Fallout Equestria: Ashes

by Relyet

First published

Another Fallout Equestria Sidestory. Two ponies walked across the wasteland, trying their hardest not to be heroes, not to make friends, and not to change the wasteland.

Two ponies walked across the equestrian wasteland. A mysterious mare behind a mask and an oversized stallion. They aren't there to be heroes, they don't want to make new friends, and they aren't trying to make the wasteland a better place. But just how easy is it to remain neutral in the wasteland?

(My first attempt at any form of pony fiction, and my first FoE sidestory, and the first bit of writing I've ever published. Here goes nothin'. Cover art credit to Sw1tchbl4de on deviantart, and a super awesome job it was!)

Chapter 1: Walking

View Online

Fallout Equestria: Ashes


Chapter 1: Walking

It's dangerous to go alone! Take this.

Two ponies walked across the wasteland.

I was one. He was the other.

We'd been walking the day before. And the day before that. As far back as I could remember, we walked. Sometimes we stopped walking and stayed in places. I talked to ponies, He didn't talk. We would walk someplace, ponies would die. The other ponies would give us caps, and we'd walk someplace else. Today, we were walking someplace else.

He grunted at my side, and I refocused my eyes. Down the road, we were coming up on a pair of concrete boxes with wide glass windows, twins on opposite sides of the road. Two long wooden beams extended to block the path painted in fading blacks and yellows. Ponies were milling around the boxes and inside them. Dirty ponies, in dirty armor. One was watching us through a pair of binoculars. His lips flapped and the others drew themselves up, watching us too. We walked. When there was ten feet between us and the roadblock, a voice cried.

"That's far enough!" One of the dirty ponies detached himself and strode up to us, looking us over with a critical scowl. I knew what he was seeing would make anypony suspicious, it was more of a question of which was more so. The crimson unicorn mare bearing a broadsword across her back and an obscuring gasmask across her face, or the massively muscled stallion standing nearly two heads higher than anypony there. It probably didn't help that He bore a cutie mark of some kind of bone, snapped in half, on His flank. "You two get split up from one of the scout groups? Which band d'you work for?"

He was speaking to Him, counting on His large size to equal authority. He would be sorely disappointed.

"No band, just us." I answered softly. Or tried to. My mask usually turned my words into a harsher rasp that seemed to make ponies uncomfortable. He certainly looked uncomfortable as he swapped his gaze to me.

"Freelance then? If you're lookin' for work you'll find it in Pyresteady. It's just north here, y'can't miss it." He made a head motion back at the other dirty ponies, and they brought their weapons up. He offered an insincere smile. "Hope you're good at y'work too, 'cause we're gon' need fifty caps from each a' ya fer not bein' a citizen. Y'know, the toll."

I stared at him beyond my lenses. He looked back, fidgeting suddenly. I raised one of my hooves, and felt another, heavier hoof on my shoulder. I looked back at Him, a tan cloth sack with our caps in His mouth. I dropped my hoof and reached out with my magic, drawing a stream of little metal disks out in a green cloud. I counted them out slowly and dropped them in a pile at his hooves, and stepped around him. He gave a startled noise but turned it into a shout at the other dirty ponies that we were free to pass. The wooden beams raised and we walked.


We couldn't miss it. It was a town ringed in concrete slabs leaning on stacked shipping crates, and tall towers with square platforms out of which long barrels jutted. Towers placed sporadically around the wall belched smoke and flame into the air. The jets of flame reminded me of my own cutie mark, only mine were green. I could feel the heat in the air when we got close enough to the entrance. The gateway, formed from two doors formerly belonging to a train car, lay on a pair of tracks set in the dirt and welded to the top of the entrance. They were wide open, I noted. A place like this, that radiated such outward wickedness could afford to keep its gates open without fear of foolish attack. A place like this was dangerous.

We only got a few second glances when we passed under the gate. From it I could see in a straight line down the middle of the town, the dirt road bisecting the buildings that rose up to the left and right in uneven rows. A lot of the buildings were truly buildings, the kind built before the war, with all four walls and a roof, some as many as three stories high. Clinging to the sides of the proper structures like parasites were more typical wasteland buildings thrown together from sheet metal and hunks of wood. As we trotted down the main street I noticed it seemed to split the town in two more than just in the literal fashion. To my left, the buildings were in worse shape. I didn't see a single unsmashed window, and many a door bore graffiti expressing the attitude of the raiders you were likely to find within, ranging from hostile to psychotic. Only once or twice did I glimpse a fresh corpse repurposed as some kind of wall decoration. I imagined in a town like this, such as it was, it made no sense to string up ponies by their entrails to dissuade intruders when your neighbor would be just as crazy as you. Maybe those ponies were just too used to the ever present corpses to give them up. The few ponies I saw occupying the streets and alleys were the mangy sort, with ragged barding that was two parts intimidation and spikes to every one part armor.

To my right, the contrast was so sharp as to be jarring. The buildings weren't exactly clean, but they weren't blood stained or heavily graffitied. The ponies that walked that half looked better groomed and geared, wearing combat barding or freshly laundered pre war clothing. Most of them, anyway. The ones that weren't were pitiable creatures that dogged the heels of the cleaner ponies with their heads down, wearing gleaming bands of metal around their necks.

I stopped looking to either side and kept pace towards the towering four story building whose entrance lay square in the middle of the road. The only building that bridged the gap between this curious dichotomy I was strolling through. It was obviously the place to find the work. The entry way lacked a traditional door, instead opting for fancifully carved, swaying saloon doors. Out of everything, I disliked them the most.
"This place is irritating."

I stopped short of the doors to inform Him. He grunted and shrugged, looking away dispassionately. I sighed, and pushed the doors in with my magic before striding through, making sure to ease them shut as well so they wouldn't pendulously swing back and forth behind us. From the sight of the doors, I had been dreadfully expecting to hear- Oh, there it was. A piano, pushed up against one wall. Thankfully it looked like somepony had been thrown into it sometime in the past, rendering it unplayable. Everything else fit though, there were rows and rows of rustic round tables seating ponies from either of the cliques I'd seen outside, drinking, gambling, and.. laughing. We'd seen these sorts of 'watering hole' buildings enough times walking in the south that it was obvious whoever furnished this one was trying too hard. Hating to repeat myself but unable to help it, I sighed again and weaved through the rows. A few of the denizens peered over their cards to jeer at one or both of us, but otherwise we received a wide berth. Filling all of one wall on this first floor, the bartop was where anything important was likely to happen. I approached the edge and one of the mares working behind it turned to greet me. She had a doughy looking body, and a pumpkin orange coat under a yellow mane drawn up into a bun behind her head . Her fixed grin faltered a touch when her eyes met my lenses, but not much.

"C'n ah help you, sugah?" She drawled at us.


A searching stare. I thought I would have to explain further but she pointed to the right, across the room at a broad square of wood hung up on the wall, a word crudely burned into it. I recognized the word 'JOBS'. The entire thing was covered with papers, and nails for ponies to hang them from.

"Y'all new here, huh? Bounty board's over yonder.."

"No. Bigger work. More caps." I cut her off, only giving the board a cursory glance. She dropped the grin all together and cocked an eyebrow. She peered up at Him and hissed.

"She dense or somethin'?"

She received a silent, stony stare and decided I was still the more preferable to talk to.

"That ain't how it works here, sug'. The big boss gives out the big jobs, an' only to the ponies what prove they got what it takes. You two tumbleweeds sure is tough lookin', but it takes more than that to-"

"Speak with him?"

Her looks grew increasingly frustrated each time I cut her off, but she talked too much, and it was taking too long to get to the work. She looked like she would refuse us, or maybe start talking too much again, before pointing to a little slanted speaker box set into the bartop next to one of the registers.

"He's a busy stallion, but ah'll give him a buzz."

I nodded and she sidled over to the box, pressing a button with a hoof and ducking her head low. She whispered, and I gave her half of the conversation little attention. The work 'spooks' came up clearly once or twice. She returned to us with a half-smile, half-grimace.

"He's sending somepony down, just take a seat." She gave a hoof motion towards the main room and the sea of ponies. Not all the tables were full, it was mid-day still and most of the patrons were probably out doing whatever it was they did to earn the caps they spent here. I picked a table against one of the walls, so I could settle into one of the chairs with my back to said wall. He just stood, not even bothering to test if one of the rickety chairs would hold him. Opposite my wall was the far wall that the barmare had pointed out, with the board that said JOBS. It also had the staircase that led up to the higher floors. After... some amount of time a pony descended and his determined eyes met my lenses. He made his way towards our table, and in his wake more than a couple of the chattering barflies turned from their cards and cups to watch. His coat was a dark brown the color of wet dirt, with a close chopped square of rusty red for a mane. He wore a barding made of overlapping layers of some leathery hide, black and brown. He smiled pleasantly and helped himself to one of the chairs, sliding into it and placing both hooves on the tabletop between us.

"Sooooo, you're the spooky ponies what got our Bitter Drink's mane all on end?" He chortled, looking over to catch the dirty glower from the barmare before leaning further over the tabletop. "Now, how can I help y'all?"

Repeating myself. I do not like it.

"Show us to the boss with the bigger work and quit wasting our time."

He recoiled, the fake smile vanished and replaced with a scowl. His head crouched towards the grip of a mouth pistol jutting from the holster near his shoulders without a hint of stealth, hovering halfway there.

"Little Miss, I don't know what tribal pit you two squirmed out of, but around here things are different. Big jobs are for the big players, ponies what earned some respect 'round here, not two specs of dust blown in on the mornin' wind. Now if you ain't gona lookit the board, or buy a drink, you better just get up'n go." He reached a hoof out, presumably to tap against my chest and hammer home his words. Before his hoof came close to brushing my coat, He was there over him, and had his jaws snapping down on the nape of his neck. With a heave and a whip of His neck, the brown stallion was flung across the room and came down on his back, in the center of one of the occupied tables, sending caps and glasses and alcohol into the air when it broke under his impact. Shouts went up, confused or angry, and more guns came out, aimed at Him or me, or somepony else entirely. Before anypony could start shooting, a little wood box near one of the registers let out a piercing buzzing noise that brought an end to all others. With everypony quiet this time, I could easily hear the voice that crackled out of it.

"What seems to be the commotion down there, Miss Bitter?"

"The spooks! They.. the big one just tossed Mudslide!" The soft mare pressed the button on the side and replied, keeping half her focus on levitating the revolver over her head.

"I see... Please be a dear and send them up then, and give them my apologies." The cool voice instructed through the box. The mare narrowed her eyes at it and us, before lowering the barrel of her revolver an inch and gesturing to the stairs with it.

"Mister Joe will see you now.. he apologizes for any inconvenience." She recited stiffly. I slid out of my chair and joined Him in trotting to the stairs, enjoying this lovely silence over the previous din. I made sure to peek down at the dirt colored buck groaning under the heap of wood as we passed by, and give him a taste of my lenses.


The second floor of the building was mainly rooms. Bedrooms. Open doors peeked in on bunk beds, cots, and the odd lone full sized mattress, and closed doors emitted the disgusting sounds of ponies.. coupling. I overtook Him with a groan and followed the curving hallway, coming on the second staircase and bounding up it. The third flood had larger rooms, as well as a railed balcony that extended and wrapped around the whole front of the building with empty doorframes leading to and from it. I slowed back down and trotted this hall casually, making for the room with metallic box smashed into the wall beside the door. The box read 'Administration', as the barmare had told me it would. I stared at the box for a moment before lifting a forehoof and thumping it on the door.

"Enter!" We were bid. I glanced up at Him, He was looking down at me calmly. I shrugged. Grasping the handle in my magic, I pushed the door in on a stallion. He was standing next to a desk, one large chair behind it and two more in front of it. He approached and gave a polite nod of his head

"Come, please, sit, I'm sure you'd like to get this over with quickly."

He was a large buck with a blue gray coat. Not as large as Him of course, he wasn't a walking tower of muscle and scar tissue, no, his size was due to being clad in half a carts worth of metallic armor. It was similar to the suits of powered armor worn by a Steel Ranger, but of many different models and paintjobs. He wore what looked like the bottom half of one of those Ranger helmets, stripped down to just the respirator and some tubing that connected it to the suit. It covered his muzzle and we could only see his eyes and... his hair. His hair was a broad, bright orange wedge that rose up and jutted forward off his forehead so sharply and firmly I thought it could have served as a weapon on its own.

Striking mane style aside, this pony didn't irritate me, this was good. We followed him back to the desk and I drew myself up into one of the offered chairs. He crossed over and eased his considerable weight into the metal bench on his side, cocking his head back and giving us a good look.

"You have to forgive Miss Bitter, we do get so many cocksure young upstarts prancing in here hoping to build themselves a fearsome reputation in as little time as possible, I'm afraid she lacks the eye to see real talent when it seats itself at her bar." He shook his head, his somber tone suggesting he truly shared our plight, then mercifully cut to the chase. "You want a big job, the kind I usually only give out to my gang leaders and lieutenants. Considering you tossed one of the latter like a sack of old apples, I'd say you've got the right attitude at least. I'll give you a chance." He pulled open one of the desk drawers and laid out a sheet of paper before us. It had black writing and lines, with larger, sloppier writing in red over the lines. I ignored most of it but for the symbol in the top right corner, a crude sigil of an eye, bloodshot and weeping. Or dripping blood. I couldn't tell.

"One of my gangs, to the north and west of here, has forgotten the terms of their contract and started straying too far into the peaceful town of Little Cliffside. I told them when they joined up that they could set their base that close, but they had to stick to road traffic, caravans, and the like. Too many incidents inside Cliffside, and I catch gruff from the NCA goons with their hooves in that town..."

I started to take back what I thought before. He was starting to irritate me with his talking, spilling out details I was certain we wouldn't require for the job. Thankfully I didn't have to interrupt him, he seemed to be wrapping up.

"I've already wasted enough time sending stern warnings, so now I'd like to dissolve their contract, and for you two to dissolve them." He pushed the paper closer, tapping his hoof over the bloody eye in the corner "They call themselves the Bloodshots. Just follow the signs with that painted over."

I didn't like looking at that eye, so I nodded and used my magic to fold it over and slip it into His saddlebags. I climbed down from the chair, he rose with a metallic whirring.

"And before you go, let me make up for my lack of manners and properly introduce myself." He came back around the desk and drew himself up in front of us. "My name is Bazooka Joe, welcome to Pyresteady."

I looked up at Him after the odd display of etiquette. It was odd enough to even earn a facial expression from Him. He returned my look and gave a half shrug, so I cleared my throat, brought a booted hoof to my chest, and simply stated.


Then shifted my hoof to the side.



We walked. We were walking north and west, towards the sinking sun hidden behind the clouds and mountains. The regions around and beyond Pyresteady were a sandy badlands, populated by hills and rocky outcrops. Plenty of places for enterprising Raiders to establish a new base almost overnight. We had found the first sign a few miles out of the gate when the sun was still (presumably) high in the sky, an old metal speed limit sign on the side of the road painted over with the red eye with an arrow pointing off into the hills. Now we followed them as the sun steadily reclined across the horizon.

Crunch walked beside me. Bazooka Joe, to his credit, had only given a single chuckle and suggested it was an odd name, but fitting. I hadn't bothered to answer that, and we left. I supposed Crunch actually had a better name once. Thinking back was difficult, but I recalled when I had finally asked him. We had been walking, like always. I looked up to him from an even greater distance than I did now, so I had been smaller. He stopped walking and looked down at me with that stony, steady gaze for a long time, then walked off the road and found a half buried skeleton. He tugged it into place, put a single bone in front of me, and placed his broad hoof on it. Then he started to lean, and in a second the limb had cracked( matching the image on his hindquarters, I noted at the time). He looked at me and then did it again with another bone, grinding his hoof left to right that time...

So I called him Crunch. He answered to it, so I must have at least been close. He grunted, and my eyes focused behind my lenses. We had crested a particularly tall hill and looked down on a small bowl shaped indent in the earth, filled with sand, that stretched out for a ways before returning to more solid ground on the other side. In the middle of the bowl, a single concrete skeleton had had everything done to it that could turn it into a suitable base of operations. Holes had been patched with sheet metal, and toppled over carts were littered around its base to be used for cover. With the darkness deepening around us, I couldn't clearly see any more of the red eye sigils slathered everywhere, but I knew they must be. The setting sun also meant a few fires had gone up around the base that we could see ponies standing around and cooking over. There weren't that many. A score, Joe had said, maybe more if they picked up any stragglers. We sat and watched them until the last of the meager sunlight faded behind the hills. I knew now my emerald mane, tail, and the lenses of my goggles would be gleaming with a wavering green light that would carry across the dustbowl. I started down the outer rim and trotted towards the fire.

I made it almost into the outermost campfire before the first shot, from some single shot rifle, hit the dirt next to me and I stopped.

"Y'missed, you idjit!" Came a gruff voice from a reclining older buck.

"Isat a ghoul?" Asked a mare, standing behind the shooter.

"Whatever you are, turn yer ass 'round and go back the way you came." Another stallion, younger, and glaring at me down the length of his rifle. I started trotting again.

"It's comin' closer Rawhide, git it!" The panicky mare started in alarm. There was a harsh metal rasp and clunk of a bolt drawing back with more effort than it should need and being pushed down again.

"I said get goin' 'fore I put a bullet between those headlights!" The stallion squinted. I was in the ring of light cast by the burning wood, he could've made out my pony shaped silhouette. A bullet sailed wide past my head and stuck sand a few yards back. My knowledge of firearms and battle saddles was... limited, but the presence of duct tape in several spots around the contraption was probably a bad sign.

"Yer blind as muh granny!" The gruff buck who sported a ridiculous amount of facial fur.

"Quit throwin' my concentration off. I gotcha now, bitch!" By the time he got the rusty bolt to slide into place properly, I was standing five feet from the trio, and he brought the rifle to bear on me at a range even he couldn't manage to miss.

Then Crunch sailed in from the darkness behind them and landed on his back, turning him into a screaming heap. At that moment, I decided Joe was wrong, his name was perfectly okay. The other two turned their eyes to their fallen (smushed) comrade, the mare starting to shriek. My horn lit up, the sword slipping from my back and sailing through the air in an arc. A moment later and the buck got a much needed shave.

Okay, so it was a bad joke. But then, death isn't funny.

I stepped over the headless corpse and towards the mare, still screaming in sudden shock, and pushed the tip of my sword into her throat. Her screaming died down to wet gurgling and I sighed, pulling back.

"THE FUCK IS GOIN' ON OUT THERE?!" A shout from one of the holes in the building that a creative pony would call a window. The other ponies from the other fires had started fleeing across the sandy ground towards the building, a daring few backpedaling and spraying fire into the night. They slammed the metal double doors shut behind them just as the last one made it through, but we were in no hurry as we approached the doors.


"-some kinda fuckin' monsters!-"

"All green an' glowin'! Pack a' ghouls I tell ya, they already got a bunch a' those poor bastards downstairs-"


These ponies were loud. After bucking the doors in on top of the brave few who stayed behind to guard the front, Crunch and I split up when the single hallway became two going in opposite directions. Mine led to (other than more loud ponies) some stairs to the second floor. From the sounds of office furniture being hurled around a room downstairs, I figured Crunch hadn't quite found his own set yet. Shrugging, I nudged open a door that read 'Administration' just enough to slip my sword through. The ponies inside yelled something I couldn't make out when I closed the door again, and peppered the door with buckshot and bullets. Nothing got through, as I'd learned through trial and error that doors reading 'Administration' favored towards being bulletproof. Whatever an 'Administation'-er had been before the war, they seemed paranoid of being shot through their doors. I could still see through the nice big window in the middle of the door to guide my sword though, and proceeded to cleave off the forelegs of the pony reloading the shotgun with her mouth, then turned its edge on the other two, relishing the fact that they weren't nearly as loud on this side of the door.

Continuing on the second floor I stepped into a much larger room taken up by several tables stacked with filthy cookware piled up with.. food? It looked like food. I'd seen this sort of layout in other office buildings before, a cafeteria. The opposite wall had a large square hole in it, with a countertop jutting out, and I could see through it into another room that contained stoves and ovens and other cooking surfaces. And I could see another pony. Her back was to me, and she didn't even seem to notice I'd entered. She was standing up on her back legs, standing over a bowl on one of the counter tops, using her forelegs to hold the bowl and a spoon in her mouth to stir. I crossed the cafeteria and entered the kitchen through the doorless frame. She still didn't turn away from her stirring, and seemed to be humming some tune to herself. Her coat was an irritatingly vibrant yellowgreen, like the color a grape would be if it decided it wanted to be the sun. Her mane was an equally shocking shade of magenta, but it only covered half her scalp, the other half had been shaved away. Just as I decided I would enjoy killing this pony who irritated my eyes so, she turned away from the counter and dropped to all four hooves facing me.

"Naughty!" She shouted with her brow furrowing. "I told you, you CAN'T lick the batter, you have to wait until it's cooked!" She tsk tsked at me. I could see the bowl and batter in question behind her. It was pulpy, and red. Dismissing her raving, I levitated my sword higher so she would see it clearly. The patronizing smile that spread across her muzzle was not the reaction I expected.

"Aaaw, you want to help chop the veggies? I appreciate it, but that simply won't do." She pointed up at my hovering blade "Y'see, that's not a knoife." She turned her head towards the countertop, suddenly adopting an strange accent for.. some reason, and when she drew back she had a cleaver the length of a pony's leg clenched between her teeth.

"THAT'S a knoife!" She giggled around the handle and posed with the blood streaked piece of oversized kitchenware. I had had enough, and swung my own blade down at her head. Only for her to nimbly jump back, landing on her forehooves and balancing on them, her back half raised into the air in a hoofstand.

"Oh, you don't wana help me with supper, you wana distract me with a game of tag! Well, your plan is destined to fail, b'cause my iron attention span simply can't be broken! Can't, I tell you!" Her fierce glare dropped from me to her own forehooves, supporting her, and she cocked her head. "..Have my hooves always been that color?"

I swiped at her hooves, hoping to lop them both off at once so she'd fall on her incessantly prattling face. She hopped. She bent her forelegs and hopped over my swipe, doing some kind of summersault in the air and coming down to smash one of her hind hooves into my face. Or, rather, the space on my gasmask between the two lenses. Either way it was a kick to my face that sent me off my hooves and back into the front door of an oven. Sailing on without my magic to stop it, my sword ended up lodged in a cabinet door.

"You're. It!" She punctuated the two words by prancing from her left legs to her right legs and back again, shaking her rear end in some kind of victory dance. I pushed onto my hooves and my horn flared, wrenching my sword from the cabinet so hard it tore the door with it and sent the wood showering ahead of it at the mare. She ignored the wood chips, but turned her neck and caught my blade with the cleaver still in her mouth. She flicked her neck again and turned the blade away, hopping onto one of the counter tops and starting to do some sort of jig. At first I thought she was just dancing again, and rushed in to close the gap, but suddenly she brought her hoof down and kicked, and this time kicked up more than just two century old dust. The kitchen knife sailed through the air entirely too gracefully for having been kicked, or maybe I was just bitter because it found my shoulder in its flight path and sliced a deep gash into it.

"Noooo cheating! Tag is a game for hoofsies!" She wiggled one of her hooves in my direction to demonstrate. Gritting my teeth, I raised the sword to prepare a strike, and she kicked out again, only missing removing a portion of my ear because I ducked. To avoid further frustration and flying knives, I slammed my sword back into the leather harness hanging from my side and charged the countertop. She cartwheeled away and I gave chase, my entire world shrinking down to the need to end this mare.


We were still at it when Crunch entered the kitchen. The gash in my shoulder had gained some playmates in a series of nicks and cuts up and down my sides and neck from running around a kitchen full of sharp edges. She was also looking worse for wear, I had managed to catch her a couple times and slam her into various very hard surfaces. The first time I tackled her she gave a dismayed wail that she was 'it' now, but when I raised my hooves to start stomping her face in, she kicked my gut and rolled away, gleefully telling me that I was already 'it' again.

I was still it when Crunch lazily entered the kitchen. We were both panting and bleeding, but she still grinned maniacally at me. She'd lost the cleaver a tackle or two ago. When she caught sight of the massive stallion in the doorway, her attention snapped fully onto him.
"Oh, another new friend! Wana play too? This one isn't very good at it.." I was on top of her before she could finish taunting. It was only the weight of my body keeping her pinned, I didn't have the effort to physically push her down. I used it all up raising my hoof over my head and swinging it down against the side of hers. It rolled to the side from the strike and I rolled off of her, panting on my back. A bark escaped my mask that you could mistake for a hoarse laugh. It wasn't, but you could mistake it for one. If you wanted to.

The not-laughter was short lived, as I saw her shape sitting up beside me. I saw her thrice damned neon green body loom over me. I tried to call out to Crunch to.. crunch her. Quickly. Oh so quickly, she's going to, quickly Crunch, stop her, smash her into paste, quickly, before she-!

She brought her hoof down in the center of the filter jutting out of my mask, a rough approximation of where my nose would be.

"Boop.. you're it again.."

She passed out.

I passed out.


"-And I thought she was gona get me but I threw a ladle at her at the last second-"

I groaned. I was still out. I was having a nightmare. That's why I still heard her voice.

"-didn't mean it before, she's REALLY good at tag! Is she good at any other games?"

Or I was dead, finally, and in hell, and it was populated by a thousand loud ponies just like her..

I felt a shaking around my shoulders and opened my eyes. Green and magenta filled my lenses.

"You're right, she IS awake! Good mornin', sleepy head!" She cooed at me. I smacked her face away from mine and sat upright. We were outside the building, by one of the campfires. We was not the nice, comfortable 'we' I was used to. Crunch was there, sitting next to the fire, and she was there a foot away from me, grinning that idiot grin. I continued scrambling to all four hooves and stepped backwards away from her and towards Crunch.

"Now you're going to get it, you.. you irritating.. thing!" I growled, and lit up my horn with every intention of ripping my sword from my side and putting so many holes in her she'd have to-
I felt a heavier hoof on my shoulder. I turned to gaze up at him. His head shook. The movement was ponderous, glacial, but he shook, and I felt a deep sinking in the pit of my stomach.

"Why not!?" I railed at him. Other times, I could accept he was right. They didn't deserve it. There was an easier way. Wasn't worth it. But this time. His hoof pressed harder into my shoulder and I hissed. He was pressing on the gash, the one she'd inflicted on me with a kicked kitchen knife. I looked back at her. She was sitting on her haunches looking at the both of us, a broad grin plastered across her face. Her face which was bruised and puffy. I hated that face so much, and yet it was there before me and not sliced to ribbons.

I sighed and raised myself up from the battle stance. I took the smallest step towards her as I possibly could and bowed my head, reciting old worlds.

"You were a worthy adversary and I.. gnnh.. I have marveled at your skills. It would be an honor if you would join your path to ours and walk with us."

It was a struggle to force the words out, but I managed, and raised my head, hoping against hope to see her face screwed up in confusion, to see her shake her head and suggest she.. I don't know, was the princess of Gumdrop Land and had to return to her subjects before they missed her. That sinking in my stomach grew deeper when she rose to her hooves and cocked her head

"Oh cool, where're we walkin'? Goin' on a nature hike or somethin'?"

That counted as accepting in his book, I didn't waste time pleadingly turning my lenses to Crunch to check. I hung my head, turned towards the lip of the dustbowl, and started to walk. Crunch was soon walking beside me. And so was she.

Three ponies walked across the wasteland.

I was one. He was the other. She was...

"Hey, d'you wana sing a song?"

... Annoying.

Footnote: What? Looking for a SPECIAL? Do I look like some kinda protagonist to you?!

Okay, fine,

S: 4
P: 4
E: 9
C: 2
I: 7
A: 7
L: 5

(Here goes nothin'. Huge thanks to KKat for building up this awesome world for me to splash around in! Extra thanks to the mods over at the Wasted Days sim for the use of the Little Cliffside setting!))

Chapter 2: Walking back

View Online

Fallout Equestria: Ashes


Chapter 2: Walking back.

I don't know about you, but I can't make important decisions on an empty stomach

The walk back to Pyresteady from the former Bloodshot base was taking infinitely longer than the walk there. I was certain this was due entirely to the extra baggage we had picked up in the form of the neon yellowgreen pony just a few paces behind me. She'd stopped singing after the third time I ineffectually threatened to cut one of her legs off and leave her in the desert. It was ineffective because she only laughed and told me she was good at hopping, and because Crunch wouldn't allow it, damn his eyes.

I looked over my shoulder again. The silence was so much better, but it was also starting to make me nervous. Her eyes were there to meet my lenses, and she was smiling. I looked forward again, casting green circles on the sand ahead of us. Sunrise was still a few hours away, but I wanted to return to the Raider city as soon as possible and hope the magenta maned menace behind me would find something to distract herself with so we could leave.

I looked back over my shoulder yet again. And her deep purple eyes were there to meet my lenses, an inch away. I gave a startled yelp and jumped to the side, into Crunch's brickwallesque form.

"What?!" I demanded. She stopped laughing at her completely mistaken assumption that she'd scared me and pointed out.

"You never told me your name! How are we supposed to be friends if you don't introduce yourself right?"

"We're not." I cut that idea down sharply, but she advanced closer and had me backing up into Crunch yet again.

"Of course we are, we already played tag and had a slumber party! Here, I'll go first." She (thankfully) stepped back, cleared her throat, and turned her body sideways, taking up an odd pose, extending one leg forward and one leg backward. "It's sooo nice to meet you, my name is Abattoir, but all my friends, that's you two, call me Abbey." At this angle, I was forced to take my first good look at her, and her cutie mark. She bore two white.. faces? No, they were masks. Two masks on her flank, one contorted in a grimace of pain, or possibly rage, the other caught in the middle of a mirthful laugh. I had no idea what it meant. I suppose I had been expecting something like the bloody great cleaver, which I also noticed she'd brought with her, along with a lumpy sack cloth that served as a saddlebag.

I realized she was staring at me expectantly. I sidestepped away from a bemused looking Crunch and again simply tapped my hoof to my chest.

"Luminescence." Then shifted it to the side "Crunch. Can we keep walking now?"Obviously not, as she sank to her haunches and began rubbing her hoof across her chin.

"Ooouh, that's a pretty fancy name, kinda long though. What do your friends call you?" She asked with a grin.

"Nothing, I don't have any 'friends'" I stated simply and matter-of-factly. That set her off like a rocket. She sprang to her hooves so fast she lost contact with the ground for a moment.

"What?!" She demanded. I turned, quickly, and started walking again. This time she didn't walk behind me, instead I found her uncomfortably close to my side. "Well it's a good thing you found me when you did, you poor thing you." She crooned and stretched her neck out, bringing her head closer to mine. I lashed out, jabbing my hoof into her side and toppling her sideways, but she turned the fall into a tumble and ended up back on her hooves, a few feet away and grinning at me.

"Keep away from me." I hissed sidelong at her and resumed walking.

"Somepony got up on the wrong side of the dirt t'day~" She was beside me again, but out of hoof reach. "Still, I need to think of something shorter to call you."

"No you don't, be quiet-"

"Oh. My. Goddesses, I've got it!" She yelped with glee, and pointed one neon hoof at me. "I dub thee... Lumi!" She beamed, then in a little sing-song voice "Lumi, Lumi, it rhymes with gloomy~"

I think I actually felt something in my brain snap at that. There was simply no way that was happening.

"Don't call me that-"

"Cheer up, Lumi! And help me think of something for him." It seemed like it was already set in stone in her mind.

What was that four letter word that lesser ponies resorted to screaming in moments of extreme frustration? I looked up at my companion, who had taken an interest in the conversation now that it was about him.

"Crunch is just fine." I tried to add a note of finality to my voice, but she 'hmmm'ed and cocked her head to the side.

"I agree, it's simple, and snappy, but it needs a little.. mooore. Something to really make it.. pop!" She emphasized the last word by hopping off her hooves again. He looked down at me and raised a massive eyebrow. I shook my head quickly. I was not going to have this conversation.

"I'm not going to have this con-"

"I've got it!" I think she just liked cutting me off. "What about.. Mister Crunch? It says 'Yes, I am a brick outhouse with the strength of ten ponies, but I am also a gentlestallion'."

I looked up at him again. He was actually threatening a smirk at that! Unbidden, the image of him sporting one of those tall, cylindrical hats we sometimes found amongst the corpses of fancier ponies sprung into my mind. I shook my head quickly to clear it away and instead focused forward.

"Just. Just be quiet. Or if you can't do that go back to singing, our names are fine." I saw one of the metal road signs, the ones we'd seen every so often marking the Bloodshot turf. I trotted faster to get some distance between her, and came up close to it. The green circles of my vision cast their light on the sign.

A crudely painted scorpion adorned the triangular bit of metal. I stared at it. I stared at it hard, as if any second the deep blue paint would shift to dark red, and swirl into the shape of an eye. It didn't.

"We're going the wrong way." I stated flatly. I must have mistaken one sign for another and followed a different trail. Were we in some other gang's territory now? Loathe as I was to acknowledge her, Abattoir was from this area. I called out for her to catch up and nodded up at the sign.

"Which gang uses this symbol?" She peered up at it and chortled, shaking her head.

"Nopony uses that symbol."

"Nopony? Not one of the gangs?"

"Nope, none of the gangs would put their base way out here b'cause of the scorpions."

"..The scorpions."

"Yep, they're these big, kinda ugly bug thingies with big pinchers and-" I kicked the signpost and grunted in frustration.

"I know what scorpions are, I was just..." trying to figure out how she'd lived this long while being so brainless. "So, you know where we are?" She nodded. He grunted. "And can you get us back on the path to Pyresteady?" She nodded again. He grunted again, louder. "Okay, now you're actually being useful. Let's-"

I was getting really tired of being cut off. Crunch was next to me, growling and nudging and gesturing with his head. I followed it and cast my gaze out on a half dozen shiny black forms scuttling across the sand from where we'd just come. Abattoir took the time to point at them and explain.

"See, those are scorpions."

"Shut up. And stay out of the way." I lit my horn up and yanked my sword from my side. Crunch spread his hooves. She kept talking.


The first scorpion skittered within stomping distance and Crunch reared up his forelegs, crashing down on top of the creature and crushing its head before it had a chance to raise its tail. I darted forward to head off the next, using the flat of my blade as a shield from its stinger. I could see another of the crawling monstrosities right behind it, so after the next thrust I hopped to the side instead of blocking and swung at the striking tail, lopping it off at the tip.


"Not now!" I did not need to hear whatever she was whining about now. The scorpion was taking the severing of its tail poorly, and I had to jump over a wide swiping claw. His companion had scurried from behind him to beside him, and was overly eager to show off how well his tail still worked, making me block and check strikes with my sword before I could swing it again.

"But Lumi, it's important!" Fueled by my rage at the mare, I kicked out with my foreleg at the tailless one's face. It screeched and snapped wildly, catching his buddy on the side and distracting him enough to allow me a quick stab, dead center, then another. Hopping away from the corpses just as another tried to climb over them, I looked over my shoulder.

"By the stars, WHAT?!" I saw 'what'. 'What' was Abattoir dancing in the dirt before another of the creatures while chopping at its various striking limbs. Another lay dead beside her with a half dozen knives sticking out of it. There was another whole batch of them advancing on her from that direction. Jumping away from a snapping claw I looked to the opposite direction. Sure enough, another wave of them was bearing down on us. From all directions, I thought grimly. But no, there was one side of the dunes they weren't pouring over from, the direction I thought of as 'West', but in this confusion I couldn't be entirely sure anymore. Right then.

"Crunch, opening." I backed away from my latest foe, bringing myself closer to the prancing mare. He kicked the scorpion he had been trying to fight into another, creating a tangle of limbs and claws, and headed for the gap. I spun around and was treated to the sight of her dancing on top of the beast, somehow avoiding its tail and chopping at its face.

"You, come on, we're retreating."

"What's my naaaaame~?" She taunted through clenched teeth as she ducked her head down low to avoid a sting. Was she seriously doing this?

"Abattoir, whatever, now move before they cut us off." I glanced back, Crunch doing a decent job of keeping them back.

"But you're my friend, what do my friends call me?" She giggled madly even as the furious creature tried to buck her off.

"I'm not your friend, you idiot! If you don't get going I'm leaving you he-Hagkh!" Even nature was cutting me off tonight. One of the scorpions had taken advantage of my distraction and scuttled in close to drive the tip of its stinger into my shoulder. The one that hadn't been sliced open already. Cursing indistinctly I whirled around, ripping the barb from my shoulder and quickly bisected the creature. Spinning back around I drove the point my weapon into the face of the scorpion she was frolicking on top of. When it crumpled under her she actually looked somewhat saddened.

"Move! Now!" I barked, and she cast an angry pout at me, but finally did move towards the opening. I followed behind, yelling for them to keep going. We galloped between the closing jaws of the scorpion horde and broke over the top of another high sand dune. It was steeper on this side than it had looked from the other, and we were soon half sliding, half galloping down it. I looked over my shoulder, seeing the first outlines of jagged claw poking over the crest. When I looked forward again I was running down the dune alone. My mind reeled, Crunch and Abattoir had been right in front of me, where in Luna's mane could they have-Something was grabbing my tail. There was a yank and I was pulled off my hooves and into darkness.


We sat on the cool floor of the small cave formed out of a trio of large rocks that had leaned against one another. Abattoir had apparently spotted it in passing, and had also been the one who yanked me into it. Moments later a wave of skittering black chitin washed past the entrance. It was several more moments before words were finally uttered. It was her, informing me my tail tasted like limes. After freeing it from her disgusting, slobbery mouth, I settled down on the cave floor and told her to do the same. It had been, at my best guess, almost ten minutes, and she was growing restless as a foal.

"I think they're gone, Lumi. Can we go now? I'm bored."

"No. We'll wait until sunrise. Those things only come out at night, won't be as many during the day. Just go to sleep."

"But I'm not sleepy.." If I hadn't already compared her to a foal, I would have when she uttered that mournful whine. I sighed.

"Then do something. Explore the cave." Her face lit up at that, and she sprang to her hooves with a determined grin on her face.

"Yes ma'am!" With that she turned and trotted into the darkness and the rear of the cave. I was the only source of light in the cave, but she didn't seem to care. It still wouldn't take her long to 'explore' though, so I had to act quickly. I turned my gleaming gaze down and looked at the wounds on my shoulders and down my torso. The gashe from earlier, and now the circular puncture from where the scorpion had tried to poison me. It throbbed dully, but otherwise was merely annoying. My horn was aglow, and I was shifting through my own minimal saddlebags. I was not a very muscular mare, so I carried the smaller amount of our collected possessions. I drew out a yellow and silver bundle that had once been a radiation suit, and unwound it. In the center were two plastic bottles of faintly glowing watery sludge. I levitated one out and screwed off the cap, moving it first to my left shoulder, and drizzling it down over the gash, watching the crusty blood wash away down my leg, and the pink wound under it steadily close. I turned to the other side and splashed some across the sting. It dwindled down from the size of a bottle cap to the size of a pinprick, before ultimately vanishing. I splashed a little more down my sides to take care of the cuts from our fight.

"Lumi!" I jolted, almost losing my magical grip and dropping the bottle. I quickly replaced the cap and tucked the bottles back into the radiation blanket. Had she come back and watched? Would I get to (have to) kill her? I turned to look, hopeful, but she wasn't right behind me, gaping in horror and edging for the door with her gun trained on me. She was calling from deeper in the cave. I shook my head and tucked the whole bundle back into my saddlebags.

"What is it?" I called back.

"I found somethin', c'mere." Warily, I rose to my hooves and started towards the back of the cave.

"What is it?"

"Well I can't really see, but it feels like somethin'." A problem I was more than ready to fix. My mane and lenses were giving off their emerald glow with renewed strength after my short bath, and when I came into range, Abattoir's treasure was bathed in green.

She was crouching over a corpse. Of course she was. She hadn't created this one though. From its withered, dried out look, this pony had been here for some time. I leaned a little closer. They had been wearing some kind of jumpsuit with a stripe running down the middle, with colors I couldn't make out in the dim light.

"A dead pony. Astonishing." I sighed, chiding myself for even expecting anything else of her. Then she raised one of the pony's forelegs.

"Not that, dummy, this!" There was a large metallic band encompassing the pony's foreleg just above their hoof. It was dominated by a square screen, but I could see buttons and knobs and dials along its sides. It was a PipBuck. One of those gadgets worn by the ponies that crusaded for justice, that went around righting wrongs, battling evil wherever it lurked. By this pony here, that had obviously, or so I was sure of now, come out here with her shiny PipBuck and little else, looking to stamp out the radscorpion scourge and make these desolate sand dunes safe for all the little ponies.

Abattoir shook the arm of the dead pony I was quickly gaining feelings of superiority over, the PipBuck rattling in place. With how her arm had shrunk and dried out, the device no longer fit snug. She continued nudging and shaking and soon the PipBuck slid off the end of the dead pony's hoof and clattered to the cave floor. It sprung open, laying there like the most deadly of bear traps. A bear trap for the naive. The mare gasped with glee and scooped up the device gingerly.

"Ooouh, these things are so cool... Y'want it?" she held it forward in her hooves.

I froze. There were lots of things I could have felt at that moment. I could have felt quite touched that she would offer to me the rare and valuable device she moments before had proclaimed 'so cool'. I could have felt like this was a sign from some higher power, to don the PipBuck, gallop out into the dune, and singlehoofedly finish the job of wiping out the scorpions at no personal gain to myself, and while I was at it, the town of Pyresteady as well. I could have felt all these things and more, but I was too busy feeling a deep, dark loathing for the device held before me like so much forbidden fruit.

I shook my head and brought my hoof out, softly pushing it back towards her.

"No. Thank you. But no." She looked... disappointed? Maybe. Only for a second. Then she smiled and drew the device against her chest.

"Oh, okay. Then, can I have it? Oh pretty pretty please, can I?" Why was she asking me? I waved my hoof dismissively and nodded, turning to walk back to my own spot in the cave. It wasn't much different than any of the other spots, but it was mine. Then my momentary bout of bone crushing animosity towards long dead ponies and their silly arm computers ebbed enough for me to consider. She had offered it to me, expecting me to want to wear it. She had asked instead if she could have it, I assumed to hold onto it to sell, or maybe pester me with again later. Now that I thought about it, she might actually mean to wrap the thing around her own leg. I started to turn back.

"Maybe it's not such a good-"


She snapped the PipBuck closed around her left foreleg. For an instant I allowed my mind to fill with the image of her posing heroically in front of Pyresteady's massive gate, shouting that it was their last chance to give up their evil ways before one of the snipers put a hole through her head. Then I thought of all the trouble this could spell, she was now more well aware of her surroundings, she was more well organized, she had access to a spell that could give her a serious edge up in combat, she had... she had.

She had managed to snap the PipBuck on upside down. My slowly mounting worries crumbled away. She was still the same idiotic mare, now with a bit of fancy jewelry on her hoof. I couldn't help but let out a chuckle.


Morning spilled filtered sunlight into the cave entrance. I lay still. Abattoir was sprawled on her back a few feet away, one leg kicking in the air. She had worn herself out excitedly showing off her new bauble to Crunch. He feigned interest incredibly well, letting her talk on and on about all the nifty features she was pretty sure it had, until he was practically holding her upright. He had laid her out on a less rocky patch of cave floor, then came to check on me. That mainly consisted of him staring into my lenses and me staring back. I didn't bother sharing with him my earlier paranoia over the discovery of the relic. If it had made her dangerous, he would have shared with me, and we would have.. Left her there, probably. But enough of 'would haves'. We didn't. The two of them slept soundly, and I pretended to sleep. Just as I thought, as soon as the rays of light stretched far enough to touch Abattoir, she was up in a flurry of smacks and yawns and stretches and all sorts of mundane pony wakeup routines. I let her get a good look around the cave before making a show of rising slowly and stretching. I even threw in a yawn, for good measure.

"Mooornin'" she waved her hoof lazily. "What's for breakfast?"

"Walking. We're getting back to Pyresteady now. You can eat there."

"Eeeww, walking. I'd rather have bacon.." She sauntered over to prod Crunch with a hoof. "Arise Mister Crunch, gloomy Lumi says we gota walk." He arose. It was like a pink boulder suddenly sprouting hooves. She waved at him as well, then caught sight of the upside-down PipBuck on her leg, looking like she'd just noticed it was there. She peered into it thoughtfully for a moment before stating "Do we really gota go now? It's only... L zero Nine o'clock... wait."

"Yes, we do." I simply snapped back and stepped out into the sand. We walked back up the steep dune we'd come down, found the sign that had led us (me) astray, along with the remains of our kills from the night before. From there Abattoir spun in circles a few times, covering one eye, before pointing straight ahead.

"That way!"

"... Are you sure?"


"We're going to Pyresteady, you remember that right? That's what's in that direction?"

"Yup! Promise!" She beamed and fell in at my side, just a hair within hoof reach. I allowed it, for as long as she didn't start singing, and we started to walk.

For as long as she didn't start singing turned out to be five minutes, give or take. She knowingly ducked away from my outstretched hoof, and started the song she'd been singing the day before. Hearing it from the beginning now, it seemed to be about, well, the whole world, and how much she just loved it.

"I love the mountains, I love the clear blue skies" She began, rocking her head side to side to the upbeat tune in her head. "I love big bridges, I love when great whites fly" I tilted my head back and looked up at the sky. I couldn't imagine where or when she'd been able to catch a glimpse of the sky while it was clear or blue. I'd also never heard of a Great White, was that a bird? Maybe she meant the clouds. They looked more like off-grey than white to me. I decided to stop wasting my brainpower on it. "I love the whole world, and all its sights and sounds, boom-de-yada, boom-de-yada, boom-de-yada, boom-de-yada~" She punctuated the 'boom's by bouncing off her hooves four times.

I tuned her out for the rest of the song, I didn't need to know anymore of the ridiculous and probably made up stuff she loved. Fortunately for my ears and sanity, her directions had proven accurate, and the shifting sands underhoof soon gave way to more hard packed dirt. We crossed a set of train tracks running alongside a well traveled road that ran north to south, marking the halfway point in our journey. It was the road to and from Little Cliffside, and far enough away from Pyresteady that I figured it wasn't under constant threat. Just mostly constant. Soon the flame spewing raider den was looming in front of us and I couldn't usher my two companions in fast enough.

We made our way down the main street, and I instantly felt something was wrong. At first I was seeing the usual routine of ponies spotting us and quickly averting their eyes, but this time more than a few did a double take. And soon there were hushed mutterings and chuckles that just made me all kinds of anxious. It didn't take long to figure out the neon yellowgreen mare that was cheerily waving at the passersby was the source of their amusement. I tried not to think about it and hurry the rest of the way to the main building. Abattoir overtook me when she caught sight of it though, and galloped ahead to push the swinging doors in with her head. I caught them with my magic and held them open, sighing and entering the bar behind her.

"Hiiii Bitter~!" She'd crossed the floor incredibly fast and was already at the bar, leaning over it and grinning at the frankly terrified looking barmare. She spotted us coming up behind Abattoir and sucked in her breath.

"O-oh, you're back. And you brought... her with you. Fantastic." She reached out and pushed the enthusiastic mare back with a hoof on her forehead "Hello Abbey, it's... nice to see you again, please don't lean so close to the bottles." She managed to get her back on all four hooves. It had never occurred to me before, but Abattoir must have lived in this town a while. Of course she would have acquaintances among them. Maybe she'd find one of them to annoy when it was time for us to leave. I cleared my throat and jerked my head towards the little speakerbox on the bar. Bitter Drink looked startled for a moment then nodded, pushing back a lock of her mane that had come loose in her struggle to stop Abattoir from climbing over the bar, or whatever she was doing.

"Oh, of course, the job. I guess you got it done then, since you're back, and she's... back with you." She pushed the button on the side of the box and this time decided whispering was unnecessary. "Uh, Mister Joe, the sp... uh, the two ponies you sent out for the Bloodshot job are back." The reply from the other end was almost immediate.

"Are they? Well, don't keep them waiting, just send 'em up-"

"Uhm, sir, they brought... Abbey back with them." This time the answer didn't come quite as fast.

"Is that so? I'll just be a minute, give 'em a drink on the house while they wait." She looked up at us with nervous eyes.

"Mister Joe will be ready for you momentarily. In the meantime, can I getcha anything to drink?" She tried to smile again, but her lips quivered far too much at the corners. Well, I was out, but I turned to look up at Crunch. He returned my gaze with a raise eyebrow and lifted his hooves to mime a gesture of prying something off the top of something else... Oh.

"I'm fine. Sparkle Cola for him." The mare ducked her head under the bar. I heard an odd sucking sound then a louder mechanical whirring. It came and went just as quickly, then there was a thump and it cut off. She reappeared and hovered the bottle onto the countertop, I could see ice crystals clinging to its surface. Oh, well, at least one mystery had been solved today. Good job, gang. The mare tilted her head to scoop up a bottle opener, but when she looked back Crunch already had the bottle between his hooves, and used his teeth to pry the cap off, spitting it onto the bar.

"What about meeee?" I turned my head to the left. Oh right, Abattoir was still there. The barmare chewed anxiously on her lower lip.

"Uh, Mister Joe's offer was only for these two, I'm afraid." Her forehead suddenly furrowed "And even so, you still have an unsettled debt to pay, as I recall." Abattoir looked suddenly abashed, but shook her head.

"I'm still gona, I swear, but... but!" She gestured with her hooves at Crunch, who was sipping the ice cold beverage. "...Free drink!" Was what she finally came up with. Instead she got Bitter Drink, scowling and shaking her head. She groaned and let her head fall to the bar, languishing there for a moment before looking sidelong at me.

"Heeeey Lumi, wana buy-"

"Absolutely not."

"Shoot." She huffed and went back to being facedown and drinkless. Thankfully the box buzzed softly just then, I don't know how much more I could have taken.

"Alright Miss Bitter, send them up, all of them."


Bazooka Joe was sitting at his desk when we entered this time. He was looking at one of those boxy terminal things that I'd encountered a few times out in the wasteland. They almost always needed passwords, and the rare one that didn't had just proven to be so many useless letters on a screen, some dead pony's diary.

"Sorry about the wait, something just came up." His office looked... very clean? Was it dirty before? I couldn't remember. Something about the shelves seemed different. I don't know if I even noticed the shelves before. Some of them held, amazingly, a few intact books. In between them were various knickknacks. And explosive devices from complex to simple, and all presumably live. "So, how'd it go?"

"They're dead." My bluntness seemed to surprise him, but he nodded.

"Well done. I already have some of my representatives out at the site evaluating your work." He what? Was somepony following us on the job? That could be very bad news. He must have anticipated my reaction because he quickly explained. "I trusted you to get the job done, they left just this morning. They have confirmed the deaths though, so you'll still be getting paid in full. I just had a few questions for you." His eyes flicked subtly to my left. I think I knew exactly what kind of questions he had.

"As long as it doesn't take too long."

"Oh, I don't think it will. I jump straight to the point. I can't help but notice that one of the former BloodShots is sitting in this office." I turned to look at Abattoir, sitting in the chair next to me and humming something. My horn lit up and I kept my gaze on her.

"Of course. There was just a little bit of a distraction before, I'll kill her now." Now that there were no countertops and ovens and piles of knives for her to-What was that bastard laughing at? Joe's laughter rattled through the respirator on his muzzle, and he was shaking his head.

"No, no, that's not necessary. She's clearly cut all ties with the BloodShots and returned to being an unaffiliated raider." His breathing returned to normal as the fit of vile laugher left him. "I'm just curious how she avoided getting caught up in the wholesale slaughter that befell the rest of her comrades."

I dispelled my magic and sat glaring at him. I so very much did not want to answer that question, and he knew it.

"No clue either? Maybe I could ask somepony else." He turned to my right and looked into Crunch's eyes, getting a stone faced stare. "How about it Crunch, and ideas?" I felt my jaw clenching tightly. He swung his head to my left again. "Abbey?" Was all he had to say.

"We played tag! I was trying to prepare supper, but she really wanted to play. She's reeeeally good at it, but you know I'm the best." She beamed as she recounted her twisted vision of the events. "Then we had a little slumber party and she asked me to go on a walk with her." She suddenly sprang to her back hooves on top of the chair, tipping it back onto its back legs and balancing there. "Then, the scorpions showed up and we played with them a little bit, then we found a cave and Lumi gave me a present!" She shifted her weight to lower the chair back onto all fours, tipping herself forward and catching herself on his desk with one foreleg, the other extended out to him to show of the PipBuck. "And then we came here and Bitter wouldn't give me a free drink b'cause she's a slag." She dropped back into the chair and sucked in a few mouthfuls of air.

There was so very much wrong with that story, I didn't even know where to start. Joe just nodded at her coolly.

"Thank you dear. I'm sure you've already become great friends, but she's not a full citizen yet, and you know the rules." We were not-I'm not a wha-what rules?

"Ooooh, c'moooon JoeJoe. She's gona be, ain't she?"

"That's her decision. And I need to talk to her about it now, so why don't you head back downstairs?"

"But..." She started, but his hoof fell down to the matching box jutting out of his desk.
"Miss Bitter, I'm sending Abbey back down, be sure and give her that free drink this time." He released the button and nudged a switch, cutting off the terrified sounding response from the other end. Abattoir lit up and leapt out of her chair, barreling into the door and leaving it hanging open as she galloped down the halls. I reached out with my magic and pulled it shut again.

"Precious little scamp, isn't she?" He chuckled at me.

"I'm not her friend." That was the first thing I needed to get out of the way, I decided. He nodded his head sagely.

"I know. But everypony is a friend to that one. It'd take monumental effort to change that, I think." I remembered the way she'd danced on top of the scorpion. I was inclined to agree.

"Just saying. What rule?" That was next on my list.

"The rule that only full, contracted Pyresteady citizens can form a gang and bolster its ranks. No matter how much either of you want it, you're not allowed to employ her."

I could have kissed him.

Okay, I couldn't have, physically, but I thought I could-No, not even mentally could I actually do that. Okay, I could have thanked him very deeply, and actually meant it. I didn't, though. Instead I just let the relief wash through me. She wasn't allowed to come with us! I had to stop myself before I actually became giddy. And I still had a question or two of my own.

"I don't plan on becoming a citizen. Or being here very much longer." I waved my hoof at the window that looked out on what I saw was the Raider side of town. "But about her. When we came back, the ponies on the street, they were..." Acting strange would be an understatement.

"They seemed amused that she was with you." He had raised himself out of his chair. I nodded. "Well, most all of them will have heard the stories, and figured you had a whole heap of troubles comin' in your future." He turned to face the window I'd gestured out. "Basically, the common belief around town is that she's cursed."

Well, that was interesting news. But I could easily see that idea catching fire amongst the raiders with more superstitious tribal backgrounds.

"I guess that's the easiest way to explain it, being a full grown mare cursed with the mind of a five year old." He looked back at me strangely from the window.

"What? Oh, no, that's just her being herself. No, I mean the way misfortune seems to befall those around her. You didn't experience any tragic stroke of ill luck while travelling with her yet?" His eyes peered into my lenses, urging me to think. The most obvious answer was the scorpions, and I was ready to say so in the blink of an eye. But I held back. Sure, I was more than ready to blame the incident on her, but because her ever yapping mouth had distracted me from following the right signs, not because some ludicrous curse had willed it to happen. Still though…

Bazooka Joe narrowed his eyes slightly and continued.

"I'm not a superstitious stallion either. I don't quake at the thought of curses, hexes, ghosts, goblins, or ghoulish figures. But I do believe what I have on paper." He gestured a filing cabinet off to the side of his desk. "The last dozen gangs I rotated Abattoir into all suffered some kind of trouble. Either a little accident, as small as things constantly falling off shelves, up to the time she helped the Sand Snakes capture a supply caravan full of pristine new guns, only to have every single one end up misfiring the first time anypony loaded them." He had made a circuit around the whole office and now settled back into his chair, letting out a groan and a dry chuckle. "And of course, the worst tragedy yet to befall the latest gang to take her in, the BloodShots. Maybe you heard about it. A mare with a bloody great sword showed up out of nowhere and cut 'em all to ribbons."

I changed my mind, this curse nonsense was definitely a crock. I was here because I walked here, and I killed those ponies because it would net me a great deal of caps. And I was ready to collect those caps and get out of this stuffy office. I slid out of my chair.

"I get it. I don't care anymore. I want my caps." He looked like he might subject me to another hour of ultimately pointless banter, but finally pulled out a drawer, scooping up a satchel and hefting it front and center onto his desk.

"Very well. One thousand caps for a job well done." Crunch stood up as I untied the cord around the top of the sack, pulling it open and peering in. It was full of bottlecaps of course. I nodded and pulled the cord tight again, tying it and heaving the whole thing into Crunch's waiting saddlebags.

"But." I stopped rearranging the satchel to the bottom of Crunch's saddlebags and looked into those eyes steely blue eyes. They were hungry, intelligent eyes, I had never fully taken them in before until I saw them looking at me in that strange way. "Before you trot off into the sands again, I'd like to offer to triple that amount, if you're still available come nightfall. There's a big job going down, one that was all set to be carried out by a certain lieutenant of mine. Unfortunately somepony threw him into a table, and he's still recovering."

I turned my lenses up to Crunch. We hadn't really stayed here too long yet, and only had these few caps to show for it. He matched my gaze and I could see him thinking the same thing. But in the end he shrugged his shoulders, leaving the decision up to me. I sighed, and turned to face the armored stallion waiting so patiently.

"So, what's it going to be?"

Footnote: Level Up, now? I only killed, like, three scorpions...

New(old) Perk: RADical Regeneration: There must be something in the water, or maybe in you, but you regenerate much more health when consuming irradiated water.
Companion Perk: Cursed: Whenever Abattoir is in your party, you might be plagued by a sudden case of 'bad luck'. You do believe in curses, don't you?
Skill Note: Melee 50

(Still goin' strong. Thanks again to Kkat for starting it all, and to the Wasted Days sim mods for letting me use their nice comfy Little Cliffside setting)

Chapter 3: No good deed goes unpunished

View Online

Fallout Equestria: Ashes


Chapter 3: No good deed goes unpunished

In other words, you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth

I took the job, of course. I should have answered after we made it to the door though, because as soon as I accepted, Bazooka Joe launched into a detailed explanation of the plan he must have thought I wanted. I'll show mercy on you, and summarize. A few weeks past, an Enclave scouting team had been sighted, tracked, and brought down by some particularly enterprising raiders. The pair was turned over to the slaving half of the town, and the armor sent to some ponies Joe referred to as his 'tech boys'. One of the suits was apparently still functioning, or turned on or whatever the suits were supposed to be, and his boys had found out it could send a distress beacon. So the plan was to bring the suit out to some remote spot in the hills, set off the beacon, and when more Enclave showed up, ambush them as well. It sounded like a stupid plan to me. According to him the worst case scenario was if they only sent another scout party to check it out, and the best case was if they flew in something called a 'Vertibuck' and dropped off a whole squad. Somehow that seemed a little backwards to me.

My head was beginning to ache when we finally left the main building. We had the rest of the day to prepare for the job, and Joe had encouraged me to spend it getting to know some ponies around town. He clearly wasn't as smart as he looked. Instead, I got to know where they sold things. Pyresteady had a bustling inner economy, by which I mean some ponies lived inside buildings full of crap, and would give you that crap for caps. Crunch had ammo and guns to sell, (He must have gone back to pick them up while I was out). Unless the job called for it, neither of us bothered with the things, and our collected knowledge of them left much to be desired. So we usually dumped every bloody one we could recover on the counter and took what we could get. For once, we'd found a shopkeeper didn't look repulsed to receive a pile of guns covered in pony remains. That was nice.

The other shops I could see seemed to be selling things I wasn't buying, like barding, foods and drugs. After getting our caps I figured we were done shopping and was all set to go find a rock to hide under until night time. Making my way down the street I noticed a shop I hadn't looked in, and hadn't even realized was a shop until I saw somepony exit with a baseball bat in his mouth. Looking again at the building I realized it didn't have a name, just a large painted image that bended in too well with the graffiti. It depicted an axe with its handle lodged in a pony's skull.

How could I resist?

Pushing the door open on the strange axe-skull shop, I was greeted by shelves and barrels and bins full of every conceivable item you could imagine one pony swinging at another. From simple farming tools with sharpened edges, up to those curious giant metallic sledgehammers I saw occasionally in the hooves of Rangers, I was in a haven of close quarters death dealing. As amazing as it was, the display of weaponry was the second thing I noticed. The first thing I noticed was the massive bipedal creature behind the counter, hunched over something. A creature with great curved horns, large powerful arms that ended in thick four fingered hands, and two stubby legs that ended in thick cloven hooves.

A minotaur was seated across the room from me.

Well, this could be interesting.

He looked up from his work at the sound of the door closing behind me. His gaze lingered on me, suspicious, but only for a second.

"Welcome." He grunted in the most unwelcoming way. "Let me know if you can't find something." With that he turned his head back down, and I heard a rhythmic squeaking sound start up and saw sparks start to jump up into the air in front of him. Coming closer I saw he was seated on a strange pedaled device, pumping it with his legs, causing a large stone wheel to turn, which he was pressing the blade of a small shovel to. I watched for a moment, quite impressed actually, before he stopped pedaling and looked at me again. "Help you with somethin'?"

My horn lit up and I eased the sword off my back, hovering it over the countertop.

"I'd like this sharpened. And polished."

He reached out, taking the handle in one of his hands and liberating it from my magical grip. He held it easily with one arm, carefully examining the blade. The blade itself was a dark sooty grey color that could be mistaken for black. I usually tended to take great care of the weapon, but those twice damned scorpions had done a bit of damage with their carapaces.
"This is... a good weapon. And in such fine condition. Don't know how it got to be this curious color though."

He turned the blade over in his hands, checking out the other side, but I could see him glancing at me out of the corners of his eye. I'm sure he'd been expecting much worse with his usual bloodthirsty clients, who seemed to have as much respect for maintaining their weapons as I did for music. I turned my head, looking back through the store, checking to make sure there weren't any other shoppers, lurking behind the shelves. Satisfied that we were alone, I raised my head and once again spoke old words, in an old tongue.

"A warrior's soul is reflected upon her weapon. Maintain the soul, maintain the weapon, and the two will be in harmony."

He stared at me. The only sounds were the muffled street noise leaking in from the outside. He was silent so long I started to think I had made a mistake. Then he looked away from me and answered back.

"And is your soul as black as your blade, little pony warrior?" He chuckled, and started to pump his legs again, bringing the wheel up to speed and starting to hone the edge of my sword.

The minotaur language was an interesting one. It consisted mostly of various goat-like bleats, grunts, and snorts. No doubt anypony walking in on our discussion would be very confused at the sounds being exchanged.

"You are a long way from the minotaur homelands." I watched him hone the edge of my favorite killing tool with great care.

"Caledonia grows restless. I decided long ago the nomadic life on the open plains of my ancestors was not for me." He laughed again, a ponderous, throaty laugh. "And what about you, little warrior pony? Are you far from your homeland too?"

"Yes." I replied simply. He might have been expecting more, but I wasn't prepared to give more than I already was. Crunch and I had walked Caledonia for some time as well. It was a big, dry region to the south of the Equestrian Wasteland, a tourism spot before the war, or something like that. It was also home to the minotaur, and the New Caledonian Alliance, who I vaguely recall didn't care for each other. Whatever.

"Well, hopefully you will see it again someday." A smile touched his muzzle. I thought it not very likely, but I didn't voice those concerns. He raised the blade off the wheel again, turning it this way and that before speaking to me in Equestrian again. "You mind if I hold onto this a little longer? A weapon like this deserves special care. I promise, when you get it back it'll be as good as the day it was forged."

My immediate reaction was to refuse and for added emphasis rip the sword from his hands with my magic and threaten him colorfully and at great length. I suppressed that urge quickly, thinking about it slowly. This wasn't a silly pony asking to 'borrow' my only real possession, this was a creature with great respect for weaponry offering to do me a favor. I nodded my head.

"Of course. I guess we'll find something else to do, we've still got... some hours, or so, before nighttime." Time, for me, was usually a guessing game.

We stepped back out onto the much louder street full of shopping raiders, and I shut my eyes behind my lenses. I didn't actually know what else we could do. I wasn't in a hurry to socialize with anypony in town, I couldn't think of anything else to buy, I-

I opened my eyes again and looked into a pair of deep purple eyes. Cursing unintelligibly, I back trotted into Crunch and brought the rest of Abattoir into focus.

"You should watch where you're goin', Lumi." She tittered.

"I wasn't going anywhere." I stepped around her and started to walk down the street. I didn't know which way I was going, but it was away from her, and that made it the right way. She was immediately following at my heels.

"Well, where ya goin' now?"


"Sure looks like you're goin' somewhere." She had a smile on her face when I whipped around to glare at her.

"What do you want?" Maybe just asking directly would save me some headache.

"Did you two ever get to eat breakfast?" She asked cheerfully.

"Yes." I replied immediately. She was obviously here to invite us to dine with her, and I was having none of that.

"Oh good, then you can join me for lunch now!" She grinned and clapped her forehooves together. I kept walking down the street. Of course, it had been hours since our early morning return to Pyresteady, it must have slipped into midday while I wasn't looking. It didn't matter, I was NOT going to have lunch with her, nor any other kind of meal, I was going to find an empty building to barricade myself behind until the sun went down.

Abattoir had other thoughts, I found out, as she took my tail into her mouth again before I could break into a gallop. Emergency scorpion fleeing was one thing, but this was unforgivable! With a strange clickity clicking sound in my ears, I started to turn my head to say just that when she started to walk backwards, pulling me with her no matter how I dug my booted hooves into the road. Damnable earth ponies and their damnable muscles.

"How dare you!" My horn lit up and I groped for the handle of. My sword! The shop with the skull and axe was still well within my sights, but it was shrinking every second. I started looking in the immediate area for something to stab or bludgeon her with instead, when Crunch, sweet merciful Crunch, finally stepped forward and placed a massive hoof on her shoulder. She looked up at him and released my tail, and I quickly put more distance between myself and her. Crunch came to stand beside me.

"Took you long enough." I rasped at him, keeping my gaze on Abattoir. "Now, before she gets any other ideas, stuff her into a mailbox and let's find someplace to-what are you-augh!" Again, teeth. On the scruff of my neck this time, lifting me off my hooves and depositing me across Crunch's back. He smirked at me and then trotted back to Abattoir, who was fighting hysterics.

"What in Equestria do you think you're doing?" I hissed from his back, bobbing with the motion of his shoulders as he toted me down the street, following the lead of the ever cheerful mare. How, I lamented, had it come to this? I was being betrayed. She had bought Crunch off when my back was turned, and now he was carrying me towards certain doom.


I may have overreacted. A little. After being unable to gather my hooves under me and climb off with Crunch still moving, I was forced to slump across his back and let rational thought back into my brain. I had calmed enough by the time the large two story building that was our destination loomed in front of us, bearing a sign with a name and a stylized image of a charred pony head skewered on a stick. Thinking clearly now, I kicked myself for forgetting. Occasionally, Crunch got hungry. He must have decided we were, in fact, going to have lunch with Abattoir, no matter how much the thought made my skin crawl.
At least he was gracious enough to let me down before we walked in. Abattoir led the way in with a bellow.

"Ma! Pa! I brought friends for lunch!" She called out. Two unicorns, a mare and a stallion, looked up. He was behind a counter, she was out in the main room standing over a table of annoyed looking raiders. That caught me by surprise. I had figured Abattoir had come here from someplace else to make a nuisance of herself, never had it occurred to me she'd been born here. I continued to think that over while Ma approached and led us through the room to an available table.

"Nice to finally meetcha, sugah, we've heard sooo much about you." Ma gushed in a way that made me cringe. I wondered just how twisted a tale she'd made of our very brief time together in the wasteland.

"Whatever you heard, good chance most of it isn't true." I slid into one of the chairs around the table. Abattoir took one to my right, Crunch just sat on his haunches, still well over the top of table.

"Oh, I'm sure, hun." She chuckled, her horn glowing as she levitated a large, yellowed paper into the center of the table. "So, what'll y’all have?"
I turned my head away from the menu. "Nothing. I'm not hungry. Big breakfast."

"Rat kebobs!"

"And you, big fella'?"

I tried closing my eyes again and ignoring my surroundings. I heard the clopping of Crunch's hoof on the table. The mare seemed to get his order on the third clop, and scurried off. For a few moments I just listened to the ponies around making small talk. It was almost tolerable.

"So, whatcha gona name your gang?"

It couldn't last.

"I'm not. I told you, I'm not staying here." I opened my eyes again and looked at Abattoir. I could have kept them closed and just turned my head towards her and it would have the same impact, but I didn't want her sneaking in close on me again.

"Aaaaww, how come? It's nice here!"



"No. Shut up."

I turned my head, hopefully signaling the end of the discussion. I could see Ma at another table, and Pa had disappeared. I watched the unicorn mare scrawling orders onto a pad of paper, something in the very back of my mind was still bugging me about Abattoirs parents. Behind me, Abattoir seemed to be trying to impress on Crunch how wonderful a place Pyresteady was.

Finally, Pa appeared at our table bearing a tray in his magic. He levitated two sticks down before Abattoir, chunks of cooked meat and some other things I assumed were vegetables arranged in a row. Then he lowered a large bowl of bubbling brown... stuff in front of Crunch. I stared at it.

"What is that? It looks like a bowl of... Brown!" Pa just laughed at that.

"Radroach chili, one of our specialties. Care for a bowl yourself? Ah, careful there fella', that's hot-" Crunch had the bowl clamped between both hooves. I wanted to look away, but I just couldn't, as he raised the whole thing to his muzzle and tipped. In a matter of moments, the bowl was empty and he was licking brown from his lips and Abattoir was clapping her hooves together. He placed the bowl back onto Pa's tray, and gave the table a thump with his hoof. Pa looked stunned, and when the second thump came he jumped.

"U-uhn, I'm sorry, that was amazing, big guy. Another?" He smiled pleasantly. To my horror, Crunch nodded. I slid out of my chair, I could not watch this. Leaving the two of them at the table, I trotted up to the empty countertop and took one of the stools there. After a moment I saw Pa come through a swinging door with another tray and bowl of that disgusting stuff, and after another moment Ma was sliding up behind the counter and smirking at me.

"Sooo, a slumber party?"

"I was passed out. I'd just lost a bit of blood." I groaned. "I wouldn't believe anything she told you. You must know by now your daughter isn't entirely there, right?"

She gave me an odd smile, one of her eyebrows raised. That feeling in the back of my head again. Before she could answer though, I heard a yell from across the room.

"Oi, top shelf, ten o'clock!" Ma whipped her head around in a flurry, her horn glowing. I followed it, a bottle of sparkle cola surrounded in her yellow magical glow. She raised it up to one of the shelves behind the counter, where it had presumably just fallen from, nudging it as far back as she could.

Then she turned back to smile at me, like what had just happened wasn't completely out of the ordinary. But it had snapped the final piece into place in my head.

"...You're not really Abattoir's parents." It was half a question, half a statement. They were both unicorns, she was a dirt pony, it made no sense.

The sudden silence was deafening. That also made no sense. I looked over my shoulder, blank faces looking up from all the tables (except the one Crunch and Abattoir occupied. He was muzzle deep in another bowl, and she was watching him with glee). Then there was laughter, chuckles, ponies shaking their heads and going back to their meals.

"No hon, we ain't. She just calls us that 'cause it's the name on the front of the building." She was smirking too, but there was some softness behind it. It did little to suppress my sudden urge to burn this entire building down, stupid sign and all. Ma- Or whatever her name really was, nodded to the stallion who was heading for Crunch's table with yet another bowl. "We ain't even really together, the only thing that little bastard ever put in me was a bullet!" He favored her with a playful smirk.

