• Published 5th Jan 2013
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Fallout Equestria: Fillies - ShadowKick



The story of a mother's fight to save her fillies.

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2: Battle of Neighgaton

Bullets zinged in the air around me as I galloped through town. Close behind charged a hulking behemoth of a pony, a huge mishapen mass of rage and hate that shook the ground with every step. I ran and ran and ran but my hooves felt like they were moving through water, slow and sluggish as the beast gained inch by inch. All around me ponies were screaming, crying, dying as the raiders sacked the town.

My house was up ahead, but with each step it grew further and further away. The pony behind grew closer, larger, darkness and fear pouring off of him to reach out and engulf me. My house was so close, if I could just make a few more steps...

A stallion rushed out of the darkness. Sturdy and brave, I barely had time to register the face of Bronze Heart, my long lost husband. Then he leaped at the monster chasing me, the pair going down in a rolling brawl that was quickly consumed by darkness. I reached the door to my house and paused, looking back at the fight.

Bronze Heart fell to the ground at my hooves, his body bloody and broken. I shuddered at the sight and my heart stopped cold when I saw he was still alive, reaching out to me, begging me to help him. But I couldn't. I was frozen in place, my hooves refusing to move. The monstrous pony stepped out of the darkness, bringing a hoof down hard and snapping Bronze's neck.

I fell against the door, body going limp as the beast of a pony turned it's attention on me. The darkness reached forward, soon I could not see, and all I could hear was a deep, rasping breathing, and the distant gunshots and screaming of battle.

***

The dream faded. Slipped away from my mind as consciousness slipped in. I found myself curled in a tight ball on one side of my bed, almost falling off the edge, and I shivered despite the warm blankets that covered me. The dream was all too familiar... my memories of the day my husband died, twisted and exaggerated by time and fear. I'd watched those moments play out over and over, in dreams and even while awake, in the weeks after it had happened. And the dreams still popped up now and then. They seemed so real... even now, the dream driven away by wakefulness, I could still hear the gunshots, the screams of terrified ponies as battle...

My eyes snapped open. I could hear gunshots! Screams! Those weren't from any dream of mine, the sounds were coming from outside. Neighgaton was under attack! It was a second longer before another realization hit me... my fillies were at mom's house. And mom lived near the town gates... near the sounds of fighting... I shot out of bed, so quickly that the blankets fluttered to the floor behind me, and ripped open the top drawer of my dresser. Grabbing neatly folded sheets and spare blankets, I flung them aside in a messy pile beside the bed. I dug until my muzzle brushed against something hard and metallic and I clamped onto it with my teeth.

It was a stun gun. A nonlethal weapon, I had designed and built it myself after Coin_Purse had irritated me one too many times. It was the only weapon I kept in the house. Neighgaton was safe... the big walls, the guards... I didn't need to keep a gun here. Or so I thought. Now, with the battle coming closer and closer, and my foals out there in danger, I wished I had a firearm. Something I could really protect them with. But this would have to do.

The stun gun was designed to be usable in a mouth-grip, but I found it much more convenient to hold the weapon in my telekinesis. Aiming was much easier, and anyway there were too many firefights that could have been avoided if the ponies involved didn't have their mouths too full of guns to talk things out. Using my magic to hold it now, I rushed out of my bedroom and flung open the front door of my house. It banged against the wall and I darted through before it swung closed again.

The sounds of fighting were louder once I stepped outside, and not just because the thin walls of my house were no longer blocking the sound. The battle was getting closer. I galloped down the street towards the deafening racket, slipping through alleys and cutting behind houses. I'd lived in Neighgaton for over a decade and I knew my way around, it only took me a couple of minutes to reach the other side of town.

Gunshots, shouts, and exploding grenades pounded on my ears. Dim shadows moved among the buildings, occasionally stopping to fire off a few shots before ducking out of sight. The attackers wore a mixed bag of armor types, but all of the ones I saw had a bright red hoof painted onto the flank of their armor right over where their cutie mark would be. I saw a line of townsponies that seemed to be holding a perimeter around the market area, which was just inside the gates. Beyond them was chaos. Ponies ran every which way, firing and swinging hooves, rolling on the ground in desperate combat. Townsponies and attackers were so mixed in that I had no idea how anypony knew who to fight.

My heart lurched at the sight. Mom lived in a room above her shop, right in the middle of the chaos in the marketplace. My hooves froze and I stood gaping, but I swallowed the terror that paralyzed me and forced myself forward. My foals were in there. I surged towards the battle at a full gallop. Then I found myself faceplanting on the ground.

"Whoa there Deft! That ain't no place you wanna be rushing into." A voice called out while I sat up and spit out dirt. Looking up I saw the dimly lit figure of the town sheriff, True Justice, pulling back the hoof she had used to trip me. A gaunt, grim, green unicorn mare, she was standing behind a sturdy wall meant to block the noise of the market from the town. She peeked over it, then ducked back quickly as a bullet zipped over her head.

