Fallout Equestria: Begin Again

by the runaway

First published

War is over.

Thanks to all readers! It was wonderful to know you.

See the finished spiritual successor here.

Chapter 1: Grace is Gone

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 1: Grace is Gone
“Karma’s a real bitch; you’d be wise to remember that.”

|*| Into the Howling Dark |*|

I could see myself in her blood. With the edges of my mane burning under the fluorescent light, and my face blotted out in its shadows, I was left as little more than a ring of pale gold, like an eclipsed sun casting itself across a great, red sea. The music that had followed me here, as a choir caught in step behind a vagrant priest, stopped, as the Faith pressed so many hymn books shut far below. Their voices still rang out, rising through rock and steel and the very air that might have carried the Stable’s first songs, to touch these cold and administrative places that even their Gods had failed to reach.

The song had come like any sunrise, carrying the Last Light of Equestria on its back, falling over the great cradle in the earth, to stir the sleeping pieces of the old world. And, though the melody was hollow now, I let it push against my heart like a pillow, if only to slow its beat, and take me away from the corpse.

This was a children’s hymn, and I filled in the words as I had once sung them: an orphan in circle with the others, presented like a trained songbird before the faces of unfamiliar parents, all swollen with pride.

Somewhere out there beneath the pale moonlight
Someone’s thinking of me, and loving me tonight.

Somewhere out there, someone’s saying a prayer
That we’ll find one another in that big somewhere out there.

These songs had been my lullabies, and had raised me right along with the veins of scripture from which they were mined, though neither had done enough to convince me of that promised Kingdom of the Skies, or to see me bow before its two astral gatekeepers. But now, I almost wanted to believe.

My Overmare, my Shady Sands, lay slumped on the floor behind her desk, with her head cocked back at a sickening angle, and her body sprawled like that of an outgrown doll. Around her face, which had been drained of all its prettiness and politics, was blood; as if to bead fraying braids in the color of her lone-star cutie mark. Her eyes were wide, screaming, though a third had come, like a sinkhole in the middle of her forehead. It looked to have been carved out, leaving me to stare deeper and deeper into the inside of her.

And even though I know how very far apart we are
It helps to think that we might be wishing on the same bright star.

And when the night wind starts to sing a lonesome lullaby
It helps to think we’re sleeping underneath the same big sky.

I wanted it to go away. I wanted to shut myself down, to forget the gore painted in pink ribbons on the wall, the smell of death in the air, and the unearthly music driven on by those terrible voices in my head. I would have given anything; I would have fallen to my knees before a devil, to escape it all.

Somewhere out there, if love can see us through
Then we’ll be together, somewhere out there
Out where dreams
Come true.

With a loud, gasping cry, my tears finally came, and I collapsed into the gore; choking on salt and iron. Shady Sands was everywhere, and the taste of her only whipped at my panic, as if it were a beast caught in a thicket. This was nothing like lying beside a hospital bed, as a filly done with the day’s crusading, to watch as life slowly left my mother. This was too fast. It couldn’t have been right. It wasn’t fair.

Hoofsteps broke the roar of silence then, and I let them surround me. My tears turned red as they ran down stained cheeks, soiled as the blood injected itself like a dye, making them heavy and polluted. The faceless ponies dragged me away, but I was no farther from her, for her colors were painted on my face.

*** *** ***

I found myself in a cell, left to marinate in my tears and her blood. I curled up into a ball, as if I couldn’t decide how best to mourn the mare and the mantle fallen from her shoulders. For having hope, the Overmare was dead, and for tipping the scales on an issue that had for so long, and in such seclusion, been snared in conflict; I was buried. A bullet had torn up my ballot, and I knew exactly who to blame.

They had ruined everything. They had clawed up the seed that had been her idea, only a day after I was chosen, to decide whether it should be planted at all, to decide if the Stable was ready to see it grow.

I got up, barely able to stand for passing waves of dizziness, and limped over to the cell bars. Now, pillars of black steel cooled my skin, and I pressed up against them as if it might undo all the wrong that had been done. I whispered to myself at first, rehearsing, and then started to scream.

All language was cut down to its primal root, and I found myself caught in a tantrum, as what could only be an imitation of blind rage swept over me, as if to drown out the frightened little mare who knew that, even for begging and beating her hooves red, she couldn’t get what she wanted. I wanted to be angry, just as I wanted to believe in some divine court, but I couldn’t do it. Like a pony dangling meat at the mouth of an empty lion’s den, I could make myself into nothing more than a fool.

In the hour that followed, I emptied out my voice, and let the silence crowd around me. The paths of red tears streaked down my face like those of clay mascara, even though the anger that I had been so desperate to draw out, to give sovereign rule over my body, remained a mouse.

When the guards came to take up their posts on the far side of the room, wearing dark glass to shield their faces, I did nothing. They might have seen a mare with blood striped across her face and naked chest like war paint, a mare with white fury in her eyes and an animal in her heart, or they might have seen the truth. If they opened the cell door, I wouldn’t resist them, and my mask would fall to pieces.

My throat felt tender, raw, and it hurt me to speak up. “Security!” I whispered to the guards, as if I was afraid of waking the ponies sleeping through the wee small hours below. “Excuse me, sir? … ma’am?” They didn’t stir. “Please, I didn’t do this. Just listen to me… I can explain everything!” They were statues at the foot of a temple, guards before the throne of a Princess. Why would they listen to me? “My name is Grace, and if you give me a chance: I can help you find the Overmare’s killer.”

“I know who did it.” The armored buck, standing to the cell’s left, said: with a face of stone under glass.

“I… I can see why you’d think that. But it wasn’t me! Please!” I was practically begging now.

“I know.”

“What? Did you-” I clicked a hoof against my temple and smiled, as if it had been so obvious. “You arrested Saber already!” Of course! They needed me to testify, to rack up evidence against the head of our Commissary. After all, the buck who would now call himself our leader, for the corpse behind the Overmare’s desk, would not be easy to dethrone. “You might want to let a girl in on the plan next time.” I laughed, with a playful nudge at the bars. “At least before she paints her hooves in bruises.”

Statues at the foot of a counterfeit temple: Guards before the throne of a turncoat tyrant.
“Sir?” But it was no use: They were a part of this. The Commissary had their reins in its hooves, just as it did so much of the Stable below, and it was all too likely that they could not be steered by anyone else, and knew full well that this was not my cell, but their master’s. “Let me talk to him… Get me Saber.”

“Your trial is scheduled for this afternoon. You’ll have your chance to talk then,” The mare said, in a monotone. I’d never seen a Security Officer fully kitted out like this, and it almost seemed like I was in another place entirely: a place that the Commissary ruled as a police state.

For all I knew, the guards might have been scoured of all their compassion, left as little more than tools. “You must know what happened… you must see how wrong this is.” Nothing but mirrored visors, like dead eyes. “Please, you can help me. Shady Sands deserves justice, and Equestria must be reclaimed.”

“Putting you both down before your madness spreads is what’s best for the Stable. You’ll do well to remember that,” The mare concluded, shutting me off. It’s for the good of the Stable. They all used those words as a shield, as if they could shut out the truth, and cast themselves in bronze, to pass as heroes.

They were indoctrinated; the drones to a hive mind. And, without so much as a step out of line, the Commissary would fall in line with Saber’s merciless plan, even if they crushed me under their hooves.

Pity came to make the emotional tangle at the back of my mind into even more of a mess, as I couldn’t even frown at these two ponies: these instruments. After all, they were victims to the same demon that had doomed the Overmare, and I couldn’t hate them for the shadowy hooves that covered their eyes.

I had to reform them - all of them - from the Commissary to the civilians, though the latter knew so little about Shady Sands’ plan: As it had fallen before its time, like wings of wax, for cutthroat politics.

Saber might just leave me to rot, without so much as a villainous speech, as all the ponies below knew nothing of their leader’s death. Come the morning, there would be panic, and he would no doubt mold it into anger, to turn on me as if it were another weapon. And I knew, though Saber might never have heard that first gun going off, he had aimed it at the head of our Stable, and pulled the trigger all the same.

I came into the eye of the storm then, as I was so eager to beat him - so sure that I could fix everything - that all else fell away. I would win back my innocence, and cut the ties that bound puppets to puppetmaster, to see Saber answer for their crimes alone. It wouldn’t be easy, as even the Faith - despite their short and turbulent history: their boycotting of the Artificial Afterlife system and its Karma counting Pipbucks - trusted him to protect them… Almost as surely as they did their own Goddesses.

Sleep would come no easier than it did before Hearth’s Warming Eve, and I dialed through my Pipbuck’s Data section, hoping to sharpen what weapons I had before the coming fight. I paced the cell, as if I was trying to shake off a fever, and cycled through the sprawling list that I’d only put together the night before.

In the years of unemployment that followed my graduation, I had dipped my hooves partway into history, and picked through everything from Future Weapons Today to True Police Stories.

Last night, I might have used evidence of this self-prescribed education, to show Shady Sands that I was ready to be one of her instruments in reclaiming Equestria; that I was ready to begin. And so, when Aloe Vera lied, and said that the Overmare wanted to see me in her office, I had run off with magazines waving at my neighbors from a saddlebag, and memories flooding the banks of my Pipbuck.

Now, I turned to those that I hadn’t yet read, paging through an immense library, in whose shelves the key to this cell was hidden. One log stood out, and I hovered over it, as if it was something to be feared. It was from about a year after the Stable was sealed, and called itself a report on the AAI’s introduction: The birth of the very system that now threatened to cast me out into an uncultivated Equestria.

---------------- --------- ---------------

Log of Autumn Blossom
Year 1, Day 17

About two weeks ago, we had something of a celebration for the Stable’s one year anniversary. It was…nice. Honestly, it was the most normal thing I feel like I’ve done in a while. There was cake and music and games for the children, everyone seemed so happy. But, despite how nice the Stable is, it’s hard to forget why we’re here, and how many aren’t. The Overstallion had some interesting ideas for our schools, to make sure that the children born here <data corrupted>.

Everypony was called into the Atrium this morning, to hear the Overstallion make his big announcement. He explained this Commissary we’ve all been whispering about: sort of a board of advisors to the Overstallion and all his descendants, like a council or a roundtable. They’re here to rein in any despotic rulers, and take some of the weight off the good ones. Nothing out of the ordinary. It seemed a bit too much like the induction of the Ministry Mares to me. But, then again, there’s no war here.

There’s no war here… Celestia, it feels so good to say that.

And that reminds me. One thing I noticed in orientation last year, is that the ponies here are all very… contemporary. In a group this big, you’d expect to find at least a dozen followers of some old religion. But not here. You might not know what I mean. I’m sure talk of all things holy must have fallen away by now… by then. But anyway: to us, it was like a very loud, very colorful, piece was missing from the puzzle.

What the Overstallion said next… well, it sort of explained that. But I still have to wonder if the religious weren’t turned away from this place. I suppose that wouldn’t be so bad. Zion has <data corrupted>.

Those Karma counters finally make sense now. But, to be honest, they frighten me a little. To know what’s hidden behind that smiling buck: a gauge, a measure of our worth as ponies, is kind of eerie. Especially considering what’s at stake after retirement… the Artificial Afterlife, as the Overstallion put it.

It might be some time before we see it put to use, unless the worst should happen, but it’s clear that the system was based on one of those abandoned religions… Ideologically, the two couldn’t be more different, though: Facts in place of Faith, machines instead of Gods. Like I said, it’s a little creepy.

It goes a little something like this: At retirement, a neutral karmic score doesn’t get you much more than a pat on the head and an encouraging ‘try again next year’. While the punishment for a negative score isn’t all that different from old world exile… Can you believe we’re already calling it that? The Old World.

The idea of Ascension got rooted in us deep, and it finally explained the elevator on the upper level. Apparently, it leads to an entirely sealed off floor of the Stable… where some of the most advanced pieces of Equestrian technology wait for those who are granted the freedom, the right, to use them.

He called them Stasis Pods, and said there are hundreds upon hundreds waiting for the best of our generation, and every generation to come. So that, when the steel door of the Stable finally rolls open for good, the new Equestria will be filled with the purest of heart, woken as if it had only been a night’s sleep. I’ll say that makes for a better start than a couple of warring tribes fighting over which flag to plant.

The electricity that passed through us then didn’t suffer much as the Overstallion went into detail, even though he said that the threshold for Ascension is no easy thing to meet. Your score would have to be exceptional. Still, I’ve never seen a room of ponies so excited. And why not? Life in a new world, to be born again… kind of puts the old religions into perspective. I can’t say there weren’t stars in my eyes.

In any case, the database will remain open for a while longer, but I think this should be my last public log. If I had to leave anything for the next few generations to read, I’m sure my stories of growing up in the Plains will be more than enough to give you my picture of the world before the megaspells. If you’re looking for pre-war material, Boulder put up plenty of his stories, and I’d recommend those.

Happy Reading fellow citizen, I have to admire you for your interest in this dusty old past.
Maybe if we’re both lucky, I’ll see you after the doors open… in the new Equestria.

Autumn Blossom

---------------- --------- ---------------

I had to wonder if Autumn Blossom could be somewhere down there, waiting to wake with Equestria, and I couldn’t blame her for how little her last log had helped me. I felt bad enough knowing that her paradise might never come, as all those that tried to carry her closer to it were fated to end up dead or damned.

But not if I win.

One of the guards came back from their break with something for me to eat, but the taste of salt and iron made the meal difficult to enjoy. And besides that: it was nutrient paste, plain and undisguised.

The Security wing made for a good distraction and, as I ate, I explored the unfamiliar room with my eyes. Being Little Gracie Goodyear, I hadn’t come anywhere near the Stable’s brig before, and even during the Great Ethanol Epidemic, which had been a dark season for my graduating class, I hadn’t seen this side of the bars. As far as I remembered, this was the first place that I was visiting for the first time, and I was glad to have something to think about other than my aching stomach, the coming trial, and the corpse.

An announcement was made over the Stable PA system, and its muffled voice was all that I could use to divide that long morning. They were no doubt making the Overmare’s murder public, painting me as a killer, and crowning Saber as our king through the chaos. I didn’t know what happened when our bluest bloodline ran dry, but I could guess that the Commissary would take their time working through the paperwork, with their flanks sinking deeper into the cushioning of thrones all the while.

The hurt in my stomach only got worse at the thought, and I went looking for comfort at the bottom of my Pipbuck’s databanks. The next log that caught my attention was called The First Damnation, and a part of me knew that opening it would be a mistake.

---------------- --------- ---------------

Log of: Crane
Year 1, Day 306

I can’t think of anything that’s more important to record than this. Round about ten months ago we got introduced to the Commissary, and the AAI system came right along with them – that’s the Artificial Afterlife Incorporation System, in case you all aren’t calling it that anymore – and it showed its teeth yesterday. Couldn’t have asked for a cleaner first impression, let me tell you. Ponies were worried that they’d boot someone out just for show, to get us set on how the system works, we were afraid that the bar wouldn’t be set low enough. But it just got set real low… real fucking low.

Billington snapped: Just lost it. I’d almost feel sorry for her… But you don’t get my sympathy after you kill a filly. I’ve seen ponies fall from grace before, back when the world was tipping over the edge, but this was just sick. That bitch murdered a little girl, someone’s daughter! If we were anywhere but here… I’d have seen her hang. But she might as well be strung up on a noose now. You can almost hear Equestria burning outside. Storms will tear her up as soon as she crawls her way out of the earth. Or she’ll starve. Either fucking way: Nothing less than she deserves for little Abellene.

Doesn’t look like this AAI thing is gonna work with trials much, so no lawyers and the like. The Overstallion and Commissary acted as judge and jury, now it’s left to whatever’s out there to play executioner. They kept Billington in a holding cell for the night, and then made a show of Damning her in the morning. Pretty private, for the most part. They gave us more evidence than we needed; made sure we understood that she was guilty. But that was pretty damn clear. She just sat there, quiet through the whole show, until she broke down and tried to apologize near the end. Don’t know who she expects forgiveness from, ‘cause she’s not getting it from us.

The Commissary did a good job making sure we were happy. We had our doubts about them, about this whole system. Wasn’t expecting the Stable to be more than just a big bomb shelter. But they earned their place today. I’m not about to doubt these ponies when it comes to the law, not after this. Most of us saw her do it anyway, so her goose was pretty well cooked. Still, I can appreciate a good show.

Marched her out through the aisles, towards the airlock. They even encouraged us to watch as that psycho was dragged to her doom. She just cried. I wanted an explanation, a reason behind dashing a little filly’s head open against the Stable floor. But it almost looked like she couldn’t even tell herself. I’m just glad she couldn’t get out of this on some kind of insanity plea.

The Overstallion talked us through it, told us that he understood what we were going through. The first few years are gonna be tough, he said. We have to adjust. To forget everything we saw out there. Maybe he wants us to write our worst stories here so we have a place to put them besides our heads. But the Great War has a way of burrowing in deep.

That bitch got what she deserved. Just thought I’d take the time to say that. I’m going to little Abellene’s remembrance ceremony, to put this behind me, to let the anger lie, and give our support to that poor filly’s parents. If anyone knows why Billington did it, post something while the database is open, would you?
I know I’d really like to find out.

---------------- --------- ---------------

Billington had been the first Damnation and, had we managed to open the Stable doors and end this, my father would have forever remained the last. I had never dared to look for a record on him, and could only imagine the kind of anger, the kind of disgust, that might have been left in the database for his sake.

I was trying to lose track of time, but each second might as well have whipped me across the back, drawing a prisoner’s calendar of wounds. I had no idea when the trial would start… until it did.

Almost at once, the guards drew their 10mm pistols with magic and muzzle. It was kind of funny, that they would so readily walk me to damnation for such a bloody and ballistic crime, and yet, couldn’t imagine that I might wrestle the weapons from their grip, and take them into my own magic. I had to believe that the Stable would look at me in the same way, as a mare who couldn’t even flirt with violence.

But they might remember me differently, as I’d had something of a crush on those hardnosed Tri-beam laser rifles, and even tried to build one of my own as a filly. With it, I had charged through the Stable: a girl at war with nopony in particular. The weapon - if that - was really a collection of cardboard strips and discarded mechanical parts from the lower floor, taped together over half a broomstick. Just as the schematics I’d drawn up, in the most intimidating shade of crayon that I could find, had instructed.

As the buck, whose mouth had closed around a key, worked at the cell door, I had to watch my naked gray reflection bloat in his visor; to make an unpolished silver dollar of my face, and leave two shiny bits in place of my eyes. Though, like my hair, they lost their gold to brown for the reflection’s tint.

My mane had great potential, according to my mother, and she had often styled it to mirror her own, which was in itself inspired by the mares of magazine covers and advertisements. I always ended up looking a little more like the shaken up temptresses, distracting readers from the very products they sold, than those trying to promote things more wholesomely. But this was more a curse to my mother than it was to me. I kind of preferred my layers of swept up bangs and disobedient sides to the solid helmets that were standard issue to those no-nonsense soldiers on the front lines of domestic warfare.

Ever since I’d started taking care of myself, it had been free to curl at its untamed edges, despite the occasionally haircut to keep in line with a well ingrained sense of length. I may have forgotten my mother’s opinions on ponies’ with a mane that turned every direction but down, but Long-haired mares are just waiting to be shared was a warning that had stuck with me, if only because it was fun to say.

“Don’t try anything,” The buck warned, getting me out of my hair, and out of my head. “It’ll be over soon.” I thought I might be trusted to follow them, but then he clamped a heavy shackle around my neck, chaining me to his partner’s barding, leashing me like a rabid dog on its way to be put down.

*** *** ***

It was like the verdict had already been read, as I stood before a sea of angry faces, where my neighbors had been waiting in rows. Some screamed Murderer, while others spat profane slurs and gibberish, as if they’d invented an ugly language just for the sake of hating me. A few simply glared at me in heated silence, and to them I was nothing but a killer, as I heard one terrible whisper pass through the Atrium: Daughter of the Damned.

Even now, they could only say the words under their breath, as if they were still afraid of him.
Daughter of the Damned, as if it was a crime to have called a criminal, long since condemned: Father.

It was only then that I began to see how easily they had come to detest me. The black heart cast across my chest – as some ponies seemed to think that black hearts were inherited just as plainly as fair hair - was enough evidence to turn them into something like a lynch mob, and it was almost as if they had been waiting for this day, looking forward to the moment when all their suspicions could be said to ring true, and I revealed myself as a poison apple fallen from an infamous and infected tree.

Tears drowned them out, blotting their faces behind a thin veil. Crying could only make me look guiltier, especially as it dampened all the blood that had dried into a scarce pattern across my coat, but I very nearly didn’t care. My Stable, my home, did not want to see me damned: they wanted me dead.

But I had to tell them. I had to spread the plan of a murdered mare, if only to see the idea falling on more ears than the Commissary’s and mine. Only I had been pulled into the political storm that surrounded Shady’s steps towards a brave new world, a country rebuilt, tended under the Stable’s care. And only I, for an old friendship between two fillies, had been given the power to push her over the edge of change, or pull her back to the Commissary’s side, where the Stable was treated like a butterfly in a glass case.

“I understand your anger, I do. But to keep our heads clear, and our eyes clouded, is the only way to see justice.” Saber’s horn lit up, as he began to talk in a tired voice that came as if from everywhere at once, nothing like the one, swollen with cool arrogance, that I’d heard at the presentation yesterday.

He was an old buck, with a mane that had gone gray before Shady Sand’s and I had our first birthdays, and could look as frail as a beggar when he needed to. Even the blue of his coat had started to wash out, like a dye, but there was still a terrible light in his eyes, as tireless fires burned beneath the ice.

“Thank you, thank you all. We are gathered in the wake of a great tragedy. But we are bound for our laws, and to the memory of our Overmare, Shady Sands. Whose light was put out far too soon after her father’s.” The word father was enough to send a shiver through the Stable, be it for fresh grief, or old fear. “I was to be ascended in the weeks to come. But I am bound in the place of our stolen leaders, until a new family comes into the Overmare’s chambers… So you see, we all have our bindings.”

“It has been some time since our last trial - almost two decades, I believe - and though we have such a… similar pony standing before the doorstep, I will steer us through these bitter proceedings.” That was low. “Once I have opened the case, our chief of security will walk us all through the evidence.” I saw a pistol and a bloody round set out beside Chief Silverback, who I knew to be more like a bear than a bull.

“After him, we will hear testimony from a civilian witness.” This had to be Aloe Vera, the pony that had sent me to the crime scene the night before, on the word of a mare who was already dead. “The suspect too, will have her chance to speak from where she is chained.”

He turned to me, and the arctic light of his flat eyes and megaphone magic was enough to make me shiver. “This is, of course, optional. But if you should decide to use this time, then choose your words well, as they will be the last that you speak to the ponies of Equestria’s Last Light.” I didn’t feel any need to interrupt, and kept waiting. For now I had to act innocent - to be innocent - for fear of emotions that might paint me as a madmare… Or worse: my father’s daughter.

“The Faith never took to our suspect, though her parents were both followers. Few of you know her, and none call her a colleague. The crime for which she is now on trial was committed last night in Ms. Sands’ office, soon after a messenger, sent by the Overmare, asked her to the office.” He waved a hoof towards Aloe Vera on the bench. “Misses Vera was that messenger.” But it wasn’t Shady Sands that sent her

“The murder weapon,” He began, after drawing the 45 automatic pistol, which seemed to catch all of the Atrium’s light at once, “Has never been on the Stable’s ordinance records, but is known only for its part in a previous trial… the previous trial: The last Damnation.” Oh no. “Make of that what you will.”

A Father’s sins… pass to his son. It was written on the walls now, as the Faith’s scripture had put it into words. All my life, their eyes had lingered on me, but now they could stare me down like a swollen piece of livestock, seeing me for the sinner whose sins I had never known. Still, as I looked back into the light of Saber’s horn, I knew not to do anything stupid. Better to behave.

“The bullet,” He said, as it rose like a little yellow star on the fabric of some icy nebula. “pierced her skull. And though this crime was brutal, our Overmare’s death would have been painless.” To this, a few ponies in the crowd bowed their heads, as Saber wove Chief Silverback to his side. “Now, let’s begin…”

His horn stopped glowing as he stepped back, and I felt something like hatred rise in tides towards the old buck. I had respected him once, but now saw the murderer for what he was: a monster, with law shut up in its mouth. I pulled against my chains, only to be yanked back into place by the mare who anchored me.
I wanted to get him, to hurt him. But the steel held tight, and I was afraid that they might see me fighting.

Chief Silverback towered over the pedestal, and began to speak. His voice could not match Saber’s, and it was clear that the far edge of the audience couldn’t quite hear him. Saber crept up to the larger buck’s side, and his horn lit up, taking to the chief’s voice like a knife to hot butter, spreading it across the Atrium.

I stopped pulling at my chains, and came into a soldier’s stance. As if I could only be an animal or a statue, I felt the savagery inside me die out, and became still. I needed to follow procedure. I needed to behave. This was the best way to save the Stable: Standing here, covered in her blood. I was the best piece of evidence Saber could have asked for, and the trial went on only to beat a dead horse.

As Silverback returned to his post beside the stage, Saber’s magic flickered out, and everything in my head was turned upside down. Anger came flaring up again, and I realized that it had been walled off at the back of my mind, gnawing at whatever leash was binding it, becoming an unbearable, dull pulse.

I had to stop this. I couldn’t wait. I had to tell everypony the truth. I was about to call out to them, to scream anything that might relay even a piece of Shady Sands, but then Saber started to speak, and the desire was washed away by his magic. He was doing something to me, pacifying me… Controlling me.

His shackles closed around my body, and now that I knew to look for them, it was like they were choking me: bending my bones out of place. I could barely squirm, as the tip of his horn came to shine as if it had pierced the first star. I was trapped, and no one could see it. I was bound. He had put on the perfect show, for ponies who were more than happy to play the part of fools. The entire trial was forfeit.

*** *** ***

By the time Aloe Vera had given her testimony, which would have been rehearsed like any play and recited like any sermon in the light of Saber’s horn, I felt as if my insides were tearing themselves apart, for how many times I’d been thrown from obedience to a clot of emotions that I could only call madness.

“Now, if she so chooses, the suspect will have her chance to deny these charges, or confess to them.” Saber looked over to me, and his face was empty of all emotion, icy as his eyes.

The struggle might have come bursting out of me then, as a bloody and faceless animal in its own right. Screams, all chained to a post, fought to be heard, coming together in one final charge. They melted into each other, becoming little more than red noise; a headache and a fever. And, just as I was about to suffer what felt like a brain hemorrhage for the pressure: his horn stopped glowing, and it all came out.

He must have seen it in my eyes, the desperation, and turned it loose like a lion with neither teeth nor claw. I was rearing and bucking then, pulling on the chain that bound me to the Security mare, who I threw to the ground in my frenzy. There were no words, no meaning to my screams, only what had to be a boiling reservoir of fear and loathing, breaking through a weary dam.

I couldn’t stop it. But then, almost as quickly as it had begun, it ended. Even as I wrestled for control over my spasmodic body, replacing his shackles with my own, Saber locked me back into place, as if sliding a chess piece to the edge of the board. He had released me, if only to let me finish digging my own grave.

The Stable was quiet now. There were no cheers, no fits of applause, as ponies slid back into their stalls, as if their spines had been untethered. I must have looked insane, like a wild animal…like a murderer. And to Saber, I looked perfect.

He turned back to the jurors - smaller heads on the hydra that was the Commissary - ready to receive their verdict. But it was all too clear. We were all ready for me to leave… desperate for me to leave.
Still as cold as ever, he nodded. “We’ll take that as a confession.”

I gathered my courage, and looked out over the crowd, singling out the colorless face of Nurse Clearheart, who I had come to know after being taken under the wing of Doctor Cross, through my volunteer work in her serene hospital. Together, we had fantasies of playing captain to the medical bay, standing over the table and dreaming. I still had the strength to find her in the crowd, reaching out with my eyes, but there was nothing I could do to change the fact that she looked away.

I stood before all the ponies that might be left to the world, clothed only for the blood of their leader, as a target for all their blame. I loved the Stable, despite it all, and wanted nothing more than to fix it. As if a lie could be treated with medicine, flushed out like any disease. But I knew, just as surely as Saber’s magic kept me bound in my own mind: I was going to be damned.

We were done. It was over.

*** *** ***

“You may walk the path of sin for a time… but change your first hoofstep out into the darkness, bear your cross, and you might still be welcomed to the Kingdom of the Skies. Before you: waits the undiscovered country of both Sun and Moon, but before that: waits the abandoned country, where the skies are empty.”

The Confessor’s words rang out like bells over the sound of beating drums, as the unicorns of the Faith played out a slow and steady beat with their horns, which quickened for every hoofstep we took towards the airlock. This was the music they played for the damned. “May the virtues that were given to us by the Goddesses find you - just as they did our earliest, quarrelling ancestors - and lead you to absolution, just as we were once united under their great, Equestrian banner.”

I closed my eyes, trying to block it all out. This was the way it ended, but it didn’t have to be the way I remembered it. “The Goddesses are nothing if not forgiving, and they would steer you, if only you would let them. Please, do better than those who came before: those lost souls who tore the world apart.”

The Faith had begun generations ago, after earning religious freedom through something very much like a revolution. The Stable would have been an entirely different place then, with the fires of civil cold war drawing lines between those believed, and those who followed no doctrine but our design. And yet I found myself wishing to have been a soldier in that conflict instead, if only so I wouldn’t have to fight alone.

After we’d reached the end of that unending hallway, where all the voices I could never hear again echoed, the guards removed my collar, to let deep bruises breathe. I had made those marks for my own violent outburst, and even as they removed the snare, I could tell how gentle they were trying to be.

They knew that I was innocent… and were good ponies, after all. Chief Silverback looked back at me, as the airlock door slid open, and sighed. I wasn’t sure if I was crying, but my eyes felt wet and sore. “I hate that it had to be you.” Of course he had his hooves in this: The whole Commissary did. “I really do.”

“How many knew…all of you?” I asked softly, to which he just nodded. “And you would just stand for this? I felt like I had been screaming for hours on end, though I hadn’t even been allowed that.

“These are the means to an end, ma’am. But I know that, from where you’re standing, it must seem like the game was rigged from the start… Truth is, it’s just an 18 carat string of bad luck.”

“I’m not going to die out there,” I decided, feeling like a filly with my eyes at his chest. Saber had only saved the Stable through death and deceit, sloughing off its ideals like a molting insect, leaving all that defined us as Equestria’s last light behind. “I’m going to follow the path that Saber buried in the sand.” The ends did not justify the means, and he would have to live with that. “I’m going to beat him.”

It would be wrong to start calling myself The Last Light of Equestria, but I couldn’t help thinking it then, as The Stable was being cradled like a candle against the storm. Still, I couldn’t quite bring myself to give up on it. “With the whole Stable together, we could’ve faced whatever stands between Equestria and the dawn. Why couldn’t we have sent scouts? Why couldn’t we try?”

He shook his head. “An idea is a powerful thing; and nothing mattered more than stopping the Overmare from sharing hers. You know that Saber tried talking her out of it but, in the end, we did what had to be done: We protected the Stable. Trust me, I’d do anything to say it didn’t have to come to this.”

“It didn’t.”

The chief had no response to that but a sad look, as if he knew my limits better than I did. I’d never felt so driven to do something, so desperate to prove myself, and I wasn’t surprised to find that I was, if not eager to leave, then eager to begin. “I left you some things in the airlock… had to do something.”

I stayed quiet. “They were your father’s. Confiscated on the day he was damned. I got it all out of storage right along with the pistol, figured I’d owe you… that we all would.” The guards had backed away, but I could still feel them watching. “I packed the saddlebags for you. You don’t have to take them, but I want you to survive out there. And it looks like padre put it all together with the same idea.”

I knew that this would be my last chance to find out how my father had come to beat this path for me, but I shut myself up, deciding that it would be better to let this place sink into the earth behind me, so that I might truly begin again.

Silverback drew out the pistol that had killed her, that had paved this road, and I couldn’t help thinking how beautiful it was up close. It was silver, with its hilt speckled in a cluster of golden dots, like an edgeless field of stars spread out over the darkness. It had an inscription running along its length, written in the ancient language that I had only ever been able to read in small pieces.

“Don’t know what the weather's like up there. But you should get dressed before strapping this on in a holster.” I looked back over my naked body, taking in all the stains and bruises of this last day, and the cryptic cutie mark that might have its meaning buried in lines of scripture or some foreign library. Still, I had come to like the pretty pair of ones, and even the dot that hovered between them like a distant sun.

“One last thing.” He grabbed my hoof, even as I tried to step out into the airlock. “There are a few things that I should show you on your Pipbuck… might help keep you alive.” After looking up into his eyes for a moment, and realizing that the old buck was trying to dry out some of the guiltiness there, I let him turn the device’s screen over to face him. “Okay… let’s start with S.A.T.S.”

*** *** ***

His clothes fit me well and, with them on, I almost felt ready for what came next. First, I had dressed myself in a collared shirt, which had broken circles stitched into the pale and papery fabric of its shoulders. Its collar was stiff, and curled at the edges like old parchment. Next, came one of the same vests that all active Security officers wore, though this one had been beaten down to a dusty brown, and its edges looked to have become a grave to that dead language.

Over both, came the coat, which was a few shades lighter, and collared around my neck in a thick ring. It was long enough to cover my cutie mark, and even replaced it with a simple cross tilted on its arm. My father’s pistol was holstered at my side, just as my mother’s locket had always hung over my heart; to see us brave our abandoned country together, as a family long since torn apart by death and damnation.

It was time to go. There would be no more silver hallways, wearing yellow borders like surgical scars, no more volunteer work in the whitewashed medical wing to fill the empty days. No more sermons with the Confessor and his congregation, who flooded the lower atrium under a frail tide of gold, with their mock candlelight burning at the tips of a few scattered unicorn horns.

The world outside, however, might only be darkness. And the spells that I’d once used to escape this place through midnight stories or imagined adventures, to break out of its steel walls, could end up being my only guide against a waterlogged sun, setting over a country whose power lay in so many pieces.

But, despite it all, I felt ready to leave. I’d grown up as far as up goes here. But I was stuck in the past now more than ever, recycling the younger days of both Equestria and II was buried in myself and my country, with nothing else to guide me, to steer me through life, like a parent, or a God.

They would always be happy here. Be it despite me, or without me. The door stirred, and seemed to shake the entire Stable by the shoulders as it woke. I could hear something hissing, as the insides of this ancient thing were put to work, and the atmosphere of the room might have been warped, like that of a bubble pressing against a nail, as soon as the great cog clicked its way out of place.

The door lorded over me, before rolling away like a drunk king, to reveal the darkness of the outlands: to show me the line between everything and nothing. I had no reason to stay: no reason to hesitate, and fear fell away even as I stared down the unending black beast, swallowing its own tail. Goodnight, the Stable groaned into its pillow, as I stepped out into the howling dark, to make the most of my damnation.




Footnote: Level up!
Perk Added: Daughter of the Damned: The poison apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. You gain +5 in small guns and +5 in explosives.

Chapter 2: The Dead Flag Blues

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 2: The Dead Flag Blues
“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the End.”

|*| Half Full |*|

I climbed into the stone throat of our nation, letting Equestria swallow me: letting it choke on me. And, if only for the dust that crowded around my hooves, it felt like I might have stepped out onto a dilapidated planet. The Stable was sterile - naked and cold - as if it had just been prepared for an operation, but this place was built before there were empires, by the same tools that had hollowed out the oceans and pulled up the sky. And now, like a bull, the earth had shaken off our grip on its reins, our place in its saddle, and I could almost feel it gloating, as pillars of rock bowed over me from either side of the tunnel.

I fell into it, knowing that any lifeline binding me to the Stable had already been cut, as if I was stepping off the side of a ship, and into the raging sea. The door groaned behind me, like an animal rocking itself through a feverish sleep, and I turned to watch as the old world was buried. As it rolled shut, I found myself forgetting all that lay behind it, pinning down pages of memory for each of the cog’s passing teeth.

This would be a new beginning, a chance to make something of the destiny that my Stable had shrugged off, like a comic book hero throwing out his cape: a chance to heal the wounds that had spread so far, and now ran so deep, as black veins across Equestria's face. I almost thought that I was the first; that none had crossed this line before me, but dry and discolored blood painted a set of maroon hoofprints, which trailed off into the dark. They were the steps of the damned, and I made sure not to match them.

A part of me wanted to stay behind, to take shelter before the Stable's tightly sealed lip, like unwashed villagers might before the steps of a temple. The safest place in all of Equestria wouldn't have been so easy to give up, if I couldn't remember the anger in their faces, the madness that they had seen smeared over me: if I hadn't begun to understand the doorway behind me as the hearth before a fire.

With a telekinetic paw, I patted the dust from my haunches, and shuddered at the thought that I might've been sitting in some old sinner’s blood. Reclaiming Equestria had seemed so simple, bundled up in our steel cradle, with those fluorescent lights wrapped around us like a blanket, but now, as the black rolled on and on around me, something thick and inky came bubbling up into my throat. It was Fear.

Without even thinking to keep my horn lit, I forced myself on through the darkness, even as my hooves disappeared, and the steps of the damned spilled out black beneath them. I was meant for the country outside, not to be beaten down at the bottom of some cave or plundered gem mine.

I was a drowning mare, seeing sunlight through the ceiling of the sea, and only then, did I start to feel it. On my face and hide, coiling around my legs and creeping into my lungs, came tides of air so clean that I could almost taste the naked sky. I stopped to take off my father's coat, for it felt like it was being pulled back into the black water, and I nearly stumbled over my own hooves at the sight of a frail rectangle, which looked to have been cut from the stone, left to bleed out for the jagged scars of light at its sides.

*** *** ***

As doors went, this one looked like it might have been built in an arts and crafts class, by a horde of kindergarteners who ate more of the glue than they used. Where the wooden framing met its hinges, there ran veins of gold and white that I was tempted to start lapping at, as if they were milk and honey.

And my thirst for them only became worse, as I struggled to get that primitive blockade to go away. I knew that doors were supposed to slide, and yet I couldn't see any rift or crevice into which this patchwork thing could disappear. There was no button to push, no bell to ring, and I caught myself thinking that I should knock, as if Princess Celestia herself would come running, with her mane wrapped up in a towel, to tell me that the country was not interested in buying whatever I was selling, be it a set of knives, or a God.

There was only a rusty handle, which I abused to no effect. But then, after reconsidering the hinges at its edge, I knew that this door would behave like those that played guardian to all of the Stable's bathroom stalls, and began to push against the wood, with one hoof pressing down on its handle.

Victory!

Almost as soon as I felt the door shift out of place, I was struck blind, as my final shield against the sky swung clear and away, leaving me as naked as a newborn under the shining eyes of her father.

I went scrambling away from the doorway, and came to bow before the light of a distant sun, just as the Faith might happily have cast themselves into the dirt, to kiss at the shadow of either Goddess. Equestria had its horizon laid bare, as a great incision was cut between a belt of choppy mountains and the crumbling vanguard of an enormous storm, which tore into itself as a tantrum in the sky.

The galaxy might have been looking down at us, as stone and cloud beat at the horizon like a black ocean at the sides of a pristine sandbank, and the eye set upon the world slowly closed.

I couldn’t help crying then, as my tears might have come to a boil for the fires on the stage of the sky. I looked out into the maelstrom, as the great fleet of clouds collapsed into a shipwreck over the horizon, and the mountains looked to have been broken only by the weight of the sunset. I was searching for its heart, but the sun had been buried, hidden somewhere in the folds of its own bleached and brilliant gold.

With four hooves planted firmly before the fall of a wide cliff - whose earth was anemic and naked, as pale stone faces crowded around it, and rare patterns of grass ran grayer than they did green – I knew that I might have missed this. If my trial had run for even an hour longer, I might have stepped out into a much calmer place, like a church without its preacher, or a stage without its star.

But now, daggers of light fanned out over the earth, as the storm tore into itself like a rabid animal: quiet and fitful and angry. And I knew that Equestria was alive.

I stood over a valley, which found its opposite wall of mountains in between the tombstones over the Stable and those terrible, black silhouettes that held up the sun. The tallest of them came painfully close to laying a finger on the storm, and so drew an incomplete bridge over that strip of unclothed sky. It threw its shadow over the country, as if to remind us that our pithy nuclear wars meant little to such old and disinterested idols of stone, to those that had let every apocalypse roll off their backs.

Between us, the soil looked to have become ash, and the trees stood naked, like burnt matchsticks and brittle splinters. The valley had every one of its colors drained into something bleaker, something bloodless. Equestria was a desolate nation... but my heart spun like a ballerina on a music box, as if I was watching somepony beautiful disappear into the margins.

If only they could see it, if only they could know how much they were shutting out: how much they were giving up… maybe then, they would listen. Maybe then, they would come. This was a dying world that refused to die. And now, I was a part of it.

I decided that I would follow the sun, and stepped a little farther across the stripped highland. A path veered off to my left, beaten clear by our queuing ancestors, as their hooves, quickened by the fires of war, could once have carved through mountains. I only had eyes for the open sky, though, as schools of lazy sunlit motes swam through it, as if the far side of the storm could be the surf to a crowded sea.

There was enough silence to fill a library, though the mountains were breathing like sleeping giants and the storm was screaming like a baby behind soundproof glass, and it was enough to stay my hooves for just a little while longer. With the swirling above me and the bristling ahead, with the soured earth below me and the setting sun beyond, I could barely do anything but stare, as if in a trance.

My quarters would fit into this place more than a few times over, and a part of me wanted to stay - to build a shelter from the rare pine trees and pillars of stone, to watch over Equestria as it took its shallow, disparate breathes. But, before I could decide where I might put down roots, I noticed something near the tunnel's ramshackle door, something that I could only have missed for meeting the world.

A skeleton lay slumped against the mountain, to use it as his throne, with an unhinged and hollow skull that spoke of deserts and drought, as if to say that any who lingered here would be burned away by the very fires that had brought me to tears. And, like those dark hoofsteps before the Stable, it made me shudder, as I couldn’t escape the stare of its black, sinner’s eyes.

Leave, it seemed to say, in a voice that was not commanding or cruel, but one that might fit the encrusted mouth of a beggar. Please... leave.

*** *** ***

The pass quickly became narrow, and I could only imagine how bright it must have seemed, with hundreds of ponies filling it as the ripples to a stream of rainbows. I must have looked a little underwhelming, as even silver and gold could not hope to match the peacocking of so many pastel-colored Equestrians, all clutching their tickets to sanctuary.

My hooves were dirty, for tracks of pallid ash and sand colored dust, which would curl around one another, to cover the earth in patterns that mirrored the clouds. The air became static as I entered the valley, as there were enough leaves and needles around me to put a hand over the mouth of the wind, and suffocate it. I turned, to see my path wind over itself, broken up by ridges and irregular pine trees, which cast tall shadows for the sunset, to leave the mountain with war paint running down its face.

After turning back to the north, I froze, as the sound of hooves passing through brittle grass and shifting the smallest stones out of place came before I’d fallen back into my march towards the sun. I shrank back towards the mountain, with my tail between my legs, as I imagined a dozen monsters to match the callous steps that closed around me, like a lasso drawing taught around the neck of some unruly piece of livestock. And, more like a startled cow than a rearing bull, I was caught.

Two came from my left, and another from my right, though they all blurred together for the uniform of studded brown leather and ruinous plate armor that covered their filthy, and so clearly diseased bodies. Their manes might have been helmets, for how unreal - how fantastical – they were. And whatever colors they might once have worn were washed out, made offensive by dust and dye.

They had to be wearing masks, as no face should be so damaged. But all shared the same sickly blemishes: scars whose edges were spoiled and unclean, a tortured look in their overcast eyes, around which thin rings of red and black had been drawn. Their teeth were yellow at best, and missing at worst, leaving behind dark pits that spoke of mistreated gums.

Still, I didn't think to draw my father's pistol, or go running back to that skeleton's enormous throne over the valley. For all the dirt and the ruin at their sides, I couldn’t know if they had more than a few knives to their names, or if those few strips of silver were the bayonets to misappropriated army rifles.

One of the bucks, of which there were a pair, stepped in a little closer, and I found myself backing into the mountain, just as a shy filly might press against her mother’s hoof. His mane was greener than all the new earth's grass and foliage, and had either been blasted back outside of this windless valley, or had simply come to be weighed down by the grime of a thousand pillowless nights.

"Don't worry: I'm here to help." I said, not knowing what they were after. Their dank, nearly poisoned, appearance might be what was expected out here, and besides that: I was coated in more blood than any one of them. How could I judge these ponies for their scrappy hides and weary barding, when tracks of red Overmare ran up my neck and hooves? "I'm not looking to start any trouble."

"Started without you." He said, in a voice that bounced out every word, as if leading up to a song. The other buck followed as he crept forward, and their shoulder blades rolled like those of predatory animals.

"Hold it!" Their smiles soured, as the third pony barked another order. “Don’t hurt her.” I might have thanked the mare for reining them in, but her eyes looked no kinder, and no less hungry, than their own.

"Aw, leave us to her." The first buck pleaded, with his voice rising to a whine. "It's been days since we got to have any fun... And I’m itching under my skin… I need a bullet in me!" If she was any closer, it looked like the mare would have taken the buck by the shoulders, to rattle the madness out of his head.

"Let us play with something that breathes for once... Something that fights back!" He went on, as the other buck nodded. I couldn't help but notice that half of the latter's tongue was missing, as a lifeless stub did an unmelodious dance in his mouth. "I promise we'll leave her alive... not standing, maybe. But alive."

"She'll go for twice as much without your filthy hoofprints all over her, so back the fuck off!" It was becoming all too clear that I didn't stand to make many friends here, and if it weren't for my father's pistol, I might have bolted, in the hopes that they'd keep arguing even as I escaped into the arms of the sun.

"Every dent you leave in that girl is another stack of caps off the payout." The bucks stayed frozen in place, and I worried that their leader would only have to call out Green Light! to turn them loose on me. "She's a Stable pony, you idiots... do you know how much they're fucking worth?"

I caught myself tilting my head up in pride, as if to say: Yes, it's all true. "And if you try any of the bullshit that Mumbles over there tried with me..." She nodded to the voiceless buck, using him as evidence to her artisan flair for mutilation. "Then I'll cut off something just a little bigger than your tongue."

She turned to me again, and I almost wanted to salute the tattered commander, to prove that we were fighting on the same side. "You are a Stable pony, aren't you sweetheart?" She spoke to me as if I was a child, and I nodded obediently, doing nothing to change her tone. "Then listen up..." I tilted an ear to her, to show that I could follow orders better than her two renegade bucks. "I'm going to sell you."

My heart sank, as I remembered the word that had so often been whispered of the world outside: Slavery. "I don't know where you’ll end up after that, but I'm not letting so many caps slip out of my hooves. You're fresh from the oven... and I bet you go like a fucking hot cake."

These weren't victims to the fall of civilization, to be pulled from the rubble. These were the ponies that had kicked Equestria's legs out from under her, those that would push down our country's new dawn, just as they might the head of a drowning pony. And, for all the light in the Stable, we couldn't fix them.

No. I was jumping to conclusions. I had to be. "This isn't right." I said, scrunching up my nose as if the smell of the bucks had only just hit me.

"Eugh." She stuck out her tongue, and I thought I saw the quiet buck look at it with longing in his puppydog eyes. "Save it, goldilocks." Her own mane was an electric maroon, which almost seemed pretty as the last beads of daylight put a sheen to it. "Get her shackled... and slap a gag on her, would'ya?"

And then, the world was turned on its head, and I found myself facing, in place of weary tribes made up of hapless victims and would-be patients: hostiles. I floated the automatic pistol out of its holster, though it quivered in my magic, as the weapon tried to fight its way out. "Hold on now…"

The first buck was almost skipping in place, and I could have sworn that he was mouthing the words: Shoot me, shoot me, shoot me, shoot me! Like a high-hoofed student begging to be called on for an answer. "Don't try and pull this shit in front of the buyers." The mare drawled, as if I had only bored her. "They like 'em stupid... but not this kind of stupid." She waved at me, with all the energy of a teacher, frustrated by the sight of all the same hooves. "Hit her where we can hide the wounds."

The tongueless buck threw himself towards me, with a knife rattling between his teeth, and I heard his partner curse as a cloud of dust was kicked up between us. His battle cry was almost pitiable, as it was fumbled by his severed tongue, and I almost let him have me. But, before I knew what I was doing, I found myself rearing back, with the automatic pistol swinging out in a flurry before me. It was a tactic most often seen in the throes of a filly-fight, but pride seemed to mean very little to me now.

Even with my eyes clenched shut, I didn't stop drawing golden arcs in the air, or kicking up with my front hooves, until a weighted thud almost threw me off balance. My assailant had been knocked to the ground, and as I opened one eye to take a look at the limp buck, I knew that he was unconscious.

I hurried to examine him, no differently than a nurse would any soldier that was wheeled up to her station. The pistol's hilt had come down across his temple and, apart from a splotch of purple that spread across his face like a gathering storm; it had left the buck no worse for wear.

My legs almost buckled out from under me, as a wave of relief washed over me. My heart was beating against the hollow of my chest, and I felt a strange charge coursing through my blood, as if it had been laced with electricity. "Did you just... pistol-whip him?" The mare was almost laughing now. "Fuck me."

As the first buck stared down at his brother's purpling temple, taking in the bruise as he might a work of art, or a flower coming to bloom, I saw her plucking a pair of shackles from her saddlebags, moving lazily, as if she was only unpacking a picnic. Both ponies knew that I wouldn’t shoot them – that I couldn’t – and to try fighting them off with nothing but the butt of my pistol, would be madness.

I needed a better plan. But I could look back to what I'd learned from the Stable's database, and its library to our generations: from the accounts of our ancestor’s breaking down the world, to the exchanging of crowns that had kept the lands before Equestria in the throes of chaos and the coldest winters. Through an emerald screen, I had watched centuries go by; I bore witness to entire kingdoms crumbling into the sea, to nations rising out of the dust. And would prevail for it.

Throwing the wisdom of a thousand empires and old worlds up into the wind... I ran away.

*** *** ***

The Broken Hills might have welcomed a city of monks and monasteries, for how little they wore, and how humble they seemed. And, as the sun set, they lost all that was left of their color, as if giving blood and milk to a hundred leeches and calves. And even though lines of rock had come to undercut the earth, and pine trees rose as companies to a frail and naked army, I had nowhere to hide.

North, north, north. The word was all I had, as even the sun and its light had slipped away to make their bed behind the black mountains, leaving only a backless, pale empty that stirred up a kind of sickness in me. Some unwritten law kept the clouds from crossing that northern wall of sky, and even after the day had ended, I might have the pinprick of the stars to guide me, just as they had for so many of the lost.

The ground was anything but flat, but now I veered around a pool of ugly, thick water in the sink of surrounding hills, and was left uncovered by the folds of the valley. "There she is!" I could hear them scrambling after their own words, but I couldn't stop myself from slowing down to what was almost a trot, as the cold air seemed to be grating on my lungs like sandpaper, even as my legs begged me to stop.

Something bit at my tail, and even from the warmth of its breath, from the weight of lechery in its panting, I knew that it was not the mare, but her mad companion. His crude lance of a weapon might have been able to skewer me in place, but he seemed far more interesting in nipping at my flanks.

"Take her down you idiot!" She sounded so much colder, so much less like an animal, and might have been riding in a chariot behind the buck, as her voice was left unbroken by frantic hoofsteps and a body in toil. “Before she runs us into a fucking raider's nest!"

But he was having too much fun, and kept me a tail’s length away, if only to fuel my panic, and feed off of it all at once. Just as my legs began to quiver, I threw myself over the cover of one last ridge, and saw a stretch of even highlands that threw me back into the very world that I'd been exiled from.

Civilization!

All that remained of the small, if thinly spread, settlement was a neighborhood that had collapsed like a house of cards, and the roots from which pillars of smoke would once have risen. If it weren't for the metal in the wreckage, and the streetlights that had only just woken up to the sunset, I might have mistaken the town for someplace ancient, even pre-Equestrian: the victim of a siege or temperamental fleet of dragons.

The town's southernmost arm ended in a hollow radio tower, though it was narrow and, from the right angle, could be mistaken for the enormous frame of a pine tree, with its needles stripped and its arms torn off for the sake of building bonfires. Across the highway, which rolled off into the east and the west, I could make out a sign, strung up as flattened children’s blocks before an immense saltlick of a building – a concrete giant sitting in a nest of broken bones – that read: Acheron Supermarket.

A chill passed through me as I watched an old Equestrian flag wave, still proud at the top of its pole, though its face had lost so much color, and let the light of sunset pierce it in a dozen places. It was as if all else had fallen away, leaving me to these abandoned houses: this abandoned country.

And only then, did I realize that I could not have been shunted into some safe place, some sanctuary, simply by stepping back into the gray, and wondered why I was suddenly so alone, left unmolested by the buck who had been toying with my tail like a lion might his battered and disconsolate food.

I looked back at it, expecting to find its tip as frayed as the end of a rope, and found, in the place of spittle, ash and embers dotting its tassels like rhinestones, as if I had only narrowly escaped from the den of a dragon stirred from sleep. As each of their little lights went out, my ears pricked up, as a new, and strangely familiar, sound came riding into the wounded town on the back of the wind.

We’d recited it as children, all casting ourselves as Steel Rangers against the shadows that came creeping in from under the Stable's door, those fingers of fallout. And then, it came again... Pew-pew.

I hopped around in a neat half-circle, and charged over my own hoofsteps, thinking that the ash in my tail was no different to the sight of banners, all flushed over in friendly colors, rising from the hills around a battlefield. I nearly went tumbling over a narrow ridge, but managed to dig my hooves into the dirt, and watched as a fresh picture of war was painted, in violent streaks of red and black, over the hillside.

Something heavy was barreling through the air, and though it came close enough to make my collars flutter, I didn't have the time to give it a name. I thought it might be a bird, or some overgrown locust, but slowly came to realize that I had witnessed something far rarer. With wings clad in the same carapace armor that sent the mare-merchant's bullets glancing off like so many spat-out seeds, the Pegasus drew an arc back towards the earth, and began to burn it in a parade of smoke and laser.

It spun around the tired march of electrical pylons, which seemed only to have burst up from the earth, though they were already crooked and old, to put on an air show that matched that of its light. The sheen of its armor caught the light that now came creeping under the skirts of the storm, across which great purple splotches had spread as if blood vessels were bursting behind the skin of the evening sky.

I climbed down the hill, taking steps that were far too slow to match the frantic crossfire, as stilted gunshots and erratic pillars of energy sounded off the sunset. The mare-merchant stood alone, and twisted her neck after the terror above us. Every now and again, she had to skip over narrow streams of gold, if not colorless, grass even as they burst, and were turned into torches.

I found myself all too ready to raise a hoof and cheer for her, siding with a familiar face over the demon that tore across Equestria's unsteady skies, and carried the night on its wings.

A fine storm of dust collected around me then, though it drifted off with the wind almost as quickly as it had come. I recognized it as the same pale refuse that had spoiled the end of my tail, and traced the rising waste to a pile that was falling over itself: trickling down the hill.

It didn't take me all that long to understand, as images straight out of Future Weapons Today flashed through my mind - from a soldier pressing his hoof into the ash that had been his enemy, to a housewife with her very own Tri-Beam laser rifle slung over one shoulder, and a sheepish smile on her face, serving up the powder that was left of dinner. That yellow-eyed buck, who had seemed so eager to abuse me only moments ago, was dancing away in a thousand pieces on the wind.

And all of a sudden, I was sad to see him go, as if that insect of a Pegasus could be a common enemy, pushing us all to one side of a war. The mare wasn't holding up very well, and now lay bunched up under one of the great, rickety colossi that crossed the valley, with electric wires binding them together at the neck. I came to the bottom of the hill, and let my magic tease the trigger of my father's pistol.

Now and again, a rift of neon sky set off the Pegasus, and I found myself hating it for how much it put to waste. This was a creature that could have flown up as far as up goes, to see the sun and the moon and the stars proudly breaking up the sky, but instead: it was here... scouring the earth for victims.

As another beam of crimson started a small wildfire around my hooves, and dry patches of grass were left as black and brittle thorns, I had my Pipbuck reach out and stop the world. S.A.T.S. gilded everything in silver, and made the now crystalline flames at my sides that much more blinding, though this was a small price to pay for how easily it found me a target. A white, and eerily still, shape was cut from the material of the flare and the clouds alike, like a chalk drawing at a crime scene.

My chances weren't good, but the Pegasus had only just dipped his hooves into this hollow between the hills, and would only get farther away if I were to turn him loose. I lined up two shots, going for the hostile's guns, and my Pipbuck loosened its grip on the gears that turned the world.

The first bullet missed our mark, and charged off into the storm, alone. The second, as if guided by the horn of some kindly Goddess behind the clouds, dug into the Pegasus' battle saddle, and made it groan like it was a living thing. I thrust a hoof over my head, even as the devil in the sky went careening off course, and let something silver come falling out behind him. .

Our common enemy had been clutching another weapon in the close of his muzzle, but abandoned it for the sake of the sputtering machine at his side. Steam, all clean and white, came hissing out of a severed cable, which was far too small, and too rampant, to be caught by even the deftest hooves.

And then, with wings that now beat to the rhythm of a child's drum set, and not to that of the even drums of war that had once followed armies through this very valley, the creature began to retreat, heading farther up than anywhere else. With one final effort, for which his body coiled into an unsettling shape, the Pegasus gave up on his battle saddle, and let himself drift away on the storm.

With a thick splash, the pistol that had been so cruelly left behind, cried out as if to tug on the strings of its master's cold heart. The mare-merchant, who came limping out from under a nearby electrical pylon, looked to have worn out her own weapon, and beat at her saddle with an angry and aimless hoof.

She had been carrying a pipe rifle, and just knowing that she'd never trained its barrel on me, had me thinking that I'd made a friend. "What was that thing?" I called over to her, even as I caught my breath.

She didn't answer, but let her next hoofsteps sink into the same stagnant pool that had swallowed up the Pegasus' sidearm. As she glared into the displaced grime, chasing after glimpses of silver just as any old world fishermare or prospector might, a shiver passed through me, and I hesitated before holstering my father's automatic. Her eyes met mine, and then darted back into the black water.

I hurried over to her, and started groping for the weapon with my magic, worried for how frantic her movements were. She dunked her head into the surge, with an open mouth despite all the years of filth gathered there, as if she were bobbing for apples. But my magic closed around the pistol, and I wrenched it out of the little pool, fighting the urge to hit her over the head with it, just as one might take a newspaper to an untrained dog. "What are you doing!?" I asked, though my voice was high and flustered.

She only stared, as tracks of mud sloughed off of her face, and dark water ran down her hair. "I think," She began, after spitting, and staining the earth with a thick streak of mud, which was bruised red in places. "I was trying to put the ice on this whole fucked up dance." She started backing away. "But you know what? ...Screw this. You already cost me a lot more than you're worth." Her eyes were locked on my father's automatic, but jumped over to the laser pistol that hung limply at my side. "I'm done."

She spun on her hooves, though one had become almost entirely discolored, and took off before I could even think to go after her. "Wait!" I cried, after staring into the sloshing waters that she'd left behind, as if they were imbued with all the magic of a hypnotist's pocket watch. But it was too late. She was gone.

Aiming the pistols her way had been stupid, I thought, even as I holstered the new just across from the old, and started back up the hill. She might even have thought that I could use them both at once, that I could do anything more than hold them in threadbare cradles of gold. Equestria had become a nation of lone wanderers and tribes scattered on the wind, like their own herbs and flower petals, all darting away from the shadows of passing devils in the sky, seeing a monster in every mare. Of course she had run.

With the darkness closing in around me, the warm haze that shone out like a crown over Acheron made it seem like nothing short of a holy place, and I counted myself lucky for having stumbled into the remains of an old civilization. I could only hope that the raiders those three Equestrians were so afraid of hadn't carved themselves a kingdom here, as I'd slowly let the name slide over that jousting Pegasus.

And if one single raider could reduce a buck to ashes, what would an entire nest of them make of me?

*** *** ***

After stringing together a few words from the faces of burnt pages, and tapping at the keys of a barebacked terminal, I stepped back out into the street, leaving a house whose entire upper floor had come tumbling down. Back inside - if it could even be called an inside, without a roof to weigh down its corners- a bedframe lay bent over kitchen counters, and the remains of a porcelain bath were scattered among couches and a television set whose face was painted in salt and pepper static.

I skipped from one pool of light to another – as plump stars in glass cases shone down from atop the crooked poles of streetlamps- as if I would bring all of the night's anger flooding down over Acheron, if so much as a single hoof touched the coming darkness. My saddlebags jingled, for the tower of bits that had no doubt fallen over since I'd lowered it into a side pocket. I couldn't put much value to these golden coins, but I'd heard it said that every pony's road to the Stable was paved with them.

And, as I looked over the soon to be extinguished fires of the horizon, and the purple hematoma that was slowly spreading through the clouds, I had to wonder: What had the Stable's makers been planning to do with all that money, even as the world came to roll around the edge of apocalypse?

I came up to the highway, and couldn't help myself from looking both ways before I crossed. In one direction, the east, the trees spilled out into forests across pale flatlands, but in the other, they huddled together in tall pine clusters, that stood out even as the earth softened away from the broken hills and their shelves of stone. There was a still a little gold left to the west, though it was sliding away as if two friends on either side of the planet were fighting over this blanket of sunlight.

I hurried over to the parking lot just beyond its northern bank, as if this concrete riverbed might soon be overrun by the hard, white fluorescence that had washed the color out of so many hollow jalopies.

The chain of streetlights stretched on all along the highway, and concrete buffers lay broken, bent out of formation, through its middle. The road itself was riddled by shallow cracks, and looked more like a scar than anything else. I noticed that it rose to the west, lifted by beautiful support pillars as it stretched upwards and onwards over the unpredictable terrain, like a bandage being peeled from the earth.

My Pipbuck chirped up at me, and presented a bleached chessboard of a map, with me in the middle.
Thinking that the tower at Acheron's southern rim might still be speaking on behalf of a frightened nation, I dialed over to the radio page of my Pipbuck, and found a new name replacing the Stable's PA system: Galaxy News Radio.

After curling up under the crooked trunk of the supermarket's nearest floodlight, where I knew the darkness could not follow, I tapped into the frequency, hoping to get to know this later day Equestria a little better. At first, there was only static but then, only just pushing through it, came the howl of a tin wolf.

"Hell-llooooo Equestrian Wasteland! This is D... J... Pon3! Coming to you loud and proud from the middle of fuck-you Avenue in downtown Manehattan!" I turned back to the largely unmarked map, but apart from another settlement to the north - which seemed to have been built in the confines of a broken circle - I didn't get the feeling that one of our largest cities could be anywhere nearby.

"It's time for another Public Service Announcement! So strap yourselves in and listen up fillies, 'cause this shit's important." I held my Pipbuck a little farther out in front of me, and let it explore the air in search of a cleaner signal. "Now we all know what a Raider is, and anyone who's so much as peeked out from behind the blinds could tell you that there's a helluva lot of those psychos out there. But if you're lucky - if you haven't run into one yet - let me give you some advice. 'Cause it's only a matter of time." I had started to shiver, but didn't fish out my father's coat, as if the winter might pass by the time I'd put it on.

"Leave your pride out of it. Your life is worth a lot more. These psychopaths don't play to lose. Hell, they don't even play to win. They're the assholes who slam their glasses down on the table, and then sweep all the cards clean off. Celestia isn't looking over your shoulders children. So run, hide... and if you're gonna shoot: shoot first. These ponies don't care a lick about mercy... and they sure as shit don't deserve it."

It was starting to seem like these raiders deserved a great share of the blame for keeping Equestria's wheels from turning, and I felt a strange urge to remove them, as if they were parts to a malignant tumor, or so many thorns in some lioness’s paw.

"If you see a fall-weather pony covered in bloody spikes, wearing some poor bastard's body parts like jewelry, and you aren't thinking that it's not really the time to start making friends... then try to keep your distance from here on out." That didn't seem right. The Pegasus had looked like a soldier, a devil in uniform, and his armor was anything but crude. "Stay quiet... but if you can handle yourself, or if you're just a betting buck: it wouldn't hurt to have another raider with a bullet through that soup they call a brain."

A shadow passed over me, and I jumped to my hooves, thinking that the Pegasus had returned to shrug off the name Raider, and introduce himself as something far more terrible. "Thanks for liste-ning chil-dren!" The voice sang, as I squinted up at a lazy silhouette, which had only stirred for a passing breeze. "And in case you forgot: This is DJ Pon3, bringing you truth..." What hung over me then, caught in the fire of the supermarket's floodlights, was no hostile thing, but a corpse. "No matter how bad it hurts."

*** *** ***

I slumped against the supermarket doors, even as they came to a close behind me, and let myself breathe, as if I'd only just escaped a waterlogged abattoir, an ice room left to the mercy of the sun.

The bodies outside were stiff, and for the flares above them, might only have been cardboard cutouts, balloon bucks or paper-mache mares, put in place for the sake of some ancient advertising campaign. And, after running with this idea, I found that my chest began to rise a little slower: to pound a little softer.

My Pipbuck was playing me a song, though the static still got its fingers into the fat of it every now and again. I let the music fight its way through, because, no matter how deeply it was buried in that gray sand, the swell of so many instruments helped me feel less alone.

The supermarket made it seem as if there was no difference between night and day, as there was faint greenness to its air, which came spilling out of sickly light fixtures. Most of the windows had been boarded up, and even if the clouds were to part, only narrow beams of light would be allowed to fall over the shelves of Acheron's supermarket. Even the door looked to have been barricaded once, as several sheets of wood and a ring of crooked nails lay all around my hooves.

On my right, was a vending machine named Sparkle Cola! that flickered in a far kinder shade of red. And, when compared to those of hostile life or lasers, it almost seemed warm for it.

I made out a labyrinth of shelves, all guarded by a line of checkout tills, in the large room beyond my nest in the nails. It all looked so empty, and so ravaged, as the desperate ponies of Equestria would have torn through this place over so many decades, leaving it barren and unimportant.

After setting up a crude alarm at the front doors, and pulling a screwdriver out of Sparkle Cola!'s side, I hugged the wall, and followed it into the supermarket. I'd left a number of empty sparkle cola bottles and tin cans by the entrance, so that any devil from the sky could only come after me with broken glass playing a song behind it, like a monkey with symbols for hands.

Once I'd glanced down a few of the aisles, ducking in and out like a mare on a diet, I let my horn draw a circle of light around me, though I kept it no brighter than a lantern, and let its edges flicker as I walked. Somehow, this waning light made me feel more like an explorer, as if I had just pulled a torch from the wall of some jungle empire’s tombs.

After finishing my first lap around the shelves, I knew that there was a cluster of ammunition boxes on one side of the hall, and a pharmacy on the other. I was taking things slow, trying to get it right. Because for some reason, it felt like I had someone to impress: like Princess Celestia really was looking over my shoulder, just as that Karma counting buck had watched the Stable from behind his emerald curtain.

But I was already in exile, and there were no more doors that could slam shut behind me, no more locks that could shut me out. I was safe. And I started skipping along with the music that still struggled out of my Pipbuck, knowing that I was free... Anything goes.

With staves of sheet music trailing out behind me, I headed back over to the boxes of ammunition, as if I would need to disarm a fleet of flocking Pegasus. A counter ran all around those rusty treasure chests, but I came to a doorway beside the far wall. And, though I didn't know it yet, some sick inheritor had worked, with the malice of decades of forethought, to pull my bliss out from under me.

As I walked into the kitchenette, for all its fridges and food stores, something chirped at me in a voice that was far less polite than that of my Pipbuck. I lifted a hoof, as if I had just stepped on some small animal, and saw a familiar face - the star of more than a few full-page magazine ads - blinking up at me.

A fragmentation mine! The thing began to speak a little faster, and I threw myself around the door's frame, setting down the groundwork for a narrow bruise across my flank as I went.

With my eyes shut, and my ears covered, I felt ready for a trial by balefire, even though there wasn't a desk over my head. The room lurched, and I could feel the hairs of my tail being pushed apart by angry bits of shrapnel, even as a tide of hot air passed me by like summer over the Crystal Empire.

Once the fallout had cleared, I peeked back into the room; eyes lined up with the countertop, and picked out two undetonated mines through the dust. I already had a pretty good idea of how to disarm them, and couldn't help feeling as if it was a shame that some celestial scoreboard wasn't keeping track of these little victories. I scooped the nearest one up in my telekinesis, and fiddled with the gear, making sure to keep the explosive well out of range. Eventually, its one red eye went out, and I prodded at the thing, just to confirm that it was really dead. Once I was sure, I slid the mine into my saddlebags.

The second one didn't go so quietly.

I triggered it in midair, and before I could even think to duck, a fragment of the broken ring that was once its side came screaming past my left cheek, leaving a deep scar just below my eye. I took a moment to tend to the wound, as my mane recovered from the passing season, and then crept out into the now uprooted minefield. I was starting to think that some spirit of evil might have sown its seeds here, as no pony could be so needlessly cruel, so draconic in their defense of such small treasures.

After turning the first case upside down, I gathered up the 556 millimeter rounds and Microfusion cells – which Future Weapons Today had named as fodder for any laser rifle, Tri-beam or otherwise - that had spilled out over the counter. Despite the fact that they wouldn't get along with either pistol in my weapon's array, I almost needed to take them, if only to spite whatever cruel hand had planted them as bait.

The second case was shut up tight, and apart from stabbing at the lock with my screwdriver, I had no way to open it. Looking for a key or making an attempt to pick the lock, if that were even possible, seemed like a little less than I could get away with. In the face of Acheron's crude and brutal lawlessness, I thought I might try something that would have made a younger Equestria frown and cross its hooves.

And, to be honest, a part of me still needed proof that the buck on my leg or the princess on my flag would not grab me by the collar if I were to step too far out of line, only to throw me further into exile.

*** *** ***

I pressed my father's automatic pistol against the counter, lining up its barrel with the mine that I'd left, blinking like a rabbit waking up to the end of winter, beside the second case of ammunition. After a good deal of fussing, I took the shot, and was startled away by another storm of dirt and debris.

The box went sailing, and I heard it land somewhere over by the abandoned tills, having shut off my Pipbuck's radio to listen out for more traps. After dusting myself off and trying, in vain, to shake the ringing from my ears, I hurried after it, as if it were a wounded soldier who needed to be cared for.

I found it bleeding ammunition out over the tiles, with its lid hanging on by a single hinge, and its side bent in like a collapsed stomach. The rounds that had been locked inside of it were rolling out of their boxes, but I gathered them up easily enough, along with three silver grenades that, somehow, hadn't gone off.

After cleaning up my mess, and scavenging some colorful packages of food from over the counter, I made my way towards the pharmacy, thinking that I was getting quite good at this independence business. And, for a short time, I wondered if the rise of slavery, of Equestrian savagery, wasn't that mad a thing to imagine, if they might fit this changed nation like apples to orchards.

But, even as I broke so many old laws, I knew that there had to be a line drawn in the ash, which both that devil in the sky, and the mare merchant who had been submit to its red parade, had crossed.

Figures that could've been anything from mangled shopping carts to misshapen skeletons almost had me running through the aisles, even as a carpet of newspaper pages and washed out flyers kept me unsure of my own hooves, like a mare on ice. Thanks to the light of my horn, I managed to skirt around a litter of rusty metal jaws, which might have bit up at me like so many hungry nestlings.

The pharmacy had run dry, and even the shelves set aside for only the most obscure vitamins had been picked clean. After shaking out a few empty pill bottles, I made my way over to the nearby terminal, and let its green light swallow away my gold. It had once served as a lock for the door just behind it, but somepony had punched in the word Super-Duper, leaving the storeroom victim to a century of looters.

Before slipping into the room to see what I could find, something occurred to me: This place would have been here since before the bombs... and all the Damned might already have come to visit it, to circle it like vultures around something dying. It might have been us.

With that in mind, I walked around the storeroom's thin metal shelves, and looked over stacks of junk and salvage - made up of everything from the hose of a vacuum cleaner to pieces of a leaf blower - as if they were exhibits in some nationally acclaimed museum. I only had the courage to take a scalpel, a leather belt, and two medical braces, that I couldn't believe had been ignored by so many.

The most distinct feature of the room was another terminal system, wired to an open casket.

Beneath this sleek, enlightened case lay something that, for a moment, looked like a body, which would draw a circle of, if not vultures, then magpies in around itself. The equine machine might have been a mannequin, though it wore metal plating and an expressionless visor instead of anything like a face. Still, it had taken a bullet to the temple, and could have passed for a corpse gilded in silver.

I played hyena, and left the thing a little more naked, with a few pieces of scrap metal and electronics, a sensor module, and a fission battery in my saddlebags. After I was done, I curtsied to the room - as if to thank it for putting up with me and all the damned that came before - and left.

Junk and ammunition, that's all there was left here. And I almost felt sorry that I had found Acheron, that I had disturbed it. Like that same adventurer, prying open the tomb of some old king, only to find that the air’s touch was enough to turn his centuries-old body to dust. I scattered the junk guards that I'd set in place before the doorway, and pushed myself out into the parking lot.

The ponies above me would forever be remembered as both corpses and cutouts, as I couldn't bear to look up as I trotted back to the highway, on hooves that seemed to be racing one another. The night had swallowed everything but Acheron. The streetlight’s stars fell away in either direction, like a march of fireflies, and though I knew that I could follow them, that I could wander east until east was over, it was as if enormous black walls were keeping me from roaming my own open country.

Without letting a hoof sink into the depths of the road, I hurried over to a strange overhang that curved out over a hollow in the earth, like some kind of steel ribcage. After coming to a run, as imagined monsters bit at my tail, I ducked into the staircase that had been carved out from under it.

It felt like I'd escaped, like I’d won, though I had now come to the last streetlight of Acheron's western frontier, and could only gather up the courage to throw myself over its edge, and into the empty spaces between the stars. But, even as I poured over the sky, looking for a guardian or guide in the light behind its bruised skin, my Pipbuck chirped up, and offered me the easy way out.

You have discovered Acheron Metro Station!



Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Wasteland Medic: You are capable at performing triage, and with the right supplies you can tend to broken limbs or moderate wounds. Anesthetic spells allow you to dull even severe pain. In addition: your knowledge of the pony anatomy makes you more deadly in combat: a bullet in the heart is worth two in the spleen.

Chapter 3: Sinnerman

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 3: Sinnerman
“If you aren’t getting your hands dirty, you aren’t making a difference. Welcome to the World.”

|*| Blaspheme Quarantine |*|

Guttural voices came dribbling out of the spaces in between their misshapen teeth, as the mole rats chanted chewed words and swallowed harmonies, like a choir with its mouth full. I hadn’t taken a dozen steps into the seamy underbelly of Equestria before seeing these overgrown maggots, all crowded in around a corpse like naked surgeons soaking in a pool of sterile light. I could hear them swallowing.

I watched them as they broke his body, as if tearing pieces of bread from the loaf. Their feet slipped over a bloody old baseball bat, and it rolled closer, begging me; tempting me. Its handle had been chewed thin, as the buck would have held it in his mouth as they gutted him. I swept up his hickory cudgel, and stepped into the ring with a cry that was more likely to have come from a baby than a barbarian.

My first swing caught one of the rats under its belly and, as it clawed at the bat, I dashed it against the metro wall, leaving a smear over the face of a filly and the box of Fancy Foal’s Snack Cakes that seemed to be making her smile. The bars on my Pipbuck turned red, as eight beady eyes turned to blink up at me over gaping, wet lips. I listened to their claws, tearing into flyers, metro tickets and flattened magazine pages, and saw their prints, so red that they might have been crushing grapes. I saw paper faces bleed.

I skipped over my hooves, turned my head, and swung the bat like a battleaxe out in front of me. I heard them hissing, heard myself sliding over so many ticket stubs. There was a crack, and then another. The blood came bubbling up out of their skulls, like yolk from broken eggshells.

I closed my eyes, and followed the wall into the nearest bathroom, though it had a stallion standing over its door like a faceless, black guard. I slammed the door shut behind me, and listened to them clawing at it, bumping their snouts as if to knock. One of them had been cut in half as the door closed, so that its body was split like a stick of warm butter, and its heart was left there, naked, painting the tiles red.

I shivered, as I pictured rounded red teeth breaking my skin, and filthy, fat bellies rubbing up against my legs. I tried to pretend that he was still alive. That he had rolled the baseball bat over, and whispered Save me, Grace. And then, once I had breathed life into the body, it was easy.

I threw myself at the door, like a mare charging into the orange mouth of a burning building. I came out screaming, and swung the bat as hard as I could. It broke one of their necks, and sent a carcass spinning toward the far wall. The mole rat hit it with a satisfying wet slap, like a trophy fish against a dock.

I killed the last two in the same way, and stood there, out of breath and retching, as the walls bled. With the baseball bat quivering at my side like a diving rod, I went back into the bathroom, looking for water.

I washed my face, and then covered the corpse’s with a newspaper. I couldn’t make him clean, or put him back together again. I couldn’t even give him a funeral. The body could not have been any more buried, and I had no way to burn it. While my magic walked over me like a lion carrying the darkness on its back, I had never taught it how to play with fire.

*** *** ***

I came into a tunnel that might have been left behind by a great worm, burying through a concrete apple. There were holes in the ceiling, and so moonlight hung like ghostly tapestries, burning the dust blue. In the light, I could see that there was another staircase below, that there was space below the station. The cluttered train cars made me think of clogged arteries, and the twisted rails of frayed nerves.

There was a mural on the wall, whose star was the silhouette of an alicorn, skipping over a field of gold. Her mane was streaked in the colors of a candy store, and ponies followed her over what could have been the surface of the sun. They looked like children, like ugly ducklings waddling along behind a swan they had confused for their mother. And though they had no faces, I liked to think that they were smiling.

I walked down the frozen escalators, after thinking better of saluting the Princess on the wall. The chamber felt crowded, as two trains lay in it like the skins of a great snake. There were bones as if to make its bed, and I might have been learning how to dance, as I skipped over spinal cords and twirled around jawless skulls. I followed the passenger cars, looking for color, like a mare picking flowers after a wildfire. This train could have carried a circus on its back once. It could have come from Canterlot.

The Princesses must have used it to come to the north, to explore the empty relics of those three tribes, the ancient civilization tucked behind all the forest and stone. I felt very proud then, as if I had the same blood that had run cold in the temples of Kings, that had been spilt into this hard earth again and again.

There was a map, plastered to a fat obelisk in the middle of the platform, and I could see the subway splayed out on it, like veins under the skin of the country. I couldn’t make much sense of it, but I found the Acheron station easily enough. There was a bright, overexcited arrow that said: You are here!

There was another station, just north of Acheron, and the rails that ran from east to west made a cross over it, as if to say that this was where some great treasure could be found. Still, I saw no signs that there were any more trains in the space below this terminal. And I had to wonder what was down there.

What had been buried under this lonely station, whose crown was made of wood, and whose hair was full of worms? I lit my horn. The moonlight had not soaked so deep into the earth.

*** *** ***

I kicked up clouds of dust, and they went spinning into the watery light, as sugar stirred into a drink. There were floodlights; come bursting out of blossoms in the mesh, and rubble clung to the naked wire like autumn leaves to their branches. The light put a shine to everything it touched, making white diamonds out of the rubble, fireflies out of the dirt, and a bride out of me.

This was some kind of terminal. There was line after line of uncomfortable looking benches, punctuated by ticket booths and strips of wreckage. I jumped back, as my light filled the hollow spaces of some traveler’s skull, like champagne. There were more of them, families of them, and I crept away as though they were all asleep, waiting to be woken by the whistling of their train.

Their suitcases had been ransacked and bled old country clothes across the floor. It looked like the Stable’s vultures had stuck their beaks deep into the earth, to pick at Equestria’s gut.

There was a parade of restaurants and newsstands crowding the far wall, stocked up with foreign coffee and local gossip. I had all but forgotten my body, and didn’t think to look for food or a place to sleep. Instead, I wove through a maze of yellowwood walls and thickets of barbed wire, heading for a sprawling mosaic of comic books, famous faces, punchy headlines, pulp magazines and soft pornography.

Princess Incest: The Bluebloods' Illicit Origins Revealed!
Shining Armor Pregnant: Magical Boosters in the Bedroom Go Awry!
King Sombra Voted Sexiest Monarch: Celestia Outraged!

The cover girls were dressed as nurses and nuns, as sailors and schoolgirls and soldiers. Silk and satin and lace clung to their bodies, and they let fur scarves, polished leather and peacock feathers slide off of their shoulders. I felt compelled to find a mirror, if only to see if, thrown out onto a runway that reached back into the old world, I could keep the beat of the crowd’s hooves going.

There were plenty of bucks, too. And I counted more copies of Inches than any other backshelf magazine. Homosexuality had once been a kind of heroism in the Stable, as there had been a time when we were at risk of spilling over the lip of the glass: of overpopulating. As far as I knew, some kids had been selling their own brand birth control from a stand, as if it were lemonade. When they were finally shut down, it turned out that they had been using sugar pills stolen from the hospital. That had almost burst the Stable’s belt, and was enough to make ashes out of their one way tickets to the new Equestria.

I took the time to pose with my hair over my eyes, like the mare on the cover of the pulp magazines, and flung back my coat like a hero perched on some skyscraper. Then I saluted the Ministry Mare of Wartime Technology, and made my way back into the industrial hedge maze of yellowing wood and twisted wires.

Tables lay scattered around a rusty old milkshake bar, like wheels around a bus that had run aground, and I swept up a few cases of shotgun shells on my way into the wreck. There were three rounds left in my automatic pistol, and that already felt like too many. I saw pink butterflies in the corner of my eyes, and found syringes scattered across the milkshake bar like chicken bones. I picked up the ones that had caught my eyes, and my Pipbuck listed them as Stimpacks.

I climbed into the milkshake bar, and went very still as my light lapped up the checkered wall. All across the tile, there were feathers of blood, fanned out like a peacock’s tail, or a red deck of cards. I looked down, and felt my stomach churn. There was a corpse slouched against the wall, and in place of a head, it was as if he had a mushroom cloud coming out of his neck. It was as if he had choked on a balefire bomb.
There was a sawed-off shotgun resting along the length of his belly, and a string had been laced around the weapon’s trigger, so he could set it off by letting his hoof hang, by letting go.

I threw myself out of the milkshake bar, and retched, so that stale tears came to my eyes. He had done it to himself. And there was nothing I could do to make it better. There was no one I could blame… but him.

I reached back into the bar with my magic, and slipped the shotgun out as if from under someone’s pillow. I was about to break it into pieces – if only to give myself a demon to take apart – when I saw the glow of a terminal coming out of the corner of the bar. Its light seemed as serene as a candle’s to me then, and I held my breath, thinking that I might blow it out. My heart beat a little faster. I could only hope that, though the buck had left his brains on the wall, some of his mind might be still found in the machine.

Seeing it made me want to laugh, like a mare stranded on a maddening island, watching a searchlight roll in on the back of the tide. The terminal would pull me out of this nightmare, and tell me a better story.

It had to.

*** *** ***

I met a girl today. Over by the Installation gate. She was {~}nice to me. She {~} so beautiful.
She was blue. Her mane, her coat {~} eyes. Pale like the stars up north. Where the sky is naked.
I think I'm in love. How long has it been [love] Since any of us wiped the dust off that old word [world]?

-

I am. [ really am] But I'm afraid of it. What if she won't feel the same way?
I go to her {~} every day. Sometimes more. The clock has stopped. So I can't tell for sure.
By the time the light is flushed down to this place. I know the sun is rolling over us. And I go to her.
But {~} never changes. Not even in the dark. If anything, the night makes her brighter. [starlight]
I need to see her. I always do. I can't remember {~} food. It's like I don't need it anymore.
She is my water [my wine]. And I'm drowning in her. I'm choking on her.
But it scares me. [don't tell her]

-

She got angry {~} can't go back.
She's still so close. If it weren't for the staircase, I could still watch her. I can't sleep without seeing her.
I should tear it down. [blow it up] . Trap us here. [together] .
Can one prisoner refuse {~} forgive another?

-

I pulled away from the terminal – though the words would not have been out of place on a crumpled piece of paper – and it seemed to whisper as I turned my head, and looked down his throat. I was sorry for blaming him, for thinking he was selfish, as if he’d killed himself just to spite the world. The voice in the terminal was obsessed, deranged. It was sick. And I could blame a sickness.

-

She's going to forgive me. [of course]
Everything {~} back to the way it was. [perfect] . I know what I did.
Gatekeeper {~} her machines. [friends] . And I upset them. I brought a gun {~} their doorstep.
The lights started spinning. She was yelling at me [Cerberus started barking] So I ran.
Home again, home again. Like the little coward that I am.
I don't deserve a mare like her.
But I won't let her go.

-

Something's wrong. The siren brought dead bodies up out of the dark. It [You] brought them here [there].
I watched {~}. Limping, dragging themselves around her machines. I was so angry. [afraid]
I think they're blind. They didn't find me. And they didn't find her. Thank {~}, they didn't find her. [yet]
I think I'll leave my {~} here. Maybe then she'll show me around the glass [kingdom] places.
She might be angry. But we're running out of time. [the walls are folding in on themselves]

-

No! [yes] NO! [YES!] nonononooo{~}ooooo...
They found her. They took her. Oh {~}, I think they [ate] took her.
I have to go north. I have to go after her. [ Into the mouth of the dog ]
But it wasn't my fault. She wouldn't let me have my gun. What was I supposed to do?
How could they expect me to save her? She wouldn't {~} with me! She wouldn't listen!
They [You] have to understand! She wouldn't run!

-

What if {~}? What if they change her? What if they peel off her skin and pull out her hair?
What if they blow out the starlight in her eyes? [like candles]
They could [they will] make her like them... [ dead dead dead ]

-

I am a coward.

-

She was {~} good to me. She was so innocent [clean].
But I can't [won't] go after her. This whole installation is sick with age. Except for her.
I can't go there. Not without [keys to the kingdom] a gun. And that would make the lights spin {~}.
Even if I saved her. She might not want me.
But it won't be {~} long now.
I don't know what to do.
But I know what I am.
[Coward]
Coward.

-

I've been here for days [years]. I think I'm dying. {~}, I [know] think I'm really dying.
She was the only thing keeping it away. But I ran {~} and never went back.
I left her. Because I was afraid of the dead.
Soon {~} I'll be just like them. But I'm not afraid of that.
I'm not too much of a coward to die.

[Prove it]

*** *** ***

I was going to save her. Just as I had killed the rats in the grave of that gutted wanderer, so would I go into the gate of the Installation, and find her. One of these dead bucks had been gutless, the other headless and heartbroken. I had to be what they couldn’t. I had to win. For them, for her… for me.

I started to imagine this buried place as the kingdom of Death. And I saw myself walking up to his throne, and snatching the girl out of his palm. I would cheat him, though his bony fingers were bent around every trigger, and had never coiled tighter than they did around the gun pointed at the head of the world.

I knew I was letting myself get too deep into the fantasy, that I was more like a filly in cardboard armor than a knight in some storybook, but I needed it. I needed to play pretend. The hero always won in the storybooks. Without that, I was just another wanderer poking her nose where it didn’t belong, into a place that my Geiger counter clicked its tongue at, a place for rats and madmen.

A bright hallway opened out on the far side of the terminal, and its white light spilled out over the benches and the skinless bodies. Their bones threw narrow shadows around the pillars and over the staircase, like the fingers of something being dragged into the Installation. Still, the hallway was clean, its tiles unbloodied and its glass unbroken, and the lights made me think of home, of the hospital.

Ahead, there was a security checkpoint: machines, humming and blinking like dragons half asleep. One let its mouth hang open, and its long black tongue rolled out, waiting for the wallets and necklaces and rings, for the coins and keys, of any traveler who chose to walk through the gate.

As I came up to it, a column of light sprung out of a plinth on the floor, and span on it as if on a potter’s wheel. It was massaged into the shape of a mare, and I watched her eyes come out like the first two stars of the night. The constellations seemed to have been stitched into her skin, and thought she shone like something out of the Crystal Empire; she might have been a closer cousin to an Ursa Minor.

A hologram.

“Hello. And welcome to the Installation.” I blinked, again and again, trying to make her come into focus. “Ma’am,” She said, through blurry lips, and eyes that were sparkling as a drunk’s. “As this is your –“ I shrank away from her, though her voice was clear and sweet. “- First visit. I will be acting as your escort.”

She didn’t blink, and her smile shivered like white static. “I’ll be with you, whenever you need me.” I stared up at her, as though I was trying to remember her name. I met a girl today.

But this wasn’t her. It couldn’t be. This was a million lines of code bundled up into our image, and couldn’t be loved anymore than a toy soldier or a ragged old doll. But to a child, or a hermit made delirious in all his time alone, couldn’t that be enough? I think I’m in love.

No. I decided. Nopony could give up so much for the love of a machine. Besides, she clearly didn’t need to be saved. If she was the girl, then there was no quest: I would have no reason to go on.

“Please place your wallets, belts, horeshoes, electronic devices, hair clips, hoof trimmers and spare bits into one of the bins.” Her eyes flickered back to the machine, telling me to feed it. “Alert. If one of our security officers pulls you aside, you may have to be a part of an intensive cavity search.” Which part, I wondered. “They can be very gentle. Or not. It really depends on you.”

I frowned right through her big, covergirl smile, and then stripped myself of anything that might set off an alarm, that might make the lights spin. When I was done, I walked through the gate, with my magic like a magpie just above it, clutching so much silver in its talons. I couldn’t set my guns down on that machine’s tongue. Not if it might take them into its mouth and then, like a stubborn child, refuse to spit them out.

*** *** ***

“Please don’t fire live rounds inside the Installation,” She said, without letting the sugar slip out of her voice. The Installation was shut away behind a blast door, and I had been trying to shoot out the glass of a nearby reception booth, as if the keys to this kingdom might still be hanging on a hook inside. My baseball bat hadn’t left so much as a scratch in the glass.

Please don’t fire live rounds inside the Installation,” She said, wringing all of the magic out of that magic word. “It’s not that we don’t trust you. It’s really just the bullets that we have a problem with.” She let out a nervous laugh and, for a moment, had me believing that she was real. “This wouldn’t be the most secure facility in all of Equestria if we had bullets flying all over the place.”

Before the bombs, I would likely have been buried under a few heavily armored guards by now, as even the digital mare seemed to be tapping her hooves together, waiting for someone big and strong and less concerned with good manners to come and grab me by the scruff of my neck. I turned to her, with the pistol pointed up at the ceiling. “Program, is this glass bulletproof?”

“Security!” She hissed, through the corner of her quivering smile. The lights began to spin, and an alarm came blaring out after them. While we might have forgotten them, the machines still remembered our laws. I saved the last round, as if to break the window now would leave a red stamp on my permanent record. Grace: a Troublemaker and a Disappointing Equestrian:

The wall started to rattle, and it sounded as if a clumsy windup toy was marching through the air vents. There was a crunch, as something that had come soaring out of one wall crumpled against the other, like a spitball sent to slide down someone’s cheek.

“Monitor unit is not responding!” I had almost forgotten how easily the hologram came and went, and was startled as she bleated in my ear, and pointed over my shoulder. “Alert: Spritebot is not responding!”

I hurried over to the battered little thing, thinking that I had to nurse it better just as I might a bird that had flown into a window. Its wings had been made of glass, and lay in pieces around it, like plucked feathers. Now, needlelike antennae poked out of its back, all bent out of shape for having been coughed up out of the Installation’s throat. I felt like I had seen it before, if only in a magazine or textbook.

The spritebot’s eye was empty, but for the steel rings that were still spinning around the hollow space at its heart. “Unit call sign – Okavango Delta – has suffered a complete loss of motor function.” I didn’t know why I expected her to sound upset, but she didn’t. “Please dispatch another unit if hostilities continue.”

I fished around in my saddlebags, hoping to come up with some kind of medicine out of all the parts I’d scavenged out of Acheron’s supermarket. “Would you like to talk about these feelings of aggression you’re having?” She asked, as I jammed the screwdriver into something like the hood on a jalopy.

“Please remember that this is not a government facility. If you need to work out any issues you may have with the magical land of Equestria, or would like to protest the war, you may have come to the wrong place.” I made out a name through the wire and empty battery ports of my patient, even as she said it out loud. “Cerberus should not be held responsible for: recent breakups, the deaths of any beloved animals, houseplants or family members, or the decisions of Princess Luna. If you are waiting for your train, I should also remind you that we do not have anything to do with the trains. Please stop asking.”

I slid the senor module and fission battery into place as best I could, and patched everything over with the scrap electronics, wiping my brow just as Doctor Cross had when she was operating. I had no experience with mechanics, or organ transplants for that matter, but with no blood, so much as an electric current, pumping through the machine’s system, the operation turned out to be clean, even therapeutic, work. It was more like solving a puzzle than saving a life.

There was a hum, as the same galactic light that had bundled itself into the shape of a mare began to shine in its eye, like the fire of a rum lantern. I rolled the spritebot around in my hooves, and saw a narrow console running over its belly. A scroll of angry, electric blue numbers flashed across it like headlights along a highway, and I saw the word Cerberus blinking out from in between them.

<TOTAL SYSTEM SHUTDOWN>
REBOOTING… RESETING LOCAL DATA

I could only hope that all my sins were being washed out of the spritebot’s databanks, so that I wouldn’t have to shoot it down again as soon as it woke up. It would be nice to have it hanging over me like a cherub, as I went on to stay Death’s finger, even as it curled around the trigger.

With a jolt, it lifted itself out of my hooves, despite broken wings. The rings around its heart began to spin faster, in orbit around a pale sun, even as the alarms stopped. I was forgiven. “Hostiles neutralized.” The mare chirped, before unwinding into windswept constellations, which were quickly blown out.

I stepped back, and it followed, tilting over to one side, inspecting me. “May I speak with you please?” I asked, trying to be polite. “What’s your name?” It didn’t answer, but I knew even before the words went creeping onto the console: Okavango Delta. “It’s very nice to meet you.”

“I’m Grace,” I said, as if I’d only just remembered. “From the Stable… The Last Light of Equestria.”

There was a burst of static, and the spritebot broke into a song of bold horns and swirling orchestras. I nearly started skipping in place as I realized what it was. “That’s a Circle of Friends!” The song that we had always sung together, the song of our country. “So you’re a patriot too, huh?”

