• Published 25th Jan 2012
  • 10,623 Views, 517 Comments

Fallout Equestria: Guise of Chaos - Fallingsnow



A story in post war Equestria following former raider Two Kick Ripple on a quest for vengeance.

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Chapter 19: Birds of a Feather

Chapter 19: Birds of a Feather

The air was barely breathable now, swirling around us as the collapse of buildings and the roiling smoke pouring up from the hole in the ground intermingled in a choking cloud of havoc. Pieces of anything that had been in the Stable drifted to the ground, burning after they had been blasted out of their home in the ground by flame and force.

All that deathly imagery was shattered as a raider barreled out of a bank of opaque smoke, bleeding heavily from a head wound and waving a razor edged shard of metal in his teeth. His eyes were wide with panic, a muffled scream pushing its way around the weapon in his mouth.

As soon as his eyes locked onto us, they got impossibly wider and his legs ceased moving. Locking up, he slid a short distance before coming to a halt in front of us. The weapon dropped from his mouth as his jaw went slack, a strangled tone emanating from his gaping maw.

I understood immediately. Ivory and I had our weapons out, we were all bleeding from minor wounds and filthy with the accumulated dirt and grime of battle. Cutter had his hand in his mouth, probably attempting to stem the bleeding, but blood still flowed freely from his beak. Even in the pitched battle of Neighwhere, a group like ours was a bizarre and unsettling sight.

Cutter’s eyes narrowed at the frozen raider, and he dropped his short-clawed limb to his side. Taking a few quick strides, he snatched up the pony. Biting deep into the pony’s neck, he tore out a huge chunk in a single, swift bite. With half of the terrified raider’s neck gone, it took only seconds for the pony’s lifeblood to pump violently from the mortal wound.

I expected Cutter to spit the chunk out, as I’d seen Ash do whenever he’d needed to use his beak in a fight, but the larger griffin swallowed with a contented sigh. He dropped the limp corpse to the ground, and only then seemed to notice the horrified looks shared amongst his current companions.

“What? I was hungry.” He shrugged dismissively, picking a scrap of flesh from the corner of his beak with a wicked talon. “A warrior needs to eat.”

Ivory, drenched with gore though she was, looked very pale. Fluster was hiding her face in the depths of her hood. A very primal part of me, the part that was always just a little terrified of being near a griffin, was screaming in my head.

Knew he could do that. Didn’t I tell you? Graced with natural weapons. Born killers, the lot of ‘em. Griffins fuckin’ rock.

I was suddenly eager to get out of here. Hate was either pinned at the top of Maremack, or had an escape route I'd have to chase him down. Either way, the scrawny fucker could wait for an evening or two. I needed Shade. I needed to know my mare was OK, and I needed a rest. It was time to make our escape from this hell. Determination filling me, I just nodded at the griffin. “Okay, but we have to move fast. No more snacks.” It sounded weird as I said it, but it was the first thing that escaped from my mouth.

Nodding, he turned and surveyed the greyed out environment. “So, where to then? What destination awaits us?”

I nodded my head to my left. “Out. Out of Neighwhere. Try and find a way up the mountain. Then we find Hate, and we kill him.” I left that out, hoping to Escape from a war zone. Maybe reconnect with the others that had escaped. Walk to Maremack. Kill hate.

“Very well.” He turned, dropping to all fours as he did so, and started stalking into the gloomy distance. As he quickly began disappearing into the concealing smoke, I tried getting my legs working. I had need to follow the predator, in direct opposition of my survival instinct.

His voice drifted back to us over the sounds of war. “Shall we?”

I nodded back to the mares behind me, and the three of us hurried forth. Into the clouds, out of Neighwhere.

-----

It seemed that visibility in the whole of Neighwhere had been cut. It looked like there was more than one of the giant robots bulldozing their way through the ancient buildings and recent slapdash tenements, but I couldn’t see far enough to find out for sure. Much of the town had been leveled in the direction we were moving, which meant we were probably heading towards where the Rangers had staged their assault. The gash was a canyon, cut through the center of town by the giant robot. With any luck, it would be clear of hostiles, and we could get out without another fight.

Of course, as soon as I thought that we ran into a lone Ranger sifting through the wreckage of what must have once been an armory or private stash. His matte grey armor blended in perfectly with the concrete dust covering the rubble of the building, and I didn’t even see him until he lifted his helmeted head.

I sprang back, snapping off a shot with Broken more out of surprise than any hope of doing damage. My shoulder popped and ground, and I got the feeling that there was still a bullet in there. The Ranger, to his credit, was very fast on the draw. Figuring that the hulking griffin was the most obvious threat, he fired a shot from his side-mounted grenade launcher in the general direction of the predator.

I lost sight of Cutter in a flash of flame and blast of noise. I was already rushing forward through the stinging spray of rock from the explosion, needing to get in close with the Ranger. It was fairly open here, and without cover we wouldn’t last long against the metal-clad pony’s heavy weapons.

A loud metallic sound told me that another explosive round had been cycled into the weapon, and the barrel turned to aim straight into my face. I jumped as hard as I could, the weapon flashing and hurling a metal orb of death right between my hooves.

I hit the ground and stumbled as the blast went off behind me. A sharp pain seared through my side as my shoulder tried its best to hurt me. The girls had scattered, and I could see Ivory off to the side lining up a shot with her minigun. I doubted that it would be any more effective against this Ranger than it had with the previous, but I couldn’t blame her for trying. Fluster was gone; I never could keep track of her in a fight. For all I knew, Cutter had just been blown into shunks. Her minigun was our only hope, as faint as it was..

I tried bull-rushing the clumsy metal armor, slamming into the Steel Ranger with all of my might. It was like hitting a wall, and the pony within the armor barely flinched at the impact.

“Shit.” The exclamation escaped my mouth. There was no way this would turn out well for me.

A female voice, light in pitch but cruel in intent, snapped out from the speakers built into the helmet. “Yep.”

If we survive this, I want her. This mare’s got style.

Her head dropped down with the whine of servos and hiss of hydraulics. It slammed into my side, the mechanical assistance greatly enhancing her power. The hit sent me stumbling, putting a dangerous amount of distance between myself and the barrels of her murderous weapons. My injured leg gave out, and I hit the ground hard in a puff of dust.

A chunk-whir threw a metal dart driving into the rubble next to my head, pinning my ear to a chunk of concrete. The small metal dart began beeping, and I scrambled away from it, painfully tearing my ear as I did. It exploded, a smaller detonation than the grenade, but still enough to pick me up from the ground and slam me into a broken stump of support column.

Hitting the ground in a daze, I tried to gather my wits before she could kill me while I was down. I coughed, blood speckling the ground in front of my muzzle. Pulling myself to my hooves, I blurrily aimed Broken towards where I was sure the Ranger stood. Her next shot would probably kill me, but I didn’t want to go down without putting up at least some fight.

I heard the tearing sound of a minigun fill the air, and my eyes finally focused on the Ranger, as she turned away from me. She’d been bearing down on me with her explosive weapons, ready to blow me into little pony pieces, but the hail of ineffective bullets had pulled her attention away. Ivory stood fast behind her, pouring on the lead.

There was the thump of a grenade launcher, and Ivory disappeared in a burst of dust and rock. I was still wobbly, but I had to take advantage of what little time she’d bought us. Stumbling forward, I tripped. Catching myself before I plowed into the ground again, I kept my forward momentum going to get near the Ranger mare and... I didn’t know what I would do when I got there, but I’d do my best to kill her.

I had to assume Cutter was dead, because I could see the shape of the griffin lying in a heap off to one side. This was all me now.

I got up to a gallop, and snapped off a shot towards her in faint hope of doing any damage. The buckshot bounced off of her thick armor, and her helmeted gaze swiveled to lock on to me. Her body followed her head, and I found myself staring down both barrels.

Dive. Duck! FUCKING DO SOMETHING OTHER THAN CHARGE HER!

If I could have seen the mare’s face, I knew that she would have been smiling. I roared in defiance as I charged, narrowing the gap rapidly. Charging down death seemed to be a theme for today. That was all the went through my head as I worked the lever and fired another shot at the Ranger, who appeared amused at what I was doing.

Then she blew up. Blood, meat, and armor sprayed outwards in every direction.

Had I gotten a lucky shot? Hit the grenade aimed at me while it was still in the barrel?

Fuck if I know.

As the concussive blast threw me back the way I came, I noticed that she wasn’t just gone. There was a lot of fire where she’d been. That should have been blown out by the force of the blast, as the explosion forced the air away from the flames.

