• 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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3: A Dark Path

I looked back at Neighgaton, my home of almost two decades a distant smudge. Intimidated by the unkempt fields around me I kept to the middle of the road, trying not to lookt at the overgrown brownish-green weeds, or the wilted sickly-hued flowers. I shuddered, thinking back to the days in my foalhood when I rode in one of mom’s wagons, remembering all her warnings about the nasty things hiding in the meadows and among the scattered trees. Not just the monsters. Plants mutated by magical radiation into deadly forms hid among the long grass and thorn bushes.

I wished I was in mom's caravan now, safe behind the walls of a covered wagon. The area immediately around Neighgaton was flat, but now I was getting into rocky hills that loomed close around me. The road wound among the hills and soon Neighgaton was out of sight. My eyes darted around this way and that, watching every hilltop, every craggy shadow among the rocks. A hint of decay drifted on the breeze, the stench of the wasteland. It brought back memories of my childhood.

The smell was most of what I knew about the wasteland, along with a few quick glimpses and overheard talk from the caravan guards. Mom always kept me in the wagon where I'd be safe. My mouth turned up in a smile as I remembered tinkering with spare junk among the wares stored in the wagon, an activity fueled mostly by boredom. My first steps towards discovering my talent.

The road was much less interesting when traveling alone. By the time the sun had climbed to the top of the sky I found myself just plodding along, following the road while my mind wandered here and there. I thought of mom, and how much she must be worrying about me. I thought of my fillies, how scared they must feel right now, if they were even... no! They were still alive! Lastly I thought of myself, and how little hope I had of ever seeing my children again.

I was roused from my reverie by the high-pitched screeching of a filly. I felt a moment of deja-vu that brought me back to the previous night; being pulled out of a dream by screaming foals. Shaking my head to clear it I looked around but nopony was in sight. The screams kept coming, though, and after a moment of hesitation I stepped off of the road and cantered to the top of a nearby hill.

Down near the base of the hill a pink filly was galloping full-speed through the field. The first thought that went through my head was that she wasn't one of mine. After that I registered what she was running from, a trio of timber wolves. The very meanest monsters in the wasteland.

Looking like little more than a pile of sticks with legs, timber wolves are tough, nasty beasts that prey on just about anything, including ponies. And they were fast. Many of my foalhood nightmares featured them. The filly was far ahead of them, but they were gaining ground on her quickly.

I watched from my position on the top of the hill. I was much closer to the filly than the wolves were. I could easily reach her first. But... she wasn't mine. Saving her could cost me the chance to save my own fillies. I turned away, a deep sense of shame making my breath shake.

Another scream sent a shudder through my spine and I tried to ignore it, but the image of a terrified foal being ripped apart by those creatures wouldn't leave my mind. It was the thought of that filly's mother, though, that turned my hooves around and sent me dashing down the hill towards the fleeing child. A mother much like me losing her child. A filly much like one of my own taken away. I couldn't stand it.

I broke into a full gallop, slipping when clods of dirt flew up from my hooves, but recovering quickly and pounding down the slope. The saddlebags bouncing on my sides smacked into my ribs over and over. I pushed the annoyance out of my mind and focused on the fleeing filly that I was quickly gaining on.

Running downhill gave me an advantage. On top of that I was aiming to cut her off while the wolves were chasing. I reached her well before they did. Without breaking stride I wrapped her in telekinesis and dropped her onto my back, secure between the saddlebags. The screaming filly flailed and nearly fell, but she quickly clung to me to stabilize herself. Panting from exertion I ran on.

I didn't realize the flaw in my plan until I already had the filly on my back. My longer hooves made me faster than the young foal, yes, but I was still no match for the timber wolves. Although it might take them a little longer, they would catch me soon enough. The thought drove me to push harder, but I was just delaying the inevitable.

I drew my stun gun and risked a glance over my shoulder. The wolves ran straight at me, presenting easy targets for a half-decent markspony. Which just made it sadder when my first shot missed wildly, the electric bolt of energy shooting uselessly into the air. I checked the ground ahead of me quickly then turned my head to take more careful aim. The second shot hit, slamming into the shoulder of one timber wolf and blasting a few twigs and leaves away. The beast kept charging at full speed.