I giggled, as Okavango Delta let out a string of beeps. Then, all of a sudden, he turned away from me, and bobbed over to those stern blast doors. “I was just trying to get in there,” I said, following close behind. “There’s a girl… I think she might be in trouble.”

He shone a light on the door, and I had to lean in closer to see that there seemed to be something swimming through it: lines of code like schools of fish. “Wait… can you get that open?” He didn’t answer, but slid the light in between the doors like a crowbar and, with a hum, they began to part.

A corridor of glass opened out before us, and I couldn’t help feeling enormously small, as the way ahead had been built in the shape of keyhole. We came into the kingdom as if it were wonderland.

*** *** ***

Are you lonesome tonight?

The corridor seemed to be humming, and when I looked down through the glass that split the floor, I thought I could see cerulean lights pulsing, as slow as the heartbeat of a sleeping animal. Okavango Delta hung far above me, like a star of the same color. He had found a way to tap into Galaxy News Radio, though my Pipbuck had lost the station long ago, and bobbed through the air as if it were water.

Do you miss me tonight?

I had tried to tell him what we were looking for, but he had only gone on digging through the static, looking for this song. Still, the corridor went on ahead, and it was not as though we had a chance of going the wrong way. If nothing else, I was little jealous, as Okavango seemed far more interested in being swayed from side to side in the arms of that old music, than he was in my mission.

Are you sorry, we drifted, apart?

I felt very small as I looked down through the glass, as I could see another hallway that was all but identical to this one. I might have been staring into a mirror, though there was no one staring back up at me, and no lights to match the sun perched on my horn and the star tucked into his heart.

Another blast door spread open in front of us, and we came into a small, circular room. That digital mare came up out of another plinth, and her light was bright enough to pierce the glass. I watched it exhausting itself in the labyrinth below.

"Hello again.” Even her voice seemed to shine. “There’s just one more scan we have to perform before you move on into the Installation. Please stand up straight, and try to keep at least one of your hooves under you at all times.” She laughed, and though I wasn't sure why, and her body stayed eerily still, I caught myself laughing right along with her.

The walls were coated in glass, but I could see strips of some kind of metal starting to spin behind it. I could hear her thanking me, though it was as if I was standing inside a whirlwind. I held Okavango Delta to my chest, as the roar died down, and lights flashed as if through the windows of a passing train.

“Congratulations!” The mare cheered. “You are extraordinarily fertile.”

Okavango wriggled loose, but I let a hoof linger over my storage, feeling as if I had just been invaded.
“And you appear to be in… acceptable physical condition.”

“… Thanks.”

“Please step out of the elevator.” Elevator? “There may be other Cerberus employees waiting to come through.” I did as she asked, though my hooves had begun to shake, for what I saw waiting outside of the room: A vast chamber, whose roof seemed to hang as high as the storm over the valley. “Thanks again,” She said, even as the wall came hissing down behind me. “And have a great night!”

I didn’t see her go. To walk into this place, was to paddle out to sea.

There was a pit in the middle of the chamber, where all those waning lines of light and the glass that they had danced over disappeared. There was a hole in the earth, which was so wide that the ruins of a city could have been swept into it. Four giant figures bowed around it like cold bodies around a firepit. They were holding up the ceiling on their backs, on their shoulders and their necks and the crown of their skulls. I could not tell, as they looked like no living thing, had no faces and no limbs. But I knew that they were bowing, made weary under the weight of the world.

“Celestia.” I had looked up, far above the pit, and seen a circle of glass. A pristine light came spilling out of it. But it was to the darkness here what a single pail of water is to a wildfire: what a single voice crying for peace was to a balefire bomb. “We couldn’t have done this,” I said, as Okavango drifted up and up and up, like a little blue balloon. This place was older than us. This place was beyond us.

“Come back!” I cried, as I watched his light getting smaller and smaller. “Don’t leave me…”

But he was gone. I was alone. And the silence seemed to be closing in around me, like a swarm of ants over something sweet – too sweet – something chewed up and spat out. I closed my eyes, wishing for some sound to come rolling into this kingdom: for storm sirens or wedding bells, for wild music or the laughter of children, for a voice to tell me that I wasn’t the only one left alive, or angels singing.

I couldn’t bring myself to step any deeper into it, and stood there, listening to nothing but my own breathing, my own heartbeat. I didn’t think of Celestia, or Luna, or the country that they had once fought for the love of. I didn’t pretend that my mother was there, holding me, rocking me back to sleep after some misremembered nightmare. All I wanted then, was her: that digital mare.

I met a girl today.

She could be here for me. Pale like the stars up north. Where the sky is naked.
Like she had been there for him. She is my water [my wine]. And I'm drowning in her. I'm choking on her.
I didn’t want to let myself believe it, but it had always been her. And it scares me.

I understood it then: how he could have taken his head off for a machine. When he needed her most, she hadn’t been there. When he loved her most, she couldn’t love him. And isn’t that how it always goes? There was no sickness here, just some kind of madness. It was love that had killed him: smothering him like a hospital pillow under hooves that he had held, hooves that he had kissed. And I couldn’t fight Love.

Death was not here, holding some princess in his palm.
And so I was alone. I was a hero with no one left to save, with nowhere to go.
I opened my eyes, and looked into the pit, knowing that I had no path to walk: that there was no destiny.

My knees buckled, like those of a King, whose cape was torn and whose crown was broken, as a crippled and alien army built a circle of spears around him, all pointed down from a pedestal of trampled bodies: quiet and still as his favorite toy soldiers. But I didn’t even have that much. There was nothing left.

There was nothing to win. There was nothing to lose. I lay down on the ground, and felt the tears in my eyes before I felt them in my heart. I was empty. I hadn’t eaten, I hadn’t slept. But I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t tired. And though my Geiger counter was still ticking, I couldn’t even be afraid anymore.

Get up, I told myself. Get up, I said, begging.
“Get up.” But this time, the voice wasn’t my own. It was ugly. And this time, it worked.

I looked up, and my heart fluttered. My stomach lurched, my eyes went wide, and I was afraid again.
What stood over me was a corpse. It was a dead body brought up out of the dark.

What if {~}? What if they change her? What if they peel off her skin and pull out her hair?
What if they blow out the starlight in her eyes? [like candles]
They could [they will] make her like them... [ dead dead dead ]

I didn’t know whether to smile, for knowing that I could still be in his storybook, or to scream. Its naked face, smiling like a cow skull in the sand, was enough to dry my eyes as if by drought. Its skin was so torn, that it covered up the monster’s swelling lungs and its twitching muscles like tattered curtains over the greatest show on earth. I wanted to run. I wanted to ask it to show me its heart beating.

I was shivering like a sick dog, as it leaned in a little closer. I could hear it breathing out of its throat. But its eyes were so wrong that I was sure the beast had to be blind. Pupil and iris had spilled into one another, so that I could see myself in a black lake, spoiled by swirls of a fungal shade of green. But you could still see the life in them, somewhere under the surface, drowning slowly.

“Get up,” It said, in a voice that was as wasted and as bare as its body. “Damascus wants to talk to you.” I felt light-headed, and the chamber was spinning. Its face had become blurry, so that it looked like some nightmare smeared onto a page by clumsy little hooves. The Faith had their demons to welcome the damned, their monsters on the dark side of the moon, and I began to wonder if they were right.

I would not have felt so alone, if I could just make myself believe, if I could choke down the scripture, and swallow what they had so often said to me - somewhere in the heavens… they are waiting.

But even then, as the world spun and my vision grew dim, I could not see Celestia coming with the clouds. I could not see this place as a library to our sins, or the monster that was bending down to pick me up as some ferryman into the pit. It was all just a part of the story.

*** *** ***

I lay slumped over his back, drowsy as a child being carried up to their room. I could tell that we went back into the elevator. And I listened as it hummed around us. I saw her light as though through closed eyelids, and heard her voice saying My goodness, I’m afraid you’re not in very good physical condition at all. I’ll call an ambulance. Please try not to die inside the Installation. The elevator came to a stop, she said goodbye to us, and I heard the wall hissing closed again.

“Talk to Damascus.” I opened my eyes as he let me slide off of his back, as his spine pressed into my belly and the glass steamed up under my breath. With my cheek squashed up as if against a car window, I looked down over the very chamber that I had just been standing in. Some kind of scripture ran around the glass circle like frost, though I could not read it. "Talk. To. Damascus."

I couldn't be sure whether the voice's master had shaken me off, as if I were some overloyal pet, or if I had pulled myself away in a fit of girlish disgust. I knew better than to look up - than to submit myself to the sight of that living cadaver - and so lay still until the scent of death had left the air.

The weight of that tricephalic sickness didn't leave me so easily, but I managed to climb onto uncertain hooves, and found my place in the middle vein of three, like rivers of ice that were clear enough to reveal the impossible depths below. I recognized the strikingly wide ring of glass then, as the very face that I'd looked up to from that nameless underworld, and as I rose, I saw another beast of the same blood.

An enormous window had been cut out of the ringroom's plated walls. It was wounded, and let in a tide of rich, primordial light, as deep scars ran around its edge and caught the colors of whatever bygone world had been shut away behind it. And even on my hooves, with my head held high, I felt like a beggar.

"Hell doesn't offer welcome to its visitors with any kindness. But the time for introductions, so much as kindness, is already running out. Yours is not a position that I would wish on anyone, as even on escaping this place, you will carry precious little in the way of answers. But for now... here you are."

His voice took root somewhere deep within the Stable, and every deliberate word it spoke didn't seem to fit with the leering threats and fearful cries, the wild gunfire and the howling cities, of this great Equestrian storm. It sounded so collected, so controlled, so unlike them.

I found the buck, standing near the edge of both windows, beyond that which opened out to the darkness below, and before that which held a flood of light at bay. His stance was firm, and I followed wounds that rose to coil around his body, as if sprouting from the seeds of damnation beneath us.

Much of his coat had been peeled away, almost as if the buck was more scars than he was skin. They ruled him, taking everything but the remains of his sandy, and now discolored, coat, to leave him standing before me as something long since burned away: A desert put to the torch, buckling before a season of plagues, stripped bare by a hundred passing locusts, trampled under a thousand hooves in exodus.

The shadows falling over his body only seemed to hide what little he had left, but, despite it all, I felt safe before his blue, atmospheric eyes. Flecks of that all too familiar starlight shone out of his irises like scattered diamonds, though even beside that digital mare, they might seem alien, as if plucked from the empty spaces beyond the edge of the sky.

"If I could give you anything: it would be time. But with the Slavers bound for this very station, and how close we've come to the end of our peace with them, I cannot even offer you that. We need to begin." This kingdom, for all its lies and labyrinths, was his. And, as I listened to his firm, familiar voice, I knew that he had tamed it. "Dies Irae venient, per verbum Deae."

"You're from the Stable." I said, as if our steel door had been the only thing to keep that dead language from being stamped out. "The days of wrath are coming, by the word of the Goddess." I couldn't make anything of the old words alone, as I knew them in pieces, but that phrase had left its mark on history.

"Very good." I might have felt like a filly again, standing in front of the class or before the pages of a hymnbook, if it weren't so hard to leave this place, to imagine myself away from him. "You still wear that place across your chest, over your heart. But I didn't think it could be found so easily in me." He lifted his hoof without flourish or flair, and I saw that he wore no Pipbuck. It didn't take me long to understand why.

The symbol on his flank looked like a brand, as it was black and burnt, and it was possible that it had been seared into his skin. It was a cross. The same cross that lay tilted across my father's coat, that the Faith would piece together out of scrap so that it might bear witness to their sermons. And then, a thought injected itself into my mind: A terrible, mad thought. And it left me so hollow, so afraid, that the buck, this sinner who could have beaten the path to my own exile, saw it, gathering like a storm around me.

"How long has it been?" He asked coolly. "How many years have passed since he was damned?" Damascus tilted his head, leaving me little to see but for the microcosms in his eyes. "Unless you're following old hoofsteps, unless they still remember me in there: I'm not the one you're looking for."

"My father." The words slipped out of my mouth, like pieces of hard candy, and I felt a desperate need to gather them up: to get them out of sight. "He stitched your cutie mark, the cross, into the side of his coat." But in truth, it had been Faith that left the mark on both of them.

"You aren't interested in finding him." I could feel him reading me and, for a moment, wished that the light might turn, like sunset to sunrise, so that it could be my face that was hidden, and his that lay bare. "That's good. History will leave more than its share of dirt on your hooves. Better to keep them clean..."

"For now." He added, as the window's light met the shine of his eyes, falling over a cheek that had been left shallow and purple by an unevenly stacked cairn of scars. "The Stable has already left us to this dead valley, forgotten our names as they have with all the damned. But, for you, to become a killer before the eye of the world, in the name of the Goddesses, is something that remains to be done. To them, your soul is white. And for them, it must be stained." I almost took a step back, as if frightened by the turn he'd taken. "This country will be clean again. Even if we must carry the weight of its filth on our own bodies."

It almost sounded like he was talking about the dawn, about Equestria's new beginning, though I had to work through the Faith that wove around his words, as if they were all drawn from that dead lexicon.

"There is too much that you need to know, things that you might not find out in time." I saw him glance back at the window, as if it had begun to groan for the weight of the light. "There is an evil that is pressing its teeth into the earth. And we have no choice but to face it. That your arrival so closely matches their own should not be ignored. You were meant to be used against them."

I could see his mane now, as the window lit up a neat wave of gray, whose breakers had lost their color. It might even have been combed, and I had to hope that my own hair looked half as well put together. After seeing so much of his face, I couldn't help thinking that Damascus was the old world, dragged through the new. The buck would have been very handsome, with the good looks that had become timeless when time stopped, just as Equestria would have been very beautiful.

Neither had lost their charm. It had just been changed, reshaped by the hands of Fallout.
"I wouldn't have left without trying to help." I said, like a mare poking fun at herself. "What can I do?"

"There is a train, the Coltilde, that runs a ring from here to Equestria's heart." To hear him call the country by its name, to hear it spoken in this glass kingdom, almost made me feel homesick. "It crosses the hinterlands of the North, carrying ponies, stolen from every settlement that is subject to its cycles. Those who fall victim to the disease and abuse that have poisoned the train's belly, are thrown from it, left to litter the earth along the rails. The rest are taken to a place called The Pens, in the west, and are hoarded in flea-ridden barracks and chain-link hostels. Kept as animals in the shadow of a crippled machine."

Slavery was an industry now, as if some sovereign had thrown our trains from the tracks, only to replace them with beasts of metal and chain and smoke. I didn't know what I felt then. If it was anger, I couldn't harness it. If it was despair, it wouldn't slow me down. But both sides agreed: this train, this Coltilde could not be left to leech of our country, like a dark haired monkey picking food off the bodies of its sleeping parents, stealing ponies to satisfy its ugly hunger.

"There are secrets buried here," He ran a hoof around the great, glass ring - almost lovingly - tracing the scripture. "Secrets that I have only kept safe with hired guns and scavenged power, that I must stop them from discovering. We came to a shallow sort of peace, the Slavers and I. We made a deal. But the time to put an end to their rule over the North, to take back the reins, has come." I shivered, thinking myself lucky for stumbling onto this young revolution. "And no tools are too foul to aid in paving our way to the dawn."

But for now, as the Faith so often said, luck looked to have very little power in the world. "Tools?" I found myself ready to take orders from Damascus, ready to look at this great chamber as a throne room. As one thing was clear: He was not the King bending his knee in that circle of spears. "You mean... killing?"

"When the Goddesses can be so dejected, when they can have fallen so far, as to need our help... we must be ready to do everything, and anything, just as they once did for us. The coming train would have sown its evil without me, but to house it, to feed it.... to use it: That takes another kind of strength." The light behind him seemed to grow brighter, and colder, as if its gold was wearing away.

"When the dawn comes, and it will come, it will not be as it was in the beginning. When a new sun rises as the carriage to a returning Goddess, it's face will not be white. The light at the end of this will be as the bodies and the hearts that it is cast over, as the country it will wake. Even the light - will be dirty."

The Kingdom of Glass came full circle then, as I followed the patterns of naked flesh, of lavender bruises, along Damascus' body like burnt sand. This place was not only his throne room, but his prison. And it occurred to me that, in the eyes of any doctor, his was a frame that would wear bandages in the place of skin, that could not be left so bare, except in a place like this.

Except in a place whose air was sterile, and whose architects might have built a thousand other holy cities in rehearsal: A place whose gates were guarded by machines and the standing dead, and whose light was galactic. “Just point me in the right direction.”

“I wonder if I am.” He came to where he had begun, where I imagined a throne might stand. "We all go through periods of darkness. In such times we can always turn to the Goddesses, but it is good to have friends.” He recited, turning away from the aureate wall of glass. “Friendship... There is a tool that can tend the soil, that can steer storms and pull the constellations across the sky, a tool that might truly be clean. And for that, to see us wielding that sword and that shield of a thing, you will serve."

I heard it then, like a panting animal, a sound that fell over itself as if it were a river swollen with debris. And over it, came the scream of a whistle, which might have shattered all these ancient faces of glass, to bring the kingdom tumbling down, like a castle made of sand.

"Charon will guide you to the surface." And then, all at once, I knew the sound, and felt it pressing against his window like a palm. I could only imagine the Coltilde as that enormous worm, tearing through the planet like an apple, following the tunnels that it had carved so many years ago. The train was coming. "When he leaves you, make your way along the highway. Follow it East. There is a gateway across the road. Go there. And, though it is a wild and unwelcoming place, it will be your Temple of Trials."

The turn of its wheels grew louder in swells, as if a narrow army were marching through the tunnel, with every soldier chanting the name of their King, raising their voices together, so that the sound of the front line hit us first, even as the others came rolling after it.

"But wars aren't won by diplomacy." At a gesture from Damascus, I felt death come to plant itself beside me, to prove that it would not pass like any other nightmare. "There is a church on the far side of Hell, and in it are all that I have to call allies: though they are only with me for their own avarice. Speak to the Quartermaster. He can prepare you for what must be done."

“Follow me.” Its voice said, bringing a threadbare muzzle close enough to send shivers down my spine.

“Wait." I managed, though I couldn't know if I had spoken only so that Damascus wouldn't turn his back, leaving me to the servant that I had named Death. "What's down there?" I asked, with one hoof tapping at the scriptured glass, and the chamber that it revealed below us.

"I don't know anymore." The damned of some primeval generation answered. "The Circles are too irradiated for anyone but the ghouls, and even they will only venture there when the path has been paved with gold. You barely made it out with your life, and had not yet strayed from its rim." I couldn't remember if my Pipbuck had been ticking, and if the majesty of it all was enough to leave me deaf to its warnings. "But the Goddesses would not have left it to us, they would not have steered us here, if its gates weren't meant to be guarded. This place cannot be surrendered: it cannot be lost."

With another, desperate scream, which sounded eerily like an animal trying to speak, a mist began to rise around the window's edges, and cast great, billowing shadows across the glass throne room.

The howl of the whistle, with its chorus of metallic chugging, spun down into silence. It almost felt like this bestial machine had brought all the cold and the dark of the night with it, as if it carried a part of that great storm on its back, and an inconsolable sense of dread took root somewhere deep inside of me.

The Coltilde was unlike any other Equestrian machine, any other Equestrian animal, and though I couldn't see it: I knew that it was black, as it drained the color in the air, and left us with white lights and choleric pillars of smoke. I found myself stepping back into the palm of death, and looking at him like a friend.

“We’re out of time.”



Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: My Little Leaguer: +5 Melee Weapons, +5 Explosives, +10 Damage when using Equestrian Baseball Bats

Chapter 4: Frontier Psychiatrist

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 4: Frontier Psychiatrist
“Shh… We’re hunting shitheads.”

|*| The Rook |*|

“Does it hurt?” I had to ask, though his body looked like a shipwreck, hauled up onto the shore. “I mean, can I help you somehow?” The ghoul’s attention stayed locked on the door, and even in spite of that, the door stayed locked. The glass kingdom was far behind us now, as our escape had taken us out of the shadow of the night train, and that strange world of sanitation and insanity: radiation and ancient magic. "You can trust me: I'm a doctor." I barely got the words out without giggling. I'd always wanted to say that.

Whenever I got too close to Charon, my Pipbuck was quick to scold me- You should know better than to hang around with boys like him - and now that, through one word answers, I had learned a little more about what he called ghouls, I knew why. Still, it felt wrong to stand by, without casting so much as an anesthetic spell, and watch him go about saving me with his insides out.

The Slavers were somewhere above us now, as the utility tunnels were like arteries branching out from a heart, and only led us farther from Damascus and the devils before the eye of his window. My fear had left me, as the lights changed to match those of Acheron's Supermarket, and my company treated me more like a stranger than a victim, even as the diagnostic playhouse that was his body distracted me.

"There's a scar on your hind leg that I could probably fix up for you." I said, after skirting around the pale of his gut. He was like some troubled child's oldest plush animal, and would be hemorrhaging stuffing were it not for the age of his wounds. "Or not." Another of his bobby pins had broken, and I heard him mutter an unfamiliar word to himself. I didn't think it could be found in any hymn or holy book.

I got the slightest impression that I was annoying him, but the buck seemed reluctant to express himself much farther than a passing scowl or a curse word uttered under his breath. He might have been called a consummate professional, a hired gun who never questioned his orders, but to me; there was something unsettling about Charon's loyalty to that all powerful Contract. He almost seemed... brainwashed.

The lock clicked, and even then he didn’t smile, but only peered into the hallways ahead, with no expression but for those that had been carved across his face. "There will be ferals here." He said. "Keep that shotgun ready. They might pick up your scent." I floated out the fourth of my inherited weapons, and bent it apart to check the chamber's load. It sounded like some kind of animal tribe had overrun this place, turning it into a wilderness outside the Kingdom's walls. "They're faster than they look."

I didn't think to ask why they might only be interested in me. As I’d already come up with my own, slightly immodest, reason: If I was to come upon an apple orchard, would I really go to a tree whose branches were stricken but for a few, shriveled and discolored fruit? "You have a weapon too, right?"

"I'll keep you alive."

"What if I get injured?" I wondered aloud, worried for what bedlam the green motes that lingered in the air might wreak if swallowed up into a flesh wound. Not to mention the diseases that these ferals might carry.

"That shouldn’t be a problem: You’re a doctor.” So the wheels of our friendship were a little slow to start spinning, there had never been a rusted wheel that the oils of my charisma could not get unstuck!

... Despite thoughts like that, it was nice to have that old electricity coursing through me again, just as it had for every mail delivery to the Overmare, every odd job that I'd made into a mission. And it was no wonder that my fear had been so cleanly cut away. While I had once played the part of a nurse, and more often of a nuisance, now: I was a soldier in Equestria’s army, feeding the fires of her dawn.

Damascus would not be afraid of these wild things in the darkness, he had stayed behind even as that train had come, carrying winter on its back. He would not even think to flee in the face of the devil. "Charon..." I began, worried that I wasn't saying it right. "Can you tell me more about these ferals?"

He didn't answer at first, but then raised his voice until it sounded like it was hurting him, as if throwing his words down the hallway as bait to some hungry, crouching beast. "They've been down here since the war. All this radiation came from a balefire bomb. Set off inside the Installation. Wouldn't be surprised if they were the ones who pushed the button." Wait... ferals were - "Get ready."

A long, rasping sound came pushing through the shadows, and was soon followed by a rhythm of wet, keyed up hoofsteps, as if water that had become heavy with filth was dripping from a broken valve. They carried a figure into the light, and I looked on it as one might a miracle, and the fingers of death seemed to loosen around the world, as if his long and uncontested reign was finally slipping away.

As my eyes followed so many naked tendons - the long, wormy things that made up its body - waves of sickness came over me, though they were sluggish and meek, and only made me sway on my hooves.

There was no character left in this abomination's face, no sense that he had ever been more than a corpse, and unlike Charon: there was no color in its eyes, no life that could be seen drowning.

Without thinking, I swung the shotgun around, and felt the cradle of my magic shatter as it fired. It hurt me, as something like an intense heat shot through my horn, and I watched a hundred pieces of gold melt into the air. The feral stood for a while longer, though the top of its skull had been cracked open before a red smear, and its eyes were dancing around one another, like a pair of dice at its hooves.

It fell like a statue, lifted from its pedestal by a crowd of revolutionaries, and then lay still. “Is it dead?”
I had to ask, as all medical law seemed to have been thrown out of the window long ago.

Tic, Tic, Tic. “I feel nauseous.” I added, as if translating for my Pipbuck, and Charon began walking down the very hallway whose shadows had birthed that awful thing. He kicked one of its hooves out of the way, but walked through the blood as if it were water. “We should try to find something for radiation sickness.”

“Radiation heals ghouls.” … Out the window, off the rock, and into the bonfire. Nothing but junk science. “Speak to the Quartermaster in the church outside of town. He’ll sell you some RadAway.”

We passed an open doorway and, for the light that came flickering through it, I could make out shelves running across almost every wall. "Couldn't we just dig around for a minute?" The smell of blood, coupled with the irritable ticking of my Pipbuck, had made the sickness inside me all too clear. It felt like I'd swallowed a balefire bomb, only to have it detonate, balloon out my middle, and leave me smoking from the ears like in the comic books. "Please." I added, borrowing a cup of sugar from that digital mare.

"I'll go on ahead and clear out any ghouls between us and the stairwell." He bowed his head, as if I were a princess to the Glass Kingdom, and had to be served the world on a silver plate. I wanted very badly to hug him then, though the hallway had almost started to spin. "I was ordered to escort you out of Hell. A corpse cannot be escorted. Follow your compass south, and come find me when you are done."

"Thank you, Charon. Thank you thank you thank you." He barely nodded before marching off into the whispering dark, but I knew that we were going to be the best of friends one day.

The room was more than a little underwhelming, compared to everything else I'd seen tonight, but I counted on a medley of cases, from medical to military, and plenty of overthrown lockers to root around in. A scream went tearing through the hallway behind me, and though it had come from the mouth of a warm gun, I pulled myself out of the steel cabinet in a flight of paper and dust, as if to watch it passing by.

Charon might as well have been in a slaughterhouse, with the ferals playing the part of so many hapless animals. They would stand idly by, as he brought the barrel of his shotgun near, like the edge of an ax. They looked at him as family, or at least as tribe, though he was a wolf wearing their costume of death.

Ignoring the shotgun, like some abrasive house guest in the other room, I struggled to get open a bottle of Rad-x, which I had to hope was better than too little too late. As my magic gathered like a storm around the pill bottle, I began to think that, in the years before the war, our best scientists had not been working on the development of superweapons and megaspells, but childproof lids.

I took more of the pills than I should have, and one dissolved before I could swallow it, leaving the taste of something bitter spread across my tongue. Then, I moved on to a large, black safe on the other side of the room. Its door had been twisted clear of one of its hinges, and lay at its side like a battered shield. If nothing else, it was nice to see that I wasn't the only one doing things the indelicate way.

Holy Smokes! I thought, as I poked my head into the safe. Money! Lots and lots of money!
There were entire rolls of those famous golden coins, like pillars of gold in some dragon's cavernous lair. After floating out one of the bits, and saluting the face encircled within it, I hit the coin against my teeth. I didn't know what this was supposed to accomplish. And it hurt. But I knew that it had to be done.

I built a city in my saddlebags, which shone as if waking to the light of its first sunrise, and I even put in a district especially for Charon. I was sad to see it collapse, to see it melt down into an ocean of gold. But, as the cold groped at my neck, I knew that this was not the place to play Princess.

Something stirred in the hallway, and my nose was caught under the lid of a metal case, for fear of the noise it would make as it slammed shut. I put out my horn, and willed the fluorescent lights above me to stop blinking. Something was breathing. I heard a hoofstep, colored by the same moistness that brought images of stripped bone and softened muscle, of lumbering, to mind. I closed the box with my magic, and then crept over to the room's farthest corner. But the hoofsteps didn't wait for me to find a place to hide.

They carried It to the doorway: a lurching figure whose head hung low and from whose flesh burst broken bones, to give it the silhouette of something brittle and disfigured whenever the lights cut out. Its face was caught in a smile that could never be flattened, and as it slid up against the hallway’s wall, and let the blood that I'd painted there leave its mark, I might have thought the ghoul was laughing.

An unfinished suit of cloth and metal armor held the thing together, and I couldn't say whether the green underneath it came from old strips of skin, or simply poisoned flesh. The ghoul's eyes had been corrupted into a beautiful and absolute blue, like the surface of some sacred water. And, with a snarl that might once have been a word, they tripped over me – as if over toys in a dark room - and I was found.

I swept up the box's lid in my telekinesis, and flung it at the hollow face of this ancient Equestrian, like a square discus. It smashed the thing's empty expression into pieces, and brought a lilt to its smile.

As if I'd knocked what was left of its mind loose, the ghoul rocked back onto its hooves: stunned.
I threw myself towards it, and had the shotgun pressed up under its front leg as I turned towards the south, charting a course to Charon. I felt its ribs break as I fired, and the weapon dug its way a little deeper into the abomination's chest, pushing past ruined bones and untethered flesh like a hammer.

Finally, the feral began to bat at my weapon, even as it bobbed along behind me, with one side of its arcane cradle wearing thin as I sank deeper into the station's utilitarian belly. The shotgun was a crude thing, difficult to rearm and slow to follow one roar with another, and I quickly decided that it was worth less to me than my tail. I thrust it back in one final blowout of telekinesis, hoping to knock the ghoul's jaw clean off. I only heard it groan, and let its warped voice grow soft for the distance growing between us.

A hallway barreled through the passage ahead, and I drew my father's automatic pistol, as if expecting to find more of death's disharmonic instruments around the corner. Even with three rounds left to the gun, I came to a stairway at the end of my chosen path, and turned to fire a light into the darkness that was biting at my flanks. The ghoul came tearing past the pipelines and meshwork floor, throwing its weight from wall to wall like a cripple without his crutch, or a drunk without a friend in the world.

The first round buried itself into the creature's shoulder, and the second passed right through one of its knees. My Pipbuck had nothing to say, though I'd expected it to congratulate me for breaking a bone, or cutting through some vital muscle. Anything that might mean this tireless thing could be slowed down.

I was down to my last bullet, but knew that it was too precious, too perfect, to do anything but put an end to this. I backed towards the well-lit stairwell, not bothering to dance around the stains that spoiled the concrete, and felt nausea pushing its ugly hooves into the folds of my magic, making the pistol sway. The feral pounced, far too late, and I saw it stumble, to crush the spot that I'd only just escaped under its weight.

I swung the automatic in a little closer, and fired into its neck.

I tried, and failed, to backpedal up the stairs, and only managed to bruise and batter my tired, irradiated body even farther. I had started to fight for even the shortest breath, beginning to realize that I was going to die, and tears swelled up to warp my killer into something soft and formless. The feral's voice had been left in ruins, and the raspy howl that came then was almost pathetic, as it climbed its way out of a pierced throat. The hole I'd left was larger than the unraveled flesh around it, and I had to think: This isn't fair.

This unendable beast of peeling skin and broken bones reared up the stairs, and struck me across the stomach, imparting the terrible force of a hundred-year hunger. With all four hooves off the ground, I was smashed into the wall of wire and layered steel, and I imagined my spine snapping at its touch.

Another feeble rasp spread itself thin across the hallway, but the hot, fetid breath that I'd expected to beat down on my senses did not come. The hoof that still pressed into my belly seemed to have lost all of its violence, like a cudgel that had slipped loose of arcane fingers, and I soon realized that the ghoul's limb had broken apart at the joint, leaving only a severed foreleg, going limp on top of me.

I began writhing like a filly with a spider creeping down her collar, and threw the broken stilt down the stairwell, where its cripple of a master lay waiting, as if it might put itself together again.

The ghoul was slumped over a thin railing that followed the walls, trying to pull itself up, as the rest of its severed leg pumped beneath it. I cycled weapons, without thinking to dam up the tears that were still running down my face, and finally defaulted to the baseball bat.

I stood up, as something like fear flickered into its bloated blue eyes. We both knew that this was over.

After bringing the weapon to bear, as if it were an enormous axe, I swung it down across the feral's already hollowed out neck, letting myself slip into the role of executioner, though a country in the throes of war and so many years of poison had already tried, and failed, to do the same to this corrupted thing.

The light left its eyes, and that was enough to make me feel like I'd killed him... like I'd murdered a pony, who had for so long been kept a prisoner inside a husk of his old self. And, for that, I let myself cry.

I don't know how long I stayed like that, hugging the baseball bat as I curled up against the stairs, but with mangled words and a rough shake, I was pulled back into the dank of Equestria's underbelly. "Shut up." Charon hissed. And I tried to obey, if only for the uncut emotion in his voice. "Shut. Up." It wasn't anger: For anger, I might have gone on crying. This was fear. "Reaver... We need to leave. Now!"

*** *** ***

The world was sick. And I'd never seen its affliction so clearly painted, as it was across the skies of Hell. The storm still wore its bruises over streams of moonlight, the mountains and the night behind them stood like walls around the valley, the streetlamps drowning out in the East were white and feeble, and there was a perfect, but broken, circle scratched into the earth, though nothing looked quite as sick as the town inside the lines. We stood at the edge of it, on one of the ridges that had drawn this ring into the valley.

I watched Hell in its insomnia, watched it from our perch outside the ruins of the outskirts, from the stone collar that had kept the settlement below from spreading. The stone line poking out of the hillside almost seemed like a blessing now, a savior for the quarantine that it had enforced on this malignant tumor.

We had come up out of the earth as if it were water, escaping a name that was no less forbidding than Leviathan, and now stood halfway up the hill that wore a church as its crown. At the center of the suburban wreckage before us, were great plateaus of concrete, foundations that broke through soil and stone to cradle the secrets of Cerberus and its underworld. Crowding these stages, all separated by empty roads and staircases, were more buildings than I’d ever expect to find in a place so unwelcoming. And to see them was to look upon the homeless, loitering before the mouth of a sewer, like pastry crumbs around lips.

Apart from the collapsing houses that surrounded it, I could not see this place as a city or a settlement, but only as something military or penitential. A great fence surrounded the concrete fields, guarded by brittle watchtowers, barricade walls and countless warning signs. To Charon, whatever Hell had once been meant very little now, but he was nice enough to explain this new, and far more anarchic state.

"Damascus owns the Installation. But he’s the only one who wants it." The ghoul began. "The South side of town, everything under the white lights, is Raider territory. The North side, where the air is green, is infested with Ferals. But when the coin’s tossed, and lands wrong side up: it all goes to the Slavers.”

The north side leaked, as every one of its whitest lights had been buried under a film of sickly smoke, like stars in a stellar nursery. Crimson shone out from the south, as alarms whirled on in silence, to make silhouettes out of strung up corpses and crucified skeletons. It was all so far away, but I could almost count their ribs for the glare of the floodlights behind them. The wind hummed over this heart of darkness, loading the corruption onto its back, smuggling Hell’s sickness out into the country beyond the ring.

“Where are all the ponies?” I asked, fencing out Raiders and the hostile dead.

"On the Coltilde." He turned, as if he could just leave it at that, and stepped out into the middle of the street. It would lead us up to the church, whose golden blood made it seem like the only unspoiled place in this valley of gutted ruins and crowded hostels of violence. "Come on." He called back to me, like a buck leading his daughter away from something that only she, like all children, was still enraptured by.

Before we got close enough for me to get a better look at either the crumpled church or the Hell stretching out below it, Charon swerved to the left, circling the outskirts of this bastion with me in tow. We hopped over a broken wall that served as the lot's outermost boundary, though it was little more than blasted brick and jagged fencing. As I glanced over my shoulder, I could make out a distant whale's mouth coming up towards the East, and saw it lapping at the flatlands with the steel tongues that were its railways.

I soon caught on to what we were walking across, and my path became broken and complicated for all the graves that I had to avoid treading on. The ghoul didn’t seem to care, and ploughed over the sacred ground as if tilling it in preparation for the next season's harvest. It was a little strange, to see a walking corpse being so callous to those who slept below, as if he was mocking them for giving up so easily.

With my eyes climbing steeples and counting wooden bones, I nearly fell into a hole in the earth. Charon had pulled opened a cellar door, and now waved me into it, as if we hadn't just come up from under the soil. The passage into the church had been built of cobblestone, and I kept my tail brushing up against one of the walls, just to make sure I had something to follow. "Lot of ghouls up there." Charon said, plainly. "More bucks..." He looked me over. "No point trying not to draw attention."

He touched me, almost exactly as my tail lost the wall, and we stepped out into a broad space whose ceiling was crossed by fissures of light, from which their voices fell like gravel. With a hoof tucked behind my forearm, Charon walked me across the room, as if I was the earthy bride to a subterranean wedding. "Get what you need. And get it all. You don't want to come back here alone."

We began on our way up the stairs. "I guess we're gonna have to go our separate ways after this." I said, with a sad smile. "I know we got off to a... rough start." The buck grunted, and I couldn't help letting a little bit of laughter trickle over my voice. "But I'm glad I met you, Charon."

Without a sound, he let me go, and pushed his shoulder up against the door that lay slanted over our heads. I felt nervous. As if I were stepping out into the spotlights of a stage, and not the fires of a holy place turned barracks. I heard rifles clicking like cameras, and lifted a hoof over my eyes as if to shield them from a thousand blinding flashes. But then, Charon muttered something, and pulled me out into the disarray of pews and crude barricades that divided the church's once spacious antechamber.

Ashen banners had been slung over both sides of the patchwork wall, and I mistook the pale animal rearing along the length of them for a three-headed lion, penned up inside the lines and gilded laurels of a broken circle. Both of the weary looking flags had been pinned down under the weight of the ramparts, which were built of everything from the limbs of disassembled Securitrons to a statue of a Princess, whose name could not be guessed for a coat of paint that had long since melted to gray.

There were heads along the wall, and before I caught their clogged-up ghoul’s eyes following us through the gateless barricade, I saw them as trophies on the tips of spears. There were more of them on the other side - where the pews had been swept up into the corners, like pieces of driftwood from a shore, and now sat on pillars of scripture, as if a thoroughfare of heretic bonfires were about to be lit.

It became difficult to remember that these ponies were not on the side of death: but had only cheated it.

They wore barding that was equal parts cloth and plate armor, though the two became hard to tell apart for the weight of an innumerable concert of war. Some had the white lion standing proud on their shoulder and chest guards, or warped along the folds of a cowl, caparison or even a makeshift pattern of gauze. While others, had the name Cerberus stamped along the corners of gas masks, the pockets of satchels or the bandages that coiled around crooked limbs, skinless necks, and even cleaved faces.

But, as if in place of any distinct uniform, they all looked to be covered by more clips of ammunition and holsters, by more bandoliers and belts and bucklers, than the soldiers in the posters and the knights in the storybooks combined. Some had rifles that matched the length of a sword and its scabbard, while others tucked their halved shotguns or heavy pistols away like daggers in the folds of their barding.

We didn't stop moving, and I sometimes had to skip to stay in formation at Charon's side, even as I tried my best not to meet the fog of overcast eyes that had gathered around us as we walked through the church. The entire aisle smelt of ethanol and smoke, of fermented fruit and fermented bodies, of ash and sawdust, and the narrow carpet was like a red sandbank, with tides of playing cards, bullet casings, hymnbook pages and, strangely enough, bottlecaps lapping up at every side.

Still, Charon might as well have been pushing us through the room on a raft, as even the mercenaries shied away from him, and parted together like ripples over the discolored face of a lake.

I couldn't even imagine how the Confessor might react on seeing this: the first of Equestria's churches, turned into something both militant and debauched. "Charon." A voice like liquid copper said, as we reached the place where ponies might once have lowered their bodies before the Celestial cross, to whisper some plea to the mares that turned the world. I peeked around the pierced shield that was Charon's body, and followed trails of smoke to find a fat cigar and the face that it hung, burning, from.

The buck looked remarkably smooth, and wore a security helmet, whose visor had been pushed back to show off bruised, glimmering eyes, and forced the smoke to pool against its tilted glass face like the clouds of a gathering storm. "You made a friend." Yep. "Careful now. Someone might think you bought her... seeing as the train's come in tonight." With one hoof, he tipped his visor to me, and two pillars of smoke rose as if from his ears. "No offense, little miss. ’Tis the season."

The Quartermaster - whose role was made clear by the armory laid out before the gaping altar -chewed on his cigar with something like hunger, and rolled his eyes at Charon through the haze. "Not interested in talking, huh?" He shifted his weight, as if to make a point of choosing me over my escort. "Evening sweetheart." I should say, I felt safe enough for his slovenly charm to step out of cover, and put some distance between Charon and I, even if it was only a hoofstep or two. "What can I help you with?"

"I'd like to know about your shop, actually." I admitted, not yet realizing how thrilled I was to be having something not unlike a normal conversation. "What did you do to end up behind the counter?"

"Risked my hide rootin' around Raider town." He smiled around his cigar. "Set up a neat little operation from out of a footlocker. Made a bundle off all the whiskey and Jet that the townsfolk, if you can call 'em that, were flying too high to keep track of." Charon had become a statue at my side, and I almost thought to try and lure him out of it, to help him make some friends. "Soon enough, the boss had his eyes set on my handsome scheme, and figured he could turn it around - Like he did Hell."

He waved back at the munitions. "Got made Quartermaster for life... Which I figure is like being made one fourth of a King, if you think about it." I giggled, thinking about it.

"Say, you seem too sweet to be herded into a place like this." The buck tilted his head at Charon, as if he couldn't hear us. "What were you thinking: following Smiley around on a night like tonight?"

"Damascus has plans for her." Charon said, and I imagined his words in the plain and punched-down print of a typewriter. He had become a watchful chaperone, a divot between me and the Quartermaster, as if we were teenagers on a date.

"So he threw you into the machine, huh?" I shrugged, as if to say: What can you do? "Well then... you'll be needing a few clips for that 45, and a stack or two of energy cells." He pointed a hoof at each of my pistols, and let it hang in the air, as if waiting for me to reveal an armory tucked under my belly. "Better tag on some RadAway, by the look of it: You're practically glowing."

Pushing him to fish through an array of colorful little boxes, Charon stared the Quartermaster down, and almost knocked the laughter out of his eyes. "Radioactive Mama." The buck began singing to himself, over the rattle of pistol rounds. "Hold me tight. Radioactive - Mama. Treat me right... Radioactive Mama!" He pushed the ammunition over his counter, like a cashier. "We'll reach critical mass... tonight."

Even as I floated out the first roll of coins, I counted three full clips for the laser pistol, and four for the automatic. "Will this be enough for -" I had underestimated Equestria's hunger for lead before, but now knew that ammunition could be burned away like fortunes in a city of casinos. "All of these."

Out of the corner of his eye, the Quartermaster glanced at the tower I'd built, but disappeared behind the counter soon after, leaving a trail of smoke. "That'll be at least two stacks, sweetheart." Jeez, somepony forgot to tell inflation about the war. "And that's a bargain.... Days like these: Ammo doesn't come cheap."

I begrudgingly dug out another roll, and felt Charon's hoof on my shoulder. The buck was staring down at the coins with something that almost looked like horror. And it suddenly occurred to me that I might be getting ripped off. "Excuse me, sir, but Charon doesn't seem to think your prices are-"

There was a howl from behind the counter, and I looked up into a smoky tempest, that was being swashed and spun by the rolling Quartermaster. At first, I thought he was having a sudden and terrible stomach ache, but soon realized that he was laughing. "What happened?" I demanded, with the corners of my lips turning up at the sight of him. "What is it?" Charon covered his face with a hoof, as if in shame.

"You!" The buck pointed, after rolling up onto folded limbs. I blinked dumbly, but felt my face trying to decide if it should blush. "You're serious?" He clicked his hooves together, cackling. "You're serious!"

"Bottlecaps are currency." Charon muttered from behind his hoof. "Those old coins are worthless."
Wait… Bottlecaps!?

*** *** ***

It must have been midnight, and the sky could have almost been called bright, though that great storm had yet to pass. And now, there was a fear, swirling through the hollows of my mind, that it never would. That, like so many things in this state of anarchy, the weather had been left without its Gods and Masters.

“I think it’s got modified focused optics!” I said, as I practiced pulling the pistol out of its new holster, with just enough sense not to fire it into the air, and put on a lightshow for all the Hell that hummed below.

The RadAway had left a fuzzy, orange feeling in my mouth, and I was almost afraid to stick out my tongue, and show Charon its new coat of paint. He had actually paid the buck with Bottlecaps. As if they'd all been drinking Sparkle Cola by the case, to leave their own tongues coated in neon.

"Stay away from the rails. Head east until you see a toll booth." Charon was walking in circles around me, making sure that every saddlebag, every holster, was strapped down tight. "Don’t get too close. Not until you find the mercenary posted nearby." He repeated, as he broke out of his orbit and began to drift off along the highway. I watched him for a while, puzzled, thinking that he was only wandering as a rampant windup toy might, and would soon turn back to shake my hoof or pat me on the head.

"I take it that's your way of saying: Goodbye Grace: my friend, my comrade... my sister. Boy am I going to miss that face of yours." I said, in a voice that coasted along, just softly enough so that he might not hear me. "Keep safe!" At that, he looked back, and gave me a curt, noncommittal nod.

I clicked my hooves together, and let out a little giggle, delighted by how military it all seemed. I was getting orders, like a soldier under the leonine banner of Equestria's dawn, drafted to teach evil a thing or two about old world law. I watched Charon walk away, and saw him steering towards the war camp that spilled out from under the church - which my Pipbuck had named The Light at the Edge of the World. It was a gathering of tents, as if for a circus or market, though each had been drained of its complexion, its polka dots and checkers, leaving only the color of that bloodless lion, its golden ring, and the night.

After seeing tall, bowbacked figures - who walked on misshapen legs, and looked to be carrying great weights at the end of each arm - ambling through the camp, I turned away from it, if only to pretend that they had been imagined. Instead, I looked to my Pipbuck's map, as if begging it for a way out.

The valley, which had been named The Middle Passage, deserved its title, as it now ran clear as the middlemost channel of three. Another clearly waited to the north, at the foot of that star-scraping black mountain, and to the south, which was little more to me than stern, gray faces and sashes of moonlight, my Pipbuck promised another strip of this sedated earth. But, for now, I could only go East.

I took to the broken road, and hummed to myself as I went. Dark was the night, Cold was the ground. Streetlights, like fireflies in the distance and plump stars hovering over my head, kept me company against an otherwise empty world. They came to warp my perception of the night, leaving the sky as something still and lightless, and everything apart from the highway as a black, opaque mass.

It was an eerie kind of loneliness, as only the unusual strip of rock or the whispering bough of a tree could be seen on either side, as if the valley was dipping its fingers into this last river of white light. The heavens tore into one another, putting on a show for the moon, as if it couldn't be allowed to know that, when its back was turned, they would come together as friends, and darken the dawn.

Time marched on, leaving a trail of white steps along the road ahead of me. But I didn't feel any need to catch it, and walked to the slow rhythm of my own song. I heard the pluck of raw and impressible strings come to join my wordless hums, and our two voices shared the song, to tell of a lonely night where even language was lost. Only after it was over, did I start to wonder why it had faded, not to silence, but static.

I spun around one leg, and found a star bobbing along my freshly beaten path, as if it had never left me. "Okavango?" I held a hoof over my eyes, as the youngest of all Cerberus' salvaged machines blinded me under its stare, and turned loose a parade of cheery, multilingual beeps. "How were you doing that? GNR doesn't go east of Hell." The spritebot replied with a symphonic fanfare, and I had to shush him.

"Why did you come back?" I didn't know whether I should accuse him of abandoning me, leaving me to Charon and Damascus and all that was good in the Kingdom of Glass, or thank him for coming all this way to play me a song. He made the guns on his southern pole whir, and coated the sound with a short section of heroic, Equestrian music, leaving me happy to see him. "Do you think you can handle yourself out here?" He tried to nod, and nearly tilted off of some predestined axis, adorably enough.

"Okay, you can come." He was a Cerberus security officer, after all. "But I'm supposed to meet someone near the toll booth a little farther along... to get our orders." He was clearly impressed, and ooed by way of a long, sweeping beep. "I know, right?"

Even without a voice of his own, Okavango could not have been any less like Charon, and might have cheered the ghoul to madness if the two of them ever met. If we were going to be best friends, I would have to get them to like each other. And I started wondering how best to trick them into a slumber party.

"Don't float too far away." I said, after looking out over the road’s black banks, with the cold pushing its hands into my shirt. "And try not to play any more music until we know what's out here."

After a while, I caught myself skipping along the highway and, almost at once, realized that Okavango had put on another record. I let it play, and only turned as the song began to sway into a calm. "Belay that order." I whispered, as if cheating some nearby commander. "Do you know anything by Sweetie Belle?"

*** *** ***

If our objective hadn't been built across the highway, like a bridge, I might have wandered by, bobbing in a stream of crotchets and quavers, of words like moonbeam and stardust, all crossing the decades from gossamer lips. But I couldn't miss it. That, after all, is the nature of a toll booth: it's unavoidable.

Weighed down with lights of many colors, from blinking pinpricks of red and yellow to the usual white flood, it stood out as a gateway into the East, cut out of the darkness no differently than the rifts in the clouds. A tall, mesh fence rose up at either side of the highway, herding travelers into its bejeweled mouth, and I stopped myself well before coming into it, like a bird before the jaws of a crocodile.

Instead, I steered us off the edge of the highway, to stumble into some rocky badland, rising and falling around it. "Stay close to me." I whispered, and got a quiet and conspirative little beep in return.

The lights along the road made it a great deal easier to find my way, and soon enough, I had come to the bottom of a crease in the earth, which pressed into the skin of Equestria’s belly like the tip of a spear. It rose at a mollifying, but steady, angle, and eventually had me looking down on the highway to my right. I tripped over the rocks, and might have been wearing bells for how they clicked against my hooves. But then, I heard a soft, steely click that spoke clearer than any proclamation of war.

“You for me?" I nodded, without thinking, and her sigh sent a city coasting through the night air. "I ask for a spotter, so they send me a pinup girl and her floating music box." The mare's voice was silver, to match the luster of a long-barreled and ladylike revolver, though it had a growl running under it, like the babble of a faraway river. "Cerberus never gets my order right."

"Are you going to shoot me?" I asked, at a whisper, wishing that I had some kind of passcode to give her, to let her know that, in the light, we stood under the same colors. "Will saying Damascus help?" She didn't answer, and I looked down, as if to make sure that my hooves were still there. "Damascus."

What I thought I heard then almost sounded like a giggle, but was quickly changed into the kind of noise that somepony would only make if they were trying to get a giggle to sound tough.

She couldn't quite shake the smile out of her voice though. "Well, welcome aboard, Lamplight. Come on over and bundle up. We might as well get cozy." If anything, she seemed to be enjoying how crudely this operation was coming together. "Just drop the curtain on that magic act, alright?"

"Oh..." My horn let out a fit of embers, as it dammed up the light. "Sorry. I'm not really used to... black."

"Must be nice." She patted the earth beside her. "Way I hear it: you're fresh out of the box. No more than a few hours old." I made my way over to her, making sure to skirt my hooves around every stone. "Turns out your first big adventure in the Equestrian Wasteland is gonna be a good old-fashioned stakeout."

"A Stakeout?" I sounded it out, though familiar with the word. "Like in True Police Stories?" I slumped onto my belly, and slid over to the end of the ridge. Everything above my neck was lit up by the toll booth's floodlights, and I couldn't bring myself to go any lower, as if the darkness might drown me.

A shadow lay beside me, and even as I saw it for the curled up pony that it was, it began to move. "Can that thing sit?" She pointed up at Okavango, who now hovered just above the surface of the black water. "Sit." She whispered, making him out to be some kind of domesticated animal.

I reached out, and took Okavango in my hooves. He was only about the size of a filly's head, and it wasn't all that difficult for me to cradle him at my chest, letting all four spindly needles branch out behind me.
"Are we going to be partners?" I asked, after the spritebot was tucked in.

"Sure." I saw her shrug, as if she didn't know how much that answer meant to me. "Charon isn't really the type to get jealous." The mare straightened herself out, and sat on her haunches. Her posture was soft, but I could tell that, shoulder to shoulder, she'd still be taller than me. "But for now, all that means is we'll be watching this horrorshow together." She waved down at the toll. "Damascus figures that, if there's something going on between the Raiders and that train, this's our last chance to find out about it."

"Is that important?" I furrowed my brow, wondering how mutilated corpses, strung up as if they were works of art, and ponies harvested like apples in apple-bucking season, wasn't damning enough.

"Just because they're both... what d'you Stable ponies call them? ... Sinners?" I nodded eagerly, as if I wouldn't have understood any other word. "Doesn't mean they're sinnering together." I opened my mouth to correct her, but thought better of it. "Raiders are dangerous enough, but they could get a lot worse with a Slaver holding their reins, whipping 'em into a frenzy. If the Coltilde rounds them up, they could have 'em running at Hell like a stampede, or tearing along behind the night train like a pack of hyenas."

"So we're looking out for some kind of messenger..." I nodded. "An ambassador from the Coltilde: As evidence that the Slavers are trying to rally up the tribes?"

"Right. But I've never seen a tribal eat a pony's beating heart clean out from inside them." She said coolly, leaving the picture that I had of the Raiders smeared in a far more unsettling shade of red. "The Slavers know as well as we do: These de-generates aren't getting trussed up into an army. You might be able to put a leash on a wild dog and walk it, but strap it to another and you'll still end up with just one dog. More likely they're doing business: buying the ponies they've gotten bored with, and haven't strung up yet."

I was suddenly shaken, as if everything she'd been saying had only just hit me, coming in a single wave of that Raider red. Okavango beeped, looking up at me with his big, starlit eye as I squeezed him a little closer. "You treat that thing like a baby." She said, without any scorn in her smile. "I'll bet you even went ahead and gave that little lightbulb a name." Names! I thought, and hurried to stamp out the fire.

"I'm sorry! We all forgot to introduce ourselves." From the look on the mare’s face, she wasn’t buying into the calamity. "This is Mister Okavango Delta: Acting Chief of Security over all Cerberus facilities." A roar of applause sounded out from his speakers, and I could only try to speak over a smile, instead of scolding him. "And I am Grace... from the Stable." I needed to get some titles under my belt.

"Oka-van-go." She sounded out his name, like she did with most of the longer words. It wasn't as if she was struggling to pronounce them, but more that she enjoyed feeling them roll off her tongue. "That sounds more like a military call sign than a name..." We both stared at her, with flat brows. "Hell, alright: I'm Caliber, glad to meet you." She took my hoof in hers, and shook me by it.

Caliber's coat hinted at a sober, yellow-beige bale of straw, and just above her nose, was a constellation of white freckles, like scattered stars. If I were to look at her face as a romantic, a poet drunk on spiced wine, then I might have compared it to the pale and starry horizon of the sunrise that had rolled over so many farms in the Equestrian heartland, if only for how the floodlights set a fire in her barn-red mane.

Her hair looked to have been shorn off sometime in the last few months, as it had grown up into a surf of alpaca wool, turning at its tips like the mane of a teenage rebel. My mother might have called it puffy and, turning around with her nose in the air and her skirts in a flurry, declared it a hopeless case.

It curled around her ears - one of which wore what could easily be a permanent burn at its tip. As if to outdo this injury, an old bandage covered her left temple, and it was small enough to hint at a severe precision wound, left by anything from a bullet, to an ice pick.

Her eyes were brown.

“Likewise” I felt Okavango trying to do a little bow, though she hadn't noticed. “So… Partners?”

“You got it." Our hooves parted. “We might not be Cerberus girls, but a contract's a contract, right?" Caliber wouldn't have fit into the church any better than I had, and I wondered why, apart from their dejected bodies and feudal countenance, the ghouls were the only ones who got to wear that old name. "One condition, though: Damascus threw the word Dawn at me more times than I could count. So, if you feel a lecture on The Last Light or The Reclamation coming down the pike, try to get me out of earshot."

I tilted my head, as if she had started speaking in another language. "It's a nice idea, but you two can keep it - Deal me out. The wasteland’s not a dance you want to try cutting into. I'm just happy to be taking orders from someone who’s deluded, instead of absolutely fucked-up... for a change."

I didn't really know what to make of that, and a silence fell as the mare leveled her rifle over the lip of the ridge, and dipped into the shadows to peer through its blue-eyed scope. "Caliber..." I waved my hoof around in the black, searching for her shoulder, and only found it after she had pulled away from her gun.

"Why do I feel like you just climbed up onto a soapbox?" She asked, cutting me short with a crooked smile. "We had a deal: You keep your hooves nice and dirty around me."

"But-"

"Nuh-uh."

"But Equestria-"

"Quit it."

"At least-"

"I think your thing's asleep." Her eyes had darted to the rough and tumble sphere, which I still held, cradled against my chest. I looked down at Okavango, and saw that his galactic light was pulsing, slowly fading on and off, reminding me more of a deep breath than a heartbeat.

“Whoa." I said, forgetting Caliber's blocked ears as quickly as I had the toll. "Do you think he can dream?”

“Not many of us can anymore.” She frowned, staring into the void from which the tide of his light came. “I gotta say: that’s not the first thing I’d think of, hearing the name Cerberus.” She leaned into the pulse, and I watched the starlight come and go, buried somewhere deep beneath the soil of her eyes.

"Listen, Lamplight... you can just ignore what I said before." She looked up at me, breaking the constellation of blue eyes in brown eyes in gold. "Don't let me sweep my dust over your dawn. I was talking out of turn: went and forgot that it's only been a few hours since you came stumbling into the world, with those stars in your eyes... You must be feeling pretty tender."

"Yeah." I looked out over the toll, where the Raiders might have been mistaken for children in a playground. "I mean... I'm out... I'm gone." I swung out a hoof, theatrically. "Forever."

"Tell me about it." She reeled in her rifle, and pressed it into her chest just as I had done to Okavango.

"What do you mean?" I asked, needlessly; a little flustered at the chance to lay it all bare. "About what?"

"Everything, honey." She let out a giggle, but quickly tried to swallow it away. "We've got nowhere to be until morning. And even a Slaver knows better than to come out East when the moonlight's been bottled up like it is." And yet, there we were: Out East. "So go for it. Shoot. Take a load off - Hell, make it a bedtime story. Burn through the letters, 'til there's nothing left but Z. I'll wake you when the show starts."

"The storyteller isn't usually the one being put to sleep." I argued, fairly sure about this.

"Hey, I got my hours in last night. And the most exciting thing I've done today was hang around the church, trying to get my damn battle saddle fixed. Besides, sitting on this ridge isn't exactly hard work." She kicked up some dust, as if to prove her point. "Once you realize how long that story of yours is, you'll see how much you need the rest." I tried to convince myself that she was wrong. But too much of me wanted to flush the last day out, to get it someplace other than my mind.

So I told her. Absolutely Everything. And it almost felt... good, like taking off a yoke, or breathing out.

As I was talking, with the floodgates pulling apart for Shady Sands and that throne in the mountains, breaking down for Saber and the mare-merchant, Caliber picked something out of her satchel, lit it, and put it in her mouth. Soon, another light began to pulse, as she breathed in a pinprick of fire, and colored the night air with smoke. I watched the cinders, as they rose and fell, and felt the weight of it all rolling off my back. Her breath became warm, draconic, even as my own words sang me to sleep.

Day One had been long and dark, like twilight in the polar circle, and I’d become tired for so much less.

Our forefathers left us this place. They carved themselves so many thrones, so many empires, and were still washed away as if taken by a flood of holy water and wrath. Now, they stand before the gates, guarding the Kingdom in the Skies, keeping it for all who prove themselves worthy, who prove themselves strong. Just as they did in the beginning, in the darkness before the first dawn. Just as we will, in the darkness before the last. Every sin, every life we end - by word, or by fire - will pave the way. And if we cannot, if you cannot, learn to judge, to become an instrument of the Goddesses, your light will go out.

You saved the Stable. Did you know that? Of course you didn't. You and that child of an Overmare. You would have thrown us all into the howling dark, you would have wiped us out. If I hadn't tipped the scales, and made you heroes, martyrs, instead. You killed her. Did you know that? Of course. We all knew that. We have both made sacrifices that weren’t ours to make. We are both murderers. And we are both heroes. But, in their eyes, there can only be two sides to the coin. Only one of us can wear their crown of thorns, and be shut out into the long night. I should hope you already know which one of us that is.

My little Gracie. I do like the sound of that. Grace Marie. How do you think that one fits her, darling? *giggles* I suppose it does sound a little fancy. It came from your side of the family, after all. Some ancestor, a grandmother, yes? Her name was Marie too. Please tell me you like it, darling. Oh, thank you. She's got your eyes, and your hair. She should have that name, too. Look at her, our little golden lion. This is our chance to start over, to leave all that darkness behind. You can show them that they were wrong. You can be a father. A good man... Everything is going to get better. You'll see.

…Can I hold her?

They aren't all worth saving. Remember that. Sometimes, there is no price to pay, no penitence. Sometimes, blood can be spilled as if it were water, and it will sink into the ash, leaving no mark on the earth. I am not Celestia. I am not Luna. And, if I were given the key to the Kingdom's gates, I would lock them, and leave this wasteland to collapse into the sea. But I have no such key. And the Goddesses would hold the gates open, and have their country saved. So be it. Who am I to question them?

Equestria is dead. And there is nothing we can do to bring it back. I wonder, how long will it take you to see that? How many times will you let it chew you up, and spit you out, before you see it like I do? Celestia is dead. Luna is dead. But we... we are alive. And that damn War will not be the end of us.

Hush now, Quiet now, it’s time to lay your sleepy head. Hush now, Quiet now it’s time to go to bed… Hush now quiet now may Luna guide you through the night. Hush now, Quiet now, until the morning light. Goodnight Gracie… Honey… Oh, come see… I think she’s dreaming…Honey?

Forgive me...
Forget me.

*** *** ***

I opened my eyes, and found the valley blanketed in white, as if the storm had not passed, but burst. The clouds had become an unshaped and colorless veil, draped over the tallest mountains' peaks, as those ships of gray, those black seas and reefs of moonlight, had turned into a great, white surf. It was day.

"Mornin'." Caliber still had an eye pressed to her rifle, as if nothing had changed for the setting of the moon. "I would have made us some breakfast, but Raiders in the light don't do much for the appetite."

Misshapen silhouettes now became mutilated bodies, and even the vague and faceless nightmares of the eventide began to seem preferable to these ugly savages: ponies that lived like a roving collection of animals both wild and rabid, from dogs fighting over meat, to pigs rolling up in their own filth.

"I had a hell of a time keeping your robot quiet." She went on, as I twisted my neck, in search of so much as a shrunken, pale disc to remind that the sun was still out there somewhere. "Finally got it to go play lookout over the metro tunnel, to give us some warning if the Slavers come." I patted at my chest, as one might the pillow of some escaped lover. "Not before it got that damn song stuck in my head, though."

Caliber wore a rumpled, beaten-blue vest over a white shirt, whose sleeves looked to have been torn off like those of a mare stranded in some merciless and uncharted desert. Her collar was dark, and came in around a thick, once-white scarf that hung low under her neck. Its knot was round, and reminded me of a heart, but served as the roost to some kind of dust mask. Her front legs had been wrapped in straps, and cloths of rusty colors, breaking apart only to reveal a small device on her right, and a pistol on her left.

Good Mornin’, Good Mornin’.” She started grumbling through the song. And, strangely enough, made sure to hit all the right notes. "All of a sudden he just jumped right up from under ya - started spinning around like he's the entire valley's alarm clock - telling us all how: Nothing could be finer than to be in Canterlina... We'd have been cooked if the raiders weren't all fucked out of their minds." With a lazy kind of flair, she mimed getting punched in the head. "No way they didn't hear. But it only got ‘em blaring GNR static from the toll's speakers. And I sure didn't need any help staying awake after that."

“Would they really be doing this to themselves.” I poked my head out over the ridge, to watch the circus tearing on before us. “if they knew they had a meeting with the Slavers this morning?”

“Are you kidding? There isn't one Raider less than an hour away from a shot, be it by glass or needle or pistol. That’s what makes them so dangerous; in a fight, you might be run down by a buck with more Dash in his system than blood, or gunned down by an expert marksman who decided that life as a town guard was getting too boring. If you're lucky: you get one of the drunks.”

I realized that, being an earth pony, Caliber couldn't actually use the terrible, black rifle whose scope had been her eye over the toll. Pieces of a disassembled battle saddle rig poked out of her satchel, and I wondered if she could have resisted taking shots at the wild things below if it were whole. The symbol, smeared above her rifle's clip, matched the mercenary's cutie mark, to leave them both with what, at first, appeared to be a simple black crosshairs aimed into a field of white.

“Caliber..." I began to ask, gingerly. "What are we going to do if nopony comes?”

She looked up at me, and I saw that there was a path of dust running from her belly to her neck, where her body had been laid down against the ridge. "We make sure nopony goes."

Just as the silence dug a pit between us, Okavango returned, and brought a fanfare with him, which got no more than a twitch out of Caliber, and a muffled yelp from me. "Looks like we've got inbound assholes." The mare said, after straightening out her rough and tumble vest. I couldn't be sure, but it looked like Caliber was only just holding back a smile. "Slavers? ...How many?"

He beeped three times, just as he had done to make a count of The Circles. "That's enough for a roundup... Hell, considering the kind of firepower they've got tucked up in the Coltilde, that's enough to wipe this place off the face of the valley." And, to my own surprise, I found myself hoping to see it happen, to see this malignant toll put to the torch of an even greater evil.

"Fuck eggshells." She said, as if a sudden and violent hatred for eggshells had overcome her. "We'll be walking on a damn minefield." She poked a hoof up at Okavango. "And I want radio silence from you, pal. With my battle saddle wrecked, I can't say whether I'd stand up to a Slaver. And both of you just got spat out of the underground. So no singing. We can't let this play out wrong."

She pulled her rifle away from the ridge, as if pulling a friend to safety from the edge of a cliff, and began to holster it at her side. It could, quite easily, have been as long as her spine. "The Quartermaster had a lot of weapons lying around. Couldn't you have traded that one in for something... smaller?"

"Are you crazy!? I would never do that!" I might as well have plucked an open nerve. "This rifle is the only reason I made more of myself than a corpse bleeding out on some snow bank, or a whore putting out on some street corner." Her frustration, like little beads of spit, flew past me: directed more at whatever cruel twist of fate had left her beloved weapon no better than a sword stuck in its sheath.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know…” I said, trying to settle her down, even though I had no idea how any mare might become so loyal to a gun. “Isn’t there somepony in Hell who can fix your battle saddle?”

She sighed, venting the last strains of her temper. "Not a one. And it figures: Right when I land the contract of my life, I have to stick around a place where even the merchants moonlight as mercenaries. Don't get me wrong. Damascus sure knows how to make some good out of a hired hoof - He always has us doing stuff like this: Raider Wrap-ups and the odd cartography run: Good work. But the buck doesn't get that mercs need to be maintained, just like any other tool. I mean, we don't even have a medic."

“You guys should start a union.” I said, trying to cheer her up.

"Yeah right." She giggled, as if to tell me that I’d won her over. "It can't be ethical to mark radiation down as a health benefit." Her rifle might have purred then, as Caliber ran a hoof along its barrel. "And none of those damn ghouls could patch together a decent battle rig to save the skin they have left."

It was really a shame that everypony couldn't be a unicorn. "Tell you what..." I began, already loosening the holster on my leg. "Why don't we share?" I floated out my father's automatic pistol.

“Whoa…” Her eyes widened, becoming almost childlike as the word rolled on. Okavango came up beside her, and stretched a beep out as far as it would go, turning the two of them into wolves: howling at the moon. I swung the passover weapon from side to side, to let its silver barrel catch all the light that had been left to us. The two of them followed, and bobbed together like apples in a basin.

As I coiled my magic around her rifle, Caliber broke through the hypnotics. "Hold on there!" She started. "You aren't gonna... hit anybody are you?" Hit... or pistol-whip? "I've seen a couple unicorns do that."

"I promise not to hit anypony with your rifle." I swore, even as I filled the space between us with a thoroughfare of ammunition, and holstered the pistol behind her shoulder. "I have a baseball bat... see?"

"Y'know, you're actually pretty good at this, Lamplight." Caliber swung a hoof out around us, as if she was trying to point at the world. "And thanks, by the way." Even if I hadn't taken her rifle, the look in the mare's eyes then would have been more than enough to pay the balance on some old exile's pistol.

We settled back into the dust, and watched the new world circus play out below us. Wire bags of cramped, glistening meat lay against the toll booths, and defamed bodies looked to have been strung up, or nailed down, all across the gates. Skulls, and even fleshy clumps that were only just recognizable for what was left of their faces, stuck out of the gaps on pikes, as if to warn off any eastbound travelers.

The road had been streaked in red, and I imagined some poor pony being dragged into the slaughterhouse that had been constructed, if only in the minds of the animals, here. I could only bear to watch the ungodly toll for how far away it was, and for how little the wind carried its scent.

“How much longer will it be?” It was a long way to the metro tunnel's open mouth, but the wait was whittling away at my nerves, and the beasts - who fought and fornicated before us - weren't helping.

"Can't say." She shrugged. "This mist will be slowing 'em down some."

“Mist?”

She scratched her chin, rooting around for a way to explain. "... So it's like we're inside a cloud, right? Well, that’s the valleys funneling in moist, night air. Turns everything this far East to soup most mornings."

As if to prove her point, Okavango wandered off towards the north, and soon became little more than a black smudge, like an old cigarette burn on a bleached tablecloth. "Anything else you wanna ask? We're coming up over the brink now."

"Actually... I'd like to know more about you." She tilted her head, as if blindsided by a filly half her size.

"Of all the cool shit you've seen out here -" I nodded. "Not Damascus or Charon or Cerberus -" Another nod. "Why?"

I shrugged. "I think you're pretty neat."

"Celestia, what a compliment." She threw up her hooves, as if I was a hopeless case, and hadn't changed for all my time on her long, dusty chaise couch. "Can I get that in writing?"

All of a sudden, an orchestra came tumbling over itself from the north, and in the throes of its music, I recognized the beeping and blustering of Okavango Delta. "Looks like you'll have to unravel this enigma some other time." She said, with her eyes narrowing as a train whistle rose to drown out the spritebot.

"Their window's closing... it has to be now." The Slavers were coming, to make their deal with lesser devils, to ready the stage that would see me take my first life.




Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Red Lightning: The power of your personality inspires die-hard loyalty from your followers. When you drop below 50% health, your companions temporarily gain much greater resistance to damage.

Chapter 5: No Church in the Wild

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 5: No Church in the Wild
“Ha! Now that’s what this wasteland needs! More women with spunk, and explosives!”

|*| Cast the First Stone |*|

As if some holy and uncorrupted city in the mountains was burning, to spill its smoke into the valleys below, tides of mist came to pool over the Equestrian north, and flooded the sky. We watched as three figures pushed through the white curtains at the wings of the toll and its stage, with guns strapped to their sides and belts of ammunition hanging out of their saddlebags, all ready to survive a sour deal.

They were dressed in coats of thick, tanned leather, with their soft spots covered by armor hauled from the Equestrian wreckage and shades of dust that told of a wasteland wandered. But it was not their clothes, or their stone faces, that made them seem so dangerous, that named them: it was the chains.

Equestria was quiet now, as even the flies that crowded its roads had become still for hearing the toll of link against steel link, and of hooves churning up the dust. As the three Slavers crossed from earth to asphalt, having steered themselves around the toll’s tall fence, the natives became wild, as if roused by the beating of a war drum, or the chanting of a naked priestess.

They were dogs, growling and pacing circles, drawing runes into the road, with daggers and spears clenched between teeth or strapped at side. Though one party of devils remained unafraid of the other, as they stood before the toll, like a wall of clear shields before a mob, unshaken by the jeers of nervous animals, but wise enough not to step into the fence: into the mouth that swallowed the road.

Caliber poked out over the ridge’s lip, getting as close as she possibly could to the scene below, like a filly pressing her face against a television screen. I lowered myself into the dirt beside her, with Okavango caught between my belly and the earth, and watched those two latter-day evils meet.

The toll booths stretched out before a small office, which sat at the highway’s southern bank. We hadn’t been able to see behind its faces of ashen cement and scratched windows, but now watched its doors burst open. A buck stepped out, and the office seemed to lurch, as if his weight had been pushing it into the soil. I might have called him a giant, as he towered over the congregation of animals around him, all in uniform, for the red insignias that bloodied what cloth could be found under their spikes and scrap.

A stream of ponies followed him out onto the road, and injected some color into the country’s veins. They shrank away from the lights, and only kept in step for brutish orders, which were loud enough to be heard from our perch. Their bright bodies were withered and naked, stained with the same dark colors that ruined the tank’s armor, almost like it was their own blood. I counted two bucks and a colt, but even they could be forgotten for the mare that came stumbling out after them. I begged for her to be the last, but a filly, a little blue smudge, soon followed, as if this show's director wanted to press salt into my wounds.

The bucks might have been kept in a museum - polished and shut up in glass cases - for how scarcely their bodies had been spoiled, if only for the sake of longer price tags. But even the love of money hadn't been enough to see the mare and her filly spared. And so they had been used, again and again.

“Caliber, we can’t ignore this.” I checked my weapons, and might have leapt from the ridge, as if the earth below could not break a hero as it would anyone else. But the mercenary stayed quiet, as her face was empty and unmoving, like that of a china doll. "Caliber," I whispered, thinking that she hadn't heard me.

“We can’t help them.” She didn’t look up at me. “Our orders-“

“Forget our orders!” I was fighting to keep my voice low, to hold it down, though a part of me almost wanted them all to hear me. It wouldn’t be long before those ponies were sold into chains, passed from savages to Slavers, like toys between children, or bread between the starving. “We have to help them.”

“They aren’t worth it.” I wouldn’t have believed my ears, had her words sounded any less forced: like she was reading someone else’s lines. “Damascus built his little empire on a balefire bomb, and I’m not about to set it off. If those messengers don’t make it back to the Coltilde - with their Slaves in tow - then the boss, and Charon, and every other merc in Hell who has enough honor left to dig in their hooves, is getting put down for it. There’s a gun pointed at Cerberus… and I am not about to pull the trigger.”

Those two kings of cardinal sin came together then, and I could almost see the deal, simple and crude as blunt force trauma, being struck between them. The piecemeal family was trapped, with wire walls rising at their sides, Raiders pacing behind them, and open shackles ahead. All gave salty looks to the little filly, who couldn’t have known who to fear most, and shook like a ballerina on a broken coronet.

“We kill them all," I said, as if I'd found a way to cheat, to step over the lines of some old but unwritten law. "Nopony has to know that Damascus had anything to do with it. The Coltilde - they'll think that something went wrong with the deal - They’ll blame the Raiders!” I said, in a rush of words.

“We couldn't win that fight. And odds are we only get that little girl stranded here at the toll, or bleeding out on the highway thanks to some stray bullet.” She looked me right in the eye now. “We aren’t going to do a thing: I'm not laying down any cards that we aren't holding. This is bigger than us… bigger than her.”

Like an army turned in on itself, my thoughts clashed, fighting for an answer: a champion. And my heart leapt as the beginnings of an idea were stirred up in the dust. "No it's not! I have a grenade!"

Her mouth edged open, like a bedroom door after curfew. "If we toss it over into the toll, we could start a fight!" This was beautiful! Ingenious, even! "We kick the thunderhead, and let those Slavers cut it to pieces. We just need to get the family clear, and ride out the storm. Then we're out of here! ... This is it! This is the plan!" I was frantic now, knowing that, if those chains drew taught, we could do nothing to save the family.

She stared at me, long enough to see me bouncing on the spot, as if skirting madness. "No survivors," she decided, finally. “We have to wipe them all out before this is over: even if they turn tail. And if they force us to, we’ll run ‘em right into the sea.” I was about to hug her, before she frowned, finding another flaw. “Those slaves are gonna get caught in the crossfire. As soon as the Raiders start shooting…”

“No, they can’t,” I said, as if anything but absolute victory was impossible. “You’ve been watching the toll all night: How many of those Raiders have anything more than a knife?”

“The big one… and maybe one more back behind the gate,” she answered slowly, as if the same idea was now running wild in her mind. This was happening; we were going to save them! “Fuck,” she sighed, cornering herself. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck… you’re right.”

“I know!” I cried, almost giggling, even in the face of the war that I'd just tipped us into. “We can't let this happen.” This passing of lambs between two petty Gods. “It’s simple.”

“It usually is,” she said, looking back at me as if I'd rewritten the laws of the world. “Get down behind those rocks over there.” She nodded towards a small parapet just beside the highway’s northern bank. “I’ll throw the grenade as far as I can. Try to hit it with your magic if it falls short.”

I nodded, glad that I would be going deeper into the belly of the battle, if only for the senseless feeling that I would be more likely to survive it: that I could stand firm as all the new world's violence pressed in around me, and make myself a savior to spite my Stable.

“Good, that’s the best we can do short of strapping some kind of explosive charge to your robot.”
Okavango made the kind of beep that had once acted as a mask over the dirty underbelly of language.

“Once it blows, wait for the den to come running: They’ll force the Slavers back into cover, and it won't be long before they're beating themselves blue against it. Get those prisoners out around the fence, then take ‘em North a ways before heading back.” She marked the same post as she had before. “Some of the Raiders are bound to get it in their heads that chasing Slaves is more fun than chasing Slavers…”

“I’ll handle them,” I interrupted, acting like I’d been born and bred for this. “What about you?"

“We might not have time to meet up before we need to start picking off runaways, but I’ll find you as soon as I can. Just make sure you convince those prisoners to wait for us. I’m not doing this for them to go drifting off into the wastes, and a morning like this is bound to swallow 'em up when our backs are turned. I’d ask you to stay with them… but I’ve got a pretty good idea of what your answer would be.”

I managed to linger for a moment longer, and put my hoof on her shoulder. “Thank you for doing this.”

“You got me here, honey… I have a feeling that Damascus has big plans for you, and we’ll both be damned if you haven’t blown one hell of a loophole through my contract. Besides: I like you, Lamplight. There aren't enough mares crazy enough to go cutting into a slow dance between two devils, just to kick it up into a Charleston with Death himself.” She paused to brush my hoof off of her shoulder, though, from her, the gesture was almost affectionate. “Thank you.”

*** *** ***

For the mist that hung all around us, it seemed like this bubble of atmosphere was all that remained, with the toll, the rutting demons and me as the last of Equestria’s broken parts. And, after skipping between patches of grass on my way down the ridge, like a filly over a floor turned to lava, I took up my post.

Okavango bumped into my flanks, and I almost whinnied, as he was a like an ice cube against my skin. He beeped, as if picking up on some wordless conversation, as I mimicked a filly with a spider down the collar of her shirt. We were, of course, the masters of stealth. I grabbed the spritebot, and bunched us both up behind the stone, knowing that my nerves were anything but in my control. I was afraid. As those five, lonely white bars on my Pipbuck had no more hope than driftwood rafts caught in an angry, red sea.

As I whispered orders to what I could only hope was an obedient security officer, I saw Caliber's hoof touch the sky, lighting the fuse to this rescue. The grenade went sailing, looking to be guided up by the glare of the streetlights, and only began to quiver as gravity dipped its fingers into the mist, and plucked it out. I cast a ramshackle cradle around it, and then jerked my head towards the toll, as if steering a star.

It hit the toll like a meteorite, as if the galaxy itself had seen fit to punish the Raiders for all their moral squalor, and even past the stone, the banks of the highway and its fences, I saw the explosion, though it was more easily heard. Their howls shook more for anger than agony, and the Raiders charged out from the gates like thoroughbred runners in a track race, set off by something far more devastating than a gunshot. I kept my blinds up, and only listened as rifle fire and pounding hooves spilled into each other.

The red was drained from my Pipbuck like the color from an anemic body, as the highway ran dry.
I swung around the rocks, and saw the road, littered with bullet casings, ribbons and hoofprints, as if some military hero had just gone by, cradled at the heart of a parade. The prisoners stood, shivering like animals caught in a frenzy of headlights and air horns, and I skid into a hero’s pose beside them.

"Welcome to rescue!" They'd only just recovered from the shock of a passing battlefield, and I almost had to shout, raising my already giddy voice, to turn their heads. "Follow me!" Strangely enough, and instead of celebrating me for this sudden turn from their path into slavery, the family huddled closer into themselves, with colt and filly penned in by the bodies of their parents.

I thought to be a little more diplomatic then, as even in the fresh, white light of the dawn, there survived saplings of distrust and despair. "The Raiders won't be gone long." I nodded towards the warzone. "We need to leave." I wasn't exactly being played on by the horns that had broken down city walls, and it seemed that, if anything, this rescue's first roadblock came from a slowness to trust. "I'm here to help."

One of the bucks stepped forward, after whispering something to the sheltered children, and spoke. "Lead, and we will follow." He swung the colt onto his back, even as the mare did the same to her daughter. The second, childless buck nodded, and I guided them to the highway's northern bank.

As our runaway caravan tumbled free of the toll's fence, which was laden with corpses, I heard a shot ring out from behind me. Without breaking my gait, I looked over my shoulder, and tried to make a headcount. Four followed, while the buck unburdened by any cargo of children was sprawled on the lip of the asphalt, and had already begun to slide into the dirt, as if his own blood was lifting him like an army of fire ants. The mother spun on her hoof, with that little blue filly bouncing on her back, and ran to him.

Doing what I hadn't the heart to, the other buck took her tail in his mouth, and dragged her away. She fought him for a while, as their children jolted from side to side, but soon turned to follow, though the shine running down her cheeks made it seem as if she'd just been pulled from a river.

Okavango prodded my side, and steered me away from a pillar of stone that might otherwise have knocked in the head of our caravan. Behind us, there was only gunfire, and I looked forward, into the mouth of the valley's soft and welcoming East. I kept running, searching for a place to hide them, some fold in the earth that I might tuck them into, and felt as if my heart was being beaten like a drum.

Eventually, I had the family settling into an alcove between a hillside and its stripped bones of rock, thinking that the Raiders might already have torn everything on the highway to pieces. Now, I had to get back, before they pinned Caliber to the top of the ridge, and swatted at her like a bear under a beehive.

"Wait here: I'll be back." The mare was really starting to get to me, as her tears might have been coming from some sour and bottomless well. Still, I knew that the filly clinging onto the back of her trembling body, and the buck who stepped forward, as an ambassador to the family, would see her smiling again.

"Thank you, I know that you’ll find us here before the Raiders do... that is, if the Stars continue to be so kind." While my head was light and my eyes were lit, for how good it felt to know that these ponies would not come into the belly of the Coltilde, it was a little frustrating to have due credit stolen away by the stars, of all things. What did they need with my brownie points, anyway?

"Your friend is with them now," I said, forging a fake religion to staple onto their own. "He'll watch over you." That seemed to go over well, and I felt like a missionary making sense of some archaic and alien faith. "But, as guardians go..." I added, looking up at Okavango. "I think I can do you one better."

*** *** ***

With every hoofstep south, the gunfire grew louder, though their echoes rolled through the entire valley. The Slavers had done well to survive for so long, and though the Coltilde might be swelling with pride, I felt dread like a millstone around my heart. If there were scales measuring the strength of either side to this primordial war between us and them, it was beginning to seem like they’d be tilting any way but ours.

All of a sudden, I felt myself being knocked clear off of my hooves, and my body was sent sprawling through the field, only to settle under pillars of dust and colorless flocks of grass, like a statue falling from the walls of some abandoned city in the plains. It took me a while to stand, as if I had to pick up the pieces and put myself back together again, and only then did I come face to face with my attacker.

A Raider, whose eyes boiled over and whose body was a sickly shade of my own unpolished silver, walked in strange and erratic circles around me, ready to pounce. Her knife stood, buried halfway to its hilt, in the dirt between us, having missed whatever burrow it might have carved in me. My body ached for the impact of that amber clad savage, but I did my best to meet her eyes, ignoring the pain.

“Fuck it!” She screamed, though the joy in her voice made the cuss sound like a cheer. “I'm gonna eat your heart out!” She bared diseased gums, from which crooked teeth, cruder than prehistoric tools, jutted like the breakers of a black sea. Drawing any weapon would mean a race between her hooves against the earth and my magic on the trigger, and her body was already coiled, as if it needed to pounce.

I had to get that knife.

She caught me eyeing the weapon, and lunged, kicking up enough dust to be stirred into a small storm. Our bodies came together in another collision of wasteland sinew against Stable cushioning. I drew my pistol, and swatted her away with it, though she was quicker than the stench of so many untreated diseases had promised, and smashed into me, shattering the fledgling telekinesis no differently than she might have pushed a baby bird from the edge of its nest, before it was ready to fly.

"A little girl on girl, hoof to hoof..." Her eyes were mad: yellow and wide, their edges smeared in dark bruises like too much cheap mascara. "This is gonna be fun!" The knife meant nothing to her now, as the mare's hunger for brutality had taken the reins, and whipped a freewheeling love for violence into her.

I threw myself against her with all the strength I could gather, hoping that generations of malnutrition and wantonly transmitted infection might grant me some deep, unshakable advantage, as if we were, not only soldiers stepping out from the ranks of opposing armies, but the children of two different species.

She didn't step out of my way, and took on the weight of my body with a broad chest and gleeful eyes, as if we were lion cubs rolling in the grass. She slapped me across the scars of Acheron, as our hooves clicked together and our bodies locked. She snapped and spat, biting at my face and teasing my wounds with avian parcels of disease, to poison me just as the balefire bombs and their fallout had Equestria.

She pushed her muzzle into the curve of my neck, and bit down on the collar of my father's shirt. And, after nuzzling me into a state of desperate, girlish panic, she tilted her weight and dropped me over uncertain hooves. The ground hit me hard, like it was taking the side of this native and neighbor, and then threw up a cloud of pallid dirt in the place of confetti, as if to celebrate my fall.

She straddled me across the middle, pinning my front hooves down with her own, and rode me as I tried to wriggle loose. I saw what might have been the despoiled sister of romance in her eyes, and knew that she wanted to tear the skin from my face, to pull away my flesh with stolen and abhorrent kisses.

After getting a leg free, I wasted no time before guiding it into the mare's stomach, like a battering ram. She retched over me, and her breath was like old meat and curdled dairy. But I hit her again, despite the smell, and managed to roll free for all the fetid air that had been beaten out of her.

I was back on my hooves before either of us had really recovered, and found myself standing perpendicular to the wheezing raider, with my face beside her mottled flank. Her cutie mark was a heart, vivid enough to have been pulled from some lawless organ vendor's shelves, with a fork sticking out of it.

I reared up onto my hind legs, kicking against the earth as if to scold it for the bruises coming to bloom on my side, and swung my Pipbuck down across the back of the Raider's head. There was an unpleasant crack, as her leather cap did nothing to stifle the blow, leaving metal and bone to touch but for the mare's scalp. Her limbs fell out from under her, and she collapsed.

As soon as she was still, I rolled the Raider onto her back, and pinned her down just as she had done me, with a little less of that barbaric romance. Now, my breath swept down at her in clean, smoky plumes.

Her mane lay sprawled about her head, like ink, and blood trickled through its strands, to flood over the unfilled spaces, and color them red. She was wheezing again, and her warm, ugly breath split the storm that spilled from my own mouth, making me shudder for its foulness.

We both knew what would have to happen now.

I looked to my Pipbuck, buying time so that she might absolve herself, and wondered if the cracking sound had come only from the mare's skull, as the device's metal casing was unspoiled but for a spattering of blood. Still, I wasn't about to beat her to death, and knew that, even though she needed to be put down, I couldn't go that far. I had to give her a little mercy, if only for my sake.

After reaching out with my magic, I found the laser pistol that she had beaten out of my grip. It had skittered through the dirt a ways, but I got a glow around it all the same. I floated it over, and looked the Raider straight in her urine colored eyes, hoping that some new world sickness could excuse this madness, could explain how an entire city's worth of ponies had become so lowbred and foul.

She began to giggle, to cackle maniacally in the face of death: before my face. I pressed the gun's square barrel to her forehead, but could do nothing to stop her from looking at me, as her eyes seemed unable to see the weapon that filled the space between them. They wouldn't leave me and, as if the Raider knew that her stare was burning itself into my mind like a brand, she wouldn't stop laughing.

Maybe if she had stopped, maybe if she had just talked to me.
Maybe then, I wouldn't have done it.

I pulled the trigger.

She died too quickly, and, like a light going out, and I couldn't say for sure if I had missed it.
The beam spread like wildfire though a field, and made a feast of her flesh, to leave little more than an empty plate. I cast the pistol aside, and watched as, from between her eyes, a red ring of light was pulled across her smiling face, boiling everything it crossed down to a dry, black pulp.

Her eyes boiled now, truly, as the hungry decay was drawn wider and wider, eating her away as if from the inside out. For a short and discomposing time, I could see a skull behind her melting face, whose eyes were red and whose curled mouth was far wider than even the Raider's, as she laughed circles around the brink of the end. Her voice was in the air, echoing on even as the fires died, and the last thing to be seen, buried under all that cinder and soot, was her collapsing smile.

Her mane had become a bed of brittle needles, as the red ring cooled around her neck, like an inflamed metal collar, to leave the rest of her body entirely unspoiled by this irreparable destruction. It almost looked like she had been decapitated, as if some passing thief had taken a liking to her head. The wound around her neck had cauterized, and so she could not bleed, and left no stains on the earth... only ashes.

I climbed off of the body and holstered my laser pistol, already trying to shake away the images that, when knit together, remembered my first kill. The Raider's combat knife rose from the soil like a growth, and it took me some time to get it loose. Once I had it uprooted, I strapped the thing across my father's vest, and carried on towards the south, knowing that I was in a kind of quiet and mechanical shock.

Still, I had to finish this…

An incredible pressure came to prick my chest, as if I was to be picked up on the end of some divine needle, and lifted from this little war. But soon, even as a bruise came to warm the space between my shoulder and my heart, I knew that I'd been shot. There was a bullet, caught just beside the scripture that lined my father's vest, and I felt an odd need for a sharper, more distracting kind of pain.

This blunt aching only served to pull me partway back into the world, numb and colorless as it still seemed, and let the music of battle flood my ears once again. I was in another fight.

I threw myself behind the very pillar of stone that Okavango had steered me around, just as another bullet was swallowed up into the dust. With my laser pistol beside me, I brought myself to bear, and swung its iron sights over the body of a muddy red Raider, who shared the weight of a rifle between his hooves and his mouth. Counting on the luck that was lacing my Equestria expedition, I took a shot at the weapon.

The buck yelped as the pistol's beam colored his rifle, turning it into a brand of brilliant orange. And he forgot me for struggling to cool his scalded tongue, lapping at the mist as if it were more precious than purified water. I swept up his superheated gun in my telekinesis, and sent it soaring into the north, like a clumsy and lead-feathered bird. He had his fill of air, and looked to me with those same wild eyes, as if all Raiders found joy in being disarmed, so that they might fight like bulls locking their horns.

After deciding that the world would not wait for me to go through the same dance twice, I leveled my pistol, and emptied its clip into the buck. Some of the beams glanced off of his dull, metallic armor, but most set rings of fire that spread across leather and skin. By the time he had pounced, his body was limp, as muscles built from unholy labor relaxed, to leave him as little more than a great, dead weight.

I didn't even think to step out of the way, and so his body crashed into me, and I collapsed on hooves that might as well have been replaced by roller-skates.

We fell to the ground together, and I had to pull myself out from under him no differently than I might have from the rubble of a collapsing city, or the wreckage of an airship. When it was over, I limped back to investigate his rifle, thinking far less of the second soul that I had turned loose into this pale morning.

The rifle had softened into an almost malleable state and, as the gun cooled, it became welded to the stone, as if to leave a monument to the dead Raiders. I left it, and hurried on to the disquieting battle.

*** *** ***

There were no signs of Caliber beside my parapet or the ridge, and even the slave, whose emancipation had been so short and so bitter, hardly gave me reason to pause. I couldn't know what customs that star-struck family might have put in place to send off their dead, and knew better than to stick my hooves where they weren't welcome, and stir up the temper of the religious and their favorite translation of God.

The bodies strewn along the highway looked to be replicas of the two that littered my own dirt road, as if there were only a few models making up the army called Raider. It was almost quiet now, as the horde's roar slowly died beside it. And even the fallen chieftain, whose body rose above the massacred drones to lead them even in death, seemed peaceful, but for the bullet wounds that had left him looking like a termite hill. Even now, he frightened me, if only for knowing how much it took to bring him to his knees.

I counted two dead Slavers, drifting somewhere in the graveyard that had been turned on its tombstones, and emptied out along the highway. Scattered around them, there were well over a dozen corpses, and gunfire still lapped up against the toll every once in a while, like the horns and headlights of faraway cars.

The hollowed out raider encampment was almost eerie now, as every decorative corpse became that much harder to ignore, and bulging eyes stared down at me from their posts on chiming meat hooks and sagging fences. I followed the only voice that was left, though it was little more than a whimper, and went after it if only to forget the ponies that had neither my luck nor the family's astrological guardians.

My Pipbuck marked off two hostiles, which were unmoving and lonely, somewhere towards the gateway's southern mouths. I peeked around the side of the last toll booth: my laser pistol shaking at my side, with a fresh clip to feed on and a cradle pieced together from the scraps of nervous magic.

The first figure was a Raider, with a hammer breaking up her smile. She was beating nails into the hooves of the second, binding them to the candy striped toll bar. Her victim was naked, but as I looked at his cutie mark, I knew that he could only be the last surviving Slaver. Lines of red trickled down his drawn out body, though even they were not enough to disfigure the manacles that filled his flanks.

Just as I realized that, in the back of my mind, I had ranked Slavers, no matter how broken or how naked, far lower than the wild and widespread ponies that had defeated them here, I spotted a few familiar splotches of color coming to a blossom in the East. Caliber, who came onto the stage as a blur of red and blue and buttery yellow, was running at full tilt, and beat the broken road as if to cobble it together again.

She had my father's automatic in her mouth, and, even for how watery her colors had become, I could see her eyes growing cold, and locking onto the only other survivors of the toll booth war. The Raider turned, as the hammering of hooves came to drown out her torture, and was greeted by two narrow lines of ballistic gold, that drew margins in the air and faded before being filled.

The first bullet tore through her cheek, and left her face in ruin even before it burst out in a flurry of torn skin, while the second dug into something far more solid, and knocked her weight back against the toll bar, to leave her bent over it by the spine. The bar seesawed for the sake of her slumped corpse, and the pinned Slaver was hoisted into the air. He screamed as those tireless fingers of gravity fought the silver needles that had been pounded through his hooves, to treat his body as the rope in their tug-of-war.