My split second of thought was cut short by my impact into a large chunk of building bristling with jagged metal. A piece gouged deep, slicing into my side through several of the leather straps composing the armor I was wearing. The jangle and clank of metal on concrete followed as the scant armor around my body slid to the ground, leaving only my legs protected.

Now that she’d exploded, though, I figured I had a chance to catch my breath and regroup.

I was wrong.

“Why? Why all this? Why couldn’t you just stay away?” The voice behind me was, as usual, not one I wanted to hear. The fire made sense now. The ordinance carried within the armor had all been cooked off at once by an intense, magical heat.

An orange hoof pressed into my neck, and a surge of heat singed my face. I froze, Broken out of my magical grip and lost to me in this moment.

How did Cinder get the drop on me every time? How?

I’ve been asking myself that for years. How a fucking road flare can be that sneaky, I’ll never know..

My gaze drifted up until it met with hers. Her eyes were bloodshot. Her coat was filthy and matted. She’d been crying; tears cutting clean paths through the caked ash that has turned her face a filthy gray-orange.

“Everything was getting back to normal... and now Hate’s left me. Everypony’s dead. Massacre’s dead... Everyone is leaving me!”

Holy crap.

Pressing her hoof further into my throat, the promise of immolation rising with the temperature, she screamed into my face. “It’s all your fault! You left, and everything went to shit!”

Let me talk to her.

The last thing I needed was Two Kick threatening her again: she looked much more on edge than usual. The last time I’d seen her, she’d been lounging luxuriously in a bath of flame retardant. She’d seemed happy. She was as far opposite of that as could be right now. Hysterical, furious, terrified. Not a good combination for a walking force of nature.

She was my marefriend. I can do this. Let me talk to the crazy bitch.

“It’s uh... not my fault?” I don’t know why I let it out as a question, but it was the wrong thing to say. She stomped into my throat, flames catching in the hair around her hoof. I was sort of glad she was stomping on my neck, though. I couldn’t feel the burn; only the denial of breath.

I coughed when she eased her weight off of my throat, pulling air back into my lungs. It tasted of soot and burned with heat, but bad air was still better than no air at all.

“It’s all your fault! We were happy... you and me. Then you betrayed Hate. You betrayed me!” Tears ran down her face, evaporating as soon as they dripped off of her into the haze of heat surrounding her. I was really hoping that Ivory would shoot her, but I couldn’t see the blood-drenched mare from my vantage point. I had no clue if anyone but me was alive after the Ranger’s grenades.

This was all on me. I hoped Fluster wouldn’t do one of her back leaps. The little pegasus would immolate if she tried it. Wherever she was, it was safer than helping me right now.

I managed an apologetic shrug. “I’m... sorry.”

She kicked me in the side at that, screaming in rage as she did so. “That’s not good enough! You can’t fix this! I’m gonna fucking burn you alive!”

The air brightened as the flames of her fire dragon began forming. It was getting much harder to breathe as she began burning the air around us. I wasn’t sure how she could stand it, or how she could scream like that without air.

Who gives a shit how Cinder works!? If you don’t let me in, we’re going to fucking die. Do as I fucking say, or we’re both fucked. Fucking listen to me, you stubborn piece of shit! LET ME IN!

It was getting hard to deny him. I could feel his influence slamming into the edges of my consciousness. It was like he was kicking a door down. I didn’t know if I could keep him out for much longer...

Will you let me back in after you talk to her?

If we’re not dead, sure. You work better with those fucking wastelanders, while they might have trouble dealing with a real stallion. You can take the reins for a bit after. I fucking promise, now let me in.

The tone of my voice when I next opened my mouth was different, the softer purr of Two Kick rather than my gravelly monotone. I’d given up the constant internal struggle, the willpower I’d been using to keep the voice at bay. It was all that he’d needed.

“Hey there, beautiful.”

Cinder’s eyes widened, and she backed away from me. It was the same reaction she’d had outside of Blank. “Two Kick?”

“You know it. Look, Cinder, you’re acting crazy. You know what happens when you get like that.” He pulled himself slowly to our hooves, taking a deep breath as the incendiary pony put a shred of distance between us. The temperature was already dropping, and the dragon was fading rapidly.

“But... but you left me. Everypony’s dead or gone, and it’s just me now.”

We smiled, a malicious grin with no kindness behind it. Cinder seemed to take comfort from it though. I was now wondering if she’d been crazy before Two Kick, or if the pony in my head had destroyed the mare that stood before us. Nopony could be that emotionally unbalanced without something traumatic happening, right?

You’re distracting me. Shut the fuck up. I’m working.

“You’re still here though, aren’t you? You’re the only one left. A fucking goddess amongst the rabble.” We stepped towards her, the confusion in her eyes clear as day. I wasn’t sure what Two Kick was getting at, but it seemed to be working. We weren’t dead yet.

“I know you’re not over me, and that makes sense. We were close. Real fucking close. But now I’m gone, and you gotta let me go.” We were now close enough that Two Kick nuzzled the crazed mare’s cheek, and a fresh set of tears sprang to her eyes.

“I... I don’t want to.” Her voice hardened as she said it, the scared little mare leaving her voice for just a second. She repeated it, much softer and sadder. “I don’t want to.”

“You have to. Hate ran like a fucking coward, but you’re still here. You just blew up a fucking pony tank. You don’t need him, or me. You have you.” Every word was hard to believe. Two Kick was empowering her, but I could tell from inside his head that every word was a lie. He was just doing this to save our hide. I didn’t even want to think of what a Cinder that wasn’t subservient would do. She could burn the world. Again.

I really hope you’re setting her up to kill her. Don’t let her free.

Shut the fuck up. I’m driving now, and you don’t get to fucking tell me where to go.

She was starting to smile through the crazy. Two Kick’s plan was working. As much as I hated what he was getting at, I had to admit that it was working.

“You get rid of the Steel fucks destroying your town, and it will be you at the top. No Hate, nopony to tell you what to do. You could run everything. You could be a queen. Claim the position through any means necessary. It’s what we were taught as foals, after all.”

She nodded, an entirely different look rising onto her face. The look of a tyrant. A filly that had just been given a loaded gun and free reign to do with it as she pleased.

“I could... couldn’t I? Ponies are afraid of me... I should use that for myself.” She had shrunk while talking to Two Kick, but was beginning to stand tall again. When she’d been under orders to kill me, she had carried herself like that. It seemed that having either myself or Hate in charge had kept her focussed and self-assured. She’d never considered running things on her own.

Don’t do it. Kill her. Kill her now. You’re right next to her, and her guard is down.

Nah... this is more fun. Not often I get a chance to create an uncontrollable killing machine.

This mare was so easy to control for Two Kick. She hated me enough that nothing I said would get through to her, but the mixture of blind love and fear she held for Two Kick was sickening. He grinned wide, well aware of the control he had. This had not been a healthy relationship.

“Seize the day. It’s your life, make use of it. Kill the Rangers, and take your town. Be your own mare.” He stepped back from her, crouching just slightly to make her feel taller. It worked.

“Yes... Yes! I will! This is my town, and those fuckers are making a mess of it!” The manic glint in her eyes was back in full force, and the dragon was beginning to reform around her.

Turning her head to us, the flames of the draconic form flickering around her, she smiled. “Thank you.” Leaning forward, she planted a kiss on our cheek. Even with the flickering snaps of her fire dragon and the background rumble of battle, I could hear the sizzle of meat and the smell of burning flesh.

Then, with a grandiose flourish and a slight pirouette, she turned and trotted away from us. Two Kick chuckled under his breath, immensely pleased with what he had done. As she rounded the demolished rubble of a building and disappeared from sight, he spoke to me out loud.

“See. We’re alive, and the Rangers are going to die. Job fucking done.”

Give me my body back.

“Nah... I’m gonna keep going for a little bit. I said I’d give it back, but not when. I’m gonna hang out here for a while, stretch my legs and take in the fuckin’ air.” As he put the word to deed, a sickening pop from our shoulder flared pain through our body. He flinched, but the grin didn’t leave his face. “Well, as much as I can. You really fucked me up, didn’t you? Rent a joint out, and you never know who’s gonna fuckin’ move in.”

No! Give me control back! Do it now!

He ignored me, walking over to where I’d last seen Ivory. I was yelling in his head, but he didn’t even break stride. Damnit. I was getting way too trusting of him. He’d just fucked me over. I needed control. I needed back in. I started fighting to move, to stop, to make my body do anything. Nothing worked. As I struggled I got the feeling that he’d been learning from me, all this time I kept him imprisoned and drugged in my head.

