• Published 1st Mar 2013
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Fallout: Equestria Rise from the Ashes - Nightrein

A name. The most integral thing to anypony; even when the Wasteland leaves nothing left of you, you always have your name. After a brutal attack, one stallion awakes to find even that is lost to him. Can he survive on the one lead he has to his past?

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Chapter 5 - The Broken Home

Chapter 5 - The Broken Home
“This could be my home. Our home...”


I kept telling myself that as I trotted with Sky out to see the pair of unicorns. There was simply no way she could have picked us out from the scenery, especially from that distance. I had problems finding them with binoculars. The level or perception, even with twenty-twenty eyesight, that would require was… uncanny, to put it very delicately.

The lighter-gray one that somehow spotted us had started beckoning us over, and showed no sign of leaving until we came out. Sky agreed they seemed friendly enough (‘passive’ was her word of choice) to try. If only to ask how she could’ve possibly seen us, I figured we might as well. As we approached the pair, I tentatively waved a hoof. The lighter gray one smiled and waved back.

“Uh… hello there,” I called out, not quite sure what else there was to say. This wasn’t the urgent circumstance I had been in with Crutches, nor back at Prim with Ash. There was no ‘hi, I need this and kinda just saved your town.’ This was… casual. I decidedly didn’t like casual very much.

“Hi,” she answered. Sky said nothing, her eyes instead scanned the horizon, looking for the pegasus she’d mentioned earlier most likely. As well, the darker gray mare maintained her silence. I shrugged, assuming it would be just her and I talking.

“So… you… wanted something, I’m guessing?” I asked. Somehow was more like it. Before this was over, I was definitely getting an answer as to how she saw us.

I did,” she responded, shooting a glance at her friend. The other unicorn gave a disgruntled, yet notably prim sigh. “We’re… a little on the lost side. You’re the first ponies we’ve seen in over a day, so I was hoping maybe we could get some directions?”

“Please, I doubt we need them,” the darker unicorn chimed in, “I’m certain it’s nearby.”

“You said that forever ago,” the steel gray coated mare retorted. “Just because you love him doesn’t mean he’s the best at finding things. Well, things that aren’t scavenged that is.”

“You know he’ll be mad you asked for directions,” her friend said, then looked out to the sky. They were talking about the pegasus Skydive was looking for, I figured. The light gray unicorn dismissively waved her hoof.

“Anyway… you’re from around here, aren’t you?” she regarded me again.

“Sorta… you said we’re the first ponies you’ve seen in over a day? There’s really no one else out here?” She nodded. “Huh… speaking of which… how exactly did you see us?” She paused for a moment, then laughed.

“Those binoculars of yours.” I tilted my head curiously. She saw me… through my own binoculars? What? “They reflect light, you know. Kind of easy to spot when it’s putting spotlights on a dark surface,” she explained, prodding her friend while doing so. The other unicorn gave a ladylike huff and continued to watch the skyline. Skydive mimicked her gaze.

“...Huh. Never would’ve thought. Anyway, uh, where is it you’re looking for?” I asked, getting back on topic. “I’m not too familiar with the area, but I might be able to help. Or Sky could, she’d know more than me.” Sky’s head jerked toward me when I mentioned her name, now realizing she was part of the conversation. I wondered how rare ‘friendly’ pegasi must be to have caught her attention so fully.

“It’s a small town, should be a few miles west of here, but our friend scouted ahead quite a ways and never saw a thing,” she replied. Her eyes glanced down at my foreleg. “You’ve got a Pipbuck? Can I see the map on it?” I obliged, bringing up the interface and showing it to her. She frowned, “Nope, not on here. Not much is… you’re travelling too, then?”

“I guess. It’s… complicated,” I answered truthfully.

“Huh. Well, maybe you’ve heard of it then. Sky, right?” Sky nodded. “It’s supposed to be a small little town, maybe a few dozen ponies. What was it called?” she asked, turning toward her friend again. I felt my blood turn to ice at her answer.

“Sunshine Valley.”

“...What’s wrong?” I didn’t notice she asked at first. I turned to look at Skydive instead. She simply frowned, not knowing the town’s fate to the extent I did. I felt myself shiver as I attempted to remind myself it was just a memory orb, that it wasn’t really me. “Hey, what’s wrong?” she repeated.

“I, uh… I think I know why you can’t find it.”

I regaled the two with what had happened to Sunshine Valley, after which I didn’t feel much like talking anymore. Unfortunately, my story opened up a slew of questions from the light gray mare, as well as speculation as to why and how it had been made it into a memory orb. Skydive simply sat and toyed around with the few pistols she’d looted from the Crystal Gangers.

“Okay, it’s bugging me, I need to ask,” the steel gray mare spoke up after a rather extended pause, “how did you see the memory orb, exactly?” I felt myself scowl; the question had been coming quite obviously. I didn’t exactly know myself, so it was going to be a chore to try and explain. “I mean, if it was a black opal… but you described it as a regular run-of-the-mill memory orb.”