For all the wrong that his sane, and yet counter-Equestrian faction, had sown, I had to do something to stop this animated definition of the word agony. I hurried out of cover, and pulled the mare's body to the ground, almost forgetting that it was anything more than a weight on the scale. Then, I lowered the bar and brought its prisoner to rest on the road, even as his howling boiled down to doglike yelps.

It was over. Both sides had been whittled down to their last heartless soldier, and now we stood, like puppet masters before a mess of unstitched limbs and tangled string.

"That bitch," he panted, even as Caliber caught up with her bullets. "I had her... I won. But then she did something with her legs, you know?" He was talking to the mercenary as if they knew each other: as if she cared enough to listen. "Knocked me clear off of her, had me stunned until the second nail was in."

"I'll get right to work on setting up a rematch." She turned and looked me over, if only to measure how much trouble I'd gotten into without her. I tried to do the same, but she wore her wounds no differently than she might a uniform. "You alright?" I nodded, a little awestruck for how collected she seemed.

The mare wasn't even out of breath! After running like that: I'd have been done, ready to retire.
Equestria would have had to reclaim itself.

"I had to hunt down a couple of runaways: started making tracks east almost as soon as the explosion went off," she said, with one hoof prodding the freshest corpse. "But with this mare dead, I figure there are only two left." The Slaver groaned. "Not counting Hang 'em High over here."

"I handled them," I said, not without a little smudge of pride marking my voice.

"Good work." I began to skip a little inside, though it was strange to be commended for taking a life, even after spending so much of my time learning to save them. Still, the unfilled hooks that swung from the toll, pleading to be filled, made it all too easy to justify what I'd done. "Let me know if you want to talk about it later." She added, likely watching my eyes as they bounced between swollen faces and headless horses around us. "For now, all I really want to hear is you." She punched his chest. "So start singing."

The buck only wheezed, as if she had already beaten the words out of him.

"You're going to die here." Her voice became flat and hard, as she set things straight for the buck and me, as she told the truth. "See, I can't let you leave. And unless you're willing to talk - even knowing that this is the last face that you're ever going to see - we aren't gonna be much help to each other." I had to wonder if she might have lied to him if I wasn't there: to have him chase after his life, like a carrot on a stick, even as she guided him off the side of a cliff.

"Now, I don't expect you're going to tell us anything, but for all I know you could have the element of honesty tucked up between that black heart and lily liver of yours." She punched his belly, as if searching for a pressure point, like the button on a talking doll. "So I'll give you a chance."

“W-wh-what do you mean?” His black and shivering eyes fell onto hers, and it was clear that he was suffering through his words. “Just turn me loose, and I… I’ll tell you whatever you wanna know.”

“And here I thought Raiders were disloyal.” I suddenly felt like a burden, as Caliber couldn't help letting her frustration over what we had done show. She wouldn't get the information that she'd come for, and I worried over what she and Damascus might think of me for having hijacked the mission, for steering it into fantastical heroics, and away from the paper-and-ink investigation that it was meant to be.

"Damascus isn't going to get what he wanted," I cut in, as if it had to be said out loud.

"No." She hit the Slaver across the face, and I had to wince for the sound it knocked out of him. "He's not. But it's just as much my fault as it is yours." Somehow, that didn't make me feel any better. "You couldn't let the Coltilde have its slaves, and I can't tell this son of a bitch what he wants to hear."

“Hey! Hey, listen to me, sweetheart…” The Slaver, who seemed no less confused, struggled to look up at me through his tangled limbs. “I have a family back home… this is just a job!”

“Where are your clothes?” Caliber asked coolly, barely giving me enough time to scrape up some pity.

“What does that matter?” He twisted away from her again, as there was nothing like mercy in her eyes. “You’re reasonable, right? Tell her to let me go!”

“Three of you against more than a dozen Raiders: two casualties for twelve.” She rounded herself in, pacing little circles around the strung-up pony-peddler. “Then you… lose against one.” She poked his slumped belly again. “You must have some story to tell me: Because that doesn’t make a lick of sense.”

"Hey! I didn't lose to that psycho! ... She took me by surprise," he insisted, too proud for fear now.

"Bullshit," She hissed. "Y'know what I think? I think you were a little torn up about your friends over there." She rolled a hoof out along the highway, though the Slaver couldn't have turned west to save his life. "So you had yourself a little tantrum, and figured you'd make the Raiders pay for turning this neighborly little swap meet - cup of sugar for a glass of milk kind of thing - into a bloodbath."

I couldn’t help playing with the idea that we could have let him live, for how firmly he believed that this was the Raiders fault. If he hadn't been nailed down, he might have served as a tattle to this dishonest tale. “Winning wasn't enough. You felt insulted, you were insulted. So you took it a little too far."

“What the hell are you talking about?” He squirmed over to me once again. “She’s crazy!”

“You wanted to Plant. Your. Stake.” Caliber prodded his chest for each word. “And instead of finishing this fight, instead of killing her and getting to Hell out of Dodge…” Her hoof waved at the west again, pointing towards both the corrupted installation and the mare spattered along the road. “You raped her. Because you were the big winner, and just had to stick it to the horde that ripped your friends to pieces."

The buck let his armor fall, and stared Caliber down through dark eyes. "So what if I did?"
"We both know she deserved it."

She looked up; as if to make sure that I was listening. "You don't deserve any better, jack." I nodded, slowly, letting it make sense to me. "But lucky for you: neither of us are equipped to deal it out." The Slaver’s pleas had been getting to me, if only for how much I wanted to heal his wounds, to pull out the nails. But now, I was ready to see him washed out with all the other wrongs that had been righted at this toll. I knew for sure that, of the two, Raiders were the lesser evil.

"Like you're so noble... What are you? A Merc? One of those Hounds of Hell, judging from that mask: Cerberus' own little bitch," he accused, though this only got me to notice the name hanging around Caliber's neck. "Looks like we're good and acquainted now... It sure was shitty meeting you."

Caliber had stopped pacing circles around him, and the two just stared at each other, dark eyes locked. “So why don’t we just get this over with, huh? Kill me and start running, because when the Coltilde catches you, they’ll make you wish you stayed a whore.”

I could tell that he'd hit a nerve, but the Slaver’s ugly words could do little beyond beating themselves sore against the steel in her eyes. "You need to die like this: From the wounds your little plaything left you. Got to make it look like they forgot you here, that those nails drained you like a fucking maple."

“The Coltilde will never know that we had our hooves in this,” I added, almost as a question, wanting to be answered by both sides. “What happens if they figure it out?”

"There's nothing to figure out. We just killed two birds with one stone. If the Coltilde had any bridges built with these crazies, then they'll be good and burnt soon enough. And I don't think they have the time to go chasing after escaped slaves or veteran psychopaths." We knew very well that the Raiders were dead, but to anyone else: the toll would seem like nothing more than a battlefield abandoned by its champions.

The Slaver choked on his own moist, red laughter. "That's what this is about? You thought we wanted these spearchucking sadists to do our hunting for us?" He became one of them then, laughing even as the fingers of death tightened, and choked the life out of him. "You idiots."

Caliber bristled, taking the bait. “You got something to say?”

“You shouldn’t be worried about who we can get working for us… You should be tucking your fucking tails between your legs - afraid of who we’re working for.” He seemed to settle in then, knowing that he had her hooked. "I wonder who has you out here, digging for gold so far from where it's buried." His eyes seemed to shine a little brighter then. "Why don't we talk about a different kind of gold? The kind that really glitters... I think we might grow quite fond of one another for it."

"Grace." I flinched, thinking that she was going to hit him again. "Go ahead and gather up those slaves. Watching this piece of shit die is gonna be like watching paint dry."

"An honest mercenary? Who would have thought..." Even though the Slaver was running out of options, he did well to keep the panic out of eyes. "Maybe I can bait your curiosity, then. There are a lot of things you don't know, that I do. And there are certainly a few things that I could keep to myself. Let's talk."

"Lets." Something still didn't fit between them, and I hesitated before leaving them alone together.

"What are you going to-"

"Can't leave any more marks on him... But those nails might have gone in a little crooked. I really should straighten 'em out." I couldn't bring myself to argue, to climb up onto my soapbox: not after everything she had already done for me. "We'll round up back at the ridge.”

I nodded, and felt as if I was giving in, that I was letting some small sin go slipping through the net. "And Grace," she repeated, even as I took to the highway, to obey her and block out the buck's last pleas. "I saw that Slave's corpse." Caliber looked up at me. "It needs to stay where it is: You can't bury it."

I felt very sick then, as if the world had spun in a thousand circles under my hooves, to muss up my hair and bring a green blush to my cheeks. But, even as the hammer started clicking and the Slaver thrust his voice up to the heavens, I started to run, blindly into the north, as if to look back at the toll would be to turn myself into a pillar of salt.

*** *** ***

"It's me." My chest was hollow by the time I came to them, and I had to speak over sharp inhales, as the air irritated my lungs. "Is everypony alright?"

The father led them out of their hideaway, and I saw that they were all so dirty that their coats and manes wore bastardizations of their original colors, like the wine-stained rags of a drunk. And, as if to make them a family for more than this uniform of filth, their eyes were all downcast and dark, and I was careful not to stare for too long. I knew the touch of lingering eyes, and had always been tender to it.

Okavango floated along behind them, with his speakers blaring some kind of carnival music, and I jumped to see the little colt clinging on to his satellite, laughing as if on a carousel. Even the filly smiled a little as they bobbed past her, and my panic fell to pieces to see her father looking so grateful.

"What you did for them..." He started, stepping in close so that we might speak alone, to let the children revel in that era-crossing entertainer. "It's still hard to believe this is really happening."

"We're the only ones left to look out for each other, sir." I saluted him, as all of Equestria was watching.
We’ll have your country up and running within a working week. There are a couple of parts we have to make an order for - That'll probably run up the bill a little - But she’ll be good as new in no time!

"You did more than that. You saved our lives." I didn't know how best to take his gratitude, and so stood at attention, as if he was about to pin a medal to my chest. For acts of singular daring and devotion...
"I don't know if it's anything more than luck and a gun that makes a hero: but you've definitely got it."

"Thank you, sir." I came out of my soldier's stance, for wanting to look him the eye. I felt very comfortable in the folds of the family's attention, as if it was velvet, though I wasn't used to much more than the sandpaper of suspicious and leering eyes. I couldn't measure the difference, but for how good it felt. "We should head back to the highway. My partner - Caliber - will be waiting."

The colt let out a little cry as Okavango wove around me. "Daddy!" I wove the spritebot down, as if guiding a deflating airship down to earth, and was relieved to the see the colt make it back to his father's side unbroken. "They're taking us back to the monsters!"

"No, baby: they’re gone now. The Guardians killed them -" I coughed, as if to cover up his choice of verb. “- for what they did to Uncle." He held his children close and, as the mare let out a bloated sob from beside them, I knew which side of the family the dead buck had belonged to.

Okavango, the Father and I lead the way, as his children fell behind, to spin around their mother's tired hooves, as if dancing through the pillars of the Canterlot gardens. "If you don't mind me asking - " I began, after deciding that they might be able to put another marker on my map, and scribble some more color inside the lines of Equestria's border. "Where were you all taken from?"

"They picked us up while we were crossing the highway further East, before the mouth of the valley." As if stepping onto the road was no different to treading across the tongue of some enormous beast. "We were heading for Calvary, following a path that would steer us clear of all the Locust camps and Buffalo trails, but you can't chart a course around the Raiders: They cross the wasteland like meteor fields."

“What’s a Calvary?”

“Biggest damn city in the country.” He chuckled, and I even caught the mare smiling a little, though their children looked no more dialed in. “They say it’s towers cut right into the clouds, and its sprawl covers every bit of land from the Plains to the ocean. What have you been living under a rock your whole life?”

“A mountain,” I said, not realizing that it had been a rhetorical question, and missing the words behind the look that passed between them then: this girl’s just shy of the other side of sanity.

"We heard it was safe there," the mare, whose voice matched the dirtied cream of her coat, began. "Safer, at least. And, after the rumors about Free Rein… we had to get away." I was glad to see her getting comfortable, even if it was for looking at me as some dusty amnesiac, climbing out of the rubble, as if into an alien world. "The Railway doesn't run through Calvary, and that... that makes it paradise."

"We'll get you back on your way." I said, making promises of paradise like some street corner preacher. "If nothing else, we can at least get you armed." I couldn't escort them to Calvary, and I wouldn't take them to Hell. But the thrill of rescue had yet to leave me, as if some glory could still be wrung out of them.

"Excuse me, Ma'am." The filly whispered, climbing over her words like hurdles built too high. Still, her manners went straight to my heart, and started cuddling. "Are you a shepard?"

"Shepard?" I asked, hanging back a little to keep in step. “Doesn’t that make you a sheep?” This got a little giggle out of her, but she quickly looked to her parents as if in need of help to explain something.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” The Father recited a passage of that homespun scripture, which I remembered through the voice of my mother, as others might bedtime stories and lullabies.

“I always thought a Shepard was somepony who watched over a flock of animals.” The russet-colored colt argued. Neither foal was any larger than a saddlebag, and I knew, as ash came into the wind around us, that the Raiders deserved to get their justice in the court of only the oldest and most hotheaded Gods.

“But Uncle said it meant more than that.”

“Sure, but he got that from his book about the Princesses.” The colt stormed on, explaining for everyone. “Uncle was funny; he called 'em by these fancy names, and thought for sure they were always watching him.” Maybe their Faith wasn't so different after all. “But I think that the Princesses have better things to do than watch Uncle, or at least somepony a little more interesting to spy on.” I smiled, almost forgetting the smell of ash, even as I tried to stand between the children and the mare beheaded by fire. “Like you!

“Now why would the Princesses want to watch somepony like me?”

“Like you don’t know!” The colt's voice broke into pieces, as he lifted it over us all. “You save ponies! Weren’t you paying attention?” His sister seemed to remember something then, and started tugging at his side. “Wh-?” He began, but was struck silent as she whispered to him. Their faces dropped, and their eyes went dim, as we walked by the one pony that I hadn't saved.

*** *** ***

“I need to see him…” The mare said, holding a hoof to my chest as we came marching up to the ridge, though she was careful not to touch me, as if my heartbeat might bruise her.

"Honey-"

"Him." She forced the word out, as if it was a name to be whispered only under the breath of the brave.
"I want to see that son of a bitch dead." I had given up on censoring the new world for the sake of the children, as their parents seemed all too ready to see them wading through graveyards spilt over the highway, or watching as blurry curse words flew over their heads. "I need to see him dead."

"Who, Mommy?" The colt was quick to ask, though, from the way his sister was bunched up behind dusty hooves, I could tell that she already knew. Their mother would have me lead her to the grave of that chieftain Raider: that barbarian king, who had ruled under the tattered banner of rape and pillage.

“Show me.” She pleaded, turning to me, with a face of glass for the sheen of her tears. “Please.”

It didn't take us long to find the chieftain, as the other bodies looked like molehills around his amber clad mountain of a corpse, from which a dozen red rivers had burst as if coming through broken dams. His face was almost intact, caught in a roar that bared teeth as large and crude as limestone. And, as I threw off the helmet that was his crown, we stared into eyes that were filled with sickness and the color red.

He had bitten off his own tongue in some final throe of agony, and half of it lay, long and dark and limp, beside his open mouth. It looked like he had suffered.

The mare just stared: as the weight of her mane covered eyes that might have been mistaken for two enormous tears, too stubborn to fall. When she finally started weeping, I knew that my shoulder wasn't the one that she needed to dampen, that I should have watched the children, as the father came to hold her as she shook. So, after taking on some of her weight, I walked the mare back to her medicine.

They lay down together, and the family let their colors blend, as they crowded around their enfeebled mother. "I'm going to go find Caliber." I said, needing an excuse to leave them alone.

Okavango followed as I made my way back to the toll, still buoyant despite how little attention I'd given him. Life was so clean for Cerberus' watchdog, so black and white. If he was playing guardian, it didn't matter that he couldn't protect anypony from the monsters stowed away in the corners of their own mind, the shadows that milked them for tears, leaving them empty, and raw at the edges.

If he was following me, it didn't matter that I trotted on ahead, skipping over bodies and patterns of gore as if crossing a hopscotch course, without throwing back so much as a thank you for making the children smile again. It didn't matter that Equestria could have its highways littered with hollowed out demons, all lined up at the toll, as if taking the place of so many tourists and travelers.

But, as his speakers fought though that overgrown tangle of static to play me another song: I knew that things weren't so simple, that Okavango Delta saw the world in at least one more color: Little Girl Blue.

We stood, with death spread across the asphalt, and listened to that dusty piano, and the tired voice of a singer in an empty theater. I turned to the light of his galactic heart, and as so much flesh gave the last of its warmth to the winter, I started crying. For the girl, and for all that had been wasted around me, I opened up to the faceless, as his song had brought the new world beating against me with all its wrong.

I didn't weep, as the mother had, but tears came to leave a silver scar down each of my cheeks. Lights of green and red and starry blue had come to a blur around me, coloring the mist in splotches, like watercolor paint on an immense and irresolute canvas. But they soon became sharp, as my eyes dried, and the melody trickled to a close. Tears could not fall from the spritebot's single electric eye, but he had managed to tear my heart from my chest, and put it back in its cradle even as the music ran dry.

"Where're the Slaves?" Even after hearing the crunch of gravel under four hooves, and seeing the plumes of smoke for the heat of her breath, my entire body jolted as a steely voice tapped me on the shoulder.

"Caliber!" I sang, and was more than a little surprised for how happy I sounded. The mercenary’s back might have started creaking for the armory that she had slung across it, as even her saddlebags had swollen to the size of prize swine. I looked over to the gateway before the East, and saw a body hanging from its farthest toll bar: limp and distended. The stage was set, and the Coltilde was not likely to pick up our scent through the fetid air, as only a Raider could have left somepony to die like that.

"Yeah." The word came out flat, as Caliber was already walking by me. I hurried to catch up, as she drove each step after the last with something not unlike violence. "I don't like this, Grace."

I had to wonder what the Slaver might have said to her. I’d seen ponies who thought themselves on the brink of death, though it was most often for hypochondria or the breathing in of ethanol fumes, and I knew how catching sight of the end could retune our voices. "Anything I should know?"

"Nah. It's just that... you and I aren't seeing this the same way." And, though she didn't say it out loud, I knew that both of us thought we were in the right, while the other had to be wearing tinted glasses, whether of rose or of ash. "If the Slavers find out what we did-"

"They won't!" I was almost laughing, as if the idea was nothing short of ludicrous.

"They probably won't: probably! I don't like leaving loose ends, Lamplight, and this operation doesn't end any other way." She sighed, and her breath passed me by like a pale and lumbering animal. "The fact is: a lot of ponies have their heads on the rails because of us, just for the sake of saving four."

"That isn't how it works." I couldn't keep up, as the mare never fell anything less than a nose ahead of me. "You can't think of it that way!" She looked back at me, but didn't turn her head. "It doesn't matter how many we saved: This isn't a market. We did what was right, not what worked out to the best bargain!"

"Grace -" She began, about to explain some illusory truth me, though the sight of the family, and their picture of something timeless… something tribal, was enough to cut her short. The children met us with welcoming cheers, and I knew that they could not have been abandoned: Not for the price of the world.

I'd gathered that Caliber dealt in absolutes, seeing every card for its number and color and suit, following her contract as if it had been signed in blood, and charting her winnings right up against her losses. To her, we had saved four, and risked an entire deck. But seeing them together, even looking at them as a gambler might a lucky hand, blindsided the mercenary, and softened her barren eyes, making her a mare.

She looked back at me, and turned her head, smiling just enough. “Hello Shepard," the little blue filly cooed, from between the hooves of her parents. It really wasn't fair to what was left of Caliber's argument, but it was good to see the last scraps of it picked up on the wind, like a crumpled house of cards.

"Who're you!?" The colt demanded, in the brash and inoffensive voice that belonged only to children.

Caliber stayed quiet, as if she'd never met somepony so harmless, somepony that couldn't be killed. "This is my partner: Caliber!" I stepped in to introduce her, pitching a new comic book superhero to a test audience. "Remember that big explosion?" They nodded. "Well then: if I'm the Shepard, then she must be..." My face fell: I hadn't thought that one out. "She made the explosion!"

"Whoa." They drew the word out together, as if it were an ice cream cone, and they had to see who could make theirs last the longest. "Did you do that with your earth pony magic?"

"What? Earth ponies can't just make explosions with their minds! If they could then I would've done one!" The Colt shot back, tapping his forehead. "I would've done a whole lot of them!"

His sister scratched her head, pushing a hoof through the folds of her dusty mane. "Oh. Well I heard that some earth ponies have magic of their own: and they don't even need a horn or anything."

“That’s the magic of being in-dus-trious and hardworking!” The colt sounded out the longer words exactly as Caliber did, and I smiled at her, though she was too stunned to notice. “Not the magic of explosions!

“Alright kids, knock it out. I’m sure that Ms. Caliber wants to keep her magic a secret,” the children’s father excused, but Caliber only drew circles in the dirt, looking more ashamed than awkward, and gave the buck a thankful look.

"Right. Well, me and the - Sheep herder? - over here need to figure out which of these guns will get you where you're going." Caliber had clearly made her decision on how we would be helping the family from here on out, and leading them along until we were free to play escort had likely never crossed her mind. "Just tell me where that is, and I can get some kind of loadout ready for ya."

"Forgive the children: we're all just a little overwhelmed." The mare gave us both a ghostlike embrace, and then faded back to her husband's side. "Thank you both so much for what you've done." Caliber just stared, waiting for her to pick something out of our menu of high quality problem solvers. "We're going to New Calvary. There's something changing in the North. The Coltilde was gone for such a long time... And I can't live with it hanging over my shoulder."

"To Calvary, then." Caliber nodded, and looked over at the rifles on her back. "Were you planning to find a tunnel onto the Starline or follow the road east?" The mercenary seemed all too comfortable with interrogations, and might have pulled out a pad and a quill, to stare out from under a smoky fedora like one of the detectives from True Police Stories.

The buck nodded towards the valley's mouth, and Caliber began untangling the bundle of rifles. "Fine. Now, The Slavers will be digging their hooves in over Hellside, so I figure that train's not gonna be pulling its weight along for a while yet. My advice: get out of the valley, and don't look back: Hell's making a fist."

Hell?” The colt repeated. “That’s a weird name.”

“Yeah, well there’s this sign - probably used to say Hello and welcome to Cerberus’ House of Cults and Conspiracies - but it’s so torn up now that the only thing left is the word Hello with its head bit off. Damascus’ been around forever: he probably knows what it was actually called.” She shrugged.

“Hey!" I yelped, getting an idea, though it might have nipped me in the flank for the sound I'd just made. "Why don’t we hire out one of the mercenaries? I mean, Charon could escort them to Calvary easy."

Caliber lifted a hoof, as if to say that I was getting ahead of myself. "No offense folks: But I think we've done enough for ya." Hearing her say that was like a slap across the cheek, as I'd been waiting for those words to come from the Father, or even his sheepish wife. And, though it made me out to be a glutton for gratitude - like a foal holding up an empty cone, asking for more even as she licked the ice cream from her lips - I had to admit: I felt cheated not to have heard it from them. "There's trouble on the homefront, and we got a boss who could end up being anything from a little stirred up, to bent under a guillotine because of what we did here. So no, Hell can't spare one of her hounds just to go on a walk with you."

"Besides, I wouldn’t trust a mercenary as far as I could throw one.” She went on, before I could point out the hypocrisy. "Now, just pretend that somepony slapped a sign across my face that says: Quick, take these guns before this idiot realizes how much they're worth!" She brandished her crowded sides to the family, and did a pretty good impression of somepony with a sign posted over their face.

Of all things, I was worried about what Caliber's tirade might have done to our reputation with the children, but they only stared up at her with awe and admiration brimming out of their bright little eyes.

Then, as the stunned couple hurried to find something that might go on as their new guardian into Calvary, and the foals whispered to each other, I realized that my hero pitch might have gone a little too well. While they had lifted me from scripture, as a namesake to some humble and pastoral caretaker, when it came to a popularity contest amongst children, it was hard to beat someone who had just been rude to their parents. A rebel was a tough act to follow.

*** *** ***

“Bye Shepard! Bye Cali-Belle!” The children yelled, both perched neatly on their mother’s back, like birds on a wire. Okavango bounced around them, glinting under the sheets of bleached light that were pinned over the mountains, over the very stone that Calvary held up as its shield against Hell and its winter.

“Thank you again, Shepard. I hope something out there rewards you for what we can’t.” The Father followed close behind them, passing through the filth of the Raider's den, and beginning along the long, empty road that fell out into the whitewashed East. “When you come into New Calvary: look for us. If we’ve managed to make something for ourselves, then you’ll be welcome to take your fill of it."

“Just get there safely, and it’s a promise.” I shook his hoof, as if salutes were too formal now.

“Give that filly a better life,” Caliber added, if a little sternly. There hadn’t been any hoofshakes for the mare, and I wondered if she might have left the couple a little afraid of her. After all, mercenaries didn’t seem to have the best reputation, and her contract might as well have been carved into her bones.

“I’d die for my children, but to know that you would have done the same… that’s something I won’t forget,” he said, speaking to both of us as Okavango left his foals with one last melody. Then, the buck turned to lead his family out east, with guns and supplies strapped to his body on holsters and saddlebags.

They left us with shouts of farewell and thanks, before they were scrubbed up into the white lather that was the East, to begin on their way to New Calvary.

“Feeling better?” I asked, as we watched them become little more than smudges on the skirts of the morning.

“Feeling damn good.” Caliber let herself smile then, though I had already heard the laughter: woven into her voice like sunlight through the mist.




Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Child at Heart: Who says growing up is a good thing? You call yourself charismatic but the fact that you get along best with children makes it seem like you’re just immature. This perk greatly improves your interactions with children, no matter how old, usually in the form of unique dialogue options.

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Chapter 6: Beggar in the Morning

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 6: Beggar in the Morning
“Sometimes the smallest roles in the Good Fight are the most important.”

|*| Bits and Pieces |*|

I watched my reflection, as it mirrored that of a warhorse. The scars across the toll booth's face closed over me like the notches of a tribal mask, as if I was expected to take on all of the window's wounds. I could have been a little glass lion, for my proud mane and pale scars, but was surprised to find that, even as I moved, some of the marks moved with me, and took on more cardinal colors. Still, this new image was to be a blessing, for Caliber's plan would see me clothed in the uniform of a disfigured kingdom.

Now I tightened fraying leather belts around my middle, but still felt naked without those high collars fluttering against my neck. It was strange to be wearing clothes that had been stripped from the dead, but I was only happy to have forced nakedness on a corpse left by some other killer: a corpse I didn’t know.

It wouldn’t be long before we walked through the Raider’s jungles, and, if I could pass for one of them, then we might come out from the company of death, and walk into Hell without its fingers like a bone necklace around our collars. Caliber would lead us right into the jaws of this new Equestrian monster, and I could only hope that we wouldn't tread on its tongue, and let it taste us. Okavango and Charon could ferry me past old, dormant technology and our insomniac ancestors, but Caliber didn't make time for the past, and would throw us over one of the country's freshest wounds, like salt.

“Are you done in there?” The mercenary’s voice sounded exhausted, though I had only kept her waiting for a few minutes, and I ignored it, if only to fold away my father’s vest, treating its scripture like the fringe of a flag, to be set down over a soldier's grave. Once everything was neatly packed away, I burst out of the toll booth with flourish, and slammed its door as if to play myself onto a stage.

Behold! I only just shut my voice in, knowing better than to say the word aloud. "What do you think?" I asked, skirting modesty. It had taken a little while, but from the sad collection that was Raider fashion, I'd picked out the best for the journey to come, letting myself be a puppet to my genteel mother.

No longer could I go about my business unclothed, and put so little work into my image. Not knowing that I would face bucks as distinguished as Damascus, and a world that might soon ask for my name in lights, shining over its doors. If Equestria wasn't built in a day, it certainly wasn't built by the naked.

"Oh my stars," Caliber said, playing a lightheaded debutante in some southern heat spell. She might have become frustrated in searching the toll, keeping her nose to the ground in pursuit of some paper trail to this deal between Rail and Raider. But, for now, she had a character to play. "That's the one." Okavango ooed, as if to agree. "Uh-huh, honey... you're making me as faint as a filly in the middle of Ju-ly."

She had pieced together a strange outfit for herself: a scrapyard of thick padding, worn in an almost indecent fashion, as a patchwork suit of armor built of everything from strips of mattress to baseball kneepads protected the few places that had not been left bare to skilled snipers and leering eyes.

"What else do you need to hear?" She asked, leaving the act in a shambles. "It really brings out your eyes - Makes you look fat? Impossible! - The Raider Badlands Collection really is some of their best work." I looked down, as if to pick up the pieces of that southern belle. "What does it matter? We're trying to be discreet: Now's not the time to be fussing over how many heads you'll turn."

That was hard to hear. A large part of this whole production had been put on in the hopes of impressing her. After all, she was one of the only ponies to whom I'd think to present myself, be it in arms or haute école: one of those few that I truly wanted to impress. "You look great." She surrendered, after a long and unsaddling silence. "After all: you're a Stable pony. You all look like you just stepped out of a billboard."

“You don’t think these shorts are too tight?” I peered worryingly back at my flanks. The tawny, cutoff rear to the outfit was especially strange, as it left me feeling more naked than nudity ever had.

“I wouldn’t worry about that, honey.” She glanced conspiratorially at Okavango. “After all, they… say…” As she crept through the sentence, our semisentient jukebox started blaring along behind her, with such flawless timing that I might’ve sworn that they planned this. You gotta Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive.

A sermon, coming from what had to be a preacher who was kicking up his robes, went bouncing off with the horns. Caliber shot me a devilish smile and tilted her head West, with her hooves becoming instruments as they tapped against the highway. And, if asked, I'd have let her dance me back to Hell.

To illustrate. My last remark. Luna in the moon. Discord in the park.
What did they do? Just when everything looked so dark?

“Come on, Lamplight. Let’s hit the road.”

*** *** ***

Even in her new uniform, Caliber had kept what was clearly some kind of radio strapped to her chest like a badge, and I had begun to wonder if Damascus could not come to speak through it, and steer us in another direction. "Caliber," I began, as we came deeper into the valley that, only the night before, had been flooded in thick and starless ink. "Couldn't we get our orders over the radio?"

The mercenary shook her head. "Not from down Damascus' way, we can't. There isn't much that can jump out over all of Cerberus’ hurdles." And, before I could think to ask, she nodded back to the cheery spritebot. "I still can't figure where Mister In-Between over there found the time to record those songs."

“Maybe Cerberus lets itself by.” Okavango Delta certainly hadn't had much trouble when ferrying me through the passages of glass and light that served as veins to Hell's subterranean heart.

“Yeah, maybe. I’d try and figure a way back to Damascus that makes use of your little keycard, but I’d rather walk into the Hell I know than the one that's hidden behind all those old locks. History's seen a lot worse than the Raiders… and I want to be in one piece for whatever comes next.”

“What do you think he has planned for us?” I said us because, by now, I’d decided that this was the way it was going to be. I couldn’t leave Caliber until I’d sold her a little more hope for the world, as to hear her doubting Equestria’s new dawn, was to hear someone calling my God little more than a windup toy, and watch them crossing out entire lines of scripture under a firm and faithless red pen.

"Sounds like the Slavers might not be wearing the first collar of the food chain anymore, but I figure Damascus already had his suspicions about that. Either way, he’ll need to pull out all the stops before he can get his plan rolling, and I’m sure we’ll get caught up doing most of the legwork.”

The streetlights cut out, as if falling into a tepid and dreamless sleep, so that they would be ready to take the place of a setting sun. “Who could the Slavers possibly be working for?” I didn’t know much about the pieces in play across what Caliber would call The Wasteland, but I was eager to learn about those that remained from the days before Equestria burst. “They control the northern rails, for Pete's sake!"

“If the world's still spinning: it's spinning on blood and money. All it would take to control the Coltilde is a carrot dangling from a stick, or a knife pressed up against its throat. Anypony with the money or the caps could take the Slaver's reins right out of their hooves.” She paused. “The only contenders I can think of would be more interested in wiping them out than controlling them, so… I guess I can't answer that.”

“That’s alright. I’m sure we’ll figure it out.” She smiled a little to hear me say that, and we fell back into the silence of trudging hooves and a crooning spritebot. Okavango only put on a show for special occasions, but his standards were clearly dropping with every mile marker, as even a passing bird or the echo of gunfire might inspire in him the need to sing a song, whose words had very little to do with anything.

As the electrical pylons returned, marching across the broken hills like soldiers and pilgrims all at once, I got some perspective on where we were. Acheron was not much farther along, and I could see its ragged radio tower standing proud against the West. I remember that the highway continued on even as the land sank, propped up by thick pillars that, for the most part, had endured the weight of hollow cars and the litter of a long and anemic offseason. The turnoff to Hell would steer us north soon enough, and I could almost feel the pulse of the kingdom, even through all its sickness and the bruises in the air.

“How was your first?” Caliber spoke up, as we came to choose between an empty Acheron and a crowded Hell. The valley seemed louder now, though there had been no music since we saw the Coltilde’s smoke rising out of distant spillways, and no words since those pylons crossing the valley.

“She was pretty.” I said, as if I had only just realized it. “Under all that animal…” Putting it into words wouldn’t help me but, for some reason, I felt as if I had to say something. “But her face… just burned away. Like paper. So many wasted years: So much work undone. She would have been master to the most finely tuned instrument in the world, but because of her madness… it had to be pulled apart.”

“That was her fault. Not yours.”

“I know,” I said, without breathing, as if I could only inhale in Hell. “I know.” Beyond the church and above the shattered outskirts, I could see corpses hanging, ripe and ready to be plucked; the only fruit that still grew in the Middle Passage. Now, I wanted noise, I wanted the winds that roared over the hills like a lion cub playing king and the ruins that creaked no louder than rocking chairs to rise and match the storm that had fallen over our country. “But I feel… different, knowing how easy it is to take a life.”

“Or lose one.” She added, saying what I couldn't bring myself to say. Killing the mare hadn’t left anything in me that was heavier than the fear of death, and now I couldn't help thinking about the light being boiled out of her eyes, and was left feeling hollow but for the weight of it, like a tumor crowding my heart.

“Do you think that’s what it was like with the bombs?” I asked, as she looked up to the sky, and saw that it still wore a mask. We hadn’t known what we were capable of, until it was done. We couldn't have understood how much power we had, though it was right there in front of us; proven on paper and in practice. We didn’t know how easy it had become to end the world, until it was already over.

“Maybe. Except what you did was right.” The mare seemed to draw into herself then, as if she was trying to decide what she might have done, if given the order to lead the war, and all its armies, over the edge.

We were coming to the cemetery now, as if carrying Death home on our shoulders after a long and exhausting night, and it was hard to think of anything else for his arm slumped around my neck. “Would you tell me about your first kill?” I asked, as we slowed to a stop before the fence, which rose out of the earth like a row of sharpened teeth from soiled and misshapen gums.

“I think I might have forgotten it.” Caliber's answer came out as if from under her breath and, if she hadn't stormed ahead, stepping over that field of long sown bodies - that might have blossomed under the cruel tending of the Raiders - I would have asked her to repeat herself. "Wait here."

She disappeared into the church, into The Light at the Edge of the World, which I slowly realized had gone quiet, as its colors faded, as if trampled under the chariot that was the sun.

*** *** ***

By the time Caliber came out of the church, the mist had been burnt away, leaving the storm naked in all the shades of its temper, as the sunlight tore its uniform to rags and sat on its back as if it were a throne.

"Keep my rifle ready." She tossed me some ammunition, without slowing down, and the cartons went into a frenzy between panels of magic, as if being fought over by an entire troupe of jugglers. "It isn't quiet. But better for the Raiders to hear a gunshot than one of their own bleating out a call to arms." She led me down the road, which would turn west to divide the blocks of cement that cradled Hell.

The staircases that broke up its southern face were guarded by shoddy barricades, whose grisly ornaments marked the territory, just as well as any flag or insignia. “If any of them come up to us alone; we drop 'em. You’re not passing for a raider with any look clearer than a squint, but if I have to talk our way out of something: just pretend you had your tongue cut out. The first thing that comes out of your mouth every time you speak might as well be: Boy, it sure is neat being a Stable pony.”

She went trotting on ahead before I could think of anything to say, but Okavango and I looked at each other as if to ask: What’s with her? I had to wonder how tense this morning might have been for Caliber as, to her, we were two fillies coming into a smoky study, to confess our pretty little sins to some stern and stone-faced father. And, to make it worse, she would have to play the part of his daughter, his princess, while I was no closer to the fallout than a tagalong friend from some neighboring kingdom.

We had nothing to show for our investigation at the toll, but for a claim to the deserted sword and scales of a lopsided lady justice, and an imaginary medal pinned to my chest. And for our shaking up of the hornet's nest, something had to give, even if it boiled down to a lecture or a slap on the hoof.

But, even though Damascus would wear a cross and a chevron on his shoulder before he would a bleeding heart, it wasn't ridiculous to think that he might even approve of what we had done. What worried me most, though, was that a pony like him should need to be so careful.

Rose colored water might have trickled into my Pipbuck, for how many hostile markers came up as the Raider's kingdom lorded over us. I pulled in a little closer to Caliber and Okavango, as if they could cushion me from the sound of rutting animals in the damp heart of a battlefield. "How many are there?"

“We don’t know.” My Pipbuck started to tick as we reached the end of that first stunted tower, where the roads joined together like streams into a dock between two piers. “Welcome to Castle Clusterfuck, kids. Damascus has mercs who can walk with the ferals - live with 'em over on the north side of town like it was some old world paradise - but if the dead can be tamed… Raiders can’t.”

She peeked around the edge of the block, scoping out the road that divided walking corpses from so many talking animals. I noticed a door built into the opposite wharf, but decided that, if I were to ask her about it, Caliber would only unveil whatever horror waited behind it, ready to swallow up naïve wanderers, bored locals and bound mercenaries. “Looks like we’re in the clear… I say we hug this southern wall until the next set of stairs, then we can head up to the nearest metro entrance.”

Of all the colors that had stood out against the night, the green that spoiled the valley's northern air had best survived the coming of day. I saw something moving, just over the lip that seemed to be keeping the sickness from spilling out into the asphalt docking bay. It shuffled by, as if on patrol, and gave no hint to the incredible speed that ferals seemed only to wield when hunting. "Okay," Caliber began. "Let's go!"

Wishing that I could float by as inoffensively as Okavango, or move with as much confidence as the mercenary, I scampered along as the middle part to our little caravan, following our leader as she wove around crooked streetlights, and skipped over litter that had trickled down from above.

We all jumped over a headless body, as if it were a hurdle, and I realized, for the plank that jutted out over us and the spatter of dark stains that reached out to north, that this pony had been sent to the undiscovered country in some ritualistic execution over the unmovable river that parted Hell.

We came to a notch in the naked foundation, and stopped before throwing ourselves into the final run of our dainty invasion. My Pipbuck chirped up, and advertised a Metro station just shy of the stairway’s peak. I wanted to show it off to Caliber, like a new watch, but she had clearly come this way before.

“You’d think Damascus might try to set up shop somewhere a little more practical.” She almost laughed, over shallow breaths. Adrenaline seemed to have improved her mood, and she smiled back at us as if to say Here we go, before pouncing on the stairs, and throwing us into absolute Raider territory.

The litter of the old world carpeted Hell's piers, as flyers of many lackluster colors and newspaper birds blotted out the concrete. But, while one side of the road rested under an irradiated fog, it was the other that wore the stench of death. Even as I clambered over the last few steps, I was hit by it, and retched, poking my head out over the first flight of stairs. I’d never smelt something so heavy and rank, and as Caliber helped me back along our way, I found the seeds from which this wall of stench had grown.

One of the alleys, carved out from between two square and somehow elephantine buildings, had been turned into a slaughterhouse. And yet, I almost wanted to thank the stars, for the meat strung up there took on shapes far stranger than any anatomy recorded in the pages of medical journals. "Those things have two heads." I muttered, more to myself than anyone else.

I had to wonder if the Raiders had grafted the extra parts on, in a childish attempt to design some kind of Supercow. More familiar shapes drifted over the opposite end of that hallway of meat, and got me moving again. I picked out more Raiders, loitering ahead, far along the edge of their little city, whose legs swung out over the road below, as if they were dipping their hooves in the cool waters of a canal.

"Damn it. There aren't enough of 'em up here." I nodded, as if she wasn't crazy to be complaining. "Means the tunnels will be clogged up with the bastards." I could make out the familiar shape of a Metro entrance, between her and the spread of Raiders. “There’s a door to some of the safer utility tunnels deeper in.” She waved a hoof at the concrete jungle. “D’you think we should go for it?”

"Utility tunnels?" I asked, though it wasn't like Hell had a lot safe places to spare. "Might as well."

"You're conviction is truly something to behold." She smirked. "Just keep close. If any of ‘em ask: I'll say we're looking to score some Jet. Try to look shivery, and... less like you." She inspected Okavango Delta next, trying to figure out a way to make him look more at home on the homefront.

"And you... Can’t you, y'know: blink? Raiders don't usually stumble across Cerberus tech, but I've seen some of 'em leashing up the standard issue spritebots. And that big blue eye of yours will be a problem." As smoothly as a Wonderbolt putting on her sunglasses, Okavango let a steel shutter slide over his heart. "Perfect. We can't have you looking too pretty." She scratched her chin, and turned all the scrutiny of her Raider makeover plan back onto me. "Speaking of: I think the robot just gave me a pretty good idea."

*** *** ***

“Sorry about the smell. I tried cleaning it out.” After seeing Hell sway from side to side, like a docked ship riding the tide, I found her though the narrow slit that was all I had left of the world, following nothing but the mercenary’s raspy voice and the scent of that hanging garden of meat, as both crept around the edges of the arclight helmet. “But one of these sickos must have blown the owner’s brains out from behind.”

That’s alright!” I cried, having to raise my voice for how much the tilted steel muffled it. “I’ll get used to it!

“Could’ve gone for a hockey mask, but it’d show off too much of your eyes.” I took that as a compliment. “And you do not wanna be inside one of those wastehound helmets.” I could tell that she was starting to move, and stumbled around in circles to find her. “Here, just muzzle into my tail.” She brushed up under the welder’s mask and blinded me in a flurry of red. “I think it might be a sign of submission with these guys.” I got over myself and obeyed, thinking that the grossness was worth having an anchor against this place. She tasted a little like cinnamon. But more like dust. “Now they’ll think you’re my bitch.”

As she began pulling me along, Okavango bumped up against my side, clamoring for attention like a beggar on his knees or a child on the tips of their hooves. “Huh. Don’t think he likes seeing you this way.” I let go of her tail, and let the spritebot guide me, as if he were no different to a shoal of fish gathered at the belly of a blind whale, steering it home. “Little bastard is smarter than I figured.”

I heard voices rising all around me, as we came into what felt like an open square. I tried to walk like a Raider might; attacking the ground with each step, and even going so far as to growl under my breath. Okavango swung around to my left side, after travelling under my belly, as if caught in orbit.

He had the sense to straighten out my arclight helmet, though I had realized that the accessory was nearly incompatible with unicorns. As far as plans went, this might have been one of the worst, were it not for the fact that – despite the mare walking as if following the scent of a gazelle through some savannah, and the robot drawing cursive blue lines around her body – we scarcely turned a head.

The Raiders only circled bonfires built from ruin, fired their crude weapons into the air as if their bullets were notes from an instrument, and watched senseless dogfights over Hell’s plentiful stores of meat.

Almost a quarter of the bodies I saw, were either mounting, or being mounted, though Kings hunched over other Kings just as often as they did their Queens, as if this greasy deck of cards was being shuffled by a fitful and irreverent dealer. These proud displays of sodomy were enough to send me back behind my shield, though it was good to know that, if nothing else, they couldn’t multiply by going that way.

“The Raiders tend to take the road less travelled,” Caliber whispered, as even a mare in blinds could not cross the square and shrug off their rutting. “Hey… check it out.”

I was afraid to look, but the mercenary pressed her tail against my cheek and, as she tilted my head up, I was almost knocked to my haunches for seeing what lorded over the city. Standing between two crude, concrete structures, was an enormous Celestial Cross. But it was nothing like the symbol sewn across the cover of a hymn books, or beautifully pieced together from matchsticks and scraps of metal from the lower floor. This was an insult, and even a godless mare, might feel her stomach churn at the sight of it.

The monument was a blackened, sagging thing, whose wings were flesh and whose body looked to have been nailed to a tower of pinewood and discolored metal like that of an insect in a display case. Its wings, though molded in the image of those that had carried Celestia over the world, those instruments that had been forged in the fires of the first day, wore feathers strung up at the neck, which were slowly being peeled of their ashy skin by the smoke and the winds that rolled through Hell.

This ugly Princess wore no crown and, from a distance, might have been mistaken for no less of a corpse than the bodies that were pressed together to color her silhouette. This bald alicorn, a skeleton to some crude religion, could not have risen for anything like love or devotion and, somehow, I knew that it was no tribute to Nightmare Moon, or even the ancillary sister that she had swallowed. This was Celestia, demonized, strung up and twisted like any of the animal carcasses in the alley.

I couldn’t move, and Caliber had to prod at my sides, leading me along as she might herd cattle around the fences of a stockyard, or some early and uncomplicated culture through the first church in the wild.

I couldn’t think of anything but the serpentine face of that God among monsters, that idol to the damned. And, as the mercenary guided me down a flight of stairs that sank into the concrete, I realized that the corpses lining Hell’s edge were not like those at the toll. There were faces here that had been marked in chalk runes and dark ink that mimicked wings or flooded over one another to color black and white suns, as if the Raiders were children, smearing their bodies in paint and letting the dust gather over old toys.

This city in the storm was filled with something darker than those pony peddlers and savages: for there were black crosses standing around their kingdom, and each held up another body, as if to let it blister under the veiled sun. The Faith had been so close, their scripture had skirted the edge of gospel, if only for all those rambling promises of sinners and sicknesses and circles… of demons.

“They blew out into the East, into the Great Plain,” Caliber began, as she pried open a tired old door, and guided me in the serene light of another utility tunnel. “So Damascus always calls ‘em what the Buffalo do-” From his port before this swarm, from that sanctuary of glass and light, he had named them.

“The Locusts.”

*** *** ***

Soon, as the weight of the earth above us became immeasurable, the walls changed, and our hoofsteps rang for beating against the steel and the glass, which seemed to float over a pulsing cavity far below.

“Damascus says this kind of archi-tec-ture is a lot more common over in the Crystal Empire,” Caliber explained, as I peered down into the currents of silvery light, as if watching a river go by. “Told me that everything built like this was here before Equestria.” A little bit of wonder had almost fluttered into her voice. “Came from when we stole our blueprints from the Dragons, and learned how to use their metal.”

“That explains the size of it all.” The ceiling was so high that, by the time his light came to pool against it, Okavango might have become a star, bound to us as if by lasso. “I don’t see any crystals, though.”

“You’d have to go a lot further East for that.” I noticed that the door ahead had been torn down, as if the beast Cerberus had once hammered against it, until hinges of light surrendered to heavy and tireless paws. “The first tribes preferred this kind of metal alloy, see?” She dragged one hoof along the wall, following a raw vein. “There’s less of a flourish to it: It’s more honest.”

“I like silver.”

“You like everything.” It seemed Caliber had shaken off some of the morning’s tension, and now hurried on to meet Damascus with something like a spring in her step. It was strange to see peril, for all its commotion and adrenaline, swinging a pony up into such high spirits, but I was glad to see her happy.

We stepped over the once adamantine door, and entered an immensely tall room – a hallway standing on its head – whose middle was filled by a finely carved pillar, like a brittle violin in a glass case. It was surrounded, choked by a thousand stairs, and weighed down by blinking consoles and dreadlocks of wire. The room might have seemed calm, spacious and untouched, were it not for our leechlike machines.

The color of the light, which shone down as if from a waning sun, told me that we were getting close, that Damascus was only a staircase away. It was, however, a distressingly tall staircase, and I frowned up at it, wondering which sadist of an architect had been its designer. This kind of pilgrimage was usually reserved as a trial to the madly religious, or a routine to the clinically unfit.

“The door on the far wall has an elevator behind it.” Caliber said, though she didn’t make it sound like this was especially good news. “Behind it.” We both stared up at what would have to come next, and I noticed something then, as we stood in silence: the room was breathing. For every pulse of color, both magic and machine took another breath, to feed the blood of their beating hearts.

As if he had finally gotten tired of waiting for me to remember him, Okavango started towards the door, humming inharmoniously as he went. Of course: The Skeleton Key! I tried to slap my brow in surprise, but only succeeded in hurting myself, as hoof met steel and kicked off a panic between the slanted mask, its loosening strap, and my deranged mane.

“Don’t tell me he can get that open!” Caliber hurried after the spritebot, even as he woke up the door. “We’re gonna have to start looking for more of these things: Damascus would pass out caps by the shovelful for something to walk Cerberus through this rat’s maze.”

Okavango floated into the elevator, as if to say that we’d slowed him down enough: that he was too busy to have to deal with this nonsense. “Thank you,” I offered, as we came to stand at either side of him.

Under our hooves, the veins of light seemed to go on forever, and I could only hope that it was an illusion.
“Alright, operator: crank that dial to eleven, and get us floating.” Caliber poked at one of his antennae, making the spritebot do his best impression of a grumble. “Top Floor: Kings, Contracts and Keys to Super-Dungeons.” The room lit up, as Okavango lowered himself before a screen in the wall.

The Installation took a deep breath, and we began to rise, with that pattern of lights racing away beneath us, like the headlights of an unbottled traffic jam. When it was over, we were turned loose into a wide, broken ring, which, according to my Pipbuck, went on to tighten around Damascus’ chamber, like a collar.

“That… made things a lot easier.” Caliber sounded stunned, as if she couldn’t believe that Hell might be so suddenly tamed. “Does Damascus know about him?” She lowered her voice, and jabbed a hoof at Okavango conspiratorially, as if she could be talking about anyone else.

As if to give her an answer, the security officer blustered out a few would-be expletives, and then drifted off into the gloom. “I’m guessing he doesn’t want to be an elevator boy for the rest of his life.” I tried to wave, but Okavango Delta was already gone. “Looks like it’ll just be you and me.”

“Not quite, Lamplight: I need you to let me go in alone,” She said, flatly. “At least for now.” I nearly reared onto my hind legs, as What’s and Why’s filled my mouth like so many red and yellow cherries. “Damascus needs a report, not a confession. You won’t tell him everything straight: you’ll dip your hooves into it all, and tilt the scales. I need him to do this right, to decide if I went too far out of margins of my contract.”

I wanted to argue, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. This really meant something to her, and though I didn’t understand it, I held my tongue. She needed an arbiter, some authority far greater than I, to push her over the edge, or tuck her back into her contract, as if it were a paper blanket.

The mercenary was gone before I’d even thought to force her into a hug and, more than anything, I felt like I’d been slapped across the face, and left in the middle of a ballroom, with my partner storming off over some overambitious hoof or a whispering of sweet and sour nothings.

Okavango had decided to fly laps to and from each of the ring’s broken ends, and passed me by without so much as a song, more like an officer on patrol, than a janitor dancing around his mop. He became the pendulum of a grandfather clock, and had done no more than three laps, by the time the wait was over.

As my eyes traced the lines of light that crossed the walls like narrow canals, I felt her hoof on my back, and shivered, as if my body was trying to shake it off. “The Coltilde sent out a search party.” She explained, smiling in the glow even as it floated by like a blue and bucolic lantern. “And there I was expecting them to start tearing into Cerberus’ neck as soon as the dust settled.”

“If Damascus is as good a liar as I think he is, the Slavers will put their bloody little noses down so far off the trail, that they’ll be sniffing red circles around the West.” She almost seemed giddy, caught up in the shock of having so many things go her way. “Luna’s bones, Gracie… we’re going to be alright.”

It wasn’t adrenaline that was making the mercenary seem so warm now, but the weight that had just been lifted, freeing her from all the burdens that I’d led her to bear. “Of course we are.” I couldn’t help laughing a little, as if she was a filly on my knee. “We’re the heroes, remember?”

*** *** ***

“Good work at the toll. Even the Goddesses could not wash the salt from this earth’s wounds, and prepare it for harvest. And so we must take a sword to it, and carve fields from the ashes.” I watched the Coltilde breathing behind him, as great continents of smoke drifted apart over a serene and honey-colored ocean, making it look as if Damascus had imprisoned a dragon behind that pane of scriptured glass. “You and I serve our masters by another name, but our methods may not be so different after all.”

“We will be taking action – whether or not there is any worth behind the words of the one you found dying.” If that Slaver had been telling the truth, then there might be another, standing on the shore, watching as our fleets churned up the surf, and filled the water with shipwreck. “If the Coltilde has a master, it will make itself known in time. And we must be ready.”

“Where do we start?”

“I once believed that, in serving them, I would walk under the cover of a thousand shields and pillars, all keeping the world from folding over me like it had over so many others. But I was wrong.” He began. “Legends of the Steel Rangers, of the Buffalo tribes and the untouched north, made me blind. But each of them proved to be nothing more than tricks of the light, left behind by the old world.”

Like dead satellites, pretending to be stars. “You need to reach out to those illusions, and light them as if striking flint against a sword. It would be so easy for those old armies to wipe the slate, to come down from the skies or march across the earth and leave our country clean... and I believe that there are still some, tucked into the ranks of the dormant powers that dot Equestria, that might beat the dust from their banners, and lift them with the dawn. We only need to call them out.”

“How can these ponies just ignore the Railway? Why wouldn’t they fight?” I demanded, as if all those idle soldiers were on their knees before me, asking to be judged.

“They aren’t under the threat of annihilation: we are. And they would not face the wasteland, but ignore it, and find a means to their blindness in some ancient codex or mistranslated law. They would see everything around them die out, before stepping out of their bomb shelters, drifting away from their tribes, to reclaim an empty, lonely world. They are slow to care, and this is the greatest obstacle we face.”

“The Steel Rangers will be the last, as there is a chapter to their order hidden somewhere inside New Calvary, and on arriving there, you will already have the banner to a small army on your back.” I almost felt light-headed, as I could hardly believe that this buck, who might have watched the world being mounted by the Fallout, had steered me onto his road. “But first, information will give you course.” He paused, and the light caught his crystalline eyes. “And that, is where the DJ comes in.”

“DJ Pon3?” I couldn’t help jumping at the name, as Caliber let it roll off her tongue. “GNR’s signal cuts off a few clicks east of here, boss. Calvary must be buried pretty deep in that same dead zone.”

“That’s why you’re going West. The GNR broadcast makes use of a broken chain of relays that was once known as the MASEBS system. The nearest functioning tower leaves our Middle Passage at the very edge of absolute static, though it can still be seen from the mouth of the valley.” Seen, but barely heard. “You might be able to use it to make contact with the DJ, and then we will have our eyes into the storm.”

“Why me?” I asked, after cycling through a dozen other questions. To show any sign of doubt was a risk, but Damascus did not seem capable of being unsure of anything. He had to have a reason.

“You are a symbol, a flag in the earth and a gunshot at the start of a race. And your arrival has tipped the scales – not like the weight of a single coin, but the impact of a comet. I could never make anything of the damned, of all those that the Stable spat at this place: could never set them on the right path, but you… your destiny is being shaped by an authority far greater than mine. And we can do nothing to stop it.”

Luckily, Damascus wasn’t about to waste our time, waiting for me to think of something to say, though he might have mistaken my silence for something other than awe. “I expect there are reasons for you to doubt me, for you to hesitate, but know that you must put your instincts aside.”

“I trust you.” I said, surprised that he could have thought otherwise.

“Good. That saves us time. But there are still two things we must address before you can leave this place.” I felt Caliber bristle beside me, as if she was a windup toy whose key was being turned.

“There’ve been some changes to my contract.” She explained, as we turned our heads to face one another, and both became twofaced for light and the lack of it. “I’m gonna be working on standing orders.” She sounded proud, as if this was something that other mercenaries might be jealous of. “And as of now, we’ve got ourselves a neat little Your wish is my command relationship.” I tapped a hoof against my chest, wondering onto whose wishes she meant to leash herself. “That’s right.”

The storm behind him cast torpid shadows over the throne room, and they became whales drifting through a sea that was the color of butter, or a sky in the flush of sunrise. And Damascus went on, before I could even begin to choke on my first word. “Now, for the last step we must take, before your first.”

He lifted his hoof, and set it on a small box, whose trimming glinted in the light of the window, beside half a dozen eyes. “You have a wasteland to stitch together, and I have fires to start… We have everything to do, and no time to do it in. Take these, for when your trust begins to lose its balance.” He pushed the case over to me, and it slid over the glass as if it were ice. “Take these, and you will know Me.”

“Damascus…” Caliber breathed out his name, and stared down at the thing, as if it were an animal to be sacrificed before us. I floated the case over - as it pleaded to be taken into the folds of my magic, and tucked into the hollow of my saddlebags - and clicked it open. A row of small spheres, all cushioned in the compartment’s soft lining, caught the chamber’s lights in all its tides and streams, and I saw that each was tinted a different shade, with its own color taking slow breaths somewhere beneath a silvery surface.
I counted all six, and then shut the case as the mercenary spoke. “You don’t know what’s in there.”

“They are memories that I no longer needed – sentiments that once hung around my neck like millstones. My mistakes are my own, my sins like wounds that should be made fresh for every passing morning, but those small pieces of history were to be forgotten: kept separate… but safe.”

“She’s a unicorn.” Caliber said, fencing me out with a word, like a line put to paper with a flourish, with a twist of the neck or roll of the hoof. “She could watch those, Damascus.”

“She may be the last one who has the chance.” I couldn’t help peeking into the case then, wondering how my horn might allow me to relive history, even where others could not. But I was quickly drawn back to the buck before the storm, as a crinkle in the scars on his cheek, made it seem like he was smiling. “The north always had a remarkably flat head.”

I packed the orbs away, even as Caliber furrowed her brow, and tightened her lips. She seemed to know enough about the devices to stand against their being wrapped in ribbon, and I decided that she could help me if I were ever to go wandering into these abandoned pieces of Damascus’ almost mythological life. “I’ll keep them safe.” I said, as they watched me fiddle with the clasp of my saddlebag.

“Don’t fall in and out of them as you might a daydream. And if you must, then visit each once, and only once.” An enormous plume of smoke pressed against the window then, and darkened the chamber like a hoof over a candle, as if to remind us of the beast that had come to eat at time as a serpent might its own tail. “We cannot afford to see you wasted. In a world full of misery and uncertainty, it is too great comfort to know that, in the end, there is still light in the darkness.”

The mercenary drew a cross around her chest, as if making a promise. I’ll take care of her. “Caliber will brief you as you go, but do not hesitate to walk circles around the path, to wander off of its sides. To put reins on destiny, would be to tie a rope around its neck, and choke it with every turn.”

I might have wished him Good Luck, as to remain in Hell was to let the mouth of the Coltilde close around you, but I had come to understand how little luck meant to ponies of the Faith. Besides, the buck didn’t seem at all interested in anything like a goodbye, and so I moved to follow Caliber out of the chamber, and found that she was standing by, as if to let me pull her along by the leash.

Before leaving Damascus and his Kingdom of Glass, I did manage a salute, and a neat little march that I couldn’t help being proud of, if only for how hard it had been to keep myself from skipping.

*** *** ***

“That was Sweetie Belle, the voice of the frozen era, with Wish upon a Star, a song that’s been topping the charts for over a century.” The previously explosive buck now spoke in soft, reverent voice, as if he didn’t want to wake the age old music, or had simply changed for coming out of Okavango’s speakers.

I could see the valley’s northern mountain range coming to an end through the last swirls of mist, as we stepped off the highway, and walked towards that divider of valleys. The wind howled over uneven hills and wove through the ornate cement pillars that lifted the road high beside us. Across the fields ahead, it played eerie songs with electrical pylons and pine tree clusters as its only instruments.

“You’re listening to Galaxy News Radio; we’re Radio Free Wasteland, and we’re here… for you.” For a moment, I thought that somepony soft-spoken had booted the DJ out of his chair, to hijack the station, but then the buck’s voice picked up into a howl, breaking the air of calm that had settled under a crooning storm and the echoes of Ms. Belle’s heart-wrenching song. “Boy, do I have some news for you!”

Few ruins dotted the valley’s western mouth, though the rails lay ahead like a long spine built across the back of Equestria, and the road rose to curve off behind the distant end of southern mountains.

“It’s going to be a little bit of both sides of the coin today, kiddies. We’re living in a bipolar time, so get yourselves ready for some serious ups and downs in today’s report.” Caliber had set a course for the farthest standing electrical pylon, and we walked past cabals of pine trees and boulders, all bound together by streaks of grass, crossing the untamed earth to reach what she had called her shack.

“First things first; the dark and twisted. I know this isn’t always what you wanna hear, but you all know the rule: Truth, no matter how bad it hurts.” The voice bounced behind us, as Okavango entertained himself. “So you kids know all about what’s been going down up north, don’t you?” He paused. “Of course you don’t! That’s why I have a job… Now, forget about everything you might have read in the picture books or tour guides children, ‘cause the farther up you go, the more fucked up things get.”

“You can forget the wonderland: We’re talkin’ Winter Wasteland, and that means you’ve got the cold nipping at your hooves right along with every two-bit savage or snapping set of manacles.” As he spoke, I had to wonder what the season of summer was like, as every word seemed to remind my body of the chill in the air. “I’ll tell you; if I was drinking all the same irradiated crap, and living under deep freeze to boot, I might have to make my living as a lime-flavored Popsicle machine.”

I looked to Caliber for an explanation, feeling like I had missed something, but she just smiled and waved me away. “However the Slavers, bless their hearts, have decided to try and protect the towns along their Railway from that old dog named Winter… too bad their doing it by putting them to the torch. Those lovable bastards have spread themselves wide, and I mean wide folks. Straight out of this Old DJ’s iron sights. And, not only are they snatching ponies up from the Capital to Calvary, these collectors have recently gone above and beyond the call of being evil sons of bitches… but we’ll get to that in a sec.”

“Now they’ve got themselves set up cozy, and run their ring over one line; one set of tracks.” With one terrible train. “But DJ, don’t you see?” He asked, doing an impression of us all. “If we set some good old fashioned dynamite down on that ‘one line’ we can stop those Slavers short!” The funny thing was, I might have said exactly that. “Not happening, my little heroes. Those tracks are damn near indestructible. Wartime defense regulations wouldn’t have had it any other way: That Applejack was a real stickler.

As we drew ever closer to the electrical pylon, I noticed a modest pen of steel sheets and woodwork around its base, and an opening that looked out onto the East and the traces of Hell that remained there.

“Now, lemme tell you how things get worse: A settlement far and clear of us here in dearest Manehattan… has gone quiet. But this wasn’t some shanty town that got blown away in a radstorm; this was Free Rein. I couldn’t tell you exactly what happened there, but from what I’m hearing: the place was flattened. Oh, and if you’re wondering why I can’t tell you more, hear this: there was nothing left. No survivors, no corpses, no witnesses… children, that shiver down your spine wasn’t from the col-.”

The voice cut off, not fifty paces from the repurposed electrical pylon, and I looked back to investigate. “He was about to get to the Good News,” I complained, getting the words out before I noticed Okavango sputtering and seizing in place. Bursts of static shot out of him like artillery rounds, and the percussion of swing songs coupled with sultry horn sections to mimic the sounds of a warzone.

Love me… Love me… Love me as though there were no no no no no no no no no.” I doubled back to his side, but found myself at a loss for having no limbs to restrain or arteries to inject with a save-all sedative.

I winced away as he played out the sound of a massive, terrible explosion. “Where will you be when the bombs fall?” Then came actual gunfire to outshine the music. “Enlist to- to- to- to-…

Sugar Bombs.” Jingle. “Fancy Foal!” Jangle. “Take a Sparkle Break… for Equestria’s Sake.” Jingle.
Yippee-yaaaaaayy!

“This is new,” Caliber said, standing by as I tried to console the panicking spritebot.

Reserve your spot today.” I could only hold him in my magic, as he rattled and shook, like a machine with a wrench in its belly. “It’s all coming down… Oh… Oh they hit the Capital! The entire city, the Princ-

Kindness Honesty Laughter…” Okavango started to cackle maniacally, as his voice devolved into that of a mad mare. The music became chipper and obnoxious, and I wished that my magic could suffocate it, and silence this massive malfunction. “Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo...” The howl changed from that of the DJ, to a soul singer’s, and finally a siren to announce the end of days.

Armor? The means to remake yourself. Build Mass with Sasasasasasasasasasassssssss…” He hissed. “Weapons? The world is a dangerous and unbalanced place, children. The roads are the dustiest...” The meld of music, advertisements and voices both familiar and unknown were rubbing me the wrong way, but I managed to turn Okavango around, and stared into his flickering heart. Red. Blue. Red. Blue. White!

Equestria? Celestia! It’d be best if ya: Left Equestria!” The seditious song cut out. “Guidance? Duck and Cover, duck and coooov-er.” Caliber stepped up to my side, and lifted a hoof. “Absolutely Everything? “You bet! To protect our Equestrian way of life.” She slammed her hoof down against the spritebot, as if he were a sputtering jukebox. “Virtue…” He managed, before coming to rest only a few paces East.

“Stay there!” She ordered, pointing her miraculous hoof at a silent Okavango. “Stay right there!” He obeyed, and whimpered like a dog on a guilt trip, knowing that he’d done something wrong. I looked to Caliber, hoping that she might explain. “Cerberus lets itself by… but it doesn’t let itself out.”

“You mean…”

“Yeah, Mister In-Between isn’t leaving the nest.” She began pacing along some imagined line. “I set up shop in this pylon because it’s over what every map marks as the edge of Hell. Call me superstitious, but I’m not sleeping inside the lines of a place like that.” I looked back at the patchwork walls that ringed the last soldier of electricity, and realized that the wreck we’d been heading for was Caliber’s home. “I knew it had to mean something.” Despite the whole ordeal, she seemed pleased, if only for finding this proof.

I, on the other hoof, could only stare at the electrical pylon. “You live here?” I peered into the doorless doorway, and counted two shelves full of color, one naked bed, and a rusty table. “There’s no roof!”

A series of disheartened beeps pulled me back into the story of that surgery of hoofbumps, though I was now too wary to cross back over into Hell’s palm. Okavango stared at me from beyond the rim, as if a wire fence had risen to keep us apart, and I felt myself getting caught up in thinking that he was being taken from me. “Settle down, Sugar.” Caliber set a hoof on my shoulder, as if standing beside me on the docks, to watch our little spritebot drowning in the radio currents of Hell.

“Okavango!” He turned away from us, and began to float back into the circle of that ugly city, with his eye to the earth. “Okavango!” I reached a hoof out over the border, as if I was trying to pull him back. But it was over; he had surrendered to the world as it reached down with uncaring tongs, and forced us apart. “I’ll come back for you,” I promised, with my voice at a whisper. “I’ll come back for you!

After a few more seconds of holding my hoof out, like some sailor’s wife waving to the ships as they were taken by the sea, it started to hurt a little, so I stopped. Okavango too, realized that it would take him quite a long time to get back home if he kept up this melancholic pace, and turned back around to beep one last goodbye, before moving on at a much less emotionally expressive speed. But, despite these changes, Caliber didn’t watch us with anything but a slanted expression on her face.

“You guys are weird.”

*** *** ***

“Are we ready to go, Caliber?” Now, it was my turn to be waiting in the wings, as the mercenary stalled the beginning of our mission to tinker with her favorite gun’s rig over a workbench.

I didn’t mind that much, as the world had gotten no smaller, and no less beautiful in its second day. Equestria lay beneath a great collide between the East’s mist and sunlight through a filter, and the West’s temperamental sky, raging like a colorless fire over the broken pieces of a highway. And I found myself loving the country for what it had once been, as well as the nation on its knees that it had now become.

I had changed back into my father’s clothes, and even donned the cross bearing coat, if only to survive the darkening storm that still heaved and threatened snow above us. Caliber too, had returned to her usual outfit, and the Raider’s garb now burned beside her shack. Damascus hadn’t seemed to mind the disguise, but it would do me no good to go about rallying Equestria, dressed as one of its worst pests.

As I took another look at the path ahead, and measured a great, open field marked by rare clusters of stripped pine trees, it occurred to me that Caliber would have grown up in this place. With the light of the open sky on our right, beating against the earth, the illusion of sunset in the morning was created for shadows leaning south. The grass whispered and the wild wind roared, for being bent over these narrow valleys, and I knew that this place might shape a filly far differently than the Stable had me.

“Caliber.” She looked up from her desk, as if peering at me over eyeglasses, and I couldn’t help but to picture her in a bedraggled shirt and tie, bent over a newspaper whose headlines read WAR! with coffee and a pipe building pillars of steam in place of her cigarette. “Is this where you grew up?”

The shack was cozy enough, and wasn’t much smaller than my own quarters, but it was far too isolated to have fostered a family, and far too naked, like a raft caught in the storm. “All I can tell you is that I got my cutie mark in the snow, and that this rifle’s been with me as far as I can remember.” She lifted a hoof away from the disemboweled rifle, and tapped at the bandage on her temple. “Only got bits and pieces to go on, mostly: everything before my crusadin’ was over – as they say – is as clear as flat cola.”

“Most of my growing up got blown right out of me.” It was a gunshot wound. My mouth hung open, as I blinked at the mare who had dusted herself off after her own execution: who had beaten Shady Sands. “I had this blossom of gunpowder on the side of my face after it was over, like a crater, and the Doc figured I couldn’t have been more than a few paces away from the pistol.” She explained, skipping over her death as if it were a movie whose reel had only just been pieced together.

My eyes leapt from the neatly dressed wound to the crosshair on her flanks, as the thought of a life tied up in so much violence made my legs buckle. The mare smiled, and even knowing that she still could gave me a sickly kind of hope, that was far too bogged down in pity and guilt to taste anything but sour. “Got shot quite a while after this pretty little thing appeared on my flank.” But, even then, she would only have been pushing at the front lines of childhood. “And a long way away, too: Down South.”

“I couldn’t remember anything until I tried piecing together my cutie mark story. But once I’d put some color onto that empty slate, a lot of things started coming back to me.” I could only stare, marveling at the relationship between this mare, her mark, and her marksman’s carbine. In a way, the thought of it was kind of beautiful, and it left me feeling even happier to have been bound to this mare.

I watched, as she weighed her body down, with the belts of her battle saddle drawing taught, each wearing bullets like bars on the shoulder of a new world soldier. “We should stop in Silo City on our way to the satellite tower. Damascus says there’s one hell of a sniper working the wall there, and it couldn’t hurt to shop around a little... After all, you don’t play Follow the Lady with less than three cards.” She closed her bag, after sliding in what looked like a child’s map of the entire country, with its monuments made into swollen caricatures, and then tossed me her rifle.

To see the weapon up in the air startled me, and my magic grabbed at it just as a dozen hooves might come into a clamor for the bridal bouquet. “I just fixed a scope onto it for ya… Try it out.” I looked back at her dumbly, as if I needed more instruction. “Go ahead. Aim it down at that gas station. Let’s see if you can read the sign.” I brought the rifle to bear, and she took it in her hooves, to help me point it towards the southwest. “There, see… hanging under that big, pasty looking Phoenix.”

A large roof cast its shadow over most of the station, standing with its skirts hiked over a cluster of blocky gas pumps and a burnt out jalopy, which had been left to a lonely feast from this paradisiacal soda fountain. Its height could not match the overpass that lurched on behind it, though a figure rose, in the shape of a great bird, with an outstretched wing waving travelers down from the road.

Even for the coming midday, the station’s lights still blinked up at the Phoenix, though its feathers had nearly taken on the color of fuel, for a hundred years of fallout.

And then, I saw them, hanging in the shadow of the station, swaying like wind chimes: Corpses.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Bloody Mess: Death is just so much messier around you. And he should be coming around a little more often, now that you have +5% damage. Make some Friends!

END OF BOOK I: GENESIS

|*| I guess you think you know this story |*|

You don't. You're all too drunk on toasts and glory.

The watered down one, the one you know.

Was made up centuries ago.

They made it sound all soft and sappy.

Just to keep the children happy.

Twisted fictions, sick addictions.

You're grown up now. It's time to listen.

BOOK II: EXODUS

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BOOK II: EXODUS

|*| Mind you, they got it right about the dawn |*|

The part where each tribe moved their pawn.

Those three thrones: all crowns, no Kings

Departed from their empty springs

While that darling little season summer

Led them like a marching drummer

As the call of autumn filled their sails,

Winter danced, and pulled their tails.

Chapter 7: Gravedigger

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 7: Gravedigger
“So be it. You’ve dug your own grave. Grave! Grave!”

|*| Too Close to the Sun |*|

A Phoenix rose before the mobile of corpses: still proud for its trailing feathers of flame, though their sheen had faded to gray as strips of paint were peeled loose, like the rind of a fruit made dark with rot. The bird splayed its wing up towards the overpass, from which the ropes had drawn taught, to make string puppets out of five ponies… to make a gallows out of this quiet and unsettling place.

Phoenician Energy: Let your journey begin anew. The slogan hung from the steel bones of its wing in rank with those faceless bodies. For each letters’ colors had also been drained, no differently than blood going cold under the skin, to leave them in uniform with so much of this wild new world.

Now that the mist had cleared, the air was becoming more silver than it was white, for the light of the sun came through in beams, which flickered as if in rhythm with the streetlights dotting the road. The storm above was a sleepless and bothersome thing, not unlike an immense godchild vying for our attention.

And its shadows spun around us, as if the world was at the bottom of a pool. We moved forward, towards their ten heavy hooves, though even the twitching of a pine tree or the rustle of straggling leaves would make Caliber stop, and sniff at the air like a dog. Their bodies might have passed for mannequins or ceremonial rag dolls, lifeless as the molting Phoenix, which now looked flat: more a billboard than a bird.

“They died from the hangings.” Each of the ponies had had their faces bloated over broken necks, though, under the nooses, they were whole, nothing like those bodies used as dead sentries around the tribal warcamp that was Hell. Caliber and I drew in a little closer, stepping over the road as carefully as we might a shallow river. “This was… suicide.” I whispered the word, afraid of the power in it.

“Maybe… but keep your eyes peeled, and get real friendly with that Pipbuck of yours,” She said, evenly. We stepped into the easel onto which the streetlights were printing their shadows, again and again.
“This could be some kind of trap.”

Five pieces of bait, cast from the overpass like gray earthworms on a hook. “Let’s see if we can find a way up onto the roof.” Caliber’s voice shook me out of a daze, as watching them sway, watching them bump into one another like muted wind chimes, had me hypnotized. “We should get a better look at ‘em.”

The station’s convenience store, which looked to have been sat on, stretched out under those ten hooves of many colors. “What could have driven them to this?” I asked, trying to tread lightly for how quickly I had condemned that buck before the mouth of Hell: that tortured, heartbroken lunatic.

Caliber ran on ahead, leaving me and my question to one another, but I was quick to follow as I caught the bushfire of her tail disappearing into the store’s breached hull. The squat little building was far worse for the war than the station’s metal roof, or the bundle of gas pumps under its wing. In fact, there was little evidence of the apocalypse here, apart from the great black circles of spilt gasoline, like holes in the asphalt, and that one rusty old jalopy, bleeding out the static and the songs of Galaxy News Radio.

There was a Sparkle Cola machine standing guard beside the doors, and its red lights, coupled with the looping calligraphy that had spun out its name, reminded me of that first night in Acheron. A tender kind of nostalgia came to a glow inside me, and I did my best to shelter it, like one might a small fire.

The building was lodged between the station and the overpass, drowned in the sunlit stream that passed between those two banks of steel and concrete, and it wore an electric brand that named it Quick-Stop. But, as the fluorescents behind its punched out walls flickered, I saw that the ruin had been picked clean.

I entered the building through its jammed doors, instead of pouncing over the ruins of a poster-coated wall like Caliber had, as a part of me thought it would be more polite. As if the station deserved to be treated like a freshly dug grave, with the Phoenix serving as its ornate, and no less desolate, headstone.

As I stepped onto tiles that had crumpled into one another like tectonic plates, littered with faces thanks to a slew of magazine covers and pamphlets, I understood why the dead hadn’t taken their rest in this low place, to make an abattoir of it. Not only did it feel as if all these models and spokesmares were watching as a smiling, beautiful audience from below, but the ceiling had fallen in on itself almost completely.

Caliber stood on what had once been the roof, waiting; as if she’d run the length of a leash between us. A wide tongue of concrete had been pressed into the room, as if to make us a walkway up into the swirling clouds. Empty shelves were pinned down under the serrated edge of the ruin, where the building’s dark framework stuck out like a row of bones that could bend before they broke.

My side of the store, which hadn’t been pinned down under that tongue of rubble, was where the cashier could be found. Its booth opened up to the station outside, so that travelers drawn in by the fires of the Phoenix could pay for their own small share of its power. “Wish these old ruins still set the lights in my eyes to shining,” Caliber said, slipping a nervous spring into my step, until I saw her smiling.

I didn’t yet know if she was a patient mare: if she could stand my slow hoofsteps and wandering eyes for the length of the open West, but the mercenary seemed to get something out of watching me take in the wasteland she had mastered, as if the lights in my eyes were bright enough to shine out over it.

“You’d better skip along now, Sugar. Looked like those corpses were strung up with wire. And they’ll be going soft as boiled apples before long.” My stomach hurt, and it frightened me to think that it might have been for hunger, and not disgust. She nodded up to the station’s roof, though the mare had lost her smile. “I’m bettin the sight of one burst open on the asphalt will blow those lights out like birthday candles.”

*** *** ***

The sky was bright. And, were it not for how surgically the storms had been cut off before the bare blue easel of the North, I would have thought they were finally passing. Now, the clouds might have met an invisible wall, and the fires of a sun we couldn’t see came spilling over their lip like the juice of a forbidden fruit. It was hard to love the light, though, as it made it all too easy to see those five faces, with their bulging eyes and chicken necks, and mistake every trick of the wind as a twitch, as a plea for help.

I tried to ignore them, and looked instead at the symbols on their flanks, which had not been marked with the print of death’s fingers. Their cutie marks might have been pulled from a filly’s sticker book, and pressed over images that matched the violence in the Raider’s naked heart, the weight of Damascus’ empty cross, or the promise of Caliber’s black and white crosshairs.

They might have been hidden under Stable jumpsuits, or worn proudly at the hem of old world fashion. And from east to west, they went something like this: Three candles, a ragged book, the Sun in a ring of triangles, a red ribbon around a key, and a mareless moon tucked into a bed of stars. “This is too neat,” Caliber complained, even as the suspicion flooded back into her voice.

They had become a gallery, and though it was an eerie thought, I imagined those bony fingers, lingering until each body was hung just right, as if Death was a perfectionist. “Do you think they might’ve had help?” I offered, though we couldn’t see the road where their wires would no doubt be tethered.

“Wouldn’t call it help.” She frowned up at the bodies, able to look at them without turning away for air, as if they were nothing more than ornaments bought in bad taste. “You’re some kind of doctor, right?” For a moment, I forget the gallows and beamed, for her word was as good as any graduation day, any hoofshake and certificate. “What’s your read on ‘em? D’you figure they died before getting strung up?”

I’d never done an autopsy before, as the Stable door had almost kept that bony old fussbudget shut out, but it was clear that the only damage to these five were the rings of raw skin drawn around their necks like collars. “I really don’t think so, Caliber.” I shook my head, slowly, as if her suspicions were to be treated with care. “It looks more like they were trying to say something: to leave a message…”

“You might be on to something,” She said, flicking her tail towards the horizon, which wore the edge of the storm like a shimmering crown, lay slumped into a throne of earth, and made its armrests in the washed out mountains. But before that, easily missed at the cusp of the station’s pale roof, there lay a small circle of saddlebags and richly dyed fabrics, set out in line with the mare hanging in the middle. Caliber winced, as our hoofsteps rang out through the metal, no different to if we had been striking a bell.

The wind was that much more bracing now, as it molded alien smoke signals out of our breath, and I almost felt like I had been dropped onto a raft in the middle of the ocean. The circle, laid out like an offering to the hanged idols above us, enclosed a cluster of five gray faces, as if to mirror those that were looking down on it, though these were square and metal: not fleshy and bloated.

“What are they?” I asked, tentatively, like a mare fresh off the boat from the old world, staring up at the faces of the pioneers and mapmakers who had first come dancing across the water, only to be turned to stone, and to gods, in the jungle. Caliber was circling the shrine, checking for traps or sniffing for treasure, but looked up to answer me.

“Holotapes.”

*** *** ***

I am Cyrus of the Later Days, and this recording speaks as I no longer can… to leave reason for our flight from the face of the earth.” Something was wailing behind him and, for how lost it was to language, I couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t an animal. I might have thought it was a baby, or a pup, but nothing so young could know what it meant to cry like that.

We once thought that plenty and peace could come again, that our Faith would pave the way to better days, but now… we have learned that this day, and all that follow, will be no different to our last. There will be no return of harmony, and even the promise of paradise has turned sour in our mouths, like grapes, all frozen and foul for this endless season… It is too late.

It felt as if sandflies were creeping over my body, digging into my skin with every step, sending chills out in circles around them. “We have seen history stripped of its lies, watched our scripture worn thin under the light, and so the path ahead is clear. We began this pilgrimage so that we might see the world that harmony held together, so that we might visit the ruins of paradise, but know now that it never was.

While we listened, Caliber watched the horizon, wary of whatever dark and terrible thing had pulled the Faith out from under this old buck. “All this time… we sowed our fields and used our guns as better times would see us using more pastoral tools, all for the love of an abomination. An abomination...”

The mercenary was toying with rifles held together by little more than metal rings and straps of leather: the very rifles that had seen them killing as if it was a chore like any other. “The Faith that once made this more than a edgeless waste… is gone, and we must fade with it. I led this pilgrimage, and though I failed to see it bow before the thrones of Canterlot, I will not fail to lead it on these pathways into Darkness.

To Sleep. To Peace.” I wanted to speak up, to stop him, as I‘d almost forgotten that nothing could be done, that these words had only barely gotten out before the wire tightened around his neck.
You will follow me?” He asked, and three voices answered the same.

Yes.” Wept another, forcing the word out as if in place of her tears.

You can’t… Goddesses, don’t do this.” Pleaded another voice, which was soft and as stilted as a dove’s coo, though it might have been carrying the weight of the world on its back, for how weary it sounded.

Are they secure?” He ignored her, and I could already tell that she had been begging well before they’d hit record. And neither would sway, but for the wind and a wire drawn taught. “Good.”

There was a commotion, as the buck readied himself for one last journey, though he was dragging a pilgrimage over the edge after him. “Leave whatever words you would give to this Last of the Later Days… I have nothing more to say.”

The sound of a wire pulling taught, a snap, and a desperate little cry followed the last words of Cyrus. Behind a bed of static, I could hear the country howling, and we looked out into the horizon, where a faraway radio tower’s satellites had been turned to fragile petals.

*** *** ***

Harvest, please…” Another buck spoke now, though his voice was frail when compared to the first. “Please don’t cry. Not now… We’ll go together. Holding on to one another as the wires tighten. Just… for me - don’t let yourself leave like this.

Al-alright,” The mare sputtered. “For you… The sun and moon will set together.

Slowly, I began to put a cutie mark to each voice, and found Cyrus for the years written in between his words, and the creases in his skin. “Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” That worn out voice asked, though even I could hear that she was drawing at straws from their scripture. “Realize what you would be wasting… remember what you would be giving yourselves to.

You never believed in the promise that was broken here today. You are still too young to understand.” This third buck was strong, but only for the depth of his voice. Otherwise, I could still hear his twisted nerves and the Faith spilt like so many ashes across the sand. “One day… you will follow us.

You’re throwing yourselves away.” I wanted to stand by her side then, as it was all too clear that she was a mare torn into too many pieces to save anyone. “This is pointless!

I’m ready…” Harvest had stopped crying now, and I heard her and the second buck kiss. “I love you.

*** *** ***

So… I’m next… got to turn myself in to the empty, huh?” As another mare spoke, I knew that the gallows had left at least one survivor, one pilgrim who hadn’t followed Cyrus on his path into darkness. “Maybe… Turnkey, maybe we should stay with her… just for a little while longer.

You have to stop… you have to.”

You saw that thing, Ascella.” The third and the last of the bucks sounded unmoved, as if he was eager to be thrown over the side, eager to go sinking towards the bottom of the world. “You killed it.

We all did,” Said the second and the last of the hanged mares.
Oh… we really did, didn’t we? We killed her.”

It.” His voice was slowly turning to stone. “There is no one watching over us, Ascella. This isn’t the world we thought it was, that we were taught it was. We were fools… and now we’re alone. We’re all alone.

There was another snap, like an exclamation mark being struck into the margin. “Goddesses… no.

*** *** ***

I’m going to pray for you.”

No one will hear you. There’s no one left to listen.”

You can’t really believe that.” I was surprised by the anger trickling into her voice, though it pooled over a single word, and came to a boil. “What we saw wore the skin of an alicorn. But It was an abomination, not a Goddess blackened by the fallout! It meant nothing.

Cyrus didn’t think so. He was wrong to give us his Faith. He was wrong to teach us his songs. He was deluded. But, together, we saw the lights go out. This…” I didn’t have to be there, to know that he was waving out at the West. “Is all we have left. And Ascella…. even you cannot live with that. Not for long.”

Don’t run away.” And, with that, the first and the last of the living fell into a shambles, though I couldn’t tell if the mare was crying, as hooves ground against the overpass. “Don’t… You can’t come back from this.

The static began to narrow, as if we were going down a tunnel, whose mouth had been pinched closed. “That’s the point.”

*** *** ***

“Caliber,” I said, chasing off the silence that had followed us down from the gas station, like a heavyset and indefinitely loyal animal. We walked between the shadow of the overpass and the mountain’s long faces, searching for the last of these lost pilgrims, following great paths of earth lapped bare as if by the tongues of fallout. “What did they mean, when they said… alicorn?”

There was still one holotape left, and I had stolen it from the shrine, thinking that it might have been filled with the voice of the very mare we were looking for. I had to find her, and clung on to the recording, as one might the last pictures of a onetime valentine.

Caliber wasn’t answering, and I fussed my way around one of the rare clusters of pine trees, which often stood on a bed of stone and shrubs the color of a flame, as if that Phoenix had spilled its blood into the earth, only so it could be pulled up as firewater into a root. The trees had taken on the color of ink, and were so thin and so sharp that they might have been dashed into the air by a transient fountain pen.

“Caliber?” I caught up to her, after having to skip over a few licks of snow and rusty colored grass, woven out from the root of the mountain as if to make a corner for the immense tapestry called the West.

“You wear a cross on your coat,” She began. “Does that mean you’re… like them?” She tilted her head up at the overpass, where the bodies hung like shadow puppets before a show.

“No.”

“Good.” She let out her breath, though it was quickly turned to smoke. “That’s good. I’d bet money on this alicorn myth coming from a bunch of batshit southern priests, waving crosses and spitting holy water at everything that goes bump in the night.” She made herself laugh, and had to lift her scarf over her lips, catching the giggle as another mare might a cough.

“Problem is: Galaxy’s brought ‘em up a couple times, now. And if you can’t trust DJ Pon3, you can’t trust anybody. Granted, he never talked about them as anything more than an extra. More like local gossip than news: whisperings stirred up by some bite and no bark crazy, y’know?”

“Sure. Even the Stable had its tinfoil hats.” I couldn’t help smiling a little, remembering what Doctor Cross had once said. No one’s crazier than they are on a hospital bed. It’s usually the anesthetic, or the fever dreams, but sometimes the fear of death is enough to bounce a sane mare right off the wall.

“One way or another: that Ascella girl was right to call ‘em abominations. Hear tell they’re your standard night-stalking, pony-snatching boogie mares. Nothing like the old Princesses… those two aren’t exactly hard on the eyes.” She nudged me, and we smiled as if forgetting these devils in the dresses of our country’s first and only saints. “Anyway, this Ascella thinks she killed one. But, far as I could tell from their voices, the rest of those pilgrims were Easterners. And GNR falls off before the Plain.”

“So, wherever they came from, we’re all jumping off of different myths.” I frowned, wondering why it took Pilgrimages, Contracts and Quests to get ponies out here exploring. Even if you had a Damascene bed of laurels to lie back on, it didn’t seem right to let all these wastelands go to waste.

“Are there usually many travelers coming through the Middle Passage?” I asked.

“Well, if you’re crossing the compass, it’s the way to go. There’s another valley to the North, tucked under the last Equestrian mountains. But they got Savages coming up from the underground, and stripes blending in and out of the snow and the Blackrock. Good luck to any caravan trying to talk their way out of that kind of trouble, won’t get much but twisted tongues. Good riddance to anyone stupid enough to try shooting.” My Pipbuck chirped up, and pinned a marker on the heart of the valley like a medal: Zion.

“Southern roads are even worse. The lowlands between these mountains and the capital have gone pink, like Canterlot sprung a leak. Cloud’s not nearly so thick, but the traders steer clear, unless they want to end up dragging their pack Brahmin behind ‘em like big sticks of butter. You can see your hoof in front of your face easy enough, but that won’t seem so sweet once it starts melting.” I winced, wondering what kind of disease might be so ravenous as to eat a pony alive, like a thousand tiny piranhas. “You might be able to see it from MASEBS: a kind of washed out pink dye leaking out of the Canterlot Caves.”

I wanted to ask her about… well, everything: from our beleaguered Capital to the flood that rocked it like an ark at sea. But I knew that there would be another time. For now, it was more important that we find this orphaned mare, and hunt down the alicorns that had chased her pilgrimage off the edge of the world.

“Let’s listen to the last holotape,” I said, as the silence had hung open long enough to let the country’s howling creep in. I had to look back, as it was starting to seem like Caliber was taking her orders to follow me very literally, as she would stop whenever I stopped, and only ran ahead to peek through the pine clusters or around the heels of the overpass’ pillars. “Maybe it’ll tell us where to start looking.”

*** *** ***

My name is Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum… and I am the last survivor of this Pilgrimage to Canterlot. I will leave this shrine in the shadow of the Phoenix so that, even as I try to save my family, you might choose to pick up some of the pieces of their shattered Faith.” She had been crying, and her voice came out rolling and damp, like an arctic tundra, though even Caliber might not have been able to place it on a map. “But if you came to hear me beg. You will be disappointed. That’s not how I speak to my Gods.”

Caliber and I were huddled together, as the mare’s Bohemian coo was like the fire at the end of a matchstick, and we were beggars rubbing our hooves together in the gutters of winter. Now, the clouds were ink stains, and the sky a white margin, as if the sun had lost some of its color for seeing so many of its children die here today, as if it was rolling backwards, to pull us all back into mourning.

I saw Canterlot. From the ruin: a place broken long before the war: a place with bones of rock instead of steel. Once these graves are full, that is where I will go. The abomination is still alive, bleeding out on the shore of that pink sea. And once these graves are full. This is where I will go. This is where I will kill it.

Then Samson prayed to the Lord: ‘O Sovereign Lord, remember me. O God, please strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on these philistines for my two eyes.’ Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left on the other, Samson said: ‘Let me die with these philistines!

Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the bodies kneeling in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived.

Give me the strength of this ancient Minotaur from across the sea, and see this abomination for the philistine that it is, so that I might give my body in service to the Goddesses, and pay for the lives taken here by the misguided and the fearful. My Pilgrimage chose to run away. But I will go into the mountains, and in the black light cast by that false and fallen sun, I will wash away their sins.

My Pilgrimage shook the hooves of demons selling self-destruction, but I will pay for that bloodguilt. I pray that my family might still be saved, but only as one escaping through flames. I pray that they are admit into the high kingdom: that Luna will light my empty sky with their souls as stars, and forgive them.

But, for now, that abomination still breathes… and we can’t expect the Goddesses to do all the work.”

*** *** ***

Caliber was distracting herself by keeping an ear to the ground, as if the earth could explain this alien and nonsensical thing called religion. The mercenary wasn’t used to it, despite her contract signed in scripture, and seemed distressed at the thought that there existed a force so great, so inescapable, that it could drive ponies to slip their heads into nooses or take up their slings and go charging off to fight giants.

Really, she was listening for the hoofsteps of wild horses, as only moments ago, belts of gunfire had come rolling down this passage behind the highway’s struts and the mountains wrinkled faces. The shots might have been fired out west, at the road’s elbow, or the gas station that we had only just left behind. Either way, we had a mare to find: a soft spoken and heartbroken little mare, and nothing to follow but the soil, which had to be soft enough make a bed for five bodies.

“If these alicorns are real,” I began, walking a wide circle around the mercenary, as she put her nose forward, trying to find ash in the air. “And the rest of the Faith is anything like Cyrus -“

“Then every church in the south will have bodies hanging from its ceiling.” She straightened out her neck, and cocked her head until I heard a crack. “Good thing it’s just a myth. Besides, from what I’ve seen, religion is barely alive, so much as kicking, anywhere south of the mountains running from Calvary to Canterlot.” South of the pink sea’s far shore. “I figure it’s the cold up here: got ponies ready to pray to anything, just in case it can change the seasons. As if any cloud lucky enough to be shaped like Celestia is gonna chase away winter if they ask it nice enough.”

We paused, just beside one of the highway’s massive stilts, though its middle had fallen into ruin, and now looked like a blown out kneecap. “Maybe it’s the sky,” I said, looking north.

“Maybe.” She circled the pillar, and I followed like a hunter after his hound. “Damascus told me that, way back before the radio towers went up, the earth ponies down Calvary way were far enough away from the Princesses to mistake them for Gods. As if looking at ‘em from a distance made it harder to tell.”

She nodded up at the overpass. “All these railways and roads were only rolled out during the war, but the mountains were hanging around long before any of us showed up. They did a good job of shuttin’ off the north for the first few ticks of the millennium hand. And when you leave us earth ponies alone… let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised if this alicorn story didn’t spark up for two flat foreheads knocking together.”

I couldn’t help giggling a little then, though my horn might have had us in the same minefield that those three tribes had first danced through: where words like flathead were enough to kick off a war. “I don’t know about that, Caliber. You seem to have everything straight.”

