefly, I found myself wondering if that colt had gotten his cutie mark yet. It didn't matter now, as the colts body lay ruptured and dead from the powerful shot.

Unfortunately, I didn't have time to lament my actions, as the crack of Stronghoof's rifle would have alerted every zombie in the vicinity to our presence. I quickly flew down to Rottingtail, who was hunched over on his knees. The flesh torn from his good leg made it just as useless as his skeletal one. I had to grab him around the middle and drag him into the nearby room. I hit the switch to shut the door as soon as we were inside, just in time for it to close as a zombie lunged at as. It collided with the closed door with a resounding thud.

***

We were in a bathroom. There were, mercifully, no zombies in here right now, but one previously occupying the room had knocked over most of the stall dividers in its mindless shambling. I dropped the rifle and quickly threw open my saddlebags. I grumbled that I only had one healing potion left, along with the two bottles of Sparkle~Cola RAD. I extracted the potion and handed it off to Rottingtail, who drank it slowly. I watched as his wound began to close, the green light of radiation regeneration joining the healing potion's magic. May had said that the radiation would be more concentrated in confined areas.

“Thanks fer that,” muttered Rottingtail, gingerly testing his mended leg. He decided against standing up, and stretched his legs out in front of him for now.

“I just wish I had more,” I groused, “that was my last one. Hopefully May doesn't mind stocking up in the clinic.”

Rottingtail nodded towards the wall of the bathroom, near the door. “Check in there.” He was referring to a medical box hanging on the wall. The pink and yellow box had a dent in it that looked about the shape of a zombie pony's head.

I trotted over to the box and flicked it open. “Damnit,” I muttered, upon seeing that it contained no healing potions. There were some bandages, a pair of tweezers, and a bottle of pills marked 'Buck'. I wasn't sure what it was, but I had seen a similar bottle in May's supplies once. I shoved the entire contents into my saddlebags to give to May later.

“That buck might come in handy,” noted Rottingtail, “in case either of us needs a quick boost.”

“I'll keep that in mind,” I said simply. I then turned back to face the door. Faint pounding sounds could be heard from the outside. The zombies had seen us come in, and although they couldn't operate the door, it was only a matter of time until one of them hit the release button inadvertently. “Got any ideas?”

“Ah've got a bad one,” smirked Rottingtail, “but Ah reckon that's better'n nothin'.” Rottingtail scooted backwards through the bathroom until his rump hit the rear wall. He slowly got to his hooves, a bit wobbly between his recently mended leg and his desiccated one.

After picking up the rifle again, I flew to the back of the room. The ceiling was a bit higher than the hallway, to my moderate relief. I cocked the gun, then asked; “Wuff naw?”

Rottingtail snickered at my inability to talk with a gun in my mouth. I glared at him with my good eye, then he relented. “When the door opens, I'll start shootin'. You pick off any that slip out of my line of fire.”

I nodded, pressing my good eye to the scope and closing my lazy one. It took a few minutes, but one of the zombies finally hit the release, opening the door with a pneumatic hiss. The noise and movement startled the zombies closest to the door, who jumped back. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Rottingtail unloaded into them. He fired off eleven shots, felling the three zombies closest to the door. If I was hearing correctly, all the shots came from the same rifle. I heard reloading clicks as he opened fire with the opposite one.

Rottingtail's rapid firing thinned out the zombies that had congregated outside the bathroom, about a dozen of them from what I could see. Five were now dead, and the others were stumbling over each other trying to get into the room at us. This wasn't helped by the fact that they tried to squeeze through the door two and three at a time. Rottingtail made short work of three more zombies, their bodies piling in a heap at the door.

For a moment, I thought that was the end of it. Then, two more zombie ponies leapt over the pile of corpses into the bathroom. One of them sprawled roughly into the already damaged stalls, breaking the walls down entirely. The other landed a little more surely, before quickly turning towards Rottingtail. Before it could get far, the Sheriff had drawn his revolver with the same speed I had seen before, unloading the gun into it. Before the last one could get up, I fired off a shot into its torso.

Rottingtail re-holstered his revolver and smiled up at me. “Nopony gets past the fastest guns in Appleoosa.” His smiled faded when to looked at the pile of zombie ponies he had killed. He didn't say anything else.