"Sheriff! Help!" I clung to her and pointed towards the heart of the battle, "My foals! Mom! In the... in there! Get them!" even to myself I sounded frantic, and my heavy breathing was not due to the short run across town, it was panic.

The sheriff pulled me into the cover of the wall and patted me on the back, her voice as soothing as she could manage while still shouting over the din of battle, "Your foals are where? With your mom?" She looked towards the market, her eyes growing wide, "Oh shit! Your mom's place is... fuck!"

"Help them!" I pleaded, grabbing her forehoof and trying to tug her towards the market. She yanked back, overbalancing me, and I landed on my face in the dirt again. I spat out more dirt.

Sheriff Justice bent down and met my eyes, her own expression filled with sadness, "I can't, Deft. That market’ll be a killin’ field if we advance. We’re holding here, ain't nopony going in there right now."

"I am!" Hopping back onto my hooves, I took off for the market. Or tried to. The sheriff's teeth clamped down on my tail and I jerked to a halt, crying out in pain. Several bullets smacked into the ground around me and I cringed in fright.

"No way Deft, you'll get yourself killed!" she said while hauling me back behind the short wall, "Now look, your mom ain't dumb. She'll have those fillies low to the ground and under cover. Which is a hell of a lot safer than trying to drag them through that mess!"

I stood up and peered over the wall at the market. Mom's house was just visible in the light from the half-moon, and still I wanted to rush over, to hold my babies, "I can't... can't just sit and do nothing, sheriff. I can't!"

She nodded and pulled my head back down, "I understand. But you ain't a fighter, Deft. Ain't much you can do here... unless..." her voice trailed off and she glanced towards town thoughtfully.

"Unless what? Please, sheriff, let me help save them..." my fillies were in danger, and the knowledge burned in me. I thought of how it would feel... to have nightmares of them dying while I sat and did nothing, just like I had nightmares of watching my husband die... and I shuddered, "I have to do something."

"The MECs," she said, and I understood immediately. MECs, or Magical Energy Capacitors, kept a charge of magical energy which any unicorn could tap into and use to power her spells. If a pony was close to magical burnout, or just needed an extra push to her casting, a MEC was the answer. The town kept a small stock of them. I glanced into town as the sheriff continued talking, "This battle's going bad, but I got a bunch of unicorns here. If we can get those MECs, they might give us just enough extra juice to push these bastards out of our town."

It was just what I needed to hear. Something useful, something I could do, that would help save my children. My head bobbed eagerly as I babbled at her, "Yes, thank you. Oh thank you! I'll go get them right away!" It hurt to turn my back on mom's house, to gallop off into town and put more distance between me and my family with each step, but I made myself do it because I knew it was the best thing I could do to help them.

Although they weren't technically weapons, the town's MECs were kept locked up in the armory, which was in the back of the town. As I approached the squat, solidly-built building I slowed to a trot, then stopped entirely. In my rush to help, I had entirely forgotten to get the key from sheriff Justice’s office. Smacking my forehead with a hoof, I turned to run back... but that would take time. Time we might not have. Instead of running all the was across town again, I turned and frowned at the door.

It was thick and built into a solid brick wall. The whole armory was built like a small fort and was likely the most secure building in town. I looked at the lock but quickly dismissed it... Tech Head could pick locks, if only he were here. Maybe I could figure it out, but now was not the time to learn.

In my work I often found rusted old parts that I couldn't break loose with tools, and I had developed a twist to my repair spell that I could use to break apart recalcitrant bolts. The hinges of the heavy door were much stronger than the bolts I usually used my spell on. The first hinge wasn't too difficult, but the second took a grunt of effort and by the third I was panting from the strain. Breaking something apart with magic took as much energy as breaking it apart without magic, and the spell was not an easy one to cast on something that strong. But within half a minute I had the door off and it fell to the ground with a loud clang.

I rushed into the building, not wanting to waste any more time even though I was still panting from the exertion. It was dark inside, and I stumbled around feeling the wall until my hoof bumped into a light switch. Flicking it, lights revealed several empty shelves, which would normally be full of weapons and ammunition. To my right I could see another room, this one filled with armor and other equipment. A third room filled with miscellaneous items was to my left.

The MECs were one of the few reasons I ever came into the armory, and I knew they would be in the room on the left. I could hear the battle raging on as I darted across the hall. My fillies were there... the thought pushed me to move harder and I started snatching up MECs with my telekinesis. The devices were not very large, a bit bigger than a hoof and shaped sort of boxy, with rounded edges and a bright red logo on the side in the shape of a fiery bird. Just below the logo, equally bright red, was the name 'Phoenix Industries'.

With a couple of dozen MECs levitating around me, most of the town's supply, I turned and ran back outside. It may have been my imagination, but the battle sounded... angrier, somehow. More threatening. I pushed my legs faster, hurrying back.