I took a deep breath before beginning. “I really don’t know myself. Sky just tossed it at me, and when I caught it… whoosh. I didn’t exactly realize what happened at first, I thought someone was controlling me. When I came to, she told me what went down. If I had to guess… it might have something to do with my touch.”

“Touch?” the charcoal mare asked, her interest piqued. Sky gave me a cautioning look before returning to whatever she was up to with the pistols.

“Well… I don’t really know how to put it. When I touch things, namely other ponies, I… burn them.” This seemed to confuse her, though the more talkative one simply seemed impressed. “It’s weird, and I don’t understand it.” I looked back to see Sky seeming sufficiently distracted. “To be honest,” I lowered my voice, hoping Sky was far enough away that she couldn’t make out what I was saying, “it kind of scares me. I… I almost got her hurt. Maybe even killed.”

“Hey,” the more talkative one said softly, “she looks fine to me. I’ve nearly been killed out here more times than I care to count. It happens. You just learn and move on, and don’t make the same mistake again. Alright?” I sighed and nodded.

“It’s just… I don’t think… ugh,” I gave up on trying to find the right words. Whatever I said, Sky stopped fiddling with her guns and was now paying full attention to the conversation at hoof. “You say you’ve been wandering around. Perhaps you’ve been where we’re headed. Town called Mirage.” This evoked a less-than-assuring reaction from the pair.

“Do you live there?” the charcoal one asked, clearly not wanting to say what she had in mind if I did.

“No, I… I don’t think so.” I replied. She gave me a questioning look before telling me about the town.

“Wretched little city, Mirage. I don’t dare go near it; it’s practically a raider nest.” That made Skydive grimace. “We try to avoid raider types on… policy,” she concluded.

“The town’s pretty freaky. It’s got a lot more ponies there than you’d expect, but… it’s got a very weird kind of government going on.” Government? I thought raiders were just… crazy. I said as much. “Practically raiders. Not exactly. The ponies there are more thieves than crazed murderers. But if they can’t steal what they want from you, they tend to just kill you and take it. The government is what puts me on edge, though.” Ponies stole and killed freely, and the governing body is what had her worried? “They’re… off. They’ll bring citizens in, and supposedly they’re never seen again. The locals say they’re being sacrificed or something.

“The town is, of itself, a kind of dictatorship. Not a exactly a slave empire, but the people in the government are in complete control.” I noted her pointed use of ‘people’ rather than ‘ponies’. “I’ve seen one of the five that rule the town. She was…”

“Frightening,” her friend picked up the trail-off, “whatever she was, she was definitely not a pony.”

“What makes you say that?” Sky asked, finally entering the conversation.

“Ponies don’t have fangs.” Well… that put on a fresh layer of anxiety.

* * *

The two had decided their pegasus friend might be waiting for them, and Sky and I had to get to Mirage. It wouldn’t be too far away now, maybe another hour’s trot. Sky had finished packing away her pieces-parts of the guns she seemed to have disassembled for whatever reason, and we were getting ready to move. As we started back down the road, I felt a strange tug on my mane. Turning, I saw the steel-gray unicorn with a shimmering sheath around her horn.

“Need something?” I asked. She turned to see her friend, who had already started walking.

“There’s… something I want you to take. I’m not certain how my fairly cautious compatriot over there would react with me just… giving it away,” she practically whispered to me.

“If it’s important, then I really don’t want to-” I began, unable to get far before she interrupted me with a shush.

“Please. I know for a fact we can make more of these easily now. It’s just… what’s in it,” she half-explained. With a sigh, she levitated a book from her saddlebags. “Call it an act of faith. Do you think you can be trusted to keep this a secret?”

“Yes? I mean, I’m not certain I can stop someone from taki-” she interrupted me again.

“Do you think you can be trusted?” she repeated.

“Barring death and thieves, yes, I believe so. If it’s got something you really need to keep secret, though, it could get sto-” this time she floated the book in my face to shut me up. I scowled at the rude behavior, but allowed her to float the book into my saddlebags.

“You seem like you’re lost. And I don’t mean a lost your Pipbuck map can fix. This book… more or less, I think it would help you to see what’s in it. Think of it like… a light in the darkness to guide you. If you ever feel like there’s nothing good in the wasteland… read it. You’ll see.” Before I could reply or ask a question, she turned and galloped off to catch up with her companion once again.

“Thank you,” I said, despite knowing she couldn’t have heard me.

* * *

I could see why they chose the name. From a distance, Mirage looked like it might be just that: an illusion. A shimmering lie caused by the desert heat. What appeared to be a massive castle loomed imposingly over the rest of the town, and a huge wall of brick circled the lot of it. It was quite literally unbelievable. Sky had given an impressed whistle when she saw it.