Well, so much for that plan. They probably couldn't dissuade her any more than I could. I sighed and brought my head down on the countertop.

"Well you've still got to know a lot more about her, how can I make her leave me alone?"

"Scarier ponies than you have tried, trust me. You get used to it, she's actually pretty sweet."

"You've been very helpful." I grumbled. She chuckled and stepped closer.

"Well, I guess there is one thing you could do, if you haven't already tried." She whispered conspiratorially. My ears perked up and I leaned closer as well.


"Fake your death?"

So very helpful.


"Six bowls."

We were walking the streets of Pyresteady again. They were much less crowded.

"I can't believe you ate six bowls of that... stuff!"

The sun was sinking behind the clouds, and I guessed most of the raiders had raiding to do. We had our own appointment, but first I needed to return to the shop with the axe and skull.

"Don't listen to her, Mister Crunch, that was awesome!"

I would have to shoo her off soon before we made it to the gate. For now I just stared ahead at the door set under the painted sign. Pushing inside, the minotaur from before was still seated behind the counter, a small metal gizmo in his hands.
"Ah, welcome back, little pony warrior. I have been waiting for you." He stood and started to turn towards the shelves behind him, when Abattoir caught up and burst into the shop.

"Hiiiiiiya, Crush!" She waved her hoof in the air, as if trying to get the attention of a pony miles in the distance, rather than across the floor from her. A smile crossed the minotaur's broad muzzle.

"Ah, and she brings a friend too. I have not seen you in some time, Abbey." He bleated a quick greeting before continuing to turn, scooping a bundle wrapped in cloth off the shelf. Abattoir budged in close at my side to watch as he laid the cloth on the counter and pulled back the folds. My sword sat in the center. I could practically taste the sharpness, and the whole surface shone like polished obsidian, even in the dim lights of the shop. True to his words, it looked brand new.

"That's... amazing." I was speechless as I gripped the sword with my magic and brought it up to get a closer look. "It's perfect. How much do I owe you?" I wasn't even sure I'd have enough caps to pay for such a fantastic job.

"My usual sharpening fee of 25 caps should cover it." He said casually, showing a proud grin. I would not hear of it, and insisted on paying more, this was most definitely worth it.

In the end, I still say I underpaid, but Crunch and the minotaur (Who's name turned out to be Crushing Blow, Abattoir explained) kept me from giving him the rest of our thousand caps from the BloodShot job. The first thing I did after leaving the shop was brandish my new, wickedly sharp blade at Abattoir and promise to skin her alive and turn her inside out if she ever dragged me somewhere like that again.

Now we were making our way towards the main street, so we could meet up at the front gate with whoever was going to be coming with us. The swordpoint hadn't chased Abattoir off, so it was time to put my hoof down.

"Abattoir, you can't come with us, we've got a job to do." I stated firmly, stopping in the middle of the street.

"Whaaaat, says who?" I had a feeling she knew damn well who.

"Bazooka Joe."

"JoeJoe is a cheesehead." I summoned up the mental image of Bazooka Joe and his broad orange wedge of a mane. There was no real answer to that.

"He's also the one in charge, take it up with him. We've got to go."

Finally, mercifully, she seemed to understand and huffed, turning to walk off with a "Fiiiine, but you'll wish I was there!" We continued on to the gate.

The sun had fully vanished behind the cloud cover when we trotted up to the motley bunch waiting at the main gate. There were seven of them, four in heavy armor made of metal plates and various heavy weapons on their battle saddles. The other two were wearing what looked like the remains of lab coats patched with leather, and were standing near a cart bearing a pony in a fully enclosed suit of black armor. Oh, wait. Okay, there were six of them and an empty suit of Enclave armor. It's been a long day, okay?

Then Bazooka Joe trotted up and made it seven again. He was in his own piecemeal powered armor, with the addition of a very large rectangular object mounted on his right side. And was giving me a strange glare.

"D'you know you're lit up like a lightbulb? I could seeya halfway down the street."

"What are you doing here?" I asked moments before Crunch dropped a heavy sheet of cloth over me. Sighing, I used my magic to adjust the cloak so I could see out of it, making sure it draped over my tail and blanketed my mane well enough.

"D'you need some RadAway? I don't want those Enclave buzzards spottin' you from a mile up and flyin' off." I had forgotten how annoying this part always was. Despite myself I was silently thankful Abattoir seemed completely oblivious to it.

"I'm fine. They won't, I know how to handle myself. You didn't answer my question."

He just smirked and turned to the assembled rabble, barking at them to pack it up and start walking. I followed him out the gate after them. I thought maybe he was just going to ignore me, when he suddenly growled sidelong at me in minotaur.

"A king who cannot fight is no king." I was lucky there was no way for my surprise to show on my face. After a moment he smirked at me "It's an old Minotaur saying."

Quickly feigning ignorance, I nodded. "What does it mean?" And continued to play along when he told me, even giving a dry chuckle. "So, you're a king now?"


And so we walked, out into the desert hills. Joe had taken the lead after our short conversation and was keeping a good pace. I didn't talk with any of the other raiders, and they returned the favor. After what felt like an hour, a halt was called. Ahead of us and spreading out to either side, the sandy ground became overtaken with large mushroom shaped rocks of increasing sizes, looking like some kind of alien forest. From here we would be splitting up. Two of the armored ponies were went to skirt around the rocks to the right and take up positions. One more was sent in with the labcoat ponies and the suit, to help them incase whatever Enclave showed up managed to reach them. The final raider and Bazooka Joe departed to the left, with Crunch and myself left to take up our hiding places here.

Making sure my cloak was secure, I trotted a short ways into the rock forest and found a suitable towering rock to nestle behind, and waited. With no way to track the passage of time, I couldn't tell you how many hours we sat behind that rock, but it had to be at least one. And it was the most peaceful one-or-possibly-more hours I'd had in the past two days. Which was nice, considering what was to come next. Crunch and I had some things to discuss.

He nudged my shoulder and I brought myself back to attention. There was a sound just on the edge of hearing, but it was growing rapidly. It soon became a distinct, grating hum, like the humming of a row of florescent lights, but with much more power behind it. A black shape was descending from the grey-black nighttime sky, just outside of the rock forest. A large, oblong shape, rounded and broad in the front and tapered towards the back into a wedge. Two wings jutted out from its sides, angled upwards, with twin propellers that were starting to kick up sand. The vehicle descended gracefully, settling down on its wheels. The propellers started to slow, the humming sound losing power and pitch, and a large section of the back started to shift and whirr, lowering itself to the ground to form a ramp. Dark figures trotted down it, their hooves clanging loudly on the ramp. They were talking, but there was still too much noise from the Vertibuck powering down to make anything out. Six of them appeared in total, five of them lifting into the air on wings I could barely see, each flying out into the rocky maze behind me. The fifth stayed behind on the ramp to watch them, then stamped back up inside.

Well, looks like it was time to get to work. I stood up, shaking my legs out slightly before crouching low and starting to slink towards the ramp. Light spilled out of it, along with a conversation I was able to catch part of when I took the first step into the sloped entrance.

"-know what she'd be doing out in a place like this. This is way out of her scouting assignment."

"Me either, but we can't ignore a distress beacon. Just keep your EFS up and find her, I don't want to spend any more time down here than I have to."

"Yes ma'am!"

One of the voices was coming through a speaker set in a very complicated looking control panel. The other was the pegasus mare standing in front of it with her back to me. Right then, this would be easy. Remember, subdue the pilot. The point of this job was captives. I could handle that. I'd left my sword with Crunch just in case. Now I just had to tackle her, get her down and unable to fly this thing away. I was right behind her, within pouncing distance, I was ready to take her down.

The tall metal cabinet beside her rattled. She turned her head from whatever she'd been controlling with the control panel to look at it, then continued turning when she saw my gleaming green lenses from the corner of her eye.

"What the fuck!?" She shouted, whirling to face me fully, leveling a little silver boxy object at me with her mouth. I flung the heavy cloak from my back and into her face, diving to the side as a red bolt of energy blindly struck the vertibuck's floor. She fired three times before stopping to focus on untangling herself, giving me plenty of time. She tossed off the cloak and got a facefull of my back hooves. Now, I'm no earth pony, and my bucks were nothing to write home about, but I could still throw my weight around. She dropped the laser pistol and tumbled backwards, into the pesky cabinet that had caused all the trouble. I crouched, ready to leap onto her and grapple her down. She stood up, blood just starting to drizzle from her snout. Then the cabinet came down on top of her.

I stayed crouched for a moment, looking at the toppled bit of storage. When Crunch ambled up the ramp to join me, I finally relaxed and looked at him

"That was easy." I gave the cabinet a kick, and it shook, a muffled voice calling out.

"Ooouhg... Uh, hello? I think I'm stuck, could... could you give me a hoof?"

That wasn't the voice of the mare who'd shouted before, and it sounded more like it was coming from inside the cabinet than under it. I looked to Crunch. He shrugged. I shrugged back and my horn lit up. With a bit of effort, I managed to tip the large metal rectangle upright. The pilot was out cold on the floor. I reached out and tried the handle with my magic. The cabinet door creaked open and another pegasus tumbled out onto the floor in a groaning heap. She was wearing the same dark tan colored uniform the other one was, but hers looked more simple, and she looked much younger to boot. With a flap of her wings she managed to rise to her hooves, panting.

"Thank you..." She caught her breath for a moment more, just staring back at me, before yelping in surprise and whipping her head down, snatching a silver cylinder from a pocket in her uniform. She clenched her teeth and one end of it extended with a snap. "Wh'rsh my sh'shtur!"

I just stared. Despite the angry look in her eyes and the weapon held in her teeth, she looked entirely unthreatening somehow.

"What?" She adjusted her hold on the weapon and mumbled more clearly.

"My sister! W-where is she!"

More staring. I looked at Crunch, maybe he'd know what to make of this. He just raised an eyebrow at me. I looked back at the mare and shrugged.

"No clue what you're talking about." She jabbed at me with the rod. I brought my hoof up to swat it away, and when it struck a sudden bolt of pain raced through my body, lighting up every nerve for a fraction of a second. I jumped back from her second swing, and Crunch stepped in, thrusting one of his massive hooves into her side. She cried out, making the shocky-stick thing fall from her mouth, and crumpled to the floor. Crunch placed his hoof in the middle of her back and pinned her in place while she coughed.

"Ooowwuh... P-please, don't kill me, I'm just looking for Grace!" I took a seat on my haunches and looked down at her.

"We're not going to kill you, shut up. I don't know who that is." She winced and cleared her throat wetly, blinking.

"You're... not?" I sighed and shook my head. She just lay there for a moment, her heavy breathing the only sound inside the strange flying machine.

"...What are you going to do to me?"

"Not up to us. We're just here to take out the pilot and make sure she couldn't fly anypony out." I looked down at the still unconscious form of the other mare. "Thanks for helping with that, by the way."

"It was an ac-" She started to explain, then suddenly her eyes grew wide and she looked somewhere behind me. "Look out!"

Really? She thought she could use the oldest trick in the book on me? And even if I did look, Crunch was there to keep her-


Somepony shot me from behind.

I stumbled forward and my mask hit the floor. I heard a vaguely familiar voice behind me and felt the hot barrel of a gun inches from my neck.

"Y'think you can just waltz into my town and put me out, huh?" The dirty brown earth pony hissed around the bit of his gun. "Well I got news for you, sweetheart, nopony makes a fool outa Mudslide. And unless you wana new hole to breathe through, you should tell your troglodyte to back down."

"Relax, Crunch." I saw some of the tension go out of my companions stance. Mudslide chuckled, pressing the barrel of the gun into my neck.

"Yeah, Crunch, just chill. You wouldn't want me to get nervous and pull this trigger, would ya?"
There was a burst of static from the control panel.

"Captain, was that a gunshot we just heard? There’s still no signs of Lieutenant Grace, her signal seems to be mov-"

Then we heard two explosions. Or, the same explosion from two sources. Once through the speaker box, and a split second later through the open backside of the vertibuck, distantly. Then there were more explosions and faint gunshots, like the sound of a thunderstorm building on the horizon.

"What was that?" The pegasus asked fretfully, glancing from the ramp to my temporary captor.

"Sounds like Joe and them just started. Means I got plenty of time to find a nice spot to bury you two."

There was another bang. Not from Mudslide's gun, of course, this was the bang of metal on metal. Turning my head I saw a wrench had fallen from a shelf on the opposite wall, separating itself from the other tools and clanging to the floor.

I sighed.

"Uhm, l-look out be-" The pegasus started, but Mudslide cut her off with a sudden violent scream, wrenching away from me. Jumping to my hooves, I spun and saw him clutching the side of his head. A few feet away, I saw most of his right ear on the floor, along with his gun. He spun away to face the ramp, to face Abattoir who was beaming at him with a new knife clutched between her teeth.

"I toooldya. You were totally wishing I was here just a second ago, weren't ya?" She hardly acknowledged the seething Mudslide when he galloped at her in a rage.

"Psycho bitch!" He spat, lashing out with his forehooves. She danced aside, gleefully giggling. She did the same for his next three flailing strikes, taunting.

"You're not very good at tag, y'know?" She finally seemed bored of dodging, and instead of ducking back she slipped inside of his next strike and gave him a fresh slice from her kitchen knife.

I watched her for a moment, since there didn't seem to be anypony else about to skip up the ramp and make the vertibuck even more cramped. Now that I wasn't chasing her in a rage or trying to get her to stop playing with scorpions, I could appreciate the gracefulness of her moves. She could jump and hop and bob Mudslides clumsy swipes and land on as few as two hooves and still keep herself balanced and ready to strike back. I wouldn't be saying it out loud, ever, but I had underestimated her based on our first meeting.

Our first meeting where she kicked knives at me. Right, enough of this.

"Abattoir, that's enough, move." I stepped forward, my horn alight and my sword hovering at my side. She skipped around Mudslide. He was bleeding from a dozen small cuts and breathing heavily, tilting to one side. He looked pathetic. She came to rest beside me, and I felt Crunch on the other side. I imagine we looked pretty intimidating. I hoped so, as I pointed my sword at the wounded buck.


"Go where?" He glared at me and spat.

"Out. Out there." I pointed out into the darkened dessert. "Back to your shitty town, or wherever. Just get out of my sight. And the next time I see you, I'm going to kill you." I wasn't in particularly clever threat making mood tonight. Mudslide's eyes passed from me to the two nearly as dangerous ponies at my side, and he eventually spun around, galloped down the ramp, and disappeared into the night.


"I distinctly remember explaining the rules of gang member recruitment to you, Miss Luminescence." Bazooka Joe chuckled beside me.

"I told her not to follow me. You should be talking to her about this." I looked back to find her. Abattoir was chatting with the two labcoat raiders, and helping pull the cart, now freshly laden with a total of seven suits of powered armor. Beyond them, the raiders led the pegasi, stripped of their suits and chained at the neck. There were the five who had flown into the rocks, the pilot who'd come to a short time after Mudslide slunk away, and the mare that had hidden inside a cabinet. In the time between the captain awakening and Joe's raiders arriving to claim them, I had learned she was a rookie recruit of not even a week, and had stowed away on the vertibuck because the suit giving off the beacon belonged to her sister. This detail set the captain screaming at her, and had Crunch not been pinning her down I think she would have attacked the younger mare.

"She seems to think you 'needed' her to follow you, you know? Guess she was wrong, that was nice work with the vert' pilot. I expected there to be nothin' left but blood and chunks." I sensed he was only half joking. I shrugged.

"I can hold back when I want to."

"That feisty filly should be glad you were in a good mood then." The captain. When it was her turn to be wrestled into a collar, she managed to knock a tooth out of one of the raider bucks. The bruise on her cheek was really starting to swell when I looked back at her again.

"Whatever." I didn't feel like talking the rest of the way back so I let him lead the column and fell back to join Crunch, walking alongside the row of captive pegasi. The captain was staring forward into the night defiantly, the others in various stages of sulking or raging. Except the little stowaway mare, she was still sniffling. She'd started crying when it was her turn, and it looked like she hadn't stopped yet.

I could feel Crunch's eyes on me while I walked beside him. I repeated what I had told him during our 'conversation' behind the rocks.

"Tomorrow. After we get paid, we'll see." I looked up at him. He snorted and looked away.

Once we reached the great gate of Pyresteady, our group split up. Abattoir bid us 'nighty night' and continued on with the labcoat ponies and the cart towards the raider half of town. The armored raiders led the pegasi away to the right, into the slaver half of town. Joe, Crunch, and I made the rest of the trip north towards the main building. After my third single word response to his chatter, he took the hint and let me make the trip in silence. We split when we reached the second floor, Joe heading up the third story stairs, and myself making my way to the complimentary room I'd been given. I let Crunch have the bed, taking a spot on the floor, and waited for the rest of the night to pass by.

In the morning I headed straight for Bazooka Joe's office. He was on his terminal again, looking at it's screen while hunching over a plate of what must've been breakfast. Eggs, I thought, and strips of bacon. He had removed the respirator to eat, and smiled at me when we entered.

"Good mornin'. Sleep well?" I nodded.

"Fine. I'd like the payment for last night." I didn't bother slipping into one of the chairs in front of his desk, this shouldn't take long. He licked his lips and sat upright.

"Of course, of course. Eager to be on your way, I guess?" He continued to smile, and bent down to get at his desk drawers again. He drew out three bags, similar to the one we'd got yesterday, piling them up on the table. "There you go." I nodded and quickly lifted them with my magic, shoving them into Crunch's saddlebags. Crunch stared at me as I did so. I sighed.

"Thank you. We'll be leaving soon. I just have some things to take care of. Where did the pegasi end up?"

"From last night?" Joe raised an eyebrow. "The Spa. That's where the new slaves are processed, held, and trained. Looking to buy a few slaves for the trip?"

"A few." Joe nodded and waved his hoof dismissively.

"Alright, up to you. Be careful though, you could end up running into Ironclad down there, and he's... an ass. He's supposed to have an office up here, like I do, but he's usually down there with his mares." Joe's mouth twisted downward as he explained, before looking at me again. "No offence." I shook my head and he leaned back in his chair. "Well then, I guess this is farewell."

"Guess so." A turned and started towards the door.

"Remember, if you change your mind, you're always welcome to set up here, you'd really fit in well..." He continued behind me as I reached out and pulled the door open with my horn.
"As long as nopony asked too many questions about what you are."

I slammed the door shut. In a flash I leapt across the floor and came down on his desk. I nearly put my hoof in his breakfast. My sword was out, and hovering just above his neck. He continued to relax in his chair and smile at me.

"Oh, put it away. Not like I'm saying I could give them a lot of answers. You're not a mare who leaves a very easy trail to pick up."

"Stop. Talking." I inched the blade closer to his neck. He smirked.

"Or what, you'll cut my throat? I'm not some anonymous raider that can be swept under a rug and forgotten. My death would attract all sorts of that pesky attention you're so keen on avoiding." Luna damn him, he was right. I pulled my blade back a few inches. He nodded his head. "It's nothin' personal, you understand. Y'don't get to be in a position like mine if you blindly trust every mysterious hired gun that offers to work for you. That's a fast way to earn a bullet in the brain." True enough. I sighed again and backstepped off his desk and onto the floor. "I had to make sure you weren't a Reaper, or some kind of Hizai assassin." I wasn't entirely sure what either of those meant.

"I'm not." I offered. He laughed again.

"No, you're not. You're a mysterious entity. In all the places I could determine for sure you'd popped up, you never stayed for more than a week, tops. Just stroll in, find somepony that needs something violently killed, then fade into the horizon like a fog." He turned his head to look out the window. "So you're either a mare that's running from something, or chasing after something. I don't know, I figure I'll never know, satisfying my curiosity isn't worth my life. Just thought I'd extend my offer before you faded away. That's all." He kept his gaze on the divided city.

"... Yeah, well. You're a cheesehead." Ha. Showed him. I stowed my sword and left his office without another word.


Navigating the slaver side of the town was easier. The streets were clearer, and ponies seemed more likely to move out of your way out of some twisted politeness. Or maybe I was just a pissed off looking mare with a sword trotting down the street. I couldn't tell.

The Spa was easy to find, making up for the extra time I wasted listening to Joe. It was one of the larger buildings, very wide with a roof that tapered upwards into three points. The front entrance and walls were all entirely glass. Pushing the door in I entered a reception area with annoyingly bright white tiled floors. A bored looking mare in a red dress sat behind a circular desk, a magazine open in her hooves. There was a little bell on the counter. Gritting my teeth, I rang it and she lifted her gaze. Her eyes grew slightly but she stopped herself from gaping at least.

"Oh, shit, you scared me! Uhm, what can I do for you?"

"Some pegasi were brought in here last night. I'd like to buy them."

The receptionist mare furrowed her brow.

"How did you know about..."

"I helped. I'd like to buy them."

"Uh, you can't..." Wasn't expecting that.

"You're slavers, aren't you? You buy and sell ponies." She nodded. "I'd like. To buy. Them."

"They're new, I mean! They haven't even been processed."

"Who processes them then?" I did not have time for this.

"I'm not at liberty to-"

"Fine. Let me speak to Ironclad." She was looking more worried by the second.

"D-do you have an appointment? Mister Ironclad is a very busy stallion."

Well, fuck this. I looked around the room. It was square, with a multitude of doorways leading off to different halls in deeper parts of the building. And there, above one of them, was one sign bearing the word 'Administration'. Alright then.

"Sure do. I'll just let myself in." I turned away from the mare and headed to the doorway, stepping through and ignoring her distressed calls for me to wait.

Instead of the usual office I expected to find when dealing with 'Administration' signs, the hall led me into a large room dominated by a huge circular tub, with stairs leading up to a raised platform behind it. The tub was full of bubbling water, and mares. At least ten of them were ringed around the edge, all smiling and grinning impishly at the lone unicorn stallion. He had a dark, slate grey coat and a styled jet black mane, and he lounging backwards in the tub with both forelegs out at his sides and draped over the shoulders of a mare. Busy stallion indeed.

He raised his head when a few of the mares murmured something at him, and glared down at us.

"The fuck're you? How'd you get in here, did Cherry let you in?"

"I'd like to buy some ponies. The pegasi from last night." He detached from the far edge and swam closer to us, sneering at us with contempt.

"So talk to one a' the bitches that handles the sales, an' get the fuck outa my office!"

"They have been processed yet."

He was about to unleash another torrent of bile filled slaver speak, but then realization must have struck him and he figured out what I was saying.

"I said get-... Last night? OH! The enclave pigeons! Shit, bitch, ain't you ever heard of patience?" He snorted and laughed, and many of the mares soaking behind him tittered along with him. "You take a special likin' to one of 'em while you were beatin’ on ‘em, then? Sure, I guess I can bend the rules, if the caps are right. Which one didja want?" He grinned, levitating a squat little glass full of ice and some brown liquid.

"All of them." I hadn't specifically waited until he took a drink, or anticipated that my words would shock him so, but the spit take he made was undeniably satisfying.

"You fuckin' serious?" He choked, wiping his muzzle with a towel again. I nodded.

From behind us, another stallion came galloping into the room. He was squat and thick, but not entirely with muscle, and wore an ill fitting formal suit. And he was huffing and puffing from what had to have been only a short run.

"I came... quick as I could boss... these ponies givin' you trouble?" He tried to snarl at us menacingly, but his wheezing breath just made it impossible. Ironclad rolled his eyes, swimming back towards the other end of the tub and climbing out onto the raised platform. He started to towel himself down with his horn.

"Yeah, we're talkin' business in here, ya mook, get the fuck out." The buck looked back and forth from us to his boss, then turned around and huffed and puffed his way back down the hall. "Good help is so hard to find, y'know?" He tossed the towel aside and descended the steps, looking sideways at the tub. "Ladies, keep yourselves hot, I'll only be a moment."
I rolled my own eyes and slipped into the hallway. Ironclad joined us, a fresh glass of whatever his drink of choice was floating beside him.

"Shall we?"

He led us back into the lobby, where the receptionist and the out of shape guard were conversing, both of them stiffening visibly when Ironclad strolled by. He stopped, and told them have a team of handlers sent down to the storage room. Then we turned and took one of the other open doorways. This hall was much longer than the other one, and had more doors that led into other rooms. Most of them were closed, and disturbing noises often wafted out from them. The few open ones offered glances into small rooms with large canopied beds.

We stopped at one door that was different from the rest, metallic and white instead of the fancily carved wood of the others. Ironclad levitated out a key and unlocked it, opening the door on a set of descending metal stairs.

"I hope you know, if you're fuckin' with me on this, I'm gona make you pay for makin' me walk down here. It's so dirty, and depressin' as hell." He jokingly warned, and took the lead. We came out into a large basement that must have once been used for storage or maintenance supplies. Now it was used for the storage of ponies.

It was large, bare concrete square of a room, with piles of metal shelves pushed into one corner. The rest of the corners and walls were taken up by large cages. They were all mostly empty, but one contained seven haggard looking pegasi. Most of them had raised their heads at the sound of our approach and were staring at us. Ironclad led us up to the cage and gave them a prize winning smile.

"Rise and shine, my little chickadees. It must be your lucky day, 'cause you've already got a potential buyer." He gestured to me. The pegasi started to sit upright. Most of them didn't look like they agreed with him. Most looked scared. Then there was the captain with her angry glare and ugly purple bruise on the side of her face. And where was... Oh. The smaller mare from before wasn't lying in the close clump the others seemed to have formed, she was stretched out on her side against the opposite end of the cage, looking much worse for wear. Dried blood crusted her nose, and she had her legs pulled in tight against her stomach and chest.

"That's right, this eternally generous mare hasn't just offered to buy one or two a'ya, she's gona buy the whooole flock!" He chuckled, and flashed his grin at me. "That is right, isn't it?"

"Just tell me how much." I would be lucky to get out of this damnable town before noon at this rate.

"Four hundred caps a head." He turned to look at the pegasi when he told me this, I couldn't tell why, but it meant he wouldn't see me tapping my back hoof a few times. 2800 caps? That was nearly our entire take from the job. Shaking my head slightly I lit my horn up and opened Crunch's saddlebags.


I was pulling out the sparse 200 caps from one of the sacks that we would be keeping for ourselves, when the door opened up the stairs. Two more ponies in suits trotted down, these ones with strange padded vests on over top of them.

"Bout time. C'mon boys, let's get these fine packages wrapped up nice and pretty so our friend can be on her way."

The handlers nodded, but hesitated.

"Sorry boss, we, uh, had some trouble at the front desk, but Butterball is taking care of her."

Her? Or dear sweet Luna, please, no. A moment later the door clanged open again and Abattoir skipped down the steps two at a time, followed by the red faced guard.

"Ehehe, I toldya you'd never catch me. Hi Lumi!" She jumped over the other two guards who turned around and tried to grab her, landing behind them on her forehooves. The guard I knew as Butterball had too much momentum to stop, and bowled into them, sending them down in a tangled heap.

"What are you doing here?" She balanced on her forelegs for a moment before dismounting, beaming.

"You didn't come n'get me after breakfast, I thought you forgot about me. Whatchoo doin' here, buyin' some new friends?" That was just disturbing. She rushed past me to the cage filled with the confused looking pegasi. I groaned, and looked to Ironclad, wondering if he'd have her shot or something.

The grey stallion was looking at Abattoir with a terrified expression, and backing away from her.

"Y-you. I told you never to come back here!" This was interesting. Not necessarily an unusual reaction, but the sudden change in the stallions mood was definitely interesting. His outburst made Abattoir turn to look, and she pouted, advancing on him.

"Aawh, not even for tea?"

"No! Get away from me, get outa here you fucking lunatic!" Thinking quickly, I reached out with my magic and grabbed Abattoir's tail, holding her back, and stepping up beside her.

"I'm guessing you don't like her much." He looked at me in shock and spat.

"Of course! She's a fuckin' walking curse, no good never comes from havin' her around!" Huh? So he was a superstitious stallion. Wonderful.

"I agree. Fortunately for you, she's only here because of me. I'd be happy to leave and take her with us, once I finish my purchase." I gave him a moment to let the relief show on his face, before adding. "But now that I think about it, 400 a piece is a whole lot of caps."

"What!? You're gona haggle now, you bitch? Those are pegasi, rare as fuck in the wasteland."

I eased my magical grip, and Abattoir, ever eager to be a good sport, inched towards Ironclad with a growing grin. He yelped, and I latched on again, stopping.

"Okay, okay! 350, that's a bargain!"

I dispelled my magic all together, and Abattoir raced across the floor. Ironclad squealed and covered his head with his hooves. When whatever he had been dreading didn't befall him, he peeked. I had my hold on her tail again, having stopped her less than a foot from him.

"200, that's as much I we charge for any regular slave! And I'll throw in some bomb collars for free, anything, just get her away from me!"


The seven pegasi's chains clanked as we walked. We were making our way back to the main street. Crunch was beside me, holding the end of the chain in his mouth. The pegasi were being sulkily silent. Abattoir was on the other side, giggling ecstatically.

"-and he was so scared, he looked like he was gona piss himself!"

"Yes, I was there Abattoir."

Having her assist us in bringing down the price of the seven had been, admittedly, mildly amusing. I suspected it wouldn't make what had to come next any easier for her to understand. We stepped into the broad street that marked the halfway point through the town, and I stopped.

"Abattoir, we're leaving."

"Cool, where're we goin' now?"

I shook my head and pointed to myself and Crunch.

"No, WE are leaving. Just us. Not for work. We're going far away, and you can't come with us. You live here, you work here. So this is goodbye."

She stood and stared at me, her brow furrowed slightly. I had spoken slowly and evenly, like I was trying to explain to a foal. Her head dipped forward slightly, and she didn't say anything, so I took that to mean she understood. I walked past her towards the gate, and heard the clanking as Crunch follow me. At last, we were leaving, and she wasn't coming with us.

"HEY JOE!" An ear splitting scream filled the air. I spun around. Abattoir had both hooves cupped around her mouth and had shouted towards the main building. Amazingly, the distant form of Bazooka Joe appeared at the balcony that surrounded the upper floors of the building, along with a couple other ponies. She continued to yell.

"I QUIT! I'M GONA GO WITH LUMI AND HAVE AWESOME ADVENTURES!" She what?! She couldn't do that, there had to be some rule, he had to tell her she couldn't do that! For a long moment there was no response from the distant raider leader and I prayed that meant her ridiculous request had been denied. Then Joe raised one hoof around his mouth and shouted back.

"Okay! Have fun, good luck you two!" And then that bastard waved at us as Abattoir came trotting up to my side, grinning as wide as I'd ever seen her.

Fuck. That was the word.

Strolling out the gate was a bit of a blur to me. Understandably, word traveled quickly that the cursed mare was leaving, possibly for good. By the time we made it from the far end of the street to the gate, a small crowd had gathered to wish her farewell, most sarcastic, but some genuine I had to figure. Ma and Pa, or whoever they were, I never did learn their names, were among the genuine I suspected.

We found the road about half an hour after leaving Pyresteady, and started to follow it north. We only walked a short while, long enough that the Raider town had disappeared completely whenever I looked back. I stopped walking. I realized Abattoir had been talking the whole time, but it wasn't important.

"This is far enough." I turned back to face the train of captive pegasi, who all stopped to stare with looks of worry and apprehension. The captain was the first to speak up.

"For what?" She sneered. I opened my saddlebags and levitated out an oddly shaped key, the one that fit into the metal collars with the orange lights they'd all been fitted with, the only reliable way to remove them without making them explode.

"For you to go."

A few of them exchanged glances, and the captain narrowed her eyes.

"This some kinda joke? Think you're gona turn us loose then hunt us down like animals, you sick fuck?!"

"Shut up." She continued to seethe at me as I stepped closer. The others pulled back as far as the chains joining their necks would allow, but she stood her ground. "This isn't a trap. I'm removing those collars, and you're going to go." It levitated the key closer. "There is only one catch."

"Is that so?" I could see by the look on her face she had been expecting at least one.

"Whatever story you tell, or report you make or whatever, when you get back up behind your clouds; I wasn't in it." She looked at me strangely, studying, looking for signs of the trap.


"You heard me. Tell them bandits got you and you had to escape on your own or something. You can tell them you crashed your ship into Celestia's glorious golden flanks for all I care, just don't include me in any of it."

The others were looking on with reserved hope, and even the captain was starting to glare less.

"Why?" I just stared at her until she shook her head. "Alright, stupid question, crazy ground ponies... And just what happens if we get up there and decide to tell it true anyway?" She raised an eyebrow. This mare had balls.

Wait, forget I said that.

"I'll come up there and kill you. Clouds or no clouds. Any more dumb questions?"

Snorting, she shook her head. I moved in to slide the key into the lock on her collar, and it popped open. I saw her tense, and for a long moment I thought I might have to kill her after all. But she didn't attack, and instead backed away from me with her wings spread. I moved along the row, unlocking the other members of her squad, who all quickly followed her example and scurried to a safe distance. Until I got to the end of the row and moved to unlock the youthful mare with the watery eyes.

"Don't bother with that one."

I looked over my shoulder, the mare echoing my "What?"

The captain was pointing past me, at her.

"You aren't coming back with us." I shrugged, and slid the key into the lock. Her collar fell away, but she didn't move, just stared back at the captain. She looked even more on the verge of tears again.


"You, practically a civilian, stowed away on MY ship and interfered with MY mission, leading to the capture of not only myself and my squad, but to my ship falling into the hooves of a filthy tribe of raiders. As far as I'm concerned, you aren't coming back at all."

Someone sounded a little bitter. I looked at the trembling mare. Sure, she'd knocked a cabinet over on her, but she'd hardly made that much of an impact. I noticed again the fresh bruises on her legs and face, and probably torso. I had just assumed those came from her rough handling at the hooves of the slavers, but none of the others bore similar marks.

I focused again as the captain finished laying down the law on the smaller mare's exile from the sky. It wasn't really my problem, so I was just about ready to leave if they didn't wrap this up soon. From beside me I could hear Abattoir eating one of the rat kebobs Ma and Pa had given her in parting.

Finally the captain took to the air with the rest of the group following her. I could tell one or two who looked apologetically at the mare left on the ground, before they faced skyward and started to ascend faster.

"Let's get going." I turned and started to walk. Abattoir finished the last rat on her stick and fell in opposite Crunch, licking her lips. We managed to walk a minute or two before Abattoir poked my side.

"What?" I turned, and she was pointing behind us. Turning my head I saw the pegasus was perhaps ten feet behind us. She had her head hung and was staring at the cracked pavement.

"What are you doing?" I asked loudly. She looked up and stopped suddenly.

"Uhm... I'm... I thought." She looked around uncertainly, digging at the ground with her hoof.

"You can't come with us." I made that as clear as I could make it.

"How come?" Abattoir asked from my side, but I ignored her.

"But! I don't... I can't go anywhere else, back the other way is... that horrible place, and up is. Up is..." And she was crying again. I turned to face her fully.

"That's why you can't come with us. You're weak." She wiped her hoof across her face and stomped it indignantly .

"I won't be! Please, you're... You're first halfway decent pony that I've seen down here!"

I laughed. It surprised me too, but I did. The way she winced, I could tell it was just as harsh as it sounded to me. She wasn't convinced though.

"You bought us and set us free! Why would you do that if not to be a good pony?" I let my laughter die down and shrugged.

"I really wanted to piss off Ironclad, that's all." That sounded believable. She didn't know I'd only just met the slaver stallion. "Doesn't matter. You can't come with us. I don't need a weak slave, or a scared, useless pony getting in the way."

I turned back and started walking again. I passed by Abattoir, who looked at me with her brow furrowed, but just got back to her hooves and followed. Another minute passed by.

"Wait!" Why couldn't ponies just get the hint? She was still following right behind us. "What if I promised... to get back the money you spent?"

I turned back. This time I looked at her, long and hard. At her dark turquoise coat and rose colored mane, both just starting to grow dirtied and matted by the wasteland. The tattered uniform. The hopeful, pleading stare.

I started to trot back towards her. She only backed up one step, reflexively.

"Listen to me. Very carefully. Our work isn't easy. Our work isn't safe." I started to explain as I walked, closing in on her and bringing my mask within a foot of her face. "If you truly, truly plan to come with us, to work with us, then you will be strong. Or you'll be dead. I don't really care. Understand?" She took a deep breath and nodded.

Well shit. I really thought that would work. I suppressed the urge to sigh (I'd done enough of that today) and trotted back towards Crunch and Abattoir, and could hear her following behind me. I nodded over my shoulder as I got close.

"Fine then. Abattoir, you're in charge of keeping an eye on her, I guess." I trotted past her.

"Wait, what?"

We would be on this road forever. I looked over my shoulder one last time. Abattoir was looking confused, from me to the pegasus. I couldn't tell why, she'd been here for the whole conversation. I nodded at the just as puzzled looking pegasus.

"Her. She's coming with us, for now. You're in charge."

Abattoir's confusion broke into a grin, and she brought a hoof up to her muzzle. The pegasus furrowed her brow angrily.

"What now?" I asked, exasperated.

"I'm not a mare!"

... Huh

Footnote: Level up?!

Skill note: Barter 15

(Woo, this chapter turned out bigger than I thought it would. Thanks again to Kkat for starting it all, and thanks to the cool cats on the Wasted Days FoE sim for lettin' me use the Little Cliffside region, and extra special thanks to you for reading!)

Chapter 4: Begins with a single step

View Online

Fallout Equestria: Ashes


Chapter 4: Begins with a single step

Left hoof, right hoof, left hoof, right hoof, left hoof, right hoof...

Four ponies walked across the wasteland.

I was one. He was the other. She was behind us talking the ears off of him. He was a petite pegasus, his rose colored mane hung long and framed the sides of his soft, rounded face. But he was not a mare. After Abattoir had finished laughing and rolling in the dust I foolishly asked her why that was so funny, and how she (and apparently everypony else) had known already. She told me because she looked at him. Then when I didn't get it, she told me she looked at him. I decided that was enough of that conversation, but she proceeded to drag the still startled and irritated pegasus before me to show me he was, without a doubt, not a mare.

Is it my fault if I'm the only pony in the wasteland who's eyes don't immediately go to the backside of everypony I meet?

Aside from him, I saw his cutie mark for the first time, a fluffy cloud in the shape of a heart, with two wings spread out from it. Very masculine. After that unpleasant business, we were finally able to start walking. I sent Abattoir back to fulfill her new duty of keeping an eye on him, and she had started chatting. I hoped that alone would have him flying off in just about any other direction in no time.

That was about four hours ago.

He had listened eagerly like a schoolfilly.. err, schoolcolt, to her random, endless stream of babble. Now I stopped walking to look back.

"Alright, enough of that. Abattoir, you can.. I don't know, be on lookout for now. You... you, let's talk about something more important." I pointed at him vaguely, because I had neglected to learn his name. He frowned a bit as he started to step towards me.

"I have a name, you know." I kept staring at him. "... It's on my uniform." Of course it was, down there on the chest, probably. I just looked away and started walking again.

He caught up to my side after trotting a bit to close the gap. Before I could speak, Abattoir skipped past me to take the lead, taking her 'lookout' duty as seriously as her last.

"It's Air Heart, by the way~" She said as she passed, giving me a grin I found especially annoying.

I knew that.

"We need to figure out what exactly your skills are, and how you're going to be any help to us." I spoke sidelong at Air Heart while keeping my eyes on Abattoir and the road. She wasn't really in the lead, there was only one way for the road to go.

"Oh... right, of course." He suddenly seemed a bit nervous again, but nodded his head.

"What are you good at then? Can you shoot?"

"Uhm, I've only ever had target practice with a low powered laser. I did... okay."

"Explosives?" He looked shocked and shook his head emphatically.

"No way, I'd blow my hooves off!"

"Can you fight at all, up close?" I could feel my irritation growing. He furrowed his brow and looked at me.

"I... you were there on the ship. You saw how well I fought." I saw him hit me with a shocky-stick and then go down when Crunch punched him once. Hoof-to-hoof was probably out.

"Fine. What about medicine, or fixing up machines or... something, anything!" He winced back a little.

"M-mm-my mother was a nurse, I, uh, know a little basic first aid." He looked down at his hooves. "And I know how to change a spark battery, that's about it."

"How exactly did you plan on keeping that promise when you have zero skills?"

"I-!" He started angrily but then lowered his voice, kicking a rock ahead of him. "I didn't think... I was desperate, but I won't back out on it. I can learn!"

"We'll see about that. First things first, we need to find you a weapon." I looked at the uniform clinging to his back. "And some barding, I guess." Would have to remember, he wasn't super agile or a wall of meat, he was weak, and he'd need some protection.

"A w-weapon! I can't, I m-mean I don't know how-"

"He's already got a weapon, silly."

Abattoir had done that thing where she moves up close without anypony seeing, this time right up beside Air Heart. He yelped and jumped sideways, actually onto my back. He was surprisingly light, of course, but that wasn't the point, and I quickly shook him off. Abattoir snickered around the handle of the shocky-stick device Air Heart had briefly wielded.

"Where..." I began while she helped the pegasus up and turned the weapon over to him.

"You left it jus layin' there on the floor, duh. I just swiped it up, was either that or let one of JoeJoe's eggheads nick it." She beamed proudly.

He looked cross-eyed at the handle in his mouth a moment, clenching his jaw and making the rod extend with a clack. I could now hear the faint humming sound it gave off. He let it snap back shut and pushed it into a pocket on the front of his uniform.

"Uhm, thank you, I guess?" Abattoir grinned wider and moved in to hug him. I just started walking again.

"Can you actually kill someponywith that thing?" He yelped and tried to untangle himself from Abattoir's arms and catch up.

"Of course not, it's only for subduing targets non-lethally."

"Then we still need to get you a real weapon..."

I trailed off, looking off the side of the road at a large metal sign. Aside from the scant graffiti and some bullet holes, it also bore some arrows and some images depicting a bed, an apple, and a lightning bolt.

"Shelter coming up soon, probably." Signs weren't always reliable in the wasteland.

This sign had been, though. We came upon the rest stop after another half hour. It was a small semicircle of buildings off the side of the main road, consisting of a few restaurants, a hotel, and a sky carriage recharging station slash repair shop. From way up the road I couldn't see any outright signs of occupation, but I still told my companions to keep their eyes open.

We weren't shot at coming off the road, or while walking through the middle of the dirt street running in front of the row of buildings.

"Guess nopony's home." I said, scanning the fronts of the buildings. My eyes were drawn to the recharging station. It was a large structure, and mostly metallic, with a large overhanging roof protecting the charging docks, a few with abandoned sky carriages still rusting in front of them, and even a garage extension build off the side . I trotted up to the doors leading inside and could see nothing. A series of shelves had been pushed up against them from the inside. Crunch could probably have bucked us a way inside through them, but...

"Okay. Time for your first little job, Air Heart." The pegasus had been peeking into one of the dilapidated vehicles in the lot when I turned. "Fly up to the roof and see if you can find another way inside, then get the doors open." He chewed on his lower lip for a moment and looked up at the overhang.


"Yes. With those wings you have." I wasn't sure what kind of look that was on his face. I thought he was going to say something, but he just took a deep breath and started to flap his wings. It looked laborious, and he rose into the air very slowly. I could even see that his eyes were shut tight. "What are you doing?" I asked with a touch of irritation. I was beginning to think I'd somehow become responsible for the most unskilled pony in the wasteland, and this was not helping his image.

"I'm... Flying." He said through gritted teeth. Eventually he passed over the lip of the overhang and I heard his hooves clatter onto the roof. It gave a token creak as he clanked his way onto the main building to, hopefully, get inside and assuage some of my worries.

I turned to see what Abattoir was making of this and found empty air. After turning a quick circle to make sure she wasn't sneaking up on me from some other side, I looked to Crunch.

"When did we lose her?"

He shrugged. After a moment I shrugged too. I knew it was too much to hope she'd run off for good, but I could savor the few minutes she would be gone for. I moved over to the blocked doors and sat down, waiting and listening.

Eventually I heard shuffling, then grunting, then a metallic squealing as one of the heavy shelves began to pull free from the doorway. Looking through the glass, I saw the dark turquoise form of the pegasus struggling to drag the shelf out of the way.

"Crunch, give him a hoof." He moved to do so, pushing the slightly unbarred door open and sticking his head in, to push on the other end of the shelf. Air Heart made a startled noise and jumped back, watching a bit in awe. I followed behind Crunch and got a look inside the remains of the charging station's interior. It had also served as some kind of small shop, judging by the contents of some of the shelves that hadn't been pushed against the doors and windows. Empty snack boxes and tin cans littered the floors, and a few dirty, beat up mattresses were arranged in one corner.

"I think somepony else already lives here." Air Heart took note. I shrugged as I continued to circle the floor.

"Maybe, in the past. It is a pretty defensible position, but it's probably miles from anywhere. Whoever it was, they aren't here now. We'll only be here tonight anyway, don't know how far until the next good shelter." There was still a little daylight left, and I normally wouldn't have minded continuing into the night until finding a nice cave to let Crunch sleep in, but I doubted the other two could manage our pace. It was going to be a long while until we reached Little Cliffside. Speaking of other two.

There was a banging knock at the door.

"Yoo hoo, it's meee." I moved over to pull the door in with my magic, looking out at Abattoir.

"Where were you?"

"No no no, you gota ask for the password!" She looked crossly at me.


"The password, duh! So we know who to let in and who not to let in."

"We don't have a password. We just got here." My limited patience for the day was rapidly draining.

"Oooh, I see, you're tryin' to test me to see if I remember the password! Well jus' so happens I do, so ha! It's..." She cleared her throat a couple times and stood up straight as she could. Then rattled off something I'm damn sure wasn't a word. "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

I closed the door on her face and just sort of stood there, looking at her fuzzy outline through the dirty glass. Finally I opened it again. She was grinning at me.

"Where were you." I had decided the last few moments hadn't actually happened. I'd advise you to do the same.

"Shoppin'." Seemed she had too. She strolled inside, eyes quickly darting around and taking in our shelter. "It smells like butts in here. Do we hafta stay here?"

"You slept in a cave two nights ago. A few feet from a dead pony." She tapped her hoof against her chin at that.

"Yeah but. She didn't smell like butts."

I shook my head. Nowhere to go with that track of the conversation.

"You said shopping. Is there a merchant hiding out there?" That seemed to jog her memory and she turned her head to her amply drooping saddlebags.

"Kinda. She was kiiiiinda dead, so she gave me a pretty big discount. She was nice." She smiled and explained while opening her saddle bags and dumping out a pile of not-empty tin cans and snack boxes, and some other assorted junk.

Oh right. We'd have to carry more food around now too.

"Dinner is served!" She announced playfully. I poked around some of the boxes. I settled on one that seemed to dominate the majority of the pile, a dark blue box dotted with stars, and an image of Princess Luna enjoying a dark disk like object.

"Moon Pies?" Air Heart was looking at one of the boxes as well. Abattoir had already opened one and took a bite into the thick disk shaped cake thing.

"Yuh huh! They're my favorite, they come in chocolate and banana!" I spotted a few of the boxes that had Princess Luna replaced with Princess Celestia. Air Heart was poking suspiciously at the box.

"Oh... is it safe? To be eating this stuff, I mean?"

"Well there are some canned veggies in there if you're on a diet or somethin'."

"That's not what I meant!" Air Heart rolled his eyes. "I mean, isn't this stuff all a hundred years old?"

Abattoir stopped mid chew to stare at him. I turned away from the two of them, I didn't need to be there while she tried to explain how the food was full of preservatives and magic. I slipped behind the counter where a dust covered register lay on its side, and where the ladder to the roof was located. I left them just as Abattoir tried to convince Air Heart to just take one bite of her moon pie.


I pushed open the hatch to the roof and climbed out. Noon had come and gone while we were walking, and now the sun was inching towards the western horizon. Hopefully those two would keep each other occupied until nighttime, when they'd probably sleep. I had time to think back on the day. Among other things, I had managed to pick up not one but two extra companions in rapid succession, and that was two too many. With Air Heart, there was a slim hope he'd prove capable of something, be able to make the 1400 caps, and then be on his merry way and out of my life. But Abattoir was different, she had uprooted her whole life, little as it was, to cling to mine, probably for the foreseeable future. If things ever got too desperate I supposed I would kill her for real, and hope Crunch didn't mind too much.

Crunch. I wanted to blame, well, a lot of this on him, but that wouldn't be totally fair. I grudgingly had to admit my inability to kill Abattoir was my own fault, underestimating her and losing my cool. I did not admit that that made her even a decent ally though. I knew it had to be just a matter of time until her goofy ass caused me some huge trouble that would be beyond just annoying. Just thinking about it made me sigh.

But I could still blame Crunch for the pegasi, and I did completely, while I was making my way back to the hatch.

I returned to the little area of the storefront that would serve as our shelter for the night. The snack boxes and tin cans had been stacked into a neat little pile, and Abattoir and Air Heart were sorting through a pile of something else when I entered.

"Crunch, push those shelves back into the door." I barked at him before turning to the other two. "It'll be night soon, you two should get plenty of sleep, be lot more walking tomorrow." I saw what they were busy sorting through and walked around, towards the circle of mattresses. I picked one that was nearest to the corner of the room and pushed it even further into the corner, then dropped onto my side. In the background I heard the scrape of metal as Crunch blocked up the entrance again, and when I rolled over I saw Abattoir standing over me with one of the magazines in her mouth.

"I found a bunch a' these too, d'you want one to look at?" She dropped it from her mouth and grinned down at me. I just rolled back over the other way and fixed my gaze on the spot where the two walls met. I heard her scoop the magazine back up and trot back over to Air Heart and their little storage area. I also heard her murmur in a hushed tone. "Told'ya."

After that things passed quickly and uneventfully. The two of them chattered a little more, had something else to eat from the stockpile of food, then when the last of the filtered sunlight vanished, they bid each other goodnight and picked their own sleeping spaces. Soon, things were blessedly quiet again, aside from an occasional snore from Abattoir. I was enjoying it.

Then the silence was broken by the sound of some cans toppling over and a muffled yelp. I came back to full attention and listened. Abattoir kept snoring, I continued to feign sleep. There was a series of soft clunks, someone was stacking the cans back up, then I heard hoofsteps. Not creeping towards me, but away. Then hooves on metal, faintly, and growing fainter. Then the creak of the roof hatch being pushed open.

After a few moments of thinking, I decided I should at least take a peek. I rolled over and looked out from my corner. I saw Abattoir, sprawled out on her back, and Crunch, a dozing mountain. Air Heart's mattress lay empty. I crossed the room, careful to avoid the stack of cans, and made my way to the ladder. The hatch was still open when I looked up.

I poked my head out and scanned the roof. I spotted Air Heart on the farthest edge of the overhang, sitting with his head tilted back, gazing up. I don't know what I was expecting to see, but I stayed to watch for a minute. Just before I was ready to start back down the ladder, he stood up, spread his wings, and shot into the air.

This time, his flaps weren't the jerky, awkward flaps I'd seen when he was trying to get up on top of the building. They were full, and strong, if his speed was any sort of indication. Well, that's that settled then, make me think he was an incapable flyer, then take off into the skies while we slept and save himself some embarrassment. No skin off my hide, and one less pony for me to foalsit.

But he didn't continue straight upwards, and that made me hesitate on the ladder instead of climbing back down inside. All of a sudden he stopped ascending and spread his wings wide, tilting backwards into some kind of backwards air summersault. He looped out and continued to glide, upside down it looked like. I climbed off the ladder and onto the roof. I watched this odd display for a few minutes, as he went on swirling and spiraling in the air. His moves were methodical, graceful in a way, and reminded me of something I couldn't quite put my hoof on. When he made one last swoop and started to aim back down towards the roof, I saw his eyes were closed.

Then he opened them, and I knew my lenses stuck out in the night like a cucumber in an omelette, so he saw me right away. He gasped, and his wings seemed to lose all coordination. Had he not already been gliding over the roof, I think he would have dropped all the way to the ground. Instead he just dropped onto the roof on legs that didn't want to support him, and crumpled onto his face.

I sighed.


After making sure he hadn't hurt himself, I helped Air Heart up and told him I had a few questions.

"Dancing?" I asked incredulously. Air Heart was sitting timidly on the cold metal roof and fidgeting with his hooves.

"Yeah... Sky dancing, is what it used to be called."

I nodded. I wasn't too terribly familiar with dancing but I knew it was something ponies used to do, for fun or something. I didn't know it could be done in the sky too. "So, you're good at it?"

He lowered his head and shook it "Oh, well, I don't know if I'm all that good, I mean, I like to think I have a little bit of talent but nothing to brag about or anything-"

I put my hoof up to stop him. "Well, it's not exactly a skill, but it is something. So why couldn't you fly like that before, is it some kind of secret?"

He shook his head faster. "No no, nothing like that! I have, uh... I guess... stage fright? You could call it that." He cleared his throat quietly and looked up at the darkened cloud layer. "I've never been able to fly my best in front of others, even up there. My wings just freeze up and it's like trying to fly underwater... I'm sorry." He hung his head again.

"You're going to have to get over that if you want to survive down here. Especially if you still want to pay me back." I stood up and walked towards the open hatch. He just nodded his drooping head and rose to his hooves as well. "And you'll still need to learn some actual skills. Hopefully before your first firefight."

I approached the hatch and made to stick my hooves out, but stopped when I realized I was hearing something. Something that wasn't Abattoir's snoring. I was hearing voices, wafting up from the station. Then came a loud crash of metal toppling over, one of the shelves I figured.

"What..." Air Heart began, but I shushed him and crouched down over the hole, inching my head inside and perking my ears.

"-bitch tried to lock us outa our own hideout, but we knows th' way in, don' we my cullies?" A harsh voice, full of malice, answered by a chorus of similarly cruel voices jeering and laughing. "Keep 'em pointed at the big un' lads, don' want 'im interruptin' anythin', 'ee looks a bit peeved we woke 'im up."

Well, shit. I pulled my head back from the hatch. "Change of plans. Get over it now, and follow me, we've got trouble. Keep your shocky stick thing ready." And I jumped through the hole, ignoring both the ladder, and Air Heart as he tried to tell me it was called a baton.

I landed behind the counter and glared into the suddenly crowded station. I counted about six of them, four standing in a circle around Crunch with their guns leveled, one who had his teeth clamped onto Abattoir's mane and was in the middle of dragging her around one of the free standing stacks of shelving, and one who was just coming around the counter to investigate the ladder. Alright then.

My horn lit up and my magic enveloped the long forgotten register on the counter, swinging it over and cutting off the raider's surprised "The hell?" with a satisfyingly loud metallic clang. Three of the four gunponies turned their heads at the noise, leaving only one unlucky raider aiming at Crunch. Crunch rose and lunged, putting all that considerable weight and force into a headbutt that flipped the raider onto his back.

"Oi, I said keep 'em-" The apparent leader barked at the commotion, then when he realized all hell was in the process of breaking loose, he spit out Abattoir's mane and turned tail to run off into some far end of the station lobby.

I didn't have time to focus on him though, as the three trigger happy raiders started shooting in my general direction, two with small sized pistols, and one with one of those more dangerous guns that looked like a pistol but poured out a lot more bullets in a lot less time. I ducked down and pressed into the counter for cover, looking around for something to use while a hail of gunfire rained overhead. Nothing but old junk and empty cans littered the floor, and the groaning stallion with a register on his head. Well that'd have to do.

I wrapped the barely conscious raider in my magic and waited for the dangerous one to stop and reload, then blindly heaved him back towards the gunshots. I heard one raider yelp and two more dive away, then jumped to my hooves to vault the counter. My sword was out, but I didn't remember when I'd drawn it. I landed before the raider who had toppled under his comrade, and took them both out of the equation with two quick slashes. The other two were recovering, one leveled his pistol behind me and squeezed off two shots before Crunch bowled into him from the side, blood speckling his hooves. I was left with the other, who sunk one bullet into my shoulder before I separated most of his muzzle from the rest of his head.

And just like that it was over. Almost.

Crunch walked over to me from the mashed pile that used to be a pony, looking slightly annoyed.

"I was on the roof. Something was up." Wait, was that a pun? Off in one far end of the station I heard giggling and groaning, and called out. "Abattoir, don't kill him yet." Then back towards the ladder and the open hatch. "Air Heart, get in here."

"...Is it over?" The pegasus' legs appeared on the rungs, trembling as they carried him down. His eyes were shut tight. He tripped over the register trying to navigate around the counter, falling forward and recovering, only to open his eyes on the pony with the front of his skull showing where I'd sliced at it. He shrieked and scrambled to his hooves, using his wings to lift himself faster, and tried to gallop away. Where to was anypony's guess, but I snagged his tail with my magic when he came close and tugged him with me, following the sounds of Abattoir's mirth.

I found her sitting atop the pony who had formerly been in charge. He was a pale tan color, with a filthy piss yellow bandana wrapped around his head and covering one of his eyes. And he had a knife in his torso.

"P-p-pleeease, ye wou'nt 'urt yer ol' pal Gasher would ye, 'ee di-n't means wot 'e said!" He was blubbering and wriggling. Abattoir snickered and smiled at me.

"Can we keep him too?"

Absolutely. Not. Happening.

I didn't even bother saying so, just pushed her off and took her place, standing over him and pressing one of my hooves down on his throat. Air Heart stood watching, confusion and terror fighting for control of his face. My horn lit up, and Gasher's dropped pistol floated towards Air Heart. He backed away from it but I persisted.

"Take it. Not the ideal situation, but we'll take what we can get. Try and shoot him." He looked more terrified than Gasher did, and Gasher was dying with a knife sticking out of him. I urged the bit of the pistol closer again.

"What! B-b-but-but but I c-ca..."

"Learn. Be strong. This is your first step. Now take it."

His teeth were chattering, but he parted them and took the bit into his mouth, breaking my magical field. He inched closer, trembling anew, while Gasher looked on and swapped between mock weeping and pathetic simpering.

"Oo's gona shoot ol'e Gasher, eh? Ee' ain't done noffin', 'ee was only playin'!" When Air Heart was close enough for his good eye to fix upon, he started laughing even with my hoof pressing into his windpipe. "This purty piece o' crumpet? Aye, then you be'er shoot straight, my cully, 'afore I get up, 'cause when I do Ima gonna chew the pretty cunt right offa ya!" He tried to laugh louder, but I pressed harder and he started gagging instead. Air Heart was glaring down at him, and was trying to steady the bit between his teeth and talk at the same time. No easy task, I've been told.

"I'mmh... nomhp m'mare!" He managed, and closed his eyes tightly before squeezing the trigger.

And, you know, because he had his eyes closed, he couldn't see where he was shooting, and a bullet sunk into my leg. I just looked down at the fresh hole it had put in my favorite boots (and me, I guess), then back up at Air Heart. His mouth gaped open and he dropped the pistol.

"I'm s-s-s-so-!" He started, but Gasher found the breath to start laughing uproariously. Very quickly, I levitated the pistol to his forehead, and put two new holes in it. And then there was no more laughter.

"Was that so hard?" I meant to ask Air Heart. But he only stood transfixed on Gasher's corpse for a moment, then turned and galloping into a corner to retch up Moon Pies and canned peaches. "Oh, for Luna's sake..." I groaned and dropped the gun, climbing off the corpse. Abattoir was still laughing as well, and I so very much wanted to shoot her in the head for it too. "How did they even get in here?" I asked her instead.

She pointed in the direction Gasher must have been galloping before she caught him. I trotted closer and saw two shelves that leaned against each other like an upside-down V, obscuring another door. I crouched down and wormed under the shelves, pushing out with my hoof. The door opened outward, so the shelves did not block it at all. Beyond was the garage extension of the station, I could make out the rusting hulk of a dismantled sky carriage, and also see a thin sliver of light across the way, one of the garage doors that had been raised just enough to allow a pony to slide under.

I slid back out and returned to find a pale Air Heart barely standing and keeping his eyes very strongly fixed on the ceiling. "I'm so sorry..." He mumbled at my approach.

"It's fine, you'll have other chances, probably. There's plenty of ponies to shoot in the wasteland."

He looked dismayed at me before turning his gaze away again.

"No, I mean, I shot you!" Oh, right. I looked down at the bleeding hole just below where my foreleg bent, and the other in my right shoulder.

"Oh, it's fine."


"It's fine, I'll take care of it. You two just get back to sleep, still a few hours before sun up." We trotted back towards the little sleeping area. Air Heart's eyes kept flickering towards the various scenes of carnage, and he shivered each time. "Crunch, don't forget to de-corpse the place first, I guess. I'm going back to the roof, I slept enough so I'll take lookout, make sure there's no more coming." Crunch snorted lightly and moved away from the mattresses to grab the faceless pony by the neck and start hauling him towards the door. There was a flicker of relief in Air Heart's face when I turned back, but he sheepishly looked away and lowered himself onto the bedding. Abattoir excitedly ran off to help Crunch with the corpse duty, so I just nodded at him and trotted back to the counter.


On the roof, I first leaned over the edge to peer under the overhang and indeed make sure there were no more ponies waiting outside. Once that was done, and after making sure the hatch to the roof was closed behind me, I peeled off my boot to look at the damage. At least it hadn't made it all the way through and put two holes in my boot. I dug the radiation proof bundle out of my saddlebags and floated one of the bottles of cloudy green tinted water over. I poured a bit into the hole in my leg, then turned my head to splash some onto the other shot I'd taken in the shoulder. I went to sit down and felt a sudden throb in one of my haunches. Sure enough, another bullet wound marked the area just above my cutiemark, I hadn't even noticed that shot. I poured the last of the bottle onto that wound until it closed, and sat down again. I looked at the single remaining bottle nestled in the radiation blanket and sighed.

In the morning (or close enough to it) I headed back down the ladder. Abattoir was up, riffling through the stack of canned goods for breakfast. She raised her head at my approach.

"Mornin' Lumi. Whatcha fancy, applesauce? Or beans?" She beamed.

"I'm not hungry." I swept my gaze to the other two mattresses. Crunch was slumbering soundly. Air Heart was barely visible under a heavy, rust red cloth. I tugged at a few folds until he stirred, then eventually woke in alarm.

"Grace?" Was the first intelligible thing that left his mouth, before he blinked away the sleep and looked up into my lenses. "Oh... good, uhm... Good morning."

I stared down at him, silently. Unease grew on his face the longer I held the silence, broken only by the sound of Abattoir grinding the tin opener around the rim of a tin of applesauce. Finally, I pointed. "That's mine."

"What?" He shifted and looked around himself, then started and shrugged back more of the cloak. "Oh! I, uh, I'm sorry, I was... cold, and Mr.Crunch-"

"Mister who?"

"M-mister Crunch? Your friend." He gestured vaguely towards the slumbering mountain. "Abattoir told me your names. A-anyway, he let me... borrow it, I guess. I'm sorry." I trotted around his mattress.

"It's just Crunch. Try not to listen too hard to anything Abattoir says, it's bad for your brain." I came to Crunch's side and gave him a quick kick in the ribs. He rolled onto his back and opened one eye. "You're pushing my buttons lately. A blanket?" He closed his eye again and snored at me.

I kicked him again and turned back. Air Heart was standing and rapidly trying to fold the cloth into a neat square with his teeth. "M'shorry, I di'nt mean to-"

"It's fine, just don't get it dirty or lose it or something, I still need it." He raised his head and looked at me again, chewing on his lower lip. His gaze drifted down slightly and he looked more intently. At the bandages, I guessed. Before replacing my boot, I had retrieved a little used roll of gauze from my saddlebags and lightly wrapped my leg, and my left shoulder, looping around my torso a few times. He seemed like the more observant type, compared to Abattoir anyway, so he'd expect to see them.

"I'm sorry for that too." He nodded his head and averted his gaze. Abattoir gave him something else to look at when she pushed the tin of applesauce into his hooves.

"You apologize too much."

"I'm so-uh... I'm, uhm... Oh." He filled his mouth with a spoon and we were both glad for it.

A half hour and a simple breakfast later, we emerged from the station, and sitting right in front of the door was a large wooden waggon filled with crates.

"Where did this come from?" Air Heart circled the thing while I climbed up inside and had a go at one of the crate lids. It was loosely held in place, and the inside was filled with assorted knick knacks and wasteland goods. This one was full of hats. All the contents seemed somewhat organized, far too neatly for the type of ponies we'd encountered last night.

"I think they stole it." I clamped the lid shut on a small box of metallic scraps and spare wiring. "Crunch, think you can handle it?"

My largest companion stepped in front of the waggon where two poles extended with a simple harness between them. It would be a tight fit, but he got himself into place and started to trot. The waggon rolled easily, and I jumped out, trotting along the side. Air Heart caught up and started to say something, but Abattoir was at my other side, she had a song on her lips, and she was much louder.

"O-ho the Wells Fargo waggon is a-comin' down the street, oh please let it be for me~"

She seemed to be prancing to some tune in her head as she sang. I just willed Crunch to go faster so we could put some distance between her and us. I turned to Air Heart and grumbled. "She does this. Until I figure out how to stop her you'll have to get used to it." But he was looking past me, at Abattoir, with another strange look. This one was just full of strange looks.

"I know that song!" He exclaimed, cutting Abattoir off mid verse. Her eyebrows were raised. "It's from... The Music Mare, it's it?" Wait, the what? The earth pony's grin grew explosively and she noddedher head enthusiastically.


"What's a music mare?" I was quickly losing any idea I had about what this conversation was turning into.

"Oh, it's a musical." Air Heart practically gushed at me. "About a clever conmare who tricks a town into thinking their new pool table is a threat to the moral fiber of their foals, and the only way to save it is to buy up a whole set of marching band equipment and uniforms, from her of course! Oh, it's a classic..." He slowed down when he noticed I was staring at him and had stopped trotting.

"A what?

He looked confused now, and cocked his head slightly. "What... uh, did... Was I going too fast?"

"Musical? A musical what?" That was about where he had lost me.

"It's like a play, but with singing and dancing too."

I continued to stare. Air Heart and Abattoir exchanged glances, then set about explaining plays and musicals to me.


"So, let me get this straight." Several minutes later, and after catching up to Crunch and the waggon waiting on the road, I was still trying to work my brain around what I'd been told. "A lot of ponies, up on a big stage, and they... act out a story some other pony came up with?" Abattoir confirmed with a quick nod to my left. "And sometimes with singing and dancing?" Another nod. I shuddered.

"That's the idea. Before the war they were a really big thing, popular all over Equestria. The Enclave Historical Society has a ton of old preserved scripts, and sometimes the entertainment committee gets enough of a budget to put a few on..." He smiled while he explained this, before his expression turned curious again. "I'm not surprised you don't know about them, but how did you know? The song, and before that, your password was from Mary Cloppins." He directed this to Abattoir, who grinned impishly.

"Oh, an old friend taught them to me~"

Seeing where this was going, I quickly trotted out of the way and let them have their confusing conversation. I caught up to Crunch's side as Abattoir began another song.

"Crunch." He grunted in greeting. "Kill me. Quickly. Please." He rolled his eyes at my melodrama. But the sweet release of death didn't come for me, and we walked.

After a while it seemed even Air Heart had had enough of Abattoir, and he joined me the front of the waggon. There was a short squeak and bounce behind us as Abattoir climbed into the back. "Soooo..." He began "Why did we bring the waggon?"

"Because it's useful, and full of supplies." What a dumb question.

"Right, true... So, they're our supplies now, then, is that how it works?"

"If the owners are dead. The real ones that Gasher and crew stole it from, I mean."

"And if they're not?"

I turned to glare at him but said nothing. Maybe for once somepony would get the hint. He stared back for a moment then smiled and stomped his hoof. "Ah-ha!" He sounded triumphant. "You plan to find them and give it back, don't you? Like any decent pony would do?"

Without skipping a beat I craned my neck back. "Abattoir." Her head appeared from amid the boxes. "Pull out all the ammo you can find in there. And anything else extra valuable." Air Heart furrowed his brow at me and shook his head. That must have taught him to shut his trap, and he followed in silence.

But at least somepony was having a good time, judging by the sounds Abattoir made while raiding the supply crates.

For a while I was able to enjoy the walk in near-silence.

A few minutes (or maybe an hour) later, I came back into focus when a new voice crackled out from behind me, a loudness in the middle of the quiet stretch of wasteland road.

"Gooood afternoon San Pal wasteland, this is Desert Rose, hopin' all y'all little ponies out in there are treatin' eachother right. I'll get back to the music soon, but first I got some good ol' fashioned news for y'all to chew on, so sit tight."

The voice was a mare's, energetic and warm. I spun around and found Abattoir propped up on one of the larger boxes, beaming at her pipbuck, out of which the voice was blaring. "I knew it had a radio!"

"Turn that off." I hissed. She pouted.

"But I just figured out how to turn it on!"

"Turn it down then!" She grudgingly fiddled with a dial until the voice was no longer blaring.

"... and that's why you should never put landmines in a toaster. And finally, for some news a little closer to our own slice of the San Pal wasteland. I'm sure a lot ah y'all remember the Bloodshots, lowlife band of raider scum that been harassin' south side folks for weeks? Well you can put your worries to bed! An anonymous, and might I say, daring scavenger reported distrubin' sounds and spooky green lights from the outskirts of the Bloodshot compound, and hung around to investigate. My source had a good look around the place once the sun came up, I'll spare y'all the finer details, but hoo boy, I think I might have nightmares for a while.

"Whatever mysterious group of ponies put down the Bloodshots, I gota say: I don't much care for your methods, but the folks of Cliffside are grateful to ya. And now that I've thoroughly talked your ears off, here's Fiddle Sticks with a new instrumental piece for y'all to enjoy."

And just like that the voice cut away, and a few moments later a tune started to waft out of the device clamped around Abattoir's foreleg. The music sounded scratchy, and upbeat, some kind of instrument I had no hope of identifying. I was more focused on the snippet that had come before, somepony had been spying on us on the job after all. It wasn't disastrous, but it was potentially troublesome. I looked up from giving the device a glare and found Abattoir's purple eyes and wide grin.

"Didja hear that?! We're on the news!" That was much more close to disastrous.

"There's still radio down here? And music? A-a-and you're on it?!" Air Heart was looking between Abattoir and me.

"There's still a lot of things, but they aren't important. And no, we were not on it, and that's what you're going to tell anypony who asks, aren't you Abattoir?" I took a step towards her. She furrowed her brow and crossed her forelegs.

"What! Why would I do that?"

I held back a moment. I could have tried to silence her at swordpoint, but doing so in the past had proved less than successful. I needed a different approach this time.

"Because... you could get recognized? Wouldn't that be annoying, ponies constantly bugging you for your hoofprint?" That's what happened to celebrities, right?

Abattoir placed a hoof under her chin, and I could see the gears grinding in her head. I was considering silently sending a prayer to Luna when she smiled and nodded. "You're right, I can't handle that kind of attention, it'd get in the way of adventuring, wouldn't it?"

I kept my relief to myself and nodded, sticking an elbow out to nudge Air Heart until he nodded as well. Now that that was settled, I gave Crunch a poke to get him walking. The cart started rolling again, and we all started walking. I tried to ignore the music and focus on what else I had learned from the energetic mare on the radio. San Pal, she had said, for the San Palomino Desert, which meant we must have officially crossed back into Equestria at some point. That could also be troublesome, but more than likely just annoying. I tried not to think about it, as one strange song gave way to another, and fixed my eyes on the cracked road that stretched off into the horizon.


We didn't find another convenient rest stop before the light of the sun started to fade, so I directed Crunch of the road towards some foothills in the east.

"What are we looking for?" Air Heart squinted into the distance. I had dug out a pair of binoculars from the waggon's supply.

"A place to spend the night. Unless you think you can keep going."

"In a cave? Is that safe?"

I shrugged. "We've had good luck and bad luck with them, depends on the cave. You're welcome to fly ahead and find something better if you like." I gave him a pointed look. He couldn't see it, but trust me, it was very pointed.

