• 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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The Wanderer

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE - THE WANDERER

"Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten" - Neil Gaiman [paraphrase of G.K. Chesterton quote]*





"Roseluck!" I shouted. "Is she okay?"

I had spent so much of my time worrying about war, and shadows, and insurrection, and duckies, and soldiers like Sterry, and Pumpkin Scone, that I hadn't had much time to fret over Roseluck. What had happened to her? How come she hadn't come to visit on Hearth's Warming? Was she okay? Had she been swallowed by giant pony-eating eels? What the fuck?

I had pushed all of that uncertainty to the back of my mind. But the moment that Princess Luna mentioned that the shadow things had attacked not only me, but a whole bunch of folks en masse, all that dread came crashing through. My mouth went suddenly dry. My head felt like an anvil that threatened to tip me over and drive my face into the ground.

Oh my goddess! I thought. Had those clitweasels gotten their inky claws on Roseluck?!

"I don't know, child.” Answered the princess. “I didn’t see her in her dreams tonight.”

Oh jeez. I thought. Oh, no.

“But," Luna added hurriedly when she saw the panic in my face. "That's not necessarily a bad sign. It just means that she didn't sleep.”

"So what's going on then?"

“Come.” Luna gestured forward with her head, and started walking.

I followed her. The cliff and the ocean was off to our right. The vast empty field, to our left.

The schoolhouse was a tiny speck way up ahead, but we were on our own little path that didn't go that way directly, so I wasn't scared.

I followed her. The cliff and the ocean was off to our right. The vast empty field, to our left.

The two of us just walked through the empty landscape together. Luna acting weird the whole time. She kept looking at me, then looking away. And she was quiet. Not that peaceful, meditative type of quiet either. More like a nervous kinda quiet. She kept taking these really deep breaths.

“You’ll face them again, I'm afraid.” Princess Luna broke the silence at last.

And that was her big announcement. That’s what she was so nervous about telling me. As if I didn’t already know.

“I'm so sorry." She whispered, and looked down on me with caring eyes.

“Pff, I'm fine!” I said. “But what about my friends?”

I leaned in close. “You said the shadows attacked others. Are they--;”

“The only way to protect your friends,” Luna interrupted. “Is to teach them to protect themselves.”

“So do that then!”

Luna turned away from me.

“I could," she said. "When the shadows were only attacking in dreams.”

I stared at her. Shook my head no. It couldn't be! Luna closed her eyes and nodded yes.

Images flooded my head. Trees toppled. Houses leveled. Ponies, running and screaming as their brains exploded out of their ears. Shadows everywhere! My hometown in ruins.

“Ahhhhh!” I shouted.

“Rose,” Princess Luna put a hoof on my shoulder.

“Ahhh!” I shouted again, and proceeded to have a complete and total mental breakdown. On the floor. Like a foal. Freaking out and screaming.

“Ahh! Ahhh! Ahhh!”

Those soldiers in the trenches. They'd had things to hold onto. Family back home. The idea of a little brother banging away at a drum set. A mom rooting for princess and country. It had kept them going.

Ponyville was my homeland. My anchor. My obnoxious drummer back home. The idea of it under attack churned my stomach and made me want to puke.

Rose Petal!” Luna shouted so loud the grass blew in all directions.

She had used that booming screaming voice trick thing just like she’d done back on Nightmare Night.

I looked up. Found the princess standing over me. I caught my breath, looked around. The field. The ocean. The schoolhouse. I was still in that old familiar dreamscape. And The Princess of the Night was standing over me. Looking all concernitty.

“Is there anything left at all?” I asked in a whimper.

Luna’s eyes widened.

“Child, it's not like that.” She said. “I felt a disturbance. And I won't lie, I am deeply concerned. Something is indeed very wrong.”

Luna shook her head. “But their physical power is still faint right now. Nothing is in ruins. There is still hope.”

Luna reached out her hoof to me, all silvery with those slipper-shoe-a-majigs of hers. I took it. Marveled at how clean she managed to keep those things. And stood.

"What happened then?” I asked. “Who’d they go after? Did they get anypony? Is Roseluck safe? What about Cliff Diver?

“I don't know.” Said Princess Luna with a sigh. “I’ve been fighting the shadows here, in the realm of sleep, like you.”

“Well, what are they up to? What do we do?”

“I'm afraid I don't have the answers yet. Give it time, child.”

“Well, you gotta know something! What are they capable of? How does any of this even work?”

“Rose.” She said gravely. “They are using a magic I don't understand.”

“What? Huh?” I scratched my head. “That's stupid.”

Luna raised an eyebrow at me.

“It is! It's ridiculous,” I continued. “A magic you don't understand? How? You're the princess of the moon and dreams and nighttime and stuff!”

Luna turned to look at the stars. The sky was already turning dark blue instead of black - lightening up a little to get ready for morning.




“There was once a great powerful wizard.” She said.

Her voice was rich and dark and serious. “His name was Star --;”

“..swirl the Beardo!" I interrupted, all proud of myself for knowing.

Luna paused. Blinked. Loudly. Then blinked again. Then just shook her head and continued.

“Yes, close enough.” She said. “He and his protégé conducted a great deal of research at the castle: defense against shadows; scrying spells; she mysteries of time; et cetera. Their work was never completed, but they may have left relics behind: scrolls; discoveries; artifacts of power.”

“So the shadows have figured out Beard Magic?” I asked.

“The shadows know things that they shouldn't know - are capable of things I cannot explain.” She answered. “They've changed something. I felt them do it. In our time, and in our world. Yes, Rose, I fear in my heart that it might just be, er...beard magic they are employing.”

I thought back to what I had seen in the Pit of Infinite Duckies. Her castle. The old beard wizard comforting the children despite his own uncertainties. He had chided them for breaking into his room to use one of his artifacts – his relics of power.

“The shadows are not terribly strong in our world, yet,” Luna continued. “They are shrewd. All it takes to kill a king, they say, is a well-placed stone at the top of the stairs.”

“Little things.” I murmured to myself.

Princess Luna nodded.

And suddenly it hit me. All my machinations - all my hornet-chasing - all that One I'm Meant to Save, get to the door stuff? The shadows could be doing the same thing. Manipulating history by messing with the little things.