Now that we were right outside, the walls were a good deal more than imposing, they were downright frightening. They rose easily fifty feet over my head, and were made entirely of brick. I questioned the actual defense it could provide against explosives, but that they withstood the apocalypse meant at least something. But what really boggled my mind was that, being made of brick, it was laid like brick. One layer at a time. How long it must have taken…

My thoughts drifted away as we approached what appeared to be a gate. Two guards stood watch; each had strange back-mounted guns, one of which appeared to be rifles, while the other had some kind of strange box-like weapons. I shelved my curiosity away for later. The two guards were eyeing us, and one took a slightly more defensive stance.

“What business have you here?” the rifle-armed stallion on the left asked. He wore what appeared to be very thick leather armor, much more so than Sky’s or my own (reminding me I should have put mine on before coming here.). The one to our right wore the same. Instead of questioning us, he gave a startled look to his companion.

“Augy… you’re kidding right?” he asked, actual disbelief evident in his voice. Augy remained silent and waited for myself or Skydive to respond. “Augy… oh, for the love of… why are we out here? Answer me, Augy, do you know why we are out here?”

“Of course I bloody know!” he replied. After a moment, he started looking me over. He must not have liked what he saw, as his light blue coat turned an alarmingly white color. “Uh… I…”

“He’s sorry,” the other guard interrupted Augy’s stammer before turning to face the gate. “Hey! Open ‘er up, we got guests!” The guard inside seemed to get confused at the statement, asking questions too muffled by the door for even the guard outside to hear. He shouted at the one inside the gate to hurry up and open the gate. I questioned how effective a locked gate was now that there were pegasi capable of simply flying over the walls. I imagined a small pegasus simply flitting over the walls if the guards refused to let him in, chuckling to myself.

A scream of metal pulled me from my thoughts as the gate opened. I cringed at the dreadful, ear-piercing sound. From the look of it, the guards didn’t much enjoy the noise either. After a minute, the gate mercifully stopped. I peered inside to see an elderly-looking stallion looking out curiously. I was beyond confused; wasn’t this supposed to be a town of ‘basically raiders’? I’d expected crazed murderers like Ditzy’s guide suggested. These guys were… just a bit crazy. Maybe those two unicorns were told a rumor or just mistaken. The old stallion grumbled something unintelligible and disappeared behind the wall.

“Gate’s up,” the rifle-armed guard said, his awkward stutters finally stayed. I turned to Sky, whose eyes were jumping between the two guards. Clearly she didn’t trust them.

“Sky, if things go wrong in there… if they try anything, I want you to leave.” She looked at me with a dissatisfied expression. “You can fly over the walls, and these two don’t exactly look like crack shots. I want you to get away. I…” I trailed off, not really knowing what else to say.

“You know I won’t,” she replied, “I don’t just run away from ponies in danger, least of all a friend. If they attack… I’m going to kill them.” I sighed. I was equally warmed and annoyed by that Sky was once again going to stick with me, no matter how bad things got. I was no longer concerned with her ability to defend herself, but… what we would be going up against seemed just impossible for any skill with guns to defeat. They were (allegedly) inequine monsters, and had enchanted bullets that could steal away your memory. I felt the blood in my breast run cold again, wondering how (and more importantly why) I was going to confront these people. I couldn’t possibly win against them if they chose to attack me on sight; the guards would turn on me instantly even if I somehow managed to defeat them. I didn’t even know how many there were! I swallowed hard, contemplating the terrifying odds that I was set up against. Taking into account guards, it was, at best, twenty to one.

Skydive brushed past me, only her tail making contact. She trotted calmly toward the gate, her stride completely unburdened by the danger she was moving toward. I opened my mouth to speak, to ask her to wait, but I couldn’t seem to find my voice. How did she have such confidence? What made her so able to move forward like this, despite her cautions and own moral restraints? Wherever I hesitated, she seemed to press on with ease.

I moved forward, despite myself. I began to follow her again, just as I always seemed to. This was terrain I should be far more familiar with this place than her, and this was even my own personal… quest, I suppose it should be called, that we were on! But I was the one who was frightened by what we faced. Not a moment ago, I was about to just ask her to leave altogether, and I would probably have left myself.

In that one, brisk motion, Sky had restored enough of my confidence to at least follow her lead. That slight touch reminded me both that she was at my side - that I could count on her whenever I needed help - and that I wasn’t defenseless myself. I had a strength that nopony would know about until it was too late. Both in my unnatural raw physical strength, as well as my even less understandable burning touch. Both of these were unnoticable just by appearance, and if worse came to worse, I at least had the element of surprise on my side to some degree. But more than that, she showed she was willing to take the lead when I faltered. If my own strength wasn’t enough to move me forward, she would use hers.

I increased my trot until I was right beside her. I wondered if she knew, for a moment. If she intended to bring back my own confidence, or if it was just my own thoughts turning from the dark places they were facing. As we passed through the gate, I managed to smile. From complete fear to a smile in ten seconds flat. I was changing emotional states almost as fast as Sky now.

“Thank you,” I told her. She raised an eyebrow at me. I chuckled to myself; I was just overthinking things.

...Or she was very, very good.