A sound off to my left caught my ear, a gruff voice somewhere near The Silo. I frowned and slowed to a canter, trying to get a closer look. Nopony should be messing around over there... but... I had to get back to the battle. Just as I began to speed up again something heavy landed on my back with a feathery whoosh. Crying out in surprise and pain, my legs buckled and I fell to the ground. The shock of the impact broke my concentration and the MECs scattered around me.

Someone else landed a few feet away and I looked up, dazed. Sharp claws bit into the dirt inches from my face, and wide wings blocked out the light of the moon. Time seemed to stand still as my eyes took in every detail they could of the griffin silhouetted in moonlight. She was lithe, moving with almost liquid grace as she reared back and brought her claws up. I gasped to see those claws pointed awfully close to my face.

Surprise fading, I rolled aside just as the griffin's claws came smashing down where my head had been. I tried to scramble to my hooves, but they didn't seem to want to cooperate and the momentum of my roll sent me tumbling onto my side. The griffin turned and screeched at me.

"Yer lucky the boss wants this done quiet, little pony. Can’t have those townsponies or slavers noticing us over their silly little battle," the voice was cruel and feminine, and became crueler still when she leaned close to whisper, "I've gotta kill ya quick... can't make you linger and scream the way I like to." She mounted me, sitting her rump down on my cutie mark to hold me in place while she lifted both sets of claws high. Her chest armor caught the moonlight and I saw a black claw insignia painted there, the mark of some mercenary band.

A shudder ran through my body as I watched her prepare the killing blow. Fear gripped me, my heart racing, and I felt a warm trickle on my thighs. Peeing myself was probably the least of my worries, but my cheeks felt hot with a blush and I hoped the liquid would dry before anypony found my corpse.

The griffoness paused and sniffed at the air, then cackled down at me, "Pathetic little pony, did ya just piss yerself? Oh... I coulda had so much fun making ya squeal."

Staring up at the person poised to kill me, I felt like kicking myself when I remembered my stun gun. Horn flaring, I snatched it off of the ground nearby. She saw me casting magic and lashed out with a claw, but the beam of crackling electricity blasted her full in the chest and her weakened strike on gave me a set of painful but shallow scratches on my cheek. Then she fell over on top of me and knocked my breath out.

I shoved at her with a hoof, but she barely budged. Grumbling, I started shoving with several hooves, "Good work Deft... get yourself pinned... she'll only get back up in a minute..." It took most of my admittedly low strength, but I managed to shove the stunned griffoness off of me and clamber to my feet. My flanks were damp and smelled of piss, but there wasn't much I could do about that.

Then the second griffon came rushing out of the darkness around The Silo. I let out a loud eep and backpedaled away from the brawny figure, tripping over my own hooves and landing with a wince of pain. Down before he even reached me... I let out a little groan at how pathetic I suddenly felt.

More sound overhead, then the high-pitched whine of magical energy weapons and light blossomed. The charging griffin ducked aside, narrowly missing a splash of green energy that melted the dirt he had been rushing over. Several more dark shapes landed around me, pegasi in some sort of unusual armor. It took me a few seconds to recognize them as Enclave scouts.

"Oh thank Celestia!" I said with a sigh of relief, "I thought those griffins were going to- oof!" My words were cut off when one of the pegasi bucked me in the side and I fell over. Again. He glanced over his shoulder at me.

He spoke, and when he did the disdain in his voice, the utter lack of caring, sent a shiver down my spine more than the specific words could... or so I thought until my brain processed those words, "Kill the dirtlover. She might warn the rest of the town that we’re at The Silo."

Two of the pegasi, including the speaker, turned away to face the griffons. The lithe griffoness that I had stunned was picking herself up already, although she was still unsteady. The brawnier griffin turned and held something up. It was hard to see in the dim light, but judging by the loud bang and the ping of a round ricocheting off of a pegasi's armor, he was holding a gun.

The third pegasi turned to face me, bringing a mounted magical energy weapon to bear. I felt a lump rising in my throat and swallowed hard to force it back down, then darted off to one side. A bolt of green plasma slammed into the dirt near my hooves. I heard him grumble and take flight behind me.

More energy blasts pelted the ground around me. I turned and fired off the same spell I had used to break the hinges moments ago, snapping one of the joints in his weapon's mounting. I ducked around the corner of a nearby building as blasts of magic soared wildly through the night. After several shots he realized the problem and stopped firing.

"Dumb bitch! What did you do to my MEW?" He flew over the building, hovering above me and shouting, "Not like I don't have another!"

I screamed and ran again as his second mounted weapon began firing, much more rapidly than before. He gave me no time to focus on casting my spell again, and several times I felt my the searing heat of a near miss singe my flanks. I got into a part of town where the houses were more densely packed, using them for cover as I ran screaming.

There was a thud from above and the shots trailed off. Glancing behind me and upwards I saw the silhouettes of two pegasi hovering not far away, apparently arguing. Their words were hard to hear, but one of them shouted something and I could make out, "... bring the whole damn town down on us..."