He trailed off with a mumble and I continued searching the approaching hills. I could see several promising locations, with only a few signs of critter inhabitants. I picked out one that looked comfortably large and pointed it out to Crunch. Another few minutes and we were drawing up in front of a cave mouth with few lumbering reptilian creatures snuffling about outside. A few brave ones came close to try their luck and hiss at me, but I gave the biggest a few whacks with the flat of my blade until he gave, and the rest scattered after him. The cave was ours, for the night at least.

I caught Air Heart looking off in the direction the geckos had fled while I was helping Crunch maneuver the waggon in front of the cave so it would at least prove some sort of a blockage should anypony stumble inside. "What now?"

"Huh? Oh, I'm just... glad you didn't kill them, that's all."

"They were just dumb animals, and I didn't really want a big fight on our hooves. Plus, blood on the ground outside would attract even worse."

He gulped and nodded, looking off into the horizon again.

"Ooouh, I wonder what's in this one." Speaking of dumb animals. Abattoir was making the waggon moving task all the harder by still being in the waggon, going through the boxes. I was about to ask her again to get out when she peered into another crate and grinned. "Oh, way cool, I found... Oh, nevermind, you wouldn't be interested."

Yeah, that's not suspicious. I sighed, and climbed up on the waggon to push her away from the crate she was halfheartedly trying to hide from me. Inside, I was greeted with stacks upon stacks of books, and some loose scrolls and sheets in between. I could hear her snickering into her hooves, and desperately wanted to chop those hooves off and feed them to her. Instead I settled for levitating up the nearest book from the stacks and giving her a whack upside the head. She tumbled onto her back but kept laughing.

"You're a pest." I replaced the book, and reached out for some long blue scrolls in one corner of the crate.

"Thank you!" She beamed from her back. I plucked out one of the scrolls and unrolled it, looking at the faint white lines that formed a grid across it, with pictures of bits and bobs and how they could fit together. I'd seen some of these scrolls before, they were recipes for weapons. None of them had ever interested me too much, and this one was no different, some kind of oversized rifle. I rolled it back up and pulled out another.

"Ouh, whatcha got, gona whip up somethin' new with yer very own hooves?" Abattoir had recovered and was peering over my shoulder at the plans for some kind of lunchbox explosive thing.

"Maybe. Probably not." I shrugged and returned that scroll, plucking out the last one in a haze of green magic. This time I took a much longer look at the images inside, this was a new one I'd never seen before. I rolled the scroll up and slipped it into my saddlebags. Maybe indeed.

After getting the waggon situated and getting everypony on the inside of the cave, Abattoir and Air Heart had something to eat again, and we all found someplace in the cave to lay down and rest. The cave extended deeper into the hill, but I was the only one equipped to explore it, and nopony was in any particular rush to do so anyway, but I made sure to tell the others not to wander. I made sure to set my own space down closest to the entrance, and didn't take my eyes off the moonlit stretch of wasteland all night.

And unbelievably, morning came without any further trouble. I wanted to wait for one of the others to wake up first, but after almost an hour of sunlight seeping into the cave entrance, I pushed myself to my hooves and trotted down to the yellowgreen lump that was Abattoir, giving her a thump on the side.

"Wake up."

She rolled away with a sleepy murmur and kept on dozing, happy as a clam. I prodded her in the back a few times but got no further response. Before I could get frustrated, another part of my brain pointed out that this could be a perfect opportunity to cut her throat while she was in such a deep sleep. No, I thought, it would be too easy, and I could already see Crunch's disapproving glare. So I resigned to jus giving her another good kick, raising my foreleg, but she roll back towards me with her eyes half lidded and bleary.

"Mornin' mum, I'll have pancakes an' eggs an' bacon with orange juice..."

I reigned in my kick until it was more of a sharp poke, delivering it to her midsection. "Wake up, we're wasting daylight." She let out a grunt and a chuckle, gathering her hooves under her and sitting upright.

"You're not mum... " She rubbed at her eyes with her forelegs, then blinked them a few times and furrowed her brow. "What's that smell?" I stared down at her from behind the lenses of my gasmask for a long time until the bit dropped and she snickered. "Oh, nevermind. Well, it smells like a toilet. Have you had a bath in a while?"

I ignored that for now and turned to one of the remaining sleeping masses, the one wrapped under the rusty red sheet. I approached slowly and could see a bit of the cave floor under Air Heart was still darkened with damp. I reached out with my magic and started tugging at folds of the makeshift cloak turned blanket until he stirred, first slowly, then rapidly as his senses came back. "Nnn-nh no no nn... don't shoot... dddnh, don't, I'mnhuph up up, I'm up, I'm... where am I?"

"You can keep the blanket now." I intoned after he untangled himself from it in a clumsy rush. I could see the lower half of his uniform was also still damp, and when he noticed he quickly squirmed out of it and tossed it down, gaping wordlessly.


I stomped my hoof to try and get his attention. "Don't start that again. Just calm down and try to dry off or something."

"I'm sorry, this never... I just kept seeing it!"

"Seeing what?"

"That... that pony, his head! It just... went... all over the floor and, and you, and... and..." A violent shudder went through his body, and he looked on the verge of crying, or throwing up again, or both. That was almost a day ago, I had to wonder why this was coming up now of all times. "How can you two just... do something like that and not... ugh?!" He squeezed his eyes shut.

"Practice." I said simply.

"Good aim." Abattoir had finished waking up and joined the conversation at my immediate left. A smirk was spreading across her muzzle, and she pointed with a hoof. "Did Air Heart really wet the, uhm, cave?"

And that was it, he actually was crying again, and crumpled down onto the cave floor, trying to hide his face and his tears in it, I supposed. I sighed heavily. My life had literally devolved into foal sitting. Abattoir had her little chuckle at the moment, but then she swooped down and was suddenly hovering over him. She still wore a half smirk, but it didn't look as mocking, and she was prodding his head with a hoof.

"Awh, I'm just teasin', c'mon, we gota getcha cleaned up."

Understandably, he wasn't convinced, and shied away from her. "Just leave me alone, just leave me in this cave and go away!" Before I could reply 'gladly', Abattoir took his ear between her teeth and used it to draw him to his hooves in a surprised squawk, then lead him towards the waggon. I was mildly curious where this was going, so I followed.

She drew him up in front of the broad side of the waggon and released his ear. He sniffled and rubbed it, but stayed put, watching her climb in and push aside crates. She singled out one crate with a symbol that resembled a raindrop painted on the sides and lifted the lid on dozens of bottles of water, selecting a few of them and pulling them free.

"W-wait, I'm sorry Abattoir, but we can't, that's not our-Achk!" She gave him a generous splash in the face with the first bottle, then walked in a circle around him, drizzling the water onto his back. When that bottle ran dry she opened another, despite his protests, and continued dousing him. Luckily he was a petit stallion, and it only took her about three bottles to have him completely soaked.

He sniffled once more, then raised his foreleg and sniffed it closer. "Is this water clean? It smells funny..."

"This should help with that!" Abattoir returned from another dig through the crates bearing a brightly colored box, and trotted in a circle around Air Heart, sprinkling him with a white flaky substance from inside.

"What is that?" He looked at the flakes sticking to his coat dubiously.

"Soap, silly!"

"What kind of soap?"

"Uhm... The clean kind?"

"Why does the box have plates on it?!" Before he could be further outraged by her use of dish soap on him, she slipped a round brush onto her hoof and fell upon him scrubbing at his sides and back, lifting his wings up to clean under them. He immediately started squirming and gasping, then laughing in full and trying to escape Abattoir while she worked the flakes into a lather. A ticklish stallion he was indeed.

I just sat back and watched the whole strange display in a sort of disbelieving fog. I felt Crunch beside me and turned to look up at him. "What in the name of Discord's beard is going on here?"

He smirked sidelong at me and shrugged, helpful as always.

Abattoir dropped the sudsy brush and grabbed up another bottle of water to start rinsing the soap out. Air Heart was left looking flushed, shivering in the middle of a soapy puddle on the cave floor. But he didn't look like he was going to cry, so that was preferable, I guessed.

"I smell like lemons..." He finally spoke, sniffing at himself again. "I mean, thank you Abattoir, I, uh... it won't happen again."

She placed both her hooves on his shoulders and stared intently at him, that little half smile was back on her face. "It's nothin'. Now listen." He was listening. "There really are some bad ponies out there what do deserve gettin' shot in the head. And some nice ponies what don't, but they do anyways. Lotsa ponies die down here, and thinkin' too much about it makes your head hurt, especially after they already been shot. But those ponies back there woulda done lotsa wicked nasty stuff to us if they'da got the chance, so you shouldn't go sheddin' tears on account of that lot, kay?"

She kept him from turning away with her hooves as she delivered her message, releasing him only after he nodded in agreement. "Kay... sorry, I understand."

Her typical wide grin broke through and she hopped back from him, nodding. "Good, then c'mon lemon drop, we've got walkin' to do, right Lumi?"

"Don't call me that." I'll never understand ponies.

After the three of them had breakfast, we guided the waggon out of the cave entrance and set off to find the road again. Out of everything Abattoir was able to find in the waggon's inventory, she couldn't find anything even resembling a towel, so Air Heart was left to air dry. He walked along the side of the waggon occasionally shaking out one leg or flapping a wing awkwardly.

The road was right where we left it, and we were soon rolling along it at an even pace. Today I kept my eyes on the move, scanning the hills around us as we traveled and even glancing behind us a few times. The third time I looked over my shoulder, Air Heart cocked his head to the side and then turned it for a look as well.

"What is it? Are we being followed?"

"Nothing. No, probably not. Just making sure."

He really was more attentive than Abattoir. Troublesome.

I was focused enough that I spotted the change in the landscape much sooner than I usually would have, and Crunch didn't even have to grunt at me or anything. The road was starting to curve ever so slightly, it was easier to see at a distance, and way up ahead I could see the point where the curve became the most pronounce, looping to the west and disappearing beyond further hills. Continuing north would be impossible, as the land simply stopped. After digging out my binoculars and climbing onto the back of the waggon, I could see it wasn't just a simple gap, that we were on the southern edge of a massive canyon.

It took almost an hour to reach the curve, by then we could all see the distant point where the land was abruptly cut away. The chasm continued as far as the eye could see into the east and west. It was faint, but I felt a curious urge to keep going off the road, to take a peek over the edge of that vast canyon, and see it up close. It would take too much time, of course, so we just followed the curve of the road and continued west.

"Amazing, isn't it?" Air Heart spoke up after a few minutes. He was gazing out at the canyon as we walked.

"I guess so."

"I mean, just imagine how long it must've taken to form..."

I shrugged and looked forward again. "Couple hundred years, maybe?"

He actually gasped at me. "Couple million years, more like!" I glanced back at him. He had a mixture of shock and annoyance on his face, but it quickly faded and his eyes darted away. "Uh, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have! I mean, Abattoir told me-"

"And I told you you shouldn't listen to the things Abattoir says." I quickly cut him off and trotted a few paces ahead of the waggon, taking the lead for now. I was done gazing at the chasm now, it was time to focus on the landscape ahead.

The landscape ahead looked much the same as the landscape behind, a long stretch of cracked road running through sandy scrubland. I figured it'd be at least one more day before we would be trotting into Cliffside, I couldn't even see a hint of the town that lay somewhere at the end of this road. So I just let my gaze drop, focused on the road, and walked.


"Luminescence?" Air Heart was right next to me, his brow wrinkled with concern.

"What is it?"

" Are you okay?"

"...Is that all you came up here to ask?" His forehead furrowed further and he glanced up the road. I followed his eyes and saw the back end of the waggon. Abattoir was riding in it again, and she waved at me. Oh.

"Sorry, but you weren't answering."

"I'm fine, did you want something?"

"Oh, no, not really..." He started to drift away, but Abattoir waved him back. "Well, we were wondering if we could stop somewhere, maybe, and have lunch, if that's okay with you..."

I glanced up at the cloud layer for a guess at the time, but it stumped me. I wasn't sure how far back the curve was either, it must have been a fair distance. I shrugged. "Sure."

Crunch pulled the waggon off the road and we navigated though the brush until we found a section sparse enough and flat enough to rest on. Abattoir hopped out of the waggon and broke out her collection of tinned foods and snack goodies. I took a seat on the outer edge of their little ring, facing the road, and waited for them to finish.

"Uhm..." I looked back. Air Heart was there, that concerned look on his face again. "Aren't you going to have any?"

"No, I'm fine." I looked out on the road again, but when I didn't hear his hooves moving away, I looked back again. He was still there. I snorted and shook my head. "I mean it. Go, before Abattoir eats all the moon pies."

"...Okay, but while we're resting, you should let me change those bandages." Oh right. I stood up quickly and looked around our little temporary rest area.

"You eat. I'll take care of it." I levitated out the roll of gauze to show him, and headed for a slope of land that led up to a flat looking shelf of cliffs. Hopefully it would put me out of sight. I didn't hear Air Heart following me, and after climbing up high enough to step out onto the rocky ledges, I looked down and saw my three companions sitting together, Abattoir and Air Heart chattering away. When I moved back a few paces I was completely obscured from below. I unwrapped the bandages from my left shoulder, and pushed down my boot to get at the length of gauze around my leg. I tossed the dirty bundles of cloth to the side and rolled out fresh ones, rewrapping them tightly and replacing my boot. Then I just sat for a moment, on the edge of the low cliff, and thought. How long would I have to keep this up, I wondered. How long does it take a bullet hole to heal on a pony? It'd probably be suspicious to ask him, maybe I could find a real medical pony. Maybe he wouldn't know, he only said his mother was a nurse.

I sighed and made my way back to the slope, it was no good to worrying about it now. Just before I started my descent, I thought I heard something higher up in the cliffs. A snatch of a sound, some kind of horn, being played ever so briefly then cut off with rapid quickness. I whirled and scanned the redish rocky formations above me, but there was nothing to see.

I figured there was a decent chance I was just imaging things now because I was worried about other things, and decided to get back down on the ground right now. I rejoined the others, still in the middle of their meal, and moved back to my spot on the outside edge. The road was exactly the same as I left it, and that was comforting.

An hour after lunch we got our first glimpse of our destination. Actually two glimpses. The road had moved around the mountain that had been blocking the view for the past few miles, and now we could barely make out the glimmering outline of Little Cliffside in the distance. But closer than the actual city was a billboard displaying an idyllic image of the distant town, put up before the war to entice visitors I supposed.

It showed the town at sunset, split between the two masses of land with a massive bridge between the gap, rows and rows of little cottages and cabins on the southern side, slightly larger apartment buildings on the north. The sun was huge, and it's rays were exaggeratedly beaming golden light across all the pristine looking homes and well manicured lawns. There was something written across the skyline, arcing over the whole image like a rainbow.

I was able to see all the details with my binoculars. I lowered them and slid down the small hill I'd climbed to get a better vantage point.

"Sooo?" Abattoir cocked her head. I didn't much like that tone or that smirk.

"We're almost there."

"What does the sign say?"

I hovered the binoculars towards her. "You can see for yourself."

"Oooh, yeah, I can... So what does the sign say?"

I stared at her, her face so close to the hovering binoculars, and wondered if they were sturdy enough to bludgeon her with.

"That we're almost there. Cliffside."

She sat down and clasped the binoculars, peering into the distant hills. "Uuuuh huh... What else does it say~?"

"Shut up. Get back on the road." I started towards the road where Crunch was waiting with that waggon, but Air Heart had to open his big mouth too.

"Stop that Abattoir, it's not nice to make-." I spun back around, drawing my sword in a furious flurry and closing in on the terrified pegasus.

"I do not. Need your help. Back on the road." I brandished the blade in the air above his head to punctuate my words. He stammered and I could see his knees start to shake, but he went on talking.

"I-I-I only m-meant... It's n-n-nothing to b-be ashamed of..."

The blade came closer. "What isn't, exactly?" I leaned closer to his cowering face, venom dripping from every word.

"Y-y-you can't read..."

I touched my sword to his cheek. Not the blade, but the broad flat instead. The steel was cold, and he still let loose a shriek, jumping backwards and ending up on his back. I loomed over him.

"I can read just fine. End of discussion." And they couldn't prove that wrong. I stowed my blade and turned back to the road, catching a glance at Abattoir as I did. She wasn't smiling anymore, and that was good. She swooped down to help Air Heart up, while I finally reached the road and hissed at Crunch. "Get moving."

We walked. It was only a short time before the silence was broken. I was sure of that because there was no drifting in and out of focus this time, no matter how much I would have wanted to.

"M'sorry, Lumi." Abattoir was behind and to the right of me, notably out of hoof's reach. "I didn't mean to tease ya so much."

"And I'm sorry for... being presumptuous. I shouldn't have assumed anything, we were always taught ponies on the ground were... Uhm, anyway, sorry."

I just kept walking, kept my eyes forward, on that so very distant town, willing it to be closer.

"And we'd be totally happy to teach ya, if, y'know, you ever wanted to learn, right Air Heart?" That clearly wasn't something they'd discussed before, judging by the way Air Heart stammered. Then again maybe he just always talked like that.

"W-what? Oh, uhm, yes, of course! We'd be happy to try, I mean. If we're going to be partners, it's the least we could do to help eachother out..."

"We're not." I didn't look back when I cut him off, there'd been too much talking and stopping and wasting time already, that's why Cliffside was still so far off in the distance, that's why we wouldn't be reaching it before the end of today.

"... Erm, what?"

"We're not partners. We're not teammates, companions, comrades or amigos. You stubbornly created some kind of contract for yourself and put yourself into my service, and I accepted. If I need something from you, I'll ask for it, otherwise, you're just annoying me. And if it turns out you annoy me too much, I might decide to terminate your contract. Understand?"

I heard one of the sets of hoofsteps behind me stop. I didn't look back, just kept going forward. I'd only see him if he decided to fly past and beat us to Cliffside, but more than likely he'd pick any of the other directions, maybe cross the chasm to the north and continue into Equestria proper, that'd probably be best.

His voice was distant, but clear, not the quiet wavering he usually spoke in, it sounded like he was talking more to himself than me. "I said I'd be strong... I need to be strong. And I will!" Then, softly, softly, the sound of hoofsteps again. One in front of the other, again and again and gaining speed as he galloped after us until he was following behind me again.

I just kept my eyes on the horizon and let out another sigh.

Footnote: Level up too? Sigh again.

New Perk: Insomniac: You don't need to sleep as often as other ponies do, and don't suffer from any of the negative side effects of going extended periods without sleep. Probably.

Companion Perk: Beginners Luck: Whenever Air Heart is in your party, trying new skills has a 25% better chance for success. Mutually Exclusive with the Cursed perk.

(Today's chapter was brought to you by references! Thanks for reading, everyone, I'm still learning my writing pace at this point but if this chapter is any indication, that pace is 'very slow'. As usual, I gota give thanks to KKat for spawning the FoE universe, and the cool cats at the Wasted Days sim. I'll see y'all after Halloween)

Chapter 5: Breakfast at Strawberry's

View Online

Fallout Equestria: Ashes


Chapter 5: Breakfast at Strawberry's

Staying out of trouble, I hope? Don't want to have to waste good bullets on your sorry flank.

The Town of Little Cliffside. The closer we got to it, the more I decided Bazooka Joe's description of it left a lot to be desired. It was neither little, nor a town. City would be a more fitting title. On the southern side of the great crevasse, the 'town' image was more fitting, all the buildings I could see stood no taller than three stories high, except a few taller apartment complexes perched high on a lonely hill. The majority of them were cottages built in rows, all made of wood and painted in what must have one time been bright, cheery colors. Many of the homes were crumbling and faded, and their formerly neat lawns were overgrown with desert flora. Except the homes and buildings inside the 6 meter high wall/fence thing surrounding a large swath of the former town, of course. Those homes were sturdy, inhabited, and even fortified, and I could see the residents of Not-so-Little Cliffside milling around them, much like the ponies in the billboard had been, only more well armed.

Across the chasm, the buildings became towers. Not epic sky scrapers like those of Manehattan, but much taller and more modern looking than the simple homes of the south. It was impossible to see clearly into that tangled jungle of metal and glass, even with my binoculars.

Connecting the two was the bridge. In the advertisement on the billboard, it had been there, but had been understated and simple. Here and now, it was a huge metal skeleton laying like the spine of some giant creature across the gap and draped with debris and vegetation.

And finally, beyond it all, off the edge of the cliffs that the whole thing sat upon, was the sea. The city was situated snuggly just miles away from the western coastline of Equestria. It gave me a slightly better idea of where exactly we were.

All in all, it looked promising. A big place with lots of ponies and lots of work. Within the hour we would be trotting through the gate that formed where the security walls met across the road, and things could start getting back to normal. Maybe I could find an easy job for Air Heart and get him earning the caps he still insisted he was going to pay.

I looked back at the quiet pegasus. He'd lapsed into a sort of sulky silence since the day before, I supposed he didn't like being threatened with a sword. Abattoir still made enough noise for the both of them though.

"Keep it down back there, we're almost here." I called back when the twisted metal archway and tall boxy watchtower were in clear view. Last thing I needed was her singing at the top of her lungs when we arrived. As we approached the open gateway, I could see a ponylike figure up in the tower peering down and moving around. Sure enough, shortly after passing through the gate and into the town proper, there were two ponies coming out to meet us.

One was a unicorn with a powdery grey coat and a pale blonde mane tied back behind her ears. She wore a utility jumpsuit of some kind and only one single boot, on her right hind leg. I could understand her plight, it was hard enough to find one matching set of hoofwear in the wasteland, let alone two. But what stood out most were her eyes, they were tired and sad, and made her look very old.

The other mare was a light lavender color, with a short cropped mane and tail in streaks of green and yellow. A cowpony hat was perched on her head and she wore a padded barding that included a duster, with a belt of shotgun shells wrapped around her torso. Her battle saddle bore a lever action shotgun, and I could see two smaller revolvers tucked into pockets on either one of her shoulders.

I really wondered which one was the sheriff.

As they drew closer I could hear the end of the conversation they'd been having. "-come by and let you take a look at 'em after I deal with this. Catch ya later, Chance." The sad eyed mare broke off and turned the other way, and then it was just the lawmare approaching us, smiling genially.

"Howdy." She greeted us pleasantly. I stopped my trot close enough that we could talk comfortably without being close enough for either of us to feel threatened just yet.


"Mind if I ask where you folks're comin' from?"


"Of course. And y'got a pretty nice sized waggon there, y'all merchants?"

I looked back, at Crunch barely squeezed into the waggon's harness, Abattoir with her choppy mane and borderline manic smile, and Air Heart shrinking down and trying to blend into the dirty street under him. "No, we're not."

"No, you ain't." The mare chuckled dryly. "Where'd ya get the waggon, then?"

"Found it."

"... Look lady, my whole point comin' up here was to make sure you weren't another little band of raiders tryin' to get into my town, and you ain't doin' much to assuage my fears, y'know?" Her brow was furrowed, and her drawling accent didn't seem as thick as at first.

"It's true, we did! Some wicked nasty ponies had it first, but Lumi and Mr.Crunch stomped 'em good!" I guess it was a blessing I'd been able to speak as far as I did before Abattoir cut in. The mare in the wide hat looked at her curiously.

"Nasty... One of 'em have a ugly yellow bandana?"


"That'll be Gasher, he's one of the Greys from across the bridge. Or was, if I'm understandin' you right."

"She shot him in the head." Air Heart spoke up for the first time I could recall since the day before. The sheriff looked at him as if she hadn't noticed him at all before, startled and suspicious. He quickly averted his eyes from her.

She continued to stare at him for another moment before regarding me again. "Y'don't say. And you hauled this heavy ass thing all the way back here outa the goodness of your hearts?"

I sighed, and I'd gone so long since my last one. This would've been so much easier without the other two. "No, we didn't. Are they still alive?"

My question seemed to puzzle her. "Who?"

"Whoever owns the bloody waggon."

She snorted slightly and turned her head to look down the road she'd come from. "Oh. Yeah, they didn't kill nopony when they snatched the waggon. If you're here to bring it back, I guess... Fine, I'll show you the way, but I've still got my eyes on you. No funny business." She gave us all a stern but not harsh look before turning around and trotting back the way she'd came.

I could deal with this. A little mistrust from the town law enforcement was typical for me and Crunch, just be pleasant and don't ruffle her mane, stick to ourselves and get the work done. Easy.

I don't think even I believed that.

The sheriff guided us through town, out of one neighborhood that led into a little town square, and off into another where most of the homes had been converted into shops. Or they were shops that had been converted into homes, I couldn't tell exactly. Some had signs. On the way I saw quite a lot of ponies casually out and about, and they couldn't decide between staring at us or ducking out of sight. Eventually we were told to wait outside one building while she went inside to fetch the owners.

While we waited, I looked the building over. It was tall, with a pair of stairs built right up against one outer wall that led up to the roof, where I could see some chairs set up. There was a wooden sign hanging off the roof, a slab of wood that had had other thin chunks of wood nailed to it to make letters. I'm not going to tell you what it said though, because I don't feel like it.

The sheriff returned shortly, with a stunned looking mare and stallion.

"Cactus weren't kiddin' Sunny, that's our waggon alright!" The colt said in amazement as he moved around the side, inspecting it. I started to help Crunch wriggle out of the harness while the mare climbed inside to check on the crates.

"And it looks like almost everything is here, not a bit of it smashed or stolen!" She seemed ecstatic after peering inside several crates, until she lifted the lid of one and her nose scrunched up. "Oh goodness. This isn't ours, though." Her horn lit up with pink light and she levitated out my old cloak and Air Heart's crumpled, stained uniform.

I immediately turned on Abattoir, who snickered and shrugged. "I thought we could find someplace to get 'em washed."

The mare daintily dropped the bundle onto a sidewalk and went back to examining the crates, a little more carefully now. Air Heart looked at the pile with his brow furrowed, then gasped. He took a deep breath and leaned in, coming back out with the shocky stick clutched in his teeth. "I can't believe I almost forgot this in the cave..." Huh, I had forgot about that too. He looked at his bare body in confusion, then shuffled up to Crunch and tucked the weapon into one of his saddlebags, earning a raised eyebrow.

"Oh, this is just wonderful, we can't thank you enough." The mare dismounted and leapt up, throwing her forelegs around a still confused looking Crunch.

"Actually," I began, drawing her gaze back down. "You could."

She smirked knowingly "Oh, of course, you'll be wantin' a reward, and by Celestia, you deserve one." The stallion hitched himself into the waggon and started to pull it around a corner of the building, and she released Crunch, trotting towards the front of the store. "I think all of y'all deserve a special discount, whenever ya shop here at The Barter Post, forty percent off, how's that sound?"

Not exactly something to be thrilled about. We rarely had time to use any kind of 'special discount' to our advantage before we had to move on. But, I thought as she waved us inside from the doorway, this place isn't a two bit hole in the ground on the side of the road, we could end up staying here a whole week even. And then there was Air Heart, still needing barding and a proper weapon.

We followed her into the store. It held a lot more than I would have thought from the outside. Every wall had had a shelf either brought in and pushed against it, or built into it, and all of them were stocked. There were even metal bins on the floor with more items stacked inside them. It was a good sign at least.

"Come on in, don't be shy, have a good look around." I heard my companions follow me in and turned to find Air Heart. First things first.

"You. Find something to wear." He jumped up, having been poking his nose through one of the bins, and found me behind him.

"Me? But I don't-"

"Just find something. You'll be completely useless without some kind of armor."

"Abattoir doesn't wear any armor either..."

"Abattoir is abnormal. Go."

He chewed on his bottom lip and nodded his head, trotting past me and up to the pleasant shopkeeper, who had retreated to watch us shop. "Excuse me, I need something to wear..."

"Oh, of course, darlin'!" She clapped her hooves together, then clapped them down on Air Heart's shoulders "It's not much, but we've got several pre war outfits still in lovely condition and perfect for the discerning lady about the wasteland." She started to push him towards a tall wardrobe missing one of its doors. "Hmm, these wings. I don't know if we have many that will fit properly, maybe Cross Stitch can alter one of the dresses..."

Air Heart started to dig his hooves into the worn wooden floor, stammering. "W-wait, wait, that's not what I- M-ma'am, please, I didn't m-mean- N-n-no, I'm not a mare!" He finally had to raise his voice, but immediately lowered it again and let out a sorrowful squeak "I'm sorry..."

"You're not? Are you sure?" The mare asked before she could stop herself from asking such a dumb question, then shook her head. Her smile was back in an instant and she waved towards another shelf instead. "My apologies, you'll be wantin' some barding then, we've got plenty of second hoof protective garments of all shapes and sizes. And please, call me Violet, darlin'."

"He'll need a battle saddle too. Or something light that he can learn to shoot." I added from behind the pair as she started to levitate up the first outfit. She looked sideways at me while she tried to hold it up against Air Heart's slim frame.

"Oh, we don't have anything like that here, you'll have to go across the street for that." She nodded out the window. "To Shot Trotters. They handle just about all the weapons in Cliffside- Oh, no, this'll never do." She tucked away the raggedy overalls and selected another piece. "Now, I ain't no gossip, but miz Nightingale, what owns the Shot Trotters... She's a nice enough mare around town, comes in here from time to time, but she's scary if'n you cross her when it comes to business." She flicked her eyes across the room to make sure it was only the three of us in this conversation before explaining that part.

I couldn't really care about this town's politics or squabbles too much, but I nodded. We'd be making a second trip, it seemed. I left Violet to her work while she tried to find some barding that was just perfect (Too green, too yellow, too bulky, not bulky enough, etc.).

It occurred to me, while staring into a bin of mismatched socks, that this would be the perfect place to find some of the assorted junk depicted on the weird blue scroll. I levitated it out of my saddlebag and unrolled it, trotting around the store. In the end, I managed to find a tennis racquet, a length of garden hose, and an old metal valve that still turned smoothly, not a bad start.

When I trotted up to the counter to pay for my collected junk, I found Abattoir there ahead of me. She slid a small pile of bottle caps across, and the stallion from before slid a thick brown book across in return. She took it and slipped it into her saddlebags, turned around to face me, and just smiled. "You'll never guess what I just bought~!"

"Go bother somepony else." I pushed past her and dropped my items on the counter. "This. And whatever she picked out for him." I nodded to Air Heart and Violet. She seemed to be putting the finishing touches on his new outfit. It was another kind of uniform, like his old Enclave one, but obviously for a different organization. It was mainly soft pink, with yellow accents and buttons in the shape of butterflies. It had been made for a pegasi, with two roomy holes for his wings. Normally I would have rejected such a flimsy thing, but this one had fallen into the hooves of somepony with more survival sense, and had had some additions in the form of some armored plating around the shoulders and back, and a few extra pouches attached to a belt around the chest.

Violet even threw in a pair of saddlebags.

The stallion poked curiously at the racquet before shrugging and tapping the cash register "Sure thing, with your discount this all comes out to one hundred forty caps."

Crunch, as if sensing he was needed, appeared at my side with a small sack of caps. I drew them out in a row and started stacking them on the counter. Air Heart came trotting up looking slightly embarrassed. "What do you think?" He asked hesitantly.

"It's pink." I mumbled as I counted.

"What? N-no, your goggles must be fogging up, this is just... Lightish red. And it's what the doctors in the Ministry of Peace used to wear."

"I thought you said you weren't a medical pony?"

He huffed slightly "Well, no, but I could be, right? I could practice, with you two..." He looked startled a moment and shook his head. "I mean three!"

'Practicing' wasteland surgery seemed outside his abilities, when the sight of blood made him nauseous, but I decided not to remind him of that yet. In retrospect, I should have been more worried. "Whatever you say. How does it feel?"

"It's... nice? A little itchy." He flapped his wings experimentally though the two holes in the back. "At least it used to belong to a pegasi, but it doesn't fit as well as my old uniform."

"You'll get used to it. Come on, we've still got another stop to make, we're getting you a real weapon."

But before he could even start to stammer out the first syllable of protest, a surprised cry came from the other end of the shop.

"She WHAT?"

I whirled. It was the sheriff. And Abattoir. She must have found somepony else to bother.

"Yup, you heard me right, she's famous too, from the radio, she's the one who took care of aaaall those Bloodshots!"


I'll never know what kept me from skinning her alive right there in the Barter Post.

"You were right, it'd be way annoying to get recognized from the radio, that's why I'm letting you take all the credit!"

Abattoir explained (from a very safe distance away from me) as we trotted down the street behind the sheriff. Our destination seemed to be a tall skinny building with a large metallic tower build out of the top of it. "Come on down to the station." She had said after Abattoir finished her no doubt wildy exaggerated tale. "There's somepony who'd like to meet y'all very much, I think."

Looking at the building, I wasn't sure if she meant 'police-station' or 'radio-station'. Possibly both. She let us into a front room that was mostly taken up by a row of three simple jail cells. There was an elderly pony snoozing in one of them. Then she led us through another door into an office of sorts. There were storage lockers, two desks with terminals on them, a set of bunk beds, and a curved countertop with a coffee machine on it, among other things.

"Now, you're sure you're not pullin' my leg here?" She asked while pouring deep brown liquid from the coffee pot. "The DJ really doesn't appreciate hoaxes." All trace of her accent seemed to have been left at the door, along with her cowpony hat.

"You're right. This was all a big joke." I said flatly. "Ha. Ha. See? We'll be going now."

But it was not to be. "Nooope, it's true, I was there an' I saw the whole thing!"

"You were there, huh? Captive of those murderin', piece-a-shit Bloodshots then?" She mused before lifting the mug with her teeth to take a small sip.

"Double nope, I was one of 'em!"

The sheriff's sip, and the rest of the coffee, went sputtering out of her muzzle, and she dropped the mug. Curiously, it didn't shatter when it hit the floor. She coughed and staggered a bit, catching herself on the counter and wiping her mouth on her sleeve. You'd think she'd be used to ponies openly admitting to being raiders right in front of her. "Geez, almost inhaled... You gota be kiddin' me, you were-"

"She was, but she's not anymore. Can we get this over with?" I stepped forward to cut Abattoir off before she could dig us a deeper hole.

The sheriff nodded and snorted a few times, clearing her nostrils before standing up straight. "Right, okay... We're gonna go see the DJ, but he-" She pointed at Air Heart, who was standing in the corner looking confused. "-Stays down here. Him too." She gestured to Crunch, who was in the other corner looking statuesque.

"Fine." I snapped sharply before Abattoir could start whining about it. Anything to make this go quicker. This 'DJ' wouldn't be the first mare I'd met who had a problem with stallions.

Satisfied, she led us around the desks and up a staircase, to a metallic door. There was a triangle shaped sign in the middle, yellow and black showing a little picture of a tower with waves coming out of the sides. The sheriff knocked on the door a few times, and after a moment, it opened.

Inside was a large... something. A lot of somethings, even. One was like a large desk with a broad flat device built into it, with rows and rows of knobs and dials and buttons. One wall had a row of tall featureless silver rectangles, another had shelves full of boxes with thin slips of cardboard in them.

And sitting in a swiveling chair in the middle of it all was a youthful pegasus mare who was just barely older than a filly, favoring us all with a broad grin. She had the same pale purple coat color as the sheriff, but her mane was striped pink and white. "Woah, two guests, what's the occasion, sis?"

Well that threw my theories out the windows. The windows this room had none of, I noticed as we walked further in.

"They're, uh... I thought you'd be interested in speakin' with 'em, for the radio, y'know." The sheriff shrugged awkwardly. The filly gave us a curious tilt of the head.

"... Why? Is there a circus in town and they're in it?"

We were not that unusual looking, I swear. Abattoir giggled at that and vaulted herself onto her forehooves again. The filly and her sister raised their eyebrows, the former clapping her hooves a few times. "Awesome!"

"It's a pleasure to meetcha, DeeJaay, I'm Abattoir and I listen to your show all the time. That's Lumi, and she's a grump." She wobbled over to the sitting filly and dipped one of her dangling forelegs down for her to shake. I doubted what she said, she'd only got her PipBuck a few days ago.

"No way, for reals? Sis, she's a fan! Please, call me Desert Rose! You've already met my sister, Cactus Flower." She shook the offered hoof eagerly. I don't know how much more of this I could've taken.

"We're not with a circus." I didn't say it that loudly, but Abattoir still tumbled comically at my outburst and ended up on the floor in front of the shelves. And for added effect, a lone tin can seemed to tip itself over from the edge of one of the shelves and land on her head.

After Desert Rose stopped laughing, it seemed I had her attention. She snickered up at me and cocked her head. "Okay then, Lumi, was it? Why are you here?"

"Luminescence. And not because I want to be. I blame her for that." I kicked backwards at Abattoir.

That wasn't the answer she was looking for, clearly. Her sister seemed more eager to fill her in instead. "Rose, you remember your little story about the Bloodshots a few days ago?"

Rose rolled her eyes and leaned back in her chair "Of course! Best news in Little Cliffside for a long while."

"Well she's claiming it, says it was her work."

"No, she said that, I said she's a liar and to ignore everything she says. I had nothing to do with any of that."

Abattoir had got back on all four hooves by then, and for once had nothing to say. She just trotted back to the door, raised her hoof.

And brought it down on the light switch.

The row of florescent lights hanging from the ceiling winked out. There were a few rows of blinking lights on the long table thing, and a near empty bottle of Sparkle Cola RAD I hadn't seen was now gleaming on a side table.

And I stood in the middle of it all, bathing the room in a greenish glow. I sighed heavily and couldn't resist whacking my hoof into my forehead.

I was still facehoofing when Abattoir flicked the lights back on, and the two lavender sisters were staring with their mouths agape. Finally, it was Rose who spoke first, flapping her wings and lifted into the air above her chair.

"No fuckin' way!"

That seemed to snap her sister out of her stupor, and she stomped a hoof. "Rose!"

Rose looked down sheepishly and settled back into her chair, but she was still grinning when I could finally manage to look up again. "Okay... Since I'm here, I'll say what I need to say. I didn't even know you existed before you went and broadcast that, so I can't do anything about that first time, but I don't want you to play anymore stories about me on your radio, and I don't want whoever gives you your info following me around, got it?" I really hoped she got it.

Cactus Flower was looking annoyed at me, but her sister 's was looking more thoughtful. She flapped one wing out at the side and made her chair spin while she thought. After a moment she spoke up, mid-spin. "Are you sure?"


"It's just weird, you're like the first pony ever who's come and told me that, usually it's the other way around." She shrugged her shoulders. "But, okay, I can respect that. I can't promise that if you do something major that I won't report it, ponies need to know, but I won't mention ya by name or anything."

I let out a long sigh, and it wasn't out of annoyance this time. It would have been troublesome to have to push the issue with violence. "Thank you. If there's nothing else, we'll go now."

"Oh, but could I ask a few more questions, just for my own curiosity?" The filly bit her lower lip and smiled, in a move I suspected she was used to deploying on susceptible older ponies.

"I... don't see the point, really..." A filly, a curious one, and one who made a job out of spreading information to masses of ponies? Definitely bad news. But Abattoir appeared at my side and nudged me sharply.

"Oh c'mon, it can't hurt, she already promised not to blab. Just look at that face~!"

I resisted sighing again so shortly after another one and just hung my head. "Fine, what is it?"

Before she started, Rose flapped again, and her chair rolled along the floor to her side desk. She picked up the bottle of radish flavored soda and emptied it, then peered up at her sister. "Sis, mind goin' and gettin' me another drink?"

I could tell by her look that Cactus was not fooled in the slightest. But she took the empty glass bottle and turned towards the door. "Fine. A few minutes. But you watch your tongue, and give a holler if you need anything."

The metal door closed heavily behind her, and we were left face to face with the grinning filly. "Sooo... All that, inside the compound, that was really you?"

"Your source might have been exaggerating a bit."

Her smile broadened, and she flapped her way out of the chair, hovering over above my head "Oh, I think I can trust her word more than anypony else's."

It only took a (few) moments for the bit to drop. "Oh. Right." With Air Heart around I had forgotten that most pegasi were actually very good flyers, and could cross a lot more space in a lot less time. "Yes, then. Crunch helped, but yes."

"Shiiiit..." She sighed and sunk a few feet in the air, eye level with us now. "I've never seen anythin' like that before, if I didn't know any better I woulda said it was the work of a pack of hellhounds... So, why didja do it?"

"It was a job."

She sunk again, dropping back into her chair with her wings drooping at her sides. "I thought so. So you're not really 'fighting the good fight', huh? My sister thinks you're a raider, y'know." That sounded familiar.

I shrugged. "No, not a hero, not a raider either. My employer was, but after the job ends it's got nothin' to do with me anymore."

She looked like she was thinking hard, and I guessed we were about done, but she raised her head before I could turn to the door. "One more thing. Is it true you've got another pegasi with you?"


"I knew it! Sis gets nervous whenever other pegasi are around, she thinks every one is an Enclave squad comin' to get me or somethin'. She's probably not gona let me out of the station for a while, another one came through two days ago and she still hasn't calmed down!" She stuck her tongue out to show what she thought of that, and waved her hooves. "Not that I want you all to leave, that is, don't get the wrong idea! Say 'hi' to him for me, will ya?" Then she adopted that accent, like the one Cactus greeted us with, and we could hear the mare from the radio in it. "Anyway, thanks again for seein' me. DJ Desert Rose won't have nothin' to say about the mysterious mare that glows in the dark, s'long as she keeps a low profile. Seeya!"

"Fiiiiinally." Whined Abattoir. I'd almost forgot she was there. I found her rolled onto her back and spread across the floor "That was waaaay more boring than I thought it would be. Bye bye, DeeJay." She rolled onto her hooves and beat me to the metal door, galloping down the stairs. I just gave the filly one last look and a polite nod before following Abattoir.



"Uhm, Luminescence..."


"Lumi, quit it, you're gona put a hole in the door."


"Lumi, the sign says they're out for lunch, they'll be back soon."

"I don't need to know what the sign says, Abattoir, shut up." I lifted my head off of the locked door of the gun shop. There was a similar sign, wood back with chunks of wood for letters (I briefly wondered if some pony around here had a signmaking cutie mark) that spelled out Shot Trotters. And handing in one of the windows was a sign with a little clock on it that proclaimed they were out to lunch. Both things I could tell perfectly well on my own, thank you.

"We can come back later." Air Heart tried to sound sympathetic from my shoulder. "It's not that important that I get a... a weapon right away. We could get something for lunch too, Cactus told me there were some nice places to eat in town."

Grunting, I rose to my hooves and nodded. "Fine, whatever. Lunch. Lead the way." I had sped through the process of ditching out of the police/radio station as quickly as I could, and hurried my crew back down the streets, and this locked door had been there to greet me. It was almost as if Abattoir planned it that way.

I lowered my gaze to the road and let Air Heart lead us, perfectly content to feed on my own boiling anger while they ate lunch.

Maybe if I'd been paying attention I would have seen the building and been able to refuse to enter before we were right outside of it. Instead, I snapped back to attention when Abattoir gaped. "Woooah, wicked!"

I looked up at a large two storey building that looked like a large house of some sort, with an awning stretching over a porch with tables and chairs spread out on it, and a bright red roof. We were standing in a parking lot with a couple waggons and carriages parked around us, and an ornery looking buck in a red vest watching over them. But most eye catching was the large circular sign topping a pole and plastered above the front entrance. It showed a white mare with an aggressively red and curly mane, wearing a hat that looked like a strawberry, and holding a plate of pancakes.

"What the-

"Strawberry Shortcake's Bed and Breakfast."

"Stop doing that!" I snapped at Abattoir before taking a deep breath. "Is this the only place there is?" I could see down the streets, other former restaurants that looked like they'd been claimed by ponies.

"Well, no." Air Heart shook his head. "But Cactus said this would be the most likely place to... y'know, run into somepony who might... Ponies who would want us..."

"The best place to find work." Of course it was. I looked up to Crunch to see if he had any thoughts. He was staring wistfully at the rows of waggons. I suspected he missed having one to pull around. "Okay, let's go, but try not to draw any unnecessary attention."

I trotted across the parking lot and they followed behind. Just as I was stepping up onto the stairs that led to the porch, and the entrance, Abattoir called out in surprise. "Wait one pony-pokin' second!" Looking back at her I saw she had an intense look on her face, and she suddenly thrust her hoof out at Air Heart. "Why are you dressed like a nurse?"


The inside was remarkably well kept. The wallpaper, red with white stripes, wasn't peeling anywhere, and the tile floor, red and white again, was polished to a high sheen. There were several spaced out tables, and some booths along the walls. Up against the far back wall was something that looked like a bar counter, but the bottles I saw on the shelves didn't look like alcohol. On either side of the bar-looking-thing were staircases leading up. And off in one corner that had no tables and looked like some kind of lounge, was a wide billboard plastered with papers. Some things you could just count on.

Oh, and there were quite a few ponies there, too. Eating, talking, laughing, and generally hanging out. It made sense, this place must be a big attraction for merchants passing through, and I'm sure lots of ponies from around town found it charming and decided to make it their main hangout, that's why the board was here of course.

I spotted a table with at least two empty tables on either side of it, and headed towards it. Hopefully my companions would finish their lunch quickly and we could get some kind of head start on something today.

Hopefully, but not likely.

"Hey, is that what I think it is?" Abattoir stood on the tips of her hooves to see. She was looking into the lounge area, I couldn't tell what she might mean, there were large overstuffed chairs, a jukebox, a pool table, and some confused looking ponies over there.

"Whatever it is, ignore-" She was off, bouncing around a waitress pony who nearly dropped her tray. Air Heart, unusually enthusiastic, followed after her, politely excusing himself as he squeezed past the same mare. "Oh, what now..." I grumbled, and changed course to chase after them.

I caught up to them and found Abattoir standing on her back legs, propping herself up on the edge of the pool table, and just giggling at it. Air Heart was watching from across the table, and snickering.

"... I don't get it." I said up to Crunch when he joined me. This seemed to be exactly what they were waiting for, as Abattoir rounded on me and placed her hoof on my shoulder. It was at that moment I realized I'd made a terrible mistake.

"Well either you're closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge, or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community~" It wasn't exactly singing, just talking fast, but I still recognized a tempo behind it that she was following in her head. I shrugged her off quickly but she didn't miss a beat, and went on singing the bizarre song that seemed to be trying to convince an audience, which Air Heart was apparently playing the part of now, that having a pool table would lead to the collapse of their whole society. Or something. I ran back towards the table I'd picked after she started that first line with a shout of "Nevermind. I'll be over there when you feel like acting like normal ponies" so I didn't catch most of it.

When Abattoir and Air Heart were finished, the ponies who had been lounging in the... lounge gave a few hesitant claps with their hooves, and they trotted over to join me at the table. Luckily the scene hadn't carried out too far into the main floor, and only a few ponies at the surrounding tables were staring at them.

"That was fun." Air Heart slid into a chair with a grin on his face.

"I said not to draw attention to yourselves."

"Oh, lighten up a little, huh?" No, that wasn't Abattoir, it was Air Heart who'd playfully scolded me. If you could find a dictionary that still had all its pages, and look up 'withering glare', you might find an image of the look I was giving him across the table. He deflated slightly and chewed on his lower lip. "Sorry."

"He's right, you can't be a grumpy-lump all the time." That's what she thinks. But Abattoir was immune to my glares, and the arrival of a waitress mare distracted me from dealing with her.

"Howdy." She bobbed beside our table, levitating a pad and pencil and laying out some menus. She had a shock of red mane like the mare outside on the sign, but I could see brown roots starting to show under it. "Welcome to town, an' welcome to the Bed n' Breakfast. Today's special is, ah 'course, pancakes." I pushed the menu in front of me over to Crunch, while Air Heart and Abattoir leaned over their own.

"Definitely pancakes!" Abattoir decided quickly. Air Heart was looking over the menu, confused.

"This can't be right. You've really got fresh vegetables?"

"Sure do, sweetie! We've also got canned, if you prefer those, I know some ponies what just can't stand to eat anythin' else."

"But... How? Can you have them, I mean."

The waitress chuckled lightheartedly and rolled her eyes, as if she went through this several times a day. "You folks must be really, really new in town. Half the ponies what live around here got their own little crops growin' in the back yard. We buy it up and it gets shared with everypony, or traded."

That didn't seem like enough for Air Heart. "You grow it?1 How is that possible?"

"You ask a lota questions, sugar. Don't know. Don't reckon anypony in town knows for sure, just know that ya put stuff in the ground and it grows. Might be a little 'rradiated, but never nothin' too serious."

"Well... Then, I'll have... the veggie salad, please." He still looked confused as he sat back in his chair. The waitress turn to me and Crunch.

"Certainly. And you two?"

"Not hungry." I mumbled. Crunch tap-taped and the waitress craned her neck.

"Alright, an apple then?" More tapping.

"Uhm, two?"

This continued for a moment until Crunch stopped tapping and nodded firmly.

"Sooo, a dozen apples, one salad, one stack of pancakes, comin' right up." Her cheerful attitude had swung more towards weirded-out as she scribbled on the pad and hurried off.


"I've never seen somepony eat so much so fast."

I stared up at the bulletin board in the lounge while Air Heart marveled at Crunch's gobbling abilities. He was no doubt beaming under the praise.

"I mean, a dozen apples in under ten minutes..."

I slowly scanned the pieces of paper tacked up in front of me. I wasn't about to say I missed Pyresteady, but I did long for the simple process of just having a 'boss' I could speak to instead of this. I had asked the waitress, but there was no such pony here. There was a mayor, or something, but he lived up in those tall apartment buildings overlooking the sea that were apparently outside the 'safe zone'. I didn't really listen that closely.

"So, uhm, did you find anything, yet?" Air Heart asked hesitantly. I lit up my horn and grabbed one of the papers, one of the ones with the largest cap rewards I could see, and floating it to him.

"Sure, this one."

He looked dubiously at it, then at me. "Are you sure? This doesn't sound like your... style."

"I don't have a 'style', it's a job that pays well, and we're going to do it. Let's go."

"Uh, wait, Abattoir's still buying things, I think. We have to wait for her."

Abattoir's pancakes had come coated with a sticky red substance the waitress had identified as 'strawberry syrup', their specialty. Abattoir had licked the plate clean, and even drank from the pitcher before I stopped her. And because she hates me, the waitress revealed to her they make and sell the stuff right here, and she ran off to no doubt purchase as many bottles as she could carry. I snorted at him and turned towards the door.

"Better idea, let's leave before she notices we're gone, maybe she'll stay here and eat pancakes until she dies."

Of course, that was the moment she chose to come bounding back into the lounge, landing in front of me and letting her nose bop the front of my mask "Boop." She squeaked, before turning and lifting open one of her saddlebags, showing off the half dozen bulbous glass bottles. "I'm all set! What're we doin', huntin' scorpions? Wipin' out a clan of vamponies? Delivering a package?" Air Heart moved up to show her the paper I'd taken from the board, I just brushed past her to get to the door. "Ooooh, this sounds boooring, did you pick it?" She teased Air Heart while bouncing after me.

It was hard to tell if it was the syrup of if she was just naturally bouncy.

"No, she did, and I already told her I have my doubts about it... Hmm, we're looking for the home of somepony called Fiddle Sticks, that sounds familiar..."

I stepped outside and waited for the rest of them, then motioned forward. "You two lead the way there, I need to talk to Crunch about something."

They held their usual facial expressions at that(Air Heart: confused, Abattoir: grinning) and continued past me. I fell in beside Crunch.

We walked in silence for a moment while Air Heart and Abattoir navigated. It did occur to me that if they didn't hear me say anything they'd probably get suspicious, so I tried to think of something to actually talk to Crunch about. It then occurred to me I did actually have something to talk about.

"She's oblivious, but he pays more attention. He's probably going to get curious, you know that." It wasn't a question, but he nodded. "Hopefully it won't happen until he leaves, or, by some stroke of Discord, he manages to pay that debt. You won't get too attached to him. Either of them." A shake of his head this time, but then he cast a sideways glance at me. He snapped his teeth at the air and raised an eyebrow. "No. Way too risky." He snorted and gave a smirk. "I'm not being stubborn. You've seen how they are. We can't keep them with us." He shrugged, and we went back to silence.

Eventually, Air Heart stopped in front of a home and drew my attention. "I think this is it."

I looked up the front path, it looked like all of the other homes I'd seen so far, a picturesque slice of old world suburban living. There was a porch, a front lawn and a back yard lush with grass, and even a little mailbox with a picture of some kind of instrument carved into it.

"One way to find out." I trotted around him and up the walkway, stopped at the door, and knocked a few times. The door was opened by an orange unicorn. He was thin and tall, wearing some kind of suit coat. I couldn't tell exactly what, but I felt something was off as I looked at him. "You Fiddle Sticks?"

He considered me for a moment. "Goodness... Are you a fan? I've told you, I don't do private performances."

"It's about the job." By then, the rest of my companions had joined me on the porch, and Air Heart showed him the paper. He peered at it closely, then chuckled and stepped backwards.

"Oh, of course. I'd almost forgotten I posted that, it's been months... Please, do come in." We came in.

He led us into a well kept livingroom and told us all to take a seat, and that he would be right back. There was a dusty couch, and several overstuffed chairs. I sat down and waited. While we were waiting I took stock in the room. There was a fireplace and mantle, a squat table in front of the couch with a book on it, and a little bench in the corner with some kind of instrument case beside it.

Fiddle Sticks returned shortly with a tray of glasses, filled with sparkle cola and, a little surprisingly, tinkling with ice. He floated one out to each of us before he began talking.

"I am honestly surprised, I expected nopony to respond to that listing. As it says, I'm in need of somepony to help me uncover the truth about one of my long dead ancestors, and that rarely involves causing bodily harm to other ponies or creatures. I assume that alone chased off most other mercenaries. You lot must obviously be of a higher intellectual caliber."

Oh. Damnit.

Abattoir scooped up one of the throwpillows from the couch beside her and muffled herself with it, while Air Heart suddenly started coughing violently on his cola and avoiding looking my way. Nowhere to go but forward, I guess.

"Just tell us... whatever you can." I sighed, and waited for him to start droning.

"Well, it's not much to go on, I'm afraid." He walked to a mantle over the long unused fireplace, and opened a wooden box, pulling out a folded sheet of paper. "I have it from my father, who had it from his father, who had it from his mother, and so on, that my ancestor once lived right here in Little Cliffside. Back before it was Cliffside, back when it was just a budding settler town even."

"The tale goes that he was a great traveling musician, much like myself, roaming throughout pre-prewar Equestria, crossing paths with all sorts of ponies and having grand, and perhaps less then lawful, adventures, until finally settling down here with my great-great-and-so-forth Grandmother. I only have the words of my father and grandfather, and this," He waved the still folded scrap of paper in the air "to go on, and frankly, I'd finally like to know if it's all a load of old ponypies or not."

He stopped talking and surveyed us, probably expecting a refusal. I glanced at my companions. Crunch was dozing in his seat, Abattoir was fiddling with her Pipbuck, and Air Heart was looking at me sympathetically. "Uhm, well, we're sorry to-"

I cut Air Heart off sharply, Discord bugger me if I was going to give him the satisfaction. "We'll do it."

Fiddle Sticks grinned broadly and floated the scrap of paper over to me. "Oh, wonderful. Take that, it's a scrap from my great-great-how-ever-many-greats Grandfather's old journal. I don't know how useful it'll be in pointing you in the right direction, but you never know."

I unfolded it in front of my face and looked into it for a moment, then tucked it into my saddlebags. "That everything?"

"Mmh, I believe so. Good luck, get back to me as soon as you can." I climbed out of the overstuffed chair, leaving my drink untouched, and started towards the door. Air Heart prodded Crunch awake, and they followed me. I turned to make sure Abattoir was coming and she tapped something on her Pipbuck.

"...talked your ears off, here's Fiddle Sticks with a new instrumental piece for y'all to enjoy." Then it started playing that upbeat tune, and Abattoir grinned.

"I knew it! You're on the radio too!" Fiddle Sticks looked slightly amused, nodding and talking over the music.

"Why, yes, I am." He gestured into the corner with the bench and instrument case. "Always a pleasure to meet a fan. Shall I play you something before you go?"

"Yes!" Abattoir gasped herself to her hooves, shutting off the recording.

"No, we're already running late." And lit my horn up to pull her with us as I continued towards the door, before she could make an ass of herself again.


I led us out of the neighborhood, away from the homes and back into the small business district, ignoring my companions behind me as they tried to talk about two different things at once. I looked left and right, scanning the buildings until I found one that was still abandoned, and turned.

"What are we looking for here, shouldn't we-" Air Heart began as we stood in the lobby of what used to be a dentist's office. I rounded on him and he was silenced with a squeak. I floated out the folded up paper and passed it to him.

"Read it."

He took it in his hooves, his brow furrowed, and peered down into the paper. He was silent for a moment, so I stamped my hoof and he jumped again. "Out loud."

He dropped his eyes, mumbling "OH! Right, uhm, o-okay..." He started, then looked up again, and gulped. "If..." Oh, this was going to be great. "If you say please."

I stared at him. Stared for a long while and finally said the only appropriate thing. "What?"

"S-say please, then I'll read it."

"No." I liked to think my tone suggested there was no argument, but I must have been wrong because he continued to argue.

"W-w-we're partners, no matter what you said, and this is a skill that you want me to use for you. The l-least you can do is say p-please..." He had dropped the paper so he could use all four legs to stand on, and good thing too, because they were all shaking under him as he spoke.

"No. The least I could have done is killed you in the desert so you wouldn't die of dehydration when we left you there. Now read." I really didn't have time for this.

He seemed to wilt at that, and sat down to give his trembling legs a rest. He let out a breath he must have been holding and pulled the paper closer. "F-fine. For now, but n-next time, I'm not going to unless you say it..."

Abattoir snickered lightly and patted him on the back. "Good try" She mumbled, then sat down on her knees as well.

I kept my sarcastic comment to myself, and joined them on the floor while he read from the torn page of a long dead pony's journal.


Bluegrass' Journal, entry no.3

I think I finally found someplace I can stop. Stepped off the train this morning into a nice little town called Campolina. Lots of friendly faces, but I think some of them knew I was from Equestria. They must not get many city ponies here.

I set up a little show right after I got off the train. I doubt any of them have ever seen a unicorn play. They were so impressed, none of them noticed I wasn't just using my horn to pull the bow. Pulled in enough bits to last a little while. I know you wouldn't approve, but a buck's got to make a living.

After I stopped playing, a buck in a fancy getup approached me. He had a pair of guns, something I'd never seen even in the city. He told me that was some fancy hornwork, and I thought he was going to bust me right there! But it turns out he's a 'business pony' and he was impressed with me. Introduced himself as Ante Up, funny name if you ask me, and offered to buy me a drink. I know what mom would say, but I'm plenty old enough.

It turns out he's good friends with the owner of a local bar, and said he could get me a job playing there regularly. I didn't want him to think I was too eager, so I told him I'll think about it. I'm going to go back tomorrow and tell him I'm in.

I hope you and mom and dad are doing good, I'll come home as soon as I'm able to.


Footnote: Leveled up? I didn't even finish the quest yet!

Skill note: Speech 15. How do you manage to talk anypony into anything?

(Shorter chapter than I thought, I decided to split this one in two when the arrival to Little Cliffside took longer than I imagined it would. As always, thanks go to Kkat for the FoE universe I muddle around in, to the lovely folks at the Wasted Days sim for the location, and double thanks to the kind soul who cared enough to make a wiki page for this story <3)

Chapter 6: Digging

View Online

Fallout Equestria: Ashes


Chapter 6: Digging

You girl scouts want to hear a story? Once upon a time there was a magical place where it never rained, the end.

"... Is that all?"

"I think so." Air Heart turned the paper over to check the back side. "It's not much to go on, is it?"

Abattoir yawned from beside Air Heart, her chin propped up on top of her hooves. "I was expecting more explosions..."

"I'm sorry Luminescence, but I don't think we can do this, this date is from almost three hundred years ago, and he wasn't even in Equestria when he wrote this entry..." He furrowed his brow and stared back down into the ancient journal page.

Abattoir flopped onto her back, her eyes rolling up "And why would a stallion want to be called Aunty anything?"

"It's Ante." I pushed myself to my hooves. "It's a poker thing."

"Oooh!" She stuck her tongue out. "I'm not allowed to play poker anymore."

"Wh-" I started, then shook my head. Of course, curse nonsense probably. As if sensing my annoyance, an old hat stand near the door fell over with a wooden thud.

I was still staring at it when Air Heart lifted his head. "I bet you've got a really good poker face, Lumi."

There was a second of stunned silence, then Abattoir exploded into giggles, rocking on her back. I heard the deep bass chuckling of Crunch (that traitor), standing watch by the door. Air Heart looked up at me with a small smile and gave a half hearted "Sorry." I wasn't sure if I preferred this over scared and sobbing.

I let out a ragged sigh. He was right, this job was doomed to fail. "Just. Think." I said haltingly. "If that... Bluegrass buck did live here way back then, could we find out about it?"

It was many moments before anypony broke the silence. It was Air Heart. "Well, I don't know how organized pony governments were before the war, or even during the war really, but in the Enclave they keep track of everything."

"Sooooo the Enclave might know?" Abattoir had regained her composure and was wandering around the lobby, half listening.

"No, but whoever was in charge back then might have kept some records, maybe an old town census or something like that. It's a long shot though, a very long shot." Air Heart was pacing in circles around the lobby, staring at the dirty carpeting now.

"We'll have to take it."


"Old records from before the war?" Cactus Flower looked at us curiously, pushing her hat higher. We'd caught up to her in the middle of her apparently routine patrols through the streets, and were now following in her leisurely wake.

"Yes, we were hoping you could point us in the right direction." Air Heart had been elected by majority vote (Me, Abattoir, Crunch, and Sword) to approach her with our need. "We didn't want to bother you, Sherriff, but this town doesn't seem to have a mayor. A-and it's for a job, for somepony in town, of course."

Cactus looked past him at me for a moment before chuckling. "Firstly, we have got a mayor, but I'll save ya the trouble of trackin' her down, she's useless. Useless for what you're after, anyway." She craned her neck, took a few more steps down the sidewalk, then pointed up to the far hilltop where the only buildings that you could call 'tall' this side of the bridge sat. "Lives up there in Cliffside Suites. Doesn't affect the town much anyway. Nice fancy place, feels like the city again, but it ain't easy gettin' up there..."

"Oh, I... I see." It was much more entertaining watching somepony else have to pretend to care about these things. "Soo... You can't help us?"

"Oh, right, that's what I was sayin'. I can't promise nothin', but I reckon anythin' like that'd be in the old town library, across from town hall."

"Okay, good. Can you take us there?" I spoke for the first time since we'd found her. She chuckled and started her patrol again.

"Maybe. If you paid me to."


"Yep. Town hall n’all that is outside the walls. Ain't safe out there, dangerous stuff. I'd take ya, reckon you’d find some other folks'd come too, but it'd cost ya."

I stepped past Air Heart, who was looking worried again, and caught up to Cactus Flower. "What kind of dangerous stuff?"

She turned on a corner and took a new street, and we all followed. She took a moment to scan the street and look purposefully at a small group of adolescent ponies running by before continuing. "Geckos and other critters wander in sometimes. Scavenging ponies and bandits run rampant, though I don't think any of 'em actually live out there. Y'see a ghoul from time to time, duno how they get all the way across the bridge. And then there's the, heh, plantlife."

From the way she looked at us, I figured she gave this speech a lot to passersby. I staunchly refused to take the bait, hoping she'd move on.

"Oouh, whasat mean?" Abattoir appeared at my side and crooned.

"Well, I reckon you heard by now 'bout how stuff grows around here?" Abattoir nodded along enthusiastically. "We don't know what makes it grow so good here, but whatever it is, it works out there too. Only nopony's been around to mow the grass, or harvest whatever grows there, so the lawns have gone a little wild, y'know!" Again she looked like she expected a certain response to this revelation.

This time it was Air Heart who gave it to her. If I didn't know any better I'd swear these two had dragged me into one of their stupid plays. "Y-you mean, the plants out there. They're... alive?"

"Darn right! They won't get up and chase after ya, but they might make a grab for ya. They got spines and thorns and some of 'em even bite! All around, nasty business." She finished with a solemn nod of her head. I saw Air Heart and Abattoir exchange glances. Two completely different glances, of course.

"Just tell us the way to go." There was still half a day left, and I was not going to spend it listening to her mangle the local accent.


"Have I mentioned that I have a r-really really bad feeling about this?"

"Yes, you have. Stop mentioning it." I grunted at Air Heart as we trotted closer to the gate marking the western edge of Little Cliffside. This gateway, unlike the opposite one to the east, was closed and more heavily guarded. I looked up into the two junk towers on either end of the gate, and one pony even waved back. Cactus Flower said she'd radio ahead to tell them to expect us, and two more guard ponies were waiting on the ground by the gates with ropes in their mouths. When we drew close enough, they gripped the ropes and started to pull, the heavy metal doors sliding along a track that had been dug out for them.

"Wait." Air Heart piped up again. "Abattoir isn't back yet, shouldn't we-"

"Nope." And I started to trot out the open gate. Crunch slipped out after me, leaving Air Heart gasping and flapping his wings in confusion. After a moment I heard him let out a worried groan and gallop after us, then the sweet sounds of the gates starting to close behind us.

"She said she only had a little shopping to do, you said you'd wait for her."

"No, I said 'okay, bye', never said anything about waiting." I tried to shut him out and pulled out the map Cactus Flower had given us, and tried to spot possible routes to the town square where all the important buildings had been crammed. It was an old pre war map, so some detours might be needed if we ran into too much debris, or whatever else Cactus had said was out there.

"B-but but but, I thought she was your fr-" He stopped short when I whipped my head around to look at him, and cleared his throat. "Okay, not your friend, but, I mean, she was with you when you... when I..."

"When I bought you." He winced and nodded. "She was, but that's only because I hadn't been able to shake her yet. Maybe you haven't noticed, but she's very irritating." Just keep walking, keep looking at the map.

"Why was she with you in the first place, if you hate her so much?"

"I didn't have a choice!" I snapped, the edges of the map crumpling slightly in my magical grip. "I had to make the offer, she joined her path to mine. But it's not my fault if she can't keep up. She'll get over it, I'm sure."

"I... I don't understand..."

"Just shut up then, and keep your eyes open for critters or biting plants or whatever." I stowed the map and continued down the road, flanked by my two silent followers.

Now that I looked around, I could see how this place could be considered dangerous. The near identical houses continued on either side, the front lawns overflowing with vegetation. Tall, thick grasses and tough bushes, cacti and wildflowers, so thick in some places the houses behind them disappeared.

The street ahead grew increasingly clogged with abandoned waggons and stripped down carriages as well, making the whole thing look choked and congested, lots of cover and places for things to hide. But it was the most direct path towards what had been the center of town, unless I fancied cutting through lawns and weaving between rows of houses.

I reached the first abandoned waggon and lifted myself up onto the back ledge, to peer over some of the clutter in the road.

"How's it look, see any monsters yet?" Abattoir called from behind me.

"No, there aren't any monsters, and keep your voice down." I growled as I slid back down to the concrete.

"If there's no monsters, why should I hafta keep my voice down?"

"Bec-" I had started, but stopped suddenly. Abattoir smiled curiously and cocked her head, Air Heart looked like he couldn't decide if he wanted to laugh or hide. "Where! Where did you come from?"

"Seriously, Lumi? You need to get out more... y'see, when a mare and a stallion love each other veeery much..." I swiped at her head, but she ducked away and giggled at me.

"Not that, you idiot. You were gone, we left you behind! Did they let you out the gate after us?" Of course there was no reason they wouldn't, I just wanted some ponies to blame.

"The gate? Pfft, they didn't hafta open it, I jumped over! And thanks a bunch for startin' without me, just for that, you don't get any of the Moon Pies I bought~"

I sighed and hung my head slightly as she pulled out one of the wrapped chocolate disks and tossed it to Air Heart. It really was looking like I'd have to kill her to get rid of her. "Is that what you had to go shopping for, snacks?"

"Well duh, you didn't buy anythin' to eat or drink, or any healin' potions or... adventure stuff, and who knows how long this quest is gona take!" She sat down and ripped open a Moon Pie package with her teeth.

I always forget the food thing. I knew Crunch looked after his own supply, but with these two insisting on following me...

"Oh, that's right!" Air Heart swallowed a mouthful of marshmallow "Since I'm going to be our... Doctor? Medic... Uhm, whatever. I should keep track of our medical supplies and things, right?" He looked up at me from the little impromptu snack break that had broken out behind the abandoned waggon and smiled nervously. "We do have some healing potions, right?"

I actually did let out an amused snort that made Air Heart jump slightly. "We might have some left... The last time I remember, Crunch and me bought about ten when we stopped someplace down south, Hope or something." I looked up and poked Crunch "How many do we have left?"

Crunch rolled his eyes ponderously and bent down to dig in his saddlebags, pulling out small glass bottles filled with purple liquid and setting them on the concrete between us, until ten of them sat in a little circle. Then as an afterthought, he bent forward and snatched up one of the pies with his teeth. "Yeah, we've got some healing potions."

Air Heart poked at one of the bottles and nodded. "You didn't take any when you got wounded, so I figured you were all out. Medical help is so readily available above the clouds, it's easy to forget how rare they are on the ground, and very important not to brag about it." He blinked his eyes and cleared his throat "Well, that's what they always said anyway."

"We don't use them very often. You can hold onto them if it makes you feel better." He smiled and started to stack the bottles into his new saddlebags.

"I won't take all of them, just in case we, uhm, get split up or something. Do we have anything else, purified water or rubbing alcohol or-" Abattoir turned and dug a hoof into her bags, pulling out a wrapped cloth bundle and dropping it next to the potions. It fell open to reveal a small hooffull of rainbow striped inhalers, various pill containers, and several bundles of needles ranging in appearance from wholesome to sinister. Oh, and a bottle of vodka. "What in Celestia's name is all that?"

"Party favors!" Abattoir beamed.

"Drugs" I grumbled, and raised my lenses to stare at her. "Is this what you needed to shop for too?"

Abattoir gasped before starting to sort through the pile, pushing the pills and tins and small silver needles towards Air Heart "Noooo, this is my own private stash. But since you wana be our nurse, you can have the boring stuff."

Air Heart flushed slightly as he knelt down to examine the gifts. "Uhm, t-thank you, I guess? Let's see... Med-x, that's a good start... Buck, aaand... Are these mints?" He started to add them to his saddlebags "I don't know much about drugs, but I'm sure some of it will come in useful."

"What else did you buy, then?" I was still staring at Abattoir.

"I bought a great big bag of noneya."

"..." I was not going to indulge her, no matter how expectantly she smiled at me. He brow slowly started to furrow, as if holding the expression was physically demanding.

"C'mooon, you gota say it."

"No I don't. I take it back, I don't care what-"

"What's noneya?" Thanks, Air Heart.

"None-ya business~!" Abattoir burst out laughing and fell onto her side, kicking her legs in the air.

"Maybe you two should join a circus."

"I agree, y'almost had me in stiches." Said a gruff and unfamiliar voice.

We all looked up at the unicorn buck hovering a shotgun down towards us. "Didn't anypony tell you it ain't smart to sit around out here and yell about how well supplied you are? Hell, I can still see the gate from here, and I’m surprised ya made it this far." He chuckled. He had a bandana masking the lower half of his face, but I imagined he was grinning from ear to ear. "Now, I'll be takin' that stockpile of goodies, and all your food and clean water. Just put 'em on the ground and back away, and nopony needs to get hurt."

I saw Air Heart already reaching back into his saddlebags and kicked him. "Better idea. Are you busy?"

"Busy robbin' you, but after that, schedule's wiiiide open." He chortled, but his eyes remained cold and firmly locked on me. Beside me, Crunch snorted angrily.

"How about I pay you six potions to lead us somewhere. We need to get to the center of town, and you know this place better."