“So what do we do? How do we stop them?" I asked.

“For now, all we can do is fight them one pony at a time. And pray that our stones are better placed than theirs.”

* * *

We walked for a while in silence. Luna wasn't the trembling, screaming, mess that I was. But something was clearly on her mind. So I let her be. She had things well under control. Even if times were dark, and a little shadowcrazy, I still felt safe by her side. So I shut my mouth, watched her carefully, and followed her lead.

The lack of blah-blah-blah’ing, and the sound of crashing waves down below also forced me to get some thinking done.




Luna had said it was up to me to teach my friends to fight the shadows. But how?

I’d barely escaped their clutches myself. And I’d had so much help! From Twink, from Luna. I needed somepony to teach me. Not the other way around. What was I gonna tell Cliff? “Hay! There are these shadow monsters that tried to eat my soul in the future, but guess what, they’re here now, and they're coming after you, probably because of me, but don't worry, you can fight them. You'll do fine, trust me.

And Bananas Foster! What could I possibly tell Bananas Foster? “Don't worry about the shadows, just hold onto a happy thought of your friends or family or something. Oh yeah, they're all dead, and you're stuck in a bubble. Well, I'm sure you'll think of something. It's not like the shadows are gonna exploit your deepest sorrows or anything.”

The thought was maddening. The pressure made me want to scream. And I had already freaked out like a baby right in front of Luna just a few minutes ago when I’d thought that the shadow things had turned Ponyville into some kind of clitweasel jamboree. I couldn't let the princess think I was a wuss.

So I watched her as she walked in silence. Meditating on her own concerns. On her own plans.

She had confidence in me. That much seemed obvious. But it made saying what I had to say, and doing what I had to do that much more difficult.

“Luna?" I spoke up at last.

I didn't realize I'd been shaking ‘till my voice came out all warbly.

“I...don't think I can protect my friends. I...I, I'm sorry. I'm not even all that sure I can, you know, protect myself.”

I hung my head low. I couldn't bear to look her in the eye. But I had to be honest. If I tried to brazen my way through it, and pretend I knew what I was doing like I had back in Trottica, I would just pick the wrong tunnel again. And get my friends killed.

“I, I, I--;” I stuttered again.

Luna just craned her neck down, and nudged me with her giant princessly head.

“Tell me what you learned behind that door.” She said. Calm. Collected. Motherly.

It put the brakes on my inner rambling. I stopped and thought about it. For real.

What had I learned? I’d seen so much in No Mare’s land, picked so much up from the colonel. Even Rainbow Glimmer, and Big Blue, and Dazzle Shine, and Pumpkin Scone, and Sterry. The war. The bits of future history I'd managed to piece together. That crazy shit I saw in the Pit of Infinite Duckies. Strawberry Lemonade! And the amazing soul I’d found inside of Colonel Wormwood, of all places. How could I possibly sum that all up? What was the friendship lesson? What was the friendship lesson?!! It was all a giant cluster of Holy Fuck, Wow, lessons everywhere.

"I, I--;" I looked down at the piece of Twinklestick clinging to the necklace that my watch was on. The bark from Twink’s candle.

"I found my light." I said at last.

And Princess Luna smiled. She seemed to approve.

"You'll do just fine."

* * *

I smiled back, all proud of myself. The princess nodded at me. Kept walking.

Fwoosh-fwoosh.

Fwoosh-fwoosh.

The sound of our eight hooves on grass. Luna seemed content in her silence, soaking in the beautiful fake scenery of my personal brainland, rather than, you know, magicking us to where we needed to go.

But I grew impatient. I was starting to wonder.

“Uh...Princess?” I asked. “What is it you were gonna show me?”

Luna didn’t answer. Just looked down her long nose at me, and gestured at the ocean.

“You'll see." She said. "Why don't you enjoy the view? We’ll get there soon enough.”

I did as I was told. The horizon was so low, that when I looked out over the ocean, I felt like I was floating amongst the stars, even as they faded against the blue-en-ing sky.

“It's beautiful.” I said.

And for a moment, felt totally at peace. Luna even smiled at me.

“But seriously, where are we going?” I stopped and said.

The princess sighed. Looked at me for a good long while.

“Sometimes, child, it pays to just stop and observe.”

“I do observe!”

Luna raised an eyebrow at me.

“No, really.” I said. “Listen. I'll prove it!”




Don't make an ass of yourself. My Rose Voices said to me. You already threw yourself on the floor and screamed like a foal. This is a princess here! She believes in you. She believes you can fight shadows - that you are super badass funky cool enough to teach your friends to fight shadows. Don't be a moron!

I sucked a great big puff of air into my chest, and in one long, rambling exhale, showed off my powers of observation.

“We have about a mile of open space behind us, a few hundred feet in front of us before the plateau dips down toward the ocean and we start to lose visibility.” I gestured to the cliff on our right. “We’re only about ten feet from the edge, so if anything up and attacks us from the cliff, we’ll have the least warning there. Except that those rocks on the edge are loose and will probably make a buncha clckclckkkkk pa-chocock noises or something if anything scrambles over them to attack.”

I turned and faced the princess, smiling. Proud of myself. But she just looked at me in horror. Jaw open. Even her ethereal mane went astray and started to frizz.

“What?” I asked. “What's wrong?”

“Nothing,” she said, and turned away from me - collected her thoughts - gazed over the edge of the cliff at the ocean and the starry sky.

“You're still sparkling, you know.” She sighed.

I looked down, and saw myself. A brighter version of myself. Like I was made of glitter. Or crystal. Or glittery crystal. It was that Crystal Empire glow. That magic. I had brought it back with me.

“Did you notice?”

“No.” I answered, totally stunned.

* * *

To our left was the one thing I didn't mention: the schoolhouse. It was one of those conversation elephants. The shadows seemed to have completely retreated for the night, and I didn't doubt its safety. But everything about it still felt wrong. ‘Cause it just sat there. Like a schoolhouse. That sits in the middle of an empty field. For no reason. Even Luna snuck uncomfortable glances at it.

“Is this what you brought me--;”

“Just keep walking,” she said, squeezing her eyes shut good and tight.

