• Published 27th Feb 2013
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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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Staring Contest With the Abyss

CHAPTER SIX – STARING CONTEST WITH THE ABYSS

“’There must be some kind of way out of here.’ Said the Joker to the Thief.” – Bob Dylan

I read a lot. I mean, like, a lot. And the one thing I totally hate is when you’re in the middle of reading some totally awesome pirate story, and right when they’re all facing an army of skeletons or sea monsters or whatever, the pirates choose that exact moment to get all touchy-feely, and bicker about their special someponies or some garbage. I can’t stand that. Seriously! It drives me crazy. ‘Cause nothing in the world can ever be as pathetic as a whiny pirate.

Anyway, you can imagine my annoyance and frustration when the kids all around me started acting like that in real life. Getting all stupid and emotional when so much was at stake.

Ok, so I was guilty of it too. Yeah, I should have been focused on getting the hell out of there. I should have put my thinkiness aside for later - locked it away in a box somewhere with an envelope tied to it that says “DO NOT OPEN ‘TILL SAFE.”

But what could I do? It came out of nowhere. BOOM! Misty and I find each other, flanking The One We Were Both Apparently Meant to Save, and suddenly we knew that that panic - that vision, this whole mission – it was something that we shared.

Is Misty like me? Another traveler. A dreamer? A pony so completely out of his mind that he put his big stupid head on his pillow one night, and dreamt himself into this total dump of a future?

Or maybe he was another Wasteland kid who just so happened to be cursed with the same brain-boilingly vague mission that I was? Get the girl who’s stuck behind the hole in the wall to safety.

The one thing I could be absolutely certain of was that Misty knew something that I didn’t.

I looked up at The One I’m Meant to Save. Then back at Misty. Then back at her. And back at him. Her. Him. Her. Him. Her. Him.

The One finally snapped. “What the fuck is going on?”

I suddenly realized how awkward the whole thing must have looked from her end.

Misty and I just stood there while she glowered at us.

Neither of us knew what to say, so we just plain didn’t answer her at all. As if that would fix everything. Finally, The One We Were Both Apparently Meant to Save lost all patience and shouted her squeaky little brains out.

“Why does everypony in the whole fucking world want to save me?!” She stomped her hooves and panted.

It was kinda scary to see this soft-spoken little pony suddenly burst into blinding rage, but we had it coming. “Tell me what’s going on. Right. Now.” She demanded.

Misty Mountain was still in shock, so he pretty much kept on ignoring her. In fact, the dummy didn’t take his fool eyes off of me for even a moment.

“Ees cause you are such nice pony,” He told The One We Were Both Apparently Meant to Save in a monotone voice. “Ees cause we like you.”

“Arg!” She growled.

Misty was impossible. Which left the handling of The One We Were Meant to Save entirely up to me. Whatever else was going on, getting the hell outta there, and keeping this girl safe had to come first. I wasn’t going to let any kind of whiny piratetry ruin that.

So I leapt up and grabbed the girl by the shoulder. She jumped in surprise, but I held on all the tighter. For what I was gonna try, I needed The One I’m Meant to Save to look me in the eye.

“Listen.” I said. “Listen careful-like.”

She actually paused. Whatever she may have been expecting from us, I don’t think she saw a pounce coming.

“What’s your name?”

“Um…Strawberry Lemonade.” She said.

“Ok, Strawberry, how do I put this? There’s a lot of uh…weirdy weirdness going on.”

I looked to Misty, who nodded in agreement. Weirdy weirdness. That about summed it up.

“You want the truth? I said. “Why you need to be saved? You of all fillies?”

She nodded, eyebrow all crooked-like.

My hooves shook. I felt like I was going to vomit, but I just clutched right on to Strawberry, and wouldn’t let go. That sense of terror I’d felt? It didn’t just go away when the vision was over. It rattled around in my brain like my skull was full of hornets. So I gripped her for dear life - as hard as an earth pony possibly could. I looked her square in the eye, and tried my damnedest not to give away the fact that I was scared out of my wits.

“I have absolutely no idea.” I said to her at long last.

There you go, Rose Petal. Now you’re on the right track. Comfort her some more.

“But’cha do need to be!” I added.

Strawberry blinked in surprise. I mean, clearly she had braced herself to disbelieve me – that much was obvious. But my total lack of logical answers, and blunt honesty about how none of this made any sense whatsoever – that of all things seemed to actually make her start to take me seriously.

“I just know that if you charge down into that pit like you’re planning, we’re all gonna die.”

Misty butted in to show his support, “Ees true.”

Strawberry Lemonade eyed him suspiciously. So strange to see Misty in agreement with anypony.

“What? Ees true!” He shrugged.

Ok. So I was in the middle of the most important talk of my young life – convincing our new fearless navigator (the only one who knew how to dig around for information in those giant whirring console doo-hickeys), not to fearlessly navigate us into some kinda fiery pit of destruction and torture. Worse yet, I had to get her to understand that my fears were based on a whole lot more than me just being a chicken.