He seemed used to hearing bargains for safety from his victims, but I doubted his usual victims looked like us. "Six ain't as much as ten, why should I take you anywhere and risk my hide when I could have the whole lot?"

"Your hide isn't much safer here, and if you force me to, I'll strip it off you piece by piece." My own horn lit up and I just barely gripped the handle of my sword. We continued to stare each other down for a moment until the barrel of his shotgun lowered a few inches.

"Middle of the town, y'say?"

"The old town library."

"... Alright. But I'll be havin' the potions now." He lowered the shotgun further and slipped it into a sling on his side. I released my sword and instead scooped up the six remaining potions on the ground and floated them up for him to snatch. Then he levitated one of the remaining Moon Pies into the air as well. Once the potions were safely tucked away and the treat was hovering in front of him, he turned his head to the sidewalks and called out. "Alright you lot, we've got a job to do, c'mon on."

Four more ponies appeared from various hiding spots in the grass and clutter. Their weapons remained on us for a moment, before they tucked them away and came closer. The unicorn buck jumped down from the back of the waggon and joined them in the little semi-circle they formed around us. "The name's Grinder, I'll be your tour guide for this afternoon. Remember, we all got eyes on ya, and if ya fall behind, ya get left behind." He pushed down his bandana, grinning at us with a mouth full of pointed metal teeth, and bit into the pie.


"You're a really sucky leader" Abattoir informed me as we followed Grinder's gang down another street. So far, we'd only encountered two other groups of bandits, and only one of which had to be shot at to drive them off.

"You said that already. And hour ago." An hour ago, when it was already starting to get dark. Now the sun was threatening to disappear somewhere behind the clouds.

"Oh yeah. Well, you are." I kicked her ineffectually and trotted ahead, towards Grinder. He glanced back at me, his shotgun hovering in front of him.

"Are you planning to keep going much longer?" I asked.

"Maybe. Y'got a problem with that?" He glanced at me again.

"Not me, but I don't have as much confidence in my... in the other two with me." I looked back. Crunch was in the middle of the spread out ring of scavenger ponies, still looking grumpy. Abattoir was flitting around one of them probably talking about something stupid. Air Heart was lagging behind still, the blue buck who comprised the rear guard having to spur him forward again. The buck had been pleased to announce that he'd be happy to watch our backs, giving Air Heart’s flanks the most meaningful of looks, and had grown disappointed and surly the moment he stepped behind him. Everypony had gotten a good chuckle at his indignant shout of "You ain't no mare!" Except Air Heart. And me, of course.

"I'll have a word with mine, you have a word with yours." And he called for his gang to gather close. I trotted back to Crunch and signaled Abattoir and Air Heart. Air Heart was panting when he caught up to us.

"We might be stopping to spend the night somewhere." I announced

"Ooouh! Slumber party?" Abattoir clapped her hooves together a few times.

Air Heart furrowed his brow and spoke between gasps "Y-you don't have... to, I can... keep going a little... more."

"No, you can't. Not unless you want Crunch to carry you." He huffed and tried to pull himself up to his full height, but he kept swaying in place, and would have fallen over if Crunch hadn't put a hoof out to stop him.


I waited for Grinder to come out of his own huddle before going out to meet him. "My lot says they wouldn't mind a bit of a kip."

"Mine could use the sleep. Lead the way." I said, and waved up the street. He smirked, those strange teeth of his glinting in the fading light, and simply turned towards the sidewalk and started up the path of the most intact looking home in the row.

The grass had overflowed onto the walkway, but it was easily trampled down as Grinder led his crew and mine up towards the front door. He named a skinny mare as Minesweeper and sent her in ahead of us, where she poked the door open with a pool cue and probed around inside the threshold for a few moments before mumbling that it was safe to go inside at least.

The inside was about as dusty as you'd expect, with a small foyer leading into a hallway, doors immediately to either side, and a stairwell going up.

"Alright, clear out, clear out." Minesweeper demanded, a metal disk in her mouth. She placed it on the front door step, then shut the door, and placed a second disk just in front of it.

Air Heart watched this procedure closely. "That's to keep w-whatever's outside... outside, right?"

"'course." Grinder chuckled, stepping through the doorway to the right, into the kitchen. "Nothin' wrong with a little home security. You weren't plannin' to anywhere t'night, I hope?" He smirked at Air Heart, who just shook his head quickly. Then his grin disappeared behind the fridge door and he started looting. The other members of his crew had dispersed as well, I thought I could hear two of them upstairs fighting over a room.

"Hey, save some for me!" Abattoir called out, and galloped into the kitchen to join Grinder.

I wanted nothing to do with their little foraging party, but something in the kitchen caught my eye enough to draw me inside, while they started hurling plates out of cupboards. The stove set into the counter looked as dusty and undisturbed as anything else in the house, so I pulled the door open and stuck my head inside.

Set down in the bottom corner of the stove, glinting through a bit of caked on char, was a triangle shaped talisman. I had to stick both hooves inside and stomp a little bit, but eventually I pulled it free of its setting and held it up to the meager light. It looked like the one on the blue scroll, and had been next to a picture of a stove. I reached out and wrapped my magic around it, concentrated on the squiggly rune set into the blackened gem, and the tiniest flicker of blue flame burst from the tip.

I trotted back into the hall, leaving behind the kitchen that was turning into a warzone, and found Air Heart exploring the inside of a broom closet under the stairs. He jumped slightly when I spoke behind him. "Don't cause any trouble. Try and find a safe spot to sleep." And then I started up the stairs, found a room that hadn't been claimed, and slipped inside. By some stroke of luck, I seemed to have picked one of the master bedrooms. The bed was large enough to hold five ponies my size, which must have been the universe's idea of a joke since I didn't plan on using it at all. Crunch seemed happy with it though. There was also a sliding glass door that let out onto a balcony, one of two I'd seen sticking out of the the front of the house coming up the walkway. It seemed as nice a place as any to spent eight-ish hours, so I sat myself down in the middle of the room and settled in to wait.

I wasn't waiting long before the door opened and in clattered Abattoir. Her saddlebags looked fuller, and her tail looked strange, I glimpsed some streaks of silver in it before she disappeared behind the bed. "Phew, that Grinder knows how to pillow fight, but in the end, I won those beans fair and square~" And because that needed no further explanation, she yanked one of the blankets off the bed, tossed it onto the floor, and flopped down on top of it.

Right. Back to waiting.

For another five minutes. Then I became aware of a dull scraping noise getting closer to the door, punctuated in between by soft grunts. The door opened, and Air Heart entered backwards, tugging a bare mattress. He peeked over his shoulder and spotted me sitting up in the middle of the room. He yelped and dropping the bedding. "Oh, you're still up! Uh, so, I was thinking we should sleep together." Abattoir snorted and chuckled from her corner and his turquoise cheeks went scarlet. "No, I didn't mean-! I meant... you said get a safe place to sleep, and I figured, it'd be safest with we all slept to... er, in the same room..."

He continued to look sheepishly at me. I hadn't said anything yet, so I tried something a little clever, and let out a grumbling snore. He jumped slightly, then leaned closer. "O-oh.. uh, alright then, I'll let you... sorry." And he tried to be quiet as he finished pulling the mattress inside and dropped it into a corner. Taking one last look back at me, he knelt down and flopped over sideways, yawning into his hooves. "Must be really tense..."

The silence stretched on as my three companions all dropped off to sleep, and for a few hours everything was nice and quiet and still.

Then Air Heart sat up again. I couldn't tell what time it was, still well before morning would be anywhere near. He'd been tossing on top of the mattress for a while before, now I guessed whatever was bothering him in his sleep had forced him up. He rose to his hooves slowly, stifling a groan. He made his way past me, and I couldn't see him anymore, but I heard the sound of the glass door sliding open, then the faint beat of wings as he took off for another late night flight. I didn't bother to get up and step out to watch, the last thing we needed was for him to spot me and plummet somewhere in the ruins.

After another interminable amount of time I heard the sliding door open again, and heard his hooves on the carpet. He crossed the room, but not towards his bed. Instead he approached the door and pulled it open, then stepped out into the hall.

Huh. That was probably worth wondering about. I wasn't about to get up and follow him yet though. It was the middle of the night, and unless he stumbled into the front door and set off the mines, he'd be alright.

Or so I'd like to dream. I heard movement down the hall, and more doors being opened slowly. He was searching the house? Then a door opened and I heard a muffled apology, then the sound of one pony bodily pushing another into a wall, and a different voice grumbled something I couldn't make out.

It rose to my hooves and moved to the still cracked open door. "-knew you'd show up eventually. Wavin' yer ass at me the whole time. Knew it..." The blue buck laughed harshly, his words slurring together.

"I wasn't... N-no, I... I was just l-looking for the ba-bathroom." Air Heart was almost inaudible. I'd have to stop this or the whole house would be awake soon. The buck's drunken laughter wasn't helping. I tried to push the door open a little further.

"The plumin' in these houses hasn't worked in a long ass time, thought a bright little bulb like you'd know that... Or are you just so fresh out'a the clouds you thought you'd never have to look real hard for a place to shit?" When Air Heart didn't offer any other response but a quiet murmur, he snorted again. "There's a lot you got to learn about the ground life, sweetie. A lot I could teach you. Why don't ya ditch those noponies you're sloggin' with, an' c'mon back to my room?" He said in a sickly oversweet groan, then his tone dropped a few pegs. "Stuck up bitches the boss brings won't give me any tail, but you're a lot prettier n'them anyway, I bet you-"

"I said no!" I stuck my head out the doorframe just as Air Heart shouted, in time to see him backed up against a wall opposite an open door. Tucking his head into his uniform, he whipped out the shocky stick thing. It unfolded and Air Heart jabbed it up into the chest of the buck who'd been looming over him, causing him to jerk violently backwards and grunt in pain. I gripped my sword in my magic just as the buck recovered and swiped Air Heart across the face with one hoof, sending him sprawling. But before I could dive out into the hall, a greenish-yellowish blur slunk past me like I wasn't even there, and Abattoir called down the hall.

"What's goin' on here?" Her voice sounded slow and soft, like she was just asking the two of them what the time was.

"Nothin', g'back to your room, go back to sleep ya'loony." He hissed, raising a hoof to put it down on the back of Air Heart's neck. Abattoir hummed and took a step down the hall, her head cocked to one side.

"Oooh, you wana play? With him?" And she chuckled. A cruel, spiteful chuckle as she pointed down at Air Heart, while he looked up with wide and watery eyes. "With that wimp? Wouldn'tcha rather play with somepony who can handle it?" She purred, and took another step closer. The buck was looking totally nonplussed, eyeing Abattoir warily. "Wouldn'tcha rather play with somepony who knows a thing or two?" She snickered again, stepping closer. Now she was standing over Air Heart and looking up into the confused buck's eyes. "Wouldn'tcha rather play... with me~?" She turned her body sideways to show it off, tossing her half shaved mane back with a brush of her hoof. I thought I was going to be sick.

The buck was speechless, but Air Heart was gasping and whimpering from the floor "A-A-Abbey... w-what..."

But she didn't even glance down at him. Then the buck lifted his hoof off Air Heart's neck, taking one step towards Abattoir to close the distance between them while she shook her rump side to side slightly, making her tail sway and those silver streaks glint in the- Oh.

"Maybe I-" was all the buck got out before Abattoir whipped her backside around, her tail swinging up and colliding with his face in a clatter of silverware. She continued to spin in a circle and came around for a second and third swipe, staggering the buck. He had several cuts along his face now, and a fork stuck in his shoulder.

Abattoir grinned at him and taunted, shaking her rump in a much less sexy way. "You said you wanted a little tail."

"Laugh it up, you're gona pay for that!" And his head whipped down and drew a combat knife from a holster at his side. Abattoir responded in kind by producing the hoof length cleaver. To his credit, the buck didn't balk. He lunged in to make good on his threat, and Abattoir's far bigger blade turned his away. It was actually a bit pathetic to watch his clumsy, drunken swings. Abattoir quickly disarmed him after a short minute of ducking and dodging, her heavy blade coming up and smacking into his neck with the dull edge. His breath went out and so did the knife, and Abattoir dipped forward onto her forelegs and kicked him over with her back legs.

Instead of doing the smart thing, when the buck sat up again, he had drawn an automatic pistol from somewhere else in his barding. "That's enough!" The announcement came from two sources at once. From myself, as I stepped out into the hallway with my sword drawn, and from Grinder as he stepped out from the door right beside mine. Further down the hall I saw another door open and the heads of Minesweeper and the other mare poke themselves into the hall.

I didn't want to look, but I couldn't help glancing at Grinder and catching the amused smirk on the unicorn's face, before it turned into a scowl. "I think that's enough excitement for one night. Everypony should get back to bed. Bludger, might I have a word? Now." Grinder side stepped and motioned inside his room, which he seemed to have taken all for himself. The buck pulled himself up straight and stepped over Air Heart, who was still recovering in the middle of the hallway, and disappeared inside the bedroom. Grinder glanced back at us once, then followed him inside and shut the door.

Abattoir knelt down and poked at Air Heart. He looked up with wide and watery eyes and sniffled. "I'm s-s-sorry, I-" But Abattoir put her hoof to his lips and shushed him, pulling him onto trembling hooves.

"Hush, you're just havin' a bad dream, let's go back t'sleep, eh?" She started to guide him back towards me and the room behind.

"Oh... k-kay..." He hiccupped softly as I stepped back to let them through. "Y-you... you really think I'm a w-w-wimp?"

"Nuh way, 'course not. That was all pretendin' back there, just had to get that meany jerk to play with me instead. Too bad he was such a sore loser~" She chuckled, nudging him and trying to get him to join along. He just hiccupped again. "C'mon, cheer up, you can share my bed t'night."

"But.. That's j-just a blanket, I'm the one with a bed." Even with all the shock, there was still room to be confused.

"Oh, good, then I'll just share your bed, that's so generous of you~"


I closed the door and crossed the room while Abattoir guided Air Heart back to his mattress. "Try to get back to sleep quickly, there's still time before dawn." Not sure if they heard me anyway. I opened the sliding glass door and stepped out onto the balcony myself, sliding it shut and sitting down. Several street lamps were flickering brightly in rows up and down the streets.

I wasn't waiting long. The door on the opposite balcony opened and I heard the buck called Bludger. "Alright, alright, I'm out, now what's the big deal?"

"The big deal is I warned you about actin' like a prick. You wan’ ta go b'hind my back and have a little fun once in a while with somepony we capture, okay then. But those ponies paid for a nice smooth trip, and I gave 'em my word." The cool voice of Grinder followed after. I sat perfectly still at my own end of the house and listened.

"Didn't realize I signed up t'be a tour guide. I asked to come on this little scavenger hunt for the caps and the cooz, to build some rep with one of the top gangers in Big Cliffside. Not escort some tourists with a soft old nag." Was he that old? He didn't look it to me, but I was terrible at guessing ages.

"After takin' that beatdown from that little filly, I'm surprised you think you've still got a 'rep'."

"I was drunk, she... she had silverware! I got hit in the eye with a spoon... doesn't matter, nopony's gona blab about it, I'll get her next time, tomorrow on the road probably..."

"Oh good, I thought you'd say somethin' stupid like that."

"What're yo-HEY!" I turned my head to see Grinder pushing Bludger up against the railing of the balcony.

"I don't need any no brained, trigger happy little shits like you givin' my organization a bad name, givin' me a bad name. I could send ya back across the bridge to find a new gang, but that leaves a chance I might see yer face again..."

The stunned buck was too out of it to realize what was going to happen, but I saw it. Grinder's grin widened, then his mouth opened, and he struck like a wild dog, sinking his pointed teeth into Bludger's neck and crunching down. Bludger's scream never made it out of his throat before it was crushed, and then he could only gurgle and flail his limbs. Grinder shook his head violently, wrenching him away from the balcony, then he reared up and tossed the corpse clean over, where it disappeared in the wild grass of the front lawn.

Grinder peered over the balcony to examine his work, then turned to gaze across at me. His teeth glinted wetly in the light of the street lamp. "Lovely night, isn't it? Wish I could stay up and watch it a bit more , but I'm feelin' all tuckered out. Goodnight." And he turned and slipped back into his own room.

It was another few moments before I went back inside. I sat down in the middle of the room again and saw that Abattoir had brought her blanket from her side of the room over and draped it over Air Heart and his mattress. And she had also joined him under it, snuggled up against his back with her hooves draped over him.

"I'll never understand ponies..."


It was quiet in the morning. I waited until I heard someone else stirring out in the hall before I bothered to rise and wake my companions. We met Grinder and his remaining three gang members in the kitchen, where he seemed to be a good mood, and they all shared a few cans of something or other before setting out again.

Out on the front walk, I stopped to look into the foliage covered lawn. I thought I saw an impression in the grass, but there was no corpse to be found. But there was an old overturned lawnmower that had nearly been consumed by a bush. I hacked away enough of the brambles to get at the underside, but the blades were far too rusty, and crumbled when I tried to pull them loose. Shrugging, I returned to the group. Better luck next time.

It was an hour into the walk before Air Heart's voice drifted into my ear and broke my focus. "Huh?"

"I said... Well it's nothing, it's not important or anything but... where's that, uhm... the buck, I forgot his name..."

"It's not worth remembering. He's gone, Grinder fired him last night."

"Oh." He sounded surprised, and glanced back the way we had come, then let out a fairly impressive sigh.

"Don't tell me you feel bad for him. I'll have to smack you."

Air Heart jumped slightly and shook his head "What? Oh, n-no no no, it's not that, I don't, he was... anyway... No, it's just, no matter what Abattoir says, she was right, I am a wimp."

"You're not."

He looked so surprised at me he almost tripped into a large pothole in the road. After recovering some he furrowed his brow and stared at me. "But..."

"You fought back. You fought poorly, yes, but you did fight. A wimp would have just laid there, like a doormat or something, but you didn't. You just need more practice." He blinked at me, then drifted away silently. I shrugged and let him go. That was something for Abattoir to deal with.

We passed the morning picking our way through long abandoned streets. I tried to keep track of our progress on the map, just in case we took a turn that seemed wrong. I doubted very much at this point he would lead us into some sort of trap or anything, unless last night's display was a needlessly complicated act for my benefit.

Sometime in the middle of the morning, we stopped for a short rest. Everypony drank from canteens or bottles of water and caught their breath. I just stood by, watching, until the sight of the bottles being passed around reminded me of my own water supply.

"I'll be right back" Was all I said to my companions, with a lingering look up at Crunch so he'd understand, and turned towards the sidewalk again, and the closest cottage. We were getting closer to the more upscale sections of town, and the sizes of the homes had increased along the way. On the map, I'd noticed that many of them featured tiny blue squares inside the green squares meant to mark their back yards.

When I finished chopping through an overgrown gate to the backyard I found a large pool set into the ground and full to the brim with pale, cloudy water. I swirled my hoof around in the water for a moment, then pulled it back and dug out the bundle in the bottom of my saddlebags. I dipped the empty bottle into the murky water and filled it, then topped off the second, and rewrapped them snugly in the rad suit and stuffed the whole thing back into my bags.

Abattoir was holding up her leg with the PipBuck wrapped around it, Grinder and another of his ponies gathered around her. As I got closer I could hear the steady tick-ticking of the device. "-yeah, you should get one of these, they totally kick ass!"

"So I've heard." Grinder looked up at me as I rejoined the group and smirked. "Good piss?"

"Good enough. All ready to go?"

"Just about, but we entered a radiation patch or something a ways back, her doodad here started kicking up a fuss. You lot might want to take some Rad-X" He levitated out a small orange bottle and pried off the top, floating one of the pills into his mouth, then three more over to the two mares and remaining stallion in his party. "I'd offer some, but I'd have to charge, you know..."

"Crunch." I simply turned my head to him. He stuck his nose into one of his overlarge saddlebags and returned with a mouthful of little orange pill bottles. He spat one onto the ground and dropped the other five back into the bags.

The others just looked stunned, so I had to kick the bottle in Air Heart's direction to make him move. He scooped it up shook out a pill, popping it into his mouth and passing the bottle around to the other two. Then his hoof was pointed at me and one of the little green pills was resting in it.

"I'm good, I took one when I went just now." I waved him away. His concerned gaze lingered on me longer than I was comfortable with, but he dropped the pill back into the bottle, then when Crunch didn't make any move to accept it back, Air Heart pushed it into his own saddlebags. "Alright then, let's get going, I want to get this done today."

We continued on through the neighborhood, and after about an hour Abattoir's PipBuck fell silent.

For once, I got my wish, and the next time we had to stop, it was because we'd entered the town square. Four roads, including ours, met in the middle of it and formed a circle around a large cobbled stone platform and a raised fountain with a typical rearing statue in the center. Several tall and important looking buildings were arranged in a ring around the curving roads.

The two most impressive buildings stood facing one another at opposite ends of the circle. One was large and square and mostly wood, with an extra large parking lot. One side of the building seemed to be overgrown with ivy, and there was a little statue beside the entrance of a mare wrapped in some kind of dress, blindfolded, holding up a set of scales. Part of the front looked like it had been demolished, with a huge gaping hole in place of a door.

The other building was brick and stone, with a very large front entrance of stone steps and tall pillars. This building had two statues, and at first I mistook them for griffons. Looking closer, I saw they had the front halves of lions, and the rear halves and wings of some other bird of prey.

"That'll be the library, then." I pointed to the latter building. Everypony looked back at me, and Air Heart smiled nervously.

"Right. That's what the sign says, after all." I spotted a stone cube with words set into in large golden letters.

"Guess that means this is where we leave ya." Grinder and his three ponies had drifted off towards another road, but were all facing us.

"Guess so. Nice working with you." I said curtly and turned my back to them.

Abattoir stood up on her rear legs to wave with her forelegs and shout "Bye bye!" Then she was galloping in place beside me.

"Uuhm... thanks?" Air Heart stammered, and then scurried across the road to catch up.

We trotted about four paces before Grinder's voice called across the once busy roundabout. "One more thing!"

Oh, come on, would he really? I turned back around, and he was trotting towards us casually. He drew up in front of us, his deadly grin hidden behind his mask once more, and stuck out his hoof. "Mind if I have one more of those pies?"



"Of course!" Abattoir was quick on the draw, and tossed one wrapped package across the gap. Grinder caught it and nodded his head in her direction.

"Thank ya kindly. You're not half bad, you lot. If you're ever unlucky enough to cross the bridge, look me up, eh?" And with that, he turned and trotted away. He joined his own group and together they trotted down one of the other streets. I stood stunned and watched until they had completely disappeared. I only turned my gaze when I felt Air Heart poking me.

"Oh, sorry. I thought you'd... uh, nevermind."

"He was nice." Abattoir chirped as I brushed past them.

"He was a little scary, but I guess he could've been worse." I heard Air Heart agree behind me, while we started up the stone stair to the wide double doors.

I thought back to the image of his silhouette on the balcony tearing out the throat of another pony.

"Yeah, he could have been worse."


Inside the library was extremely dusty, with several tall windows placed around the building letting in the faint sunlight. I could see countless rows of shelves with countless more books upon them, and staircases leading up to other floors, with no doubt even more shelves and books.

"Wow..." Breathed Air Heart, flapping his wings a few times as his eyes drifted to the exceptionally high ceiling.

"Pretty fancy." Abattoir smiled and trotted over to a wooden table, one of several scattered about, with a skeleton slumped over a book.

"I hate this place. Let's not spend any more time here than we have to." Crunch snorted laughter at me as I trotted off towards...

I closed my eyes and sighed. Ireally had no clue what I was looking for in here. Curse that Fiddle Sticks and his ancestors. Curse that meddling pegasi and his nosey nose.


Curse that door I just walked into. I raised my head and found myself looking through a glass pane set in the door, at a small room with more tables. I could see more shelves and stacks of books, but also the grey and green rectangle outlines of terminals.

"Well, that should be a good place to start, nice work!" Abattoir appeared at my heels and I stepped aside to let her through. She pushed a skeleton out of its seat and hunched over the nearest terminal while Crunch and Air Heart caught up.

"If you tell me what that sign says, I'll cut you in half." I snapped as soon as I saw Air Heart point up above the door, where a little wooden sign was hanging from a pole. His cheeks went red and he lowered his hoof. "Good."

Inside, Abattoir was mashing away at the keys of her own terminal, so Air Heart sat himself in front of another and started to type. "Huh.. looks like it's not even locked. That's lucky, I don't think I know the first thing about hacking.

"It's a library, why would they lock them?" I said from a corner of the room, where I kept my hooves busy by examining my sword. It didn't need sharpening again, probably wouldn't for a while, but holding it and checking for nicks gave me something to do.

"You never know. Up there they always tell us never to walk away from our terminals with it still logged in." He shrugged and started to scroll through a list he had opened up. "How are you doing over there, Abattoir?"

He tried to peek over at her progress, but her screen was facing the other way. She grinned broadly, still hammering away on the keyboard like it was a piano. "Great!"

"I started looking for anything that might have to do with the history of this town in general, what are you searching for?" I rose to my hooves and started to trot around the tables while Air Heart questioned her.

"I have no idea!" Abattoir answered cheerfully as I came around to her side. The screen on her terminal was cracked and dim. "This thing isn't even on."

Air Heart stopped to stare at her, and it was a stare I could be proud of. But he couldn't hold it, the amateur, and broke into a grin mirroring Abattoirs. "Well, forget about it then, I found a book we should look for. It's a collection of histories of old frontier towns of Equestria, this place is bound to be in there somewhere, it could give us someplace to start at least." He told her which section the book should be in and sent her off out the door, then went back to his screen.

I sat back down and let the silence grow. The occasional rhythmic taping of the terminal keys had a certain calming effect. Eventually the tapping slowed though, and Air Heart looked at me. "Luminescence?"


"Would you'd feel bad if we end up not being able to do this job?"

"I don't quit on a job." I replied without hesitation.

"Not once?"

"Not yet."

He nodded his head slowly "You've had a lot of jobs, then?"

My head swarmed with images of past events before I squashed them down. Shaking my head, I glanced to Crunch. He was stacking books into shapes on the far side of the room. "Yeah, a lot."

"And that's why you're so..." He lowered his head and chewed on his lip for a moment. "So strong? Why all the... blood and stuff doesn't make you sick anymore?"

I stomped my hoof on the carpeted floor, putting an end to the images "There's worse than blood and stuff out there. You get used to it, you get stronger."

"I don't know if I want to be stronger like that." His head was still bowed. I didn't answer him this time, and eventually he went back to his search.

A moment later, I decided he needed to hear it, and murmured quietly. "You might not have a choice."

Neither of us had bothered to speak again by the time Abattoir returned with the book. Air Heart took it and smiled, laying it open on the table beside him. "Thanks Abbey. Let's see if this helps us any." And he started to read.

I don't know much you enjoy reading (it must be some, or you wouldn't be here) but even if you're a huge fan of it, watching somepony else read turns out to be much less enjoyable. I would never succumb to boredom like Abattoir, who was trying to one up Crunch and building a fort out of the books, but this was taking a long time.

"Wow... a town like Ponyville... All from one earth pony family and some apples..."

"Could you try to speed it up a little?"

He huffed at me indignantly "I have to make sure I don't miss it, this place wasn't always called 'Cliffside' you know" Then he flushed when he realized he'd snapped, and lifted the book to hide his face "Sorry."

I stood up again. "Forget it, just keep reading. I'm going to go make sure this place is really as empty as it looks. Come get me when you've found something." I trotted around the tables and pushed out the door.

Outside the room, the library was just as quiet. I slipped around the checkout desk at the entrance, took one of the staircases up, and weaved through a few rows of shelves. I wasn't looking for anything specifically, but walking around felt more productive than sitting in that room.

Emerging at the end of another row, I spotted one corner that wasn't cluttered with shelves or tables, and featured only a single chair and a large colorful rug bearing an stylish image of the sun. I had some time to kill and it was spacious enough for some practice, so I stepped into the middle of the rug and lifted my sword into the air.

I started simple, slashing through the air and parrying invisible strikes, focusing on my hoofwork. I spun and blocked high, hopped back and thrust forward. I imagined landing my strikes on phantom opponents, faceless, featureless ponies. Slowly, faintly, I began to see them. Duck, slash, parry, thrust. After a while their features became clearer and I could see them all, ponies surrounding me. I blocked a swinging pipe wrench and slashed open the throat of a mare in dirty overalls. I rolled aside as a sledgehammer smashed into the carpet and knocked the hooves out from under a stallion covered in pony gore. On and on they came and I cut them down, losing all track of time. Then I heard the rusty squeal of a door open behind me. I spun around in time to see the terrified young mare, with a revolver trembling in her lips. I did not raise my sword, I did not swing, and she shot me. Like always.

Then I realized I was hearing my name being called, and the library crashed back into place around me. I was panting slightly, and there were several slashes in the sunny carpet. Shaking my head, I turned towards the source of the calling, intending to catch up and make them stop shouting. I froze when I heard more movement, not running hoofsteps, but a faint skittering. I scanned the corner and looked for the source, but gave up when the sound grew fainted and eventually faded. Just radroaches in the walls, I guessed.

I went to the top of the stairs and Air Heart spotted me. "I found something!" He had the book tucked under one of his wings. Sighing, I trotted down to meet him, Abattoir, and Crunch on the first floor. He smiled, cleared his throat, and held the book open in front of him with his wings. Somehow. "Nestled in the southeast corner of Equestria, the area now known as Cremello Resorts is famous for its seaside views, temperate climate, and celebrity residents. Not many people know this beautiful vacation city started its days as a simple gem mining town. In the year..."

I cleared my throat and he stopped with a jump. "Could you just skip ahead a little to the helpful part?"

"Oh, fine, but this really is fascinating stuff." He flipped a couple pages with the tip of one wing, then cleared his throat and started again. "Today the city is home to several current and former celebrities of the fashion, literature, and entertainment industries, including Sapphire Shores, Photo Finish, and A.K. Yearling..."

"A little more" I said impatiently.

"Fine, okay... Let's see, here. Even back in its humble mining days, Cremello Town attracted famous ponies, such as Haughty, great grandfather to Hoity Toity, and Bluegrass, distant relative of our own Octavia Melody." He turned the book around to show me some pictures on the page. He tapped the bottom one, a faded black and white photo showing three ponies standing together on a wooden boardwalk. A young stallion with a large black instrument case resting across his back, a strange mare wearing some kind of dress and shawl decked with beads , and an older looking buck wearing a suit, a wide brimmed hat, and a bit of a beard. "Down here it says 'Bluegrass, shown with his wife Xabi, and manager Ante Up'"

Air Heart closed the book with a snap, grinning proudly. I let him enjoy it for a few moments. "So we've got a picture of him, we know he lived here, that's a pretty good start."

His ears fell back against his head and he seemed to deflate "A start?"

"We've still got to find out more, I doubt just one picture in a book will be enough for Fiddle Sticks."

"I tooooldya this'd take a long time. Betcha glad I went shoppin' now, eh?"

Air Heart nodded his head and opened the book again "I guess you're right. But this picture should be a great help!" He started flipping through the book towards the end.

"It's only one old photo, and it doesn't show much of the town around them either." I trotted around his side to chance a glance at the pages he stopped on and lurched back. The lines of text were small, sadistically tiny even, but he poured over them carefully.

"Not the photo itself I mean, but usually in books like these they'll have a little section that tells you where they got all their pictures from... ah-hah!" He tapped one absurdly small row with the tip of one wing. "That picture was borrowed from a newspaper, and a local one from the sound of it!"

Abattoir patted Air Heart's shoulders again and whistled "Stop the presses, we gota smarty trousers here~" Making him flush and raise the book again.

I looked up at Crunch for his take on the matter. He shrugged. Then I glanced around the library floor. "Do they keep newspapers in here too?"

Air Heart joined me in scanning the walls. "That's a good question... I know some pre war libraries found a way to store old newspapers, something with film rolls or something. Everything's on cloud terminals now."

Abattoir leaned against the checkout desk and pulled one of those grins that made my mane stand on end. "We could always ask Mareian" She said with a casual nod of her head.

"Mareian?" Air Heart turned to her and tilted his head.

"Don't-" I tried to pre-empt her.

"You know, Maaaaaaareian~" She stretched the word into a note and I sighed. "Madam libraaaaaarian~" Recognition bloomed in Air Heart's eyes and he snickered as Abattoir took up one of his hooves between hers and continued in that weird sing-talk I was all too familiar with now "What can I do, my dear, to catch your ear~?"

"Hey, why do I have to be Mareian?" Air Heart huffed in between the song.

I turned away and started to trot. I didn't know where I was going, as long as it was away from those two. Abattoir followed behind me without skipping a beat. "I love you madly, madly Madam Librarian, Mareian!"

"GNYAH!" I shouted... something and broke into a gallop. Again, where wasn't important, as long as it took me out of earshot. They tried to keep up, but were giggling too much, and soon the words faded and I considered slowing down. Why couldn't those scorpions have eaten Abattoir back in the desert?

This was no use, what was I thinking running off like this. I should turn around, go back there, and give them a very sharp and pointy reminder of who was in charge here. That sounded like a great plan. Then I realized I was still galloping through the library in time to see the partially open door that I crashed into. I skidded to a halt just shy of bonking my head on a large machine that was almost entirely taken up by a huge screen. There were some knobs and dials along the bottom row under the screen. Taking a few steps back I saw there were several more of the machines set up against the walls, and between them were tall metal cabinets with tiny rows of numbers on their drawers.

"Luuuuuumi, where aaaaaare you?" Abattoir's voice wafted in from the door. Shaking myself out of the shock of nearly tackling the strange machine, I turned around and trotted back out into the library.

"Over here, stop shouting."

"Over where?"

"Just keep following my voice."

Abattoir appeared at the end of one row and grinned at me "You're such a drama queen." Air Heart and Crunch shortly emerged from another row and trotted closer.

"Shut up. Let's just get back on track, where were we?" I turned to Air Heart, but he was staring at something over my head. Looking back, Abattoir was too.

I tilted my head back and saw another sign dangling off a pole. "What is it?"

Air Heart opened his mouth, then squeaked and clamped it shut again, looking at me nervously. I waved me hoof and nodded "Yes, okay, you can tell me what it says."

"Newspaper archives..." Air Heart mumbled and slipped around me into the room.

"This is actually gettin' kinda eerie, you ever been here before?" Abattoir chuckled and followed Air Heart.

"Was just a coincidence. I wasn't looking where I was going." I looked up at Crunch before I went after them. "I think there's something in here, keep your guard up." Couldn't hurt to be careful.

Inside, Air Heart had somehow turned on one of the huge rectangular machines, the screen now lit up and grey. "Wow, a real, working microfiche reader. These were all over the place before the war, before terminals started getting more advanced..."

"Can you work it?" I watched him run his hoof along some of the dials and knobs.

"Uuuhm, probably?" He shrugged and trotted to one of the cabinets. He pulled out one of the drawers, revealing rows and rows of folders, hundreds of little tabs sticking up with dates on them. He selected one at random and opened it, reaching inside delicately and pulling out a large sheet of something. It was shiny and green, and there were rows and rows of tiny boxes in a grid covering the whole surface. Trotting back to the machine, he found a thin opening on the front and slotted the sheet into it. On the screen, the front page of a newspaper appeared, showing an image of a stallion in a tall hat standing on a stage and cutting a ribbon with an oversized pair of scissors.

"Huh. Neat." I shrugged. It was, I supposed, an interesting tool.

"Yeah, look, all the new renovations to the east side were completed on time thanks to Mayor Tumbleweed. I duno who he is, but he's got my vote!" Abattoir grinned while she squinted up at the image.

Air Heart snickered at her, then reached up to fiddle with some of the knobs. The image suddenly zoomed in much closer. So close I could see Mayor Tumbleweed's cutie mark. It was a tumbleweed. "Let me just get some practice in, then we'll get to work finding the issue we need..." He nudged some of the dials, making the paper scroll to the left and right, then up and down. "It's really sensitive. Might take a little more to get used to."

He lowered his hooves and pulled the book out from under his wings, opening it to the back page again and showing it to Abattoir. "This is the date we're looking for, go ahead and start looking" Then he turned to me and chewed his lower lip for a moment. "Are you... good with numbers?"

I sighed and leaned forward "Just show me the date. I can figure it out. And also shut up." He nodded meekly and pointed out the tiny line of numbers with the tip of one wing. Okay, I could work with that. I had to walk far into the back of the room to find a drawer where the last string of numbers matched up, then started the arduous task of flipping through every one of the tiny tan colored folders looking for a matching date.

I thought watching someone else read was the height of dullness before, but it's nothing compared to sorting through hundreds of files one by one. I'll spare you the gory details, but in the end, Abattoir managed to find the right file, and we all gathered around the micro-whatever-reader.

The image of a yellowed and faded news paper front page filled the screen. It showed several ponies in suits gathered on either side of a railroad track, with another smaller group in the middle. One pony with an oversized hat was using a hammer to drive in a spike. Why this was front page news was anypony's guess.

Air Heart put his hooves on the knobs and started to scroll through the pages. "So, Luminescence? Once we find wherever we're going next, how about we set up camp in here and set out fresh in the morning? I mean it's getting late in the afternoon..."

I turned and looked out into the library lobby. I could still see the town square outside, and the windows were still letting in plenty of filtered sunlight. "I don't think so. Depends how far it is, but there's still a lot of daylight left."

He nodded and resumed his search, passing by one page then backtracking. "Ah, here it is!" He'd settled on an article topped by two pictures. One was the same one from the book of a trio of ponies, Bluegrass, Ante Up, and the oddly dressed mare Xabi. Beside it was a picture of a stage, with Bluegrass off to the side clutching his fiddle over his shoulder, and the mare standing in the middle of the stage shaking a tambourine. Standing on two legs, free of her shawl, revealing her stripes and long curling mane.

"Zebra..." I whispered.

"She's pretty." Abattoir piped up next to me.

"Apparently pretty enough to make him settle down here and give up traveling." Air Heart tapped a section of the article. "She was a... 'local performer', and he met her on a visit, then just suddenly decided to marry her and buy a house, huh..." He twitched one of the knobs and scrolled further down. "Guess his manager didn't like that, the two were heard having some kind of fight recently... er, well, when this was written, I mean." He keep scrolling and came to the next page, and we all jumped. "Oh, well look at that."

It was another picture, this time of Bluegrass and Xabi sitting on their front porch of a cozy looking two story house. "That's the address there, isn't it?" I leaned out and pointed to the row of numbers etched onto a plank of wood beside the door.

"Uhm, yes... But this was taken such a long time ago, I doubt that house is still there." Air Heart furrowed his brow as he stared at the picture.

"Guh." I grunted in frustration and sat down on the carpet. Short of bringing Fiddle Sticks all the way up here, we couldn't get this new information to him, there had to be something more. "Okay, if they built over it, would the new house have the same address?"

Air Heart raised an eyebrow at me, then shrugged after a moment of silence. "Maybe? I guess we could write it down or something... Let me see that map you got." I unfolded the map between the two of us and he squinted at it. "Mmh, it doesn't have any addresses, just streets... Might have to just go outside and find the nearest one to figure out which way to go. An older map might be even more helpful, but I don't know where we'd-"

"OH!" Abattoir piped up from her spot on the floor where she'd been rolling an empty can back and forth. "Map!" She jumped to her hooves and walked over to one of the idle machines, and started banging her foreleg against it.

Air Heart and I stared at her for a while. I was content to watch her do it until her leg came off or she broke the machine, but Air Heart was more concerned, and trotted closer to her, mumbling softly. "Ah, Abattoir, are you... What are you... doing?"

"Just... one... more!" She struck one final blow and there was a noise from the device on her foreleg. Oh, of course, the PipBuck. I kicked myself and joined Air Heart in looking down at the screen, mentally reminding myself not to forget it again. "See, map? It's got the whole town in here!"

"Amazing! I guess this could help us find our way, but... what's that?" Air Heart pointed at the screen. There was a little floating diamond shape set a short distance away from where we were.

"Duno, press some buttons." Abattoir shrugged, then blinked and turned her head to stare blankly at the door.

Air Heart tapped one of the buttons and the map was replaced with words. I sighed and stepped back, letting him do his thing. "It's a log? It's keeping track of everything we've done, now it says we have to... find the home of iron will?"

"What does that mean? And how does it know where to go?" I asked, a touch annoyed at the device, and myself for forgetting it. Air Heart thought for a long moment, then just shrugged and went back to looking at the screen "Well that's helpful. I guess we know where to go now." I waved my hoof in front of Abattoir's eyes. "Hey, get ready to go. What are you staring at?"

She blinked rapidly and waved her free hoof in the air before her "I can see shapes! I see the diamond way out there!" I turned my head, but there was nothing to see. Then I looked closer at Abattoir and saw the barely visible green haze covering her eyes.

"That's the EFS, it shows you the way to go, and some other stuff." I explained while she turned her head side to side and grinned madly.

"Waaaay cool... Hey, what're all those red bars?"

"Hostiles. Probably outside. Not any of our business unless they come in here, but keep your guard up." I turned again to the direction she was facing, but whatever she was seeing must have been well outside the library walls.

Air Heart had dropped the PipBuck and looked absolutely spooked. "W-what should we do? Will we run into them when we leave? Maybe we should stay here, even though it's not dark yet, I mean-" Then a shrill scream penetrated all the way into our deep corner of the library. Nopony moved for a second, then in a very un-Air-Heart-ish fashion, the pegasi broke into a gallop and disappeared out the door.


Crunch, Abattoir, and I raced after Air Heart. He was a quick little stallion, when he wanted to move, but I really didn't want to see where he felt he needed to be so quickly. We reached the front doors of the library and he burst outside, with the three of us close behind. I saw past him, to the crowd of ponies gathered at the edge of the fountain in the middle of the square. There were two ponies piled on top of a mare, while another mare was trying to push the head of a younger filly under the water. At the moment they were all staring up at the rest of us.

"Hey!" Air Heart shouted out, stomping his hoof once. The ponies exchanged glances, then shouted back.


"Stop that!"

"Buzz off, bitch, or you'll be next. Now, you gona hand over your caps, or d'you wana take a swim first?" The mare resumed her struggles to drown the other, and she renewed her own efforts to kick free.

"Listen to them Air Heart, let's go before they change their minds, this doesn't concern us." I tried to caution him, but he shook his head fiercely. He snapped his head down and drew out the shocky-stick, then spread his wings and jumped forward off the library steps. He soared towards the pair sitting on top of the struggling stallion, and for a second I thought he might have the drop on them.

Then they looked up and met his eyes, and all at once he remembered his aversion to flying, and came crashing down on top of them in an ungraceful heap. I, of course, sighed, then drew out my sword and galloped into the square. "Help Air Heart!" I shouted over my shoulder at Crunch.

The mare pushed the filly into the fountain and turned on me, drawing a pistol and firing as I approached. Several rounds landed in my chest, but I kept galloping and her eyes grew from angry slits to wide open ovals. My slash took out one of those ovals in a spray of blood, and the mare reared up, screaming and kicking, until I landed a jab into her torso and sent her backwards into the fountain as well.

Unlike the unfortunate mare, the filly was climbing out of the water. She shook off some of the wetness and sputtered a few times, then pointed at the confusing melee that had become of Crunch, Air Heart, and the other three scavengers. "Hey! Get offa my sister, fuckers!" Seriously, kids these days.

"Stay here, we'll take care of it." She looked up at me when I spoke as if just noticing I was there. She looked me up and down and slowly raised an eyebrow.

"Who are you supposed to be?"

"No one." I deflected the question. I didn't see much need to jump into the fight, Crunch and Abattoir were wrestling and cutting down (respectively) the larger stallions while Air Heart tried to jab the smaller with his shocky-stick. I could clearly make out his voice crying 'Sorry!' between each attack, and shook my head. I slipped into the group and smacked the closest stallion on the rear with the flat of my blade.

That got his attention, and he spun around to come face to swordpoint with me. "Go. Now." I swung my sword to point at other stallion Abattoir was bouncing on top of "You too."

"Right. Gone." They agreed and made a swift retreat. I watched them go and slowly sheathed my sword again. Well, that was the easy part down, now comes the hard part.

Air Heart was checking on the mare the scavengers had been trying to flatten when I rounded on them both. "Are you alright? D-do you need a potion, or, uhm, something?"

"No, thank you, is my sister okay?" The light orange mare took Air Heart's offered hoof and pulled herself up. The filly, who shared the same coat color, trotted around my legs.

"I'm fine, Val. Lucky these weirdoes showed up, eh?" Who, us?

"Hush, Citrus! That's no way to thank somepony." She hissed at her sister before smiling up at us. "And who do we have to thank for coming to our rescue?"

I glanced around the town square, but it remained deserted, so I raised my hoof and introduced our group, pointing around in a circle. The older sister smiled and nodded, while the younger fixed her eyes on Abattoir and mouthed something to herself. Then the older picked up where I left off. "Well, I'm Valencia Orange, and this is my little sister Citrus. Again, I just can't thank you enough for helping us."

I saw Air Heart open his mouth and cut in so quickly I think I startled the pair. "Actually, you can, with one hundred and fifty caps." Every eye turned on me and stared. Air Heart looked the most shocked, while Abattoir just looked amused.

"I'm... I'm sorry, what?" Valencia asked, confused.

"Oh, I get it." Snapped Citrus. "You're probably in cahoots with those other ponies!"

"If I was, wouldn't I ask for a lot more?"

Valencia reached out and tried to pat her sister on the head "She's right, she's only being fair, they didn't have to jump to our aid like that. It's the least we could do." She explained and started to reach into her saddlebags.

The filly rounded on her sister and stomped her forehooves " Siiiiis, I told you to stop bein' such a pussy." Then she pointed up at me and gave me a taste of her own scowl. I gave it a 7 out of 10. "And where do you come up with that, like we owe you so many caps?"

"My usual rescue fee. One hundred per adult, fifty per filly."

"I'm not a filly! I'm sixteen!" Citrus stomped indignantly again. I lowered my gaze to her and stared back, but it was Abattoir who finally said it.

"If you weren't a filly, you'd have to pay an extra fifty caps." She politely pointed out, still smirking.

"Wait, wait, we can't-" Air Heart finally broke out of his daze and looked back and forth from Abattoir to me, gaping.

"Fine! Val, give 'em their caps, let's get the hell outa here." The filly kicked at the ground and turned away from her sister, who flushed and dug out the small pile of caps.

"I am sorry about her, here you are, I... uhm, thanks again." I looked down at the caps on the ground, then tried to find Crunch's eyes, but he had gone back to keeping watch in the direction the two scavengers had fled. The pair started to move off, and I shook my head.

"Wait. Air Heart," I pointed at him and he jerked backwards. "Give them a healing potion for the trip."

He continued to gape for a moment, then blinked his eyes and started nodding rapidly "Oh! Yes, of course, h-here." He dug into his saddlebags and trotted over to give it to Val. She accepted it and smiled again, though a bit less than before.

"Thank you. You four have a safe trip too. There's always more bandits and raiders out here after the sun goes down."

"That's it!" Citrus suddenly yelled from across the road, then turned around and galloped back, pointing wide eyed at Abattoir "You're Abattoir, you're a raider! Our brother's in the Monkey Wrenches, he wrote about you in one of his letters!" The filly looked to be hovering between excited and frightened and unable to choose which one to settle on, while Valencia just looked embarrassed.

Abattoir beamed and tapped her chin thoughtfully. "Orange, orange... Y'mean grumpy ol' Manny? I remember him."

Citrus snorted and laughed, and Valencia took that opportunity to mumble "Mom said we're not supposed to talk about him, Citrus." But the filly just waved her hoof dismissively.

"He said you managed to blow up a wagon when you were just supposed to be changing the wheel!" Citrus' laughter petered out as she went on. "And he said you were scary, I couldn't believe that! Because you're cursed, and you make bad stuff happen..." She trailed off and took a few sudden steps backwards.

"That's nothing but nonsense from superstitious raiders." I said quickly, very eager to see the end of this conversation. "There's no such thing as a curse that causes random acts of-"

Then several things happened very rapidly. There was a upsurge of water and, somehow, the mare I'd half blinded sat up in the fountain. She'd brought her gun back up with her clenched tightly between her teeth, and her remaining eye was burning with whatever spark of life had remained in her this long as it fixed on me. Then came the scrape of concrete, and the statue of the rearing pony in the center of the fountain came crashing down onto the mare with a soggy crunch, and splashing us all with a wave of irradiated water.

"... Hehe... bad luck?" Abattoir mumbled finally, with a chuckle that made my mane stand on end.


Understandably, the Oranges parted ways with us rather quickly after that. Abattoir still had her map marker up in her EFS, so I told her to just lead the way, and we set off down the streets once more. I was hoping the shock and adrenaline would keep Air Heart stunned for the duration of the trip.

It didn't, of course.


I sighed. "Why what?"

"Why did we have to take their caps?"

"Because you don't know what 'not any of our business' means." I looked back at him, and he lowered his eyes to the ground. "Because you went and made it our business, so those ponies had to pay. Besides that wasn't even a whole lot of caps."

"But, aren't we allowed to help somepony just because it's the right thing to do?" I saw the mare bleeding from one eye as she fell backwards into the fountain. Dead, or good as anyway.

"Not when a life is ended in the process. Then someone has to pay." I turned my gaze forward again, once more silently praying Abattoir was taking us in the right direction.

"That raider? But... what does that have to do-"

"Stop. Talking. Now." I turned to face him, hoping again that the full frontal conflict would be enough to end this line of questioning before it went any father. "That's just the way it works. I don't have the time to explain it to you, even if I wanted to. No more questions until we find this... iron house or whatever, got it?" He shrank back and nodded, but his eyes stayed fixed on me and flicked up and down in a strange way. Before I could turn back around he reached out and placed his hoof on my chest. I jumped and brushed it off. "What now?"

"Didn't you get shot?"

I looked down again at my torso, unblemished and intact, and shook my head "No, she missed. No more questions." I left him deep in thought and faced forward, once again finding Abattoirs deep purple eyes almost pressed against my lenses. "What?"

"Noooothin'!" Then she skipped backwards, did some sort of cartwheel, and started trotting down the road again. I picked up my old pace after her, and heart Air Heart's hooves behind mine short after.

I became aware that Crunch was trotting beside me. Last I'd seen he'd been watching our backs, but now he was right next to me. I glanced sideways and caught his eyes. "Why does everypony have to bother me all at once right now?" I mumbled. He snorted and nodded his head towards Air Heart behind us. I looked, and saw him with his head drooping and his gaze fixed on the cracked road. "No." Crunch narrowed his eyes and I turned my own away. "You're serious? I warned you. It's better this way, I can't make either of them understand, and I don't want to." I felt his heavy hoofsteps grow even heavier beside mine. "I can't have them-" Then he leaned down and bit the tip of my ear. "Fine!" I shouted after wrestling with his teeth for a moment, and just like that he smiled at me and slowed his pace, falling back to the rear and pushing Air Heart towards me.

Air Heart was looking startled, and I shook my head and kept trotting. "Pardon me, Air Heart. I'm annoyed, and that situation wasn't... entirely your fault. You showed great courage back there. You should be proud." I spoke slowly and deliberately, and my jaw didn't seem to want to unclench, but he get the message and lifted his head.

"Thanks. I don't know what came over me. I've never picked a fight with anypony before, but I've never heard somepony screaming for help before either..." He tilted his head back and gazed up at the quickly darkening blanket of clouds.

"It's not easy to help ponies." I dropped my voice low, making him look at me strangely and lean closer. "Ponies are selfish, and greedy, and cruel. Some of them can't be helped. Some of them don't want to be helped. Remember that, if you're going to keep helping ponies."

He furrowed his brow again and looked at me with concern, then cracked a small smile and looked away. "I'd guess you'd just get more annoyed if I said I don't quite understand, right?"

At that, I chuckled. Lightly, so only he could hear "Yes, a bit."

"Why do you help ponies, then?"

"That's something I can't tell you" I looked back for Crunch again. He was smiling at me. He wanted this, but... "Yet."


The home of iron will. I don't know what I was expecting from a place like that. What I was expecting the least was just any old house. But when Abattoir finally stopped and waved both hooves over her head and called "And heeeere we are!" She was gesturing at a simple house.

Well, simple was the wrong word. It was a pretty impressive house, and made a pretty impressive ruin too. Like all the houses in this slice of town, it was wide three storey building surrounded by a high metal fence that stood over even Cruch's head, with an even bigger front yard than the house we'd bunked up in the night before. Behind several of the homes I could even see some kind of trees growing, though the leaves that covered them were ugly and brown.

The front gate was overgrown with the same coiling ivy that obscured every inch of the surrounding fences like a curtain. Both Abattoir and I had to work at sawing through the thick growth to get the gate to open. It gave a token squeal of protest, and we were inside.

With the thick ivy and plant life obscuring the gaps between the fence, and the height of the fence itself, I was left suddenly feeling much more enclosed. I could only see as far as either side of the yard, and up to the house.

"Let's get inside and start looking." I said, and started up the curing garden path towards the front porch.

"It's so late, could we stop here for the night?" Air Heart asked over my shoulder. I looked up at the grey-black clouds. The sun was most certainly set, or just on the verge of it.

"Maybe after we've found something." As much as I hated it, having that PipBuck Abattoir picked up guiding us would make it much easier to find whatever it was we were looking for. Speaking of, I looked back and saw her poking curiously at a bush with some purple berries dotting it. "Don't eat those. Hurry up and get over here."

"I wasn't gona, geez!" She trotted down the path, rolling her eyes.

We found the front door unlocked, and the last thing I noticed before entering the house was the address. It didn't matter now, but it was indeed the same numbers from the old photo.

The front entrance led directly into a large living room. Even through the layers of dust and dirt I could tell who ever lived here had enjoyed a higher standard of living. A huge curving couch fit into the corner, shelves full of knick knacks and trophies, and some kind of large complicated machine stacked with numbered metal disks. But the thing that drew the eye the most was the ludicrously large painting hung over the back of the couch. It depicted a very muscular blue minotaur giving a thumbs up and flashing an award winning grin.

Air Heart crossed the living room and looked at a little metal tag on the bottom of the frame, then whispered, "Oh... he's Iron Will. I guess that answers that question. I've never heard of a famous minotaur though."

"They weren't very common in Equestria, less so during the war." I replied, trotting closer to give the painting a better look. "The biggest herds lived in Caledonia, though some were scattered around the Badlands. Never heard of him though."

"Weren't the minotaurs on the zebra's side?" Abattoir asked from over by the strange contraption, sitting on it and fiddling with some of the levers.

Air Heart shrugged and turned away from the painting "Not at first, they were mostly neutral. Some might have been hired by the zebras, but the majority of minotaurs remained nomadic as long as they could... At least, thats' what my history teacher said. He also said everything down here was dead and rotten and all the ponies were mutated savages. And, you're not, so... he might be wrong."

I shook my head and left the painting behind as well. "It's not important, Abattoir, where is it saying to go now?" Abattoir sat up on the padded seat of the machine and blinked her eyes, then shrugged.

"I duno."

"Can't you see the arrow?"

"Well yeah, but it's just sorta..." She waved her hooves in the air over her head "Hangin' there in the middle of the room. I don't think this thing can just find everything everywhere ever."

"Fine, we'll just have to look around."

"So what you're saying is..." She hopped back down onto the carpet and narrowed her eyes at me. "Let's split up and search for clues?"

I sensed a trap, possibly leading into another Luna damned song, so I turned and picked a hallway at random to escape down. "Whatever you want, sure, let me know if you find something!"

I could still hear her giggling all the way down the hall. The first door I found was a bathroom, the second, a kitchen, then the third door at the very end of the hall led into a dark garage. With no real clue what I was searching for, I stepped into the gloom. There was a large empty space in the middle where some kind of wagon must have sat in the past, while the walls around were decorated with assorted tools and junk.

With the glow coming off my mane piercing through the shadows, I spied a conspicuous shape shrouded in a tarp pushed into one corner. The tarp itself drew me more than any curiosity to see what it hid, but when I pulled it away and saw the well preserved lawn mower gleaming in the light, I counted that as a nice bonus. I pushed the machine over and knelt down, peeking at its underside. The blades were slightly grass stained, but otherwise pristine. With a little bit of leverage, both my forehooves, and a good amount of my magic, I was able to pry loose one of the heavy blades. I wrapped my prize in the tarp and eased it into my saddlebags, then as an afterthought, snagged a bottle of wonderglue from amid the junk. At this rate I'd have everything I need by the time I got back to Cliffside.

When I returned from the garage I was actually slightly pleased to hear Air Heart shouting that they'd found something. "Alright, alright, I'm on my way, where are you."

"Upstairs!" Came the answer. I returned to the living room and followed the staircase with my eyes until I spotted Air Heart leaning on the top railing. I trotted up to join him and he led me down a corridor, into a sparsely decorated office. There was a bookshelf with a total of three books, one of them bearing a picture of Iron Will himself, a desk with a terminal, a small metal rack with more weights of increasing size stacked up on it, and a safe set into the wall behind the desk. There was also a framed newspaper article hung up on the wall showing the minotaur in an ill fitting uniform, looming over several other terrified similarly uniformed ponies mid shout.

"Interesting." I walked over to the safe. Abattoir was standing on her hind legs and leaning against the wall with her ear pressed to the safe's dial. "Don't tell me you can pick that."

"Shhh..." She held her hoof to her lips. "I can hear the ocean..."

Of course. I turned to the terminal. "How about that?"

Air Heart stepped up to the desk again and furrowed his brow. "Well, I think I managed to make it to the right screen, but it's either broken or I did it wrong. I can't make sense of any of this."

I glanced at the screen, expecting to see the usual gibberish, and was not surprised. No, scratch that, I was very surprised. There was gibberish, of course, long lines of it, but mashed in between them were symbols I recognized. The thick blocky scrawls of the minotaur language were unmistakable.

"There, that one." I tapped the screen at the word for open, hoping this Iron Will fellow really wasn't that bright. Air Heart looked skeptically at me and I tapped it again "Do it, just try that one." He didn't stop looking at me that way until he tapped the keys, making the little glowing box shift down and light up the symbols. Then he tapped once more and the lines were gone, back to the usual junk I couldn't understand, and Air Heart's jaw just fell open.

"How did you know?" He finally gathered himself up enough to ask, both eyebrows raised in shock.

I hope you won't think less of me if I told you only then that it occurred to me assisting him with that password would possibly reveal some sensitive information about me. After rapidly running through all possible solutions in my head, I shrugged, turned away from the desk and trotted over to the window. "Lucky guess. Anything useful in there?"

From the silence I figured he must be giving me some sort of disbelieving stare, but I just kept looking out the dirty window. Sometime between our arrival and coming up here to the office the sun had finally decided to set, and darkness had fallen across the town. Again I could see the scarce few streetlamps casting cones of light, but this time I was high up enough and facing the right way to see the distant city across the gap. There were more lights to be glimpsed in between the ominous towering buildings. Something bright flickered across my vision, and I noticed for the first time a lighthouse standing to the west, closer to the sea, sending out a wide swooping beam of light.

Then I remembered I was in the middle of a conversation with Air Heart. "-just looks like old journals, but not the ones we're looking for. This Iron Will really lent heavily on the caps lock... Oh, well there's this. Abattoir, step back." I stepped away from the window and watched as Abattoir dropped back onto all four hooves and hopped away from the safe. Air Heart hit a button and the door popped open an inch with a soft hiss.

"Cool!" Abattoir exclaimed and flung the door wide. I joined her in peering into the depths of the safe, and Air Heart followed suit. There was a sizable stack of bits taking up one side that I paid little attention to, a pair of books and a folded up pile of tan colored clothing, and lastly a little silvery square object sitting in the center of the safe.

I didn't know what to look at first, so I settled on levitating out the stack of cloth and unfolding it. It turned out to be the uniform from the newspaper photo, and it was a lot of uniform. This Iron Will must've been huge by even minotaur standards. "I think you were right, Air Heart. Whatever we're looking for probably isn't in here."

But Air Heart was busy inspecting the books. "Wow, autographed first edition Daring Do's?"

"We can't take those with us." I was going to nip that in the bud. He looked shocked and nodded his head.

"Of course we can't take them with us, they're priceless artifacts! I'd better put them back!" He quickly stuffed the books back into the safe, then scooped up the metallic device instead. "Huh, I've seen these, they're used with PipBucks to record audio." He tilted the object towards me and I saw two tiny black spools of ribbon through the front, and a slot along the bottom. "Here, Abattoir, hold out your arm."

Abattoir complied, chewing on her lower lip and grinning "Ouh, I hope it's a song~"

Air Heart found the slot near the top of the screen and plugged the recording into it, then tapped a few buttons. Suddenly, the gruffest of gruff voices blasted out of the speaker.

"Attention, the contents of this safe are the personal belongings of The Incredible Iron Will, and if you are even thinking about stealing them, Iron Will is going to introduce you to a whole new world OF PAIN! If you are Iron Will himself, please disregard this warning, and remember to give mom a call and pick up milk at the store!"

We all stayed silent for several moments. Finally Air Heart disconnected the recording and chucked it back into the safe "Maybe we should just put everything back and get out of here." I had to reach out and stop him from slamming the safe shut.

"Just relax, it's a hundred year old message. Iron Will is not going to put you in a world of pain or whatever. Crunch, come over here." With a thump, my large companion dropped the weight he'd been absently lifting and trotted over to present his side to the safe. I stuck my hoof in and pushed about half of the stack of bits into his saddlebags, letting them fall in a jingling, tinkling jumble. He looked back at me and gave a snort of annoyance, but he deserved a little mess to clean up after biting me earlier. "You two can split the rest, I guess."

"A-Are you sure?" Air Heart asked nervously while Abattoir giddily scooped some of the remaining portion into her grubby bags.

"Yes, bits aren't worth as much as caps, and I can't really take them all."

"Well, okay then" He said as he eased the remaining piles into his own bags. Then her prodded around inside the safe. "I guess that's everything in here. What should we do now?"

"Keep looking. Where else haven't you checked?"

"Can't we call it a night?" Air Heart sat down heavily, his wings drooping "We made so much progress today, isn't that enough?"

"You just don't wana go down there when it's dark~" Abattoir said from behind the pegasus, who shot back onto his hooves and tried to stifle her, but she just laughed and skipped away.


Air Heart looked sheepishly at me for a moment, then looked down at his hooves instead "I, uhm, found some other stairs, but they go... down, y'know, not up, and..."

"A basement?"

"Yup!" Abattoir had skipped around the room and ended up over my shoulder, where I swatted her away from. "But he was too scared to go down b'cause it was daaaaark~" She put on a look of fright and trembled beside me until Air Heart rushed in, cheeks ablaze.

"I did not! I only meant, I mean... she's the one with the light source, I said we should wait for her..." He said in a fluster, then looked over to me and tried to smile politely. "Which, by the way, you're looking a lot, uhm... b-brighter tonight! Uuuunless that's a bad thing, in which case I take it back!"

I just held my head in my hooves and sighed.


"Seeee, you big scardey pony, it's not so bad down here." Abattoir said as we spread out from the bottom of the wooden stairs that had led down into a very spacious cellar. The floors and walls were all wooden as well, and creaked loudly in several spots.

"I wasn't scared." Air Heart huffed and tried to hide behind the book of old towns he'd brought from the library.

"Quiet. Spread out and see if you can find anything that looks, I don't know, old." If only that damn useless device could be more specific.

"This whole place looks old." Abattoir tapped one of the wooden beams set around the cellar, which creaked in response. I was suddenly struck with a brief but powerful urge to kick her out of the basement lest it collapse on us. Then I shook my head and looked down at the wood under my own hooves. It did look well worn and well traveled.

"I think you're right." Air Heart had joined in, inspecting one of the corners where an old wooden rocking chair sat. "I think this might even have been left over from the house before, they didn't bother to dig it all up."

So this could be Bluegrass' basement. I looked around in a circle slowly, and heard Abattoir hopping around the room. Creak, creak, creak. Lots of squeaky boards. I started to walk with my head low, twin ovals of green light bathing the floor as I stared closely at it. I went from one corner of the basement to the other, wondering if it could really by this simple. Then I felt it as I went across, a patch of boards with much more give than any others, with scratches on the sides of a few of them.

"Over here." I called out, and the three of them closed in on the spot. I tapped it a few times, then pushed in and felt the boards give slightly. "I think there's something under here."

Air Heart squinted and knelt down to examine the boards, poking and prying at them with the tip of his hoof. "Hmm, it's possible. We could try pulling them up, if we had a crowbar or something..."


Air Heart gasped and stumbled back out of the way as the large stallion lifted both forehooves into the air, then sent them crashing into the floorboards. There was a tremendous crack and several of the boards gave way. Crunch and I pulled the scraps of wood out and pried loose the remaining bits of board, until the face of the floor safe was clearly visible, surrounded by dirt.

"Wow..." Air Heart was still catching his breath as he leaned to peer down the hole we'd made. "How do we open it?"

"The same way we found it. Keep going, Crunch."

Crunch looked a little skeptically at me, then shrugged and stepped over the hole, lifting one of his rear legs and starting to stomp down on the safe. Air Heart winced and looked at me. "Are you sure-"


"Yes." I said, with the tiniest bit of smugness in my voice. The door to the safe had buckled inward, and took some prying to lift open, which I did while Abattoir clapped her hooves at Crunch. I peeked inside and saw a few scraps of paper and an ornate wooden box. I levitated out the papers and held them to Air Heart, while I brought the box out and set it on the floor.

"Could he have done that on the safe upstairs?" Air Heart asked, eyes still wide as he took the papers under his wing.

"Probably not. That was a Stable-Tec safe up there, made during the war. But this," I waved at the mangled door of the safe "Was made before the war, more than a century before it even." I shrugged and poked at the box. It had no lock, just a latch, and the dark wood was carved with fancy pattern. I lifted the latch and opened the lid, and looked down into a red velvet lined case, where a large hunk of wood and metal sat nestled in an indent opposite an identical empty space. I lifted the object out and held it up. It looked like a gun, it had a wooden bit and a trigger, but instead of a barrel it just had six long tubes, and some kind of protruding metal lever on the side. I pulled back on the lever and could hear the clicking of gears, then when it stopped I pointed at the far wall and pulled the trigger. The lever snapped forward and I saw a small spark shoot out in the darkness. But other than that, nothing. I looked down into the box again and saw a little black bag, and inside I found several small metal balls.

I was utterly unimpressed, but Air Heart seemed fascinated. "That's another antique, a pre-pre war firearm!" He leaned in close to observe the ancient gun held up in my magic. "You'd have to fill each of the tubes with something like gunpowder, and stuff the bullets inside. It's an amazing piece of technology."

"It's neat, I guess." I said as I set the gun back inside the case and closed the lid, lifting the whole thing up.

"You're going to take it?" Air Heart seemed surprised by that.

I moved towards Crunch but he deftly turned himself away from the levitating box, until I gave up and lowered it into my own bags. "Fine, you big baby. And I guess. It's rare, right? Might be valuable."

Air Heart chuckled and shrugged. "Maybe to a collector." Then he kept smiling at me while I continued to stare at him. Eventually he started to look uncomfortable and fidgeted on his hooves. "... What?"

"Read." I nodded at the clump of papers he still had clutched under one wing, and he jumped.

"Oh! Right, those, o-of course..." He cleared his throat, held them in front of himself and shuffled them around a few times, then lowered them again and huffed. "Wait, no."

"What is it now?" It was then that I noticed Abattoir had been unusually quiet, and saw her sitting in the old rocking chair, grinning madly.

"No, this time you're going to say please, and I mean it. Otherwise I'm not reading anything else for you."

Oh merciful Luna, give me strength. "Just read, or-"

But he huffed again and powered through, but he did turn his head away to keep from meeting my gaze. "Or you'll do something bad like pull out my own skull and beat me to death with it or something. Well fine, do it then, but you'll have no one left to read things but Abattoir." I glanced again at the yellowgreen pony watching from the chair, who was having to bite down on her hooves to keep from bursting into laughter. Trusting her to read anything to me right was probably the height of terrible ideas. But I wasn't going to be beat yet.

"Why is that so important to you?" I looked at Air Heart again and took a step forward.

He gulped, then took a step forward as well. "You said I'd be acting like a doormat if I just laid there and took it. Well I'm not gona lay here and take it from you either!" He pointed dramatically at me, and both Crunch and Abattoir started laughing together. He went even redder, but kept going. "I mean, you shouldn't be so bossy to us! Even if you don't wana be friends, we should still act like teammates, and that means asking politely when you want their help with something!" He dropped his pointing hoof with a stomp.

I just let it all soak in, listening to Abattoirs snorty giggles and Crunch's booming laughs. I took another few steps forward, and saw Air Heart's breath catch in his throat.

"Very well then. Please, read the pages."

Air Heart's knees buckled and he almost fell to the floor as he let loose the breath he'd been holding. "R-r-really?!"

"Yes. But this does not mean we are teammates. And if you ever yell at me like that again." I leaned in close and dropped my voice to a whisper. "I'll turn your hooves into ashtrays. And I don't even smoke."

I stepped back and he nodded quickly, gasping for air as Abattoir skipped over and threw one leg over his shoulder "Eey, I knew you could do it! That book really did a number on you!"

"What book?" I asked as I sat down on the floor, where Crunch joined me a moment later with a smirk still on his face.

"He was reading a book that Iron Will fella' wrote before we went to find you, and suddenly went on and on about assertiveness and junk and said he was gona stand up to you. I never knew he had it in 'em though!" She cheered again and shook the pegasus, who just crumpled to the floor and fanned the pages out in front of him.

"W-well I... I just was a little tired of... n-nevermind, I'm sorry I yelled, let's just see what these say and then we can get some sleep." Air Heart cleared his throat a few times and began to read.


Bluegrass' Journal, entry no.6

So I finally performed my first show up on stage last night. Ante introduced me to the owner of the bar, he's a griffon, can you believe that? I think the show went pretty good too, a lot of those drunks even tried to dance a little to it.

I didn't expect to get paid so well though, even with Ante taking out his "'finder's fee". But when he brought the bits he also brought something else, some old door handles and a bunch of tiny metal hooks. He said it was a practice technique to hone my precision, but I'm not the naive citypony he thinks I am, he's testing if I can pick locks.

Don't know how impressed he was though, I got most of them to open eventually, but those tumblers are tricky.


Bluegrass' Journal no.22

Ante and me are on the move again. I'm really getting to see a lot of southern Equestria, and I think I'm getting used to sleeping on the train.

We're riding first class this time, that last club's security was so pathetic we were able to make off with much more than we thought.

I know it's a little wrong, but I'm not spending my bits like water the way Ante is, I'm saving mine up to come on home, once I'm done...

Still thinking about you sis, I'll see you soon.


Bluegrass' Journal no.103

Got way too drunk last night, but it was a real cause for celebration. Ante's crew really came through, and we managed to knock over one of the biggest casinos in Las Heygas. We'll be reading about it in the papers tomorrow.

Ante did something weird last night, or I think he did. I think he tried to kiss me, but he was so drunk, and he didn't say anything in the morning, so maybe I dreamt it up after all that Wild Pegasus.

Not that your brother's a colt cuddler, don't go getting that idea. Anyway, Ante's letting me plan our routes more, and I'm working my way back up north. I think it's finally time I came home.


Bluegrass' journal no.110

I met someone in this little town we've stopped at, Cremello. I was walking home one night and she bumped into me. She tried to steal my wallet, so I swiped her purse at the same time. You should have seen the way she blushed.

She's a zebra, and a dancer, she lives with a buffalo and some griffons and other ponies in a camp outside of town. She invited me back there after we met and I played a little for them. She was so beautiful when she danced, I can't get her out of my mind. I'm going to go back to see her tomorrow, Ante Up can be patient for a while longer.