The pair flew off in the direction of The Silo, where I could still hear gunshots and see the occasional flash of magical energy. Cautiously, I poked out of my hiding spot and, keeping an eye on the sky, trotted carefully towards the spot where the MECs had fallen.

I was watching the skies over the Silo, so I never even saw the hoof that slammed into me from the other direction. I had time to think, while tumbling from the blow, and realized that at least one of the pegasi had circled around. I rolled against the side of the building, the metal wall stopping me with a thud. My right side hurt. Just breathing brought a sharp pain just behind my foreleg that made me wince and breathe shallower.

The pegasus landed a few feet away. It was the same one who had chased me, and I started to shake as I watched, for the second time in five minutes, someone lifted up a limb to kill me. At least I didn't piss myself this time, but probably only because my bladder was already empty. Closing my eyes, I curled up into a tiny ball of fear and waited for the end to come.

Instead there was a loud boom and a clang, and the pegasi cried out in pain. I looked up to see the flank of his armor slick with blood, and he hobbled to the side. More shots rang out and the pegasus took flight, staggering once in midair as another shot hit him before flapping away, out of sight in the dark night sky.

Sheriff Justice appeared in my field of view, her gruff face a reassuring sight after so many attempts on my life. She extended one hoof to help me up, "Deft? Deft, are you all right? Did you get the MECs?"

Dragging myself to my feet with her help, I looked around to see a hooffull of armed ponies nearby, all watching me expectantly. Wincing as I breathed in too deeply, I nodded to the sheriff, "Y-yes, dropped them over there,” I pointed weakly, “but... they attacked me. By the Silo... griffins a-and... Enclave..." My voice sounded weak, almost pathetic, and I slumped back to the ground and closed my eyes. I heard several ponies searching the ground where I had pointed, picking things up and then trotting away towards the continuing sounds of fighting.

Sheriff Justice remained, "Yep, we heard them shooting at you. I've sent a group to go clear out The Silo, but it's stretched us so thin... you gonna be alright? I really need to get back to the fighting."

I nodded and, after a moment, worked up the energy to speak, "Yes. I'll be fine. I just..." Looking up and frowning, I stared towards the distant marketplace. With much grunting and wincing I pulled myself to my hooves, "I need to get to my fillies. You have your MECs now. Let's stop wasting time."

Sheriff Justice did not have a face made for grinning. But, unnatural and disconcerting as it looked, she grinned anyway, "Good mare, Deft. We'll get your foals out of that shit, don't you worry."

Turning and shouting a quick, "Ye haw!" the sheriff galloped back into battle. Wounded and tired, my body forced me to follow at a slower pace, grimacing from the pain in my side every few steps.

The town defenders were surging forward when I finally reached the marketplace. I'd gotten banged up pretty hard in the effort to get those MECs, but the unicorns were making my efforts worthwhile. Thick shields of magic stopped bullets meant for advancing fighters, giving them mobile cover while they moved. Here and there bright spotlights of magical energy highlighted pockets of attacking ponies, drawing in waves of gunfire. Lances of fire narrower than a newborn's hoof, a spell the sheriff claimed to have designed herself, picked out stragglers.

With all of their own unicorns worn down and out of energy the attackers melted in the face of the magical assault. They already seemed to be in a full retreat when I arrived, and I watched as their rear guard was ripped to pieces. Keeping near the back of the advancing line of defenders, I peered out through the gates as we approached and saw the main body of the attackers moving away at a quick trot.

With a big group of ponies being shoved along with them. They had captured at least fifty new slaves in this raid. Looking at the devastation around me I could see that they'd lost at least that many, if not more, in the attack. But it didn't seem like a fair trade. There were all sorts of horror stories about the lives slaves lived, and I felt a small twinge of sadness in my gut at the thought of all those ponies, who'd been living well here in Neighgaton, ending up in that position.

Bucket chains were starting to put out the fires that had sprung up from magical and mundane sources during the battle. I could see one chain heading further into town towards where an enclave scout had poured superhot plasma at me... and as the rush of adrenaline wore off and I thought about that fight I could feel the burns on my flanks from his near misses. The pain in my side grew clearer too, sharper, and all over I felt stiff and uncomfortable from bruises. Sighing, I turned towards mom's shop to, finally, reach my foals and comfort them after such a terrifying experience.

The door of mom's shop was missing, or so I thought. As I stepped into the building I discovered the door was still there... and over there... and a bit up there on the counter. It looked like somepony had knocked it in with an explosion of some sort. I couldn’t tell for sure. The sales floor was in total disarray, mom's normally carefully-arranged displays of good scattered around all over. My heart started to thump harder in my chest, worry overtaking me, and I shouted, "Mom?" Stepping carefully over debris I made my way to the back room and shouted again, "Mom? Windy Sky? Painted Grove?"