The princess swallowed hard - a great big loud alicorn-sized gulp, and took deep breaths. When she finally opened her eyes again, she was a totally different pony - as stiff as Colonel Wormwood.

“Are you alri…” I started to ask her about it - to talk about that castle - what it had been, what it had become, what it meant to her, but before I could get one more word out, FWIMP! She changed the subject.

“I am taking you to meet The Wanderer.” Luna said.

And just like that, my focus was totally redirected. Like she wanted. FWIMP - the sound of somepony completely and totally changing the subject.

“Oooh!” I said. “Who's that? It sounds mystical or whatever.”

“You could say that.” Luna cleared her throat.

“It's a creature.”

I knew she was distracting me, fwimping me. But still, my concerns softened a bit. ‘Cause once she got to talking about the Wanderer, Princess Luna seemed like her old self again.

“A creature?” I asked.

“A creature with a very special gift.” She continued.

“Cool! What kinda creature? Can it talk?”

“No.”

“Awww.”

“How many eyes does it have? Five? Seven? A thousand?”

“Two.”

“Awww.”

“But its gift, if you will allow me to finish, is to walk between dreams.”

When I didn't answer, the princess looked down, and checked on me to make sure I’d understood. But I hadn't. She’d confused the hell out of me. I had no idea what Luna was talking about, so she slowed down and spoke all instructive-like at me.

"Every dream has a door." She said. “And there…”

She gestured at the stars.

“...There is a long, near infinite hallway of doors that leads to everyponies’ dreams.”

“And The Wanderer, uh...wanders between them?”

“Yes.”

“To help ponies? Like you did for me?”

“No.”

My muscles tensed up. All at once. Was this gonna be another fight? A demon to face? A monster to slay?

“To hurt them?” I asked.

“No.” Luna said dryly.

“Well, what does it do, then?! What does it want?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

Until tonight.” Luna replied. “The Wanderer always steers clear of dreams with a shadow presence. Even run of the mill nightmares it won't dare go near, but tonight, when the shadows attacked, this creature started pounding on your door. I had to barricade it just to make sure we weren’t disturbed.”

“Why me?”

“That's what I hope to find out." Luna answered.

* * *

The ground we were walking on started to slope downward, and dip into a path that led to the raucous ocean below. The princess stole one final look at the schoolhouse before it disappeared from view.

In that moment, she reminded me of Colonel Wormwood. ‘Cause she got all stiff and inscrutable. It was then that I suddenly realized what was eating at her - why the schoolhouse castle troubled her so.

“You miss them, don't you?" I asked.

She turned to me, pain on her face. Like I had just ripped the scab from a wound.

“Miss whom?”

"The kids." I said. “Who used to live in that castle with you. You miss them."

"Yes." She said stiffly, but didn't offer up another word.

And I didn't press her, desperate as I was for answers. I just leaned up against her.

"I'm so sorry." I said.

Princess Luna sunk. Slouched. That ethereal mane of hers waved carelessly against my face, and in it, I could see the whole universe. Stars everywhere. Just for an instant. Then the hair parted, and I found myself looking straight up at the princess’ face.

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and sighed.

“Guilt is a powerful thing, Rose.” She said non-sequiturishly. “It can drive a pony to build an orphanage. It can drive a pony to suicide.”

She opened up her deep blue eyes.

“The shadows will use your conscience against you. If they cannot drag you into their castle, they'll make you desperate enough to try to storm it all by yourself, and trick you into thinking that you can.”

There was ferocity in her voice. Anger. I could tell that she wanted to gallop back up the hill, dash over to that empty schoolhouse, bust down the door herself, and look for clitweasels to stomp.

“Is that why the shadows are after my friends?" I asked her at last, stammering. “To get me mad enough to come after them?”

"Yes," said Luna.

My heart sank a thousand miles to the bottom of the earth.

“...And no.” She continued. “Their plans and machinations are multifaceted. Right now, they are placing their best stones at the tops of the highest stairs. Nopony is safe. They will come for you again, and they will come for your friends, but you cannot blame yourself, child. One way or another, they were planning to come.”

“But not for my friends.”

Luna hesitated. “Perhaps.” She said. “But are you certain you're the only one they're after?”

“Huh?”

I looked up at her, squinting in confusion. I was, after all, the filly with the demon hoof. The princess looked down on me, all warm and compassionate-like, and patient.

“Every heart is full of magic, Rose Petal. Love. Friendship. It is what the darkness dreads. It is what they hope to destroy in us when they shackle ponies to their own fears. It's our magic...our--;”

Luna stopped. Rolled her eyes up, trying to think of a word she couldn't quite recall.

“Purity,” I said.

“That's a good way of putting it.” She replied.

“Purity corrupts,” I whispered to myself, recalling the old Trottica slogan. I got to wondering who had put that idea in The Priestess’ mind in the first place.

“You have friends that are very pure of heart. Would you presume your personal battles with the shadows to be more important than that?”

“Yeah, I mean no. I guess not. Not when you put it like that. It’s just that, uh...well, something Zebro told me just before I ran into the Crystal Wall and fell into the Pit of Infinite Duckies.”

Luna blinkitty-bloinked at me again.

“This zebra medic from the future said my hoof was Tu’kamba, and that the shadows feared me ‘cause I could hoof against them...Or something, I dunno.”

Luna’s lips tightened.

“What?”

“Rose,” she sighed. “I can tell what you're thinking. You plan to seek Zecora’s advice.”

“Yeaaaaah.” I said sheepishly.

I felt like I had been smacked. The princess knew what I'd been thinking. But she disapproved. What the hell?

“...And I would not dissuade you of this course.” Luna held up a hoof settle-down-ishly. “Zecora is indeed wise.”

“Buuuuut…”

“How do I put this? Zebras know a great deal about evil and how it works,” Luna told me. “They may even have learned things about the shadows that I myself do not know.”

The princess grew visibly uncomfortable. She bit her lip, closed her eyes.

“But you've got to take zebra findings with a grain of salt. I’m afraid that sometimes their wisdom tends to get bogged down by misconceptions and superstitions.”

“Like, how?”