"So, it looks like Fiddle Stick's parents were telling the truth." Air Heart said, looking up from the pages.

"I guess he was cooler than I thought." Abattoir shrugged, then poked at the last page he'd read. "There's somethin' on the back of there."

"Hmm?" Air Heart turned the page over, and I saw a thick black blob taking up the top section of the page. "It's all scratched out..." There were two more scribbled out messages on the backs of two other pages, but the last one remained readable, and Air Heart read it out slowly, his brow furrowing as he went on. "Bluegrass, if you want to quit, that's your decision... Come to the horseshoe where we stashed the loot, and I'll give you your share, then you can go on and spend the rest of your life with that... that gypsy? The hoofwriting here is terrible."

"Ooooouh, somepony was jealous!" Abattoir rubbed her hooves together like she'd just learned a juicy bit of gossip.

"Ante Up, obviously." I rose to my hooves and stretched them slightly. "Any clue what the horseshoe where they stashed the loot might be?"

Air Heart kept looking at the poorly written note, but nodded. "Uhm... Oh, yeah, that's an easy one." He blinked his eyes a few times before dipping into his saddlebags and pulling out the library book. With practiced ease he flipped to the section about Cliffside and tapped a picture of a large group of dirty looking ponies standing together in front of a large cave entrance. "The Golden Horseshoe was the first and biggest mine built back when the town was in its prime. That's my best guess anyway-"

"AHH!" Abattoir yelped and flailed her hooves in front of her face.

"What!?" Air Heart gasped, jerking to his hooves with his wings wide.

"The arrow, it's gone!" She blinked and waved towards the ceiling, then turned her head and stared at a wall. "Oh, there it is, but it's all tiny again. Mr.Arrow, have you lost weight?" She snickered a bit, while Air Heart caught his breath and tugged at her PipBucked hoof.

"Don't scare me like that, Abbey... Huh, I guess I was right. The map says Horseshoe Mines." He smiled up at me when I took a step closer to study the map. I saw where we were, in the thick of all those homes, and I saw where the mines were, to the south outside of the city. "So we know where we're going tomorrow, that's good right?" I looked back at him, his hopeful smile. He wanted us all to act like a team. He wanted us to act like friends even, to get to know things about us. He wanted me to say please.

"Tonight." I said, and turned and trotted to the stairs. "Come on Crunch." I heard his heavy hoofsteps following mine back up the stairs, as well as Air Heart's half stuttered protests.

"W-wait what? Y-you can't- I mean it's late a-and- shouldn't we all just get some sleep?"

"You can sleep. I'm going to go to the mines and find whatever I can, I'll be back before the sun comes up and we can get back to Cliffside, get paid, and you'll be that much closer to paying off your debt for good."

His steps faltered a little but he kept chasing me as I continued through the halls towards the front door. "But you don't even know how to get there! And it's the middle of the night, aren't you even a little bit tired?"

"I saw the map, I'll find it." I reached the door and pulled it open, the pitch black lawn and cool night air greeting me. I turned to look back at Air Heart and drew my sword as well, pointing it at him. "And I don't care whatever some books you've been reading say, I'm still in charge. The only thing I'm tired of is this job, so I'm going to go finish it, with or without-YOUPHFF!" Then something hauled my rear legs out from under me and pulled me out into the night. I even dropped my sword.

Footnote: Leveled up! Is this really the best time?!

New Perk: Frightening Presence: A little redundant, don't you think? You can use your spooky looks to scare open new dialogue options, or terrify low level foes into thinking twice about fighting you.

Skill note: Hacking 5. You hate terminals, don't you?

(Great Caesars toast, this chapter got out of control here! Again I intended to finish this little jaunt in one chapter, but I quickly realized it was much too early to drop a 30,000+ word chapter on y'all so soon, so I found a way to split it nice and neat. Once again, thanks to Kkat for this wonderful playground of a setting, thanks to my pal No One for the heaps of advice I've been getting, and thanks to the Wasted Days staff for letting me toy with their location. See y'all next time <3)

Chapter 7: Buried Treasure

View Online

Fallout Equestria: Ashes


Chapter 7: Buried treasure

We'll dig up the box! We know it's full of precious booty; Burst open the locks! And then we'll say hooray!

"Lumi!" Air Heart yelled up at me.

"Don't call me that!" I shouted as I twisted in the air, kicking at whatever had grabbed me. Whatever turned out to be a thick, thorny vine that recoiled from my kick, dropping me into the middle of Iron Will's lawn. I saw more vines all around me, flailing in the air and snaking across the ground.

"What should I do?!" He yelled. I looked back and saw him standing in the doorframe wide eyed and petrified. Crunch had already raced out the door after me and was fighting his way through a wall of smaller vines with tooth and hoof.

"Nothing, stay there!" I shouted, and reached out with my magic, but the vine twisting in front of me wriggled and slipped loose, diving in at me. I jumped away and it's thorns raked my side, then it turned around and came in for another swipe. I tried to dodge again and tripped forward, some smaller vines had looped around my back legs. I kicked at them while the bigger vine laid anther slash across my back, then coiled around my middle. I scrabbled at the ground as it started to lift me again, and saw something sticking out of the dirt a few feet away. I reached out with my magic and pulled them towards me, slashing at the vine.

Granted, two old garden trowels made poor weapons, but they got the job done well enough, and eventually the vine dropped me rather than continue to get cut up. I landed on my hooves and crouched, ready for the next attack.

I checked on Crunch in between cutting away smaller vines that tried to trip me again. He was still stuck only a few feet from the front porch, wrestling and stomping as many tendrils as he could. He wouldn't make it in time before these old tools broke, so I had no choice.

"Air Heart! Bring me my sword!" As much as he'd improved from the terrified pony I'd bought back in Pyresteady, I doubted Air Heart would stand a chance against this whatever-it-was, but he could still be useful. He turned and took the handle between his teeth, then started to drag it out the front door, gouging a line in the wood as he went. "Faster!" I kicked at the vines with my forelegs and swung the little shovels as hard as I could, but I was making no progress towards escaping.

"Nnnngh, it's heavy!" He grunted through his teeth. Worse yet, as soon as he stepped off the porch and into the dirt, small vines started to creep over his hooves and he yelped, dropping my sword.

Oh, by Discord's fluffy eyebrows, I was going to die because of this shrimpy pegasus. "Crunch, go back and help him!" I was too busy watching them, and brought the trowels up to block the large vine much too late. It smacked against my head, knocking away the tools and sprawling me on my side. Then it was around my legs, all four of them, and I was hoisted into the air again.

I got an upside down view of Crunch and Air Heart though. Crunch stood over Air Heart and stomped out the vines, then they both looked up to me when it seemed safe. "My sword! Bring it closer!" I shouted, and Air Heart tried again to hold it up as high as he could. I reached out, but my magic couldn't grip it strongly enough at that range, and I was being pulled even further away all the time.

"I can't do it!" Air Heart yelled in a panic.

"Use your wings, you jackass!" The coiling vine had advanced up my legs and was now squeezing around my torso. I could feel the thorns raking at my bare flesh each time I wriggled, but I could hardly care about that now.

I saw him flinch at that and spread his wings slightly "B-b-but..."

Well, I tried asking nicely, but I really didn't want to find out where this vine was taking me. "Crunch! Boost!" My large companion nodded and loomed over Air Heart "And don't you dare drop my sword!" I called to the confused and scared pegasus.

"What?!" He gasped as Crunch slipped his forehooves under him and reared up onto his hind legs, holding him aloft. Then he tossed him with all his strength and Air Heart came soaring toward me, sword clenched tightly between his teeth.

Crunch's aim was true, and Air Heart sailed close enough that I could snag my sword from his teeth and bring it around in an arc, cleaving through the thick black vine. "Take this, vile weed!" I don't know if it heard me, but I definitely felt a certain satisfaction as the vine split in two, the section wrapped around my body immediately wilting away. Right after that I felt a certain pull of gravity, and got ready to tumble back towards the earth.

I didn't tumble, and I noticed two turquoise hooves clutching me under my forelegs. "I g-gotcha! I actually gotcha!" Air Heart shouted behind me as he started to descend. But I was not having any of that, as I started kicking my rear legs and swaying in his grip.

"Let me go!"

"W-what! Just relax, I've got you-"

"Let GO!" I shouted and brandished my sword in the air. He let go.

I tumbled the last ten feet to the ground and landed on my back. He touched down next to me and leaned over me "What is your problem?!"

I didn't have time for that, so I rolled over and jumped to my hooves, turning to face the vines. Now that I was armed I could find the source and maybe kill it. Several of the tiny ones seemed to just spring up from the dirt, but the larger ones were protruding out of bushes or uncoiling from the nearby fences and trees.

A pair of thorny vines flailed at me and I backed up into Air Heart, slashing them away. "Don't let them touch you! Back up!" He gasped and instead of backing up, flapped his wings and jumped high, dodging the third vine that swung from behind. Of course the vine just kept coming and landed a stinging lash across my flanks, then coiled around my tail and tried to lift me into the air once more. Before I could finish my curse, Crunch landed on the vine and stomped it flat "And where have you been?"

He rolled his eyes at me, then pointed skyward. Air Heart was still flying, he didn't seem to know how to stop now, as he swooped and looped away from swiping vines, yelling all the while. "Helpmehelpmehelpme!"

"Get back down here!" I called, but I saw then that he wasn't able to. Every time he tried to turn back towards us and the house, more vines swooped in and turned him back, causing him to fly further and further off.

Towards a squat little bush dotted with purple berries, out of which the largest of the vines were coiling. "Look out!" I shouted just as the leaves parted down the middle, and the whole bush split into what could only be a mouth, dripping with fluid and rimmed with thorns. Air Heart was flying right over it when he saw it and shrieked.

Then I heard the sound of breaking glass and looked up at the house. Abattoir was flying through the air, raining glass shards down from the window she'd just jumped through. I don't know if plants had the ability to be surprised, but the way almost all of the vines snapped up to point at Abattoir seemed to indicate so. She fell right into one of the thicker vines and hooked one hoof around it, her momentum carrying her forward on the flailing black limb.

"Ooooooehooooeohhhhhh~!" She opened her mouth and let out a strange wordless yell as she swung, and crashed into Air Heart, snatched him very nearly from the jaws of planty death. I was momentarily impressed.

Then her vine seemed to regain control of itself and started to wriggle and flick. She was holding Air Heart with her other leg, so she couldn't do anything but let it whip her back into the air, and straight towards us.

They separated in the air, and Crunch reared up again, this time to catch Air Heart. I was briefly taken with the notion to see what kind of smear Abattoir would make on the ground. Then I reached up with my magic and caught her in the air. She spun in circles with the excess momentum, and came to a stop with her eyes spinning in opposite directions. "Nice catch~" She giggled at me.

"Back inside, now!" I barked. Crunch tossed Air Heart onto his back and I carried Abattoir along in my magic, jumping the length of the porch and skidding to a stop in the entrance hallway. I dropped Abattoir and slammed the front door shut, then for good measure I levitated over one of Iron Will's trophy shelves and propped it against the door.

For a long while, I just stood there and listened. I heard my companions breathing heavily behind me, but that was all. When tendrils didn't start shooting up out of the floor and walls, I figured we were safe. Relatively.

"Well, good news, Air Heart" I said calmly as I turned around. "You get your wish, we'll all sleep here tonight."

Air Heart slid down off Crunch's back with some difficulty, it was quite a long way back to the ground from there, then he tried to reach his hoof out to me as I trotted past. "W-wait, you're hurt. I need to look at all of you and make sure you're alright."

"No I'm not. I'll see you in the morning. Sleep well." I snapped curtly after crossing the livingroom to the basement door. I slipped through it and shut it behind me before Crunch could follow, and descended the wooden stairs into darkness to wait for the sunrise.


I didn't come back up until I saw pale sunlight streaming through a tiny window in the upper corner of the basement. I followed the sounds of voices to the kitchen I'd seen earlier and found Air Heart, Abattoir, and Crunch sitting at Iron Will's table over bowls of mushy brown goop.

"-and I got the wheel off, but before I could get the spare the whole thing started rollin' away, went right into a crate full of mines! So it totally wasn't my fault... Oh, mornin' Lumi, you almost missed breakfast. Oatmeal!" She gestured at, then buried her face in, the bowl of slop.

"I'm not hungry. Don't take too long, I'm going to see if the front door is clear." Air Heart started to say something but I raced back down the hall before he could get it out. I stopped in front of the trophy shelf I'd used to block the way and slowly started to remove it. Last night I'd just grabbed the whole thing and flung it against the door, trophies and all, but now I had to concentrate to drag the whole thing out of the way without dropping something.

I opened the door and peeked out onto the lawn. It was bright and hot and exactly the way it was when we arrived, minus one single bush. But no sign of flailing death vines. I shut the door with a click and rested my head against it for a moment to think.

I almost took his head off when Air Heart suddenly spoke up right behind me. I whirled and had drawn my sword before I realized it was him, and shook my head a few times "What?"

"I said, some of this is yours." He waved at the rug that was laid out in the entrance hall, particularly at some dark red splotches. "Crunch's too, but I definitely know some of it is yours, you were standing right next to me last night, and you had all these scratches and cuts from the thorns." He raised his hoof and pointed at me. "But there's nothing there now, not even scars. Not from that, or from the bullet I shot you with a few days ago, or the one from the bandit yesterday..." He narrowed his eyes at me and dropped his hoof again. "So... you must have healing magic, right? Is that why you have so many spare potions?"

I realized I still had my sword out, and struggled to lower it back to my side before I could answer calmly. "Do you remember our conversation, about questions?"

"I just want to know if-"

"No, you don't want to know this. I'll say it one more time; Stop asking me questions." He furrowed his brow and started to speak again, and I desperately growled "Please. Stop asking." He looked so shocked I thought he might faint "Just go finish your breakfast before Abattoir comes looking for you."

He stared at me for a moment, then closed his gaping mouth and nodded in silence. I watched him trot back down the hall towards the kitchen, then I wandered into the living room myself and took a seat on the still luxurious looking couch. "Two pleases in less than two days, what am I becoming?" I thought out loud with a shudder.

Once breakfast was done the three of them joined me. I had spread the map out on the coffee table and tried to plan out a route. Air Heart was still giving me looks, but I ignored him for the time being and turned to Abattoir. "Show me that map again." She held her PipBuck out and I studied the two images. My map only showed the town, and our destination was a fair distance south. "Is that a road?"

I tapped the screen at a thick dashed line that curved out of the bottom of the town and snaked south, running right beside the little arrow. Air Heart squinted, then looked at my map and shook his head. "No, I think it's this." He pointed to one of the buildings at the edge of the town where a pair of silver lines met. "That says South Station, so those must be the railroad tracks. Of course, must have been important back then, getting to and from the mines."

"So, get to the depot, then follow the tracks. Simple!" Abattoir snatched back her leg and raised it dramatically.

"You're simple. Let's get going then." I folded up the map and headed for the door, ignoring Abattoir when she leaned over to loudly whisper at Air Heart. "Somepony should have eaten breakfast, she's grumpier than usual~!"

And so we set out into the suburban wasteland again. Everypony seemed a little tense stepping off the porch onto the lawn, but after I went first and stomped around a bit to show them, they hurried along and we returned to the street.

We managed to make it to the end of the street before they struck up conversation, but at least Air Heart took the hint and it wasn't about me.

"So, what do you think that thing was?"

"A very grumpy bush! Lumi, that's what you're gona turn into if you don't cheer up a little."

"I have no idea, I've never fought anything like that."

Air Heart chuckled a little at that. "I thought you were supposed to be the most experienced here?"

"I am. I've just never taken any jobs that involve killer shrubs. Remind me to smack Cactus Flower when we get back to Cliffside."

"But she warned us about them!"Air Heart exclaimed, briefly rising a short distance off the ground.

"Not good enough, no one with half a brain would have taken that warning seriously."

"You're just mad because it got you first." Abattoir said, trotting backwards and grinning at me.

I didn't answer right away, because I was busy thinking. I'd spent most of last night thinking too, and still hadn't come to a decision I liked. On one hoof, these two bumbling ponies had risen to the occasion when an unknown enemy attacked and managed not to botch it, and I had to say something. On the other hoof, I didn't want to give them the wrong idea, I was already in way too deep. Saying anything now could tip the balance and I'd never be rid of them. I gave a sigh and raised my gaze.

And again found Abattoir's own eyes inches from my face "WHAT!" I shouted, backing up.

"Toldya." She said to Air Heart over her shoulder, then to me. "You stopped walkin', I thought you fell asleep behind your mask. You suuuure you don't want any breakfast?"

I groaned and swatted her away, nodding "Yes, I was just... thinking about something."

"Like whaaaat?" Abattoir persisted.

I looked at her, and Air Heart waiting behind her, and took a deep breath. Then I bowed my head and forced out the words. "Your skills in battle have been... a great assistance to me, and I must extend my... nngh... humble thanks." I raised my head again and looked at them.

They both looked completely baffled. Even Abattoir's grin seemed to have shrunk, and neither of them said anything for a long while.

"Is that how you say 'thank you'?" Air Heart eventually asked with a tilt of his head.

"Are we gona have to go through that every time?" Abattoir added.

"Yes and no and shut up, don't get used to it." I sighed and started trotting again. They both exchanged glances then shared a laugh, following beside me when I passed them. They had gotten the wrong I idea, I was going to regret this, I could already feel it.


We left the upper scale neighborhood behind without any trouble, plant or otherwise, and followed a road into a stretch of abandoned and heavily looted shop fronts. Only then did we start to encounter other ponies again. Raggedy bands of scavengers who watched us pass from across the street, or hungry eyed bandits who quickly lost their appetites once they got a closer look at us. Grinder and his gang must have been an exception over these common thugs if they were scared away so easily.

After drifting south for a while, Abattoir led us out through a gap in the row of buildings, and we were looking out at the sprawling San Palomino wastes again. But much more importantly, we were looking down at two pairs of train tracks that disappeared off to the left and right, ringing the lower edge of the town.

"Ta-da~" Abattoir waved her hoof over the tracks, then hopped up onto one of the beams and flipped forward to stand on her forehooves. ""We're almost there, I can feel it."

"It almost seems too good to be true." I replied as I stepped up to stand in the middle of the tracks, following Abattoir and her peculiar wobbly gait.

Air Heart hesitated a moment, looking up and down along the tracks before joining me on them, with Crunch guarding the rear as usual. "You say that like you expect something bad to happen. Maybe you're afraid of that curse afterall?" He teased.

After a quick glance around for any random stacked piles of junk, I shook my head. "Absolutely not. Curses don't scare me, especially imaginary ones." But that did remind me of Air Heart's own numerous fears, and of a question of my own. Apology incident aside, the conversation this morning hadn't turned sour, maybe it was worth the risk. "So, let me ask you something. When I first saw you, you always seemed just two steps away from a nervous breakdown. How and why did a pony like you end up in the Enclave military?"

He didn't give any answer for a long while, and I looked back to make sure he hadn't fallen off the train tracks or something, and saw him looking absently down at the ground with his cheeks red. "Uhm... well... you know your, uh, thing. About questions? Can I do that too?"

Surprising, but maybe not unexpected. I shrugged and faced forward. "I guess so. It's nothing I need to know, just found it strange."

"I don't want to sound as bit-er... as... grumpy as you do when you say it, but I just really don't want to talk-"

"It's fine, Air Heart. I don't need to know." And I figured that was the end of that. I really didn't need to know, and had no reason to pressure him for information. He fell silent too and for a moment we just followed upside down Abattoir.

"I had to go. For my family." He squeaked quietly. "And technically I wasn't fully in the military, remember? I was on my... third day of basic, you know, when I overheard... s-something I shouldn't have, and I... well you know the rest from there."

The rescue team went down to the surface after his sister's distress beacon went off, the ship he stowed away on was captured in the crossfire. I knew the rest. "You've got really bad timing."

Abattoir craned her neck back, an upside down grin on her face. "No wonder that bitch was so mad at you."

"Captain Cloudy is not a bitch!" Air Heart protested way too quickly. "She just has a temper."

Abattoir and I just gave him silent looks for a moment. "...She kicked you out. Of the sky."

"Yeah... yeah..." Air Heart trailed off, Abattoir went back to leading the line, and I let the silence stretch on. I started trotting again and Air Heart followed.

Nopony else had any more to say until the train station came into view. Abattoir pointed it out then tried to get us to race her there, then took of galloping towards it. We let her win.

It was a simple, flat, one storey building, old fashioned and mostly wood. It sat between the two pairs of tracks, with wide open platforms on either side and a dusty waiting room in the middle. We found Abattoir in that waiting room when we caught up, looking through a rack of faded postcards. "You ponies are sooooo slow."

"Shut up. Stop sitting around, we still have a lot farther to go."

Abattoir waved her hoof vaguely behind herself "Ticket booth's over there, I'm lookin' for a train schedule..."

I followed her hoof to the far wall, where a row of windows sat in the wall at the head of a short maze of decaying velvet ropes. One of the windows was smashed through, and a lone skeleton lay dangling half in and half out. I trotted around the barriers and peeked through the window. Some scattered pre war bits lay on the floor outside the window, in a long dried puddle of the unfortunate ticket pony's blood. I peered though the remains of the window and carefully reached through, tapping a button set into the counter. There was a grinding, churning noise and a moment later, a yellowed piece of paper was spit out of a slot in the counter.


I plucked the paper out with my magic and trotted back to the waiting Abattoir, Air Heart, and Crunch. I dropped the ticket into Abattoir's lap. "Here, let's get going."

Abattoir scooped it up in her hooves and looked puzzled at it, then turned the look on me with the most serious face she could muster and said, "Lumi, there's four of us, we're gona need more tickets..." I swiped at her head and she yelped, falling over on her side, grinning up at me. "Okaaaay, okay! I just wana rest a bit, it's soooo far out there still."

She groaned and flailed her hoof at the door, and the platform, and the tracks beyond. "It's not even noon. Get up, if we've got a lot more ground to cover, I want to pick up our pace." Abattoir groaned again and flopped onto her back, so I reached out and jabbed a hoof into her side. She stuck her tongue out and blew a raspberry at me. I huffed and turned away. "Fine, you can rest here, good luck, we'll see you later."

I trotted past Air Heart before he could protest, but Crunch cut me off at the door and gave me a stare. "Come on, she's practically begging us to leave her behind." I protested and tried to step around him, but he mirrored me and stepped in my way again, raising an eyebrow. I stepped the other way and found him blocking me still. "You got a better idea?!" I snapped up at him.

Crunch snorted and trotted around me, stood over Abattoir for a moment, then lowered his head and heaved her up onto his back, where she lay sprawled like a sack. "Woooah nelly... at least take a gal out for dinner first!" She kicked and giggled.

Okay, problem solved. Maybe we'd make better time, now if only we could get...

I turned to look at Air Heart, who'd been watching quietly from the doorway. He met my gaze and blinked, leaning back slightly "W-what?"


An hour or so later, we were still running along the train tracks. 'We' was only Crunch and myself. Abattoir was still enjoying a bumpy ride across Crunch's back, taking time to direct us towards the mysterious arrow her PipBuck projected, and Air Heart was reluctantly flapping along beside us. Every few yards he'd slow down to glance around at the barren hills and approaching mountains, then when he fell too far behind he'd scrounge up enough courage to put on a burst of speed and catch up.

"Are you absolutely sure there's no one out here to see us?" Air Heart asked, for the hundredth time.

"Yes." I answered back for the hundredth time. I kept the edge out of my voice, as I was in a good mood. Running full out like this, we were covering more distance in less time than we'd been able to in almost a week. It'd been a pain talking Air Heart into taking to the air, but I convinced him that he was safely away from prying eyes, being so far out of town. His reservations about flying where anyone could see still baffled me, but I was in no position to pry.

"Oh, oh, I think we're almost there!" Abattoir sat up suddenly and pointed between Crunch's ears. I could see what she meant, ever since the train tracks had turned sharply and started heading straight south, we'd been steadily approaching one of the larger clusters of mountains. And now I could see where the tracks curved to run along the base of one of them, and even started to spot some buildings nestled amongst the rocks.

"See? If we'd done this in the first place, it wouldn't have taken us three days to reach Cliffside." I pointed out as I started to run faster.

"Two days!" Air Heart called from somewhere above me.

"Whatever." I grumbled and focused on running.

Soon we were slowing down and coming to a rest in an old settlement set between the tracks and the mountains. Another, much simpler train station marked the spot where the train would have stopped to be loaded up with gems or whatever was being mined out of here way back then. Now it looked deserted, but not much more so than any other area of the wasteland. Stepping off the tracks, I could see rows and rows of long buildings with different signs posted in front of them, and discarded tools and gravel littered the ground. The little mining town was much bigger than it'd looked from far off, and it took us a while to navigate back to the mines. When we got there, I saw that the town had been built so the walls of the mountain enclosed it on three sides, with the way we came being the only way in or out.

What I didn't see was a way into the mines. There were several openings in the rock face framed with wooden supports, but they were all overflowing with loose boulders. "Well, this might make things difficult." I said, kicking ineffectually at one of the piles.

"I guess the mine was closed down a long time ago." Air Heart shrugged, back on the ground again.

"Doesn't matter, we're getting in there. Abattoir!" I shouted, because she'd disappeared again somehow. A moment later, she stuck her head out a window in one of the long buildings.


"Which of these mines do we need to open?"

She swept her head from left to right and rubbed her chin for a moment, then pointed. "The big one in the middle?" I didn't like the questioning tone in her voice, but I followed her hoof to one of the overflowing mines, lowered my head, and started using my magic and hooves to shift the smaller rocks. A moment later Crunch was on the other side heaving away the ones I left behind.

I looked up after a few minutes and found Air Heart and Abattoir looking at me. "What? You want to help?"

"That's going to take forever." He pointed out how little progress we'd made.

I shrugged and went back to digging "Better stop wasting my time then."

He sighed and sat down to watch. "There's got to be a quicker way. You should rest a bit after all that running, we can think of something."

"I'm good. Help out or stay quiet." I heard somepony climbing up the pile of rocks and thought he might have decided on help. But it was Abattoir I saw, grinning at me and kicking rocks away.

"I know a song that might help us work faster!" And before I could shove a rock in her mouth, she started rocking her head side to side. "We dig dig dig dig dig dig dig in a mine the whole day through~" She began prancing in between knocking pebbles away. "To dig dig dig dig dig dig dig is what we like to do~"

I slid back down to the ground and glared at Air Heart "Fine, start thinking of a quicker way, immediately." He snorted and laughed at me, covering his muzzle with a hoof and shaking his head.

"I know a waaaay~" Abattoir called from the top of the pile. I rounded and drew my sword at her, and she snickered. "Okay, I know another way, not the song." I lowered my sword slightly and motioned for her to continue. She grinned and cocked her head towards me. "Weeell, how d'you think the ponies back then got these mines open in the first place?"

"Get to the helpful part." She rolled her eyes and dipped her head into her saddlebag, plucking out a long red stick of dynamite and grinning even wider around it. "Where'd you get that?" She spat the stick out and pointed back at the buildings.

"Found a big box of 'em in there!" then she dug out a little hole between two rocks and shoved the stick between them.

"That's actually not a bad idea. Go get the rest then." Abattoir started back down, but Air Heart rose to his hooves in alarm.

"Oh, Abattoir, you're bleeding!" I looked again, and Abattoir looked herself over quizzically. Air Heart met her at the bottom of the pile and pulled out her foreleg, and I saw the trickle of blood streaking down it. "One of your cuts from the plant fight must have reopened, here. Lumi, let me take care of her, you can find the dynamite, right?" He said while he fussed over the wound, drizzling some of his water over it.

"Don't call me that." Was all I said before I turned and trotted back to the one building I'd seen Abattoir hanging out of. Inside I found a dusty interior, decorated with some desks and scattered chairs, and several lockers filled with old faded jumpsuits and helmets. I kept looking, and came into a smaller back room with several shelves full of shovels and picks and other digging tools. And finally I spotted several crates marked with three black symbols, and inside them, dozens and dozens of ruddy red sticks.

First I pulled down a pair of shovels, then scooped out about a dozen sticks of dynamite and a spool of fuse. Back outside I found Air Heart wrapping a short length of bandage around Abattoir's leg.

"-be more careful. Your other wounds look fine, but if they open again, try and notice and let me know, okay?" Air Heart looked sternly into Abattoir's eyes.

She rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out "Okaaaay, but it's no big deal, I didn't even feel that one... Hey, since I was a good patient, do I get a cookie?"

"I... uh... don't have... uhm-oh! Look, Luminescence is back, yes, let's focus on her. Welcome back!" Air Heart smiled at me and waved as I approached with the supplies. He eyed the hovering sticks of dynamite warily. "Are you sure it's safe to carry them like that?"

I was about to return with a snide comment, but then I realize he might actually be right, but maybe not for the reasons he thought. Either way, I released my magic and let the dynamite drop to the ground. That only made Air Heart yelp and duck for cover. "Oh, relax. Abattoir, you and Crunch set them up at the entrance."

Crunch took two sticks between his teeth and carried them back to the blocked mine entrance and Abattoir followed behind balancing one stick on the end of her nose, with Air Heart raising his head up from the ground at the sight of it. "That's really really dangerous you know! Have either of you ever handled explosives before?"

"We've known ponies who have, and dynamite is simple enough. I thought you didn't know anything about explosives anyway." I said as I started unwinding a length of fuse.

"I know they explode! And you shouldn't drop them or bite them!" He gasped out as Crunch scooped up another pair in his teeth and trotted away.

"Relax. You've seen how he eats, a little dynamite wouldn't hurt anything."

Air Heart chortled and nodded, then blinked and stared up at me. Tentatively, he said "Was that a joke?"

Dear Luna... I smacked my hoof against the side of my head and groaned "I need something to kill soon..."

Air Heart scoffed "Oh stop that. It wasn't that bad." That hardly made me feel better. Luckily the return of Crunch and Abattoir halted that conversation.

"All set!"

"Good, take this and jab it into one of the sticks." I held out the length of fuse and she took it in her mouth. When she returned, we all started backing up, and I spotted a nearby heavy minecart that would be perfect to duck behind. It was a bit of a tight fit with all four of us back there.

"How're we going to light it?" Air Heart asked. For a moment, I thought I might have made a very big mistake, then it dawned on me, and I levitated out the igniting talisman. I don't think they had a clue. "Okay, brace yourselves." I held the fuse over the tip of the triangular talisman, and concentrated, pushing my magic through the faint runes. In a second, the tip let out a tiny jet of flame, and the fuse caught.

I watched as it burned its way up the path towards the pile of rubble and explosives. Air Heart, somehow, decided now was a good time for some conversation. "Still, I wonder why the mines had to be closed like this in the first place. It's such a big mountain, could it really have gone dry?"

I shrugged, keeping my eyes on the fuse. Was it moving slower? Just hurry up and explode! "Who cares?"

"And why all this with the rocks? I can see maybe wanting to keep ponies out for their own safety, but this seems... excessive."

I looked up from the fuse at that, thinking. We'd come across abandoned mines before, hadn't we? Usually there were just a few boards across the entrance. Maybe something was wrong here. I'm sure I could think of one or two reasons somepony would block up a cave. Too late to think about it now though...

"Maybe it's got somethin' to do with these signs?" Abattoir posed the question innocently, holding up something in her mouth. It was a metal signpost, weathered and beaten, but the panted image was still easy to make out. It was a crude depiction of a grey-green creature, with a long snout full of pointed teeth, and painted over with a large red Ø.

"Where did you find that?" I asked with a jolt.

"It was laying next to the big pile ah' rocks. Why, y'think it's important? I was gona take it home and hang it on my wall, but then I remembered I don't have a house..."

"You idiot!" I whipped my head around, searching for the fuse. It was nearly at the base of the rock pile. Much too late to think about it now. I swore, repeatedly, under my breath as the spark climbed the rocks. "Get ready..."

The sparkling vanished down a tiny crevasse, and I held my breath.

And held it.

And held it. I didn't want to let it out. I couldn't move, all I could do was think Don't say it. Don't either of you say it.

"Huh, must have been a dud..." Damnit Air Heart!

"Son of a-"


The blockage evaporated in a cloud of dust and flying rocks. We all ducked behind the minecart as pebbles rained down around us. After a moment of silence I dared to lift my head and survey the area. The entrance had been cleared, and nearly obliterated. It was now a smoking hole that very little sunlight was spilling into. I saw no movement but the dust and smoke being carried into the air.

"Crunch, watch my back." I didn't wait for acknowledgment before creeping out from behind our makeshift barrier. Keeping my belly low to the ground and my ears alert for suspicious noises, I slunk closer and closer to the cave.

I reached the shadowy entrance after what felt like hours, peering into the depths of the mountain. Two gleaming orange orbs peered back at me and snarled.

"Shit!" I cursed and tumbled to the side a hair before the creature leapt out and tried to tackle me. Rolling to my hooves and drawing my sword, I rounded on it and shouted "Stay back, I've got this."

The creature turned to face me, a broad hulking monster on four stout legs, it looked like an oversized armadillo armored in plates of rock. It opened its maw an snapped at me with rows of jagged black teeth, throwing out sparks and making me jump back.

"What is that?!" Air Heart cried out in shock.

"Stoneback! Very dangerous, very hostile." I replied, and lashed out to stop it from gaining more ground "Keep back, I've got this."

With a roar, the stoneback reared up on its hind legs and swiped at me with its powerful front claws, spraying up dust and gravel when it came crashing back down. I dodged under the swings and skidded about to face the creature's side, delivering a wide slash. The backs were the most thickly armored, but the legs were weaker, and my blade was heavy. There was a grating noise as my steel broke through the thinner plating and sunk into the stoneback's foreleg, drawing a furious screech from the beast.

I wrenched my sword back out again in time to bring it up and jam it between the creature's snapping jaw when it came in to bite at my head. I grunted, and poured on my magical grip as its hot breath wafted over me. Before it could dig its claws into the ground and really bear down on me, a twisted my blade and slashed inside its mouth. The stoneback roared blood and reared again, and I ducked in to stab up into the joint where its foreleg joined its body as quick as I could. Blood splashed over me and I dove out of the way as the enraged beast came crashing down.

As I'd hoped, its wounded leg crumpled and made it tip off balance on its left side. I raced in on its right side and used a combination of sword and hooves to keep pushing it. It started to thrash its tail and snap its fangs, but I gritted my teeth and dug my hooves into the dirt, and slowly a gradual tilt turned into an full on flip, and the creature tumbled over onto its back in a mess of thrashing claws.

I lifted my sword up high and stabbed down into the stoneback's unarmored belly, over and over again, until it stopped moving. I took a few steps back and caught my breath. Turning, I trotted back to the rock where they were waiting. Crunch was keeping an eye out for others, and She was looking at me with her brow furrowed. "We must be getting close to the water, if the stonebacks built a nest this close."

"What?" She asked. I shook my head hard and looked again. Air Heart was standing in Her place, looking confused. I cleared my throat.

"I mean... there must've been stoneback nests in the mountains. That's why they closed them off." He kept looking at me critically. I looked away and tried to clear my head out with another shake. Couldn't let this get out of hoof now.

I looked back at my group and found Abattoir with her head pressed against the ground. I waited a moment, debating whether I really wanted to know, before sighing. "What are you doing?"

"Somethin' comin'" She mumbled. Then I felt it too, a rumble under my hooves. Crunch was staring at the wide open hole we'd blasted in the mountain. I raised my sword again.

"If it's more stonebacks, I might need your... help, again." I said with hesitation. That hesitation troubled me more than the growing rumble did.

I turned out to be half right. It wasn't more stonebacks, but I would need their help. The rumbling grew and grew, until a wave of geckos burst forth from the mine entrance. They were a paler and smaller sort I'd never seen before, and they ignored us completely, just kept running out into the desert. After they were gone silence fell again, and I exchanged a glance with Crunch.

The sound of scraping rock drew our eyes back to the cave. A massive snout poked itself out of the darkness, and behind it came a single stone back, much much bigger than I'd ever seen. Its beady eyes surveyed the mining yard and the corpse of the other stoneback, before locking onto us. It sucked in its breath and let out a piercing roar that had all four of us wincing back, and then it charged. Despite carrying what looked like a small mountain on its back, the king sized stoneback moved with shocking speed.

"Move!" I shouted, and we all scattered. Abattoir and Crunch to the right, I to the left, and Air Heart shot screaming into the sky. The creature was momentarily confused about which of us to pursue. I took that chance to duck in and try a few swings at its leg. It was the size of a tree trunk, and my strikes only tore off small chips of rock while doing relatively little damage. So little, in fact, that it chose to turn and chase after Crunch and Abattoir instead.

"Shit" I hissed and ducked as it turned around, its tail barely missing me. The usually thin, whiplike appendage was also covered with several rocky growths, making it swing like a club. Then the stoneback was off charging after my companions, and I ran after it. "Air Heart!" I called, scanning the sky for signs of the pegasus. He soared in from behind me, wobbled a bit, then dropped to his hooves and ran after me.

"W-w-what?" He panted, making me lose a little confidence in my plan. I levitated a few sticks of the leftover dynamite in front of him and he squeaked, falling back a bit.

"I need you to take these and fly up there!" I pointed up at the rampaging stoneback and Air Heart's eyes grew wider still.

"Are you insane! I c-c-can't, it's the size of a sky waggon!"

I skidded to a stop and he bumped into me, falling on his rear. I turned and dropped the sticks into his lap "You can, and you will, you're the only one who can reach." He cowered a little and I groaned "Come on. What about that stupid book that you read, did it wear off or something?"

He lowered his eyes, then took a deep breath and jumped to his hooves "Y-you're right, I... I can't let this... giant rock monster push me around!" He said with forced enthusiasm.

"Don't get too reckless. Just take the dynamite and get up on its back. Look for cracks or plates, anyplace you can shove a few sticks, then get out of there." I helped him load the explosives into his saddlebags.

"How are we going to light them?"

"You let me worry about that, now go!"

He looked to the sky and chewed his lip a moment. "Promise you won't watch me too close-"

"Go!" And he went, flapping his wings and taking to the air. It wasn't the speedy ascent I'd seen him pull off on the roof, but it wasn't the pathetic half crippled bobbling in the air I'd first seen him display either. Oh well, a little progress is still progress.

Meanwhile, I returned to chasing the stoneback. Abattoir and Crunch had run to one of the far walls of the mining complex built into the mountain and scattered again, and the creature was choosing to go for Crunch. He was the largest, after all, probably the most filling if it got its claws on him.

I needed to get its attention on me, though, and that would probably require pissing it off. I was still thinking about ways to do that when I caught up to it from behind. Its rock stuffed tail swung dangerously as it ran, forcing me to keep my distance or risk being stuck by it. After watching it swing by a few times, I got an idea, and galloped faster to bring myself in range. I ducked under it once, then again, waiting for it to lag just right.

Finally, the tail came swinging at me and I jumped, spreading my legs and leaping onto the flailing appendage. I latched on and felt it carrying me through the air. It was not unlike being dragged around by the killer vines, come to think about it. But I didn’t have time to think about it, I had a job to do. Turning my back to the rest of the creature, I focused on the tail. It was spotted with rock, but I could still see large gaps of flesh beneath.

Making sure I had a firm grip on it, I levitated my sword up over my head and started hacking into the section of tail I was sitting over. It gave a meaty CHOCK and the creature I was riding stumbled. Before it could recover I lifted my sword and brought it down again and again. The flesh tore, helped along by the heavy rocks weighing it down, and with a final powerful swing, I severed the tail and sent it tumbling to the dirt.

Then the monster kicked out with its back legs and I was tossed up off its tail and into the air. I had a brief glimpse of a startled looking Air Heart clinging for dear life to its mountainous back, before I crashed down amid the rocks.

I rolled to my hooves in time to see the stoneback turning to face me, furious and snorting. And there I stood over its severed tail. It drew back its head and let out another ear splitting roar, and I wondered for the first time if what I'd done was a good idea.

My question was answered beyond a doubt when the stoneback snapped its teeth together, throwing up a wave of sparks, then exhaled a wave of flame at me. I cursed and dived aside, rolling behind an overturned minecart and, despite myself, letting out a laugh.

I was still laughing when Air Heart appeared from above, panting and looking frazzled. "What... what's so... funny?!" He demanded, and I stopped myself.

"This solves our 'lighting the dynamite' problem."

He gaped at me and threw his hooves into the air "Y-you knew it would do this? And you sent me up there with a bundle of dynamite?!"

"Not exactly. I'd heard stonebacks were a species of dragon, but I've never seen one do that. Doesn't matter now, regroup with the others and don't let it see you." I didn't give him a chance to say anything back, as I jumped out into the open again, shouting to the still furious flame spewing beast. It spotted me and I ran in the opposite direction, checking to see Air Heart galloping back to find Crunch and Abattoir.

I led it back across the mining yard, occasionally feeling heat licking at my backside, all the way to the opposite end of the yard just to be safe. Then I skidded to a stop and rounded on the charging brute, making sure I stowed my sword. I would need all my magic for this. The stoneback stomped up in front of me and snarled, thinking me cornered. It sucked in its breath and snapped its teeth. The air filled with sparks, then the flames washed over me.

My horn was ready, and I reached out and latched onto the burning air, reaching inside and taking hold of it. The flames shimmered emerald in my magical grip, and followed the movements of my horn. I reared back, dragging the fire over my head like a whip, turned them back around and crashed them into the stoneback's er... stone back. My magic dissipated and the rest of the fire guttered out, leaving behind several conspicuously sparking spots all across the rocky surface of the creature's back.

It was then my brain once again caught up to my plan and I realized I was standing in range of a (hopefully) deadly explosion. With seconds left to space and a confused stoneback looming over me, I spun around in search of shelter and spotted one of the many forgotten minecarts. I ran full tilt towards it and grabbed onto it with my already taxed magic, slamming into it with all my weight. It tipped, achingly slow, finally crashing over onto its side. I hopped over onto the opposite side and kept pulling. The heavy metal cart slammed down around me with a sound like a drum. It was heavy, hopefully heavy enough, I thought as the seconds ticked by.

Then my shelter shuddered and resounded like a gong, and tried to clamp my hooves down over my ears to block it out. While I waited for the ringing to fade, I felt the ground quake under me. I took that as my cue to take a peek outside and check on my handiwork.

It took much more effort to get out from under the minecart than it'd taken to get under it in the first place, but eventually I emerged and surveyed the yard. The first thing I saw was the stoneback, sprawled on its side with its back a smoking ruin. Crunch trotted up to me and gave me an impressive grin. I shrugged and waved a hoof, muttering, "Nothing to it."

Abattoir and Air Heart were close behind him, both marveling at the fallen colossal stoneback. Then Abattoir started to laugh and bounded over to me, and threw her forelegs out. "That was awesome!" To my dismay, my magic was still too stressed from the fight to reach out and grab her, so for a brief moment I thought she was going to get me. Then I flailed out with my forehooves and kept her at bay, scurrying backwards and wishing I'd stayed under the minecart.

"Okay, okay, I get it, there's no need for that!" She kept laughing and fighting to get around my hooves, when Air Heart appeared over her shoulder.

"You know, I helped, I put the dynamite up there."

Abattoir turned her head and smirked "Oh, is somepony feeling left out? Get down here!" Then she jumped and tackled Air Heart and they both went down wrestling in the dirt.

I groaned and looked back up at Crunch "Ugh, break them up, we've got to get inside that cave before something else shows up." And I started to trot back to the blown open mine shaft.

But that was enough to make Air Heart struggle out of Abattoir's grip and shoot into the air. "We're still going in there!? After what just came out? What if there's more of those things?"

I looked back over my shoulder. "Then we know how to deal with them now."


The mine was dark. At first I was confused, but then Air Heart pointed it out to me.

"Hey, your mane," He said, tilting his head. "It isn't as bright anymore."

There wasn't any dodging around this one, so I tried to play it casually. "Happens when I use up too much of my magic at once. It'll be alright."

"Huh... that's not normal for unicorns, is it?"

"No." I said with a note of finality. He took the hint and went down a different track.

"Okay... well, that was a really impressive spell back there, with the fire. Can you create a fire wherever you want or something?"

"No!" I said, much louder than I wanted, the sound echoing off into the shaft ahead of us, and I took a deep breath. "No, I mean. I can control a source that exists already, and I can... heat some things up, but no, no fire."

"Could you heat me up a bowl of noodles?" Abattoir asked from up ahead, having turned on her PipBuck light when my mane didn't provide enough.


"Is that no, you can't, or no, you don't want to even though you totally could?"

"... No." I sighed and shook my head, glancing off at the side. I could see several holes in the mine wall, created by the stonebacks that must've invaded this place. So far we hadn't run into any, and I counted us lucky.

Then Abattoir stopped at a fork and spent several moments looking left and right and tilting her head, and I figured we weren't lucky enough. "What is it?"

"Can't figure out which way... gimmie a bottlecap, I'll figure it out."

I brushed her extended hoof aside. "What about the arrow? Or the map?"

She raised her PipBuck and looked at it "It says to go straight through the wall, and the arrows in the middle of nowhere." I looked at the map she held up, and the little arrow was indeed sitting in a square of empty blackness.

"Did you break it or something?"

She rolled her eyes "You can't break a PipBuck, duh."

I grumbled and turned "Air Heart, come and make sure this thing is working right." But the pegasus was standing to the side, squinting at the walls and ceiling. When he noticed all of us had stopped to look at him he jumped slightly.

"O-oh, uh, I was just... thinking. If they used this place to stash something, they probably hid it someplace secret so nopony else could find it. It wouldn't be on any map, I don't think."

"Then how are we supposed to find it?"

"Well, I did have an idea, but you probably won't like it..."

I shook my head "Just spit it out, this day has already tried my patience enough. Unless you're about to suggest we sing a song, I don't care."

Air Heart fidgeted at that and started to look around nervously, and I brought my hoof to the side of my head. "No... you can't seriously... your idea is a song?"

Abattoir appeared between us, grinning wordlessly.

"Well, not exactly. Not like what Abattoir sings. Just trust me." He waved his hoof, "Abbey, come here and let me see your PipBuck."

She obliged and he started to tap some buttons. First, he shut the light off, then a moment later, the little snippet from the radio we'd heard on the road, and again in Fiddle Sticks' home. The voice of Desert Rose bounced off the rock walls, then gave way to the song. Then the music started, that upbeat tune played by the stallion who'd hired us.

At first, we sat there in the dim cave and listened, and I was about to declare this idea a failure. Then the cave started to grow brighter. I looked around for the source and saw a glowing streak of blue colored light painted on the ceiling and leading down the right passage.

"What..." I started to ask while Abattoir moved off to follow the light. The trail seemed to glow more intensely the closer the music got, so we all started to follow her again.

"It was just a hunch, really, but Bluegrass was a unicorn with a talent for music, I figured he'd use music in his magic." Air Heart said as he craned his neck to look at the ceiling. "It must only work with the same kind of music, or instrument or something. Guess it's a good thing the gift for music was passed down through the rest of the family, huh?"

Silently, I nodded my agreement and waited to see where the trail would lead us.

After stopping several times to replay the song, or scare off some lurking geckos, the magical trail led us to a dead end shaft, and a pony sized fissure in the wall hidden behind some strategically placed rocks. Approximately pony sized, anyway, as Crunch had no hope of fitting through there, and we had to leave behind my sword and Abattoir's knife, and push our bags in ahead of us.

We emerged on the other side in a tall cavern. Abattoir turned on her PipBuck and I lit up my horn, bathing the two long forgotten skeletons in light. They laid across from eachother, one earth pony and one unicorn. The earth pony had the remains of a rusted knife lodged between his ribs, and laying by his head was the twin to the antique pistol I carried in my bag. Between the two of them sat a thick leather bound journal, and several piles of dull old coins sat scattered around the cavern looking forlorn.

Abattoir and Air Heart took in the scene in silence as well, while I dug out the carved box and scooped up the other pistol. It was heavily rusted , but now it was back where it belonged. I floated the journal over to Air Heart and he grasped it under his wing. "So... is this it then?"

"Looks like it. Hopefully that's got everything Fiddle Sticks wants, I don't think there's any more to find." I lowered my head to look the bodies over more closely one last time. Nothing but rags and scraps of whatever they'd been wearing at the time, I stood up to-

The earth pony looked at me. I jerked my head back and cursed when the flash of white and purple peering up from inside the skull caught my eye. I looked more closely and my breath caught in my throat. Abattoir came around beside me, startled. "What? What is that?"

"Something that shouldn't be here..." I hissed, reaching down and popping the orb out of the dead pony's eye socket and holding it up. It was a smooth sphere of white wood with purple sigils painted around its surface. It was his hoofwork, there was no mistaking it. How and why it was left here, I couldn't imagine, unless...

I realized Air Heart and Abattoir were staring at me. I dropped the orb into my bag and cleared my throat. "Okay. Let's get out of here."


The sun was starting to set when we emerged from the mine. Several of the pale geckos were swarming around the corpse of the massive stoneback. They stopped eating long enough to watch us pass, but otherwise gave us no trouble. We returned to the edge of the mining town and the small train platform before I called for a stop.

"I think we should take shelter here and head back in the morning."

"Really?" Air Heart and Abattoir said together with equal surprise.

"Yes. It'll be dark before we reach the city again, even if we run, and the desert is dangerous at night."

"This has something to do with that thing you found, doesn't it?"

I quickly realized why I found the orb where I had within minutes of leaving the cavern. Air Heart and Abattoir were endlessly curious about it. They were partially the reason we'd found that cave, so they were meant to find it as much as I was. I sighed and nodded.

"What is it?" Air Heart asked with his brow furrowed. "You said it shouldn't be there."

I dug out the wooden ball and looked down at it, rolling it across my hoof slowly. "It's... like a memory orb."

Abattoir came up close and squinted at it "That doesn't look like any memory orb I ever seen, I thought they were made of crystals?"

"The ones created by ponies are, but like a lot of things they developed during the war, the original idea was borrowed from the zebras."

That sure surprised both of them. Air Heart asked the next obvious question. "Okay, so if it shouldn't have been there, how did it get there?"

I glanced up at Crunch, but he was staring at the orb in my hooves as well. "Someon-... Somepony left it there for us."

"Who?" Air Heart raised his head, looking spooked.

I shook my head. He might have wanted to get these two entangled in our business, but I was going to draw the line somewhere. "It's not important to you."

He frowned and looked down at the sphere again. "Fine, fine... So, what are you going to do with it now? Watch it?"

"No. We're going to watch it." I said, starting to turn towards one of the abandoned bunk houses. I found Crunch standing in my way. "What?"

He furrowed his brow and shook his head sternly.

"Oh, now you don't want to get them involved in anything?"

He snorted once and shook his head, jerking it at the orb. I raised it higher for him to see, lowering my voice.

"If it was only for me, he would've left a regular one. I don't like it either, but it'd be more trouble to keep them out than to just show them. It's probably what he wants anyway."

Finally, Crunch stomped the ground and stepped aside. Looking back at Abattoir and Air Heart, I waved them on and we found our way into the old sleeping quarters.

"So, how are we supposed to watch it with you? Is there a spell or..." Air Heart started while I searched the interior for something fireproof.

"I told you, zebra memory orbs work differently. Ponies made theirs with unicorn magic, so only unicorns can use them, and then only one at a time. The zebras' were much more... efficient." I explained while I wandered into a bathroom and found an empty metal garbage bin. I pulled it out into the main room, then turned to one of the empty wooden bed frames and drew my sword. In a matter of seconds I'd reduced the frame to kindling. I filled the bin and searched my bag for the igniting talisman and lowered it into the bottom.

Within a few minutes I sat down before the small fire across from Air Heart and Abattoir. "Ready?" Air Heart exchanged a nervous glance with Abattoir and they nodded. I looked back for Crunch, but he was standing by the door. "Are you coming?"

He just stared back for a moment, then stepped out the door.

I sighed and pulled out the orb. I looked it over once more, then dropped it into the fire. It started to burn, and a thick white fog started wafting into the air. Air Heart started to cough, but I shook my head "It's safe. Just breathe slowly, let it work..."

"I'm feelin'... sleepy..." Abattoir murmured, slumping over on her side slowly. Air Heart mumbled something I couldn't make out and sprawled out on his belly. Meanwhile I could see the corners of my vision turning white. Mask or no mask, the fog was seeping into my mind. I lowered my head to the floor, the last thing I saw was the flames dancing in front of me, until everything blurred away and I saw nothing but white.

Footnote: Level up!

New Perk: Monster Hunter: You gain a 25% damage bonus when fighting oversized critters and beasts. Now get out there and hunt some wyverns!

Skill note: Explosives 15.

(Wewt! Just barely missed my 'by the end of the week' deadline. But at least I managed to keep the wordcount down to a more reasonable number, which is surprising for how much I had to get out in this chapter.
Anyway, on to the thanks! Thanks to KKat for the Fallout Equestria universe we all now live in, thanks to No One for the tips on keeping things on track, AND most importantly, thank all y'all for readin' so much, I just managed to reach past 200 views.
See y'all next time <3)

Chapter 8: Smoke and Mirrors

View Online

Fallout Equestria: Ashes


Chapter 8: Smoke and Mirrors

So… You went back in time and didn’t change… Anything?

I was walking. That was a good sign. At first, all I could see was a white emptiness. I couldn’t see the ground under my hooves, nor make out the horizon I was trotting towards. Slowly, the whiteness started to fade, and shapes began to emerge. The ground became rocky, and the flat horizon became rolling hills. The white smoke drifting around me pulled itself together and started to form into pony shapes. I was walking in the middle of a small herd.

After the shapes settled, the colors started to bloom. I was in a red, rocky desert, surrounded by dirty ponies. And instead of the constant overbearing cloud layer, there was only a small collection of black clouds in the distance, and I could see the sun hanging huge and low in the sky to the left.

“Wuoah, trippy~”

Turning my head, I saw I was walking with Abattoir, who was trying to look in all directions at once. Checking my other side I saw Air Heart, looking terrified.

“Where are we?” He gasped.

“Relax. This is the memory.” He didn’t look relaxed as I explained.

“T-this… this is… amazing, is this how memories always look? It’s so clear; I can even feel the dirt under my hooves…” I looked down at the rust colored ground. I could feel it through my boots, and I could feel the heat from the sun on my back. “Are you sure we didn’t actually go back in time? What if we mess up the timeline?"

“I said relax, we haven't gone anywhere. I told you, Zebra memory magic works differently, it’s just very vivid.”

Over my shoulder, Abattoir scoffed, “Time-line? Time isn’t made out of lines. It is made out of circles. That’s why clocks are round.”

I sighed and shook my head. “I’m regretting this already. Come on, let's try and figure out what we're here to see." I looked around for any significant looking ponies in the group. They were all mostly earth ponies, with hoofmade leather barding and simple weapons. If it weren't for the occasional rifle in the crowd I would have thought this memory was from a time before the war, instead of just after it.

"These are tribals..." I craned my neck and tried to see to the front of the group. There were a couple of ponies ahead of us, setting the pace and leading. "C'mon, let's see who's in charge."

I took off galloping, passing through the other ponies like they weren't even there, and heard Air Heart yelp in surprise behind me. I came out at the head of the herd and continued up the gradual hill we were climbing, slowing down as I closed in on the pair. Abattoir caught up first, with Air Heart very hesitantly following, waving his hooves in front of him as he cleared the crowd.

I trotted around to get a clear look at the pair. They were a mare and a stallion, a pegasus and a unicorn; she had a hard but pretty face, with a silvery coat and white-blonde mane that seemed to reflect the intense desert sunlight. She was wrapped in a dress that was little more than a few swathes of silk, and through it I could clearly see she was pregnant, yet she still kept pace with her stallion. He was a deep crimson color with a jet black mane pulled back into a fierce braid, and an even fiercer look on his face as he climbed the hill. He wore a simple leather vest and tan pants, with an assault rifle slung across his back.

“Look familiar?” Abattoir asked as she joined me on the other side, looking them up and down. I stared hard, at the stallion in particular. I thought I felt a tickle, in the back of my brain, the same tickle I felt whenever I tried too hard to summon up memories before I started walking with Crunch.

Finally, I shook my head “No, I don’t think so. I’ve worked with a few tribes before, but I don’t recognize this one.”

Air Heart was panting lightly as he caught up, opening his mouth to say something. But he stopped and fell silent as well collectively reached the top of the hill and peered out on the herd’s destination.

The valley bellow was brimming with life. There were dozens, possibly hundreds, of large tents standing amidst tall yellow grass and tall skinny trees, their inhabitants milling around peacefully. I could make out a few crops surrounded by fences, and even some livestock in scattered pens. A river ran lengthwise through the whole thing, with even more of the valley’s inhabitants gathered along its banks.

“Wooow…” Abattoir marveled at the scene, while the pair between us finally spoke.

“It’s beautiful.” The mare said with a smile on her face. The stallion nodded solemnly, favoring her with the slightest hint of a smile and a kiss on her cheek. Abattoir ‘aww’d quietly into her hooves.

“More beautiful than I imagined. And, Celestia willing, it’ll be our home.” He reached out to lay a hoof across her shoulders. Then he spotted something on the horizon, and we all turned to face it.

A group of the valley’s inhabitants were sprinting towards us, and at once I realized what they were, and what we were looking at. Their muscular forms became more defined as the small scouting party closed in on the herd, cloven hooves throwing up dust. In moments they were up the hill, and the group of minotaurs loomed over the assembled ponies.

Who are you, what is your business?” Grunted the foremost minotaur, a young bull with a brown coat and black horns.

The red stallion held his head high and spoke firmly and clearly, establishing himself as the leader to the new comers. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak minos very well, do any of you speak equestrian?” He asked hopefully, then snorted out “Speak pony?

There were a few murmurs at the back of the group of minotaurs, but the brown bull raised his hand and silenced them, then lowered his head. “I speak your pony tongue. Who are you, what do you want?”

“Why didn’t he just speak in pony first?” Air Heart asked, tilting his head at me.

I answered before I could think to stop myself “Minotaur language is at least ten percent intimidation, he was testing him.” Then I cleared my throat and coughed “So I’ve heard... Be quiet, I’m trying to listen.”

“We come in peace, of course. We wish to see your king, to speak to him.” The stallion continued, motioning back to his herd.

The bull scanned the crowd, furrowing his thick brow. “Mmh, you bear no war banners, your weapons are few and your ponies are puny. If this were a trick, it would be a very poor one." He rose back to his full height. “Very well, you and yours are now guests of King Nerves of Steel!” He clapped his hands together and turned back to his scout group, motioning down the valley “We bring them to the King. You, send word ahead.

The younger minotaur he spoke to snorted is response and started to run back down towards the tents at high speed, while the other minotaurs moved to circle the herd and lead them in the right direction.

“What’s going on?” Air Heart asked as we started down the hill with the rest of the ponies who couldn’t see us.

“They’re going to see the king, obviously.”

“Is this sort of thing normal down here? I never heard much of anything about minotaurs at all.”

“Sort of. Tribes are common, ponies descended from ponies who didn’t end up in stables or caught in balefire attacks. They lived in the wild, learned the ways of the land, passed them on to the next generation. Minotaurs though, those are rare. I’ve never heard of a group of them this big.”

We reached the outskirts of the tent village, and word of the herds arrival seemed to have spread fast. There were several clusters of minotaurs of all ages in varying shades of brown and grey gathered around the entrance. Mixed among them, I started to notice the goats as well, laden down with saddlebags. I gathered snatches of conversation as we passed through, and learned that ponies didn’t often come through here, and never as many as this. Further in, families started to appear, standing in front of their tents and offering waves and encouraging sounding greetings to the passing herd.

So far, I had no clue why he wanted me to see this, and especially why he’d want my other companions to. I was beginning to wonder it was just a ploy to stall me or confuse me while he put more distance between us.

Before my thoughts could form into anything solid, I heard Abattoir calling out and saw her jumping up and down. “Oh oh oh, what’s going on over there? Fight, fight, fight!” She cheered, while I and much of the herd all turned towards the commotion.

We were being led past a large tent that had an extended awning to provide shade, with a fire deep inside it and several stone slabs to serve as tables. I knew they were tables because of all the minotaurs and goats eating blackened meat off of them.

But the source of the commotion was two minotaurs in particular who’s voices were raised. One claimed the other’s mother was a swine, and the other returned by implying his father was a sheep, then the first turned to the goat next to him and retrieved an axe.

He launched across the table at the other minotaur, swinging wildly. He was smaller, and caught his opponent by surprise with his speed. His axe drew a gash across the minotaur’s chest, but he shrugged that off and reached out to catch the axe wielding wrist in his grip and twist his arm. The first minotaur cried out and dropped his weapon, and was thrown to the ground. Sprawled on his back with the larger minotaur standing over him, I imagined he was starting to rethink his whole stance.

Then the larger minotaur lowered his head and impaled him with his twin horns, one through the neck and one through the gut. Several of the herd mares, and some stallions, (and Air Heart) cried out in shock. And just like that all the minotaurs returned to what they were doing before the interruption. Not one of them had rose to interfere with the fight. A portly minotaur stomped over to the victor, cursed at the corpse, then held his hand out and dropped something shiny into the palm of the other.

“W-w-what the… what just happened?” Air Heart gasped for breath, looking pale.

“If I had to guess…” I shrugged and turned away as two goats started to drag off the corpse “I’d say those two didn’t like eachother.”

The bull with the black horns had stopped to allow the herd to take in the scene as well, but was now resuming the tour. Air Heart sputtered and swayed on his hooves as he tried to keep up, and he was not the only one with questions it seemed.

“What was all that about?” The red stallion jerked his head backwards. The bull just chuckled.

“Minotaurs are known for their temper. Some can not control themselves.”

The silver mare moved up with her own curious look “What was that the other minotaur gave him? The one with the apron?”

The bull turned his head at that, raising his eyebrow and smirking. “Your mate sees much. I think that was the young one’s father, or just his employer. He was paying the Blood Price.”

The pair of ponies exchanged a glance and the bull laughed, and didn’t wait for them to ask. “The Blood Price is a code that all minotaurs follow, and tells us that when one ends the life of another, those responsible for the dead are obliged to pay. They set their own price, whatever value they felt the dead held to them.”

The mare looked aghast, while the stallion looked interested. The mare voiced her concern first. “So if a minotaur murders somepony else, their family has to pay him?”

The bull smiled again, slightly wider this time. “Not pony. Minotaur. Only minotaurs follow the Blood Price by tradition, but others may if they choose. And it cuts both ways, little pony.” He pointed back over his shoulder with his thumb. “If another wanted that minotaur dead, friends of the fallen maybe, it would be as simple as paying his Blood Price to any who would accept it. Then it would become their sworn mission to spill his blood. But the more dangerous, the more powerful the minotaur, the higher his Blood Price.” He nodded sagely.

“Sounds confusing,” The stallion quipped.

“Sounds barbaric,” Asserted the mare.

“Sounds like fun~” Giggled Abattoir.

“Might seem strange to ponies, but it is important to us. The Price was what separated us from the wild beasts and aimless marauders who shed blood for no reason in the olden days.” The bull shrugged and snorted.

The rest of the trip continued in near silence, the mare and stallion whispering something I couldn’t catch and the minotaur looking ahead stone-faced. Eventually he stopped at a crossroads, the widest path leading up to the largest tent. A smaller crowd of armed minotaurs was waiting there, and one murmured to the bull when he came close.

“Your herd will be taken to be fed and given drink, the King himself has invited you to feast in his tent and hear your words.” The bull explained when he returned. The red stallion passed the word back, and most of his ponies turned to follow the minotaur guards, leaving behind only the silver pegasus and a hooffull of senior looking colts. The stallion nodded at the mare, and together they were led up the hill to meet the King.


The King’s tent was hot. Two goats pulled back the flaps as the small party of ponies approached, and a wave of heat and noise washed out. Air Heart coughed once and covered his nose. Once inside, the source became obvious, two larger fires over which more meat was cooking. The smell couldn’t affect me, but the air also rang with so many voices shouting and laughing at once, I briefly wondered if I could just wait outside for the rest of the memory.

There was one long table made from a single huge log, split in half and stacked end to end. Seated in rows along it were more minotaurs, more than I’d ever seen in once place. Goats moved in between them, refilling cups and plates.

And at the head of the table sat possibly the largest creature on two legs I’d ever seen. The minotaur king was massively muscled, as broad as a shed, and sitting down he probably would have been eye to eye with Crunch. His coat was grey speckled with black, and his horns gleamed and caught the light of the fires. Coming closer, I saw they were coated in silver.

I even stepped backwards when he turned in my direction and let loose a booming laugh, gesturing with his hands. “Ah, the little ponies come!” He announced to his table then shifted his tone. “Come ponies, sit, eat! You are so small, is funny to me!”

I tried to recover and remind myself that he could not see us, that he was talking to his guests. Some space had been left empty between the King and the minotaurs, presumably for the ponies to sit. The red stallion nodded his head and bleated out a polite “Many thanks” to the delight of the King, and moved to sit. I thought his accent was passable.

The silver mare joined him, then the rest of the ponies, and several goats placed some plates and stone cups in front of them. Peeking over their shoulders, I saw that while they had provided the ponies with vegetables, they had still been grilled first.

“We’re glad you chose to see us so soon, we were hoping…” The mare started, but the brown bull cut in suddenly.

“Please. It is custom not to talk of business before the King does so first.”

“Oh, my apologies, I did not know…”

“Fear not, little pony.” The King cut in, raising his hand. “My captain of guards forgets you are guests.” He flashed a broad grin and waved at the plates. “But I would still not hear you until you have filled your bellies, I insist.”

And so they had little choice than to dig in and eat their vegetables. At one point Abattoir leaned in and tried to snatch a turnip from one of the plates, but groaned when her hoof passed through it like a fog.

“So, does any of this make sense to you?” Air Heart asked, taking advantage of the lull in conversation.

“Not really. Just some random tribe that wants a favor from the minotaurs.”

“You don’t recognize anypony or anything?” He asked a little more suspiciously than I liked.

I shook my head. “No. Trust me, I’m trying to figure it out. I’ll let you know when I think of something.”

I sat back and continued to watch, hoping a clue of some kind would show up and help me figure out why we were here.

Then a clue strolled right into the tent. The King looked up from listening to one of the other minotaurs and laughed. “I wondered when you would come. Here to see the other ponies, eh?” We all turned to the front of the tent, where a large figure was trotting the length of the table opposite us. I couldn’t see him clearly behind the minotaurs, but I thought I recognized his shape with a sinking sensation in my gut.

Then he passed behind the ponies and I could see him. He was a pony, huge and thick with muscle. He stopped and turned to meet the King’s gaze, and I noticed he did indeed stand eye to eye with him.

“How did…?”

“Is that…?”

“Crunch?” I called in surprise. Then I shook my head. It couldn’t be him. Looking again, I saw I was wrong. This pony was similarly sized, but his coat was a light green, and his mane was bright orange. Most importantly, his cutie mark was a stalk of celery. I let out a long ragged breath and shook my head “No… No it’s not.”

“He could be related. Does Crunch have a brother?”

“He’s never said anything about one.”

Air Heart nodded at that, then a moment later furrowed his brow “…Wait.”

Laughing inwardly, I hushed him.

The Crunch look-alike had nodded in answer to the King’s question, and then turned to gaze silently at the seated ponies. They all regarded him with surprise, the silver mare offering a smile. “Uhm, pleased to meet you?”

He nodded his head politely and the King chuckled. “Waste not your breath, he does not speak your tongue. Or any tongue as I know it. This is Stalks, he is assistant to our shaman.” Turning his head and lowering his voice, the King continued “Is your master coming behind you?

The sinking feeling was back. Stalks nodded and I whipped my head around, saw the tent flap open and close again. Several of the minotaurs at the far end of the table stopped their conversations to watch as the shrouded figure crossed the tent. He came to stand beside his assistant, a thin equine shape under a red cloak. He reached up with black and grey stripped hooves and pulled back the hood, revealing the smiling face of a zebra. His muzzle was scarred, and his mane was long and unkempt, hanging around his shoulders.

“Lumi?” Abattoir’s voice pierced the raging storm that my thought process had become and I turned my head. I was back on my hooves and didn’t remember standing. I took a deep breath and backed up from the table as the zebra and the King started to speak.

I knew you would show yourself soon. You have just missed the feast, I am afraid. Come to frighten the ponies?

The zebra chuckled and looked amused at that “You wound me, your mightiness. I came to greet our guests.” He somehow managed to make the grunts roll smoothly off his tongue, then turned and bowed to the understandably shaken ponies. His ears jangled as he moved, pairs of thick ornate iron rings running through them. “Greetings, my friends, I have the pleasure of being Xephaniah. Shaman, far seer, and personal advisor to our good King Steel, and I welcome you to our peaceful valley and hope your visit is as pleasant as possible.”

In the awkward silence that followed, Air Heart placed his hoof on my shoulder. I didn’t take my eyes off the zebra. “You know him?”

I nodded and shrugged his hoof off.

“He the one who left the orb?”

I nodded again and brought my hoof up to my mask. Air Heart shut up.

“Ahem…” The red stallion cleared his throat and stood up. “I am Red Star, this is my wife Silver Wind.” The mare smiled politely. The ice wasn’t broken, but it was chipped. The other ponies introduced themselves. “I’m sorry, we just… have never met a zebra so close.”

“Other than on the battlefield?” Red Star lowered his eyes a little and the zebra laughed. “I understand, things are difficult between our two races. Many of mine would as soon attack as look at you, but I assure you I bear no ill will to any species. I have traveled the deserts with the minotaurs, roamed the plains with the buffaloes, even hunted alongside the hell hounds.”

“Sounds like you live an interesting life.” Silver followed his story with awe on her face.

“Lived. For now, I serve only our good minotaur King here. To that end, I am here to assist you and him come to a favorable agreement over whatever brings you to his lands.” With that, he trotted over to stand beside the King and waved his hoof at Red Star.

The stallion nodded, took a deep breath, and craned his neck to look the King in the eyes. “My ponies and I have all traveled long in search of a safe haven to call home in these dangerous times. Tales of your… peaceful valley and its splendor have reached our ears from other travelers, and we’ve been seeking it for half a year. Now that we’ve found it we humbly ask your permission to settle in your lands and live amongst your herd in peace and safety. My own herd would gladly offer up all they have in exchange, we have many earth ponies who know how to work the land and grow vegetables. He stopped to clear his throat again. “No offense meant to your farmers, of course.”

The King had remained silent, stroking his short beard while he listened, but that made him burst out laughing again. “No, you are right, our hands lack the skill for nurturing the earth your hooves hold.” But he quickly fell silent again, looking Red Star over.

“This is a difficult request.” The King finally said. “We have treated many ponies and allowed them a few nights of rest in our tents, but we have never had any who wish to live with us. If you were minotaurs it would be a simple matter…” The King trailed off and lowered his head.

Xephaniah leaned over to speak and I strained my ears to hear, as did most of the upper table. “My king, it seems you are facing a dilemma due to the ponies wishes clashing with your tradition, yes?

The King nodded silently, his eyes still on Red Star, who was still standing and looking hopeful. “In that case, simply ask the opinions of some of the elders.” He waved his hoof at the gathered minotaurs, the closest few murmuring and nodding.

I agree, it seems I can not come to the answer on my own this time.” The King stood and his voice boomed to the opposite end of the table “I will discuss the ponies request with my trusted few. Striking Iron, Bronzebeard, Rolling Thunder, come close.” He called out names and the minotaurs that answered them rose to join him at the head of the table, while the others started to file out of the tent, followed by the goats. The King jerked his head up as the brown bull started to leave as well, and added, “You too, Angus. I think your youthful viewpoint may be of assistance here.” The bull started, then regained his composure and returned to the King’s side. Xephaniah appeared like a black shadow at Red Star’s side and placed a hoof on his shoulder. For some reason this sight made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

“Come, this is a matter of minotaurs, we must let them lock their horns and butt their heads. I will take you to my home while we wait.” The other ponies exchanged glances then stood up to follow him out. I followed him as well. Listening to the minotaurs didn't seem nearly as important.

