• Published 27th Feb 2013
  • 7,282 Views, 765 Comments

Fallout: Equestria - The Hooves of Fate - Sprocket Doggingsworth



A young filly in present day Ponyville is cursed with nightmares of post-apocalyptic Equestria. She finds herself influencing the course of future history in ways that she cannot understand.

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No Mare's Land

CHAPTER FIFTEEN - NO MARE'S LAND
"I got soul but I'm not a soldier." - The Killers


There's no getting used to the Big Kaboom. That great big explosion you have to pass through on your way to the future. But when I fell through that door to No Mare's Land, those million screams, that smack across the face - it was a blink-of-the-eye pit-stop this time. All that stuff flew over me, past me, around me, through me, and afterwards, I found myself face-to-face with something else entirely.

It was this moment. Like every cloud in Equestria suddenly crumbled away and parted at once. The big bright blue showed itself in a gigantic flash – a cataclysm just as big as the bomb had been, except it was a good thing.

I was moving past the Wasteland. And as I careened through this new vision, three words were left on the tip of my tongue.

Sunshine and rainbows.

Then, all of a sudden, the weightlessness of it all sort of fell away, and I found myself tumbling face first down a flight of rickety wooden stairs. I hit the ground with a thud. I'd arrived.

"Sunshine and rainbows," I said to myself, spitting dirt out of my mouth.

Eighty years after "Sunshine and Rainbows," to be precise. Whatever the hell that meant.

I sprung to my hooves, and tried to get my bearings. In case I was in danger. I felt like one of those squirrels who jerks his head every which way as he clutches his acorn - the kind that, if given the power of speech, would just waste it on screaming "oh, no, oh, no, oh, no," all the time. "Everything wants to eat me!!!"

But there was no one around. Just dirt, and wood, and crates, and stuff. From the looks of things, No Mare's Land was some kinda cellar. I poked around all over. There was a piece of paper taped to one of the crates. An inventory. I looked it over, but the contents were all fucking boring. So I moved on.

There didn't seem to be a single thing down there that could help me fight shadows at all.

So instead, I grabbed a bandage out of a giant metal first aid box. Wrapped it around my evil hoof, so I could blend in a little better if I needed to, but that was about all the cellar had to offer.

I was alone in a tiny space. Just me, a bunch of crates, some burlap sacks, and a crummy old pile of brown blankets in the corner. Up above, I heard banging. Like cannon fire, but distant. Muffled. The rumbles were few and far between. There was no way to know for certain whether or not it was the sound of fighting. I suspected it might be, and after a moment of steeping the idea like a tea bag bobbing around a head full of think-juice, I reckoned it was probably best to act as though there was actual fighting going on. Just in case.

I made my way up the stairs to get a better look. At the top of it was a big metal flap that lifted upward. The door. The same door that had catapulted me into No Mare's Land in the first place.

I swallowed hard.

It didn't make a whole lot of sense, but I couldn't help but wonder: Would it spit me back out again into an evil castle full of shadow tar if I tried to go through it?

I didn't have too much time to think on the issue, cause out of nowhere, the door opened.

* * *

I leapt off of the stairs. Totally blind. In fear. Not knowing who was coming down there to join me.

Thwack! I hit the ground awkwardly and stumbled face first into a crate. I only fell a couple of feet, but it sure didn't feel like it.

A figure stood at the top of the stairs, all bundled up in a scarf. A gust of freezing wind followed him. He was busy fussing with the door, so he didn't see me.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! I thought.

There was wooden framework under the stairs. It was my only shot. I scurried over, and hid underneath. It was like this web of supporting scaffolding and stuff. I managed to fit. Just barely. I forced my frantic breaths down and tried to be as quiet as possible. There was nothing to do but watch and wait. And try to stay calm over the deafening sound of my own thundery heart.

A colt came down. All bundled up in a long brown coat that was just a little bit too big for him. His scarf levitated off of his face and hung loosely from his neck. The kid was a unicorn, light blue, with a scruffy red mane - not that you could tell with all the dirt on him. He was sneaking around too. Suspicious-like. He backed his way toward one of the stacks of crates on the far end of the room, never taking his eyes off the door.

He could have seen me had he been looking. Easily. But he was more worried about getting caught than about catching somepony else. He turned his attention toward one of the burlap sacks, eager to accomplish his task, which, judging by his demeanor, was really, really important. I didn't dare move for most of his rummage-fest, but when he telekinetically opened that bag, I leaned forward just a little bit.

What did he want? What was he after? Was that my mission? The bag? Was there something in this cellar I needed after all? Was he snatching it right there in front of me?

The colt’s eyes lit up as he hovered over it.

He took one last paranoid look toward the door. Then closed his eyes and concentrated. Flashed his horn till the bag itself glowed blue. And then out it came.

An onion. He grabbed it and devoured it like it was cake. Cleaned himself up in a frenzied hurry, and grabbed all the dry onion skins that had shed. Shoved it all back in the corner.

Onion Boy darted for the staircase, but he didn't make it in time. The door flung open again, and, thinking fast, he dove under the scaffolding to hide.

Fuck!

I cringed further into the corner to make space, but there just wasn't anywhere for me to go. The guy landed right next to me, and when I got a good look at him, I could tell he was only a little bit older than me. A teen like Foster. Onion Boy cringed at the sound of hoofsteps creaking on down the stairs.

That’s when his eyes finally met mine.