There was a small groaning noise from mom's room and I took the stairs at a full gallop. Mom was lying just inside her bedroom door, moaning softly and holding a wound on her belly that leaked blood heavily. It was all over the floor and the bed, even some on the walls. Mom's old shotgun lay on the floor nearby, the barrel dented as if by some massive, powerful hoof. My fillies were nowhere in sight.

"Mom?" I shouted again. My heart raced and I felt dizzy, falling to my knees beside her as I screamed, "MOM! Help! Somepony! She's hurt!"

She looked up at me, taking short, gasping breaths and reaching out with a hoof. I could hear hoofsteps in the room below, voices calling, but all I could do was put my hoof on her cheek and kiss her forehead while whispering, "Mom? Where are Painted and Sky?"

"They... they took 'em," she wheezed. My blood ran cold and I felt the world spinning around me. Bodies moved nearby and I heard somepony screaming in a panicked voice, soon realizing it was me. A different voice said something about a sedative and I felt a sharp prick on my haunches. Tears ran down my face and I tried to get up, to run after my foals, but my hooves wouldn't work right and I just fell back down.

Somepony dragged me aside. I couldn't tell who... my vision was blurry and everything was getting dimmer, "Just lay here Deft. You just rest now."

My voice sounded eerily weak, as weak as my hoof felt when I tried to push the pony away, "Fillies... they have... my..." darkness overtook me and I remembered nothing more.

***

It was light out when I woke. Early morning, by the angle of the sun coming through the window. I was still laying on the floor, although now I had a pillow under my head and bandages wrapped around various parts of my body. A slight wooziness pervaded me, as though the room were slowly spinning, and when I quickly lifted my head the spinning sped up and I had to lay down again. I heard somepony standing up nearby.

"Ah, you're awake. Good," Sheriff Justice's voice sounded weary. When I looked up again and caught sight of her she looked exhausted. Her head hung low, her shoulders sagged, and I was pretty sure the apparent wobbling wasn't just from my head thinking the whole room was spinning. I blinked at her a few times.

"Wha...?" was all I managed to say.

She smiled, and it was a smile that drew out any ray of hope or happiness I might have mustered up, then smashed it. Worn lines appeared in her face and the smile didn't touch her eyes at all, "They gave you a sedative. Said you were freaking out. The after effects should wear off in a few minutes."

My head swayed slowly while I tried to stare at her. The details of the previous night were blurry, but I could remember a few causes for worry, "Painted? Sky? Mom?" My entire list of concerns voiced, I let my head fall back onto the pillow.

"Your mom's right here in the bed. She's fine. Or... will be. She got a nasty shot in the gut, but the doc said a few days and some healing potions will fix that right up. Oh, that reminds me!" she dug around on my mom's endtable and held up a healing potion, "I'm supposed to give you this. Something in that sedative screws with potions, so they had to wait 'til you woke up. But it should fix those burns on your flanks and that cracked rib."

The room was starting to spin less and I lifted my head again, slowly this time. Sheriff Justice hadn't answered my other two questions. Eyes narrowing at her, I repeated myself with an insistent tone, "Painted? Sky?"

She sighed and suddenly became very interested in mom's floor. I could see the large, dark stain of blood and shuddered at the memory of finding mom half-dead and bleeding out. The sheriff spoke slowly, "They were... taken. By the slavers."

I shot up onto my hooves, ignoring the intensified spinning and trotting over to the sheriff, "Taken? What?!"

"Deft... sit down," she put her hooves on me and shoved, forcing me to sit on the floor, "Now, drink this potion." The healing potion floated up to my lips and I found myself chugging it down, but my mind was still reeling at the revelation.

As soon as the potion was gone I looked up at sheriff Justice. My whole body was trembling and my throat felt so tight that I had to force the words out, "T-taken? Where? Who's on the r-rescue party?"

"Deft..." her mouth thinned into a small, grim line and she sighed. Sitting down beside me, she wrapped a hoof around my shoulders and gave me a hug, a gesture which surprised me from the gruff mare, "Deft... there ain't a rescue party. Those slavers are just too strong. We’re down over seventy ponies between the dead and the taken, and we don't have enough strength to chase them down."

I stared at her, my trembling growing as I repeated in a whisper, "No rescue party?"

Her hoof tightened around my shoulders as she shook her head, "No... I'm sorry Deft. They're gone."

The room seemed to swim around me. My vision grew blurry and I felt warm, wet tears running down my cheeks. A sob wracked my shoulders and I fell down, laying on my belly beside the sheriff and burying my face in my forehooves.

Sheriff Justice stood beside me. I'm not sure how long she waited there, but when the rising sun hit my face through the window I looked up, eyes red and puffy, my cheeks still streaked with tears. Blinking, I looked around until I spotted her.

A grim expression fixed on her face, the sheriff looked down at me, "Deft, I ain't here to be a comfort. Much as I hate to ask it of you now, I need you to do something for me."