But when I happened to glance over her shoulder, what did I see? Twinkle Eyes, beating the snot out of somepony in a nurse’s hat. She wailed on him so hard, it was actually really hard to concentrate.

“So what are you saying?” Said Strawberry Lemonade.

Across the room, I could see the little filly whacking that cloaky nurse right behind the leg till he fell to his knees. Without sparing even a teeny tiny moment, she leapt on the nurse, stomped the back of his leg and drove his kneecap straight into the concrete. He let out a scream that would have woken the dead, except that it got muffled by the blood-soaked tatter of cloak that had been stuffed into his mouth.

“I’m saying that, um, well…”

A tribe of children had gathered round to have a go at the nursey bastard. They fell on him like timberwolves. It was damn distracting.

“What the?” Strawberry Lemonade motioned to turn around, so I upped the ante.

“I’ve got a plan!” I shouted.

Nice save. A brilliant diversion-a-majig if ever there was one.

So good that Strawberry ignored the muffled screaming and moved in closer (along with half the other kids in the compound) to listen to me. The only problem was that there was no actual plan.

“Yeah, that’s right.” I added, suddenly finding myself on the spot. “I’m saying that, uh…I have a plan, and that, um…it’s a good plan?”

The children now surrounding me inched in even closer to hear the details.

“My plan is…”

Come on! Come on! Stupid brain! I need the most brilliantest escape plan ever, and I need it in 7 seconds or less.

“My plan is to, um…leave!” I said. “And, uh…leave…quickly?

The small crowd hung on my every stuttered word. It’s amazing how much faith they gave me just because I’d kinda sorta implied that there might be a way out, and that I might conceivably know what it was.

Twinkle’s posse, on the other hoof, was busy dragging the nurse by his mane and stomping him with a hundred tiny hooves. My friend, the Pink Microscopic Unicorn of Doom, pulled the cloth from his mouth, forced his jaw open, and propped it over the step that lead up into his office.

What is she doing? I thought.

“And, uh, after we leave.” I said. “We will, um…”

Twinkle lifted her hoof slowly. She was gonna stomp on the back of the nurse’s head, and smash the nurse’s jaw into dust! This was getting crazy. Too crazy.

“Stop!” I shouted, and ran toward Twinkle, shoving my way through the crowd (and abandonizing it to Misty’s devices).

Killing all those cloak-o’s was bad enough, even in self-defense. But stomping somepony’s teeth into powdery chalky teethy bits? Twinkle was losing it. I mean really bucking losing it.

She had her hoof lifted, and was ready to stomp him. As though it were nothing at all. She didn’t even look angry. If anything, Twinkle looked cool and collected. I think the scariest thing about her was that she hadn’t actually snapped at all. This was just Twinkle Eyes being herself.

The hoof never came down on the nurse, cause as I ran toward them, totally out of the blue, he squealed like a foal and blurted something out, “Nine, okay? Nine! There are nine of them!”

Twinkle Eyes lowered her leg slowly. He was telling her what she wanted to hear.

“They won’t be awake for at least another two hours.” The nurse continued, but at that point, it was barely anything more than a whole bunch of sobbing and incoherent pleas for mercy.

Twinkle listened carefully to all the sobs, and when she’d gotten what she wanted, stepped right over him like he was a rock. “Was that so fucking hard, ya drama queen?” She broke into a trot.

Then she saw me standing there, watching, and stopped dead in her tracks. She didn’t say a word, or even look me in the eye.

Instead, there was this tense, horrible silence between us.

My eyeballs started to water. I don’t know why it had to happen then at that exact moment, especially after all the other stuff we’d been though.

I guess it’s cause, ‘till then, I’d kinda thought that, in fighting for our freedom, that maybe we were fighting for something bigger - that this was about more than just survival.

That goodness? That purity of heart that the Priestess had rounded us up so cruelly to destroy all symbolic-like? I really thought it was worth taking a stand for. Hell, with all the weird twisty-turny bits that fate seemed like to pull with us, I’d even gotten the idea that defending the ideal of innocence (or whatever you wanna call it) might even have been my whole reason for being there.

But I was wrong. The Universe just dishes out the whats. We make up our own whys.

It turned out all that sunshine and rainbows stuff was already dead.

I stood there catching my breath – getting my bearings. Twinkle Eyes just watched me silently. Somehow, she managed to stare at me without daring to make eye contact.

“I’m sorry.” She sighed at long last. “I never said I was one of the good ones too.”

Then she trotted by me in silence.

And that was that.

I couldn’t believe it. What had just happened? Were we not friends anymore?!

I wanted to scream – to grab her and talk to her and tell her that everything was gonna be okay, (and while I was at it, drag Strawberry Lemonade the buck to safety and smack Misty Mountain and ask him what the hell kinda mystical junk he was keeping from me). I wanted to do a lot of things. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t even move. I just stood there crying, and tried my damnedest to do it quietly.

Damn it, Rose. Knock it off.

Then, totally out of the blue, I got this feeling. Like I was sailing. The hornets in my head that had been screeching at me constantly, saying things like, “Rose Petal, you screw up! Stop Strawberry Lemonade from sending you all down into the Great Below. She’s the one you’re meant to save. Don’t you realize that you moron?!”