* * *

Upon entering Mirage, three realizations hit me. First, I’d never gotten those two unicorn mares’ names. Second, that they had never actually been to Mirage. Third, which was how I knew the second, was the only actually pressing realization. They, and I as well, had been entirely wrong about Mirage. It was no town. It was a fortress.

“What in Celestia’s name…” Sky muttered, clearly coming to the same conclusion. So much for pegasi flitting over the walls…

What I had mistaken for an oversized gate entrance was really a ubiquitous ceiling. The darkness was only barely driven back by a series of enchanted crystals that lined the outer walls and the winding pathways. Looking out, I could understand the misinterpretation that this was a town. It met all the requirements to be one; there were homes built inside, roads that connected them all, (and even went down to a second level below us!) and a fairly large looking population of ponies. All that was really missing from my original vision of the place was an open sky and the baking sun.

Thinking about it… maybe this was a bit better, after all.

A sudden gasp startled me out of my reverie. I looked to see somepony staring at Sky and I, having dropped… something… she had been carrying. It may have been the extremely dim light, but something seemed slightly off about her. Her mane and tail looked overly bushy and scraggly, like she’d suffered from some extreme case of bed-head, and her body almost looked out of proportion. I recalled the charcoal unicorn’s warning: Some ponies here might not really be ponies at all anymore, if they ever were. Before I could get a better look at her, she picked up what she’d dropped and galloped off down a street as quickly as she could. Sky shrugged and shifted her gaze along the multiple forks of road ahead of us.

“Which way should we go?” she asked, scratching her mane. I shrugged. Honestly, I didn’t quite know what we were looking for. Supposedly it would be an old ‘acquaintance’ of mine, but I truly had no idea who they were or what they looked like. For all I knew, they could be a griffin! As I was pacing around considering what to do I felt my hoof step in… something. Looking (squinting, due to the very dim lighting) down, I saw a small pool of blood. What appeared to be a little leg or paw of some sort was in the center of it. My stomach turned a bit as I realized this would be from what the strange-looking mare had dropped. It appeared to be a rat… she was eating it? Not only raw, but freshly killed? I shuddered and moved my train of thought along.

“Either she knew me,” I explained, “or she was afraid we would steal her… rat. Either way, we may as well see if we can find her again. At least, she might point us in the right direction. Let’s just take her path.” Sky nodded and started down the center road with me.

The small light crystals lined the walls of the stone houses, making the streets a little brighter than the entrance was. The green glow they emitted, however, seemed to make the ‘town’ all the more eerie. The citizens seemed more keen to keep to the darker parts of the road. Whenever we approached, they would scurry away like mice, some even seeming to panic when they looked at us. Everyone was constantly afraid… I really didn’t like this place.

If it weren’t for what light there was, I wouldn’t have noticed the wall before I bumped into it. A couple of guards stood outside the gated section of a curved wall, once again made of the same white brick. Like one of the guards outside, the one on the right was armed with those strange box-weapons, but the one on the left had something resembling the napalm-spewing weapon the griffin back in Prim had.

I began to ask if they had seen the mangy-looking mare come through as the pair, in practiced unison, bucked the gate open with a sudden clang. Looking over at Skydive, she seemed as utterly lost as I was. The pair were now… saluting me? What in the name of Celestia was going on here? The more I thought about it, the less it seemed to make sense. This place, at the very least, was home to someone or several someones who wanted me dead. That the guards were just letting me and Sky wherever we pleased was a bizarre contradiction to what I had expected. They should be keeping us out, if anything. Unless…

I motioned for Sky to follow me as I entered the gate. As the guards shut it behind us, I trotted down a now well-lit cobblestone path. The area inside the gate was some kind of garden; a complete inverse to the shady, menacing zone outside these inner walls. The paths were clean and evenly placed, and the light-emitting crystals gave off pure white light rather than the eerie green color of their counterparts. I quickly brought myself to a line of bushes beside the path, far enough from the gate, I hoped, that the guards couldn’t hear me.

“Does this seem off to you?” I asked Sky quietly.

“Pretty much. A clearly rich, gated portion of the city surrounded by obvious poverty? Fairly off for a city of thieves.”

“No, not that. Well… that too, but… why are they letting us in? For a place housing people who want me dead, the guards seem a bit eager to just let me go wherever, don’t they?” Sky seemed to be considering this. “It feels like they know. It feels like a trap.” She sighed.

“Alright, so what now, then?” she questioned. “If they’ve gotten us all the way here, and this is a trap like you said, do you think the guards will just let us leave? And even if they do, we’ll have come all this way just to bail out and ditch the only lead we have on someone who might know what happened to you.” She had a point… two, really. I was caught in a terrible position. Either risk walking into a deathtrap, or walk away and never learn of my past. As much as I hated it, though, she was right. If this was a trap, it was already too late. We really had no reason to turn back now.

“I guess we press on then,” I answered with a sigh. “Where do you think we are?” I looked around, once again taking in the anomalous garden. Why it was even here was a complete mystery to me; were people really taking the time to make this place into a pretty little patch of greenery rather than helping the ponies outside? The level of twisted their priorities were was disturbing.

