• Published 25th Jan 2012
  • 10,558 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 8: Bone Forest

Chapter 8: Bone Forest

Morning came far too quickly, ushered in by a swift tapping sound on the door to our room. Shade mumbled as her eyes half opened from the sound, “...but I want to ride the pony.” Right, wasn’t going to ask, as tempting as it was.

The tapping came again, followed by Ash’s voice. “Kick, get up, brony, time to get going... unless you’re getting in some morning delight of course.” In response, a milk crate that had been serving as a table slammed into the door. I hoped that Shade hadn’t heard that, and I sighed softly as I saw she’d snuggled in closer at my side, still asleep.

“Shade, time to wake up.” I lightly nudged her into consciousness, the mare stretching and yawning as she came to. Once she was up, I stood and began putting on my armor and equipment. My saddlebags were weighed down from ammo and supplies, comforting for the trip ahead.

Shade was pulling on the barding that she’d acquired the previous day before holstering her pistol as I walked to the door and opened it. Ash was on the other side, leaning against the wall. He was bright eyed and attentive, a wide grin slathered across his face. “Have fun?”

“I wonder, what sound would a griffin make when you pull out all his feathers?” I leaned towards him and gripped a single feather with my magic, causing him to back up laughing.

“Okay, message received. Anyways, hurry up. The girls are waiting out on the street, and we’re burning daylight already.” Halfway through speaking, he turned and began walking down the hall towards the exit. He was gone in seconds, leaving me to wait for Shade as she finished figuring out how to get her barding on and secured.

Once she was ready, we left the building. Ash and the girls were indeed waiting out on the street. Ash had started taking ammo from his bag and loading it into the belt holding his revolver for easy access. Fluster looked bulkier than I remembered, meaning that she most likely had done more trading and was loaded down with supplies. Ivory had somehow gotten her armor and self looking pristine, a shining jewel in a sewer. First spat of trouble, I knew, she’d be dirtied up again, but looks seemed strangely important to the now heavily armed mare.

“So... everypony ready?” Stupid question, I knew. Of course they were. They’d been waiting for me.

The nods of three heads and we all turned, heading towards the main gate out of Underhoof. We had a bit of a walk ahead of us. Viola, conveniently enough, was running front gate duty and let us through with a polite nod and a muffled “Good luck.”

Once the gate closed, we were back out in the hostility of Hornsmith. The tunnel was uneventful, meaning that Ash and I had done a good job of clearing out all the gnashers. There wasn’t even a stream of water running down the middle, which I took as a sign that the rains had ceased.

Upon leaving the underground, I found that I was right. It was the wasteland equivalent of a bright and sunny day. Better and better. Looking at Ash as he brightened up considerably, I realized why he’d spent the last two days in a bottle. It had been so obvious. Ash hated being anywhere confining, the open air was his domain.

He was already letting out his wings and giving a few test flaps as we filed out into the street, closing the unmarked door behind us. I was checking my PipBuck to set Orchard as the location and Ivory was pulling out a new pair of goggles I could safely assume she had procured at Gristle’s.

We were ready for this. Whatever the wasteland had to throw at us, we could handle it. We would go to Orchard, make new allies, and march on Neighwhere to end Hate’s reign of terror across the greater Hornsmith region.

That was the plan at least.

Our path to Orchard luckily kept us well away from the western half of the city; away from Neighwhere and Stadium. Hopefully, it would keep us away from the paths that the raiders Ivory had mentioned would be using to get to the distant locale.

Ash took point, giving his wings a flap and propelling himself up onto a rooftop. The rest of us started walking. Fluster and Ivory were walking side by side, chatting amiably. I could hear occasional snippets of what they were saying. They were bonding over the times they’d both spent in tunnels, searching for salvage and living the scavenger life.

That left me with Shade; not that I could complain. I’d spent the entire previous day with her, but there had not been much talking, we’d just enjoyed each others company. As we walked, I thought of what I could say to her. There was still so much I didn’t know about her, and with as close as we were getting it would be a good idea to learn.

“So... tell me about yourself, Shade. I feel like I don’t know anything about you.”

She blushed slightly, but was smiling. It seemed that I would be getting some answers despite my very blunt approach.

“Well... I’m not really sure what to say.” She leaned into me as we walked, answering my question of if she could get any closer. Blunt seemed to work with her.

I shrugged. “Where were you born, do you have any family, stuff like that. You know about me, it only seems fair.” She knew more about me than I did.

I could see her looking at me out of the corner of her eye, that judging look I’d seen a few times coming from her. Then she smiled. “Well.... I grew up in Anchor. My dad was a mechanic, he taught me everything he knew.” Her voice was low, but confident.

I was checking my PipBuck. “Where’s Anchor? That in Hornsmith?”

She shook her head sadly. “It’s Neighwhere’s old name.”

Oh. Well that’s unpleasant information. I shook my head sadly before replying. “I’m... sorry to hear that.”

She laughed nervously, shaking her head. “I remember the day the Stable door opened. All that time living outside a Stable, we always talked about what it would be like. What the ponies inside would be like.” She kicked a rock on the road, sending it skittering to bounce off of a low pile of rubble.

“At first, things weren’t so bad. The Stable ponies set up businesses and established trade routes. It was a golden age, honestly, for the first year. Sure, some of the Stable ponies... like Massacre, Cinder, and Holepunch, were a little unhinged, but Hate kept everything in line.You were there to keep them in line.”