“Ivory! You still alive?” He was doing his best to imitate how I spoke, dulling down his more charismatic tone.

A cough and a groan from past a large chunk of shattered wall drew his attention. Peering around it, he found the form of Ivory bleeding heavily. Her own blood flowed from several injuries, red stain against the dull brown of Wires’ demise.

Fluster was there, a roll of healing bandage at her hooves as she worked on getting a healing potion open with her teeth. She was working frantically at it, but kept missing the stopper. Reaching out with his magic, Two Kick snatched the potion away from her.

“Here, let me do that. Can you check on Cutter?” Two Kick’s suggestion drew a startled look from the mare, one that he relished. He knew how afraid she was of the griffin, and took full advantage of it.

Fluster’s gaze lingered on the bleeding form of her friend, but when she glanced into our smiling face she nodded. To her, this was Ripple. She trusted Ripple. If she could hear me, I would have begged her to stay with Ivory. To not leave the injured mare with the murderer running the show.

She turned from us, leaving the roll of healing bandage on the ground near Ivory. Two Kick stared as she retreated, and I felt the warm burn of his lusty appreciation for the cloaked curves. Turning away, Two Kick approached the prone and bleeding mare, offering the open potion to her. Draining it in one go, Ivory sighed deeply as the healing magics started working. Her eyes had been clenched in pain, but they opened and settled on my form standing over her. With a weak smile, she greeted me.

“Hey Rip. You win?”

Giving a short chuckle, Two Kick nodded. “Yeah. Blew that fucker up.”

It must have been a concussion keeping the mare down, because the wounds peppering her face and neck healed up quickly. Her eyes looked a little unfocused, and I knew from experience how she was feeling. She wouldn’t notice any strangeness about me, not with her head messed up as it was.

Just don’t do anything to her. Please.

Calm the fuck down. I’m not going to. Little miss robes and scars will be back in a minute or two, with or without the griffin. She loves this piece of tail or something. I dunno. Take me a lot longer than a minute to do what I want.

The chuckle in my head was really unnerving. That he was in control revealed a whole new level of malice. He’d been evil, but I could see what he was thinking of doing to her. It was horrifying. And it would take a lot longer than a minute.

“I... just need a moment to clear my head... Where’d Fluster go?” Ivory was struggling to stand, and Two Kick jumped in to assist her. He savored the rough warmth of her gore spotted hide on his, and wanted more. Letting her lean on his side, he began helping her towards where Fluster had gone in search of Cutter.

“She’s just over this way. Went to see if Cutter is fucked or not.” He was doing a good job of imitating me, but the frequent profanity was a slip, something I hoped Fluster and Ivory would pick up on.

With a nod, she leaned into me. I could feel the damaged shoulder grinding against itself under her weight, making walking difficult. The absence of pain was nice, but the limp was annoying Two Kick.

The sound of battle was beginning to drift away, and I could hear the occasional roar of flames. Cinder was hunting the Rangers, and an earth shaking blast made me think that she’d just cooked off another one. Carrying that much artillery was not a good thing when fighting a pony that could flash fry your ammunition before you used it.

Cutter lay in a blast crater. Before the events of the day, this had been the mouth of an alleyway. Now the collapsed building left a shallow valley in the rubble. Cutter lay reclined against a slab of concrete, breathing slowly and heavily as Fluster busily bandaged his torn hand. Other than that, the griffin appeared to somehow have escaped any significant damage from the blast. He’d gotten incredibly lucky, or he had internal injuries. He was slamming a healing potion as we crested the ridge of the crater, looking down at the two.

“Is the Ranger dead?” Cutter asked, but quickly answered his own question. “Of course, or you wouldn’t be here." Two Kick nodded. He liked the griffin, which was beginning to make me question the predator. No being that Two Kicked admired could really be good, could they?

Cutter looked strangely at us as we approached while supporting Ivory. Could he tell that I wasn’t in control? Was he sensing another monster? I didn’t know, but thinking that made Two Kick aware of it. He looked away with a cough, then rubbed idly at the wound in our shoulder.

“Yeah. Weapons malfunction killed her.” Nopony had seen Cinder, I realized. It had just been me and smoking bits of Ranger when she’d had her conversation with Two Kick. A misfire made enough sense that Cutter and the girls bought it, and it certainly could have happened that way. Nothing else we had would have taken out the Ranger.

“Now we gotta go. We can heal as we walk, but we need to get out of Neighwhere.” Two Kick said. I had to give it to him, latching onto my agenda would certainly help him better blend in. With nods of agreement, Cutter and Fluster climbed out of the crater. Fluster had looked at me shouldering Ivory’s weight, but had just smiled and nodded. She was the smallest of us, and Ivory was more than she could take, considering how much she carried under her robes as it was. At least Two Kick was helping, even if it was purely for his own benefit.

The word “shield” popped out of the low murmur of his thoughts more than once. Fucker.

It was a clear shot out of the city, as long as we followed the path that had been cut into Neighwhere by one of the robots. I kept dreading that we would find another one. Normally, this would have warranted the immediate arrival of two stories of metal death, but apparently Two Kick was luckier than I was. Our passage was uncontested, with the only exception being a group of frantic raiders running right in front of us. They hadn’t even given us a second glance, and by the time we’d pulled our weapons to bear they were gone into a side alley. I didn’t know what they were running from, as we never saw it, but I could guess. Either Rangers or Robots.

I came up against the wall of Neighwhere, or at least the new opening that had been plowed through it. Two Kick sighed audibly. To the others, it must have sounded like a sigh of relief. I knew better. He was sad to see the wall torn down. To him, Neighwhere was symbolic of his superiority. Even when it had betrayed him, he still loved the city for what it meant to him.

Hurrying through the hole in the wall as quickly as we could, we found the wasteland outside to be completely devoid of life. The Rangers hadn’t even left a rearguard. They had gone into the city full force, not interested in keeping anyone from escaping. They wanted the tech of the Stable.

Though as soon as they realized that it had been destroyed, or at least burnt, they would not be in a very hospitable mood. Especially if they managed to link me to the bomb. I hadn’t set it off, but it had been used in the aim of killing me. I didn’t know much about how they thought, but it seemed that since they already didn’t like me very much, they would probably use that as an excuse to hunt me down.

Probably. That’s why I’m trying to get out of this fucking town, even with the dead weight you drag around.

Ivory had recovered enough that she was walking unassisted, but she was lagging behind under the weight of her minigun. Cutter and I led the way, while Fluster fell back into step with her friend. Cutter kept giving us strange looks, and I took every chance to tell Two Kick that the griffin knew. He knew that I wasn’t in charge, and even if he didn’t know that Two Kick and I were different ponies, he didn’t like what he saw. He hated the Paragons, and Two Kick was a Paragon. Technically, I was as well, but I hoped that I had won into his good graces by helping him out.

We piled on the distance as fast as we could, getting away from the burning city.

Behind us, the column of smoke coming from Neighwhere was blending into the already dark clouds, making it impossible to tell what time of day it was. We were moving as quickly as we could. Shared between us were enough cuts, scrapes, burns, and bruises to kill a singular pony, but we couldn’t really stop and lick our wounds. We didn’t know if there were Rangers nearby, or if raiders had fled in this direction.

We just kept walking, hugging the dead forest that covered this side of the mountain. Once, it had been lush and vibrant, but it was long dead now. It wasn’t quite as lifeless as the bleached forest had been, but then that forest had only appeared lifeless. Fern was proof enough of that.

The little timberwolf was still hidden somewhere amidst Fluster’s gear, but he had started making noise as soon as we’d neared the forest. I didn’t know if it was him wanting to run, or if he could smell other timberwolves. Fluster kept cooing into her robe, trying to quiet the little beast, but his noise continued.

Cutter had fallen behind now, between me and the girls. His injured limb was slowing him down, he kept looking at the missing digit and licking the wound. The worst of the blood had dried by now, leaving a filthy red sheen on his black feathers. I was looking forward to the rain that was now threatening, if just to wash him off. I didn’t know much about timberwolves, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the smell of blood would attract them. Not that we couldn’t handle them, but as battered as we all were, I preferred to avoid any fights we could. Especially if I wasn’t in charge of my body.

As one, we flinched and drew what weapons we had. A deep bass thump came from behind us, as something in Neighwhere went off. Cinder had probably just taken out another Ranger.

Perfect. Fucking love it when things work out.