“You would be in the courtyard, dear,” a reply came from behind me. Turning, I saw a stunning mare standing beside a small stone fountain. Her coat was such a clean white it practically shone, the light from the enchanted crystals seeming to radiate off her. Coupled with a vivid scarlet mane and sapphire eyes, she was just…

“Beautiful,” she spoke again. “They put so much effort into making this place so luscious and scenic, but it was oh so worth the effort. There’s really nowhere quite like this in all the wasteland…” I nodded in agreement, not entirely paying attention to what she was saying. The light seemed to just reflect off of every inch of her in just the right way…

Sky suddenly stepped in front of me. “Have you seen a strange-looking pony come through here?” she asked. “She may have been carrying a rat or something.”

“Hm? Oh… her,” she replied in her soothing, even melodious voice. “Yes, she should be inside. Are you lost?”

“Sure,” Sky answered quickly, “where’s the way in? We kind of need to find her in a hurry.” The snow-white unicorn turned and pointed behind her. “Thanks, sorry we can’t stay and chat.” And with that, Sky took off in a sudden gallop down the path. My gaze lingered on the absolutely beautiful mare in front of me. I wanted to just… stay. But I couldn’t, I had to get moving. I went after Sky, galloping myself to keep pace after a hasty goodbye.

“What’s going on, Sky?” I asked as she stopped in front of a large pair of doors. “Why’d you just take off like that?”

“I don’t like her,” Sky snarled. “There’s something off about her, and I don’t want to find out what.”

“What makes you say that?” I asked honestly. “She seemed… nice.” Sky rolled her eyes at my comment.

“I get it, she’s hot.” I felt myself turn a bit red and started to try and stammer an argument. “I don’t care that she looks as… admittedly gorgeous… as she does, it’s just… her voice.” Now I was even more perplexed.

“Her voice?”

“It’s hard to explain. It sounded… bittersweet. Every word out of her mouth was like a siren song to me, like she’s hidden some poison meaning under what she says. I don’t know, I just… she seemed off, alright?”

“I’ll take your word for it,” I said, not wanting to get her flustered. She nodded thankfully. “Ready?” I asked, putting a hoof on one of the oversized doors. She replied by helping me push the (surprisingly light) door open.

The only word to describe the inside I know of is opulent. This was, point for point, the perfect opposite of the city-fortress-thing outside the inner wall. Tapestries and carpets in vivid purples and reds were consistently strewn about, decorating the well-cleaned white brick walls and marble floors. I huffed as I took in all the extravagance. A dictatorship is what the pair had called it. Were the ‘leaders’ of Mirage truly leaders at all? Or were they just the best thieves, with the most armed friends?

“Hey,” Sky called my attention away from the hallway around us. “You should put on your barding. Before we start anything.” Hadn’t I told myself to do that earlier? I brought up my Pipbuck’s inventory sorting menu and brought the armor up to the top. Pulling it out of my saddlebags, I fitted the straps around myself with some struggle. I definitely envied the unicorns’ ability to levitate things as I tried to keep the body armor steady so I could fit my head through. After about a minute, I more or less had it on. It felt a little loose, but strapping my saddlebags back on tightened it enough.

“I don’t recall asking you to come here,” a voice shouted at the other end of the hallway, “so get out! Can’t you imbeciles see I’m busy? Leave!” Sky and I both looked down the hall to see two ponies obscured by hooded robes (the same purple color as the tapestries, I noted) practically fleeing down a second hallway.

“How much do you want to bet that’s who we need to talk to?” I asked with a laugh.

“The ones in drag or the one yelling?”

“Whichever would be worse, I guess.” We started to walk down the hall, passing multiple potted plants that appeared to be taken from outside. I was very curious about the strange obsession with plants here; did they mean something, or were the ‘dictators’ of Mirage just flower fanatics?

A voice could be heard as we neared the end of the hallway. “...don’t care how much you want to deny it, that fucker just killed my boys in Prim! The ones that got away are certain it’s him! And now she comes in, saying he’s alive and kickin’ and right here in Mirage? You’re fuckin’ joking if you think this is a coincidence.” Clearly we were about to interrupt something. Yet another pair of guards stood outside a solid-looking pair of doors, these of average size but reinforced heavily. The guards here weren’t armed with the back-mounted weapons the others had, but rather large javelin-like poles tipped on both ends with crystals. Judging from Sky’s quiet gasp at them, they weren’t going to be fun to fight against if it came to that. The pair went wide-eyed at the sight of me. One of them immediately knocked a hoof on the door.

“This had better be important; I’m so very sick of distractions today. Enter!” the same voice that had shooed away the robed ponies called out. The pair of guards opened the doors and quickly moved to either side of the adjacent walls. I took a breath and stepped through, Sky at my side.

“See? There he is! I told you! He’s back!” an ecstatic voice yelped out almost immediately. I looked over to see the mangy pony I had seen at the outer gate. In the better lighting, I could see I hadn’t quite been mistaken. Her mane and tail were very bushy and seemingly overgrown, but her coat was equally outgrown and… mangy, for lack of a better word.