I didn't want to judge zebras. I had seen those horrible posters from the future. But on the other hoof, if Luna distrusted zebra wisdom, I was willing to bet that she at least had some kind of reason. What I didn't get was: why the beating around the bush? If there was some horrible zebra secret, why didn't she just fucking tell me already?!

“Rose Petal, listen to me. You can learn much from Zecora, but please trust me when I tell you that the zebras, while mostly well informed, have also developed some misguided ideas about shadow-evil, particularly in regards to its origins.”

“Tell me then!” I said. “What's going on? What is up with the stupid doom castle that tried to eat me?!”

I stood on my hind legs, and gestured wildly at the direction of the schoolhouse that had passed out of sight.

“I know you want me to think, and meditate, and whatnot on all the pretty scenery in my brain, but these things are after me, and it's my fight too.” I stopped, held up my evil hoof. “Please, princess! Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty please. I need to know. What's with the castle?”

Luna stopped. Looked at me patiently until i was done flailing.

“I mean, your highness.” I added hurriedly when I realized I had just wigged out at a princess. I let out a nervous little laugh and clumsily tried to curtsey and walk at the same time. Luna didn't seem to mind.

“It's a place of power,” she said. “A castle on a cloud - full of a magic as old as dreams themselves.”

The princess lit up her horn, and pointed to the sky. An image of a cloud appeared, and molded itself - changed form - to show me what the shadow castle had looked like once upon a time.

"I discovered it long ago, and turned it into a sanctuary for troubled souls.”

The image was so clear. I could see it all as it once had been. Its great halls, and long corridors, packed with playing children. I even saw Princess Luna - young Princess Luna - tucking them all in at night. One by one.

And their dreams! I could see earth pony kids, flying with no wings at all - like you do in your dreams. And little foals walking side by side with their imaginary friends - equipomorphic donuts with big smiles on their faces, and clownish anteater buddies with way too many arms.

“But as is often the case with troubled souls, the troubles followed.” Said the real Princess Luna as the vision-castle drowned in ink and vanished in a puff of mist. “Took form. I...thought I could defend the children against them by myself.”

She squeezed her eyes shut good and tight. Sucked in a deep breath to brace herself for having to finish that thought, but she never did. Just let out a trembling sigh, hung her head, and kept walking.

“I thought I could.” She whispered to herself.

* * *

Submine F. The boy I left behind my very first night in the Wasteland. That damn tunnel. Seventh, or was it second? I reflected on my vast smorgasbord of failings. All the way down to the beach. Over rocks and crags and patches of washed up seaweed that I slipped on more than once. But I couldn’t help it. All I could think about was that It Should Have Been Me feeling. And the horrifying realization that whatever Luna must have felt was probably a thousand times worse.

She had been carrying that pain for such a long time. I felt for her - really felt for her. I had this drive to just leap forward and hug her, and tell her that she was wonderful – one of the good ones. Maybe even the best one. But I had no idea how to put it into words. 'Cause how do you comfort a princess? How does anyone? I couldn't think of anything. Not a single word to say. So I just walked beside her, trembling until we got to the water.




Luna stopped. Looked out over the vast wide ocean. The sea breeze was whipping sand up in my face, but her ethereal mane remained perfect as always. She sat down on a great big rocky platform, and broke the silence at long last.

“I'm so sorry.” She said.

She was looking right at me too. It wasn't even one of those generalized I'm so sorry for all the pain I've caused apologies. She was apologizing. To me. Directly.

“For what?"

“Your fate seems to be entangled with the shadows.”

“That? That's not your fault," I shrugged - the world’s most generic response to apologies.

But it didn't help. At all. ‘Cause Princess Luna kept looking at me. And I kept on not knowing what to say. The sadness in her millennia-old eyes clobbered my heart with a giant moon-shaped feels-hammer, and it made me feel lost. Afraid. Luna - the princess of the fucking moon - was giving me one of those it should have been me looks. The thought that had haunted Wormwood, and me, and so many of those soldiers back in the trenches - it had plagued an alicorn princess. The very best of us. Nopony was immune.

“I may not be able to fight your battles for you,” she said. “But I want you to know that I’m not abandoning you. The moon is always watching, and I will never stop fighting the shadows.”

“I know.” I said.

And the silence that followed was punctuated only by the roar of the ocean, and this dark booming sound that seemed to roll in with it.




I thought about what Luna’d said. All the horrors that fate had put me through. The mines. The war. The nightmares. Grownups couldn't have accomplished any of that. And I wouldn't wish it on any other kid.

“It's my fight too." I said.

Princess Luna turned to me. But I didn’t say anything. Just stood tall and proud and held up my evil hoof. Those clitweasels had mutilated me, haunted me, followed me - fucked with me so hard, that the whole inky nightmareitty mess was already way too personal for comfort.

“I can't go back now,” I told the princess. “Even if there was a way to make it stop, even if poof! I could eat a magic sandwich that would get me outta this, and in the process, turn everything around me into awesome sandwiches instead, so I could eat delicious sandwiches all the time - even if I could, I...wouldn't.”

The princess looked me up and down. She was clearly shocked - taken aback. I guess she was used to dealing with regular kids and their regular nightmares. But me? I stood at attention. Saluted her. Sure, I wasn't in front of Wormwood anymore, but I was dedicated to Luna’s cause, and damnit, it felt right.

“Please don't pity me, ma’am.” I said in my most soldierly voice.

Luna shook her head. “I wouldn't dream of it.”

* * *

We sat there together for a good long while. ‘Till at last I said to her, "We should probably look into all of that Wanderer stuff.”

Luna didn't react. Just leaned in close. And plunged her face all up in my mane.

“What are you--;”

She tugged at my hair, and spit out a piece of seaweed that I hadn't known was tangled there. She could have just levitated it. She could have kept her distance. But she’d grabbed it with her teeth. Almost motherly-like.

And when her mouth was right up against my ear, she whispered. “We're already here.”

“What do you mean?”

I looked left, looked right – looked all around, and frantically ran my hooves through my mane to straighten it out. As if the Wanderer would care how it looked. But I didn't see anyone. Or anything.

'Till boom! That ocean sound. When I listened carefully, I could hear it better. A sound like thunder coming from the cliffs. I jumped up. Clung to Luna's leg.