He stumbled backward in shock, and nearly smacked right into a pile of noisy wood. He whipped around to face me, and threw his hooves up in defense like I was gonna hit him or something. I put my hoof to my mouth and mimed a shush gesture. I hoped, and hoped, and hoped that he had the sense not to scream, or flail, or do something stupid.

"Sterry, you down here?" An older teenager's voice.

Sterry didn't answer. He just kept looking at me the whole time.

"Hey, Short Stack, Colonel Wormwood is looking for you."

Colonel. Whatever I was mixed up in was some kind of military operation.

The owner of the voice creaked his way down those stairs, and on to the dirt floor. It was another colt - an older one. Dressed in brown. A grown up, but only barely.

The kid beside me, Sterry, jerked his head back and forth. His turn for the frightened squirrel routine. He didn't want to keep this Colonel Wormwood waiting. But also didn't want to get caught. So he looked at me. Looked at the other guy. Looked back at me like he wanted to kill me. Looked at the other guy like he was about to get killed.

"Sterry!" The guy finally spotted him. Spotted us both.

"Uhh..." The kid backed up against the dirt wall.

Put as much distance between me and him as he could. Sterry had gone from scared-of-getting-caught to terrified-of-being-seen-with-me.

"It's not what you think, sir." His voice was trembling.

The older one - a brown earth pony - turned to me. Lowered his gigantic bushy eyebrows and measured me carefully. So I waved back at him.

"How..." The older one's jaw dropped. "How did that kid get down here?" He sounded terrified too.

Uh-oh. I thought. Did I just stumble into another Trottica? Some fucked up future where being under a certain age was illegal?
Or maybe it's because I'm a girl. The place was called No Mare's Land after all.

The older one turned to Sterry. He wanted to beat the crap out of the poor kid. Like it was his fault I was there.

"Uhh, uhh, uh..." Sterry was all slick, and quick on his hooves and stuff. "Uh...Hey kid, are you okay?"

Suddenly all eyes were on me.

Well played, Sterry.

"Um, umm..." I fared no better than he did.

Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! I said to myself. He just asked if you were okay. Thats not even a hard question!

But I couldn't come up with the words. Finally, I just nodded my head "yes."

"How did you get here?" The older one approached.

All the stupid things I could possibly say ran rampant through my head all at once, but I bit down on my lip real hard, and didn't say any of them. I just answered by pointing at the door.

The older one rolled his eyes while Sterry just sort of sighed in relief that the attention was off him for a while - that he wasn't in trouble. The kid whipped a flask out from under his coat and took a swig from it - to hide the smell of onions most likely. Instead he just ended up smelling like that stuff they put on your cuts before giving you a bandage.

"Where is your mother?" Asked the older one.

"She passed." I could hear the quiver in my own voice. I didn't put it there on purpose. I was just telling the truth.

"Father?"

"Meh." I shrugged.

That got a laugh.

I didn't tell them about Roseluck. They would just wanna know where she was. So I observed some more instead and let them think that I was an all-around orphan. It was kind of amazing. The less I spoke, the more I learned about these ponies. I made a little checklist in my head.

-They weren't used to seeing kids.

-But they weren't out to get us either.

-This wasn't a safe place like back home in Ponyville.

-But for once I wasn't plopped down in the middle of a crowd of murderous bastards.

The older one - I called him Oldy in my head - wasn't surprised to learn that I had no parents.

-So such a thing must be at least somewhat common.

Orphaned kids. Death. War. Good intentions. On a scale from Ponyville to the Wasteland, this Sunshine and Rainbows world got about a 5. Not quite enough to live up to its nickname.

"Hey, kid, speak up, what's your name?" Sterry was short on patience. "Where'd you come from?"

"Rose Petal," I snapped. "And I don't know."

Clonk! Oldy smacked him upside the head.

"Leave her alone and go sterilize...blankets or something." He pointed at the first thing he saw – the pile of blankets.

"I already did."

"Then just back off and let me handle this kid, okay?"

Sterry grumbled.

"That's an order."

I never thought it would be possible to salute somepony with petulance, but in that moment, Sterry managed. A salute of purest contempt. Oldy just ignored him, and focused on me.

"Hey, so...um..." He stuttered, straightened his coat collar with his mouth. The way he fidgeted as he talked, he looked like a little kid chewing on his clothes. “Um...um...um…”

Sterry stood behind him, mocking his nervous, uncertain mannerisms with surgical accuracy. I had to cover my face just to hide the smirk. That kid was good at impressions. Damn good.

"How are you today?" Oldy said at last.

"I'm...well, to be honest..."

Boom! A rumble from the outside broke the bizarre comedic tension. The ground shook so hard, that it rained dirt from the ceiling. And suddenly, the situation wasn't funny anymore. I squealed and pressed myself against the wall. For a moment I could even swear I was back in the tunnels of Trottica again. But the other two just acted like it was nothing.

I blinked. Found myself clinging to a wooden beam in anticipation of a cellar collapse, or an army of enemies storming down, or I don't fucking know, something.

Sterry and Oldy were both looking at me - pitying me. Like I was a little baby. So I cleared my throat, brushed myself off, and kicked the wall with my hind legs to show it to who was boss.

"That's for startling me!"

Oldy smiled. Sterry visibly loosened up a bit too. For some reason, it was a relief to him knowing I wasn't some fragile pathetic thing. At least when it came to menacing dirt. I felt pathetic though - freaking out like that - and it made me mad as hell at those fucking cloak-o’s all the way back in Trottica for turning me into such a basket case in the first place.

"Yeah, that's the spirit." Said the older one. "Kick it like it's corn."