I quickly scanned around the room. No guards were present inside. There were currently three people inside excluding Skydive and myself: the mangy, excited mare who just spoke, a leaf-green mare (likely the source of the yelling voice) sitting on an ornate chair at the back end of the room, and a very rugged looking stallion in front of her. As the brief echo from the excited announcement of my appearance died out, the buck turned to face me.

He looked absolutely pissed. Not good.

“You’re the motherfucker?” he questioned menacingly. The mare behind him audibly facehoofed. His gaze shifted to Sky. “You’re the little bitch from that backwater shithole!”

“It’s dangerous to use one’s entire vocabulary in a single sentence, Fuse,” the green pony in the back mused. He pointedly ignored her. I saw Skydive extend a wing back to her holster.

“So, you team up with this freak ‘cause you scared, bitch? You think just ‘cause this motherfucker’s next to ya that you can just canter on out ‘n’ fuck with us? Huh, bitch?” he ranted, continuing on, heedless of Sky having drawn her pistol. I lowered myself into a defensive stance.

“Curb the language, Fuse,” she spoke again, “and watch your tone. I think you know better than to piss him off. If you want to settle this now, I’d be happy to let you both outside. I think we both know who’d win.” Fuse cursed under his breath before spitting on the floor.

“Y’know? Fuck this. I don’t need you. I know how to give a message on my own.”

“Go ahead, you unintelligent pig, say it,” Sky hissed at him. “See if I give a shit what you say to me.”

“Oh… bitch, you are begging me to murder your ass,” he growled back, completely unafraid despite Sky’s ability to blow his head off at any moment.

“Give it your best shot,” I stepped toward him, certain he was serious about his last comment. I wasn’t entirely sure what the problem was between him and Skydive, but I wasn’t about to let him try anything. “You’ll wish you never opened your mouth.”

“I got nothin’ to say to either of you fucks. I don’t need to say nothin’, bitch, I act, not talk. When I get a point across, when I leave a fuckin’ message, it’s louder than words.” With that, he stormed off out the door, cursing at the guards as he went.

“Come up here,” the leaf-green pony ordered. “All of you.” Sky holstered her gun and trotted up with me. The mangy, dirt-brown pony followed behind us. As we came up to her, I noticed her give a shivering sigh. “Well…”

“I told you! He’s back!” the pony behind us yipped, clearly glad to see… me. I was equally worried as I was slightly relieved that there was at least someone here who could tell me something of my past.

“Shut it!” the mare before us ordered. I could hear the mangy one whimper. I took note that the ornate-looking chair was much more than just that. It was gilded and studded with gemstones; this was a throne. This would be one of the dictators, then. She looked me over from behind the pair of tinted reading glasses she wore for several uneasing, quiet seconds. “For the love of Luna…” she finally broke the quiet, “Tamber. Work with him, and remember our discussion. Lily needs to hear about this.” She stood up and started past us for the door before quickly turning around to address me again. “Do you know who I am?”

“I don’t, sorry. I only just got here.” She immediately looked relieved at the answer, and continued for the door. I looked to Skydive, who merely shrugged as she met my gaze. “You’re Tamber, then?” I asked the bushy-coated mare left with us. She gave a huge, toothy grin that answered the question. I recoiled as I noticed what else the smile showed. Every one of her teeth were canines. Ponies don’t have fangs, the charcoal unicorn echoed in my head. I was ready to back away completely when she spoke out again, saying something I’d been waiting to hear since I woke up days ago.

A name.

“Welcome home, Cinder!”

* * *

Cinder… I tossed the name around in my head as I lay on the couch next to Skydive. We had been taken to what had been my personal quarters; it was a room that was locked and boarded over at the furthest end of the building. Tamber had simply ripped the boards from the wall before producing a key she had hidden. (Really, she just wore it as a necklace, but the overgrown fur of her coat concealed it completely.) Once inside, she told us to wait until she came back. I could hear her pacing up and down the hall outside, but I was honestly content to rest for a while and process everything that had just happened in the last hour.

First: I was a member of a group of five (now six; I had been replaced under the assumption I was dead) leaders of Mirage. Mirage was once a raider fortress some time ago, until the five of us that would come to ‘own’ it cleared them out. Afterward, ponies came to the superstructure in search of salvage and loot. When they realized that we lived there, many elected to stay and build stable lives for themselves under our protection. Unfortunately, it meant many unsavory types - namely thieves - flocked to the place in droves, finding the budding town an easy target. When caught, their punishment was forced labor in order to rebuild the various damaged sections of the fortress. Once that was finished, most of the convicts were allowed to stay and become residents themselves. Over time, this led to Mirage’s reputation as a haven of criminals. While much of the rumors were unfounded, theft and even murder are still present more consistently in Mirage than just about any other ‘civilized’ city in the wastes.

