FoE: Snippet Story

by Windrunner

First published

Set at various points in the Fallout: Equestria universe. Each chapter is intended to be a unique story unto itself. So many references, both ludicrously obscure and blatantly obvious. Even the title. No, not that. You will never figure them all out.

Set at various points in the Fallout: Equestria universe. Each chapter is intended to be a unique story unto itself. So many references, both ludicrously obscure and blatantly obvious. Even the title. No, not THAT. You will never figure them all out. All chapters tie into one another. Note: Should still be read in order. Comments are always welcomed

Auton

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The soldier just did as he was told, like always. As he'd endeared himself to his superiors with this behavior he had become their go-to pony for many unusual assignments, something he was not certain he was proud of. This particular trait was also what lead him to being one of the highest ranked officers they would ever dare actively place in the field. This time he received the strange and dubious orders to live test a mechanical pony in the farthest off region he could be sent. An area of relative safety while still engaging the enemy for testing. He was also to gauge its reaction times and how it interacted with its set of 38 commands. So secretive a project was it that only a small squad of armored guards were sent with him on the assignment.

At first sight it didn't seem anything particularly special; in fact at a distance he nearly mistook it for one of the guards trudging along towards him. Upon closer inspection, however, it looked like a slightly hunched-over grey unicorn. As it approached he could not help but notice the odd movements it took, the almost too careful and heavy steps. It walked in a gait that struck him as very quick but far from graceful. It was also much bulkier looking than normal, he had been told it housed a wide array of weapons within its chassis and given leave to test fire all of them except one. That one worried him since he was not told what it was, only informed it was never to be used except as a last resort and required he say a special pass-code to activate, they'd begrudgingly given him the code at his insistence but it should not be needed.

The soldier had also not been told it could talk or seemingly think of its own accord, after being taken aback at it speaking and introducing itself as Mattias he soon discovered it held a strange penchant for telling the sort of terribly inappropriate jokes only a pony in military service could get away with. Where had it heard these things? The name struck him as odd. To him it almost seemed alive and though he was a hardened veteran of several intense engagements this discovery gave him pause. What were we getting into here, why give it a personality at all? The idea of sending mechanical troops to fight instead of living ponies seemed appealing in the sense that only a machine would be put in harms way but at the same time it also seemed an act of desperation. The war had after-all dragged on for far too long already.

From the start of the auton units field testing things had not gone well at all, partially due to the machines heavy weight. The unit did not look as heavy as it really was. The area where they were sent was a mix of sparse edging forest and mostly sandy desert terrain in which the unit began to sink if it did not keep moving, this alone did not bode well for deploying it on the front lines. Ostensibly this was a four-legged tank that could convey vast amounts of firepower even where the robotic tracked ultra-sentinels or a standard tank simply could not go. This was not proving to be the case at all. During firing tests he noticed a tiny gold plate on one of its rear legs engraved with the letters M.A.T.T.I.A.S.

Poorly as things were progressing there were some positive notes, like that the robo-pony as he took to calling it really did pack an awesome array of bewildering firepower. All of it very cleverly hidden within along cycling tracks which could pop the weapons out of the constructs coverings at various angles and handle a wide variety of situations. Every time it did eject a weapon it sent a chill along the soldiers spine as it then looked much less like the familiar and comfortable sight of a pony and more like some alien concocted from ones worst nightmare. On solid ground it was a fierce and dangerous opponent indeed.

The only other things that bothered him about it were its eyes and voice, it had a harsh mechanical and entirely lifeless hollow sound to it while the eyes vaguely looked reminiscent of some green-eyed insect or half-remembered monster out of a bad dream. He determined the unit could see quite well and far in nearly any light or condition, or whatever passed for it seeing, he could not really tell. Why a robotics expert hadn't been sent along could only be guessed at, perhaps such intelligence was more valuable than the machine itself. Instead all that was sent along with the unit were munitions and a field maintenance manual, for a robot it required surprisingly little. Every day once per day he was to spray an unidentified liquid into its 'mouth' from a canister which bore no markings at all giving no hint to its purpose.

His orders gave them four months to test the unit as thoroughly as possible and leave to engage any targets of opportunity. Twice during the first two the auton actually saved them from walking into enemy scouts which it spotted and picked off with amazing ease, almost too much ease for his comfort. If only it were not so heavy units of this type would be an amazing recon asset, but as it stood he figured it could only ever stand guard and patrol outside in cities, perhaps where roads and completely solid fortifications were more common. The higher-ups were certain not to be impressed with this bit of news. When not actively testing he slowly began to find himself almost thinking of it as a friend thanks to its random banter and crude jokes.