She sighed. Bits of what she was saying was ringing bells in my head. It sounded familiar, but I wasn’t getting any real clean returns. Just that nostalgic feeling I’d gotten when seeing Sweeps and Cinder, that I knew them but nothing about them.

“After about a year, though, something changed. Hate changed. He wasn’t called Hate before then, his name was Crackerjack.” That name I knew, it had been in Sweeps’ audio entry. I’d been putting off listening to the others after how depressed the first one had made me.

“He started calling himself Hate and called all his closest friends the Paragons. You were first in line. The raiding started slowly, hitting caravans here and there from some of the smaller communities in Hornsmith. Weapons, supplies, water. Before long it went to ponies and entire caravans started getting enslaved as soon as they showed up. Some of the crazier Paragons would head out into the wastes and just slaughter anyone they ran across.”

I wondered if I had done that. I’d heard that I spent most of my time cooped up in Neighwhere, keeping the peace and playing the arena, but I couldn’t help but wonder.

She hesitated before continuing, a small waver entering her voice. “Ponies like me... ones with skills from outside the Stable... well, we were turned into ‘servants’. We were slaves, but they would never sell us outside of Neighwhere. They thought that it would strengthen another community if they did. Hate caught on that I was good with mechanical stuff and put me to work on weapons. Odd stuff, special requests from the Paragons. I built those.” She gestured at my back legs, at my hoof guns.

My mouth dropped open. Shade had made the weapons that had gotten me my name? Why hadn’t she mentioned that earlier. Thinking, I floated out Broken. “Did you make this?”

Shaking her head, she looked at the ground ahead of her. “No... I don’t know where you got that.”

Oh well. Can’t solve all the mysteries at once.

“So you knew the Paragons pretty well then, didn’t you?” It would be helpful to know who I’d have to fight in the future.

She shrugged. “Not all of them. I saw a few and heard some names, but I only really knew Hate and Sweeps. You were always busy in the arena or out enforcing Hate’s laws. Cinder Trails spent most of her time with you... I never liked her.” That jealous look. She must have known that Cinder was my old marefriend. The look faded shortly and she continued. “I worked with Holepunch, a few times, on some of the bigger weapons in Neighwhere.”

“Holepunch, what’s he do? I mean.... who is that?” With a name like that, I couldn’t really make guesses, other than imagining a pony punching a hole in another. Wasn’t far fetched at all, I could practically do it.

“He’s a mechanic, like me. Came out of the Stable though, so he always took priority whenever he was around, threw me out of my workshop. He’s clever but not very creative.”

Didn’t sound that bad. Not like Cinder or Massacre, I’d seen what they were capable of. It would probably just be best to not underestimate any of my former comrades though; for all I knew Holepunch could shout his enemies to death.

“Any others you know of? Ash said there were more than that.” Remembering back, the griffin had said there were ten or so of them. Not counting me and Sweeps, I had the names of five in total: Hate, Holepunch, Massacre, Cinder Trails and Skyline. I knew what two of them could do. Better than nothing.

“Not that I can name... I was kept in the Stable most of the time, none of the Paragons liked being in there.” Still, better than nothing. I had one final question on this subject for now, I could tell that it was making her depressed. Seeing her frown was causing a strange pain in my chest.

“When... uh... when Sweeps saw you, she called you Dusk?” After I spoke, the blue mare at my side looked to be deep in thought. That question had tripped something in her head that she had to work through, if I had to guess.

Walking along for a while, she eventually nodded and slowed her pace a bit. “That’s my name. My real name. I gave you Shade because I wasn’t sure if you were a raider or not.... I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. So... do you want me to call you Dusk?” That would be odd, but I’d adjust.

She smiled and looked me in the eyes, those bright orbs filling my heart with a warm feeling. “No, I’m... I’ve been thinking about what you did. Change who you were. Dusk the slave is dead. Shade the free pony is alive. That’s who I am now.” When she finished speaking, she kissed me on the cheek. I was wondering when she’d get to that point, because I sure wasn’t going to make the first move.

I nuzzled her neck lightly, and she giggled a little. She was really starting to come out of her shell, and I was definitely liking it. I was liking it a lot.

-----

We’d been walking for hours with naught but a hint of raiders heading in the same direction as us. Several times I double checked the map, just to make sure that we were not headed in the completely wrong direction, since it was surprisingly easy to get lost in Hornsmith.

Nope. On track every time I checked, headed north.

A few hours into our trip, the group was mostly silent, most avenues of conversation long since exhausted. Ash had been silent the entire time, a strange turn of events for the usually wisecracking griffin. I guessed that everyone was just on edge, expecting raiders around every corner. I knew I was.

Ivory was beginning to meander as she walked, her head moving to music none of us could hear. Fluster kept going straight, only avoiding when Ivory’s path came close to impact. The robed mare had been getting along quite well with the now heavily armed Stadium pony, which I assumed was the reason she was walking down the middle of the street with us instead of flitting from cover to cover, shadowing us down the street as had been her way until now.

Then I noticed it.

Through the blips on my E.F.S. that showed friendlies ahead of me, I saw a flash of red before Ivory’s moving dot covered it up again. I let out a short, sharp whistle and everyone stopped to look at me. I nodded my head towards our front and they all looked with me.