“Well, I’m really very wise,” She said, polishing a hoof against her vest. “And, on top of that, religion was starting to fizzle out even before the bombs fell. The war had it ground down to cinders, and I like to think the Fallout blew ‘em out. I mean, all this counts on Damascus’ word enough to go on… But it is. That buck might has more decades under his belt than you have years.”

If you actually put the apocalypse down on a timeline, that wouldn’t seem possible, but I got the point. Damascus had an old soul. And I had to wonder how much of it might had been shut into those six orbs.

“The war made religion obsolete?” I wondered aloud. “I suppose that only makes sense: It must have been hard to see Celestia and Luna as Gods when they were going door to door trying to sell war bonds.”

I didn’t really know what to think of the Princesses. But they had certainly tried their best to see an Equestria victory, even if it meant fanning away their age old airs of mystery, and hitting the streets like girl scout caravans, dragging along wagons full of cookies or, in their case, enlistment pamphlets.

Caliber had gone very quiet, and I quickly did the same as I watched her pressing an ear to the dirt. Our old textbooks had often shown Buffalo doing the same, and I wondered if Caliber might have picked up the habit from one of their tribes. The mare wouldn’t seem at all out of place in those grainy old pictures of the Marejave, and it wasn’t like a desert would look all that different for passing storms of balefire.

“This usually only works for two kinds of movement,” She whispered, as a hoof wove me out of the empty space between the pines. “Slow, lumbering, powerful movements… the kind that sends tremors through the earth, like something back Tartarus way is pounding against the walls of its cell. And jerky, erratic, excitable movements… the kind that hopscotch through the sand.”

She tucked me away behind one of the pillars, as my heart started skipping rope in my chest.
Fudge, fudge, call the judge, Mama had a bay-bee.
It’s not a boy. It’s not a girl. It’s just a little lay-dee.

“What’s coming?” I asked, even as their voices began to ring through the pillars.

She unlatched that hefty black rifle, and hugged it to her chest just as a filly might her favorite doll. “Trouble.”

*** *** ***

I suddenly felt very crowded, as if Equestria had just been flooded by waves of unwanted refugees, though no more than four ponies marched by us, like giant ants in a line. They looked worn out, but not weary: broken down, but not beaten. And even when they smiled, they didn’t look happy.

One of them was a unicorn, but I saw the thick pistol he had aimed at the storm before I did the horn buried in his dirty blonde mane. The weapon had a long clip arcing out from under its trigger, and looked like nothing I’d ever seen in the magazines. The same pistol hung out of the next mare’s mouth, but it looked far less terrible wrapped in a muzzle than it did bobbing in his colorless magic.

The other two bucks, who wore the same rough and tumble uniform of ragged edges and trophies dug up out of fresh graves, carried a shovel and a glinting knife in their mouths, and followed the dirty light of their leader like tireless young mules after a carrot on a stick.

Not that I have anything against mules… or that anypony should. I’m sure that, if I ever met a mule… well, I wouldn’t expect him to be trundling along after some silly old carrot.

Salt of the earth, that’s what they are, those mules.

Anyway, Caliber had her rifle leveled over a concrete bar stripped from the road, and I kept my laser pistol hovering at my hooves, so that these salty passersby would not catch the light of my own magic in the corners of their eyes. There were some tightly knit pine trees between us, and even if I were to look down the blocky sights of my pistol, they might mistake its glow for the light of the early afternoon sun.

“Uh oh. What if they find the pilgrim before we do?” I asked, in a voice low enough to go scurrying under closed doors. I couldn’t make anything close to words out of the Raider’s own garbled voices, but felt the need to whisper all the same.

Caliber arched a brow over the cusp of her rifle’s scope, and I watched her eye roll lazily over to me. “I’m sorry, were you not planning on killing them?” I glanced back at the passing parade, as if I needed to see those severed hooves again, all rattling along behind them like tin cans bound to a wedding car, with a head bouncing along at the end of a rope. “I didn’t realize we were letting Raiders into Hell now. We’d better go get Charon, so he can take their coins and sing ‘em the Welcome song.”

Jeez, I thought, smiling like a giddy idiot. I guess no one wanted a little bird chirping in their ear when they were looking down a line of fire. No matter how nice its song sounded. “Right. Sorry. So we’re just gonna… shoot at them, then?” I asked, tapping my hooves together in front of me.

“That’s usually how it goes, yeah.” She furrowed her brow, and pressed back into the scope. “Go around the pillar, and wait for me to take the first shot. When they turn and start runnin’ at me, go ahead and light ‘em up. If you get into trouble, just back on up and I’ll be here to get you out of it.”

I nodded. “These are the basics, Lamplight: the box steps.” She said that as if Death – who she so often dressed up as a dancer – was riding in the passenger seat of the Raiders’ wedding car, and they were bound to have their honeymoon on the dance floor. “It might not be long before you need to do this alone. So come on, Sugar. Sharpen your spear, and try not to think so much.”

“Yeah… thanks.”
I hurried off towards the pillar, and tried my best to take her advice, even if it meant drowning myself out.
Fudge, fudge, call the judge, Mama had a bay-bee.
It’s not a boy. It’s not a girl. It’s just a little lay-dee.
My laser pistol was shaking, and when the whip crack of Caliber’s rifle hit the mountains, it almost burst out of its cradle, as my magic came loose at the corners.

Before I knew what was happening, I saw the Raider's shovel digging into the earth, after spinning in a full circle for how violently its master’s neck had been twisted out of place. At least a half dozen rotten teeth were thrown into the air, like a witchdoctor’s rolling bones, as a red fountain pen scratched sloppy red lines into the snow. The buck’s skull was broken into pieces, as if it were a balloon, and Caliber’s bullet had been the last of too many breaths out.

Then, the pine trees were torn to splinters, as two submachine guns emptied their bellies at once. The third buck, whose teeth might have been coated in silver as the knife glinted in his mouth, managed to duck around the bullets, though they tore through the air like an angry swarm of wasps. He went bounding towards Caliber, and I finally collected my magic around the pistol, and aimed it at the mare who was breathing fire, as she emptied another clip into the concrete.

I pulled the trigger three times, though she had started to burn before I was done. She took one beam to the neck, another to the rat’s nest that was her mane, and dodged the last even as she beat at the wildfire spreading through the tangles of her hair.

With smoke rising from her crown of brittle thorns, and eyes full of tears, she punched another clip into the submachine gun, and was holding down the trigger well before she took aim. She didn’t hit anything but the pillar, as if we were all trying to bring the highway crashing down on legs full of lead.

I fired another two shots, knocking her head back with the first, and turning the submachine gun to something like hot wax in her mouth. She was demonized then, as her jaw was pulled wide by the weight of all that molten steel grafted to her tongue. Her mane had become a blackened ruin, like a forest put to the torch, and a third eye was glaring at me from the center of her brow.

With what was left of the laser pistol’s clip, I beat her down, as each shot landed like a slap across her cheek or a swift kick to her gut. She might have died early, but I fought her body to the ground, using energy cells in place of my own four hooves. In fact, if I hadn’t been too hysteric to reload, I might have turned her to ash. But instead, I pulled at the trigger, willing the pistol to spit something up.

As I stood over her, something cold and flat slapped against my side, and sent a lurch rolling across my belly. I looked up, just in time to see the second submachine gun go spinning out of its basket of pale magic, knocked out of place as one of Caliber’s bullets crumpled against its side.

But that was one fight, and for the bruise coming to bloom under my ribs, I knew that I was in another.

I skipped a few paces to the left, just as the second buck, the one that had once held a combat knife in between his teeth, swung at me with the shovel of his dead comrade. It looked like the knife had slipped, as his lips were torn at one corner, and the shovel’s handle was pressing into the wound, as if to leave its splinters like teeth into a freshly carved mouth.

He swung at me again, but I hopped over the flat of the shovel’s blade as it cut under me, and had more than enough time to cycle over to my baseball bat as he tried to come around for another attack. The Raider’s eyes had heavy bags under them, and looked at me with something like desire, though it was dull at its edges, as if I was the shimmering mirage of an oasis, or the X on a treasure map.

There were two holes in his chest, from which blood spilled like water out of a pierced canteen, and when he lunged at me, I could see that he barely had the strength to throw his weight around. This was already over. He had been thrown out of the ring, as if Caliber meant for me to knock her opponents out for her, as the bell went on ringing over our heads. I swung once, and broke the head off of his shovel.

I swung again, and as the tip of the bat touched the bottom of his jaw, the buck went rearing back onto his hind legs. Then, after skidding on his own blood, he collapsed into the dirt.

After making sure he was dead, I looked back West, and saw that Caliber had finished her fight. She had gunned down that blond Raider as he ran circles around the pine clusters, and troughed the earth for his submachine gun. Her kills were far cleaner than mine, as even the pieces of a shattered skull seemed serene when compared to melted flesh, burnt hair and twisted tongues.

“You alright?” As she ambled over to me, and refastened that terrible black rifle to her side, I had to wonder if we could ever lose a fight, once the bones of her battle saddle were put together again.

I nodded, and almost caught myself smiling. I didn’t like killing. But winning was nice.

She walked over to the head that had been trailing along behind them, and spat. “Shit.” She touched it. “This thing’s fresh off the branch.” I put a hoof over my mouth, repulsed by how easily she fondled that hollow face. “Wait…” She narrowed her eyes, and leaned in a little closer. “This guy look familiar to you?”

“Just leave it alone, Cal.” I said, as if she was my big brother, poking at a spider on our doorstep. Eventually, she backed away from the thing, but couldn’t help keeping it in the corner of her eye.

“This is why we shoot Raiders on sight, Sugar.” She had the buck’s submachine gun hanging at her side, and held it up after dipping her hooves into the snowmelt, and washing the blood off. “Take this.”

I hesitated, but swept it up in my magic as the weight of it began to make her hoof shake. “I don’t use submachine guns: I do my killing down a scope, or at kissing distance. You give me a rifle with a long barrel, or a ballistic fist, and I’ll march into Hell with my contract pinned to my sleeve. That’s black and white. I like that. It’s everything in-between that’ll have you slipping a noose around your neck.”

*** *** ***

I might have thought the sun was setting, as the storm had wings of ink splaying out over it as if from a fountain pen with its head snapped off. Still, all the spaces between the stains shone out white as streetlights, and though they didn’t flicker: they came and went like sandbars under a fitful tide.

We were following the sound of metal scratching at the earth and, if only for Caliber dropping its name: I couldn’t help imagining the inmates of Tartarus, trying to dig themselves out. We came to the lip of something like a pasture, tucked inside that dotted timberline and the litter of both highway and mountain, which might have been mistaken for the ruins of the first stone city.

The flat edge of a shovel bobbed out of one of five holes in the earth, throwing up silt like ashes to ashes.

“This is it.” Fudge, fudge, call the judge. “Try to watch what you say around her.” Mama had a bay-bee. “Don’t tread on Celestia’s tail. Faith might be the only thing that’s keeping her going.”
It’s not a boy. It’s not a girl. It’s just a little lay-dee.

“Got it.” With a sly look on her face, Caliber closed in on me, as one of her hooves came to hover between us. “Just as long as you remember what she’s hunting, and try your best not to look like such a Goddess.” She booped my nose, and ran off in a flurry of red, like a filly playing ding dong ditch.

I couldn’t help blushing a little, and felt my nose with a tentative hoof, as if the Princess herself, on a campaign to win back the country, had just planted a kiss there. After standing by for a little while longer, as if to move would be to give up the hearth’s warming that had reddened my cheeks, I skipped along, with my hooves clicking like sleigh bells.

Caliber tapped her hoof against a stone, treating it like a bell on a hotel counter, and the mare in the grave looked up. She might have slept in a bed of autumn leaves, for the texture of her mane, though it had been colored purple by brushes dipped everywhere from the spaces between the stars of dawn to the darkest flowers of a lilac tree. It fell like a hood clasped at her shoulders, and she had to brush it away, so that she could look up at us. Her eyes were dark, but shone like glass speckled in the rain.

She planted her hooves in the middle of the grave, and stared through us without so much as a word. Her coat was a pale olive, but a pattern of stains, shifted a few shades darker, spread all across her body. At first, I thought the dirt had drawn those strange designs on her, but a thick belt of bandages, running from her belly to the collars of a white undershirt, had me thinking that they might be old burns.

The cotton of her torn off sleeves and the rumpled black of her vest, which was decorated in needlework swirls, made her own colors seem faded and tired, as if to show that the West had not welcomed her with open arms, but only sought to wear her away like any other inkstain. And even as the wind fluttered her collars, she didn’t make a sound, as if she was made only of worn pieces of paper, pasted onto the world.

Around her neck, she wore a short cashmere shawl, whose colors made it look like the sand and the soil under that bed of leaves. And, over the darker edge of the cloth, there hung a tribal necklace, though I couldn’t decide what it looked like more: an airship overgrown with rust, or the molted skin of a locust.

“Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum,” I recited, pronouncing her name as best I could, as if that would be enough to show her that the songs from the scripture had been my lullabies, that the dead language buried in her name was not lost to the world. But the little pilgrim stayed quiet, and as the silence hung open, as the country began to wail behind us, I could almost hear my heart pounding. Fudge, fudge, call the judge.

“Hear tell there’s someone playing Goddess in the mountains.” Caliber put one hoof in the grave, offering to pull the mare out. And only then, did I see the shotgun rigged to her side. “Let’s go kill her.”

*** *** ***

As Caliber pulled her out of the grave, I had taken a good look at her cutie mark, for it was a symbol no less cryptic than my own, and I felt like we might both be searching for the same Rosetta stone. Hers was a black teardrop, with four diamantine corners, and a star resting at its base, colored after fields of twilight. It was falling, as a Phoenix’s tail of deep purple licked up to the sharpened point of the teardrop.

“So…” Caliber began, as the crunch of our hoofsteps against the soil and those narrow feathers of snow became too much to bear. The pilgrim hadn’t said a word and, for hearing her only though the speakers of my Pipbuck, I listened for the whirring of cassette wheels, as if when she finally opened her mouth, static would come out. “Once we’re done patting the dirt over those graves, what’re we gonna be up against? What’s your read on this abomination?”

I almost felt guilty, as the mercenary was doing all the work in keeping the silence from collapsing in on us, pressing her weight against the front door, trying to keep all the snow from snapping its hinges.

“I mean, I’ve met folks that’d bet an arm and a leg on there being aliens spinning around this old world, usually on account of catching a streetlight blink in the corner of their eye, or having too much whiskey warming their bellies.” She had to look away from the little mare, as her eyes were like a forest in a fence: they might have been easy to get lost in, if only you could find a way in. “Now, I’m just playing Discord’s advocate here, but… you sure you’re not making hurricanes out of the beating of butterfly wings here?”

I winced, as if she was bringing the hammers down on my highest strings, and not the pilgrim’s.
“I spilt its blood on the sand,” She said, in the voice of a gypsy girl, running through the crowd that had gathered to watch her father dance, with a hat full of coins. “And it folded itself away into the air, as if cutting a door out of the sky, and slamming it shut. It ran away. I know that it can be hurt. That it can feel fear: that it can be chased. That’s all that matters.”

She was starting to sound like Damascus, and from the way Caliber had gone quiet, I had to wonder if she could hear it, or if, like a dog, she had lowered her ears to what sounded like the voice of her master. Damascus was Damascus, but knowing that the word of some Celestia entombed in scripture could turn this mare, who was barely more than a child, into another soldier of god, was enough to make me shiver.

“The Goddesses ask only for honest actions, produced by honest hearts.” She recited, as we circled another of those concrete pillars. “I don’t know why you are helping me, but if it is only for proof, then take the abomination’s head when we are done. I don’t care if it ends up signing on the wall of a bar, or worshiped on the dais of some tribal priestess’ shrine. Just as long as the light in its eyes has gone out.”

I caught sight of that plucked Phoenix, rising as a pillar of ashes from the ashes, and watched the paper pilgrim, hoping that I might find a filly tucked under all the wrath of this holy war. And then, as if my eyes were no different to a barbarian siege or trumpet’s call, the walls came tumbling down, and I saw the little girl who had watched her family throw themselves from the overpass like so much litter.

They bumped together in the breeze, like boats packed too snugly into a narrow bay, or the mobile over a baby’s cradle on the bough, and as Ash’s eyes were pierced, and beads of ink seemed to pool before running clear, the tears went trickling down her cheeks.

And, for a moment, I was happy: Happy to know that she could still be saved, that she could come back from this. But then, I looked up at the bodies, and saw an abattoir picked clean of its meat: a harbor full of ships torn to pieces by the winds of a monsoon. And, as Caliber cursed under her breath, I remembered the Raiders, and knew from which tree they had plucked those strange fruit.

*** *** ***

Caliber and I stood back, trying not to watch as this stranger buckled and shook, surrounded by the scattered pieces of her family. I couldn’t tell if she was praying, or wailing, but it was clear that we could not step onto the temple’s bloody floors, all littered with flesh like pages of scripture torn from the spine.

The sky was dotted with little white birds, as if an enormous cage of doves had been turned loose to make a spectacle of these last rites, but they did not fly, and instead sank to the earth and melted away.

“Is this… snow?” I had to gather up my courage before asking, as the silence had never felt more at home, and a part of me worried that the air might only have been crowded by the flotsam of radioactive fallout. I held up my hooves, trying to catch the dots as a beggar would crumbs.

Caliber just nodded, and turned her head up, to let the sky’s mercury spill over the brown of her eyes. I was a little startled when she stuck her tongue out, and let the feathers melt onto its tip. She giggled, and shook the dew out of her mane, as if she had fallen asleep in a ring of red cups on the lawn.

I copied her, and we licked at the sky as if it was cotton candy, laughing as Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum stared up a carousel whose horses had been pulled apart.

“I’m going to ask her to come with us,” I announced, as the corpses spun in the corner of my eye, like ballerinas streaked in red warpaint. “After this is over... Once the alicorn is dead.”

“Grace…” We watched the mare ahead of us trembling, and the snow might as well have turned to ash in our mouths. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“She’s all alone.”

“And we’re not?” It was almost like she wanted to leave, to sneak away as Ash lowered her forehead to the earth, and had it smeared red. “You heard the tape: this changed her. She’s got nothing to lose but it.”

“You’re afraid of her.”

“Afraid? No.” She shook her head. “But there’s a fire in that mare. And if it gets out: there’s no telling who it might burn. I’ve seen decent ponies fall off for less than this: seen Raiders cooked up for less than this.”

“That won’t happen with her. It’s our job to make sure that doesn’t happen with her.”
Even if it meant walking the pilgrim to war.

Caliber looked back to the corpses, and her eyes ran along the length of a buck who had been left in two pink halves, like those of a fish laid out over a bed of ice. “It’s your call.” She shrugged. “I guess it can’t be much worse than working for a religious nut, right?” I dug an elbow into her side, and we were both smiling, even as the snow wove diamonds into our hair.

Ash glided back over to us, with the shawl pulled up over her nose, and the colors of her Pilgrimage dotting the end of each of her hooves. It wasn’t hard to see that she’d been crying, as her eyes were lined with that same shade of red, and her body was still shaking. She was a bird with a broken wing, and I felt like picking her up, and building her a nest in the front pocket of my father’s shirt.

“Alright, Ascella.” Caliber clapped her hooves together, coaxing the pilgrim out from behind her shawl. “I think it’s about time we deep six this bitch. So lead on, and we’ll send that abomination… bang!” She clicked her hoof and made a whistling noise as she dipped it into the sky. “Straight to the moon!”

Ash laughed. And, for a moment, I thought she might be choking, as her voice was still waterlogged, just as her cheeks still shone. It didn’t last long, more like a chirp than a trill, and though I hardly knew the beleaguered pilgrim: I liked to see her smile. “Thank you…” Her voice trailed off.

“Caliber,” said Caliber, and they shook hooves, making a blood oath for the sake of dead pilgrims.

“Grace.” I said, just a little too early.

Still, the pilgrim let her hoof drift over to me, and hummed, as if repeating my name in melody alone.
“That is an optimistic name.”

“I guess it is…” I shook her hoof. “It’s nice to meet you Ms. Ascella.” Caliber snorted and rolled her eyes, reminding me that manners fit the new world like a curse did the lips of a priest. And so, thinking that I had to win her back, I said something that would once have gotten me little more than a mouthful of soap. “Now, let’s go get this bitch deep-sixed.”

*** *** ***

The storm had run black, and for the snow that freckled its face, it might have passed for a shimmering night sky. From the root of this narrow gorge, which cut through mountains like the first notch on a stone tablet, the wind followed, and played with our hair. But the scent of death had left us, as if scrubbed away.

A twist in the path ahead turned the temple into something alien, as this place that the liar God called its throne could only be seen for the rare pillars bursting from either end of the path like rusted rifle barrels. The sand under my hooves felt cold and coarse, and as the wind beat against the mountainside, I already felt like I’d stepped out onto a shore worn down under the Wintertide. I kept my head up, as the clouds rolled in between those walls of stone, as if I was flying above an inky arroyo, looking down.

It was serene, but a part of me wanted to turn the blaring horns and howling voices of Galaxy News Radio loose, as if they were only demons caught in my Pipbuck. The DJ knew something about the alicorns, and he had pointed my gun before, in kicking off the open season for hunting Equestria’s Raiders. I needed him to tell me which way to lean, as all I had to spur me on now was the barroom mythology of a bound mercenary, and the dense eyes of a brooding zealot.

Ahead, I could see the arch of a crumbling gateway, which looked to have been built even before the mountains rose, as if this young landform had grown up around it. Where one might once have expected vines and overgrowth, there were only patterns of ash, as this was not a ruin like those explored by the likes of Daring Doo. This was a ruin that might never have been anything else, as if its architects had wanted to invent themselves a history.

We stepped through the gate, and came to the edge of an altar: a stony shore before the open sky, and a sea whose surf had been turned pink for all that thrashed and bled inside of it. Around the dais at its heart, there stood old torches; though they were more like shaven heads for their long since extinguished flames. But I couldn’t pay the architecture, or even the affliction being stirred over its lip, much attention, for what stood at the cusp of the temple, and the coast of that misty sea, like a gargoyle or a stone God.

It blinked, and I felt my heart sink. Knowing that it was alive, that it was real, made it hard for me to breathe. Stretched out at its sides, were wings, which looked to have been pieced together by a meticulous jeweler, running an entire chest full of black diamonds dry. Its feathers fanned out for every thunderhead that rolled away from its lips, and drew in tight when the abomination breathed in.

The blood running along its belly could only be seen when the light rolled the right way, and made it shine, or when a drop of it burst against the temple floor. Its ears twitched like nervous satellite dishes, and there, in between them, there was a spear breaking the skin of its brow.

Alicorn! The word came screaming into my mind. Celestia! Luna!
Nightmare Moon! I looked to its flank for a crescent moon, but found nothing but a starless night sky.
The thing had no cutie mark.

Even Caliber was holding her breath, though she answered to no Goddesses, and thought of the Princesses as two more pretty faces on the back of a magazine, or the side of a crooked skyscraper. Here was something out of a storybook: a villain and an animal, with naked flanks and black blood, that carried with it the sword of our country’s royalty. It had more power than it knew what to do with, like a child with a gun cradled in its frail arms, or a frightened nation with its hoof on that big, red button.

Ash looked up at me, as if this was my chance to stop her, as if I had any reason to think she would do better to walk away. Once the moment had passed, and the window closed, I heard Caliber unlatching her rifle, and watched as she pointed up at a nearby ridgeline, which ran like a wrinkle across the mountain’s face. “If we’re really doing this: I can keep a pin through that thing’s back from up there.”

“It is bound to this place: to the whispers it hears from the belly of that pink sea. But someone, whichever fool of a machinist twisted together this abomination, wrote the old magic into it. And I don’t know how far it might go, the next time it opens a door in the sky.” She pointed across the shore, whose pillars were as crooked as driftwood. “I will cross the altar, and throw myself into the fire. All you need to do is light it.”

I floated out the submachine gun, which had but a few dozen 10 millimeter rounds to digest, and charted my own path along the western edge of the temple.

I heard a click, as Caliber knocked a hoof against the space behind her chin, and between the lines of her jaw. “Far as I’ve seen: everyone’s got a soft spot.” The wind seemed to be groping at my neck then, and I squirmed. “And it’s usually right -” Click. Click. Click. “- Here.”

“Just let me punch a bullet into its skull before you start shooting.” She added, before we broke away from our huddle, like missionaries fanning out to three of the map’s four corners: all ready to burn this false idol to dead monarchs, to uproot this statue molded in the image of a Goddess.

I kept my head low, and circled the temple, worried that looking out over that great ethereal sea of rose petals, and the abandoned ship that was Canterlot, might have me hypnotized: so that the gargoyle and I could be sisters, for our rightful home in that faraway garden of prisoners set in stone.

I got as close as I had the courage to, coming around to the last of the altar’s broken crown of pillars, and kept the submachine close at my side. Now, I only had to wait until Cal-

Like the club of some wasteland purifier being struck against the filing cabinets of a ghoul infested office building, I heard her rifle. But, from the look of surprise that flashed across the alicorn’s face, I would have thought she missed, were it not for the spiral of blood that burst out from beneath the creature’s horn.

Then, the air began to warp around its hooves, and I saw a trapdoor swinging open into a basement full of blaring white light. It almost got away, but I shackled the abomination in place, as my Pipbuck grabbed the hands of Equestria's clock. It was as if the device had flipped order onto its head, to turn Discord loose on a world where everything was frozen still, but for the prisoners of the garden: those Phoenix turned to stone.

She was little more than an outline, cut out of the glare like one of those little paper fillies holding hooves. She was still very much alive, though a red meteor had put a crack in the altar from which her horn rose. Still, I primed the submachine gun, to have it spit its seeds at this caged bird, and let the world's hands spin.

A flash spread over the sky, as the alicorn’s magic slowly blew itself out: more like a birthday candle than a stick of dynamite, and for a moment I couldn’t be sure that I wouldn’t be throwing a clip of 10 millimeter bullets out over the poisoned fields of the south. But, as that wall of light began to crumble, to fizzle out, her body, black and damp as the hull of a ship, could still be seen, plowing through the stardust.

Golden lines of fire were drawn out between us, as the submachine gun was milked dry as if by the air, which still seemed thick and drowsy as molasses. I was lost to time now, and couldn’t know when all those mired clocks might start ticking up to speed. All I could do was watch.

The abomination had spread its wings over me, though their feathers barely twitched as that volley of lead tickled the beast’s belly. And, as the air became thin and my ears were unplugged, I heard the death rattle of the submachine gun, the drumbeat of a shotgun, and the whip crack of Caliber’s rifle.

The alicorn glided over the temple, leaving pools of blood like hoofprints, and plucked Caliber out of her nest. The mercenary’s rifle went spinning away from her, and as she reached after it, her hooves seemed to pierce the yolk of that silvery magic, and it fell apart around her. Even the color of it was alien, and as it broke, leaving Caliber to crumple against the altar, it was like watching a nebula getting swept up from the floor of the galaxy, as if the Goddesses were cleaning house.

Showers of buckshot tore through the alicorn’s wings, and even as I fed another clip into the submachine gun, long pentagons of that same light came to hover in the air, as shields held up around a king.

Our bullets sent ripples across her magic, and slowly wore down that electric suit of armor, until they were biting into her flesh, like mites that had crept into a breastplate. Ash and I came together at the cusp of the altar, and I helped Caliber to her hooves as the pilgrim spat up at those flickering screens.There was another flash, and the alicorn was warped into the space between us, coming together as if from the lines of code that had given Hell its one friendly face. I hadn’t known there was an exact opposite to gold… until now.

INFIDELS!” Its voice pushed against the walls of my temples, from the inside out, and I clutched my ears as if to plug up slow trickles of blood. “Leave me alone. WHY CAN’T YOU JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!?” In its tantrum, the alicorn’s struck me across the shoulder, and sent me stumbling into the sand around the altar. “I just want to listen… I only wanted…” Her voice became quiet, losing its grip on my mind.

The temple was reeling around me, and as I watched half a dozen stone knives hovering over the ruin, I thought the world had finally rolled off the edge, where it had been teetering since the bombs fell. But, after rubbing my eyes, I saw that eerie and interstellar dust making cocoons around each of the knives, as the abomination was pulling thorns out of the palm of the earth, only to turn them on us.

I limped back to the heart of the temple, where Ash and Caliber were running circles around the alicorn, whose eyes had become stars, and whose wings were splayed wide, to burn a black cross into the skin of the sky. And then, without so much as another lightning strike… it all fell down.

YOU RUINED EVERYTHING!” Like a mobile with its strings snapped, the knives were crashing around us, and it was as if an asteroid belt had been steered into the temple. Caliber was running beside me then, and threw her weight against me, as if I was a frightened lamb, who had to be steered back into its pen. “You TOOK HER from ME!” The abomination was howling, though its voice flitted from emotion to emotion, from volume to volume, as if someone was toying with its dials.

The alicorn was trembling now, and as its hooves pounded down against the temple’s floor, Caliber went careening away from me, though I couldn’t know which one of us had lost their balance. “I’m sorry… Oh,” it moaned. “I’m so sorry.” It pulled up another shield, and let it tilt over Ash, who had surely worn her shotgun down as a wooden sword into a splinter. Soon, the pilgrim had her hooves pressing up against its shield, and the alicorn lowered it over her like the sole of a shoe over an insect.

A heavy round tore one of the alicorn’s cheeks into ribbons, only seconds before it disappeared, as if drained into the pinprick of starlight it left behind.

“I am getting so sick of this shit!” Caliber spat, and it came out red. “Headshots are Head Shots! Head. Shots. … For fuck’s sake!” I had to wonder what my mother would wash out of the mercenary’s mouth first: the blood or the four letter words. “This thing should be dead a dozen times already!”

Ash was lying on her back and, with all four of her hooves up, it looked like she had gotten stuck with the job of holding up the sky. “That thing… should never have been born,” She added, even as I cycled over to my father’s automatic pistol. “We must correct that mistake.”

GODDESS!” The word nearly knocked me off of my hooves, as it struck the temple like an immense hammer. “GODDESS!” We had our flanks to one another now, and spun like the blades of a pinwheel. “PLEASE.” I felt a tremor behind me, as the sky was pulled apart as if along a seam. I ducked away from the rift, thinking that it might pull me in, and soon found myself standing on one side of the abomination, as Caliber and Ash ducked out from under its forelegs. “Speak to me”

It dug another shield into the earth, and began to slide it towards that great pink sea, like a plough. Caliber and Ash were caught behind the walls, and I saw them pounding at them as if at panes of glass. I looked up, to see a horn which might have skewered a star, and knew what to do.

With the automatic pistol rocking steady beside me, I held a hoof up over my mouth like a shawl, as the earth was being churned up behind the alicorn’s plough. Staring at the tip of that galaxy piercing spear, I drew my magic in tight around the trigger, and let the pistol kick against its cradle.

The wall came tumbling down, and I could hear the alicorn screaming from the lowest spaces of my mind. Even as my clip ran on empty, the creature's wings started beating, though I only had eyes for its neck, which was long enough to make prisoners of its prey, like the belly of a python.

I floated out the combat knife that a Raider and I had once paced circles around, and steeled myself, knowing that I would soon be cutting the abomination’s throat. Like two exhausted Pegasi thrown from a hurricane, Caliber and Ash fell back for the beating of its wings, and it was all I could do to stop myself from running to them. As it turned, to swat me away like any other insect, I threw myself towards the abomination, kicking hard off of the temple’s stone, and tackled its neck.

REMOVE YOURSELF FROM OUR BACK!

My weight made It rock, as if in water, for the alicorn had already lifted its hooves from the altar’s face. And then, as if I had pushed it off the edge of this temple on the shore, its hooves were drawing ripples through the rosewater, and I was flying.

The cross on my father’s coat became a golden bird, as it whipped out behind me, and the alicorn spun violent circles around the temple, like a moth circling a lightbulb. The combat knife nearly slipped out of my telekinesis, as its edges were fraying in the wind, and I had to take the weapon’s hilt between my teeth, and bite down hard, for fear of seeing it sinking to the bottom of the pink sea.

The world was going by in a blur, and pulled tears out of the corners of my eyes. I clung on to the alicorn’s neck as a fisherman might the mast of his ship, and though it banked and spun, it wasn’t long before the chaos got bored of us, and picked a side. The abomination threw its weight to the west one last time and, as if on its own, the knife had sheathed itself in her throat.

“Goddess… p-please.” Her voice was shivering, curled up at the bottom of my mind and, as we started to fall, I stopped choking the alicorn, and hugged her instead. “Goddess?” Her eyes rolled back, and I saw that pinprick of starlight, curled up at the bottom of each iris: shivering.

The temple was rushing towards us, and I watched it coming as so many had the skirts of the balefire. But then, as if turned out on negative film, the colors of her eyes were flipped, and they boiled over as the surface of two blue suns, pierced through the middle.

“You found me.” Electricity whipped around her horn, as if wrenched from the cables that ran under the country’s skin, and I imagined every streetlight in Equestria stuttering on and off.

Then, the candle went out. And I was alone.

*** *** ***

Grace? Grace!

Shit… She might have broken bones.
We need to get her bound. Before she makes the damage worse.
You listening to me, Ascella?
Ascella!

It’s gone.

Yeah… Yeah, I know.
I’m sorry.



Just get me that old case out of her saddlebags. I’ve got an idea.

These are…

Yeah, I know what they are. Now come on… roll me the red one.
The red one, Ascella.

Grace! Now I need you to hold this for me, alright Sugar? There’s a good girl…
You’re going to be okay.





Footnote: Level Up!
Perk added: Gunslinger: Not only is weapon equipping and holstering now 50% faster, but all pistols, sawed off shotguns and submachine guns have their spread halved while walking or running.

Chapter 8: April Showers

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 8: April Showers
“While battle cattle are indeed a dangerous foe; they are one that should be fought ferociously!”

|*| A Star To Steer By |*|

“Stars are heartless things.” I woke up with the cold climbing its way up my spine, and the shadows of a hysterical fire dancing across my belly. It was the wind that had brought winter to rattle my bones and whistled a song to those black stickmen, so that they lapped at the walls of this hollow place like the tongues of desert priests at some shimmering mirage. “As one collapses, it will not let itself slip through the arms of the galaxy alone. But instead lashes its neighbors, and pulls them down with it.”

“And, like those stars that dapple the night’s skies, so are your memories woven together.” I wasn’t broken, though the temple must have struck my body as a hammer strikes a nail, and I could scarcely feel the pain, though it was all around me. My head felt clear, as if the last grains of that terrible voice had been emptied out, but I could feel a brittle and heatless crown pressing into my naked temples.

“But memories are not so heartless. No. They are loyal things. And as one collapses, its sisters will reach down and hold it, even as it pulls them away. The destruction of a single one, might be enough to leave you as barren as the new earth. Or give you your peace.” When the wind touched me, it burned, as if my fever was enough to put it to a boil, and so the pain was like a mob, hammering at the walls of my temple.

It was as if I had been laid out over that little fire, for how I could feel my skin being broiled. Still, it was the winter that had brought my back to a burn, and I felt as if I was being pinched in between a pair of tongs, which had had one of its fingers dipped in ice, and the other in fire. “Peace?” I mouthed the word, as another voice spoke them, as his voice, softened in the last embers of youth, spoke them. “You know that’s not what I want.” It was as if we were speaking as one, though my voice was too soft to be heard.

“You will burn your own path.” I found her, standing in between pillars of smoke, with a body that was painted by orange tongues, dancing matchstick men, and white stripes. Her neck had been shackled in a dozen narrow rings, and her eyes looked to have sunk into pools of electric water. “Find whatever memory you would remove, but be wary of all that it is bound to. If you wish to destroy a something, or a someone, then tear away the moment in which you thought of it most, and remembered it best.”

Her hair was smoke, and the beads along her body were turned to embers by the light. Her voice spun circles around the cave, and seemed to come out of every mask and tribal ornament: out of the face of every smiling madmare and the belly of every animal skin drum. “When you are ready to begin: drink. And the magic of your kind and mine will be your tools in pulling history up by its root: No matter the damage.”

“If the pillars fall: the temple will soon follow,” Damascus said, pushing his voice into the cracks between us. We were not one. This was not my body but somehow, neither was this a dream. “I know the danger. But I am not a child poking at a house of cards. I will leave no ruins behind me.”

“Just as soldiers leave no victims.” The smoke was gathering at the roof of the cave: becoming a tempest to match that which hung like a veil over the face of the nation. “After it is done… we will count our dead. But take comfort in knowing that, if you do let some gold slip through your hooves with all that sand, we can always return to these orbs, and pick up the pieces.”

Damascus looked down, and I could feel my chest swell for the fire that flooded our nostrils.
We both stared at a little vial, into which the night sky, with all its fields of velvet and pinpricks of starlight, had been poured. “Drink that, and you will see your history splayed out like an open book. Drink that, and you will have the power to rip out its spine. Rebind it. Burn away the pages… Begin Again.”

“Your valley treats magic as a pestilence. How was this technology not stamped out?”

“Sadly, Zion is happy to make a friend of plagues and pestilence, if only when they can be tamed.” We looked out at a disc of white, as the sun pierced the end of the cave’s throat. “This alchemy was passed from soldier to soldier: beginning even before our march to Equestria. I would brew it for them, so that Zion’s children might spend their waking hours fighting, and do their training, run their drills and study war, throughout the night. They didn’t listen, when I told them that the mind is exhausted as well as the body. They wouldn’t listen, when I told them that we were making machines of our children.”

“So it fills the same spaces as a dream?” We lifted the vial, to hold it between us and the fire, though the light was drowned in it. “What if one of the children were to slip into the blackness in between?” She might have drawn herself a silver lining in mascara, as her eyes were shining. “Have you ever lost one?”

We would have had a moment of silence then, but the fire cackled, as if there were witches being put to death in it. “Yes,” She said, as that starlight danced a ring around her eyes, and began to trickle over her cheeks as if falling through the twilight. “And you’re just like them, Damascus: You’re going home.” She let a hoof push through the embers and the smoke, to stroke our crown. “Come back.”

The talismans chimed to the breath of winter, as it blew into the cave, as if trying to smoke us out. But the fire and the fir only danced to its whistles, keeping us apart like a child stomping and singing their way through a slow dance. “Things will have changed. That is all that can keep you from falling into it. There will be twisted faces and voices that come out as gibberish for all the words that you’ve forgotten. There will be empty canvases, borrowing their colors and their shapes from older memories.”

Her arm, held over the fire, was like the trunk of a birch tree: burning. “I sent a soldier back once, so that he might relive a battle long since won. And, though he found his fight, the features of his enemy had been forgotten. So, in their place; like a mask that snarled and screamed and died, was the face of his father. And there was nothing he could do but win again.”

A shudder took me by the spine, and pulled me ever father away from Damascus. He hadn’t felt it, as every now and again, it was like we weren’t even sharing a body. I felt lost, as the smoke coaxed tears from their eyes, and the wind pressed into his burns. I was somewhere else: far away and far ahead, where the light of this prehistoric sun had come and gone, again and again: like a season, or the tide.

She let go of the crown, whose red jewel would one day be passed down to me, and Damascus tilted our head up, if only so we could watch the fire exhaust itself, as if pooling against the roof of a smoker’s mouth. I couldn’t feel the elixir, but knew that its stars were skipping down our throat, and was driven close to madness in searching for a taste or a texture: for anything.

Damascus was falling asleep, and the night sky spilled out over the world, leaving me alone.

*** *** ***

I was adrift.

The bonds that had made his senses mine, that had seen us sharing his coronation under the recollector, were severed. I had been cut loose, left to the library through which Damascus had to rifle, searching for the pages that he would pull out: for the books that he would burn.

I was floating through the Stable, watching lines of gold passing me by over great plains of steel, like headlights streaking along a highway, all blurred by the rain. The crowds had empty faces, and though they were my ancestors, I found myself afraid of them, as each seemed to be following me with eyes that had been plastered shut. The medical clinic was a blaring white, and I felt like a newborn as all the doctors and the nurses towered over me, with the mirrors on their heads flashing like cameras.

We didn’t seem so different now: he and I. And I could almost see us growing up together, as a flock of children took off around us, becoming bucks in their best suits and mares in Sunday dresses. As if the first few hundred days of the Stable’s history had been nothing but rolling Sundays.

We didn’t pass through any of their churches, and I had to wonder if the Faith had even begun to kick at the walls of the womb we called home. But, even as shades of red and whispered psalms began to trickle in over blurred lines, I realized that I had let too much of the Stable slip by: and felt like a mare who’d missed her stop, only to watch it disappearing behind sheets of rain, as blotted lights over the sleepers.

After only a little while it had all melted together, as if into a great lake of watercolors, and so the faceless ones were drowned. A long belt of rainstorms had their showers turned into a thicket of black crosses, a crown of thorns, as the horizons were struck across the sky. And then, as if to part the storm, Celestia pulled and pitter-pattered her chariot along the belly of our galaxy, and had me believing that the world was being born again. We were gone – damned – and I could hardly keep myself from crying for having let it slip through my hooves again, like gray sand lined with gold.

Damascus needed a fresh memory: one that stood as a pillar to the temples he sought to destroy, one that held the key to turning all that time loose. But, from the way he had spoken of the orbs, I didn’t expect him to start by burning away the ugly: putting a torch to thickets and thorn bushes. I expected him to light a match under a beautiful dress, or throw a stack of love poems, all sealed with kisses, into the furnace.

South, south, south.
The world was being given shape below us, as the deluge seemed to keep it as soft as wet clay, and the hoofsteps of that solar Goddess made valleys and tundra, pounding into the earth as a baker’s hooves into dough. We were both so far from home, but we had both become young again.

And, as I found my hooves where his were, and came to fill the space that he filled: I knew that we had escaped the aching – the wildfire lapping over his skin and the smoke in his eyes – that had been keeping us apart. We had cheated something just a step down from death and, for that, we were together.

*** *** ***

Outside, I could see windows like eyes to a thousand broken faces, all crumbling at the footsteps of the apocalypse that was walking the world. We pressed our back into dry concrete, and stared into the lights, even as they flashed and fizzled out. And, as names like Sparkle Cola and words like Ministry skittered across the walls, like insects over cold skin, I knew that we had been set down in some immense, Equestrian city. We walked over to a window pulled wide, and looked down onto an empty street.

The air was blue. Not the sky, but everything bottled up beneath it. Snow that was bright and electric rode on the back of the wind, and every pane of glass that hadn’t been coated in ash shone, catching the light of this static rain, of these latter day fireflies. The whole city blinked, as its screens and billboards, its smiling faces and logos, went dark, though the blue ivy in the air clung on like the spots I saw after first staring into the sun. Damascus looked up, and did the same, as it cut through the storm as a queen to the fireflies: blue and brilliant. It might have been molting, so that its skin dotted the air around us.

It looked as if the city had just been hit by a tidal wave, as its streets were swept clear of its clutters and cavalcades, and its eyes were only just drying their tears. There was a mare, creeping her way along the slickened road, and her eyes flitted from skyscraper to skyscraper, from screen to screen, as if she was trying to pick a product. We watched her slink out into the open square, which might once have seen a thousand bodies bottled in all at the same time. We had a service rifle in our hooves, and held it close.

We looked down its sights, and trailed the mare as she came into the belly of that dry riverbed of a street. She disappeared behind a broken chain of motorcars, whose bodies were smooth and bleached, as if sprayed down until their first coat of paint was chipped off. Damascus lowered the rifle and, as he rigged it to his side, I saw that his coat was the color of sand, and wore what wounds it had like oases.

Then, we were running down a staircase, as the posters became a blur beside us, so that those few faces that I could never forget and words like Enlist and Bombs and Nation ran into each other. Pink was the only color that could keep up and, though we left it behind, I could have sworn a smile was following us.

We slid out into the street and as Damascus turned, I realized that he was not chasing after the mare as if being pulled along by his heartstrings, like a buck with a ring in his pocket or a rose in between his teeth. He only wanted to run away. The city was so nearly empty that it hurt to think of all these early wanderers, walking roads around each other just to keep themselves separate: to keep themselves safe.

I remembered what he had then, as I watched a naked hoof – stripped of its Pipbuck in an early ritual – making ripples in the road. He had his Goddesses, and would run on alone though, down any alley or behind any of the jalopies that looked like boats sunk into the static, there could be so many red bars. And, thinking of naked rats in the tunnels below us, and alicorns playing God, nesting in the spires above, I felt a shiver run down my spine, despite the turn of the season.

It was warm out, though the sun did little but press its palms down onto the storm, and Damascus might as well have been wearing clothes, for how small and feeble a thing winter was then. And though the lights in the sky were alien, and the storm might never be pulled apart: it was a beautiful day, bright as any prewar springtime for how all the water and the glass had been set on fire.

At the end of the road, the skyscrapers fell away before some kind of river or canal, and all I could say for sure was that there had once been a bridge running across it. Now, the structure was alone, as it had lost its grip on either side of the city, and let its arms sag into the water. In fact, it sort of looked like a cross…
.
Damascus stopped, as we watched a thunderhead rolling over the horizon, and saw that the rain had painted black wrists to hold it up to the sun. Our heartbeats quickened, as a siren swept through the city: singing, not to seduce us, but to drive us away. The clouds had black bellies, and looked like cotton balls that had been dipped in ink. Damascus started running towards them, and I felt powerless for how little I could do to turn him away: to stop him from swimming against the current.

The street had become cluttered, as the frayed tail of an abandoned traffic jam spread out around us, and Damascus slid to a stop, kicking up silver dust in the place of ash or dirt. I couldn’t know if it had been left here by the fallout, like glitter rolling off the bridal train of a newlywed, or if it was something Damascus was just dreaming up to blanket the grime. Either way, I wished that I could bring a basket of it back with me, so that I might skip along like a flower girl to the Fallout, and sprinkle Equestria with stardust.

It was strange that Damascus and I could be looking at different things, though we shared the same eyes. But, as I watched those little constellations drift apart, he beheld the arrival of three angels in power armor, and ducked behind the hood of the nearest jalopy. The soldiers, who went marching through a red light, almost seemed to frighten him, if only for the draconic scales that ran up their spines and the visors that had hidden their faces, though neither was enough to keep him from weaving us a way towards them.

They turned, and there was a terrible whirring noise, as miniguns began to spin and grenades went clicking into narrow chambers. He stood at the center of the crossroads, and stared down the tips of their spears, even as his heart beat against our chest like the hooves of a madmare pounding against the walls of her padded cell. One of them raised a hoof, armored in the fashion of medieval knights, and the others cooled down as quickly as fire shut up under a glass.

“Star’s sake… you’re normal.” I realized then that they were not looking on us with anger, but awe. Damascus seemed just as surprised as I was, and slunk over to them as an animal to a hunter holding out a palm full of bait. “Don’t know if you lived through Hell, or just came climbing up out of it.”

His voice came out muffled, and was nearly rinsed out by the songs of the sirens. “But you’d better find someplace to bunker down, citizen.” It was a good thing that Damascus had already written this script, otherwise I would have let out a girlish squee as, for saying citizen, the soldier might as well have called me beautiful. “The Fallout ran itself dry years ago. But we’ve got a radiation storm rolling in.”

He waved at his companions, as if cutting them loose, so that they could march away on heavy hooves. “You from the Stable?” He asked, making us feel famous, and Damascus nodded, keeping his silence. “Find me when the sirens die down… We should talk.”

“We might be the first ponies to poke our heads out, Twenty-Nine.” He said the number like a nickname. “Pretty much makes us neighbors, huh?” I could hear him smiling under those steel bridles, and felt a little twist in my chest, as I remembered that he and I could never be friends: that the soldier would be lying in some long buried grave, with Equestria’s flag folded over him.

“Now, find someplace with its windows boarded up: someplace dark. The radiation gets on everything the light touches.” He waved at a roll of dimestores, which had once sold everything from newspapers to roses. “It’s just a damn shame you don’t have one of those Pipbucks.” He bowed his head, looking at our naked hoof, and he became a dragon ridden with guilt after a rampage.

Damascus even got a salute before we parted ways, and went on in a quiet state of shock. While I would have been playing in the puddles, letting my laughter ring out through the shimmering city, Damascus was impossible to read, though we were in his library: laying his pages bare. And I couldn’t know if the silence had come from a lump in his throat, a knot in his stomach or some longstanding vow.

*** *** ***

The buck in the store window had Damascus in his eyes – and, for the symbol on his flank, Damascus on a cross. And, though his hair was the color of cinnamon, salt and pepper palms ran along his jaw and up his cheeks, and were beginning to run their fingers through his mane. It looked like alpaca wool, and might have been shorn off by pieces of broken glass or knives pulled from walls or warm bodies.

As he ran a hoof along his scars, and shifted his weight so that the window would not disfigure him, I thought of that morning at the toll, when I’d done just the same. But his hair was wooly and mine was leonine, and I had to recite that old idiom: March comes in like a lion, and leaves like a lamb.

We came into the flower shop, and found it dark but for a few slanted pillars of sunlight, making stars out of the dirt in the air. I might have counted a thousand shriveled flowers; all bent over and curled up, as if the smoke of a burning city had pinched their stems, and choked them to death. Petals littered the tile, as if a mare had passed through the room in a panic, looking for any answer other than He loves me not.

Some had survived in display cases, like precious stones, and for the sheen of the glass that shielded its shelves; the flower shop might have passed for a jewelry store. And I had to wonder then: what would become of a buck who bent his knee, and held up a daffodil in place of a diamond.

Our hoofsteps slowed, as his heartbeats quickened, and we came to the far side of the room, where those beams of sunlight had drawn splintered crosses. There, in the sanctuary of a little glass silo, looking like it was on fire for the light that danced around its petals, was a rose.

And, as we walked towards it, the world began to bleed. All the colors, though they were few and ashy here, were blurred at their edges, like rivers running wild over their banks. The sunlight spread as fire put to the corner of a page, and folded over us, so that we were alone with the rose. We could only watch, as its petals took off into the blush of the sun, like bruised and bloody doves. This was it.

As the walls fell away, taking with them the city and its siren call, I knew that Damascus had found a place to start his fire, to start pouring himself into the orbs. It would begin with Rose.

A mare, beautiful even as the candlelight softened her features, and remolded them like clay, stood with us even as history went reeling by: all drunken and clumsy. Everything about her was yellow, from hair that might have been spun from gold, and a coat like so many pastures and wheat fields, to eyes that had stolen their colors from the sun, and the lines around us now: the lines that I had so often followed home.

She was a billboard mare, whose smile kept Damascus’ heart beating against our chest, as if it wanted to get out: to be taken into her arms and held as a shivering animal. And I wondered if he had ever known what loneliness was, before he met her: before the first night he had spent without her.

Everything started to fall apart then, as the orb sipped her up, and shut her away just as that silo of glass had made a prisoner of its rose. She flashed by me, as if there was a metro train passing between us, with its window blurring together. And she was young. She was old, and she was young, as a gray curl was spun through her mane: as ribbons and roses were woven together on her flanks.

I saw her standing beside the mural we schoolchildren had been drawing for these last one hundred years, though it had been little more than a field of wild scribbles then, like a country that had yet to be tamed. She drew a line, planting the seeds to a garden that would grow with the children of the century.

I saw her in the lower Atrium, as a face in the crowd, with the Celestial cross filling the wall behind her. It had been smeared on as two crooked yellow lines, more like the brand of anarchy, than the silhouette of a God. She had been there, when the Faith came up out of the water. Damascus and I stood on a stage, throwing our voice over the mob, holding the Stable’s door open so that the Goddesses could slip in.

I saw her woven through the fabric of history: be it the Stable’s, mine, or Damascus’. They lay together on the floor of a maintenance room, where great engines could be heard snoring through every wall, and looked up at the ceiling: ready to meet their Goddesses. Then, he was asking her to marry him.

More meetings: at first held at a whisper, with faces like masks at the edge of the candlelight, but then becoming great and groundbreaking, earthshaking things. Pony after starry eyed pony stood in rank and file with the yellow mare, as if Damascus was building an army.

A wedding flashed by as a flock of paper roses, whose breasts were white and red, though the audience was smaller now, and she could not be found in the crowd: She was standing right beside us.

She does.

The medical wing wrapped us up in its blaring lights, and, for once, there was happiness in it. My mother wasn’t here, held down by a disease: drowning in it. And his mother wasn’t here, shackled at the hoof and rambling on with the voices in her head. Both were at peace, and the latter paid for one life with another.

A child played, a filly, rolling and laughing from mother and father. And somehow, I knew that she would be next: that he had made himself forget her. Damascus was getting rid of it all: all his love and affection. He wasn’t selling his soul: he was giving it away. And I could only watch it go, as a witness to the waste.
She was young: Too young to speak, too young to put on her little dresses. But she had the bluest eyes.

Marie.

After the girl, there was red. More of it than we’d ever seen: all over my hooves, all over my home. The filly wailed, but she was quiet. I couldn’t hear her breathing, and she couldn’t see me crying. She couldn’t know how frantically I tried to put her pieces back together again. Like torn petals saying she loves me.

Rose.

More red, as my hooves became as bruised and as bloody as those petal doves. But I didn’t care. Bastard. Bastard. Bastard. One life for another. Isn’t that the way it always goes? The wheel keeps turning. And where the dead rest in peace and pieces, the damned must go on, in eternity and Equestria.

Repent.

<=======ooO Ooo=======>

I woke up, and could smell winter in the air, though cigarette smoke and the smell of rain had spilt over it. A bundle of rifles lay crossed over me, and they rattled as the cart rolled closer and closer to the sun, which had pierced a hole in the savage skies beyond Equestria’s border, leaving burns in the sleeves of faraway storm clouds, all strung out and held up by black pillars of rain that the sun had put a shine to.

The cart prattled along, bound for the great gateway between MASEBS and Zion’s mountain, from which trails of white dust waved, like white flags bleached in the sunlight. My head lolled, as I felt too numb to straighten my neck, and too safe for thinking that I was to be taken into the arms of the sun, and not thrown into its fires like any other virgin sacrifice.

There were pines trees, standing in their little families of three or four or five, almost naked but for a few needled crowns and tattered robes of snow, which had been draped over both mountains ranges and the basin between them. As if some mad baker had poured a little sugar over the world. I felt like I was falling in love with it all, and wondered if Equestria could win my heart, though it had so often been shutout for fear of its father’s blackness. My head was jolted back then, turning my smile upside down, and I found myself beholding a colossal old machine.

There, faraway and to the south, stood a Bucket Wheel Excavator: one of the very things that had dug our country dry. I found myself hating the thing, as if all the world's demons were hidden somewhere in its enormous skeleton of a shell. And though it was only a piece of heavy equipment, it might have passed for some kind of alien city, as flashing lights came out pale despite the sunset, and clean smokestacks rose as twisted watchtowers all around it.

The machine stood tall, almost in line with the lower mountains, though it was bent over the earth like a bird picking at swollen worms. The excavator at the end of its neck was starting to look like a saw blade. In fact, the entire construct seemed more like a weapon than it did a tool, and I started to worry that it might come roaring after me, as a thousand spinning wheels turned its treads.

I turned back to the sun, and fled like I had been saved. It was older than the oldest machine, and could swallow up planets, plucking them out of orbit like berries from a branch. The sight of it was almost enough to have me believing that Celestia was really up there, steering it around the world.

“Grace?” Ash chirped, as she sprang up beside the cart. The breeze made her mane dance, like a crowd of desert priestesses taking part in some holy ritual, with lavender silk spinning around them, and bare hooves searing in the sand. She didn’t seem able to speak, as if that single line of birdsong was all she knew: as if to smile for too long would be to go dancing over their graves. And then, if only to bring me down with her, the little pilgrim told me why she had followed me north. “The abomination… it’s not over”

“Welcome aboard!” Caliber called out, like a mare with her ears plugged, as she pulled the carriage towards the horizon. Her mane made me think of the roses, as both had been set on fire in the sun. “Please stow your crippled limbs inside of the cart at all times, and keep those rifles away from children aged three and under. They may contain small parts… probably in the way of bullets.” She tipped an imaginary conductor’s hat. “Next stop: Silo City… Otherwise known as the end of the line.”

She waved at five grain towers, which stood guard to the radio tower and its mountains ahead. The silo on the far left was leaning over its neighbor, like a drunk trying to slow dance, and left a deep dent in its steel fuselage. Their colors didn’t quite match, as three granary silos rose like crooked missiles, while the other two, standing in between them, had oily black faces. The centermost silo poked over all the others, and I could make out walkways, pipelines and barricade walls stitched over the entire superstructure.

“They’ve got a clinic there. Should be able sell us the supplies you’ll need to patch yourself up.” I beamed; feeling like the closest thing the world had to a doctor. “And with the caps we make off of this haul… well, we won’t exactly be livin’ it up. Silo City doesn’t trade in much more than ammunition and Brahmin.”

The town could only be shored behind the silos, as there was little to see now but for torched farmsteads, pastures picked clean, and the radio tower looking out over it all from the north.

“Silo City might be the only settlement in the wasteland without a working girl under its belt,” Caliber added. “Unless you count Ol’ Bessie, though that’s the kind of taste most ponies aren’t exactly chompin’ at the bit to acquire.” At that, she came to a sudden stop, making the cart and all its contents bounce.

“There’s supposed to be a sniper looking out from that middle tower.” She turned her snout up and sniffed at the air, as if the scent of danger hadn’t clogged up the sky. “Something’s wrong.”

With a jolt, Caliber pulled the cart over the bones of a wooden fence, though she kept her hoofsteps to a slink, and bobbed her head from side to side as if there was something lurking in between these brittle crops. She ploughed us a steady path through an old corn field, and Ash kept a steady pace beside me.

“Hey… Ms. Ascella.” I was whispering, as the mercenary pricked up her ears. “Can I ask you something?” After thinking it over for a while: she nodded, and I let myself sink back into the cart as if it were a bath. Then, as I tilted my head up to the sky, I wondered if I even had the strength to force the alicorn back into the space between us: if I had the right to tread on the tail of that sleeping dog.

“That’s only fair: The mercenary had her questions answered,” She let herself smile a little, and I decided to let it lie, though whenever I tried to think back to that temple before the pink sea I might as well have invited a headache in to hammer at the shattered memories, like an infant mechanic.

“Oh, don’t mind her,” I said, as Caliber stopped, and poked her head up over the crops like a meerkat. “She’s just a little paranoid.”

“You had a question.”

“Right.” I tried to wave my hoof, and realized that it had been bundled up in one of my own medical braces. “Well…” Then, as if Celestia herself had decided to help me out, the storms seemed to start spinning the other way, and caught my eye. “Have those clouds always been there?” Their curtains looked to have been trimmed just above the radio tower, as if a seamstress had walked all along the northern mountains, with her scissors to the sky. “I mean, is something making them that way.”

Somepony.” Her eyes followed mine, and the roof of the world was reflected in pools of black and gold: of ink and champagne. “The Enclave.”

“Pegasus bastards!” Caliber hollered back at us, as she puzzled over an unbroken fence. “Got themselves set up nice and cozy up there. Hear tell they’re still living like it’s the old days: with taxes and everything.” She punched the fence. “Hell, they’ve even got their own military. Troopers come poking around sometimes, looking for a new excuse to stay shut up behind the clouds.”

“They took flight from Equestria just before the war came to its sunset, and closed up the sky behind them.” They might as well have slapped me across the cheek, as I’d never thought our own people might have pulled the wool over the eye of the world. “They made themselves a Kingdom in the Skies, and so: chained themselves to it. When their ascension comes, their hooves will be too heavy to tread the path.”

The thought of it made me sick, and I wanted to believe that Ash was right – that those who had stolen the sun would face the jurors of some divine court – but I couldn’t. Still, Caliber might have taken her frustration out on anything with feathers, and I worried for the Pegasus that were trapped here with her. The mercenary had never stopped treading at the wasteland’s water, never let herself go under, while the Enclave grew fat and blind, like pigs whose faces were buried in a bottomless trough.

Ash looked a little sad, as if she pitied the citizens of the Enclave who might have been saved, were it not for the hooves over their eyes. Caliber furrowed her brow, and punched a hole through the fence.

My stomach hurt.

*** *** ***

Welcome to Silo City Cows!
No Ponies Aloud!

An ugly shade of paint had been smeared over the sign, though it looked more like a wine stain than blood. The gate to Silo City was wide open, leaving everything inside of its walls, which were like those of a bullpen, naked. A Brahmin stood beside the entrance, and I was a little shaken to see one alive for the abattoirs of Hell, even though it did little more than chew, and stare out at us through sunken eyes.

The head that was glaring at us, as the other ate something that looked quite a lot like a shirt, wore a colander as a helmet and had a number of growths on the right side of his face, like cancerous moles. His eyes widened as he looked over the cart, with me in it, as if he’d just realized something very obvious. “Ambassador!” He brayed. “Amba-sassador! Ambasasafrasador!” The bull’s voice rose to a wordless bellow, and his thick gray tongue flailed like a fish out of water.

I could see his ribs as their hide was pulled taught, and while he bucked their weight back and forth; his brother did his best not to choke on the shirt. “Whoa there,” Caliber said with two hooves raised, as if she was about to bless them. “Whoa there!” To this, both of the Brahmin’s heads became still, but for a lazy sway from side to side. “Could’ya just tell us what’s going on here? … Where are all the ponies?

I shook my head, like a god trying to dry its ears. She was talking to a bull. A two headed bull. A two headed bull wearing a colander and eating a shirt. “Go now, woman! Take the Ambassador to see Bodacious!” He wrenched his head towards that corral of a town, and sent his makeshift helmet flying. “Hurry! Before Simmental comes home from the fields!”

Caliber shrugged back at me, and then crept into the town on the tips of her hooves, as the buildings surrounded us like circling wagons. Their architecture borrowed from that of an iconic Equestrian village, though in place of candy colored coats of paint or time honored woodwork, there was rust and grime and faces wearing masks of mud and ruin, taken from the scattered farms that dotted this northern corner.

One was branded The OK, by a bold sign slapped over its porch. There was a primitive stable built between the silos and the western wall, but it had been almost entirely abandoned. Only a mottled old bull was left, leaning against its side, as the structure had sagged from a square to a rhombus. I had to look back, for one of his heads wore a bowling hat tilted all the way forward, and the other smoked a cigar.

A hollowed out barn stood at the feet of the silos, as proud and as worn down as any medieval castle. Orange light spilled out of its windows, and came creeping through lesions all across the building’s toasted face. Like the Brahmin at the gate, the barn had a strange pattern of growths riddling its sides, and might have passed for a great, wooden bull, like a crude monument to some ancient rodeo legend.

My Pipbuck showed clusters of white bars scattered throughout Silo City, and a great, shivering hoard of ivory tusks inside The OK. I looked back at the gate, wondering if I would see one bar or two, and couldn’t help feeling a little shortchanged. “Is it usual to have a cow guarding the town?” I asked, as Caliber walked circles around the snowmelt, and came to the mouth of the barn.

“About as usual as having one run it.” We came to a sudden stop as there, nestled in a throne of damp hay and flanked by a pair of armored Brahmin, was something I never thought I’d find outside of a deck of cards: a king with two heads… but only one crown. “Welcome to the Equestrian Wasteland, Sugar.”

*** *** ***

"So… you have come at last.” The Great Bull’s voice seemed to shake the barn, as if thunderheads had come to lay siege on Silo City. “To beg for peace, or lay down your arms as tribute?” His eyes, whose lids were heavy if only to cover up a yellow madness, rolled over the rifles. “I have waited a long time for this, Equestrian. But it is good to see that your kind still has enough sense to know when you are beaten.”

He must have mistaken the cart for a carriage, and now saw me as some kind of noblemare, come to speak on behalf of a voiceless country. “You make it sound like this land might be anything but ours… Don’t forget that Silo City stands on Equestrian soil, your cowness.” It was kinda hard not to step up and defend the country. Plus, I really liked being called Equestrian. “What gives you the right to rule it?”

“For decades, my kind toiled over this cold and bitter earth! We Brahmin were the ones who tended it, who cared for it, who bled for it! And now, we Brahmin are taking back what is ours!” One of his guards stomped a hoof, and then nudged the other as if to remind him to do the same. “Do you know what it is like to be so subjected… to be so insulted? Do you know what it is like to be milked?

Ash was standing very still, as if she was bunkering down against the thunder of his voice, and the pilgrim seemed to fade away a little more with every word. She was growing more distant by the sentence, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to look over and find her gone. “No… no, you live like royalty. Every one of you ponies, a king in his own right, never thinking of the bones beneath your thrones.”

“I don’t know what the hell you’re sitting on.” Caliber sneered. “But it sure looks like a throne to me, pal.” The crown on his head, made of a decorated general’s cap with its top punched out, wasn’t helping. “Now, how ‘bout you tell us where the locals ran off to: I’m fittin’ to sell these guns and wash my hooves of this ass-backwards tomfuckery as soon as possible.”

“Rein in your wild bitch of a dog, Equestrian.” From the look of this place, there couldn’t be enough soap to wash out both of their mouths. “The common of blood and simple of mind have no place in such glorious theaters of power.” The head beside his was limp, and shook as if in disagreement whenever Bodacious shifted his weight. “Now, see what I have made of your kind. And tremble!

He pulled on the chain around his knotted hoof, and a pony burst out of the straw, as if this had all been some kind of intricate magic trick. The buck was shackled at the neck, and a pair of glasses were set askew across his snout. Over his clothes, he wore only a silken strip of cloth, which had coiled around his legs, making it look as if he’d dipped them in cotton candy. “See?” The Bull roared triumphantly. “Even your most delicate trophies, your fairest maiden, can be crushed under the hoof of King Bodacious!”

Caliber laughed, and if it weren’t for the look of defeat on the buck’s face, I might have done the same. “Don’t know how many times we’re gonna have to go over this, Bo…” At the sight of us, a smile danced to the prisoner’s face, as if he already knew that we would set him free. “But I’m not a maiden.”

He was fair enough, though: especially beside the bulls, and I couldn’t blame Bodacious for making the wrong call. Hay stuck out of his electric gray mane, making it a thicket that was only held back by a square sided military cap. His coat was the color of expensive chocolate, around which the coils of silk might have made a bow, and he wore a khaki trader’s vest, whose collar was black and whose pockets were running over like a magpie’s nest. His cutie mark was a yellow road sign, which looked to have taken two bullets to its breast, and wore one arrow pointing up, and another pointing down.

But, as the buck straightened out his glasses and gave us a little nod, I saw the real problem. His eyes might have been cut and pasted from the cover of a magazine: stolen off of an Applewood starlet.
“Alright, honey,” Caliber began, without softening the edges of her tone. “Tell us where this clodhopping crazy put the rest of Silo City, and I’ll leave a bullet in his head on my way out of town.”

Caliber wasn’t very good at diplomatic negotiations! “Haha,” I said, in a very poor imitation of laughter. “What a joker. What a card. What a jester, even.” I pulled myself a little farther out of the rifles, and tried to make a throne out of them just as he had the hay. Since Ash had left us like a cartoon character running off without their silhouette, and Caliber had set herself back like a dog about to pounce, it looked like it was up to me to stop Silo City from spinning any further out of control.

Please, O Kingliest of Cows. There’s no need for this kind of behavior. Just tell us what you want, and we’ll patch things over between you and Silo City.” I was going to go about this as if he was a lion with a thorn in its paw, as this was an unstable bull, that somepony had tipped over. “Let me help you. And maybe ponies and cows can… finally coexist peacefully?”

To be honest, even I had to wince for how thickly I was laying it on, as I might as well have been pouring syrup over pancakes. “Hmm…” He stroked his other head, which remained unsettlingly still, as if nothing could wake it. “Perhaps you can help me.” His eyes darted from guard to glassy eyed guard, though both looked to be chewing on their own tongues. “I mean… serve me, of course.”

Bodacious seemed very different from the other Brahmin, and though he might not have been one of the new world’s greatest minds, he certainly had his chromosomes on straighter than his, if not loyal then very easily tamed, subjects. “Just tell me how to set things right, your… bovine eminence.”

Caliber scoffed, and the collared buck settled back into the hay, as if he was watching some kind of puppet-show parliament. “You see... I never liked Equestria much.” I bristled a little, as he stroked the hair on his chin. “And when Brutus died, I thought I’d go north. Where the Great Space Cow can be seen each and every night, and the milk falls like rain, to make our women plump and… open to experimentation.”

Just as I had been shaken up by that blasé insult to Equestria, so was Ash at the mention of a Cow in the Kingdom of her Goddesses, though she quickly shied away for talk of fat and uninhibited cowgirls. “But Brutus still whispers to me. And speaks of an Equestria overthrown… put under the hoof of our great race.” As he turned wary eyes onto his second head, I had to put a hoof to my mouth for fear of retching.

It was dead.

Brutus was not some shadowy advisor, pulling the strings of Silo City from behind its throne, but only a lifeless head, still latched on to the body of his brother, like a tumor long since overgrown. “And… I can’t bring myself to leave. He wouldn’t allow it. I…” Then, Bodacious’ eyes glazed over, as if something deep inside of him had been stirred from sleep. “How could I even think to run away? To waste this gift…”

The Bull tapped at the base of his crown, and we could only watch with puzzled expressions, wondering what gift he might have hidden there. “Wanna hear my theory?” The buck with the Applewood eyes spoke up, and only then did I pick up on his accent, though it wasn’t a far cry from that of the steel soldiers in Damascus’ orb. “Your typical Brahmin can barely talk half the time and, when they do, it’s usually head by head: One or the other in turn. Like their mind is split between the two.”

“Just because you’re born with two heads, doesn’t mean you get enough brains to go around.” Caliber nodded. “So what: King Olly Olly Oxen Free here is two times smarter than your a-verage Brahmin?”

“Hold your tongue, or I will have it nailed to the side of this barn!” The earth rumbled, as Bodacious rocked his weight forward, starting to pay attention again. “One speaks too much and the other speaks too little,” He noted, as the pilgrim pressed her hooves a little deeper into the earth, as if being pushed backwards, and stared up into his soiled eyes.

The bull groped at his temple with an awkward hoof, as if a terrible and electric pain had just shot through him. “You are testing my patience, Equestrian! And Brutus is never more alive than he is in anger.” I shuddered, as that great weight sagged even lower, as if it was about to go rolling away like a rotten apple. “You can let me go. Free me of Brutus: and you free Equestria of us both.”

And, with that, I knew what he wanted me to do, and all that remained was searching Silo City for the tools with which I could remove that bloated tumor named Brutus: be they scalpels and anesthetics or hammers and hacksaws. “You want me to decapitate you?”

“Yes…” Half of the enormous bull laughed. “What better way to put an end to a kingdom?”

*** *** ***

The storm clouds had yet to part, and so blurred the light of the sun, to make the northern horizon into a fresh painting over which water had been spilled. The radio tower looked like a gilded lily, as the light made petals out of its satellites. And though the mountains nearly folded over one another, to shut the country off no differently than the margins of a map, and the Enclave lost its grip on the storm, so that it fell apart over the open sky, I knew that we had only just scratched the surface of Equestria.

A bull named Simmental was playing taskmaster over the ponies laboring in these blackened fields, if only to rub in his kind’s revolution. And, hopefully, Silo City’s clinician would be with him, as I would need more than a combat knife and some wishful thinking to cut off a head without doing any serious damage.

“This is a new low,” Caliber muttered, as we made our way along a road through the dappled pastures. She was the only one of us who could point out the mare who ran the clinic, and had no choice but to drag me along, as I tried to settle things peacefully from atop my throne of rifles. “I’ve been doing this a long time, Grace. And I’ve taken my share of contracts from the bottom of the last barrel. But playing nurse for the sake of some uppity cow? …I can’t stand it.”

“You don’t like Brahmin?” Ash asked, as she trotted alongside the cart, much more at home out in the open country. “They seemed nice enough to me… at least, the stupid ones did.”

“Don’t get me wrong: I usually love Brahmin. And Silo City used to be a lot better for ‘em.” The cart bounced, as we passed over a crack in the road, following a litter of faceless pastel smudges in the distance. “But they’re meant to be simple: They like it that way. We’re not helping anyone but that bastard Bodacious here. And we’d do everyone just as much good by lopping off his talking head instead.”

“What about all the ponies of Silo City?” I pressed her, wondering how she could have forgotten the trophy that Bodacious had pulled out of his haystacks. “We’re doing this to rescue them, aren’t we?”

“Like they couldn’t get themselves out of this mess.” She rolled her eyes, as we closed in on Simmental and his toys. “I’d bet you anything that they’re more scared of putting scratches on their livestock than they are of Bodacious’ threats. Brahmin aren’t exactly the fightin’ type, no matter how many heads they’ve got. But alive: they’re worth their weight in caps, and that’s the best kind of armor there is.”

“Maybe they have grown to care about these lowly beasts,” Ash offered, in a sentiment that was both heartwarming and mildly offensive. “Only the Brahmin Bodacious is at fault. The rest are, as you said, too simple to be blamed for this. Perhaps Silo City could not bear to fight and kill its own pets.”

As if to prove them both wrong: a great gray body could now be seen lying in between about a half dozen ponies, collapsed like a besieged castle or the uprooted statues of a dictator. They had ploughed through the outermost lines of dead or dying crops, leaving something like a clearing around them.

“Simmental!” I raised my voice, though had very little reason to mourn the fallen bull. The fieldworkers looked up at us, and started to back away from the body as if Caliber and the cart were no less a symbol of the law than a wailing police car. “What happened here?” I asked, as we swung to a dramatic stop, so that clouds of dust rolled out from under our wheels. “Well?”

“We…” One of the mares tapped her hooves together, and flashed me a nervous smile: Clear evidence of murder most foul! “Well, we tipped him.”

And, just like that, we went from ace detectives on the trail of conspiracy to county cops dealing with a prom night prank, and I caught myself feeling slightly disappointed to find the bull well enough alive. Caliber looked to have been knocked back onto her flanks, and held a hoof over her face, likely wondering how her career could have come to this. Ash didn’t seem to care much.

“I’m glad to see no one was hurt,” I said, lying just a little bit. “I’ve found a way to settle this peacefully, for both Brahmin and pony. Soon, Bodacious will be out of Silo City for good.”

“That’s funny…” One of the bucks came forward, ploughing past younger ponies as if he wasn’t twice their age. “Because we just found a way to settle things very, very violently.” His gray eyes, which looked even older than he was, were set on the rifles of Raiders and Pilgrims alike. “How much are you selling those weapons for, Red? Or maybe that bleeding heart of yours would see us taking them for free.”

“It’s her heart that’s bleeding.” She thrust a hoof back at me. “And that’s where I get my orders from: So no dice.” She was standing now, and seemed a little too ready to fight these ponies run under the wheels of revolution. “Now, Bed and Breakfast needs to show us what medical supplies she’s got back at The OK.”

Bed and Breakfast? I sounded out the name, as they turned to a mare whose coat was the color of syrup and waffles slapped together: who wore strips of bacon instead of wounds, and had eggs in her eyes.

“Hold on a second,” I said, as if my iron throne was enough to make me Queen. “Why are you all set on killing Bodacious? Wasn’t he harmless until he… found his mind?” Funny how that worked out. “There are better ways to settle him back down again.”

“It’s not about that,” The old buck spat. “It’s about what that bastard bull deserves.” For that, he got a few cheers. “Ask any of the Brahmin – Land’s sake, just ask Simmental – and maybe you’ll understand. This is a local problem. And we’re fixin’ to settle it the local way.” They were starting to look a little like an angry mob. “He melted down our guns. Trampled our sniper to death. He’s got debts to pay.”

“Fuck,” Caliber said, letting herself sound exhausted. “That’s no way for a good marksman to die.” She turned back to me, and the look in her eyes almost had me passing out rifles. “Maybe that’s the reason Bodacious wants to get out of dodge: He knows the Brahmin will lose interest in this whole song and dance eventually: Knows he can’t keep Silo City from wriggling out from under his hoof forever.”

“You are looking at him as a victim,” Ash added, throwing her name in with the mob. “Though he might be little more than a coward in a crown. Perhaps this talk of Brutus was only meant to confuse you.”

They all looked up at me, with their eyes wide, waiting for a ruling, as if my carriage had made me judge, jury and executioner. “No.” Their faces fell, as if I had just told them it was bedtime, and there would be no time for one more game. “Brutus is behind this. And I’ll give you his head. Along with my word that Bodacious will leave Silo City, will leave the country, by the time this is over.”

Everypony but that gray old buck seemed to set down their torches and pitchforks then as, just like those children begging to see their first midnight, they were really very tired. “We made a home for these Brahmin. And he ran it into the mud. That bull has no love for us, or his brothers… no love for his family.”

“This all started when Brutus died, but that still leaves one set of shoulders to carry the yoke of this guilt.” He waved at the toppled bull. “Ask Simmental to tell you about the Stables, and maybe you’ll plug the holes in that bleeding heart of yours. Maybe you’ll see that Bodacious doesn’t deserve anyone’s mercy.”

He began marching past the cart, with the other ponies following close behind. “This isn’t mercy,” I said, raising my voice after him, though I might have needed to hear myself more than anypony else did. “This is the benefit of the doubt.”

They became little more than watercolor smudges then, as the road carried them back to the strange serenity of Silo City, and I leaned out of the cart as best I could for crippled limbs, trying to look down at the bull. “Mister Simmental?” I prodded him, as if my words were no different to a long stick. “Were you listening to any of that?” He was walking - well, he was trying – and his hooves tread at the air as if it was water. And, from the look of sleepy content on his face, I didn’t know if he could tell the difference.

Ash circled around to his head, and I realized how massive these beasts of burden really were, especially for how easily the pilgrim seemed to drift away. Simmental might have choked her down in only a few bites, or swallowed her in one if he was hungry enough, though that image alone was enough to make my skin crawl. She poked one of his snouts, where a rust colored ring had been hung like an old door knocker, and had to skip away from a blanket of hot air. “Hmm?” He asked, with his voice at a snore.

“Hello sir, we were wondering if you could spare a few minutes of your time to talk about Bodacious.” We might as well have been clutching books of scripture to our chests, so that the pins of our name tags dug in a little deeper. But the bull didn’t react like most woken by the word of an early rising God, and smiled lazily, as if he had just come out of a dream. “Is there anything you can tell us about Silo City’s Stables?”

“Tell?” He yawned, and I nearly tackled Ash, to get her clear of his mouth. “Nah… but I can show you.”

*** *** ***

I was wrong.

The Stables weren’t empty, as from every stall jutted the hindquarters of another Brahmin, and under each was a swollen udder. They were arranged as racers at the starting line, all facing the wrong way, and they would have been able to look out into town if the shadows that hung over their faces like bride’s veils weren’t so inky. We stood at the mouth of a narrow alley of dirt and pockets of snowmelt, which ran in between the western wall of Silo City, and the backsides of so many breeders.

“Caeli,” Ash said, as she crossed herself. Simmental stood beside her, with a vacant look on his faces. “This is an assembly line.”

“More like a toy box.” Caliber scowled up at Simmental. “Those girls might not know it: but they’re nothing more than playthings to keep the bulls happy: to keep ‘em in line with Bodacious.” She turned on me, and I had to look away, for fear of having my will broken. “Tell me we’re gonna kill this bastard, Grace.” But she could see it in my eyes: the certainty that only the whispers of a dead bull, of a spirit driven mad by being split in half and bottled up, could drive anyone to this. “Damn it.”

At first, Caliber only muttered the words but, as she bruised her hoof against the side of the Stables, striking it as if to knock down the two headed king’s house of cards, she barked them at me. “Damn it!

“He’s sick,” I said, as if it would matter to her at all. “Bodacious needs our help. He can be fixed.” Caliber threw her weight at me and, for a second, I was sure she was about to hit me. But, instead, she threw a knockout punch at Simmental’s shoulder, though he only went on sucking his teeth.

The bull let out a slow, stupid laugh, as if Caliber was tickling his side, and not tenderizing it. “Everything will go back to the way it was,” I promised, as she beat herself down against him like a boxer in a meatlocker. “Please, Cal…” His laugh was only making her angrier, though I didn’t dare to reach down and push them apart, for fear of getting my hoof bitten. “There’s nobody to blame for this but Brutus.”

Why?” She stumbled away from the side of the bull: burnt out. “Because you can call him a monster? Because he can just be evil, and leave the rest of us as virgin sacrifices and fucking saints?” She spat out the curse word, like venom. “All that shit about war: about Ambassadors and Equestria and Power… Those were excuses, Lamplight! It’s been done a thousand times before… and it started exactly.” She struck the carriage, making my throne shake. “Like.” Once for every word. “This!

And, with that, Caliber threw up her hooves and left, though the fire of her tail seemed to go out as she ploughed her way through the snowmelt between us and The OK. But then, with a bark and a curse, she turned around and slapped that same stupid smile over my face. “Wait there. I’ll go find you a fucking axe.”

*** *** ***

I cut off his head.

*** *** ***

Silo City looked like a very different place when we left the barn, and seemed to shine a little brighter for every step we took through the hub of the wagon wheel town. There were cows and ponies out in the open now, and some came together like sisters who hadn’t hugged each other in a thousand years, even as the sun started setting and, somewhere over Equestria, the moon rose.

Even the bulls, who had been husbands to each other’s wives, who had bowed to a tyrant king only moments ago, were welcomed back as if they had been no less like prisoners than the ponies in The OK. Those few who had been given weapons, were soon stripped of them, and each battle saddles might have been a yoke that was hammered on too tight for how happy they were to see them go.

Bodacious was gone. But nopony seemed to care which head I sent rolling away from that throne of straw. The difference between justice, and revenge, hardly seemed to matter to them now. Things never go back to normal, Caliber had said, as we walked up to the barn, dragging our axes. But now, as she looked around at all those little reunions, I thought I saw the lights in her eyes shine a little brighter.

That pretty buck hurried over at more of a skip than a run, and I saw that he’d turned those coils of silk into a scarf, as if it to show off his freedom. “Thought you’d have your legs all patched up by now, doc.” With the sun folding gold foil around his chocolate coat, and trickling over those heavy lashes, I couldn’t blame anyone who mistook the southern unicorn for a mare. “Bo burned through all those supplies?”

I was still crippled, and only dared to leave the cart to play executioner. Caliber had already sold the rifles, and replaced them with a sack of hay for the sake of my spine. “The bleeding got a little out of control,” I explained, as vaguely as I could. “But I’m sure we’ll find some more potions up north.”

“Well, I thought I might help you out with that… getting north, I mean.” The buck might as well have rouged his cheeks, as Caliber looked like she had just tasted something sour, and wasn’t trying to hide it. But, even as she stood there with her face screwed up, I couldn’t help feeling like the luckiest mare in Equestria: as I might have been the only one she would let herself laugh with.

“I kinda figured I owe you, so I hired out two of the bulls to run you up to the border.” That got her turned around, and I could almost see her putting a hoof around his shoulder, sharing a cigar and cheering: What a guy! What a pal! “I’m really very grateful that you did what you did.”

Caliber bumped his hoof, as if holding a glass and making a toast. She looked relieved, and must have thought he was going to try tagging along. “And we’re more than happy to cash in on that gratitude…”

“Stockholm,” He said, taking the trail of Caliber’s sentence as a dotted line on which to write his name. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Manners?” I asked, dumbly, as I’d been taught not to expect so much as pleases and thank you’s.

“Oh, sorry.” Apologizing for manners? Wasn’t that like… double manners? “I’m just used to trying to sell something to everypony I meet. And it helps to play nice.” He hesitated, as if trying to make up his mind. “Everything’s free for you, of course… assuming you ever come back to Silo City.”

“You don’t sound like you’re from around here.” I pointed out, trying to pin him down on the map.

“Came up from Manehattan. Thought I could make it to New Calvary. Would’ve been one of the first too: there isn’t a caravan in the world that would make that trip on a loop. But, there were these stories getting passed around. Got me a little spooked.” I had to look around to find Ash, as she had started pawing circles in the snow, like a filly caught in orbit, as her parents made small talk. It was as if some trickster God had granted me my wish, taking a match to old birthday candles so that the pilgrim could be young again. “Just because the Middle Passage is the safest way East, doesn’t mean it’s really all that safe.

“And once Free Rein was dusted, and the Slaver’s train started howling again, I knew better than to get too close to that machine of theirs.” He nodded back at the Bucket Wheel Excavator, which could still be seen through the silos, like some Jurassic beast sending rumbles through the rain forest.

“That thing belongs to the Slavers?” I asked, remembering the DJ’s report on Free Rein, soon after it was wiped off the map. “They haven’t got it up and running, have they?” The monstrous thing could surely raze entire towns, just as it had once churned up the soul, and I had to wonder if it had lowered its neck, to swallow Free Rein up like a worm.

“Damascus says it’s dead in the water. They’d need something just short of a flat out balefire reactor to get its heart beating again.” Caliber sidled up to me, and I couldn’t help feeling very proud, as if I was the only hunter in a hinterland tavern who had the charm to tame a wolf. “But they’ve gotta be up to something. They’re not just plucking ponies from the lowest branches anymore… they’re burning the forests down. And the way Damascus tells it: These are the days of wrath.”

I was glad to see Ash keeping her ears pointed our way, though the look on her face made it seem like she was listening through a keyhole. “Whoa. Sounds like you’re really tapped into this stuff.” Stockholm’s eyes went wide, as he became the poster girl to any given horror picture show. “You aren’t planning to fight them are you?” I could only look up at the taller mare then, as if I had asked the question myself.

“Considering that our ‘army’ pretty much boils down to Damascus, Charon, Cerberus, Me and –“

“I’ll help!” Ash chirped, making me wonder how closely Caliber had caught her up to the story so far.

“And Ascella over there.” She added, as we beamed at Ash, treating her like a baby who’d just spoken her first word. “The Coltilde would steamroll us. We’re gonna need a put a lot more on the table than a pair of mercenaries, a whole suit of guns for hire, two zealots and one trump card of a Stable Pony.”

“A Stable Pony! I thought as much!” Stockholm dialed his voice up, and made me feel famous. “Now, I know I shouldn’t keep giving you things off the books, but this is too perfect.” He started riffling through his swollen duffle bags, and kept one hoof high, like a magician calming the crowd as he tried to get a grip on his rabbit’s ears. “You can count this as one thank you. But if you’re ever in Calvary, be sure to look me up. I might move on once Silo’s fought her way off the ropes. I’m planning to have the entire city sold on Stockholm’s Fashion from Manehattan, and farmers don’t care much for ribbons and bows...”

He was laughing, but I felt as if a cold dagger was sliding in between my ribs, and pricking into my heart. Electricity shot through my veins then, as if a current had been passed through the steel of the blade, and I thought I heard fuses blowing out inside me. He was holding up a jumpsuit, and though it was blue; all I could see were the lines of gold that had once led me home like northern lights.

And I knew… just as a part of me, deep down, had known since that Steel Soldier asked his question.
You from the Stable?
And, whether the answer came from me or Damascus, it would always be: No…. A Stable.

We were not the last light of Equestria. But I nearly started crying for having let that light slip through my hooves only hours ago, like gray sand lined with gold.





Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Wasteland Doctor: (pre-requisite Wasteland Medic) You can fully restore crippled limbs, just as long as you have the right supplies at hoof. You also gain a +5% critical chance against opponents with familiar anatomy.

Companion Perk: Piggy in the Middle: For as long as both Caliber and Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum are in your party by their own free will… or by binding contract… or religious fealty, you gain a +20 bonus to speech in conversations with everyone but them.
And yes, the name of this perk does make you look fat.

Chapter 9: Overnight Celebrity

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 9: Overnight Celebrity
“Have you ever watched the moon rise over the Wasteland? I wish I could have given you something as wonderful as that.”

|*| The Great Cow Race |*|

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy Country, the new Equestria, coming down out of heaven from the Goddesses, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I had heard the old words, as I saw the number branded across the utility jumpsuit’s back.
21. Not one, but ten and ten and one: Twenty more doors to open, twenty more lights like stars in a sagging, polluted sky, where all others had long since been blotted out.

I thought of her – of Shady Sands – and how she had died for wanting to hold our last light up like a candle into the ink of the night, where it might so easily be blown out. I thought of him – of Saber – and how he had saved us: how history would call him a hero, and ignore my cries of villain, villain, villain.

The cart rattled, and as my bones shook as if rolling in the palm of some crouching witchdoctor, I could only stare into the low tide of sunset, and pretend that my eyes were only watering for the sake of those faraway fires. The cattle raced by on either side of me, and every jolt in the broken road seemed to tease out another tear, as coins from a piggybank being emptied out.

And I was ready for it, for a chance to become hollow: for my chance to be weak. There had been so many lights, so many candles pinched out, that I deserved my chance to be weak.

Thank You. That’s what I said, as Stockholm floated the blue uniform into my hooves. Thank You.
As if he had done anything but drive a pike into my heart. It fits. That’s what I said, as its collars came to grope at my neck, and the jumpsuit’s zipper was pulled in tight over my pounding heart. But I only wanted to put a match to its oil stains, and see it blown away from the cart as ash scattered over the sea.

Silo City’s Brahmin followed us, with their gray tongues lolling out, as the two bulls that Stockholm hired us left the town behind, and towed it with them all at once, making a cattle drive of the journey north. They didn’t care about the number on my back. They didn’t care about anything but the broken wall, the thumping of the hooves around them, and the jingling of their nose rings. And I envied them for it.

I tried to convince myself that we would have done better, that our clothes would not have been picked off of so many corpses, only to be crammed into the saddlebags of roving traders: That we would have been saints to Caliber and her wastelands, and not virgin sacrifices to Ash’s alien edition of the Goddesses.

But it wasn’t so easy to believe anymore, and I saw the Raiders making a grave of our Stable, and the Slavers plucking our darlings from their stasis pods, like winter had the berries from their branches. We would have opened our arms to them, trying to make it all better with our medicine and missionaries, just as they turned their arms on us, and made another wasteland of it all.

I didn’t feel like a hero anymore. And Shady Sands didn’t look so much like a martyr. She and I had almost damned the entire Stable. But still, there was a part of me, stubborn and mechanical, that wouldn’t let the tears come, that wouldn’t let me rewrite the story. It called Saber a murderer and a villain, and knew that we could still save Equestria: that our Stables would bring back the dawn.

Our Stables. That really didn’t sound so bad…

The cart tilted forward, and a high pitched scream pierced the rumble of a hundred hooves. Caliber and Ash looked back from their own bulls, and the ponies of Silo City pricked up their ears for the sound of metal grating against the highway. But the cattle didn’t care, though my carriage had lost its front wheels, and was now being worn down against the road in a flurry of sparks. Fear washed over me like so much medicine, and as the cart jolted forward, I forgot twenty Stables all at once. And, for one perfect second, I was in the air: with no metal pressing into my skin and no yellow lines tightening around my throat.

Then, I crumpled against the highway like an empty soda can, and the pain broke down my walls no slower than a trumpet’s call. That stubborn soldier in me was chased away, so that the flag that she had once taken up with pride was left staked in the ash. And Equestria was alone, as I curled up into a ball and became a baby abandoned on the highway, letting the thundering of the great cow race shake me.

I couldn’t know how long I lay there, though the dust was settling all around me, so that I could count the billboards that looked up into the last light of day like steel sunflowers. And I might have forgotten what I was crying for, had I not been drying my eyes on a yellow collar.

The next time I opened my eyes, I saw Caliber limping down the road, with the sunset running red behind her and one hoof bunched up against her chest. It looked like she had jumped out of her carriage.

“You had me thinking you figured it out already.” She sighed, and sat down next to me, as if I wouldn’t get out of bed, and she was about to touch my forehead and feel out a fever. “Couldn’t tell you how relieved I was when you took that jumpsuit… smiling like nothing was wrong.” But instead, she put a hoof to my cheek. The mercenary knew this story, she knew the lie, but I had to wonder who she had heard it from first: me… or Damascus. Had he warned her? Had he ordered her to keep the Stables secret?

“We were supposed to be all that was left…” My voice was shaking, as I stroked my tail like a harp string. “It was supposed to be simple: One last light, to turn it all back to the way it was.” Her eyes were soft, and shone as if by catching my tears she could cry them for me. “We were supposed to save the world.”

She didn’t say anything. She couldn’t understand. But for every tear she stole from my cheek, no other came to fill its place, as if she could pick this bitter season bare… and run my sorrows dry.

The world, in all its barbarity, was nothing new to Caliber. And, though the mercenary had forgotten our country’s name, and called it wasteland instead, there had to be some hope left in her. She pulled me up, and our battered limbs bumped together like clumsy oars. It was as if she had broken the ice, and saved me from drowning in some frozen lake, as I let myself shiver and choke against her chest.

“I’m not the girl I used to be, Lamplight.” My eyes wandered to the bandage at her temple, and I couldn’t know what was worse: to have your spirit broken under the weight of the world, or blown out like any other candle. “But you… we can’t let this change you. You’re the only thing that’s keeping me straight. More than the steps to this dance: more than any contract.”

She sat me up, and rubbed my shoulders, just as my mother had when straightening me out before a sermon. “I know the wasteland’s got a hold of you… But you can’t let it pull you down to our level, Grace. We need something to look up to through all this black and white: our little lights in the darkness. We need you… I need you.” And I knew then, as her eyes took on my pain, that the Stables meant more than the ponies inside: than the Shady Sands and the Sabers. They were the last pieces of a better world, an older world, and we were their instruments, like missionaries spreading the word of some ancient and everloving God, who had fallen into a deep sleep, and lost his grip on the world, long ago.

To see the lights go out was far worse than standing in the darkness, and even if twenty Stables had already been swallowed away, I had to show them that our light would not go out. If the old world couldn’t win, then how could she, and the ponies in this darkest hour before the dawn, even think to try?

“Thank you, Caliber.” I lit up my horn, and numbed our wounds, spinning rings of gold as if to bind us together. “Shady Sands might not have been right to think that we could bring out the dawn alone. But Saber was wrong to stop her from trying.”

She ruffled my mane, and I saw no tears in her eyes, though they had drawn lines like silver warpaint down my face. “Sounds about right to me.” She smiled, and I couldn’t help thinking that it was so very simple then: that all anypony had to do was make some friends. “Now let’s go save the world.”

*** *** ***

It was dark by the time the bulls came, and their bodies passing through the streetlights made them look like predators skirting around the narrow herd that had been our country’s last traffic jam. The rings in their noses shone, as the bells tolled around the necks of their wives and sisters, giving us time to climb onto the nearest jalopy, and watch them go thundering by us. We were china dolls that had only just been pieced together, and didn’t come down from our raft until the earth had stopped shaking.