The next two months were composed of a dreary tedium of endless tests and no enemy action whatsoever. This was not surprising considering the area held no real strategic value and had been mostly left alone save for the occasional short probing skirmish, generally resulting in no one being hurt. Any mistake could still prove to be fatal, as spies took advantage of the wide area to slip across undetected to harass from behind on three previous occasions and were known to take any advantage they could. At least the autons joking manner managed to lighten the mood from time to time, something he came to appreciate very much. The guards were taking a liking to its unexpectedly endearing mannerisms as well.

Only a week before he and his group of six were to be retrieved by a rarely deployed pegasus sky-boat, just as he was waking up for the day a scroll suddenly popped into existence in front of him startling him so much he nearly fell over. He only ever received three of them during his entire career and it was always bad. This one had an urgent stamp simply stating an unusually large enemy group had broken through their lines in the area and they would have to hold out until reinforcements arrived, which left them fending for themselves an indeterminate amount of time. He was to find a suitably defensible position and hunker down with his squad. This was not a difficult decision having explored the area so thoroughly.

Grim-faced he looked over the stallions under his command. This was exactly the sort of situation one did not wish to be in. He did not really notice it before but they were all quite young, far younger than him and none of them had much real combat experience outside of their training. He would have to handle this very carefully. First he ordered the auton take up a position at the crest of a forested hill so as it could just see over and constantly scan the area, it did not require rest. The others he ordered to dig in just behind it, staggered outwards not too close together. Having no report on enemy disposition he chose to take high ground, giving the auton and themselves a good field of vision and fire.

Command wanted it tested thoroughly, they were going to get just that. During the day nothing happened, but as night settled he felt that terrible calm before the storm sensation in his gut. Four hours before dawn Mattias quietly informed that a large group he could not see was approaching their position, despite best efforts to lay low they had been found. Not long after, a hail of small arms fire erupted towards their location. The auton proved surprisingly adept at tracing back and firing upon their attackers even in the dark, however this had the unintended effect of leading their opposition to believe they were a much larger force than in reality. The squad had all the angles covered but in truth were hopelessly outnumbered.

The soldier knew close quarters combat with what was arrayed against them would be near suicide and must keep the enemy at bay whatever it cost. This was proving successful only insofar as none of them was yet seriously injured but 3 of them had already been hit, he could tell the only thing truly keeping them from being struck directly was the autons intense streams of fire directed at anything daring enough to attempt a shot, but slowly inexorably the returning fire was intensifying. Chewing through ammunition as they were it was soon to be an utterly impossible defense. After three hours of this endless exchange of rounds he realized just how hopeless this was. Help would not come in time, they were all going to die.

He carefully dared move up to the auton and only then saw in the waning light of the moon just how damaged it was, the beating it was taking for them. All of its weapons were out on their tracks and targeting or firing. It struggled to remain upright as ripped jagged pieces sparked and bullets glanced off its armor plating, its head was cracked in places, was that a brain he saw underneath? Surely just a trick of the dim light. Any semblance to a living thing had long been torn from it. The sight made the soldier catch his breath as only now did he see under its friendly exterior just how alien a thing it was, fear gripped him to see it, this thing made only for death and destruction. He figured this was why it had been given a personality, if it had not been friendly to him in that way he doubted he could ever have approached it now.

The enemy was not yet behind them but was becoming increasingly brazen or perhaps simply annoyed they could not advance past this hill. He must do something now or be overwhelmed. He spoke the command to use its most powerful weapon. Unexpectedly it immediately retracted all of its weaponry and lay flat against the ground, whirring and clicking as its head turned to him and said:

"Warning: Stand well behind and shield eyes, cannon will unleash devastating wide ranging energetics wave forward! Structural damage exceeding 67%, firing may result in unit destruction. Confirm order?" Something in the soldiers mind felt bad about this but did not understand why, this was a machine! There really was no other choice. Confirm.

He backed away as two circular plates in the autons hips popped outwards and two hefty steel supports hissed out of the openings to the ground, two flaps then opened on its back and something not seen before rose up, it was larger than the other weapons it previously displayed. It looked very complex, and was certainly why it was so heavy. The square aperture at the front contained similarly square yellow warning lights swirling about it as a slowly increasing beeping sound was heard. It clacked and stood, lowering its head, the beeping growing faster and faster. The soldier scurried backwards unsure what was about to transpire. A terrible piercingly loud klaxon sound was emitted for a few seconds startling all within earshot.