I saw nothing. The street was clear, though we were approaching a fork in the road with a four story building sitting in the divide. Taller than most, it would be the perfect vantage point for snipers to cover this road. I couldn’t see movement in any of the windows and I was sure that Ash hadn’t or he’d have started shooting already.

Shade looked at me, and I nodded towards a hunk of metal on the street that must have been a carriage at one point. She took cover behind it and found that Fluster was already in hiding, scrounging through a pile of rubbish within the shattered carriage.

Once the way was clear, I counted three red dots behind the door leading into the building. Ash and I approached the door, much as we had gotten used to in our time spent in the underground, taking up on either side and waiting to go in, guns blazing. Ivory stood nearby, looking quizzically at us. The griffin held up three claws and slowly dropped them.

Three.

Two.

One.

He made to open the door, but Ivory kicked it in before either of us had started moving. Inside were three raiders who looked up suddenly from where they sat eating some horrid looking food, shock etched into their faces. In one corner lay the desecrated corpse of a mare. That was apparently all the justification that Ivory needed.

The pale mare opened up, the machine gun roaring in the doorway as it threw hot lead into the interior. The raiders had just begun standing and pulling out their weapons as the first bullets slammed into them, ripping into flesh and shattering bone.

They were dead within seconds, but she sprayed bullets into their bodies just to make sure.

“Ivory! IVORY! That thing is really loud!” I shouted her name over the din, trying to get her attention away from the twitching lead sponges. Eventually she stopped, laughing to herself a bit as the smell of cordite filled the entryway.

“Wow, that is so much more satisfying to do that to raiders.” The grin on her face was one of a deep felt blood lust. I’d sort of expected her to react differently at killing a pony, but this was understandable considering her history.

Fluster slipped past us quickly as we sort of stood there, gaping at Ivory and the shredded raiders. Ash was the first to speak as I watched the robed mare begin picking through the leaking pony corpses. “So.... yeah. It would be great if you told us before you did that next time.”

We’d built how we would handle the wasteland entirely on the basis that only the Ash and I could fight. Ivory was an not part of that. It had just come as instinct to Ash and myself, both of us being seasoned fighters, but Ivory had surprisingly little dealings with non-gnasher hostility. This mare was new to how the surface world worked and had to be taught.

I shook my head slightly. “Ash, I think it would be good if you taught Ivory how we do this.”

The griffin, arms crossed and a skeptical look on his face, slowly nodded in agreement and pulled the pale mare to one side. Fluster trotted back out into the street, her looting of the corpses complete, and I saw Shade approaching me from her hiding place behind the rusted hulk.

Once Ash and Ivory returned from the impromptu strategy session, it was deemed by myself and the griffin to clear out of the area as fast as we could. Gunfire would attract the attention of any other raiders that happened to be in the area, and it had now been revealed that Ivory was a bit of a loose cannon. The last thing we needed was a drawn out engagement.

At our increased pace, it was a short while before we came to the edge of Hornsmith. Unlike the east, where there was a long stretch of nothing, there was what looked to be a forest just a short distance past the edge of town. I’d never seen a forest before, not a real one, but part of me knew I’d seen one in picture books as a young colt. This one was not like the book though. Where the book forest was green and vibrant, with happy animals running through it, this forest was dark and dead, filled with nothing but shadows and menace.

Shade and Ivory stopped and gasped, their jaws wide open. Ash chuckled and waved a hand out at the forest. “What, never seen a forest before? You should see the Everfree, this is nothing.”

Ivory took a bit of time to close her mouth before she answered him. “I’ve... never been outside Hornsmith before. I knew it existed but... it’s just, wow. It’s so big.”

Ash snorted back a laugh and looked at the mare with a wicked grin. “If I had a cap for every time I heard that...” Ivory gave him a curious look while Shade began blushing deeply. I chuckled slightly. Fluster shook and rustled, which I could only assume meant she was laughing silently.

We burst out laughing, even the usually silent Fluster. Shade even let out a few nervous chuckles. As we began walking into the expanse of land between urban and forest, Ivory followed after us.

“What’s so funny? Tell me!”

-----

Entering the forest was like being on a completely different planet, one made of bone and ashes. Most of the trees had been bleached white, dead for centuries and with no sign of continued life. The balefire radiation had completely killed this land, leaving only the scoured skeleton of a once beautiful forest.

The wind had picked up, howling through the trees in a mournful wail. The rattling of tree limbs and the calls of some distant creature completed the ambiance.

This was the creepiest place I’d ever been.

There was a thin layer of damp ash covering everything, piled against trees and forming small dunes against what had once been bushes, a soft gray paste. It was here that I first saw how many raiders had passed this way. Even with the wind, the passage of a good many ponies could not be hidden and I found dozens of trails. They were just so obvious.

“So.... we really have to go through this? Can’t go around?” Ash had not been liking this forest. He’d muttered something about his people being born for the skies, much as he had when we’d entered that elevator in the headquarters and had muttered occasionally during our time in the underground. I had thought that being out here would help his fear, but the strange feeling of being outside yet still contained was quite pervasive out here.