"What was that?"

Luna took her time in answering me. “Ready when you are." She said, and pointed, all ominous-like.

I followed her hoof with my eyes, and traced it to the wall of the cliff. There was a hole in that wall. A cave. The little rock clearing that I was standing on lead right to it. A jagged little path.

Boom boom boom!" Said the cave.

"What's the hell is in there?" I whispered.

"Your door."

"And that banging is--;"

She nodded.

"I'll be near if there's any trouble,” said the princess. “But the Wanderer is afraid of me, so I'll stay out of sight."

Boom!” The cave said again. “Boom, boom, boom!" That door sure was loud.

"Okay. If you say so. Are you sure I'll--;"

I turned around. But Princess Luna was already gone. It was just me, and the rolly waves roaring against the shore.

* * *

I headed for the cave, more than a little on edge. Even if I knew what to expect in there, the banging noise was very loud. Just bracing myself to get startled again got me super tense. When I came to the mouth of the cave, I stopped to peer inside.

“Damnit,” I said out loud.

It was dark in there.

Of course it's dark in there. I chided myself. It's a fucking cave.

And in I went. No more messing around. No more stalling. It was dank, and super annoying. I was totally blind. But I pushed myself forward anyway, determined not to wuss out on my first royal assignment.

"Stupid brain," I muttered to myself. “Why’d you have to stick my brain door in a stupid cave?”

My words echoed off the walls, but when the sound of my voice decayed, I heard something else - trickling waters.

"Hello?" I said.

Boom! Went the door. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom! Like it had all of a sudden gotten doubly excited. I could even see it once I figured out where to look. The door had a certain light to it even though it appeared to be made out of wood.

It glowed, and faint as it was, I could see it all the way from the other end of the cave. It lit up this trickley little waterfall that emptied into a tiny pool.

Boom! Boom! Boomboomboomboomboom!

The banging was constant now. It knew that I was here. I turned around and looked back over my rump. The mouth of the cave still there, of course. Bright and shining. A clear escape path should I need one.

"Luna says it's harmless." I whispered to myself. "You'll be fine."

And deeper in I went.

* * *

The doorway was barricaded with boards. So I swallowed my fears, and lifted the planks from their braces, one by one. All but the last block of wood, which I left to hold the door in place as I fiddled with the little latches, and locks, and hooks, and things. I loosened those with my teeth. Jumped every time the door shook.

Boom! Boom! Boom!




I got to the final latch, and the final board.

Hiding behind it was a picture, painted onto the door itself. A scattering of rose petals. My cutie mark. The board was big and heavy like a 4" by 4". I had to get under it and lift it with my back, but I managed. Even as the door banged against me like there was a wrecking ball on the other end, I stayed focused on my task.

'Till dujj. The great big board hit the ground. And the banging stopped. The Wanderer was on the other end. Listening. With the final bit of wood out of the way, all that remained was one little latch. I think the creature somehow knew that.

I reached for it. Stuck out my head and got ready to flip it. There was a rumbling snifflysnuff waiting for me on the other end.

"Luna says it's safe." I reassured myself, squeezed my eyes shut, and turned open the last latch with my teeth. '

The very instant I flipped it, the handle got to jiggling. I scurried backwards. Ran into a wall. Pressed myself against it with my back.

The door dragged open, pushing away all the discarded boards and stuff. And out leapt this creature. Confused. Lost. Furry as hell and way bigger than me. It smelled its way around the dark. Growled at the air. Let out a rumble that boomed and echoed all up and down the cave.

I backed up further, inched toward the exit. But it was no use. The creature saw me. It stopped. Froze. Lowered its shaggity head, raised its backside, and lunged.

"Ahhh!" I shrieked.

And whack! It knocked me to the ground. Stood over me. I threw my forelegs up to shield my face, but the Wanderer shoved its head through them with brute force. And licked my cheeks.

I looked up. It was some kinda great big dog. I pried its mouth from my face with all my strength - pushed it away with my legs. Somewhere in that struggle, I caught sight of the Wanderer's eyes.

I knew them! I knew her.

"Screw Loose? I mean, Queenie?"

She bounded all around. Elated. Excited to hear her name. Ecstatic to see me safe.

"You're the Wanderer?"

I had a thousand questions, most of them some variation of: What? Huh? How?

But Screw Loose just leapt, and bounded, and spun around all over the damn place - up-and-down, back-and-forth, wagging her tail, running in circles. When she darted through the light, I got a better peek at her. She looked like a big gray dog with wild pale blue hair. Maybe normal pony height, but twice as wide. Big for dog, but hardly monstrous for a pony.

"Screw Loose, Screw Loose, Screw Loose, Screw Loose, Screw Loose!" I called, whistled, tried to get her attention.

But she just ran around all frantic-like. Occasionally stopping to lick me in the face again.

"Hold on a second, hold on!” I shouted. "Please, Queenie...I’m calling in a friend, okay? And I don't want you to get scared!"

I shouted so loud the cavern made those big echoes at me. But she just wouldn't. Calm. Down.

"Queeeenie," I pleaded to no avail.

"Damn it, sit!" I shouted.

Pomf. Her rump hit the ground. She gave me this piteous wide-eyed, I'm-not-in-trouble, am-I? look.

I sighed. Trotted over to her. She leapt up again as I approached.

"Ah, ah, ah!" I said, all authoritarian-like. "Sit."

The dogpony did as she was told. And gave me nervous puppy eyes as I approached.

She was so damn fragile and childlike.

I sighed, nuzzled up against her, and said, "Good girl,” because I didn't know what else to do.

She was no dog. No child either. But Queenie sighed in relief when she heard the praise. Rested her head on top of mine. And licked my mane. Next thing I know, she's drawing me closer, and sobbing.

I felt like I did back when I was five years old, and this soapbox scooter I was riding flew out from under me and down into a ravine. I was totally fine, but Roseluck’d thought I'd died, and when she found me unharmed, she hugged me so tight I couldn't breathe, and wept all over me ‘till I was like, "Geez, let me go already, I'm fine."

That's what Queenie did. See wept like a mom.