I set down on the floor next to him, slipping Stronghoof's rifle onto my back. I placed a hoof on his shoulder. “I'm sure they would thank you,” I said, trying to make him feel better. “I know I wouldn't want to keep living as a mindless zombie.”

Rottingtail shook his head. “I know; I wouldn't either, but it shouldn't have come to this in the first place.”

***

After the bathroom brawl, Rottingtail and I resumed our trek through the Stable, seeking out the atrium. The bathroom we had been in was on the level above the atrium entrance, and a nearby floor plan showed us the quickest way down. We managed to take care of another half dozen zombie ponies on our way down. Along with the ones from the sewer and bathroom, thirty had been taken care of; about a tenth of those Stable dwellers that had become feral. Thankfully, there weren't any rushing us when we reached the door to the atrium. According to May, there were nearly a hundred zombies inside.

“Think you're quick enough for this?” I asked, peeking into the atrium through a thick glass window. The zombies were trapped inside by the same door problem, and were shuffling about aimlessly.

“Shouldn't need t'be,” Rottingtail replied. As I watched, he slipped his muzzle into a pocket on his barding. He pulled out two familiar looking metal apples, holding them by the stems. He set them down on the floor, kicking one over to me. “Ah hate doin' somethin' like this, but it's th'only way we can take this many at once.”

I looked down at the grenade at my hooves. Nearly two weeks ago one just like it had nearly killed May and I. My hind legs got uncomfortably itchy thinking about it. I was a little wary about using one myself. “Are you sure about this?”

“Nope,” he admitted, “don't got much skill with 'em, but Ah figure in this case it's not really requisite. Just toss and pray.”

I nodded warily. “Alright then, on the count of three.”

I picked up the grenade by the stem in my teeth, then inched closer to the atrium door. I raised a forehoof and tapped on the wall next to the entrance. Once... twice... on the third tap I slammed my hoof against the release for the door, which hissed open. As soon as it was all the way open, I tossed my head to the side forcibly, the grenade flying free of its stem. Rottingtail did the same, and the two metal apples flew into the room. I immediately hit the door release again, slamming it shut. I'm not sure how much the zombies inside noticed, given how quickly it all went down. Moments later, the inside of the atrium was filled with the roaring thunder of two explosions, and brilliant flashes of light.

When the explosions subsided, the sound of zombie ponies screeching could be heard. It was loud enough to rattle the atrium windows, one of which had been cracked by a flying piece of what used to be a table. It was difficult to tell how many were left for the panicked scurrying of the zombies. I could see bits of the dead ones all over the places, splattered and scorched. There were even a few still twitching on the ground as they slowly succumbed to shrapnel wounds. A few more were trampled by other zombies in the confusion.

“There's still a bunch left,” I declared, not committing a concrete figure.

“None too many Ah hope,” replied Rottingtail. “We gotta clear this lot out before more come runnin' after that big kaboom.” Rottingtail moved to cover the door, his mouth less than an inch from the bit of his battle saddle. “Once ya open the door, fly in and start pickin' 'em off. The noise of yer rifle'll keep 'em confused from above... Ah think. Ah'll gun down as many as Ah can.”

I nodded to Rottingtail and took Stronghoof's rifle in my mouth again. I lifted myself off the floor and hovered just above Rottingtail. He clamped down on the bit of his battle saddle just as I hit the door release. He started shooting as I flew into the room, thankful for the high ceiling. I flew up until I was just about touching the lighting strip, brought the scope to my eye and started picking targets.

***

The battle in the atrium lasted only a few minutes. The panicked and confused zombies were easy to dispatch, although I had a bit of a hard time hitting targets because they were moving around so much. After that, Rottingtail and I had barricaded ourselves inside using one of the tables, and used the cover to dispatch another few dozen that were drawn in by the explosions and gunfire. Only one had gotten through, and it had managed to gouge a chunk out of my shoulder before Rottingtail had downed it.

“We should head to the clinic,” I stated firmly. “If May's made it there, she'll have healing potions to take care of this.”

“Ah know,” refuted Rottingtail, “but we can't go while you're bleedin' like that.” Dark, viscous blood stained the flesh around the wound, seeping slowly down my leg.

“I have those bandages,” I reminded him. “Pull them out and do what you can.”