They were all of a sudden quieter.

They didn’t shut up, mind you. Just got quieter. That alone was remarkable.

I looked up. Twinkle was talking to Misty and Strawberry Lemonade. They were pointing at that great big old glowy console again, (even explaining some of it to the kids who were still standing around). Charting a course, I’d bet.

Twinkle Eyes had information, and already the three of them had come up with a plan – an escape scheme that the hornets in my head didn’t hate. Had Twinkle not savagely beaten that nursey cloak-o, we probably would never have stood a chance of getting out of that room, let alone escaping the compound. Her total lack of scruples was the only thing that had empowered us to come up with a plan that shut the hornets up and let the rest of the night play out the way it’s supposed to happen.

Survival rewards the ruthless. I would have preferred the hornet’s nest to having to face that cold, awful realization.

It made me sick to my stomach.

But as I stood there, watching my friends hammer out a plan, pointing at screens and dials and things on the console, bickering over how best to save the kids headed for the great Down Below (without endangering Strawberry Lemonade, or dragging the other rescue-ees into harm’s way too much), I wondered if we had anything left that was even worth fighting for.

It was at that moment that I stopped and took a good hard look at myself – a filly with a mission, standing around in the middle of a danger zone, pining for lost ideals. I had become what I hated most in the world – a whiny pirate.


* * *


I wasn’t good at that “position so-and-so here” drawing-doodles-in-the-sand kinda stuff, so I let my friends do all the planning. Instead I went straight for the nurse. It wasn’t that I wanted to. It was just something I had to do.

First, I pulled the other kids off of the poor bastard. They were all kicking and grabbing and stomping at him while he was down.

“Buzz off!” I said as I yanked them away one by one. “Haven’t you heard those guys over there got a plan?” They bolted over to Misty in excitement.

When I finally got to the nurse, I knelt by him. Reached out to touch him with a hesitant hoof. I’d like to say that I mopped the sweat from his brow like some kind of noble Nurse Redheart and cleaned him - proved to him that even the ponies who he trampled on and jailed up could show him compassion. That we could be better than him. Or even that I’d made an effort to stop and make sense of pony brutality – to reflect on right and wrong and all that junk, and think about what Twinkle and the gang had actually done to him. Really think about it all philosophical like.

But that’s not what I did. I poked him. Just poked him. Like that dead squirrel I found in the woods once back when I was little. When the nurse didn’t respond, I poked him again. (I honestly wasn’t sure what else to do).

Eventually, his busted eye creaked open. He saw me crouched there next to him, all up-close in his face. First thing he did was cringe - tighten every muscle against every bone. Frozen like a statue of terror.

It freaked me out. I’d never imagined that anypony would ever look at me like that. That such an expression could even exist. That anypony would fear me. Was that the look that Diamond Tiara saw when she picked on defenseless kids on the playground? And the cloak-o guards! This is what their whole world must’ve looked like. A sea of horrified faces – ponies everywhere, not happy to see them.

I almost jumped back in horror. That pitiful look alone scared me out of my wits. But I stared at him right back. This was important, so I held my ground.

I watched him in silence. He cowered. We were the same height now – this child murderer and me.

And he was hiding his face from me cause he knew what I was only then slowly growing to realize.

I could do anything I wanted to him.

Avenge every kid who’d ever passed through his “Nurse’s Office.” Kiss his boo-boos. Chew on his eyeballs just to find out what eyeballs tasted like. Anything! He was completely and totally at my mercy, right up to whether he lived or died. The prisoner children of Trottica wouldn’t even bat an eye if I’d killed him. Hell, they’d probably call me a hero. It was a strange feeling.

I pulled the bloody cloth out of the nurse’s mouth, (the other kids had shoved it back in there after Twinkle was through with him). He coughed up a storm, and nasty liquid rained out of his mouth too.

“Why?” I said.

It was the one question I knew Twinkle didn’t ask him in the course of her interrogation.

He just looked at me blankly.

“Why?!” I shouted.

“Baal demands children.” He blubbered in blind panic. “It’s the only thing keeping our town alive since the mine dried up.”

Baal? Really? Your god is named Baal? I thought to myself dryly. What? Was “The Great De-Innocentizer of Souls” taken?

“When was that?” I asked. “How long have you been doing this?”

Nursey coughed and wheezed and took his sweet time catching his breath.

“I don’t know,” He said at last. “As long as I can remember. I was young when we started. But they wouldn’t let me join Baal. I was too big. The big ones enlist in the Honor Guard.”

Even with the busted up face and the broken bones, he managed to get all mopey about that of all things. The fact that he was too big to be eaten alive by his wackadoo god.

He must have been surprised that I hadn’t kicked or spat on him yet, because the moment he caught his breath, he turned to me for sympathy. Totally out of the blue.

“I know what you’re thinking!” He pleaded.

It startled me.

“But the De-Innocentizer of Souls is benevolent. He saved all of us! They don’t feel a thing, I swear. Believe me, please. I hear it’s bliss.”