"Shh." I said, and let her do her thing. "Good girl."

And she just wept, and wept, and wept, and held me close.

* * *

When she finally started to calm down, I took a step away, and said, "Listen. I have a friend outside this cave. I need you to come with me and meet her. You can trust her. So don't run away, okay? Friend. Friend."

She looked back-and-forth, a little nervous. I got the feeling that she was like me, always looking for exits just in case of attack.

"Trust me." I said. "Now come on."

Queenie followed. Held her head up high. Proud of obeying. Proud of being a good dog. It felt weird.

We had all fought so hard for freedom - the slaves of Trottica - the soldiers of No Mare’s Land. Only for me to come home to this grown mare who was just so damn eager to belong to me. I held my tongue. Lead the way. Gave her reassuring looks, because it's what she needed. When we stepped out into the open, Screw Loose sniffed at the air. I didn't smell anything. Only oceany stuff. But she did, and she had to do her sniffly dog thing.





"Okay, now I want you to meet somepony. You ready?”

The overgrown dogpony stopped. Got all hesitant and nervous-like, but in the end, puffed out her chest like a show dog. She was telling me she had herself under control.

“Princess Luna, you can come out now."

The princess came up behind us from inside the cave. Looking majestic. Horn aglow and everything. Queenie startled, but I leapt up and hugged her.

“Shh," I said firmly. "Stay. Staaay."

Queenie obeyed. She and Luna looked at one another, then back at me.

"I see you two are acquainted," Luna said awkwardly. "Which would explain her eagerness to..."

"Come to my rescue." I said.

"Yes." Luna replied. "That."

"Alright, where to begin? Queenie, also known as Screw Loose, also known as the Wanderer, this here is Princess Luna, also known as, uh...Princess Luna. She guards dreams and stuff." I pointed to the princess. "Princess Luna, this is Screw Loose. She's sort of…my dog...kinda."

"Your dog?"

"Well, she's actually a pony."

"A pony?”

That seemed to shock Luna more than anything else.

"Well, she's a pony who thinks she's a dog."

Screw Loose tensed up.

"Shush," I said. "I know you're really a dog, but..."

Screw Loose tilted her head at me, all canine and confused.

"...Oh you know very well that you're not easy to explain. Now shh, be a good girl and give Luna your paw."

Queenie dutifully held up a paw. And sat there at attention. Looking to me for reassurance. Luna came forward hesitantly, gave me a What-do-I-do? look. I replied - gave her one of those, Go-on, shake-her-paw-already gestures with my eyeballs.

So the princess lifted a hoof. And it met Queenie's paw. And they shook.

"Pleasure to finally make your acquaintance."

Queenie just bit her doggie jowl nervously. I was struck by how pony a gesture it was for so canine a face.

"Why are you so afraid, girl?" I asked.

"She's been avoiding me." Answered Princess Luna. "Hiding ever since I became aware of her existence last year."

"She managed to get away from you for that long?"

"I have not been actively hunting her." Luna replied. "I've been curious, but the realm of sleep has an ecosystem all it's own, and all manner of..."

Luna stopped to look Screw Loose over.

"Oddities." Luna lowered Queenie's paw, turned to me and continued. "There's no time to pursue every last one, but now that we are all here together, I have many questions. What strange world did you find her in?"

"Oh, back home at Ponyville."

"Ponyville?"

"Yeah."

"Ponyville?!" She repeated. Luna was so shocked by the news that she broke her royal princessity bearing.

"She lives over at the hospital ‘cause she runs around all over the place acting like a dog."

Luna thought about it long and hard.

"What I don't get," I continued. "Is how she could be your Wanderer. Or how she's even a dog! Back home she looks totally pony."

Then suddenly it dawned on me. This was a dream.

"Hay!" I shouted. "Can I be anything I want too? Ooh! Can I be a sandwich the next time I travel to the future? A fire-breathing sandwich?"

"No."

"Awwww."

"Every world has rules to protect itself.” She lectured. “Some are more flexible than others, but you can't bring just any being into a world where such beings don't already exist. The Universe will not allow it. Unless you found a world populated by fire-breathing sandwiches, there is no way that you could become one."

I thought about it. It made a certain kinda sense. But it also got me wondering.

"What if I found a magic portal to a world where there were no ponies, just sandwiches. Would I come out the other end, and turn into a sandwich?" I pressed. "You know, so that I fit in?"

Luna put hoof a in front of her mouth to hide her smirk. "Theoretically."

“Wow.”

There were so many possibilities. Infinite ones! The list was as vast and endless as the ducky-filled ether. They flickered through my head like a Las Pegasus slot machine, but for some reason my brain fixated on one possibility. One duckyverse.

"Soooo...hypothetically, if there was a world where the whole town was, like, you know one of those big city high schools I've read about, would you and Princess Celestia, be, you know, principals, instead of princesses?"

"No." Luna said dryly.

“Why not?”

"The Universe may be a strange place, but that is too silly and undignified a notion to entertain."

"But not the firebreathing sandwiches?"

"Slightly more plausible." She replied.

And that was that.




Luna scratched her chin with her hoof. Put those undignified notions out of her head. And watched Queenie carefully. The big dog was too busy chewing on her own leg to notice.

“You say this creature is a pony?"

"Yeah."

"And she thinks she's a dog."

"Yeah."

"]It makes sense then that it would be her dream form."

"But that doesn't explain how she’s, you know, walking between dreams?"

Luna put a hoof on my shoulder. And looked me in the eyes.

"The world we can see and touch and smell is just a small aspect of the Universe.”

Luna levitated a small mirror. Held it up in front of me till I was looking right at my own reflection.

“Tell me what you see.”

“Uh...me?”

The image was particularly clear, even if I was looking a little disheveled.

This is the mind of a pony who functions in everyday society. Your image is whole – something that ponies recognize and understand – something that fits in.”

“Just like a firebreathing sandwich fits in Sandwichia!” I exclaimed.

“Sandwichia?”

“The Land of the Firebreathing Sandw--;”

“Yes, well anyway,” Luna interrupted. “Keep looking at the mirror.”

I did. Stared really hard. ‘Till the glass all of a sudden shattered. Out of the blue.

“Ahhh!”