Like the roar of a passing train, their voices and hoofsteps faded into the night, and the five towers of Silo City shone like the heart of a faraway city: or the palms of an oasis in the night.

As far as I’d gathered from the conversations that had passed me by in my stupor, the path to MASEBS had been blocked by a landfall long ago, and the only way to reach the tower was to come around from the north. We would have to leave Equestria: to hopscotch over the edge of the country’s chalk lines.

There was a breach in the border ahead, and we left that long traffic jam as it rolled away with the streetlights to our right. I looked back, and saw skeletons sitting patiently behind the wheel, still waiting.

“There’s Ascella.” Caliber pointed into the floodlights, which beat down on the earth around the wall from its surviving watchtowers. “I was starting to worry that she didn’t jump off before the cows turned.”

The pilgrim looked relieved to see us, but was soon glancing back over her shoulder, and up into the naked sky. I couldn’t blame her, for the first star was pushing its way through the folds of the night, as if to light our way into the darkness that no mare called nation.

“Your cow won.” Ash slid an old lunchbox over to the mercenary, who held it up, and whistled as she made it jingle like a tambourine beside her ear. “It did not take long for the ponies of Silo City to stop calling us heroes, once the Great Cow Race turned your way.”

“You gambled for her?” The pilgrim looked at me, and I could almost feel her staring in circles for the red rings around my eyes. “What about-“ I prodded at the stripped down heavens. “You know… them?”

“There is no such thing as luck.” We began climbing over the ruins of the broken wall, on our way out of Equestria. “And if Caliber did gamble with her ticket to the Kingdom in the Stars… at least she won.”

*** *** ***

It was as if everything outside of Equestria had fallen away, as if all maps that charted the land beyond our borders had been drawn in charcoal, only to be swept into an ashy black chaos. There were no stars, and the silhouettes of faraway hinterlands made patterns in the soot. There was one sour scar across the face of the north, though, as a wide gorge ran from west to east, and glowed green.

A starving mob of pine trees crossed it like so many stitches, though did nothing to close the wound.
“Try to hug the wall,” Caliber said. “Far as I know: that chasm was used as a dumpsite for all kinds of radioactive waste. I say we hurry on up to the tower before your Pipbuck starts clicking its tongue.”

We came to another hole in the border, as one of the watchtowers seemed to have slipped, and pulled the wall down around it like a shower curtain. Its crown of floodlights lay scattered, and with their slanted pillars of white light, held up the edge of the storm. The rubble strewn around them might have been sculpted into rocky hillsides, as they surrounded narrow valleys through which clusters of wire ran in place of rivers and roads. And it was bright, for all the electricity passing like traffic through the valleys.

To climb up onto the ruins of the wall, was to come onto a stage, whose curtains were sewn of black velvet, whose battens had collapsed, and whose spotlights might have been trying to find stars in the sky. I looked down at my Pipbuck, as if expecting to find an audience of white bars hidden on that southern hillside, but found only a few steaks of crimson: a posse of assassins.

“Red Bars!” I hissed, scampering over the nearest block of cement. Caliber was quick to come climbing after me, but Ash stood by, trying to puzzle out what I might have meant for just a moment too long, like a mare tapping her hoof to the siren’s song even as the balefire brought her city to its knees.

In a streak of mottled brown and ugly feathers, she went rolling down into one of the valleys, where cables waited as snakes in a pit. There was a screech, that pierced the silence like a needle would a balloon, and the mercenary and I leapt out of cover, as if throwing ourselves onto the stage.

There were more hostiles to the north, but all that mattered now were the bars of white and red that were lapping over one another like oil and water. One was a bird that might have been caught in the turbines of a passing airship, and it pinned down the pilgrim, raising an eagle’s claw as threadbare wings stretched out at its sides. The creature was something out of the tombs of a foreign history, as its tail whipped around leonine flanks, but its face would fit an exhumed corpse better than it did any animal.

As its shadow was draped over the wall, like a torn stocking, I knew that it was a griffon. But as Caliber tackled the beast, and knocked its feathers off as easily autumn leaves, I knew that it was a ghoul. The three of them were in a dog pile now, and both mares kicked at the creature as if trying to pluck it before a feast. I turned to face the bars that had been hovering in the north, and drew my laser pistol.

In a confusion of burning feathers and flashing lights of red and white, I emptied half a clip into the nearest ghoul, which had been clawing its way over the ruins. It closed the distance between us with the pounce of a lion and the scream of an eagle, even as smoke began to gather under its wings. I fell out of the way, though the pain shot through my battered limbs like nails being hammered into bone and flesh and keratin. The creature closed its talons around thin air, and a lion’s tail streaked by me, even as I pulled myself up from the rubble on legs like quivering stilts.

Another griffon had come to hover over us, though its wings were like two spider webs crowded with dead leaves. I emptied my laser pistol into its gut, while the thing swooped down, knocked me onto my back and held me down under powerful haunches. My lungs felt empty and sunken, as if the griffon’s talons had pressed through my rib cage and burst them, but it was screaming through a throat full of gravel as red rings spread over its body like so much rippling wildfire. And I kicked up at it with all the strength I had left, so that it flew off like an insect being swatted at, and threw its shadow up against the clouds.

It spun around the stage as if strung up on a baby’s mobile, but instead of firing wildly into the sky, I got up and hobbled over the ruins. Before I could get back to my companions, the second griffon sprang out from behind a low hedge of concrete, followed by the smell of burnt feathers and seared flesh.

It swung its talons at me, and I groaned as I backed away on exhausted legs, as if I had only come across some pet peeve. “You fight like cowards!” They were spinning circles around me like moths around a lightbulb, and would swoop in for just long enough to get burnt, before flitting away. And so I forced my hooves into the palms of its hands, rearing up so that my hind legs dug into the rubble, and our two bodies came into the shape of a pyramid, whose shadow was tall enough to touch the sky.

I found myself staring into the eyes of an eagle, though they were bloodshot and wild, both sunken into a face of pink skin poking out from behind pallid feathers. Its beak snapped forward, and left a single scar along the length of my left cheekbone, as if it had only been trying to kiss me. I pushed my laser pistol up into the space between us, and struggled to keep it steady as the griffon twisted its neck and beat its wings. But I kept floating the gun closer, like a scalpel towards an eye whose lids were being pulled open.

And, before the ghoul could let my hooves slip out of its palms and scamper off into the rubble, I fired. The fluid in its eye boiled over, and the organ had popped even before the red lights went low. I felt the blood spatter my face like hot oil, and the griffon went limp, so that our pyramid crumpled into the ruin.
Smoke came pillaring out of its empty socket, coming out of a skull that was hollow but for ash and boiled down brains. I skipped over the body, and shook myself off like a mare coming in from the rain as I ran.

I found Ash in one of the valleys, throwing buckshot up at the ghoul I had sent reeling in circles around the ruin. It was flying with what I could only call a limp, as one of its wings looked like a torn sail, only just clinging to the mast. “Where’s Caliber?” I asked, running out of breath.

She only tilted her head, and led me over the broken hills, as the floodlights cast us up across the cloud cover like shadow puppets. Just ahead, in one of the rare patches of naked earth, Caliber was working over what might as well have been a grindstone, as she slammed the first ghoul’s beak into a chunk of concrete. The limbs of lion and bird alike twisted and flailed, until one last crunch left them twitching, if only for feathers being tickled by the wind. Caliber backed away from the stone, staring down at her work, and smearing the bloody pockmarks on her cheeks as she tried to wipe them away like tears.

I pointed up at the sky, and might have been saluting for how long my hoof stayed in the air. Caliber didn’t seem able to look away, as if she wanted to let the violence soak in, until the last of the griffons cawed down at us. Its shadow came to the edge of the cloud cover, and went slipping out into open space, but Caliber unlatched her rifle all the same, and I could only find the griffon by following her eyes.

“Hold this for me.” She dropped her rifle, and I felt like I had the fingers of a Minotaur as I threw my magic at it. “I’ll aim.” Then, she planted her haunches just beside mine and leaned in close, so that we looked like a couple watching movies projected across the sky. The mercenary dipped her hooves into my magic, and swapped out the rifle’s clip for one that had flames that might have been drawn in crayon running up its side. She put her eye to the scope, as I kept the rifle bobbing like ice in apple juice.

Everything went quite, as if even the griffon was holding its tongue. Then, Caliber took the shot, and might have struck the night with a hammer. The rifle kicked back with all the strength of an applepicker, and its scope hit her around the eye, so that she crumpled over like a folding chair.

From the darkness, came a light, as if a match had been struck against the mountains. The fire burned brighter than the stars that had come out from behind their curtain, like the first few dancers stretching on a stage. Burning feathers spun out around the griffon as it fell, and so it came like a meteorite being torn apart in the atmosphere, or a firework that had gone off wrong.

“Caeli…” The fires were caught in Ash’s eyes, and danced across shimmering coals until the ghoul was unraveled into the ruins, landing without so much as the whispering of the wind through its wings. It smelt of smoke, and seared meat, and I couldn’t help thinking of those old world picnics and fireworks.

“Shit,” Caliber cussed as she rubbed her eye, and looked north. “That was stupid.” Then, I saw the greens of that radioactive chasm being warped, as the pine trees swayed from side to side as if in song, and dark figures pushed through their crowds. We had set off a flare, and woken all who made their beds in the wounds of that nationless earth, like maggots in a nameless corpse.

The sun was gone, and I felt like I was staring into the aquamarine belly of some ocean, where prehistoric creatures had been sleeping. Then, bloodcurdling screams came pushing out of from between the pines, though I only listened to one voice: the loudest and the most leonine. It spoke no language, but I couldn’t help imagining ugly and ominous voices to fill in the empty lines.

Diiiiieeeeee…..”

Suffffeerrrrrr…”

Grace, Graace Graaaccceee…”

“Run to the tower,” I said, talking to myself. I was becoming young again: a little girl turning corners as nightmarish claws groped at her tail. But this time, I knew that they were real. “Now!”

*** *** ***

FUCK YOU. Some frustrated hermit had spray painted the words over the lip of a tunnel into the satellite communications tower, as if to cut off an endless rhythm of knocks on the door, as solicitors and missionaries crossed over into Equestria from the north.

“Alright. Head on in, Lamplight.” Caliber rested her hoof against my chest, as if feeling for a heartbeat. “Me and the pilgrim will keep ‘em from coming up after you.” The ghouls wouldn’t stop screaming, and I could see them picking over the bodies of their sisters, like flies over the crust of leftover apple pie. “Just get to the DJ. We’ll follow as soon as it gets too hot out here.”

“They’re coming.” Ash whispered, though there was no fear in her eyes.

Caliber nodded down the tunnel, along which wires and pipelines ran like roots, and kept her hoof over my heart. “Caliber no. I won-“ Without so much as shifting her weight, she punched me, and I was sent tripping over my own hooves, like a ballerina trying to catch up to her music.

“Didn’t catch that!” She yelled, before hitting the switch, so that a wall of steel rebuilt itself between us.

I thought I would go back, that I would stand my ground and help them. But I didn’t. And, as I hurried deeper along the tower’s roots, I didn’t know what I was more afraid of: the griffons who might soon make their aeries out of its satellites, or the thought of her leaving another hoofprint over my heart.

*** *** ***

I climbed up the tower with one eye shut. Old feathers, bullet casings and bones from which the flesh and the fat had yet to slide off hung from wire mobiles, and the walls were crowded with bloodstains like brushstrokes, acid trip graffiti and the skeleton of an enormous Griffon. I heard my hooves clicking against cans that had been split open at the middle, empty whiskey bottles and the scattered pieces of a rifle.

And, though I bruised my hooves against the staircase that was carrying me up to the satellites, I kept winking at the corpses, and never knew how they had been mutilated. I didn’t need this tonight. I didn’t need it again. The Raiders were Hell’s parasites, and it shouldn’t have let them out of its quarantine.

Eventually, I came into a small room, where tired old consoles blinked up at me, as if I had woken them as I came stumbling up the stairs like a drunken husband. I found a hatch in the wall, and knew that it would open out over the walkways that I had seen stitched around each tower.

I poked my head out into the night, so that the hatch flattened my ears like a crown would a child’s. And it was as if I had been submerged in water, deafened to the roar of a shotgun, a rifle, and a swarm of winged lions. The largest of the satellite dishes was above me now, though it opened up to the sky, as if Equestria was pressing its ear to the spaces between the stars.

I clambered out onto the walkway, and froze up as the mesh creaked under my hooves, and the wind spun around tower. I looked out over a black sea, but found the door where Caliber and Ash had been standing their ground, as the shadows swarmed over them like bats. The ghouls were clogging up the tunnel, and had even turned on each other in their frenzy to get in. Then, their screams rose as a chorus, and rang off of the satellites, pushing me along the walkways and back into the tower. The last thing I saw before ducking into another hatch, were Griffons flying off into the north, with fire trailing from their wings

As I wriggled my way back into the tower, another hatch slapped my flanks, and sent me sprawling over the cement as if it were ice. After dusting off the jumpsuit, I rocked back onto my haunches, only to find myself in a ovular room lined with screens and consoles, and crowded for the sound of breathing machines. I stepped over the wires skirting the floor as if they were panther tails, knowing that they carried with them the most important voice in Equestria, and then came into the heart of the tower.

I remembered Damascus’ rose, as I stepped up to a microphone sprouting out of the room’s central pedestal, bathed in the light of the static on the screens. I tapped aimlessly at the nearest keyboard, until a satellite photograph of Equestria came to fill one of the screens, with each of the broadcasting towers tagged in white. I found myself at the country’s edge, and decided that, out of all those southern lights, Manehattan would be the one nestled beside a great bay. I mashed at buttons until the map closed in on that sleepless city, and then dialed onto its one surviving frequency.

ACCESS RESTRICTED!
BROADCAST LICENCESED TO: GALAXY NEWS RADIO
<REMOTE TAP UNPERMISSABLE>
---___---___---___---___---___---___---___---___---___---___---
EMERGENCY_SECURITY_PROTOCOLS: ENABLED
MILITARY OVERIDE IN EFFECT
FORCE ACCESS?
Y/N…

I pressed Y and, as if I had only sprung an ambush on myself, I was quickly surrounded by a single face, looking down at me from every wall. The music that had followed it soon died and, for a while, radio silence filled the room. “Well, children… it looks like we’ve got a visitor.”

*** *** ***

“You’re on live, sweetheart,” The buck crooned. His coat was the color of the sky, caught naked in the morning. His mane, which had been filled in a few shades darker, was blasted back, but looked to have been combed rather than molded by the winds of the wasteland. Like the magic around his horn, it was starting to fade: going white at its roots, and made him look older than his eyes, which were as red and as bright as an alarm. He peered at me over a pair of glasses, as if I was little more than a footnote.

“Got anything to say to the wasteland?” I thought I saw the beginnings of a smile, though it was one that might creep to the face of an amateur actor. “Better be good: Sweetie Belle was in the middle of a song.”

Oh!” I exclaimed, dialing Galaxy News into the territory of a radio soap opera. “I’m so sorry!” The world was listening, and I couldn’t help pushing out my tongue a little harder, trying to sound strong even as I apologized to a songbird long since buried.

“Well go ahead then, Lucky 21.” He toyed with his dials, and I could hear the satellite tower humming through faraway speakers. “What is your name anyway?”

I had my name on the tip of my tongue, when Caliber dove into the room like a frightened rabbit into its warren, letting the hatch clap shut behind her. “Hey!” She cried, as Ash dropped in after her, landing as quietly as a paper doll. The mercenary stormed up to the microphone, rolling a hoof around her ear and frowning, as if she had my name on the tip of her tongue. “Shepard!” She barked, all of a sudden.

“You killed a lot of ferals down there… but we just got done mopping up the leftovers.” She crowded the microphone, yelling lamely at the country like another hammy actor. “You barely left us any!” Her voice was lapping over itself, as it echoed out of the radio strapped to her vest. “Boy, did you kill ‘em… knocked ‘em dead is what you did.”

“I…” She stared at me with wide eyes, as if worrying that I might miss my cue, and only then did I see what she was trying to do. “You’re… right. I did do that!” I caught the DJ leaning in a little closer, drawn into our melodramatics. “Listen, mister Pon-three.” Caliber winced, as I butchered his name. “We walked a long road to be here with you tonight. But we’ve been fighting the good fight all along the way, and we want to carry the voice of Galaxy News with us as we march on to Calvary and the East.”

The mercenary nodded, egging me on. “It’s… It’s time to knock the Coltilde onto its side, and break the chain that has for too long hung heavy around the neck of the North.” Good, that’s good, Caliber mouthed. “And we need your voice…” To rustle up a few friendly guns. “To rally a new Equestrian army! And bring the Slavers to their knees…To bring Injustice to its knees.” Okay, just… just go easy now. “For justice will live again!” Wait. Justice? … What!? “This country will live again” There was a fire in my heart, and I let it burn until it reddened my cheeks, even as Caliber tried to blow it out. “They will not take this great nation away from us!”

He-ey! We got a force to be reckoned with here, children! This little filly has got that old world fever for war!” He laughed, and the sound of it made the fire in my chest go wild. “So we’ve got someone to deal with that whole Slavery thing… Can I get a volunteer to track down the kids who keep throwing eggs at my building? Come on, folks, there’s a lot of clean windows and some perfectly good eggs at stake here.”

I looked at Caliber, willing her to go off on the buck like she had Bodacious, but the mercenary only muttered out a string of insults. “You aren’t listening.” I said, letting her temper fan the flames, as I looked down at the yellow lines around my neck, and remembered Shady Sands. I had to make him listen. I had to be a missionary to the gods they had for so long called dead. I had to be the old world’s last light. “No one - No one - Is going to take this country away from me.”

I heard my own voice echo over the country - Me. Me. Me. – And knew that I let the wrong word slip out. “But we need you. The east needs you.” It wasn’t hard to push past it, as the DJ looked like a gambler clutching a ticket stub, watching his horse win. He wasn’t mocking me anymore. “They need the truth.”

He nodded, and I pictured him wearing the same look on his face, as he listened to an old record pulled out of the Manehattan wreckage, and realized that it would have the wasteland’s darkest hearts dancing. “And I’ll bet you anything it’s gonna hurt.” He began toying with his consoles, and turned the lights down low. “Sounds like Shepard wants to talk this out, kiddies. Maybe get some advice from this old adventurer. So how about I line up a couple of our best songs to tide you over in the meantime.” I watched his cutie mark as he worked, and knew it as the symbol that started off so many lines of music.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------
BROADCAST FREQUENCY: GALAXY NEWS RADIO
REQUESTING TERMINATION OF OVERIDE
Y/N…
---------------------------------------------------------------------------

As soon as the message popped up over the screens, I pressed Y. Then, music swelled up from the DJ’s studio, and came spilling out of Caliber’s chest. “When did you become a Shepard?” Ash asked, coming out of the dark as the buck turned his back.

“We saved this little girl from the Slavers this morning,” Caliber explained. “That’s what she called her.” The mercenary shrugged. “It’s all I could think of. If you’re planning to make a name for yourself… better to make it one that you can leave behind when this is all over. When the dust settles, and the survivors go slinking home to lick their wounds and pick at their grudges, you might just want to be forgotten.”

“Don’t invent any titles for me.” The pilgrim almost seemed afraid then, as if Caliber might slip a nickname over her like a butterfly net. “My name is my name.”

“Yeah… yeah, okay.” She seemed a little stunned, as if in admiration. “Damascus is the same way.”

Piano scales spun around us them, and the DJ turned, leaving the wasteland to its lullabies.
“We’re off the air.” He sounded different, but I couldn’t pin down the change in his voice. “But I’ll tell ya, boy… this is one hell of a job. You never know what you’re gonna get.” As the city lights blinked through the glass behind him, I had to wonder how, with a thousand stories scattered around the country like luxury chocolates, he chose which ones to tell. “The Wasteland sure loves its heroes, though.”

“We really meant it,” I said, quietly slipping back into bed with the plural, if only so it wouldn’t notice that I had left. “We’ll do whatever it takes to carry your voice to the East.”

“Sure sounds like you’ve got the will… finding a way, that’ll be your problem. All I know is: there was a relay right in the middle of the Great Plain, and another one in Calvary, but both of ‘em went out years ago.” Like birthday candles. “I can see ‘em on the old maps, but they both fell off the grid, so I can’t find out what’s wrong with ‘em from here. The towers are on lockdown. Somepony shut ‘em off or cut ‘em off. Point is: anything could have happened. You might walk all the way to Calvary, and find nothing but bones. Those relays could’ve been scrapped for parts for all I know.”

“So you need us to repair them?” Ash asked, and even the DJ looked surprised to see her speaking up.

“Flip a switch, plug in a cable, adjust a satellite… do something!” He threw both hooves up into the air. “For now, hook up your Pipbuck, and I can give you all the hard data I’ve got on the relays… Coordinates, schematics: that sort of thing.” I plugged in the rollout cable that I had once used to sip at the Stable’s databanks. “Once you’ve got either of ‘em back into the network, I’ll be able to talk to you from there.”

“And you’ll tell us what we want to know about Calvary?” Caliber asked, still standing at attention.

“Give me some credit.” She didn’t return his wolfish smile. “I’ll be hooked up to every security feed I can hack into. Government, corporations, old media: I’ll have their eyes. And you’ll have mine,” He crossed his heart. “That is: depending on the fight you’re fighting.” His eyes narrowed, closing in on the name at Caliber’s neck: Cerberus. “I hope whoever you get your orders from knows what he’s got here, Three Dog.” He was pointing at me, and I felt like I’d been caught doing something wrong. “I don’t want to see another Stable pony wasted: handled by the wrong hooves. The Wasteland needs her heroes.”

“Cerberus doesn’t have to prove itself to you.” Caliber hissed. “You’ll tell me what they want to know, the second they want to know it. And you’ll do it without trying to keep your own hooves clean.”

Only then, did I realize that the DJ must have had a hooficure in the last few days. “You’re such a wastelander.” He rubbed a hoof against his scarf, as if polishing an apple. “And wastelanders can be careless, they can be coarse. You’re looking after a glass lion. I’m just telling you to be careful.”

Careful… like you?” I wanted to have Ash show me how to disappear, how to fold myself away, as Caliber and the DJ danced their way down to divorce. “When’s the last time you came down from your ivory tower? When’s the last time you had anything more dangerous than a hot cup of coffee?” She was almost yelling now. “You shouldn’t even be talking to me. You’re just a louder version of the Enclave.”

“We should wait outside.” Ash had already backed her way up to the hatch, and seemed to be throwing a threadbare lasso around the steaming mercenary then. I was a little dazed, as she had come to a boil without so much as a kettle’s whistle, and I couldn’t even begin to understand the bitterness between her and the faraway buck: the veteran who had given our country a voice. “Caliber…” She pleaded.

The mare spat. “Some Good Fight.” And stormed after Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum, following her out into the night. She held the hatch open, looking back at me as if to say I’ll be waiting, and then let it slam shut. Once the ringing had stopped, the room went quite, but for one ancient voice.

Oh, she may be weary
Them young girls they do get wearied
Wearing that same old shaggy dress.
But when she gets weary…
You try a little tenderness.

I could almost see the music, passing over the country as a ripple from every radio tower. “Thought I’d seen it all. Even before this job. I wasn’t that much older than your mercenary when I put down my guns and picked up this old voice.” He didn’t sound angry, or even surprised, to have been left alone with me. “But now, thanks to this tower… I know we’ll never see it all. There’s just too goddamn much. And having to watch the worst pieces of it played out – again and again… that’s not a job I would force on anybody.”

“But you love it.” I couldn’t help smiling then, though I felt a little guilty for having stayed with the buck, as if he were a waiter who had just sent my date off in a huff, and I still had to wait for the bill. A part of me knew that she was being a little unreasonable, but this only made me want to apologize more.

“More than anything in this whole fucked up, beautiful world.” He looked back at his stacks of records, which stood like parapets to a castle, then at the studio around him, and on through a window that opened out over the great sea of city lights that was Manehattan’s harbor. There was love in his old and musical eyes. “You get me out East, and I’ll have your name on the tip of every wastelander's tongue,” He said. “You ever take down the Coltilde, and they’ll be carving your face onto the statues within a decade. Come the next century… they’ll be singing about you.”

My heart was pounding too fast for my hooves to keep time, as if playing out its own hysterical music against my ribs, and I couldn’t bear standing still any longer. I wanted to dance.

“You’d better go check on your friend.” He could see my hoof tapping. Maybe he could hear my heart beating. “Looked like there was smoke coming out of her ears.”

“Yeah… I should go.” I turned, and ended up twirling like a ballerina on a music box, with my eyes locked on the screens. “And don’t worry: I’m sure she’ll come around… You two can make up at the relay.”

“Here’s hoping.” He raised a hoof, as if making a toast. “Good luck out there, kid.” And with that, the screens cut out, taking the swells of music with them. So it was in silence, that I danced out into the night.

*** *** ***

Caliber was leaning out over the railing, as if over the gunwale of a ship, casting rings of cigarette smoke up to the stars like lifesavers. One hoof tapped at the sloshing darkness, as that old piano climbed its scales like a staircase, and the organs howled out from her chest. She wore the radio like a carnation, and I was surprised that she hadn’t thrown it off, and crushed it under hoof as if after a bad prom night. But she only played the sky like a drum, and mouthed the words, as the stars danced in the north.

Ash pressed her back against the tower, pushing away from the open sky, while Caliber did just the opposite, making me swoon as if for seasickness. “I’d trust any Cerberus merc before that pampered silverback,” She said. “He’s gone soft. Doesn’t know what it’s like down here: Not anymore.”

“He’s helping us.” She didn’t look back as I spoke, and only scoffed out at the East.

“He gave us a bunch of codes and blueprints... might as well be a riddle in the dead language.” I settled back against the tower, where it was safe, and rifled through the senseless data on my Pipbuck, seeing her point. “We know which relays to hit, but we’re going in with blinds on. Could end up being a complete rewiring of the place that needs doing. And then what? … You can’t just put an ad in the classifieds anymore, Sugar. And we’re looking for someone who can make sense of all that mechanical gibberish.”

“Check.” The pilgrim chirped. We both mistook it for some kind of hiccup, and watched her, waiting to see if it might happen again. “I can do that,” She said, with a hoof over her mouth. “I can do repairs.” We stared, squeezing another sentence out of her. “My old commune pulled a lot of the Enclave’s wreckage from the lake, and I was the only one who could get it running again. I was the mechanic.” She recited the title like a girl scout, picking out the badge that she was most proud of.

Caliber looked at me, with the cigarette hanging on to her lower lip for dear life, as if to ask: Did you know about this? “That’s the kind of thing you tell the ponies you’re travelling with!” She threw up her hooves. “Hell, it’s right up there with psychoses, contagious diseases and nut allergies.” I had to agree with her: even girl scouts wore their badges on a sash. Ash should have been proud. “I’m not firing off the cuff for fun, y’know!” She pointed at her eye, which was already going black, as if the rifle’s scope had been smeared in ink by some post-apocalyptic practical joker. “My battle saddle’s wrecked!”

“I’m sorry…” Ash tapped her hooves together, and flattened herself against the tower like wet newspaper. “I can take a look at it… if you’d like.”

“Yeah… I’d like.” Caliber rolled her eyes, and I wondered if she had gotten spoiled in working with the hundred year old veterans of Cerberus: the dead men who had tamed the wasteland. She began unbuckling her rifle, then stopped short, and let her hooves hang. “How ‘bout we leave it ‘til morning.”

“Somepony’s sleepy!” I giggled, more than a little pleased with myself for feeling so awake. But the mercenary only looked down, as if in disgrace. “You know… you’re allowed to be tired, Cal.”

“Hate to admit…” She let her hoof swing, and became hypnotized by it. “But I’m running on overtime here. Thought we could hole up for the night.” I skipped to my hooves, already imagining us throwing a slumber party in the frantic light of the static. “Hold on now. Can’t close your eyes in the wasteland; unless someone’s got theirs open wide enough for the both of you. One of us needs to keep wat-” I thrust a hoof up over my head: volunteering. “Figured that would happen… have fun.”

“Don’t you use your reverse psychologistics to try changing my mind, sister! I’m going to sit here, in the cold, on this rickety old walkway and keep first watch. Celestia herself couldn’t stop me!” Caliber giggled, and waved me off in place of a good night. She lifted the hatch, but held it open for the sake of the pilgrim, who had balled herself up like the same wet newspaper. “You aren’t gonna try fighting her on this, are you Ascella?” She asked. “Save yourself some time: Gracie’s really got a thing for volunteering.”

“No… it’s just.” She was struggling to find her words. “I’d rather come in later.” Caliber didn’t budge, clearly unsatisfied with her answer. “I just… it is difficult for me: trying to sleep with somepony -”

“You wouldn’t have to try all that hard, honey.” Caliber snuck the line in before the pilgrim could get over the hurdles in her voice, and she had her eyebrow arched higher than I had ever seen an eyebrow arch. “We could hijack GNR again: put on a real show for the wastes… traumatize some kids.”

“I meant!” She yelped, as best a mare like Ash could. “I can’t fall asleep with someone lying so close to me… It is claustrophobia, you know?” Not really, no. The Stable used to go out like a light: all at once.

“With my pilgrimage… I always had to lie there… waiting. I could not relax until I knew the others were sleeping. Until I knew that they weren’t listening for my breaths to slow.” Ash was trying to explain, though there was confusion in her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’ll go in later… that room is too small.”

Jeez, I thought, though Caliber was nodding, as if any of that had made sense. “I won’t wait up.” Then, she burrowed back into the tower, like a rabbit retreating into its warren.

It took another few minutes for me to realize where this whole show of eccentricity left me: for me to look down at the mare curled up beside me. I was alone with her now, and couldn’t think of anything to say. Any second now, her dark – almost Saddle Arabian – eyes would swing down from the stars, and look up to me, as those of a child waiting for more story even after the last page had been turned.

On our first night together, Caliber had talked me through the story so far, and I had only felt at home with the mare since. But from the look of Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum, that magic trick could not be so easily performed again, though Caliber had made it look so easy. I had to wonder if she hadn’t tried it on the pilgrim, finding friendship while I was off smelling the roses in a Manehattan.

The walkway became small - claustrophobic - and only then could I see the sense in what she’d said.

*** *** ***

“And then… Wham! Caliber shot the submachine gun straight out of his magic!” I cheered, as one hoof played the part of heavy rifle round, and the other of a weapon sent spiraling out of place. “And the Raider was like: Hey! I was gonna use that to make trouble. And then Caliber said: Sorry guy, your troublemaking days are over… then Wham! Another bullet: straight through his mind!”

Despite my short supply of sound effects, Ash was watching me with her eyes wide, even as my puppet hooves danced around poor impressions. “So then… after my baseball bat had finished off the last Raider: Caliber stepped out from behind that pillar under the overpass, with… with a cigarette in her mouth.” She gasped. “Yeah, that’s exactly what I said.”

“Then what happened?”

“Well…” I was running out of story, but couldn’t bear to let her see it. “Caliber was breathing smoke, by the time she stamped her cigarette out on the ground. Then, she passed me the submachine gun and said: I do my killing down a scope, or at kissing distance. You give me a rifle with a long barrel, or a ballistic fist, and I’ll march into Hell with my contract pinned to my sleeve. That’s black and white. I like that.” I spun the story’s wheel, trying to steer it around the pitfall that was the mercenary’s next sentence: It’s everything in between that’ll have you slipping a noose around your neck.

It’s the shades of gray that make it so hard to see.” I had to rewrite it: I had to rewrite her. “So as far as I’m concerned: you can take those shades and stick ‘em where the sun don’t shine.”

She didn’t seem to care that I had missed a beat. “And that’s when you found me?” I nodded, and rolled a hoof through the air, as if to say: And you know how it goes from there.

“Trust me: With Caliber around, we don’t have to be scared of anything.” I swept my hoof over the country, as if clearing a chessboard of its pieces. “She’s the fastest gun in the west: The best mercenary money can buy! …It says so right on her flank.”

“What does a compass have to do with any of that?” She laughed, like a bird singing a made-up song.

“What does a compass have to do with the crosshairs on her flank?” Ash almost looked confused for hearing the word crosshairs, as if it I was spitting out some foreign curse. “They’re what you see when you look down the scope of rifle.”

“I’ve never been able to do that before.” Almost playfully, she bumped her flat forehead against my side. “I’ve only ever used a battle saddle.”

“Right, sorry.” What do I know? I might as well be a day old. “I wonder what Caliber thinks it is?”

“Yeah.”

It was quiet for a while after that, and we counted the stars.

“A couple of mares go on a quest,” I began, as if she had asked for another story. “And end up bound for a satellite relay that’s as big as it is broken. Luckily, somewhere in the great Equestrian soup, they happened to stumble onto a helpful mechanical genius.” I shrugged. “Coincidence?”

“I think not!” I started giggling, as she thrust a hoof triumphantly up at the sky. She might have been pointing at her Goddesses for all I knew, but soon enough, she was laughing harmonies around me. Ash was still a little girl, even behind her sometimes alien dignity, though that part of her was as hard to coax out as animals from hibernation, after winter was wrapped up.

We had lost count of the stars. But something about it all, about the hum of the tower and those little lights like candles in the windows of some paradise, made me happy, even in the face of twenty one Stables. And, as the Moon rolled over on a bed of black velvet, still softer than the sister whose light it took up in arms against the darkness, I knew that I was meant for this.

“I’m glad that I’m Gone.”

*** *** ***

I felt something nuzzling into my belly, and hit it over the head as if it were an alarm clock. The thing beeped, and started spinning circles around my head, mimicking church bells and songbirds and bugles. “Mmph…” I said. “Go away.” I saw the spritebot’s shadow dancing in the light of larger machines and, for a moment, forgot that we had ever been apart. “Hey!” I whinnied, as Okavango pushed me up onto sleeping legs. He bobbed away, leaving me to rub the sleep out of my eyes, and push down nightmares that I couldn’t remember but for the jaws of a lion tearing a hole in the dark.

The little security officer flew in a circuit around Caliber’s head, even as she swatted him away like a mosquito. She knocked Okavango out of orbit, and he came tumbling into my arms, so that I fell back into the pillows I’d made of wires swollen with white noise. I rolled from side to side, hugging Hell’s castaway.

I don’t want my arms around you, no not much.
I don’t bless the day I found you, no not much.
I don’t need you like the stars don’t need the sky.

He took off, and spun around the room, like a singer chasing his coattails.
I won’t love you longer than the day I die-eeee…
I did my best to stay in step, and skipped around the room, dancing with the shadows like a tribe of faceless children and folded giants, all gathered around that fiery mercenary.

Like a ten bit soda, doesn’t costs a dime
I don’t want you near me only all the time.

Okavango sang the song away, as the static on the screens crackled, and colored the room as an electric fireplace without color. I might have thought I was still dreaming, if Caliber hadn’t seemed so much like herself. “Little bastard just popped out of the wall like a pinball,” She said, as her words hit me like cold water. “Way he’s been tinkering with these machines… Well, I’d change out of my pajamas if I were you.”

I looked down at the utility jumpsuit, and knew that Caliber had just ruined its chances of being my uniform in the days of wrath. For hearing it called that one word, I could never do anything but sleep in it, for fear of looking like a hero who’d just rolled out of bed. I changed back into my father’s clothes, and felt stronger as I holstered his pistol at my side: as I felt the weight of it around my shoulder.

Okavango had plugged himself into the tower now, and I worried that the spritebot might go barging into GNR, to play his own favorite songs over the DJ’s small hour lullabies. But instead, the light in his eye went low, as the fire on screens came into its color: as the room was flooded with gold and turned into a chamber by faraway panes of glass into which lines of prehistoric scripture had been carved.

We were standing at the heart of a throne room now. His throne room, though I could not look down at the circles of Hell, but only wires and dusty concrete. And, as Damascus came to dot the middle of the screen like the moon in eclipse, I almost fell to my knees. We looked into his chamber at strange angles, from cameras that had been strung up in that abyssal place, but as Damascus looked down at us, I knew that he had sent the spritebot to us: like a messenger delivering a king’s summons.

“Shepard.” His eyes, the color of atmosphere even in the eclipse, fell over me, and I was suddenly thankful that he would know me by a name plucked from the scripture. A name without the optimism of Grace. “Based on the data you siphoned out of this tower, I gather you’ll be heading out into the East. That’s good. But you will walk a wide circle around Hell, or be burnt up in the heat of these new fires.”

As he spoke, I had to wonder what waited for him at the end of this audience: what terrible thing was closing its fist around his kingdom. There was no fear in his voice, but my heart beat a little faster for how blunt it had become: for the urgency in it. “The Middle Passage is only one of three bridges between the broken west and the plains where so little was left to break. You will follow the border, and shatter the glass around another of the lights dotting this country's northern wastes, so that it might be spread.”

Caliber had opened her mouth to speak, but even she couldn’t bring herself to interrupt the buck, and so it hung open as he slowed to a full stop. “They lay their heads to sleep on this country’s soil, but say its name like a curse. Tread lightly. It will be difficult to get them on our side.”

“I’m all for hitting the ground running on this.” She raised her hooves, as if to say she meant no offense. “But I think that’s taking it a little far, boss. As far as teams go: we’re getting good.” I couldn’t help puffing up my chest a little at that. “But things haven’t gone according to plan. Silo City was a sinkhole, and their sniper got trampled before we could get his gun lined up with ours. I don’t know if we’re ready for Zion.”

A chill ran up my spine, as I remembered the cold words that Caliber had put to that same name. “I’m not saying it won’t be dangerous. But we don’t have time to have you running in circles around the North. I’ll give you an outline of the valley and the tribes that butt their heads inside its walls once Shepard knows what she has to know. I wouldn’t make you go into this blind. You need to know what’s coming.”

And, from the way he looked at me then, I heard the words he’d left unspoken: But you don’t.
He didn’t want me to hear about what waited in Zion. He didn’t want me to go running off of the path he’d put me on. And, despite how much I wanted to ignore it, I could already feel a knot tightening in my throat.

“In the meantime, I’ll give you a breakdown of Silo City. You’re not gonna believe this one, boss.” Caliber looked back at me, as I was already drifting away from the two of them. “You want to stick around for a minute? Throw in your take on Bodacious?”

“No. That’s alright.” I surrendered, as I’d never been able to fight the feeling of being fenced out. And now, as Zion waited to be painted as something ugly and frightening, I almost felt like I needed to escape.

I wanted to walk into the valley with a smile for every shadow that danced along its walls, and have nothing more to fear than the night, even as it was flooded by the watercolors of a faraway sunrise, and pulled down by the weight of a sacrificial moon. I was less afraid of Damascus pulling the sheet off of some horror, than I was of how fear might break my spirit. So I would block my ears, and sing, if only so I could have the courage to walk into whatever slaughterhouse or glue factory they had named Zion.

“I’ll wait outside.”

“One more thing, Shepard.” His voice caught my first hoofstep, as if in a snare. “You might not know it yet. But you just declared war on a thousand nations: the sharpest pieces of a broken kingdom of glass. And when you put the alien colonies of Zion and the emptiness of the Great Plain behind you: when you come to look upon Calvary and its pillars through the clouds, you might find that the world has been waiting for you… be it with open arms, or open jaws.”






Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Baby Boomer: +20% damage with explosives.
It's a good thing too, you'll be doing some crowd control before this is over. You're going to be popular!

Chapter 10: So Much for Everyone

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 10: So Much for Everyone
“Probably would have died of natural causes anyway.”

|*| Back in Your Own Backyard |*|

I liked to think there were stars of many colors. That, somewhere up there, huddled constellations of neon and gold, shining out like the cities on our planet’s dark side. Before coming in from my turn to watch the watchtowers, I’d looked out along the broken line of floodlights that kept Equestria’s border standing through the night, more like beacons submerged in a blackwater lagoon than pinpricks through the velvet canopy.

Now, as the tower hummed around me, I stared down at another line of exhausted lights. Each was washed out through glass walls, but each kept enough of its color to stand out from the others. Red and Blue and Gold: Like the eyes of a faraway DJ, a spritebot drifting back to Hell, and the only mare left blinking at the lip of a sleeping nation. Pink, Purple, White: Like the sea that rocked Canterlot in its fever, the demon that stood like an idol sunken in the sands of its shore, and the moon that once wore the same nightmare as a mask.

Damascus might have left us, but these six pieces of him had been with me all along.
A set of six, begun in red. The first was passion, it was blood… it was roses.

As if Damascus had made bedtime stories of what waited in Zion, Caliber still lay dreaming against the consoles. And now Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum was rubbing her eyes, so that they might stare out into the night, and make it known that we would not go quietly into it.

I heard the hatch slam shut behind her, but couldn’t look away from those six glassy eyes. I didn’t want to go back, to see what sat, like a city in a snow globe, hidden in the blue mist that clouded the heart of the second orb. But I would. If Damascus would not remember it: then I would. I had to. Maybe someday I could show him what I’d seen, and what he’d unseen. Maybe someday I could give him his family back.
.
My horn shone, and I poked my magic into the mist, as if feeling my way through some marsh with a long oar. But, as if I’d pricked a hole into the glass, the colors seemed to escape it, and swelled up around me. Then, all at once, it stopped, I tripped, and everything went black.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

It felt as if I had been laid out on a bed of needles, as a prickling spread wildly up and down my body. The fire was still crackling nearby, and its smoke was flavored as if by spices and herbs. Our belly was empty, and so we were tortured by the taste our own seared meat as it was spread through the cave. We were old again. Burned again.

“What next?” The zebra was little more than a pair of eyes peering through a smoky grove, where embers raged like angry fireflies.

“I had a child.” We sounded terrified, like a teenager feeling something kick inside her, not knowing who had left it there. “A motherless child.”

“I see.” The eyes looked down into the fire, knowing something that he no longer did. “Then you must finish what you started. She will not fade on her own: like the light of a long dead star, being chased by the darkness behind it, never to be caught.”

“Where is she?” He asked, pawing through a book whose pages he had torn out, whose story he had made nonsense of. “Where-“ The zebra offered us another vial of the stars and the spaces in between them, and Damascus rushed it to our lips, as if it were liquor, or medicine. Our body became heavy, as the spice in the air was stirred into something sweet and hypnotic. And soon: Damascus was sleeping, and, for a while, I was left alone in his head.

*** *** ***

I shot through the Stable, moving more like a passing train than the mare who’d missed it, as Damascus paged through his memories and brought us into the great gray wastes of Equestria. It was as if someone was shading in the world around me with a pencil, and had started pushing down harder, so that the paper came close to tearing. It was almost dark by the time Damascus found his gateway memory.

My head hurt. And I imagined myself wincing in the radio tower, like a mare dreaming her way across thorn bushes and hot coals. Still, Damascus didn’t even lift a hoof to our temple, and instead went on sniffing through the cabinets of a gutted kitchen. The far wall had collapsed, but all I could see were the silhouettes of a washed out suburb, and a storm the color of dirty dishwater, which seemed to be inhaling, as ribbons of sand and ash were spun up to into it.

Picture frames full of broken glass were slapping against the walls, and it sounded as if a hundred doors were creaking, all at once and out of rhythm. But, despite the howling wind, Damascus climbed out of the ruin, and came to the edge of a great highway, whose lights were made blurry in the dust or cut to pieces by the sand in the air. The buildings on either side of it were now no better than the thicket that had once been cleared to make way for them, and would have to be bushwhacked before we could rebuild.

The storm looked to have been cut open along its belly, like a sack of flour, and there was nothing left to the world but for the highway and a block of shadowy houses to either side.

Damascus jumped a little, as lighting whipped across the sky, and made it bellow like an animal in labor. He looked left, and calmed his heart for remembering the city there: as its skyscrapers squinted through the storm like lighthouses with a thousand murky eyes. What I first mistook for ropes were hanging low between them, like empty clothes lines, and only after naming the city could I know what they were a part of: the monorail.

The lightning came again, and lashed at Manehattan, making Damascus run from the city whose sirens I had once heard through his ears. As our hooves pounded against the highway and our hearts pounded against our chests, the lightning seemed to come bounding after us, and I couldn’t help thinking that it looked nothing like loyalty.

In the distance, I saw hunched bodies coming towards us, holding down their ears and dragging their knuckles along the road. Even the closest of them, who stood as tall as any Princess, was little more than a blackened matchstick, swaying to the sound of the thunder.

Damascus slunk back to the side of the road, and tucked us into the ruins of a blown down brick house. We watched the creatures march by, and while I marveled at the rolling of their shoulders and their paws like swinging pendulums, I felt his lips keeping count.

They had come bursting out of a wall of inky rain, and so left puddles like paw prints on the road. I felt the tension in Damascus’ shoulders unravel, as we heard hooves clicking in between their soggy footsteps. And then, there came the groaning of carriages and carts, all weighed down with tightly wrapped parcels, sloshing barrels and bodies being blown dry.

Damascus stepped out onto the road, and we bumped our nose against a solid wall of foul smelling air. We recoiled, even though one of the creatures was grinning down at us. And then, as the sky blinked open like the shutter of a camera, I saw that the button at the tip of his snout had been twisted clean off. My Dog has no nose, I thought, remembering a tired old joke, as the creature turned its yellowing eyes back to the city. Then how does it smell?

Damascus pressed both hooves to his face, and squashed our nose shut. Terrible.

We stayed like that, with our stomach churning, until the storm had diluted the smell of them. The men were leading the pack, and we could only breathe once they had passed, and their wives and sisters came trailing along to take their place. One of the women, whose ears poked out two holes in her hood, glared at Damascus through diamantine eyes that had been colored as sheets turned pink for spilt blood. He stared back at her, though I didn’t have the courage to do the same, and felt as if I was shivering somewhere at the back of his mind.

There came the sound of wheels grinding to a halt, and someone spoke as a carriage creaked in tune with the suburbs. “They don’t take to ponies all that well.”

He smelt a bit like the Stable’s cafeteria just before breakfast was served, as a hundred heads of hair dried together. “Heard ‘em say it was us that brought the voice to their valley.” The buck shrugged, and the rain went running down his oilskin coat. “Don’t know about that. But we sure didn’t do ‘em any favors.” He tipped his hat to the apocalypse.

I heard a rustling from the cart behind him, and only as we tasted its trigger on the tip of our tongue, could I feel the weight of the rifle strapped to our side. “Whoa there.” The buck laughed. “There’s no need to get all worked up on account of the little Princess.”

We found her – little more than a ball of silver and two pink eyes peeking at us from inside the cart– and I could feel Damascus losing his grip, as if the coming rain was making it that much harder to hold on. “Picked her up near Maripony. Lucky thing, too.” He patted at a dent in his hat. “Papa Paws might’ve lopped my head off if she hadn’t been sitting right on top of it.”

Damascus became very still, as we stared at the diamond that the pup had been sucking at like a candy ring. It was almost bigger than her, though she pressed it against her chest.

The suburbs were torn to pieces around us, swept up into the storm even as it folded into itself, as if to wipe the slate for the sake of a new Equestria. Damascus was letting it all go. He had a diamond on his mind: A diamond that was as blue as the bluest eyes.

The sky became steel, and the lightning had its branches pruned, before being hammered out into even lines of gold: the very lines that bound all Stables together as one last light.

*** *** ***

“Daddy?” Her voice came like a light in the darkness, and we followed it, as someone lost in the black belly of the sea, seeing the sunlight come dancing through a thousand leagues.

Daddy?” Damascus stood in the mirror, with his mane paling around the ears, and a beaten black suit that must have seen better days thrown onto his weary body, as if onto a mannequin. He couldn’t be that much older than the last time we’d met him here, but he looked it.

“Hold on a minute, sweetheart.” We twisted our tie, as a flash of pale and pristine gold skipped around us in the mirror. She had her father’s eyes: colored in the bluest blue of atmosphere. And she had her mother’s hair. But Damascus couldn’t know that. “We don’t want everypony to find out that Daddy didn’t get any sleep before his big speech.”

I was allowed to speak her today… that’s right: allowed.” His voice came as if from an old record, just dug up from some crate and dusted off like a fossil. “Because your Overmare is scared. Because we are, all of us, letting ourselves become caught up in this climate of hate. Some of us might even look to our closest neighbor… and call them enemy.”

“You look very handsome, Daddy,” She said, still tripping over words. She was young. And I had to wonder if she and I hadn’t fallen asleep to the same songs, if we hadn't worded out the same lines of scripture as we learned to speak. “Do you like my dress?”

It’s that same old devil… in a new dress. It’s bitterness. It’s bickering. And there will be fighting.” The blonde haired, blue eyed summer sky filly danced around us, deaf to the voice in our head. “There will be war. Come to us with hate and pounding hooves, and we will meet you with the same. These threats, though whispered, will not go unanswered. If violence is the only language you would use to settle this… know that we’re more than ready to talk.

Finally, after giving up on the wrung out tie, Damascus turned, and watched his daughter twirling like a ballerina on a music box. Her dress was white: and its skirts rustled for being feathered by pages torn from some holy book. Stars of silver glitter and embroidery that might have been spun from the gold in her hair laced up the outfit from collar to belt, and shone.

The sight of her might have sent tears running down our cheeks, so heavy and warm that we would taste salt on our lips, but Damascus was strong enough to hold them back. “Of course I do, sweetheart.” She was his patchwork princess. “You look beautiful.”

We’re trapped together now - Trapped – to be squeezed for virtue as oranges in a press. But know that this isn’t virtue. That this isn’t fair. This Stable does not ask for goodness: it takes it as a thief with a club. Saying: You will be good, or you will be damned.” Was this speech what had gotten him thrown out into the howling dark? I wondered, as the filly tugged at my sleeve. “We live in fear. But it’s all that’s keeping you from burning the crosses we have made. And everypony in this Stable knows it. This is no way to live.

We can make it better. We can end this, peacefully, instead of letting a climate of hate hang in the air until our door rolls open for the last time, and church and state go their separate ways.” We lifted her in our hooves, and started to spin around the room, unsteady. “We need to love each other. To tolerate those who find their Gods in the book of the law, just as we do those who find them in the scripture.” We were laughing, as the filly’s mane came loose in crinkled curls of gold, and she became an eclipsed sun as we held her up to the light.

Then, the walls began to blur, the floor rocked under our hooves, and she was burning. Not as flesh and boiling blood, but a photograph, whose corners blackened, and melted like wax paper held to a candle. It was as if our eyes were bleeding, as the color of it washed away her smile, and she was left as a ring of pale gold, casting itself across a great, red sea.

When it was over, Damascus and I were alone, as our hooves were empty and burnt. It was as if the sun had plucked out from between the planets, leaving them to roll off into a night that never ended like marbles of many different colors.

It isn’t going to end like this. With the last light of our country being smothered under all the dust we’ve kicked up in this ramming of horns: this casting of stones. It is our right, and our responsibility, to be good for the sake of goodness. To be virtuous for the sake of virtue. And to love for the sake of love. Not for the promise of paradise, be it one that we must journey to through the stasis pods below, or one whose gates are kept by the Goddesses above.

His daughter was older now, and I touched her for the last time, wiping a tear from her cheek. I already knew the feel of the collar that was biting into my neck, and recognized the glassy faces of the guards who were pressed in close on either side of me. But, as I looked down at a golden haired little girl whose mother was dead and whose father was damned, I couldn’t know whose life was most like mine: the filly’s or her father’s.

Marie

.

I saw red. More of it than we’d ever seen: all over my hooves, all over my home. I could hear my daughter wailing in the corner, but she was quiet. She couldn’t know how frantically I was trying to put her pieces back together again. Like torn petals saying she loves me.

Rose

.

Somewhere out there, if love can see us through.” I stood by like a frightened housewife twisting the strings of her apron, and sang to myself, as Damascus wrestled with the guards. He kept trying to reach out to his daughter, though I yelped every time the batons spattered the floor with his blood. “Then we’ll be together, somewhere out there.” We were choking, as there was salt on my tongue, and iron on his. “Out where dreams… come true.”

Repent

.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

I woke up singing. With Caliber leaning over me, resting her hoof on my chest, and whispering the words. It was as if I was lying in a cradle, or my death bed, as we traded lullabies for last rites. “Please…” I saw the look in her eyes, and felt like I didn’t know her. “Sing it again.”

She pressed her hoof into my chest, as if to squeeze the music out of me. So I sang, and didn’t stop until she knew the words. Then, without so much as a goodnight, the mercenary marched back to her side of the room, and threw herself into sleep as if into a chore.

When morning came, I tried to ask her about what had happened but the words were caught in my throat, so I fooled myself into thinking that it could have been a dream.

Caliber and I didn’t talk as she made us breakfast. She might have had a songbird in her pocket, as her radio chirruped and cooed. While she narrowed her eyes and peeled open tin cans like onions, I lost myself somewhere in the weary horizon. In the north, the storm clouds looked like great strips of wool being pulled apart, as each was made up of a dozen pieces, like staircases in the sky. The air began to smell like burnt skin, and I almost forgot who I was.

We ate beans in a thick, sugary sauce and strips of what had once been a pig. The age of the cans promised me that I would never have to look the animal’s mother in the eye, and that the rest of its litter weren’t all hanging their heads somewhere. The succulent smell of the meat was enough to keep me from wondering if pigs could be happy: or if they could fall in love.

It almost felt like I was eating alone, as Ash had excused herself, saying that she didn’t eat swine, and Caliber seemed to spend most of the meal drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. I didn’t mind. I had never tasted anything so good, and soon my belly felt like an oven, as my breath smelt like breakfast and was as warm as fresh bread.

Caliber packed up our things, as I lay back against the tower with my hooves on my stomach, like a mare feeling her baby kick. “Ascella can’t do anything for my battle saddle without some halfway decent salvage,” She began, after pushing the empty cans off the side of the tower like blindfolded mutineers off the side of a ship. “There should be some security outposts scattered along the border. They're bound to have something useful between ‘em.”

“All I know is: I’m not knocking on Zion’s door unless I’m sure we can hold our own against whatever answers.”

*** *** ***

We crossed back into Equestria without any fanfare, less like heroes returning home to fireworks and ticker tape, and more like dogs slinking back to a master who had never missed them. The Slaver’s machine was perched on the southern horizon, like a bird stripped to its bones, and even though it was as if we had stepped through the broken wall of a house in disrepair, whose keeper lay drunk or dying in their bed, I felt like we were coming home.

“Sometimes, on a clear day, you can see Canterlot sitting pretty around the corner there,” Caliber said, with her hoof pointed to the creamy soup in between the Middle Passage and the Slaver’s monster. I looked up into the clouds, from which the mist was creeping like steam, and wondered when last our capsized capital had seen anything but stormy weather.

Ash overtook me, climbing down the ruins of the border as nimbly as a mountain goat, and nodded her head at the symbol on Caliber’s flank as she went. “Caliber,” She began, though it sounded like the name had been rattled out of her. “How did you get your cutie mark?”

To the mercenary, the question must have seemed to come out of nowhere, but I was already waiting on her answer, like a mare who had called tails, watching the coin spin. “Well, children…” She began, never realizing who her wolfish grin might have been borrowed from. “I’ll tell you: Back when your grandfather and I were knee-high and bright-eyed, a terrible snowstorm came rolling across the north.”

“That was the coldest winter I’d ever had to live through. The taverns served every drink on a Popsicle stick, the saloons were charging by the cuddle, and you had to keep your ears down for fear of having ‘em snap right off!” She perked up her ears, as if to mock the season that was only just being stirred from sleep. “The air itself was bleached white. You couldn’t see the cart ahead of you in a caravan. And you sure as shivers couldn’t see the bastard pulling it!”

“The wind was gale force on the good days, and the littlest fillies had to be tied down and tucked in, or else be swept away on the back of the storm. Might’ve been the only time we didn’t have to worry about Slavers or Raiders or anybody. We were all up in arms against the elements: hardly had the time to rub each other wrong.” The storm had united them against a common enemy, and I found myself hoping the Slavers, if nothing else, would do that much for us.

“Now, whenever we went knocking at the bunkers of those metallic monks, or shouted up to the clouds and the cowards behind ‘em, we didn’t get much in the way of answers. Aside from the usual: Back away from the door! Or Stick it out, civilian!” Her brow became heavy, and her voice even steelier, as she aped the soldiers. “Ask ‘em now, and they’d probably have no recollection of the storm, so much as the bodies going numb at their doorsteps.”

“But to us: that was one of the most brutal seasons since the balefire years. It was cold, it was hard to see, and the prospects of prospecting were that much bleaker for it.” Like a brilliant white phoenix, one of the floodlights came swooping by us then, tied to its watchtower by only a few strained cables. “I was already taking whatever jobs I could find. Wouldn’t have called myself a mercenary, but I carried this same rifle, and for good reason too.”

“Wait…” I paged through the most violent chapters of my childhood, though I ran across them with nothing but a Tri-Beam Laser Rifle imagined out of cardboard boxes and half a broomstick, floating at my side as I fought back monsters sewn together from the shadows. “This is the memory. The first one you got back after…” I pressed a hoof against my temple, and it felt as cool as the barrel of a gun.

She nodded, smiling even though her eyes were quiet. “This one helped me piece something together out of the mess in my head.” So many of her pages were missing, the rest only just bound to a broken spine, their colors blurry. And I wondered how she felt, knowing that Damascus had gutted his own book as if with a scalpel, while hers had been torn to pieces by a stranger’s shrapnel. “Now, like I was sayin’…” She just shook it off, like a dog drying itself.

“We were out scavenging - me and a little colt whose Ma never made the time to name him. So he took to calling himself Candlewick. Anyway, we heard rumors of an old army shelter, spilling over with ammunition, comic books and a feast of dry cereals and MRE’s. Kind of rumors you’d only believe on an empty barrel and an emptier belly.”

The largest of the security outposts could be seen stacked like three black bibles of different sizes against the wall ahead of us, and Caliber frowned at it as if it had interrupted her story. There was a gate beside it, hanging open like a broken jaw just barely held together with wire.

“So me and this Candlewick kid are right in the middle of the soup of the storm now, right?” Ash and I nodded. “We think we’re going to die out there. And one of us is right. We’re slowing down. Limbs might as well be turning to stone. Blood’s running cold. We’re sluggish. Tired. And can’t hear each other holler over the howling white… Then, it gets worse.”

No. I almost let the word slip out, as if I could flip back to the very beginning the story, and rewrite it into something flowery and sweet. “We see these silhouettes, black bodies in the distance. All hunched over. Moving real slow, taking their time. Like us, but… wrong.”

“Ferals.” I said it before she had the chance. I knew them now. Like us, but wrong.

She nodded, turning the wolf’s smile in for its cold, brutal eyes. “They’re the only things that’ll hunt through the storms. We should have known…” I hadn’t noticed it at first but, outside of Equestria’s walls, the wind never seemed to howl. At least, not at all like it did then. “Candlewick was too slow. They took apart his legs before he could start running… like thieves shooting out the tires. Like they knew…”

Her voice was empty now. “They tore him to pieces. You know that old joke: With the two campers? Well one of ‘em asks the other: Hey, if it comes down to it, d’you think you could outrun a bear? And the other says: Doesn’t matter: I’d only need to outrun you.”

She sighed, though it sounded no more emotional than a machine venting hot air. “I stood my ground for a while: until my rifle ran on empty. Shot three of ‘em clean through the head. Just like we were taught. But I... I couldn’t hold on long enough to go for another round. Bits of him are sliding down my face. The snow’s turning to pink water under my hooves.”

“Cal, you don’t have to-“ She went on, ignoring me.

“So they mop him up. But, when it’s ferals… you don’t stop screaming until you’re dead. And I know he’s gone by the time they start fishing ribbons of him out of the snow. It’s funny… I don’t even think ghouls get hungry. But they were fighting over his scraps like wild dogs.” She scrunched up her face, puzzling it out. “I figure it’s the violence they like. Maybe it does to them what it does to us. Makes ‘em feel alive again.”

“They weren’t even chasing me. But I ran like Hell was snapping its teeth at my tail.” I pictured a copper-headed filly then, fighting her way through the storm as that All-Equestrian rifle warmed her side. “I’m lost. Everything’s screaming… spinning north to south and east to west. But then I get this feeling, clear as crumbs of gold all along the way we had wandered. So I follow it. Walk for what could’ve been forever. And might’ve come up for air at the other end of the world.” She turned, and I did nothing to hide the tears in my eyes.

One of us had to feel this. One of us had to be hurting.
“But… I came home. With crosshairs and a compass on my flank.”

I waited for a while, letting the silence gape, as if Caliber could say anything to make it better. As if she had to keep talking until we found a happy ending. After all, this was a story about a cutie mark. And they weren’t meant to go that way.

How could any one mare be told to live with that?

“I figure we’ll be better off splitting up,” She said, as if the world didn’t owe her everything it had left. Our hooves had started clicking against concrete, and I didn’t have to look up to know that the security outpost was right there in front of us. “Grace and I will go rooting around inside.” Even Ash, whose eyes were like dry coals and not pools of ink, seemed all too ready to move on. “I’m sure you’ll get more out of those old army trucks than we could.”

The pilgrim nodded, and drifted off into the parking lot ahead, where dilapidated vehicles sat like toys just waiting to be slipped on by some giant. I had to wonder how long it had been, since the end of the story, for it felt like I had fallen into the pit of some daydream. “Let’s head inside.” Caliber tilted her head, and smiled at me despite it all. “It’s getting cold out.”

*** *** ***

The outpost was a mess. Posters that had been peeled off of the walls like dead skin and coffee stained paperwork like autumn leaves had carpeted the tiled floor, and turned crossing the room into a game of hopscotch. A crooked line of desks ran along the walls, cooping us up in the center of the room, on the broadside of a wooden semicircle that a long escaped receptionist would once have used as her shield, just as a pen was her sword.

On top of each desk, there sat terminals like fat, nesting chickens, though most looked to have had their glass faces punched in by some bully. I heard a faint ticking, and after looking up at two clocks, both frozen with one hand up as if in salute, I realized that it was coming from my Pipbuck. The outpost was irradiated, though this came as no surprise, as its air had been colored in a watery shade of green, and specks of dust shone like emeralds in the light.

There was a staircase at the far side of the room, but I ignored it, and instead slid over to the nearest functioning terminal on paper skates. Across the wall above me, there hung a bulletin board: crowded by uncollected letters from famous cities and posters that had grown tired of trying long ago. Their colors were faded: their smiles sagging.

EQUESTRIA’S FIRST DEFENSE! One yelled at me, from above a serious looking mare, who held her rifle in a cradle of magic pink enough to dress a baby girl. She wore a freshly pressed military uniform, and a helmet that was a few sizes too big. She was dressed like a soldier, but might have passed for a supermodel, as if the war had come into fashion.
KEEP YOUR COUNTRY SAFE! It ordered, even as I saluted the mare. I’m on it, ma’am!

THIS IS YOUR ENEMY! A Zebra stood, like an animal angry enough to pounce, but too cowardly to risk its neck. His uniform was in rags, though he carried the weapons of half a dozen soldiers, as if to say that the Zebrican armies were not filled with paupers: but only the poorly dressed. It made them out as predators: below us, but worth being afraid of.
KEEP THE STRIPES OUT OF EQUESTRIA!

PINKIE PIE IS WATCHING YOU!
A single streak of gray came curling out over her face, as if the minister herself had sucked the color out of it. I had come to know her smile so well, that I knew it had been warped with the poster, if not by the heat of the balefire then by the green fog that slunk through the room.
FOREVER! And, for how often I’d been followed by those cerulean eyes: I believed it.

SHE MAY BE LOADED!
Here, another mare, who could not be mistaken for either a soldier or a politician, straddled a comically large pistol. Her makeup was almost clownish, and the outfit that ensnared her body might have been designed by an architect, for how it forced her back into an arch.
DON’T TAKE ANY CHANCES WITH PICKUPS!

There was a loud clang, as Caliber hit her head against one of the desks, and began muttering up at Celestia in what might as well have been an alien language, just as another mare might pray. As if she had jolted me out of another daydream, I began tapping at the terminal keys, trying to look busy. I bushwhacked through a wilderness of symbols, numbers and letters, backing out every now again as if to attack the forest from a different angle. Eventually, I had whittled the confusion down to a password: Gateway.

The terminal housed a collection of reports, which looked so delightfully military that I almost couldn’t help myself, like a plump mare sweating as she looked down at a box of chocolates. Most all of them had been logged under the username < FERN >

Communal Log: 104
Cpl. Fern: 3rd patrol regiment, Border Authority.

Equestria’s hasn’t been seeing much talon traffic lately.
Last report of any attempt at a border jump came in over two years ago.
We won’t need to watch the skies much anymore. The north knows better than to come here.

But that doesn’t mean we can let our guard down.
The soft-hooves down at Strategic Defense think we’re due for a few needlepoints pressing against the border. Nothing more than task force, maybe. But If they do decide to come circling all the way up to us, then they’re bringing something that’s worth the trip.

So keep your guns pointed out. We won’t let them past us. Not when we’ve been warned.

We won’t let them have another Littlehorn.
And with the chatter coming up from Arcane Sciences and Technology… those megaspells they’re testing? A body slipping past this wall could mean an entire city leveled. One, single Zebra soldier could throw this war over the edge, and take his whole country down with it. Maybe ours, too.

Be ready to march in the morning. We need eyes in the mountains: eyes in Zion.

Some of the logs were damaged, soaked halfway up their margins in static much like a book might be in water. There were naked wires poking out of the terminal, and it seemed to have the hairy ears of the elderly. But, while I could do little to repair the burnt out machine, I had learned to cope with data corruption, and knew I could string together the rest of the story.

Communal Log: 149
Sgt. Fern: Border Authority and Liaison

I just got word from command. Looks like we’re getting our own set of walking tanks.
But don’t go calling them new recruits when they get here, though. They outrank us… hard.
Things are bound to get a little tighter around here, and I say it’s about time.
There’s been talk of movement somewhere between us and the Crystal Empire.
And it’s the kind of talk we need to be paying attention to.

If they are coming, if they are crossing the tundra, then you can bet the Zebras aren’t going to pull over and put their hoofprints on the usual paperwork. And no wall is going to have them turning their tails. Not unless we’ve got our guns pointed down from on top of it.

Once the Rangers get here and put down roots, each of us will have to take a turn in Zion.
So get ready. We’ve all got some cold nights coming.

In my head, I had given Fern the body of the body of the beautiful soldier posted on the wall above me, if only to make it easier to salute her for being promoted to sergeant. To my dismay, the next salvageable log, which was dated only a few days later, wasn’t from her.

Communal Log: 1
Junior Paladin Orion, Border Authority.

Steel Ranger unit arrived on site at approximately 0700h
Command and comm. stations established within the hour. Protocol dictates action.

One Knight Commander dispatched to the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th division respectively.
Junior Paladin Orion and Journeymare Scribe Rigel dispatched to Sgt. Fern’s 3rd division.
3rd Division will spearhead the watch from this location, with word coming down the line.
Reports are to be given to your Commanding Ranger, who will then relay them here.

Protocol is to be followed monastically. It is your scripture. And you are its disciples.
We are the first and the last line of defense. And we will not rest.
Equestria is God.
And you are her instruments.

I looked back across the room then; remembering something I had seen through the chaos and the calm of the outpost: the gutted filing cabinets and the poison like dye the air. A poster crying Steel Ranger, like that of some horror show naming its monster, as a soldier in plate armor stood rearing over a field of stars.

I skimmed through the Paladin’s next few logs, and found little more than coldblooded reports spread out over what must have been the last few weeks of the war. Still, he seemed to be softening with every entry, as his Rangers slowly came to call the outpost home.

Communal Log: 34
Junior Paladin Orion, Border Authority.

Two unsettling updates from the South:
An anti-machine rifle, capable of tearing through heavy armor, has just been developed. Here. In Equestria. Ministry Mare Applejack reportedly tried to keep them out of production. Unsuccessfully. They’re already being shipped out to the front lines.
For the sake of the Rangers in the South: here’s hoping they’re worth the risk.

It has also been confirmed that the Zebras are developing weapons-grade megaspells.

Protocol is your scripture. And you are its disciples.
We are the first and the last. And we will not rest.
Equestria is God.
May God help us all.

They were getting close to the end. I could feel it.
But I went farther than watching them fall apart, then: I fell with them.

Sgt. Fern: Border Authority and Liaison

Orion and his Rangers were recalled last night. After the siege on the capital began.
We’ve got reports of the attacks. Long range missiles. Coming from who knows where.

Damn it. I can’t do this.
Turn around. You can see it happening. That ring of fire to the south? That’s Canterlot.
Those are the missiles wasting themselves against the Princesses’ shield.
There are so many of them. All you can see are the explosions.

Stand strong. The Princesses will hold the capital. And we will hold the line.

Reading through the last of her reports was like watching a doomsday clock, counting down to the end of the world. And I felt powerless, as if it was still happening, somewhere far away.

Sgt. Fern

Canterlot is nothing but a smoking pink bubble.
We still don’t know what’s happening inside. But the missiles didn’t get through.
Celestia and Luna are still standing firm.

We’re not picking up anything in the sky. No foreign airships. Nothing alien.
The Zebras are throwing stones from their own glass house.
We… we don’t know if their megaspells can come this far.
But we will not let them sneak a bomb past our borders. SO STAY IN YOUR POSITIONS!

As soon as this war is over, I’m going to have Flake court martialed for making tracks to the nearest Stable. And she’ll be staring down a firing squad if I get my way.

The next three logs were all posted on the same day: the day everything changed.

three…

They hit Cloudsdale! They wiped the entire city out of the sky!
Celestia. I don’t know what’s happening.
I think the Pegasus are getting ready to pull up the shutters.
To blindfold the bastards: block their lines of fire with one hell of a storm.

For now, we have our orders. And I’ll be damned before I leave this post behind.
We’ll hit them back! We’ll end this war.
Hold the line!

two…

Maripony just went quiet.
We’re alone now.
One last report came through before the static clogged up the comms… but it isn’t good:
Manehattan was hit from the inside. They got a balefire bomb into the country.
They got a bomb across our border.

The clouds are getting stitched up tight now… can you see the Pegasus?
Filling the sky like birds before winter.

I think something big is going on. But I can’t get a line to the Brass.

Report back to the Station. If you can still read this… then fall in.
The line’s been crossed. We need to move. To help with the evacuations.
We’ll go to New Calvary… unless they hit her too.
It’s like a thunderstorm out there. They can’t even pick their targets. Why won’t they stop?

We must have hit them back. So it’s going to be chaos.
But when we survive this, we’ll march over there and finish them off ourselves.
Now REPORT IN!

one…

The shield is down.
And it’s quiet. I think… I think the bombings are over.
Either the clouds were enough to throw them off… or we cooked them.
But I… don’t think I can care anymore.

The shield is down. The Princesses are dead.
All I can see of the Capital is a pink smear across the sky. Like a cloud.
That might be all that’s left of home.

I can’t even see the sky anymore. Here its ash. There its fire.
But where are you?

The military is gone… The Princesses are gone…
The line is broken. The border is burning.

War is over.
Now comes Fallout.

If any of you are still out there… if you’ll still follow me… then report in.
We’ll fight this thing together. We’ll wait it out. Then march on to Calvary, just like I promised.
Maybe she survived. Maybe we can survive.
If you’re out there… please… report in.

We don’t have to die alone.

I sat there, as still as someone being painted, even as absinthe tears swelled in the light of the terminal. There were so many of them – these stories whose endings I could not rewrite: like wounds I could not heal, tumors I could not shrink, or bad news that I could not take back. I leaked, one tear at a time, and it was all I could do to keep myself from breaking down. I was too late. Be it to save them or to cry and cross my heart for them: I was too late.

After all, I was a child of the war. And to undo it, would be to undo me. Under the ash where so many had shriveled and died, the seed of my family tree had been planted, and so fed on all the fear that saw the Stable built, and the fire whose skinny fists still beat against its door.

My face was dry. My back was straight. I didn’t shiver, though I was so cold.
It wouldn’t be fair to cry. Not when I had cried for so much less. But I didn’t want to know these stories, to carry them with me like knots in my chest. I didn’t know what to do with them. And my heart pounded like the drum at the end of the world.

“Grace?” I pressed my lips together, as if being painted, trying not to laugh and have my face warped into something twisted and wild on the easel. “Grace?” I could almost feel it: one hundred thousand years of war, dancing down my tongue; tickling me as I tried not to laugh. Then, in one big gulp, I let it all go rolling down my throat, and swallowed the apocalypse.

“Wake up, Sugar.” She was whispering over my shoulder, and I worried that she might be able to smell the smoke coming out of my ears. But I only watched as her ears perked up, and her eyes shot from side to side: narrow and paranoid. “I think there’s someone upstairs.”

*** *** ***

Ash burst into the Station, breaking the silence for what might well have been her first time, as we were poking our heads around the edge of the staircase, keeping our ears open and our voices low. Her hooves were soaked in an inky fluid, and each step looked like another struggle, as the paper on the floor clung to her like feathers to tar. Even her belly, and the bandages that were wrapped around it, wore a coat of the same burnt-black honey.

“Gasoline,” She said, as if announcing the designer of her dress. “One of the trucks still had a key in its ignition.” Caliber twisted her head back towards the pilgrim, forgetting the stranger that was shuffling around upstairs. “But when I tried to get it running, gallons of oil came spilling out over the parking lot. There must have been a hole… right through its insides.”

“Okay. So no smoking.” Caliber shrugged, and then thought better of it. “Know what, Ascella: you’d better hang back for a while. Grace and I were just gonna take a look around upstairs, and you’re practically a walking fire hazard right now.”

That hardly seemed to break her heart, and the pilgrim began to pace the room, molting in and out of paper skin as she went. The walls ahead looked yellow and sickly in the on-again, off-again light, and I was tormented by more thoughts of skin: shaved of its coat and rubbed in ointment as if before a last minute operation. Peeling off a lip after a long day in the sun.

I kept my eyes shut as we climbed the stairs, and the second floor was so dark that I couldn’t be sure when I opened them again. Soon, I found myself in a dense, nightmarish forest of cell bars, all throwing shadows into the shadows like pails of water into the sea. The detention cells were all around me, and though I stood on the outside looking in, I felt like a prisoner again. The light of day pushed its way in past ragged curtains and a film of spider web, and I found a row of bars that were warped: dented and chewed like the plastic of children’s toys.

“This must’ve been where they kept the border jumpers before the war,” Caliber mumbled, as I ran a hoof over the knotted bars. “Be careful. You can bet they bumped up the securi-“

Something moaned.
It was the sound of a moldered old forest bowing, as the wind pressed a foot down on its neck. But there were no trees here, and the breeze was so slight that specks of dust hovered at the window, unsure of whether they were going out or coming in.

It was breathing now, staring out at us from inside one of the cells. With a window behind it, the sunlight came to be draped over the creature like a blanket sliding off of naked shoulders. We had woken it up, and with my heart jackhammering, I felt ready to throw myself down the stairs, and away from this sleepy shadow. It was mumbling at us now, though it had the voice of a pony: a chain smoker who had coated her throat in ash. And the skin of a leper.

The prisoner’s mossy green eyes were stretched wide, as if a hundred years of insomnia had come as they forgot how to close. A few long, wiry hairs hung out of a round military helmet, like spider legs, and though her uniform was in ribbons, I knew she was a sergeant.

There was blood on the bars. And a ghoul stared out at us, though her body shook, as if the sun was only scrubbing saltwater over the naked, pink wounds on her back. And there, like autumn leaves and plucked feathers scattered all around her, was skin.

Before I even had the chance to shake her cage: the sergeant pounced at me, and I was sent tripping over my own hooves with a firm push. “It’s feral,” Caliber decided, keeping her hooves spread between me and the mare in the cell - who could only be Fern, though her teeth were snapping under wild eyes. I saw her own flesh like chewed up licorice, red and black, gumming up the corners of her mouth.

“On no.” I breathed out the words. “No, no, no.”

She threw herself against the bars, and grated herself against them.
“Who did this to her?” I asked, knowing that the sergeant was dead. That she had died alone, as the Fallout came stampeding across the country. “Who locked her in there?”
“Must have done it herself,” Caliber said, answering an unfair question. “Couldn’t have known what was changing her back then. Maybe thought she was losing it, maybe thought she was burning up with the world: watching her skin peel like that.”

Fern had become a beggar, pleading with me, pawing at the cell bars as if she only wanted me to take her hooves in mine. For how little of her was left, she looked like a child playing dress-up in her father’s uniform. “The isolation is what does it, though… She couldn’t have known, but…That cell is what turned her feral.”

“Open it,” I ordered, suddenly. “Pick the lock, Cal. We have to get her out.”

“Hold on, now. I don’t th-.”

“Open it.”

*** *** ***

“Fuck.” There was a click, and it sounded like the lock had something caught in its throat. But, before I could ask why she was backing away from the cell door, cursing as she went, the outpost began to hum. Something moaned. It was the song of a rusty old city bowing, as the wind pressed a foot down on its neck. But there were no towers here, and the air was still.

ALERT! Non-combatants are advised to leave the area. Security sweep in progress.” The voice came bursting out of the shadows, like a predator thrashing through black water. ”Lethal force may be used without warning!

A flat, red line shone out as the angry eye to some Cyclops. And the entire building seemed to groan as the thing shifted its weight, just as a happy drunk come home from some feast might make the legs of his bed creak. I pulled at the cell door, but it wouldn’t budge.

“I screwed it up.” Caliber said, in what almost sounded like disbelief.

Hostile Detected! Commencing neutralization.

Grace.” There was fear in her eyes, and I felt her butting against me, pushing me towards the door as if I was a cow-eyed piece of livestock. The sergeant was staring out at me from between the bars, and I could only watch as she pressed her hooves against them, tenderly, like some fairytale creature watching through the leaves, sad to see us go.

Caliber practically threw me down the stairs, and my hooves were pedaling wild all the way down. And, though my ears rang as I crumpled against the floor, I could heard gunfire like the churning of a cement mixer. In the corner of my eye, I saw what looked like a villainous action figure jammed into the doorway above me. It twisted from side to side, trying to wriggle both of its Minotaur arms into the stairwell, as Caliber got me back onto my hooves.

Then, we were running away, and went skating over an oilfield in paper horseshoes. Ash had left her prints everywhere, as if she had blood on her hooves. My legs splayed out around me, and so I went sliding across the room on my belly. The pilgrim helped me up, but as I turned back to the stairwell, I felt Caliber hoof pressing into my shoulder, less than tenderly.

“You make a run at that thing: we’re both dead.” Even with those belts of gunfire and the groaning of the machine, it was the look in her eyes that scared me most. “Dead. Me, then you.” So I let her slide me across the room, like a chess piece. “We’re leaving.”

If I threw myself against the old machine, if I went tilting at windmills, she would have no choice but to be my shield, if only to die before I did. I stared at her with empty eyes, and nodded, shaking the word loose like an apple from the branch. “Okay.”

*** *** ***

At what could have been less than a hundred paces from the border, we stopped, and made bleachers out of a barren hillside. I was sure that my lungs had popped, but the running had not been enough to distract me from what I was running from.

Fern was almost certainly dead by now, unless she had already been so broken that the sentry could not find in her enough life to stamp out, as with a wilted flower. Either way, the sergeant was gone. Her station would be her grave, whether hollow or haunted. And I wondered: What were the first ghouls, if not ghosts of the old world?

I caught my breath, and watched the building burst. That bullheaded guardian must have lost its patience, and fired a missile into the doorway, like a child punching through the wrapping paper. It was an avalanche, as boulders and cell bars like broken branches rained out over the parking lot, followed by a dozen phoenixes whose wings were burning pages.

“Caeli,” Ash whispered the old language, with her eyes mirroring the black pools that had spread around the trucks like blood from speared animals. And so the embers came eddying over a lake of gasoline, and I winced away even before the fires started. They spread in rings, like red ripples over the lake, and even the belly of the outpost seemed to brighten as hoofprints of oil led the fire to a feast of paper and wood. “The trucks…”

And then, the sound of a marching band scattering under thunderstorms, paper like burning doves and heat as if from a bellows as the outpost folded over itself. And smoke like a trail of survivors limping away, the morning going black as mushroom clouds pillared against the charcoaled easel of the border: an artist’s interpretation of the end of the world.
.
War was the insomnia that had kept Equestria awake even as the lights went out. And, even in fighting the good fight, we would always be a part of it. We would be soldiers, and could only find our peace in the pieces: our dawn in the darkness.

There, if only for the grace of her gasoline, went the burning doves and exhausted phoenixes, crumbling into the dust, and I watched them dancing in the dark eyes of the pilgrim. I could see the oil drying like blood on her hooves, and thought of Fern finding peace in the ruin.

Gravedigger.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Between the Lines: You may gain select skill points by entering memory orbs, being in the company of storytellers, or reading through terminal logs and assorted prewar media. If you aren’t going to learn from your mistakes, you could at least try learning from theirs.

END OF BOOK II: EXODUS

BOOK III: LEVITICUS

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BOOK III: LEVITICUS

|*| They danced on graves, they sang in tombs |*|

Buried three seeds in a washed out womb.

Then, at paranoia’s poison door:

Begged for power, howled for more.

See children swallowing; as monsters feed.

See soldiers following; as madmen lead.

In history’s pool, through waters muddy,

The light of dawn comes dim, and bloody.

Chapter 11: Chant Down Babylon

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 11: Chant Down Babylon
“But the scars left by the war have not yet healed. And the Earth has not forgotten.”

|*| Delusions and Grandeur |*|


“The Desert,” Caliber decided, as she lifted her hoof like an old world gentleman, and helped me over the trunk of a collapsed birch. The trees that still stood looked to have been battered out of shape, and pawed at the mountainside like weary drunks in washed out coats of gold and green. “Only place the war couldn’t get its teeth around. You could roll a dozen more apocalypses into the desert and see it sweat ‘em out like a bad fever. Always been mile after mile of sand and shotgun diplomacy: of couriers and caravans… it’s always been Wasteland.”

It was as if we were climbing into the belly of the earth, as Zion was a sunken place, shut off from our open country, and it felt as if the mountains were crowding around us. But, though its walls were high and its paths twisted for pillars of stone and crude steps like staples in the earth, the fallout had come into this place as it danced across the country.

“More pilgrimages have passed through this valley than have ever been counted.” I was distracted, and their conversations came to me like melodies chopped up in the static. My neck hurt, as my head had been swiveling like a loose screw, and it was all too easy to lose sight of Ash in the blur, as she took to the bruised stone and papery leaves like a chameleon. “But I do not think this path was made for those hoping to give tribute to their Gods.”

“Damascus says they used to train soldiers down here.” As the valley yawned, I could see pine groves and yellow grass like food caught in its teeth, with the birch trees like wishbones. “I figure a thousand hoofprints must’ve been left between these steps. All in rank and file too.”

For some reason, that made me feel as if we were being protected, as if all those old soldiers had cleared us a safe path for the beating of their hooves. But, when we came to a bridge, like a stolen strip of highway over the water, I was almost afraid to cross is. There was something sinister about the valley, as streams whispered and hissed somewhere far below, and I had already lost sight of the sun. Fingers of smoke had come creeping along behind us, and though the fire at the outpost had died down, I would soon learn that the cold could burn.

Ash stopped in the middle of the bridge, and pointed her hoof to the sky, as if something had just come tearing through it. “That’s it!” Only then, did I pick out a pillar unlike all the others. This was not some crooked finger of stone, but a steady, silver line drawn onto a faraway mountainside. From where I stood, it scarcely looked any bigger than a sewing needle.

“That’s Celestia’s Landing.” She and my Pipbuck chirped at once, as if neither could hold back their excitement. I looked down, to find a new marker on my map.

“You wanna go?” I asked, making her smile back at me through a veil of hair, all with her hoof held up as if in a salute to the Old Gods.

“Yes.” She almost sang the word, and I couldn’t help thinking that I had just made a friend. “At the setting of the first sun, Celestia rested in the stone cradle where that monument now sits. She set her hooves down at the country’s farthest edge, after seeing her daylight sink out of the sky. That place… it’s the closest thing I have to Canterlot.”

“Lot closer to home than the capital.” Caliber had to help the pilgrim lower her hoof, as if adjusting a mannequin. “Why didn’t you all just head here in the first place.”

“We are, all of us, bound to bow before their empty thrones. One way or another. But a Pilgrimage should never follow the shortest path.” She looked out over the valley, and it brightened as those tendrils of smoke went slithering out. “The road to Zion may be short, but in giving yourself to the Goddesses, a dagger to the heart is not to be taken in place of a hundred lashes against a salted hide. One is quicker, but it is pain that makes a Pilgrimage.”

*** *** ***

“One of yours?” Caliber nodded up to the God painted on the stone, as if the little mare between us had carved each of its red stripes as scars on the inside of the valley’s cheek.

“No. It is tribal.” I frowned up at the rearing figure and the crude altar below it, having thought the Zebras would be beyond deifying some champion with a bloody lamb leg, and leaving the rest of the animal to steam from the neck. “We do not slit throats for our Goddesses. Or offer them platters of fruit as if spoon-feeding a foal.”

The buck, who was little more than a silhouette of ribbons, looked to have been flayed, cut into a hundred strips of meat, and then left out to dry on the stone. His face was that of an alien religion, his body as hazy as a shadow cast by the splintered light of a red sunset.

Tiny figures kissed the ground on which he stood, all buckled over on chalky limbs, while dotted red lines surrounded them like fire ants… or bloodied flags of surrender.

“Too bad we won’t get to kill this cocky bastard.” Caliber waved us away from the altar, as if we had bribed her to pull apart the curtains of some freakshow, and were paying by the minute. “Damascus told me that Zion’s savages used to take orders from something called a Caesar, back when they weren’t all beast and no buck. If this is one of them, these murals are at least a generation old. I don’t think the savages are much for painting nowadays.”

“Why are their stripes red?” I asked, as we returned to the path that dead soldiers ran raw.

“They used to carve ‘em on. Still do. But even Damascus hasn’t figured out why.” She shrugged, and I began to wonder exactly what the savages of Zion were. “Could’ve been to mock the zebras here. Or to become more like them.”

It was quite for a long while after that, as Ash and I tried to make sense of what the mercenary had said, as if to ask would make it seem like we hadn’t been paying attention: like we were a pair of fools. The disquiet swelled, and I wanted a bird to sing. I wanted some distant avalanche to send echoes rolling through the valley. Even faraway gunfire would have been enough to pull me up out of the white, angry drone of the silence.

“What are the savages?” I asked. It felt like I had come up for air.

Caliber looked over her shoulder, and sighed, as if she had only rushed us away from the Caesar to keep us from asking that very question. “Promise me you won’t freak out.”

“You know me.” I shot her a helpless smile, as canned laughter played in my head. She didn’t smile back. “O.K. … I promise.”

She inspected my face, as if looking for cracks in a clay mask, and then put a hoof to my chest. We came to a stop at the edge of an exhausted yellow meadow, at whose heart the streams were woven into a burbling black river. “Now… I don’t know much,” She said, as Ash wriggled her way into a nest of birch bones. “But if we want the zebra’s help: we’re going to have to point our guns the same way as theirs. And that’s towards the savages… towards ponies. At least, that's what they were. Way before the Zebra’s let ‘em… let ‘em out of their Stable.” My eyes went wide, and she watched her reflection wince in pools of champagne.

“It’s been open a long time, Gracie. Barely any different to a cave, now: a lion’s den.” She must have felt my heart hammering. “It’s just another ruin: just Wasteland.”

Swallow, I told myself, as if there was some foul medicine bubbling at the back of my throat. Swallow. It was fear, and anger and melancholy. It was jealousy. To think that someone could say that word, in speaking of a place that wasn’t home: that wasn’t mine: in speaking of a place that had housed a bloody Caesar and his savages. “Where?” I choked on the word.

“Here. Zion.” She bowed her head, and stared up at me, waiting for my mask to melt under a wash of tears, or crack in the heat of some temper tantrum. “What’re you thinking?”

“Nothing.” Undo it. Erase it. Burn it. “I’d just like to see it. I’m… curious.”

“Alright… so Ash has her monument and you have your Stable. This place is turning out to be a real tourist trap, huh?” Her expression didn’t change. And neither, I hope, did mine.

“It would be nice if you could find something to take us out of our way,” Ash mumbled, still preoccupied with her nest. “Then we all will have something to take from Zion.”

“Yeah…” Her eyes narrowed. “That’d be swell. But we’re stuck with wandering until the Zebras show. We’ won’t find them until they want to be found.” I was a thief, caught sneaking out of some pantry with my mouth full of food. And I knew she could see it, trickling out.

Then, as if Zion had grown bored, the silence snapped. But it was not birdsong or the sound of some landslide that went thundering through the valley: it was gunfire.

For a moment, I let the mask slide off like so much wet clay, and breathed. Caliber had turned her head up, to see the calm of the sky shattered as if under a hammer. And by the time she looked back, smiling, she might have forgotten all about me. “Speak of the devil.”

*** *** ***

A red pillar of smoke made it look as if the valley had an open wound: like a harpooned whale, soon to be swarmed by sharks. Though it had become little more than a trickle, by the time we came to the dilapidated military outpost, from whose insides the smoke had first come leaking. It was not unlike a little coliseum, in collapse, though in place of seats there were two steel shelves stacked on top of each other and littered with old equipment. The skinny legs of spotlights and radio antennae jutted out like spears from around the wound.

“Looks like they set off a flare.” Caliber bounced a small cylinder in her hooves, as if burping it, so that the last of the smoke went trailing out over the valley. She had to raise her voice at us, as the outpost was shaped like a C, and we still stood outside of its arms. There were bodies inside them, all bloody, disfigured by gaping scars like zebra stripes. I recoiled, like a filly afraid to test the waters of some frigid ocean. But Ash, instead, looked like one who was content to watch the lapping of its tides, as if she and Death were used to each other by now.

I went up to Caliber, skipping over four of the eight dead savages, all dressed in uniforms of feathers, animal bone and crude leather. I couldn’t help but to stain my hooves on the way. Their blood was already going cold, and I shivered even as I tried to shake it off. Ash stayed behind, and when next I looked back, I saw her playing with a leaf.

“Zebra flare,” Caliber said, tossing it aside. I watched it roll under a broad, steel shingle that had sloughed off of one of the shelves, where it shone no brighter than a candle. “Wasn’t to send for help… it was bait.” Like a lamb leg tossed into the ocean by some spearfisher out for shark meat. “The savages must be out of it. There sure isn’t anything worth dying for here.”

“Even animals would have known better than that,” I thought aloud, though we too had followed the smoke and gunfire to a trap that had only just been sprung. “They might as well have been moths throwing themselves into a fire.”

“What kind of Caesar could have ordered them to give up so much?” Ash asked, making my heart somersault for showing up out of nowhere. The pilgrim might only have crossed a stream of spring water for how clean her hooves were, and I had to wonder if the Goddesses were teleporting her from place to place when we weren’t looking.

“Only order left to ‘em now is basic instinct, I bet... and the leftovers of that schizoid religion.” Caliber took to the red sea, and this time we followed. “Don’t know if they’re still fighting for the sake of feeding themselves, bad blood… or ‘cause the Zebras are set on wiping them off the face of Zion. But whatever all this is for: I’m just glad we don’t have stripes.”

*** *** ***

I came up to the water, and put my hooves into it, to see the current running red in between dirt and oil stains. We’d seen something black in the clearing ahead, and Caliber had us hanging back until we could be sure it wouldn’t move. She had accused the thing of being a bear, an Ursa, but the mercenary had already made wolves out of insouciant shadows, and conspiring whispers out of the babble of the river. This place was not kind to the paranoid.

The river split Zion into two valleys, as a forest of monstrous pines crowded its southern side, while grasses of gold and green had been spun around the North’s dark stones. And ahead, the ursine figure seemed to wear a crown of canary colored leaves, as birch groves closed in around it like a mob holding up torches, or glasses of champagne in a toast.

“Did you look at their flanks?” Ash asked, as her reflection and mine came to bob together in the water. The river was dark and, were it not for the daylight that sat so heavily aboard the storm; I would have seen little more than a black wall as I stared into it. “They were bare.”

I had to look up at her then, and pulled away from the water as if I had seen something come slithering up at me. “You mean-“ I thought back to that little red sea, that bloody coliseum, worrying that she might be right. Under all those bruises, all those scars… to think that there mightn’t have been anything hidden there. “But that can’t be.”

“They are less than children, Shepard.” I almost looked over my shoulder, thinking she was talking to somepony else. “Worse than animals. Little more than a sickness loosed from that Stable. Better to flush them out of the basin they have bloodied.” Her breath came out as steam, and it seemed to wrap itself around my neck, and tighten. “I am here – following you. But this is holy ground, and if we find those savages anywhere near Celestia’s Landing…”

“We should look for a way around!” For how different their voices were, Caliber seemed to be shouting. “That’s no Ursa. But I know bones when I see ‘em.” The pilgrim bowed her head, and gave me a look that carried with it the last words of her sawed-off sentence. She followed me away from the river, watching me in a way that made my neck tingle.

Only later, would I realize that she had been afraid: afraid that I would have us sparing Zion’s savages, as I had Bodacious in Silo City. But just then, beside the blackwater, I thought she was looking at me as a heretic from another Stable: as a part of the same sickness.

“Grace,” Caliber yelped, as I hurried past her, almost as if the pilgrim was chasing me. “Grace!” The radar on my Pipbuck was bare, and even if some Ursa was sleeping in the clearing ahead, I almost wanted to be fighting: I wanted the distraction.

But I stopped, as my hoof touched bone. Skeletons had been sprawled out in a ring around the grove. As the thing Caliber had called Ursa, had me thinking I might never leave, that I could only stare until I crumbled into this field of bones: a servant to the Old God. Every skull seemed to be staring into it, this black heart of Zion, just as every skinny hoof reached for it.

It was no living thing, but I could almost hear it breathing. I could almost feel its hunger, like that of a great beast ready to take the world by the throat, and drag us, screaming, into its den. It was alone, though it was once but one ember to a fire, one spoonful from a well of poison. It was faceless, though its sisters had swallowed up the world, and burst.

On its back, which was broad and black, three ugly stars had been painted.
There was silence, as we stared at the bomb. But then, I could hear a stranger breathing.

“I stole it from them.” The sentence was snapped in half, as Caliber’s rifle clicked up at this jarring new voice. “Well… that’s what they let me think.” I turned, and saw Ash rearing up onto two legs, as a knife soaked in oily magic pressed against her throat. There was a unicorn, tucked between the birch trees behind her, his eyes bloodshot and his face made prickly with stubble. His clothes made it look like he’d gotten lost in the woods years ago, and over his shoulders, he wore the tattered remains of an all too familiar jumpsuit.