Give me back my body, you traitorous fuck. You promised. Give it back. They’ll find out it’s you. What do you think they’ll do? Cutter will kill us. You had a part in ruining Ivory’s life. Ash will kill you if he finds you. Just give the body back.

Little longer. I’m enjoying this. Fuck you.

What happens if we run into Shade?

That mere mention of Shade made Two Kick stumble, and for a split second I felt the rough ground underhoof. I knew that her proximity had an effect that I still had no explanation for, but now I had found that even the thought of her was damaging to his control.

Without Stampede running through our system, I had just found a way back in. I began concentrating on the mare I loved, as hard as I could. The way she walked. The way she felt curled up next to me. The way her hair curled in front of her eyes if she was being shy.

Her eyes.

Two Kick fully lost it, tripping on a half buried tin can. Hitting the ground hard, he let out a short yelp of surprise. So that was it.

Her eyes. The most beautiful things I’d ever seen. Those mismatched orbs, blue and violet. The only thing that made me forget about the horrors of the wasteland. Paradise.

I stood up, and laughed out in triumph. I shook out a fetlock, and found I was back in control. I had beaten Two Kick. I had fucking won.

You slimy fucking cunt. I’m going to cut you out of my head with a fucking spoon! The things I will do to your pretty little mare will make the whole of fucking Equestria sore.

Go fuck yourself.

I slammed three hits of Med-X into my back leg at once, exhausting the supply I kept in one of the pockets built into my front leg armor. His screaming voice faded into the back of my head, dulling to a furious whisper. I would never make the mistake of letting him back into control again.

I was getting too easy on the psycho, and had almost paid too great a price for it. I would need to keep medicated until I found Shade again, and then I wasn’t going to leave her side until I found a way to extinguish him once and for all.

Looking up, I saw that I was getting very odd looks. They’d just seen me stumble, trip, laugh out loud, and take a huge dose of painkiller. I rubbed at my shredded ear unconsciously, wincing as the pain of it reminded me I’d taken a metal dart through it, and laughed a little. “I’m... I’m good. Just surprised we’re all still alive...” And that I had regained my body with nothing more than the power of positive thinking.

Ivory shook her head, smiling. “Yeah. We did good... so where are we going?”

I sighed as the drugs hit me hard. I’d never taken that much Med-X at once, and I suddenly found it hard to care about anything. I sorta wanted to go run in the woods. Play hide and seek in the trees, run through some dead leaves, frolic with the timber wolves.

Wait... what the fuck? No. No, no.

I forced my eyes to focus, and then turned dizzily to Ivory. With three doses at once, the Med-X was kicking my ass. I really hoped we didn’t run into any more trouble. I felt more like hugging a raider than shooting them.

“There’s a tunnel that runs from Hornsmith.” I was still a little light headed, and had to pause to collect my thoughts. “Viola blew it up, but it keeps going...” I looked past the group. I wasn’t seeing the rise of the mountain. I was seeing the tunnel underneath it. Our fight with The End had blocked the return to Hornsmith, which left the north line.

“Somewhere along here, hopefully soon, there’s a group of freed slaves. Whitecoats, Blank ponies, and some others.” Ash and Shade, I hoped. I needed to get to Shade. “We can rest when we find them, and figure out our next step.

“Ripple... are you really okay?” Fluster was looking at me from within her hood, her bright eye catching the dim light of the overcast day. I nodded, hoping to be convincing enough to get us on our way. I began trotting the way we’d been heading anyways, eventually hearing the sounds of hooves behind me.

I could hear the girls muttering to each other, my name catching my ear as we walked. Between Two Kick’s acting, and my efforts to bury him, they’d noticed. They knew something was going on with me.

It was probably just the several days without drugs in my system other than the Stampede I’d used to finish off Massacre. The massive dose of Med-X had just hit me harder than usual. That was all.

I wasn’t losing it.

-----

After about an hour, we couldn’t see the smoke column that was Neighwhere. We hadn’t seen any evidence that anypony had been this way, neither Raider or Ranger. The time had flown by, and I’d managed to convince Fluster to give me some more Med-X, to keep the voice down. It had been easy, with the bandage we’d put around my shoulder showing spots of blood, and my ear torn into two ragged flaps.

The forest was still just as dead, and the wasteland just as desolate, as everywhere else. We’d come across a single difference though. There was a road now, running along the edge of the forest. Even Fern had lapsed back into quiet, and the clip clop of our hooves was the only sound.

The first time we’d come across the remains of a caravan, we’d stopped and searched around. It had been there for a long time, partially sunk into the ground next to the road. It was raining, and the broken pieces of a wagon were jutting up out of the muck. The pony bones told us what we really needed to know though. These were the remains of one of Neighwhere’s hits.

We counted at least three adults, and two younger ponies amongst the bones. With the amount of wreckage though, this had been a much larger group. The rest had presumably been taken hostage.

I felt like shit.

I’d done this. Even if I hadn’t been a part of the raiding group that had struck here, I’d sat by and condoned it. Participated and revelled in it. This was no way to live, preying on the weak.

The caravan had been picked clean, anything left behind completely unusable. We saw three more in rapid succession past that. It was hard to tell how old each one was, but they had all been there for some time.

Past the last caravan, Cutter spoke up for the first time in a while. “A pony came this way.”

I stopped, and looked back at him. He was off the side of the road, kneeling in the muck and poking at something sticking out. I approached him, and he pulled something out of the mud.

Shaking it off, he unveiled a Neighwhere bomb collar. Much like the one I still carried around my neck for lack of a means to remove it. Lifting the little explosive to the end of his beak, he inhaled deeply.

“It’s recent. Real recent. Maybe about...” He didn’t get to finish the sentence, as he was hit from the side by a dark blur. Sent tumbling into the mud, biting and scratching, he fought against his attacker. In the rain, it was hard to make out any details, but that didn’t matter. I was pulling Broken from its holster, ready to assist the large griffin. Luck was on my side, as it ended up.

A heavy shot slammed into my weapon, driving it into my side. I went sprawling, and Broken spiralled off into the wet earth. Pulling myself up, I scrambled for the weapon as Ivory’s gun ripped out a stream of bullets at the second attacker I had yet to see.

I found Broken, pulling it up out of the sucking ground. The barrel was filled with mud, and I shook the weapon hard to try and clear the fouled barrel. There was a scuff mark on the side of the weapon where it had been struck, and I stared at it for a second. It had never been scratched. That shot would have blown me in half if not for the unnaturally durable piece of hardware.

I spotted my attacker as it wheeled through the air to avoid the wall of lead that Ivory was throwing at it. A griffin in dark body armor. A quick glance to Cutter showed me that he was facing off against another griffin wielding a longsword. A glint of light on glass brought me back to the flying griffin, who was lining up another shot on me with a large sniper rifle. He was focusing on me, content to just avoid Ivory’s attacks with a practiced ease.

For a split second, I thought it was Ash. The color was all wrong though, this griffin was brown under his black combat armor. I threw myself to the side just before there was a flash from the end of the weapon. The bullet struck mud, cratering it and splattering me with ooze. The rain wasn’t making moving easy, and I knew that I had to get back to the road.

There was still mud in the barrel, but I hoped that there would be no ill effect as I aimed the weapon. It was still loaded with buckshot and the griffin was a good distance away, but it was better than nothing. The weapon barked, a spray of liquid mud and propellent exhaust firing into the rain.

As I fired, the griffin dodged the ineffective shot, but it proved lucky for Ivory. Several shots sawed through the griffin’s wing, and he dropped out of the air. As he fell, he racked the slide on his rifle and snapped off a shot at Ivory. The shot blew through her ammo feed, right on top of her armor. Ivory screamed as she was forced to her knees, the minigun clattering on empty as it spun down.

As the griffin hit the road and bounced, I was already charging. He sprang to his paws, aiming that huge rifle at me as he angled for a shot. I fired right before he did, my buckshot digging into his dark armor and kicking sprays of blood from one shoulder. The heavy weapon fired, but it missed coring me. The shot tore along my side, drawing a long strip through my hide and spraying blood along the street. It actually hurt, but it was just a flesh wound. A really, really long fleshwound, but a glancing blow all the same.

I got to him as he was reloading hastily, and spun with a sickening crunch issuing from my shoulder. I fought through the pain and wrongness to deliver my signature blow, both ballistic hooves impacting at once with the griffin’s body armor. It may not have pierced, but I heard the blood gurgling in his throat as he reeled back, his fragile avian bones giving way under the impact. I could only imagine shards of rib shredding his organs as they shattered. He dropped to all fours, the rifle clattering onto the ground, and vomited a stream of gore before slumping to the ground, clutching his chest as he died.