Second: I had just met Lit Fuse, the de facto leader of the Crystal Gangers. According to Sky, he ordered small groups of his men out to raid caravans and settlements. He had sent several of these groups after New Trottingham while she was there, and it was often her that stopped them. Dynamite, it seemed, was very ineffective at hitting a flying target. Now, however, Sky and I had slain several of the Gangers at Prim. When the ones I had scared off returned to their base, he immediately came to Mirage to demand my death. That was when I walked in.

Finally: Lamia, the green mare I had spoken to and the current supreme leader of Mirage, was up to something. Something I wouldn’t like, according to Tamber. Those robed ponies were members of a growing cult in the town, a cult dedicated to worship of their five leaders. To me, it sounded like Lamia was just full of herself and felt like having attention. Tamber said she believed it was worse than that, but refused to talk about it then.

I sighed, rubbing my forehooves against my aching temples. So much had just happened all at once. My head was throbbing as my brain tried to come to grips with it all at the same time. In just one hour I learned a fair amount of my past, I was given a home, a group I belonged to, and a name(finally!). As much as it was what I had hoped to find… I felt like I was unprepared for it. At least, all of it in such short order. Regardless, I was elated to have learned all I did, and to know I was getting answers after all. If only I knew what to make of them…

The door opened and Tamber entered looking quite pleased with herself. “Right, no one’s around, Mistress Lamia is with Lily in her quarters. Good!” She quickly paced in a small circle before sitting down on the floor. Skydive’s eyes jumped between Tamber and the chair behind her before giving me a confounded look. I smiled and shrugged.

“Before I start… do you really not remember anything? Anything at all?” she questioned, a horribly sad expression on her face.

“Yes,” I replied for the third time since Lamia had left us with her. She whimpered(were ponies supposed to whimper?) dolefully.

“I guess that’ll have to do,” she muttered to herself as she reached into the oversized satchel she carried with her. It was curious to see her dig around in it with her muzzle; I briefly wondered if that would be what I would have to do if it weren’t for my Pipbuck. I sent a silent thanks to Crutches for letting me use it. When Tamber finally returned from the recesses of her bag, she brought a small glass ball with her.

Scratch that. A small memory orb. It was, unlike the previous one, a dark charcoal color with odd, swirling red wisps. The pattern was mesmerizing.

“You said to give this to you,” she said, spitting it onto the closed satchel, “if you came back. Well… specifically, if something weird happened and you came back. Or to just watch it on my own if you were gone for more than a few weeks. I kept it safe and hidden, just like you asked!” Skydive pulled it to herself with a forehoof and lifted it onto the couch.

“Uh… thanks,” I said, still slightly entranced by the (mildly saliva-coated) bizarrely patterned orb. “Should I?” I asked Sky, wanting her opinion before diving into it. Even if it was my own idea in the first place…

“You’re perfectly safe,” Tamber piped up again, not really giving Sky a chance to answer. “You said to make sure nopony but you knew about it, even after I gave it to you. I’m supposed to bar the door back up until you knock. I’ll be right outside!” Looking back to Skydive, she sighed.

“We don’t have much else going on right now. You may as-”

“Shush!” Tamber yelped suddenly. Sky shot her an angry glare, but Tamber wasn’t paying attention. Instead, she was… sniffing. Her head went straight up and proceeded to turn to the door. She got to her hooves and slowly opened the door. “Hey! I thought I told you to go to the gate!” she yelled. I heard a guard pony stammer a response fruitlessly. “I don’t care if there’s two on watch already, scram! Get!” The guard audibly galloped down the hallway and out of earshot.

“Sorry,” she said, once again clearly elated with herself. “It might not be as uncrowded as I hoped. I can shoo them all away while I’m out there, though!” I looked down at the orb Sky held. I knew there would be some answers in there that I wanted. There had to be for me to leave a message in case something like… like all this happened. But I also made it clear I wanted absolutely no one but myself and Tamber to know what was in it. As… reliable… as Tamber seemed, I didn’t want to risk it.

“I’m fine, Tamber. I can look at it later, where there’s certainly nobody around to walk in on me. Thank you, though.” She seemed to want to argue at first, but the ‘thank you’ elicited a smile so wide (and freakishly toothy) she could have torn her face. “Sky, can you hold on to that? I… don’t want to touch it.” She nodded and buried it in her own saddlebags. “How long of a wait do you think we have before… what are we waiting for, exactly?”

“Mistress Lamia will send someone when she knows what she wants to do. But… be careful. I don’t trust her when it comes to you. She was a little too eager when we heard you disappeared, and… well, she hardly seemed surprised is all. You told me yourself you didn’t trust her either.” I nodded. It seemed we could be here for a while. Skydive elected to return to messing with her disassembled pistols. I suddenly recalled she’d drawn one of them against Fuse. Had that fight escalated, she wouldn’t have been able to actually use it.