"Right... stun gun... no good..." I panted, mostly to myself. I doubted the filly could hear me over her continued screams. The grass grew longer and it seemed to tug at my hooves as I ran. I could hear the snarls and howls of the wolves behind me but I didn't dare risk another look back. It may have been my imagination, but I was sure I could feel their hot breath on my flanks. Then my hooves stuck on the ground and my body kept going, pivoting on my leg and slamming my shoulder against the ground.

My hoof snapped free from whatever had tripped me up. I tumbled head over hooves and landed on my side with a thud and a whoosh of expelled air. The filly rolled to a stop nearby, momentarily shocked out of screaming. I expected the tearing teeth of timber wolves to sink into me at any second, but looking around I saw that they had stopped a few paces away. A tugging on my hoof brought my attention to the ground where I saw a green vine with purple spots wrapping itself around my leg.

I yanked the leg back, "Grasping Vine!" Several vines were already curling around the little foal. I reached out for her with my forelegs, tugging on her repeatedly before the vines gave way. By then my rear hooves were wrapped up. Setting the filly on my back I bucked out to free my legs. I risked a second to glance at the timber wolves and knew there was only one thing I could do.

Turning away from the predators I ran deeper into the patch of Grasping Vine. It clutched at my hooves making me stumble and slow, letting more vines seek me out. The mass of vines grew denser, soon pushing out the long grass altogether. I staggered into a wide field filled with the vines, those nearest me writhing and reaching out to grab at my legs. The filly on my back screamed again.

Once it was clear I wouldn’t be stuck in the patch of vines the timber wolves gave chase, one of them crashing through the growth while the other two slipped around the edges of the dangerous growth to cut off my escape. Every step became harder than the last. Tears stung my eyes as despair rolled through me, but I kept forcing my hooves to move.

I pushed forward, jumping as much as walking and bringing my forehooves down hard. After several halting leaps my hooves came down and no ground met them. I tumbled forward into a writhing mass of vines, grabbing the filly as she fell beside me and curling up around around her. We sank down through the vines, our combined weight overcoming the limited grip they could manage as we passed, until we broke free of the vines and fell freely down a pit with walls of dingy metal.

A pile of dirt and debris awaited us at the bottom. I landed on my flank with a painful thud. No bones broke, thankfully, because most of my momentum was deflected and we slid along the slope of the pile. Still curled around the filly, I felt grimy metal against my back as we left the pile and slid through an open doorway. Something landed heavily behind us and howled as it slid the same way we had. I quickly kicked the door shut and the pursuing timber wolf slammed into it with a clatter, sending the door flying back open and pelting me with a hail of sticks as its body fell apart.

I laid with my back against the dirty metal floor, panting and letting my heart slow it's frantic pace while I brushed bits of twigs out of my tail. My side hurt and hip, feeling the dull ache of a bruise forming, and I winced as I rolled back onto my hooves and looked around.

They filly's bright pink coat was just visible in the dim lighting, but as soon as I stood up she let out a startled yelp and ran off into the deeper darkness of... a strange metal tunnel. Frowning, I dug into my bag with my magic and pulled out a flashlight so I could shed some light around me. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all finished metals, dirty and rough from the ravages of time. Prewar make, too, by the looks of it. An artificial cave?

I didn't have time to worry about it. With the flashlight revealing the path ahead, I set out to follow the little filly before the sound of her pattering hooves faded from earshot. Pain flared in my hip with each step, giving me a slower, limping gait. The passage turned out to be a long hallway with doors leading off to either side at irregular intervals. None of the doors were currently open, so I didn't bother looking for the filly beyond them. Soon I came to a T intersection, my hallway ending in a flat wall. A bulletin board hung by one corner from the wall, a few thumb tacks sticking out of it with scraps of paper stuck to them.

Resting my hurting hip at the intersection, I held my breath and listened closely. I noted a few signs, the lights inside them long since dead, marking directions to different places. Closing my eyes to shut out the distraction, I continued to listen. A quiet sobbing came floating down the hall. It took another moment of flicking my ears to determine which direction the sound came from. Turning right, I crept along the hallway, following the slowly-growing sound of frightened crying.