There was shouting up above, just beyond the door at the top of the stairs. Sterry and Oldy looked at one another, then looked back at me. I couldn't make out what was being yelled up there, but they sure understood.

"Listen, I have to go for a bit." Oldy sat on his hindquarters, put his forehooves on my shoulders. "Can you stay right here?" He asked. "Just for a little while?"

I nodded. A fucking lie. I wasn't gonna stay nowhere.

The teenage soldiers drew their guns from under their coats. The younger one levitated it as he messed around with his scarf. Oldy, being an earth pony, just gripped his gun in his teeth.

I didn't want to give away how totally clueless I was. That would be suspicious. But I needed answers, and I did seem to be amongst ponies who actually wanted to protect me. For a change.

So I took a page out of Bananas Foster's playbook. It was a terrible idea, but something in me had to at least try it.

"Sterry!" I called.

He stopped at the top of the stairs just before the door. Oldy bumped into him from behind.

"Is Equestria at war?" I did my best to sound helpless and unimposing.

I was bad at it. I hated the words even as they came out of my mouth. It showed.

Sterry sighed an impatient "yes," whilst Oldy spat out his gun to answer "no." He caught the gun in one hoof, and clopped Sterry in the head with the other.

"We are not at war." He snapped. "This is an armed conflict."

"War." Sterry pretended to cough.

"And it's not all of Equestria." The older one turned to me.

"...Yet," coughed Sterry.

Oldy wrapped a leg around Sterry's neck and got him into a headlock.

"Don't worry about it," he said to me. "Equestria would never go to war again."

Boom!

Dirt rained down from the ceiling.

"But," he laughed nervously. "Our outpost here is well...just sort of in a little bit of a skirmish right now. Don't you worry about a thing, little girl."

Oldy looked daggers at Sterry, who was smart enough to keep his mouth shut. Then he let him go. Sterry coughed, and coughed, and coughed, and caught his breath. But even after all that, it was still me that he was worried about. I could see it in his eyes, as he looked down at me nervously from the top of those stairs.

"Just stay here." They both said at once.

The Helpless Kid Routine had worked all too well. Yuck.





A gust of freezing air came down into the cellar as they flung the door open. Along with the smell of smoke, and the sounds of ratatatatatat guns, explosions, and a whole lot of shouting.

You know, war.

Then wham! The door slammed shut and I was alone again.

"Don't worry about a thing, little girl." I said in a mocking tone once they were gone.
So stupid. Why did I do that? Play the pity card. Why did it actually work? What the fuck, world? Ew, ew, ew, ew!

I couldn't even begin to guess how Bananas Foster could stand any of it. Because Eww. Seriously. Fucking Ewwwwwwww.

* * *

But there were more pressing concerns: a world at war that wasn't really a war; an outpost that got sucked into the center of it; an Equestria that hated war so bad, it wouldn't even admit when it was spiraling face-first into one.

Is this whatI was sent there to learn? That the Wasteland wouldn't last forever. That even when ponies do go to war in the far, far distant future, things are gonna be far, far better because they'd learn their lesson - because they wouldn't go around torturing kids in mines anymore, and worshiping de-innocentizers, and actresses and stuff?

I got to work rummaging around that cellar. Grabbed myself a coat that was ridiculously too big. Brown with white lining like the others. Hideous. Grabbed myself an onion. I might actually be desperate enough to eat it before the day was done. Kicked and pried at other boxes in search of weapons, maps, clues - anything at all that I could use. Another door maybe, to get the fuck out of there, and by the way, skip all that shadow castle stuff and move straight on into the sort of dreams that involved brownies and caramel.

As if it would be that easy.

There was nothing. The hornets weren't helping either. Even the me-voices in my head were useless. I had no idea how this day was supposed to go down, because the inside of my head was completely fucking silent. It was like being dumped into the middle of a high-stakes game of marbles, with a whole bunch of stupid house rules that made no fucking sense, and nopony bothering to explain them.

Before long, I found myself sitting on the floor. Staring up at the door I had just come through. The big metal door that had sucked me into No Mare's Land in the first place.

Yes, I was contemplating running out there into a war zone. Unarmed.

The cellar was a dead end. I couldn't hide there forever, and couldn't just wait for Sterry and his friend to come back either. Or to talk with Colonel Wormwood. She sounded like a real pleasure to deal with.

No. I was there in No Mare's Land for a reason.

I didn't even believe I was there for a good reason. Like Bananas had said. But I hadn't come hundreds of years into the future just to hang around some cellar. So up the stairs I went. I kept my eyes fixed on the door as I climbed step-by-creaking-step. All six of them. It wasn't a very deep cellar.

I perched at the top of the steps, and put my hoof on the cold metal door. Stood there for a long, long time. Working up the nerve.

"Ok, on the count of three." I said.

"1..."

I pressed firmly against the door.

"2..." I rocked back-and-forth like a battering ram in anticipation.

"Two-and-a-half..." I kept rocking myself back-and-forth like a battering ram in further anticipation.

I got as high as two-and-three-quarters before I said, "Fuck it," and just opened the damned door already. Charged out there into the bitter cold. Ready to gallop through fire, and kabooms, and flee from bad guys in easy-to-identify floral print uniforms. Or something.

But what I found wasn't that kind of war at all.

The door opened up along the bottom of some kind of a ditch. And there were long, long, long, long rows of soldier ponies bunched up in their coats, sitting in the dirt, huddling in the same ditch as me. They looked like a patch of lumpy brown potatoes.