I didn’t want to delve too deep into that right now. I needed to take a break from all the sudden drama; I was starting to stress out. I opened my saddlebag to retrieve a bottle of water when my hoof brushed against something. Something with a sharper corner than anything I remembered putting in here…

I yanked out the object along with the water bottle. It was the book… I remembered the steel-colored unicorn floating it to me. ‘A light in the darkness to guide me’ huh? Well, there was no better time than now. I flipped open the cover and looked at the first few pages. There was no title, I noticed, and immediately jumped into some sort of prologue. Curiously, it was some article about Pipbucks…

In a flicker of memory, I recalled the mare’s warning to keep this a secret. My eyes darted to Tamber. She was sitting on the rug again, staring at me. Very intently staring at me. “Uh… I’m just gonna read this until something happens. You don’t have to stick around if you don’t want to.” She shook her head at the comment. “Well… can you not, uh… stare at me? It’s a bit creepy. Sorry.” This time she nodded and got up. She paced around in a circle again before sitting back down on the rug, and promptly laying the rest of herself down as well. There was a chair open, as well as a bed in the corner, but she chose to sleep on the floor? I just sighed, refusing to confuse myself further by trying to explain it to myself. Instead, I just turned my attention back to my book.

* * *

“Your presence has been requested by Miss Lamia; you are to bring Cinder and his companion with you,” a gruff voice called from the other side of the door. I reflexively closed the book, cursing myself for not marking the page I was on. Tamber immediately sprang up to her hooves, startling Sky and I.

“On it!” she called back. She turned to face us on the couch. “Well, I guess it’s time to move. Are you ready, Cinder?” I nodded. “And…” she trailed off looking at my friend beside me.

“Skydive,” Sky finished for her with pointed annoyance.

“Right! Sorry! Well, anyway,” she turned and pulled the door open, “after you.” As I stepped out behind Skydive, I caught Tamber staring intently at something on the wall.

“Are you alright?” I asked, trying to discern what it was that had her attention. She lifted her other forehoof and pressed it on a small black spot on one of the bricks. Pulling it away, she grimaced at the squashed remains of a spider that was left.

“Yea… nothin’ to worry about.” She closed the door and took the lead to guide us. We walked down multiple identical hallways en route to wherever this Lamia elected to call us to. Guards were posted every now and again outside of doors, and each one carried the same metal pole weapon. I catalogued it away with my numerous other questions to ask later. The list was sadly growing much faster than it was shrinking.

After a couple more minutes of trotting, we arrived at a very different pair of doors than the ones seemingly cut and copied all up and down the hallways. These ones, while not reinforced like the ones into the room we first encountered Lamia in, looked fairly sturdy if only due to their size. The pattern of barring was identical to the others, but this time the bars were of gold rather than iron and steel.

The guards on either side pushed the door open to reveal a large dining hall. A long table, placed horizontally to the door, spanned the majority of the room’s length; at least a solid twelve feet. Lamia sat at the table opposite the three empty chairs clearly reserved for Tamber, Sky, and myself. To her right were two ponies in the same gaudy purple robes we’d seen earlier, and to her left was one more.

“Please, come and sit. Dinner should be here shortly,” she addressed us and beckoned us over to the chairs. As we sat down, she spoke up again. “I’m so sorry about the wait, Cinder. There were just… several preparations to make.”

“Preparations for what?” I asked, Tamber’s caution still fresh in my mind.

“Why, a celebration of course!” she answered cheerily.

“Celebration?” Sky asked, not content to just listen to the conversation this time. I hoped her pistols were put together again properly, if only as a precaution.

“Absolutely! Cinder here went missing almost a week ago, you see. We were so concerned when we lost track of you.” According to Tamber, that was a lie. “But you’ve returned. And, as unfortunate as the circumstances are, I believe that’s cause for a celebration! Of course, I had to make preparations for it. Get this room set up - it’s hardly used, you know - and get somepony to cook us up something to eat. And, of course…” she telekinetically lowered the glass she had been drinking from onto her plate, making the slightest of pinging sounds. At that moment, the robed ponies all removed their hoods.

Skydive gasped loudly, or perhaps it was the combined volume of both of us. Each of the three robed ponies - no, they were anything but ponies. The one to Lamia’s right seemed semi-normal, like Tamber, only her coat was matted and striped unnaturally. I couldn’t discern any eyelashes or eyelids on her either. To Lamia’s left, however… the one furthest from her had eyes that were completely white, and even seemed to glow! His mane was wispy and seemed to billow in a nonexistent wind. Of all of them, the one between him and Lamia was completely frightening - he had a second fucking head! The pair of faces twirled about in a motion that made me horribly queasy. While one seemed to smile contently, the other merely scowled.

“...I had to invite the family,” she finished, licking her lips with a forked tongue. “Welcome home!”

Footnote: Level up!
Quest perk added: He's Got the Touch: You seem to have magic flow right through your veins; was your great great great great grandfather a unicorn? In any case, that magic touch of yours seems to apply to memory orbs as well, so watch out! Physical contact with a memory orb will immediately pull you into them.

|It’s been a while, readers! I wanted to say thanks again for following this story. I’d like to also give a wholehearted thanks to my editor once again for the extra help pushing this chapter through; I needed it more than you know. And, before I forget, happy Nightmare Night!|

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