I followed the sound to a door that was jammed open with a steel stool. Picking my way carefully over the seat, I entered the room and found her curled up in a corner. She looked up and started to tremble when my light fell on her. Stopping in place for fear of further scaring her, I knelt down and rested with my belly on the floor, shining the light between us and smiling, "Hello. My name is Deft Embrace. Are you hurt?"

Her head twitched from side to side and she mumbled timidly, "N-no. I'm ok." Laying her head back down and curling up, she stared at the door with wide eyes and continued to tremble.

I scooted a little bit closer, the filly jumping at the sudden scraping of my hooves on the floor. Stopping again, I smiled as reassuringly as I knew how and spoke softly, "What's your name? I can't just call you 'filly'... that would be silly!" Smiling at my own little rhyme, I added, "And why are you so afraid, is it the dark?"

Her eyes didn't leave the door while she responded to me, "I'm P- uhm... Pie. Sweetie Pie. And I don't wanna get eated."

Blinking, I pulled myself a few inches towards Sweetie Pie, now close enough to reach out and touch her if I wanted, although I didn't try that just yet. Instead I joined her in watching the door, "Don't worry, you won't get... uhm... 'eated'." Turning back to her, I smiled again, "The one that followed us down here was smashed to bits. It died."

She shook her head vigorously at me, "It ain't dead. Just broke. It'll get up again soon and eat us both." Frowning, she laid her head back down and watched the door, "Maybe it'll get stuck down here and starve. Least then it won't eat anypony else."

Timber wolves were notoriously tough, but I seriously doubted that anything could get back up after shattering into pieces like that. Sweetie Pie seemed convinced otherwise, and I understood how it felt to be a scared filly just after a brush with a frightening monster. I tried to reassure her, "Nothing will hurt you if you stay with me. I promise." Even I found it hard to feel safe in the encroaching darkness, things could only be worse for the terrified filly. I shook my light and asked her, "Here, would you like to hold the flashlight?"

Nodding eagerly, she reached out for the light. I floated it close to her and she grabbed it out of the air with both forehooves, my magic dissipating as soon as she had a grip on the hard metal tube. She aimed the light at the door, casting a dark shadow from the stool into the hall beyond.

"There, see?" I said, risking a touch and patting her shoulder gently. She jumped, but quickly leaned into my hoof as I continued talking, "Now you can tell the darkness to go away."

With a smile on her face, she stood up and took a hesitant step towards me. She kept the light on the doorway, holding it against her chest with one hoof while balancing on the other three, and her eyes flicked in that direction now and then, but she looked mostly at me, "Thanks, miss Deft. Can we look for a way out? It ain't safe in here."

I nodded, smiling broadly and pulling my hoof away to let her approach on her own, "Sure. I don't like these dark tunnels much, either. Would you like to ride on my back? Your legs must be tired after all that running."

Her response was to clamber onto my back and cower in between my saddlebags. Grinning, I carefully pulled myself to my hooves and cast a soft, blue-tinged glow from my horn, lighting the area in front of me, "There, now I can light the path ahead, and you can keep an eye out behind us. That way nothing can sneak up on us!" From the way she trembled on my back, she wasn't very reassured by this. I sighed and picked my way past the stool in the door again, looking around and heading back towards the intersection I had found earlier. Maybe those signs I'd seen could point me to an exit.

Still quietly shaking on my back, Sweetie Pie curled up into a tight ball just behind my shoulder blades. Glancing over my shoulder, I watched the flashlight point this way and that, flicking around the walls, ceiling, and floor before pointing straight down the hallway behind us. Curious and wanting to take her mind off of things, I broke the silence, "So... what brings you way out here by yourself? Aren't your parents going to be worried?"

There was a long silence before she spoke up, her voice so tiny and low that it hardly broke the silence at all, "Ain't got parents."

My face fell into a worried frown, "Then what are you doing all the way out here, Sweetie?"