Some ponies were running up and down the trench. All of them were huddling against the fall of raining dirt. There was shooting and shouting, but the strangest thing of all was the soldiers who just sat there. Ignoring it. Being potatoes.

I couldn't put my hoof on it, but there was something horrifically wrong out there. Something the opposite of good.

I could feel it in the air. In the dirt. See it written on all of their faces.

A gust of wind whipped through the lot of us, and a shivering unicorn turned around to huddle. She almost looked right at me!

I yelped and scurried back down the stairs so fast, I hit the dirt before the door even fell shut behind me.

Maybe Sterry and Oldy are right, I thought to myself .

I mean, sure, the answers I was looking for weren't going to be down in some cellar, but maybe I needed to be patient and hang around. You know, someplace relatively warm. That doomyness out there might even go away on its own. Resolve itself if we were lucky. Maybe I could just kick back, and figure out what to do later once Sterry returned.

"Yeah," I said, pacing back-and-forth. "That's what I'll do."

I walked around in tiny circles. It warmed me up pretty quick. Without the chill of the wind, the cellar itself was almost comfortable.

"Just hang out here," I said to myself. "Eeyup."

I circled a while longer, and sang a little song about buckets of oats on the wall. But I'd only counted down to 95 before I went and saw something that made me stop dead in my tracks.

Blankets. I was face-to-face with that pile of blankets. Blankets those ponies out there could really, really, really use.

"Fuck."

* * *

I stepped outside for real. Stood there in the trench staring down a nauseatingly long row of hideous brown trench coats. There were dozens of soldiers down in that trench - probably more around the corner. And lots of very, very big guns.

They are going to shoot me. They're going to shoot me. They are going to shoot me. An annoying voice in my head kept on saying.

"They are going to fucking shoot me." I whispered out loud to myself out loud.

But it was too late for me to turn back.

Besides, they all looked so damn cold and miserable, that I just plain had no choice but to blanket them up. Or at least try.

I straightened my coat. Held my head high. After a long, deep breath, I readied the first blanket - yanked it from under the straps on my back, and approached the first soldier.

"Blanket Brigade," I mumbled, mouth full of wool.

The green unicorn potato mare looked at me. Blinked in surprise. Blinked so hard it made a bloinky bloink sound.

"Holy shit, it's a fucking kid!" She shouted.

"Ahhh!" I spun around in shock. Stumbled backwards. Her voice was that fucking loud.

I knocked into somepony or other, bounced against him so hard, I fell forward again.

"Ow!" I said, as my knees banged against the wooden planks that stretched across the floor of the trench.

Then Boom! Distant cannon fire.

From that moment on, everything was chaos, not just me.

Shouting. Shouting. Shouting. Ponies grabbing their guns. The unicorn mare turned away from me, and aimed a big long gun through a crevice in a couple of sandbags. "You shit-licking corns! We got a kid in here!"

Blam. Blam. Blam.

"You fucking monsters."

Blam. Blam. Blam.

"Have you no..."

Blam.

"Fucking."

Blam.

"Decency?!"

The second soldier, a white gryphon, just stared at me totally fucking mesmerized. He dropped his weird-looking made-for-gryphons backpack and everything.

I stared right back. What was a gryphon even doing there?

He reached out a big yellow talon. Like he was gonna touch me just to see if I was real.

"Kid!" Mr. Gryphon exclaimed in horror. A big, dark, booming voice. "What are you doing here, you're going to get hu--"

I reached around and yanked a blanket off my back with my teeth. Shoved the ugly brown bundle of cloth into his outstretched talon.

He looked at it, not sure what to do or say. This clearly wasn't part of the script.

"Blanket Brigade!" I said, and shot him a clumsy salute. "Um...Colonel Wormwood's orders?"

"She sent a kid down here?!" Snapped the unicorn sniper as she reloaded. "I told you. Wormwood's losing her mind. First Sterry,"

The sniper flipped a frantic, inarticulate gesture in my direction.

"Now this poor thing."

"Hey!" I snapped. "I'm not a poor nothin'!"

My voice cracked.

Mr. Gryphon pressed his blanket over the sniper's mouth. "Would you shut the fuck up?" He whispered. "That's treason."

The sniper froze. I had only given out two blankets so far, and already everything was spinning out of control.

"No!" I said, not wanting to cause any trouble for anypony. "Colonel Wormwood isn't losing her mind. She, um...it's just, well, uh...something for me to do until I can get home. To...you know...safety."

The wind whistled down the trenches. When they hunched under their blankets, I bolted. Leapt up high over Mr. Gryphon's big ugly bag, and just ran. But Mr. Gryphon was fast. He grabbed me by the back of my hoof with his free talon, and Wham! Down on the floor I went, chin first.

"Ow, fuck!"

“Stay low." Said Mr. Gryphon. His booming voice cracked and trembled. "For the love of the Sun, stay low."

I looked into his fear-struck eyes, and nodded silently. If that guy was afraid of something, I would be pretty fucking dumb not to be afraid of it too.

Finally, he let go, and I hurried on. Staying low.

* * *

I ran, and ran, and ducked into a corner. The trenches were sort of maze-like that way.

"Keep moving, keep moving, keep moving." I muttered to myself as I broke into a trot.

At least the best trot I could with a tight belt cinching blankets to my back. Then, just as I kinda sorta started to get my bearings, Ka-pow! A big old cannon thing went off not too far away.

I shrieked. Stumbled. Knocked my leg into something or other - fell on my knees. Again.

Arg. The ground was jaggedy. I looked down at my hoof. I was actually bleeding a little down my leg.