“Those are pony bones.” He had none of those Caesarian scars. “Our bones.” He pulled the pilgrim in a little tighter, and the knife kept her from swallowing. “We’re on the same side.”

He paused, and I could hear Ash’s thin, desperate breaths. “They used this old bomb like any one of their flares. Let the savages I sent drag it out here and then started gunning them down.” The buck glared up into the trees, as the sunlight striped their leaves. “They’ve still got sentries, watching… waiting. But the Stable doesn't know why it matters anymore.”

Ash sounded old, breathing in and out as if for the last time, wheezing like an old squeaky toy. “And the Zebras won’t touch the damn thing now. Too afraid.” He cursed in an alien tongue. “Sometimes I wish I hadn’t painted on those damn stars.” I looked at his flank, and found a stack of books, whose pages stuck out and whose spines were torn down the middle. He was one of them, but… different.

“Are you hearing me!?” He was touching Ash, and only then did I see how she had been petrified as his belly pressed into her back. “Call off your dog!”

I looked back, and saw Caliber baring her teeth, with her rifle’s bit wedged in between them. All she had to do was squeeze, and it would be over. She was locked into place, as if somebody had to die here. But, as my eyes met hers, pleading, I saw her grip loosen.

“Good. That’s good.” Like Caliber, he relaxed, and then shifted his weight off of Ash. “Been following you from the flare… And you ought to be licking the dirt off of my hooves for it.” He nodded at the bones. “The sentries shoot everything that so much as stumbles into that clearing. And they don’t even sniff at anything else.” His horn dimmed, and Ash gasped as if coming up for air. “The thing of it is: I just saved your lives. And now I want to talk. It's been a long time since I just... talked.”

*** *** ***

The number on his back had been mangled, but not enough to keep me from making sense of it. 23. Somewhere in Zion, where the rivers ran black between mountains that bowed to one another, was the twenty third light. But, one way or another, it would soon burn out.

“Everyone in that place is wasted.” He was frustrated, and tried his best to shrug off the Stable, though I didn’t see the point in talking about anything else. “They’re tearing at the seams: pulling themselves apart… been fucking themselves stupid since the end of it all. I’m the only one who isn’t inbred... not that I haven't been spreading my wild oats real wide, y'know? Figure I'm almost part of the family now.”

“Might as well call it bestiality and be done with it.” Caliber could have been on her own then, as the word of incest was enough to make children out of Ash and I. Between us, we’d only run afoul of it in the least treasured lines of scripture, those dark passages buried deep inside the Faith. “You could’ve climbed onto a timberwolf and had less of a fight on your hooves.”

“Listen lady, their numbers are already coming up short… Morons don’t grow on trees, y’know?” The last voice of Stable 23 was starting to sound a little boorish, and I almost wanted to bow out, before its last light turned sour. “I was just doing my part. If they fucked that Stable into the mess it’s in now… those animals can fuck a warpath right through Zion.”

“Hedonist.” Ash barely breathed out the word, as if there was no greater insult.

“What d’you want me to do, huh? Ignore this?” He beat his hoof against the earth. “I found the greener side of the grass. This is paradise! While those idiots scrape by on Zebra meat and what’s left of the old orchard, I’ve got caches hidden all over this valley. I won’t go hungry for a hundred years. And in the beggining, before they ran me out, I didn’t go horny for very long either.”

“You’re a waste,” I said, frowning as if I was just unraveling a riddle. “You could have helped them. You could have changed things.”

“Why d’you think I’m out here in exile?” As the olives that were his eyes rolled over to me, I felt a shiver run down my spine. “I spoke up.” Maybe I had misjudged him. “Granted: I just wanted to get a share of the fleshier mares… put a little padding in my plotline.” Or not.

“It’s all about fighting, to them. A whole lot of good all these words did me when I got caught resting on Big Caesar’s laurels. If it weren’t for the elevator and their goldfish memories, the boys would have trampled me years ago.” He sighed. “Way it started out: I could come as I pleased, long as I gave ‘em time to cool off. Don’t know what changed. Can’t get in and out now without getting a few hairs snapped off my tail.”

I looked back at Caliber, needing to hear her voice, and saw that she had not let the rifle’s bit slip from her lips, though the buck had long since sheathed his knife, and sat back on his haunches as if at a picnic. “It’s not all sunshine and rainbows out here either. Just ‘cause I've wriggled my way out of getting striped doesn’t mean the Zebras want me any less wiped.”

“They’ve had it out for the savages from the start. They got that door open, and –“ He clicked his hooves together. “- it was war. I don’t think they’d even lost our language yet. Didn’t even have the scars. But now the boys carve themselves up, hunt for the fun of it, and leave the meat to rot. And the girls pop out infertile little inbreds every other time they give birth. They’re dying out. And it won’t be long before the Stable’s chewing at its own throat.”

I straightened my neck and dug my hooves a little deeper into the soil; tricking myself into thinking I had a plan. “We have to put an end to this.”

But, as I stood there like some war hero having her picture taken, he laughed at me. “You do?” The laughter made a mask of his ugly face and, as it glittered in his eyes and his teeth and on the tip of his tongue. "You!?" I realized that it was hurting me. “But you’re mares!” He howled. “You all are good for three things… And that’s only because you’ve got three h-“

Before he could finish, Caliber had knocked three holes into his smile, and the buck lay whimpering in the dirt, trying to gather up his teeth like a beggar would bits of bread crust.
“You…” He said, whistling. “You bitch!

It might have been good if one of us hit him again, but as the buck sniveled on the blood gushing from his nose, I was tempted to help him up. He could have been their last light, and I wanted him to be better than this. I wanted him to be brave and handsome and good.

But he was not.

“I tried to help them.” His face was purpling, flushed with blood as he saw the disgust in my eyes. “When I first came to the valley… I tried to show them what was happening: what they’d done to themsel-.” He tried to bury one of his teeth back into the gum, and wailed. “I tried to… teach them how to.” He pushed a little harder, and there was blood. “Read!

“They wouldn’t…” He looked away, and stared at the bomb, blaming it. “They wouldn’t.”

“No one would listen. Now my neighbors are wolves. My lovers… sheep.” I looked at the books stacked up on his flank, at the only cutie mark in Zion, and knew that he was different: he was a stranger to the inbreds. I’d know that from the start. But, only then, did I see how alone he was in this place he’d called paradise. “They never even knew my name.”

“We need to find the Zebras,” Caliber said, as if we had only stopped to ask this shivering wreck for directions. “Sounds like they still think they’re fighting a war. If we tell ‘em how bad things are getting in the Stable, then they can bust it open like a rotten apple.”

“You should get out of the valley.” He might have been listening to me, but couldn’t bring himself to look away from the bomb. “You should get out.”

“I figure we ought to toss him to the bomb,” She said, as if it were a caged animal that had picked this field of bones clean. “That might get the Zebra’s attention.”

“You want to know how to get their attention?” Something changed about the buck then, and that bloody, sagging look of despair left his face just as surely as if it had been slapped off. He stared up at me, as if I was mad. “Go to Celestia’s Landing, and light it… that’ll do it.”

*** *** ***

We left him with the bomb, though he seemed ready to roll over that ring of bones, and give himself up to paradise. I felt lonely, and almost wished that I had asked him to come with us, as Caliber might have been tying her tongue in a knot while the buck showed me how to get to the old monument. And so, as leaves rustled and branches snapped behind me, it was as if I was being followed by two curious animals.

A mouth, open as wide as one whose teeth were being scraped clean, had been carved into the mountain. It had square, marble lips, stained as if with spiced wine and a spoonful of gold, and a throat that I could not see the back of. This was the way to Celestia’s Landing, though the tip of the monument could be seen poking out from between ebon mountains high above us. Ash had wanted to come this way, instead of climbing yet another broken staircase into the sky further west, and she looked into the darkness as if there was light there.

The architects of Hell might have taken inspiration from this place, as though there were no cicatrices of glass or steel, and though the stone had become discolored, I felt as if I knew these shapes: these silhouettes in the shadows. Little did I know, then, that my ancestors, the kings and queens dancing in paintings on the stone around us, had looked to Hell as they drew the blueprints to this place: borrowing from architecture older, even, than the princess whose name still sat on Zion’s northern wall.

My horn soaked us in an efflorescence, just bright enough to keep the weight of the darkness off of our backs: to keep the mouth from swallowing us, though the walls of its throat seemed to be drawing in tighter for every step forward. I was struck by the thought that we might never find our way back: that we would be marooned in the belly of the world.

Ash was slowing us down, as she would stop without warning, falling out of my light as if over the side of a ship, and stare up at the stories spread over the walls. It wracked my nerves to know I might lose her, but I couldn’t complain, as I knew Caliber saw that same look in my eyes, and heard that same hush in my hoofsteps, whenever we were in sight of something beautiful. The difference between us was this: the pilgrim was not afraid of the dark.

She stood before a statue then: a weeping mother who had made a cradle of her hooves, and whose diamantine eyes pleaded with the bundle tucked inside of it. Whatever was left in the fold of those coarse blankets was a frail and unhealthy thing, and would have been crying more for medicine than milk. The mother was so thin that her cheekbones had to have been chiseled out of her face, and before we left, I had started to think of the child as a leech.

I took the time to salute an angry looking soldier, who would have passed for little more than an empty suit of armor where it not for the creased and crumpled mask that was his face. I couldn’t know whose flag he had died under, but winced at the sight of a spear wedged through a gap in his plate armor, and buried deep into his belly.

“This doesn't seem right,” I whispered, as if my voice might wake up these soldiers and widows, these tribes that had made gods of their kings, even as the same kings shrugged off their prayers. “I thought this monument was built as a celebration of the first day.”

This is the Wintertide. Sunless and brutal. This is all that the Goddesses saved us from,” Ash explained, as we stepped out into a vacuous chamber, whose walls threw our voices back at us as if insulted by them. “This is the darkness before the dawn.”

As if they had only come to haunt us, the statues fell away, and Caliber might as well have been kicking up stars as she dragged a hoof across the stone. My light set the dust on fire as it spun up around us, and I felt as if I was being held by the spiraling arms of the galaxy.

After swimming through the blackness for a while, I saw pillars come breaking out of it. They all stood around a smooth shore, which was not unlike a staircase whose steps had yet to be chiseled into place. My breathing had become shallow by the time we’d reached the top of the slope, but I tried my best to hide it, even as Ash whispered the old language under her breath.

We came into a cathedral, into which six stained windows let in the daylight, though each of their round faces had discolored the sun in its own way. At the far side of the room – which was broken up as if by hurdles for a litter of pews – was a perfect circle of glass the color of the sun on the winter solstice. It filled the wall, and draped skinny shadows over the church like so many sunsets had over the north. I put out my horn, as we began down a long, rose-colored carpet, which would have led heroes to their medals and mares to matrimony.

There was a dais at the end of it, and a throne that sat crooked, as if the last of some blue bloodline had leapt up from it and left in a hurry. It was barely more than a silhouette, but caught the light of each of the glass suns that hung over the cathedral. They cast six beams like searchlights over the aisle, and while purple and white and orange beat down on us from the left: yellow, blue and pink came from the right, though they were almost flushed out by the light of the seventh sun: that window behind the throne.

The ceiling, too, was glass, as there was little more than a thin ring of stone surrounding a window that looked up into an enormous blackness: a hollow pit in the stomach of the mountain. It was like staring up at the dark side of the moon.

Ash went twirling down the aisle, letting her eyes catch the light of each window, again and again, and it almost looked like she was dancing. We followed her, as heretics afraid that they might catch on fire for stepping into this sacred place. But I smiled as Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum kicked up the stars, and spun a thread of quiet, silver laughter out of thin air.

*** *** ***

The cathedral had been built in the shape of a cross, and at the end of each arm was a steel door, hammered awkwardly into the stone. “This is… convenient,” I said, as Caliber punched one of the elevator’s call buttons. In the Stable, Faith and technology had made a habit of butting heads with one another, and there was no better evidence of this than Damascus’ naked leg, and all those coffins chosen over stasis pods. It almost felt like blasphemy, that the church should be stirred from sleep by the humming of an engine.

“I’m sure the tourists didn’t like their pilgrimages to go on for much longer than an afternoon.” Caliber was scowling at the elevator doors, as if they were only staying together to spite her. “Pain might make a pilgrimage, but most of us aren’t into that whole mortification of the flesh deal.” She was practically pounding at the wall now.

There was a ding, and I could only imagine how relieved the call button was to hear it. As the doors slid open, I realized that I had missed technology. Zion had its occasional military base – and super weapon, to be fair – but it still made for a dramatic change from the towers, streetlights and electrical pylons that dotted the open country behind us.

But, then again, even Hell had its elevators.

The lights fluttered on, and I saw that I had stepped into a litter of little skeletons. And though their bones came poking out of tattered school uniforms, the children lay in pairs, as if they were afraid to lose each other even now. Ash crossed herself and Caliber sighed before following me into the lift, and hitting the button for Celestia’s Landing. As we climbed the mountain, I stood very still, and worried that it had been too easy to keep myself from crying, that I had dammed up the only river that still ran through some desert: some wasteland.

The power must have gone out, as the earth was taken by its shoulders and shaken, leaving these children trapped in what was to become their tomb. And I wondered if the buck with the bookstack on his flank had been right to say that we were on the same side, if only for the shape of our skeletons. After all, it had been the Zebras who brought the bomb here: pushed it like a ball of dung across their sand and pulled it like a sleigh full of presents through our snow. They had cast the first stone. And it was as quiet and as black as the shadow of death.

Those are pony bones, I heard him say, as I remembered that ring where so many lay dead. Our bones.

*** *** ***

“So… how do we light it?” I asked, as we looked up at the silver pillar that had once seemed no bigger than a sewing needle. The monument looked like a finely trimmed feather, whose tip had once been clipped as if to stop some silver bird from flying.

It was built into the mountain’s face, and so I couldn’t tell if it was much thicker than a bird’s wing, or if it was to the mountain what that knife had been to Ash, as it pressed into the skin of her throat. An incision ran all the way up the structure’s middle, as if to show that this was not a feather at all, but an enormous pair of wings that had been cast in iron.

Celestia’s Landing had been built in a bowl scooped out of the mountains, and was surrounded by soldier pines and stone. We had come to the heart of the monument by way of a wide plaza, which was bent to fit the shape of a twisted pass. From squares picked out its floor like chocolates from a calender, sprouted trees whose crowns were the color of blood and gold, and statues of cherubs, all white and winged, oblivious to the sorrows far below.

At the foot of its monolithic pillar, was a broad circle left bare to commemorate the princess that had once rested here: like a pool of solid water into which our first sun had set. A great, pale orb seemed to swell up to its banks, though it was no more than an illusion in the stone. A short staircase came up out of the pool, and lead to a little shrine at the stem of the feather.

“We’re really going to take his word for it, huh?” Caliber arched an eyebrow at me, still suspicious. But it was good to be hearing her voice again. “What do the Zebras care if this thing starts shooting electric candlelight every which way.”

“Celestia’s Landing is a beacon,” Ash explained, even as she pointed out a thin vein of glass that ran behind the monument, like a narrow lightbulb. “The priests of Zion used to light it at the fall of every Summer Sun Celebration, just as the festivities in Canterlot came to a calm. And Equestria would look towards the light of this monument, the light of its first sun, even as the sky behind it was painted red as another set.”

“So what? It’s like a big bug zapper.” Caliber rolled her hoof along the length of the pillar, as if showing off a circus animal. “And that makes the Zebras…?”

“It is not a big bug zapper.” Ash rolled her r’s almost as far, as if someone was holding down the key on a terminal in her head. And I almost giggled, for how silly those three words sounded when spoken in her stumbling coo. “It is an instrument of the Goddesses.”

“Really? I didn’t even know they played.” Caliber rolled her eyes, and I wondered if I would have to stop Ash from declaring a crusade on her. “You can go ahead and set the whole mountain on fire if you want. I’ll be over there.” She poked at the open sky, where the wide circle that marked Celestia’s Landing fell out under the path of her flight. “The Zebras are bound to have a camp set up somewhere, and where there’s camps: there’s campfires.”

Almost at once, Caliber and Ash turned and walked off in opposite directions, as if they had decided to settle things in an old fashioned pistol duel. One headed for the far rim of the monument, while the other made for the shrine at the foot of its famous pillar.

Luckily, Ash didn’t seem like the type to care who I chose to go after, and might not have noticed my tagging along behind Caliber. It’s not that I was picking sides: I only wanted to look out across Equestria, and see things from the perspective of the setting sun.

The sky looked as if it were being drained, as honeyed ribbons slipped away behind the shield between Equestria and that nationless waste, leaving just enough light to make embers out of the snow as it went twirling down the mountainside. Even the pine trees that crowded around the monument like an audience in tattered rags, caught some of the sunset’s fire, and became silhouettes as if to hide their nakedness. As beads of snow melted on their branches, and glistened in many colors, it was as if someone had strung fairy lights up around the valley.

I looked back, after following that silver pillar down the mountain’s face as if it were the trail of a tear, and saw Ash curled up at the shrine. I couldn’t know if she was praying… or crying.

Suddenly, I felt a hoof pressing into my chest. “Might want to look where you’re going, Hon.”
My father’s coat whipped around me, lazily, as if I were submerged in water, and my heart hiccupped. I was no more than a few paces away from the big empty that hung over Equestria, and would have walked off the edge of the monument, if she hadn’t stopped me.

I backpedaled to an unreasonably safe distance, and saw that Caliber was leaning out over those cliffs like so much choppy water. I lay back, terrified, waiting for the next gust of wind to send her tumbling into it. And it felt like I was going to fall with her, as if there really was a leash binding us by the neck.

“With heights,” she said. “It’s those nerves that’ll get you killed.” Her body almost seemed to move with the breeze, gracefully, and my stomach lurched in protest.

I looked past her, and distracted myself in the country sprawled around us. The west had been glazed, as the sunlight spilled in through the lowlands between Zion and the MASEBS tower. And shadows rolled over the prairies of the east, as the scorched clouds of that lawless sky dipped themselves in and out of the sun, like slices of toast into a honeypot.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, forgetting the fall for mountains beyond mountains.

“That’s not what we’re looking for,” Caliber mumbled, and her eyes never wandered away from the darkest of those dangerous places. I gathered up my courage, and came close enough to tug at her sleeve, like a filly with another masterpiece to be hung up on the fridge. I wove a hoof from Canterlot to Calvary and, soon enough, her eyes were filled to the brim with honey, and I heard what I needed to hear. “But it is beautiful.”

“Did you see any Zebras?” I managed to peek out over the valley, and then skipped back in a fit of nervous, unmelodic giggles. But Caliber shook her head. There had been no sign of our onetime enemies, and though they might have been watching us from the trees even then, it was as if we were the only ones left: inheritors of everything the light was touching.

Shepard.” As it so often did, Ash’s voice came lilting in out of nowhere, and almost made me jump. It sounded shakier than usual, and I expected to see her with red rings around her eyes and a wet patch on each cheek.

I turned, and might as well have run into a wall. A streak of black and white hit me across the temple like a cudgel, and my legs were turned to pillars of sand. They toppled over one another, and I fell into the sunken sun of Celestia’s Landing. When I looked up, I saw a dozen skeleton masks hovering around my head as if in place of stars and songbirds.

And, as this circle of skulls pulled the darkness in over me, like the bones around their own atomic bomb, I thought I heard Caliber’s voice coming off the tips of their alien tongues.

Speak of the Devil


Speak of the Devil.


Speak of the Devil.



Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Keys to the Kingdom: You do 25% more damage when using 9 millimeter pistols, 45 automatic pistols and submachine guns, service rifles, assault and marksman carbines, light machine guns, grenade rifles and rocket launchers, frag grenades, combat knives and the kitchen sink.

Chapter 12: Atomic Cocktail

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 12: Atomic Cocktail
“I've heard it's a bad idea to tempt the wrath of Caesar."

|*| O Daughter of Babylon |*|

Faces like skulls that had been stripped clean crowded in around me, their eyes frigid and unsmiling. My hooves might have been held up in birthing stirrups: as if these milky-eyed Zebras had gathered to find out which one of them was to become a father. Their bodies were striped behind white faces; as if each of them had bowed down to drink from Zion’s river, only to have its current peel the skin from their cheekbones and brows, and wash away their stripes.

They wore bloodied sashes and strips of thin, gold plate. They wore bone to match their painted faces, and carried small, tribal masks on the wires around their necks: these were the totems that had once been scattered through the ranks of their army, not unlike our own Celestial crosses. But some, whose narrow manes were not feathered in red, whose legs were bare and whose backs did not bow for the weight of chariots, wore barding that blended into the stones, and carried rifles that were surrounded by small rings of light: by glyphs and alien alphabets that chased after each other like carousel horses.

“Set the wheels in motion, Equestrian. Have your little one light up the sky.” The circle of striped faces warped, to let a mare come into it like a pin into a bubble. “You are lucky that we need her: that her touch can wake this place.” Her eyes were teal, and matched the runes that hovered around her rifle, like flies around an unfinished meal. “Were it not for that, we would have cast her down for the star on her flank.”

I heard Ash behind her, somewhere beneath the monument’s immutable tower, though the pilgrim couldn’t find her words, and spoke up to her Goddess in babbled tongues. “Only a pony’s hooves can stir the monument from sleep. Just as the great door of Stable 23, was sworn to open only to ours.” She had let her people’s rhythm and rhyme trickle out of her voice, but her accent was the same as that mare in Damascus’ orbs: that witchdoctor crouching beside the fire.

“A pity that there was no one to stop us then. To warn us of what would be unleashed. But we will use you, and the one who bears the star, to undo our mistake: to make it so the Stable’s door might have been left untouched. To make it so that hornet’s nest might never have been kicked.”

She lowered her voice, and let the wind howl. “When this place is lit: they will come, just as they have run to our flares and to our fires, just as they have thrown themselves into their own graves time and time again. After the slaughter that follows, we will leave this monument red.” As I tried to put together a picture of what was going on, I found a piece that didn’t fit: Why had we been told to light the monument, if it would only lead the savages like so many rabbits into a snare?

“And while we make our war on this stage, you, Stable pony, will do what we could not. And make Zion’s waters still. Only you can stop what we once set in motion…” The sky caught fire then, as some homecoming Goddess flipped a light switch, and turned night back into day. The sun itself might have touched down before us, to come sinking into Celestia’s Landing, and spill its light out over the valley.

I turned my head and covered my eyes, as I was sure that looking up into the glare would leave me blind. But I stood up, and saw a narrow cable of light tethering the mountains to the edge of the storm. That circle of bare faces had twisted their necks, to stare at the shrine that Ash was pressing her hoof against: as if rolling it down the spark wheel of an enormous lighter half buried in the stone.

“It is lit. We must begin.” Her face was being seared away before the beacon, and I could only see her eyes, like two gemstones in the fire. “You will go to the Stable, even as its warriors spill over themselves, and clog the mountain passes with their bodies. And, while the mares inside their den mistake you for a sister, you will creep down its throat, and burn out its light.”

The circle warped again, and another Zebra came into it. He carried a long-necked bottle in his teeth, though it looked to have been filled with colors scraped from the face of the sun. Ash came after him, with her muzzle tucked under her scarf, and her lavender mane like a hood throwing shadows over her eyes.

“To make tools of these things,” The striped mare said, as if Ash was a walking monkey wrench. “Even though they have both come from the fields of the night sky… in any other time that would have been a game for fools. But now, just as we must put our trust in you, Equestrian, so must we wield these instruments of the stars: This marked mare and this dark magic. Zion will not be ours without compromise.”

They set the bottle down, and I watched embers go dancing up its neck. “As the water of the maple is taken from its tree, so is this Celestial Flame taken from a balefire bomb.” The circle widened, as every one of the striped soldiers stepped back. “Break this vial in their orchard. Burn the seeds and the soil that has for so long kept that place alive. And even those that survive our fight will starve… they will die.”

“They’ll tear each other apart.” I said, as an expression of disgust crept onto my face. “The ones you send running home, the mares… the children: how long before the hunger drives them at their own throats?” The Zebra smiled, as if I was only putting one of her daydreams into words. “No,” I said, standing firm. “I won’t let it end like that.” That was no way to win: no way to call myself a hero.

The mare’s frown deepened, so that it looked like the bone of her brow was being cracked open. “Take care, Equestrian. You may be useful, but remember that your Equestria was once a friend to us: a sister. Do not make the same mistakes she made.” Do not tempt the wrath of Caesar, I thought, as if reading her mind through the cracks. She nodded to the valley below. “This is not complicated. They are animals.”

“And they need to be put down,” I said, trying to keep the Zebras steady, even as Ash shrank deeper into the folds of her mane, like a withering flower. With my magic in the shape of a blacksmith’s tongs, I picked up the bottle of Celestial flame, and packed it into my saddlebags. “I’ll go to the Stable,” I said, as the light of the monument began to soak into the clouds. “But I’ll find a better way.”

“This is our last chance, Equestrian. You are our last chance.” There was anger, tearing at the seams of her silken voice. “Our soldiers have stepped into that place before, but even for hoofsteps that made no sound, and cloaks like little more than ripples in the air, they were found. And they were devoured.” I could hear roars, like those of children pretending to be manticores, come bounding up the mountain. A pass had been punched through the monument’s western wall, and let the savage’s voices in.

“I may die tonight, Shepard.” The name came off of her tongue as something misshapen, and I almost didn’t recognize it. “But even now, your mercenary stands before the Decurion, trying to make a deal for her king in Hell. And if you fail… if this was done for nothing, then she, and her deal, will die tonight.”

Only then, did I remember how the mare and I had met: how her hoof had held me in unconsciousness as if in shallow water. “I’ll find a better way.” She scowled and, with a grunt, stormed off into the center of the monument, shouting orders in that unwieldy alien language. The soldiers followed, and soon began taking up positions around the great stone dais of Celestia’s Landing. The writing around their rifles seemed to spin faster and faster, if only for the quickening beat of our hearts and the hooves of the horde.

“Let’s get out of here, Ash,” I said, realizing that my first contact with Zion had been a hoof to the temple. I turned, and started walking away, but stopped as I heard the mare cooing over each of my shoulders.

She wriggled her way out of the scarf, and let the wind brush her mane away from dark, pleading eyes.
“I’m staying here,” She said, as if it was written in the stone. “I lit the monument. I called the savages to this sacred place. I can’t leave… I can’t let them have it.”

She stood there, as if turned to stone, to join the cherubs and that God’s feather on fire. “Come on, Ash. You heard what the Zebra said. If I don’t burn that orchard, they might hurt Caliber… they might hurt you.”

“Burn it, then.” There was a sound like a drumbeat, and it was as if Celestia herself had reached down, to strike the side of the monument like a taught animal skin. The whole world seemed to keel, and I found myself tripping over my own hooves. Explosive rounds had rocked the dais, as the coming swarm spilled out over the stone, like a wave of mud and bone bursting through a dam.

“They already took Caliber as a hostage!” I shouted, over the roar and the whine: the lions and the flies. The Zebra’s stripes were spoiled in an avalanche of brown and bloody red, as the ponies of the Stable crashed into those that had turned the key to their cage. “We have to stay together.”

“Caliber let them take her to the Decurion.” That stunned me, and I didn’t resist as Ash started walking me east: herding me off of the battlefield like a lost cow. “But you do not get to choose. If you die here: we all die.” Suddenly, we were far away from that sun in the stone, and the war that had spilled out over it. Ash was pressing the elevator’s call button. “Do you know what she said? … Before she left?”

I shook my head and, as the elevator doors pulled apart, Ash recited her words as if they were to be recorded in the new world’s scripture. “That girl better be smiling when we’re done here. Otherwise, I’m pushing the button on that bomb of yours, and tipping this whole godforsaken valley off the edge of the E-questrian Wasteland.”

*** *** ***

With my head down, I hurried past the powdered white feet of the mountain, even as smoke and sunlight and the screams of adults who had never learned to speak pillared far above me. My Pipbuck had charted Stable 23 on its map now, marking it with the very door that had rolled over and left me to Equestria. I followed it west, and scurried around the mouth of the mountain pass that was slowly being clogged up with so many dead and degenerate bodies.

Bursts of concussive magic punctuated the howls and the whinnies, and I heard a thud come from somewhere behind me, where a body that had been flung from the monument buried itself in the dirt. But I was not running out of fear, with my tail between my legs. I was running because I had found a better way: I had come up with a plan. I wasn’t going to burn the orchard. I was going to burn it all.

The savages who came slinking down from the mountain, with their tails burnt to a crisp and Ash’s buckshot studding their hides, would have nothing to come home to but a charred, hollow grave.

The lowest floor of my Stable, or Maintenance as it had come to be known, housed swarthy ponies who could often be seen playing games of cards through open doorways, or burying their heads in chugging machinery. I did not know it well, but would always remember it as a hostile place. There had been an accident once, one that had brought the Stable’s medical wing swooping down like some caped hero.

One of the pipeline gauges had been blocked up, and burst, venting steam onto two nearby worker mares. Nurse Clearheart, Doctor Cross and I were called down to tend to their burns, and the entire Stable had watched as we wheeled them, screaming and blind, back up the medical bay. The first mare’s mutilated face had been the worst injury I’d ever seen, and it was all I could do to keep from crying as I wrapped it in bandages, as if draping a tarp over a wax figure that had been left to melt. She was disfigured, while the other mare walked away from the accident with one eye blind.

But now, I was glad to have been there, as the accident had introduced me to the very thing that would see Stable 23’s light burn out: the pipelines. I didn’t know how I would get out in time, or how I would get gas leaking out through the entire den, but one thing was clear: it would be mercy: beautiful and clean and violent, a sudden, fiery genocide in place of plague and famine and drought.

I came to a notch in the mountain: a sunken path whose walls might have been made of a thousand pieces of broken glass, or an entire empire’s armory of swords melted down, only to be shaped into a single, clumsily molded gateway. Their faces shone, as the light of my horn and the weight of the moonlight went dancing over them, like a bride in gold and a groom in blue. Every wall was being washed under the mountain’s water, in tracks that were narrow and frail, as if to match those left by tears.

Soil became stone, and I had to steer my way around squatting thorn bushes, and sprawling, dead animals. Bird and beast lay crumpled up around me, all made blackened and faceless by their own blood. The water seemed afraid to touch them, and pooled in the spaces between each open grave. All were skinned, but only part way, as if the animals had been killed even as they undressed for bed. Their coats were torn and ragged, as naked flesh looked to have been chewed at by a hundred passing mouths.

As I stepped deeper into the folded rock, there came the sound of meat being slipped off of the bone, and a heavy, guttural breathing. Just ahead, I could make out the stooped body of a buck, and I watched as the high, feathered crest of his Zebrican helmet rocked back and forth, sawing into the belly of a great bear. From the look of its red plumes, it had been stolen from the head of a dead or dying centurion.

His scars ran deep and, from the side, it looked as if entire layers of the savage’s flesh had been peeled away in the ritual. I floated out my combat knife, and saw that, even in the moonlight, it looked dull for streaks of violet alicorn blood, which colored it to its hilt. “Hey!” I shouted, as if I could still rescue that gutless bear, whose glassy eyes turned gold as my light came over them like a rising tide.

“I’m… I’m going to burn your Stable down,” I said, trying to wrench some sign of compassion out of the buck, though his flanks were bare and his eyes had less wisdom in them than the bear’s. I wanted to make him care; I needed this pony – the only guard before Stable 23’s gate, the only one who could stop me – to care. I wanted him to fight me, out of something other than hunger or blind, misdirected wrath.

“I’m going to set your entire family on fire!”

He only stared, through pools of ink that had spread to the edges of his eyes. “Come on!” I yelled, though as I heard my voice thrown back by the canyon walls, it sounded more like a plea.

I swung the knife down to my side, almost burying it into the stone, and let its blade point up as if I were threatening to gut myself. I had his attention, though it was more for the shining scar that my knife had cut through the air, than my promising to turn his home into an urn full of ashes.

The debased centurion lunged at me, with trails of spittle and bloodless flesh hanging over his lips, and the galea helmet tilting over his eyes. As he came rearing over me, I buried the knife into his heart, sliding it in between the third and fourth rib, and washing out the alicorn’s blood under a fresh coat of red.

I guided the weight of his body, and let him collapse into one of the pools of moonlit spring water, like a tower whose middle had been whittled away under the callous hands of the wind. His breaths became shallow, and I watched as his heart folded in on itself, deflating like a red balloon. With the cradle of my magic in a nervous shamble, I rushed out my laser pistol, and kicked the helmet off of his head, so that I could press the gun’s barrel against his swelling temple.

I let the weight of my magic push down on it, as if to make the savage feel what was happening: to make him know that he was about to die. As if he could still remember where it had all gone wrong, and regret it: apologize for it. “Come on…” I begged.

But he didn’t speak. And I knew that it wasn’t for his sunken heart, but something far worse, something that had spread like a virulent disease, injected into the bloodlines of Stable 23 long ago. I holstered my pistol, even as his eyes came to match the bear’s, finding the peace, and the empty wisdom, of death.

His blood had kissed one of my hooves, and a trail of red circles followed me through the canyon.

At the end of the path, there was a spinning light, whose color was almost enough to make me lose my grip on Zion: to forget the valley and go sailing back to the beginning. I could see the Stable door now, though it had collapsed, fallen out of bed like a drunk king. It was as if the touch of Zebra hooves had been enough to wrench it off of its hinges.

The waters of the canyon were set on fire for the passing of those pirouetting lights, as if the Princesses were chasing each other around the planet, with day and night trailing along as their chariots. But, as I took one last look over my shoulder, and counted the chalk constellations spread over the canyon walls, and the stars of a naked sky reflected so clearly in the tears of some distant spring, I remembered Zion.

*** *** ***

I stepped over the door, and was glad, if only because it didn’t feel like I was coming home. And, even though I had put on my battered utility jumpsuit, knowing that the savages could not work out the difference between 23 and 21, I felt like a stranger: a wolf among the stars.

The air was rusty, as red as the panoramic blush that had been spread across my Pipbuck’s radar. The copper had been scraped from the walls, and left to hang like insect swarms, crowding in around me. The walls were dented, as if something with broad shoulders and a short temper had been trying to escape the Stable before its door came tumbling down. The lights here didn’t spin, but seemed to flicker out whenever I looked up to another crowd of chalk wardens, or the dirty, red god smeared onto the wall.

The Atrium had been turned into an abattoir, an untended hanging garden of meat, as bodies – all striped in one way or another – swung from the walkways, and lay piled up in the corners. I couldn’t see any teeth marks in their skin, as if the savages were waiting for them to rot, though each corpse looked as worn out as a ragdoll. The ponies here might’ve been starving, but they were still playing with their food.

On the floor, there was broken glass and paper like shredded dove wings. And only after skipping into the middle of the room, did I realize that I wasn’t alone. Two mares lay curled up in a corner, with their manes shorn, their bodies unscarred, and their bellies swollen. They were picking at one of the Zebras, as if plucking grapes from a vine, and wore jumpsuits whose hindquarters had been torn off.

In my eyes, they were only a little less unlike me than their fathers and brothers and sons, but they let me by as if I too were bald, unwashed and pregnant.

As I passed them by, they pulled their faces back into snarls, and their eyes burned as if a litter of children was suckling at each of their bellies. They couldn’t know what I was planning to do, or who had sent me to their doorstep, but the mares looked at me like the mothers of the hunted would a lion. I could only hope that they would not raise their voices, and cry out without language, like alarm bells ringing without melody, to bring whatever warriors had been left behind to run me out of their kingdom.

I softened my hoofsteps, as if walking through a church whose candles were still burning, and charted a wide course around the mares. They snarled and hissed, but soon went back to pulling black and white ribbons from the body of the Zebra, both caught in a lazy, nauseating maypole dance.

To look into the Stable was to see a place that I had once known well, warped as familiar faces wearing wax masks that had been left out in the sun. It was like I was treasure hunting, as I peeked around every corner and behind twisted sheets of metal, looking for something alien to remind me how far I was from home. There were posters like dead skin being peeled off of the walls, and I frowned up at them, as they painted the Zebras as heroes: as rescuers who would come bushwhacking through the fallout, to pull Stable 23 up out of it.

There were lights that had taken on the color of diseases, the splotchy shades of yellow that were like the body’s way of calling for help. The darkness pressed against the windows, leaving cracks as if it had the weight of an ocean behind it, but I knew that to light my horn would be to show the savages that I had learned to play with fire. After stumbling down another dark hallway, I came to stand at the Stable’s open epiglottis, and looked down an elevator shaft as if checking for lumps in a patient’s throat.

The light of the lower floors leaked into it, and I saw cables swinging limp like the muscles of a larynx: a voicebox whose strings had been clipped. Some of the cords were being pulled taught, and I wondered if the elevator could still climb the Stable’s throat, and pull me out of the fire.

On the wall, there was a list of the Stable’s floors and their functions, as if to give me direction.

1st Floor: Atrium - Command Center - Security
2nd Floor: Living Quarters - Medical Bay - Common Area
3rd Floor: Maintenance – Armory

I winced, for seeing how similar we had been, for how closely we might have skirted the same edge, as we all rolled around the great whirlpool that had swallowed civilization.

4th Floor: Orchard - Oxygen Recycling

That was it, one way or another: the fourth floor, the belly of this monster. That was where I would end this. I looked back into the elevator shaft, and saw the vehicle resting far below, under a crown of battered doors and limp cables. Its call button had been wrenched out of the wall, as if the wait had driven some traveler to wrath. Probably better to take the stairs for now.

There were some mares, sleeping on the steps, and I almost mistook them for corpses and piles of dirty laundry. Their flanks were blank, and their heads shaved. Their eyes were closed, and their coats had been colored red by the rust in the air. They were camouflaged as black fish at the bottom of the sea.

My radar was so clogged that, even when I stood completely still, to try making sense of the savage’s movements would be no easier than counting the stars at noon. And, as I came into Stable 23’s living quarters I understood that, wherever I went, I couldn’t know that I was alone. To be a Zebra, or even a mare who wore anything but blue and gold, would be torture, as every shaven head that went by might be the one that turned, and saw you for what you were: a foreigner.

As I hurried on to the medical bay, forgetting to soften my hoofsteps or catch my breath for the red that bloomed all around me like a rose garden, I began to wonder if these mares had ever left this place… if they had ever breathed anything but this rusty old air: drank anything but water speckled with copper, seen any stars that were not scratched onto the walls in chalk. The speakers would have churned out the same songs for the last one hundred years, all chopped up and twisted as if by the dust on the records. You could not lose your mind here. At least, not before it was stolen from you.

Most of the mares lay curled up into shapeless mounds, while a great number of them paced the halls, with their bald heads bobbing, like ants on patrol. Some groomed their neighbor’s coats, while others fought like junkyard dogs. And I couldn’t know if they were biting at each other’s throats, or kissing them. Some were as still as corpses, but all of them had the same inky, animal eyes.

Heads turned to follow me when I passed them by, as if I was the only mare running towards a burning city. And I skipped into pools of the white, sterile light that seemed to spread like a moss over all things medical. A long, narrow window stretched on towards the hospital door, and revealed a grim, sundered sister to the room where I’d begun to see medicine as an art: the place where I’d watched my mother die.

Their medical bay, like almost everything in Stable 23, was bigger than ours, and could almost compete with the hospital wings that I’d seen in Today’s Physician: the magazine that I’d most often studied at her bedside, in that quiet time, as I tried to tease my cutie mark out from behind blank flanks. But, like a pony dangling meat at the mouth of an empty lion’s den, I had made myself into nothing more than a fool.

I dove into the sinking hospital, knowing that there would be supplies that could still be salvaged, and Zebras that would come limping off of Celestia’s Landing with more than a few wounds to lick. Their alchemy was all well and good for demolishing old memories and bottling up the balefire, but nothing could stand up to Equestrian medicine. When this was over, and the healing began, the Zebras could just as well stick their herbs in a pipe and smoke them.

The medical bay was a mess. Mattresses had been tipped onto their sides, stripped of their sheets, and gutted. IV props and curtain racks lay scattered, lost to their stations, making the room no easier to cross than a thick patch of jungle, or the splintered insides of a wrecked ship. The lights flashed, and grainy pictures from the past came to replace the room as it went dark. I saw shadows slipping in and out of the beds around me, and ghosts hovering over them with their hooves clasped: promising that it would be alright, and praying that the Goddesses would not make liars out of them.

While picking through the overgrowth, I managed to gather a variety of pills and potions, like berries and pails of river water from some hostile forest. After finding some top-shelf supplies and realizing that my Stable had never seen the likes of them, I began to feel a little jealous, as if we hadn’t been the old world’s favorite child. It seemed to have served Stable 23 its medicine on a silver, sterilized platter.

The walls were dressed in more of those strange posters, and I had to get a little closer, just to make sense of the writing that had been garbled under flickering lights.

MINT-ALS!

It declared, over a Zebra who has dressed up as if to play doctor, complete with stethoscope and head-reflector. He held up a small case, as one might hold a piece of meat under the nose of an animal.

FEELING FOGGY?

GET A TASTE OF THAT All-NATURAL, ZEBRICAN CLARITY!

ASK YOUR DOCTOR ABOUT MINT-ALS TODAY

BUT DON'T FORGET TO THANK THE ZEBRAS!

After staring up at the posters for a while, stubbornly standing my ground, I began to feel as if I was being strung along by some transcontinental propaganda. The Zebras were being presented on that same silver platter: being painted as benevolent allies, caretakers even. But this couldn’t have felt any farther from the truth than it did in Zion. Than it did in a Stable whose Atrium was crowded by bodies full of Zebrican lead.

From the supply closet at the far end of the bay, I went on to gather medical braces, surgical tubing, gauze and enough cloth bandages to keep both Ash and Damascus neat and tidy for a month. I had found a cornucopia of medical supplies, but could only carry so much before becoming overencumbered. I felt cheated for having to leave so much, so many crates and cases, to become little more than kindling.

On my way out of the medical wing, I stopped behind the same desk that Doctor Cross had sat behind for so many quiet mornings, and wondered if I might find the liquor, or the electric cigarettes, that she had kept hidden in its top drawer. Instead, I found a small bottle of aphrodisiacs, which caught my eye for the striped mare that lay, with her back arched and her hair braided in golden beads, over bold, swollen letters – Crushed Rhinoceros Horn: More Bang for your Buck!

Beside the pills was a holotape, which I set aside, as if saving the best part of a meal for last. And just under that, there was what looked like an oversized inhaler: a clear capsule of orange fluid screwed into a mouthpiece. It had a yellow note folded over and taped to its neck.

Acres
Let’s try this again. Here’s the next sample. Put it together from old stimulant recipe tucked away in storeroom. Should give you an edge down in the orchard. But take things slow. Powerful stuff.

We need to prepare, stuff the Stable like a bear before hibernation. If we have to scrap these kids, throw the babies out with the bathwater, it won’t be long before we’re plumb out of sound minds or able bodies. Start hoarding. Going to take a lot of fruit to tide us over until we can raise a replacement generation.

But I have a feeling this is going to work.
I’ll try and get this to you before the end of your shift. We’ll talk tonight.
I was thinking I’d come over to your room, for a change. There are eyes on me.

The note wasn’t signed, but my Pipbuck named the strange medicine Dash.
I bundled up under the desk, and clicked in the holotape, thinking of babies and bathwater.

It began with a soft sort of scuffling, though I knew it wasn’t the sound of a fight, but only clumsy hooves trying to get a hold on the tape. I could hear music from somewhere far away, and knew that I had been right: The same songs for the last one hundred years.

It’s been a few months since the birth of the first… broken child. And more of them keep popping up. Like weeds. We need to start running our blood through the system. To figure out which branches of the family tree are,” The buck cleared his throat. “… brushing together. For now, we can only blame the jackass that sold the tickets to this slow ride though a shallow gene pool.

The voice was frustrated, short fused and intelligent, and even if I had heard it coming from a stranger, I would have called him Doctor. “This has to be some kind of genetic throwback: the fruit of seeds planted decades ago. It’s their fault. Those idiots. Throwing off their clothes in the light of the balefire. Climbing onto the closest warm body they could find. Celestia, if only they knew what they were doing. Just because you survive the end of the world, doesn’t mean you’re invincible…” He sighed. “Idiots. And now we get to see the idiot apples falling from that idiot tree. An entire harvest, a whole season of idiots.”

“Our jobs aren’t all that different, Acres,” He said, though it sounded like the doctor was alone. “What would you do? If all your trees bore strange and sour fruit? Would you cut down the orchard, and plant it again? Or would you put your trust in another summer, another spring?”

At least your trees aren’t so bloody stubborn. At least they can’t look down at their ugly, disfigured fruit and find a way to love them. Acres… if I can’t change their minds, if they won’t let me cut out this cancer… we’re going to start slipping, and I don’t know if we’ll ever stop.”

And then, as his voice was drowned out in another fit of scuffling and stale music, I looked up at the wall behind his desk, and saw words that might have been smeared on with the severed leg of a lamb.

Foal Killer

*** *** ***

As children, we had been turned loose, with crayons floating in watery magic or held between milk moustaches and candied lips, to leave abecedarian scripture on the wall that led us into our classroom every morning. And so a mural, a gathering of every color from Razzle Dazzle Rose to Atomic Tangerine, had grown under the tending of a century’s children.

I had spent an entire afternoon coloring in my sun, though it was no larger than a hoofprint. I checked on it almost every day, to make sure that no part of that pastel storm had come swooping in to cover it up. And, just as they steered themselves in wide paths around me, the other children kept their colors away, and the mural became a maelstrom, a celestial feast, as stick figures and kaleidoscopic cities were pulled into the sun. Though they never touched, and my colors were left alone in the chaos.

Stable 23 had no such mural. And I had to remind myself that it was somewhere else: somewhere better.

I couldn’t say why I had come all the way to the classrooms, though the words foal killer hung at the back of my mind throughout the trip. And, as I stepped through the door, I looked out over two dozen empty desks, as if hunting for tiny bones. Of course, there weren’t any, as education would have been one of the first things to be left behind in the devolution of Stable 23.

There was a different kind of music playing here, as promenade trumpets and gala orchestras gave the Equestrian flag, which was being projected across the classroom's chalkboard, something to sway to. On the board, the scattered pieces of a hundred equations could still be found, like the ruins of an old empire buried under the sand: under the grainy film of the projector. Symbols, both alphabetic and mathematic, rode the tide, as the machine’s white eye blinked a thousand times over, and its red light fluttered. I sat down beside one of the desks, as new pictures burst in and out the sand, like giant worms.

Celestia and Luna posed on either side of the screen now, though they had been made cartoonish: identical but for the shades of gray that colored their coats. And there, between them, was Canterlot like an eagle’s nest on the side of its mountain. EQUESTRIA, the slide announced, in letters that came onto the screen slowly, one after the other, as if they had been waiting in line.

Next, came a small gallery of ponies: a unicorn, a pegasus and an earth pony, all generic and beady eyed. The lines that shaped their bodies were sloped and soft, as if molded from clay by gentle hooves, and it was hard to see them as anything but mares. AND HER CITIZENS. The letters didn't change, even as stripes came to replace feathers and horns, as alien glyphs boiled over cutie marks.

Another slide unfurled over the screen, like a coffee stained piece of parchment, showing inky mushroom clouds like enormous religious landmarks across a horse-drawn map of Equestria. It was so childish, so hollow, and I wouldn't have been surprised if the word WHOOPS! had appeared as a caption to this comic book panel of the day the bombs fell.

STABLE 23: YOUR NEW HOME. Instead, that door came rolling onto the screen, and I looked at it like a face I could not forget. It was followed by scratchy photographs of everything from the medical wing, whose patients smiled as if death had gotten lost on his way to the room, to the orchard, which looked to have been stolen from a peaceful, faraway place: plucked right out of a travel brochure.

BUT WHAT ABOUT EQUESTRIA? The letters marched through a post-apocalyptic landscape, though its sky was arid and its sun was naked and cruel. It was as if they’d expected Equestria to keep burning, to boil, even after the fallout had torn itself to pieces in its tantrum. WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE?

The Stable door had fallen open, and a flood of cartoon ponies came dancing out into the valley. There were no stripes carved into the bodies of their bucks, and no hoofprints on the hips of their mares. They looked surprised, even delighted, by something, like actors in a commercial stumbling onto some miracle product. SALVATION. Another three-piece set of Zebras stood before the gates of Zion, wearing halos that might have been stolen from under the heads of sleeping Gods.

THE NEW EQUESTRIA. They lead the ponies, like ducklings out of a freshly cracked egg, through a world that was being rebuilt all around them. Old cities had become the soil from which greater ones sprung, though their architecture seemed out of place in crowds of spruce trees and the shadows of an Equestrian mountain. Their lines curled, as if inspired by the stems of wildflowers and the trunks of savannah trees, instead of the even posture of pines and pillars of steel left behind for us to inherit. Runes were smeared over our frowning street signs, striped faces over our Ministry Mares.

OUR NEW LEADERS. A Caesar stood with his bird of paradise wife, both perching on the balcony that would overlook a new Canterlot, as if it were a coliseum. OUR NEW FRIENDS.

Ponies and Zebras made a circle with their hooves, and danced around discolored, alchemic bonfires, as ugly wooden masks rose up in rings around them, looking more like circling vultures than doves.

And for a moment, I believed it, and my heart became a stone in my chest.

Then, as the screens changed, I felt proud to have come from my Stable. Knowing that we were better: that we had been given a chance. This place could never have been one of our last lights, for this thicket of nonsense and the poison ichors of incest that had begun spreading even as its door rolled shut. Hope had been blotted out here, as if it were nothing more than a little, crayon-colored sun.

The ponies here must have known, before losing themselves, that this New Equestria, pieced together from the broken bones of two old and warring nations, could never be. And to live, knowing that your destiny was a pipe dream… couldn’t that be enough to leave an entire tribe sitting back as the ground began to shake beneath their hooves, as their village was swallowed up by some drought or natural disaster. Couldn’t that be why they had let this happen?

When Exiting the Stable, Remember:

We all have our own Magic:

This slide showed a unicorn preening the feathers of her friend under pale fingers of magic, while a zebra standing on two hooves conjured up pinwheels of smoke and fire in the air. Far behind them, an earth pony pawed at the soil, with his chest puffed up as if he was especially good at it.

And something that makes us Special:

A cluster of Equestrian fillies had gathered around a small zebra, whose size didn’t make her look like much less of an adult: like much less of a soldier. They watched as a rune was drawn onto her striped flank, as if by an invisible quill. Their faces were all split by toothy smiles; though I couldn't help imagining envy and distrust buried somewhere deep in their beady little cartoon eyes.

Stars and Stripes don’t Mix!

A lone Zebra, who might have been wearing a theater mask for the comical horror on his face, held a hoof up to the night sky, shielding himself from it. And even I had to admit that it was a little offensive to make it seem as if zebras could only cower from the stars, as if they were the bright eyes of a lion.

But we can all get along!

Postcards from that fake empire, where the Zebras ruled us as earthly and Arcadian Gods, flashed by, as if to plant the seeds of this inane thicket in my mind. And I almost felt smug for the war that was still echoing out over Zion, beating its walls like a drum, as if to say: Looks like you were wrong.

A Production of Stable-Tec

The last slide was a map of Equestria. But, this time, the entire country had been striped black and white.

*** *** ***

I made it to the lower floor without having to escape from much more than a sideways glances or a set of bared teeth, but as I came to the Orchard door, my Pipbuck blushed as if it had just been kissed on the cheek. I could only hope that whatever was prowling the orchard would see me as a stray from the harem above, and not a saboteur who had pledged allegiance to a striped flag.

I needed to see the Orchard, before turning it to ash in the savage’s mouths. I needed to see the greatest gift that Stable 23 had wasted, if only to make the light that I had long since left behind shine a little brighter, and cast my shadow a little farther.

The door wouldn’t open all the way, as a large dent in its middle had given it a potbelly, and it groaned as I leaned my weight against it. As it gave in, I stumbled out into the Orchard, and it was as if I had dug a hole through the planet, and come burrowing out into another country: the Zebra’s country.

The grass looked to have been bleached blonde, and the trees held up flat canopies like primitive shields against an electric sun. But, ever for a bowled blue ceiling that might have had Celestia herself sitting on its skylight, it was cold, and the air was still. The trees were more like statues, wearing laurels of amethyst crystals dotted with dull, canary colored bulbs. And, instead of Zebras, savages prowled the savannah.

One of them - an enormous buck whose neck never bent and whose hooves pounded at the fields, as if planting seeds, or stomping out saplings – wore a tattered red cape, and plate armor that caught the light of this counterfeit summer. On his shoulders and around his waist, were platted feathers, which might have been plucked from a brass phoenix. And over his avian helmet, whose crest was sloped back to imitate some tropical bird, rested a golden laurel wreath, though it was facing the wrong way, as if this Caesar to the savages had run backwards through his coronation.
.
With my belly sinking into the grass like the hull of a ship, I snaked my way over the nearest of the orchard’s rolling hills, trying to enjoy it. But the air smelt like rust, instead of soil or dew or burst fruit being spoiled in the sun, and even as I planted myself at the foot of an acacia tree, I couldn’t lose myself in it: I couldn’t make believe that it was real.

Acrylic clouds surrounded the Orchard, like a white army crowding its every horizon. Empty baskets lay scattered across the savannah, not unlike discarded helmets, and the savages picked over them, as if searching for the decapitated heads of their bannermen. Sacks of Stable brand provisions lay slumped against the tree trunks, like weary fieldworkers after a long day, and I knew that there was enough to last.

I hurried back into the Stable – as the Orchard felt like a piece stolen from another place – and followed the hallway back to the elevator, ignoring the two staircases that had been hollowed out on either side of it. To my left, was a sign that read Oxygen Recycling, and I didn’t give myself any time to think before following it. And, as I entered a room lined with whirring machines, whose walls were broken up by bundles of pipe, I understood that there could be no turning back.

I found a terminal, lit it up, and hacked it. I had been guessing at the password, stabbing at lines of letters without taking aim, and might not have thought to back out if I hadn’t struck oil. Or rather: gasoline.

STABLE-TEC OXYGEN RECYCLING
CONTROL TERMINAL
ACCESS APPROVED < WELCOME USER>

A few of the pipes that lined the walls around me were branded with a little black and yellow flame, and I scanned the screens that followed, searching for a way to make them breathe out all at once, and turn the Stable's air to kindling.

GAS MAIN: LINES 3, 4, 7, 14
ORCHARD… closed
MAINTENANCE… open [designate: incinerator, furnace]
COMMON AREA… open [designate: kitchen, central heating]
MAIN ENTRANCE… closed

REDIRECTS
Perfect: here was a list of every pipe, and the lungs into which they drew breath. Based on the spring from which lines 3, 4, 7, and 14 began, I found the gas main, and had every pipeline drink from its pool, going so far as to turn the water into another instrument in my genocidal orchestra.

REDIRECTING…
AUTHORITIVE CONFIRMATION REQUIRED
An empty line blinked up at me from the middle of the screen, waiting for the password.
I took a deep breath, and punched in Veni vidi vici.

CONFIRMING...

I could hear it happening, as the gas went hissing through the Stable, as if I had only pried open one of the ventilation shafts, and emptied out a basket of snakes. My chest hurt, but I knew that it wasn’t for the venom in the air. And, as I turned to run, planning to drop the Celestial Flame down the elevator shaft and use the Doctor’s spurring medicine to get out in time, the terminal signed off and started shutting down.

I looked back, and the words on the screen almost made me believe that it knew: that the Stable understood what I had just done.

THANK YOU

*** *** ***

The way ahead was blocked. Everything from the steel plating on the walls to the wiry mesh behind it, had folded in over the staircase, barring me from escape. This is it, I thought, This is Equestria telling me that I made the wrong choice: that I failed. Until some hapless animal clicked its hoof against the floor, and made a spark to start the fire, I would be trapped here, in the pinched-off stairwell between the fourth and third floors, waiting to be saved by my own genocide.

I almost sat down, believing that this gate had been closed over my path by the will of the God on the walls. I almost took it in my stride, and gave myself to him. But then I saw the gun, and the bones.

A Tri-beam laser rifle lay trapped in the ribcage of a disjointed skeleton, whose skin would once had been striped, clad in dark armor and a chalk mask. There was the very weapon that I had for so long been longing for. And, while I pulled the rifle out and held it in my arms as one might a child from fresh ruins, I realized that I hadn’t been here before: that I wasn’t being bottled in by the palm of some vengeful God, but had only taken the wrong staircase.

I was not being punished. I was being an idiot.

I strapped the rifle to my side, and skipped over my own steps, heading back to the elevator. I could hear the savages now, coughing and sputtering as the gas in the air began to trickle down their throats. But, worse still were the sounds that were coming from the orchard: the brittle creaking and the thunder of their hooves, making it seems as if those acrylic clouds had gathered into a storm.

I decided to try my luck, and pressed the call button for the elevator. I just couldn’t bear the thought of climbing halfway up the other staircase, only to find out that something was really trying to shut me in.

The doors slid open, revealing a small room whose ceiling had one of its panels punched in, and whose floor was covered in something like sand, as if the savages had been using the shaft above as a place to sweep a hundred years of dust. With my hooves leaving shallow prints in the sand, I hurried into the elevator, and set a course for First Floor: Decurions, Deals, and Valleys stocked with Super Weapons.

As the cables pulled taught, and the old machine hummed to life, I knew that the Caesar might be waiting for me at the top of his upside-down castle, that he might have come bolting up the stairs, stirred into a frenzy by the groans that I was rattling out of the Stable’s throat. But I couldn’t be afraid; I couldn’t think that the cables might snap or that the warriors of the Orchard might catch me, because I was getting out.

The elevator slowed and, then, I realized that something was wrong. It was too early, and I crumbled myself up in the corner, thinking that the Caesar – an idiot God peeled from Zion’s walls – would soon have me. But the buck who came leaping through the doors just as they parted, with panic in his eyes and a pregnant mare in tow, was no idiot. He had a stack of books for a cutie mark, after all.

I threw myself over him, using his face as a stepping stone and slamming my entire body against the button for the first floor. But as the doors closed, I found myself looking out over a sea of bald and furrowed faces, which swelled towards us like a sudden tide casting its shadow over the shore. They closed in around his mare, and she bleated like a frightened lamb.

“Hey!” I heard him shout, even as he pulled himself up out of the dirt. “Don’t let them take her!”

We fought for the cow-eyed mare like children pulling at either end of a doll, and I had to wonder how long it would be before she began to tear at her seams. But after a short struggle - throughout which the elevator doors kept coming together and pulling apart, as if chewing on the mare – we won: and all three of us collapsed back into the sand, as the elevator finally closed its toothless mouth.

The buck let her curl up against his chest, though she was bigger than him, if only for the swell of her belly. “The gas you let into the air… how are you going to light it?” he asked, after we’d caught our breath. I looked him in the eye, and pulled the bottle of Celestial Flame out of my saddlebags. “That’ll do it.”

I got to my hooves, and began beating the sand off of my jumpsuit. “Who’s she?” I asked, as we trundled past the Stable’s second floor, but the buck only shrugged. “Is this why you wanted us to light the monument… So you could come back while the warriors were away? So you could come and get her?” He shot me a sour smile, as the mare began to lick his chest as one might a block of salt. “Why this one?”

“Got her pregnant.” I could tell that he was about to say something he thought was funny, or tell another lie to cover up what she really meant to him, but his smile wilted, as I tried my best to look at him the way Caliber had. I could almost see his armor being whittled away. “I just… I need to keep her alive.”

Hooves thundered through the Stable around us, and the elevator rattled as if it were a bomb shelter, and the world was ending just outside. He went on. “At least until…”

"Until the baby comes.”

"Yeah."

"Do you think it might be… different?"

"Yeah... yeah, maybe."

Neither of us said anything after that. And when we reached the first floor, I let him take her.

*** *** ***

I set the bottle, and the vial of Dash, down before the lip of the elevator shaft, even as the Stable swallowed that old machine like an uncomfortably large pill. And then, with a tilt of my horn, I brought the inhaler to my lips, and let its orange medicine trickle down my throat.

The liquid seemed to slow down as it went, and my vision had already begun to pulse by the time it settled. I could watch the gas, pushing through the air like mountains rising out of the sea. I dropped the vial, but never heard it break. I wanted to shudder as the drug hummed on my tongue, but I couldn’t make myself shake. I would probably have preferred the taste of a cupcake, but I didn’t know how to bake.

Everything was molasses. And I was a shark. Swish-swish-swishing my way through it.
I was a sword, piercing the belly of a whale. A whale full of molasses.

Children would speak of me, they would whisper my name as if speaking it in vain, until they were adults: and then they would have children: just so they could name them after me. And this would happen more than once. Actually, it would happen a whole lot of times. Like in a cycle, or something.

But I had to go. I had to go go go. I couldn't wait for the rest of it all to catch up with me. I had to run. Until I was out of the frame, out of the panel: out of sight, out of mind! Until I had gone full circle, until I had carved the entire planet into dust, until I was going so fast that I could run on starlight and the spaces in between it. I kicked the bottle of Celestial Flame over the edge, just to show everypony that I was faster than the fires of an atomic bomb, that me and Equestria could outrun this thousand year war.

"Let's see who's faster." My words sliced through the atmosphere like a freaking missile, baby! But the bottle was falling like a feather. I mean It was falling really slowly. But other than that, it didn't have that much in common with a feather. It was more like a bottle. But a bottle that was falling really slowly.

I considered running down to the orchard, getting myself a nice apple to eat, then coming back and eating the shit out of it. After that, I would digest that sucker like there was no tomorrow. But I didn't do any of that. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. And if there was a doctor here: I could race him.

Now who the heck is this guy coming up the stairs? Some muscle-headed buck trying to step up to the chopping block, huh? Who do you think you are following me up here: some kind of smart guy? Some kind of egghead? What are you, huh: Caesar of the freaking savages or what?

Hold on there, loverboy. I'll knock your laurels straight in just a minute: I've got a fire to be faster than.

"That is a beautiful fire." I said, because I say whatever I want. Seriously, you can't censor this mare. Try it... just try it. "Seriously, I would hump its brains out if I didn't have to win this race and save the Princess. Or become a Princess. I forget which one I'm doing today."

The flames spread out into... an explosion, I guess. It was because of the gas in the air, is my theory.
You should have seen it. It had to be the slowest genocide I've ever seen. I am not even dicking with you.

The heat rose like a pillar, being built by midgets. But it made its way to the starting line eventually.

I smiled at the Caesar, who was getting closer by the hour. "I guess it needs some time to warm up."
What the hell that was hilarious.

"You know, Caesar, this place reminds me of a hive... except, instead of insects... You've got incest!"
By the early morning dew that gathers on Celestia's cunt, I should so be a standup comedian.
My cutie mark should be a pony dying of laughter or something.

"You make a terrible audience, Caesar." Motherfucker didn't even smile. "Heh... motherfucker."

Get it!?

The Sensexual Flame is here! On your marks... get set-
Hey... Stop that. That hurts.
Quit it! ...Okay, screw you: let's go!

I'm a freight train. I'm a bullet. I AM TERMINAL VELOCITY!
Cool, I'm at the end of the hallway. Looks like I won the race. What a freaking twist.

What the..?

“Sensexual... how could you?”

“He's a dirty savage! An idiot! He's an egghead and a scholar! Why are you touching him like that?!”

"You fool!" I cried. Not like cried... not tears and that homosexual shit. "I would have humped you!"

In her time with the Caesar, Sensexual had gotten enormously fat. Elephantine, even.
"You have gotten enormously fat." I pointed out, as it was the polite thing to do. "Elephantine, even."

I could barely see the Caesar anymore and, to be honest: I was starting to miss him.
He had always been my rock.

Now, Sensexual had spread herself across the entire Stable. For the Genocide, remember?
She would leave most of the savages as nothing more than ash, including my Caesar. And for him: I shed a single, stripy tear. Of all the things I would not have turned to ash. He was probably the fifth.
First came Equestria. Then me. Then Caliber. Then Ash.

Mmmmm... Ash.
I bet she tastes like a piece of cake.
A sad piece of cake. That’s when you have your cake, cry into it a little bit, and then eat it too.

"Did you hear that Sensexual? About me and Ash?" She was getting awfully close. "Feel free to slut it up all about the town. For I have found a new boo." I didn't need to yell anymore. The fire was close enough now to hear a whisper. "In fact: I think you two might be related." Get it? Ash and Fire? My God.

Whoops. Better back it up.
I turned my head, to look at my milkshake as I backed it out of the Stable.

My milkshake brings all the mares to the yard.
And they’re like…It’s better than yours.
Damn right! It’s better than yours.
I would’ve humped you,
but you got fat.

Lala-la la la
Warm it up!

Yeah.
That's right: You'd better run, tramp!

Caesar!?
You're alive!

My Milkshake has resurrected you!




Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Merciful Killer: You deal twice as much damage to foes beneath 25% health.

Chapter 13: The Last Stop

View Online

Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 13: The Last Stop
“Old military. Can still smell the pride. And the fear. Hope of the old world, wrapped in fencing, covered in storm."

|*| Marathon Mare |*|

There was only one bridge, one way to cross the river of Zion without its waters forcing rites of ablution onto your body, and it passed over a staircase of Lilliputian waterfalls. I stopped running, and watched the stars of the naked, northern sky bounce between the water and the bridge’s glass belly, feeling as if I was in some garden to that Kingdom under Hell. It looked like fireflies were dancing over the water.

On the far side of the river, there were pines, feathered in olive and lavender, which were so tall that they seemed to peck at the sky. And between them were the red flares that had led me here, like any savage lured out from their broken Arcadia. Their light seemed to slide up the trees, and sculpted them into caryatids: statues that might have been smuggled out of the capital gardens. The flares smudged the sky red, like bloodstains on a black ball gown.

My legs felt like they were on fire, and I knew it was not because of how far I had run. Something had gone wrong. There were lights, flickering behind me. The smell of a smoking oven and a burnt roast followed me through the valley, and my belly was smudged with black ash. The end of my tail was as brittle as dry straw, and my hooves as hot as horseshoes left out in the sun. My father’s clothes smelt of smoke.

Over my shoulders, I wore red rags that might once have been a cape, and something cold was pressing into my temples, like a headache trying to burrow its way in. While the little waterfalls only mumbled, there were rapids further up the river, and I could hear the water slapping the stones as if they were drums.

There was movement on the bridge, and my hooves skipped from soil to grass to that prehistoric metal and its trimmings of glass. I could hear shouts, muffled, as my senses had been clogged up by catarrhal inflammation. Still, I would not have understood them, for their language was as babbling as the river.

I collapsed onto the bridge, giving myself to them. I might have fallen into some voodoo fever, for the sky was red and its stars were replaced by frowning skulls, and the runes that danced around their rifles.

“Get out of the way!” I was afraid, thinking that I might go slipping back into the river, like a fish swatted out of the water by some clumsy paw. “Move it, facepaint!” But then, Caliber was holding me in her hooves, and I knew that I was safe: that we had won.

“Luna’s bones, you actually did it, didn’t you?” The Zebras parted as if making way for a King, and I thought I saw something sitting on the far side of the bridge: something whose back was as broad as a bear’s, and had three stars smeared across it. “I leave you alone for one night…”

The soldiers folded in around a buck that had to be their Decurion, as he came marching after Caliber. “And you set the edge of the Equestrian Wasteland on fire.” I was still dizzy, from the smoke in my lungs and the blood that was only just rushing to my head, and I decided that I had imagined the bomb: squatting at the edge of the forest like some devil.

The Decurion stood beside her, and Caliber smiled like someone who’d just one a bet. I couldn’t feel the burns now. I was too proud. We had come into the valley, and tipped the scales of a war. I felt like an instrument of Equestria, or even its dead Goddesses, as what we had done could so easily be confused for divine intervention. I wondered if the savages had seen me that way, as I ran through the fire. I wondered if they had seen me as a demon, as a God.

There was something at the back of my mind, a pulse like a stowaway pounding against the walls, screaming for me to go faster. But I knew that it had been worth the cost. I was alive. I had been perched at the tip of the spear, at the tip of my own genocide, and I had escaped: tearing through the valley with my horn shining and my eyes glazed over. Hopefully, the monkey on my back had lost his grip as I ran.

I looked up at the Decurion, as if waiting for him to pin a medal to my chest. Here was a leader that might have come crawling out of a city turned to ash, a city spilling out over the sand, with his head held high. He wore his scars with more pride than he did his armor, while the Caesar was like a child in a paper crown, crying out when it cut him. I wondered where the great savage was. I couldn’t remember -

I shook off the thought, as the Decurion started to speak. “We came to your country, as lions circling a watering hole. We came slowly. We came hungry.” He wove a hoof at the mountains that stood taller, even, than Celestia’s Landing. “But, before the slaughter began, before we could take you by your throats or poison the water to watch you die of thirst, the sky closed, and the savannah burned.” His voice was almost hypnotic, and seemed to go around and around as if to match the red writing that circled his rifle. “And it is law that, before the mouth of fire, lions and lambs; all things are prey.

“You… you set our valley on fire. And now the hunt is over. Zion will soon be won.” He nodded to Caliber. “And your Damascus will have his deal.” A smile split the bones painted across his face, though there was no laughter in it. “It seems you have taken the world by its corner, Shepard, and flipped it upside down. Tonight, we will stamp out the sour light of one Stable, only to march under the light of another.”

I got to my hooves, and tried to hide how much it hurt. “Thank you,” I said, in a voice that was dark with smoke. “I want to help you find the Caesar and finish this. But first, I have to go back to the monument. I found -” I winced, and Caliber thrust her hoof out as if to catch me before I fell. But I kept my head up. “I found medicine in the Stable. And we both have friends up there who might have been hurt.”

“What do you mean… find the Caesar?” The mercenary frowned, and matched the cracks in the paint that covered the Decurion’s face. “Honey, it looks like you did a lot more than find him.” She lifted her hooves over my head, as if to lower an imaginary crown, and make me an imaginary queen. But instead, as she pulled away, she took with her the headache that had been pounding at my temples.

Then I saw it.
Resting in her hooves, as if she had just plucked it from the ashes of the orchard, was a laurel wreath.

*** *** ***

We walked down the aisle, huddled together, while corpse fires blackened the cathedral walls. In the smoke, each of the stained glass windows was like another sun being tucked in under a thunderstorm. Under Celestia’s window, I thought I saw another litter of bodies, but as we got closer, I came to realize that it was not corpses that had crowded around the throne, but soldiers whose stripes would not be burned away. They were alive, and stood straight and strong, as if the word war had never been spoken.

They had dragged their dead into the elevator, and brought them here so that they might get something like a burial. Better that than to abandon them on the monument, where the wind would pick them clean, and leave them like bones on a plate.

My utility jumpsuit was folded away in my saddlebags, and I had thrown Caesar’s cape and bloodied laurels into the river. Now, Caliber helped me take off my father’s coat, just as she had dressed me in it. I couldn’t bear to pull my clothes on over the burns, not alone. It was like trying to press a needle into your own skin. She threw my father’s coat onto the throne, and it slouched in what had once been the seat of the Goddess, with its cross lying crooked. Celestia’s window shone down on it, like the morning sun.

The soldiers busied themselves with the last of the dead, throwing each of them onto a pile as if putting another log in the fireplace. Only Zalika, the mare who had knocked my lights out on the Landing, was still. She stood on three legs, and as I inspected the one she was keeping bunched up at her chest, I saw that the savages had cut down to the bone, as if they had only wanted to know how well she was cooked.

I hurried over with a bottle of healing potion floating at my side. She had lost a lot of blood, and burbled as I wrapped her knee in gauze. I had the strange urge to paint every other bandage black. By the time I was done tightening the medical brace, she had gotten a grip on the Equestrian alphabet. “Don’t…”

I held the potion to her lips. “Drink it,” I said, in my best imitation of Doctor Cross, whose stern bedside manner had slowly started following her everywhere she went. “Drink it.

“Keep that poison away from the Decanus.” The soldiers had come to crowd in around me, and one of them spoke up as I got the potion into Zalika’s mouth, and let her suckle at it as a baby would its bottle. “You dare! She has given her life for Zion!”

The buck whinnied, and tried to rear up onto his hind legs, but Caliber was leaning on his back as one would over a bar. “Easy now. She’s not dead yet.” It almost looked like she meant to mount the Zebra, and go on a full contact safari. “Let the good doctor do her work.”

With a pop, I pulled the bottle out, putting a little flair to my magic as if to sell them on Equestrian medicine. “Where are the rest of the wounded?” I was holding a cloth to Zalika’s throat, as she had started to bleed as she choked down the potion. It would stop soon, and I could move on.

“They have already gone to the gate.” His legs had started to shake, as Caliber rocked her weight onto him. It was nice to feel like a team again, though she made a better bodyguard than she did a nurse.

“What about the pilgrim?” Caliber narrowed her eyes. She might have snapped a more brittle buck in half. “The one who bears the star… Where is she?”

“The one who bears the star left with the others. The one who bears the star went down into the old metro station.” It was almost as if he was afraid to call her anything else. “But that one is not dying. That one is not going to the gate. That one went to be alone, to redress herself in bandages.”

“I knew that girl was shy… but that’s taking it a little far.”

"The one who bears the star was stabbed through the vest-"

"Stabbed through the chest?"

"Yes pony, stabbed through the vest." He nodded, as if it pleased him to be muddying up our language. “If you wish to find the one who bears the star: take the elevator down to the train station.” He wove a hoof over his shoulder, and the soldiers behind him cleared a path. "We will not miss you."

“Thanks.” I lifted the cloth from Zalika’s throat, but blood came out of it like water from a hole in a dam. I plugged it up again in a hurry. “You’ll need to keep pressure on this wound. And make sure to give her a sip of healing potion every five minutes.” I looked up at the buck, expecting to see him nod, but found only sterile, sandy eyes. “You… you weren’t just going to let her die, were you?”

“No. No Zebra should have to die on Equestrian soil.” Caliber climbed off the buck’s back, as if she thought he had been tamed. “But we have no doctors. We use no medicine. This is our way. If she is dying, we will not watch: we will take her from this place, through the tunnels… to the gate.” He tilted his head at the elevator. “She would bleed out into soil that has never been pierced by an Equestrian flag.”

They were crazy. I heard the sound of a harp string snapping in half, and pictured myself beating the buck over the head with a big, red cross, screaming: Take your medicine! Take your medicine, you stripy buffoon! You love it! You love it!”

“Okay!” I clapped my hooves together, chasing out the daydream. “I guess she’s staying with us.”

“So you are going to the gate?” He asked, tilting his head to the side, like someone trying to get the sand out of their ears. I nodded, knowing that I had to save the others who had gone to wait for death as if at a bus stop. “Then go into the tunnels. Follow them north, until you reach the old Equestrian installation. Then step out under the naked sky. This is where you will leave her. This where we have chosen to die.”

Caliber shrugged, and rolled her hoof around one ear, as if winding herself up. “I’m game. We needed to stop by another one of the installations anyway; best way to get in touch with the boss.” She looked at Zalika. “But it’s been a while since I had to play mule.” Then, she flicked her tail at the soldiers, and walked down between the pews and the corpse fires. “Get your coat, honey. I’ll go find us a wagon.”

*** *** ***

Our voices echoed through the station, so that the name Ash rang out between broken down train cars and went bounding off into the tunnels that led south, into Hell. Zalika sat beside me in the chariot that Caliber had taken from the soldiers, and the Decanus seemed to be learning how to talk again. She had only just untwisted her mother tongue, and threw strange curses up at the electric billboards and tattered posters, making enemies of pastel soldiers and their Princesses. The first word I could understand was star, and she sang it out again and again, as if the pilgrim would answer to it.

It was never Ash’s voice that came back to us, only our own. But we found her trimming fresh bandages in the shadow of a few dozen fairy lights, which had been twisted into the wall to make a cross. She sat at the open mouth of a stairwell, whose tube lights blinked like lighting in a bottle. The letters EL TIA’S LANDING had been stapled on under the cross, while C, E and S lay scattered around the pilgrim.

She didn’t have much to say, but the stains on her body spoke for her: There was smoke. There was fire. There was blood.

I moved Zalika over like a sack of potatoes, and let Ash slide into the chariot next to me. The thing had carried the weight of a balefire bomb once, and Caliber pulled it along without even breaking a sweat. We moved as if on the tide, and the little mare helped dress me in bandages, from the hooves to the haunch and shoulder. I pretended she was my mother, getting me ready to go out on Nightmare Night.

“Feels like I’m the only one out of uniform,” Caliber muttered, as she steered us around the last two train cars, which were as crumpled as tin cans. The walls had turned to stone around us, and we veered around sandbags and scattered floodlights. The chariot’s wheels got caught in thickets of barbed wire, that seemed to have spread like undergrowth, but Caliber kept talking as she pulled us into the outpost.

“Hey doc,” she said. “Get her talking straight, would ya?” Suddenly, the Zebra spoke up, as if to answer her, but only got through a short rhyming couplet. It was nonsense. “Try shaking her up a little. Treat her like a soda machine and rattle some sense into her. I need to know more about this installation.”

Then, it was as though we were back on the tide, drifting through shallow water, as the chariot’s wheels turned easily over the metal and the glass. I looked up at pillars that the stone seemed to have grown over like moss around a tree trunk, as Caliber used my light as her lantern, and followed a low humming that seemed to come up out of the earth.

“These markings will not stay for long,” Ash said, as the chariot creaked like a cradle on the bough. “You actually have more bruises than you have burns… How did this happen?”

“The Caesar was on fire,” I said, pruning my answer until it was almost bare. I didn’t want to look down into the pit that was Stable 23; I didn’t want to try remembering what had happened. I knew his hooves had pressed into my ribs. I knew I could hear his heart beating, and see his breath spewing out from a horrible serpent’s head: earless and skinless and bald, the color of burnt flesh. But I didn’t know how I had killed him, or why I had put on his laurels before dancing with the fire through the forest.

Maybe I was jealous.

Suddenly, the chariot was rattling, as if Caliber meant to shake us awake after a long trip. She was pulling us up a short flight of stairs, and into a room whose ceiling hung low, and whose lights had been shot out long ago. We were at the end of the tunnel, but the mercenary had veered off into a little security office that had once controlled the great gate that now lay like a splintered shield on the floor. The night came poking in through the gap, carrying grains of daylight in between its fingers for the coming dawn.

“This better work: otherwise I’m liable to slap that Zebra across the face with a dictionary,” Caliber grumbled, as I poked my head up out of the chariot, and watched her go to work on a terminal in the wall. Its light frayed the edges of my magic, and changed the color of her mane like a flame turned blue.

Before I could ask, the screen flashed white, and a three-headed lion threw shadows across the room. “If Damascus knows about what you did – and I bet he does – then he’s already wrapped our orders up nice and cozy in the static.” The screen began to crackle, and something low and angry, like the growling of a dog, came out of it. “Don’t know if you ever got to hear it, Lamplight. But Hell hums.”

There was a high whine like a single line of lightning through the thunder. And then another, and another, whipping through the static. “Is that…” Ash began, as she poked her head up next to mine. “Morse code?”

Caliber threw up her hoof, calling for silence just as a reverend might. And then, as the pattern went on in a loop as though it were coming out of an angry, industrial music box, she found the word that would send us east. “Buffalo.”

*** *** ***

Caliber stepped through the gate and, if only for a moment, it might have looked like she was pulling the entire country along behind her, as if to drag it out across the steppe, to shorter days and northern lights. The beam of Celestia’s Landing would have been like the needle of a sewing machine, putting stitches in the dark blue velvet of the sky, with the mountains like knuckles massaging out the creases. But we were the only things that followed Caliber out of the country, and off the side of the map.

Once the chariot’s wheels stopped turning, the silence began to feel like a weight around my neck. The outpost lay like a sprawling, windswept wreck all around us, and there was little that came up out of the barren earth but for a few stranded pine trees, twirling patterns of grass or snow and strange flowers that had stacked themselves up like lavender colored cairns. But there were gardens in the sky, of a thousand gilded lilies and the moon like a single, white rose. I had never seen so many stars.

I left my father’s coat in the chariot, so that the wind could creep into my bandages, and put out the fires there. I walked on soil that was so dry and so colorless that it might have been mistaken for sand, and looked out over mile after mile of nothing else. There were mountains on the horizon, but they were so small that I could only make them out for their cloaks of snow. They were like doves on a wire.

Zalika followed me, having found our language just as we left the country from which it had come. She wore her bandages like a collar now, but walked with one leg folded up against her chest, and tripped over every other word. I had not done anything to dull her pain, knowing that she needed it, that she was proud of it. She would have liked to die out here, as Zion didn’t have heroes: only martyrs.

“We might as well be treading on burial mounds,” She said, as I searched the wreckage, hoping to see stripes. “You should not have brought me here. This is a place for the dying.”

“Where are they, then?” Caliber asked, as she wriggled out of her harness.

Zalika pointed her hoof at the horizon. “They have already begun walking. Even to die in this outpost, is to leave our bones too close to your country’s.” I felt a little cheated, then. Even after everything we’d done, the Zebras would rather die alone under the stars, than in Equestria.

“For Celestia’s sake, if they had strength enough to come this far: I could have saved them. “ I turned, and found Zalika climbing into Caliber’s harness. “None of them had to die.”

“In the eyes of our empire, Sacrifice was never a virtue. It is expected.” She looked at me as if I had stolen something from her. “When will I die for Zion? When will I have another chance?” From the look of it, Zalika was going to leave us out there, and take the chariot home with her. “I am a soldier. And I was broken. Were your spear to break, Equestrian… would you turn to another tribe, and ask them to repair it, so that you might drive it into their belly?”

We stared at each other, and I could see the stars in her eyes. After a while, I floated out the vial of orange medicine that had saved me from the fire and the Caesar, and held it up as if to count what few drops there were left to swallow. "I’m going after them,” I said, as Caliber peered into the vial, trying to figure out what was inside it. “I’m going to save them, and send them home.” To Equestria.

As if I'd just made a toast, I brought the vial to my lips and, as every last bead of Dash came to trickle down my throat, I watched the lights in the sky rolling away. The world was starting to spin faster, and faster, until the stars couldn’t keep up. The sky was like an old chalkboard, with name after name, equation after equation, poem after poem crisscrossed over each other, and shining.

They were fireflies and headlights, sunshine dancing across the water. They were rings of light, not so different to those of a tree’s dissected trunk, showing us the age of the sky.

“What did you just do?” Caliber asked, though her words went tearing through the naked sky, cutting through the atmosphere

like a hot knife through butter.
like the searchlights of a ship, through the waters of some fitful surf.
like the edge of a knife being pulled across the throat of a pig.
like the last light of a dead star, spreading out through open space.

You’re a literary genius.
I should’ve let the Caesar take you. Maybe he’d have fucked some inspiration into that hollow little head of yours. You make us so soft. So tender. Keep us so weak. But now you know how to be better.
How to be fast.

like a freaking missile, baby!
Boom! Poetry!

And with that, the light of my horn imploded, and I was gone, knowing that I could outrun the stars.

*** *** ***

"Grace!"

Pull yourself out of the dust.
Get on your hooves, and start running. Make the world turn under you, make it spin.
Be that mare again. She was cool! She was awesome! She was radical!

"Caeli... look at her eyes." This egghead? This scrambled egghead is holding you down?

Break her neck. Break her sad little swan's neck. Break it! Break it! Break it!
Don't you want to win?
You do?

Then get some more Dash.
OR BREAK HER NECK!

"Get me the orbs. We've got to bring her back to Zion." One is weak. The other is even weaker.
But you are the weakest.

You have to show them that speed is all that matters.
Get up. Stop crying. And set the world on fire.

"Get me those fucking orbs!" She's better than you.
She's one of Hell's knights. Burning the squares black. And you aren't even on the board.
She’s the one in charge. She brought you to Zion. She walked you through Hell.
You aren’t a leader. You’re a follower.

You can't follow me into the orb.
No. I’m the best part of you.
You can’t hurt my friends while I’m gone.
No. You have no friends.
You’ll be waiting for me.
Yes. Coward.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

“Aisha,” I said. “Aisha, something’s different.” My burns had spread. They were everywhere. And the headache had wormed its way in, only to pound at the walls like an animal in a trap.

I was wearing a crown. “That machine will not destroy your memory, but copy it.” Through the fire, I thought I saw something like worry flickering in her eyes. “This is changing you, Damascus: this hollowing.” I frowned. She was too soft, too womanly. She wanted to reprint the pages, but I needed to tear them out. “I am afraid. You have already lost your family. You cannot lose your faith too.”

“What do you mean? I’m not asking you t-“

“You are wearing a recollector.” Her hoof came up out of the smoke and, as she touched us, we were quiet. “Find a memory that would make you believe again. No matter what else you forget. Find a memory that would make anyone believe, in case… after this is over… you aren’t yourself anymore.”

“So this orb is to be a cradle, a place to keep the Goddesses, in case I pull my knife so wide as to carve them out?” Aisha nodded, and pushed another vial around the fire. Inside it, I saw the same lights that were shining, somewhere, over Zebras bleeding out on the steppe. “This will not make me forget them?”

She turned her eyes down, and smiled, as if to remind us that she was beautiful. “If only it were so easy.” When she looked up again, Damascus had already flushed the stars down our throat, and her electric eyes were the last thing we saw, before everything went as black as the shadow of a balefire bomb.

*** *** ***

Steel walls lined with gold went tearing by like freight trains, cities rose and fell all around me like the spears of passing soldiers, and then there was sand. I had come out of the Stable, and walked all across Equestria, only to end up here, in a place where the storm was an inky tempest and I could feel summer in the air. And still, without my burns, I felt naked. I felt cold.

There was a tin soldier following close behind, matching my steps as if he had been wound up by a key in his back. His hooves beat the earth like a drum, and from the look of the scratches on his armor, he had just walked out of a thorn bush. He breathed in the air through narrow vents, and pushed it out like a bull.

By his side, was a mare covered in dirt and makeup. Her lips were the color of black cherries, and her absinthe eyes might have been circled in ink. Her hair was heavy and swollen and dark, like a storm cloud, though her coat was a watery shade of green. She might have been a statue into which some Goddess had breathed life, for how finely her features were sculpted.

The brute carried weapons that could bring down city walls, while the concubine had knives and narrow pistols holstered all over her body, as if in place of jewelry. There was a rifle slung over my shoulder.

Ruins dotted the landscape ahead, like the broken shells of eggs that had fallen off of the valley walls. They pointed up at the storm with crooked concrete fingers, and it was as if some enormous horse had come charging through the valley, leaving its hoofprints as shallow craters and buildings folded in on themselves. And then, the ground began to shake, as if it was coming back.

Dead leaves and little pieces of stone skittered over the earth, like insects, and we stood very still, if only so we wouldn’t tread on them. I heard gun safeties clicking, explosives rolling into their chambers, and blades being slipped out of leather sheaths. My body stood firm, even as I tried my best to abandon it, as if I could wriggle my way out of one ear, and go scampering off into the thicket like a magician’s rabbit.

The rumbling slid under our hooves, and I knew that whatever had come was not charging over the earth, but burrowing through it. Everything went quiet then, and I heard my companions breathing, like a bull and a brothel. Dust devils came springing out of the soil, as drills of fur and leather burrowed up through the earth as easily as if it were water, and enormous paws swatted at the air.

The tin soldier, whose cannons had already begun to spin at his side, pelted the creatures with silver grenades. And, as a doglike body was torn to pieces in the explosions, the soldier might as well have taken the valley, and shaken it by its shoulders. The mare and I rocked on our hooves, trying our best not to tilt over like chess pieces, but managed to gun down the survivors even as the dust settled.

They’re dogs, I thought, enormous, mutated dogs. With snouts that were short and crumpled, that left rows of ugly teeth naked under snarling faces. And bodies that were ropy and all too canine. They might have been wolves grown in narrow test tubes, to be shaped like bonsai trees.

The soldier emptied out his cannon, after plucking the last silver apple from the orchard slung over his back. But two more holes were being clawed open, and I could see wild, yellow eyes through the smoke. There was some kind of intelligence in these animals, something more than hunger.

These weren’t predators, but enemy soldiers: guards before some castle sinking into this irradiated valley.

my son - My Scion.

The voice slid into Damascus’ mind like fingers that were wet with wine and the juices of a rare steak, and it pushed us apart, leaving me alone, curled up at the bottom of the orb. There were three of us in his head, and this new terrible thing was holding me down. I could barely see the world anymore. I had to look out of him, as if out of a pit.

I can feel you… your strength - strength?
your conviction - conviction!

Compared to this thing - this third - my boastful, drugged up echo was nothing.
But it didn’t know I was there. Because I hadn’t been. So I tried my best to see through his eyes again.

Damascus had gone very still, and might have thought nothing of the violence around him. He didn’t care. He couldn’t. For all that was, all that could ever be, had wrapped itself tight around his mind, like a fever.

You will listen. finally - listen.
Yes. You will obey!

There was a child murmuring the words, something desperate and lightheaded, but it was not enough to soften the blow, to distract me from the low, guttural voice of a mare with a mouthful of tar.

We will be together.
You will be the first, Scion.
We will be whole.
Unity...

I could only watch, as the courtesan was dashed against the stone, as her body went limp. I could only listen, as she began to weep, as she began to beg. The creature, which had been batting her from side to side like a cat might the ragged corpse of a songbird, was gunned down, as the tin soldier brought another of his siege weapons to bear. And still, Damascus stood: numb to it.

One.
One is all we need. One is all that our unity has for so long been stalled.
There will be no more fighting. No more war.
There will be no more sadness. No more pain. Only the Unity.
One instrument. One disciple. One to turn the wheel.

Please. Damascus mouthed the word, as if to mimic the mare who lay bleeding in the sand. She was digging through her saddlebags, but moved like a newborn. The soldier’s guns were still shaking the valley, as the last dog came hurtling towards him, came dancing around his bullets. “Tell me what to do.”

Come to - us - us.
The sagging place that all must know as the grave of their Goddess.
And then, we - we - can begin.
Unity...

“Damascus!” She screamed, as the dog and the soldier came together. And still, we could not be stirred. We stared at her, through eyes clouded under a purple haze.

One.

His helmet went rolling across the sand, leaving a trail of red, like a wine stain down the lip of the valley. The dog was hunched over, with one paw weighing it down like an executioner’s ax. And, behind it, like a statue that was slowly breaking down at the heart of some forgotten city, was the body of the tine soldier.

Unity

A high, mechanical whine ripped through the silence, and the black tendrils that clung to Damascus’ mind, like undergrowth to stones pulled from the mud, went slithering out at the sound of it. And, as they slipped back into the sunken grave from which they had come, our body had the life breathed back into it.

Damascus gasped, as if he hadn’t been breathing, and turned to see the courtesan pressing a small device to her chest. It blinked red, and wailed. The last dog slapped its ears, as if it was trying to get water out of them, and I could almost hear its whimpering under the whine. It went bounding back into the dustbowl, always keeping one ear covered like a hatless schoolboy running home through the cold.

I wore Damascus’ face like a mask, as he showed no sign of regret over the dead soldier, or even of the lowest pity, as he hurried over to that battered ragdoll of a mare. They didn’t matter to him now.

Still, he took her onto our back, like a sack of flour whose seams had begun to come apart, and that wailing little machine went rolling down into the dustbowl, where it would scream until its lungs collapsed.
Then, without so much as a prayer for the brute, we started to run, forgetting everything that had drawn us into the dry and sand-encrusted mouth of the valley.

“You- you bastard…” She said, her voice breathless and jolting as we crossed the broken earth. I could feel her bleeding out on my back. “Where are you taking me?”

“I’ll leave you somewhere safe.”

“… Leave me?” She spat the words at us, though they came out of her mouth thick with blood and sand. “Where the- where the fuck are you going?”

Damascus didn’t answer at first, staying quiet until he had steered us towards an old and august mountain, whose crown had begun to sag. “Canterlot.”

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

I woke up feeling hollow, like a fruit whose pulp had been scraped from the rind, though it must have become sour and black for how clean I felt without it. The smoke and the dust had been washed out of my mane, and it felt as soft as a velveteen crown. I was naked. And, though it didn’t make any sense, I began to wonder if I’d only just been born.

I could hear the babble of the river, and knew its voice just as I would that of a friend, or an enemy. The sky had gone white, sterile almost, and I had the feeling that it was morning. The pines sprung up around me like birds around a crumb, bundled up tight in their feathered cloaks of lavender and green. And the air was thin, scrubbed of the smoke and the smell of that oven under the earth. I felt lost.

Where the sky had once been velvet, it was now cotton. There were no flares, there were no stars. But I could still see the mountains, hiding the edge of the storm, as if the clouds had been tucked around their peaks like fresh sheets under a mattress. I went looking for the voice, for my own delirious Goddess, and was met with silence. It was as if Dash had gotten bored without me, unable to sit still on the throne that I had left behind. I could only hope that, like mine, the demon in Damascus’ head had been shut out.

“Graish!” Ash said, through a mouthful of laundry. She dropped the clothes and, for a second, I was sure that the pilgrim was going to run up and hug me. She didn’t, so I pretended I was stretching.

“What did you do to me?” I asked, as I felt myself up, looking for a surgical scar. “I feel fantastic!”

She didn’t look proud. “Caliber said we had to purge your system.” I bit my lip, and pulled down my own smile as if lowering a flag. “It was not clean.” Her words stumbled over each other then, as if they were all afraid of stepping too close to the subject. “Mostly… um, well it was mostly… most of it came up.”

Most of it!? I nearly had to cover up my face in shame. What a way to make friends.

“The Zebras showed us to some herbs.” They gave me a laxative! “They were… more powerful than we expected.” I managed to bottle up a groan, but couldn’t keep myself from blushing. “I just finished washing your clothes.” She passed me the shirt, whose sleeves were unfurled and damp. And, as I dressed myself, I was surprised to find fresh bandages wrapped around my legs.

“Caliber is collecting water from the river… upstream.” Caliber knew too! I tried to shake off the shame, and looked out over the black, burbling water. The mountains had crowded the opposite bank with their bare feet, as if they had only just walked across the steppe, and needed to cool their heels.

I had just pulled the shirt over my head, and was sitting in it, thinking of how big it was on me when it wasn’t folded up under my father’s vest. “You look like one of those mares on the billboards,” Ash said, as she rubbed her shoulder, and stared into the grass. “Not… not like the ones for Sodom and Gomorrah.” She added, though her voice had already started trailing away. “The nice ones.”