She sighed, her little hoof swirling in a small circle on my back. I waited patiently for her to answer, reaching the intersection and shining my magic at the dilapidated signs. 'Cafeteria'... no. 'Overmare's Office', what's an overmare? 'Residen-' aha! 'Entrance!' The sign pointed me down another dark hallway, and I trotted forward with a little more pep in my step.

Sweetie finally spoke up as we left the intersection behind, "Caravan. I was riding with, but... they all runned away when they heard the big battle. I... got left. Yeah."

"Oh... I'm sorry to hear that," I said, looking over my shoulder again to smile at her. She shined the light around and returned the smile as I continued speaking, "Do you know where they went? Maybe we can find them again."

"No!" The word was sharp and shrill, almost a shriek, and pierced the blanket of quiet to echo around the hallways. She made a tiny eep noise and put a hoof over her mouth, looking around and watching behind us carefully before saying, much quieter, "N-no. I can find another caravan, miss Deft. I was gonna leave them at Neighgaton anyway."

Something scrabbled behind us, deep inside the tunnel network. Old, nearly dead machinery? Something else falling down a hole like we did? I couldn't be sure, but it set Sweetie Pie to trembling again and I kept up the conversation to distract her, "Is that what you do, just hop from caravan to caravan?"

Her response was quick this time, and her voice quaked, "Uh huh. P-ponies ain't worried about one extra filly. I don't eat much, and sometimes I find tasty plants for them, or help wrap bandages when they're hurt."

I nodding, coming to another intersection, "So you make yourself useful, and get food and safety in return. Why not do that in a town? I know Neighgaton's school looks after a few orphans..." I checked for signs again, quickly finding one that said 'Entrance'

The scrabbling sound reverberated through the hallway again. Her voice was on the edge of panic, but thinking out a response seemed to calm her some, "Ponies n-never let m-me stay long. I-I ain't... they just don't like me 'nuff, I guess. But a c-caravan don't mind for a few weeks."

"Oh. Well... I'm sure I can help you find a more permanent place in Neighgaton. When we get to a town, I'll put you on a caravan with a note for my mom. Does that sound nice?" I rounded a corner into a large room. Stairs led down to a lowered section, and the far wall featured a huge, round door held in place by a mechanical arm.

I walked closer to the door, casting my diagnostic spell and running my magic over the parts, "Oh... oh no, this could be a problem."

Sweetie Pie spun around on my back, shining the flashlight all over the big door, "What? What's wrong?"

"There's no power running to the door..." I traced my magic around the room, following various power lines to see if one had been severed. All my search turned up was some sort of hidden door to one side, odd, but not much use to us now, "These tunnels are prewar. I'm slightly surprised the power is completely dead. A place like this would use a spark generator, and those last almost forever. There must be a cut in the line, probably near the generator room." I doubted she understood most of that, but thinking aloud seemed to calm her. I know it calmed me.

"We gotta go back?" She asked, tremulous.

I nodded, twisting my neck around to nuzzle her gently. She smiled at the touch, "I'm sorry. I can power machines with a spell, but my magic just isn't strong enough to power something this big." I turned to venture back into the tunnels, bringing my light back around to the room's entrance. It shone on a lean mass of twisted sticks, held up on four powerful legs, with a toothy head sticking out and staring at us. My heart caught up in my throat, and Sweetie Pie's terrified screeching filled my ears.

The timber wolf snarled and lunged at us, it's gnarled claws scrabbling against the smooth metal floor and buying us precious seconds. I darted to one side, my horn flaring up as I dumped power into the hidden door I'd found earlier. The main entrance was far beyond me, but this much smaller door popped open with a creaking of ancient hinges when my magic hit it. The wolf right on my tail, I yanked the door shut as I dashed through, slamming it right in the beast's face. It scratched at the metal surface of the door for a few seconds, then gave up on that and all was quiet from the other side.

On this side Sweetie Pie had started crying, hugging my back and sobbing into my neck, "We're gonna get eated! It's back and it's gonna get us both 'cause we got no way out."