"For fuck's sake, come on!" I yelled.

Punched the dirt wall of the trench with my forehooves.

"Stupid..."

Punch.

"Land..."

Punch.

"Of sunshine..."

Punch.

"And rainbows!"

I whipped around and gave the wall a solid buck with my hind hooves. Then dropped to the ground and caught my breath.

A whole war where ponies hated corn? A place where gryphons and ponies fought side-by-side for no apparent reason?

What did any of this have to do with anything?

I peeked down the perpendicular-like trench - the one leading away from the enemy line. A zebra was back there loading a cannon. Getting ready to fire again. Beside her was a big metal pony with devices sticking out his body. Guns. And something that looked like fireworks - all part of some wacko suit of armor.

"What the fuck?" I ogled them both.

Was that what I was sent to discover? That Equestria had finally learned its lesson? That we could blow each other to bits, but hey, at least we weren't racist anymore? Is that what counts for Sunshine and Fucking Rainbows in the future?




I brushed myself off, and looked up at the sky. Started to ask it a question, but never got to finish. 'Cause up there in the great big blue was the Moon. Hanging still for all to see. In broad daylight.

I shrieked like a foal. Scrambled backwards, pressed myself up against the dirt wall as far as I could go.

"No." I whimpered. "No."

The Moon looked back down at me - wild as the Everfree. And my blood ran cold.

Princess Luna really was gone.

* * *

I blacked out. I don't know for how long, but my guess was not very, since the sky looked exactly the same when I woke up. But for all I knew, the future sky always looked exactly the same.

It might sound stupid, but all my life the princesses were like gravity – a constant force that was always there, always holding us ponies together, even when we weren't paying attention. Especially the Moon. The Moon you could always count on.

But now, we were on our own.

Even if the Wastelanders manage to fix their world, no matter how many slaves they liberate; no matter how many wars they fight, no matter how many mountains we blow up, Equestria will never, ever be the same again.

Looking up at that crazy moon, pale as a ghost with a bright blue sky as its backdrop, I felt, for the first time in all my travels, lost. Truly and thoroughly lost. Like I wasn't even in Equestria anymore.

I whimpered at the sky. Stared at the crescent as it hung there. Cold. Distant. Princessless.

I watched it long and hard, till something in me snapped.

"No." I growled.

I waved my legs in the air and pointed an accusatory hoof at the Moon.

"Fuck you," I said. "Fuck you!"

I had hugged her ankles such a short while ago. The Princess wasn't really dead. She couldn't be.

"Listen here." I said. "I know Luna's still up there. So don't you give me that look."

Silence.

Moon.

I screamed. Curses. Squeaks. All drowned out by more cannon fire that got my ears ringing all over again. Probably that zebra asshole and his armor pony friend. Backing up in rage and disbelief, I tripped on something - spun and and fell to my scrape-itty knees. Winced and made the kind of howl that sounds like steam escaping a teapot. And when I looked up, tears were blurring my eyes.

"I know you're up there." I said to her. "I know you can hear me."

But the wind just whipped through the trenches. The smell of smoke, and grease, and ash carried with it. The Moon gave no answer.

* * *

I bundled up for warmth. All instinctive-like. Hid from the wind. Like one of the potato guys.

In its own way, it was a blessing, ‘cause it made me shut my stupid mouth. Actually look down for a minute instead of up. And there it was. A wagon. Right in front of me. The thing I'd tripped on in the first place. I gave it a good hard look. Found that the damn thing was actually small enough for me to pull. Me! I guess that made sense. It was, a crowded, crazy, cramped-up trench after all. But still, it was almost too perfect. I poked it. Prodded it. Marveled at it.

I could get a lot of freezing ponies a lot of warm blankets with that wagon. Right quick, too. I wouldn't even have to go back-and-forth much to rebuild my pile.

It may not have been a slave rebellion, or a rescue mission, or a quest to stop the bomb, but still, it needed doing, and I needed whatever hope I could get.

I unbuckled my strap, shrugged the load of drooping dragging, coming-unfolded-as-I-walked blankets off my back into the wagon. And hitched up in a hurry.

That's when I found the thing that really blew my mind. Proof positive that there was something more to this whole Blanket Brigade thing.

The harness pinched my chest. Under my big ugly brown army trenchcoat, was a lump. I wrestled with the buttons till I found what was jabbing me underneath.

Pinkie Pie’s magic watch. Misty's nasty tail hair tied tight around the bale. I had taken it all with me. That whole time in the schoolyard, I hadn't even noticed it. In the cellar. In the trenches. I'd been so distracted.

But there it was. Around my neck.

"How?" I muttered to myself.

I held it up and examined it again, even though I knew damn well what it looked like.

Should I open it? I thought, but Pinkie had been very specific.

Whatever else my confusing-ass problems may have been, I knew exactly when I was.

I turned to face that rogue moon again, watch still clutched against my chest.

"How?" I repeated.

But there came no answer. And, for once, it didn't matter. Because my little timepiece reminded me of what Pinkie Pie had done for us infirm-o's. Of what she had said to me in that moment when she herself was feeling down. It's always worth a try.

* * *

I trotted back around the corner. Focused. Determined.

The Blanket Brigade had a mission.

I approached the next potato soldier with a grin. A purple pegasus mare. I was gonna brighten her fucking day if it killed me. And I wasn't going to let her go all concernitty on me neither.

“Here, you go.” I said trying really, really hard to keep my spirits high and Pinkie-like. That's how you beat the shadows, isn't it? With your heart?