A soft glow began to form around the weapons muzzle while what looked like white bubbles gathered inwards at the aperture, once again the machine spoke:

"Safety conduit override, proton wave cannon firing in 10 seconds." Proton cannon, what is that? Eight seconds. This does not feel right. Six seconds. Was this a good idea? Four seconds. The glow was almost blinding, it looks kind of pretty. Two seconds. Brighter and brighter. What have I done?

"Proton cannon firing." Was barely audible.

A terrible sizzling noise struck as a terrific thud felt like it sucked the air out of his lungs, a horrible immense blazing white took the night as a tremendous glare fell over the entire area. Suddenly shooting outwards the beam carved a swath of destruction down its path, shattering, incinerating everything along it for untold miles with a sickening crackle. Nothing was spared, smoke flew everywhere. Several minutes later as the horrific din died down he and his squad were dumbstruck by the carnage. It took him finally shaking off the weight of what just happened to get them moving, it was time to retreat. Nothing would follow them after that display of raw power.

He turned to Mattias to tell it to follow and was horrified by what he saw. Even with the supports it was at the last instant hurled backwards several meters slamming through numerous trees, a testament to its durability. It tried to stand and stumbled towards them scorched and blackened by the blast. One of its eyes hung off disturbingly on a cable while strange green sparks shot off its chassis and parts were slowly melting off, an effect that was only accelerating. It warbled out:

"Systems rebooted. Sensory inputs detect no enemy remnants, dangerous residual energetics in vicinity. Suggest immediate withdrawal."

The group limped back for a time with the auton moving slower and slower, it was obvious it could go no further. The soldier came close as he dared, the autons broken and battered form was becoming more unrecognizable by the moment. The most he could do was thank the auton for its service before it was little more than a puddle of scrap, it responded unexpectedly by stating a final quite rude joke involving a corporal and a unicycle. The entire squad laughed in fits, then teared up as the auton gazed at them. He could almost swear it was crying too. Suddenly its head twisted violently on what was left of the frame, gave a final heave and collapsed, what was left of it melting rapidly.

Command would not be happy with this loss, but they needed to know the true dangers posed by such a weapon, and though this was sure to turn some heads his report would request that Mattias be given full military honors.

End: Memory Crystal W001 Time Index Unknown

- - -

Somewhere far away a great dark steely figure raised its head, eyes flickering with malevolence and hatred.

Magnificent

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Eight floors under the ground within the very bottom level of the Stable-Tec auxiliary status & research center stood one of the most handsome, most self-absorbed, and vain unicorn stallions in all the wide wide world of Equestria. Everything about him was perfect, or so he thought. He remained motionless in a blazing white suit of power armor that seemed to gleam even in the dim lights of the underground structure. Emblazoned in gold relief atop a left-to-right crest of black and white alicorns facing one another surrounded by a wing motif was a name-plate stating 'Magnificent'. He would have asked how she kept her mane flowing like that, except he was in trouble. Again. His secret was out.

One of them anyway, which is why he wore the armor. He might as well be out with it. Magnificent removed his helmet to reveal piercing amber eyes and a lustrous golden mane trailing behind him like a waterfall. A large, striking figure indeed, except compared to her. Princess Luna herself was glaring straight at him with a look of utter disdain.

"General, you are hereby...wait, do you smell like vanilla & strawberries?" she said in her stately mannered way.

"Oh that, it's just from my new line of mane and tail care products." he responded quietly, his voice holding a deep almost musical tone.

"Your new li.." she stopped abruptly. The team of technicians and scientists sitting at their respective terminals gave furtive looks of concern between one another.

"Ahem, how you ever managed to rise to the rank of general is beyond my comprehension. Your recent actions put an entire company at risk." She looked him over coldly in that way only she seemed able to manage.

"You gave an order that left them without support and many smaller squads cut off from help. This coupled with your abuse of privilege has led to your sentence which will now be carried out." She practically spat the words at him.

"General, your sentence would normally have been dishonorable discharge; however, in view of your heretofore heroically conducted service and knowledge of several key strategic assets, I command you instead enter this prototype hypno-stasis pod for a period of seven months. Hopefully you will emerge a better pony. Prepare thyself." Little could they have suspected the war would last only another five. He stared at the bulky tube-like contraption with its multitudes of cables only a moment then resolutely stepped towards it.

"As loathe I am to take such a commodity away from battle I am told you do not need to remove that ridiculous armor you so selfishly directed resources towards. Nopony else would don it anyway associated as it is with such disrepute. You will not be aware of it or anything else." Luna motioned the technicians to open the pod door. One hit a switch as it hissed open ominously, the curved door swinging wide to the left.