Lifting my leg and checking my PipBuck, I nodded to the skittish griffin. “Yep. Orchard’s still a ways, but it’s a lot faster to get there through here.” Pointing straight ahead through the trees, I tried not to think about how big this forest was. If it weren’t for the PipBuck, somepony could get very, very lost in here.

Ivory trotted ahead of us, tossing her mane as she went. “Come now Ash, it’s only a couple trees. I find it rather cozy, certainly better than all of that open sky..”

I caught the glance he threw towards her as she led the way, a warning glare. So this was what I was going to have to deal with. A creature of the skies and a pony that grew up underground. A winning combination.

Sighing, I felt the warmth of Shade as she leaned into me. Looking at her, I noticed her eyes were wide and darting about at any movement in the forest. With the wind and the branches, there was a fair amount. I nuzzled her neck slightly and smiled at her.

“Hey, don’t worry. We’ll be fine.”

I was trying to convince myself as much as I was her. If these woods were filled with raiders or who knew what else, there was a good chance we wouldn’t be.

As we walked, I kept a careful eye on my E.F.S. The bleached trees were easy enough to see around, but so many of them in every direction made it hard to see for very far, and if there were hostiles I’d probably not even see them until they were right on top of us. Magical assistance was the only way I could see that happening at this point.

Ash had been nestling his rifle in the crook of his arm, walking upright. I’d never understand why he did that. It just seemed more natural to me to walk on all fours. It must be a griffin thing. Though I understood why he had his rifle out, he wanted to be ready for anything. His other clawed hand was hovering near his revolver, twitching slightly at every sound.

Fluster had run ahead a bit to walk alongside Ivory. Right now, she was the only one of us that was unarmed and was probably better off standing near the armored earth pony, just in case the bullets started flying.

Still, the silence remained broken only by the sounds of the forest.

I only had a flash of red in the corner of my eye as warning before something hit me in the side, throwing me into Shade and knocking her over as I tumbled off of the path, whatever had hit me still clinging to my side. Rolling in the damp ash, my vision was obscured as the goopy paste covered my eyes.

I felt teeth sink into my neck as we landed in a crumpled pile, and I heard both Ash and Ivory open fire, but not at what had hit me. I punched my front hoof at the thing biting into me, hoping to gain enough purchase to push it off or at least get its teeth out of my neck. I kicked up with my right leg, placing a blast from my kick gun into the thing, finally dislodging it.

Pulling myself to my hooves and wiping the muck from my eyes, I saw that we were being attacked by big dogs or something. They looked like they were made out of the same bleached wood as the forest and did such a masterful job of blending into the environment that it was no wonder they’d gotten so close before I’d detected them.

There was a pack of them, circling and taking runs at us. I pulled Broken and snapped it out quickly, firing at one of the creatures as it launched itself at Shade who was pulling herself up off of the ground. The buckshot tore into the thing’s face, shredding the wood and spraying sap over the two of us.

Ivory’s weapon was making its distinctive chattering sound as she fired bursts at anything that moved, while Ash’s more trained eye was picking out his targets with the revolver he had pulled from it’s holster, the rifle now slung at his back.

“The fuck are these?!” The griffin shouted out over the roar of the heavy weapon. He’d spent more time in the wasteland than any of us, I didn’t know why he would ask us if he didn’t know.

I heard Fluster shriek and looked around quickly for her, not seeing her at first but eventually spotting her robed form being dragged off by a larger tree dog. I made to go after her, but another impact from behind me threw me off of my feet. I rolled with this one, springing to my hooves and blasting the offending beast in the face with Broken.

Looking back at where she had been, I saw that the beasts were cutting their losses and pulling off. They were disappearing quickly into the trees now that they had gotten something out of the attack. Desperate animals taking desperate measures to get a meal.

They were not going to keep their prize.

“They got Fluster!”

I began running in the direction they’d gone, Ash and Ivory doing the same. It had only been a short time since she’d shrieked, but I couldn’t see her anymore. The creature was moving faster than I’d expected with the smaller mare in it’s teeth.

We kept running for a few minutes before finally slowing, the trail all but lost.

“Fuck! Fuck this! I am not failing this job!” Ash punched a talon into a tree, breaking off some of the smaller branches up above with the sudden impact. He was training his neck out, trying to find any hint of the path that our scavenger pony had been dragged along. The retreat of the beasts had left so many paths that it was hard to tell which direction they had really gone.

I saw tears streaming from Ivory’s goggles as she came frantically into the clearing. She’d just had her new friend stolen by a pack of vicious animals. She was running around, looking for any sign.

I tried to calm myself, the voice at the corner of my conscious yelling at me despite Shade’s proximity to leave the stolen mare for dead and keep moving. I told it to fuck off and went about trying to calmly search for clues.

Surprisingly, it was Shade that found what we were searching for. “There’s blood here!” We gathered around and sure enough, there was a spatter of blood and slight drag marks just off of the clearing we’d stopped in. It looked like Fluster had put up a fight at this point but had been overpowered.

That gave us a direction and we immediately started after Fluster.

Please, please let her be alive.

-----

We began spotting the corpses of other ponies that had come into the woods before too long. Ranging from skeletons to recently shredded corpses, they grew in increasing number as we kept on the path we’d found. None of this was making me feel anything but increasing panic and rage. I could tell that Ash was livid at the prospect of having the pony he’d been hired to bodyguard along with myself stolen and brought to this killing ground.