Rubbing tears from my eyes so I could see the sheriff clearly, I looked up. A feeling of curiosity pushed at my grief, and in a strange sense that curiosity, that bit of normalcy, felt almost like hope. I sobbed again when the sensation was shoved roughly aside by the thought that, whatever the sheriff's request, nothing could be done to help my children, "Y-you need something?" I asked, "Now? What i-is it?"

"There's a problem at the gate," she sighed, staring hard at the window, "It looks like somepony may have set it up to open on a signal. Somepony living here. The slavers may have had inside help."

***

After hearing the sheriff's suspicions I didn't waste any time. Sniffling and wiping the occasional tear off of my cheek, I trotted the short distance from mom's shop to the gatehouse. It was a big building, three stories tall and still managing to look squat. The walls were thick, double layers of sheet metal, with rubble filling the space between on the first floor. Small slit windows peppered the upper floors, vantage points for defenders to fire out of.

The gate itself was really a portcullis. Thick beams of wood reinforced with steel bands, packed tight enough together that a pony could hardly poke a hoof through in some places, normally blocked the way into town. Right now the portcullis was up, held between the top floors of the gatehouse to either side. I could see the thick chains supporting it, which led down to a mechanism that moved the gate with a heavy counterweight inside the building.

Sheriff Justice, trotting along beside me with a scowl on her face, pointed at a door flanked by two guards, "In there, where the lifting mechanism is."

I did my best to put my chin up as I stepped closer. One of the guards pulled the door open for me, and as I trotted past I caught his eye. I didn't like the look I saw there, it gave a strong sense that he was pitying me. I tried not to think about it while my eyes adjusted to the dark interior of the gatehouse.

The sheriff came in behind me and lifted a forehoof, gesturing at the mechanism that lifted the gates. A large, squat electric motor sat in the middle of the room, a single level sticking out of one side. The counterweight rested a few feet off of the floor, suspended by chains that would be pulled whenever the motor turned. I leaned down for a closer inspection.

Even after years of performing semi-regular maintenance on this machine it took me a few moments to spot something wrong. Wedged into a dark gap between the motor housing and the gear linkage was a small device. I cast my diagnostic spell, muttering loud enough that the sheriff could hear me, "It seems to be an override for the lever. Somepony set this up so they could open the gate, and the lever couldn't close it again. But as long as the device was inactive everything would function normally."

"Clever..." True Justice mused. She thought for a moment and then asked, "Not something they could've snuck in and done, right?"

I shook my head, "No. They would've needed hours to set this up. Well..." I frowned and looked the device over again.

"Well what?" the sheriff asked, peering curiously over my shoulder.

"It could have been set up a little at a time. You'd need at least thirty minutes to actually hook it up, but getting all the parts into place could be done before that."

She growled, bucking at a wall and shouting at nopony in particular, "An inside job! I knew it! Do you have any idea who could've done this?"

I frowned and shook my head, "It could have been... I can think of a dozen ponies who have the technical knowledge to do this."

"And you can't narrow that down any more?"

I sighed, wiping at the tears that were trickling down my cheeks again, "N-no. I..." my fillies were gone. Taken. With the help of somepony I knew. Gritting my teeth, I swept my diagnostic spell over the device again, looking for some clue, some, "... wait..."

The sheriff leaned closer, her breath puffing against the side of my neck. I started pulling the device apart with my magic. It was hastily built, held together by a few hoof-tight bolts that slipped away easily under my magical attentions. Parts clattered to the floor, a few slung against the wall by my magic as I dug out on piece in particular, almost laughing as I pulled it free and held it up for the sheriff to see.

"An X-171 servo. Mom's been out of these for weeks. Town bought them all for the windmill overhaul," I turned and looked sheriff Justice in the eye, "The only pony who's had any in stock is Coin Purse."

***

Coin Purse jumped when I slammed the door of his shop open. His head smacked into the bare lightbulb that hung down over the counter, and the light swung around casting faint shadows against the sunlight that filtered in through the dusty windows. I stalked up to the counter and dropped the servo in front of him, "Who did you sell this to?"

"Hrm..." he raised an eyebrow, taking a few breaths and calming himself before leaning down to inspect the servo, "Ah... an X-171..."

Sheriff Justice walked in behind me, giving me an unhappy glare as she came over an leaned on the counter, "Coin..." she looked away from me to watch the greasy stallion's eyes, "Who have you sold these to in the last week."

"Only Deft, sheriff, why?" he said with an innocent smile. My eyes narrowed. Why would he lie? He had to have sold one to somepony.

Her own eyes narrowing, the sheriff leaned in closer, "You sure about that, Coin Purse?" Hooves scuffed the floor behind me as a pair of True Justice's deputies walk in and stood by the door.

"Why do you ask, miss Justice?" Sweat beaded on his brow and his smile looked strained. His eyes flicked around the room, taking in the deputies then sweeping across the sheriff's face to settle on me.

I slammed my hoof on the counter hard enough to make Coin Purse and sheriff Justice jump, "Because somepony let the slavers into town, and they used an X-171 to do it. You're the only pony who has any!"