The damn thing startled me. When I shouted, Screw Loose leapt up.

“No, no, no.” I said, rushing over to her. “It's okay.”

I nuzzled her chest with my face. “Sssh.” I said, and did my best to reassure her.

The floaty mirror floated on over to us. I turned to Luna.

"I get it. Her brain is broken.”

Luna gave me a stern look. So I gave the mirror a second chance. Examined it carefully. But all I saw was about eighty fragments of Screw Loose.

“The Wanderer’s consciousness is divided - split between worlds.” Said Luna. “The Universe is a vast puzzle of intertwining realms, and sometimes, a mind can move around several of them at once, just like you can see several versions of her reflection in each shard of the broken mirror."

I looked away from the glass. Looked straight at Screw Loose. The actual Screw Loose. Her tail was wagging. And something behind her eyes wasn't quite there.

"So when you break your brain, you go crazy, and get superpowers?"

"Perhaps." Luna said. "Or maybe it was her powers that drove her crazy in the first place."

I suddenly remembered what it was like to be sitting in the classroom. Drawing Strawberry Lemonade. Frantically. I could've gone at it for a week, and I wouldn't have noticed. Because in that moment, I was there, my consciousness, in Trottica. I could see her. Clearer than anything I could perceive with just my eyes. The One I Was Meant to Save.

While I had been busy scratching away at that picture, my brain was far from Ponyville. And when I'd snapped out of it, Miss Cheerilee had told me that art - truly inspired art - was always a little bit cuckoo.

I reached up with my hoof to touch Queenie. When she lowered her head, I scratched it.

Was that weird drawing trance state of mind how she lived her whole life? Brain so deep in so many scribblelands, that she’d forgotten how to pull herself together?

Could the same thing could happen to me?

"You have quite a special friend there, Rose." Said Luna.

She'd been watching us. She just stood back and admired the two of us together as the sound of the ocean filled the little gaps in our conversation.

"Because her head is a broken mirror?" I asked.

"No. That is actually more common than you might think.”

“What then?”

“In all my months of observation, I've learned that the Wanderer fears the shadows more than anything. But tonight she charged against them to come to your aid."

"Awwww."

I smiled. Queenie smiled back with her great big dog face. Flopped on her back, belly in the air. I giggled. Climbed up on her, and scratched her belly. But then, as Princess Luna’s words settled in, a disturbing notion crossed my mind.

"Do you think the shadows got her? Are they the ones who, uh, broke her brain to begin with?

"I don't know, child."

"Can we find out?"

"It's possible, but only if you get her to go back to her own door, but--;"

"Yipe!" Something awakened in Screw Loose’s eyes. Something sentient. Something pony. She leapt up, and, in her panic - thud - knocked me to the ground. Without hesitation, she ran away whimpering back into my cave.

“Yipe, yipe, yipe, yipe, yipe!”

"Stop!" I shouted, but she didn't listen. "Stay! Queenie, stay!"

I ran in after her. Into the echoey cave. Back toward the door, and the trickling water.

"Queeeeeenie!"

I tripped on a rock in the dark. Climbed back up again. Ran panting to the door. But when I got there, it was closed. And there was no sign at all that anypony had been there, or anydog.

Luna came up from behind me, lighting the way with her horn. "I do not think she's ready."

"Queenie?" I whimpered.

I was answered by the echo. "Queenie, Queenie, Queenie, Queenie, Queenie."

"She'll be back." Said Luna.

“You think so?"

"I am certain." She replied. "A powerful magic draws you two together."

“Really?” I sniffled.

And was shocked when I heard my own voice bouncing off of those stonewalls. I sounded like such a little foal.

“Yes.” Princess Luna nodded.




She seemed so confident that I stopped. Thought about it. I mean reeeeally thought about it.

What if I hadn't swallowed all of that tea? Or even if I had swallowed just a little bit more, or a little bit less of it? I might not have been awake for the time when Screw Loose came romping through my room. I might never have known that she existed! And she might never have decided that she just had to be my dog.

And what about her being the Wanderer? One who knows how to avoid shadows? Travel the dream world? Maybe even the duckyverse? What were the odds of her just happening to cross my path? Everything had fallen into place just so. It couldn't be coincidence. Nothing ever was.

Luna was right! We were being drawn together. A powerful magic indeed.

"Fate." I whispered, mildly astonished, still running all the what if's, and the ohmygosh-I-see-it-all-so-clearly-now's through my brain.

"No. " Luna replied.

I looked to her. Cocked my head in confusion.

"Wuh?"

"Friendship."

I blushed. "Oh yeah." I said, all sheepish-like.

I'd been overthinking things again. Stupid Rosebrain! I looked back into that cave. Where my pony dog friend had retreated.

"Friendship." I said, and headed out of the cave with Princess Luna by my side.

* * *

She was right about friendship. But I still had fate on my mind. So many questions! So I summoned my courage and poked her for answers.

"Luna? Can I ask you something? About, you know, destiny?"

She nodded.

"Well, I know you’re, like, willing to die for the cause. Like you said. But I, uh...I've been wondering. You see..." Sick of beating around the bush, I sighed, took one great big gigantic breath, and let it all out. "Does it really have to be that way? Is there really nothing we can do? Is the world just going to end. How can Equestria just blow the fuck up like that? I mean, really, what the hell?"

I clapped my hooves to my mouth. Luna was not amused.

“I'm sorry."

“It would be wise to temper your futuristic vocabulary." She said. "Especially when you go home."

“Yeah," I said. “That sounds like a good idea."

I shuffled my hooves. Avoided looking her in the eye. So stupid! Me and my shit fucking futurisms.

"As for the world, Rose Petal, the future has many paths. Sometimes, even when they split off in wildly different directions, they still lead to the same place."

Those last couple of words seemed to echo. Even without the cave.

Luna shook her head. "It is not in my power to stop the end.”

The waves suddenly crashed against the rocks, louder than they had before. The silence that followed felt all the heavier.

“But we have something more important to do.” Said the princess.

I blink-bloinked at her.

“Huh?” I said out loud.

More important than saving the world? My brain scrambled itself trying to process what she was saying – scrambled so hard that one of my futurisms almost slipped out.