“What’s bliss?”

Even his battered left eye somehow managed to light up at the mention of it.

“Drifting Down.” He nodded emphatically. “Being one with the Great Below.”

He smiled as best as anypony could in his condition. That was when I officially lost my patience with him.

“Bullshit!” I cried. My first real curse. “I saw them, you asshole. I saw the fucking wheelbarrow.”

A bushel of bodies had passed down a hallway a couple of yards from his office just a few minutes ago. There was no way this lying sack of nurse could have been in the dark!

He cringed from me again. He wasn’t getting far, though, because this time, I was grabbing him. Tugging on his mane.

Wait a minute, how did that happen? I thought. Sweet Celestia, I’m roughing him up!

I let go the second I realized. He literally dropped like a pile of meat to the floor.

“No, no, no! That wasn’t them.” He babbled. “Really, it’s in he 19th scroll! ‘When they pass into the Great Below, Baal shall transform them, and free them of their burdensome innocence. And then they shall know bliss.”

He was weeping with joy now as those words passed his busted up lips. “Should you see them after The Great De-Innocentizer of Souls has blessed them, be not afraid.”

It was his turn to clutch at me. Beaten though he was, his enthusiasm for the subject matter could not be shed. He reached up and brushed my bucked up mane out of my eyes.

“Pity not the little ones,” He smiled as much as his broken face would allow. “For the ugliness of the shells they leave behind is only the true face of the ignorance from which they have been freed.”

The nurse smiled at me. As though he’d just explained 2+2, and I should be excited at the prospect of leaping down to my horrible doom, just so I could experience the mind-blowingly amazing spiritual state of 4.

I stared at him in horror. I didn’t want to know anymore. I wanted to get away before he got any creepier, or before I scared myself more than I already had.

I had roughed up another pony. Even Diamond Tiara had never done that. And I had the nerve to judge Twinkle Eyes. At least when she had done it, it was serene. Calculated sadism. I’d ripped at the nurse’s mane cause I lost control.

Worse yet, part of me enjoyed it.

“I hear it’s beautiful.” The nurse wept.

I slowly backed away from him. The whole thing was just too weird.

"Lock him up," I said, tears running down my cheek. "Just, get him out of here."

"Awww," one of them said, "But we were gonna--;"

"Do it!" I snapped.

For whatever reason, they listened. Maybe because it was painfully obvious to anypony with eyes that I was on the verge of coming apart.






* * *


“Okay, make dee listening of the up!” Said Misty, standing elevated on a pile of something or other. He glanced in my direction from the makeshift pulpit, but immediately looked away when he saw me. What was he hiding?

“We have seven cheeldren here.” He said. “Totally asleep. Dee strongest of you – grab dem, and sling dem over your backs. Like saddlebag.”

Strawberry stood at his left and nodded. The One We’re Meant to Save, pushy though she was on the subject of tech, was still a bit too much of a wallflower to stand up and address the lot of us herself.

Twinkle, on the other hoof, who had become something of a leader when she’d headed the nurse-stomping brigade, was not really set up to give a stirring speech to the rest of us, seeing as how she was covered in blood, and liable to start ranting and cursing. The loudmouth Romaneian was, unfortunately, the only choice.

“Do you know the way out or not?” Asked Butterscotch.

“We have map.” Said Misty.

A truthful statement that didn’t quite answer the question.

“What’s the plan?” Asked another.

“We teep-hoof out, while Priestess Pony puts on her show.”

There was a moment of silence as the crowd waited for him to continue. He didn’t. There was nothing else to say.

“That’s it?” Squeaked a little green colt.

“That’s it.” He confirmed. “But don’t worry. Strawberry knows all their secrets ‘cause machine told her. She can even tell dem where to be.”

He leaned in for dramatic effect. “Or where not to be.”

The crowd started to murmur. Was it possible? Could they walk right out the back door completely and totally unnoticed? At the click of a button?

A wave of hope washed over the herd. Strawberry, on the other hoof, did not look pleased at what Misty had promised us on her behalf.

“But leesten.” He continued. “We are more than just bunch of keeds in dee same room. You, me, everypony here. We have been keecked around like Wasteland keeckball. I do not know how any of you got here, and honestly, I don’t care.

“But here we all are. Free. And ees our turn to do keecking.”

There were laughs and a few cautious cheers from the herd; he held up a hoof. “But first we have to get away. To do that, we stay together. We stay quiet. Close. And above all, we make sure not leef any pony behind.”

It was actually a pretty good speech. Strange thing is: Misty seemed to actually mean what he said. Our vision, our experience – that panic we both shared – I couldn’t help but wonder if it had shocked some decency into him.

The crowd was not so sure. A lot of folks remembered him as the pony who’d ditched them. Left them to shock and die in a puddle of lightning. A lot of the kids fiddled with their manes, ground their hooves into the concrete – found fidgety excuses not to look directly at him.

Misty acted quickly, and changed strategies to compensate.

“We can do eet,” Misty added. “Because of Rose Petal.”