I fell over, my shoulder giving out on me, and hit the ground hard. I kicked at the ground, trying to regain my footing to help Cutter. I could see the two griffins fighting. The sword wielding griffin was Fraya, holding the upper hand with her impressive weapon’s reach. Cutter was at a disadvantage, a rusty relic of pipe his only weapon.

Ivory was struggling with her ammo belt, trying to feed it in with the help of Fluster, who was frantically pulling at it with her teeth. I began hobbling towards the combat as quickly as I could, reloading Broken as I went. With my magic, I wiped what mud was left from the weapon, clearing it for reliable use.

Cutter was still holding his own, and Fraya was now favoring her left arm, her right hanging limply at her side. He must have gotten a lucky hit in, forcing her to one-hand the heavy weapon. Both were looking beaten down, and the fighting was beginning to slow. I’d never seen two griffins fight before, but it made me glad the many ponies I’d fought had possessed fewer natural weapons. Both were cut in a dozen places, and it looked like Fraya had taken a bite out of one of Cutter’s thighs.

They were dodging and weaving too much for me to get a good shot in, and I didn’t want to have to explain to Ash how I blew his brother’s head off by accident. I decided the best I could do was serve as a distraction.

As soon as I got near enough, the griffin apparently knew that I was there. Spinning, she lashed out with the wicked blade. I’d thought for a second that she’d missed me, a warning slash before she went back to dealing with the unarmed griffin, but an intense pain gave lie to that notion. She’d sliced through the end of my muzzle, not deep, but enough to bring about a great amount of blood and pain.

My eyes watered up immediately and I recoiled instinctively as blood poured from the end of my snout. “Bitch!” I yelled through the blood flowing freely from my face. “Celestia damnit!”

She feinted to the side, telegraphing a slash that Cutter moved to block. Cancelling out of the movement, she darted forward and slammed the pommel of her weapon into the side of Cutter’s head. He went down, hard, and the female griffin turned her attention back to me.

“You know what sort of shit I’m going to be in?” She screamed as she slashed wildly at me. I jumped backwards and my leg crumpled, sending me sprawling to the ground. Looming over me, the blade gripped angrily in her talons, she glared hate down at me.

“It was my job to ensure that the slaves make it to Red Eye. Now there aren’t any. You ruined an entire stream of labor, and I’m going to have to pay for that. You stupid little fuck!” She slashed out as I scooted away, scoring a shallow wound across my chest. I rolled over and forced myself to get up. I had to get away from her. The tables had turned on me much faster than I’d expected.

“Maybe if I bring back the heads of a fallen Talon and a pony that personally fucked up Red Eye’s business? That might smooth things over for me.” She was snarling at me as she approached, spinning the blade in her one good hand. The other arm was still tucked in tight. Her wings were flared out, probably to make her look more intimidating. It was working. Griffins always touched off that little primal part in my mind, and she was doing a great job of it.

She snapped her head to the side, pointing the sword across the street. The mares were still fumbling with the damaged ammo feed, and both froze and looked up as the griffin screamed at them. “You just wait! You’re fucking next!”

It was then that she noticed her comrade dead on the road. He’d died from the massive internal injuries he had no doubt suffered when I’d crushed his rib cage, now crumpled in a puddle of watered down blood. The sound that came from her beak was nothing that a living creature should have been able to make, rage personified.

Turning back to me, she grumbled, her voice lowered to a murderous growl. I knew the look she was giving me. I’d worn it myself before. “No fucking pony hurts a Talon and lives. Those Steel bastards took out two of mine. They died for that. You, you’re special. I’m going to put your head on a fucking sign!” Raising the sword above her head, she readied to gut me in a single blow.

A muddy pipe smacked her in the back of the head, inciting a screech of pain and rage. Snapping around, she charged at Cutter, who was rising out of the sucking muck like a creature from the abyss. He roared, and ran to meet the female griffin head on.

The sword hissed as it cut through the rain, overhead and with all the might that she could put behind it. Cutter threw his injured hand up towards it, the blade hitting him between two of his remaining digits. It went through his hand in a spray of blood, lodging in his wrist, but he grinned maniacally. He’d trapped her blade, and still had one hand free. Fraya looked up in surprise right as he punched her straight in the face with his good hand.

The force of the blow sent her cartwheeling back into the mud, the blade still lodged firmly in Cutter’s forearm. He shrieked, an avian cry of pain, as he grasped at the grip of the weapon and pulled it free. His arm dangled at his side, his hand and wrist a ruined mess of blood, bone, and meat. He one-handed the blade confidently, his size making it look appropriate. Where Fraya had had to work to use the weapon, Cutter wielded it easily.

“You and your Talons can burn. Every one of you that dies is a step towards fixing our race. Leaving wasn’t enough...” Cutter intoned, stalking towards the fallen Talon. Fraya was picking herself up as he approached, and was still game. Instead of backing down, she lunged forward, drawing a dagger from behind her back.

With a snap of her wings, she plowed into Cutter, bowling them both over into the mud. He didn’t react in time, and took the dagger to his shoulder. It bit in deep, and Freya sank her beak into his other shoulder. She kept flapping, buffeting at him with her wings as she tried to rip into his neck.

Cutter didn’t let go of the sword, slashing at the griffin in close range. The first hit was with the flat of the blade, letting out a loud slapping noise, but the second he used the pommel. He drove it into her gut, knocking her off of him and into a coughing fit. He used that chance to get one of his feline rear paws in between them and kick as hard as he could. She flew off of him, leaving the dagger embedded in the meat of his shoulder.

She hit the ground in a slide, hopping back to her feet with cat-like grace. Standing at her full height, she placed herself in the perfect position to counter his follow up lunge. The long blade, spinning through the air from Cutter’s throw, took her right in the chest. The weapon stood proud from its new sheath. Fraya stood there, a shocked expression on her face as she stared at the hilt of her own weapon, sticking out of her chest.

I saw the tip of the weapon sticking out of Fraya’s back as she fell to all fours. Cutter was approaching her slowly, flexing his ruined hand. I didn’t know what he was planning, since he’d already won. I’d been transfixed by the fight, and only now found the will to move.

He got behind her, grabbing both of her wings where they met her back. Placing one of his paws into the center of her back, right below the piercing sword, he leaned in close to her ear. “I wanted you to feel this before you died. It’s quite the experience.”

Then he pulled. His ruined hand had a weak grip, but he put his all into it. Blood spurted from the ruined appendage, but he gritted his teeth and kept pulling. Fraya screamed, and Cutter joined in after only a few seconds. The two screaming griffins made a sound that hurt, and I could see Ivory and Fluster covering their ears. Then there were two sickening pops, barely audible over the screaming.

With sprays of blood and torn flesh, the wings separated from her back and she slammed down into the ground, landing directly on the handle of the blade piercing her center. Her scream turned to a gurgle, and she slumped into silence. I wasn’t sure if she was dead, or just unconscious, but she was finished.

Cutter threw the two severed wings into the mud, approaching Fraya’s body. Kicking her to her side, he reached down and gripped the blade. Pulling it from the limp meat that had once been a dangerous opponent, he stood there in the rain looking down at her. I don’t think he’d killed his own kind before, but he seemed to be taking it rather well.

He leaned down and pulled the sheath from her corpse. Slinging it over his shoulder, it caught on the dagger still sticking from his upper chest. Pulling the blade out, he threw it into the mud. Sliding the sword into the sheath on his back, he claimed his prize from the fight.

Then, he dropped to the ground, passing out from blood loss.

-----

We’d dragged him down the road, finding shelter under a collapsed billboard. These seemed to be fairly common in the wasteland, and were always a welcome shelter. Ivory had done most of the pulling, while Fluster and I did our best to help. He was heavy. Really heavy.

Gathering all of the medical supplies we had, we used most of them just getting the bleeding to stop. His ruined hand was the hardest, and Fluster put together a rough tourniquet. We didn’t know exactly what we were doing, but the bleeding stopped.

Luckily, the wound in my shoulder had stopped bleeding some time before, and I didn’t need any of the bandages. Ivory insisted on wrapping up my snout though, as it wouldn’t stop bleeding, and the only way to secure it was to tie my mouth shut.

So, with my head wrapped in bandages, and Cutter unconscious but no longer bleeding heavily, we had little to do but rest. Ivory’s minigun was back to functionality, and I held Broken in the rain to clear any more mud from it. It still showed the slight scuff mark from the sniper’s shot, but was otherwise undamaged. Until I had access to proper cleaning tools, it was the best that I could do.