“We may be able to lay the groundwork for a new beginning."

Princess Luna looked out over the vast wide ocean. All determinationy. The twilight hours had invited all kinds of daytime stuff like a much lighter sky, and early morning seagulls kicking the shit out of each other on the shore.

"Golden ages never last, child.” Luna hung her head. “It is not their job to. All things crumble with time.”

She shut her eyes. Took a deep breath, and turned to me.

“...But civilization always finds a way. Ponies look to those golden ages. They look, and they remember. They dream of the way things once had been. They aspire. And…” She held up a hoof, all instructive-like. “They build."

"All it takes is a story." I said to myself, thinking not only of the Lightbringer, and how she’d discovered (or would eventually discover) the stories of my time, but also, how her story would inspire so many others in the generations that followed.

Every No Mare’s Land soldier had grown up playing games based on those stories, dreaming of heroism. Big Blue had Princess Luna to aspire toward – or at least her thoughts of what Luna must've been like. Dazzle Shine had Littlepip. Even Colonel Wormwood, the most pragmatic of the bunch, had founded her military career upon a childhood dream of living up to the example of the great Strawberry Lemonade.

“Equestria is more than lines on a map or princesses in a throne room.” Said Luna. “It's a dream we all share, and important dreams – the kind of dreams that bear messages – always recur. It's how we remember who we are - who we are supposed to be - as ponies. The end of Equestria as we know it is inevitable. One day, in one form or another, it will fall,”

I held in a sigh. Watched the ground. ‘Cause I didn't wanna think about it. But Luna reached down, and lifted my chin with her silver clad hoof.

“But if everything goes as it’s supposed to, we can save the dream.”

Luna smiled down on me. Eyes far sadder than her lips.

“But, but, but--;” I stuttered.

I didn't know what to say. Because I actually understood what she was saying. Because it actually felt right. Because my fights with the shadows all of a sudden made fucking sense. It wasn't just about nightmares. And stealing pony souls. It was about rocks on top of staircases killing kings. They were fucking with history. Trying to prevent us from remembering who we were supposed to be. Trying to keep the stories from happening. Trying to keep us in the dark.

But knowing it to be true just made the whole thing that much harder. As I stood there listening to the princess, I freaked out silently. ‘Cause even if Equestria was a dream, it was also my home. My friends’ home. My sister’s. What good is a dream for somepony else's distant future when your own future - your own life - is just gonna go up in smoke?

Luna knelt down to my level, which, for her, meant crouching pretty damn low. She reached out and wiped tears from my eyes that I hadn't even realized I’d been shedding.

“Rose Petal, listen. When the end draws nearer, if it is in my power to do so, I will fight it,” she said. “I will not go gently into that good night, and neither will you.”

“What do you mean if it's in your power?” I sniffled.

“The Elements have been passed on, and the Era of the Princess is passing quickly with it.” She said. “I'm afraid that very much of what lies ahead may no longer be my story. But I promise you…Look at me, child.”

She lifted my chin again. Forced me to meet her eyes so that I could understand the gravity of her promise.

“Like a captain goes down with her ship, I will never give up. I will fight for Equestria down to my last breath. I'll fight with my very bones if I have to.”

“Your w-w-what?”

The whole world felt like it suddenly narrowed into a tiny pinhole. Luna, the beach, the cave - it was all so distant. I could only think about what would become of the princess. What would become of her bones.

It all makes sense. My Rose Voices said to me. It all makes perfect sense.

My heart leapt up into my head and pounded against the inside of it. Like it was trying to leap out through my ear.

Eventually, I heard the princess again. She was calling my name.

“Rose? Rose?”

When I realized that she was still beside me, I leapt up and threw myself at her. Hugged her. Squeezed her as tightly as anypony possibly could. To feel her coat. To feel her flesh while it was still attached to her bones. She held me gently. Rocked back and forth like she was holding a foal. And even though the future was terrifying, in that moment, I knew peace. ‘Cause the Era of the Princess wasn't over yet.

* * *

We sat like that a good long while. ‘Till the sun appeared over the horizon, and fucked it all up. I could hear voices. Nurse voices. Hospital voices from the waking world.

“Hay! I think she's waking up.” One of them said.

As though my regaining consciousness was some kind of surprise.

“Thank Celestia, she's okay.” Said another.

As I watched the first rays of sunshine warm the top layer of the ocean with a thousand faint little colors, I heard Princess Luna muttering under her breath.

“Yes, thank Celestia.” She said bitterly.

I spun around to look at her one more time before the sun came, and I had to go back to the waking world.

“Thank you.” I said.

She smiled at me warmly. She'd needed to hear that.

“Be good, child. Teach your friends.” She whispered into my ear. “And train your dog.”

“Okay,” I said to her softly. "So...is this it? Am I ever gonna see you again?"

"You won't need to," she replied. "If ever you feel lost, or afraid, all you need to do to find your way is look to the Moon."


LEVEL UP:

+5 - Ducky Navigation

+10 - Psychic Perception

+10 - Social Intelligence, (Wormwood-like powers of observation)

Author's Note:

The quote I used at the beginning of the chapter is oft misquoted. Neil Gaiman, in Coraline, said, "Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten." This was a paraphrase of a famous quote by G.K. Chesterton, which Gaiman gave proper credit to.

The original Chesterton quote is:
"Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon." The opening of this chapter quoted the Gaiman version because it is more succinct, but Chesterton deserves proper attribution as well.

Special thanks to Seraphem for going over the same couple of passages again, and again, and again with me. I get OCD about details, and if I were him, I would have smacked me by now. Seraphem, I think the chapter, and the story as a whole benefits greatly from your dedication and patience.

Also, thanks to Kkat for believing in, and promoting this story within the fandom; and to the FOE subreddit community for voting for this story to be featured on EqD. I am very grateful that so many people seem to care about Rose Petal.

This concludes the No Mare's Land adventure, which I, in my head, consider to be "HOOVES OF FATE: BOOK TWO." I'm excited to get back to Ponyville in the next chapter. There's so much story left to tell, and I can't wait to get back to exploring Cliff Diver, and Bananas Foster, and the whole gang.

Thanks for reading.

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