Everypony turned to face me at once.

“Meep?” I meeped.

“Rose Petal ees like neenja. She took on all dee grown ups, and eet ees cause of her that you are all standing here instead of swallowed alive by whatever it is they are hiding under dat stage.”

I waved nervously. Yeah, sure, Misty. Now you look me in the eye. You jerk.

“Dees plan weel work.” He cheered. “Ees Rose Petal approved plan, yes?”

I laughed nervously. It made sense that Misty would use me as a spokespony since I was better liked than him…but damn!

“Um…Yeah.” I said. “Let’s, uh…do what he said and get out of here. With ponies on our backs.”

Silence.

Butterscotch turned and skulked away from the crowd. He was still pissed that I’d ditched him at the last moment. Left him to die. It was bad enough he thought that, but being up there on the spot – vulnerable, nervous, and touted as a hero undeserved-like – his grudge made me feel like crying.

“You know, cause they need us?”

More silence. Dead silence. I wanted to die.

Finally, an older colt spoke up. “I’ll take one of the sleepers.”

“Saddle me up.” Said another

“Give me two.” Said a filly who looked a bit too small to be carrying other fillies at all.

I sighed in relief. We were all finally coming together.

“Follow Meess Lemonade.” Said Misty Mountain. “She knows way.”

“Yeah. Strawberry, um…navigates the things!” I said, loaning him the weight of my bizarre heroine status.


* * *


We kids, confused and frazzled though we were, came to order all on our own. It was kinda like how the cloak-o guards got their groove back, only we didn’t have any training or drills to fall back on. No fancy weapons either, (except what some of us had scavenged from the dead cloak-o’s).

We had each other, and this amazing feeling that we could come out of it alive if we just stuck together. The bigger kids carried those too weak, sick, or drugged to walk, and the little ones stayed close at hoof, waiting for an opportunity to pitch in.

I looked up at Misty, who was standing right beside me, overseeing it all. It was amazing. He was like a totally different pony. One of the good ones.

He leaned down and whispered to me. “Eef dey catch us, stay close to me, and go opposite way of crowd. Dee keeds carrying extra on their back weel be slow, and we can outrun them.”

He smacked my shoulder, smiled, and maneuvered to the front of the crowd.

“Misty, wait!” I shouted.

He turned to face me.

“What about what we saw?!” I said.

Suddenly, panic on his face. “Saw?”

In the dark!” I shouted, referring to the vision of Strawberry Lemonade’s dead body, covered in soot and pebbles and stuff, bleeding from a great big old hole in her. I didn’t want to shout all the kooky details for the entire herd to hear, but Misty totally knew what I was talking about. It was an image that had been burned into his brain as well as mine.

“I see nothing.” Misty Mountain laughed nervously and put even more distance between us. “Ees not dark. Ees well lit here. Nice décor. Rustic Wasteland chic!”

“What?!” I said.

“I gotta go do dee things for to help all the ponies here. Bye!”

He ducked down low and disappeared into the crowd.

Arg!

I tried to chase him down, but in all the crazy confusion, everypony kept looking to me for support, and physically crowding me. Well played, Misty. Even in complementing me – in naming me spokespony, he’d had ulterior motives.

What I couldn’t figure out was why he was hiding from me in the first place.

Even more importantly, there was a very real and ever-growing danger. At any moment, we could get caught pre-mature like. Those damned nagging hornets in my brain got all stingy and fluttery. Stupid hornets.

I couldn’t even tell what they wanted this time. I had to assume that it had something to do with Strawberry Lemonade getting some idea in her head that wasn’t in harmony with the way it’s supposed to happen. Hornets get real fussy about details like that.

The kids were all rounded up and ready to go, (which was no easy feat). I had decided that, while it probably was best to lock the nurse up, he probably deserved the courtesy of a blanket. He had gathered some of his wits now, and trembling though he was, he still gave me a nod of gratitude when I passed it to him.

That was literally all I needed to do to feel ready to hit the road, but when I checked in on Strawberry, I saw that she was still glued to that stupid box-y thing.

“We should get going.” I said

“This is operating on the G-7.9 OS.” She said in awe, completely ignoring me.

“That’s OS Muffin!” She continued. “I can find out more. I can get us the answer.”

The hornets were getting worse. I could see Misty all the way on the other end of the crowd. He perked his head up and looked in our direction - even ditched the kids he was herding, and bolted straight for us. The lying bastard feels it too.

“Fuck that, Strawberry,” Said Twinkle Eyes. “Come on, let’s blow this joint.”

Celestia in the sky! Even Twinkle Eyes could feel how tremendously horrible and idea it would be to stick around for even a moment longer. You didn’t need signs and portents and visions to see that. We had to move.

The time for weepy pirating had passed.

But Strawberry Lemonade was stubborn.

“I can do this.” She insisted. “I can figure out a route to those kids headed down below.”

“Come on. You can hit up the next console.” Said Twinkle.

“…Almost kinda sorta re-direct these Cloaks to another part of the building, just like Misty said.” Strawberry ignored us.