I held my head up like I belonged there. But the mare didn’t reply. In the awkward silence that followed, I watched her. Her wings were tucked away in her coat. Like the army we belonged to had no intention of letting her fly. Mr. Gryphon's had been too, once I thought about it. Fucking strange.

"Um...Blanket Brigade." I said at last when the potato mare still didn't respond.

I struck my noblest pose.

Silence. The Pegasus was inscrutable.

"Look, I'm supposed to be here, I promise, and I will be safe, and out of your hair really, really soon." I yammered. "It's just till I get home, ok? So please, please, please don't freak out at me."

She looked at me cautiously. "You sure you're ok?"

"No, uh...yes! I mean, Blanket Brigade at your service." I saluted badly.

"Ok. Thanks." She saluted back with a smile.

I trotted off.

"Happy Hearth’s Warming, Private!” She called out after me.

And I froze right there on the spot. Blinked. Looked back at the mare, already wrapping herself up in the blanket. Warm-and-cozy-like.

It was Hearth's Warming here too. Centuries later, they still celebrated the awesomest holiday ever. The Wasteland hadn't killed it after all.

"...Uh, to you too." I replied. "And a Happy New Year."

* * *

I kept passing out blankets, only now with “Happy Hearth’s Warming” wishes to go with them.

I couldn't be sure what any of it was supposed to mean exactly, or what I was supposed to take from the experience, but whatever it was, it put me in a damn good mood.

Yeah, every couple of minutes, I had somepony or other grabbing me, shielding me, whispering at me in hushed, urgent tones, “Stay low. Stay low!" Which I did. But I also kept moving. Didn’t let it stop me. Reloaded the wagon from the cellar. Went back out. Gave away more blankets.

A single phrase rattled around inside my head. It came from I Don't Even Know Wheresburgh. But it was stuck up there like a bad song.

"Pony pulls the wagon." I said to myself, and it kept me going.

* * *

I blanketed like crazy. I sang carols.

Only after a while, my carols ended up with lyrics of my own design. ‘Cause I was bored, and cause I could. It was great. Folks even started getting used to me, and the holiday spirit loosened up our little tensions.

"Happy Hearth's Warming!" I would say.

"And a Happy New Year!" They'd say right back at me.

It was all going pretty fucking amazingly awesomely. At least, until I met Golden Delicious.

"Shit, the boys weren't lying." Said the orange mare as she took the blanket from my mouth. “Ah'm Golden Delicious.”

"No, ma'am. They weren't." I said. I had no idea what she was talking about.

"Thanks, Blanket Girl." She replied. "Hey, everypony, Blanket Girl is here!"

"Blanket Girl?" I said dryly.

Rumor of me had apparently travelled faster than I could. I guess it was better than shock, and the concern-itty horror I'd seen from the first couple of soldiers. But still, Blanket Girl?! Was that the best nickname those potato soldiers could come up with? Seriously?!

I shook off my ire. "Happy Hearth's Warming," I said.

She bundled up in the scratchy brown blanket. Rubbed herself with her hooves. Grinned right at me.

"Shucks," she said. "Happy Hearth's Warming to you too, B.G."

B.G. Blanket Girl. I tried not to roll my eyes too obviously.

"Um...Well, there you go." I said with an awkward little chuckle. "Now you can be the warmest pony in No Mare’s Land.”

The smile fell from her face.

“Why would you say that?”

“Huh?”

She tossed the blanket in my face.

“What the fuck, kid, do you think you’re funny?”

“Um...kinda?” I winced.

Before I knew it, Golden was grabbing me by the shoulders. Shook me so hard, my wagon tipped. I flailed and squirmed, but I was still stuck in the harness, and all entangled in the blankets. All I could see was the clouds above and this crazy bitch right there in my face. All I could do was throw my hooves up, and try to shield my face from blows that never came.

“Take it back,” said Golden.

Her eyes were wild.

“Take what back?” I peeked at her from behind my hoof.

Mr. Gryphon rushed up to us. “Whoa, whoa, what are you doing?”

The crazy bitch on top of me just threw poison at me with her glare. “Tell him what you said.”

Suddenly, both pony and gryphon were staring at me. Waiting for me to answer. Then up trotted a third. And a fourth. I was surrounded. And still stuck to the stupid wagon.

“Um..." I laughed nervously. "Now you can be the, uh...warmest pony in No Mare’s Land?”

Next thing I know, I’m getting yelled at by everyone. They're all grabbing me. Not an attack kind of grabbing me, but forcing me to my hooves and shooing me along, all, ‘don't come back,’ and such.

I shouted, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it," in reply, trying not to cry as I hurried along, but the stupid wheel of my stupid wagon got stuck on a stupid plank, and and my whole plan-like-thing just plain crashed and burned.

"I'm jinxed," rambled Golden Delicious. "We's all jinxed now."

Then one nervous voice spoke up. “She doesn’t know.” He said.

The others fell silent.

I could see him there - the guy who'd spoken up - still huddled on the floor. He was sad and afraid. Even more than the other potatoes, but when he spoke, they backed off. It all happened so fast, I just couldn't make sense of it. It wasn't seniority. He was every bit as young as the other soldiers. It wasn't that he was tougher, or even a leader. In fact, he looked more rundown than anypony else in the whole damn ditch, and he shook like a neurotic little dog. Flinched like a terrified chipmunk when he talked. But still, when he spoke, the others listened.

"Sh-sh-she doesn't know." He repeated.