Ivory voiced the question that I knew was all in our heads. “So, what do we do now?”

Moving my shoulder, I felt another crunch and a spasm of pain shot through me. I was beginning to suspect that a bullet had lodged in there. I shrugged my good shoulder, shaking my head. I didn’t know. I pointed a hoof at Cutter’s form, and shrugged again.

“Yeah, we can’t really go anywhere like this, can we?” She sat down, but not before clearing the ground with a brush of her tail. The rain had cleaned most of the remaining gore from her coat, but she was just pink now instead of dirty red.

Fluster, playing in one corner of our little shelter with the timberwolf pup she carried in her pocket, spoke up. “We could... build a cart! We’ve got the supplies down the road, we could come up with something.”

That was a good idea. All that caravan wreckage, we were sure to have enough to kludge one together. I nodded, because the last time I’d tried to talk Ivory had scolded me about loosening the bandages holding my nose together.

“Fluster and I will go get the parts. You watch... you watch the griffin. You can barely walk as it is.” Ivory stood, shifting so that her battle saddle fit properly after sitting down. Fluster stood as well, scooping Fern back into her robes. I drew Broken, cradling it in my foreleg as I leaned back against a wall of our little enclosure. With my bad leg, I gave a little wave, then immediately regretted the movement. That noise was really starting to concern me.

“Be careful Ripple.” Fluster’s eyes were filled with concern, and they darted to the unconscious griffin for a second. Looking back to me, I gave her a reassuring nod. He was more fucked up than I was, even if he tried anything. Not that I expected a lot from him, being unconscious.

“Seeya in a little bit Rip.” Ivory ducked through the opening, out into the rainy evening. It would be dark before long, and we’d chosen the shelter we were in for a nights stay. I just hoped the girls would be back before the light disappeared, or I’d really start worrying.

Then Fluster went outside, and I was left with the unconscious form of the shredded griffin and the pounding rain on the billboard. I sighed, and leaned back, my eyes on the entrance. This was going to be a long wait.

I turned on the light on my PipBuck, and stared at the screen for a little bit. I still had Sweeps’ third message, but at this point I wasn’t sure I wanted to listen to it. All it would bring me is more guilt, some new atrocity that I hadn’t known about. My hoof lingered near the button that would play the file, until my shoulder started complaining at holding my leg like that for an extended period of time.

It was the first downtime I’d had in recent history where I wasn’t imprisoned or in immediate mortal peril. It was... boring. Really, really boring.

Across the way from me, I spotted a satchel that Fluster had taken the time to take from the dead Fraya as we’d been dealing with Cutter. Seeing no harm in my searching through it, I grabbed at it with my magic. My range wasn’t great, but I managed to snag a leather strap and drag it across the shelter to me.

Unsnapping the clasp that held it shut, I opened the bag and dumped its contents in front of me.

Meat jerky of some kind, which I pushed aside. I wasn’t nearly hungry enough to shake the image of Cutter bolting down that chunk of raider. They’d fed me well enough in Neighwhere that I was still good, even if I hadn’t eaten since that morning.

A few lockpicks, which I stashed in the now empty pouch that had once held Med-X. Speaking of which, I pulled another dose from the pile Fluster had left behind and jabbed the needle into my leg. I was keeping a steady flow going, because I really wasn’t in the mood to hear Two Kick.

There were a few odds and ends, personal stuff that didn’t mean much to me. A few teeth from assorted creatures, a trinket made of beads and leather. At the bottom of the pile was what looked like a photograph, and I pulled it free from the miscellania.

The picture was old and faded, but had four griffins on it. I wondered briefly where they’d gotten a functioning camera, since it was clearly taken in the wasteland and wasn’t some throwback from before the war. I stopped when I actually looked at the picture.

There was an older, grizzled griffin standing behind the other three. He had Talon armor on, and had his arms around the others. He was smiling. They all were.

The one in the middle I’d last seen with her wings ripped off and a sword jammed through her chest. It was definitely Fraya, if a little younger looking. She had the armor of a Talon on, and held the sword proudly before her, point down.

The other two griffins were what caught my attention. Every griffin in the picture was black feathered and dark furred, as Fraya had been. I’d thought that she’d looked a bit like Ash when I’d first seen her in the Arena, and now I knew why. The other two griffins, much younger than they currently were, but unmistakable, were Ash and Cutter. They weren’t in their Talon armor, but stood proudly with their sister and who I assumed was their father.

They’d been a family. My jaw would have dropped if it could have, and I stared at Cutter. If I wasn’t taking this picture way out of context, he’d just impaled and then ripped the wings off of his sister.

Holy shit.

“Hlmh fmht.” I mumbled through the bandages, staring wide-eyed at the unconscious griffin. What had happened between them that he’d done that to his sister? How was there that bad of blood between the brothers and the rest of their family?

A noise outside drew my attention, and for a second, I thought the girls were back.

No, it was too soon for that. They’d not been gone nearly long enough, which meant something was wrong or it was somepony else. I aimed Broken at the entry, and shut my pipbuck light off with a nudge of magic .

A dark, taloned hand gripped the inside of the door, and the figure pulled itself through. I didn’t fire though, staring in disbelief.

“Kick! You’re fucking alive?!”

Ash stood there, dripping wet and aiming a revolver right between my eyes.

“Hmph?” Ash?

He sprang forward, drawing me into a hug. I let out a sharp noise as he put pressure on my injured shoulder, and he set me down, apologizing.

“Kick... Wow. I’m glad I didn’t come in shooting. I’ve been patrolling this road since we heard explosions from Neighwhere... trying to see if anypony was headed this way. We picked up a few escaped slaves and killed a few raiders... but were losing hope of seeing anyone friendly after a while. Fucking... Kick, I can’t believe this.”

He was just staring at me, seemingly oblivious to the other griffin laying next to him. I guess he was just as surprised as I was.

“I heard gunfire over this way... and when I saw a light on in here, I decided to check it out... but fucking wow. I didn’t expect to find you and...” His eyes locked on the unconscious griffin. I suspected that the last time he’d seen Cutter, the younger griffin had been thinner and had wings. The hulking, wingless brawler that lay there must not have been anything like what he remembered, but I saw the recognition in his eyes.

“Cutter?” His voice was low, and just a little scared. He turned his glance to me, pointing at the griffin. “Cutter?”

I nodded, knowing that I couldn’t even begin to explain what I’d been through with my mouth bandaged shut. I pointed at myself and Cutter, and then held up my hoof twice, hoping that he would understand. Simulating drawing a hood over my head, and then combing my mane, I finished my message.

“Ivory and Fluster?”

I nodded my head, pleased.

He looked around, then back at me. “Where are they?”

I pointed out the opening, into the fading day. This whole charades thing was hard to get detail across with. I thought that I should share one more bit of information with the griffin. I floated the picture to him, urging him to take it.

He took it, and I turned my PipBuck light back on to help. Looking at it, his glance hardened. He held the picture up, his voice low and threatening. Not towards me, but just in general. “Where did you get this?”

I tapped a hoof on the female griffin in the middle. His eyes widened a bit. “Fraya? Where is she? What happened?” It wasn’t the frantic questioning of a brother scared for his sister’s whereabouts, but more the questioning of someone looking for a threat.

I pointed to Cutter, and then made a gesture of drawing my hoof across my throat.

“He did?”

I nodded solemnly. He slumped down in the middle of the clear area, next to his unconscious brother. “Is he gonna be okay?”

I shrugged. I wasn’t a doctor pony. All I knew was that he wasn’t dead yet.

He put his head in both claws, sighing. “My family is so fucked up...” He drifted off and just left it hanging. Even if I could have said something, I wouldn’t have. I had no way of knowing what to say in this situation, I just let the griffin take in what information I’d given him.

We sat like that for a while, the two of us in silence with only the sound of rain to occupy the space. Eventually, a sound outside drew our attention and our guns, but Ivory ducking into the shelter caused us to lower them quickly.

“Ash? What are you doing here?” It was the first thing she could ask after she’d screamed in surprise at the beaked face that greeted her.

-----

Ivory and Fluster had gathered enough supplies to build a basic cart. Ash helped with the simple task, while the girls caught him up on our time in Neighwhere. I stayed under the billboard with Cutter, keeping my bandages out of the rain. Occasional raised voices, and once a bark of laughter, drifted in to my resting place. I wished I was out there with them. I was curious how their point of view differed from mine.