“What’s goin’ on?” Abattoir asked when we were back outside the tent.

“We’re following them.”

“I mean back there. What were they talkin’ about?” She jerked her head backwards. I shook my head at her.

“If I had to guess…”

“Why are you acting like you don’t speak it?” Air Heart cut in, brow furrowed.

“Excuse me?” I tried to sound put out. I wasn’t very good at it.

“Minotaur, or whatever it’s called. You can understand it, can’t you? I’ve seen some of that weird writing I saw on the terminal on signs around here, and you were following the conversation back there, I could tell by looking at you. Why are you trying to pretend you don’t know it?”

I fell silent, backed into a corner at this point. But they both just kept staring at me even when I tried to focus on the zebra and ponies ahead of us. “I just don’t like to talk about it, that’s all. It makes ponies ask questions.” I answered at last, shrugging my shoulders. There was no going back from there. “Fine. The King couldn’t make up his mind what to do, so he’s having a meeting with some important minotaurs. Something about tradition.”

“Huh. I hope he does allow them to stay here, they seem like nice ponies.” Air Heard gestured ahead at Silver Wind and Red Star.

“Yeah,” I nodded. “That would be nice, wouldn’t it…”


“-Actually just very territorial creatures. They mistrust ponies for the same reasons zebras do, because they assume they come to repeat the ills of their ancestors and come to take their homes from them. That is why if you ever encounter a pack of Hellhounds alone, it is key to make clear that you mean them no harm and that you are not there to seize their land.”

Xephaniah had been entertaining the ponies with talk of his various encounters across the wastelands since they arrived at his tent. His tent was off the main path that ran through the valley, and was instead very isolated at the far end of the village. It was formed from a large hide draped over a single bent tree, the inside decorated with countless baubles and trinkets sitting on shelves made from bone, or dangling from the ceiling by cords. There were two beds, one regular and one giant, and a firepit in the center. The ponies sat on one side and the zebra sat on the other, the light from the fire casting an eerie shadow across his muzzle while he told his tales.

I sat sullenly near the door as I listened.

“Soooo… is he an old friend of yours or somethin’? He seems nice.” Abattoir asked, laying on her side on the tent floor.

I grunted and shook my head. The two of them had been needling me endlessly ever since he started talking.

“But you know him, and he left you this orb to find? Why would he want to show us this?”

I shrugged and rubbed the side of my head. I had a hunch he’d done it so exactly this situation would happen.

Air Heart shook his head at me “Come on Luminescence, you’ve got to give us something. We’re in this together, for whatever reason.”

“Because it would’ve been too much trouble to convince you to leave while I watched it myself…” I snapped, and then sighed. “Crunch and I are chasing him.”

I looked up at Stalks, who was also lurking near the door. Maybe this was Crunch’s father, and Xephaniah had done something to wrong him. I never questioned why Crunch was after him as well, and he never asked me. Air Heart and Abattoir were not so gracious.


I tensed up, but before I could decide whether to answer or dodge, Stalks turned his head and pulled open the flap, just in time for one of the minotaurs to arrive and stick his head in. It was the young bull, Angus. He nodded solemnly. “They have finished.”

He led the group back to the King’s tent through the growing darkness, the dark clouds having moved in outside the valley. The atmosphere entering the tent matched the darkness outside, far different from the first time. One of the fires had been put out, and there was no roar of many voices mingling together. The minotaurs were silent as the ponies were led up the table and returned to their seats.

The King broke the silence finally. “I have come to a decision.” He spoke slowly, looking each of the ponies in the eye as he did. “Though your intention seems peaceful and your need seems great, I can not accept you into my herd and my lands.”

Disappointment was plain across the ponies faces, including Red and Silver. One of the colts gaped at the King “This is outrageous!”

“Yeah, why not, you’ve got enough space!?” The pony next to him agreed, starting to rise from his chair with more angry words on his lips.

“Quiet!” Snapped Red Star before things could get out of hoof, in a voice so imposing and forceful even the King looked impressed. He shook his head at the two and faced the King, instantly calm again. “Your mightiness, I know it’s not our right to ask or your obligation to answer, but may we ask why you’ve refused us?”

The King looked around at the other minotaurs at his table. One with a thick brown beard woven in a braid, and another with a lightningbolt tattooed on his chest both shook their heads, while a third who wore a massive hammer across his back just crossed his arms and lowered his head.

They deserve to know your reasons” Angus spoke up from his spot beside the King, earning some glares from the others.

The King raised his hand to them “He is right, they ought to have an answer if we are going to condemn them back to the wasted lands.” The King sat up straighter and cleared his throat. “I am sorry, little ponies. I have refused to accept you into my herd because to do so would be to disrespect our traditions. As you have seen, my own herd has grown vast by consuming many others. But the only way two herds may become one is for the two Kings to do battle until one emerges victorious.” He stopped to let his words sink in. The agitated colts had calmed down, but still didn’t seem to like that answer. Meanwhile Red had his head bowed in thought. The King continued. “It is because of this I can not allow you to stay. To do so without a proper fight between Kings would be an insult to all other herds that were taken in before yours, whose kings fought valiantly for the right.”

Air Heart’s wings riffled up at his sides as he realized with was happening. “That’s so unfair!” I reached up and shushed him. I could feel something important was about to happen.

“What if we gave them a proper fight between kings then?” Red Star asked casually, rising to his hooves. “My herd has never called me ‘King’, but I am their leader, that should be good enough, right?. And if it’s the only way, then I have no choice.” He glanced once to Silver Wind before fixing his determined glare at the King. “I will fight you, for my herd’s right to live here in the valley!”

As if on cue, the red stallion’s bold announcement was followed by a rumble of thunder from outside, leaving a stunned silence in its wake. It was broken abruptly by the trio of older minotaurs bursting into uproarious laughter. This didn’t seem to faze him, and he continued to stare down the King.

The King thumped his fist on the table and snapped at the amused minotaurs. “Silence! This pony has made a bold challenge, and you will show him respect.” Then, after reigning in his temper, he turned back to the ponies. “Your words are brave, little pony, but I am not sure you fully understand their weight.

“If I may,” Xephaniah stepped out from the shadows at the edges of the tent, clearing his throat. “What his mightiness means is that a fight between kings is a sacred event, and the consequences may be more than you are willing to suffer. Should you lose, your herd would be absorbed, but you yourself would be cast out in exile. If you survive at all.” He smiled in a way that I assumed was meant to be comforting.

Red Star returned with a cocky smile of his own, “And, if I win?”

Xephaniah’s smile grew and he shrugged “If you emerge victorious, you would earn yourself a respected place amongst the minotaur. But it will certainly not be as easy as you seem to think. In traditional fights between kings, your modern firearms are forbidden, as it is not a fight to the death. You would be reduced to your own martial strength and one weapon you can swing and strike with.”

“Then either way, my herd will be safe… Are we going to get to the fight tonight, or what?”

That wiped the smile from Xephaniah’s muzzle, and made the King laugh and pat the zebra heavily on his back. “This is a brave little pony, it seems your words will not frighten him away. Very well then, I accept your challenge. But I would not fight you after you have been travelling all the day.” The King rose quickly and clapped. “Go now, make love to your mate, sleep and regain your strength, and we will do glorious battle by first light tomorrow.”


“Are we gona get to watch a King-fight?” Abattoir asked as we followed Red Star and Silver Wind. Xephaniah had offered to lead them to their sleeping tent, but was walking ahead with Stalks, both of them silent.

“It’s possible.” I was trying to listen to the conversation going on ahead, but the rain that had started to fall was making it even more difficult. Silver Wind was obviously concerned about her husband, but she didn’t sound like she was trying to talk him out of his decision.”

“Awesome! I’ve never seen a King-fight!” Abattoir hopped back on her rear legs, shaking a pair of pom-poms she’d acquired from… somewhere. “Go Red Team, woo!”

“Shutup.” I hissed as the group approached the small collection of tents, one of the several that had been thrown up for the visiting ponies.

Xephaniah pulled back the flap and waved his hoof, smiling his oily smile once more. “Here you are. Sleep well, my friends. Best of luck to you tomorrow.”

Red Star nodded, thanked the zebra and slipped inside, but the silver pegasus hesitated. “I’ll just be a minute, I’d like to ask you something.” She nodded at the curious looking zebra. The stallion inside the tent gave her a look, but shrugged, and the trio stepped away from the tents, with the rest of us following unseen.

“How may I help you, my friend? This rain is getting worse, I wouldn’t want to keep you out in it too long.” Xephaniah asked when Silver Wind stopped walking.

“Maybe, I don’t know... I wondered if you might be able to… see something for me?”

The zebra arched an eyebrow and smirked. “My eyesight is nothing particularly impressive.”

Silver Wind sucked in her breath and closed her eyes. “No, no, I mean… you mentioned you were a far-seer back when we met you. I’ve heard rumors about zebras with such powers, and I… I hoped you could…”

“Aaaah, that's your game…” His smarmy tone made my hide crawl again. “You are anxious about the fight tomorrow, and you want me to use my ability to peel back the veil of time and tell you whether your husband is going to die tomorrow?”

Silver Wind sighed and lowered her head. “I’m sorry, I must have offended you, and I’m just scared. I know I’ll never be able to talk him out of the fight, he’s searched too long for a safe place for me… for us. I was just looking for something to set my mind at ease.”

She started to turn away and Xephaniah chuckled. “No need to apologize. Many have come to me desperate for answers when they learned I possess the gift of sight.” Silver looked back, her eyes wide and full of hope. “However, the process of divining the future is long and taxing, and one does not need to converse with the stars to know that your husband is clearly outmatched. He will most certainly lose tomorrow, the only mystery is whether he will perish in battle, or submit and be sent out into the desert in disgrace.”

The way the hope utterly drained from her face, and the way he continued to smile despite it, made me wish my hooves weren’t so intangible at the moment.

“W-w-what… what…” Air Heart struggled to find the words to express himself properly.

“What a dick.” Well put, Abattoir.

“Hopefully that answers some of your questions.” I waved my hoof for quiet as Silver Wind found her voice again.

“Is there nothing you can do to help him? I... I would do anything, just… please…” Even in the darkness of the night I could see her cheeks burn red, and she pulled at one of the straps of her silken dress. Xephaniah cocked his head to the side, looking at her critically. Stalks moved in from behind and gave his master’s side a nudge, growling dangerously at him.

“Your little pony body does not hold anything that could possibly sway me, do not embarrass us both…” He muttered after shaking his head. “The best I could do is convince my King to go easy on him, not break too many of his bones. Maybe you could try praying to your ‘Goddesses’?” With that he threw his hood back up and spun around, trotting away quickly. Stalks lingered to give the pegasus a silent look, then followed after him. Silver stood alone in the rain for a moment, watching them go, then made a choked noise in her throat and turned, half galloping, half flying back to her tent.

Then the edges of my vision filled with white smoke again. I barely had time to turn and find Air Heart’s and Abattoir’s surprised eyes before the smoke closed in and I was left in the void again.


Thankfully it didn’t take as long to come out of it this time. The smoke rolled out and the valley took shape before my eyes again. Shapes and figures emerged from the fog, color and sound rushed back in, and I found myself standing outside a large bare stretch of ground still damp from the rain, with a purple sky above. And I wasn’t alone. The minotaurs and ponies had assembled in the twilight and were all fighting to get the best view.

“What just happened?” I almost didn’t hear Air Heart over the commotion the crowd was causing. I turned to find him right next to me again, and Abattoir a few steps away trying and failing to splash in a puddle. And standing just ahead of us inside the clearing, was Red Star and Silver Wind, the latter standing with one of her wings draped across her mate's back.

“Seems there’s still more to see. Did you expect to have to wait out the entire night?” Air Heart opened his mouth to answer, but nothing came out, and he shut right up again.

Directly opposite us, the crowd parted, and King Nerves of Steel emerged, towering over all and wearing some kind of cape across his back. Under it, his shoulders seemed even more unnaturally broad. As if waiting for his entrance, the sun’s first rays peeked over the tops of the far hills, making his metallic horns gleam brightly.

The noise from the crowd grew explosively, shouting and stomping the ground and shaking their fists in the air and rendering any more chit chat impossible. Even the ponies joined in, stamping their hooves together and cheering for their leader. Just when I thought I couldn’t take any more, the King raised his hands and the crowds quieted.

My friends! My loyal subjects! The time has come, yet again, to test the strength of two mighty kings, and see which is mightier!” With practiced ease, the King worked the crowd back up into a frenzy as he announced the impending battle, then just as easily quieted them again and turned to face Red Star. “Are you ready, little pony?"

"Yes, I am!" Red Star answered, raising up to his full height and brushing Silver Wind off. With one last look, she turned and trotted back into the crowd. The King nodded and beckoned with his arm, and one of the minotaur I'd seen at the meeting, the one with the hammer, crossed the field towards the pony. Slung across his back instead of his massive hammer was a lumpy, jangling bundle wrapped in red cloth.

"Since you have no weapons other than your arms of fire, I have had our best smith, Striking Iron, prepare some of his best stock for you to choose from." At the King's words, Striking Iron unfurled the bundle at his hooves, revealing an impressive collection of weaponry. I saw spiked hammers and curved daggers, and several assorted swords and daggers, but nothing that-

My breath caught in my throat as Red Star made his selection, and levitated a hefty broadsword out of the mix. It was my sword! The metal gleamed in the rising sunlight, the steel shining bright and silver instead of deep grey-black, but I’d recognize my own weapon anywhere.

“Hey, y’know what that looks like?” Abattoir piped up, having got bored with the puddle and rejoining us.

“Yes, and no, I have no idea why he’s got it.” My head was starting to hurt again as I watched Red Star swing my blade in his magic a few times before affirming his choice.

“Well, where’d you get it in the first place?”

“I’ve always had it.”

“Yeah but-“

“Just shut up, it’s starting!”

Striking Iron had retreated from the field, and a suspenseful silence fell over the crowd. Red Star stood with his sword at the ready and the King reached up and unclasped his cape, letting it fall. With a start, I and all the other ponies saw that the extra bulk had been caused by the King's own weapon, which he reached back and drew. It was an anchor from some old ship, a huge hunk of metal with a broad head and two curved prongs that he wielded with one hand. If this sight gave Red Star any cause for concern, he didn't show it. The two combatants stared each other down, and everyone and everypony present seemed to hold their breath.

Then Striking Iron raised some kind of horn and blew a single loud note from it, and they charged.

King Steel closed the gap with frightening speed for such a large target and swung the anchor in a downward arc that would definitely have pulped the stallion if he hadn't dived out of the way. The King wrenched his weapon out of the muddy ground and pursued Red Star, who scrambled to his hooves and thrust out his sword widly. The King easily deflected the clumsy attack and almost knocked the sword out of his magical grip.

Red Star rolled away from another deadly swipe of the anchor, and looked to be recovering from his early surprise, getting back to his hooves and holding his sword more steadily. He was ready when the King came at him this time, diving toward him instead of away from him and ducking under his attack, swinging the sword up and drawing a gash across the massive minotaur's side. The crowd cheered, minotaur and pony together, as the King dragged his fingers across the wound, looking at the blood on them.

"You must forgive me, little pony!" The King rounded on Red Star again, laughing and raising his anchor in both hands. "I have underestimated you! I see now you intend to give me a proper challenge."

"I intend to do more than that, your meatiness!" The red stallion taunted, causing the crowd to gasp collectively and me to sigh. The King laughed again, then bent his knees and started to charge once more. Red Star responded in kind and galloped out to meet him.

The fight lasted longer than I expected, the stallion and the minotaur trading blows and jeers while the crowd looked on. King Steel was bleeding from a dozen slashes across his muscled form, and Red Star was bruised and beaten, one of his eyes starting to swell from a nasty punch he had taken from the King. But every fight has to end sometime, and for once he was too late to dodge away from one of the King's powerful two handed swings, then Anchor lifting the stallion off his hooves and tossing him through the air. He landed on the ground with a wet splash, half in a puddle, and the minotaur portion of the crowd roared with cheers.

He still looked to be breathing, and his sword had landed in the mud beside him, where he was trying to grasp it with his teeth. The King lumbered towards him, his boisterous tone gone. "I tell you this, little pony, I shall not forget this fight for a long time. You have battled well, but I think the time has come to finish this."

He stood over Red Star and clenched his fist, ready to deliver the final blow. As he wound up to swing, several different things happened very quickly. Red Star managed to close his jaw on the handle of his sword and raise it to point at the minotaur King before he thrust his fist out. The King saw this and tried to pull back his punch, and stepped back. Back, into the puddle Red Star had landed next to, making his hoof slip. His balance thrown off, he continued tipping forward and fell on the upraised sword, his weight driving it deep into his chest.

Then he collapsed on top of the stallion and Silver Wind cried out, galloping onto the field. After a second of hesitation, I followed after her. Several other ponies and minotaurs rushed out to the pair, where the King had managed to roll himself over onto his back. I was not familiar with minotaur anatomy, but I guessed by the amount of blood the King was coughing up, something vital had been pierced.

Silver Wind knelt over Red Star and tried to help him sit up, while the minotaurs stood over their king. "P-p-potions..." She gasped, holding her husband up and looking at the wounded King. "Don't we have any potions? We have to help him!"

King Steel raised his hand and waved it "Hush, pony..." He croaked, still grinning. "Your magic drinks can do nothing for me now... do not trouble yourself, it was a good fight..." His heavy head drooped back into the mud and he gazed up at the minotaurs that had gathered.

“”What do you wish us to do, your mightiness?” Striking Iron asked, kneeling at his side.

The King chuckled, a pained sound that brought up more blood "I wish you to be calm, my friends. I am going to the clearing at the end of the path, where we will meet again someday..." He summoned the last of his strength to raise his head one more time and look Red Star in the eyes. "Guide them well... little pony..." Then his head fell again, and this time he didn't lift it.

The crowd grew gravely silent. The ponies looked around with fear and confusion, trotting in close to their own injured leader in the center of the field. No one spoke, no one moved, for several minutes, not even my companions watching the memory play out. Finally the black horned bull Angus shouldered his way through to stand over Red Star.

"I... I didn't mean to." The stallion started to say, but Angus clenched his fists, bowing down and placing them both flat on the ground.

"The Blood Price must be paid.”

“W-what? We can’t… we don’t have anything to pay with…” Silver Wind stammered, clinging to her husband protectively. Around them, more of the minotaurs were copying the bow, kneeling and thrusting their fists into the ground.

“It is not you who must pay.” The bull spoke while his head remained lowered. “It is us. The life of a King is worth more than we can ever pay. We are now your subjects, and everything that was his is now yours.” He finally raised his head, fixing the startled ponies with a hard stare. “Long live the King. Long live King Red Star!”

“Long live King Red Star! Long live King Red Star!” Echoed the minotaurs, the chant starting from the center of the ring and spreading out as the minotuars rose and looked at their new king. And though I knew I was only observing something that had already happened, even I felt a twinge of fright looking around at the towering monsters all chanting together. Even when they started to dissolve into white smoke again and fade away into the void, that droning was the last thing I heard before I lost consciousness.


“And they were both right there, dead all along?” Fiddle Sticks asked, sitting back in one of his overstuffed chairs.

“Yes, killed each other by the look of it.” I answered, sitting across from him on the couch, with Air Heart and Crunch on either side. “A disagreement about your ancestor’s choice in partner, I think. Or just a jealous stallion who lost his temper. Doesn’t really matter at this point.” I shrugged.

Fiddle Sticks nodded, bringing his glass to his lips and sipping quietly. “I suppose not… and this lover of his, she was definitely a zebra then?”

“Yep, got pictures!” Abattoir called out from across the room where she was examining junk on Fiddle Sticks’ mantle. Air Heart cleared his throat and pulled out the book from the library, opening it to the page with the pictures of the trio.

“These aren’t the best quality, but we’ve seen other pictures in a newspaper. She was a performer or something, and he fell in love with her.” He passed him the book, and then dug out the old journal and the other pages we found and gave him that too.

“I see… I must say, I’m impressed. I expected you to find a few clues, but nothing this concrete.” He flipped through the journal slowly. “Honestly, I was hoping my grandfather would be proven wrong. She really was a zebra then…”

He lapsed into silence and stared at the papers, and I looked at him more closely. Then I realized what was so strange about the way he looked, seeing Xephaniah again made it easier to see. Fiddle Sticks had stripes, faint rings of lighter colored orange between his usual coat.

“Stripes.” I said suddenly, making him look up. I cleared my throat a few times “I mean, you… I didn’t notice before.”

He smiled, amused, and nodded. “Really? Usually it’s the first thing ponies notice about me. I used to tell them it was just a mutation, since half-breeds usually tend to be shades of grey and black. But with this, I suppose I’ll have to accept it, finally.” He picked up the book again.

“You were hoping we’d prove them wrong?” Air Heart asked uncertainly.

“Well, I’m not ungrateful; this is more than I could ever have hoped to know, but to be honest I would have much preferred something to suggest a more equestrian background. Something I could take back to Manehatten…”

“Manehatten?” Air Heart furrowed his brow.

“Tenpony Tower. They assumed you had zebra in your blood and wouldn’t let you in.”

“And it seems they were right all along.” He snapped the book shut and shrugged. “Oh well, you completed the job far and above what I asked, and you didn’t come back to hear me waffle on about the past. I’ll go get your payment.” He rose up out of his chair and trotted out of the livingroom.

I sighed and rested my head back on the couch. I was still processing everything I’d seen in the orb, I think both my companions were. Air Heart was looking down at his hooves and fidgeting and Abattoir had picked up something from Fiddle Sticks’ mantle. I turned to look at Crunch and found him avoiding my eye still. As soon as we had all come out of the orb, an hour before sunrise, I went to find him immediately. I had some questions.

“Do you have a brother?” He nodded. “I think I saw him. He was with Xephaniah.” He shook his head hesitantly. I asked a few more things I saw curious about before I got to the main question. “Do you know what memories were in that orb? Is that why you didn’t want to watch?” And he hadn’t answered, stoically turning his head away. I guess I deserved that.

He remained that way all through the trip back. He’d found a mine cart to harness himself to and pulled us back to the station, and from there it was a short jaunt back to the north gate, and from there to Fiddle Sticks’ home.

I raised my head when the orange unicorn returned, floating a sack. “Here you are, four hundred caps plus a bonus for being so thorough, and my most sincere thanks.”

I accepted the bag, gave it a cursory glance, and slipped it to Crunch for carrying, then rose to my hooves. “Welcome. Unless there’s anything else, we’ll get going. Come on Abattoir.” I looked over to make sure she was paying attention, noting the suspicious lack of the little trinket she’d been ogling. She hopped up and smiled, humming a tune as we all filed out the front door.

“Well…” Air Heart started “I think that went well, for my first job.” He smiled hopefully at me.

“It wasn’t bad. Could’ve been simpler, next time it’ll pick something that’s not so…”

“Heavy on bookwork?” Abattoir snickered, Air Heart chuckled into his hoof, and before I could stop myself I laughed once.

Then I got myself back under control and shook my head “Shut up, Abattoir. And hurry up, we’ve got things to do today. Air Heart needs a weapon, we need to find another job, and… I need to ask around about Xephaniah.”

They shared a glance and looked back at me. “What if we-“

“I. Not we.”

“Fine…” Air Heart stumbled a bit. “What if you find something? What then?”

“Then I’m going to follow it. Catching up to him is the most important thing.” I sighed and let my voice soften. “But I probably won’t find anything right away. He’s very careful, doesn’t leave much of a trail unless he wants to. For now, let’s just focus on those few tasks ahead of us.”

Despite the challenges ahead, I allowed myself to feel a twinge of optimism. Air Heart proved not completely helpless in combat, Abattoir hadn’t sung a song in over an hour, and there was a slim chance of getting back on Xephaniah’s trail. I could even see a bit of the sunrise through several gaps in the clouds off in the distance. Yes, surprising as it seemed, I was feeling pretty good about the day ahead.

So I really shouldn’t have been surprised that I got arrested before the day was out.

Footnote: Level Up?

Skill note: Unarmed 20. Paid close attention to that fight, did you?

(Phew! This was another tough chapter, been rolling this one around in my head a while. Had a lot of trimming and hammering out of the minotaur traits to do, but I’m happy with how it turned out. We’ll be back on our regularly scheduled adventures next chapter! For now, thanks as always to KKat for starting this whole thing, thanks to No One for the help and for the help and props, thanks to the folks at Wasted Days for the Little Cliffside locale. And of course thanks to you readers for stickin’ it out this long, I hope I can keep you comin’ back. See y’all next time <3)

Chapter 9: A Tangled Web: Part 1

View Online

Fallout Equestria: Ashes


Chapter 9: A Tangled Web, Part 1

Nature is so fascinating…

"Welcome to Shot Trotters!" The grey mare behind the counter greeted us as we, finally, stepped inside the gun shop. It took me a moment to realize I'd seen her before. It was the same mare with the tired eyes Cactus Flower had been talking to when she came to meet us at the gate. She was not exactly who I expected to see behind a counter full of deadly weapons, especially with that gentle smile on her face.

"Miss?" I realized I'd been staring at her when she spoke up again, her smile turning nervous. The muscled stallion serving as a guard had taken a few cautious steps towards me.

"Sorry. We need a gun.”

Beside me, Abattoir snickered, and the mare behind the counter waved a hoof at the various shelves and cabinets stocked with guns of every shape and size. “Well, we certainly have plenty of those. Feel free to browse, I’d be happy to help you if you’re looking for a specific model.”

I shook my head “I’m fine, but I need you to find out the best weapon for my teammate here.” I turned and waved in the direction of Air Heart.

And found an empty space between myself and Crunch. “Where’s Air Heart?” Crunch looked down at me, then the empty space, and then shrugged. I sighed and looked over my shoulder at the salesmare. “Excuse me a moment.”

I pushed the door open and stuck my head back outside. Air Heart was there on the sidewalk, shuffling his hooves and looking around anxiously.

“Hey!” He jumped when I shouted and looked up, smirking.

“Oh, hey… uh, done already? That was quick…”

“Get in here.” I stamped.

“I… I don’t wana.”

“Do not make me come out there!”

He bit his lip and slowly trotted over, following me inside. “Okay, now. My teammate needs a gun.” I waved at him, making sure I was between him and the door.

“Alright then” The mare said, slowly limping around the counter. “What kind of gun are you looking for?” She asked, gently nudging him towards the counter.

“Uhm… a small one?”

The mare smiled and nodded at the row of pistols laid out under the front counter. “Well, feel free to browse and let me know what catches your eye. The rest of you, don’t be shy, take a look around, you never know what you might find.”

I looked back at Crunch, with his crushing hooves, and Abattoir and her… whatever it was she did, and shook my head. “We don’t really use guns that much ourselves.”

Still, she urged us to look around, so I did. I let my eyes pass over the shelves and cabinets, but stopped when I spied the large flat table in the corner. It had several tools scattered around it, and other various crafting supplies on the shelves around it.

“Can I use that?” I asked, pointing at the workbench.

Chance looked up and smiled again. “Of course, just clean up after yourself.”

I stepped up to the bench and pulled out the blue scroll, laying it flat and looking it over closely. I pulled out the wrapped up lawnmower blade and set it aside. Then I fished out the tennis racquet and called Crunch over to have him snap the handle off, discarding the rest. Using a combination of one of the thick rolls of tape under the table and the wonderglue I’d brought from Iron Will’s garage, I fixed the blade to the handle. Then I attached the metal valve to the hose, and secured it just under the base of the blade. Finally, I dug out the igniting talisman and glued it right in front of the valve, just touching the edge.

I lifted up the weapon and looked it over, swinging it a few times with my magic. It felt sturdy, and I focused on the little triangular gem. It glowed and sparked once, the little flame shooting out, but nothing else. I looked down at the scroll again, at the image of the flaming sword and scoffed. “Shoulda figured I couldn’t trust nothin’ on paper…”

“It looks like you’re missing the fuel.” I nearly swung my newly crafted sword at the salesmare when she suddenly spoke up behind me, relaxing and quickly dropping it on the table. “Oh my, I didn’t mean to startle you, miss, you just seemed to be frustrated.” She reached out with her hoof and tapped the blue scroll, showing a long oval shaped tank attached to the other end of the hose. “A weapon like this requires a tank of flamer fuel. I’d be happy to sell you one at a reasonable price.”

“Uh, sure, I’ll take one...” Her extremely pleasant manner was throwing me off, and I shook my head once to clear it. She took my caps and returned with an olive green colored tank. She screwed the tank onto the dangling end of the hose and then stepped back, waving for me to test it out again. I turned the valve, focused on the talisman, and with a spine tingling -WOOSH-, the blade was wreathed in flames.

I stared up at the floating, flaming sword, the flames turning green under the veil of my magical grip, feeling my eyes opening wider. I watched the ember column climbing up the length of the blade, watched it climb, higher, into the sky, and heard a shrill scream on the air.

Then I felt Crunch beside me and quickly shut off the valve. The flow stopped and the flames guttered out. I carefully lowered the completed sword onto the workbench again and cleared my throat, turning back to the mare. “Thank you.”

“The pleasure was all mine, miss.” I really wanted her to stop smiling at me. To distract myself from that feeling in the pit of my stomach I turned my head sharply and barked.

“Air Heart, did you pick a gun yet?”

He jumped and looked up guiltily, shaking his head. “No, I… I don’t know the difference between any of these, I don’t know what I’m looking for, I’ve only held a gun once and I shot you with it!”

The mare gave me a curious glance and I just shook my head. “Don’t ask. Can you just give him a hoof picking something?”

“But I don’t know… anything about guns!” He stammered.

She just beamed and trotted back to the counter, lighting her horn up speaking softly. “Well, they say practice makes perfect.”


“I’m not so sure about this.” Air Heart mumbled as we gathered in the abandoned back yard of the home directly behind Shot Trotters. The grass had been mostly cleared away and stamped down, several targets set up against the side of the house.

The mare, who told us her name was Second Chance, had assembled an assorted selection of guns and brought them out to the yard for Air Heart to test.

“Just focus.” I said, watching while Chance pinned up some shooting targets against the walls of the house.

“Yeah, and do your best!” Abattoir patted him on the shoulders.

Air Heart muttered noncommittally. Chance approached, levitating a small pistol. “All set?” Air Heart nodded and she guided him to a marked spot in the yard, telling the rest of us to step back. “Now just take the bit in your teeth, don’t clench it so hard.”

She levitated the weapon into his mouth and he took it nervously. “M’kay, now wuff?”

She chuckled lightly, slipping behind him a few steps “Don’t try to talk too much until you’ve had more practice, you could hurt someone.” Abattoir stifled another laugh beside me. “Just line up the sights with one of your targets, grip the trigger with your tongue, and gently squeeze it.”

Air Heart stood stock still, his head swaying slightly as he tried to line up the shot, and finally fired.

“Did he hit it?” Abattoir asked after the drawn out silence, squinting her eyes.

“I don’t think so.” I leaned in and tried to spot a mark on any of the three targets.

Giving the two of us a slight glare, Chance stepped up to Air Heart’s side again “Try moving a few steps closer and going again…”

And so, over the course of the next hour or so he went through and tried out each of the guns she brought. He nearly dropped several of the heavier pistols when he tried to hold them, the smg Chance gave him ended up spraying bullets and hitting everything but the targets, and the shotgun she strapped onto him bucked so hard he ended up flying back and landing on his ass. “Now, don’t fret. It’s important for a shooter to find the right weapon, one that matches their personality and shooting style.” The mare assured him.

Eventually I got tired of watching him fumbling and looked up at Crunch. “I can’t watch any more of this. Are you ready to talk about the orb now?” He stared ahead silently while a giggling Abattoir helped Air Heart up. “Fine, then I’m going to go practice. Come get me when he finds one he doesn’t suck with.”

I turned and trotted across the yard to the fence blocking off one of the other abandoned houses. I kicked at a few boards until I found some loose ones, knocked them out of the way, and climbed through to the other yard. Then for good measure I picked up the boards and jammed them back into place.

The grass in this other yard didn’t stand over my head, but it was sufficiently tall enough for testing. I lifted the new sword I’d crafted off my back and ignited it, swinging it through the air a few times and trailing flames. I couldn’t use it as flexibly as my own sword with that hose coming out the bottom, but I felt the tradeoff would be worth it. Satisfied, I crouched down and held the burning blade before me, ready to singe some grass.

I’d barely gotten started when something startled me out of my focus. A sudden harmonic blat, like a trumpet sounding off, played up from behind the fence. Gritting my teeth, I charged out and hacked at the boards until one was chipped and charred enough to kick through. I stuck my head through and peered at the next yard over.

There was nothing there but more grass.

I sighed and trotted back across the lightly singed yard and pulled away the boards, climbing back through to my companions. “Well, how’s it going over here?”

“He picked one~” Abattoir sing-songed, twirling on her back hooves. I looked and saw Air Heart blushing and holding a modest little pistol in his mouth.

“And a fine choice it is too. It won’t bring down a charging hellhound in one shot, but it has plenty of stopping power for your day to day wasteland pests. Come back inside and we’ll get everything settled.” Chance motioned, collecting up the rest of the guns and turning back towards the Shot Trotters building.

Back inside, while Air Heart was paying for his new gun and bullets, I sidled up to Crunch and whispered. “I still expect some answers from you, but in the meantime… I think something is following me.” Crunch snorted once and gestured at the crafted sword. “No, It wasn’t the fire, I’m sure of it. I really heard something this time.” The fact that I was hearing horn music could only mean one thing I really didn’t like to think about… “Just keep your eyes open.” Crunch gave me a look, and then nodded. I nodded back.

Air Heart returned from the counter, his new gun peaking out of a small shoulder holster, resting just under his neck. He looked uncomfortable and kept fidgeting at it. “Are you sure this is really necessary?”

“Yes.” I said, turning to leave.

“Thank you. I sincerely hope you survive long enough to come again!” Second Chance bid us as we exited the shop. Shaking my head, I made my way back to the sidewalk and started to walk.

A few minutes later I stopped because I didn’t know where I was walking. Usually at this point I’d be heading out of town again, but somehow we’d decided to stay. I turned around and cleared my throat. “Okay. For the moment we’ve got some spare time. You two are welcome to spend it however you want.”

I was answered by Abattoir’s stomach gurgling loudly. She looked down at herself, then grinned up at me. “Mrs.Tum-tum says we should all go to lunch together.”

“It’s not late enough for lunch yet.” I snapped quickly.

“Brunch then. Whatcha say, Nurse Air Heart~?”

Air Heart flushed slightly and looked between the two of us. “Well, it has been a while since we ate anything…”

“Mr.Cruuunch?” My companion nodded, and all three of them turned to me.

Snorting, I stamped my hoof forcefully. “Now listen, I know you did sort of help with the last job, but that doesn’t make us buddies. There are other, important things I could be doing instead of watching you eat-”

“But you’d have to go there eventually anyway, to look for another job, right?” Air Heart cut in. I clammed up, that wasn’t entirely true, I could find a job not posted on the board.

“And if you still don’t wana come, Mr.Crunch can just carry you again.” Abattoir asked, tipping forward on her front hooves and grinning. Crunch smiled slyly down at me.

I stared back, sighed, and growled at him. “You’re fired… Fine, but I’m walking in front this time.” I was the leader. And I did not need to be nodding off now, walking ahead and plotting our destination would help with that.

And so I navigated us back to that horribly crowed restaurant/hotel thingy, with that ghastly sign overhead. The waitress from before saw us waiting at the front and sent another to take us to a table. The three of them ordered and I told them I’d had a snack while I was off practicing, then we settled in to eat and or wait.

The meal passed mostly uneventfully, aside from Abattoir trying to fit a strawberry up her nose. After they finished eating I led us away into the lounging area and approached the jobs board. While I was busy skimming for numbers, Air Heart snuck up and started reading them.

“How about this one?” He interrupted me, pointing up with a wing at one scrap of paper. “It sounds easy.”

“Only a hundred caps…”

“For radroach extermination. Most of those other ones are bounties, and I’m just not ready to shoot at another living pony. Can’t we just try it?” He looked at me pleadingly.

“Alright, fine, let’s go.” I rolled my eyes and turned away from the board, calling out, “Abattoir, we’re leaving.”

Abattoir had wandered over to some other ponies table and was stacking their glasses into a pyramid, but quickly joined us on the way out the door, and we once again trotted into town with Air Heart leading the way.


“It’s just been such a nightmare.” The purple mare explained as she led us around the side of her home. “I’d been hearing some noises through the floor, and when I went down into that old cellar, I found it just lousy with the little pests.”

She stopped and pointed at a pair of wooden doors built into the ground, over which a few extra boards had been nailed. I waved Crunch over and he started to work on prying them up, turning back to the mare. “This shouldn’t take too long then.”

“Bless y’all,” The mare smiled, taking a few steps back as Crunch pulled up the first board “I’ll just be waiting inside, I’ll have some nice lemonade ready for y’all when ya finish.” She turned tail and quickly trotted back around to the front of her house, and I heard the door slam a moment later.

Shaking my head, I turned around just as Crunch pulled up the last board, looking to Air Heart. “Are you ready? You and me are going down there first.”

He cleared his throat and nodded, steadying his hooves. “Y-yeah. Yeah, I think so.”

“What do I get to do?” Abattoir asked, bouncing impatiently.

“You hang back until I say so, we might not even need you or Crunch, they are only radroaches.” With that I looked up at Crunch, waiting with his hoof on the door handles. “Do it.”

With a squawk of rusty metal the doors were flung open, and the midday sun spilled onto the dusty staircase. I nodded at Air Heart again and started down, the old wood creaking under our hooves at every step.

The stairs ended and we found ourselves in the long disused cellar, the walls and floor mostly made of bare earth, with a few wooden beams spaced around, and the forgotten junk of a long dead pony laying around on shelves and in sacks.

But with the sunlight spilling in behind us, it was hard to see very deep into the cellar at all, and there wasn’t a single radroach to be found. Craning my neck back, I shouted up the stairs. “Crunch, shut the doors.”

“What?!” Air Heart turned, and would probably have run back up the stairs if I hadn’t stopped him. Crunch stood at the opening and gave me a roll of his eyes, before trotting out of view. A moment later, the doors came crashing back down one after the other, and the bright sunlight was blocked out.

But the greenish glow from my mane and tail remained, illuminating a circle around us. Air Heart blinked and lowered his head sheepishly. “Oh, right.”

He quieted down and jumped when the first of the radroaches reappeared, skittering out from under a nearby shelf. It just sat there, antennae twitching in the air, and I nudged Air Heart. “Go on, take care of it.”

He swallowed nervously and lowered his mouth to the handle of his pistol, pulling it out of the holster on his shoulder and training it on the unaware pest. I was about to urge him on again when he finally fired, the radroach collapsing with a single screech. We both stared at the dead insect for a moment, then he gave a whoop and flapped his wings once, rising into the air for a second.

“I did it! I hit it on the first try! Did you see that?” He dropped back onto the ground and grinned excitedly at me around the handle of his gun. I quickly reached up and tilted his head so he was facing away before I answered.

“Yes, yes, that wasn’t a bad shot. Once the rest come out of hiding we should be able to get rid of them just as easily.” I removed my hoof from his cheek and he turned to smile at me again, but it turned into a look of shock and he pointed over my head.

“Look out!” I turned around and saw a radroach on the top edge of the shelf, just as it spread its wings and flew at me. Out came my sword and I batted it away, looking over my shoulder.

“You really need to relax, they’re only radroaches.” I looked ahead as the creature recovered from impacting the wall and started skittering towards me, spearing it to the floor and killing it with one stab. I raised my head at the sound of a paint can clattering to the ground, about to yell at Abattoir, when I saw the culprit was another radroach, leaping off from another shelf. And with it came a dozen more, flying or crawling, all closing in fast.

Air Heart started firing wildly at the ground while I slashed at the air with my sword. The radroaches weren’t quick, but there were so many. I cut two clean in half, but another swooped in and landed on my mask, blinding me. While I reached up to pry it off with my hooves, I heard Air Heart firing until his pistol emptied, then a shrill yelp. “Eeyk! Get them off! Getthemoffgetthemoffgetthemofff!”

I threw the radroach to the ground and stamped on it, turning and finding Air Heart spinning in circles and flapping his wings as the radroaches climbed up his legs and landed on his back. Sighing, I pulled out my new sword, turning the gas valve and igniting the talisman at once, bathing the blade in flames.

“Hold still!” I shouted, causing him to freeze mid spin. I lashed out with the flaming sword, all the radroaches scattering from the heat and light, a few of them going away singed. Air Heart opened his tightly clenched eyes and took a deep breath, collapsing on the floor and kicking his legs.

“Ew ew ew, they were all over me!” I rolled my eyes and turned back towards the stairs, trotting to the bottom step and calling up.

“Hey, you two!” A sliver of light opened up and two silhouettes appeared. “Come on down, we might need a few extra hooves.”

Abattoir giggled with glee and skipped down the stairs, Crunch following after shutting the door behind him. I waited until they were all gathered around me before extinguishing the flaming sword, as it only drove the radroaches further away. In seconds they were back, a miniature swarm all homing in on us.


We were fine, of course. They were only radroaches.

Between Crunch’s stomping hooves, my swordwork, Abattoir’s… Abattoir stuff, and Air Heart’s shooting, we pulped and cut and blasted until the skittering came to a stop.

After the swarm was dealt with we were spread out poking around for stragglers or eggs, when Crunch stepped up beside me. When I looked up he nodded at a pile of radroach remains, then pointed at me and made a growling sound.

“So you think so too?” I nodded, closing a box of dusty old bowling trophies. “I thought they seemed unusually aggressive for radroaches. Think it’s just the climate down here?”

Crunch shook his head, and I went back to searching, when something blue caught my eye. When I moved, I could make out something faintly glowing in the far corner. Trotting closer, the light I was giving off filled the corner, and revealed that it wasn’t there. The back corner of the basement had been demolished from the other side, remains of wall and washing machine heaped in front of a huge hole that continued into the earth. And when I got closer I saw what was glowing, reaching out with my hoof. It was a sticky, pale blue and almost clear substance scattered around the rim of the hole, with tiny flecks in it that sparkled in the light.

“What in Equestria…” I mumbled, pulling my hoof back, the sticky substance trailing behind. I wiped it off on the ground and turned, calling out to Abattoir and Air Heart. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

They both leaned in to squint. “You mean a hole? I’ve seen a few in my time, but-eek!” She ducked and giggled as I swiped at her.

“I mean that blue stuff!”

Air Heart shook his head and stepped back “Doesn’t look familiar, but I don’t know that much about b-bugs… Did the radroaches do all this?”

Abattoir caught her breath and leaned in again, sticking her tongue to the sparkling blue goo, and pulling back a glob into her mouth before either of us could stop her. She hummed loudly and rubbed her chin. “Hmm… It doesn’t taste like anything that comes outa a radroach.” Then she continued her repulsive display by picking up one of the scorched radroaches I’d left behind and taking a large bite out of it.

“Mmh, nope, nope, definitely not radroach.” She mumbled with her mouth full, while I sighed and turned back to Air Heart.

“Radroaches do dig tunnels sometimes, but one of this size... it would’ve taken them months, and that mare said she only recently noticed them.” I looked down and shook my head “And even still, something much bigger smashed up this wall and the washer, and made those radroaches act more aggressive.”

Air Heart looked around the cellar and lowered his voice “Could it have something to do with Xephaniah?”

I opened my mouth to snap at him, but thought twice about the question and cocked my head up towards Crunch. “You think he’s behind this?”

Crunch shook his head quickly and kicked one of the dead radroaches. I nodded. “Right, this doesn’t feel like his style. But there’s definitely something strange behind this… But it’s none of our business. We’re just here to exterminate.”

“What about the hole?” Air Heart Protested as I turned around and trotted towards the stairs. I just shrugged.

“We’ll tell her about it, but if she wants us to try and close it, it’d cost extra. That’s a big job.” I started to walk away again, and found Abattoir in my path, smiling innocently.

“Hey Lumi. Can you show me that cool sword you made again?”

That was not suspicious at all. “Why?” I asked flatly.

“I jus wana see it. You did such a super job on it, I wana admire your craftsmanship!”

I stared at her closely as I drew the weapon I’d made, holding it in the air between us “What are you up to?”

She snickered into her hoof and made various oos and ahhs as she looked it up and down. “Ehe, can’t a friend compliment her pal on a job well done? I was wondering, did you come up with a name for it yet? All the best weapons have names, I was thinking the BurneyChoppah! Or the ChoppyBurnah… What d’you think, buuuuddy~?”

In retrospect, I should have realized it was a trap. I spun the gas valve and ignited the talisman, jabbing forward at Abattoir and hissing “We are NOT friends!”

She simply bent her forelegs and ducked, kicking up her back legs and making something fly loose from her saddlebags. It spun through the air and she caught it in her teeth, and I realized it was a stick of dynamite. She craned her neck and lit it with the flame from my sword, then galloped past me and chucked it into the tunnel, then grabbed Air Heart and galloped back towards the stairs.

I was so stunned that Crunch had to hoist me up and carry me after them, up the stairs and out onto the yard as the dynamite exploded, filling the cellar with dust and rattling the house above it.

I rolled onto my hooves from the patch of grass I’d been tossed into, finding Abattoir giggling and coughing on her back. I pounced on her and tried to press my hooves into her throat. “Why you little-!”

The purple mare emerged from her house and came galloping up to us, finding me still trying to lash out at her from Crunch’s back, where he’d tossed me to keep me from murdering Abattoir.

“What in blue blazes was that?!”

I took some deep breaths and started to settle down, kicking my legs and sliding backwards off Crunch’s back. I calmly trotted over to the mare and cleared my throat. “We’ve taken care of your radroach problem.”


“She sure was a nice lady.” Abattoir mused out loud as we walked the sidewalks of Little Cliffside.

“She was pretty understanding about us exploding her basement.” Air Heart added.

I just grumbled. I’d been grumbling since we left her yard.

“At least she still paid us, right?” Air Heart asked hesitantly.

“Minus compensation for almost destroying her house and scarin’ the wits outa her, whatever that means~” Abattoir added.

I grumbled again and levitated up the ten caps we’d walked away with, then floated them back and dropped them on the sidewalk in front of them. “Yeah, almost makes the whole thing worth it. Here, go buy yourselves some Sparkle Colas. I’ll wait right here, I promise.” I said, as I continued to trot down the sidewalk.

“Oh c’mon, up until the very end there we did a pretty great job, right?” Air Heart picked up speed to keep up with me.

“And that’s another thing, you need to stop using that word!” I snapped, spinning around and stopping him mid trot. “We. We this and we that, we, we ,we! There is no we, got it?”

He was too startled to reply, but Abattoir snickered loudly and threw her foreleg over his shoulder, mumbling, “She said wee-wee.”

Before I could come up with a colorful threat, a voice called out and interrupted us. It was Cactus Flower, crossing the street to meet us.

“There you are, I been lookin’ all over for y’all.” She smiled and pushed her hat up. “Heard you been busy helpin’ out the townsfolk a bit more.”

“Something like that…” Then what she’d said reached my brain and I added, “Wait, you were looking for us?”

“Well, not me, but DJ Desert Rose is, she’s…” She hesitated a moment and chewed her lip. “She’s got a job for you.”

“Really? What kind of job?” She hesitated again and I nodded. “Something dangerous, I assume? Something you’d rather she not do herself.”

“Bingo.” The lawmare chuckled lightly.

“Yahzee~” Abattoir called from behind.

Ignoring her, I waved my hoof at Cactus Flower, “Well, lead the way. Remind me to thank her for being discrete and not asking me over the radio.”

“That was her first idea, actually.” Cactus Flower turned and started to lead us back to the police/radio station. “I talked her out of it.”

There wasn’t much more conversation on the way, just a few whispers between Air Heart and Abattoir. Cactus Flower let us into the station and past the front room with the cells, holding open the door to the back room. “Go on in, I’ll go up and tell her you’re ready. Same rules as before, the big guy and the pegasus stay down here-”

“Holy shit!” Came a started cry inside the room, from Desert Rose, who had been sitting up on the countertop waiting for us. “You’re bucking huge!”

She was talking to Crunch, of course, who just favored her with a look of mild amusement. Cactus Flower sputtered and hurried us through the door, slamming it shut behind her and turning on her sister “Rose, you watch your mouth! And what are you doing down here?”

Desert Rose flapped off the table and flew over to hover above Crunch’s head, ignoring her sister. “I only saw you from far off before, I thought my eyes musta been playing tricks on me.” She landed on his back, grinning.

Cactus Flower looked ready to faint. “Get away from him, he’s very dangerous!”

Desert Rose gave her sister a look and rolled her eyes “Well duh, just look at him… fiiiiine.” She took to the air again “And I was waitin’ down here ‘cause I wanted to meet another pegasus before you chased them outa town.” She scanned the room from the ceiling until she spotted Air Heart trying to inconspicuously hide under a desk. She swooped down and landed in front of his face, startling him backwards.

“Oh. My. Goddesses. You are sooo pretty, were you really in the Enclave?” She demanded, making Air Heart’s cheeks flush.

“O-o-only for the one week so far… Uh, I… don’t think your sister likes me talking to you.” Air Heart kept stepping backwards while Rose advanced on him. Abattoir laughed particularly hard at the sight.

I cleared my throat and put my hoof between the two of them. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but I was told we came here for a job.”

Desert Rose smiled and flapped into the air again, landing back on the countertop and pushing her pink and white mane back. “Sorry, excuse me, I just never get to meet any other pegasus when they come though. Yes, I do have a job for you.”

About time, I thought to myself, before saying “Well, let’s get down to business.”

Rose smiled wider and raised one wing, pointing to what she'd been tinkering with on the countertop before we entered, and I could have kicked myself for not noticing it earlier.

A spritebot lay on its side on the counter, thankfully deactivated and, upon a closer look, partially dismantled. Next to it lay an open lunchbox, or something that had once been a lunchbox. There were several wires and tubes and metally bits jammed into it. I didn't really understand at all what I was looking at, I was too busy glancing over at the husk of the spritebot. I didn't even realize Rose was explaining something to us until halfway through. "-so I need you to take this with you the next time you go outside the gates, head up to the roof of the old town hall building, and plug it into the antenna."

I stared at the filly and the cobbled together piece of technology for a long moment before just blurting out. "Plug it into the what now?"

"The antenna!" Desert Rose rolled her eyes. "The big one on the roof, it's part of the old emergency broadcasting system."

I nodded my head a few times, then just to save everypony some trouble and potentially a wasted trip, I asked “Plug it in how?”

Desert Rose beamed “Oh, it’s simple.” She waved us in to take a closer look inside the lunchbox. She pulled out two loose cables and explained. “There’ll be two holes, just plug the blue plug into the blue hole, and the yellow and black wire into the yellow box.”

“That does sound pretty easy.” Air Heart said, and I nodded in agreement. Then something else struck my mind.

“We were just out that way, you know.” I picked up the device and looked it over a bit, even if I didn't understand it I could still be impressed with her work.

“Yeah, I know. Now. And if my sis had told me you were goin’ that way I woulda given it to ya before. But, what’re ya gona do?” She shrugged and hopped down off the countertop.

Cactus Flower just sighed and crossed the room to pour herself a cup of coffee. Meanwhile I set the lunchbox thing down again and Abattoir came up to poke at it, but I moved it aside. "So, what the heck is it anyway?"

“It’s a relay; if it works right I’ll be able to majorly boost my signal and reach more than just this town. I might even be able to tap into DJ Pon3's broadcast finally, he's so awesome!" Rose sighed wistfully and I groaned, changing the subject quickly.

“What’s the pay, then?” I already knew she was a talkative type, I didn’t want to get pulled into a long conversation about radios and DJ's and things.

“How does a hundred caps sound?”

It would make up for the disaster with the roaches. I nodded and lifted the lunchbox with my magic again, this time easing it into my own saddlebags. “Alright, I’ll take it.”

“Excellent! I’ll just get your caps and… oh, sis, I left my bank upstairs in the studio, could you get it for me?”

Cactus Flower was not having that, and narrowed her eyes at her younger sister. “Rose…”


Cactus Flower rolled her eyes, then gave each of us a quick glare before turning and galloping up the stairs. Desert Rose waiting until she heard the heavy door to her studio slam shut before turning back to us and grinning, specifically at Air Heart.

"Uhm... can I help you?" Air Heart asked once the silence started to grow uncomfortable.

"Soooo, you're in the Enclave, huh? I don't see what my sis is so afraid of."

"Oh, well, I was, but not for very long..."

"Didja quit or somethin'?" Rose continued to fire off questions faster than Air Heart could keep up.

"N-no, I was kicked out for... for stowing away and I really, really don't think your sister wants us talking like this.” Air Heart glanced nervously at the stairs.

“Oh, a few questions won’t hurt! Sis treats me like such a foal sometimes, she didn’t let me talk to the last pegasus that came through, she didn’t even let me talk to the zebra, how am I am supposed to get more news if I can’t meet anypony interesting, huh” The little filly vented at us and crossed her forelegs, making Air Heart look a little abashed.

Then the cap dropped and Air Heart and I both processed what she’d just said and shouted out in unison.


“Pegasus? What did she look like?”

At that same moment, Cactus Flower stepped onto the bottom landing of the stairs and spotted us staring intently at her sister. She immediately turned her own gaze on Desert Rose and demanded “What did you say now?”

“Nothin’!” Rose squeaked.

I rounded on Cactus Flower and tried to keep my voice level “I need you to tell me everything about the zebra that passed through here recently.”

Air Heart was right behind me, sounding much more frantic. “And the pegasus? What did she look like? Was she from the Enclave too?!”

Cactus Flower sighed and rubbed her forehead with her hoof “Alright, everypony just calm down and we’ll talk… Rose, put some more coffee on.”


I sat at the table and stared into my mug of coffee. Two bright green ovals stared back at me. Air Heart was politely sipping his own mug and Abattoir was still at the counter pouring more sugar into hers.

“Okay, now that we’re all calm, where should we start?” Cactus Flower was seated across the room at her desk, her hat resting on the terminal across from her. She decided to look to me first “Let’s start with you. You want to know about that zebra?"

I nodded.

"Okay. Well, I was suspicious of him from the very start-"

"Which is totally racist, sis."

"-Because he showed up at the gates with two ponies that looked like they'd been beaten, and recently. I'm pretty sure they were slaves, he was very careful not to let them out of his sight, and did all the talking himself."

"What did he look like" There was little doubt it was him, but I had to be certain it wasn't a wild coincidence, or even a decoy of some sort.

Cactus Flower furrowed her brow and shrugged "He looked like a zebra. I didn't get a real good look, he was always wearin' a heavy cloak, don't know how he could stand the heat in the desert dressed like that... And there was somethin' else weird about him."

I leaned forward a little, I knew what she was going to say, but I still wanted to hear it. "And what was that?"

"Whenever he looked at me... There was somethin' wrong with his eyes, it was like... Like he was lookin' through me, y'know?" Cactus Flower looked a little shaken as she recalled the experience, but quickly recovered. "Like I said, he was suspicious from the start."

I took a deep breath and leaned back again, turning to stare into my cooling mug of coffee. No doubt at all now, it could only have been him. Everypony always noticed the eyes, they were unforgettable. I even started to think I could see them staring back at me from the brown liquid, those inky black pools that seemed to pierce through my very being...

"Huh?" I said, using my hoof to slide the mug away from me when I realized Cactus Flower had been asking something.

"I said, is that all?" I looked up to find every eye on me, and I had to wonder how long I'd gazed into the mug. I shook my head.

"Almost. Did he do anything else while he was in town?"

Cactus Flower had replaced her hat on her head at some point, and lifted it up to scratch behind her ear while she thought. "Hmm.. Well, I know for sure he stocked up on food n' water, and I didn't really want to, but I did direct him to the bed n' breakfast. Don't know if he actually stayed there... what else... Oh! He asked where he could go to get some medical attention for his two... for those two other ponies."

I guessed she was trying to avoid worrying Air Heart any more than he already was about the pegasus in tow with Xephaniah. I glanced over and caught him chewing on a hoof before I continued "So you sent him to some doctor around town?"

She shook her head. "Well, there's one or two resident sawbones; I think one of 'em actually does call herself Saw Bones... But if you need serious medical treatment, you gota go to The Clinic.”

I sighed, because I could already tell by her tone it was ‘The Clinic’ and not just the clinic. “And where’s that?”

She pointed out one of the station windows, in the general direction of the massive canyon that divided the area. “Across the bridge, in Big Cliffside.”

“That’s our next stop then.”

“Figured you’d say that. I can’t stop ya, ‘course, just stay on your hooves while you’re there. It ain’t as safe as here, my jurisdiction ends on this side of the bridge.”

I thought back to Iron Will’s front yard, and the rampaging giant stoneback, both on this side of the bridge, and nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind… I guess that’s everything.”

“That means it’s your turn.” Cactus Flower turned to Air Heart, and he took a few deep breaths.

“Okay, I just need to know who that pegasus was, what did she look like?” He leaned forward a little in his stool.

“Well, her coat was pretty dirty, but it was sort’ve… blue green, and her mane was orange, does that sound like who you’re lookin’ for?”

I could tell by the way Air Heart’s face dropped that she’d just described his sister. He cleared his throat and opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Finally he got himself together enough to ask “Did she look alright? You said she’d been enslaved by the zebra…?”

“I did, but it was just a feeling I had. It wasn’t like he was dragging them around in chains or anythin’. They just kinda kept real quiet and stuck close to him, and didn’t answer when I spoke to ‘em. She didn’t look like she was hurt too bad, not as much as the other guy at least. He was all bandaged up, looked like he’d been run over by a train.”

Air Heart let out a little relieved sigh and leaned back “As long as she’s… and she left with the zebra to go to this Clinic? Could you give us directions?”

“Now wait just a minute, what about me? You already agreed to take my job.” I almost forgot Desert Rose was there until she spoke up. She had a point; I couldn’t back out now, no matter how tantalizingly close he was. At least Xephaniah also had two other ponies to drag around with him, hopefully he wouldn’t slip too far ahead while we took care of this antenna or whatever.

I realized I’d left a silence hanging in the air and took a deep breath, nodding “You’re right, my apologies. We’ll finish up your job, you have my word…”

“Just in case, s’it okay if I pay ya when you get back?” Desert Rose gave me a cheeky little grin. “No offense.”

“None taken, not the first time.” I looked around the room to make sure my companions didn’t have anything else to say, and climbed out of my stool. “Well, let’s get going then?”

“You’re headin’ out already?” Cactus Flower asked, rising to walk us back out to the main room.

“Maybe, but first we have a few things to look into. I’ll still take care of your antenna thing, but while we’re here in town I’m going to check out anyplace he spent a little time.” I cut Desert Rose off before she could protest again, and walked to the door to wait. Crunch was right behind me, and Air Heart followed, dragging his hooves again. Abattoir was trying to finish off her coffee quickly without burning herself, and galloped after us with her tongue hanging out. Once we were all gathered and ready to go I nodded politely at Cactus Flower and opened the door. “Until next time.”

“Keep outa trouble.”

I nodded, and trotted away.


“A zebra?” The squat stallion behind the counter furrowed his brow.

“Yes. He came through a couple of days ago, and he had a pegasus with him. Not an easy thing to forget, so don’t even try to pull that one.”

He snorted and frowned, lowering his head and looking at the counter. After a moment he nodded “Think I remember them, yeah. What’s it to ya?”

“I need to know which room he stayed in.” I said, leaning forward on the counter.

“Please, we’d really appreciate it.” Air Heart added.

“Pretty please~” Abattoir chimed in, and the stallion held up his hooves.

“Okay, okay!” He ducked under the counter and came back with a large metal key with a 4 on it. “Here. He really creeped us out, y’know? Paid in advance for two nights bit only stayed one… Said the ‘other party’ would take the second, is that you then?”

“Uh, yes, that’s us.” I levitated the key over and turned for the staircase, leaving behind the loud, busy dining floor of Strawberry Shortcake’s Bed and Breakfast.

“Why do you think he did that?” Air Heart asked when we reached the second floor, which looked more like a hotel, with rows of rooms and a much quieter atmosphere than downstairs.

“Did what?” I asked, turning to the left to start following the rooms.

“Paid for an extra night. Do you think he knew we’d come asking for him like this?” He asked with a touch of nervousness in his voice.

“I don’t know, it’s possible. Just don’t think about it too much, it could just be…” I reached the fourth door and held up the key, stopping to look at the metal 4 on the end. I turned to look at the three ponies behind me and sighed, “Coincidence.”

I unlocked the room and stepped inside. It looked like any simple hotel room, two small beds and a window, a wardrobe, a bookshelf, and a door across the room leading to a bathroom. I entered the room slowly and scanned around for anything out of place or suspicious.

“Keep your eyes open.” I whispered over my shoulder.

“For what? Are we having a scavenger hunt now?” Abattoir asked, already up and jumping on one of the beds.

“I don’t know. He could have left anything behind, and whatever it is could be dangerous.” I said, peeking under each of the beds.

“Why would he do that?” Air Heart asked from behind me.


“I mean, does he want to hurt you? Does stuff like this happen a lot?”

I raised my head and stared at Air Heart for a moment until he stepped away, checking one of the dresser drawers. “No, not really, he wants to… test me. Not important to you, just be careful.” I looked up at Abattoir and pointed at the wardrobe. “Go search that.”

“Aren’t you gona tell me to be careful?”

“I don’t really care” I pointed again and she jumped off the bed, pouting. I turned in a circle and looked around for anything else to look in or under or behind. My eyes fell on the bathroom door and I trotted across the room.

Opening the door, I found a typical pre war bathroom. The light had been left on, and I sighed and stepped inside for a closer look. I peeked inside the toilet, and then lifted the lid on the tank. Nothing there but cloudy water.

I turned back to leave the bathroom, but Abattoir poked her head out of the door of the wardrobe. “How rude can you be!”

“What now?”

“You left the light on!” She pointed an accusing hoof.

I narrowed my eyes at her and turned back around, hitting the lightswitch with my hoof. The little light in the ceiling winked out, leaving behind only my own green glow casting off the walls. And the other glow, a sliver of blue light I caught when I turned to leave again. I glanced back and saw my own green orbs, reflected in a mirror.

I hit the light again and tilted my head, seeing I’d left the medicine cabinet unchecked. I flicked the light off again, stepping towards the sink and the line of light escaping from inside it. I tugged on the door until it clicked open, and something metal dropped into the sink.

I saw two things at once. One was the words painted in the back of the cabinet in some glowing , sparkly blue liquid, reading “Follow the stars” in minotaur glyphs.

The second was the single shotgun shell rigged to a mechanical trap that had been wired to the cabinet door until a second ago, before I had pulled the pin out.

I didn’t even have time to sigh before the gears clicked again and drove the mechanism into the shell, firing it off and punching a hole in my chest. Pain exploded through my torso and I stumbled backwards out of the bathroom. My ears were ringing but I heard Air Heart shout “What’s wrong? What happened?”

I held my hoof over the wound and gritted my teeth, trying to get the room to steady. I looked up and saw Abattoir and Air Heart coming closer to check on me, Crunch behind them looking furious, and heard yelling and pounding from outside the door. There was no time to deal with the grievous wound without at least these two seeing me, and at the same time I’d have to deal with the owner, who would no doubt have some questions of his own. I couldn’t think of any way I was going to talk myself out of this, I needed some time to think.

I’ll admit I may have acted irrationally, when I turned and jumped through the window. I used my horn to pierce the glass and went sailing out into the back parking lot of the former bed and breakfast. I hung in the air surrounded by glass shards and enjoyed a brief moment of relief, before gravity took hold and I started to plummet towards the ground. My gaze tipped forward and I saw where I was bound to land, groaning and covering my head.

I landed in the vegetable cart with a THRUMPH and a tinkling of glass. I found myself half buried in a pile of smushed and shredded produce.

“Veggie salad...” I felt compelled to grumble at the mess. I lifted my head and came eye to lenses with the startled ponies that had been unloading the vegetables.

“Are you alright?” One of them asked.

“What in Equestria were you thinkin’?!” Another shouted.

“MY CABBAGES!” the last one shrieked, and that was my cue to jump out of the cart and shake off the leaves and bits of carrot, then take of galloping into town. I was sure I was still bleeding but I didn’t stop to check, I just had to get away from the commotion and find a place to rest, away from curious ponies and prying eyes and endless questions.


I’m not sure how far or long I galloped, eventually I came to a stop in an empty playground. There was a large metal play structure shaped like a flying saucer, with ladders and slides and even a little dome on top. I climbed up inside and tumbled over onto my back, throwing off my bags and digging around for the torn rad suit. One of the water bottles rolled out and I caught it in my hooves, screwing off the cap and pouring a generous amount of the foul water onto my chest. It burned, but I grit my teeth and held in a grunt of pain as the wound slowly closed. I nearly used up half the bottle before the last trace of the hole vanished, and I returned the cap and sprawled out again.

For a long time I just lay there on my back, panting and watching the clouds and fast fading sunlight through the grimy plastic dome in the ceiling. I tried to process what had just happened.

“Follow the stars…” I thought out loud. Zebra gibberish? Xephaniah had told me about reading the stars once, but I’d never been able to understand it, and it could only have been him that left that message. And it had been written in that strange substance. It took a few ticks of my brain before I realized where else I’d seen it recently.

“That goop in the tunnel…?” I grunted as I sat upright. So maybe he did have something to do with the hole and the roaches and whatever that crud was. So that’s one question (sort of) answered.

But what about that shotgun trap? He knew he couldn’t do any real harm to me with such a simple trap, but the confusion afterword was far more damaging. Or was it even meant for me in the first place? It didn’t make sense for him to try to kill either of those two, not while they were being such a torn in my side already.

I groaned and rubbed my head. I would at least be explaining to Abattoir and Air Heart when I went back to the Bed and Breakfast. If I even went back, I reminded myself. And for that matter, I could just tell them both to fuck off.

But I did have to go back, I knew it. Not just to get back to Crunch, but because I had that filly’s job to finish, and while I was completely sure I could handle it myself, it might be a good idea to bring them along in case they ended up being useful by accident.

I spent a while longer just resting and thinking in the abandoned playground, until I noticed how dark it had got outside. I climbed out of the saucer and left the playground, and started trotting down the sidewalk.

I stopped again when I realized I didn’t really know where I was going. Nothing looks familiar, and I only saw a few ponies out on their front porches or closing up their shops, but they all looked a bit too spooked whenever I approached for me to even ask for directions. And eventually they all returned to their homes and I was left roaming the sidewalks alone hoping to see anything I recognized.

I don’t know if I’d made any progress before I heard the dreaded sound, a burst of insufferable fanfare from a speaker somewhere ahead of me. I cursed and galloped until I reached an intersection, glaring left to right until I heard it again, sounding like a phantom marching band off in the distance. I took the left route and followed it into a smaller neighborhood, the houses smaller and closer together.

I kept a wary eye on any of the lawns that looked a little overgrown, and my ears perked for any further bursts of music, until I realized what was happening. Not only had it somehow found me down here, but it was leading me somewhere, roping me into something no doubt.

The next sound I heard was a mare’s scream somewhere ahead of me, further into the neighborhood. That removed all doubt of what it was up to. For a few seconds I just stood there on the sidewalk, listening and holding my breath, wrestling with my options. Then I decided I wasn’t going to fall for this again, I already had enough to worry about. I spun around and high tailed it back the way I’d come, and once I was out on the sidewalk I picked a random road and galloped as fast as I could.


I’d almost run all the way back to the eastern gate before I started to recognize some of the shops in the darkness. I’d stopped across the street from the Shot Trotters, from there it was easy to find my way back to the Bed and Breakfast by spotting the big obnoxious sign of the strawberry mare and following it.

Rather than risk going in the front and bumping into the staff, I skirted around to the back lot and looked up. Sure enough, I saw the empty frame of the window I’d made my dramatic exit from, but I couldn’t see any lights on inside the room.

Instead of wasting the time trying to climb up to the second floor before knowing if they were even there, I searched the lot for a few small rocks and used my magic to fling them up into the window. After the second I heard a sharp yelp and a moment later Air Heart appeared in the frame.

“Whuh... Lumi, is that you?” I stared up at him, glowing green in the night, until he continued. “Uh, what’s going on?”

“I need you to help me get back up there.”

“Oh, uhm, okay, I think maybe I could… find some sheets and tie them together, and lower it-”

“You have wings, dumbass.”

He winced slightly, but I saw him scanning the back lot before he gingerly stepped out of the frame into the air. He descended down to meet me and extended a hoof. I took it, and with a few flaps he carried us back up to the window and I climbed through it.

Inside I found Abattoir and Crunch also awake and waiting for me, her wearing a grin and him giving me a stern glare. I took a deep breath and sighed, taking a seat on the floor and waited “Well?”

“Well what?” Air Heart asked, joining them across from me.

“The questions. I’m sure you’re dying to ask me dozens of them all night, let’s just get it over with.

Air Heart shook his head “Oh, no, we know you’re uncomfortable with snooping, we can respect-“

“So you took a shotgun to the face, huh? Looks fine to me!” Abattoir cut in, snickering. Air Heart at least tried to hide his own curiosity and looked away.

“In the chest, actually. No one could survive a shotgun blast to the face… And I’m sure that’s not the most important question you have.” I was feeling tired, surprisingly, and just wanted some peace and I knew I’d never get it until I got them off my back.

“Well, we did kinda already figure out most of it on our own… Xephaniah knew we’d be here and he tried to kill you right?” Air Heart reached into his saddlebags and came back with the trap device. I looked at it, then up at him, making him squirm. “What?”

“Why do you have it?” I asked, surprised.

“I hid it, the owner was coming in and I figured it was important... We didn’t want him to think we were up to something and take it, right?” He was biting his lip nervously.

“I just didn’t think you had it in you to be so secretive and sneaky. So you managed to explain everything without him getting suspicious?” I wouldn’t admit it but I was close to being impressed. “What about the window?”

“We told him you were late to an appointment and you really, really, had to go!” Abattoir beamed, that was obviously her own solution. Less impressive, but still, if it worked…

“So, was he really trying to kill you? I thought he was your friend?” Air Heart dropped the trap and I floated it over to examine it.

“He’s… not. I don’t have any friends. But no, I’m not sure he left this. He definitely left the message, but this is too direct for him, even if he wanted to attack me.” I set the contraption back down, it was useless to me anyway “So, are we done here?”

“Well, I guess so, but you said there was a message? I didn’t see anything like that in the bathroom.” He turned and trotted into the bathroom, and I cursed inwardly, but it was already too late, so I just plowed ahead.

“Check the medicine cabinet. It’s in Minotaur, and it’s written in the same blue gunk we found in that tunnel.” I sighed again as Abattoir went to join him, and they peeked inside the cabinet at the still faintly gleaming message.

“What’s it say?” Abattoir asked, before sticking her tongue out and leaning in. Thankfully Air Heart stopped her.

“’Follow the stars’.”

“What the heck does that mean?”

I shrugged and rubbed the side of my head “I’m not sure. Like I said, Xephaniah likes to be indirect. I’m sure I’ll figure it out soon, just… Are we done? I want to… go to bed.” I tried to sound as tired as I felt, but it wasn’t a phrase I was used to.

They returned to the bedroom and seemed satisfied for now, drifting over to the beds. “I guess so…” Air Heart mumbled as he climbed up. “Should we ask where you went for the rest of the day?”

“I took a walk, that’s all. Go to sleep.” I snapped, at the end of my patience. The two of them settled into their beds, and I finally turned to look at Crunch, still giving me his hard stare.