Sliding her off of my back, I wrapped my forelegs around her body and pulled the filly close, "Shhh, shhh... nothing's going to hurt you. It can't get through that door, and once we get the power back on we can slip outside and lock it in here for good."

Sniffling and leaning into my hug, Sweetie Pie stared at the door with wide eyes, "Are you sure? He ain't gonna get us?"

I squeezed her tight, "I'm sure. I promised you'd be safe, remember?" We just needed to get through the main door. Tricking the timber wolf out of that room couldn't be too difficult. It's just an animal. Leaning down, I offered to let Sweetie Pie hop onto my back again, an offer she quickly took advantage of.

Picking my way down the dim hallway I wondered aloud, "Where does this lead? Must be someplace important." Conscious of the filly riding on my back, I carefully didn't wonder aloud about where this place's occupants had gone. Maybe it was some base that had been abandoned near the end of the war?

The answer, for at least one of those occupants, came sooner than I had hoped for when the light from my horn fell onto a battered skeleton. I stopped short, gasping, and before I could say anything Sweetie Pie's light swung around and fell on the dead pony as well. Instead of the scream I expected, she hopped off of my back and trotted quickly to the fleshless corpse. I found my voice in time to say, "Sweetie, don't touch that!"

"Been dead too long to still have germs," she replied, poking at the bones. The filly gasped and I stepped closer as she pointed to something, "Miss Deft, look! Teeth marks!"

Hardly breathing, I brought my face down near the skeleton and looked closely, nodding and hastily pulling away, "Yes... those are teeth marks."

"She got eated... just like we're gonna..."

Sighing, I pulled her into another hug and said, "Sweetie, I won't let you get eated... eaten. Now, hop up onto my back and we can get away from this gruesome thing."

She nodded and jumped back into her previous position, her eyes still watching the skeleton while I continued walking. The hallway ended at a staircase, which came out behind a round desk in a small office. Sweetie Pie shone the flashlight around, quickly checking the room and then settling it on the one door, dented and bent such that it couldn't close. I stepped away from the desk. Trotting towards the damaged door I stepped through into the hallway, scanning around with the light from my horn. Several more skeletons lay out here, many of the bones broken. I hurried past them, keeping my light up and watching the walls.

An intersection soon loomed out of the darkness, signs sticking out to direct ponies around this place. Shining my light on the signs, I stretched up to read through the caked grime of decades, maybe even centuries. Only two were even legible, one marked "Cafeteria", the other "Spark Generator".

The second sign pointed me where I needed to go, and I started down the hallway at a quick trot. Sweetie Pie's weight shifted on my back and the the filly spoke quietly into my ear, "That wolf ain't gonna wait for us. It's gonna come looking."

I've heard that wolves can smell fear, and I tried to control my body's reaction, but my body won out and fear coursed through me. I tried to hide the shaking of my hooves from Sweetie Pie, but from the way she quivered on my back I could tell I had failed. Another intersection came and, with a brief pause to check the signs, went, before I spoke again, "Do you know why I'm out here, Sweetie?"

The filly hazarded a surprisingly accurate guess, "You lost somepony you love."

"How did you..." I shook my head rapidly, "Nevermind... yes. My two little fillies. I'm trying to get them back." Here I stopped, twisting my neck to look Sweetie Pie in the eyes, "I'm not going to die before sunset on my first day." Turning to face forward again, I trotted on. Fear still coursed through my body, but I did my best to ignore it. My best wasn't much, but at least my hooves stopped shaking. Eventually, so did Sweetie Pie.


My heart fell when I set eyes on the ruined spark generator. "No." I groaned, tugging at my braided mane in frustration, "No no no no!" My eyes swept over the broken mass, one side a shattered wreck from some kind of high explosive, far too damaged for me to fix.

Sweetie Pie's hoofsteps click-clacked around the room, the filly digging around in corners and inspecting cabinets. It was good to see her curiosity overcoming her fear, but in the middle of my despair I couldn't manage a smile for it.

I sat on my haunches and stared at the spark generator, entirely unsure what to do next. Maybe I could get Sweetie back up through the hole we fell into. Somehow. While avoiding the timber wolf. But even if I could, she'd just be snatched by the grasping vines above.