He took a deep breath, and it was then that I noticed he was trembling slightly. His voice was calm, though, as he said, "I've only sold one to Deft. If you're looking for a suspect, sheriff, it must've been her."

My mind reeled at the accusation. The sheriff turned to me and opened her mouth to speak, but I cut her off as I reached across the counter and slapped Coin Purse across the face, "They took my children you flankhole! Do you think I would have let them sleep in a house right next to the damn gate if I knew?!" I wasn't even aware of casting a spell until the hanging lightbulb overloaded, showing the counter with glass. I tried to slap him again, but sheriff Justice shoved me back and one of the deputies held me there.

"Coin Purse, ain't no way Deft put her foals in danger like that," the sheriff trotted around the counter to get right into his face. I could see her nose wrinkle from the smell of his breath, but she just snarled at him, "Which means you're hiding information that could help us find who betrayed the town. Now why would you do a thing like that?"

Coin Purse looked stunned. He was still touching his face where I'd slapped him, but he shook his head and focused on the sheriff, "Only Deft has gotten one of those in a couple of months. Nopony else. I'm not hiding anything."

I wanted to scream, to shout and rage and hurt him. He was lying, it was so obvious that he was lying. Why didn't the sheriff just drag him off and throw him in a cell? He was the only pony with-

My thoughts were cut off when sheriff Justice spoke up, "Deputy," she nodded to the deputy that wasn't restraining me, "Get this sack of shit outta my face. Lock him up and don't take your eyes off of him."

Coin Purse tried to protest, but the deputies grabbed him and shoved him roughly through the door. I could hear his wheedling voice fading into the distance as they led him away through town.

Sheriff Justice turned to speak to me but I shook my head, "I'm... going to go home, sheriff." She nodded and let me leave without another word.

***

The house was too quiet. I'm not sure why, most days I'd have hours to myself while Painted and Sky were out playing or attending Neighgaton's little school. But now the place seemed so hollow and empty, as if even the walls knew they'd never hear the happy laughter of playing fillies again. I didn't care what the walls knew, I couldn't even see them through a haze of tears. I just wandered aimlessly around the little house.

My anguished reverie was interrupted by a knock on the door, the sound pulling my tear streaked face from the dampened pillow that used to belong to (insert filly name here). Slowly, I crawled out of their bed as another rapid series of knocks echoed through the house and I hurried to the door, hooves clattering across the floor.

Needing a moment to collect myself, I stalled by calling out, "Who is it?" One forehoof busied itself wiping at my wet eyes, but the tears were replaced nearly as fast as I removed them.

"It's Tech Head," a familiar voice called from the other side of the door. I pushed the door open to see the green stallion. He stepped inside without waiting for an invitation and led me towards the couch. I followed, trying my best to hold in the tears. My best wasn't good enough.

His forelegs wrapped around me after I sat down, and I leaned into the comforting warmth of his body beside mine. He spoke, but the sound of his voice meant more to me than whatever words he said, the sound of another pony breaking the silence that pervaded my home. I sobbed into his shoulder.

He patted my back gently and kept his voice soft, “They’re putting Coin Purse on trial tomorrow. The sheriff says he’ll probably hang for this.” The thought gave me little comfort. Much as I wanted to hurt him, killing Coin Purse wouldn’t bring my children back. I kept crying while leaning against Tech Head.

I'm not sure how long we sat like that. I was aware of him speaking from time to time. I cried myself out of tears, lay whining against him, then found more tears and began to cry again. His words remained meaningless sound to me until he put a hoof on my chin and forced my eyes to meet his, speaking, "You know... it's not like they're dead. Those were slavers, not raiders."

The idea of my children taken by slavers, left alive to continue suffering, was not much comfort to me. But I blinked away the latest wave of tears and looked at Tech Head, "That's... true. They're still alive."

"They'll probably end up at Storm Cloud," he said, "I've been out there, it's not so bad. Hard life, but they won't be mistreated." If I'd been paying attention to what he was saying I probably would have smacked him, but I was lost in my own thoughts, and he was mumbling more to himself than to me.

One thing pervaded my thoughts, "My fillies... they're still alive."

He nodded, squeezing me with hooves that I had forgotten were around my body, "That's right. They may be gone, but they'll live on. And you can live on. I'll be here to help in any wa-"

I cut him off mid-sentence, brushing his hooves aside and standing up, "My fillies are gone... but I can get them back." My heart was starting to thud as the idea took root in my mind. They weren't dead. They were still out there... not even very far away yet. I could just go and get them.

Tech Head sputtered and stared at me with widening eyes, "Get them back? Deft, that's crazy! They're on the way to a slaver camp! You can't... you're just one mare! You aren't even a fighter!"

I glared at him, "I'll tell you what I can't do, Tech. I can't sit by and lose somepony I care about. Not again." Thoughts of my lost husband flitted through my mind and I shuddered, forcing them away and whispering, "Not again."