I remembered to reload my weapons as we went, noting that it would be very bad to run dry while fighting these things. They were fast and damned near invisible until they were right on top of you. Combined with the teeth and the weight they put behind their impacts, I didn’t fancy fighting one up close again.

They also splintered like a bitch, I thought as I pulled several long shards of wood from my neck and flank where I’d been attacked. I was bleeding, and Shade had briefly tried tending to my wounds as we hurried, but had given up as I kept ahead of her. I knew she cared about me, but every minute we wasted there was an increased chance that Fluster would be made into food.

We came upon the cave at the same time that the pack came back to us. Hints of movement heralded their return right before they launched themselves at us, getting a lead response. Four went down immediately, torn apart into so much mulch from the combined fire of three weapons.

Another came at Ash, but he snatched it from the air by the throat with one hand and slammed it into the ground, pressing his barrel against its head and firing. The bullet blew the bleached wood apart, decapitating the beast messily.

Broken fired again and again as I cued up S.A.T.S. I was not a great shot and the time it gave me to line up was a great help. As the world slowed, I could pick out the details on each creature as they came at me. Roots forming into muscle, thorns for teeth, dead leaves as what could pass for fur, glowing yellow eyes. These things were unnatural.

Unnatural or not, they died all the same.

Before long, the attack ceased. It had been much more violent than the first one, but seeing the cave had made me think that this was their home. They were attacking us to protect their home, but they had also taken and likely killed one of us.

An eye for an eye.

Kill them all. Revenge can be so much fun.

The cave entrance was quite dark and I could hear only a faint sound coming from it as we entered its yawning opening. I turned on my PipBuck light and swept Broken around, even as I loaded fresh shells into the breach, looking for any more of the creatures to blow apart. The cave was empty, at least this part of it was, but I spotted a bright red spatter of blood and ran ahead into the depths looking for our companion.

I spotted the crumpled form of Fluster huddled against one wall. Approaching her, I couldn’t help but smile as she turned her head towards me, her gray eye shining brightly in the glow of my PipBuck. I was smiling because she was alive.

“I found her!”

Her hood was pulled back and in the light I saw her face for the first time. She had a black eye patch over one eye, with a wicked scar peeking around its edges. Much of her skin was covered with cut marks, but only a few were recent, bleeding from her ordeal. Most of the cuts were very old, scars from previous injuries. Scars the did not look accidental. They had been inflicted upon her purposefully.

Her head alone made me look unmarred in comparison. I shuddered inwardly imagining what the rest of her was like.

I took a step back in surprise. “Celestia.... Fluster, what happened?”

She started to speak, a weak voice even for her, but the rest of the group began to arrive. Ash already had a potion out and was holding it to her mouth as soon as he was there, which she drank greedily from, clearly thankful for the help.

Ivory lay down next to the mare, crying steadily but with a huge smile on her face. Another loss so soon after her brother probably would have broken her.

Fluster had long deep cuts in her neck and a dark bruise was starting to form from where the creatures jaws had gripped her. The wounded mare coughed and smiled at us as we gathered around her.

“Timber wolves.... haven’t seen them in a long time....”

The potion began working its magic quickly, many of the smaller cuts closing up before our eyes. She shakily tried to get to her feet, but wobbled and fell.

“Dragged me by my neck... I’ve had worse.”

For the first time, Ivory seemed to notice the scars covering her friends exposed coat. “Fluster... what happened? There are just... so many scars.”

Fluster sighed visibly, wincing slightly. “I had a rough childhood. Abusive sister. I don’t... don’t really want to talk about that right now. Let’s just get out of the den before they come back.” She reached back and pulled her hood back over her head, obscuring her face and many, many scars from us once again. I now knew why she kept herself covered so thoroughly, which dismissed my theory that she was doing it for increased sneakiness.

Ash helped her to her hooves and we escorted her from the cave, back into the bone forest. There was no sign of any more timber wolves outside, save for the bodies left over from the brief fight. We stood there for a minute, gathering ourselves up for the continued trek through the forest, Fluster visibly regaining strength. Her wounds had apparently been mostly superficial; I remembered the nail bomb and how little the potion had really helped me.

A sound behind me caused me to whirl around, aiming Broken at the source, ready to blow any predators away with a load of buckshot. I held off on pulling the trigger at the last second as I saw what it was.

A small timber wolf, a puppy... or sapling, I wasn’t quite sure... had left the cave and was staring up at us. It wasn’t baring its teeth or retreating back into the cave, but just staring at us. I felt a brief pang of guilt, but crushed it. They had taken Fluster, they had brought this upon themselves.

Before I could react, Fluster walked past us and held out a hoof to the small wolf. It sniffed at her and gave a small lick with a tongue that looked like a thick leaf. She was being awful friendly with the offspring of what had been dead set on eating her just minutes before.

Mares. They could drive a stallion mad.

Ivory trotted over to Fluster and the wolf, making a small cooing noise. I looked at Ash with a bewildered look on my face, but the griffin just returned it and gave a very animated shrug. Good, so it wasn’t just me.

“So... yeah, about that whole leaving thing.” I had to remind Fluster of her idea to head back on our way. It was still a bit of a way to get to Orchard. We began walking north again, back through the muck and trees. After that fight and the chase, we were all coated with the wet ash slurry by, which was helping out with our camouflage, just as it had the timber wolves. Well, that was a bonus at least.