Something clattered loudly across the room. I jerked my eyes up, shining the light from my horn over to see Sweetie Pie standing completely still over a fallen metal tray, which she had seemingly knocked over while using a drawer to climb up onto a counter. I trotted over, shaking my head and preparing to scold her for broadcasting our location, when my light fell into the drawer and something caught my eye.

Sitting there, shining slightly under my horn's light, was the smooth rectangular casing of an MEC. My heart fluttered in my chest as I used my eyes and my magic to inspect the device, a slow smile pulling the corners of my mouth up when I found it to be operational.

"Sweetie, look!" I said, pointing at the capacitor.

She peered curiously into the drawer, "What is it?"

Lifting the small device out, I flipped it over to inspect the label on the rear. Although worn and faded with age, I could make out the rated energy output, "If it's still working, and I think it is, this may just be the key to that big door." Something clacked outside the generator room entrance, my ear twitching slightly, but I was too interested in running a more detailed diagnostic with my magic until Sweetie Pie tugged on my braid.

A dank stench filled the room, making me dry heave as I looked up and shone my light on the doorway. Standing there, bathed in the bright glow of my horn, was the timber wolf. Viscious saliva hung from it's jagged teeth and a low, rumbling growl reverberated from its chest. It took a step towards us, claws clicking against the metal flow, and snarled.

Sweetie Pie cowered behind me, curled up into a tiny ball and sobbing. I stood in front of her, my knees shaking so hard I swore I could hear them rattling. I lifted my stun gun and fired a futile shot, the blast knocking a few small bits of debris off of the wolf's chest. It took another step closer.

My legs gave out and I fell to the floor, shivering in terror. The beast advanced and stood over me close enough that its hot drool dribbled onto my forehead. In that moment, as I waited for my life to end, my own death hardly bothered me. My mind flitted to Sweetie Pie cowering behind me, but only for a moment. Instead, I thought about my fillies. Captured, scared, alone. And their mother had done nothing to save them. She had gone off and gotten herself killed, and hadn't done a single thing to help them.

Desperate, panicked, I stared up at the lunging wolf and sent a sudden surge of energy through my horn and into my stun gun. Screaming in fear and rage and pain, the spike of magic overloaded my built-in safety features and fired off a huge burst of energy

A bolt of white-hot energy seared the scant few inches between me and the timber wolf. The blast sliced clear through the wolf's body and impacted the wall behind it, bright light shining through the many gaps in the creature's wooden form. Sticks and limbs exploded outward, showering me with debris as the beast shattered into a thousand pieces.

My stun gun smouldered, burnt out by the surge of power. My horn hurt, and when I tried to cast a light the spell sputtered and died. In the glow of Sweetie Pie's flashlight I could see that the wolf's parts were already twitching towards each other, rebuilding again. Standing up and putting Sweetie Pie on my back I said, "Light the way. Let's get out of here before he gets back up."

With Sweetie lighting the path ahead I galloped away, for about two steps. Then I stumbled and fell against the wall, head pounding, and had to stand still until the room stopped swimming around me. After a moment I noticed a noise in my ear, which slowly revolved into the little filly's voice, "Miss Deft! Miss Deft! Are you ok?"

I nodded, a mistake as my head pounded again. I could tell that my words were slurred when I replied, "Yes. 'M fine... jus... too much magic. Be good as new with sleep." I hadn't meant to pour quite so much of my magical reserves into that spell, but in the heat of the moment I'd thrown everything I could at the wolf, which I could hear pulling itself together behind us. Moving again, I managed a quick canter and retraced my steps back to the office and the tunnel leading out.

It wasn't very long before I heard an angry snarling echoing through the tunnels, seeming to come from everywhere. My head was starting to pound again and I asked Sweetie Pie to steady the light twice before realizing that my eyes were the problem. Stumbling into the office, I all but fell down the stairs, somehow managing to keep the filly balanced on my back. I reached the end of the tunnel and gave the latch a twist and a shove. The door opened easily from this side and I tumbled out of the hidden tunnel, back into the main entrance room. Once there I pulled out the magical energy capacitor, touched my horn to the business end of the device, and activated it.