“We have no time for almost!” Shouted Misty. “We go now!”

“No!” She shouted right back.

She turned to us all, panting. Frazzled. On the verge of tears. I’d clearly missed something. Twinkle and I exchanged confused glances.

Strawberry was having a totally different argument than the rest of us, and it was definitely not about tech. Twinkle and I exchanged confused glances.

“I’ve been pushed around. By these guys.” She pointed at the pile o’ dead cloak-o’s. “By the guys who owned me before them. And the guys who owned me before them. And the guys who owned me before them. I’ve even been a fucking pawn in your stupid game, Misty. And yours.”

She was pointing at me. I averted my eyes in shame.

Strawberry was right. She had been treated like an object by the ponies who’d captured her, and now here we were, rescuing her, doing the same damn thing. It wasn’t right.

“Since the day my parents fucking sold me, it’s been all “yes, sir; no, sir.”

“Sold?!” I said, but Twinkle Eyes butted in before I could finish the thought. Sold by your own parents!

“Hey, your folks sold you too?” Twink giggled. “Parent of the Year hoof bump!”

She held out a hoof. Strawberry glanced at it contemptuously.

“Sold by your own parents.” I whispered to myself.

No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t fathom it. Children stolen from fiery villages in the middle of the night, children locked up, children killed – that’s the sort of things that cloak-o’s do. Bad guys. Horrible as it was, it was something I could wrap my brain around, because bad guys existed in my world. But a future Equestria where it’s just totally normal to up and sell your own kid? And that it was so common that it happened to both Twinkle and Strawberry?!

“Hmm.” Shrugged Misty Mountain as he casually mulled over the subject. “I am glad that my parents love me.”

Facehoof. You’re not helping, Misty.

“This.” Strawberry stared me down as she flicked a bunch of dials on the console. “This, I can do.”

“I can do it.” She added for good measure. “I can get us all out of here, Rose. Please, guys. Just give me two minutes.”

Except she wasn’t asking for two minutes. She was telling us that she was gonna take them. Our plans, both mystical and practical, all hinged on this filly actually surviving. So of course she picked that exact moment to grow a spine and become a pain in the flank.

Still, I nodded softly in agreement. If she did somehow manage to work her weird doo-hickey magic, it would totally be worth it. Besides, sometimes, you actually need a minute or two to get your pirate on before you can buckle down and push forward.

Misty, however, didn’t know when to shut up. “Enough of dees.

Fuck glowink box. We go, and we go now!”

He tried to grab her, but she recoiled at his touch, and thwacked him right in the face with her forehoof. “Fuck you, Misty.”

She kicked that glowy box with her hindquarters to punctuate her point. The front of her never stopped staring Misty down. “Fuck you!”

“ACCESS GRANTED.” Said the console suddenly. We all would have applauded, or even taken the time to pick our jaws up off the floor, but it was too late.

Before I could say a word. Before Misty could burst into shouting and cursing, (his face was already turning bright red with anger); before we could even absorb what had just happened inside the whirring machinery of that big hunky metal thing that our Chosen One had become so addicted to, there came a gravelly scream that interrupted us all. Right on cue, as if to confirm everypony’s growing fears.

We all rushed over and peeked around the corner. There, standing in the doorway to the eel hallway, was the biggest, meanest looking pony I had ever seen. His face was scarred to ribbons. His torso was no better.

The first thing he did was charge straight toward us. The room was long, and he was all the way on the other end of it, but still, I found myself throwing my hooves in front of my face for protection. He was just that big, and just that scary.

But he ignored us completely.

“Stompy!” The Monster shouted.

He threw his hooves around Skull Stomper’s limp body, and blubbered like a foal.

“My Stompy!”

I lowered my hooves from my face. The three of us stood at the end of the room, right there in plain sight, staring in silence.

The giant hulk of a cloak-o kissed the shattered horn of his fallen love, and ran his hoof through the corpse’s mane.

“Poor Stompy.” He wailed. “He never hurt a soul.”

“Run.” I whispered without peeling my eyes away.

It was only a matter of time before he snapped out of it, and realized that not only were there escaped children standing there a few feet away from him, but that we were to blame for the death of his beloved.

“Stompy!” He cried out again.

Then there was a bang and a splatter, and suddenly the hulk was silent. He dropped face forward onto Stompy’s corpse. Most of the back of his head was missing.

I’d never seen anything like it.

We turned around. Behind us was Misty, levitating some kind of L shaped piece of metal. Smoke drifted out of the end with the hole in it.

“Let’s get dee fuck out of here.” He said.


* * *


So we tip-hooved down this long hallway full of pipes and boxes and flickery lights and things. All of us. It was only a 100-foot stretch, and you could totally gallop it in, ten seconds flat, but when you have close to 200 hooves shuffling and clipping and clopping against gritty concrete, and you're trying to be quiet about it, you’ve got to do it real slow.

You don’t know which noise is gonna be the big one. The sound the cloak-o’s actually hear. But you wait for it, so every step feels like n eternity. Every tiny crackle of sand beneath your hooves sounds like thunder.