Crimson Knife would have a heart attack if she saw us now.

Our formation was changed now, as we walked. Fluster, clearly the weakest member of the party in the eyes of a predator, was walking right between Ivory and Ash. Shade and I were bringing up the rear, as usual. There was a sixth member who had been tailing us for some time now, but I found that it was just better to ignore.

Every time I glanced back, I saw the pup following us at a distance. He had been ever since Fluster had shown him kindness. It still made me nervous, but the little monster didn’t seem to be a threat. It had made no hostile gestures and Ash even seemed content to let it follow along.

We were travelling parallel to a raider trail we’d discovered earlier, staying off of the path in case we came across any of the unsavory types that used it. Ash kept glancing over towards the raider trail, his height giving him a better vantage point than the rest of us.

We were in for a few more hours of walking.

-----

The sun, wherever it was, was setting. Ivory had slid her goggles up onto her head, the faded light much more to her liking. We’d have to stop and rest soon, probably for the night. I didn’t want to be wandering aimlessly through the woods in case we stumbled across another den of timber wolves. They’d been hard to see in the daylight, in the dark they must be almost completely invisible.

“Keep your eyes out for a safe spot for the night. A cave, a fallen tree, a three star hotel, anything will do.” This had come from Ash. The griffin was apparently thinking along the same lines as myself. The light was fading fast.

Before long, we found a cave similar to the one that the timber wolves had been using as their den. This one was mercifully free of corpses and tree dogs, which was a spot of luck on our part. Entering the cave, I couldn’t help but notice that it was much smaller than the other. It didn’t go in quite as far and the opening wasn’t nearly as large. These were good things though, it made the cave much less of a target for passing raiders who may have the same idea as us. If they couldn’t find it, they couldn’t find us.

I had my PipBuck light on for the members of the party that were not subterranean dwellers, and we entered the cave. From the entrance, I heard Ash stop and call in after us. “Hey, I’ll take first watch. You guys get some sleep... I’ll wake one of you up in a few hours.”

I knew that that one would be me. Not that I minded.

We lay down in various parts of the cave; Ivory as far in as she could go, Fluster curled up behind a small outcropping that provided her with cover, and myself against one wall. Shade, naturally, curled up next to me, pressing against me for heat and comfort. It was comfortable in the cave, free of the muck that we’d been walking through for hours and protected from the wind that just would not cease to blow.

I fell asleep quickly to the tune created by the three softly snoring mares.

-----

I felt a sharp jab in my side, causing my eyes to snap open and Broken to float from it’s holster, pointing into the face of my attacker. It was quickly pushed aside as Ash’s dark face slowly came into focus.

“Whoa, cool it, Kick. Time for you to sit watch, I gotta sleep.” He gestured behind him at the entrance to the cave, beyond which was the dark forest. I yawned widely, much louder than I had anticipated, and I felt Shade jerk awake. She looked around in a short panic before her eyes settled on the griffin and me, then she smiled and let out a small yawn. Ash gave a short wave, then walked away from us and lay down against the wall closest to the entrance.

“I gotta go take watch. You get some sleep.” Standing, I left the blue mare curled up on the cave floor, watching me as I walked away from her to take up my shift on watch.

At the cave entrance, I leaned up against a rock and floated Broken out in front of me, keeping it on my front legs just in case I needed to get it quickly. I’d been getting better at quick drawing it, but it would never be faster than already having the weapon out.

I couldn’t see much in the forest, my vision only cutting a short ways into the trees before everything just became a solid wall of darkness. Ivory probably would have been a better choice for this, but I’d seen how easily the mare could get distracted. Guard duty was not for her.

After a few minutes, I felt what I had been expecting. The warmth that comes from a body pressing up against my side. Shade had followed me out and went back to her place at my side. “I wondered how long it would take you.”

Looking back into her eyes as I spoke, I paused long enough to stare at them. I really doubted I would ever see anything as beautiful as her eyes out in the wasteland for the rest of my life, and I’d been taking every chance I could to further burn them into my memory. If I had it my way, they would be the last thing I thought of before I died. If that was tomorrow or thirty years away, I wanted those eyes in my memory.

I looked away after a bit, going back to my duty as a guard. “You should really get some sleep. I’ll be right here when you wake up.”

She sighed and leaned further into me, curling up. She was asleep in seconds, leaving me alone with the night.

-----

“Hey, Barley, be careful, bro.”

The voice caused me to open my eyes, revealing to me several key details.

Detail one: It was morning. I’d fallen asleep on the job.

Detail two: There were three ponies outside the cave, one of them uncomfortably close to me.

Detail three: They were raiders. The one nearest to me had a long, wicked knife in his mouth and he was reaching for my throat with it.

My eyes snapped open and I pulled Broken up, firing it into Barley’s lower jaw. The buckshot tore into him, deforming his head and blowing a good chunk of it apart in a spray of blood, brains, and bone. His corpse almost did a full backflip from the impact but landed in a bloody heap with a small squelch of wet ash.

The other two Raiders opened fire on us, but they were really lousy shots. They had bolt action rifles, the both of them, floating next to them with their respective magics. One of their shots grazed along my back, cutting a long line through the skin but not doing any real damage.