They all turned and faced me. These ponies who had hated me just a few moments before. Now ashamed all of a sudden. More than a hooffull of them averted their eyes.

"What the fuck is going on?" I shouted.

The big eagley gryphon dude kicked my wheel loose. He patted the wagon so I'd know it was free again.

"Um..." He stammered with his deep, deep voice. "Just do yourself a favor and don't tell anybody they're going to No Mares Land."

And that's when my throat dropped like a boulder into my stomach. The door had lied.

"You mean this isn't No Mares Land?"

The soldiers exchanged awkward glances. My turn to flinch like a chipmunk. I had to get to No Mares Land! That's what I was supposed to do. And the clock was ticking! I could feel it.

"No kid." Said the gryphon. "This ain't No Mares Land."

"Well please," I grabbed his shoulder. "You gotta help me get there."

He stumbled back in shock. "What?"

"I gotta get to No Mare’s Land. Quick!"

"Don't talk like that."

His head feathers stuck up straight in self defense. I didn't even know they could do that.

I looked to Golden Delicious, but she just threw up her forehooves and scurried backward along the ground like I was holding an explosive birthday candle or something.

"Jinx jinx jinx jinx." She muttered to herself.

"Please, it's important." I looked all around, but saw only panicked faces. Felt only bitter cold.

"You don't have to come with me," I begged. " Please just--;"

"Kid,” said Jinxy aka Golden, “it's called No Mare's Land for a reason." .

"Yeah, I get it, okay?." I snarled at them all. "There are dragons, and a cliff over some lava, and it's full of lava-breathing eels. And I have to cross a bridge to get there, and by the way, the bridge is made out of a sword for some reason. I get it. I get it. I get it. The journey is perilous. Whatever. Can somepony please just show me the way?"

Mr. Gryphon, still with his stressed out mohawk headfeathers, turned to Golden Delicious. She, in turn, turned to some unicorn girl nearby, all bundled up in a coat and scarf like a mummy with a yellow horn sticking out. But Mummy just shrugged.

"I'll show you the way." Said the guy lying on the floor - the one everypony respected.

Next thing I know, the others were gone. Zoom. Out of there. And I'm alone with this stranger. Just like that. The gryphon was the only one who bothered to shake my hoof goodbye, then it was Splitsville for him too.

The stranger sat up with a groan and a sigh of defeat.

"You wanna know about No Mare's Land?" He patted the ground beside him and waved me over.





Now, if No Mare's Land were a pirate book, this would be the part where the young cabin girl meets the grizzled old sea captain who's wrestled with the sea monsters and lived. And he is this giant badass, with a great big old aura of salty charisma and all that kind of stuff. The mysterious stranger. But this potato guy here was anything but. He was rattled and nervous. Barely aware of his surroundings. Just a few dog biscuits shy of being another Screw Loose.

"I'll tell you about it," he said with resignation. "C-Come here...Please?"

I nodded.

I couldn't get to him right away. I was stuck in that stupid wagon. So I had to listen to all that stupid wind whistleyness while I unhitched. It creeped me out. The random gunshots in the distance didn’t help either.

I snuck over there slowly, ducking my head down, remembering my trench safety tips. Stay low, kid. Stay low.

Finally, I came up right beside the guy. "Look, I'm sorry if I--;"

"Just... just...just have a seat." He said.

He brought a paper stick to his mouth. His hoof was trembling as he held it, but not from the cold. He struck a match and set it on fire. Next thing I know, the guy’s breathing foul-smelling smoke.

“No Mare’s Land?” He asked.

I nodded.

"It's that way." He said, pointing behind him at the lip of the trench.

Of course it was. The one direction that everypony was terrified to so much as look at.

"How far?" I gulped.

"A couple of feet." He said

"That's it?"

He looked at me, totally deadpan. I couldn't read him at all.

"Those guys over there. They all respect me." He twitched. "Because I'm the only one to have gone over there and survived."

He sucked in that paper smoke, and let out a long sigh. Then a piece of wood somewhere creaked and snapped in the cold, and he whipped his head left and right as though there were cloak-o's coming for him. Like a shadow might come and whisk him away at any moment. This guy was jumpier than I was.

When the coast was clear, he closed his eyes and sucked in some more fire.

"What's out there?" I said.

"Not too far away is another trench. Filled with corn." He grabbed the blanket I had given him, grabbed a stick.

"Corn?"

"You know. The fucking enemy. Greycoats. Corns! Anyway, we got guys aiming at them, and they got guys aiming at us."

"...And No Mare's Land is in between." I whispered to myself.

He nodded. Put the blanket on the stick, lifted it up above the lip of the trench, out into the open air, where all of No Mare's Land could see, and finally, passed it to me. No sooner did the stick touch my hoof, than a bunch of shots were fired all at once. Somewhere from the other side. The whole thing flew out of my grip.

"Damn!" My hoof really hurt.

When I was done rubbing that hoof in pain and disbelief, I picked the blanket up off the ground. It was riddled with holes.

"But I have to get to No Mare’s Land," I stared at it in horror.

I looked back up at the stranger. He was pale.

"No, you don't."

The way he shook, I wasn't sure who was going to burst into tears first - me or him.

"You survived." I said. "That means there has to be a way. There has to!" I squeaked.

All I heard in reply was a long stretch of that wind-in-trench whistle.

The mysterious stranger just shook his head. Shoved his sleeve in his mouth and chewed on it nervously. Like a kid might. The fire stick dangled from the other cheek.

"Tell me." I said.

He gave no reply. Just more coat-chewing.