"Deft, you'll die! For nothing!"

He put a hoof on my shoulder but I shoved it away, already heading into my room to start packing, "No. I’ll die for my fillies." It was an important difference to me. My saddlebags emptied out, and things started floating around the room. A spare jumpsuit folded itself and slid into the bags, followed closely by a small set of tools I kept for quick household repairs. After a moment of hesitation I added my manebrush.

I slipped the saddlebags onto my back and trotted into the kitchen, ignoring Tech's protests. Once there I added a small pile of dented cans and crumpling boxes, some basic food, and several bottles of water. I also found my stun gun and slipped it into a side pocket, somewhere I could easily pull it free. Looking around the kitchen, I added a can opener, a set of silverware, a few spare parts, and several extra gem packs for my stun gun.

Tech kept following me as I dug out a coil of rope and threw it in, then slipped a small first aid kit in and finally closed the flaps on the saddlebags. I turned towards the door and tried to brush past Tech Head, but he blocked my exit and frowned at me, "I can’t let you go, Deft. It's crazy!"

"Get out of my way," I snarled, narrowing my eyes at the stallion in front of me.

"No!" He stamped his hoof, adamant. He stood firm when I tried to push past again, but cowered against the door as I pulled my stun gun out.

"Get out of my way, Tech Head." I raised the weapon in what I hoped was a menacing way.

He seemed suitably menaced, but despite his shaking knees stood his ground, "No. I'm not going to let you go on some crazy rescue quest and get yourself killed."

I fired the stun gun, wincing and looking away from him as he shouted and fell to the floor. I pushed his twitching body aside as gently as I could, then opened the door. I stared at my hooves, unable to bring myself to look at him but needing to say something, "... I'm sorry Tech. But nopony is going to stop me from trying."

Packed and ready to go, I had only one more place I needed to stop before leaving town.

***

Several ponies were hauling away the broken sign to mom’s shop. I could still read “Free Market’s Free Market”... mostly. She always did have a sense of humor about her name. Mom was still laying in her bed when I trotted into her room. She smiled when she saw me. Seeing her happy just to have me around made me seriously consider changing my mind. But... I couldn't, "Hey Deft. Ah was hoping that was you on the stairs." Her accent always made me smile, it confused people so much that we sounded so different. But I grew up on the roads, surrounded by caravan guards from all over, and my voice showed it.

I smiled at her now, but I could feel my cheeks straining to frown, "Hi mom. I just... needed to tell you something. Something important."

"Deft..." her eyes traveled down my body, taking in the stuffed saddlebags before returning to my face, "Oh fuck it Deft, you ain't serious..."

I nodded slowly, not quite meeting her eyes, "I have to, mom. After losing... you remember what a wreck I was after the raider attack took Bronze Heart. I can't..." the words stuck and I had to pause to swallow a lump in my throat, "I can't do it again, mom. I can't go through that pain again, of losing somepony I love and doing... nothing about it."

I kept staring downwards, feeling her eyes burning into me as she stared for a long moment. When her voice broke the silence it was so sudden and unexpected that I flinched, "Ah understand."

Now I did look up to meet her eyes. She looked sad, and I was sure I spotted some tears forming, "Mom, I-"

"Ah understand, Deft," she said, cutting me off, "Ah'd do the same for you, especially when you were a foal." Beckoning to me with a hoof she added, "Come here a minute."

After a second of hesitation I stepped forward and she drew me into a hug, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry mom. But I have to go."

She squeezed me tight, "This is suicide. You'll die."

Nodding, I said simply, "I'll die trying. I have to try."

We stayed like that for a while, I'm not sure how long exactly. Just hugging. Occasionally one of us would sob, or sniffle, or give an extra tight squeeze to the other. Eventually, she pulled away and fixed a grim smile on me, "You a tougher mare than most think ya are. Play things smart out there and... hell, you'll still die." She slumped in her bed.

"Mom..." words wouldn't come. I looked down at the floor again.

"Just go Deft. I know better than to stop you."

I nodded and, with one last hug goodbye, left my mom's house for what I was sure would be the last time. My hooves dragged the last few steps, and for a moment I almost threw down my saddlebags and rushed upstairs to hug her some more. But I didn't do that. I walked through the door, trotted the short distance to the gates, and for the first time in over a decade I set hoof outside of Neighgaton. The wastes stretched out in front of me, deceptively peaceful in the late morning sunlight, and I took the first steps on my journey.

I wouldn’t do nothing. Not again.

Never again.

Author's Note:

Level Up!

Skill Note: Mechanics 50

New Perk! Mechanomancer: You have a special affinity for mechanical devices. +10 to skills checks made for manipulating machines with magic.

Thanks to Kkat for making this amazing world that I can roll around in.

And much thanks to my prereaders: Lazer, No_One, and Menti. For fixing my crap, and for encouraging me to keep writing it.