“There was nothing I could do. I panicked. Don’t blame yourself.” I whispered, turning my head and looking away. “Just get some sleep.”

I heard him get up and move across the room, so it seemed I was finally going to get some peace and quiet.

Of course, I was wrong. Only a few minutes passed before someone came banging on the door. “Discord curse your eyes…” I hissed and jumped up, trotting to the door and wrenching it open.

I found Cactus Flower there, looking slightly surprised, until she pulled on the bit extending from her battle saddle, raising her shotgun at me. I noticed another pair of ponies flanking her, both armed and sporting stars on their vests and trying not to look as frightened as they did. “Uhm, yeah, this is kind of embarrassing but… you’re under arrest.”


“Again, I’m really sorry about this, we don’t usually do things like this.” Cactus Flower explained as she escorted me towards the police station. She’d left behind her two deputies to watch Crunch and the others in the room once I agreed to come quietly. I wasn’t in the mood to start a fight with an entire town by taking out their law enforcement, and whatever this was I was sure I could get out of it.

“What exactly am I being arrested for?” I asked over my shoulder.

“There was an attack, in the night. They… described you at the scene, sort of. We’ve also heard from someponies who say they saw you fleeing nearby at the same time.” She explained, gingerly poking me with the barrel of her shotgun when we reached the door. I sighed and opened it, stepping into the station while she mumbled “Sorry.”

“I didn’t do it.” It seemed like the right thing to say.

“There’s a lot that points to you. I also heard from the owner of Strawberry’s that you… leapt through a window and disappeared sometime in the afternoon? It does sound very suspicious.” She led me to the wall of cells across the room and stepped around me, keeping an eye on me while she fished out the keys and unlocked it. “We’ll do some investigating, but it doesn’t look very good… unless she turns up, or we find something that clears you, we’ll have to hold you accountable.” I started to step inside the cell but she stopped me “You’ll… have to give up your weapons.”

I was ready to cut my losses, and cut her head off, when what she’d just hit me. “Unless who turns up?”

She stared at my strangely before she went on “A filly has gone missing. She was taken by… whoever did this… now, the swords.” She motioned with the barrel of her shotgun and I levitated my swords off my back and onto the floor.

“You be careful with those.” I warned her as I stepped inside the cell. She locked it behind me and bent down to scoop up my swords. She struggled with my blade, but eventually she got them both into a nearby locker and locked them away as well. I just took a seat on the bench in the cell and watched her until she left the station, saying something else about investigating.

If I hadn’t been paying attention, I would have gotten my hopes up that at least, locked up in jail, I could finally have some peace and quiet and time to think. But I already knew I wouldn’t get it, any second now, something was going to come along and interrupt me, and most likely annoy me to no end.

“What do you want?” I called out to the thin air.

“You look like you could use some help.” Came the reply, in a warbling voice from the little window in the back of the cell. I turned my head and saw the metallic pink orb bobbing in the air just outside.

“Fuck off” I looked away from the window and tried to stare a hole through the wall.

“Okay, maybe I deserved that. And maybe I owe you an apology.”

“You owe me a hundred caps.” I stood up and started to pace.

It was weird, hearing the robotically generated voice stumble “I-I’m sorry, what?”

“For the ponies you had me kill when we first met.”

“I don’t know what you mean, I was only giving you directions.”

I picked up my pace a little “You directed me into a camp full of ponies you wanted dead, I’m not an idiot. That’s as good as hiring me. But you weren’t there to pay me, so I had to take what I could from that family they’d captured, and they were 100 caps short.”

I didn’t know where the eyes were, exactly, on the spritebot, but I could feel the operator behind them staring at me, and I turned to meet them. “You... took their caps? I didn’t hear about that.”

I nodded. Technically I’d given them a portion of Crunch’s food in exchange, but he didn’t need to know that. “I told them to keep quiet about it. Same with every other time you’ve shown up and pointed me in the direction of trouble. That slaver ambush you walked me into, the caravan that was getting robbed. I took care of it, but I took my pay and I made sure nopony spread any stories.”

“Just coincidences… Fine, let’s change the subject… I heard you helped out some nice musician in town here?”

I laughed bitterly at the spritebot, and sighed, returning to the bench. “It doesn’t matter how much you try to groom me, I’m not a hero. I kill ponies for money. That was… a rare exception. Just say what you want and then fuck off.”

The voice took it’s time to answer again, so much that I had to turn my head to see if it was still there. “Well, I’m sure you’ve already heard about the… incident earlier, in town.”

“If you wanted me to kill something, next time try approach me and think about paying me first. So you had something to do with that?”

“I’m sorry, I left my money in my other robot. No, but I like I said, you looked like you could use some help. I can get you let out of there, but only if you’ll rescue that poor filly.”

“So it is a job. Well, I can’t promise anything, so you’d better hope her parents have some spare caps…” I reached up and kicked at the bars with one hoof. "And how are you going to get me out, do those things have lasers on them too?"

"They do, but no strong enough to melt through all those bars. No, I was going to get you out the right way, I captured some footage from the... incident. It proves it wasn't you. I can send it to your friend's PipBuck and she can show-"

The voice from the bot cut off when I grabbed it in my magic and slammed it forward against the bars on the windows, rearing up to put myself closer to wherever the camera was on the cursed thing. "They are not my friends. I don't have any friends!"

I released my hold and the orb floated back a few inches, sparking once "Easy there, do you know how hard it is to get one of these bots all the way down there? Sorry, I just thought you'd finally taken my advice an found someone else to watch your back. So if they're not your friends, who are they?"

"The loudmouth one is a pest, and I'm going to kill her someday." Thinking about it made me wish my sword wasn't locked up, I could be practicing right now. "The other one is... a slave."

"He didn't look like a slave to me."

"I bought him, he's a slave." I stomped my hoof "This conversation is over. Fine, go do whatever you want to do, just leave me alone."

He hesitated for a while before timidly asking "I take it that means you haven't found your virtue yet either?"

I growled in answer, and the orb started to drift away silently. I started to return to my little bench, but stopped suddenly, a thought cutting through me like a knife "No..." I spun around and called "Wait!" The spritebot returned, somehow looking curious despite not having an actual face. "Can you show me the footage?"

"Uh, yeah, do you need to see it right away?" Now all of a sudden he didn't want to bother me. I nodded, and the bot pushed in as close against the bars as it could.

The two huge hexagon patterned disks that represented the sprite's eyes flickered and illuminated. The screen went from bright white to pitch darkness, then the scene of somepony's back yard materialized. The bot was moving quickly through it, bobbing over fences until it arrived at one home that was pressed up against the giant wall that surrounded the town. It topped the fence just in time for that same shriek I'd heard an hour before to ring out a second time. It had come from a mare who was running out of the back door of her house, into the yard, towards... Something. Something large, that I couldn't make out in the darkness, but that peered down at the frantic mare with cold, glowing blue eyes. In front of the whatever-it-was, was a young filly scrabbling in the dirt to crawl away. The creature made a lunge, moving several more limbs than any pony had, and snatched up the young filly, turning its back and fleeing towards the tall fence.

I felt a chill race up my spine as I watched the creature leap the fence with ease, seconds before a stallion burst out the back door of the home and fired a shotgun blindly into the darkness. "Stop it." I gasped out "Go back a few seconds." The watcher behind the orb complied without question, reversing the footage until I shouted "Stop!" again. There, on the unknown creature's back, were dozens of stars, glowing bright blue in the dark of the night.

To be continued~

Footnote: No new levels this time!

((Phew! All I can say is sorry it took so long to get this chapter out, had plenty of distractions along the way. I've decided, rather than take another 6 months to finish the whole thing, to once again split a larger narrative into two (or more) parts, making this the first proper multipart chapter. Hopefully part 2 will be out much much faster!
On to the thanks, thanks to all y'all for stickin' it out long enough and coming back to read this, thanks to everybody promotin' my story wherever you are, thanks to the WD staff for letting me use their setting, and finally of course, thanks to KKat for starting this whole wild ride in the first place. See y'all next time!))

Chapter 9: A Tangled Web: Part 2

View Online

Fallout Equestria: Ashes


Chapter 9: A Tangled Web, Part 2

It was early morning before Cactus Flower came to let me out of my cell. Her gaze seemed distant, and she plainly avoided looking me in the eye.

“We’ve, uh… decided we can’t hold you any longer, due to a recent break in the case. You’re free to go…” I stepped out of the cell and she turned to the row of lockers to retrieve my swords and return them. I started to head out the door when she spoke up again “What are you going to do?”

I stood in the doorway and shrugged “Follow the stars.”

I found Abattoir, Air Heart, and Crunch waiting outside of the station. I trotted past them and onto the sidewalk, and they followed. It only took a few seconds for Abattoir to spring up at my side.

“So, how’d you do it?”

I kept my gaze fixed ahead “Do what?”

“How’d you hack the spritebot to deliver that video? I thought you weren’t good with computers.” she bounced with enthusiasm.

I snorted in derision and shook my head at the completely thoughtless explanation he’d hidden behind. I considered letting them in on the ‘big secret’, but decided it could wait for another day, I had work to do. “I didn’t. It’s complicated. Forget about it for now.”

Then Air Heart was at my other side, looking concerned. “But you’ve seen it, right? You know what happened to that poor filly? We’ve got to do something!”

“Yes, I know that.” I rumbled, crossing a street and turning to the left.

“I know we’re busy, but could you at least consider-… Did you say yes?” Air Heart fell behind a few paces, he was so surprised.

“I’m not concerned about the filly; I’m doing this because that… thing with the stars on its back has something to do with Xephaniah.”

Air Heart caught up again and let out a relieved sigh “Oh, okay then. But we’re still going to save her too, right?”

I turned again when I reached the entrance to a certain neighborhood, stopping to look at the sign. “Maybe. If we find her in time.” His face fell at that, but then he looked up at the sign with me.

Timidly, he asked “Uhm, do you want to know what it says?”

“No, I’m trying to remember. It was dark when I was running through here last night, but I think this is the place.” I started to trot into the once idyllic neighborhood and they followed.

“Why were you running through here?” Air Heart, of all ponies, seemed suspicious.

“Chasing something, just be quiet until we get there.” That got me a few minutes of sweet silence.

“Wait, so, what are we doing here again?” Abattoir asked after ignoring most of our previous conversation.

“Looking for a trail.” It was still too early in the morning for so much conversation.

“Uhm, do you really think it’s a good idea to bother-” Air Heart was cut off by a shotgun going off into the air and scrambled backwards so fast he tripped, while Crunch moved to put himself ahead of me.

“Don’t you come no closer, you hear?!” The shotgun belonged to the stallion standing on the front porch of the last house in this lane before the huge town surrounding wall cut through. It floated shakily in the air above his head, aimed generally in our direction.

“You shouldn’t wave that around like that, you could hurt somepony.” I said calmly. His face, which was already a deep maroon shade of red, started to turn purple. Before he could threaten us again, a mare burst out of the front door behind him.

“Beetroot, put that thing down!” The mare hissed at him and he dropped the gun, turning back to her. I saw his cutie mark, a beet that matched the color of his face before he started to calm back down and addressed his wife, who bore some kind of… leaf on her flank.

“She’s back Holly, she’s come fer’ another. Well we ain’t got anymore foals for you to take!” He raised his voice again, and Holly reached up and put her hoof on his shoulder, shushing him and talking him back towards the door. He went back into the house grumbling something that sounded like ‘mutant’.

“I’m sorry.” Holly began after welcoming us up onto the porch with her. “My Beetroot is a nice stallion, he just has a temper… and what’s happened to our daughter has really made it worse.”

“That’s why I’m here.” I said, choosing to stand while Abattoir and Air Heart sat on one of the wooden benches available. The mare sighed and rubbed her eyes, which I was just noticing looked puffy and red.

“And I’m real sorry you got arrested, I had no idea you… I mean, I just told Sheriff Cactus I saw somethin’ with these terrible eyes that glowed in the night, I didn’t mean to accuse an innocent pony.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “That thing wasn’t no pony though, I’m certain. The way it moved, the size of it, it was just…”

“I understand, forget about it.” I didn’t think I’d be able to stay if she started to weep in front of me, so I tried to keep my voice from sounding a harsh as usual. “The truth is I need to track down whatever that thing was, I was hoping to look around your yard for some kind of trail that might lead me in the right direction.”

“And find your daughter.” Air Heart blurted out before I could stop him. Holly’s face lit up and she seemed to be without words. Before she could get her voice back, the door opened again and Beetroot stepped out, his eyes downcast.

“Ah… Ah would like to apologize, I ain’t been myself since-” But Holly crossed to him and pressed her face against his neck.

“Root, they… these ponies are going to find our daughter!” She gasped, and he looked even more ashamed for a second before raising his eyes to look into my lenses.

“You… you really mean that? You’re gona find our Sunny?” I looked back into his hope filled eyes and slowly gave the answer I knew would probably shatter that hope.

“I didn’t say that. My companion here got a little ahead of himself…” I tilted my head in Air Heart’s direction and he shuffled nervously on the bench. “If I find your daughter, I can rescue her. But I don’t work for free.”

“Lumi…” Air Heart tried to say something, but I stamped my back hoof on the floor sharply, stopping him before he could do more damage.

Beetroot’s face started to redden again, and Holly seemed to have been struck speechless again. “You monster!” Beetroot’s shouting was the first to break the silence. “How dare you come here and try to squeeze caps out of us after what we just been through?!”

I let his rage roll over me, standing firm and waiting for him to pause for breath “I just thought I’d offer, since I’m going to chase down that creature either way. The price is fifty caps for a child, very reasonable.”

“And what if we don’t? What would you do when you found her then, just leave her behind?!”

“Yes.” That seemed to stun Beetroot, and he just gaped at me.

Holly regained her voice by then, and in the ringing silence left by all that shouting, her whisper seemed extra soft. “I’ll pay it.”

“Holly, you can’t-” She shook her head at Beetroot and pulled herself out of his embrace.

“Should we wait for the next wastelander to come along and make an offer? I just want our little girl back, and right now she looks like our best chance…” She turned to look at me again, with much less hope in her eyes “I’ll pay.”

“Well hold on then, we ain’t just gona give you the caps so you can waltz off and never come back, you can have them when you bring our daughter back.”

“If she brings our daughter back.” Holly reminded her husband, slipping around him and opening the door to her home. “Go ahead and have your look around back, just mind the garden…”


“What was that all about?” Air Heart asked after we’d been in the back yard for a few moments. I was trying to concentrate on finding anything left behind by the mysterious creature, and was in no mood for him.

“You opened your stupid mouth and got us into trouble. Again. I told you I don’t work for free.” The yard was large, even with part of the tall fence cutting through it. The grass was mostly neatly trimmed and healthy, and pressed up against the back wall of the house was a square of bare earth out of which a variety of vegetables was sprouting.

“Why is that so important to you? You don’t seem like you’re really greedy or anything, do you really need the money that much?”

I’d been examining one corner of the garden, where a cluster of other plants, mostly sunflowers, was growing instead, and where the young filly had apparently last been before the whatever-it-was snatched her. There was a partially trampled chain of woven flowers laying dropped in the dirt between some tiny hoofprints. There were other, strange tracks, they were very small and round, and there were so many of them grouped close together it was hard to count. But now I raised my head to stare at Air Heart, to get the seriousness of my message across. “Yes. I do. I’m saving up.”

He furrowed his brow and tilted his head “What for?”

“The most important thing of all” He opened his mouth and I raised my hoof “Don’t. This is one of those things you don’t ask questions about.” I turned back to the dirt. “Just take Abattoir and go look around the fence for… anything, I don’t know, just let me concentrate.”

I tried again to pin point the odd shaped prints in the dirt, but I heard Air Heart turning around behind me and realized a distinct lack of annoying background singing.

“She’s gone isn’t she?” I didn’t turn my head, I didn’t want to. But Air Heart wasn’t answering me, so I hard to turn around and do a scan of the yard. No sign of Abattoir, but the back door to the house was hanging open. I groaned and pointed “Go. Go get her, make sure she doesn’t make things even worse.”

Air Heart nodded and lowered his head, hurrying off up the back porch steps. I turned and decided to examine the fence myself. The weird trail led all the way up to it before the tracks grew slightly deeper, then disappeared. I craned my neck back and looked up at the towering fence, spotting some scratches in the scrap metal near the top.

“It nearly jumped clean over…” I turned to motion Crunch closer “Give me a lift.”

He approached, but first he seemed to have some things to say. He made a circle in the air with his hooves. “Yeah, he snuck up on me in the jail.” Crunch snickered, then waved both hooves in front of him and pulled them towards himself. “He just wanted the usual, trying to make me act like a… a hero for no reason, telling me to make friends with annoying ponies, same old crap…” I rubbed the side of my head. Crunch looked up at the fence and motioned at the scratches, then placed his hooves together and moved them in a line. “Yes, we’re going to follow them, even if we don’t get this job. Xephaniah has something to do with that star-thing, I’m going to find out what. Now give me a lift.”

Crunch rolled his eyes and stood with his side up against the fence, bending down so I could climb up onto his broad back. He rose up to his full height and I stood up as far as I could to get a closer look at the scratches. Stretching a little, I could even see over the fence into the rest of the uninhabited neighborhood beyond.

The gashes in the metal were fairly deep, but not grouped close together like the swipe of some clawed beast. Little help there, but I did spot one clue wedged between two overlapping folds of sheet metal, a large black fleck of something. I reached out with my magic and wiggled it loose, bringing it close to examine.

Whatever it was, it was thin but hard, and quite strong, as I found by banging it against the fence a few times. It was also sleek and shiny on one side, reflecting my lenses back at me when I turned it over in the air. “Hmm, what do you make of this?” I hopped down from Crunch’s back and showed him the flake. He squinted at it, then shrugged and placed one of his hooves on top of the other. “A shell?” I looked at it again. It did sort of remind me of the radscorpions, but no radscorpion I’d ever seen could have jumped that fence, not to mention none of them ever had stars on their backs.

“What do you think-” I was about to ask Air Heart if he had any input, when I again noticed a lack of background whining . I looked up at Crunch and grumbled “They’re not back yet, are they?” He shook his head and I huffed, turning towards the porch and still ajar door.

Inside was just like any other wasteland home, only slightly cleaner. I tried to listen out for voices as I made my way down a hall. Just outside of an open doorway I heard a clinking of plates and Air Heart’s voice.

“-not as bad as all that, she’s just scary looking. I mean, she acts scary too, but… the point I’m trying to make is she’s not really mean, just easily annoyed.”

“Yeah, she’s not always such a grump, sometimes she’s not so grump instead.” Abattoir added, and it sounded like she had something in her mouth.

It would figure I would walk in just as their conversation was turning towards defending me. It was enough with a stupid intrusive floating ball pushing me towards friends, but I didn’t need the universe doing it to me too. I didn’t need to hear any more of this, we had work to do.

I didn’t move my hooves just yet though. Sometimes a little extra information can turn out to be valuable, right?

“And if it helps, she takes her work very seriously. She’s… ruthless, and determined, and if you do pay her to do something she won’t rest until she’s done it to the end.” Air Heart said. It was all simple facts, but was I feeling nice that he’d said them? No, absolutely not. I shook my head and just focused on listening to Holly’s reply. She sounded much more composed now.

“That’s… comforting. I was just shocked somepony could be so callous as to charge for a filly’s rescue, but I understand ponies have to make a living.”

“Callous nothing, she’s a monster…” Her husband was there too, still on edge by his tone.

“But you two seem like such a nice young pair, why would you choose to travel with somepony like that? “

“She’s funny!” Abattoir shouted.

“It’s complicated…” Air Heart mumbled.

“Well, if you ever decide you don’t want things so complicated anymore, this town is a wonderful place to live… I mean, up until now.” Holly cleared her throat and sniffed. I decided then that I had heard enough, if these two decided to ditch me for this place, all the better for them. I heard movement inside the room and started to back up, but Crunch had snuck up behind me, and I couldn’t escape in time before Beetroot came around the corner and spotted me.

He stared at me for a moment before turning his head back to the room when Holly called out. “I’m just going to get more lemonade.” He told her, then motioned at me to follow him, and started back down the hall. I looked up at Crunch, then slipped around him and followed Beetroot into the kitchen. He was levitating a pitcher and filling some mismatched glasses when he looked over at me.

“So on top of everythin’ else, you’re an eavesdropper?” He said quietly, with little of the bitterness I’d heard before.

“I’d just come in to tell you I found something I wanted you to look at.” He put the pitcher away and looked at me closely.

“Tell me true now, can you find our daughter?”

I looked back at him. There was so much anger behind those eyes, but something else too. Something desperate. I had already driven home how unlikely that was, and this stallion was not Air Heart, who had a lesson to learn. He knew there was death in the wasteland, so I offered him what little hope I dared, while it was just the three of us here.

“Whatever took her leaves very distinct tracks. An easy to follow trail. If your daughter is alive at the end of this trail, I can find her. Once I collect my… companions, we’ll leave right away and if Discord wills it, we’ll find her within a day.”

He furrowed his brow and I realized perhaps I should have used the name of one of the pony Goddesses instead, but I think he got the gist and nodded “Thank you… better go get them then, c’mon.”

He picked up the glasses and led us back down the hallway. When he reached the doorway he called out “Look who I jus’ found with some news.” And so I had to follow him into the sitting room. It was another room like Fiddle Sticks’ living room, plush chairs and a coffee table and fireplace mantle with pictures. Holly and Air Heart looked up at us, and I reached into my bags with my magic to hold up the black chunk I’d found.

“I think this came off of the creature that was in your yard last night.” I stated, setting it down on the table next to a plate of sandwiches. I looked over at Air Heart. “Where’s Abattoir?”

“She had to use the bathroom.” He said, avoiding my gaze and slipping out of his seat to examine the fleck as well. “What is that?”

“Not sure. A shell of some kind, maybe. Whatever left it, it has… a lot of legs, and claws, I think. Or spines. Something sharp enough to cut metal.” I explained. Holly was tilting her head slowly and staring at the fragment on the table. She put her hoof on it and pushed it away, looking up.

“That’s definitely a piece of it. I remember when I saw it, it looked like it was wet or something, or shiny, like polished metal…” She sighed heavily and leaned back in her seat “So this is good, right? You know what you’re looking for?”

I shook my head “I don’t know what it is, no. It’s not any animal I’ve ever tracked before, but it leaves a trail, and that means I can track it down.” I turned to Air Heart again. “And the sooner we leave the better.”

He took the hint and stood up “Uh, right, I’ll just go get Abbey.”

I’ll get Abattoir, you go wait outside.” I pointed, and Air Heart headed in the other direction. I motioned to Crunch to go with him, and turned to look at Holly and Beetroot.

Holly put on a weak smile and nodded towards another doorway “Ah, the restroom is just upstairs, go down that hall.”

I went down the hall and climbed the stairs. I walked along the upper hallway, listening for a trace of Abattoir singing something or the sound of running water. When I heard her voice coming from behind some door, I went to it and raised my hoof to knock, but I realized with a start she wasn’t singing.

“S-shut up shut upshutup…” She sounded on the verge of tears, like Holly had a while ago.

“You shut up, you stupid bitch!” She suddenly snapped, her voice a whip. I’d never heard such spite in Abattoir’s voice, but it was her voice. No, that wasn’t true, I remembered that tone from somewhere… “Don’t be such a dumbass, that little filly’s probably gobbled up by now! You should just chop these two up and take all their shit.”

I remembered, it was back in that old house we’d spent the night in with Grinder and his crew. When she’d been protecting Air Heart and tricking that thick headed stallion, what was his name? I shook my head, it didn’t matter, something strange was going on behind this door.

“Girls, girls, let’s not fight… Abbey, don’t be so mean, eh?” Was that still Abattoir? It was her voice but at the same time it didn’t sound anything like her, was that who she was talking to? How did someone else get in the bathroom with her?

“Shut up, don’t call me that!” The second voice growled.

“GET OUT!” The first voice sobbed, and then I heard something. A sound just on the edge of hearing, but I recognized it. I’d been fighting far too long not to recognize it, it was the sound of blade and flesh. That was followed by a sudden hiss of air, then the sound of clattering metal, and the rushing of water from a faucet. I stood outside the door and listened for more, but when I heard her again, it was the voice of Abattoir that I knew. She was singing again.

“Mmhhn… Shipoopi, shipoopi, the mare who’s hard to get… Shipoopi, shipoopi, but you can win her yet…” The water shut off and then she opened the door. She didn’t seem surprised seeing me standing there, and grinned. “Hi Lumi! Time to go? Bathroom’s all yours~”

She skipped around me and disappeared down the stairs singing more of the nonsensical song. I stepped inside the bathroom and looked around. There was no one else there, no trace of anything that seemed out of place. Except a few tiny droplets of blood left on the tile floor.


“…Worried about this wound, maybe I should try stitching it.” I heard Air Heart fussing when I stepped out into the yard again. I saw him retying some bandages around Abattoir’s foreleg. I decided I would bring it up later, and called out sharply.

“We’re going to head out from here, make sure you’re ready.”

Air Heart looked up “Oh, well we bought some more food and water while you were… missing yesterday, but I don’t know if it’s enough for Crunch. And you.”

“We’ve got enough then. Crunch.” I motioned at the fence and he nodded, moving over to stand beside it and crouching down. Air Heart looked nervously, but followed Abattoir over, who seemed ecstatic, and jumped eagerly onto Crunch’s back. Before I could move to join them, I felt a hoof on my shoulder.

I flinched and spun around, finding Beetroot there to see us off. He pulled his hoof back and looked at it strangely, then met my lenses and cleared his throat. “I just wanted to thank y’all again, for both of us, and, uh... And I realized I’ve been acting mighty rude, and I wanted to apologize.” I got the feeling Holly might have had something to do with that, but he still looked properly abashed. “I’m sorry about what I said. You ain’t a monster, you’re… a kind pony, and I thank ya.”

“Don’t feel too bad.” I said, turning to take the stairs down from the porch. “You were right the first time.”

I left him with that and went to the fence. Abattoir had already vaulted up and over, and I could hear her calling out from the other side “C’mon, you can do it, no one’s lookin’!”

Air Heart was looking pleadingly at Crunch, but he was smirking and standing upright. I got what they were going for and I joined them, nodding at the fence. “She’s right, you need to start using those wings of yours. Get going.”

He looked back at me now and sputtered, glancing back towards the house, but Beetroot had gone back inside. “A-a-alright, just, give me a second.”

I gave him his second and turned, jumping up onto Crunch’s back and then rearing up to grab the fence and haul myself over. Landing on the other side, I turned.

“Ready?” I called out, and Crunch knocked on the fence. I tilted my head and focused my horn, reaching out with my magic and grabbing his large frame. He jumped and I grunted as my horn took the weight, and started to lift him up while he used his hooves to hurry himself along. Finally he breeched the top and hauled himself over, dropping down beside us with a heavy thump.

“Alright, your turn, and hurry up, we don’t have all day.” I called to the fence.

“O-o-okay okay!” I heard him suck in his breath, and then hop off the ground. There were a few moments of silence before he flapped his way over the fence. He passed over the top and started to descend, but I drew my sword and pointed it up at him, making him yelp and shoot back up a little higher into the air. “W-what is it, what’d I do?!”

“You’re not comin’ down. You’ve got those wings, you’re gona use them.” I poked upward with my blade and he squeaked, flying a little higher.

“Alright! H-how long do I have to do it for?” I slowly slung my sword but kept staring at him, thinking.

“Until you’re tired.” That should keep him up there for a while. I turned and started searching the ground. We had landed in yet another back yard, part of the last couple rows of houses that had been cut off when Cliffside put up that fence. I briefly wondered why they hadn’t just gone all the way to the edge and included them all.

I found more of the strange little tracks all over the yard, punching into the grass and flattening it. I started to follow the trail, glancing back every few steps to make sure Air Heart was still aloft. He was looking around nervously and chewing his lower lip, but he was still flapping. The tracks led me through the yard, towards a little side gate that had been knocked off its hinges. That led out onto the sidewalk, and I saw why Cliffside stopped their own fence where they did.

Behind us, the houses continued to the east and west, but directly to the north, across a short length of road, was the yawning chasm the separated the two halves of the city. There was a stretch of sidewalk, a flimsy chain link fence and then the ground just stopped. I crossed the road and stepped up to the fence, peeking through it and taking that glimpse over the edge that I didn’t get when we approached the first time.

The view was… impressive. I used my hooves and pushed on the links so I could lean out further and get a better view. I could see all the way down to the bottom of the canyon, where a thin trickle of a stream ran out towards the western sea.

I felt tugging behind me and turned back to Air Heart pulling me back by my tail “C-careful.” He motioned at the fence “That thing is really rusty, I wouldn’t put too much weight, you could fall right over…” I snapped my tail out of his mouth and he floated up, sputtering slightly.

“Just taking a peek.” He was right though, the metal was rusted, especially around the poles that supported the fence. I wasn’t going to be taking another look any time soon. Air Heart was still sticking his tongue out and making faces “What?”

“Your tail tastes funny… sour.” I rolled my eyes and trotted back across the street to pick up the trail again, passing Crunch and ignoring his smirk.

When the tracks reached the sidewalk they turned into distinct scratches, still easy to follow. Whatever this creature was, it wasn’t concerned about subtlety or stealth.

Or it wants you to follow it. That was also a possibility, I supposed. Was this a trap? That’s exactly what I needed now.

As the morning wore on, the tracks led out of the abandoned neighborhood and deeper into old Ciffside, where the buildings started coming in closer together. I paused when we started to approach an old shopping district. From this far up the road I could see primitive barricades that had been thrown up in the middle of the road, a pile of overturned carriages and various other bits of rubble. There was no sign of other ponies at the moment, and the tracks were still leading straight ahead, so I ditched caution and approached the barrier.

“Keep your eyes open.” I mumbled to Air Heart and Abattoir, noticing he’d returned to the ground at some point when I wasn’t paying attention. Probably for the best at that moment.

The tracks led right up to just ten paces from the blockade before they suddenly and sharply turned left, becoming further spaced. I noticed a small divot right before the tracks turned, and was about to go in for a closer look when a gunshot and a voice both rang out through the air.


“Stop right there!” I raised my head and spotted the pony perched on a rooftop glaring at me behind a smoking rifle. Several other appeared, poking their heads and guns over the rooftops. “What’s your business here?”

At least they weren’t raiders, I could tell by the way the shooter hadn’t put his bullet through my skull. I noticed I’d drawn my sword and returned it to the harness, raising my voice to be heard. “We mean you ponies no harm, we’re tracking an animal that came this way.”

I saw several heads turn to their partners and the pony who’d shot at me raised a device and spoke into it. After a moment he replied. “Which tribe are you from? Are you seeking the star-beast?”

I looked back at my companions. We certainly looked ragged, but I didn’t think we looked like tribals. Then I realized what he’d said. “We’re not from any tribe… wait, the what?”

He lowered his rifle and I saw a smirk on the pony’s face “We can continue this conversation at a reasonable distance, one moment.” He motioned, and then disappeared from the rooftop. Suddenly the street beyond the barricade came alive as ponies poured out of the buildings, apparently we were deemed not too much of a threat anymore. A pair of wooden pallets were raised by an unseen unicorn and stacked against the outside of the rubble, forming a ladder of sorts.

I took a step, but then hesitated, and looked back at my companions. Air Heart looked worried; Abattoir had a dumb grin plastered across her face. I thought back to my conversation with that stupid orb and cursed internally. “What do you think?”

“Could it be a trap?” Air Heart whispered.

“If it is, it’s very poorly planned out and sloppily executed.”

“We should go in, they might have food!” Abattoir ‘s grin grew.

“We bought food for the trip…” Air Heart started, but Abattoir shushed him with a hoof.

“But it tastes better when it’s freeeee~” she sang and bolted up the makeshift ladder.

I sighed and motioned for Air Heart to go after her and looked up at Crunch. “He thought they were my friends…”

Crunch smirked and I huffed, turning and taking the ladder. The pony from the roof was waiting on the other side with Air Heart and Abattoir. I heard the wood creaking behind me before Crunch landed with a thump, making our host look up. He was lanky, with a mossy green coat and a dirty brown mane that he wore long and up. He had armor on top of a purple and blue spotted uniform, and had his rifle across his back.

“All here? Good, come, walk and talk with me.” He started to trot us through the settlement. We started to follow him and I let my eyes wander around the little ‘village’. I saw bedrolls through the shattered storefronts, and tents out on the street, and a dozen ponies or more milling around. There was even one old store that was actually being used as a store.

“There’s so many of you, how do you live out here?” Air Heart asked, standing on the tips of his hooves to see further.

“We look after each other. It’s no more dangerous than any other part of the wastes.” He looked over his shoulder and smirked at Air Heart “Not that you’d know, of course.” Air Heart stumbled a bit and he chuckled and kept walking. “I can tell you ain’t been on the ground more than a week. How about we start with some introductions?”

“Great idea. You first.” I stepped around Air Heart and took up the trot right next to our host.

“Of course, how rude of me. Call me Stalker.” He looked sideways at me and nodded politely. “And yourselves?”

“Luminescence.” I motioned to the back of the line “That’s Crunch.”

“Oh, a beautiful name,” Stalker said before I could turn to Air Heart or Abattoir “For a beautiful mare, I presume?”

I gave him a hard stare until he chuckled into his hoof “Forgive me, it’s my nature to try and get on somepony’s good side from the first.”

“You can do that by making this quick.” I pointed back “That’s Abattoir and Air Heart.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Stalker smiled at them and started to trot again.

“Call me Abbey.” Abattoir said.

“Uh, hi.” Air Heart said with his head ducked.

“There, now everypony knows who everypony is. Now maybe you can tell me a little about why you’re out here in our neck of the woods.”

“We’re tracking something that came this way.”

“An animal, you said. And this… animal, has taken off with a foal, yes?” I didn’t answer, and he didn’t need me to. “You have my sympathies.”

“You said you know something about it?” I needed his information, not his sympathies.

“I believe I do. The creature you hunt, does it bear a field of stars upon its back?” I nodded and he bowed his head to sigh. “Then it’s true. The creature you’re after, it’s plagued this area as long as I’ve lived here, and from the stories I’ve heard, quite a long time before that too.”

He stopped and waved to a large, square tent, turning and trotting to open the flap. I ducked inside and my companions followed me, with Stalker coming in last.

“Sit, please.” There were some rugs scattered on the floor in front of a little blackened crater I assumed was a firepit. I stayed on my hooves while Abattoir and Air Heart plopped onto the rugs.

“I’m fine.” I said, and he shrugged, walking over to a large chest at the end of a mattress. He opened it and dug around inside. “Listen, we’re kind of in a hurry, do you have something important to tell us or are you just wasting-”

Stalker pulled out a huge claw and tossed it onto the rug. I looked from it to him, saw his smug grin, and sighed, kneeling down on the rug. “Alright, you’ve got my attention.” I took a close look at the claw. It was as long as my leg, slightly curved, and as black as midnight. There was a chunk of severed leg still attached to the base of the claw. I reached out to prod it, it was hard, like a shell, and covered little spikes. I leaned in close and rolled it back and forth, seeing it catch the light from my lenses as it rolled.

“Sleek…” I mumbled, digging out the shell fragment I’d found stuck in the fence. Definitely a match.

“Just like Holly said.” Air Heart said from across the tent where he’d scooted away when the claw was presented.

“It won’t hurt ya, lad, it’s dead as a door nail. The creature that left it, though…” Stalker started to say, but I stood up and brought his attention back.

“What can you tell me about it? Do you know what is actually is? Does it have a… a nest or a lair or someplace nearby where we can start looking for it?”

Stalker shrugged and bent to pick up the claw and stash it away again. “Well, if that didn’t give ya a good enough idea, I can tell ya it stood tall, tall as a carriage, but it moved fast. Wickedly fast. As for what it is? I can’t say for sure, I’ve never seen anything like it before, and hope I never do again.” I turned to give Crunch a look, hoping he appreciated that I wasn’t nearly as melodramatic as this stallion.

“It’s a monster, that much is plain. Some of the tribes even believe it’s a demon. Some hell-beast that feasts on children, but I don’t buy that.” Stalker thumped the chest. “Demons don’t get their bits shot off so easy...”

I sighed and shook my head. “Fine, it doesn’t matter then. What about the nest?”

Stalker stood silent for once and looked us all over slowly. I was about to ask again when he spoke up, sounding serious for once. “Why are you seeking the star-beast?”

“Because I have a job to do.” I answered without skipping a beat.

“And is this job worth your life, or the lives of your friends?”

“They aren’t my friends.” I hissed, and stalker shrugged, raising his eyebrow in Air Heart and Abattoir’s direction.

“Then maybe my warning will be more effective on them. The answer is no. It’s not worth it, whatever the pay. May I tell you ponies a little story?”

“I really wish you wouldn’t…” I groaned, but Abattoir started prancing in place.

“Oh oh oh, storytime. That comes right before naptime!” She hopped back onto the rug and tugged Air Heart back down. Before she got any ideas about reaching in my direction I sighed and knelt down again. Crunch landed next to me with a thump and Stalker nodded.

“Good. This won’t take long. You see, several years ago I came to this area following a caravan. I was a hunter and trapper, so I thought I could make some quick caps here off some of the local wildlife. But inside those walls the ponies are all growing their own crops, and got no need for grilled radroach or mantis legs, and the ponies outside the walls have got pretty good at catching their own supper. I was all set to ditch with the caravan, when the beast struck the village we were staying in. It was… terrible, but most of the villagers didn’t even seem to care, they just said it was unavoidable, if you lived in this area you had to get used to it.”

“I don’t think I like this story…” I heard Abattoir whisper to Air Heart.

“That wasn’t good enough for me. I went to see the so called Mayor, but she was useless, so I went from tribe to tribe until I found enough hunters willing to come with me to track the creature down. It left a trail as clear as day for us to follow, and we chased it back to the heart of this cursed town. Me and ten other ponies, good ponies, seasoned wastelanders all, went inside after that monster.”

He paused to give us a moment, scanning us across the tent, and settled his stare on me. “Guess how many came back out once we finally realized we were in well over our heads?”

“A-ahm, uh… a-all of them?” Air Heart stammered.

“Is this a trick question?” Abattoir asked.

I just stared back and waited for him to carry on, wondering how much time we’d wasted sitting here already.

“Two. Just two of us, me and… that smiling bastard.” He scowled briefly at the mention but continued, “So trust me. It’s not worth it. Find another job, give my sympathies to the filly’s parents, and get out of this city as soon as you can.” He turned away from us, finally silent.

I let the silence linger, as I got so little of it these days, before climbing up off the rug and clearing my throat. “I appreciate your concern, but we have a job to do.” I felt Crunch rise behind me, and moments later heard Abattoir and Air Heart scramble to their hooves. “So if you can’t help, we’ll be leaving now.” Maybe if Stalker didn’t turn around we get back on track and get out of this tent.

But he did turn back around. And he was smiling again. “Your confidence is refreshing... You’re either the bravest mare I’ve seen in a while, or just the most foolish.”

I decided to ignore that “So, does that mean we’re done here?” I vowed never to go into another strange tent again.

He shook his head, and I was that close to cutting it off, whence reached for the walkie-talkie on his belt. There was a bark of static and he spoke into it “Are you two still there?”

“Always, boss. What’s up? The outsiders giving you trouble?” Came the reply. Stalker grinned sheepishly at us and answered the deep voice.

“No, no, our guests have been perfectly behaved. They’re just about to head out, in fact.”

“So whatcha botherin’ us for?” That was a different voice from the first, higher and lacking the respectful tone.

“How would you two feel about taking a little walk?”


An hour later and I was still debating whether I should have gone with my instinct and beheaded him. Instead, I’d gone along while Stalker summoned two stallions and charged them with escorting us safely to the lair of the beast, the location of which he still couldn’t simply tell me. As we left him behind, a hoped, yet seriously doubted, that was the last I’d see of Stalker.

Now one of those stallions was trotting ahead of us, talking to Air Heart, and the other was bringing up our rear with Crunch. And neither of them would shut up.

“So after that we had to get the heck outa Appleoosa, so next time one of the big trade caravans came through, we signed up for guard duty and slunk out before she found out what happened to the brahmin.” The tall, lanky one was explaining to Air Heart, who chuckled uneasily. His name was Wedge, I recalled. He bore a wedge of cheese on his flank, so I supposed it was easy to remember.

“I told you it was a bad idea, you should have just asked her.” The shorter, bigger stallion said with an easy chuckle. He was called Biggs, for no reason that I could fathom other than because he was big. He wasn’t as talkative as his partner, but he did like to egg him on, so he received his fair share of my silent seething.

Wedge ignored his partner and continued telling what must have been their entire life story. “Anyway, that was a pretty fun gig, we got to follow that ‘van through a lot of Equestria, see the sights n’ things. We came down here with ‘em, in fact. By then we were once again longing for the fun filled life of urban survival, so we jumped ship and tried to get in with one of the gangs in the city, but they’re way intense up there. Ain’t that right, Biggs?” He called over his shoulder.

“Got that right, Wedge. Bunch of loonies.” The larger stallion affirmed.

“So we crossed that big bloody bridge.” Wedge made a nod in the vague direction of north “Did a few odd jobs around town until we met Stalker.”

“So you weren’t there when the... Thing happened to him?” Air Heart asked tentatively.

“When he lost his son?" That confirmed my suspicions over his true motivation for pursuing the star beast. "Nah, that was long before us. We just joined on last year, it’s nice work, sit on the roofs and watch out for suspicious ponies like you- no offense- and go out on the occasional hunting trip.”

“Have you ever seen it?” I spoke for the first time since leaving the village, the sound clearly spooking Wedge.

“Ah, me? No, never, Biggs did though.” The lanky stallion was quick to deflect my attention to his partner. I half turned back and looked expectantly at Biggs.

Biggs shrugged cooly at me “I was with the boss the time he landed that shot, the one that took the leg off. Don’t know what I can tell you that you didn’t already hear. Whatever it is, it’s all black and without those stars on it’s back it’d be totally invisible at night. Thank Celestia for that, eh?” He smiled at that, but I could see it was forced, and it disappeared when he continued. “It... screamed, when the boss shot it. It was horrible, shrill and painful, but almost like a pony’s scream, y’know? But it didn't bring Zapp back. Nothing will, and I think the boss knows that. S'why he didn't want to send you off after it at first...”

He trailed off, and Wedge crossed back down the line, withdrawing a silver flask from somewhere in his vest and passing it to Biggs. He took a pull and passed it back, clearing his throat. “Anyway, that’s all I got. Come on, let’s get moving, I plan to be back home before sundown.”

Air Heart looked back and forth between the two of them nervously. “You’re not coming with us?”

Wedge brushed passed him with a chuckle and took the lead again. “Hell naw. We’re just here to take you as close to the nest as we can while still bein’ safe, point you in the right direction, then tip our hats and high tail it home.”

I found that perfectly acceptable. “You know, if you just told us where that is, you could be on your way back already.”

“Nice try” Wedge smirked back at me.

And so I bowed my head and kept walking, resigned.

“So, what’s your story?” Biggs asked, coming up behind me a moment later.

“My story?” I glanced at him, considering. He shook his head and made a circle with his hoof.

“Your story. All of you. Everypony’s got a story. You heard ours. The talking will help the journey pass faster.”

“Not in my experience, and I’ve been walking a long time.” I stared back at him, but Biggs was stolid, and Air Heart and Abattoir were looking expectantly at me. I sighed and motioned at them. “Fine, go ahead, whatever you want.”

Biggs smiled, and turned his gaze forward to the three of them walking up ahead. Abattoir grinned gleefully at the opportunity to run her mouth some more, and broke into a condensed version of her life story that I tried very hard not to hear.

“Well, I was born in a hot, dry, sandy place, and it was really really boring for a long time. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, and there weren’t a lot of other fillies to play with, and my parents wanted me to take over the store but hardly anyone ever came by our town and it was sooo boring!”

“But then this big group of really cool ponies came to town, there were soooo awesome, they got free drinks at the bar and there was one who could throw knives and hit the middle of the old dartboard every time and this one mare had guns for hooves, it was sweeeet. I begged my parents to let me go with ‘em when they left, but they told me I was too young.”

“Well, they were just looking out for you, I’m sure-” Air Heart started, offering Abattoir a smile.

“So I killed them both!” Abattoir continued without skipping a beat, smiling back while Air Heart’s own smile curdled into a horrified stare. “I showed the cool ponies and they were really impressed, one of ‘em even barfed! They said if that wasn’t a good enough initiation, nothing was~”

“That’s even where I got my name, y’know?” She turned her head to smile at me and Crunch now “They said I made the inside of the store look like an abattoir, that’s a Phrench word, cool huh? D’you know where Phrance is?”

“It’s one of those far away lands across the boiling sea.” I said mildly, wondering where the thread of this unraveled tale was going to end up.

Abattoir giggled. “Close enough! But yeah, it means ‘slaughterhouse’, they said that’s what I turned the back room of the shop into, so it’d make a good name. Then we left on an awesome adventure, and I got to go all over Equestria and hang out with more cool ponies, and joined lots of different gangs. Most of them didn’t last that long though. Aaaaand that’s about it, you found me in the Bloodshot’s hideout and we became bestest friends!”

I sighed, turning my head to glare at Biggs. “You had to encourage her?”

But Biggs was not there. Looking around I noticed Wedge and Air Heart were missing as well. Crunch was still there beside me, of course, and he pointed back the way we’d came when I fixed my gaze on him. I turned back, and saw Air Heart several paces behind, mouth agape. Wedge and Biggs were hanging back as well, glancing at eachother.

“What are you waiting for?” I shouted. Air Heart’s wings shot up and he galloped to close the distance, but still stopped a fair distance away from us.

“A-abattoir, are you feeling okay?” Air Heart asked while Wedge and Biggs took their time rejoining the group, mumbling amongst themselves.

“Of course I am, why?” Abattoir asked with a crooked smile and tilt of her head.

“You just said... did I hear you say you just.. did you really kill your parents?” He looked from her to me, maybe for the first time having second thoughts. His brow was furrowed with confusion and concern. I could only hope to encourage that line of thought and shrugged.

“Sure did!” Abattoir proclaimed proudly.

“I’ve heard worse.” I added with impatience. “Are we done standing around?”

Wedge detached from Biggs’ side, returning to the head of the pack “Go for a little walk, the boss says.. foalsit some psychos, more like..” I heard him grumbling. I motioned at my two companions and we started to trot again.

A tense silence hung in the air. Air Heart’s voice trembled slightly when he asked his next question. “What about your friend?”

“Huh?” Abattoir asked, arching her neck back.

“Your old friend? The one who taught you all the songs?” Air Heart continued, “And I thought you told me about some brothers and sisters sometime...”

“Oh! Yeah, her, uh.. oh, maybe you misheard me, I had some... they were like brothers and sisters but..” Abattoir stopped again, we all stopped again, I noticed with irritation. She was smiling at Air Heart but it was a weary and strained smile, like it didn’t want to be there. She scratched her foreleg with her hoof. Her lower eyelid twitched slightly. She whipped her head to the side and pointed suddenly, shouting. “Hey look, a radroach! I’ll go catch it for lunch!”

“Wait-!” Air Heart reached a hoof out, but she was gone in a neon-yellowgreen streak, down some alley between two squat buildings. Air Heart dropped his hoof and looked back at me pathetically.

“What the fuck...” Biggs rumbled behind me.

I shrugged and started walking. “Well, you still feel like sharing your story?” I asked Air Heart sardonically when I passed him up.

He didn’t.

I enjoyed the silence for nearly half an hour. The buildings were growing bigger again and the street became more choked with traffic, as we made our way into the town proper once again.

“Do you think she’ll come back?” Air Heart asked me.

“Yes. She isn’t done tormenting me, whatever you said just freaked her out for the moment.”

“I just.. I can’t believe she really killed her parents.”

I sighed. “It happens. This is the wasteland-”

“No!” Air Heart cut me off “I mean I don’t believe it! She mentioned parts of her growing up before, when we were walking to Cliffside. It sounded much happier than... that. And she told me about her brothers and sisters, she had a lot of them.” He shook his head slowly, looking up at me. “And you were there when she said, an old friend taught her songs from the old Equestrian musicals.”

I thought back. I remembered that conversation. I still shrugged. “So what?”

“So it conflicts with what she said! Doesn’t that worry you?” Air Heart asked, exasperated.

“No, it doesn’t. Shut up.” I did think we had some things to talk about, but not now, there was work to focus on. And those two were still hanging around.

“She’s got a point.” Biggs said, as suddenly as if he’d been part of the conversation the whole time. “We’re entering bandit territory.”

That got him to clam up again and we crept further along the abandoned streets. This time, I kept my attention turned outward, on our surroundings. After the outcome from our last bandit encounter in here, I was not keen on another.

I’m sure you can guess by now how that worked out. I could see them moving behind the buildings, animalistic, stalking us. I looked sideways at Crunch for confirmation. He made an exaggerated stomp and pinned his hoof down in place for a few seconds, looking like maybe he’d stumbled or got stuck to any outside observer. But I nodded, we were in agreement. I spoke up, hushed and hoping the rest of them were capable of keeping their heads.

“Don’t say anything. Don’t make any sudden movements. We’re walking into an ambush.”

“What took you so long?” Biggs whispered, making Wedge chuckle.

“Wait, what?” Air Heart started to turn his head but I kicked a boot against his ankle and he stayed facing forward.

“Shush. Don’t let them see that we know.” I instructed him, hoping his face wasn’t betraying us. “Wait until they get closer. When the shooting starts, try and fly clear and come back from a different angle.”

“There won’t be any shooting” Biggs said from behind me.

“Why not?”

“Because they aren’t bandits...” Answered Wedge from in front of me, doing a strange sideways skip. I opened my mouth to ask what we were dealing with, or maybe I meant to scold him for making unnecessary sudden movements. It didn’t matter which.

Because then I stepped into the bear trap he’d dodged, and it snapped shut with a metallic shunk. I grunted through my teeth and looked down. Thankfully, it had closed above my knee, and avoided putting more holes in my boots. Oh, and it did hurt a fair bit.

No time to worry about it now, as loud guttural screaming signalled the fight was starting. They fell on us, some of them literally, jumping on top of Crunch and Biggs and landing in front of me. They brandished kitchen cutlery and shovels and rakes, and some with just their hooves. I drew my swords, igniting the new one, and slashing at the dirty, laughing ponies. With my leg in the trap, and the trap attached to a length of chain and staked to the ground, I couldn’t maneuver well, and their numbers were overwhelming. For every one I slashed or left scorched, two more lept in.

A scrawny mare landed on my back and sunk her teeth into the back of my neck. That left an opening in my attacks for more of them to rush in. They knocked my swords away and butted my head, kicked my sides and tackled me to the ground. Around me I could see the others not faring much better.

Air Heart was already down with his hooves over his head and a cackling mare sitting on top of him. Wedge was holding them back for a moment with bursts from his submachinegun, until a stallion with one ear jumped from the top of a cart and landed behind him, cracking a hammer against the side of his skull. This caused Wedge to turn his shotgun from the crowd and unload it at the offender. He dropped the hammerpony, but before he could reload they fell on him. Looking around, I could only assume Crunch was under the massive squirming pile of ponies off to the side.

Then another kick to my head brought my attention back to my own predicament. The stallion standing over me was filthy, and wore some ugly hide outfit and a necklace of teeth. The teeth around his neck were cleaner than the ones in his head. And judging by the way he and the others were staring at me, unreserved hunger plain on their faces, I figured I knew what we were dealing with.

“Cannibals, huh?” I said, unamused.

“Shut up!” Said the toothy stallion.

“Ughn.. yeah, they don’t usually come out in such numbers.” I heard Biggs voice from somewhere behind me.

“I’d just like to remind you you could have been back home by now if you’d just told me where to go.”

I heard shuffling and scraping, and Biggs was dropped in the middle of the street in front of me. Wedge’s still unconscious form was dumped between us right after, and Air Heart was tossed behind Biggs, leaving us laying in a neat row. The majority of the cannibal ponies all converging to help finish restraining Crunch, a few stragglers remaining to watch us.

“You seem awful calm. Can I assume you have some kind of plan?” Biggs said, spitting out a bit of blood and glancing me up and down. “Was stepping in the trap part of the plan or...?”

“You can assume anything you want.” I looked down at my leg in the trap again, and shrugged. “I’m not worried because I’ve been in this exact situation before. Any minute now Abattoir is going to show up from nowhere trying to help and annoy me, and we’ll be able to use that as a distraction.”

Biggs laughed again, until it turned into a grunt of pain. From behind him, I noticed Air Heart shuddering.

“Air Heart, are you dead?” I asked, making him raise his dirt and tear streaked face off the ground.

“You shouldn’t sound so hopeful when you ask that...” He sniffed and shuddered. “What’s going to happen to us? Are we gona die?”

“Some of us might.” I said, obviously far too casually for him. He dropped his head again and whimpered into the cracked concrete.

A moment later, Wedge started stirring and groaning. “Ooooohhh.. dear, sweet Celestia, please let this headache be from a hangover... please let me be sleeping off a wild night with a beautiful mare...” He rolled over limply and cracked his eyes open, one side of his head caked in blood, and looked into my lenses. “... Dear Celestia... you are a bitch.”

“Shut up” I snapped at him.

“All of youse shut up!” Barked one of the mares watching over us. The one who sank her teeth into my neck, I realized, making a special effort to remember her face. “Da big boss comin’!”

We all craned our necks to see. First I saw that they had finally climbed up off Crunch, leaving him wrapped in so many heavy chains he looked like some metallic golem. Second, I saw a big stallion strolling through the crowd. He wasn’t as big as Crunch, of course, but he was an imposing figure, dressed in a padded vest with chains wrapped around his forelegs, and more bear traps jangling from a belt around his waist. And third, I saw Abattoir. It took a moment for me to realize it was her. She was trotting along beside the big stallion. Her mane was pushed up into a spiked wedge running down the center of her skull, her eyes were beady and her teeth looked blackened and filthy, and she was wearing some kind of patterned prewar dress, also covered in dirt. Even the PipBuck around her left foreleg looked like it’d been recently pulled out of the bottom of a swamp. She looked exactly like any other cannibal.

“Ahaha, the sneaky stripe give some good info after all, eh?” The big stallion was musing with her, his voice deep and several layers thick with accent. “Thought me bro had gone ‘round the twist when he stumbled in with him, but here they is!”

“Fine work, Tank! Might be you let ‘im go too soon? Which way' d'ee go, I'll take some ponies an’ go chase him down, eh?” Abattoir cackled up at him, her voice just as thick and completely unrecognizable.

“H-hey, what’s the big id-” Wedge started to say, but I stuck my free leg out and kicked him.

“Shut up, something’s up here. Just keep quiet and follow our lead.” I implored in a hushed voice.

“Later, later, we'll talk business later. S'not everyday a dear friend of Missus Choppy pays us a visit and we make such good hunt! We takes 'em back, we have a feast, then we talk business!” The big stallion was saying, patting Abattoir’s shoulder with a massive, chain wrapped hoof.

“Fine, fine. After such a long trip, I have worked up quite an appetite...” She said with a dismissive nod, and approached us, making a show of scanning with her eyes before they fell on Air Heart and she thrust her hoof out. “Oh look, you caught a pretty birdy! Might be I'll keep him in a little cage to sing me pretty songs~?” She cackled as she closed in on him.

Air Heart, who’d been watching the whole thing in stunned silence, closed his slack jaw suddenly. He was too far away for me to kick, I could only hope he knew enough to keep his mouth shut.

“A-a-abattoir!?” He squeaked fearfully. She only pressed her hoof to his mouth and grinned.

“See? Even in the clouds, they know to fear my name!” She boasted, raising a laugh from the big stallion and several other cannibals.

But not all of them laughed, including one mare who jumped forward, standing over Air Heart like a predator animal guarding a kill. “Piss off! You didn’t even help with the hunt! We lost the last pigeon with the zeeb, but this one is mine!”

The sudden tension in the air coiled tighter, like the spring of an over wound clock, as they stared each other down. The hungry mare baring her teeth in a hungry snarl, Abattoir returning it with a sweet smile, the only sound was Air Hearts pathetic whimpers and hiccups.

Then, like a gun going off, Abattoir shot out and took the other mare in the face with her own muzzle, teeth sinking into cheek flesh. They both screamed and tumbled over, thrashing and kicking and biting. The gathered cannibals watched reverently, the big stallion nodding his head with an approving smirk.

I watched with dull curiosity. Gone was the flowy, graceful fighting movements I’d seen Abattoir use previously, she was fighting like a wild animal, taking nearly as many wounds as she gave. The fight came to an end just as quickly as it had started, with Abattoir standing over the other mare, blood and spittle dribbling from her chin. Abattoir was covered in cuts and scrapes. The other mare was bleeding profusely from a dozen more. The left side of her face was the worst, her left eye was swollen shut and everything from her cheek to her neck was bathed in blood.

“The pretty birdie is mine...” Abattoir panted, climbing off the mare. “But might be after I have my fill, you can have the leftovers.” Judging by the way the other cannibals hissed and jeered together, this was some kind of insult. Two of them rushed in to help her up, she snapped her teeth angrily at them but allowed herself to rise on their hooves, keeping her head bowed as she limped away.

The big stallion approached Abattoir and gave her shoulders another chain rattling smack. “Ahah, the fire in your belly burns hot indeed, no less than what I'd expected from a lieutenant of Missus Choppy! The feathered one be yours to gorge on how you like, and the others we'll take back and see how much meat we can carve off ‘fore they go the way of all flesh. The big one looks like he’s got plenty o' flesh to spare!”

The big stallion laughed again, but Abattoir shook her head. “No!” She said sharply, then changed her tone at the offended look he gave her. She trotted away from him, so she was looking at us, sprawled on the dirt. “No, for a hunt this good we must have a real feast! We’ll take them all back...” I realized she wasn’t looking at us, she was looking right at me, her manic purple eyes dilated so much they were almost all black and boring right into my lenses. “And we're gona pile up lotsa wood, and then we gona have a great, big, barbeque...”


“What in the blue fuck is going on?” Wedge murmured harshly when he was sure the cannibals counldn’t hear. We’d been joined by the hooves on the right side, in a row, and were being marched back to someplace the cannibals only called The Mart. “You know her better, does she usually act like a maniac bitch and stab you in the back?”

“I’ve only known her a week.” I tried to count in my head. It felt like a week. I shrugged. “I don’t think she’s betrayed us. I don’t think.” Either way I wasn’t terribly concerned. Hadn’t been since I heard what our grisly fate was going to be. I was more busy thinking over the snippets I’d heard from Abattoir and her new friends. The ‘sneaky stripe’ had come through and somehow talked his way out of the cannibals grasp, and he wasn’t alone. There was 'another pegasus' with him Air Hearts sister, and if I’d heard right, the big stallion’s brother. That part was a mystery and not worth puzzling over. Xephaniah didn’t often deign to travel with anyone else. The idea that he was bothering with not one, but two, when I was so close behind him was still unsettling me.

“Well, I don’t wanna be barbequed, so hows about we think of something, a plan?” Wedge said, annoyed and flicking one of his ears. “I think a chunk of my brain is rattling around in there…”

I just shook my head. “You heard the plan already. ‘Follow our lead’. Just keep your damned mouth shut and maybe we’ll all get out of this.”

That worked, and he clammed up for the rest of the walk. I looked back, beyond Biggs, to check on Crunch. He hadn’t been joined to the rest of us. Instead, they’d just joined several of the heavy chains together around his legs, then for extra measure, five of the cannibals had chained themselves to him.

I got the feeling even without whatever Abattoir had cooking, we… I did not just think that.

In spite of whatever Abattoir was planning, I thought we would have little trouble dealing with ponies that were this dumb. That’s better.
I sighed and shook my head again. All these distractions, and we still had to finish both jobs. I tried to look up through the clouds and pinpoint the sun. I had a feeling it was already past noon, if this took much longer the day would be over soon, then they would want to sleep, more distractions.

I gave up trying to get an accurate read on the sun, when some commotion ahead signaled we’d reached our destination. Up ahead, a broad building loomed in front of a huge concrete lot that had been turned into first a battlefield, and then a graveyard. Two deep trenches had been gouged, one on the far end that we were approaching from, and one opposite running the length of the the front of the giant building. The chunks of concrete rubble and demolished carts had been piled up to serve as walls. I could see more evidence of the miniature war that must’ve raged back and forth for control of this tiny slice of wasteland littering the trench, shoddily armored corpses and broken weapons and spent shells, as they herded us across a wide bridge that had been laid over it. I was sure, across the crater pocked lot, the other trench would look much the same. I briefly wondered if either side knew that all their hard fighting would amount to less than brahmin droppings when the cannibals claimed this place from whoever had won.

I glanced up at the towering sign topping the pole mounted on one corner of the building that so many ponies had fought over. It showed a smiling mare with a short mane and a basket in her teeth above the name...

“A Sooper Dooper Mart, huh?” Biggs said abruptly.

I was just getting to that part.

“I’ve heard of these, apparently they're all over Equestria, good haul if you can find one that’s not already occupied by raiders. They really seem to gravitate to them.” Biggs went on as we crossed the opposite bridge over the second trench. Air Heart stopped, and we had to stop with him since he was the front of the chain, and his gaze drifted upwards. Then he stumbled to the side of the bridge to retch, pulling Wedge, myself, and Biggs with him. I looked up to see what had got to him this time and saw that the trench on this side had had poles propped up along it’s length, with dozens of grisly, juicy looking things that used to be the corpses of ponies dangled from them. Unlike the nearly mummified bodies back across the lot, these were fresh, and they were ripe.

I couldn’t tell, of course, but a moment after Air Heart bent over the edge of the bridge, Wedge knelt down to give up whatever he’d had for breakfast as well. Biggs just stood behind me and grimaced slightly. “I wouldn’t take that mask off anytime soon, if I were you.”

I didn’t have any plans to.

We were led to the entrance, and through it. It was wide, wide enough for the whole group to file in quickly, and had at one point been blocked by four large glass doors that slid along tracks in the floor. Now there was no door of any kind, and I was reminded of Pyresteady. Places like this didn’t need to close their doors to keep ponies out. And I got the feeling once ponies came in here they didn’t come back out, unless to be put up on a pole.

The inside of The Mart was a nightmarescape of metal and meat and blood. The long shelves that had at one point formed neat aisles and held pre war delectables were now pushed together and stacked to form a segmented holding pen taking up most of the center of the sprawling building. I could see wooden board bridges laying over gaps on top of the shelves, over which more cannibals stalked like jungle predators, laughing and cawing at the captives below. And I could see the captives, through gaps in the shelves and the big gate that had been formed from dismantled and fused shopping carts. They looked exactly like haggard, hopeless ponies tortured at the hooves of maniacs would be expected to look, and the many dull eyes that peered out at our returning party were completely devoid of any emotion, even curiosity.

Beyond that gruesome centerpiece, I could see the places the cannibals slept, mostly on dirty rolls of cloth or even piles of what looked like the shreds of ponies clothes, and countless scattered saddlebags. There was maybe two mattresses in the whole building, no doubt reserved for the pony who most savagely beat the previous owner before stealing it, and started the cycle again.

Beyond even that, I could see into the back of The Mart, one corner that had had a half dozen tables arranged in it, piled high with evidence of the cannibals demented hunger. Torsos, limbs, heads, piles of meat so badly mangled it was impossible to tell what it once was.

Air Heart hunched again and his back heaved, but nothing came out, and one of the cannibals that had been watching us get led in reached out and whacked his exposed flank with a pool cue.

“Don’t ee’n think ‘bout emptyin’ yer guts there, my cully! I jes’ mopped the floors, y’see? And they're slippery when wet, aye!” The stallion with a yellow bandana around his neck jeered, and spat on the floor, near where a terribly faded yellow sign stood, showing a black silhouette of a pony falling. Air Heart made a wordless whimper and stumbled forward faster, pulling the rest of us slightly off balance.

We were being led to the center pen, of course, while Abattoir and the big stallion and the rest of the hunting party drifted away to celebrate and gather materials for the barbeque. The guards walking the boards started shouting and jabbing down at the occupants in the section closest to the gate with their weapons until they all scrambled as far back as they could, while an overweight unicorn used a ring of key to unlock the large locks holding the chains and wrecked carts together. Then he turned on us and floated another key, pointing.

“I don’ think I hafta tell you not ta run, do I?” He asked with a grin that showed he had almost no teeth left. None of us said anything, and the chains around our legs were removed.

The gates were pulled apart with a rusty metal squeal, and the cannibal with the pool cue was joined by several others, poking and prodding us into the pen. Crunch came in behind us, still bundled up in the chains, and with a resonating, rattling sound, the gates were closed and re-locked.

I looked around at the ponies we were temporarily sharing this giant cage with. They were a dirty, weary bunch, many nursing injuries sustained from their capture, or their rough treatment. Some of them looked up at the newcomers, and more than a few shied even further away when they saw me looking at them.

Wedge and Biggs drifted away from me, talking amongst themselves, and Air Heart just stood there looking like a broken house on the verge of collapse. I walked around to his face and barked “That’s enough of that.”

He winced as if struck and whimpered “B-b-but...” He sounded the same as he had when he’d first been deserted by his fellow pegasi and left on the ground with us. I stamped my hoof.

“No. Remember what you said. ‘Be strong’. This is the real wasteland. If you can’t handle this then you should have just flown off long ago and...” I remembered the other pegasus the cannibal mare had complained about losing. “And given up trying to find your sister.”

I could see in his eyes that that had finally broken through his panic and touched the true steel hidden under his soft exterior. He sniffled and wiped his eyes with his wings, standing up a little straighter. “Uuunhh.. o-okay... I’m sorry, I’ll.. I’ll try to be strong...”

I nodded at him. There was a jangle of chains behind us and I looked up. Most of Crunch was still buried under the chains, but his eyes were still able to meet mine. He lifted one giant hoof and shook it slightly, then set it down. Not a stomp but a gentle settling back down on the filthy tile, despite the heavy chains weighing him down.

My lenses blazed back at him and I knew he could see it, but he kept on staring, and I concieded shortly. I raised one booted forehoof, hesitated, then touched it to his shoulder. He looked startled, and I left it there only long enough as I had to for him to get the message, that he should be proud, before pulling it back.

He cleared his throat and lowered his eyes. They followed my leg, the one that had been clamped in the bear trap. The bleeding had already stopped, but the holes remained. “Do you... want me to take a look at that?”

“No, it’ll be fine.” I thought a moment. “You still have your medical supplies?”

“Well, not all of them. They took my saddlebag too, but they didn’t search my, uh... uniform.” He rummaged inside the collar of the glaring pink former nurses dress and came out with a roll of gauze to show me. I was hardly surprised, these ponies were surprisingly dense. “There’s a couple more sewn in.” He glanced up, checking the latticework of boards overhead for spying cannibals, then emptied his pockets. There were a couple bottles of pills, including one of the Rad-x bottles from the stash Crunch usually carried. Had I given that to him? I couldn't quite remember. There was more bandages, a little suture kit, a single scalpel, and a pair of tweezers.

“When did you get all that?” I asked mildly.

“Oh, when we went shopping earlier... I thought I might, y’know… get to practice a little more.”

I noted that, then raised my head. I looked at the pitiable masses of ponies huddled around the walls, and hesitated again. Then I gestured.

“Them.” That was all I said. He looked up, looked at them, looked at me nervously.

“But... they...” He started collecting his supplies again before they could be noticed.

“They’re more scared of you than you are of them, no matter how scared you are. And I think it’d be better to take care of that sooner rather than later.” I considered the bottle of Rad-x when he swiped it up and put my hoof out. “And... give each of them one of those. Take one yourself. And tell them, when it starts, to stay calm and keep their heads down.”

He stared at me, the bottle still between his hooves. But for once he didn’t question, just went off on the task that would help keep his mind occupied and keep him from breaking down. I watched him wander over to Wedge and Biggs first, and heard him ask to borrow the conspicuous hidden flask Wedge had managed to hide from the cannibals lazy patdown. Something about needing the alcohol.

Then I turned my attention back to Crunch, who had been looking down on me the whole time. I met his eyes and his eyes met my lenses and we stared in silence for a long time. I saw his brow crease under the wrap of chains, concern. I hated the look of it.

“It’s the only way. I’ll be careful.” I assured. Abattoir’s plan, if it truly was a plan at all, was just like her, annoying. But it would be efficient, and quick, despite the... risk. I spared another glance around the pen, at the huddled masses, saw the eyes quickly darting away. I turned back to Crunch again and added. “Just be ready, incase...” I left the rest unsaid and he nodded. Then he lumbered away to find someplace to sit down and rest up until it was time.

Then it was only me, left standing right where I was at the front gate of the pen, looking out at our cannibal hosts as they hurried around, gathering up as much wooden debris as they could and piling it up the floor.

It took them well over an hour to complete their task, a fact that irritated me to no end. Early on I heard Air Heart timidly make his way around the ring, offering to take a look at that cut or clean up that wound and dress it properly, and so on. The ponies were reluctant to allow him to get too close to them at first, but eventually they warmed and he made his round, not forgetting to pass out the Rad-x and insisting they take it when the time came. Other than that I’d payed little attention to what was happening and just watched the cannibals build.

The structure they assembled in the space between the pen and the entrance was crudely put together, but looked like it would do its job perfectly well. It was a ring of concrete chunks that had been filled in with the wood, several piles of shredded paper from old books, and somepony had even managed to find some hay. Over the wood and kindling, and supported by the rocks, a metal grate had been laid. It looked to be made up mostly of fence pieces, with some patches that were clearly part of some old metal bed frames. Tall metal poles were spaced around the ring and supporting a web of barbed wire that would ensure there’d be no escape once inside. We would be placed in the ring, and somepony, probably Abattoir, would have the honor of lighting the fire. The kindling would catch, the fire would spread, and we would be roasted. Or so they thought.

Air Heart returned to me just before they came for us. He sounded much more calm, his voice didn’t quaver as much. “I’ve done as much as I can, most of them were just small cuts... oh...” He looked past me, at the completed structure. “It’s soon, right? We’re going to escape?”

I almost laughed. Almost. “No, we’re not going to escape.” Before he could open his mouth to ask, I looked back at him. “You don’t really want to escape, do you?”

His mouth opened, but no answer came out right away. He closed it, and I could see him working over the question in his mind. “I.... want to get out of this horrible place.”

“But you don’t want to just leave, do you? Neat and clean, with everything the way it was when we arrived.” I tried to prod him in the right direction, and saw something dawn on his face.

“... I don’t.” He said, furrowing his brow “But you can’t kill all of them!” I gave him a look through my lenses that made him lower his voice, and he looked abashed. “I... I mean, they are bad ponies, probably the worst I’ve ever seen, but I mean, you can’t really fight all of them at once and expect to win-”

“Can. Will.” I again tried to hush him with a wave of my hoof, as I saw that the time had drawn near and the roaming cannibals had gathered around the firepit. Abattoir was leading a group of spear wielding ponies towards the gate.

“But they’ll kill you!” He hissed at me.

“Does that bother you?” I asked dryly as Abattoir waved over the fat pony with the keys to join her, hoping the time he took to think about it would stretch until they reached the gates and then he would be too terrified to speak up.

“Yes!” He blurted without hesitation, and before I could help myself I looked back at his face. And what I saw there was more terrifying to me than any of the grisly scenes of cruelty and pony slaughter that surrounded us. That worried frown, that look of pure and genuine concern in his eyes, chilled me to my core and sent a shiver down my spine.