A jolt of energy sparked to the tip of my horn, quickly followed by a surge as the MEC drained itself into me. My muscles tensed as the power burned through me, sending shivers down my spine and leaving my legs quaking uncontrollably for several seconds. Emotions whipped through my mind, joy, love, lust, sorrow, rage. All in quick succession, over and over, leaving me reeling while I got lost in the overwhelming sensations. After what seemed like hours the energy settled in me, and I regained my senses to find myself laying on my side with Sweetie Pie staring wide-eyed down at me.

"M-miss Deft?" She asked in a low whisper, her voice trembling with fright.

I pulled myself to my hooves, "I'm ok Sweetie. Just... unexpected side effects. Must be because it's so old." An unexpected rush of emotion that came with the energy scared me. But I had no time to worry about it now, although my earlier weariness had been drowned out I knew it still lay lurking under the surface. The MEC gave me quite a bit of energy to work with, but it wouldn't last very long. My body would soon vent the foreign energy, a process that could be rather painful if I was holding a lot of it.

Turning to the big door blocking the only way out, I sent a surge of power into the machinery meant to open it. Starting with a quick diagnoses, I discovered several places where time had left it's mark and made quick, magical repairs. Knitting together even small bolts and wires ate through my temporary reserves, but once the repairs were made I had plenty left over to run the systems. With a groan of aged metal that echoed through the room, the great wheel of a door pulled away from the entrance and moved out of the doorway. I took a step forward, smiling wearily at the success, and looked over my shoulder at Sweetie Pie, "Come on, we're out!"

She hesitated, still staring at me with a frightened expression, but when a clatter of claws on metal announced the arrival of our friend the timber wolf, she darted forward with a screech and we ran through the doorway together.

Turning, I saw the wolf give chase, it's paws scrabbling for purchase on the smooth metal floor. I started cycling the machinery that controlled the door, but it moved slowly. So slowly. The wolf approached faster than the door closed, and eventually I used the last of the MEC's reserves to cut several of the hydraulic lines, letting the door fall shut.

It slammed closed with a huge, thundering boom. The sound rumbled through my chest and I fell back on my rump, hooves covering my ears. Sweetie Pie fell against me, shaking, and I wrapped a foreleg around her.

When the echoes of the slamming door finally faded I pulled Sweetie Pie close, "It's ok, we're ok now."

She looked up at me, her quaking body beginning to calm, and managed a small smile, "We didn't get eated."

Giggling, I mussed up her mane and stood up, "No, we didn't." Putting her on my back, I looked around and found we were in some sort of cave, dim light falling in not far away. I started towards the light, scrabbling over uneven ground until I found myself outside, the late evening sun sinking towards the horizon. "Come on Sweetie. There's a settlement not far from... wherever we fell in at. We didn't move too far away."


It was dark out before we spotted the lights of a small settlement ahead. Sweetie Pie had long since taken to walking herself, my own legs struggling just to support me. Once the MEC had worn off my weariness came back in full force and all I wanted was a soft bed to lay in. If I weren't so worried about more wolves being around, I would've been tempted to settle for a soft patch of dirt.

The settlement had a rough palisade around it, mostly thin logs with gaps covered in rusty sheet metal. The gates were closed, not surprising after dark, but as I staggered towards them a voice called out, "Whoa! What are you doing out here?"

Looking up, I spotted the shadow of a pony peering down from above the gates and mumbled back, "Deft. Deft Embrace. Got a room for the night?"

The figure above, a stallion by the voice, chuckled, "Yeah, there's room in the tavern, better get those flanks inside the walls." He motioned to somepony else and a small side door popped open. Smiling, I nodded politely and stepped inside.

The settlement was little more than a place for caravans to rest. A day of travel from Neighgaton, it had a tavern, a small trading outpost, and not much else. The town square, just inside the gates, was well-lit and held a pair of parked wagons. Beyond that loomed dim houses, shadows among the darkness. An inn, two stories tall, stood proudly among the shorter buildings around it. Light spilled through the inn’s windows and muted music hummed through its walls.