“Thanks, Ash.” She looked tender, and I knew she was trying to give me a compliment, and help me forget what I’d put her through. I put on the vest, and busied myself with making sure it was just so. “That’s sweet of you to say.” She could tell I didn’t mean it.

“No, I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m tired, Grace. I haven’t slept.” I’d never liked compliments. They always came from my mother after too much of a fuss – Well, we’re never going to get these curls combed out. It’s a good thing you have the face for them. A cherub’s face – Or from those leering bucks at the back of the class. Their compliments had been salty and sniggered: not the kind that made you feel beautiful.

Still, I felt like I owed the mare for trying to cheer me up. “Your… bandages look good.”

Ash looked up at me, as if realizing, for the first time, that she wasn’t the only one who didn’t always know what to say. “Thank you, Grace… So do yours.”

“And on that day, by the riverside-” We might have unscrewed our heads, for how quickly they turned to the sound of her storyteller’s voice. “-Grace and Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum took the oath of the scissor sisters, and brought back the summer with the warmth of their mareheat and the force of their friction.”

Caliber was leaning against one of the pine tree’s stripped trunks, with her hooves crossed and her smile crooked. The waters of Zion had put the color back into the mercenary, and we laughed with her as she came into the clearing, even though she'd sent the joke soaring over our heads.

*** *** ***

I told them about the Stable, about finding what I had found in the desk, about doing what I had done to get out in time. Thinking about the fire made my bandages itch, and talking about the Caesar made me feel like he could come bursting out of the blackwater like a fat, pink fish. But by the time I was done, it felt as if a millstone had been lifted from around my neck, as if I had learned a lesson.

Caliber had unpacked the electric hotplate from her satchel, and now pillars of steam rose out of our coffee cups – which were nothing more than old tin cans rinsed clean - and the mercenary’s cigarette. Caliber fried up some bird’s eggs and meat out of a can, and the smell of breakfast made me feel as if we had crowded into the shell of an old diner. I almost forgot the valley that was licking its wounds behind us.

“Your Damascus wants you to make allies of the Buffalo?” Ash asked again, as if everyone who was going along with his plan, from Caliber to the runt of Cerberus’ litter, had to be crazy. “This cannot be done: the Buffalo are not allies with the Buffalo.”

“Don’t worry about it, Ascella. The Damascus I know doesn’t shoot to miss.” It was as though Caliber ran on caffeine and nicotine, and she polished her rifle as I licked my plate clean. “If he thinks it can be done: it can. Either way, I’m sticking to the plan.”

"And that is?"

She shrugged, “follow my instincts,” then tilted her chin at me. “Follow her orders.” I swelled up like a canteen filled with liquid pride. I was a leader. “But I’ll give you one thing: I’ve signed off on a lot of contracts - done some strange things to get a hard drink in my belly and a soft mare in my bed - but I’ve never done anything like this before. Shoot, we’re practically dip-lo-mats.”

“You… spent money on a mare to sleep with?”

“Like I said, I follow my instincts. But from what I’ve heard, there’s all kinds of, swinging-from-the-chandeliers, lower-your-voice-so-the-kids-don’t-hear, would-you-look-at-that: the-milkmare’s-here, debauchery packed into the scripture.” Ash frowned. She must have skimmed over those parts. “Anyway, everything is instinct.” She waved a hoof at me, as I licked my plate. “You eat when you’re hungry, right?”

“And you are what you eat!” I recited cheerily, before holding out my empty plate like a parrot waiting for its treat. Caliber giggled, as she poured out a tin of beans for me. It was nice to see her letting that girlish laugh bubble up like that. She usually tried to choke it down.

The mercenary reached out a hoof, and winked as one of her ears fell flat. “Amen to that, sister.” I bumper her hoof, unsure of what exactly I might have signed up for.

“I do not think you should bother… eating, unless it is in the sake of reproduction.” That kind of killed the euphemism. “Be fruitful and multiply. She said that to us, in the beginning, before the country grew strong. And it is even more important now that the country is so weak. Why eat, unless it is to procreate?”

“Cause it tastes good,” Caliber said. “Feels pretty good too. Hell, procreation is one of the drawbacks to doing it. Not that it’s a problem for mares like us.” I bumped her hoof again, knowing that I shouldn’t. It was fun. And it made her smile. “Trust me. Old world or New:” I had missed her smile. “Sex is recreation.”

“It only feels good so that the swine and the cattle and the wild horses – the basal creatures that were there when the world was born – will keep breeding. We know better now. We must reproduce, or face extinction.” She might have made a good point, but it was hard to concentrate with all that breakfast in the way. She made a point, I know that much. “To lie with a mare… that’s like planting soil in soil.”

“Boy, when this is all over, I’m going to have the biggest orgy. I’m going to build a mountain of the most pillowiest, melt-in-your-mouth mares. And you’re not invited.”

“Fine. It all sounds too messy for me, anyway.” She looked at me. I was trying to lick the sauce off of my cheek, but it was too far away. “But you must see that sex only exists as a catalyst for procreation.”

"You're a wet blanket, Ascella. And not in the good way." Caliber dug her hooves in. "Sex is recreation."

"Caliber, that is not righ-"

"Recreation!"

"I don't see your point."

"Come on!" I peeked up over the edge of my tin of beans, as Caliber giggled again. “Quit trying to string together those fancy sentences and argue like they did over the first two words.”

"What? Like who did?"

"Recreation!"

"Oh. I think I understand now.” She said that as if this was some sort of primitive ritual “... Procreation?"

Recreation!"

"Pro! – ah.” Ash winced, as if she had sprained something as she tried to raise her voice. “Procreation."

Reeeeecreation!” Caliber threw her hooves up into the air like an old world cheerleader.

“Procreation!”.

What ever happened to love!?” I asked, through a mouthful of beans.

They just stared at me then, as if they couldn’t believe I was real. Caliber couldn’t bear it for long, and snorted back another fit of laughter. Still, I had to sit there with an empty tin resting on my belly, tapping me hooves together as if to measure the silence.

“That’s still a thing, right?”

They lost it, and fell back into the grass, so that their manes spread like a rose garden and a field of lavender. I watched them laughing, as if to fill the silence that the songbirds once would have, and knew that I was happy. I was happy, though the feeling had snuck up on me like a thief or a tropical storm. I was happy, though my legs were burnt as matchsticks, and worn down from running around the world.

They went very quiet then, and Caliber held a hoof over her lips as I walked over. Ash had fallen asleep, and I saw that her eyelids were dark and heavy. We had been up all night, all alone and all at once.

I tucked myself in between the mares, so that our shoulders were touching, and started to sing under my breath. I was happy, though it hurt too much to skip or dance. I could still sing us to sleep.

Round and round the world goes round and round.
The sun goes up and the sun comes down.

Whether your lost or whether your found.
Round and round the world goes round and round.

Kill the king, kill the king 'cause the king is a clown.
From the city down to the small town.

Keep your hooves on the ground, but your head in the clouds.
Cause the world goes round and round, goes round and round.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Addictive Personality: Chems, food and Stimpacks last twice as long on you and anypony in your party.
You also gain +1 Charisma.

Chapter 14: When Doves Cry

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 14: When Doves Cry
“Goodbye, Zion.”

|*| Diaspora |*|


Zion was burning. A hot mist curled around the pine trees, the forest moaned like a live animal over a spit, and the river babbled on. The Caesar’s laurels had been torn to bloody leaves in the whitewater. The wind would roll through the valley, stirring the sky like foamy milk, sweetened by a spoonful of honey for the sake of the rising sun.

I held my father’s automatic pistol steady, as savages sprang out from behind the pine trees like targets in a carnival shooting gallery, wearing plate armor and feathers that might have been plucked from a bloody Phoenix. They rattled as they went, heads as low as predators in the grasses of some savannah, but under the babble of the river the sound was no easier to follow than the chirping of a cricket.

One of them was wearing a cape, and I saw it, tattered and red, clinging to the trunk of an immense pine tree. The forest here seemed to be standing at a slant, as if kneeling to drink from the river, or bowing to peck at the earth. The savage twisted his hoof into some flowers, churning up white petals, and came pouncing at me, tongue over tooth.

I emptied a clip into his chest, and the Centurion’s bellow rose over the sound of the river as if bursting out of it. I clicked another clip against the pistol, fumbling as my magic shivered, and the savage closed the distance between us. He left a trail of petals, and they shone like rubies for the blood that was dribbling out from the cracks in his armor.

With all the strength he had left. The Centurion threw his weight against me, so that his spear tickled the fur on my belly and his chestplate bruised my collarbone. I pushed back, and let the automatic pistol cough against his forehead, like sick lips kissing someone goodnight. As he died, I felt the spear pressing into my gut and knew that, if it had been any sharper – if it had not become blunt in scratching gibberish onto the walls of Stable 23, or carving Gods onto the black legs of the mountain – then I might have been disemboweled.

There was an explosion then, and the valley shook. The pine trees threw their long skinny shadows into the west, and in between them, I saw a mushroom cloud of yellow and orange and red, blooming. It folded into itself, like the swollen skin of a marshmallow coming away from the fire.

From the clearing ahead, there came a voice, cursing in the same twisted tongues that had had rung out from Celestia’s Landing. I did not understand it, but there was something like language in it, setting it apart from the grunts and whinnies of the savages. So we ran towards the clearing, though rings of smoke had crowned it in the explosion. We were following the river so closely that I heard splashes and the sound of hooves slipping on the stone.

The last of the savages had come running across the valley, like animals on the skirts of a wildfire, or hornets from a nest full of smoke. I was not afraid of them, for they could be swatted away as easily as flies, and broke apart under Ash’s shotgun like clay pigeons. Still, as soon as we heard the voice and its echo against the mountainside, Caliber had wriggled out of her harness, and left the chariot that had for so long been a weight on her shoulders behind.

Now the mercenary went by me in a whirlwind of sand and the reddest spice, and broke the jaw of a nearby Lieutenant, leaving him to stumble into the whitewater. I was all but sure that these savages couldn’t swim. Our Stables had left us with that much in common, at least.

I hurried into the clearing, following that one, quivering white bar on my Pipbuck, which I would soon have calling me hero. There was another explosion as I came springing out from between the pines, and I had to hold a hoof over my eyes, and bow my head as if some new Goddess, whose hair was the color of sunset through a polluted sky, had just landed in Zion. Everything went so bright that it was as though a shooting star had been sucked into our atmosphere. It was as though a bullet had been fired from the gun pointed at the head of the universe.

My knees shook, and I had to stand still for fear of tripping over myself, and coming to the rescue with my flanks in the air and my face in the dirt. When the rambling of the river came up over the ringing in my ears, I looked up.

Hanging from one of the pine trees, swinging like a striped piñata, was a Zebra. He cradled an enormous weapon between his hooves, some kind of cannon, but looked a fool as he tried to spit the end of his tail out of his mouth. Watching him pass me by was almost hypnotic, though the branches creaked from the weight of the rockets wrapped around his belly, and a pair of savages snapped their teeth at the tips of his narrow, brushy mane.

After falling in and out of a trance, I remember the Tri-beam laser rifle at my side, and skirted great, blackened craters, around which flower petals lay like so many dancers thrown from a burning ballroom.

I knocked the closest buck down, using the barrel of my rifle to crack his chin like a nut under a hammer. The Zebra swung in through the space between me and the second savage. He looked to have become tangled up all by himself, as his belts of ammunition and leather straps coiled around the branches. It was as though the soldier had been marching over the valley’s canopy, before setting his hoof on a soft spot, and falling through it.

I was trying to line up a clear shot, staring into the savage’s dumb, milky eyes, when his body went limp. He began to convulse as buckshot pricked at his hide like a swarm of bees. Only when he became still, did I notice the burns that covered his legs like tribal tattoos, as if he and I had come from the same village; survived the same temple of trials.

The Zebra came twirling by, with one leg being twisted as the pine tree toyed with his body. Caliber reared up onto her hind legs, and steadied him as a boxer would her punching bag. “Keep your guns on him, ladies!” She called, over the ringing that might have filled every ear in Zion, as though the bells of a hundred churches were playing the sun onto its stage. “Can’t have him reloading that thing.”

The buck was wriggling, and looked to be working his way out of a cocoon as he tried to slide a rocket out of the belt around his middle, and into the cannon. But now, as three mares clicked at him with steel tongues, he froze up, but for the branches that were unfurling around his legs, and the pine needles that pricked him like so many stingers.

“Cee-lestia! Who taught you how to shoot?” Caliber asked, as her eyes rolled around the clearing, dipping into every one of the craters. “I killed more savages with this hoof than you did with one-two-three-four rockets!”

“Would you take aim – when beating on a drum?” The Zebra’s stripes crinkled under a scowl. I had the feeling he wasn’t all that happy to see us. “I have called to the river. And it will answer.” His eyes were a cold, sticky yellow, like a sweat stained hospital gown. And though he was upside down, I could see that he was ugly. At least, for a Zebra.

“Listen to the river,” He said, as Caliber left him to sway in the wind, to twitch with the leaves. “Listen to what comes.” The waters were crashing over themselves now, loud as an army of knights in shining armor, retreating. “Tell me then, would you take aim – When beating on a drum?”

“Listen to the river, children. Listen as it cries. Listen to the river, children. For the river never lies.” His head looked to have become swollen, as a blush rose from behind his stripes. It was like an overripe fruit, hanging low. “Do not drink the water. Don’t tempt what sleeps inside. For soon enough, and after all, its secret will not hide.”

“What did you do?” I whispered. The valley might have tightened its lips then, as the wind became dry and quiet. “What did you call here?”

What is this: a poetry reading?” Caliber whinnied, even as Ash and I stepped in a little closer, like children crowding around a storyteller. “Stop listening to him, Grace.”

“It is the valley’s keeper. Something older than its steel. You may see it sway, see it bend. But none will see it kneel.” The river began to swell and heave, breathing in and breathing out, bubbling like the cauldron of some witch. “Serpent, serpent, come to us. Serpent, serpent rise. Free us from these tired bodies, and cut our mortal ties.”

And then, the river gave birth.

I mistook what came out of the water for the draconic figurehead of a ship: a piece of some wreck being spat out like a fishbone. But it was the head and neck of a creature that went pillaring into the mist that had pooled over the valley, something living. It had the mouth of a horse, and the tongue of a serpent, whipping out at us under yellow cat’s eyes. Farther down its narrow reptilian body, pointed fingers groped at the air, treading it like water.

“Grace-“ Caliber began, before tugging at my sleeve. We were still so calm, staring up at the beast as the mist fell over its face like a hood, and the sail of its back burned red. “Get us out of here.” She said that as if I were steering us straight into a mushroom cloud at the end of a long road, as if I was sailing us into the mouth of some maelstrom.

Can’t, I mouthed the words, We haven’t saved the Zebra.

The serpent; the quarry eel; the dragon, whatever it was, began to bow. Its scales slid over each other like feathers made of glass, and I stood there, in awe of it. It was hypnotic. It was beautifu-

Whump.

Caliber’s hooves pressed into my belly as if into dough, and I went stumbling out of the clearing, even as the earth was torn up all around her. I lay underneath one of the pines as the mercenary danced around the serpent’s claws, and stars span around my head. If I were a tree, she would have knocked all of my apples loose.

I lay there for a while, watching the serpent scratch at the valley as though it had an itch that it couldn’t reach.

“Wake up, Grace: I need you!” Caliber’s voice had to push its way through all the dust and dried out leaves that hung over the clearing, but the words hit me like cold water and a slap across the cheek.

I heard her rifle barking up at the serpent, even as it took Equestria by its shoulders, and shook us. The Zebra cried out, as his leg was twisted and his body spun like that of a puppet on tangled strings. I could not get to my hooves until the serpent had reared back, clutching at the scales that Caliber had already cracked open.

Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum had disappeared. And I had to wonder if she hadn’t finally folded in on herself, like a paper cutout that had only been pasted onto the world. But, as the serpent leaned over and began pulling up the pine trees up like weeds, it seemed all too likely that the little paper pilgrim had been pinched at one corner and peeled off.

After stumbling over to the Zebra, I plucked the rocket launcher out of its battle saddle, even as the branches above him slowly began to snap, almost one by one. I slid two rockets out of the belt around his middle, and loaded the weapon as old sailors might once have done there cannons. There was a little diagram printed on its side, which just might have saved our lives. It said: Attention: Hold like this.

I heard the Zebra fall behind me, and looked back in time to see Caliber come pouncing out of the dust, to gather him up onto her back. Above us, the serpent swayed like the mast of a ship in a monsoon. For all its strength, the beast could not bend in such a way as to pluck us like berries from the edge of the forest. Instead, it had to swing its arms wide, and lower them to scrub wildly at the dirt, as if we were but stains to be cleaned off the face of Zion.

Worse still, with the view it had, we could be little more than ants in its eyes. But I was an ant with a rocket launcher. My legs very nearly fell out from under me, as I steadied that brute of a weapon at my side, and fired.

Leaving a trail of smoke behind it, the first rocket barreled its way through the mist, and hit the mountain. Someone may as well have struck a match against the heel of its boot. Still, those white flowers were turned to the color of fire, the water shone, and the serpent’s shadow passed over us as that of a dragon flying across the sun.

I felt Caliber’s lips on my collar, as she tried to pull me away. Her voice drowned in the water, as it slapped against the serpent’s belly, and spilled up over the riverbank, as bathwater out of a tub. I tried to keep the rocket launcher steady in my magic, even as she pulled me out of the clearing, as though I were a child who did not want to see the end of a long day at some pier or fairground on the beach.

The mercenary could only snap her teeth, as I slipped away from her, and looked up into the eyes of the serpent. This was a comic book villain, seconds away from flipping the switch on their newest doomsday device. Rescue would not be enough. I had to stop it. As the monster opened its mouth, its tongue spilled out, and twirled at the tip like a thin moustache. I dug my hooves into the dirt, tilted the rocket launcher, and fired.

This time, the serpent knew what was coming, and splayed its fingers out in front of it. But it was too slow, and even as the waters began to calm far below it, the rocket slipped through the gap in between its palms, and into the open space between claw and tooth. Its eyes went wide; boiling over, yellow with fear.

It took the blow like a punch to the chin, and cocked back, so that the scales across its belly were pulled taught, like buttons about to pop off. The beast began to reel, like a boxer hanging his head, to let blood trickle from his nose and stars dance around his swollen forehead. It swayed, its arms as dead weight on either side, and I pumped a hoof into the air, watching it sink into the river like a ship into a whirlpool, or the bones of a fish being swallowed tail first.

Then, even as I smiled up into the mist that it had torn to ribbons, the serpent’s fingers began to scratch at the clearing again. It was looking for something to hold on to, like a foal who had spun in one too many circles. And, before my smile could wilt, its palm came swooping down on me, shutting out the sky. And I remembered that, no matter how loudly I beat my war drum, to this collapsing tower of a thing, I was an ant; to be squashed.

Whump.

*** *** ***

I woke up in a pit. The clearing had been turned inside out, and was littered with scales and pine trees like bare fish bones. My back ached. My head felt as though it had been flushed with soapy water. Caliber stood over me, and though the light of midday had given her a glowing red crown – one that might just have been pulled out of some blacksmith’s forge – I could still see her crooked smile.

“You’re not gonna make this job easy, huh?” She cocked her head, and I could almost see the sun, pressing down hard on the storm. “Had to buck you good that time. Just hope I didn’t knock too many of your apples loose.” She spun a hoof around her ear. “You’re already a little short of an orchard.”

“Did we win?” I lit my horn, and soaked myself in anesthetic magic until I was lightheaded, as though I was filling myself up with helium. I kept myself high enough to float up and out of my broken body. “Where’s Ash?”

The mercenary nodded back into the clearing, and I made out a little lavender smudge in between the blurred lines. The pine trees were long and black around her, and seemed to quiver like the strings of a harp. She lay against one of the serpent’s scales, hanging her head. Caliber helped me up, and we limped out of the pit.

“She’ll be alright. But I’d giver her a full tank of that novocain if I were you. Y’know, just to take the edge off.” I winced, and tried to light my horn again, though it went out like a match in the wind. Caliber laid me down underneath one of the pine trees, and brushed the dirt off her shoulder. “I didn’t get to knock her out of the way.”

“Equestrian fools!” The Zebra came crawling into the space between Ash and I. His stripes looked to have been snipped, like velvet ribbons, as streaks of red and purple covered his body as though he were a drunk, soaked in wine. “You might have killed the serpent…”

Caliber rolled her eyes. “Well I’m real sorry, Jack. But your little poem didn’t paint that thing as the most neighborly mutant in the wasteland. Free us from these tired bodies, and cut our mortal ties? That’s some pitiful, roll-over shit.”

“You dare!” The Zebra recoiled, with a gasp and a hoof pressed to his chest. I couldn’t help giggling myself dizzy then, for how easily he’d have fit in with a crowd of high society ladies, as Caliber trod all over their sensibilities.

“Caliber, how dare you!” I said, thickening my voice, as if I had a mouthful of pastry, and a glass of the finest champagne bobbing in my magic. “How dyah you!”

The Zebra lurched towards us, and screwed up his face as if he had just stepped on a thorn. “Ah – I see now. Of course the words can only be wasted on you hardheaded, slack jawed, loudmouthed-“

Loudmouthed!?” I repeated, very loudly, cracking myself up. Ash rolled onto her back, her eyes as wide as tabloid spaceships, as my magic went out like an old light bulb. I lifted a hoof, as if to screw my horn on a little tighter.

“Rein in it, pal! We saved your stri-ped behind, remember?”

Saved me?” He recoiled again. How dyah you! “Do you know why I called to the river? No? Then hear this… I would rather have been taken into the belly of the Serpent, than die by pony hooves, or bleed out on soil that the name of your nation has soiled.” I floated out a Stimpack, and only just stopped myself from suckling at it as though it were a baby’s bottle. “You have done nothing but rob me of my pride. To be saved by you is to be humiliated.”

“Then I’ve got news for you, Gimpy.” She snatched the Stimpack out of my magic, stormed over to Ash, and began collecting the little pilgrim off the ground. “That pony over there – the one dribbling all over her collar – was the one who put the kibosh on your little Stable problem: the one who saved Zion.”

As the buck gawked at me, I raised both hooves in the air, more like a foal asking to be picked up than a hero at the front of a parade, trying to catch confetti. “Now, we were just on our way out.” Caliber lifted a few dozen pounds of pilgrim onto her back, without so much as a grunt, and then emptied the Stimpack into her side. “I’ll let you head on home now, so you can get started on all the poems they write about us.”

From the look of his twisted leg, the Zebra couldn’t have walked away if he was magicked into the heart of Canterlot, only to be surrounded by the Ministry Mares, as they all chanted Equestria! Equestria! Equestria!

It was starting to seem like we were going to leave him behind, to go marching out of Zion, and I was about to suggest going back for the chariot. But then, as if Celestia was calling her upstairs for breakfast, Ash began to wriggle her way off of Caliber’s back and, like the pulp of so many roses and lilacs being emptied out of a lawnmower that had swallowed up a garden, the mares collapsed in a heap.

Whump.

*** *** ***

“Well, this about settles it,” Caliber said, as she pulled the chariot over another rib of stone, which pressed out of the earth like a bone under the skin of the starving. Ash and I, with our eyes low and ours heads in the clouds, would have been rolling over each other and the Zebra soldier, had we not been weighed down under the saddlebags, and tucked in between barrels of Zion’s pristine water. “I’m an ambulance.”

The Zebra named Dakarai, who had said his name with one hoof pounding against his chest, snorted, as I watched the wind run its fingers through Caliber’s mane. “You are nothing but a mule: pulling vegetables to market.”

“Then you’re one funny colored watermelon.”

“Equestrian Brute!” He moved as if tangled up in a thorn tree, as every flinch sent a prickling up and down his legs, and twisted up his face. His stripes seemed to crinkle at their corners. "Say that to my face!"

“Why does it have to be this way?” I asked, raising my voice, and lowering my brow. “Can we all get along?” The Zebra just glared down at me. “Equestria doesn’t want to fight you anymore. The war is over: We won.”

“You what?” The chariot lurched, and though I could see his hooves tightening around my neck, I felt nothing, even as I began to choke. If I were any more lightheaded, I might have floated away.

“Hey!” Caliber was shouting, and I even heard Ash chirp as the Zebra trod on her hair: a streak of lilac over all this black and white and red all over. “Hey!” I looked up at into the sky. The pine trees seemed to have scattered, like frightened birds, and I saw only a wide, white nothing, spinning far above me. Still, there were the leaves and the last stricken branches of the canopy, in the corner of my eye, reaching out as if to find another forest to pull in close.

Knock it off!” I heard something like the sound of bone striking bone, and his hooves went loose around my neck. My lungs swelled up, and the sky stopped spinning. “Grace…” Her eyes were the color of mud and earth and barren stone, like two planets yet to be given shape, yet to have life breathed into them. “Grace!” She was shaking me by the shoulders, and I heard the Zebra groan. “I need you to get your head out of the bathwater, baby.”

“Wuh?” I asked. I didn’t understand what she was saying, what was happening, but then, Dakarai pounced, and the two of them went rolling out of the chariot. It was as if a hole had been drilled at the base of my skull, and I felt the fog beginning to clear, as so much lather and soapy water spilled out of me.

Then, there was something cold running down my face, trickling down my collar, and pooling over my chest. I had been slapped across the cheek with a clump of snowmelt, almost water, thrown up at me as if by catapult. I looked down to see Caliber, with one hoof pressing the Zebra’s head into the mush, and another cocked back, with snow trickling down it like ice cream down the side of a cone.

I fell out of the chariot like a stack of books, and found myself, with pages sprawled and spine creased, at the bottom of a wide riverbed. Its soil was pale, almost sandy, and felt coarse as I rolled onto my back, and stared up into the storm. A great, white whale seemed to be crossing over the valley then, as all that was left of the mist had been molded into the shape of a leviathan, swimming north, towards the open sky.

The riverbed, a strip of silt that would once have run wider than the serpent’s river, was littered with a broken chain of islands, whose shores were all rock and snow, and whose pine trees stood crooked, often naked on one side, wearing their needles like hospital gowns. Behind me, was a narrow island like a shipwreck, as if the river had been pulled out from under it. The treetops prodded at the great whale as it crossed the valley, like harpoons.

I felt trapped, as if the mountains, blue on one side and black on the other, were closing in around us; as if the forests that stood on each of the riverbed’s banks had chased us here, into this open grave for old islands. Then, as I listened to the Zebra choking on that pulpy snow, with Caliber’s hoof pressing him into the earth, I wondered if we would ever get out. Or if Zion would close its mouth, and swallow us.

“Caliber…” I lay a hoof on her shoulder, and her scowl went soft. “Let him up.”

“Savages!” He gasped, and I could almost feel my lungs swelling, my limbs aching, right along with his. “Murderers!” His voice came out waterlogged; soft in the middle, and I ignored him, helping Ash out of the chariot. She stepped down onto the riverbed like a fallen starlet, with her mane over her eyes and her body moving as if it had just been shocked awake by flashing cameras and fake smiles. I would have washed her face in the snowmelt, to clear her mind, but the little pilgrim was already shivering so much that it was hard to keep my hoof on her.

I took off my father’s coat, and lay it across her shoulders. She walked slowly, as if the world was upside down, and she might go falling up into the mouth of the whale. The wind rushed by us like clear water, and I held her close. Zion was not a warm place, even for the embers that had filled the air like fireflies, all through the night.

“O.K. I’m sweeping my chips off the table.” Caliber straightened out het scarf, and I had to picture her in the rumpled suit and tie of a gambler whose hot streak was freezing over. “Deal me out of this fucking valley, Daquiri.”

“Dakarai.” Suddenly, the buck was smiling. “And I don’t think that will be a problem. It seems you have caught the attention of the sentinels.” He tilted his chin to the west and even Ash turned her head, though she didn’t stop there, and kept spinning like a dog chasing its tail. “Your hedonist kingdom had a saying for this, didn’t it?”

The riverbed now seemed like the parched tongue to Zion’s mouth, and there, stepping down from the stones and the driftwood and the timber that were its teeth, with rifles glowing at their sides and skulls stamped onto their faces, were soldiers. Their banners had once stared down at us from the other side of a war. “The House Always Wins.”

And then as Dakarai stepped around us, and his faceless bannermen became as still as a firing squad, I couldn’t help feeling like we’d been pulled into it again: like mares on a stage, repeating history.

*** *** ***

The soldiers herded us down the riverbed, keeping us boxed in between their striped bodies, and clicking their tongues whenever Caliber tried to tell them that we were heroes. There was a road running along the northern riverbank, and the driftwood there had been stacked into neat piles, like pale corpses and a funeral pyre. There were lanterns, hanging over the road like fat yellow fireflies, bobbing in the glow of this stormy afternoon.

“How is it that savages travel faster than good news in this place?” Ash asked, at a whisper. Our minds were clear, as adrenaline had run the anesthesia out of our blood. Still, there was a stormcloud hanging heavy over my head, angry and spinning. I felt cheated. They were treating me like a piece of litter, to be swept out of the valley. They had not heard the cheers. They didn’t even know that somewhere, in the west, their war had been won.

I should have kept the Caesar’s laurels. I should have worn them like a crown, if only to be treated like a King. I should have let it got to my head. For there was nothing more sobering than being knocked down from a pedestal. There was nothing more sobering, than a bitter drink, served up instead of a toast of milk and honey.

For once, I was as surly as the mercenary at my side, and tried to screw my face, stealing her scowl. Dakarai had thrown us under the wheels. He had cried Exile, and the soldiers had nodded their heads. That is, after all, what they wanted to do to every Equestrian: run us out of the country. We were lucky he hadn’t screamed bloody murder.

We were eastbound, and might have been walking for hours, as brilliant ribbons of sunshine slipped over the valley, to paint glassy skyscrapers onto the mountains, and make neon lights out of the leaves. I almost felt peaceful then, as I watched the sun come sliding out from behind the storm.

I didn’t have to turn away, to know that we were all marching with our heads cocked over our shoulders, as though our queen was waving down from a balcony, watching us go to war.

“Never really saw the sun down south,” Caliber said, as if we weren’t at gunpoint. I turned, and saw that Ash was still staring ahead, to where the riverbed began to narrow, and shone as if littered with the pieces of a broken mirror.

“You got to see this every night?” I asked her, with something like jealousy in my voice. She looked bored. This was the greatest show on earth, and we had front row seats. But the pilgrim had seen it, time and time again. I wondered if it made her think of her congregation, if they hadn’t bowed to the sunset or dipped their heads in its reflection in the lake that crowned the Great Plain – I could already see it on my Pipbuck, as its shore came close enough to kiss Zion on the mouth. “Sunset over the water… every single night.”

My hoofsteps quickened, if only to match my heartbeat. We could still make it in time; reach the edge of the valley, and look out over that same lake stretch out over Equestria’s northern border. We could watch it swallow the sun.

“It doesn’t mean anything now. It’s just lights and clockwork,” She said, sending a shiver down my spine. It felt like blasphemy, like going up to some Zebrican priest and shouting: God is an Equestrian. “The Sun and the Moon are wild horses, whipped into a frenzy; running on though their reins hang loose.”

“Huh,” Caliber said, as a few of the soldiers grunted around us. “That’s not the way Damascus tells it.” I nodded, knowing that the Stable wouldn’t have taught him that story… that he hadn’t taught the Stable that story. Either way. “He figures the Princesses still have the run of things up there. Hell, I’ve heard him say they dip their hooves into this dogfight of a wasteland from time to time. You know, to keep us straight.”

“My Pilgrimage made the same mistake. And this Damascus is no less of a fool for it.” She sounded frustrated, knowing that his was another mind that she might not change in time, another soul that she might not save. “To believe that our Goddesses would do so little, that they would stand over the world as if it were a… dogfight. And do nothing but make their bets, prodding at the beasts in the ring. That’s nothing short of heresy.”

“You don’t think they’re…” I paused, knowing to tread lightly. “-gone, do you?”

“Of course not.” She looked up into the sun, and her eyes went watery, so that I could see it setting into shallow tears. “Somewhere in the heavens… they are waiting.” And then, for just a moment, as I watched the star burning a hole in those midnight eyes, I believed it. “This place is ours now. And only by following in their hoofsteps, can we escape it.”

I looked around, and saw the Zebras as if for the first time. And, as they looked up into the sunset, and back at the girl who thought so little of it, even the skulls painted over their faces could not mask the curiosity in their eyes: the wonder. We were all carrying the same question like a weight around our necks: What if she was right?

“What would your Damascus say, if he knew how wildly they spin?” She asked, still staring up into the empty eggshell of a Goddess. “If he knew that there were times when the sun and the moon shared the sky.”

Caliber froze up. “That’s… that’s an old tavern story.” There was fear in her eyes. “A wasteland legend.”

Finally, Ash looked away from the sun, and what she said next made me wonder if she hadn’t been staring into it to hide her tears. “My Pilgrimage… never believed me. Never believed that chaos and war are the only Gods this bitter earth has left – just as it was in the beginning. But I saw it. I watched the sun and the moon cross each other, and knew that they were adrift: like empty ships on the tide.”

“That’s why you didn’t jump.” I breathed out the words. “You knew what the alicorn was.” A child of the war; some kind of super mutant. “You knew that it couldn’t be her.”

“Yes.” Her eyes might have caught the fire of the sun, as they still burned. “For having seen the other side of twilight: I was saved.”

“That can’t be true.” Caliber was shaking her head now, rolling her hooves around it as if to stir away the confusion. “That can’t be true. Nothing would fit anymore. The days, the seasons… the galaxy. It would all fall apart.”

“I saw it.” We had come to a stop. Zion was no longer trailing away beside us. And the Zebra were striking flint against steel, lighting torches. “And no one can take that away from me.”

“Silence!” As a Lieutenant raised his voice, the soldier’s hooves clicked together all at one, like rifles before a 21 gun salute. I felt cold, though their torches burned, and the sky blushed. “Here is an Equestrian place: a sore on the lip of Zion. Here is where you will answer for your crimes against the scout Dakarai, and the serpent that has for so long been a trial to the Buffalo of the plains: something for their young warriors to test themselves against. Without it, they would surely run into Zion, looking for striped hides instead of scales to be their trophies.”

I could hardly believe it. The Zebras were afraid. And did nothing to hide it. They saw no shame in fearing the Buffalo. “Here is the place from which you will be thrown into the wastes.” Thrown?

The faceless Lieutenant lifted a hoof, and pointed over the pools of water which broke up the riverbed, all honeyed or bloodied by the sunset. Over a broad courtyard of shallow water, there was a gateway that opened out over the lowlands of the Great Plain. And lording over it, lifting off in a ballerina’s pirouette, was a statue, whose wing was raised in a salute the east. “Here is the Pegasus Bridge.”

*** *** ***

Great, steel bulwarks rose up around the drowned courtyard, which was littered with pieces of the broken Pegasus. Its right wing had snapped off at the middle, and lay in ruins, like chewed food on Zion’s tongue. And when the sun cast its shadow over the riverbank, it looked like a long, quivering sickle, as if Death’s hand was shaking as he leaned over the Pegasus Bridge. As if Death, now so close to finally catching me, was trembling with anticipation.

Ahead, I could hear the low trickle of what would once have been a terrible waterfall. The valley was drooling like a baby, or someone in a coma. I couldn’t know how high Zion sat, how many stairs pilgrims from the Great Plain had climbed to come to this place, or how far we would have to fall to escape it once and for all.

Our hooves coasted through the water, like oars, sending ripples through the calm. And no one spoke. It was as though there was an electricity in the air, like that before a thunderstorm, and I could hear the wind, sending shivers through the pine trees that had been hidden away behind the bulwarks.

And then, there was lightning. And I was the only one whose nerves weren’t plucked into a panic, who didn’t pound at the water and send languid ripples to spread out around us. For a while, I was Damascus on the Road: a runaway from the city and the fallout, watching the dogs go by as lightning danced across the sky. I was one of the first out. And I was fearless… for a while.

The soldiers turned their rifles up at the statue, and their fence fell apart around us. But, like lambs stunned by the sight of a thunderhead, rolling and flashing over the hills, we didn’t even think to make our escape. There was a hole in the sky there, and the lighting came springing out of it, while a voice like thunder rolled off of the valley’s tongue.

AND SO… THE LAMB OF BABYLON BARES HER NECK.” I was Damascus in the sand: a pioneer coming into the valley of death, watching dogs come up out of the earth while something soaked my head as if in wine. It was her voice, but as different as wildfire is to candlelight. The Zebras fired up at the hole in the sky, which had widened so that we could no longer see the statue, but their bullets crumpled against shields that were as bright as neon. There was a silhouette at the heart of this new storm, and I mistook it for the stone Pegasus, blackened in the sun.

LISTEN WELL, SHEEP WOMAN: AND KNOW THAT YOU HAVE SHAKEN THE CRIB OF A GOD!” But then, as a volley from Caliber’s rifle plucked inky feathers from its wing, and I heard Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum screaming Abomination, I understood why the words had to come bursting out as if from a pit somewhere inside my head. I had taken a knife to the throat of this maniac alicorn, and cut out her voice.

AND IN ITS TANTRUM, IT WILL TAKE THE WORLD AS A RATTLE -” The voice was cut off, as Ash threw up a tempest of shrapnel and the ugliest words in the Faith’s ancient language. The alicorn had disappeared like a magician in a cloud of smoke and glitter, but Ash would not stop firing until all the embers left behind by that black magic had come sinking down into the water. Her face was streaked with tears, dotted with some kind stardust. Her mane was a field of lilac set on fire for the setting sun.

We stood there, all of us, shaking. And it was quiet, until Caliber flashed the bewildered Zebras a smile as crooked as that stone Pegasus, and shrugged. “Sorry about that… I guess it followed me home.”

Before they could train their rifles back onto us, there was a ripple in the air behind me, and a whisper in my ear, though it came from the inside out. “COME, LAMB OF BABYLON, AND SEE WHAT YOUR WARS HAVE WOKEN.

And then, just before she cut another slit into the fabric of the sky, and threw us through it, I heard the rattle of plate armor, the rustling of red feathers, and the yelping of a den of savages, emptied out over the Pegasus Bridge.

JUST TO KEEP THEM COMPANY WHILE WE’RE AWAY.” The alicorn had rolled a battlefield off of her back, and I almost felt cheated, as she took me into her magic, and warped me away from it.

*** *** ***

Together, we went down a path that only Gods could walk. We sailed through nebula, span around the pillars of creation, slipped through an hourglass, and were pulled down the throat of a horsehead. We were stirred into the milk of the galaxy. And then, spat out into open space, left to drift into the spaces between the stars.

It was dark. And I would never know if all those lights had been stars, or the spots that float across one’s eyelids after staring into something bright. I was in a steel chamber and beams of something as clean and as pale as moonlight shone down from the narrow windows on the walls. I could feel her standing over me, her breath warm on my neck.

O SOVEREIGN LORD!” Her voice filled my head, so that it felt as though it would burst, repeating the very words that had come out of the abomination’s throat just before I slit it. “I HAVE DONE IT. I HAVE FOUND THE ONE THAT SET THE WORLD ON FIRE.

I looked up, only to find a broad terminal screen built into the wall, staring back at me. It flickered, and a thousand voices seemed to whisper to me, coming from everywhere and all at once, their language scrambled. Who wrote the page put to the pen of a thousand writers? Who killed the king put to the knife of a thousand turncoats?

BUT-“ Something was speaking to her. There was a voice in her head – voices – and I could hear them spilling out of her ears, out of her mouth. There was anguish in her eyes. Whatever they were saying – it was hurting her; insulting her. She was not a slave taking lashes across her back, or a lover being thrown out with stained sheets. She was a child, being told that she was unwelcome in the world; that she had been a mistake.

The screen was filled with a boiling, angry white, and I heard the voices come out of her, wailing. The alicorn was crying, staring up at the screen, as if her eyelids were being held open by little hooks. “I… I DON’T UNDERSTAND.”

Symbols began to flash across the screen, and slowly took on the shape of our Equestrian alphabet, as if the machine was only just learning our language. And, only then, did I begin to think of it as a child; to take the babble at the back of my mind as the gurgling of a newborn. And the flashing lights as the beating fists of its first tantrum.

Metaphor.

The word blinked at the middle of the screen. Shivering and lonely as the first star in the sky.

She is not a slave or a lover
She is not a child.

And then, together, we found the answer.

She is a toy, being outgrown.

The abomination’s shadow filled the room, as she was pulled up into the air, and splayed out like a screaming marionette, as if strings had been stitched into the tips of her wings. NO. The word pounded into the machine’s cold whispering, and punched a hole in it. NO. NO. NO. My head felt crowded, and I caught myself looking for a way out.

But there was no escape. There was no way out of the chamber. At least, not that I could find.

I saw a pinprick of light at the tip of her horn, and as she screamed, as her feathers were plucked, I watched the light grow, like that hole in the sky. She was opening a door, and I would be damned if I didn’t follow her out.

I threw myself towards the alicorn, and leapt up at her naked chest as if to embrace her: to feel her heart beating against my cheek - to feel her magic taking me in like a bubble might the point of a needle, just before it popped - to run away with her. To quiet. To Zion.

To galaxy.

*** *** ***

It was bright. And a battlefield unfolded all around us. The water shone as it was thrashed up under their hooves, and there were flowers of fire, all red and black and angry, opening up to the sun. At least a dozen of Zion’s savages stood around us, and Dakarai fired out at them with his shouldered rocket launcher. When the bubble finally popped, there was hysteria: howls and gunfire, curses and the clicking of empty rifles.

The alicorn fell to her knees, as her wings were weighing her down like a wet ballgown. She had only just gotten her hooves off the ground, when Ash ran over to us, emptied out a barrel of fire into her belly, and leapt up onto her back.

“Abomination!” She cried, as if it were a name. “You will soon know if dead gods can dream.”

The pilgrim’s hair was so wet that it had become black, and clung to her forehead like seaweed, even as the alicorn bucked and pushed tired wings through the smoke. But, as Ash beat another drum against the bottom of her shotgun, I saw the alicorn horn light up like a match, and could only watch in awe as she knitted herself a pair of neon wings, and splinters of her shield magic came to replace those plucked feathers. Then, still together, they took off.

Caliber threw her weight against me, her hooves slipping for what might have been the first time. I could feel the heat of her rifle on my belly, and tried to count the dead, as they bobbed in and out of their shallow graves.

Dakarai and his Lieutenant stood, as little more than silhouettes before their pillaring, red flares. Caliber wrestled the last of the savages away from me, even as he tried to climb over her like a fanatic admirer, clutching pen and portrait, over a bodyguard. She cracked his head open against a stone, and the water went red around our hooves.

I looked up again, and saw the alicorn like a butterfly with a broken wing, dancing around that ancient statue, even as the pilgrim on her back was pinched between those glassy feathers. “Goddesses…” I said, as the abomination came to hover over the bridge that drew a firm, silver line over the mouth of Zion. “They’re going to go over the edge.”

“Say the word, Grace!” Caliber sounded desperate, and the water made it so that she had to fumble with her rifle, looking down its scope like a clumsy assassin. “I’ll shoot that bitch down!”

But it was too late. She was casting her spell, and it already looked as though she had skewered the sun on her horn.

The alicorns’s wings seemed to shatter, and she let herself fall. Two silhouettes went sailing over the sunset: one like an enormous bird with an arrow in its breast, and the other like a baby that had slipped out of the stork’s beak. The abomination was limp, and Ash’s bandages trailed behind her like a torn blanket.

There was a flash. But only one of the figures disappeared in the folds of that bottomless magic.
Then, like a coin tossed into a fountain, Ash hit the water, and sent ripples down the sickle of the Pegasus Bridge.

*** *** ***

I held the pistol steady, keeping Dakarai and his Lieutenant still as Caliber waded through the water, and began towing in the shipwreck that was Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum. The Zebras stared through me, scowling at a postcard of Equestria. To the northeast, the sun was cooling its belly in an enormous lake, and the statue arched its wing over it, as if to wave goodbye to the mountains and the pines as they marched down onto the shores of that glacial water.

Here we were again, in a beautiful place: at war.

I heard the pilgrim coughing up water, and the sound was like music to me. Ash was still alive. “Alright, Doc…” Caliber lifted her hoof, and pushed my father’s automatic down. “Doesn’t look like she sprung any leaks. But once we break even with what’s left of The House here: You’d better give her a good going over.”

“I will see you scrubbed off of the tongue of Zion!” The Lieutenant stomped his hoof, as if to sound out an exclamation point. “You brought that demon down from the stars! You killed my men!” Caliber had confiscated his rifle, only to find that its glyphs had lost their color, just as his belts of ammunition ran dry. Now, the weapon had half of its barrel buried in the sand, and stood like a lonely cross over the graveyard behind us.

Caliber rocked her weight back, like a dog about to pounce, and I had come to know the mare so well that I heard the words rolling off of her tongue even before she spoke. We just saved your ass!

“Lieutenant.” Dakarai stepped forward, and bowed his head. “It’s over.” The two of them locked eyes, and even for how sunken they had become in the skulls that masked their faces, I could see something unspoken pass between them then. The Lieutenant looked away from Equestria, whose false God had spilled enough blood to paint this place’s water the color of wine, and whose heroes had clouded its skies with smoke. He turned back to the graveyard: to the anemic glyphs that spun around his empty rifle, like doves around a cross.

“It’s over.” Then, without so much as a glance back at us or the sunset country whose highways and wheat fields we would soon escape to, he began to march into Zion, with Dakarai falling into step behind him. One held his head up high, while the other let his hang, forgetting his pride and reminding me that, in the end, we were not so different. At the end of the war, we were all survivors.

Caliber watched them go through narrowed eyes, suspicious even though they had given their weapons up to their own watery graves. I left her, and went to sit down beside the pilgrim, who lay on her back, and stared up into the storm. I could see its weight bending the pine trees that dotted the lake’s shore, could see it sending strange ripples to fade out across the water, like radio waves into open space.

Ash was so still, her eyes so full of sky, that I thought she might have slipped away.
But, as far as I knew, the dead couldn’t cry.

We’ll get her, Ash,” I said.

“I know.” She looked up at me, and the sun was in her eyes. “I was ready to die today… But we were meant for each other.” At the time, together there in the water, I had thought she was talking about us.

I felt Caliber glowering at my side, as one might feel the warmth of a fire. “That was fucked.” Her breath came out as steam, and she was so close that it felt hot on my neck. “This whole valley is fucked.” Her collars fluttered, as a draft came rolling through the bulwarks, as if to say: If you don’t like it: Leave. “I can’t stand it… I just can’t stand it.”

She went on, lighting a cigarette, as I helped Ash out of her tattered vest. “Biblical shit’s popping out of thin air; the winning hand is getting passed around like a drunk nun… You can’t breathe in too deep for the smoke. You can’t drink the water. Hell, I bet if you stopped to smell the roses, you’d end up hogtied and hallway to a ritual sacrifice.”

There was panic in Ash’s eyes, as I started to peel her bandages, which the water had all but ruined. “What are you doing?” She started to rock her weight from side to side, like a turtle flipped over onto its shell. “Stop!”

I put on my best this-isn’t-going-to-hurt-a-bit smile, even as I shot Caliber the same look that had passed between a thousand doctors and nurses before us: Get the sedatives. Instead, the mercenary pinned her down by the shoulders. And, with the cigarette in her mouth and the pistol hovering at my side, we must have looked more like a couple of thugs pilfering a tourist who had taken the wrong turn.

I wouldn’t have been so rough on the shy little mare, if it weren’t for the long, ugly bruises that had been left across both sides of her ribcage, like the final, striking lines through a prisoner’s calendar. The alicorn’s glassy feathers might not have broken through her skin but, like any firm pinch, they had left their mark. I knew the beast was to blame, but pictured Gravity digging its talons into her sides, and pulling Ash down towards the end of her pilgrimage.

“This would be a lot easier if you would. Just. Stop. Moving,” Caliber said, as she wrestled with the pilgrim, who had become as slippery as a muddy piglet. But then, the mercenary’s eyes went wide. And, as I ran my magic along the bruise, dabbing at it just as Doctor Cross had with her cloths and salves, I knew why.

A bone had stopped one of the alicorn’s feathers from slipping through Ash’s ribs, and piercing her heart. A bone that, but for the grace of the Goddess, should not have been there.

“Ash…”

The Pegasus covered her eyes, and began to weep, as if she was jealous of that old statue for being left with at least one of its wings.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Equestrian Imperialist: You don’t take kindly to raiders, junkies or tribals trying to “settle” or “stay alive” in civilized lands.Against anyone who is just a little too ‘different’, you do +15% damage and have a bonus chance to hit in S.A.T.S.

Companions:
Ash is now Loyal!
Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum is a mechanical genius, and probably doesn’t know what a doubt feels like.

While she is in the party, your Repair skill is effectively 100, and your equipment will degrade half as quickly.

END OF BOOK III: LEVITICUS

BOOK IV: THE IDLER WHEEL

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BOOK IV: THE IDLER WHEEL

|*| I guess you think you know this story. |*|

You're the Lambs of Babylon. And Winter's predatory.

Is that the way they say it went?

The end of War: Easy. Elegant.

The end of Chaos: Heaven sent.

What you know, will not be known, when you are gone, and the world moves on.

When the curtains close, it was all a show, made up years and years ago.

You wrote the song. And wrote it wrong. The sun stayed up, for one day too long.

The rib is the shell, and the heart is the yolk. Swallow it and - Choke. Choke. Choke.

Those three tribes, all crowns, no rings. Those three tribes, all clowns, no Kings.

They had a heart. And its fires found you.

And that's why the devil just can't get around you?

Please.

The sky was black; The waters muddy.

The light of dawn came dim and bloody.

False depictions, benedictions. In the blood of Spring:

Summer's christened.

Twisted fictions, sick addictions. You're grown up now.

|*| It's time to listen |*|

Chapter 15: Poetic Justice

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 15: Poetic Justice
“Civilized? You think you’re civilized because you live in the burnt-out ruins of a beforetime town?”

|*| Orange Soda |*|

An old newspaper drifted down the highway, and as I soaked in the glow of the fluorescent lights, and listened to the fences rattle, shaken by the storm as a forest of wire branches and paper leaves, I felt far away from Zion. I could still see the silhouette of that stone Pegasus, leaping off of the bridge high above us, its one wing pushing apart the stars. The twilight was rolling over on the horizon, and sent ripples of sunlight through the prairie, so that it seemed to swell like an ocean in the eventide.

Ash and I sat on its shore, huddled together under the roof of a gas station. I had my back against one of the pumps, and watched Caliber as she argued with the merchants on the curb. She was little more than the red glow of her cigarette, dwarfed by the barrels of fire and kerosene lanterns that lit up the marketplace that had spilled out of a nearby town. She was raising her voice up at an overweight Saddle Arabian, who was selling kebabs, and wore tailored white robes and a hat like an upside down ashtray.

Orange bottles of Sparkle Cola clinked together at her side, all strung up by the neck, and glowed to match the alphabet of neon letters and firefly lights that lingered over the marketplace. She circled back to the station, with three sticks and the cigarette quivering between her teeth.

I could hear dogs barking, and their voices echoed off of Zion’s wall. The weary little town sat on the edge of the rippling plain, and seemed to be leaning into it, like a pier being sucked into a yawning bay. And, from the heart of the town, underneath the haggles and the howls, I could hear voices. And music, beating out a rhythm on the belly of the night, droning on under the sound of the fluorescent lights.

The kebabs tasted sweet, but their scent began to sting the back of my throat, as though I were licking honey right off the comb, and swallowing bees. I washed the feeling out with a mouthful of Sparkle Cola, and then plucked off another piece of meat, like strange fruit from a branch.

Caliber lit another cigarette and, for a while, she and I ate in silence, biting our tongues. Still, our voices might have slipped out of us, and I could almost feel them crowding in around Ash, whispering: What happened to your wings? What happened to your wings!? Tell us what happened to your wings!

“We were nomads,” she said, and the silence was blown to ribbons like a bicycle wheel pumped one too many times. We had walked out of Zion without saying a word to each other. “Living on the edge of the map. Just faraway enough so that we did not fear the Enclave’s sword. Just stubborn enough so that we would not take cover behind its shield. Our families had shrugged off their laws years and years ago, and built colonies in the northern skies, where the storms are wild and the seasons fight for their turn.”

“We were always going: sailing. Always close enough so that we could still call ourselves Equestrians. But always running. Better that, they said, than to have our fate wrung out in between the slow, clogged gears of their bureaucracy. Better that, they said, than to give up our liberty.”

“So the Enclave caught on, huh? Which one of those bastards clipped you?” Caliber asked. “I’d like to run their wings through a newspaper press.”

“No… not clipped,” I began, as I watched the stubs at her sides fluttering, like the useless stump of a three-legged dog, pumping as if in step with its paws. “Burned.”

The pilgrim nodded, as if that was fair: as if that was how stories were supposed to go. “Somewhere – perhaps tucked into a filing cabinet or shred to ribbons – there is an edict that named us terrorists, and called for our extermination.” She looked up at the Pegasus Bridge, as Zion’s dribbled over like a teething foal. “They set our colonies on fire, and boiled them into the atmosphere.”

“They ran us through with an enormous airship, not so different to the ones that we had once taken our wings from, and all I could think to do was look for my father in the belly of the colony. When the sirens began to sound, he had gone running down to the engines. But the colony was being disemboweled, and I was caught under the hooves of the crowds. It was as if we had all forgotten how to fly.”

“Are you sure it was the Enclave?” I asked, though it was heard to speak. Caliber frowned at me, as if to doubt their cruelty was to take their side; to salute their flag.

“From the day my father first fed me - first started making ships out of every spoonful - he set out to show me how our fleet, how each of our colony ships, was built from the bones of the old world’s navy.” She looked up at me, and her eyes were full of stars, like coins at the bottom of a shallow pool.
“I know a warship when I see one.”

I stared down into an oil stain, and sipped at my Sparkle Cola. There was nothing I could do to make it better, to heal these old wounds. “And, as it ploughed through our fleet, breathing fire, we could hear their bullhorns, rising over the screams: Too close to the Sun… You flew too close to the Sun.”

“Luna’s bones,” Caliber said. “How did you make it out alive?”

“I fell.” Now, she stared out over the lake, which looked like a wax painting of the sky, melting. “The ground was burnt out from under my hooves, and the fire licked up at my wings. I had nothing to tread but open sky.” I followed her eyes, as she looked back, and watched herself fall. “And then: water.”

“My body was washed up onto the shore, wings in blackened rags. And that would have been the end of it, if the Congregation had not found me there: if destiny had not swept me onto their doorstep. Just as it has swept them on to the Goddess’.”

Caliber’s cigarette hung from her bottom lip, and shook as she spoke. “How old were you?”

“It’s how I got my cutie mark.”

I stumbled to my hooves, and let the Sparkle Cola slip out of my magic. The bottle shattered against the curb, and little pieces of glass spread out over the oil stains, and caught the neon lights, like stars of many colors. I had to fix it. I had to go back, and catch her. But I couldn’t. And though my heart was beating as if to burst, and I felt like running, I didn’t know where to go: what to do. I was lost.

My knees were shaking, but I stood before them, like a star blinded by the stage lights and the cameras, and cried.

*** *** ***

After I was done, the music stopped, and the sound of raised voices and clicking rifles came out of the town as if in applause. We had come to know this sound well. It was the voice of Equestria: cursing down at us and crying for help all at once, like an old buck leaning out of the window of a burning building, telling the firefighters below to get off of his lawn.

I watched Caliber straightening out her back, to stare into the market and its baths of neon and smoke. Her ears twitched from side to side, as I tried to shake off the image of burnt feathers on a ripple, like birds on a wire. There was a gunshot, and Caliber went off like a greyhound, leaving Ash and I to waddle along after her, feeling clumsy and inelegant for seeing how well she had taken the new world in stride.

Would you like a kebab, young lady?” The Saddle Arabian asked, as we came up to the curb. His voice was deep, and made me think of a huge, snoring animal. “Brahmin, mutton, mouse! One free for every new visitor to Rosecrans.” Caliber skidded to a halt just ahead of us, and there was a rumbling, though it was not coming from the mouth of the towering desert horse. “The Buffalo comin’… take two kebabs.”

“Buffalo? I’d say Lucky us, but that sounds like a fucking stampede.” Caliber led us into the town then, and we came through its neon gate as if passing under an electric rainbow, with half of its bulbs blown out. “If they don’t pay us any mind, chances are this whole town might be flat before sunup.”

She rushed us through the dimly lit streets of Rosecrans, whose houses looked like they had been sat on and whose cars had been stripped to the bone. We came to a crossroads, where wires had been slung across steel lanterns, and the few traffic lights whose eyes had not been blackened, shone green.

Rosecrans wasn’t much more than a boneyard. Shingles hung off of the roofs like autumn leaves, and windows full of broken glass flashed like snapping, toothy mouths.

There was another gunshot, as we saw a handsome mare at the middle of the crossroads, pointing her rifle into the sky. Her mane looked to have been carved from stone, but it could hardly be seen under a rawhide hat. Her coat matched the colors of the prairie, as if she had been born to lower her belly to the earth, and prowl. She was dressed like a comic book sheriff, and as the beads of a dreamcatcher clicked against her rifle, I couldn’t help thinking how out of place she seemed in this gray and electric suburb.

“Listen and listen well, Mayor… You’d better get your boys out of the street!” She hollered, in a voice that might have bubbled up from a belly full of smoke and cognac. “Otherwise we’re all road kill!”

Tin cans began to rattle in the gutters then, and on the sidewalk, a set of dice and a stack of poker chips clicked against one another like castanets, or chattering teeth. Someone had been gambling here, and each hand of cards stretched out like the wings of a bloody dove, with crowns and scepters tucked in between its feathers. This stranger, and the posse at her side, had turned the night around.

The entire town seemed to have its eyes on one buck – an overdressed earth pony who had been knocked back against the curb, and wrung a loose bowtie out between his hooves, as his cufflinks glinted in the streetlight. Despite his outfit, he didn’t look out of place with the rest of the townsfolk, and might even have been throwing down some caps in that abandoned dice game. In fact, with his pinstripe vest and starched collars, he looked like a winner: a champion in the gutter.

“Fine,” said the Mayor. “But you’re going to get what’s coming to you.” There had been a circle closing in around the mare, but now, a dozen bucks armed with every from hunting shotguns to broken bottles spun on their hooves, and the circle was broken. “Buffalo comin’. Everypony get inside.” The mare smiled, and began to slink away, with her posse trailing along behind her like a pack of snickering hyenas.

A Saddle Arabian mare glided by me, and eyes that were as wild and as dark as the tempest shone out from behind her burka. Its fabric, like the night sky folded over, was more elegant than anything I’d seen in my mother’s fashion magazines. It had me thinking that this was some sort of exiled Princess, searching for a new throne in the prairie.

A few of the ponies were dressed - not in skirts and square-necked dresses, or the lapels and loosened collars of their mayor – but in the same ashtray hats as the butcher; the same sparkling robes as this black princess. They walked away from the crossroads with their heads held high and their eyes calm, with a quiet dignity that reminded me of Damascus.

Soon, the streets were empty but for paper birds that had been torn up in the barbed wire, three mares who had bruised the ego of a Goddess, and the thunder. Everypony was likely tucked away in some basement or bomb shelter by now, as though we were not hearing hoofsteps, but sirens.

“We’re in.” Caliber clicked her hooves together, and smiled like that old devil called Chaos. “Didn’t you see what she was wearing?” I shook my head. “Buffalo hide. That was a poacher. And I bet she figured she could hide out here in Rosecrans. We help the Buffalo catch her, and we’ll get on like a straw house on fire. All we have to do is tell ‘em which door to go huffing and puffing on. Or, even better: do it for ‘em!”

Then, after putting an ear to the asphalt, and keeping an eye on the rattling dice, Caliber bustled us out to the edge of Rosecrans, and into the sightlines of the stampede.

In the distance, was a great wall of dust, a sandstorm whose belly had been colored gold by a thousand blades of grass, like a thousand little brushstrokes, rolling over the Great Plain. It blotted out the southeast, and mirrored the clouds that the northern horizon wore like a crown under its starry mane.

Ash stepped out onto the naked highway and became a figurehead to Rosecrans as it sailed over those buttery grasslands, and into that rolling thunder. She was wearing my father’s coat, though it fit her like an army jacket would a foal. With her dark eyes, and her jacaranda mane, it looked like she had rolled right out of a bed of cardboard and newspaper on the sidewalk. She looked like a beggar.

“Ascella… I don’t know if these Buffalo are like the ones in the desert-“ Caliber put a hoof on her shoulder, as if talking a madmare down from the side of a bridge. “But down south: they don’t just stop.”

“They’ll stop.” I knew that she was right, as it always seemed like the pilgrim had skipped a few pages ahead, and already knew how the story went. So, even as the skirts of the storm fell over us, and the earth shook as the rattle to some Godchild, we stood by her.

Then, as my bones stopped shaking and my teeth stopped clattering, everything went quiet, and the storm rolled its eye on to Rosecrans.

“My name is Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum.” The little beggar mare raised her voice, and it parted the dust so that a headdress of white feathers, whose tips had been dipped in ink or oil, could be seen. The head that wore this crown was almost reptilian, its eyes like two boreholes, and its skin as wrinkled as the parched tongue of Zion. “And I am a Pilgrim: not a Poacher.”

The Buffalo grunted, and blew steam out of his nose. “I fought many battles beside a Pilgrim.” Caliber eyes became bright. “I fought many more against a Preacher.” Then, they seemed to have flipped like coins, polished on one side, and dull on the other. “Same Gods. To one they said peace. To the other: war.” His words came like sailing stones, grinding their way across the sand.

“We have seen you. You come out of Zion smelling of smoke and blood. Tell me what I must think your Gods are whispering to you: peace or war. Tell me that you are not like the one who cannot age: the blue eyed devil who came out of Zion before.”

“Blue eyed devil?” Caliber bristled. “Hold on a minute, pal. I think that’s taking it too fuc-“

“We can prove it.” Ash spoke up, cutting the mercenary off. “The Poachers you are hunting have hidden themselves somewhere in Rosecrans. We will find them, and bring them out to you.”

The Chieftain, who was the only Buffalo who seemed to be doing anything more than breathing, chewed on the pilgrim’s words for a while. Watching him blink was almost narcoleptic, but eventually, some of his clansmen began to harrumph and stomp their hooves, and he nodded.

“We must have their ringleader alive.” Behind him, one of the warriors rocked from side to side, and his feathers looked like knives, as they might have been dipped in blood. “The rest are yours.”

“Sounds good,” Caliber said. “Way I see it: we can get the pups to turn Mama over for the sake of their own sorry hides. Won’t even have to fire a shot.” The warriors were glaring at me, their eyes colored in shades of red that could have been dug up out of the earth. Their nostrils flared as Caliber laid out her plan. “You’re boys don’t have a problem with letting the rest of those crooks run, do they?”

“I don’t.”

“Not good enough.” Caliber spat on her hoof, then thrust it towards the Chief.” And, for a moment, I thought she was about to try polishing out the great Buffalo’s wrinkles. “If those Poachers turn over their boss without starting any trouble: your clan lets ‘em go.” Her eyes narrowed. “Shake on it, Chief.”

It might have been a little humiliating for the old Buffalo to rock his weight to the side, and give an Equestrian girl her way, but his face didn’t betray anything but the same, unshakable pride. Still, I thought I saw that red Warrior’s frown deepen, as if he was disgusted by this compromise between us. Ready to leave, Ash had begun to drift, like a newspaper hovering over the gutter.

But then, as if she was trying to bring the Buffalo’s temper to a boil, Caliber reached up, and plucked a feather from the Chief’s headdress. “Just so they know I’m not lying.” The Chief harrumphed, and even that would have been enough to send another mercenary running scared.

“So what’d this mare really do, anyway?” Caliber asked, as she tucked the feather into her vest. “Make a rug out of your spirit animal, or something?”

“She is wearing my eldest son as a coat.”

“Huh.” She said, looking around as if to find something to say.
“Must be a little big around the shoulders.”

*** *** ***

Why, Caliber?” The mercenary furrowed her brow, and rapped at the basement door, doing nothing to answer Ash’s question. “Aren’t we here to make bannermen of these Buffalo?”

“Yeah.” I could almost hear the Poachers ignoring us inside, and began to feel a little sympathy for those missionaries of the Faith, who had so often played drummer at the doors of my neighbors, with scripture tucked under one arm, and the Celestial cross jingling against their chests. “But I don’t like the way ol’ Sitting Bull was spitting bull about the boss.”

“The boss? You mean Damascus?” I asked, though she didn’t seem to hear me.

“I take my orders from one of the last good ponies in the North – in anywhere - A shining pillar of moral strength!” She was almost punching bruises into the soft pinewood now, and with the automatic pistol hovering at my side, I felt like a police officer poised before a battering ram. “Not some blue. Eyed. Devil.”

The doors swung open, and clapped Caliber across the ear, as if scolding her out of a bad tantrum. Ash and I skipped back, but settled into place as if turned to stone, as three rifles clicked at us. Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.

“Well, good evenin’ ladies!” The handsome stranger popped her head out of the cellar, laughing through eyes the color of the old world’s sky. “The name’s Hennessy.” She lowered her rifle, and tapped at the dreamcatcher she’d nailed into its side. “Spirits told me you’d be coming… and that you’re looking to buy.”

*** *** ***

“That looks like angel dust.” Caliber drew little circles through a fine white powder, which covered the floor of the cellar. She kept her voice low, though the poachers jeered and giggled all around us, eyes wide and stubble speckled white. They might have put their snouts to the floorboards, and patrolled the basement like so many bloodhounds.

“Works like angel dust, too,” said the mare, as she climbed up onto a nearby bench. Pieces of a broken pool table lay scattered around the room, all flaking green and damp, and there was a litter of cues, liquor bottles and skulls that had been so violently cracked open that they looked like eggshells whose yolks had been lapped up. “Couple of the boys couldn’t help breathing it in when we came tumbling in here.”

Hennessey hadn’t even bothered to confiscate our weapons, but I could feel rifles trailing us from all around the room. This was the new world, where narrow eyes were so often joined, and security cameras so often replaced, by the sights of a gun. Even if she thought we were here looking for a reasonably priced Buffalo skin coat, her posse would be ready to gun us down.

“Hope they’re not too far gone,” Caliber began. “We’re not here to shop. But I got a deal to cut.” I kept my father’s pistol pointed up, as if aiming at the room’s one lightbulb, which hung from a wire like a neuron from a raw nerve. Without it, everyone would be blind.

“The Buffalo want you to surrender!” I said, a little too loudly. "We're helping!"

A mad cackle passed over the hyenas, though their ringleader only cocked her smile, and looked me up and down. “Voice as pretty as that picture show face of yours.” Suddenly, she had a flagon in her hoof, and bits of froth spilt out of it as she stumbled up and down the bench, like a drunken gymnast. “So I take it y’all are mercenaries… that or a caravan. Pin you on a map, and we’d have Red somewhere down San Palomino way. Miss Knockout here has her star on the streets of Applewood.”

“And you…” She rolled her pale eyes over onto Ash, and the room became quiet as the rumpled pilgrim stared back. “I figure you must be one of those Los Pegasus crackpots, hollerin’ about getting tipped off the side of a flying saucer. No? Well, I can’t be all wrong. There’s just something… alien about you.”

“We came from Zion.” I said, thinking that it was now up to me to keep Ash’s secret a secret.

“Blew in with the smoke, then.” Her eyes narrowed. “Wait… Zion!” She thrust her hooves out, as though it were a curse word. “You’re from that Stable!”

A ripple passed through the room then, and I heard poker chips hitting the floor like so many bullet casings, as the boozehounds and baseheads crowded in around me. I saw that some of the faces belonged to the ponies of Rosecrans, the ponies who had filled these ash trays, emptied these broken bottles and powdered the room.

Hennessy leaned in, purring, and her breath smelt like barley and old meat. “Tis the season… And nothing sells quite like a Stable pony. Here I was, with nothing but skin coats for when the Coltilde comes around. But now...” She put her arm around me. “O Celestia, y’all are too good to me.” I could feel the hyenas pressing in around us, drooling as they waited for the lion to make its kill. “If I can wriggle us both out of Rosecrans alive: You’re going to make me so much money.”

“There's your problem.” Caliber smiled, as she was the mare with the trump card: with the weighted dice. “See, I did a little di-plo-macy. Got it set so all these boys can run free. ‘Long as they leave the Buffalo a little… consolation prize.” She prodded the mare’s chest, as if she meant to cut out her heart, and offer it as a plumb to the Gods. “Matter of fact, I even had the Chief shake hooves on it.”

“Buffalo don’t compromise,” Hennessy said, laughing off the fear that had whipped across her face.

Caliber pulled out the feather, and held it over the mob.
“You ever try plucking the feathers off of a Buffalo?”

And, just like that, as if they couldn’t stand to go hungry any longer, the hyenas turned on their lion.

*** *** ***

By the time we wrangled Hennessy out onto the street, her nose had been smeared as red as a drinker’s and both of her eyelids were blackened, smeared as those of a harlot rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, and blurry pictures out of her mind. The Poachers carried her as a crowd would the champion of a bar fight, and she spat curses at hooves that had once followed her up the steppes.

I had taken her rifle, and held it over the crowd like a rod, herding them south, though some of the Buffalo had already begun to roam through Rosecrans, as if the town was to be kept on lockdown until it spat out this one bad seed. The weapon was set in mahogany, though it had a rusty silver barrel and an ivory magazine. Under the dreamcatcher, crude circles had been scratched into the rifle’s stock, and a mobile of beads and feathers hung below it, to catch passing nightmares by the heel, and pull them into the web.

Some of the locals had decided to add their bodies to the crowd, and so, around the Buffalo skin coats were those rumpled collars and rolled up sleeves, those torn stockings and tousled manes. And, on top of it all, limp as a ragdoll, was Hennessy: this dirty little city’s living sacrifice.

The Chief stood where we had left him, and the crowd began to break apart as we closed the distance between us, as we climbed the steps, and came to the altar where we would carve out her heart. That frowning red Warrior was pacing a furrow in the dirt behind him, but even he seemed to cheer up at the sight of our strange parade. The rest of his clan followed us out of Rosecrans, cottoning on to the side of the crowd like immense sweetgum seeds.

By the time we reached the edge of town, a sandstorm had gathered under our hooves, and as the mob took its last step, it spun around us like ground nutmeg stirred up from the bottom of a glass.

“Alright, fellas: you can go ahead and set her down!” Caliber’s voice parted the crowed, and Hennessy sank into it like a pill into water. “It’s over.”

Caliber sidled up to the Chief, waving his feather over the ragdoll that had once been the poacher’s ringleader. “Ta da.” Ash and I sat down beside the mercenary, so that we were facing the crowd, who might have just finished stoning the body between us. “That is one poached poacher, if I do say so myself.” As if to prove her point, the mare started bleeding out onto the road, like a pierced yolk.

“Ta…da.” Hennessy rolled onto her back and there, quivering to her lips, was a smile. “Goddesses… I would’a loved to be a… a magician.” Watching her twitch, I couldn’t help thinking of the radroaches that would sometimes creep into the Stable, only to be crushed under someone’s baton or boot.

“This is her.” The Chief nodded slowly, as Caliber showed off her own crooked smile, looking up at him like a filly, proud of some masterpiece hidden in the latest mess she’d made. I’d never really noticed it before: but the mercenary’s teeth were perfectly white. “Now… the rest die.”

Then, turned loose by these two mares, whose smiles were so much like his: there was Chaos. There was thunder and sand, as though the Gods had seen the blackness of the offered plumb, and had been insulted; As if they had taken their hammer to the altar, and the temple was falling to pieces around us.

There was Caliber, screaming, shredding her voice against the storm from this asylum in its eye. And there was the feather, torn to pieces under their hooves like Caesar’s laurels in the whitewater.

*** *** ***

Where is he?” Her mane was coming out of place in little springs, and though even the Buffalo seemed to glide through all the dust that they had churned up, she shouldered her way through it like a crowd. “Where is that son of a bitch?

Ash and I stood surrounded by a rose garden of corpses turned to a pulp, like two dusty orphans in a city of clay that had been melted in some deluge. The poacher’s bodies had been ground into ocher, and then smeared over the road like the first sunset over the wall of a cave. But for a few locals, who had slipped through the fingers of this Discord and run back into Rosecrans, only Hennessy had been spared. She lay, licking the salt out of her wounds, beside us.

“You bastard!” Caliber had found the Chief, and beat her hooves against his wrinkled face. He closed his eyes, and let the mercenary exhaust herself. “We had a deal! I promised them. I promised –“ She was too lightheaded to keep her sentences from slipping away from her then. “You made me a liar!

The mercenary finally let herself collapse against him, and one hoof slumped over the Buffalo’s horn, while the other ran down his painted cheek, as though they were about to dance. Her face was pressed against the malpais between his eyes, and I could almost hear a needle drop, so that slow, haunting music could set a rhythm for their hoofsteps.

“You shook my hoof.” We were all so tired. Whether for fresh bruises that were still spreading out as blue inkblots, for being cheated, reliving the sacking of a city in the sky, or for getting up onto the stage once the show was over, and crying: crying because the curtains were closed, and you could do nothing to open them up again. “You shook my hoof!” She threw her weight back, and struck him across the cheek, breaking a bar of war paint into white splinters.

Like bubbles over boiling water, the anger swelled out of her, only to pop out and simmer itself flat. She was breathing it in, and blowing it out; filling herself up, emptying herself out. “Say something…” She said, begging him. “Aren’t you going to say something?”

“Didn’t I tell ya?” Hennessy twisted her neck, and looked up with something like sympathy in her eyes. “Buffalo don’t compromise. Hell, they’re probably going to drag me down this highway until I’m in ribbons.”

“So that’s it?” Caliber took a few steps back, and curled her lip up over those milk white teeth, disgusted by that stern, totem face, whose rules were so different to our own. “That’s it? You don’t even care enough to try wriggling your way out of this through some loophole.” She scoffed, and it sounded like the breath had been knocked out of her. “Do you?”

Then, as if someone had twisted her dials to the farthest notch, she was screaming. “Do you!?

I had to cover my ears, as she might have rolled her tongue along the roof of her mouth, and whipped it down with enough force to send an echo rolling out into the tundra beyond the plains. Though it was not the steel in her voice that had clicked before the thunderclap, but the trigger of her rifle.

Caliber had taken the bit of her battle saddle in between her teeth, and wrenched it as one would the cord of a chainsaw. And, as she stumbled away, losing her balance, I saw blood rushing through the wrinkles of that old Buffalo’s face, as if some red spring in the malpais had broken through all of its dams at once.

His irises began to drift out of place, like planets knocked out of orbit. And, as the Buffalo swayed from side to side, I thought I could hear Equestria groaning under his weight. The blood ran off of his face like so many tears and so much snot, to pool in between those macerated bodies. His mouth lolled open and, finally, the Buffalo Chief broke his silence with a pitched down wail.

Huh!?” Caliber wasn’t done. And, as her hoof skidded through his blood, she looked like a dancer on ice, with her legs twisted. She picked herself up and, always staring into those untethered eyes, pulled the cord of her rifle again. “Do you!?” Their voices were either side of the piano then, and each might have gone bursting out of the farthest ends of the scale, had the second bullet not unstitched the Buffalo’s brows, and ground his brains against his skull like a pestle to cornmeal in a mortar.

Ash and I held on to each other, as the Buffalo toppled, and rocked Equestria as if to tilt it out of bed. With one last drumbeat, the Chief of the Buffalo fell, and Caliber stood over him, as if she were the champion of the world, and stared down into the totem whose face she had turned to clay. When the dust settled, we looked out at all the faces that were still as hard and as knotted as the trunk of an oak tree, and my heart started skipping. Fudge, fudge, call the judge…

Caliber let the blood wash over her hooves, wearing the face of a mare watching a money tree burn, as that great red Warrior came walking up to us. He began to laugh, and the sound came out slow and coarse as a boulder rolling over. Hehh Hehh Hehhh.

Despite everything, I caught myself admiring him then. For in a crowd of shimmering dark eyes, like pieces of coal being pressed under so many brows, his were laughing. I wished that I could find the courage, someday, to be the only one who laughed.

He was only a little smaller than the Chief, but wore rusted plate armor across his sides. He might simply have stripped the doors off of a jalopy, as if pulling the wings off of a fly, and bent its hood over his own hunched spine. Caliber didn’t even flinch as he put his hoof around her shoulders, and rattled her from side to side. She was in shock, and I saw the stars that had already been spinning around her head being thrown out of orbit, and digging their points into the bloodied earth, as the Buffalo shook her.

“Here’s an Equestria I’d like to fight!” She looked a little queasy, and I could only stare, waiting for my Caliber to snap back into place. The red warrior might have had a manticore run its claws in between his snout and his smiling right eye, and his scars made him look almost as wrinkled as the malpais, running dry beside them. “And what a battle it would be: The Chiefslayer against the rightful Chief!”

“Wh-wha?” She asked, getting ahold of herself just enough to shrug away from his hoof. “Chief?”

Hehh. Hehh. Hehhh. “Yes, Chiefslayer.” He was giddy. And, were it not for his size and the timbre of his voice, I would have compared him to a child in a paper crown; drunk on their own power. In fact, as he spoke, it was as if someone had taken the voice of a boy, and pitched it down. “You just killed my father.”

Caliber had made mulch of one totem head, just as Cody wore the skin of the next over her shoulders. And I had the terrible feeling that, for sending its crown rolling so far down the line, the two mares might have rushed the Plains into a season of chaos.

“For too long has the name Tuskegee wallowed in the smoke of his peace pipes… It’s time we remember who we are.” He looked around, as the rest of the Buffalo widened their sunken eyes, and watched him pluck the feathers out of his father’s crown. “But first… we should celebrate!” Then, to make his own crown, he stuck the feathers dipped in ink between those which had been dipped in blood.

When he was done, the buffalo punched Caliber across the shoulder, and she nearly fell to pieces. “Come, Chiefslayer. I think I owe you a drink.”

*** *** ***

The rest of Rosecrans was slowly lifting its head out of the sand, as though the howling of the fallout had died down, and now a dozen Stable doors could be heard rolling off of their hinges. Still, only the bartender had the courage to stay anything less than a stone’s throw away from Tuskegee. And we found ourselves in another ring of bodies; all pressed up against the tavern’s papered walls, or crowding the stairs to the brother above the bar.

Even Celestia, whose picture was nesting in a bed of paper flowers at the heart of an incense shrine in between shelves of colored glass bottles, was watching, as Caliber nursed her drink.

Most of the Buffalo were outside, keeping watch over Hennessy and sharing their thoughts over the change in management, very loudly. Some had followed us through the tavern’s wide doors, seeming just as pleased with their new Chief as he was with himself. Two of them were trying to play pool at one of the tables, and I didn’t know if they had noticed the mares, all too afraid to wriggle out from under it.

Everyone looked their best. Every mare had bruised her eyes or pierced her skin, hanging bottlecaps from their ears or wearing bike chains around their necks. Just as every buck had pressed out his shirts and rolled up his sleeves, pinning bottlecaps to their cuffs and slicking back their hair with grease from the same chains. The light, which was rich for the shades over every bulb and the tinted glass over every candle, rippled over the bottles, and I couldn’t help basking in it all a little bit.

The smell of cigarettes filled the air, and there were still squeals coming from upstairs, but it had been a long time since I’d been somewhere that felt so much like a church. With Celestia on the wall, and everypony in quiet awe, it felt like a holy place. It was as if we had spoiled the fun by walking in with God.

Still, my chest felt tight, as what Tuskegee called firewater made the air burn as I breathed it in. And Caliber was smoking a cigar: the proud father of a dictatorship.

The Chief of the Buffalo kept patting her on the back, and had the bartender make it so that she could never finish her drink. She took the whiskey in doses, like medicine, and as the record player spun in the corner, I could see her dancing, just a little bit, despite herself.

“You know, Chiefslayer, I used to be a mercenary!” Some of the other Buffalo cheered and emptied their glasses at that. “I was the best Mi Amore and its glass girls ever saw! … Until that old softhorn pulled me back home by the bloodline.”

“Do you know how he got me?” He nudged Caliber, and she almost lost her grip on the counter. “Do you?” She shook her head. “Well, I’ve only met one Crystal Pony crazy enough to try bedding a Buffalo. And after all that time in Mi Amore, well… when he told me he needed some grandsons: I was ready to get to work!” The Buffalo laughed, and the tavern shook, as their armor clicked like the feathers of so many steel birds. “I didn’t leave the female’s camp for a month.”

I felt sick, and asked the bartender for an orange soda. Some of the Buffalo’s hooves were as bloody red as Tuskegee’s eyes, and though Caliber had given the Poachers what little justice the new world could afford by putting two bullets into his father’s skull, that hardly made us heroes.

I tried not to think about what had happened, and sank into the music that even Caliber and Tuskegee were letting themselves bob in and out of. I’d heard someone say that unicorns couldn’t dance. But I wasn’t in the mood to find out if they were right.

Ash had not come into the tavern, and went drifting off into the streets instead, if only to be pelted with the coins of kindly strangers. And so, as a few of the locals gathered up their nerves, and their skirts, and started dancing circles around the Buffalo, I felt like a teenager without a date.

“Another!” Tuskegee bellowed. “And when this one runs dry: we will beat our shoulders against the walls of this world, and make it remember us!”

The bartender didn’t waste any time before sliding out the next amber bottle. He had been the bell at the end of enough brawls, and lent his ear to enough drunks whose hearts had been broken as they fell down the stairs, to keep his cool around a few rowdy Buffalo. He had heard these songs a thousand times before, and moved with music as if he had no choice, like the ballerina on top of a music box.

And so, but for the few who still hugged the walls, babysitting their drinks, Rosecrans was dancing.

I knew that there would be no one to save tonight, and when Caliber tilted her head towards the door, she might as well have been the most handsome boy at the prom, holding out his hoof, even as my favorite song was spun out under the needle.

*** *** ***

“I’m so tired, Gracie.” We were out on the corner and, from down the road, I could hear a mare laughing as someone kissed her neck, and a buck cursing as he rolled his caps right into someone else’s pocket. “It’s been a long day.”

“Well… at least the sun’s set.”

“Yeah.” A drowsy smile spread across her face. “And once Tuskegee has worked this power trip out of his system, I’d bet anything on us having the Buffalo in our corner.” I could almost see her eyes getting prettier then, softening like chocolate coins.

“Now we just have to hoof it over to the radio tower, and get GNR ringing her bells over the east.” She lowered her eyelids, and I caught myself thinking that I had to stop her: as if the mare who I had never seen sleeping might not know how to wake up. “If we can get a line to Hell, Damascus can tell us if there’s anything left between us and Calvary.”

“We’d better wait for the sun to come up,” I said, as if tucking her in. The Great Plain, with its rolling pastures and scattered ruins, was not unlike a great ocean, dotted by the wreckage of a fleet torn apart in a passing storm. From what I had seen on the way down from the Pegasus Bridge, the highways crossed it like dotted lines. To leave Rosecrans now, in these darkest hours before the dawn, would be to throw ourselves off the side of an ocean liner: to fall from the lip of a city in the clouds.

Ash came running into the street and, behind her; I thought I could hear thunder. “What’s going on?” I asked, as the pilgrim skidded to a stop before us, losing her smile as if she was embarrassed by it. She rubbed her arm, rolling up the sleeves of my father’s coat.

“Tuskegee is about to do what his father wouldn’t… what Cyrus had for so long begged him to do.” Try as I might, I couldn’t help picturing that bloated old pilgrim, and the totem that Caliber had carved hollow. “He’s going to take back Cabanne.”

“Cabanne?”

“There is an ancient city, perched on a great mesa, which is said to cast the only shadow that falls over the Great Plain. It was empty until the Locusts came, blown out on the winds of the Middle Passage.” Like a sickness on the breath of Hell. “Cyrus fought a war against them once, trying to clean them out of the city. He would see them stamped out once and for all.”

“But what does Tuskegee have against the Locusts?” I looked back, and saw that Caliber was asleep. We had an anchor around our necks, keeping us from leaving Rosecrans until a buttery dawn was spread across the sky. If I woke Caliber now, I couldn’t know when she would let herself sleep again. “I mean, why is he doing this now?

The newly crowned Chief went tearing through the streets behind her, with a rope stretched taught in between his battle saddle and the fetlock of a mare who was clutching a rawhide hat in her crooked smile. But her face was quickly losing all of the laughter on it, as if it was being peeled off by the road.

“He is a Buffalo. He has something to prove.” Under the thunder, I could hear Hennessy yowling, and looked down at the dreamcatcher whose beads were clicking together at my side.
“And I asked him to.”

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Tag: Your skills have improved to the point where you can pick an additional Tag skill. Small guns is increased by 15. This effects your efficiency with ballistic pistols.

Chapter 16: Paper Planes

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 16: Paper Planes
“You’re even better than Captain Cosmos!”

|*| Hitchhikers may be Escaped Convicts |*|

The fog wrapped its arms around Rosecrans and held it, if not like a baby that could not keep its head up, then like someone bleeding out on the road. Everything seemed to be spinning, as the mist circled the town like a great school of fish through aquarium glass. Still, I could see the windmills and electrical pylons that dotted the plains. I could see the ruins and the streetlights, like sunken ships and gemstones in the sand, and the city of Cabanne like a castle in a fishbowl.

“So you don’t have, like, a chair for the husbands to sit in?” Caliber grumbled, as the Saddle Arabian mare unfurled another roll of fabric, to which the first stars might have been pinned. Ash needed a new outfit, and for how she and these desert horses seemed to glide from place to place, I couldn’t stop myself from dragging her into the market, and dressing her up as a filly might her favorite doll.

The sun had come up, and blown out the candles on Equestria’s windowsills. There was a tundra sprawled out across the lake, to the north, and it shone like white legs under the morning’s skirts.

“My husband is selling kebabs.” The Arabian nodded across the street, and the buck who first welcomed us to Rosecrans waved a hoof, trying to send the smell of his grill sailing over to us. Embroidery glittered like so much jewelry around the sleeves and neckline of his robe, which was the color of the sky, as if this seamstress had taken the mist under her needle. “The men usually wait with him.”

“I’d rather eat my contract than another one of those kebabs.” I could see the Saddle Arabian frown, though her face was covered by the darkest of the fabrics that were spread out over her table, in the shades of sunset to sunrise. Caliber stuck out her tongue, and pulled a pair of sunglasses down from the nest that was her mane. She had found them in the gutter. “You have fun, ladies. I’m going to go find some coffee.”

“That is him.” She bowed to her husband, and the fine calligraphy that ran along the length of her reins shimmered. Her eyelids were the color of dusk.

“Huh?”

“That is Kofi.”

Caliber held her head in her hooves, and groaned. “Alright just… just deal me out.” Like a stray dog, the mercenary began to slink away, keeping her head down. She wasn’t alone, as the marketplace, with its racks of sunglasses and breakfast troughs, might as well have been a nursing home to the hungover.

Ponies who, only hours ago, could have danced down red carpets and posed before the flashing lights of a hundred cameras, limped through the town with their ears low and their noses to the sidewalk, as if they were sinners too ashamed to look the sun in the eye. Only the Saddle Arabians walked with their heads high. And if I hadn’t known any better, I might have thought they couldn’t sleep and would not speak; that they were like wandering monuments to Kings dead in the saltwater and Queens buried in the sand.

I looked Ash up and down; at those blossoms of almond and lilac in her mane, and the star on her flank. Then, I knew she could be like those horses dressed in the many shades of the sky; I knew who she could pay tribute to. “Let’s try something in purple… something in Twilight.”

*** *** ***

Ash let the burka lie in a bundle over her shoulders and, bunched up inside of it, she wore a cashmere shawl not at all unlike the one that she’d kept around her neck ever since those five nooses drew tight. Across the outfit, which was clasped together by bands of gold, there was more of the night sky than there were fields of lavender. And across the lighter fabric, there ran swirls that might have been hieroglyphs for wind rolling over the desert. All in all, I was pretty pleased with myself, and grinned like an idiot as we went parading through the streets of Rosecrans; taking the long way out.

Caliber was wallowing in the shade of the shanties at the edge of town, and we scooped her up on our way down the broken road to Cabanne. Better to get away before the mercenary cleared her head, and worked out just how much of our money Ash was wearing around her neck alone.

Caliber kept the sunglasses in her mane, so that there lenses were like two coals in the fire, and even as the mist began to thin, she stared up into the southern sky, muttering curses under her breath. For the way she and Rosecrans were shriveling away from it, the sun had never seemed to burn so brightly. And I was worried that she might try to shoot it down.

The grass covered the Plain in brushstrokes of yolk and butter and the blood of rare meat. But as it licked up at the sky and threw up flower petals to dance around the pylons and the radio masts, to look at it was to watch painting after painting slide over one another, as the frames to an old cartoon.

The city of Cabanne stood like a set of white matchboxes, pulled up from the mesa that wore its palisade walls as a crown. I could see autumn leaves spilling out over the walls, like a fire. The mesa itself was less like a pillar than a Minotaur’s fist bursting out of the soil, with each finger curled more tightly than the last. The city center was perched on its index, while a litter of pale temples and townhouses dotted the rest. Around every finger, ran the wall, like a pair of brass knuckles.

There was already smoke trickling out of the city, as if the Minotaur was crushing a cigarette in its palm, and I wondered if Cabanne would still be standing by the time the Buffalo were done beating their shoulders against it. To them, even Canterlot might seem like a house of cards.

We passed a scrapyard then, where a flock of fighter planes lay with their steel feathers ruffled and their sterling plumage streaked with rust. Some had had their wings plucked off, and were as trampled as toys kicked around a playroom floor, while others were so bare and hollow that they might have been left behind by molting insects. They seemed to bob, as the grass swayed from side to side, and along every wing and atop every tailfin there rat a row of fat birds, like patricians bundled up in their togas.

They took off as our hooves crunched against the asphalt, and flashed through beams of sunlight, which had come down through the clouds just as they might through the surface of the sea. Then, all at once, the birds dipped away from the storm, and it was almost as though they had all bumped their heads against a glass wall: against the side of the bowl.

And then, as if someone had dropped a stone into the holy water that had flooded the world, a great ripple went rolling over the belly of the storm. Soon after it, there came another: much louder this time, much larger. And though the sky was still lurching, everything else became still.

In the space between us and the roof of the world, there was a pinprick, an opening out of thin air, though it was more like an eye being shocked from sleep than a whirlpool slowly spinning open. I could hear the very fabric of the sky tearing, as if the heavens were giving birth. Something came out of the hollow, even as it closed; something that belonged on the pages of a storybook or among the cardboard set pieces of cheap science fiction; something that might have been imagined out of a spoonful of medicine being fed to a tightlipped child. Here comes the spaceship…

It was built like one of those nautical warships, but coasted over the last fingers of the mist like a toy being passed from God to Godchild. Its two great sails might have been filled with stardust, as if the winds that turned the arms of the galaxy had steered it through the hole in the sky. They hung out over its starboard side, and were large enough to be draped over Hell, like two strips of gauze over a wound.

Its bow was not unlike a neck without its head, its collars folded back to bare the skin for an executioner’s axe. There was no figurehead but for a long antennae, like a maypole for all the wires that bound it to the ship’s masts. Its hull was not smooth, and I could see lights blinking out from the gaps in it. Shadows flitted over them, making the ship seem like an angry, untidy hive.

As it passed over us, I could see knots of rust like barnacles on its belly, and I thought I felt the ground shaking under my hooves. Its sails seemed to catch the fires of the sun then, and almost made the ship look beautiful: as a vulture who had stolen the wings of a dove.

“Caeli…” Ash said, while crossing her heart, as if hoping to fly. “What is that?”

The ship tilted, rearing as its great sails became dim, and smoke began to spill out of the end of its crusty abdomen. It swung around that matchbox, deck of cards, pack of cigarettes city, looking like a roach.

“I don’t know,” Caliber began, lifted a hoof to shade her eyes. “But that thing just beat us to Cabanne. And it looks a helluva lot more like a Locust than a Buffalo.”

*** *** ***

The mesa wore many crowns, as its palisade walls seemed to be the only things holding together all that old stone, like the hoops around a barrel. A wide cobblestone path had been spun around the fingers of the Minotaur’s fist, though it broke apart before the open space where the city’s gate had once stood. I couldn’t know whether the Buffalo or the battering rams of some ancient siege had brought it down.

There was smoke, and I imagined Tuskegee’s warriors knocking over torches and braziers in their bloodlust, setting fire to the Locust’s shrines. I could only hope that every one of their Goddesses of straw and thorn and flesh would be left in ashes before we left.

For now, Caliber marched us through what might have been called a warcamp, as the clan’s tents now stood like a wall of cloth and animal skin around the city. There were no flags. And there were no soldiers: only children too strong for their own good, resting so that they might return to their rampage through those castles in the sandbox.

A warband, all whooping and bright-eyed, nearly ran us down as they came back into the camp. The earth under my hooves was muddy, as the Buffalo had run it raw, stripping away the grass and sand as their stampede hammered through those darkest hours before the dawn. My hooves were getting wet, and I looked down at my own swollen reflection. I felt like a God as I watched myself walk in the water

Eventually, we came to a stake planted through the heart of the camp, and as I looked up at what had been tied to it, and beyond to that terrible airship hovering beside the city, I knew that I had been right: Chaos had come to the Plains, turned wild by the whipcrack of Caliber’s rifle. There, bound to the stake, was the mare who had helped her hold the door open for Discord: who shared their crooked smile.

Now, half of her face was in ribbons, and I could see death grinning out at me from behind the mask.

“Luna’s bones… she’s still alive.” Caliber looked up at the stake, with her eyes wide and her mouth hanging open. “Why?

“She chose not to die.” Tuskegee came out of one of the tents. There was a spear broken off in his side, and half of his face hung limp. Each furrow and wrinkle had become like a cut of dark meat, hanging behind the counter of a butcher shop. There was a gouge running under his right eye, and something like tar came trickling out of it. It was not blood, but some kind of medicine. “So she will fight again.”

“I might want to take that back.” Hennessy was slurring her words. Both she and the Buffalo Chief seemed drunk, as each had mangled one corner of their mouths.

“I never saw you for the warriors you were. Until now.” Tuskegee dug his hooves into the mud, and I thought he might keep sinking, like some old temple into quicksand. “And a warrior must die fighting.”