Shade had awoken when I’d fired Broken, pulling her pistol with her mouth and firing just as ineffectively at the raiders as they had at me. It caused them to duck slightly as they worked the bolts on their weapons, giving me just enough time to cover the short distance between them and myself.

I could hear shouting coming from the cave and saw the two surviving raiders eyes open wider as they realized that there was more than just myself and Shade. They had hoped that this would be an easy hit that would net them some quick loot and maybe a new slave or two. They were wrong.

Punching my PipBuck clad right leg into the horn of the nearest, I interrupted his telekinetic hold on the rifle before head butting him right in the eye. My horn went in through the soft tissue and pierced bone, driving into his brain pan and spraying me with blood. He dropped to the ground, twitching, dead before he hit the muck.

As I turned to the last raider, he did something I had not been expecting. The rifle thumped into the thick ash and was sucked under with a squelch as he submitted in a position of surrender. I stopped, pulling back before I pulped his head with a kick. Looking back, I saw that Ash and Ivory had emerged from the cave, weapons aimed straight at the cowering unicorn.

“Don’t shoot! Okay, okay, I’m beat, just don’t kill me.”

I holstered shotgun, which had been floating quite near his head with the trigger partially depressed. Using my magic, I plucked the two fallen rifles out of the grime, tossing them towards the cave where Fluster all but pounced upon them.

Approaching the buck, I checked him for any other weapons. He looked well-fed for a raider, which probably meant he was one of Massacre’s on their way to Orchard. Other than the rifle I had already dealt with, I could find no weapons on him though. Raider armor didn’t leave much room to hide anything.

Ash approached, holstering his rifle and drawing the revolver. When he got in range of the now shaking buck, the barrel of the weapon was pressed firmly into the raider’s forehead, right below the horn. The griffin grinned into the unicorns face, predatory eyes staring into terrified ones.

“So. Where you headed?”

The raider’s eyes opened wide as the griffin asked him and he shrank back. He looked to Ivory, then to Shade, then to myself, in rapid succession, possibly asking us silently for help. I shook my head and smirked. Ivory laughed as well and spoke at the terrified unicorn in a low growl. “I’d answer him. He hasn’t eaten in a while and he loves the taste of raider. Eats ‘em starting at the legs while they’re still alive.”

Wow.

Whatever I thought, it worked. His eyes went wide and he started talking. He told us everything he knew. How he and his friends were ordered to head out to Orchard with about a dozen others to reinforce the siege. How there were already about fifty raiders there.

What he told us that I found most interesting, however, was that whoever was fighting back at Orchard was doing a very good job of it, and that the Paragon in charge was Holepunch. When he said that name, I glanced over at Shade who suddenly appeared rather nervous. She didn’t like having to face anything from her time in Neighwhere, and the prospect of dealing with a Paragon she knew seemed to bother her quite a bit.

Once he was finished with that and had started telling us about his life before going to Stadium and signing on with Massacre’s ponies, I told him to stop. “That’s all we need. Now get out of here.”

Ash shot me a glance at that, a questioning look in his eye. I shrugged and gestured for him to lower his revolver. He did, but kept it out and pointed at the terrified buck. The raider just stood there, his knees shaking.

I gestured out towards the woods, to the west in particular. “Get out of here. Stop with the raiding, or we’ll find out.”

He nodded rapidly and started backing away from us. Before he bolted, he slowed and turned towards us, talking rapidly. “What about the wolves? They’ll eat me if I’m on my own.”

Again, Ivory took the lead on this one. “It’s either they eat you or he does! Run little pony, run!”

I had to say, I liked her bloodthirsty side. From the muffled chuckling I heard coming from the dark griffin, he did as well. The raider turn and started running, kicking up ashy goo as he ran. It took him only a short while to disappear into the trees.

Ash let out his laugh and patted Ivory on the head, though she glared at him as he did so. “Nice one on the improvise. I like your style!”

Ivory looked him straight in the face and replied, “What? You don’t eat raiders?”

Ash gave her a strange look as she turned and headed back into the cave. I wasn’t sure if she was kidding or not; she had shown a naive nature. Eventually, we heard her laughing from the cave, and Ash let the grin creep back onto his face.

Holstering his revolver, he turned to us. “So, let some raiders sneak up on us while we were asleep. Real good guarding there, Kick. Next time, don’t let your marefriend cuddle up while you’re making sure we don’t turn into some raider’s plaything.” The smile remained on his face as he spoke, but the menace that followed the words made me look away.

Yeah, I’d fucked up. I’d let Shade distract me and had fallen asleep.

“Got it, Ash. It won’t happen again.” I didn’t know what else I could really say, but the griffin seemed to accept it as he nodded his head and walked away. Shade was blushing as she walked over to me and leaned against my side, what was quickly becoming her most frequent show of affection.

“Fluster, anything good?” I spoke to the robed mare who was digging through the belongings of the two dead raiders.

She glanced up at me as she went and shook her head. “Nah, just the rifles and some ammo for them. Low quality rifles, I should be able to part them out when we get back to Underhoof.”

I nodded. Whenever that would be, I thought to myself.

“Okay, we’re burning daylight. Let’s get back on the trail.” Ash had rejoined us, having only gone into the cave to grab our bags, which he dropped unceremoniously at the entrance. “Get your stuff, and we’ll get going.”