Rottingtail nodded and moved around to my saddlebags, pulling open the one I had stashed the bandages in. To my surprise, he also pulled out the bottle of Sparkle~Cola RAD and the bottle of pills. “Take one of these,” he said, shoving the buck over to me, “it'll keep ya alert so ya don't faint or nothin'.”

I nodded, prying the lid off with my teeth. I slipped one of the small orange tablets out with my tongue, chewed and swallowed it. Before I could do anything else, I yelped in pain. Rottingtail had poured half the bottle of soda directly onto the wound. I gritted my teeth and bit back a scream, but I stopped before I could yell at Rottingtail. As I watched, the rosy glow of the irradiated cola mixed with the soft green of radiation regeneration. The bleeding slowed as the flesh knit partway back together. I looked at Rottingtail with a mix of confusion and awe.

“Learned that trick after tusslin' with a group o' bandits,” Rottingtail explained. He offered me the rest of the soda to drink as he began wrapping my shoulder in gauze.

I downed the radish flavoured cola quickly, glad to have something to wash the bitter taste of the buck pill from my mouth. “I'll have to remember that one,” I said, setting the bottle aside.

Rottingtail tied off the bandage around my shoulder. Hopefully the trace amounts of magic in it would finish what radiation and radishes had started. If not, we were headed to the clinic next anyways to meet up with May. In the mean while, the rush of energy from both the irradiated soda and the tablet of buck was enough to get me back in the air.

Rottingtail and I slowly but surely made our way back through the Stable towards the clinic. The zombies had been thinned out a fair bit now, making our travel much safer. We encountered a few more along the way, but they were easy to dispatch. It was nice not to have a herd of them come running each time we killed one too. It was the only nice part though; I'd seen enough zombie corpses to last a lifetime.

When Rottingtail and I reached the clinic, we found two more corpses. One of them was wearing a tattered and bloody lab coat. I could only presume it was Doctor Fixit. The other looked to be an adolescent mare, at least physically. They had both been shot a number of times, by That Gun from the looks of it. Unfortunately, upon entering the clinic, May was nowhere to be found. A number of medicine cabinets had been cleared out, and the terminal was active, indicating that she had been here.

“Ain't safe fer her t'be wanderin' off,” muttered Rottingtail, “even if she is better at sneakin'.”

“Well, she got what we came here for,” I replied. Out of curiosity, I trotted over to the terminal. There was a message flashing at the bottom:

Data Transferred to Local Device

Above the flashing message were a number of log entries. There were dozens of them, all of which I presumed May had downloaded into her Pipbuck. However, there were three entries highlighted. May had sampled a few before downloading them. I hit the button to play the first one. I was met with the voice of a buck with the Trottingham accent.

Entry #1

This is Doctor Fixit recording the first of what I hope won't be many documentations of cases of radiation sickness here in Stable Twelve. At first I thought it was ludicrous; the Stables were designed precisely to protect against this sort of thing. Unfortunately, the Overmare confirmed that the main door did indeed malfunction when the Stable sealed. She has the maintenance ponies looking into it, and is preparing an address for the rest of the Stable population. There are six hundred ponies down here, and they might all die because of half an inch. I've always known Stable-Tec to be reliable, so hopefully this is just some random fluke that we can fix quickly before it starts causing more problems.

In the meantime, I have a supply of RadAway that will hopefully keep the sickness from getting too severe. Stable-Tec seems to have covered for any and all possibilities. The first dose has been administered to Ratchet, the maintenance pony who discovered the problem with the door. He suffered minor exposure, but came here quickly and hasn't suffered any severe illness. He'll be rejoining the efforts to fix the malfunction tomorrow.

I let out a sigh; knowing full well that the maintenance ponies had not managed to fix the problem. Still, hopefully some good could come of it. I played the next highlighted entry.

Entry #28

Ratchet passed away last night due to complications from continuous radiation exposure. Let it show that he spent more time working on fixing the door these past four weeks than anypony else. His body is awaiting cremation pending the completion of proper funeral services. At this point, I'm wondering if they'll have to tear the whole Stable apart to find the damn problem.

In other developments, three more ponies, Glimmer, Girder and Indigo, have shown signs of the odd cellular mutation I noted in Entry #23. The afflicted ponies are suffering most of the same symptoms of radiation exposure; hair loss, diminished physique, etc. However, their vitals remain more stable, relatively speaking, than those without the mutation. I wonder if there might be a way to induce this effect; it might be able to keep the other ponies in better condition until I can find more viable treatments.