I found my eyes drawn to the middle of the town square. There, hanging from an old oak tree, was a dark equine form. It had greenish, buglike eyes and big holes running through its hooves. Weird wings hung limply from its back and a jagged horn stuck out of its forehead. The thing looked like some kind of horrific cross between a pony and an insect, and it was very clearly dead. The rope around its neck was clue enough, but the flesh had already started to rot off of it and something had been nibbling on its face, underlying musculature exposed to the cool night air. I shuddered and looked away.

"Changeling," a voice said to my right. A young mare stepped out of the gloom, shutting the door leading outside as she did, "Found him hiding out in the tavern last week. He almost got away, but we caught him and strung him up good. Had to break his wings, stupid bug tried to hover when we first hung him. Not like he could’ve gotten far, even if he escaped." She nodded towards the town walls, and the wastes beyond, for reasons I didn’t understand.

I looked away from the gruesome sight, trying not to let my revulsion show on my face. Even in a town like Neighgaton, where all sorts of people came in to trade, dislike of changelings was not uncommon. I’d heard it was worse in other places, but such a violent reaction was... unusual, as far as I knew. It turned my stomach. When I looked at Sweetie Pie she was staring up at the creature, an expression of pure horror on her face. I frowned and reached out to hug her, but she jumped away in fright. Smiling softly, I said, "It's ok Sweetie."

The mare let out a harsh chuckle, then spoke up, "Don't worry young'un, that bastard won't be hurting nopony else."

Tearing her eyes away from the spectacle, Sweetie asked the mare, "Wh-who did he hurt?"

She shrugged, "Don't know for sure. But he's a changeling. It's what they do." I couldn't help but frown at the sentiment.

Sweetie Pie accepted a hug when I tried again, and I drew her close, "Come on Sweetie, I really need a bed." Using my body to block her sight of the hung creature, I led the little filly into the tavern. We were assaulted with bright light, raucous singing, and the heavy smell of alcohol as soon as the door opened. I narrowed my eyes against the light as we stepped inside.

The main room was full of ponies, many of them worn by travel. Dusty trader barding and bristling weapons marked most of the crowd as caravaners and their guards. A trio of gamblers sat at one table, cards and caps passing between them along with amicable laughter. In one dim corner sat a unicorn and a griffon, unidentifiable objects passing between them in the darkness under the table. Near the back of the room strutted a young mare, dressed in the sort of tight outfit that looked more enticing than outright nudity. She flicked her tail at a stallion's snout and led him up the stairs. I made sure Sweetie Pie couldn't see that.

A crusty old mare stood behind the bar, wiping down a glass with a dirty rag while grinning out at her patrons. Trotting up to the bar, I smiled at her and asked, "Do you have a room?"

"A broom?" She responded, "Did somepony drop another mug?"

I thunked a hoof against my forehead and asked again, louder, "Do you have a room?!"

"Oh! A room! Yeah, I got a room. You got fifteen caps?"

Too tired to haggle, I dug around in my saddlebags and pulled out fifteen bottlecaps, shoving them across the counter. The old mare grinned, showing off several gaps where she was missing teeth, and tossed a set of keys at me, "Upstairs, last door on the right.”

Nodding, I led Sweetie Pie up the stairs. My hooves dragged and I found myself panting by the time I reached the top. Struggling to keep my eyes open, I walked down the short hallway, passing two doors before reaching the end and trying my key on the third. It opened, and Sweetie flicked her flashlight on to reveal a cramped little space with a tiny bed, a small endtable, and no windows. I fell into the bed and kicked the door shut, letting Sweetie lock it before she hopped up and clicked out the light. I remember her saying something to me, but I was out before she'd even finished snuggling against my chest. My last thought was of that unfortunate changeling strung up outside, and I hugged Sweetie Pie close for comfort as darkness overtook my world.

Author's Note:

Level up!

Skill Note: Speech 20

Thanks to Kkat for crafting such a wonderful world.

And thanks to Menti and No_One for catching so many flaws in this chapter!

Comments ( 1 )

well at least she saved that filly and I hope her fillies are okay :yay:

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