I floated Shade’s bag onto her and helped her secure it before I put mine on. Ivory had, as far as I could tell, slept with hers on. Fluster.... well, I still wasn’t really sure where she was keeping all of her stuff.

We set out, leaving the cave to stand watch as the muck slowly sucked two pony corpses into it.

-----

The walk took several hours, but I noticed as we went that the amount of ash mud as well as the thickness of the trees were beginning to lessen. I guessed that before too long we would be out of the bleached woods and back in the wasteland proper. I’d never thought that I would miss blasted and desolate terrain, but I was getting really sick of these woods.

Fluster, despite my warnings to keep in sight, had spent the last few hours disappearing for short stretches of time, then reappearing with no explanation for where she had gone. I told Ivory to keep an eye on her, but she apparently had not developed the same knack for keeping track of where the smaller mare had gone that I had. Ivory would occasionally just announce to us, “Sorry again,” and we’d know that Fluster had slipped off yet again.

After the fourth time this had happened, I stopped the group in a small clearing to wait for the stealthy pony to catch up with us again. It only took a few minutes before she appeared at Ivory’s side, looking at us.

“Why have we stopped?”

Ivory jumped and spun in place, facing the mare. “Why? Well, you keep running off? Where are you going Fluster? We’re in the middle of the forest.”

Fluster looked away for a while, staying silent. Ash stepped up next to her and looked down at her. “With how the timber wolves went after you, don’t you think it would be a smart idea if you stuck around. You know, so we don’t have to chase after you and hope you aren’t getting eaten.”

She sighed. “Okay... I’ll tell you... well, I’ll show you.”

Gesturing for us to follow, she headed off into the woods a short distance. We kept pace with her as she looked around. A rustling in the bushes made us stop, Ash and I pulling out our weapons and pointing them at the rustling. Fluster approached, cooing softly. “It’s okay. Come on out, Fern.”

Fern?

The rustling grew louder slightly and the small timber wolf from the cave emerged as Fluster pulled a small bit of what I could only guess was meat from her robes. The small wolf ate hungrily as she gave it to her.

Ash put covered his eyes with one hand and sighed. “You’re feeding it? Great, now it will never leave us alone.”

Fluster rounded on him, her single gray eye glaring up at him angrily. “We killed it’s family. I owe it this much.”

“Owe it? Fluster, its parents tried to eat you. I’m still pulling splinters from that.” I didn’t like the idea of the timber wolf following us around. It just seemed like it could only bring trouble, if the timber wolves could smell one of their own or something. I didn’t know how canines though, I definitely didn’t know how plants thought. Put the two together, and it was a complete mystery. Much like Fluster herself.

“Well, I’ve already named it, so there’s nothing you can do about it.”

We all sighed, save for Ivory who was already kneeling down and putting a hoof out to the small wolf, who sniffed her while it wagged its tail. Ivory giggled as Fern licked at her.

Great, now we had a pet.

I sighed. “Okay, fine, but keep it subtle. Don’t want to get shot because a wolf drew attention to us.

Fluster nodded and went back to Fern. Ivory and Fluster played with the pup for a few minutes before Ash convinced them we needed to keep moving. This time as we walked through the muck, I could hear a small sound behind us as the wolf made his way through, only barely tall enough to keep himself from being sucked in.

I couldn’t help but smile a little, watching Fern keep up. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Shade couldn’t help but smile as well as she glanced back occasionally to watch the hopping timber wolf, which was constantly just trailing behind Fluster.

Eventually, I stopped noticing the little creature, and we kept walking towards our destination, which was growing ever closer. My PipBuck showed that we were growing ever closer as well, and we were all beginning to walk just a little faster in anticipation of getting clear of the forest.

Then, just like that, it was over. Walking past a last line of trees, we found ourselves staring out at the broad expanse of the wastes. In the near distance, I could make out a cluster of buildings, most of them taller than the vast majority of Hornsmith buildings.

That must be Orchard.

“Fuck forests. Fuck them sideways.” An unusual amount of profanity came from Ash as he walked ahead of us, stretching his wings and trying to shake some of the caked ash out of them. The rest of us began copying him, trying to get as much of the caked on gray filth off of us as we could.

Even though we’d have to go back through the forest and get just as filthy on our way back. Oh well, we’d cross that road when we came to it. For now, it was all about getting as much off as we could, though Ivory seemed to have a much easier time of it, using the brush that she carried on her at all times to help. Once she was clean, she waited impatiently for the rest of us.

Orchard was just a short walk, and as we made our way there, I sincerely hoped that this trip had been worth it.

Author's Note:

Thanks to Kkat for creating FoE, an amazing piece fiction as well as a setting.

Thanks to ErrantIndy for helping with the editing process, he does much and deserves much thanks.

Also, insane amount of props to KibugamiKenzo, who made the first GoC fanart. It’s a fantastic piece of Ripple and Kibu gets all of my love for making it. Link is below.

http://kibugamikenzo.deviantart.com/art/Ripple-Two-kick-finished-288493286

And then, before I could write the next chapter even, Kibu did one of Cinder Trails.

http://kibugamikenzo.deviantart.com/art/You-Almost-Burned-Me-289050489

Amazing.

So yeah, enjoy that art, hoped you had fun reading, and as always, rate/fave/comment/track.