After about ten minutes, the griffin stepped into the shelter. “Okay, we’ve got the cart ready. Can you help me get him outside?” He gripped his brother under the arms, and I did what I could to grab the griffins legs. With a combination of magic and propping his legs up on my withers, I made due. My limp wasn’t helping, but we got the Cutter’s hulking form onto the cart. I was struck by the similarities between the two griffins, as well as the differences. Where Ashred was wiry and tough, Cutter bulked massively. The wings, of course... But even at a glance, they were obviously birds of a feather... or something.

“So where are we heading? Someplace with a shower?” It was sort of funny that she would ask that question while we stood in the pouring rain. Ivory had a one track mind, most of the time. Now that Wires was out of the picture, I guess that she was latched onto the prospect of personal grooming.

Ash pointed down the road. “About half an hour that way. We found an old MoP building off of the road a bit. We’ve been laying low for a few days. We were waiting for word from Kick, honestly.”

I glanced at him, and he smiled. “You had us worried, buddy. Most thought you were dead, but I didn’t give up hope. You’re too hard to kill. Shade didn’t give up hope either... somepony’s gonna be real happy when I bring you through the front door.”

He picked the ends of the haphazard cart, and pulled it onto the road. Ivory lent her side to me in support, and I limped along with her. Pulling down the road, we continued on with our journey. This time, we had a destination though.

Shade. Shade was my destination. After that, medical attention.

Shade first.

-----

After limping down the road for a while supported by Ivory, Ash led us off of the beaten path into the forest. I realized that this had once been a clearly marked side road, but with two hundred years of mutant growth and rain, it was hidden. I hadn’t even seen the path until we were on it, heading into the forest.

Ash hissed back at us, “Now keep it down. There are timberwolves in here. They haven’t attacked anyone, but it’s best to play it safe.”

The road was soup at this point, thick and sucking, just like any other unpaved surface we’d encountered since leaving Neighwhere. The going got hard, and I could hear Ash grunting and straining as he hauled the cart containing his brother. I would have gladly helped, but I could barely walk as it was.

The sun had dropped from the cloud cover to the horizon, and it was now fully dark. I had my PipBuck on, lighting the area directly around my right leg, but it was very dark in the forest. Ash seemed to know where he was going though, stopping only long enough to make sure that he didn’t lose us. Fluster was sticking right next to him, clearly remembering what had happened the last time she’d walked through a forest. True, she’d gotten a new friend out of that ordeal, but she’d almost been eaten.

“There we are.” Ash spoke, picking up his pace. I couldn’t see anything at first, but as I squinted through the gloom I could just pick out a light in a window. I urged Ivory along, and limped as fast as I could.

The front door was a massive thing, and Ash’s balled up talons rang it like a bell as he knocked. There was a loud thunk as bolts were drawn, and the door opened to reveal two filthy looking Whitecoats pointing assault rifles at us. When they saw Ash, they lowered their weapons, allowing us entrance.

Ash yelled as the door closed behind him, and I was grateful that he did. “Hey Shade! I found something you might wanna see!” He gave me a wink, and started giving orders to the Whitecoats to get a medic.

I was too busy listening to the sound of hooves coming down a flight of stairs. They were hesitant, pausing on each step. Then she came into view. My Shade.

Her eyes widened when she saw me, filthy, injured, and wrapped in bandages, but still alive. She took the last few steps at once, covering the distance between us almost too quickly for Ivory to get out of the way. She would have slammed into me, but seeing me with one leg tucked up against my body, and the blood-stained bandages around my face, she slid to a halt just in front of me. She threw her front legs around me, giving me a deep hug and burying her face in my mane.

I couldn’t do anything but stand there, as she acted as a replacement for my injured leg. Not that I wanted to do anything else, I’d been looking forward to this moment since I’d thrown that bag through the fire.

Closing my eyes, I did what I could to nuzzle her neck. Neither of us cared about the blood soaked bandages, we both sighed at the contact.

I lost track of time, being that close to her. Eventually, I felt a nervous prodding in my side. Opening my eyes, I looked at who was doing the prodding and saw a pony I realized I’d completely forgotten about. Bruised, beaten, injured, sporting a fresh black eye, but smiling all the same, was Pearl. My handler from the Arena. In our haste to survive the attack on Neighwhere, I’d completely forgotten about her.

I guiltily looked back at Pearl, who was standing there with a box clenched in her teeth. It had the butterfly symbol of the Ministry of Peace on it, and I realized that she was the medic. She couldn’t have been here more than a few hours, but they already had her healing the sick and injured.

“Umm... Hi Ripple.” Shade gave the scrawny medical mare a quick glance as she spoke, then went back to the hug. Her jealousy always amused me a bit. “Could... uh... could you follow me? We need to get you cleaned up.”

I nodded, and started moving with Shade still latched to my neck. As we followed Pearl, Ash caught my eye and waggled his brows suggestively. I knew exactly what he was thinking, and I shook my head at him. Being dragged to a shower with two mares? Yeah, maybe sometime, but not now.

The room that we were lead to housed a few slaves that were resting after their escape, and I could tell that they’d gotten out in the attack. I noticed that none of them had their collars on. Mine itched at the though. Even if it was no longer active, the weight of it was a constant reminder of the pens.

I gave Shade a quick hug with my damaged leg, and then pushed her away with a quick nuzzle. I had to take care of my injuries. I was also missing the ability to speak. She followed along, trying to catch me as I forgot that I couldn’t use one of my legs and slammed into the hard floor. I groaned, picking myself up with the assistance of the two mares, who now supported me to a faucet along one wall.

The two of them worked together, unwrapping the bandages holding my face and shoulder together. Once the bandages were off of my muzzle, I worked my jaw. It had been a while since I’d said anything, and I got right to it.

“Hi Shade.” I smiled and kissed her, then grimaced as I saw the bloody mark I’d left. “Oh... uh... do you have any potions Pearl?”

She passed me a bottle of purple liquid, and I ripped off the cap and slammed it quickly. I felt the dull sensation I got from healing, that everything was becoming less messed up than usual. Turning on the tap, she ran a sponge under the flowing water and wiped down my face. My face stopped hurting, and she began cleaning the blood covered area, cleaning the sponge several times under the running water.

As Shade cleaned my blood from her face and Pearl began cleaning my shoulder, I started talking to her. I was really curious about the collars. “Pearl... how did you get here?”

“The griffin found us. We were running from Neighwhere.” Like it was the easiest thing in Equestria. She hummed at my wound, and dropped the sponge. Rummaging through the box of supplies, she pulled out a pair of stainless steel tweezers. Big ones.

“Uh... what’s that for?” I barely got the question out before she jammed the tweezer into the wound in my shoulder. I barked out a yell at the unexpected shock of pain. I had known what was coming the moment I saw the tweezers, but I didn’t think it was going to hurt so much. That shoulder had been fairly numb, so long as I didn’t stretch the leg out.

Shade gasped and covered her mouth in shock, staring at the pony digging a metal tool into my shoulder. I felt Pearl grab onto something, and she pulled back out of the wound. Clutched at the end of the tweezers was a deformed bullet.

I blinked back some surprise tears, and looked at the bullet. “Ow! Tell me before you do that. Please?”

Dropping the bullet, and picking back up the sponge, she apologized through clenched teeth. “Sorry. Most of the ponies I’ve done this on were unconscious.” Right. She learned healing as an Arena handler. Comfort didn’t seem to be a major part of that.

“So before Ash. How did you get the collars off?” I tugged at mine with my magic, unwilling to move my freshly tweezed shoulder. Shade gave me another potion, and I downed that eagerly. I wanted the hole in my shoulder to heal, even if only aesthetically. Even with the potion, I knew that I would be limping for a few days. Joints were hard.

Once it felt like I could, I gingerly placed my hoof down and put some weight on it. It still felt wrong, but it didn’t collapse under me. An improvement.

“It was a slaver. Black Berry. He was always a little less mean than the rest.” Pearl continued, and I looked up at her with a confused look. Oh right, the collars. “He pulled his kicks...”

She stared off into the distance, zoned out with the bloody sponge in her mouth. Shade nudged her to continue helping me, and she snapped back to the present.

“He turned off the collars. Deactivated them all, and told us to run.” She twitched, her expression unreadable. “His hoof hit me in the eye when they tore him apart.”

She was staring again, and Shade took the sponge from her and started on my side, cleaning some of the blood that was covering my leg below the bullet wound. I sighed, sorry for what Pearl had experienced and simply glad that nopony was trying to kill me right then.