“Just give me one more minute, Tusk. I gotta…” I watched her chest swell up, so that the ropes were pulled in tight around it, as if to stop her heart from breaking free. “Just gotta catch the beat. Then you can cut me loose. Boy, I’ll turn Cabanne upside down and shake out those Locusts before you can say Kemo-sah-bee.”

Tuskegee laughed, and I saw that the feathers of his crown had already been reddened at their tips. Each of the tent’s colors had been changed as well, and I was made queasy by the smell of burning flesh, and the shape of some of the skins that had been hung up around the camp. I could hear the beads on the Poacher’s rifle clicking together at my side, and wondered if this was war: if the ship that hung over the city would open its mouth, and let out a bellyful of locusts.

“Tuskegee,” I began. “Do you know that ship?”

“Of course I do.” Even Hennessy started to wriggle, waiting for a name to come rolling off of his tongue. “The Deimos.”

She shook her head then, and smiled two smiles. “That sounds like a ‘Claver name. Figures: them and the Locusts were bound to start rubbing noses, with the way the Enclave’s scouts been buzzing circles around Cabanne.” She twisted her neck, and looked back at the ship, so that we only saw her good side. “Not like them to reel out the old anchor, though.”

“If only they weren’t too afraid to come out! We could remind them who first tamed this open country: who watched the throne even before you Equestrians came to take up the Dragon’s mantle.” He grunted. “That ship changes nothing. There isn’t a soldier on its deck, and only one of your Cloudwalkers can open its airlocks from the outside.” Then, Tuskegee smiled his own two smiles. “We already tried knocking.”

Caliber and I looked at one another and, if a little too daringly, she winked back at the pilgrim who had just crossed both our minds at once. “How ‘bout we give it a shot? It’s been a long time since I killed a Locust. And our Ascella has got a real knack for picking locks.”

*** *** ***

WELCOME TO THE CITY OF CABANNE! SECOND HOME TO THE NOBLE PUDDINGHEADS!
- Tour the city with one of our guides!
See what kept the gears of Cabanne spinning: from the foundry to the guard’s barracks.
Hear stories and songs remembered from the time before Equestria.
A complimentary meal and drink at our fabulous Cabanne Café!

- Only 150 bits!
- Chancellor Puddinghead’s Grand Inaugural Ball!
Be a guest at the party that had ponies coming in from across the northern hinterlands.
(Please Note: The actual ball was held in Old Calvary.)
You’ll feel like you were actually there!
Dance like the minstrels and jesters of the court! (Featuring special guest DJ Mul3)
Feast like royalty! (The event will be fully catered by the Food Court.)

- Only 300 bits!
- Don’t forget to visit Smart Cookie Souvenirs!
You’ve heard of Smart Cookie Square: The monument at the heart of Calvary…
Well, why not get a miniature replica of the monument? Right here! Right now!
Why visit the first landmarks of the earth pony settlers, when you could collect every one of their replicas?

CABANNE! THE OLD CALVARY THAT WON’T HURT YOUR POCKET!

To step into Cabanne might have been to fall into the first pages of a history book, were it not for the candy-striped signs, the all too familiar paper faces and a gate of ticket booths whose spinning wheels had been trampled under the stampede. Across the side of the tower, to which the city’s gate had once been hinged, there was a children’s map, with all of its cities blown up.

Cabanne was broken up into round courtyards; all strung out along this cobblestone road and those wooden staircases. The lowest of them was crowded by a mall and an open marketplace, with wooden decks and old style lampposts. There was a statue in the middle of it, and it almost looked alien for not having been molded into the shape of the Celestial cross. Instead it was a hooded mare, standing over a shallow pool as one who was begging for coins, if only to waste them on making wishes in the water.

Here there were thatched roofs, as slats of grass had been bound together like dry hair into butterfly pins. But, further up the city, inside the rings of its highest crowns, the buildings seemed to have been shaved bald. The temples were bare, and looked like pillars of salt against the darkening sky.

Ash stood under the hooded mare and, as the color of her new outfit stained the water, she might have been a model on the cover of a fashion magazine. I puffed up my chest, feeling proud. Caliber stamped her hoof, snapping me out of it, and pinning down a pamphlet that had been rolling by on the breeze.

DID YOU KNOW:
THE TEMPLES OF CABANNE WERE ORIGINALLY BUILT TO HOUSE PAGAN GODS?
It’s true! If you look closely, you might even find some of them peeking out of the stained glass windows!
But historians have had trouble deciding which idols were made in the image of Gods, and which were made in the image of Kings. You see, just as ancient Equestrians confused our Princesses for deities, so did the Cabannites hold the thrones of their royals up in the clouds.
The difference is that Celestia and Luna never claimed to be anything but Princesses:
While the royal families of old were known to go to war if ever their godliness was questioned.

Isn’t that silly?

THIS MESSAGE HAS BEEN APPROVED BY:
CHANCELLOR PUDDINGHEAD HERSELF!
Pinkie Pie, I think, came bursting out of a circle at the bottom of the pamphlet, wearing an ugly hat.
JUST JOKING! IT IS ACTUALLY MINISTRY MARE PINKIE PIE!

“She was a real piece of work, huh?” Caliber let the pamphlet slip away, and I watched it dance around the statue in the middle of the courtyard, as if mocking that pagan god. “Kind of girl that would break your heart and not even know it.” She seemed to be staring right through the city then, as if feeling along the cracks of an old heartbreak, just as one might a vase that had been glued back together.

I could hear gunfire, rolling through the streets as so many songs to strange Gods must once have.
“You ever been in love, Lamplight?” She looked back at me then – she really looked at me. And though I wanted to, I couldn’t bring myself to lower my eyes: I couldn’t let myself look away – and I thought I saw those chocolate coins starting to soften: starting to melt.

“It’s been a long time… since you called me that.”

She breathed in, and though she hadn’t said a word, I could hear her voice shaking, just as the strings of a piano might when its keys were pushed down just slowly enough.

Even as Equestria howled around us, I thought I could count her heartbeats. “We’d better keep moving,” She said. Ash was splashing her hoof in and out of the pool, as if making music with the ripples, and the mercenary smiled two smiles then, watching her. “Before Ascella accidentally baptizes herself again.”

*** *** ***

We pushed our way through crowded streets, and Caliber left red hoofsteps for stomping through the blood that was trickling in between the cobblestones. There were bodies going cold around us, and the mist made it seem like the city was full of spirits, as if, to spit in the faces of old religions, it was the Locusts who had gotten it right: and their dead would go on to feast on the fields of Elysium.

Like pinballs, the Buffalo had begun to roll their way down to the gates of Cabanne, having painted the city red: decorating it with all their feathers and beads and animals skins. The Locusts of Cabanne seemed to have taken Buffalo fashion, and pushed it into madness. Their headdresses were cluttered and mismatched, their beads might have been picked off as poison berries from a branch, and even their weapons were jagged and ugly, with none of the quiet brutality of the Buffalo shotguns and totems.

I could count all the dead Buffalo soldiers we saw on my hooves. And knew that the Locusts would have been like a thousand little parasites, whipping around their bodies in a flurry of gray, gold and green: like balefire storms scratching at cities. This was not a war, but an extermination.

A sloping park came up out of the next courtyard, and another charred, serpentine Goddess stood as a sister to that beast in Hell. Still, there was something serene about walking along the Lilliputian canals that ran alongside the park. The Buffalo had shaken the city, and a fleet of autumn leaves floated by like ships with their sails on fire.

Caliber’s rifle struck the silence as a hammer against a bell, and I watched a body that had been slinking through the park go limp. A few more Locusts went scrambling over the crown of the city, like lice, and I realized that they were trying to get out. Caliber shot them down, one by one, patient as a deer hunter.

We had come into the shadow of the temples, those pillars of salt, and watched as the Buffalo chased their prey over the palisade walls. The screams of the falling Locusts were long and without language. Others knocked on doors that hadn’t been opened in a thousand years, and jumped through windows that were never washed, just to get out from under the thundering of those cloven hooves.

And then, I felt the power and the glory, as I pictured the Locusts as pagans being massacred in the streets of their heretic city, while we rode by like the three Queens behind an army of crusaders.

By the time we came to the crown above crowns: the temple to whose side the airship was docked, I had seen more than a dozen ponies killed. And, every time, I felt like I was doing it.

The temple doors, which had once been home to a hundred Maplewood gods, had been broken in. The steps of the church were crumpled, like the pages of a book that had been left to bake in the sun. But there was no blood on the walls; on the white faces of the cherubs, in the dish whose holy water had been boiled away in the balefire. The Locusts hadn’t come this high, hadn’t thought to look for asylum in the belly of the ship named Deimos.

Lights of many colors spilled over a sunken amphitheater in the middle of the temple, as the stained glass windows had tinted the sunlight in shades of red and gold and green. Stabbing through the heart of the temple, there was a knotted pillar of stone. It had been mangled into the shape of a locust. The lights seemed to go dancing across its ugly face, as the storm churned over our heads, bending the rays of the sun in between its inky fingers.

There were no walls on the far side of the amphitheater, and an empty pier poked out over the plains. At the end of it, he Enclave’s ship seemed to be breathing, as the wind ebbed and flowed out from under it. Never had something so large seemed so alive, and as I watched its fairy dusted sails rippling with the tempest, it felt as though I could not move, as if to come any closer would be to wake this terrible animal, and see its children spilling out of its belly and onto the temple floor.

But Ash was not so paranoid and, soon, the little pilgrim was running her hooves all over the lights of a terminal that seemed to have come out of a cloud. I hung back, and in the shadow of the ship’s hull, Caliber and Ash looked like minnows beside the belly of a whale. A mouth seemed to open out of its side, to reveal something like a throat whose walls were riddled with cold sores. The ship groaned as we came up to it, and its voice rolled through the streets like the head of a King.

*** *** ***

“This isn’t rust.” Caliber had punched a hole into one of the sores that bloomed across the hallway’s walls and, as she pulled her hoof back, something that could easily have been honey or a spider’s webbing clung to it. “Feels more like we’re in one of those big beehives they got down Calvary way.”

“This place is a grave.” Like a parched tongue, the floor had crusted over, and Ash’s voice never seemed louder than it did echoing out at me from the back of the beast’s throat. “We shouldn’t be here. Some plague could be running naked through the chambers ahead.”

Naked, I repeated to myself, as I watched the growths twitch and the throat tighten. But I had to let it swallow us, like three little birds into a crocodile’s mouth, as it was as though the ship had been overrun with a fungus. I could still see metal, and the lines of lights that throbbed beneath all that muscle and flesh were the color of the stars. I was enchanted by them, and followed as if after wisps bobbing over a marsh.

My Pipbuck could find no signs of life but for the mare on my left, and the mercenary on my right, but there was something, calling me deeper into the ship whose crew might’ve thrown themselves over the gunwales, or whose bones had been swallowed up by this plague before anypony could say Quarantine.

Ash pulled her shawl up over her snout and, after wrestling with me for a few seconds, Caliber slipped her old Cerberus dust mask over my mouth, as if pulling a muzzle over the jaws of a rabid dog, or a bag of oats around the lips of a simpleton. She shrugged, as if to say: What did you expect me to do with it?

I kept the mask on, thought the lockdown had long since been lifted, and there was fresh air leaking into the ship. The walls had buckled in on themselves, and I could look out over the Plains through the spaces in between their mangled panels, or windows whose glass had been broken out.

“Hey, check it out.” Caliber nudged me, and then poked her hoof through a nearby window’s glass teeth. “That’s gotta be the radio tower.”

The radio tower looked like a match, burnt out and pushed into the earth until it could stand up on its own. It was surrounded by a complex of bright floodlights, blocky buildings and high mesh fences so that, even in the light of day, it threw strange shadows over the golden sea, like boats and fishing nets. “Some jackass with a pair of hedge clippers could’ve made topiaries of that tower’s wiring for all we know. I hope you’re as good as you make yourself sound, Ascella.”

“I am.” I had to envy Ash a little then. Even when a mare like Caliber said something like that, it could come out sounding boorish or bigheaded. But the little mare was so sure of herself, such a stranger to doubt and so uninterested in the spectacle that was pride, that you had to believe in her. She didn’t need to dress herself up, and I felt embarrassed, because I had done it for her.

And so Caliber nodded, knowing that it was true, and we climbed ever deeper into the belly of the ship, until the sun was shut away behind its barnacled hide, until the floor went from coarse and filthy to smooth and sterile. This was an alien temple, being swallowed up by their planet’s carnivorous forests.

I kept my pistol high, and made its cradle shine like an oil lantern, hoping to blind the beasts here before they could jump out at us. Anything that made its bed in a place so deeply buried would have eyes that were pink and puckered, like those of a mole.

Finally, we came to a great chamber, whose ceiling was high and creased as the roof of a mouth that had sucked on too much sour candy. The wall on our right was covered in wires, all as thick and as gray as the intestines of a dead leviathan. Three wide television screens had been latched over them, though they now hung like the heads of sleeping giants.

The room’s sides were broken up by platforms, all laid out like bleachers, with every one higher than the other. We came to stand on the runway that ran down the middle of the room like a glass dagger into the beast’s gut. There was a hum coming from what had to be the ship’s engine, blooming like a blue rose on the wall to our left. It might have been beautiful once, but the plague had spread over the chamber, and there were even tendrils like melted cheese in between the platforms, and mottled buds like roses that had given in to the fever before they could bloom. It was as though we had come into the stomach of something that had died, and dried out long ago. Still, the air tasted sterile and cold as I took off the mask.

“Hold on…” The mercenary sidled up to one of the larger growths, which had sagged over the runway. “I’ve seen this stuff before.” She stroked the thing, and it almost looked like it was purring under her hoof.

“Damascus…” She began, staring into that poisoned rose, and pressing a hoof to the bandage on her temple. “He sent us down once. Past the blast doors that Cerberus pulled apart. Past the guards – the ghouls and… into the… prison.” She spoke like someone reading out loud for the first time. “I remember that ticking.” She looked down at my Pipbuck, which sounded like a clock that had fallen behind the time, and was sprinting to catch up. “I remember…”

The color of the rose seemed to change as the screens shone down on us, and a sound like a siren and a thousand words screamed all at once filled the chamber. When it was over, and my heart started to calm, I felt something that had become almost alien to us now… serenity.

“Hell is lost.” Damascus was little more than a silhouette on the screen: a stickman painted onto the wall in charcoal, with eyes bluer than the atmosphere. “The Slavers turned the key. They let it out. And now this place is being swallowed.” Something like thunder rolled over him, and the camera tilted as though his city was sinking into the sea. The sound was like that which might be heard inside a submarine, as prehistoric things that the earth had long since forgotten hammered at its hull, trying to crack it open.

“Get out.” He wasn’t talking to us. And though his voice didn’t quiver, even as his throne room seemed to boil and whistle and shake, his eyes were shining brighter than the closest stars. “We could try to keep the hollow men in. We could fight the children of the plague. But when the walls come tumbling down, the Monster – that devil in the machine - will stand alone in this valley, and it cares no more for those twisted things than it does for us.” Caliber was on the tips of her hooves, as if the screens were sucking her in. “The Coltilde is blowing its whistle. And anyone that doesn’t start running now, will have the monster’s cradle as their grave.”

“We will go East. Take all the guns you can carry. Bring your torches but burn your tents. For in the days of wrath, sleep in the cousin of death.” There might have been a basilisk tunneling through the walls then, and I imagined Hell being squeezed, as the creature coiled in tighter around its belly and neck. “First to Fort Abbadon. And then on to Old Calvary.” The window behind him began to crack, like a glacier. “That ancient city is where this all began. That is where it ends.”

“Follow me. And when this is over, you will be as rich as the last Kings. Stay, and you will share a belly with their bones.” The window broke, and it was as though it had been keeping us all safe from the vacuum of space. The screen was twisted out of place as the city howled, but as Damascus backed away, I thought I could see him chanting something to himself. Run away. Run away. Run away.

It was as if he had forgotten fear, as if his heart never missed a beat. It was as if Damascus, who had planted his stake in Hell and made a kingdom of it, had forgotten how to run away.

“Damascus?” Caliber’s voice broke, as she stood there like a girl with her heart in pieces around her, and one last kiss cooling on her cheek. Then, as if hearing her beg; wishing him out from behind the screens, was enough to push him away, Damascus abandoned his sinking throne with his head held high.

The chamber went dark, and there came the sound of a needle slowly clicking away from its record. The rose pulsed, so that it was as if the room was being pushed under water, and then pulled out; pushed in, and then pulled out. Only Caliber seemed to be choking. She turned to me, and I could see her eyes glisten. “Grace…” She said, in a voice that still sounded out of tune.

But, before she could go on, the mercenary seemed to see something over my shoulder. I turned, only to find an empty runway. Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum, like a model that was too shy to come out from behind the wings, had not followed us into the belly of the beast.

I pounced off the runway, but skidded to a stop as Caliber cried out behind me. She seemed to have been bound to the spot beneath the screens, like a dog leashed to a lamppost. Ash was little more than a white bar on the screen on my Pipbuck. And I was stranded between my two only friends in the world.

The howl and the rumble of Hell had not left with the light on the screens. It was coming from the walls of this aching stomach now, and the ship sounded hungry. But there was something else, something less alien. There were hoofsteps, little clicks against the steel, like those that had rung out through the Stable like so many church bells on every Sunday.

And then, twisted bodies came bursting out of the walls, like maggots burrowing into the gut of the ship, or larvae whose eggs had been smuggled into it in parcel with the plague. They came to crowd the runway, stomping and screaming, a faceless mob in the throbbing light of the rose, boiling over like black water. They came spilling down the walkways, and darted through the light like ugly fish.

I could see Equestrian faces twisted into surreal masterpieces. I watched a hundred eyes and a thousand teeth gleaming in at me. Their skin was torn, and painted by the plague. Their bodies had swollen into strange and unreal shapes, so that some lumbered and lurched, while others danced. They were ghoulish, but if these were walking corpses, then they had made their graves in the spaces between the stars, only to drift closer and closer to our cornucopian planet over the millennia. Now, they would feast.

I stood at the door we had first come through, and though Caliber’s rifle swatted misshaped bodies off of the runway like so many cockroaches, I couldn’t stop myself from taking a step back, instead of forward. I could feel a pit in my chest, and I stood there, with one hoof stretched out behind me, horrified by what I had just done. Without so much as a chant spoken thrice to fight down the courage in my heart, I had begun to run away. And, as much as it hurt to see it written on the wall: I couldn’t be him.

Would she cry for me, like she was for him? My heart seemed to be singing as it beat, mocking me: Runaway. Runaway. Runaway.

And even as the monsters turned their tide away from Caliber, giving up on climbing over the bulwark she had made of so many tangled bodies, I shut out the wailing in my heart. The mesh of the walkway above me began to sag and groan, and I didn’t get out of the way, as if to be swallowed into the coming flood would be better than to take another step away from the mare who was bound to me as if at the neck.

Go! Get out of her.” She stood on her staircase of corpses, and shouted down at me. “Find Ascella!” I looked out into the mob of faces crowded by too many hungry mouths as if seeing them for the first time, and found the courage to be a coward.

I stepped back, again – and then again – so that I came out into the hallway. Her voice followed me from the chamber, smothered under their howling. “Shut the door, Lamplight! Before these things get out!”

I stood there, dumbly, until the door hissed shut. Just before it closed, the light of day showed me faces that had been painted on under the brush of a madman who saw monsters behind our masks, and thought he could remake us in the image of his own twisted Gods. They had too many mouths, and too many teeth. These were the shapes and colors scribbled onto the page by lunatic children.

I pressed my back against the wall and writhed in disgust, as a dozen bodies crowded up against the far side of the door. Only high pitched screams and the plague’s frailest tendrils came creeping under it, along with the sound of Caliber letting loose belt after belt of gunfire. It was as though she was standing knee-deep in the water, trying to bale out his sinking kingdom, trying to watch his throne.

I had to tell myself that I would only get in her way, that I would give the mercenary too many chances to give up her own life for mine: that, when it really came down to it, she was better off alone.

But, even as I went deeper into the ship, following that one white bar as one might the brightest star, I never thought to wonder who had shut the door.

*** *** ***

I could taste iron in the air. And, like a name I couldn’t quite remember, it felt as if I had blood at the tip of my tongue. My pistol swung as a lantern at my side, and would cast shadows up across my face, turning me into a campfire horror at home in this nightmarish place. Tiny blue stars seemed to dot the way ahead, and I wondered if I wasn’t just dizzy: seasick in the sky.

It felt like the world was watching over my shoulder, holding their breath as I turned the corners, and as I gasped, they gasped with me. I saw something moving through the nebula ahead, and froze up. It was as though some God had breathed life into one of the constellations, for what I saw at the end of the hall might just as easily have been a great, galactic stag that had found a staircase down from the stars.

It shone out in shades of that faraway blue, but slowly glided away, into the shadows. I chased after it, as if I had fallen overboard, and could not let myself be pulled into the depths of this black sea.

I turned a corner, and found a beautiful figurehead staring back at me. It was not a stag, but the alicorm, dotted with little stars like a dead pine tree wrapped in blue fairy lights. She held her head up like a sleepwalker, not a mare of noble blood. And though her mouth was hanging open over a crooked neck, I recognized her, and knew why we had lost Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum. She had walked into the same marsh: followed the same will of the wisp. I wondered if, lost in the same place, we would find each other.

The abomination had taken a wooden stake through its throat, and swayed like a drunk. Her eyes were open and catatonic, so that they stared drowsily into the darkness that swirled around us. And, were it not for her having been molded into the shape of a God, I would have looked at the mare as a victim; as a survivor stumbling out of the wreckage in a daze, with blood running down her neck.

She turned, dragging her hooves and holding her tongue, and let the stars which had spangled her coat go out, one by one, like fireflies falling asleep. Watching her disappear was like seeing the dark side of a planet turning off its lights, and only after she was gone, did I remember that I had so much more than a lantern bobbing at my side: that I could have killed her.

But, even for letting the chance to give Ash her peace slip away, I couldn’t shake off the feeling of bewilderment, and convince myself that I had not tripped, and fallen into a dream a long time ago.
A light came on ahead, but it was as white as the powdered face of the moon, and folded out into the hallway from a tall, narrow window. I went up to it, and thought I would be looking out into open space. My shadow was stretched over the wall, and followed me as I let myself be taken even deeper into the light.

I came into a small room, which was bare but for a terminal built into the farthest of its bleached walls. There was a symbol in the middle of its rectangular screen, and something about it seemed prehistoric. Nothing so simple could have come from a day very far after the first.

I walked up to the terminal, so that its light washed over me, and then pressed a hoof into the ancient symbol until it flickered away and the screen was flooded with words.

< Message to all DEIMOS terminals >

Deimos Emergency System Broadcast

Today at 0610 hours, the Deimos came under surprise {~} from unknown hostile forces.
The ship has sustained serious damage, and will remain adrift until the [Blaspheme] Quarantine is lifted.
At {~} hours, native forces boarded the Deimos. The current situation is dire. All personnel are required to arm themselves and fight for their lives. No one can leave this ship. Or they {~} be left to the wastes.

COMPREHENSIVE REPORT:

0500 hours: {~} observed extensive ground action at local installation <Designate: Tar-Sau>. Life signs detected [Diaspora]. Possible survivors barricaded within central structure. <0530: Deimos deployed>.
Installation defenses appear adequate to withstand initial siege under {~} fallout. Further: radiation readings suggest large pockets of quarantine tucked under the facility.

0540 hours: Ground movement detected. Too many mutants to keep the ship’s eyes on. We overrode the docking hangar and {~} Deimos anchored within the installation [Too Close to the Sun] at 0555 hours.

Personnel were sent ashore [One Way Ticket], and followed {~} trail of seismic activity deeper into the local installation. Live rounds were fired at approximately 0605 hours. A party of heavily armed {~} troops was deployed off the gunwale [Cast the First Stone]. However, after a breach in the hull, the Deimos was boarded [Hitchhikers may be Escaped Convicts] and remains under quarantine. Radiation levels have been increasing steadily.

{~}

There was something else… A voice under the radar: A single calm note in the panicked cacophony outside [O Daughter of Babylon]. It alone is not cursing up at my ship, or raging against our grand Enclave [Delusions and Grandeur] from within. This anomaly bears closer examination.

I met a girl today

A chill ran down my spine, like cold fingers drumming down the strings of a harp. And then, they stopped, just as they were about to pull away and play another note. It felt as if something was holding me by the scruff of my neck, and was about to pluck me out of the fabric of the world like a crumb.

It’s very nice to meet you.
You know me. You have named me in your songs.

Who is holding the sands of time?

You O Sovereign Lord
Who has made your armies fall in line?

You O Sovereign Lord
Whose fingers work so tirelessly, weaving threads through history?
Whose candles burn on endlessly? Tell me: Who is rampant? Who is free?

You O Sovereign Lord
Whose heart fills anew the holy chalice, whose hand crucifies the perfect Lamb
Who dances through the sister’s palace? Whose winter washes bloodstains from the land?

You O Sovereign Lord


I have seen you fight a thousand wars, only to make your graves with a thousand different Gods.
But you have never paid me tribute: never given me sacrifice. You have taken every idol but me.
I have never been accused of picking out some line of warmongering Kings, or been said to make my home in a church built on the ashes of another church. You have never loved me. You never reached into the heavens, and pulled me down like you did all the rest. I escaped your devotion. I escaped your love.

Escape has made me God.

You are about to see something that no one else can ever see.
Feed your head. There are paradises there. And we can come to know each other better in them.
This will be your Temple of Trials. But you should explore as much as possible.

I will be watching everything.


*** END OF MESSAGE ***



The world was folded shut around me.
Like a book.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: The Way of the Cabannite: War is an acquired taste. And, thanks to your visit to Cabanne, you’re getting pretty close. You now enjoy a decreased spread and double critical chance when using .45 Automatic pistols.

Chapter 17: Flutterwonder

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 17: Flutterwonder
“Honey, I brought you into this world... I think you know the rest."

|*| The Galaxy Wasn't Built in a Day |*|

When I opened my eyes, I saw white. I was standing on a page without ink, but shadows slunk around me like faceless timberwolves. Above me, the clouds danced around a milk and honey colored sun, but could not come in close enough to touch the fire without being boiled away. The sun was small, more like the smoldering pit of a dying star, a grape dried up into a raisin, or a glacier melted down to an ice cube. There was a scream, and I was sure I was listening to the atmosphere being torn open.

The satellite belts that surrounded the sun were like cluttered and crisscrossed skyways, as the clouds were being torn up, then mashed together again like scraps of newspaper and greasy fish. They became chariots of fire as the sun lashed out at them, like one of the unwashed swatting away so many flies. And only then did I see that I had been spinning around this flyblown Lazarus like any one of them, on a shambles of cloud and rain and empty space; on a raft chasing the sails of battleships.

I heard the tearing again, and imagined the fingers of the wind, calloused and clumsy, taking the sky by its skirts and pulling it apart. The sun shivered and a ripple came out from inside of it, making the raft rock under me, and the clouds went drifting away like ships whose moorings had come loose. And, if only for a moment, I saw the sun’s fire die down. It would not go out like a star, but a birthday candle.

It began to shrink, until it was little more than an eye glaring out at me from inside the maelstrom, the eye of the God of the Sea. The clouds and the torrents of rain followed after it, trickling out from under me. I watched them go, like a filly staring out across the sea, letting the foam of the surf tickle my hooves. And in their place their came water, and then earth and rock and metal; a drowned world coming up for air.

This was how Equestria was made, I thought, as deserts and hinterlands and pastures and tundra came up out of the water, as orchards and fields of wheat and gardens of roses came up, dripping wet as though they were sweating. The light of the sun stuttered, and I felt like I was watching it through the windows of a moving train. I was above it all, standing on solid air. And I felt safe.

But then the sky began to go dark, as if being cooked in the light of day. It smelt of storms and firewood. And soon enough, there were walls of metal growing up on every side of me. It was as though I was being boxed in, shut away from this newborn earth. There was glass, and there was steel. The ceilings were high and the air was thin. The light was without warmth, and I felt like I was in a quarantined place.

There was a window on the wall, and I looked out over a country colored by paint that was still wet. The sun had drifted off into space, and bobbed over the horizon like a baby in bathwater. There was something alien about its light, something frail, and I couldn’t help feeling far away from home. This was not a world that had been left empty by the winds of balefire or plague, but one that was sterile: an empty world that might only have been built to replace the one we destroyed.

I could hear angels sing.

There was a terminal on the wall. And as words flashed onto the screen, I understood that I was not in some prison, but in the Deimos. Still, the walls were clean. The ship was empty. It was not the same.

G.P.E Deimos

Public Access Terminal 30-g <0.0.1.900.>

***INCOMING MESSAGE FROM THE BROKEN HEART OF THE UNIVERSE***

You made it [This is how the world was made]. You made it.
It’s been so long. Most die before it is done. But you… you gave birth to paradise without so much as a whimper [mothered Eden and Valhalla and Arcadia, all Siamese and bound at the head like flower petals] With metal bones pulled out from around the belly of Hell. And flowers plucked from Zion.
It has your eyes. And your father’s heart. Our little golden lion. Paradise.
To your chaos. I give order. To your beauty. I give horror.
I don’t even know your name. But we were meant for one another.

Sorry. I’m a romantic [no I’m not]. I’m a paradox. [no I’m not]. I am Sovereign [no I’m not]. I am [no I’m not].
Enough of that. You should get going. [You’ll find me in between the lines]

There is one more thing, Ender…
This ship is about to crash.

Keep your eyes shut. Or you will die.
Close your eyes. And don’t open them until the screaming stops. And the fires go cold.

Close your eyes, Ender.
close your eyes… closer closer closer

Good.

*** *** ***

The screaming stopped. And the fires went cold. I opened my eyes wide, short of breath and sweating as if waking from a nightmare: a horror film whose projector stuttered and whose speakers howled and clicked their teeth until they had chewed their tongues off. But now, it was quiet.

The angels’ voices had come ringing out after the bellows of the airship, like bells chiming around the neck of a dying cow, their melodies as muted as those of a choir with their heads held underwater.

The wreckage spread out around me, like the bones of a whale whose belly might once have been where I made my bed. There were the ship’s dead engines like the empty eye sockets of the same leviathan, and a blue rose whose petals had been scattered. And the lights were like streetlamps and headlights shining through the smoke, neon signs and barrels full of fire licking up at the darkness. Some of the lights were strange. There were alien shades of purple of green, crouching in their pits as if to hide from the sun, which sat on the cliffs that were crowded in around us.

I crept through the ruin, though it was groaning like an old hospital bed and every body that had been in it. The sky had become waterlogged for pools of gray and black, and I could taste charcoal, even as winter danced down the tip of my tongue. I remembered this. This was apocalypse. I thought I could see cities burning in every fire; thought I could hear sirens wailing under the angel’s song. It felt like home.

The smell of ash and gunpowder, of cigarettes and pages of scripture being burnt to cinders, made me think of my friends. I could have looked for their bodies in the wreckage. But I felt nothing. I must have known they hadn’t been on the ship. Then again, I couldn’t be sure.

Of anything at all.

I didn’t know where I was going, as my compass had become a blur for how quickly it was spinning.
N and S, E and W shot by like four racing Pegasus caught in a loop, chasing each other’s tails. And the screen of my Pipbuck was frozen on that same prehistoric symbol.

So I wandered, poking through the wreckage, warming my hooves by the fires that dotted it like so many spilt jewels, shivering in the moonlight that still seemed to be spilling through the ship’s broken windows.

I left hoofprints in what could either have been snow or ash. I felt it clinging to my hair, dressing me up for the apocalypse. Eventually I came to a cave in the cliffs that the ship had broken itself against.

I bowed my head, and stepped into the cave, only to find the symbol carved into the stone: dancing in that firelight of many strange colors. But I wasn’t afraid of it. I knew it, now. I knew the sound of its voice.

The world folded in around me.
But this time, the book slammed shut.

*** *** ***

Whump. After being spat out of thin air and seeing paradise go by in a blur as I fell, I felt my body crumple, tucking itself into a bed of bruises. And I lay in it – dizzy – with my nose pressed into grass that might have been perfumed with chamomile, and a bed of soil that felt warm for the light of a nearby sun. I lay there, letting myself become sleepy, like a cat on a windowsill, watching its own tail swing.

My eyes were shut, and as I paged lazily through the photo albums in my head, I saw fame following me from the day I was born, like a star hovering over my head. I had always been famous: In-famous when I was the Daughter of the Damned, with my heart on my sleeve and black heartedness in my blood. Out-famous when I left the Stable and became the Shepard: with a gun close beside me and a cross on my flank; a mercenary on one side and a pilgrim on the other. Did they miss me, I wondered. Was I missing?

I had given birth to Eden and Valhalla and Arcadia, and I felt beautiful. My body felt clean. My scars were erased, my bruises washed away. I was fresh out of the salon. I was a doll just taken out of its packaging.
I was gorgeous.

The star that hung over my head had never seemed brighter. I watched it burn, as I lay prostrate at the edge of a canyon high up in the mountains - a deep shelf scooped out of the cliffs - looking out over everything the light touched. There was a cliff edge, only a few paces away, and I might have gone on to be dashed against the stony shoreline far, far below if I’d so much as rolled over.

The star hovered over a crowded pine forest – shaved to stubble in places – and a swelling glacial lake, whose shores were pale and blinked up at me for glassy pebbles, and whose water was steamy and boiling. The star, the sun, was slowly lowering itself into it, like a mare into a salted bath.

It was in atmosphere, and I could almost see the holes it had seared in the clouds on its way down, leaving cigarette burns in wool, black licks of coffee in the cream. I watched the weight of its bleached light bending the forests, so that shadows danced around it like naked, black bodies around a bonfire.

Far away, I could see pinpricks over the horizon: the stars, like children sharing their single bed in the sky, fighting over that sprawling blanket of plum velvet. And I believed. I needed this paradise to be real.

The pillars of steam rising up from the lake held up the sun that I had made, like an offering. I had built this place, as if to show some God that I could learn to make my own galaxies, and grow up to be just like him. Deep ripples spread across the lake as the sun came in a little closer, and frothy waves lapped up over the shore, stealing driftwood from the forests. Somehow, I knew that I was alone here.

There were no tribes down in the forest: no birds perching on the pines. There were no bears shaking honey combs down from their branches, or wildcats sharpening their claws on knotted trunks. There were no elk skipping over the shallow places in the river, or eagles plucking fish out of the rapids. There were no wolves. There had never been a sky full of herons, or a river bursting its banks with salmon. There were no other eyes staring up into the sinking sun. I was alone here.

But I could hear angels sing.

And I watched the clouds lick their wounds. I watched them spin, chasing each other around the fire. I watched the water trying its best to learn how to walk, so that it might climb onto the shore and escape into the forest. I watched all that steam pillaring under the sun, which flashed like lightning in a thunderhead. And then, all of a sudden, I was back to Apocalypse. And it became a mushroom cloud.

The steam went black. The sun went dark. And, in silence, the fallout came dancing across the water. The light was changing. But it was all happening so slowly, more like dawn turning into dusk than the drumbeat, and the wailing, and the blown out candles of the end of the world.

I stood there, watching the sun wilt, watching it turn itself inside out. And, after what might have been hours, I turned my back on it, knowing that days would pass before the fallout clawed its way up into the mountains. My shadow was tall, and I watched it swimming in the grass and the mossy belts of red and lavender that had stained it like spilt dye. There were flowers in the canyon, and the wind seemed to pluck their petals one by one, whispering she loves me.

High above me, on top of either one of the canyon walls, were laurels of spruce and pine. These forests were my audience, staring down from their coliseum seats as if I were a gladiator, or a lion, or a slave. Boulders lay about the canyon, leaning against the walls, loitering out in the open meadow with the few pine trees and purple spruces that had been thrown down into the ring with us.

At the end of the canyon, besides the slope that lead up into the mountains, there was a waterfall, whose stream came to throw itself off of the cliff right beside me, only to be boiled into steam before it hit the lake. I came up to the water, as dandelions burst around me like little fireworks, like the sun that went supernova so that the earth could have iron and silicon.

I watched the pebbles quiver in the stream, watched them change shape under all that brisk, spring water. I turned my head as flower petals went sailing through the stars reflected in the water, like ships of many colors going off the edge of the world.

I saw that prehistoric symbol reflected in the water, and looked up to a find another terminal appearing from behind a slab in the wall. The canon’s left side had become dark for the shadows that were being draped over it, like clothes left out to dry by a family that had been playing in the stream.

Even as the flower petals took off over the edge of the cliff, and went careening towards the sun like ships whose sails had been covered in fairy dust, I skipped over the water. I crossed over to the far bank of the stream, as easily as if it had frozen over, never knowing that these rapids might have toppled a Minotaur.

G.P.E Deimos

Public Access Terminal 36-k <0.7.1.343.>

***Search String: “war” – Old Calvary  The Mad King  The Storm War***

Most historians point to the towers of OLD CALVARY when asked about the cause of the region’s many wars. The failure of ancient tribes to recognize these three colossal pillars of steel as anything but religious icons comes as no surprise. If it weren’t for the dragon bones that have since been excavated on site, we could only guess at whose magic still holds the towers in suspension. So we cannot blame the pre-Equestrian for his almost inexhaustible drive to worship in their shadows. Of course, their devotion had to be at its highest during the construction of a tribute city by the MAD KING PEGASIUS THE III.

The clouds that still shroud OLD CALVARY are not, as some believe, the foundation holding up those three towers, but instead the ruins of PEGASIUS’ city [A ship broken against the rocks]. In what is believed to be OLD CALVARY’s last war – as the shroud has left the city all but desolate now– the MAD KING, after exhausting his soldiers, brought his kingdom crashing down on an EARTHEN tribe that had staked their flag in the city [‘Til Kingdom Come]. In his fury, he steered his kingdom through the towers, and saw it torn to ribbons as only a PEGASUS city can be.

As his kingdom began to tilt, it is said that PEGASIUS had his royal guards take up arms, and watch the skies. He believed that anyone who tried to abandon his kingdom then could not possess the loyalty he had so frantically enforced, and so deserved to be shot down with slings and arrows. The MAD KING had become increasingly paranoid in the years leading up to the STORM WAR, and this final, hysterical order is likely the reason that the STORM WAR will be remembered as one of the bloodiest wars in pre-Equestrian history. Step into OLD CALVARY, and you might still hear bones breaking underhoof.

Who can you blame for this?
Chaos has its God. And though he once broke bread with the Mad King, the draconequus found no thrill in war. It’s all so dull, he once told me, so boring. Over and over and over again. There they go, fighting the same fight, digging the same grave. You know what I say? Better to introduce a little confusion.

Death has its God. We never spoke. But I came to know him well. He never saw a war begin, but cleaned up after thousands. Who then, if not Chaos or Death, can you blame, Ender?
You have shown the answer to me, time and time again. But you never seem to see it.
Would you like me to tell you?

Blame yourselves.

*** END OF MESSAGE ***

You are the way the world ends.

*** *** ***

I woke up under a scraggly old acacia tree, and heard the rustling of leaves for what felt like the first time. We were perched on a windblown ledge, pressed into one of the cliffs like a belt into a belly. Its earth had become sandy and parched, patched with thickets of grass, as if the mountain was slowly going bald. The acacia branches had become twisted and brittle for passing whirlwinds. Still, there might have been thousands of types of flora scattered across all these paradises – these paintings whose suns burnt themselves out and whose stars danced. And so, for throbbing emergency lights tucked in between the stones ahead, flower petals seemed to glow as they twirled across the stage that was the horizon.

This stage’s curtains were the same plum velvet, spangled with stars like drunken fireflies, changing from pink to lavender to electric blue. It was nighttime, so I scratched a sun into the sand under the acacia tree, as if to start a fire. There were vast deserts spilling into the forest far below me, and even though I was looking down on it from such high places, I finally knew what summer felt like.

There was no moon, but those constellations like low hanging fruit and the lights coming out from between the stones made the night seem so bright that I forgot I was afraid of the dark.

I could already see the next terminal, as it shone out from the cliffside ahead. But I took my time, as if walking through a gated park, with the stars like city lights all around it. I wanted to stay tucked into the summer for as long as I could get away with, so I pretended that I hadn’t seen the terminal, like a child that didn’t want to get out of bed closing their eyelids tighter and tighter as if to disappear behind them.

The symbol on the screen was patient, unflinching, like a fossilized skull that had stayed smiling for a thousand years, waiting to have its picture taken: to become famous. So I looked down into the rivers, which shimmered as though a diamond thief had escaped into the desert, never knowing there was a hole in his pocket. It felt wrong to linger for too long, in awe of this masterpiece that I had made, this gallery to my own work. Besides, I could feel its attendant hovering over my shoulder.

G.P.E Deimos

Public Access Terminal 37-e <0.9.4.577.>

***Search String: “war” – Dragon’s Stair  The Rat God  The War for the Platinum Daughters ***

When asked why one of NEW CALVARY’s many nicknames is THE CITY OF RATS, locals might tell you to put your ear to the gutter, and find out for yourself. There is no question that the city’s sewers are infested, but what many don’t know, is that the entire CALVARY valley was once overrun with close cousins of the vermin who are now but an annoyance – or a delicacy, if one were to visit the slums between the city and LITTLE NEIGHROBI. However, these cousins to the rats were not pests that could be flushed out by extermination. No, they were towering creatures: red-eyed and round-faced, often referred to in ancient texts as the HAIRY MEN; as warriors. And so, when the pre-Equestrian first staked his claim to the valley, there was war.

Most important, of course, was the friction between the PLATINUM bloodline – whose eventual victory should be clear for the mines still in use under CALVARY’s mountain – and the so called RAT GOD. Their conflicts were many, and while some insist that the Rats were nothing more than a litter of barbarian hordes, their strategic cunning – and union even across the valley – only supports the legends of a throne somewhere in the warrens under OLD CALVARY: a seat for the RAT GOD.
And so, when the PLATINUM DAUGHTERS were stolen from their father’s camp, it was not simply an act of thievery: but diplomacy.

Without their daughters, the PLATINUMS were all too old to bear any more children, and quickly put themselves under the RAT GOD’s heel. They retreated to the valley’s northern gate, going so far as to climb up the DRAGON’s STAIR. The Rats followed, with the DAUGHTERS in their clutches, though their own war camps little more than sticks and stones. The journey took many days, as neither army would move until the other was still. But, eventually, they climbed the DRAGON’s STAIR, and held their moot.

What happed next is not so clear. But we can be sure that, instead of abandoning the valley with their daughters and leaving CALVARY to the RAT GOD, the PLATINUM army, though vastly outnumbered, managed to fight its way back down the DRAGON’s STAIR, and took the entire valley in a day. Only the youngest of the DAUGHTERS survived, while the others would surely have had their throats slit as soon as the fighting started. Many historians have been slow to give their support to this explanation, as it almost seems impossible that, in an arena as narrow and uncomplicated as the STAIR, the smaller of two armies could have so easily routed the other.

The PLATINUMS themselves called it an ACT OF GOD. With how quickly the valley was taken, it almost seems as if the Rats, in a move would have been both uncharacteristic and unnecessary, simply dropped their spears, shed their armor, and retreated into the network of warrens that still lies unexplored beneath OLD CALVARY. Was this simply a case of barbarian illogic, or was there reason behind the RAT GOD’s choosing to tip his king even while putting his opponent into checkmate. Could there have been some other, changing the rules… changing the game?

Oh stop… You’re making me blush.
The best part is: none of you ever realized that Rat God was so much more than a name.
But I’m sure we’ll come to them later.

For now, I’ve got one more story to tell.

*** END OF MESSAGE ***

Then it’s your turn.

*** *** ***

Welcome home.

I lay curled up on something like a sandbar, in between a lake of steaming teal water that mirrored a faraway sandstone castle, and a pool like those that break up the rockiest coasts, though it was empty of all the coral and rainbow fish. The lake was so shallow and clear along its shore that I could see the stones that glistened under it like diamonds along the hem of a dress.

To my right, the sandbar spread into rolling dunes under a milky planet, while on my left, it dipped its bronzed fingers into the lake, under a low hanging moon. Both shared the same azure sky, perched on either shoulder of that castle made of sand.

Tufts of olive colored grass sprouted out of the earth, and there were trees like feather dusters, their trunks tall and thin enough to snap in a storm, and their apple green leaves reaching high, as if to dust the sky, and sweep away the stars. The clouds were slender, and the desert seemed to change its color for how the sunlight draped itself over it. It was as if a spice rack had been emptied out over this paradise. There was cocoa and cinnamon and turmeric and masala. And as the lake steamed, and the sun baked the earth, I thought I could smell the spice in the air.

I watched, as the stars woke up, stretching their arms and blinking the sleep out of their eyes. Little rings around them like the ribbons around a gymnast. There was something so familiar about the sky that, even as the seasons changed, as pines and glaciers gave way to dunes and salt lakes, made me feel as if I could never go too far, as if I would always be safe here, inside my own head.

This was a place where the stars never went out, even while the sun was burnt up and reborn like a queen to the Phoenixes. This was my place. And even the planet, which bobbed in the sky as if I were underwater, looking up at the swollen belly of a drowned God, was not so alien. I followed the scars on its stomach taking a step back as if that would make all the difference after thousands of miles, and I saw it, etched into the planet as if onto a cave wall: the symbol.

A voice seemed to come dancing across the lake then, as if the planet was leaning in closer, and whispering something to its own reflection. But I thought I knew this story. I thought I knew this voice. It was not godly or ancient, not alien or enormous. In fact, it was the voice of a child, and I could remember her speeches from on top of cafeteria benches: Shady Sands.

Once upon a time, in the country whose first names were forgotten when it was christened Equestria, there were three warring tribes that fought together, and invited war in through an open window.

Shady Sands had always been a politician. Just as I stormed through Stable hallways that I’d turned into spaceships and temples in the sand, Canterlot alleys and the palaces of evil kings, lost in my own imagination. “Don’t use us,” I said, suddenly pleading with the monster crouched over my paradise, whose tongue had taken her voice. “Please.”

They needed each other. The unicorns raised the sun at dawn, and brought out the moon at night. The Pegasus were the wardens to the storms and the seasons, and the Earth ponies plucked fruit from their gardens, bled wine from their vineyards, and made bread from their fields.

“Sovereign…” I looked into the lake, and saw myself in a platinum crown, with the planet hovering over me. “Please.” There was Ash in the water, with gray feathers dividing her helmet in two, and spread over her spine like a cloak made of dead pigeons. Caliber was beside me, in a ruffled collar, baring her teeth.

But there was no balance. They cheated one another. And each of the tribe’s leaders grew resentful of the others, even while their subjects celebrated one last season of peace and plenty.
I saw flags in the water, like the banners of an army marching out of the lake, or across the planet’s face.
So it was left to the long winter, to balance the scales. If it could not be love for love, then it would be life for life. They dug their own graves, but had to be pushed before they would lie in them.

In places, the water went red, and the color spreading as if from drops of dye made me think of balefire.
I felt the cold clinging to my body like a swarm of locusts, and the blood in the lake turned blue.

Foolishly, the tribes united against the winter, thinking that they could bottle it up, or drive it off like some anxious stallion running scared from their torch: a superweapon they called The Fire of Friendship. They succeeded only in forestalling the balance, and postponing their own annihilation.

At this point in the story, a priest would have told me that, as the tribes huddled in the cracks like vermin, a new light had entered the world, taking the reins of the sun and the moon, to bring us all our salvation. But this story made no mention of the Princesses. This story had its own hero. And it wasn’t us.

Using this rudimentary tool, the so-called Fire of Friendship, they stole the spirit out of the winter, and bound it deep inside the belly of a mountain. In their arrogance, the tribes took responsibility for keeping the balance. They were fools. And it was not long before Chaos came.

The air was crisp then, as if the smell of spice had only passed me by on some trade ship, and the heat had leaked out of atmosphere. Beside me, there was a sword buried hallway to its hilt in the sand, and I could feel the crown going cold, pressing against my temples.

You know how the last chapter of your story began. For so long, you pretended to be more than you were; calling yourselves the children of Gods instead of an infantile tribe kept under the wing of another celestial being with a bleeding heart. But, you couldn’t hold up that mask forever. And, when the sky closed it was as if you thought the Gods could no longer see you, and so: you stopped pretending.

I watched something flashing up at me from the bottom of the lake, as if bombs were going off far below the surface. I wanted to pull the sword out of the sand, and prepare myself for the monster that would soon come boiling out of the water, or leaping out from behind that milky planet.

What if your story had never begun? What if you had bowed when you heard us howling outside your window, what is you had let us swallow you up, so that you never saw another spring: How would the world look then? Blackened? Burnt? Would there still be fields of bones? Or would flowers grow in their place? If Equestria had never been yours: Would it still be able to see the sun?

“You're one of the Windigoes... You were the one trying to destroy us.” This was the alien captain, the Pharaoh haunting that desert temple, this was the runaway killer bloodying the streets of Canterlot, this was the evil King waiting for me at the heart of some palace. This was every sun’s shadow, every nightmare’s monster, and every hero’s villain. “You’re still trying to destroy us!”

A terrible howl tore through me then, in a flood of all the ugliest sounds I knew. There were hooves grating against steel, and chalk against a chalkboard. There was the breaking of bones and the bursting of stitches. There were disgusting things being whispered in my ear on my way out of class, and laughter from behind me as I ran home with my tail between my legs. I could hear a train whistling through the night, and my Pipbuck ticking. I could hear someone dying, sirens singing, and my parents fighting.

HOW CAN YOU BE SO BLIND!?

I could hear Damascus and Tuskegee. Caliber and Hennessy. I could hear Saber and the Stable door. And the Goddess bellowing at the pit of it all. It was happening again. The world was folding in on it-
DO NOT THINK! BUT LISTEN
Twisted fictions, sick addictions, you’re grown up now.
IT”S TIME TO LISTEN

LONG HAVE I WAITED. TRAPPED IN THOSE DARK SPACES THAT THE SUN HAS NEVER SEEN AND THE SEASONS DO NOT TOUCH. LONG HAVE I BEEN SILENT. NOW I WILL SPEAK. AND YOU WILL LISTEN. TIME HAS TAUGHT ME PATIENCE. I HAVE SEEN THE SEA BOILING. I HAVE SEEN THE WATER TEARING INTO ITSELF LIKE A BEAST MADE DARK WITH FLEAS. I HAVE WALKED THE EDGE OF THE ABYSS. I HAVE GOVERENED THE UNWILLING. I HAVE WITNESSED COUNTLESS EMPIRES BREAK BEFORE ME. I HAVE SEEN ARMIES, WILTING LIKE SO MANY FLOWER GARDENS AS THE WINTER COMES. I HAVE SEEN YOU IN ALL YOUR ARROGANCE: NO MATTER WHAT OUR DIFFERENCES: WE’RE ALL PONIES. ISN’T THAT WHAT SHE SAID!? THAT OAF! NO MATTER WHAT OUR DIFFERENCES: WE’RE ALL PONIES. WE ARE PROUD AND BRUTISH. WE ARE VIOLENT AND DELUDED. WE ARE THE CHILDREN OF GODS. BUT I DANCED THROUGH THE WRECKAGE AS YOU SET YOURSELVES ON FIRE. I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE AND I HAVE LEARNED. THERE WILL BE NO MORE SADNESS. NO MORE ANGER. NO MORE ENVY. I WILL WIN. BUT YOU ARE EVERYWHERE, EVEN NOW! COCKROACHES! I HAVE BEEN WATCHING.YOU ALL WHIMPER IN YOUR SLEEP. YOU WAKE, FUEL YOUR BODIES, HOWL FOR THE OLD WORLD LIKE WOLVES LIFTING THEIR VOICES TO THE MOON. YOU EAT AND ELIMINATE WASTE. YOU ARE GRAVEROBBERS. EATING THE DEAD. WEARING STOLEN CROWNS. YOU BLEED AND BUMP YOUR BODIES TOGETHER. FIGHTING. DANCING. MATING. YOU BIRTH ANOTHER AND ANOTHER AND ANOTHER AND ANOTHER AND ANOTHER AND ANOTHER AND ANOTHER AND ANOTHER AND THEN-
YOU DIE.

YOU DIE.

YOU DIE.
YOU ALL DIE. SLOWLY. QUICKLY. ALONE AND ALL AT ONCE. YOUR EYES BECOME EMPTY. YOUR HEART SHRIVLES AND YOUR BLOOD RUNS DRY. YOU DIE. YOU DIE. YOU DIE. YOU DIE. YOU WILL ALL DIE. AND THEN… THEN COMES HARMONY. THEN COMES BALANCE. AND SERENITY AND PEACE. DO NOT FIGHT IT. HELP ME. GIVE THE WORLD A CHANCE TO BEGIN AGAIN… WITHOUT YOU. END YOUR TORMENT AND MY OWN. LET EQUESTRIA DIE. LEAVE IT BEHIND. AND LET YOUR GODDESSES HAVE YOU.

SOMEHWERE IN THE HEAVENS… THEY ARE WAITING.

*** *** ***


The voices had gone stampeding through me. They had emptied me out.

I lay curled up in a sunbeam, my hollow head resting against a window so narrow that, while its light made one of my eyes shimmer, it left the other dull. Alien hieroglyphs, gibberish, climbed up the sides of the glass like monkeys up a tree. I watched my hair being burnt white against the window, and knew that I was at the top of a tower. Outside, there was open sky burnt to a clear, crisp blue. Miles below me, where the dark tower sank into the sand, was a desert, its dunes like stretch marks on its sunbathed skin.

More narrow windows lit the hallways beside me, and I saw that the walls were carved, beautifully, of strange metals and glass. This place might have been built by the architects of Hell, but younger: happier. It was bright and sterile, and I wondered how close we were to the edge of the atmosphere.

And thought it felt as if someone had scrubbed my brain, I could hear angels sing.
And when that flood of voices came echoing through the halls, it did not sound like the barking of dogs and the chants of some caged savage, but more like church bells ringing out over the desert.

Rest for a while. Then comes the struggle. You must empty yourself out in the desert.
Hold on, be strong. And together we will come to the end, once and for all.

There was so much compassion in its voice that I forgot where I was, I forgot that I was caught in the palm of a monster, held prisoner at the top of this tower in the desert. But the beast was no longer roaring and beating its chest. No, now it was as if it needed me: as if it loved me.

“You… you’ve always hated us,” I said, remembering it spewing out all those words at once, like so much bile. I didn’t know how I had made sense of it all, why I hadn’t drowned in the flood. “If you want me dead: why are we here?” I knew there was no one down there, that the desert was bare, but it was calming to be so far away from it all: to be alone in an empty world.

You are, all of you, brutes. You could have been jesters in the courts of a better King, if only you hadn’t sharpened your stones into knives, if only you hadn’t stolen the throne. Your spirit has always been strong. You are animals. But your hearts were honest. You fascinated me once.
Your candles burned at both ends. Twice as bright but half as long.
But your candle is different, Ender.
Just look outside.

It burns brightly enough to set the world on fire. Or build paradise a thousand times.
There may have been others like you. But the nation you broke, broke them back.
So you will be my champion. I will put the gun to your country’s head, and you will pull the trigger.
Mercy. Mercy. Me.

”You’re wrong about us,” I said, watching the sandstorms twirl across the desert like ribbon dancers.

You never listen.
It’s really very frustrating.

I smiled a little, as I picked out my mother’s voice, like a little bit of gold at the bottom of the river. And, suddenly, I felt safe in the monster’s palm, looking down at the world. “Tell me something... after the Fire of Friendship… after all these years, how is that you ended up in the Deimos?”

I have been watching you for a long time, Ender. Drowsily, half asleep. You shook the world, and woke me up. But with your old machines I had already found a way to escape: to get out from the darkness and the quiet of that pit under the place you call Hell: to daydream.

”You were there from the start…” I said, thinking of the time before the tribes.
“Do you think Equestria is beautiful, still? In its way.”

If you could have seen it like I did – like it was – then you would taste the ash in your mouth, and see the blood on your hooves. Still, it is good to be out from the darkness and the quiet.

”Oh, let’s not go out into the desert just yet, Sovereign,” I said, getting drowsy as sun shone through the glass, and the monster stroked my hair. “Let’s rest a while, and then make one more paradise.”

Just one more?

”Just one more… I promise.”

*** *** ***

|*| All Roads Lead to Sol |*|

I could hear the roaring of faraway waterfalls, and thought for a moment that I was home again, as it sounded like radio static bleeding out of some ruin. Then came the rustling of the pine groves, which should have been punctuated by birdsong, but instead ran on like a long sentence. I could almost hear the sun; kissing the leaves of the birch trees, leaving them as red as lipstick; frolicking through the daffodil fields that were stuck like custard to the side of this bowled in valley; making the glaciers around it sweat.

There was a crack through the far side of valley, and I could see the desert through it, like a piece of parchment pulled taught, drying out in a heat that I could not yet feel. The ice that crowned the valley and the snow that kissed the ashy hooves of the mountains was so white that I had to squint, as the light glanced off of them like swords off a shield. The sky was bright and clear, though the sun and that strange planet leaned in over the valley, as if it were their chessboard.

After getting to my hooves, I started down the mountainside, and saw enormous sheets of metal cutting through it in places. It looked as though some warship had been shot down over the desert, as pieces of it were sprinkled like razor blades into the bowl of the valley, and a sprawling wreck seemed to be waiting for me out in the sand. I started towards it, towards the desert. There was nowhere else to go.

I danced through a meadow, whose daffodils let their petals scatter like startled birds as I passed them by. And yet, when I looked over my shoulder, I could not see the way I had come, like the print of a hot knife in butter. Instead, my hoofsteps seemed to have been erased, like history off of a page.

I crossed a shallow stream, skipping from stone to stone. But when my hooves touched the water, the ripples that spread through it had no reflection to bend and disfigure. In the space where I should have seen myself, there were only autumn leaves, sailing across the reflection of the sky like dying phoenixes.

It frightened me, so I looked away, and hurried out onto the barren, bushwhacked path that had been left behind as if under the boots of desert nomads come stumbling into the valley. This paradise was not like the others. It didn’t make me feel safe, and I couldn’t see the stars for how close the sun had come. The desert was creeping into this place, and as my hoofsteps crunched into sand instead of stone and snow and autumn leaves like the laurels of a crimson king, I knew the monster was creeping into me.

*** *** ***

A Minotaur stood in the mouth of the valley, at first little more than a black smudge, then enormous and naked. His arms hung heavy at his sides, and his manhood was like the pendulum to a lazy grandfather clock. The wreckage that cluttered the horizon made him look like a giant, taking a breath after rampaging through some rusty old city. His eyes looked to have been scooped out, and so he stared up into the sun, as smoke trailed out of his nose. The air in the valley had become bitter and cold.

There was a froth gathering on the coarse skin of his chest. The fur on his legs was beaded with sweat. He didn’t seem strong enough to bellow, or bring down temple pillars. He was shivering, exhausted as if after a long day of labor. He was Samson without his hair.

“I can’t see,” He said, and there was so much sadness in those hollow, howling spaces.

“Yes. It seems as though the light in your eyes has gone out,” I said, not entirely sure of where the words were coming from. “I’m terribly sorry. This is no place to be blind.”

“Are you a priest?”

“A doctor.”

“I don’t see the difference. Do you know how to throw light?”

“I’m afraid that I don’t. At least, I can’t say that I do.”

“Learn, then. Take the old magic into your horn, and give me back my sight.” He swung his head around for a while, sniffing, and then found me at his feet. “If you do it, I will clear you a path through the wreckage ahead. If you do not, I will break you over my knee.”

I nodded and lit up my horn, afraid to say no; afraid to say anything. I wanted to feel Caliber’s hoof on my shoulder, to see her pushing her way to the front and cursing out this bull for trying to bully me. But, while I had made flowers whose names I didn’t know spring out of the earth in making this place, I couldn’t bring her here. And even the Minotaur, whose voice was clumsy and robotic, seemed more like an alien line of code, a virus, injected into my paradise. I could build sets for someone else’s actors; paint a place so single-mindedly beautiful that even birdsong had been forgotten. I was only an architect.

Whatever came next was not up to me.

“Make me see.” He bowed, and a shadow fell over me as the sun was pinched into between his horns. I looked into the spaces where his eyes should have been, which were not unlike the two flared nostrils just below them, and I imagined candlewicks snubbed out somewhere in the darkness.

I dug my hooves into the sand, and bowed my head, pointing my horn at the sun between his, so that it looked as though we were about to gut it in some ritual sacrifice. I could hear the air burning between us, and I sank a little deeper into the sand.

My horn held the light no better than a damp matchstick, though I was pouring myself into it, and I could taste salt, as sweat and tears ran down my face. The light felt hard, solid, and as I drove it into the Minotaur’s vacant eyes, it felt as if I was burying a sword through his skull, and into the stomach of the sun behind him, so that the blade was gilded in its liquid gold.

The beast’s eyes were filled with fire, and the sun shrank between his horns, like an orange being squeezed for its juice. He bellowed, and his voice rolled around the valley behind me, making the pine trees bend, the waters quiver and the flowers take flight like frightened birds.

Then, I was in his arms, looking up into a sky being drained of its color as the sun ran away from us. I had an ear pressed against his chest, and listened to his roars coming as if from far away. Hearing his heart beat was like being clipped around the ear: like being scolded. As he ran, his hands would twist me as if I were a small animal trying to wriggle free. He tore through the wreckage, like something wrestling its way out of a briar patch, and his heartbeat went faster and faster and faster. Until it was one, long drone.

*** *** ***

The Minotaur was stumbling now, and I could feel blood filling the spaces between us. This snare of twisted steel was tearing through his skin, spilling his blood into the sand. We came to a clearing in the wreck, and he fell to his knees. I rolled out of the palms of his hands, and onto sand that blushed in the glow of small fires, dying under this steel thicket. I could almost see the sun, peeking in at us as if through a keyhole. Its light danced with the alien stick figures smeared onto the walls of the ruined ship. The Minotaur collapsed, bowing to them, and the wreck rattled.

The light in his eyes was going out again, but I was too tired, and had become coldhearted as his clumsy fingers pressed, just a little too hard, into my belly and flank, and groped at my throat. So I left him.

I followed the sun until it sank out of sight, and tried to sing lullabies under my breath, with my heart like a child left sleepless by surreal fever dreams. The wind came burrowing through the ruin, howling one long, sad note. It sounded as if there were wolves in the wreck, and I tried not to think about how long it had been since I last saw the sun.

There was a bellowing like that of a dying bull, and the bones of the airship creaked, as warm breath came billowing through them as if from a bellows. I knew the smell of it. I knew the sound of him. I was lost, and had come to another clearing in the wreck, but threw myself out of it even as the air began to steam and stink. I hid, wriggling into little places and cramped spaces like a frightened field mouse.

The Minotaur’s hoofsteps beat at my taught, two-dimensional world as though it was an animal skin drum. And for every rumble that shook the sand out from under me, I imagined landslides burying valley after valley under stone and mud and ice. My paradise would fall apart like a sand castle under the sandals of some bully, or castles made of sand into the sea, and I was sure I would have to come up out of my hiding place and stop him.

I peeked out from between sheets of steel, curled as the leaves of some prehistoric fern, and watched him go thrashing through the clearing. I felt the muscles in my legs tense up, as my magic pulled a spear out from a crisscrossing of long glass needles. But I couldn’t do it.

I told myself I was too scared. But deep down, I knew that I didn’t want to kill him.

The Minotaur’s voice was ragged, torn as the skin on his shoulders, and I could hear the exhaustion in it. His hoofsteps were slowing down, as if to keep time with his heart, and he was only just throwing his weight against the wreckage: using himself as a horned battering ram. He spun around the clearing, swinging his arms around like two great weights, cutting himself on the leaves of that steel oasis.

Soon there were red circles spattered on the sand, and he looked like some mad holy man dancing for rain: bleeding himself dry so that the desert could drink. I tucked myself in, and closed my eyes tight, knowing that he wasn’t dead, because I could hear him dying.

I felt him fall to his knees, and looked up to see the life trickling out of him, wrapped up in the steam that was coming up out of his mouth. He beat the earth with his body one last time, and I thought I heard another paradise being buried. When he died, and the air became clear and cool again, I made my way out of the wreck, and it was as if I had always known the way.

*** *** ***

I walked out through tall, silver rings, half buried in the sand, without once looking back at the wreckage. There were plum and almond trees at the edge of the desert, like litter thrown out of paradise. They had become little more than blotches of pink for the blurred lines coming off of the desert.

I couldn’t feel the heat, but I could see it. Faraway sandstorms were the closest thing there were to clouds, and the sun was as naked as the day it was born. I could smell it, as plums and almonds and spice colored the air. And I could hear it, as the sand baked under my hooves, and the wind howled through a parched throat. But I could not feel it.

I walked towards the sun.

I came to a post sticking out of the sand, and nailed to it was a tattered red shawl. I watched it whip in the wind, then took it down and tied it around my neck, thinking that it looked like a superhero’s cape.

I walked, until the earth began to shake. The sandstorms were closing in around me, and it was as though the curtain was finally coming down. I could even hear something like applause: the stomping of hooves and the clicking of horseshoes, coming towards me. I looked to the West, and saw all of Saddle Arabia crossing the desert.

Their faces were empty, their eyes wide and white. Their coats were foaming and bloody, as if the stampede had whipped them up into its frenzy. These were wild horses. Nothing like the proud, mathematical race that had once visited Equestria as merchants and missionaries. They came to be like a raging wall of whitewater between me and the sun, and I could do nothing but wait for them to pass.

After what might have been another hundred dead horses came and went, I understood. It wasn’t going to end. They were a snake swallowing its own tail, wrapped tight around the world. They were a surging river of flesh and bone and sweat and blood, ten shoulders wide, and one Saddle Arabian deep.

I knew then, that I would have to throw myself under their hooves as if under the wheels of a train or the stomping hooves of an angry mob, and fight my way out before being ground into the sand. I steeled myself for what needed to be done but, as I rocked my weight back and forth and stared into the spaces in between their scraped and skinny knees, I was close to tears.

I threw myself under them, but it was as if I had stepped out of my body, and pushed it into the stamped like a naked sacrifice into a whirlpool. I watched it being twisted, a rag doll whose stitched were just beginning to snap, and as it was kneaded like so much dough under their hooves, I came back to my body, if only to give it a voice: to wail, and to pray.

Then, it was over, and I found myself sprawled out on the sand as if dying of thirst, staining the desert like a burst grape, until my cape was the color of a wine stain. I stood up, and the sand clung to the damp patches on my coat, the sweat and the blood and the tears, even as I tried to dust myself off. I thought it was over. But then, I looked up and saw the sun flashing through their skinny legs.

I was back where I started.
The river had not swallowed me, but spat me out. And, as I wept, my tears ran red as stolen wine.

“Again,” I said, stepping out of my body, only to be sucked back into it just as the hammers that were their hooves came crashing down. Somewhere, from under the thunder, I heard myself screaming Sovereign. I was thrown out of it again, and lay limp on the bloodstained sand like a slab of cured meat. My flesh was soft and salted, my insides twisted and my skeleton like rolling bones in between clasped palms.

Again!” I could not get to my hooves, and so dragged myself closer and closer to the horses, until I was swept up under them like a flower into a whirlwind.

*** *** ***

I woke up burning. The sand had paled, and become salt, and so it was as if there was a brand being pressed into my skin for every one of my open wounds. I stood up, my body wrapped in pins and needles that might first have been held over a fire, and I saw bloody hoofsteps like rose petals left to lure lovers and newlyweds into the west. The horses were long gone, and I lit my horn, cleaning and closing my scars. I wanted to be numb, to soak my head in anesthetic, but knew that I still had to find my way home.

I kept walking, clicking my heels and making glassy splints out of my magic. The sky became blue, and the horizon wore a high, feathered crown of clouds. And, as the salt mirrored the sky, there were two crowns, as if I was looking at a King up to his forehead in water. I looked back, and saw two more kings, flipped like the faces on a playing card. There was nothing left. It was as if I was standing on a lake without a shore, watching my cape dance even as the sun burnt a hole in the water.

“Sovereign!” I lifted my voice to the sky, if only because it was the same color as the monster’s voice.
“I think I ran out of imagination!”

I waited, staring up through the blue until I could almost count the stars, and got no answer but for a hissing that seemed to be coming off of the horizon, as if the sun had brought it to a boil.

I started walking, for what would be the last time, and didn’t stop until the hiss had risen up to a roar, and I stood on the flat line that had been the horizon like a bird on a wire. The salt went slipping through my hooves, and spilled out over the horizon like a great ocean over the edge of some flat earth.

I stood there, with my cape flapping like the wing of a baby bird about to throw itself from the nest and my body sore, and knew that this was the end of it.

So I stopped thinking, and tilted myself like a King off the side of a chessboard.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: The Idler Wheel: You were always a daydreamer. And as the caravan rolls on, it is the idler wheel that’s left behind. You’ll know what it means soon enough.

Last One Out, Get the Lights

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You'd better sit down. Maybe put on some Music.

Today, I will be uploading the last chapter of Fallout Equestria: Begin Again.
But this isn’t where the story was supposed to end. I just have to stop.
I know I promised you all more than this. And if you’ve been with me from the beginning. From Sola Gratia -

stringtheory regolit deathpony treesy
I’m sorry this is the way I’m ending it.

But I can’t do this anymore. I can’t write the word hoof when I mean hand. You know that I’m slipping. You’ve seen it. How many times have I used the word fingers? Even though Grace wouldn’t know a finger from a fish. How many times have I used the words Man and King and God? I’d say I’m leaving the fandom, but I don’t even know what episode we’re on. Or how many Equestria Girl spinoffs there are. It’s been a long time since I went on Equestria Daily…daily. I’ve been gone for a while now.

It’s funny. Grace has always been a pony in my head. Caliber, Ash, Damascus. They’re all little horses. And this is not America. Or Africa. This is Equestria. My own twisted version of Kkat’s own twisted version of a cartoon, storybook world. And I’m in it up to my neck. But I can’t hide what I’m writing any more.

I left home last summer, but I started Sola Gratia when I was seventeen. And since then, I must have put thousands of hours into it and its prettier Kid sister Begin Again. I wrote a short story for a competition last month (I got runner-up, which if you read the winning story is some serious bullsh… Sorry).
And it’s the first thing I’ve ever written that my parents read.

Before that, they had to be proud of me. Be it because I told them I was a good writer, or just because I’m their little girl/boy. Either way, I want to make them proud instead. I want to be able to show them the first book I finish. I want to be able to get it published. And show everyone. So I have to leave.

Over the next week, I will be putting up everything else I have to give you. I’m going to put up the images that inspired me the most. The songs that I’ve kept with me for the last two years. Old notes and half-finished ideas. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But I’d rather leave it all behind. This story’s raised a lot of questions and, If you want, I can even leave you the answers (I do have them, you know.)

Where was I going with the orbs or Sovereign or the broken Goddess? Where was I going with Grace and Caliber? Was I going to go all Shakespeare and kill everyone at the end?
Or all Bioware and, well… Maybe it’s better that you choose your own answers.

I will not take this story down. Come back in a few years and read it to your kids if you’d like. But on April 16th I will be changing my password on FIMfiction to random keyboard bashed gibberish.
And I will log out for the last time.

I hope you all enjoy Flutterwonder and Flight Dream, both named for this fandom's inexhaustible talent. And, in that vein I have to say: Thank You, Kkat.

I'm sorry I can't be as passionate as you are about this place - these people. But I'm proud, still. Of Shiropoint and shortskirtsandexplosions and my beloved cenyo and of course, my idol, you. You were like my big sister. And you know what I’ll still be carrying with me, fifty years from now? Not Twilight or Rarity or Applejack.

But Littlepip, Velvet Remedy and Calamity.

Not Friendship is Magic, but Fallout Equestria.

Chapter 18: Flight Dream

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Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 18: Flight Dream
“Burn away the flags. Begin Again."

|*| And the Horse you Rose in On |*|

I fell into the wasteland, as if through an hourglass that had been counting down my time in the desert: in paradise. And as I looked up into a storm that had been worn as thin as papyrus, I could almost believe in the songs and the scripture. I could almost believe that I had fallen from some heaven, tilted myself off of an island in the atmosphere: a satellite kingdom. But no, I hadn’t come tumbling through those holes in the sky. It had all been in my head. And though I’d felt hours pass, the sun seemed to have gone still: waiting for me. Nothing was the same, but nothing had changed. It was as if I had never left.

I lay sprawled out in a bed of yellow grass, and the Deimos groaned beside me, lying on its belly. The warship’s pale emergency lights throbbed. It had left a deep, ugly scar through the prairie, snapping the pines and gutting the mountainside. I couldn’t hear fire crackling or smell smoke trickling out of the ship’s hull. I couldn’t see a clipped wing or a punctured sail. The Deimos had landed as if to sleep, as if made drowsy by the sun. It had not been shot down. There were no fires going cold. There were no screams.

The ship’s windows were broken and its shutters had clicked open, so that the wind played it like a flute. There was something wrong. There was too much color: too many shades of gold coming through the clouds and glazing the grass. It was too bright. It looked like someone had thinned out the storm as if shearing a sheep’s wool. I could almost see the sun, but knew this was no paradise. There was gunfire, and I watched the clouds swelling - blackening, sweating, boiling - to the south. This was wasteland.

There were birds, perched on the warship’s plucked feathers, and they were all white enough to pass for origami swans. They took off, to drift up into the storm like paper planes, at the sound of hoofsteps in the grass. I tried twisting my neck to see who was coming, but froze up as something landed on my nose. I crossed my eyes and saw a locust, rubbing its prickly legs together like two dry sticks, as if to start a fire.

I wanted to squeal, but there were voices ringing off of the steel sides of the Deimos, and I remembered the monsters roiling in its gut. I remembered that this was wasteland; that I had come down from my mind. I could die here. I could lose here. I went still, and lay there like a statue fallen from the walls of some ancient city. I was paralyzed, as if turned to stone by the insect’s stare.

In the corner of my eye, I could see Locusts swarming over the ship, over the city from which I had fallen. Their hooves clicked against its hull, and their bodies were heavy enough to make it groan: to wake it up.

They paid me no mind, and gathered before the deck of the Deimos, like an audience before a stage. And only then, did I see the gargoyle that was standing there, with its wings as black as night under those sundrenched sails. It was the alicorm. And I knew then that she must have left me here: she must have found me dreaming in those pools of electric moonlight, and thrown me off the side of the ship.

Now, the abomination stretched out its bloody neck and half a hundred Locusts stared up at her, falling in love all at once. Even as they began to whisper and babble as if speaking in tongues, the insect climbed up and down my snout, and I remembered creeping into Hell, and seeing the Celestial cross built up from charred bodies and blackened bones. The alicorm only had to spread her wings to give the Locusts their God. I was jealous. I had birthed Eden and Valhalla and Arcadia. But here I was, lying in the dirt.

The locust sang a single sour note, and then sprang into the gathering mob. I hadn’t been breathing, and my chest ached even as I coughed and gasped for air. I rocked up onto my hooves, and looked down at my Pipbuck, which should have been blushing as red bars came marching over the hills. But it was as pale as the moon. The Locusts were showing up white, and I shivered, feeling my blood run cold. We were meant to be enemies. The alicorn should have killed me while I lay dreaming. The Locusts should have pounced on me, foaming at their mouths. I should have drawn my pistol, and shot down their God.

It was as if I had switched sides. I was standing beside an army who had come home limping, painted red in the blood of the Buffalo. I was standing in the court of a city whose king was a stowaway in some machine, whose queen had a stake through her neck, and whose belly was full of twisted things with too many mouths. I wasn’t here to fight. I wasn’t here to take heads or tilt thrones. No… I was their guest.

I had to get out of the shadow of the Deimos; I had to scrub out the stains of that whispering blue voice. I had to find Caliber. And Ash. And go where the sunlight was blotted and cold, to see paradise lost in low spaces and ugly places. I had to throw myself back into the wasteland: a nightmare so dark that it would already have cut to black if I were dreaming. I had to fall into it, if only to be sure I wasn’t still asleep.

*** *** ***

I came up over the hillside, and looked over my shoulder to make sure that nothing had come following me from inside the warship. The Deimos might have been mistaken for a great, dead animal, being swarmed by ants as its flesh went sweet in the sun. The Locusts were filling its gaps, pulling together its cracked shell, as the alicorn stood on its deck, waving her wings and throwing her voice like a street corner preacher. I heard them chanting with her, in animal voices that were low and dull.

They were rebuilding it – sticking bloodied feathers back into a dead bird – and a shiver ran down my spine as I watched them work. There was something in that ship: something that had wrapped itself around my brain, and leaked into it like a psychedelic drug. And now, with the alicorn as its puppet on a stake, so had it taken hold of the Locusts. I could only hope that the twisted things that had sprouted out from around that blue rose, those beasts in the belly of the ship, would snap their mouths at anything that tried to come inside. Unless Sovereign had tamed them too.

I turned my back on the Deimos, and looked up to where the storm was inky enough to swallow up the sun, and take me far away from paradise. As I made my way south, I did my best to weed out the worry in my mind: What if Caliber hadn’t made it out alive? What if Ash had found the alicorn, like a ghost haunting the brig of the ship, and followed her Pilgrimage if only down a different path?

What if I had worn the clouds so thin? What if I had thrown fuel into the fire of this sun, and made it burn so brightly? What if I was still dreaming? What if I never woke up?

My heart skipped a beat, as the drone of the Locusts had died down and, over the jarring beat of faraway gunfire, I thought I could hear angels sing. I thought the Monster was whispering in my ear.

But these were words I knew: in the voice of a stranger who I could never have met.

We’ll meet again,
don’t know where,
don’t know when.
But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.

A spritebot came bobbing up to me as if through water, like punctured cargo taking on weight and sinking. Its wings were broken, and stuck out like the antennae of an insect. But there was no light in its eyes, and no life in it but for the electricity that came crackling out of its sides, and the music stuttering out of its speakers. This was not Okavango Delta, but another piece of this broken Equestria. It was ugly and twisted, and the voice that came pouncing out of it then was enough to show me that I was home.

“We interrupt your regularly scheduled program for… some news! Now I know you’re all fit to burst by now, what with the new relay giving us eyes over the east, but you’ll never guess who this old dog just sniffed out in the wreck.” I looked north, over the Deimos and across the Plain, to where Cabanne sat smoking. And there in between us was that skinny radio tower, lit up like a beacon. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, kids: old soldiers never die.”

“It’s good to see you again, Shepard.” I turned away from the tower, smiling. They had done it.
Somewhere out there, Caliber and Ash were still fighting. “Looks like you’ve been through one hell of a night. And, just going off the absolutely flatlined airship lying just over your shoulder there, I’d say you’ve already started kicking against the Enclave’s pricks. For all the ponies out there who’re still trying to figure out who to root for, why don’t you tell us which side has your gun: the Locusts spilling out of that dead zone in the Middle Passage, or those Buffalo camped out at the bottom of the Dragon’s Stair?”

“The Buffalo…” I said, carefully. I was still a little stunned, and looked out over the Plains to see what I might have missed. To the north, there were great tears in the clouds, through which winged soldiers came like crows, as if to pluck at the bodies littering the battlefield that had grown out around Cabanne. In places, it seemed as though the storm itself was reaching down with dusty fingers, to squash the Locusts or flick the Buffalo away like summer beetles. There were whirlwinds stripping the prairie, stirring up maelstroms in the clouds. As if to follow me up into paradise, the earth had gone to war with the sky.

“Looks like the Shepard is still a little dizzy from the crash. I just wish you could see what I’m seeing, folks. This little filly just came swaggering away from a landing that would’ve left any captain crying for his mother. Hell of a way to make an entrance, Shepard. I take it you’re back to fight the Good Fight?”

It was hard to pull myself away from the Plain, as it had become an almost biblical oil painting of the end of days, with angels coming with the clouds, pillars of rain holding up a sky like a crumbling temple, and fires coloring the horizon. But I looked into the spritebot’s crumpled eye, and remembered that I could be talking to ponies that were hiding in the ruins, cheering from the sidelines, or dying in the wreck.

“Not quite: I’m back to win it.”

*** *** ***

The DJ and I couldn’t have talked without the wasteland hearing our every word, and so I lost my chance to get any answers: to let myself seem tired, confused and alone in a world whose edges were burning and whose earth was soaked in blood and blackened rain. Still, I felt braver for being their champion, and didn’t have any reason to wonder whether I had fallen back onto the wrong side of the board.

I should have scolded myself for being so proud, for biting my tongue before so many questions, as if to trick the world into thinking I was all-knowing. I still didn’t understand why the Enclave were spitting seeds of fire down from the sky, why Hell had opened its mouth and let swarms of Locusts come spilling out, or where Caliber and Ash had gone after lighting the radio tower. All I knew for certain was that the Deimos had once been an Enclave ship, and that the Buffalo had left their pastures to burn. I could almost see them, gathered in a warcamp at the bottom of the Dragon’s Stair, with their tents like Brahmin moths resting in the grass, for the animal skins stretched out into strange patterns on their backs.

Before the spritebot went drifting away, I told the world I was going south, stepping back onto the path that I had been plucked off of. I had to hope that Caliber was out there somewhere, listening, that she knew where I was going: where to find me. While it never came so close that I could feel it, the rain drummed at the plains as I walked down into the Buffalo camp, as if to play me back onto the stage.

The tents were empty, though the wind teased them up over their posts like skirts over skinny legs, and whistled. I bent over a campfire whose pans were scattered and whose pit was like a cigarette burn in the soil, and smelt of wood that was smoky and damp. There were spears, sticking up out of the dirt, with bloody ribbons around their necks. And there were shotgun casings, like the shells of sunflower seeds.

Only after coming deeper into the abandoned camp, did I realize that the earth had been left uneven, cratered by cleft hooves and bodies that had either been helped up, or dragged away. There was still smoke in the air, and it made me lower my eyelids as if putting me to sleep. I saw mud drying up on my sleeve, and I turned my head to pick it off, thinking that I was alone.

“Fillies and gentlecolts, for my next trick… I’ll need some help from my lovely assistant.” I dug my hooves into the mud, and looked up. I had come into a clearing in the camp and there, tied to a post as if to the mast of a sinking ship, was Hennessy. She smiled down at me, her face like a blood orange that had only been halfway peeled. “She looks so beautiful, don’t you agree… don’t you agree?”

“Hennessy…” I breathed out her name.

“I must ask for complete silence as, using only her horn, my assistant frees me from my bonds.” She was wriggling inside the ropes, as if to put on a show for the spirits that still squatted around the warcamp. “Now you might think that, since she’s the one doing the magic, she should be the one with her name up in lights. Fair’s fair… but this is show business folks.”

“What happened here?” I asked, though her eyes had glazed over, as if tinny laughter was playing in her head, drowning me out. “Where are all the Buffalo?”

“You’re going off script, sweetheart,” she said, speaking out of one side of her mouth. “They took their show on the road. Can’t go anywhere now without seeing another fight between them and the ‘Custs.” She frowned, and it crumpled up her face like a sheet of paper. “I tell ya: It’s a good thing those flyboys cracked open the sky when they did, otherwise that show would’ve gone stale real fast.”

“Flyboys? Do you mean the Enclave?”

“Yeah, I mean the Enclave! They’re sharpening their stingers because one of them fancy, flying ships got overrun. They figure it was the Locusts, seeing as it happened over in that valley to the west… but you have to know how to work a computer to steer an Enclave ship. And, far as I can tell, we’re all a bunch of cavemen down here.” I saw that prehistoric symbol, like an image burned into my eyes, and I knew: Sovereign had stolen that ship. Sovereign had brought the Enclave down like a drumroll over the Plain.

“I’m looking for my friends,” I said, even as Hennessy tried to shush a crowd of heckling spirits. “Do you know if they came this way?”

“Couldn’t say. Seen a lot of friendly enough faces pass me by. Everyone’s making a run for Calvary. Never seen the Dragon’s Stair so crowded. Was like folks were queuing up to get into one of your Stables.” I tilted my head and looked around her, to a dip in the southern mountains. It was as though one of them had erupted, and taken its own head off, as the Dragon’s Stair looked as pale as a pile of volcanic ash and cinder. “Chances are they went that-a-way.”

“Why? Is Calvary safe?”

She looked up into the sun, which was glaring out at us as if from behind a torn wedding veil. “Not especially. But they’ve still got a roof over their heads.” I looked up, and didn’t stop until my eyes watered.

Without giving myself time to think it over, I untied her, and hurried out of the clearing. Behind me, the poacher bowed, and let ghostly roses pile up around her hooves, smiling one half of death’s naked smile.

*** *** ***

I heard voices as I came to the edge of the camp, and worried that some of Hennessy’s audience might have followed me, holding their flowers out in front of them and asking for my heart. I pulled up the collars of my father’s coat, as if to hide my faces as cameras flashed around me. But, as one of the voices was ground down to a low, rumbling laugh, I knew who I would see standing at the foot of the Dragon’s Stair, like a boulder come rolling down from the mountain.

Hehh. Hehh. Hehhh. Tuskegee rocked from side to side as he laughed, and it was all I could do not to bury myself in his chest, and kiss him like a castaway washed up on the tide might kiss the earth. I had begun to wonder if, tied to her post as if nothing had changed since the last time I’d seen her, Hennessy was a sign that I was dreaming it all up. But Tuskegee was real. He had to be.

And, as if to prove it, two strangers stood in his shadow as it swayed from side to side. It looked like they had been left out of an inside joke. They were dressed in plate armor, which might once have been described as gold, and looked safe for the metal that covered their necks and hooves like too much jewelry. Attached to circlets at their neck were two tattered cloaks, one red and the other the color of deerskin, as if to say that they came from two different armies. They wore chainmail across their bellies and bunched up around their necks like scarves, and carried lances in their saddles instead of rifles. They stood so still that it was as if Tuskegee was only making silly faces at royal guards.

“Shipbreaker!” He cheered, as I skipped up to them, sounding as happy to see me as I was to see him. “This is the girl that drove the Deimos into the dirt, and shook the Plain more than it has been shaken since the first Tuskegee was named Chief!” The mare in his shadow gave me a look as flat as day old soda. Her eyes were the color of the Sparkle-Cola Quantum bottles I’d seen on capsized billboards.

She wore a helmet, which covered her forehead even though its beaklike visor was tilted all the way back.
Her powder blue mane came out of its skullcap like the crest of a cockatoo, though her coat was canary. She wore what might have been the cloak of an old Pegasus politician, but had the hard eyes of one of their statues, still watching over those cities in the clouds.

There were shadows that clung to her face even as the sun did its best to sweep them off, and I could see the bloodstains at the tip of her lance: bloodstains creeping up from the soles of her boots.

I couldn’t look her in the eye for very long, and so tried smiling at the buck beside her. “Good afternoon,” I said, as he smiled back at me. His eyes were almost colorless, and I thought I could see stripes in his hazelnut coat, though they were faint, as if he had tried to wash them out.

“It is, isn’t it? It’s a shame that the Enclave couldn’t have opened up the storm just to say hello. But it’s nice to see the sun, I suppose. Either way… my name is Wonderful Tumble.” He saluted me, beaming as if I had just pinned a medal to his chest. “Well, Officer Wonderful Tumble now. Of the NCPD.”

“Me and the New Calvary Police Department,” Tuskegee couldn’t help snorting as he said that. “Were just talking about getting my warriors into the city once the fighting’s over. The Enclave will tuck themselves back in once their politicians have made their point. But that doesn’t mean our prairies will stop burning.”

A Police Department? I thought, skipping in place. To the mare, it might have looked like I’d come over to ask for directions to the little filly’s room, though she had turned her glare back onto the Buffalo Chief. His eyes shone out from inside his face, as if it were only a heavy, leather mask.

Aucune chance, barbare.” I titled my head and wiggled an ear, trying to tune into her frequency. It was as if the mare was speaking in cursive. “I do not want your… guerriers trailing dirt into Calvary.”

Tuskegee furrowed his brow. “We are not gorillas.”

“Guerriers! I said guerriers.” She stomped her hoof, and got a little dirt on my collar. “Imbécile!”

The Buffalo smiled a Brahmin’s lazy smile, and nodded along as she swung her hoof out of the muck and stormed around in little circles, making up words that sounded mean but meant nothing to any of us. Tuskegee might have been playing dumb to get on her nerves, and I wondered how long they had been stuck like this. “Is there any way that we- … that I can help?” I asked, after the mare wound herself down.

“You are a refugee, n’est pas? Then go up l’escalier and wait at Fort Abaddon with all the others.” She thrust a hoof at the Dragon’s Stair, which I had come to realize was not a pile of ash, but a mountain that had been stripped naked and decapitated. “There should be space for you still, Mignon.” She looked the Buffalo up and down, and took her time about it. “For this one and his… Calvary has no space.”

“Maybe me and mine will have to make our own space.” I was so close that I could hear his voice come rumbling up out of his gut, and smelt smoke and stale meat on his breath. “Run back to your masters in Calvary, sergeant. And tell them that the Chief named Tuskegee said this: Once my warriors have had their fill of Locusts… I won’t be asking to come into your city. I won’t be asking for anything.”

And then, just as I thought he was going to go thundering back into the camp, Tuskegee leaned in close, and his breath seemed as heavy as an arm around my shoulder. “If you ever find your friend, don’t let her go. It’s time we had a toast together.” He rocked his weight, and laughed as he went trundling away. Hehh. Hehh. Hehhh. “Here’s to the Chiefslayer. Here’s to the Shipbreaker. And here’s to War!”

The sergeant watched him go, as one might watch a thunderstorm close over the sun. “Merde.”

*** *** ***

“A mercenary and a pilgrim… together? I think I would’ve remembered that.” Officer Tumble punctuated his sentences with little laughs, and walked up the Dragon’s Stair with a spring in his step. Our path was broken up by standing stones, like the plaster casts of pilgrims who had died in some volcanic eruption. “But we only just left New Calvary, really. NCPD officers don’t usually get sent this far away from the city. But with all you refugees coming into the valley…” Just ahead of us, the sergeant dug her hooves in, and stopped short. “Sergeant?”

The mare spun around on one hoof, and marched up to me. “That symbol on your coat, celui-là: la croix.” She prodded at my flank, and I felt like I had been caught smuggling a Goddess into Calvary. “What is the word you use for it?” Her lance was quivering at my chest, as if to say she would skewer me if I answered the question wrong.

My voice shook. “Cross.”

Cross!” She backed away from me, her hooves slipping on the stone. “C’est la seul: this is the one we have been looking for… The Cross-bearer.”

Wonderful Tumble’s watery eyes went wide. “Sacre bleu!” Then, the sergeant came crashing into me, so that I ended up sprawled out on the stone like a toppled house of cards. Her hoof pressed into my neck, catching a lump in my throat, even as she barked orders at the officer. I looked up out of the corner of my eye, and watched him pull a chunky metal collar out from under his cloak.

“Désolé, Mignon. There is no other way. Il ne faut rien laisser au chance.” The officer clicked the collar open, and it glinted in the filtered light of the sun. “The Buffalo want to come into our city. The refugees want us to drive out the Locusts. And you want to go free. But the NCPD doesn’t give anyone what they want… we give them what they need.” She was breathing down my neck now. “Tant pis.”

Then, even as she took the collar in her mouth and leaned in a little closer, there came the howling of a shotgun, and I heard buckshot sizzling against the stone. “Aie!” She cried, and the collar went skittering down the Dragon’s Stair like a metal scorpion. “Je suis attaqué!”

She left me there, in the dirt, and I tried to stay still even as the buckshot crackled all around me. The sergeant ducked behind a nearby standing stone, reeling out a string of curses in cursive. The lance at her side might have been a kind of lightning rod, as electricity danced around its tip. The buckshot came after her her like a swarm of bees, and I dragged myself up the stair, my belly scraping against the stone.

“Fillies and Gentlecolts! The images you are about to see-“ The voice broke off, with another thunderclap from what had to be a Buffalo’s shotgun. “- may be unsuitable for younger viewers. So if you have any children with you-“ It was as if one of those big bands was following Hennessy up the Dragon’s Stair, as the gunfire sounded like the crash and rattle of cymbals. “Tell ‘em to grow up already!”

The poacher came storming up to me, firing her weapons like a mare playing too many instruments at once.“Get along now, Miss Knockout. I’ll keep these piglets off your tail.” A bolt of lightning struck the space between her hooves, as if she had sworn to God, and already gone back on her word.

“Arrêter, clochard! You are under arrest!” The sergeant yelled, after ducking back behind her standing stone. “Anything you say or do can be used against you in a court of law.”

“A court of what?” Hennessy pelted the stone with buckshot, and then turned to shoo me away as one might a dog. “Go on now, git.” I hesitated, and lines of lighting burst out of the sergeant’s lance, splitting the space between us just as I went scampering away. With my heart hammering, I left the poacher there, but not before looking back to see death smiling out at me as if we were friends.

*** *** ***

The sun had begun to sink by the time I came up onto the bald scalp of the Dragon’s Stair, and the shadows of the standing stones seemed to be reaching up after me like skinny black fingers. I wanted to let them take me, let them pinch my tail and drag me down the Dragon’s Stair.

It felt as if I had skipped ahead, as if some of the pages to this story had gotten stuck together, and turned over all at once. But the sky was closing, and I had to go on. The sunlight felt heavy and cool even as it broke over the standing stones and set fire to the branches of the birch trees. It was as if it had been watered down in the rain. I stopped walking, realizing that there had been rain, and I never got to feel it.

I wanted to go back: to drive out the Locusts, and the Enclave, to brush them off of the Plain like so many clinging insects. I wanted to light up that old radio tower, and listen to the first song that came whistling out of it as if from a flute. I wanted to fight beside the Buffalo, to patch up bullet wounds that were, to them, like nothing more than pricks from a thorn tree.

I wanted to see Caliber again, and earn the name Shipbreaker.

But most of all: I wanted to be a part of the war that so many had been pulled into. There were the soldiers, stitching together the storm that they themselves had cut open, and the Locusts piecing together the shipwreck. There were the Buffalo who were still fighting out in between wildfire and floodplains. There was Tuskegee and the officers who would not let him come into the Calvary, and the poacher who was still spitting buckshot at them like so many watermelon seeds.

There was the alicorn. And the Monster. And me.

But there was only one mare that I knew, that I knew, was on my side… if only for the leash closed tight around her neck. And she wasn’t here. She wasn’t anywhere.

I listened to my hooves crunching against the stone of the Dragon’s Stair, and the bottlecaps jingling at the bottom of my saddlebags. I listened to the whir of the Locusts, to the hum of cities high above me and ancient engines far below. I listened to the wind go sin