Above us were creaky moany floorboards. That meant that they probably would be able to hear us if we were too noisy. The building was hundreds of years old, and unlikely to keep secrets very well.

Whatever they were doing up there, the cloak-o’s were really hustling and bustling. Each bang and loud hoofstep made one of us startle. Scared though we were, though, we all managed to choke our little shrieks and exclamations into whispers.

We stuck together - mostly because we were terrified of what would happen if we didn't. We took comfort in the fact that we were all squeezed in and huddled up against one another from all sides. Whatever caution we took, whatever panicky impulses we swallowed, we were doing it as a team.

That herd mentality that made us slaves - that kept us from acting out - that had kept us docile and stupid in the face of yellow painted lines on concrete? It also saved our flanks, (ashamed as I am to say it).

It's that almost certain death thing. All it took was somepony to come along and say, "Hay! I have a plan. Follow me and everything is gonna be okay."

And just like that, we went from the weepy, whiny, soggy-upper-lip kind of pirates to the awesome, super-cool yarrrrrr kind of pirates. We did it cause when we looked around, it’s what everypony else was doing.


* * *


The herd moved along at a slow and steady pace. Our hooves sounded like a giant sheet of sandpaper sweeping slowly over a concrete floor.

“Pssst. Twinkle." I whispered.

The two of us were guarding the rear together.

"Shh!" She said.

My whisper totally didn't matter. In fact, it blended in to that sandpaper shuffley hoof sound so well, I was surprised that Twinkle could even hear me. But it was tense down there, and we all had little things that made us paranoid. So I shuffled along in silence. We all did - huddled up against one another, inching down that long maddening stretch of hallway full of old junk nopony could ever want.

As we crept along in silence, I started to feel cold. First on my flank. Then my back. Then in my actual bones. It wasn’t like stepping outside in the winter where it hits you in the face, either. This cold snuck up from behind, and hit me by degrees.

No breeze. No warning. Just cold.

Finally, I looked back over my shoulder. Shadows behind us. Buzzing lights.

There weren’t no cloak-o’s scheduled to come that way for at least another hour, so logically, I knew that we were probably in the clear. But when you’re the last pony in line, and nopony's got your back, you get scared of what might be following. I mean: this was their building. Any one of those shadows could hide a cloaky jerkface who wasn’t on Strawberry’s map.

Twinkle kept right on trotting. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. With all that’d happened in the last hour, there was so much to think about. So much to say.

I fought the urge to lean in. Whisper. Hug her.

It wasn’t right. Something was off. She seemed so far away. Like the shadows weren’t the only things around that had grown cold.

The further down the hallway we got, the thicker the tension. Not just for us, but for everypony. We didn’t hear as many cloak-o’s moving around above, but instead, there was this low booming rumble. Like talking, except that it was really, really loud, and there was no way to make out what was being said.

“Twinkle," I stuck my muzzle right up into her ear. There was no way anypony else could hear me.

She threw me a quizzical look then shoved her own muzzle in my ear right back. "Whatcha want?"

Time for the big question.

I didn’t know how to say it. "You…you’re still my friend, right?"

She put her hoof on my shoulder and stopped us both dead in our tracks. Right there in the middle of the hallway.

The herd kept on shuffling ahead of us.

I waited for her answer, but she just looked at me. Didn’t say a word. I waited for Twinkle to say that she hated me for judging her, or to hug me and tell me I was stupid for asking in the first place.

But she didn't do either of those things. She just shrugged.

"I dunno." She whispered and lowered her head.

I could hear my heart thundering. She didn’t know?! What was that even supposed to mean?

I watched her in silence.

I wished I hadn't been such a judgmental jerk to her. I wished I could have turned my back on what she was gonna do to the nurse - made an exception for my friend on the "no more sitting idly by" rule I had made for myself ever since that poor kid had showed up in my dream.

But I couldn't! I just couldn’t. I didn't have it in me to do that anymore.

I looked her in the eye. So much sadness. I kicked myself for letting my stupid morals and my stupid thinkiness turn me into such a horrible friend.

“Can you be friends with a fuck up?” Twinkle asked at long last.

“What?”

"I'd do it again." She said, and turned to face me. “I’m not gonna lie.”

But I couldn't promise I would be okay with that. Cause I would do it again too - intervene. Be a judgmental jerk. I couldn’t promise her I’d change. Where did that leave us?

I tried to think of something to say. Something funny. Something kind. Something wise. But we just stood there, all awkward-like, not even looking at one another after a point. Friendship impasse.

Meanwhile up ahead, the giant sheet of pony sandpaper was drifting further and further away.

Finally, Twinkle gave up and sighed, head hung low.

"We should catch up.” She said, and shuffled on forward.

I was left standing there. Confused. Angry. Shivering.

Twinkle made a real effort to tip-hoof slowly and quietly, but all that amounted to was the group making more and more distance.

I was working up the strength to follow, when I heard a noise behind me like a whisper in an echoy room. I whipped around to face it. Boxes. Pipes. Beat up old trunks. That same long hallway, and there sure wasn’t nopony following us.