It sounded like that was right around the time that Doctor Fixit discovered the ghoul mutation. May had talked about it, although I really didn't understand a lot of the jargon she used. The last highlighted entry was from a few weeks later.

Entry # 43

The Overmare approached me this morning with some rather grim news. She had a recording left for her from the Vice-President of Stable-Tec. Suffice to say the contents were horrific when coupled with a revelation the Overmare had regarding the status of Trottingham above. Apparently the zebra megaspell that hit the city wasn't a standard yield. For whatever reason, the one that struck the city of Trottingham had less explosive force and more magical radiation. Overmare speculated about different isotopes decaying more rapidly, but it's a bit too late to care about why if you ask me. Fuck.

So, thanks to the shortsightedness of Stable-Tec and their little oversight, we're all going to die down here. Thanks a lot fuckers. Still, I'm going to continue studying the condition that has arisen in those who have the previously noted mutation, as well as those who do not. Perhaps if someday, somepony comes down here looking to salvage this tomb, they'll be able to make use of this information. I find it morosely amusing that I am also exhibiting signs of this mutation. I get to live a bit longer and study this shit while everypony else is dying from it.

“What in the hell was all that about?” groused Rottingtail. He tipped his hat back with a hoof and scratched his head, loosing a bit of dried skin.

I was equally confused; “I don't know, but I think I know where May went to find out.”

***

The Overmare's office wasn't too far from the clinic; we just had to pass through the security level. We encountered no living zombies as we passed though, May had seen to that. It was easy enough to follow her trail, and we arrived at the Overmare's quarters within a few minutes. May had put down a number of zombies here as well, which I could only assume were the Overmare and her family. Their living quarters and offices were all in the same area of the Stable.

We found May laying in the Overmare's office. There was an empty inhaler beside her and she had that glazed look in her eyes. “Not this again,” I grumbled. Along with my usual irritation, she had decided to dash off in a potentially dangerous situation. At least before she had done it alone and in relatively safe places.

“Erm,” muttered Rottingtail, not sure what to say. “Ah didn't know she was a huff- a dash user.”

I shook my head; “She started shortly after the megaspells, but she's been doing it more frequently as of late. She does it whenever she feels the need to get away from the shit of the wasteland. Says she can go back to the Equestria that was.”

“Well Ah ain't lookin' to judge,” remarked the ghoul Sheriff. “Haven't known her long enough t'say fairly. Accordin' to you though, somethin' must be eatin' her.”

I glanced to May's other hoof, where an audio recorder sat. The last entry I had read in the clinic mentioned a message from the VP of Stable-Tec, and that it had unfortunate implications regarding what had happened down here. I walked over to it and hit the playback button, if only to try and understand why May had felt it necessary to indulge herself in such a dangerous situation.

“Hello!

“My name is Scootaloo. You probably know me (since I am pretty famous) for my awesome performances at events like last year's GALLoPS, or maybe just as the founder of Red Racer.

“Right now, I'm talking to you as the Vice-President of Stable-Tec. You have been appointed as Overmare of a Stable-Tec life-preserving Stable. You have been chosen for your sense of loyalty and duty, both to this company and to the ponies around you. And while Stable-Tec may be gone, our ideals live on.

“Your Stable has been selected to participate in a vital research project. The first goal of your Stable, like all others, is to save the lives of the ponies inside. But you also have a higher purpose beyond saving the lives of individual ponies. We here at Stable-Tec know that in the event of the worst case scenario... which, if you're hearing this, has already happened. Damnit. Anyways, in the event of the worst case scenario, the ponies saved by the Stables may have to endure a twisted and irradiated Equestria that will be grossly inhospitable. So, we need to know before the Stables open whether or not we can take it. If we can't...

“...

“The door of this Stable has been rigged to not shut properly upon sealing. It will remain open by half an inch, allowing moderate amounts of radiation to bleed into the Stable. Based on previous research into the effects of magical radiation, studies of megaspell test detonations and thousands of hours of other research studies, we have accounted for well over a hundred possible variables in calculating for this test. The door will remain jammed for six weeks, and a supply of RadAway equal to Two-Hundred percent of what we calculate as being necessary has been stored in this Stable's clinic. You are to instruct your acting physician to study the effects of long term, non-fatal radiation exposure on the ponies of this Stable.