"Because I'm going over there one way or another." I tried to sound strong, but I had my doubts. Cause seriously, how could I?

The stranger panicked. Grabbed me.

"No." He whispered.

"But you--;"

He sighed. The paper stick fell out of his mouth and he ignored it.

"I joined the Rangers with my best friend, Tulip. He was always the brave one. Not me. A bully got in my face, he was there. If we had to make a jump with our scooters, he did it first to make sure it was safe. We even used to have little games we played on the playground called Who's Crazier. He would jump from a height, I would jump from something higher. Then he would outdo me, and I would outdo him.

“I always tried. W-w-Wanted to be brave like him. He won every time. Whenever he got to the point where I couldn't match him, he'd call out to me. 'Tag,' he'd say. 'You're it.' Like, he thought I could be just a little bit braver, but I never actually was."

The stranger fumbled around in the dirt for his lost paper smoke stick.

"Damn it, where is it?" He was crying.

About the stick of all things.

I looked around and spotted it under one of the wooden planks pretty quickly. He dug it out with a knife in his teeth because a hoof wouldn't fit under there.

Only when he was breathing fire again did he resume the story.

"Tulip was the best friend a pony could ever hope for. I joined because of him. 'We'll be back home in time to sing Rest Ye Merry Gentlecolts,' he said. That's his favorite carol. He loved Hearth's Warming so much."

He leaned his head back against the dirt wall and looked straight up into the sky. Passed the fire stick over to me. I wasn't sure what else to do, so I stuck the thing in my mouth. It just sort of hung there on my lips, smelling nasty.

"What happened?" I mumbled.

He threw me a wounded look. As if it should have been obvious. I looked right back at him, as confused as ever.

"Oh, jeez."

Yes, I thought. I honestly don't know.

He took the fire stick from my mouth and put it in his own. Took in a deep puff and got a grip.

"Every couple of weeks, we get word from on high." He said. "Over-the-top they call it."

I pointed upwards at the wall of the trench. Toward No Mare’s Land. He nodded.

"But they'll..."

He nodded.

"Why?" I demanded.

"The brass figures if enough of us go over at once, maybe we can gain some ground and take the enemy trench.

"Hundred feet gained here, hundred feet lost there. Either way, hundreds of us die. If not from the gunshots, the explosions. The razor wire."

I tried to imagine what razor wire might look like.

"F-For hours after a battle," he said. "They just hang there all tangled up. Screaming. Crying."

He went silent.

Sitting there beside that fucked up bastard, I wanted to cry so bad. For him. For all of them. But I held back. If I'd burst into tears then and there, I might never have heard the end of the story.

Finally, he took a deep breath, and continued.

"Our snipers have to pick them off just for mercy's fucking sake. Colonel Wormwood's own son was caught up in there." He sucked on his fire stick some more. Puffed on it for dear life. "Rumor has it she pulled the trigger herself."

"That's crazy." I whispered.

"I'd want them to do the same for me."

"But, but, but..." I tried to wrap my brain around it. "Why go? Who would do that knowing what was gonna happen?"

I looked up and down the trenches. All the other ponies were keeping their distance from the stranger and me. I suddenly understood the gloom that had choked us all. These soldiers weren't just scared, weren't just cold, weren't just bored. They were in Death's waiting room. Just sitting there, awaiting the order.

Over-the-top.

"Why!" I cried - literally cried now. "If it's so pointless. Why don't you just say no?"

"Soldier's duty." He replied, suddenly wooden, as if reading from a script. "The chain of command. Calls for sacrifice. If it falls apart, we are all as good as dead."

"So that's it? They tell you the plan and you go with it? Just like that? You just up and die?"

"Of course not." He let out a chuckle so bitter it could ferment cider. "They don't tell us the plan. I have no idea what the fucking plan is."

"You just hope that the reason is a good one." I whispered to myself, echoes of Bananas Foster.

He wept into his coat. I put the blanket over him but he shrugged it away. Even when that bitter wind hit us again.

"You didn't go, did you?" I asked.

He shook his head 'no.'

"I th-th-threw up when the order came through. We gathered our shit. I made it as far as to ready my weapon. Then they gave us to the count of 3. I dropped my rifle, I was shaking so hard.

"When I looked up, we hadn't even counted up to two yet, but Tulip was right there over me. I thought he was going to help me up the way he always had when we were kids. Our whole fucking lives."

The jittery stranger shook his head.

"You know what Tulip said?"

I shook my head.

"'Tag'. 'You're it. '"

He took a deep breath from his fire stick and let it out with a sigh. "Kicked me unconscious."

I reached a trembling hoof to put on his shoulder, but he turned away from me. I fought my lungs for enough air to breathe, but even when I got it, I couldn't summon a single word to say.

The stranger flicked away the last of his fire stick.

"They found me in a pile of bodies." He concluded. "All folks who got shot right away, and fell right back into the trenches. The lucky ones."




After that, he ignored me, having issued his warning about No Mare's Land. And went back to doing his usual business. Lying down and rambling to himself.

"I-I'm sorry." I told him.

He didn't answer. Just waved me off.

So I backed away. Hitched up. Looked over my shoulder to check on him.

I hated just walking away, but I couldn't come up with anything at all to tell him. Nothing could make it better. Finally, I just turned and moved on. Last thing I heard him say before the wind brushed his voice away was five simple words that sent chills down my spine.

"It should have been me." He said.
It should have been me.

Author's Note:

Special Thanks to: Longbottle, Pony Joe, and Seraphem for your priceless feedback and proofreading advice.

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