Pearl slowly came back into the real world, staring at Shade as she worked at the blood caking my side. I stood there, favoring my injured leg. Pearl smiled, and I smiled in return. “You’d said you wouldn’t... you know... because you had a marefriend. I see what you were talking about now.”

I froze. I’d told her I had a marefriend to explain why I wasn’t going to rape her. This was suddenly much more uncomfortable than it had been just seconds earlier. Very cautiously, apprehensive as though expecting to be hit, she wrapped her legs around Shade in an embrace.

“You have a good guy there.” Pearl smiled. “Thank you.”

Shade mumbled a thank you in reply, clearly not as adept at talking with a sponge in her mouth as the malnourished medic was.

Then, Pearl released Shade from the embrace and left the room, almost fleeing without another word. Shade stopped, giving me a strange look. “What was that about?” The sponge dropped to the ground, most of its job now finished.

“She helped me out in Neighwhere. I’m glad to see she made it out safely.” She shut me up with a kiss, then went back to pressing herself against me. She’d missed me. I’d missed her. Nothing short of the screaming death threats of a wounded griffin could have pulled us apart.

“You traitorous, cowardly fuck! I’ll rend your head from your shoulders with my beak!” Oh shit. Cutter was awake. Shade had gotten good at this support thing, and we ran towards the sound of the yelling as one, her soft warmth supporting me where my injured shoulder wouldn’t.

Entering the room where they’d taken Cutter’s unconscious body, I came upon a scene of havoc. There was one Whitecoat in the corner, bleeding heavily from four long slashes in his face. Several more were holding down the struggling griffin with both magic and muscle, but he had his good hand clutching Ash’s throat as though he were trying to squeeze the older griffin’s head clean off.

“Cutter... calm down... I’m sorry.” Ash choked through his clenched beak. I could see blood trickling down Cutters claws, and knew that he could tear out his brothers throat at any time. I’d seen Ash do it in the past, and Cutter was much more the stronger of the two.

“I... had... no... choice.” If the dark griffin could have turned blue, he would have. I could see his eyelids flickering, on the verge of passing out. Somepony had to stop this. I wasn’t really in the mood, but as I limped towards them as I drew Broken from it’s holster. I was getting mad now.

I jammed the barrel of the weapon into the prone griffin’s eye, getting my face in close and hissing at him. “You need to cut that shit right now. I didn’t bring you along so you could murder my friend, so you’d better fucking reconcile.” If I didn’t know better, I’d think that Two Kick was back. Shade was keeping him at bay though. That was all me. “I’ve earned some peace and fucking quiet, as have all the ponies here, and you’re just making an unnecessary racket. Now you’re gonna let them heal you, let go of your brother, and I’m gonna go spend time with my marefriend. Got it?!”

My eye was twitching with rage by the end of that, and all of the ponies holding Cutter down had backed up. He’d released his brothers throat, but the talons were now next to my face. Cutter looked at me, a hard glare that would have made me back down if I wasn’t so angry.

The talons bounced off of the table he had been laid out on as he dropped his arm to his side. Sighing, he deflated a little. “Fine. Just... get him out of here.”

I looked at Ash, who had an almost sad look on his face. I nodded towards the door, and he went, lingering at the end to stare at his brother for a few seconds before disappearing. Then he was gone, and the Whitecoats went back to cleaning Cutter’s wounds.

“Do you have somewhere quiet?” I asked Shade, and she just smiled with a nod. I was tired. I just wanted to lay down for a little while, rest and turn my back on the specter of death.

“Follow me.” It was really less following and more limping along while she guided me as a crutch.

As we left the room, I heard bits of a conversation behind me. “Who put this tourniquet on? It’s all wrong... we’re gonna have to take the arm.”

I felt a pang of guilt, but I kept walking. Fuck him, he made his bed trying to stop a sword blow with an arm, he could live with the consequences. Shade nuzzling into my neck changed my frown to a smile, and I was fully grinning by the time we got to the top of the stairs. I only barely saw the look that Ash was giving me as I followed her, his head peeking through a half open doorway. A confused mix of anger, concern, and sadness.

Shade’s room was a utility closet. Or rather, it had been a utility closet two-hundred years before. Now it was a space big enough for a fairly clean mattress. In one corner, on a partially collapsed shelf, was the satchel I’d thrown to her.

Grabbing the satchel and opening it, I checked. Shotgun shells of various kinds, medicine... and the long black box. Everything was here. Even if I wanted that box gone, it was better that I have it than Hate. I didn’t know what he wanted the Cubes for, but I was going to do my damndest to keep them from him.

I sat down, avoiding the mattress due to the barbed armor I still wore on my legs. I pulled at them with a combination of magic and teeth, suddenly very interested in getting the filthy metal off of me. There was still pony bits on a few of the barbs, and I had every intention of burning it once I had the time and some fire. For now, though, as I pulled the shotgun shells I still had stashed out, I would just leave them outside.

Shade was sitting next to me on the mattress as I took stock, her eyes closed and her body close to mine. “I knew you weren’t dead. Ash tried to get me used to the idea... but I knew you weren’t.”

Should I tell her I’d given up as soon as the door had cut us apart? That I’d expected to die at the top of the stairs, less than a minute later? No... no, I wasn’t proud of that. My priorities had been warped by the promise of revenge... but hadn’t I done enough?

Hate’s raider army scattered to the winds. Most of the Paragons dead. He was up above the clouds, in the poisoned remains of Maremack. That fact I had remembered when I’d first woken up. The mountains had been hit by Zebra weapons in the war, and weren’t fit for life. I didn’t know if we were taught that in the Stable, or once we got out, but it was all I knew about Maremack.

True, I may have been taking credit for much of what the Rangers had done, but I felt like I had earned it. I had suffered for it, and was well on my way to revenge when they had attacked Neighwhere with their stupid robots. I’d only seen a few Rangers, though, and knew that there should have been more of them. I still had every intention of killing Broken Arrow for what he had put us through, but I hadn’t seen sight nor sound of him during our flight. If they had gotten the drive to hit a Stable surrounded by raiders, maybe they were headed up to Maremack as well. It only made sense. The military base promised to have exactly the kind of technology they were looking for, even if it was just a little bit destroyed, and a little bit radioactive. Maybe they would kill Hate while they were at it. I’d have to look into that. For now, Shade’s searching eyes were waiting for an answer. I’d drifted off into thought again.

“Yeah... it was rough.” Rough didn’t come anywhere near accurately summing it up, but I didn’t feel like listing the tortures I’d been through. Right now, I had to apologize for abandoning her in my quest for revenge. “I’m sorry I did that to you, but I couldn’t let Hate have what he wanted.” I dropped my head a bit as I spoke, but she just nuzzled me under the jaw. Shade was being much more affectionate than usual, but I was not a pony that was going to complain about that. I’d earned a little rest and relaxation, and spending it with the mare I loved was the best thing I could imagine.

I smiled, now that I was back down to the worn, shredded pony I felt like. No raider armor, or bloodstained bandages. I caught sight of myself in a filthy mirror Shade must have propped on a shelf. I lifted my good front leg to play at my ear, which was now slit down the middle into two. The healing potion had fixed the relatively minor injury, but the skin was still split almost clear to my skull. It was even on the side that I already had the scar on. My head was beginning to look downright lopsided. I sighed as I got a better look at what was yet another permanent and disfiguring injury.

“Does it hurt?” Shade was looking up at the ear, and I instinctively hid it from her. She’d already seen it, but I felt self-conscious for some reason.

“Not anymore. I feel... good. Really, I do.” It was true. I must have had dozens of aches, pains, and bruises riddling my body, but I couldn’t feel them. My leg hurt if I moved it in the wrong direction, and my nose was still tender, but I felt good overall. The proximity to the lovely mare probably didn’t hurt none, either.

“Do you want to feel even better?” She asked, her voice low and suggestive. I quickly looked at her, meeting her eyes dead on. They had power over me. Even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t have said no to those eyes.

“Uh....” My brain had stopped. My jaw hung open, and my eyes rapidly searched her for any hint at the answer I was questing for.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” She kissed me, hard, and pressed even further into me. She began pushing me over with her entire body, and before I went down I noticed one single thing.

The door was still open. Reaching out with my magic, I closed it. It swung smoothly, clicking shut and denying the outside world a view into our private place.

Then I locked it, for good measure. The rest of that night was nopony’s business but mine and Shade’s.

Author's Note:

As usual, many thanks to Kkat for creating Fallout Equestria.

Tons of thanks to Wirepony, who filters what I want to say into something readable.

 Ask Ripple some questions, and he might have something to say. Also, my very occasional ramblings can be found here.