Then one of the lights above buzzed and, flickered and went black, and then, for just a moment, I saw it.

It wasn't a cloak-o. It wasn't a kid. It wasn't a pony at all. But it was following us. When the lights flickered, the shadows got all strobey like a dance party, and took on weird unnatural shapes.

There was something in those odd patches of darkness. Formless. Shapeless. It didn’t even move. But it was there, and I felt its malice.

For a moment as the lights danced on and off, it looked back at me. I felt naked. Nakeder than skin. Nakeder than bones. I felt intruded. There was this terrible fear: everything bad I’d ever done, from stealing that cookie when I was four to tugging at Nurse Cloak-O’s mane. The whole world could see it all, and know me for who I really was. Roseluck. Twinkle. Cliff Diver. Everypony.

I could even hear my mother’s voice whisper at me in disgust and disappointment, “I’m not sorry anymore.” She said. “I’m not sorry anymore.”

I wasn’t even really sure what that meant, but it felt like the floor had dropped out beneath me. My skin fell away. Leaving this sad fragment of pony underneath. Shivering in the dark.

And then, just like that, the lights were back on, and the thing was gone. Just a boring old hallway.

I felt colder than ever. It was still watching me from the shadows, whatever it was. Waiting for the next flicker of darkness to spring on me, I’d bet.

I turned and made for the herd as fast as I reasonably could.

I had an easy enough time catching up to the great sea of flanks I saw up ahead. But Twinkle Eyes was having trouble. She wasn't too far behind them, but she was small and had to shuffle her hooves twice as hard just to keep up, (and that would make too much noise). From the looks of things, she had to struggle just to keep from falling further behind. Or falling over.

I made my way cautiously toward them. Shuffle, shuff-shuff-shuff, shuffle crack.

Above us that booming speech grew more and more articulate. The herd even started to pick up the pace a bit under the cover of the sound.

"Evils of innocence, blah blah blah, purity, yadda yadda yadda." Said the Priestess, almost directly above us now. The lady on all the screens.

But I didn't care. That thing in the shadows was getting closer. It was watching us - studying us. And I was powerless to fight it. I couldn’t even see it!

When I threw my head over my shoulder to check, there was nothing.

I did it again. Nothing.

I made my way forward, and me, being a not terribly graceful pony, snagged my hoof on a crack in the concrete floor and stumbled. Twinkle looked back at me with sad eyes. Not puppy dog sadness. She was too accustomed to disappointment for that. No, she wore the face of an old mare - that bleak "we can't have nice things" frown.

She kept on shuffling, getting angrier and angrier at the noisy floor and at her own stubby legs as she went. Determination. Frustration. Tears.

This was ridiculous. I had enough. Maybe we couldn't agree to agree on everything that was ever gonna happen. Maybe we’d even have serious fights over our unique takes on morals and violence and stuff like that, but this was just stupid. My whole life I’ve been terrified of being a burden on everypony else. And the little pony inside my head was screaming at me to hang back. To let her go on like this, just in case it might be awkward. But I didn’t care. I just couldn’t stand to watch it anymore.

Twinkle shuffled on, grinding her teeth, cursing under her breath, and falling slowly, slowly behind. Then her hooves found themselves scraping away at nothing - walking on thin air. Below her belly, she found me and my big head.

I didn't say a word. Neither did Twinkle. She just closed her eyes and hugged the back of my neck as she perched on me. Some apologies only get ruined when you open your yap and try to talk through ‘em.

I’d cried many, many tears for many, many ponies since I’d showed up at Trottica, and I’d shed many, many, many, many more before I left. But as I pushed forward, I found I still had enough water in me to cry. For relief. For Twinkle.

It felt good to be friends with her again, even if she clutched at my mane a bit too hard. I felt her breath - hot and stinky and blowing against my neck.

I wasn’t cold anymore.

The lights flickered out one more time before we reached the space under the Priestess’ stage. I looked back over my shoulder. The shadows had stopped staring at me. They were the same as they'd always been.

Just a bunch of black stuff.

Author's Note:

SUPPORT: Hooves of Fate is a labor of love. However, I also have mouths to feed. If this story, or my Heart Full of Pony essays have touched you in any way, and you can manage to spare a few bits, I'd very much appreciate your support on Patreon.
https://www.patreon.com/sprocketwriting

If you can't, no pressure. For those of you who already are pledging, seriously, and for real, thank you. Your support makes a difference, and it means a great deal to me. /]*[\

Column: My Derpy Hooves News column about Love, Tolerance, and Friendship, “Help! My Heart is Full of Pony!” is now archived at http://heartfullofpony.tumblr.com

Music: Check out my pony music (rock, jazz, hip-hop, blues, classical, and experimental). http://www.youtube.com/sdoggingsworth

Cover Art: http://shadesofeverfree.deviantart.com/art/The-Rose-Queen-334850063

Special Thanks to Longbottle, whose sharp proofreading eye prevents Rose Petal from rambling about morality for 40 pages at-a-go.

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