We were called out from the pen, myself and Air Heart, Wedge and Biggs, and Crunch laboring under the chains. Several of the ragged ponies left behind were watching, looking less dead eyed than when we’d arrived. I wondered briefly what Air Heart had told them. I didn’t look at him as we were led out at spearpoint to the outer ring of concrete where somepony had helpfully stacked some crates to make a staircase over the wire. We were prodded onto these and jumped down into the ring one by one. The crisscrossing metal bars under us rattled slightly as Crunch came down last, still bundled up in his chains. I looked down, and saw the jumbled mess of broken wood waiting to be ignited under us. Air Heart’s legs wobbled slightly and he inched closer to me. Wedge looked anxiously at Biggs, who turned and mumbled.

“This would be the part where you spring your brilliant plan and get us out of here before we’re roasted alive.”

I didn’t turn to meet him, I was busy focusing. “Just follow my lead...” I was looking beyond the ring, out into the avidly watching crowd of filthy ponies. They sneered back and laughed, and jostled for better views. Then they turned their heads as Abattoir appeared, brandishing a chair leg in her teeth, one end wrapped with cloth. She held it up and the big stallion produced a single thick match, striking it on the rocks and touching it to the cloth. The wrapping went up in flames, and Abattoir lowered her head, shoving the torch through a gap in the rocks, letting it drop into the kidling. I followed its progress, the flames spreading slowly along the outer edge of the ring, as that was where all the smaller pieces of wood were arrainged. As I was already standing in the center, all the others started pressing in around me, but I just kept still, turning my head just enough to watch the fire encircle us.

“Lumi... it’s getting hot...” Air Heart whimpered, nearly climbing up onto my back.

“Oh Celestia preserve us, I’m never leavin’ home again...” I heard Wedge say mostly to himself.

“Don’t call me that.” Was all I said, keeping most of my focus on maintaining the glow around my horn at a faint enough level to keep from being seen through the fire. It was high enough at the outer ring that it was getting hard to see the faces beyond, and was climbing higher and creeping in closer to the center all the time. In moments our little huddle was an island in a sea of flames, and I knew it was time.

“Let go of me.” I told them over the growing roar of the fire and the crowd, and squeezed myself out of the middle. I felt Air Heart grasping weakly at my tail as I trotted forward, pulling back when I stepped into the leaping flames. The cannibals saw, surely thinking that in moments I’d either fall screaming to the floor or gallop into the wire mesh in a mad panic to escape. When I kept on standing in the flames, still and stoic as a statue, I heard their raucous laughter and bloodthirsty cheers dying down, being replaced by confused murmurs.

Finally, somepony shouted “Why ain’t she roastin’?!”

In answer, I called back “Sorry to disappoint you, you scum... but I’m fireproof.” My horn erupted in green magical light, and I reached out. My magic touched the flames, and in an instant the orange light was replaced with sickly, sepulchral emerald. I pulled, and the fire swam away from the center where my companions were still huddled, pulling it all in around me like a warm, comforting blanket. I was inside the flames, and the flames were inside me. And it was good.

Then I was reminded of the work that needed doing, and galloped forward. There was sharp metal in my way and the fire slashed out, cutting it like twine. I leapt through the hole into the stunned crowd, dragging most of the conflagration with me like a trailing cloak. I came down hard and ponies scrambled backwards. The first pony I saw when I raised my head was the fat stallion with the keys around his neck, a knobbly club floating over his head. I sent a lance of flames into his face, boiling his eyes away and scorching his throat shut when he opened it to scream. He fell, but I still heard the screaming all around me. Whether it was me screaming, or the cannibals, or just meaningless echos of countless ponies gone past, I had no idea. I had things to kill.

Some galloped towards me, most galloped away. Either way I lashed out, whips of fire lashing them and seering them to the bone. My legs were moving, pushing me somewhere as I cut through the crowd, and in seconds I knew why. The cannibals had tossed all our bags and goods onto a pile with dozens of other saddlebags, waiting to be rifled through for goodies. My sword gleamed and threw back the greenish light as I reached out and wrenched it from the pile, bringing it back to my side where it belonged. I turned back the way I came and swung, both flames and blade cutting into the two ponies about to jump me.

I back tracked and found more ponies, climbing out of the smoking ring. A tickle in my head reminded me those were not the ponies I was supposed to kill. Why not? The flames asked me. Fire doesn’t discriminate, anypony can burn. Not them, I answered. The ponies looked at me and one of them said something. I galloped away before the fire could speak again.

I found more of the ponies I was supposed to kill. They’d gone to their stashes and dug out weapons, And when I came they turned them on me. Dully, as if from down a long corridor, I heard the bangs, and felt the thuds of shells and slugs and buckshot pierce my hide. But they couldn’t stop me. The foolish ponies had poured fuel on the fire, and now the fire was raging out of control.

I cut through them like a sickle through a field of wheat. Finally it looked like I had laid them all out -Except those ponies back there, and there’s more in the pens- and started to lower my magic. Then a gruff and guttural voice called out a challenge to me. I turned, my horn flared and the flames flared with it.

“Yee cunt!” The big stallion said, and leveled his weapon at me. No second hoof stolen rifle or rusty shotgun, but a multi-barreled monster. Something that could, maybe, tear me up enough before I could close the distance on him. Fire doesn’t fear, get him burnhimkill-

But luckily I had enough of my mind to myself to shift my sword from my side to my front, staking it into the floor moments before the pony’s massive gun whirred, and sent a thousand bullets flying my way. The broad slab of steel held fast, sending up bright sparks as each bullet struck and ricochet away.

The stream of bullets stopped, but the barrels continued whirring, and the big stallion uttered a coarse laugh. "Git on out from there!" Then, louder. "Don't just stand there, ya mangey cowards, get 'er!"

But his rousing cries fell on dead ears, most of his pitiful empire in flames around his hooves and his minions laying dead on the ground. It was just me and him, and he had me pinned. I would have to think of something soon before he figured out a way around my rudimentary defense.

Then a rock pinged and bounced off one of the metal plates making up the armor around his shoulders. He turned, and there was a pegasus with more rocks in his hooves, perched on top of a stack of old shelves. The big stallion growled and heaved the heavy barrel around, already spewing bullets before he even brought it to bear on the shelves, but the pegasus was quick and jumped off to take cover behind them. With his huge gun roaring, he couldn't hear the steady clop-jingle-clop-jingle that was growing rapidly louder until he stopped firing. He started to turn again, and a gigantic stallion mummified in chains bore down on him like a speeding train. The blow knocked him through the air to come down hard under the weight of his own oversized weapon, grunting and scrabbling his hooves on the dirty tile. And finally, the last cannibal appeared before him, a green mare with a knife in her teeth and bracelet that clicked loudly. He stretched out his hoof to her, his already thick voice coming out garbled and wheezy, crying out for her to help him up, they were gona kill them all, kill 'em for what they did. The mare put her hoof out and took his, pulling him up. Just enough to stretch her neck out, and drive the tip of her knife into it. As his eyes widened, I heard the mare say one thing, clearly. "Your name is dumb."

All this I saw peeking out from behind my sword. When the mare cannibal drew her knife back and the stupid, stunned face of the big stallion slackened, I yanked my blade from between the tiles and held it over my head again. The mare turned to meet me, a grin on her face and her bracelet still letting out that clicking noise, just standing there and watching me. I started to gallop towards her, raising the heavy edge of my sword higher, ready to cleave her in two and burn the pieces, when just as quickly I froze. Not this one, I said. This one isn't one of them, the fight is over. But you still want to end her all the same the weakening flames said, hungry for more.

Do I?

I had stopped with one forehoof raised, mid step, and brought it down again, meaning to advance on her all the same. Then my hoof came down in the spreading pool of blood that had seconds before spilled from the big stallions throat. I slipped, and tipped, and fell in slow motion. My gaze had enough time to find the nearby yellow sign, no doubt printed with the warning that the floors were 'slippery when wet'.

Then my head struck the tile and my magic guttered out. My sword crashed to the ground, and the the last of the flames around me winked out.


I laid there on the tile for a long while. My head throbbed, and not just from the impact. The voices I heard were muffled, as if my ears were stuffed with cotton. They were quiet at first, then one grew louder and louder as my head cleared, and I made out 'Lumi' followed by questioning gibberish.

"Don't call me..." I gurgled out as I started to get my hooves under me again. I raised my head and found Air Heart and Crunch standing over me. The former was conspicuously spotless as far as signs of the previous battle were concerned, and the latter looked like some ghastly machine oiled up in blood. And Abattoir was there, grinning at me. "I could kill you."

"I missed you too." She crooned.

"You are an idiot, I should kill you, what were you thinking, running off and... and what were you-" I tripped over my words the same way I'd tripped in the puddle of blood, still feeling lingering dizziness, and she cut me off easily.

"They knew we were comin'." She explained. "They were gona ambush us all, probably woulda eaten everypony right there on the roadside." She left the rest unsaid, and I slowly swept my head around to take in the scene of carnage around me for the first time, really seeing without my mind clouded. It was impossible to distinguish the former cannibals from the bloody husks they'd reduced their former victims to. What they might have reduced us to by the roadside, no barbeque, if not for Abattoir.

It pained me to do so, but I returned my lenses to Abattoir. I wouldn't wait for Crunch to urge me to do so, or worse, Air Heart. I ducked my head with a wince, and let out a sign. "I'm... sorry. That was quick thinking and cleverly done. Were it not for you I think we all would have wound up in the clearing at the end of the path today." I lifted my head, dreading a smug smirk or some stupid joke, but she was just smiling pleasantly.

"Don't mention it." She said, and I didn't think I would anyway.

I turned quick when I heard approaching hooves, thinking maybe the killing wasn't done yet, but it was only Wedge and Biggs, looking slightly singed and more weary than I remembered. "Sorry to break up the... reunion" Wedge started, nervously shooting glances at Abattoir. "But we still got someplace to be."

I almost laughed, but caught myself and turned the noise escaping my throat into a rough cough. "There's really nothing that could get you to cough up that location and turn back home early, is there?" Biggs shook his head and then, after a second, so did Wedge. I shrugged. "I guess I have to respect that. You're really not as weak willed as you look."

This I directed at Wedge, who grinned broadly, until Biggs poked an elbow into his side. Then he furrowed his brow "Hey!"

"What about them?" Air Heart asked, pointing. I turned and looked at the giant central pen, where every single eye was looking out at us now.

"We'll get to them soon... some business to take care of first. Gather up anything you'd take with you." I told Wedge and Biggs, then to my own party. "Same for you. Spread out, look for useful supplies. This place has been picked over by many hooves already, but there still might be something they all missed, or something left behind by our..." I glanced aside at the still corpse of the big stallion. "Our gracious hosts." Abattoir skipped off without a word, and Crunch started to lumber off in another direction, but I noticed he was still draped in the chains, and called out "And take those off already, you look ridiculous."

Crunch gave me a petulant look, then raised one hoof and caught the chains between his teeth. He tilted his head at the same time he chomped down, and the chain spit, the two ends landing on the floor. The rest of the chains went slack and unraveled off him, and he shook himself out of them like a snake shedding skin. Then he went on with the task I'd given him.

I turned back to find Biggs and Wedge sharing a look of astonishment. Biggs recovered first and narrowed his eyes at me. "Could he have done that at any time?"

Wedge turned to answer his partner for me, breaking into a grin. "Not at any time, only when it was funny."

I groaned and turned back, finding that Air Heart had stayed behind, and was looking at me nervously. "What?" I asked.

"Are you going to kill them?" He didn't need to tell me who he was worried for.

"Probably not." I answered him, then motioned with my hoof. "Go on, look near the back, these places usually have a pharmacy in them, you could make some use of it if there's anything left." He went, and I turned, first lifting my sword back onto the harness at my side. My head throbbed slightly when I used my magic, but not too badly. Then I trotted back the way I'd come, following my trail to the little treasure trove of stolen saddlebags. I found mine first, considered them a moment, then just slung them over my back. Then I found my other sword, the one I hadn't needed for this fight, and set it on my back. I picked out the tidy, smaller bags belonging to Air Heart, and the much larger pair of Crunch's, setting them aside. Then I started rifling through the other bags. Cannibals did not much want for caps and so had not been in a hurry to pick them out of the purses of the ponies they'd captured, so I found a small hoard of them, a little over a thousand it looked like. These I poured into a small sack I got from Crunch's bag.

Then I returned, finding them all waiting for me, apparently finished searching the place already. I started towards the pen, and they followed.

"You, uh, should let me look at you first, you have a... lot of bullet wounds." Indeed, I could still feel the numerous holes up and down my flanks and torso, and was aware of a slight woozines that still lingered. "Or at least..." Air Heart lowered his voice slightly. "Heal them yourself... you're not out of magic or something, are you?"

"I'll take care of them later." I said with an air of annoyance. I could stand them a while longer, but right now, looking like I did would help get my message across. I stopped a few paces from the gate, and the staring eyes quickly moved away from it. I drew my sword, and a whisper of gasps rippled through the crowding ponies. I swung it into the gate, making it crumple and fall off with the useless chains still in place.

I stowed my sword and waited, the first few bravest souls poking their heads around the newly opened hole in their prison, and raised my voice. “Listen up, all of you! As of this moment, you are all free.” That got their attention, surely. “You may return to your homes, if their are homes to return to, or you may find new ones. Frankly, I don’t care where you go or what you do from here, except for one thing.” More heads were poking out around the hole, watching me with guarded, hopeful, terrified eyes. “You will not tell anyone, anything, anypony, what you saw here or how you escaped. I’ll know if you do. And I will come find you, wherever you hide. Do you all agree?” The tone in my voice suggested anyone who did not would not live to enjoy the second chance they’d received today.

There was a hanging silence in the air, then ponies started to rapidly murmur to eachother inside the pen. After a moment several sets of hooves pushed a pair of ponies, a mare and a stallion, out of the opening, two hastily elected representatives. They looked at eachother, back at their former fellow captives, and finally at me.

“Uh, yes, yes, anything, we… we’re all more grateful than we can ever say, but we won’t talk…” The stallion began, nodding his head so fast I thought he might hurt himself.

“Won't say a word, aye, and everypony agrees, just p-please… don’t bring that terrible fire down on us.” The mare continued, not nodding her head but holding it low, not looking directly at me.

I was satisfied, and stepped aside, trotting back to my own group. Air Heart looked predictably horror struck, Wedge was looking at me warily, and Biggs just looked at me with a look of mild curiosity, one eyebrow raised.

Air Heart was transfixed by the stream of ragged ponies that all at once poured out of the pen. Then he regained himself enough to remember something, and looked at me. "I... have something to show you. I found... something." Then his eyes flicked back to the milling ponies.

"What is it?"

"Not yet. Wait until they're all gone." He motioned, and my own curiosity flared up slightly.

"Alright" I said, shrugging. Then, to the ponies, I pointed into the far corner. "Your saddlebags are over there. Or, somepony's might be. Find your own, or take one. Try not to fight over them." That seemed to be what the ponies were waiting for, and they all started to trot away, some of them bowing their heads at us or mumbling thanks as they passed.

Air Heart moved beside me, then turned his head "They look so... can I go talk to them? I want to make sure they'll be alright."

I considered for a moment. Could he do much harm? "As long as you don't say anything that contradicts what I said, understand?" He nodded, and I waved him forward with my hoof. He hurried out to catch up to the ponies, fussing over them, asking if there's more he can do to help.

I turned away, finding Biggs still looking at me in that odd way. "What is it?"

"I’ve heard of ponies who do good being a little modest, not wanting to take credit for this or that, but I've never heard of swearing a bunch of tortured escapees to silence under threat of death... To borrow a phrase from my partner, 'what up with that'?" He asked, one eyebrow going up.

“Would you believe I’m very modest?” I said dryly, and he chuckled and shook his head. “I would just rather not have some kind of… reputation rise up around me. I’m not some hero, and I’d rather not be mistaken for one.” I spat the word as I always did.

“Well, there’s no chance of that.” Wedge mumbled. Biggs went on, unperturbed.

“That’s understandable, but it’s more complicated than that. It takes more than a few good deeds to make a pony ‘good’ or ‘heroic’, the simple actions alone don’t make a pony one thing or another. Those things come from inside you.” I must have been staring, because he gave me a questioning tilt of his head. “You don’t agree?”

“Oh, no, you… sound like someone else I know.” I wouldn’t say somepony, and something would probably sound too suspicious. “I just know that’s not what I am. I don’t do good things just for the sake of doing good, I do what I do to get paid.”

I was rapidly growing tired of this conversation, and looked to see if Air Heart was finished with those pathetic ponies. He was still milling around them while they slipped on saddlebags and looked for mostly blood-free articles of clothing. Thankfully, Biggs seemed to be wrapping up. “That’s one reason for a pony to do something, I guess. Begs the question, does doing good things for a bad reason mean those things are any less good?”

I still don’t know why I answered, as annoying as the conversation was. But I did. “And what if you do bad things for a good reason?”

That made him chuckle again, though less enthusiastically. “Good question. And what’s your answer?”

“I don’t know. I don’t care.” I said quickly, then shouted across the battlefield The Mart had become. “Air Heart! Let’s go!”

Air Heart started, and said something apologetic to the last of the ponies he was talking to, and passed something over, before galloping back to me, red faced. “S-sorry…”

“Just show me what you found so we can get out of here and get back on track.”

He nodded, glancing once at our two guides, then started to trot. He led us around the pen that held the center of The Mart, then straight back. I saw a counter that had been built into the back wall. It had a metal shutter drawn down over the top of it, presumably to keep out would be thieves. There were a few spots where some small gaps had been opened, but mostly it was intact. “There’s also a side door down that hallway that leads in, and it’s also still locked.” Air Heart explained. Beyond the gate I could see why the extra security had been installed, this was the pharmacy.

"And you'd like one of us to fix that?" I asked, and he reddened a little, but pointed.

"Not just that. Look. On the back wall."

I looked. Despite the barrier keeping ponies out all this time, there was still signs of destruction inside, shelves and containers and lights shot out from this side of the gate. I guessed that some ponies, frustrated at the failure to raise the shutter, had decided to take their anger out on the goods inside. And farther in, above the back wall, almost all the lights had gone out. I could make out the faint shape of four of those little first aid boxes, and smeared over the front of one was something that glowed blue in the dim light.

"Discord take your eyes..." I cursed, and drew my sword, slashing. The gate defied me the same way it had defied so many others, my blade clattering off the flexible, metal mesh. I considered trying again, maybe working my sword between one of the gaps would work. Then I sheathed my sword and sighed. "Show me the door.

He took us to the left of the countertop, and down a corridor. There were other doors, and a drinking fountain that Abattoir stopped to drink from, despite Air Heart's protests. But the important door was easy to identify. It was solid metal and looked imposingly thick, the surface showing the scars of all the past attempts to open it, gouges and scratches and even black scorch marks from explosives.

"Crunch" I said, approaching closer to inspect the door, sliding one hoof across the surface. Crunch also placed his massive hoof on it and tapped in spots. After a moment he dropped his hoof and shook his head. "Won't budge?" He shook again. I expected that, and returned to staring at the door.

"Aren't we in a hurry?" Wedge asked, and I shushed him, thinking hard.

"You said there were more of these all over Equestria, you've been to them?" I asked Biggs. I'd only encountered one, but I moved on quickly. Biggs nodded, I could see him trying to pick up the thread of my thoughts. "Have you ever seen one like this?" I tapped the metal door with my hoof. He shook his head this time. I hadn't either.

"Never. Usually it's just the counter, and the shelves with old pill bottles, completely picked over." I nodded back. Of course this one mart would have this extra security, if it hadn't he would have found someplace else to put it, someplace else just as impossible to get into. Or almost impossible, because we were supposed to find it.

"A locked room..." I said outloud, pacing away from the door. "A locked room with strong doors... how do you get into such a room?"

"You could try melting the door!" Abattoir said, stalling my train of thought slightly.

I shook my head, too focused for once to get angry. "I don't think I can make it hot enough for that, that door is strong." The door. The door, the door, the door...

"What about the walls?" Air Heart offered meekly, and I almost tripped. We all turned to look at him, and he seemed to shrink under the gazes. I looked up at Crunch and he met my gaze. It was almost stupid, almost genius.

I pointed at the wall immediately to the right of the door and Crunch moved in, raising his hoof and ramming it into the wall. There was a crunch of plaster and wood, and when Crunch pulled his hoof back, we looked in and saw the walls were just slatted wood panels layered over with colored plaster.

I stepped back and waved to Crunch to go on, and he grinned back at me, moving to the small hole and rearing up.

While Crunch reduced the wall the rubble, I rounded on Air Heart so suddenly he jumped and yelped. And this time, I put a hoof on his shoulder without Crunch having to compel me. "Good thinking."

I didn't hold it there any longer than last time, but he seemed to take this one much better, nodding. "T-thanks! It was nothing really, I was just thinking about... clouds." When we all kept on looking at him, he must have figured that required some explanation. "Oh, well, y'know how we build buildings out of them, right? Well, special or important buildings, or anyplace you wana keep ponies out of, have to be made of denser clouds than normal, because with enough effort, somepony can just poke their way through the regular walls, locked door or not."

"Huh..." I actually hadn't known that. It was unlikely to ever be important, but I nodded and made sure to remember it. I turned back, and the cloud of dust Crunch was kicking up settled, leaving a roughly pony sized hole leading into the pharmacy. I trotted through and went straight to the back wall. There were four of those yellow and pink boxes on the wall, and three of them were open. The fourth had that same blue substance painted across it's surface, obscuring those pink butterflies with minotaur glyphs. The same glyphs as before, I realized, making out the same unhelpful message.

Follow the stars.

I shook my head. I was trying to follow them, but things kept popping up in my way. I trotted towards the metal box mounted on the wall and reached up to open it, and Air Heart practically flew into me when he hurried over, shouting, "Wait! It could be a trap like last time, we should take it slow-"

"Then you better stand back in case it is." I said, done taking it slow, and set my hoof on the latch, swinging the first aid box open. Of course it wasn't locked, we'd already been through enough just getting to it.

I had expected only one item inside, but there were two. The second item was a health potion. The first item was the large orb of white wood with green zebra sigils on it.

The tiny vestige of my good mood evaporated. I used my hooves to grab the orb and roll it into my bags. The potion I floated over to Air Heart "Here. Keep it with the others." And of course when he started to look guiltily at the floor and fumbled with the potion, I knew why he had been so long seeing the captured ponies off, and sighed. "Did you give them all away?"

"They were still wounded, and it's dangerous out there and I just wanted to help... you took all their money, I had to-" He blubbered until I stomped my hoof, his back legs crumpling slightly.

"Shut up! Just be careful with that one, then. It's the only one." I snapped. He looked at it in his hooves, then held it up at me.

"Then... you should take it. P-please?" For a moment I just stared at him, then I realized I must still be riddled with holes. The bleeding had stopped, but the wounds were still there, and I must have looked plenty ghastly. I pushed the potion back.

"Keep. It. And get up. We're leaving." He got up. I glanced once around the pharmacy. I was sure we could spend an hour looking through every bin and drawer, but I was tired of this place. I trotted back through the hole, waiting for my companions to follow. I stopped the pair from the village and asked quietly. "I don't have to say it, do I?"

Biggs shook his head. "No. Add this to the list of shit we can't talk about to anypony."

"I plan to blot this entire experience from my memory completely." Wedge added.

"Good idea." I said. They kept trotting, but I stayed in the corridor, motioning with my hoof when they stopped to look back. "Keep going. I'll meet you outside, I have to..." I glanced to the side, at one of the other doors in the hallway. The restrooms. "Use the bathroom."

They went on, and I slipped into the bathroom. Five minutes later when I joined them, the many bullet wounds were gone and the white orb was nestled securely in the rad-proof wrapping next to my remaining half empty water bottle. There was no sign of any of the ponies who'd been captive here, they'd all fled back to their own lives, such as they were. And with the sun low in the sky and already painfully close to the far western horizon, we finally started walking, and got back on track.


"-think I honestly might have nightmares after that, no offense." Wedge was saying, when the conversation had, inevitably, turned to the spectacle I'd put on in The Mart.

"It was kinda scary..." Air Heart admitted, with a short glance back at me. I gave no sign that I was paying attention.

"If Air Heart's not that scared of it, then you know you're just being a wimp, and that's sayin' somethin'! He was so scared the first time he slept in the wasteland he peed the cave-ach!"

Abattoir laughed and covered her head with one hoof while Air Heart buffeted her with one of his wings, completely red faced. "Abbey, you promised!" Then he looked sheepishly at the other two. "I-i-it didn't happen again..."

They responded with light laughter, that Abattoir and eventually Air Heart returned. When the laughter died down it was Biggs who looked at me. "Scary, yes, but something to be admired. I've heard of unicorns with magics strong enough to control the elements, but never seen one until today. Scary, but impressive."

Wedge considered his partner and then looked at me as well. "Yeah, guess he's got a point. Was pretty badass, glad it wasn't aimed at me."

I nodded my head after I decided they weren't mocking me "Thank you."

There was more talking as we walked, and the sun kept sinking lower. Abattoir joined in, making more comments that made them laugh. Air Heart laughed along, but whenever Abattoir turned away I noticed him looking at her oddly. There would be time later for questions, but not until these two were on their way back to their little village.

Just before the light of the sinking sun started to fade, I looked ahead where Wedge was leading us, and thought for the first time I recognized something up there. The feeling grew as she approached, and a sinking certainty started to fill my stomach. When the shape of the toppled over statue in the fountain became clear, as well as the other three roads leading out, and the buildings around them, I started to laugh. Croaky, rusty noises they were, but I was laughing.

Air Heart looked startled at me, Abattoir was laughing as well. Wedge stook a step back and Biggs just raised his eyebrow, slightly smilling. "What's so funny?"

"I just realized... why you couldn't" I stopped and dropped my head, taking a deep breath and stopping the laughter. "Couldn't... Why you couldn't just tell us where the nest is supposed to be, why Stalker couldn't either... I figured it out."

Air Heart was still looking concerned. I imagined he was worried I was going to start acting as crazy as Abattoir. I looked at him and waved my hoof around the square. "Look around. I bet even you could guess where it is. I should've guessed all the way back in Little Cliffside."

He furrowed his brow and turned to scan the square. He looked past a couple times, then settled his gaze and whispered "No way..."

"Yes, way." I said, and turned to the positively perplexed Wedge and Biggs. "You two can probably turn back now, we don't need you to guide us anymore." I raised my hoof and pointed to the big wooden building across from the library. The old town hall, with the smashed in front door. The place we were already going, where we would first have to climb all the way up to the roof to install Desert Rose's antenna thingy, then all the way down, to find the lair of some monster with stars on it's back. "That's where it is, isn't it?"

The look they shared with eachother told me I'd hit the nail right on the head, and it made me let out another short squawk of laughter. "You couldn't just tell us that, because that would have been too easy! If we'd known, we could have just found our own way, probably followed our old route and not have to bother with that sorry lot! We could have just come straight here, and probably be done already!" And never released the cannibals captives, or found the other orb, I reminded myself. All more evidence confirming that we were supposed to get sidetracked there all along, because he knew we would. "And that's the big joke. That's the big fucking joke." And with that, I fell silent.

"If I may say so, you're one messed up mare." Biggs said, the first one to shake his confusion. "Yeah, that's it alright, don't know what makes that so hilarious, but I guess it's best I don't. Come on, we'll at least walk you to the door." And we all started trotting again, crossing the square and swinging around the fountain with the corpse of some dead bandit in it.

We climbed the steps and reached the front entrance where the door had been smashed some time long ago. Now up close, I could see the gaping hole led into a long, dark hallway. Biggs and Wedge turned to face me, I and my group turned to face them.

"Well, here we are." Biggs said pleasantly, as if our journey had been a short walk up the street to the corner market. "It's been... it's been weird, honestly, and I don't think I'll forget what happened today in a hurry." Before I could say anything, he added "Won't tell anypony, but won't forget either. Farewell, you messed up mare. Farewell, Abbey, Air Heart, Crunch." And then he turned and trotted back down the stairs.

Wedge lingered, looking embarrassed, and just nodded his head at us. "Yeah, seeya 'round or whatever, and good luck." Then he hurried down the stairs and joined his partner.

I didn't want to, partly because we were already behind, and partly because it felt so terribly clichéd, but I stood and watched as they left. So did the rest of my companions.

When they reached the opposite street, the one we'd been on with Grinder and his gang the last time we'd come this way, Abattoir let out a confused, "Huh..."

"What's wrong?" Air Heart asked.

"Nothin', just... I was sure those two were gona die, y'know?" She said, and it almost sounded like she wasn't joking.

I turned away from the road and faced the hole, finished watching. "They probably still will. Everypony dies." As I said that, the sun finished setting, and the real darkness began to fall outside. I stepped into the even darker hallway and the green glow from my mane danced across the walls.


It was dark inside the walls of the old town hall. I cast enough light to see by, but it was still dark. This was because there was a decided lack of windows to let wha little moonlight there was in, and because there were no lights inside that worked. I could see the lights, the strips overhead where they had been, but most of them had been smashed. And some of them were just gone all together.

The walls and floor were wood, dark wood that creaked occasionally. There had been a single strip of carpet in that first hallway, but it had ended when we came to the first turning point. There were signs on the walls and doors, as there usually was in big important places like this (I had no doubt there was one or even many doors in this place with the word 'Administrator' on them), and at the turning point I looked up and found one with the little zig-zag symbol that always meant stairs, and took that route.

The stairs were wide, and we all started climbing them together. “We’re going to the roof first?” Air Heart asked, and I heard more wood creaking.

“Yes, and be quiet. We’re probably not alone in here.” He quieted, and we continued up the stairs. The second floor looked much like the first had, and the third floor looked much like the second had. I caught glimpses of movement a couple times when I moved my head and swung the disks of light from my lenses around, but nothing stopped to bother us.

We found the door to the roof at the top of another set of stairs, and it was locked. It was no giant metal monstrosity, and I was about to have Crunch kick it open when I thought better. "Wait." I said, and motioned Air Heart to follow me. The very end of one of the hallways up here had been capped by one of the few windows I'd seen, and I pushed it up and open now. "Go up to the roof and try to unlock it from there."

He looked at me, and I could see him thinking about protesting, but he nodded and wormed his way through the open window, glancing around the dark building tops outside before jumping off and spreading his wings. He flapped clumsily and started to rise, so I just sighed and shut the window, returning to the stairs and the others.

"What's up?" Abattoir asked when I came back up the stairs, cocking her head.

"I just think we're going to want to keep that door intact, this building is not exactly safe." I said, and waited. While we were waiting, I remembered something I'd been meaning to ask for a while, and looked at Abattoir. "What was that big stallion's name anyway?"

Abattoir grinned at me slightly. "Septic Tank."

I thought for a moment, then nodded my head. "Yeah, that is a stupid name."

After a moment more of waiting, I heard Air Heart's voice through the door.

"Oh, Celestia..."

"What is it?" I asked.

"N-nothing, just... be careful coming out the door." Came the answer, and then I heard some scratching sounds and the clunk of a lock being unlocked. Air Heart pulled the door open and jumped back a bit. I poked my head out and looked left. Nothing but the open door. I looked right, and saw the skeleton in a metal suit slumped against the side wall beside the doorway with a rectangular case propped up beside it.

"Seriously?" I asked, stepping all the way out and shaking my head.

"It spooked me!" Air Heart protested. After Abattoir and Crunch followed me, I closed the door behind us and turned the switch on the knob, locking it again.

"It's just a hundred year old tin can~" Abattoir said, leaning over the body and grinning.

"Even rusty old cans can have sharp edges. Get away from that." I said, lighting my horn and pulling her back by her tail. She pouted, but followed. "Come on, sooner this part is done, the better." I looked around, and it didn't take time to find the antenna. It was a tall metal tower that came to a point, with more thin spokes branching off of it at intervals. It looked a bit like a metallic tree to me. Sitting at the base was some large boxy thing with a rusty handle on one side. I tried it lightly, then bashed it with my booted hoof a few times, and it gave. The front panel swung out like a door, and I saw...

A lot of stuff. A lot of wires and holes and metal things that meant nothing to me. Down near the bottom I saw the blue hole and the yellow box I was looking for, and drew the lunchbox from my saddlebags. I opened the lid and drew out the thin blue wire and the thick black and yellow one. I plugged them in like I was told, and something inside the lunchbox started to hum slightly. I set it down in a space at the bottom of the panels and shut the hatch again. I had to bash the handle again to make it lock back up into place, and when that was finished I took a step back.

"All in a day's work." I said, thinking I might have to talk about adjusting my previous fee with Desert Rose. I turned around to Air Heart and Abattoir. Air Heart smiled slightly.

"And now we go save Daisy?" He asked, his wings opening and closing slightly.

"No" I said, and his eyebrows shot up so fast I thought they might fly off his forehead. "Not yet. First we're going to... sleep."

He looked a little relieved, but still uneasy. "R-really? Why?"

"Yeah, I ain't even sleepy yet!" Abattoir added before loosing an exaggerated yawn into her hoof.

"Because it's been a long day. And it promises to be a long night too. We won't sleep long, a couple hours at most. I want... us all refreshed when we go down there." I had meant to just tell them that we were sleeping because I'd decided we were, but found myself giving the softer response.

Air Heart nodded his head, turning for his saddlebags and drawing out a blanket. I stared at it, it was easy to recognize in the dark, it'd been in the dark the last time I'd seen it too.

"Is that the blanket from that house we stayed the night in?" He jumped slightly when I asked, and shrugged.

"U-uhm, maybe? I just took it 'cause I thought I might need it again, like, if we ever had to sleep in another cave or something. It's big enough to share if... you wanted." He was turning the rolled up blanket over in his hooves. I shook my head.

"That's... there's nothing wrong with scavenging, first of all. Second, no, you two can have it. Crunch keeps his own bedroll and I... I'm fine." I said, and Abattoir laughed and took the cloth in her teeth, snatching it and running over to another large metal box, this roof was full of large metal boxes. She shook her head and unfurled the blanket, spreading it out in front of the box, then sprawled out with her back up against the box. Air Heart lingered, looking at me and smiling.

"I think you should come sit on the blanket with us anyway..." He said slowly and carefully.

"Why?" I asked, putting an edge in my voice.

He winced, but didn't back off. "Because you're going to watch the orb, aren't you?"


"No." I said flatly.

He rolled his eyes, still an odd gesture to see on his innocent face. "I'm not stupid, Luminescence... You never want to stop and rest, then this comes out of nowhere. We were there with you for the first one, we should be there for the second!" He put on a face that he must have thought stubborn and confidant, but to me just looked like a slight scrunching of his muzzle.

"You were there this afternoon, yes? You saw me roast a few dozen ponies alive in..." How long had that been? "In a couple of minutes?"

He stepped back once, but swallowed hard and steadied his wavering hooves. "I-if you wanted to k-kill me o-or Abbey then, you would have..."

If you only knew I wanted to say. But I met his glare and found my usual readiness to draw steel and brandish it at him to finish the argument flagging. They had already seen the first, and honestly my old hunch that they were supposed to anyway still itched the back of my mind.

"Fine" I said, and Air Heart breathed his sigh of relief so hard he almost fell over.

"Thank you" he said as I walked around him towards Abattoir and the blanket. For not arguing or for not cutting his head off, I wondered.

"Daaaang Air Heart, you're gona have to let the hem of that uniform out a little more..." Abattoir said a I approached.

"What? Why?" Air Heart said, following behind me.

"Because your balls are getting huuuuuge!" She said with her hooves cupped around her mouth, then broke into a giggling fit and rolled over onto the blanket.

Air Heart blushed and stumbled past me, mumbling, and I stopped. He sat on one corner of the blanket and looked back at me.

"One second." I turned away and trotted back to the armored corpse by the roof door. I found what I was looking for and lifted it with my magic, carrying it back to the blanket and setting it down in the middle.

Air Heart looked at the former Steel Ranger's helmet warily. "Is that a good idea?"

"He's not using it." I said, shrugging. Abattoir chuckled. I fished around in my saddlebags and drew out the white orb, making sure it was the fresh one I'd just found in The Mart. I eased myself down onto the blanket, prepared to draw my new sword, realizing it really hadn't seen much use yet, and stopped. There was still something missing.

Turning my head, I found Crunch standing far off, one one corner of the old town hall building, looking down at the square below.

"Not coming this time either?" I asked, and he didn't move. I sighed, and it was a good, long one. Things were getting more and more complicated around me, and I hated it. These sudden orbs and Crunch's mysterious refusal to visit them. Air Heart growing more confident while also growing into more of a thorn in my ass. Abattoir and her... Abattoir-ness.

I shook my head and drew my sword, the one with the talisman. I held the orb in my hooves above the tip of the little gem pyramid, focused my magic into it, and kept it there until the white wood caught. I dropped the ball into the helmet where it started to smoke, sheathed my sword, and settled in. The white smoke billowed up out of the open neck of the dropped helmet, enveloping the three of us but remaining neatly contained to our little square of the roof.

Magic was nice like that, I thought lazily as the smoke started to seep into me, whiting out my vision and carrying us backwards to witness another slice of some unknown past.


This time, when sensation returned in the endless white void, I was standing instead of walking. Glancing around, I confirmed Air Heart and Abattoir were both standing next to me. The smoke slowly started to take shapes around us, forming a wide circle that resolved itself into the dark tan walls of a tent. Finer details started to form, becoming decorations on the walls of the tent. A rack of weapons. A large wooden chest. An enormous bed that would have slept eight ponies. Or one minotaur.

It turned out there were only two ponies. One was standing in front of a very tall mirror, looking at himself. The other was sleeping in the large bed. The red stallion was staring at himself hard, and even if we hadn't been invisible observers, I don't think he would have noticed us.

"These two again..." I said, stepping forward. I came up behind him and noticed me and my companions were not even reflected in the mirror.

"Were you expecting something else?" Air Heart asked, shuffling side to side on his hooves and looking unsure of what to do next.

"I don't know, I thought last time was just to show us something about him, I didn't think these two were very important..." I was still looking at the stallion's face reflected in the mirror, when something glinting in the sunlight caught my eye. Turning, I saw the sword resting in a stand, a lighter toned twin to my own.

"This was his tent..." I murmured.

"What?" Abattoir asked, standing up on the bed and trying to bounce on it.

Before I could answer, a voice I knewdrifted in from the front flap of the tent. "Your mightiness, have you awoken?"

Red Star turned, first to look at his sleeping wife, then to trot after the voice. I followed him.

Outside the tent, the sun was brighter than it had seemed through the thick walls. A single path led from the front entrance of the tent, all the way back down to the valley, and from our spot up on this high hill I could see nearly every inch of it.

But I was not interested in the valley, I was interested in the hooded zebra who had called Red Star out here. He was standing in the middle of the path, with the massive stallion who shared Crunch's image on one side, and a minotaur on the other. I recognized the minotaur as well, after a moment. It was the young one with the brown fur and black horns, Angus.

"Good morning, Xephaniah." Red Star said amiably, and nodded to the other two.

"Did you sleep well, your mightiness?" Xephaniah asked just as pleasantly.

Red Star considered the three before him for a moment, then uttered a low sigh. "Honestly... it feels like some kind of punishment, having me stay here." He said, glancing back at the large tent, and at us.

"That tent belonged to the former King, and now it belongs to you." The zebra explained calmly.

“Yes, yes, so you’ve told me. Everything that once belonged to him now belongs to me, his home, his belongings, his… subjects.” He glanced towards Angus for a moment, then returned his stare to Xephaniah.

“It is the way things are done around here.” The zebra simply shrugged. “You slew the king in combat, and you must now collect your Blood Price…”

“But it was an accident!” Red Star said with a shake of his head. “Everyone and everypony saw, he fell on me. If not for that sword he would have flattened me!”

Now Angus spoke up “What we saw was Discord smiling upon you, and the minotaur have great respect for those Discord smiles upon.” He didn’t seem to be too offended by the pony king’s lack of knowledge, judging from his smirk.

“You must try to remember the things I teach you, your mightiness.” Xephaniah went on. “They will help you make your reign a successful one.”

Red Star glanced between the minotaur and the zebra, then looked hopefully up at Stalks, the Crunch look-alike. And just like his mirror image, the towering pony had nothing helpful to say.

He sighed and nodded, stepping onto the path. “Very well… another walk, another lesson, then.” Angus stepped aside and stomped past the trio, and past us, to post himself in front of the tent’s opening flap. Red looked back at him. “Keep an eye on her.”

The minotaur nodded, and crossed his muscled arms. Red Star started walking, with Xephaniah and Stalks on either side of him. I picked up my hooves and fell in with them.

“This is kind of interesting, it’s kind of like a storybook from olden pony times.” Air Heart said as he caught up.

“Yeah, kings and swordfights and everyone talks kinda fancy, I can’t wait to see what happens next~!” Abattoir added, grinning at my left.

I didn’t tell them, but I very much agreed.

We followed the trio as they entered the valley proper, passing small sleeping tents, larger opened walled pavilions that served as gathering places. I saw the first of the farms as well, large fenced in squares with whatever the minotaurs had managed to grow sprouting up in rows. And we saw the minotaurs, of course. And the goats and the ponies, most of the latter heading to and from various farms or speaking to very attentive looking minotaurs.

They all stopped to give the passing group a quick wave and a bright smile. Or a greeting bleat, in the case of the goats.

“So, there’s herds that pick their leaders using a deck of cards?” Red Star was trying to wrap his head around something Xephaniah was explaining.

“Indeed, though that's simplifying it a bit. They feel the luck of the draw is the truest way to hold to Discord’s plan, but obviously it makes for some occasional very bad very bad years, but such is the plight of the devout.” The zebra shrugged.

Air Heart brought a hoof up to his temple “I guess it’s a good thing these minotaur are the more sane kind… relatively.”

“Do they not believe in anything up in the clouds?” I asked, not too worried about missing anything between Xephaniah and Red, it seemed to be random snippets of minotaur culture or history so far.

Air Heart looked at me oddly, then blinked “Oh, you’re really asking… yes, that’s how most pegasi are. I mean, I believe in the princesses, but that’s not typical…”

“And what makes you praying to a pair of dead alicorns any less insane than the minotaurs who pray to Discord?” I asked with a slight chuckle.

Air Heart looked agast, dropping his jaw then bringing it back up so hard his teeth clacked. “Ah, it’s… that’s… you shouldn’t say things like that…” He furrowed his brow slightly. “What do you two believe in?”

“Strength.” I said.

“Fun!” Abattoir said.

That shut him up for a while.

"Do we have to worry about any of them threatening us?" Red Star was asking, and I assumed they were still talking about other minotaurs.

"The most zealous minotaur herds are found much further to the south, deep in Caledonia, and they won't bother us. But there are other threats to us more close by, which brings me to my next point. Starting tomorrow, a few more lessons will be added to your daily routine. Striking Iron, elder and mightiest of the blacksmiths, will want to test your skills with many different weapons, and Rolling Thunder may teach you to turn your very hooves into weapons, should you ever find yourself lacking. I will continue your mental training and we will see if we can't make a proper King out of you yet." Xephaniah capped this with a thin smile that barely flashed his teeth.

Red Star absorbed this quickly, nodding his head and looking much more confident than he had standing in front of the tent a short time ago. For the sake of his subjects, I guessed. "I see, I'm prepared to train hard, I won't let my herd down. These threats you spoke of, are any of them serious?"

"That depends on your outlook." Xephaniah said, raising his eyes to the vast blue sky overhead. "Other minotaur herds will be your biggest concern, because they'll have Kings of their own, the only other minotaur who would dare raise a fist to you now. They'll be hungry for your kingdom and they'll underestimate your strength, that's why we must make you ready to meet their challenges."

"What does he mean, other minotaurs won't fight him now?" Air Heart asked suddenly. "Does it have to do with their weird rules?"

"Yes, it's all about the Price. Red Star is a King now, so at least as far as the minotaur are concerned, he's worth the most. It would literally cost a King's ransom to pay an assassin to attack him, something none of his own herd would be able to pay. Only another King, with his own subjects and wealth and kingdom to barter with could challenge him to a fight." I didn't see why the two of them had such a hard time understanding it.

"What if somepony hired an assassin that wasn't a minotaur and didn't care about their crazy rules? Like a griffon?" Air Heart said thoughtfully.

I shrugged. "That King would be dead in a heartbeat, if the killer was good enough. That's why there are no great minotaur empires left."

"I really am starting to understand the Discord thing with them." Air Heart said, huffing. I shushed him so I could tune back into the conversation, but it was nearly over. They had taken a path that brought them in a circle, back around to the road that led up the hill, and the whole thing had taken less than half an hour.

"Well, why must it wait until tomorrow, there's still all of this day left I could spend training." Red Star asked, his eyes on Xephaniah.

The zebra's eyes were cast up the hill. "Because today is already going to be a very busy day for you, your mightiness." He said in a voice that was almost a whisper.

We all, both past participants and future observers, looked up the hill and saw that the area in front of the tent was empty.

Red Star broke into a gallop and I followed suit, leaving my companions to catch up. I looked back and saw that Xephaniah was still trotting at the same pace, but he turned and said something to Crunch. No, Stalks, who turned and galloped back towards the valley.

Before we reached the tent, Angus reemerged, his usually stolid face gone ashen. He raised his large hand when Red Star came skidding into the dust in front of the tent flap.

"My wife, is-"

"She is alright, thank Discord that you returned when you did though, for her time has come. You must go and fetch a midwife..." The bull said urgently.

Red Star's face washed over with a look of mingled relief and fear, and he let out a single croaking laugh. “Is that all? Thank Cel.. umh, I don’t think that’s necessary, I don’t know how minotaurs have their foals, but a pony mare is usually capable of handling herself.”

Angus was looking confused, and started to slip around Red Star, when Xephaniah caught up, raising his hoof. "Calm yourself, Angus, the king speaks true. None the less, I have sent Stalks ahead, and he will be back with the wives in no time."

"Ah, I... thank you, Xephaniah." Red Star said, his voice wavering slightly and his eyes drifting to the tent.

"Just doing my job, your mightiness." The zebra said, and flashed that same hollow smile. "Is something the matter, you seem a little less than elated at this happy news." Red Star opened his mouth, but Xephaniah didn't wait for the answer to come out "May I hazard a guess? She is early, is that the reason for your worry?"

I wondered just how much 'guess' was in that guess, but the king's mind seemed to be elsewhere.

"Yes, not by very much, but yes. I've heard that's something that can happen from time to time, it could be something serious or it could not be... I'll be alright, as soon as help arrives."

And help did arrive swiftly, Stalks returned up the path leading not one but a trio of minotaur females in white cloth aprons. From behind him I could see the movement in the valley down below had picked up speed, no doubt the story was rapidly passing from ear to ear, the pony queen was having her baby.

"Hey." Abattoir said, tugging my shoulder slightly and pointing at the approaching midwives. "What are they called?"

"Huh? The midwives?" I thought she must have spaced out and not been paying attention. She shook her head.

"Noooo, I mean, they're not 'mares', right? But they're girls. What do they call them?" Behind her I saw the trio slipping into the tent, followed by Red Star and Angus.

"I... this... cows, they're called cows, boys are bulls, and this is not the time for this conversation." I said, slipping around my companions to follow the line into the tent.

"No, out, all of you out!" I heard the chilly whip crack of a voice as soon as I passed through the flap and for a single second I thought somehow I'd been seen, or the memory had become far too real, but then I realized I'd come in just on the heels of Xephaniah, and it was at him Silver Wind had shouted.

The pegasus had moved out of the bed she shared with Red Star, and though she was laying on her side on the ground, she was looking at Xephaniah with such a powerful glare he took a step back. Red Star looked back at the zebra, then at his wife. "Dearest, what's..."

"I do not mean any offense by it, but I do not wish to be observed in this, Xephaniah. Please, leave our tent."

There was no smile on the zebra's face after that. He nodded with his head slightly cocked and continued trotting backwards. I moved to avoid him walking through me. "None taken, your wish is my command, your gracefulness." He turned his head to the three cows who were standing near the wall, looking as confused as Angus had at their apparent uselessness. “And you three, you’ll do well to stay back. As you can see, a foaling mare can turn quite aggressive...

He backed up to the flap before starting to turn. Stalks moved to join him, but then he spat something in zebra and the towering stallion stayed put. Xephaniah slipped back outside and the tent seemed to brighten, but I wondered if I poked my head outside if I would see him there, peeking through the wall.

Silver Wind started to breathe heavily, her side rising and falling steadily, and she fixed her eyes on her mate. "I told you... I did not want him near me..." She spoke the rest through clenched teeth. "Out, the rest of you, please..."

I wasn't interested in watching the inside of the tent, so when the cows ushered Angus and Red Star and Stalks out of the tent as well, I started to follow.

Air Heart was still looking at the pegasus mare, seeming almost frozen in place, and his eyes started to grow wide before Abattoir clapped her hoof down over them and pulled him after me. "Uh uh, c'mon now, we have to protect your innocence~"

"Ah, I wasn't... my mother is a nurse, I've seen a birth before!" Air Heart declared in his defense but shuffled along blindly.

I ignored the stammering outbursts and witty jibes between the two of them and stepped through the flap again, finding the stallion and the bull facing eachother, Stalks sitting with his back to them, and no sign of the zebra. I hurried up and pressed myself in close, listening to their low conversation.

Angus glanced at the empty path, perhaps expecting to see Xephaniah still departed and finding it still empty, before starting. "Forgive me for speaking so bold, as it is not my place to say so, but the queen is right to want him nowhere near this sacred ritual. He is..." Angus glanced at Stalks, a good distance away and watching the clouds overhead with the same stony face. "He is an unholy creature. He is wise, yes, but his wisdom comes from dark places, and you would do well to keep him at a distance... I tried to warn King Steel as well but he laughed my warnings off and now he had gone to the clearing at the end of the path."

Red Start regarded the young minotaur again, and spoke softly in return. "I... don't trust him either, but I fear that might just be the leftover resentments between our two kinds. I will not condemn him in my mind so quickly, but I will take your words to heart and be careful around him. Thank you for your help and… thank you for before, for speaking in our favor when the king called you to.”

Angus shook his head and held out his hand. “I am not as blinded by our beliefs as some of the elders are, I simply saw you were ponies in need and wanted what was best for you.” He brought his hand to his slightly tufted chin and stared down the path. "Though I wonder now if I had any idea what was truly best for you..."

The pair said no more, and in less than fifteen minutes, one of the cows poked her head out of the flap. "It is done. The queen says you may return, all but the zebra."

"Ooouh boy oh boy, we get to see the baby!" Abattoir said while clapping her hooves, and while she trotted towards the tent she pressed one hoof to her snout and said, in an odd, nasally voice "Lumi, you gota see the baaaby~"

Air Heart looked at me and shrugged slightly, then followed her in. I waited a moment, still watching. Angus bowed his head and held his hand out toward the tent, and Red Star reached up to put a hoof in the middle of his muscled chest.

"Please, my friend, I would invite you to come see as well." He said, and when he turned and headed for the tent, the minotaur went at one side and I followed silently at the other. Stalks came last, quiet as a ghost.

Inside I found Abattoir and Air Heart crooning together, and trotted up to stand beside them and see.

Silver Wind was standing over her freshly born foal, gently nuzzling and licking her clean. Dully, I heard Air Heart explaining to Abattoir "That's to help start circulation, and also helps the foal bond with it's mother immediately..."

"That's kinda gross but also super adorbs..." Abattoir murmured back.

I just watched in silence, as did the rest of the tent's occupants. I first took the foal's coat to be red, but the more the mare cleaned, I realized that was just blood. The foal's coat and mane were a pure, dazzling white and she sat docily with her eyes closed. She was a unicorn, I noticed, and nodded my head. Beautiful coat from her mother, magic from her father. Then she opened her eyes, and my heart skipped a beat, and the last thing I saw before the vision ended abruptly in a swirl of white clouds was the foal staring right up at me with those dazzling green eyes.


When the white smoke cleared, we were back on the rooftop, and the eyes that stared at me were purple and gold, Abattoir and Air Heart.

I could see the confusion and the questions burning in those eyes, but I held up my hoof before they could voice the first one. It looked like the whole scene hadn't even taken an hour, that was good. "You two should sleep. We've still got a busy day ahead."

"Ah... alright, later I guess..." Air Hear said, shrugging and looking at Abattoir.

I tipped over the helmet and the blackened wooden orb rolled out into my hoof, then I tucked it back into my saddlebag and left them on their blanket, trotting to the corner of the roof where Crunch sat, exactly where he'd been when we entered the memory.

"I don't suppose you have anything you want to tell me yet." I said as I sat down beside him.

He looked sideways at me and said nothing.

"It was the same group as before, that stallion that looks like you was there with Xephaniah again... Why is he showing me this? Is he trying to distract me, are they just desperate temporary delays while he gets further ahead?"

Crunch's eye drifted off me again, and rose to a point high and far off, and I followed it. I couldn't be sure but I thought he might have been looking at the lighthouse off in the distance, looming over the coastline. It was lit again tonight, I noticed, the circle of light lazily sweeping over the mostly sleeping city and the sea out to the west.

I sighed and shook my head "Of course, how would you know... You should go sleep too. I'll wake you up in... two hours."

Crunch stood up, but before he left he looked down at me again, and brought one of his massive hooves up, to my chest. "What?" He just stared, and even with my own light shining on him his expression remained shadowed. Then he tapped his hoof three times and set it down. I let out a long sigh and nodded "Oh, alright... three hours. Go, go on"

He trotted away and left me to take over his vigil on the rooftop. I sat upright and fixed my gaze on the lighthouse again, and wondered idly just who was over there in it, and why they had it going in the first place.


Three hours later, I stood up again and made my way across the roof to the blanket Air Heart and Abattoir huddled. I considered them for a moment, how easy it would be to leave them on this roof, and remembered Air Heart's words from before, assurance that my unlikely death at the hooves of the cannibals would bother him. And Abattoir somehow sipping into their ranks and impersonating some important mare and steering them down the path that would let me slaughter them, at great risk to herself no doubt.

"Wake up, it's time to move on." I said, gripping the blanket with my magic and tugging it slightly. Air Heart sat right up, but Abattoir only stirred and mumbled.

"Wuzzah?" He said, blinking his eyes at the darkness. I let the cloth drop and said it again.

"Wake up. And get her up too." I nodded at Abattoir and turned, finding Crunch already rising from his spot across the roof. I left Air Heart to wake Abattoir and trotted to Crunch, lowering my voice. "I think something is wrong with me."

Crunch started to stand, both eyebrows going up.

"I can't explain it, but those two..." I glanced over my shoulder quickly. Air Heart was trying to pull Abattoir to her hooves. "I don't... it's harder to think about killing her or leaving him for dead than it was before, and it doesn't make any sense. Do you think Xephaniah's orbs are poisoning me or something?"

Crunch looked at me long and hard, then his lips parted in a wide grin and he let out several grunts that I realized were laughter. "It's not funny!" I said sharply, turning and growling and trotting away while he finished rising.

"What's not funny?" Air Heart asked.

"Nothing."I said, returning to him folding the blanket up. After a moment, I asked. "Where's Abattoir?"

Air Heart pointed, and I followed, spotting Abattoir back by the roof door, standing over the Steel Ranger corpse. I sighed, thinking she hadn't even been awake a full minute and she was already causing trouble, how could I NOT want to kill her?

"What are you doing?" I barked, approaching and seeing she was fiddling with something on the front of one of the metallic forelegs.

"This thing's got a PipBuck built into it." Abattoir said, moving her head, and I saw the screen jutting out of the armor. It was lit up now.

"Why are you messing with it?" I asked, letting the annoyance slip into my voice, but she didn't notice.

"B'cause it might have neat stuff on it!" And she went back to fiddling, both with the Ranger's PipBuck and her own upside down one. Before I could tell her to quit it, she pressed a button and there was a bark of static from her own PipBuck. Air Heart and Crunch trotted over in time for the static to resolve into a voice.

"...Hey Star, it's Peri... At least, I hope it's you hearin' this. If you're not, I just hope you're pony, and not a filthy stripe..." The voice stopped to cough a few times. "I came up where you said, and I was ready to wait for ya like ya said, when a couple'a your old buddies spotted me in a pass. They were fast, but not fast enough... Got a couple shots into me though. I s'pose I coulda opened your present and used it for a better shot, but I didn't wana dirty it up before I gave it to ya." Again the voice stopped, this time to laugh. "Guess that was a little stupid... Oh well, it'll be nice and clean when you come to pick it up, I'll sit right here and watch it until ya do... Oh, and the combo on the case is the date we met, so I hope you didn't forget it, and if you're somepony else and you manage to get it open... Take care of it." The voice let out it's breath in a soft sigh "Seeya 'round Star."

The recording returned to static then cut off completely. I turned and caught Air Heart wiping his eyes on his foreleg. "What?"

"Nothing!" He said hastily.

There was another burst of static, and a voice crackled out of Abattoir's foreleg. "Hello? Who is this, who's using this channel? This is an authorized Steel Ranger frequency only, state your rank and number. Hello?"

"Hi there, I'm Abbey!" Abattoir squawked, holding her foreleg up. I sighed and reached out, planting my hoof on one of the little dials and turning it, and the confused sounding voice disappeared. I left Abattoir snickering and trotted towards the roof door.

"What was that?" Air Heart started asking, but I shook my head.

"Wrong number. Abattoir, don't mess with those things" I reached the door and turned, but Abattoir had started fiddling around again, this time she slid the propped up silver case over onto the ground, and examined the four dials on the front. Then she leaned over the armored skeleton and started poking her hooves around the neck hole.

"Now what are you doing?"

"I wana see what's inside there, don't you?" Abattoir said, not looking at me.

"What did I just say?" I was about to ask again what exactly she was looking for, when she found it. A locket on a chain around the neck of the pony that had died on this roof. She worked it off over the bare skull, and held it up for us to see.

She opened it, showing two pictures. On the left, a stallion with a light bluish coat and wearing a brown cap. On the right, a griffon with deep indigo feathers.

"Yeah, and?" I asked, impatiently. Abattoir just smirked and turned the locket over. On the backside, there was an inscription. I ignored the words and focused on the four numbers at the bottom, 05/06.

"Lucky guess." I said as she giggled and spun around to enter the numbers on the dials. When they were lined up she pressed the latch and there was a hiss of some decades old seal popping, then she threw up the lid and revealed a rifle.

Not just any rifle, though, some kind of sniper rifle. It's body was deep, dark wood, and the metal parts were all covered in some fine silvery engraving, all the way up the very long barrel. It was bolt operated, and mounted on top was a huge scope made of bright, shiny bronze. I usually ignored most weapons unless Crunch and I needed some spending cash, and we were on a tight schedule, but even I knew this one was one of a kind. I noticed some word had been carved delicately into the butt of the rifle and pointed at it.

"What does it say?" I asked.

"Stargazer... that was the griffon's name." Air Heart said, and it sounded like he might cry again. I rolled my eyes, and pulled open the door.

"Alright. Crunch, you carry it." I said, and Air Heart jumped so hard he almost took to the air.

"No, what, wait!?" He looked from me to Crunch. "W-w-we can't, he said... it doesn't belong to us, we shouldn't."

"It's a very good gun, that mare in Cliffside would probably pay very well for it." I explained, and he grew even more frantic.

"You want to sell it?!" When I nodded he trotted past me and put his hoof on the lid of the case. "Ohh, can't we just... leave it here where it belongs?"

"Somepony else might come and find it." I said, lighting up my horn.

Air Heart bit down on his lower lip and looked at me, then dropped his eyes to the rifle. "T-then... then let me have it!" His head shot back up and he smiled. "Please? I'll take it and I'll take care of it like he wanted, and... and I'll learn to use it?"

I stared at him, and his desperate smile, then looked at the sky. It was still dark but probably wouldn't stay that way much longer. "Alright, fine, whatever." I levitated the rifle out of the case, along with the magazine, noting that it was already loaded with long, polished rounds. I slid the magazine into the rifle then dropped the rifle onto Air Heart's back. His legs wobbled slightly, then straightened.

"Show me that you can at least hold it right, then we're getting back to work." I said, taking a seat on the rooftop. Air Heart flushed slightly, then started reaching back to slide the rifle into his forehoof. I saw him struggling to hold it with one hoof while the other kept him standing, and sighed. "That's a big gun, and it was made for a griffon. If you want to use it, you'll either have to get a battle saddle, or..." And though he couldn't see it, I smiled as I said. "Or you'll need to be flying when you draw it."

The way his jaw dropped slightly was quite satisfying, but again I felt that absurd twinge in the back of my head, telling me that was a little mean. I banished it with a shake of my head.

Meanwhile, Air Heart grappled with his own issues and sucked in a deep breath, spreading his wings, and flapped them enough to bring him a few meters into the air. Both forehooves free, he manipulated the rifle on it's strap and brought it forward, holding it clumsily at first, then more confidently as he figured out where his forelegs were supposed to go. He scrunched one eye shut and pressed the other into the cup of the scope, and gasped.

"This is incredible! I can see so far!" He marveled as he slowly swung the rifle in the air, peering intently through the scope. "I can almost see the city, wow... I see some ponies on the big bridge, they're camping and eating... looks like beans."

I turned my head in the direction of the bridge, the massive skeletal frame in the distance, and thought I could very vaguely make out a spot of light somewhere along it's length. "That's some serious scope." I mumbled, then glanced around the roof. "But I think we should wait for your first target practice, we're on a mission here and we don't want whatever's down there knowing we're coming."

But Air Heart was still looking through the scope at whatever party of ponies was camped on the bridge. I thought about raising my voice or reaching up with my magic to pull him back down, but before I could decide he gaped again. "There's something... look out!" He shouted, and his hoof moved to the large trigger faster than I would have thought possible. I looked on helplessly, the moonlight caught the swirling silvery engraving along the length of the barrel as it lifted slightly, then the explosion of light and sound as the bullet sped off towards the bridge.

The shot also sent the pegasus flipping backwards, and I thought he might keep spinning until he backfliped himself right into the roof, but his wings stuck out and Air Heart recovered quickly, righting himself in the air and pressing his eye to the scope again. He let out his breath in a quick sigh "I-I-I-I got him! I did it!"

I looked off towards the bridge again, and now I could make out more spots of light blooming and fading rapidly. I reached up with my magic and yanked Air Heart down, marveling that for once, I didn't want him exercising his wings. "What did you just do?"

"T-t-there was a pony with a gun, he was sneaking up on them, he was going to... But I hit him!" He was trembling on his hooves, and had almost dropped the rifle when he landed, his chest heaving and his eyes fixed in the air across the bridge.

"That was... impressive. Let's hope that gunshot didn't wake up every single thing in the floors below us, or I'm going to toss you off that bridge when we get to it." I released him from my magical grip, and Abattoir skipped in and tossed her foreleg over his shoulder.

"That kicked ass! You're a natural!" She said while Air Heart blushed and tried to get the rifle onto his back again. "Too bad you just found it, and we're goin' underground, it'll probably be kinda useless down there~"

Air Heart blinked at that revelation, and stared at Abattoir. She was grinning. He cracked a grin as well, then started to snicker. Then they both broke into absurd laughter, and though I kept it under my breath, I shared a short burst of chuckles, then shuddered slightly. Oh Discord, what was happening to me?


"I'm going to throw you off the bridge." I said as I stepped down off the last step, not from the roof stairs, but the stairs that led down to the basement level of the old town hall. When I had stepped off the roof stairs, I'd stepped on a radroach that had been milling around there, crunching it under my boot. The dozen or more others that had filled the long hallway turned at the sound, and since then we'd been fighting off sporadic waves of bugs. Despite my certainty that what we were looking for was deeper down, we still poked through several rooms on our way back down. On the second floor we'd found the Mayor's office, and another flimsy safe that Crunch helpfully kicked open. There were bits, which I took, a box of ammo and a little pistol, the ammo Air Heart took because I told him to, and lastly two bottles of vodka that Abattoir took even though I told her not to.

Then more roaches on the second floor and we fought through to the first, where the halls were suddenly flooded with mantises, of all things. They were quicker than the radroaches, and flew around with more ease, but of course they were very little threat aside from the absurd number of them.

"I'm sorry, but I had to do something!" Air Heart apologized while I surveyed the basement corridor. Knowing our luck, this floor would be scorpions.

"You absolutely did not, those ponies were a mile away and not any of your business." I took a step down the concrete walled hallway. The basement was already much darker, much quieter, and much colder than the upper floors. I couldn't hear any more scuttling yet, and the whole floor seemed conspicuously empty.

"Stay on your guard." I advised as I reached the first door and pulled it open. There was a clatter as something moved towards me, but I still had my sword out, and I slashed out quickly, taking the head off...

"It's a mop, Lumi." Abattoir said after I jumped backwards. The head landed with a dusty pomf and the shortened pole clacked to the floor moments later. I looked inside the closet and saw more mops stacked against the wall, as well as metal shelves of cleaning supplies and other equipment.

"Don't call me that." I said as I shut the door again, kicking the mop out of my way and continuing down the hall. I came on another door and was ready this time, opening it on another closet. This one had some vacuums in it. The next door didn't open on a closet but a room housing an ancient metal boiler that I didn't think had seen any use for decades even before the war.

The last door in the short corridor had a lightning bolt symbol on a yellow sign on it, and the room inside was much larger. There were more shelves of tools, and several boxy metal contraptions that had vents sprouting out of them and into the ceiling.

But my eye was drawn to the pair of metal cylinders at the far wall that had once been connected by thick cables. One of the cylinders had been toppled over when something had burrowed up and out through the wall behind it, leaving behind a slightly sloping tunnel that led back down into the earth.

"Just like the one in the basement…” Air Heart said, following me when I trotted over to peek into it.

“Exactly.” I said, stepping over the rubble and over the rim of the hole, into the tunnel. “C’mon, the sooner we find where this leads, the sooner we find the filly.”

I took the lead, with Air Heart and Abattoir behind me and Crunch bringing up the rear. What little light had been flickering overhead in the previous room faded fast as we descended, leaving only my mane and lenses to light our way.

"What do you think made this?" Air Heart asked, his voice slightly quavering.

I tilted my head to scan the walls and roof of the cave. It was surprisingly large, wide enough for three ponies to walk side to side, and tall enough that Crunch didn't have to stoop, amazingly.

"The creature, most likely." I said, drifting to the side and letting Air Heart and Abattoir trot beside me. "It could be even bigger than we've been lead to believe."

We trotted in silence for a while, five minutes by Abattoir's PipBuck clock, before the tunnel widened out into a larger cave, with several other holes branching off into other tunnels.

"Huh, if only we had some bread." Abattoir said, wandering towards one of the tunnels.

"You're hungry again already?" I asked, and Air Heart snickered into his hoof.

"No no, it's from an old pony-tale, two little ponies get lost in the woods, so they leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find their way back." He said, trotting around me to peek into a different hole in the cave wall.

"Does it work?" I asked while I poked my head into one of the holes, casting light ahead of me and revealing a tunnel that was identical to the one we came down in.

"Nnnnnot really, they still get lost and end up caught by a witch and... well, it's one of the stories in the big book Abattoir bought. After we teach you a little, you could try it out..."

I turned around, the cave growing brighter as my horn lit and I grasped my sword. "Excuse me?"

Air Heart exchanged a quick glance with Abattoir, then took a step towards me. "We talked about it before, in the desert, remember?"

Back when life had been so simple, I recalled. When I could shut these two up, or shut them out at the very least. I nodded.

"Well, it still stands, we'd be very happy to teach you to..."

"I'm fine." I growled, and he winced slightly.

"O-okay... b-but reading is... it's so much fun!" He said, holding one hoof out. "And useful, not just for books, being able to read is like, essential!" I started to draw my sword, but what he said next made me freeze. "What did books ever do to you anyway?!"

My magic fizzle slightly, and I dropped my weapon on the cave floor. "What did you say?" I growled, and he flinched away again. I was about to ask again, more forcefully, when Crunch put his considerable bulk between me and him. I lifted my head, the focus of my rage landing on him now. "What?!"

He returned my stare placidly, shaking his head slowly. I tried to sidestep around him, and caught a glimpse of Air Heart backing up again. Then Crunch shifted and blocked me again, pointing at the ground with one hoof. I turned and saw I'd dropped my sword on the ground. All at once my anger came to a point then popped like a soap bubble. I knelt down and gripped it with my magic, easing it back up and brushing the dirt off before sliding it into the harness at my side.

With that done, I let out a low sigh and spoke past Crunch. "Air Heart."

"W-what?" His voice came back.

"I'm..." I looked up at Crunch, and he nodded. "... Sorry. For once it was not your fault. I just..." Crunch nodded again, but this time I shook my head. "It's a long story... maybe you'll hear it someday."

Crunch didn't look pleased, but he moved to the side of the cave again. Air Heart looked at me apologetically, and Abattoir had moved back to stand next to him. "S-so it's okay?" He asked.

"Speaking of stories, I think I'll give her the first lesson, just in case." Abattoir said, winking at me.

I stomped my hoof, lightly. "We'll... talk about this after we get out of this, okay? Right now we need to focus on finding which way to go."

They both looked at eachother, then nodded at me. I sighed again, and turned to look at walls again, thinking there might be some symbols or something to tell direction by.

"I hear something." Abattoir said suddenly. I turned back and she had one ear lifted towards one of the tunnels. I moved closer and craned my neck, and after a moment I heard the odd scrabbling sound.

"Quick."I said, turning back to the tunnel we came through and motioning for the rest to follow me. They crossed the cave and joined me a few steps away from the mouth, and I tried my best to hide behind them and hope my glow didn't spill out too far.

The scratching sounds steadily became louder, and in no time at all the source came trundling into the cave. Dozens of radroaches in a stampede, some breaking off down other tunnels, many rushing towards us. I almost drew my sword, but Crunch stayed my hoof and they all rushed around us, up the slope. Just as quickly, they were gone, but the scraping sounds remained, and I knew something else was coming, whatever have driven all the other bugs above ground. I held my breath.

When the creature entered the cave I was glad I did, otherwise I would have gasped. The figure before had the lower body of a great spider, and stood tall on eight black legs that ended in wicked spikes. It had a large rounded bulb attached to those legs, but jutting out atop that bulb was the upper half of a pony. It looked like a mare. I could see it had not just the normal two eyes a pony had, but six more black orbs above them on it's forehead, totaling eight. There was a horn jutting out, but it was not like a typical unicorn's horn, it was curved and more sharply pointed.

This strange, unknown creature stalked across the cave, sniffing loudly and peering around with it's many eyes, and moved a little further backwards. It settled it's gaze right into our tunnel and I was sure it could see me, or smell all of us, sure it would pounce at any moment, and got ready to grab my swords.

Then it hissed, revealing a pair of long fangs, and turned about, fleeing down a different path. As it did, I saw them gleaming on it's bulbous backside, and stretching up onto it's pony half. Stars, bright and glowing blue as they receded down the passage.

Star... Spiders?

I snapped out of my stunned state and jumped out of the tunnel. "Come on!" I hissed at my companions, and took off galloping after the creature. I heard their hooves behind me, and Air Heart's strained voice.

"What was that?! What are we doing?!"

I almost laughed again at the fact that he even had to ask. After what felt like the longest day ever, after so many distractions and annoyances, we were finally on the verge of our goal. We just had to follow the stars.

Footnote: Level up!

New Perk: Pyromaniac: Emphasis on maniac. You do an additional 25% damage with fire based weapons.

Skill note: Magic 75

(PHEW! Once again, just barely made my deadline. Well, another chapter out, and between the last one and this one, LOTS has happened. Mainly I moved, but also, I just, as in just today, passed 500 views, which is awesome! Also some of you might have noticed, the story has a legit cover image now, done by the amazingly talented Sw1tchbl4de, over on DeviantArt, and paid for by the awesome bloke, No One, thanks!

Speaking of thanks, time to thank each and every one of you readers, and also everyone whose favorited or shelved the fic since the last chapter, I hope this monster isn’t too big, and that it was worth the wait. Thanks to the staff at Wasted Days, and thanks always to KKat for starting the ball rolling. See y’all next time!))