“In the event of unforeseen complications, there is a backup. The lowermost levels of the Stable are equipped with extra thick separations, which will allow the Stable population to retreat there if radiation saturation exceeds survivable levels. This will also prevent the underground orchard form being contaminated... we hope.

“...you probably think I'm a monster right now, don't you? Well, you're right. I am. Please take solace in the fact that, if you're hearing this, I probably got exactly what I deserved. I am so, so sorry...

“Good luck to all of you, and may somepony up there have pity on us all.”

My stomache twisted in knots, and the rest of my insides felt like they were on fire. My eyes were burning from tears born of a mix of anger and sorrow. I noticed that May's spaced out eyes were also red and puffy. Rottingtail had a look of angry disgust on his face. I lay down next to May, glancing at the empty dash inhaler. Just this once, I couldn't be mad at her.

***

When May came to, she knew that we had listened to the recording. We vowed not to share it with the survivors of the Stable; they didn't need to know. They had suffered enough, and lost too many of their friends and loved ones. This knowledge would only further harm their lucidity, the very thing we had originally come down here to help preserve. May personally made sure that the audio recording was destroyed, and deleted a few of Doctor Fixit's entries that made mention of it. It was a tough choice, but I think she made the right one, for what it's worth.

With the research and medical supplies in tow, the three of us returned to the surface. Many of the residents of Trottingham seemed surprised that we had survived. Afterwards, Rottingtail led a group of the town's guards down there, along with May and myself, to take care of the remaining zombies and salvage what they could from the Stable. Most of it was personal belongings, but the Stable's water talisman was also recovered. Thankfully, it had been in a more heavily shielded part of the Stable, and was untainted.

What came next was the gruesome and painful task of recovering the bodies. Nopony bothered to try identifying them; nopony really wanted to. Not when they were riddled full of bullets, or torn apart from explosions. Those who had lost friends and family wanted to remember them as they were before they were mindless zombies. Instead, the population documentation on the Overmare's terminal provided a roster for everypony who had not simply died of radiation poisoning. May downloaded the record into her Pipbuck as a sort of memorial.

The bodies were brought to the surface, the grizzly task taking all afternoon. The bodies were separated into three groups; Mares, Stallions and children. The separate groups each had a pyre constructed around them, and the bodies were burned en mass that night.

May, Rottingtail and I sat watching the pyres burn together. All around us, ghouls wept and sighed and prayed. Many were also thankful though, glad to see the unfortunate souls laid to rest. They were also grateful to the three of us for braving the Stable, both for that, and for the things we had recovered. Some even dared to have hope that things might get better for the ghouls thanks to us. With what the three of us knew, we weren't really in the mood to be thanked.

“I've been thinking,” said May, gazing at the nearby pyre. It was the smallest of the three; the one for the children that had become zombies. Aside from Apple Crumble, there were only three young ghouls that had survived the transformation.

“About what?” I asked. My lazy eye rolled up, following the massive billows of smoke from the three pyres as they drifted up, until they became indistinguishable from the endless cloud cover.

“All this time down in the Stables,” muttered May, “the ponies down there, particularly those born underground, have no idea what the sun, moon, stars or sky look like.” May glanced at me, her gaze sad yet stern. “I want to see them again.”

Footnote: Status Update!

Current Status: Non-Feral Ghoul
Lucidity: Moderately-high

Ghoul Tip: Friendship is magic, so keep your friends close. Having someone there to support you keeps the madness away better than you might think. Also, never underestimate the healing potential of hugs.

Bonus Perk Added: Like a Buck to the Face (Rank 2) – You really like Sparkle~Cola RAD! As well, the radiation contained within is beneficial to your ghoulish physiology. In addition to previous effects, consumption of Sparkle~Cola RAD! will restore HP equal to 50% of a regular healing potion.

Rottingtail's S.P.E.C.I.A.L:

Strength: 5

Perception: 6

Endurance: 7

Charisma: 2

Intelligence: 5

Agility: 7 (reflexes, perks and skills; -3 penalty applied to movement speed)

Luck: 8

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