"But I'm supposed to attend a book signing tonight for my new book, 'The Incredibly Extremely Superawsomazing Adventures of Magnificent'! It's even being made into a comic strip," he pouted, putting on a face as closely imitating a crying puppy that he could muster while laying back his ears. He looked truly pathetic.

This only served to increase the princess' ire towards him, her expression a grim contrast to his. He gave up the effort to garner sympathy immediately. It would not pay to anger her further.

"Your personal popularity with the public has been taken into account, and influenced our decision." She looked towards the awkward apparatus. Off to the sides the technicians went about whatever business it was that kept their attention. Were the rooms not separated nothing but a great cacophony would have been heard what-with the endless clicking and beeping of various devices and machines of purpose that most ponies outside of the ministries could not possibly understand or even begin to comprehend.

A slight pulsing in the walls gave out seemingly random hisses and overall impression was that many hidden things were going on. He strode past the princess and in passing merely said:

"Right or wrong, this is what you must do." Her hard glare seemed to soften for an instant and looked nearly to be in tears as she responded so barely audibly only he noticed it.

"I..am sorry." Nearly immediately, the edge returned to her gaze as she pointed a hoof at the strange machine. He turned and backed into the device, setting his helmet to the side.

He thought at least the last thing he would see for months before the door closed was something beautiful. He would never say it to either of the princesses but figured most felt she and her sister were indeed gorgeous. He sat watching the door swing and slide shut with a clunk. A small motorized armature plugged into the armors diagnostic connector as another slowly moved in to inject some arcane chemical brew into his neck. He gazed out the small windowed slot unflinching as the machine came to life. A beam of softly flickering light projected over his face. He felt what he thought was a chill run down his spine, then the darkness took him.

Dreams came and went, visions of war, pain, and sadness, then verdant lush fields of green, forests and peace. For however long this continued, small impressions of feelings such as loyalty and friendship intruded almost unnaturally. Suddenly a brilliant flash impressed itself upon him.

"Something is wrong." He found himself thinking, and thinking in this state was not usual or so he assumed. Over countless days he occasionally thought he heard a noise or saw an anguished looking pony face pressed to the slot looking in at him but this was not possible.

The light took him again and again to dreams, working at him in whatever mysterious way it was designed to. At times he thought he'd come around only to see dimly flickering light or shadows and fall into dreams once more, though he also imagined this to be impossible.

"I cannot be aware, I must be dreaming, must be..must be." Consciousness did somehow seem to come and go to him. One time in a quick fleeting flash he thought he saw a tan pony hammering on the pod with a large wrench only to be whisked away to dreams yet again.

"Surely only an odd fantasy concocted by a mind locked in solitude." He imagined, but thinking that made him feel somehow cold.

"I cannot be feeling anything..no I am..no..." A strange shaking sensation brought him to slow groggy awareness only to find pitch black awaiting him. He really did feel extremely cold. His eyes seemed very unfocused. He went to lift an armored hoof only to feel horrible pain shoot throughout his body, as he yelped at the unexpected sensation the suit's automatic systems administered a small dose of painkillers.

"Whoa Nelly, that stuff works fast!" he blurted out, it seemed to echo hollowly in the chamber. He gently rubbed his aching head a moment in the pitch, his faculties slowly returning to him. He took note of a small red dot of light above him.

"Hello, anypony there?" nothing responded to his query. For the moment he only knew he was hurting, still in the pod and something was terrifically amiss. He gently felt around for his helmet and finding it gingerly slipped it down over his head and horn. When the helmet connected to the suit with a hiss, floating gauges and messages glimmered and settled into his vision.

Flashing warnings he never seen before told him the armors power matrix was only at 22% and that he should seek medical attention for slight muscle atrophy. One brightly colored notice caught his attention at once, an indicator marked 'Minor Brain Damage'.

"What!?" his now muffled speech sounding almost unfamiliar to himself.

"Easy now," he thought. "Maybe I am still dreaming? ...feels real enough." He collected himself and and reached up once again more slowly and cautiously, pressing at the pod door. It did not budge.

"Oh Celestia, what is happening here?." His heart was pounding. He turned on the suits magically infused headlamp finding himself only able to see his reflection in the doors small slot.

"Hello there, handsome as ever..oh wait." He peered into the glass. Having some light did comfort him a little. In the limited space he slowly stretched and worked his muscles gently until they did not feel quite as stiff. He activated the suits comm system and spoke.

"All channels: Any allied pony forces please respond." His message was greeted with a strangely terrifying static.

"Must be the walls of this thing." He thought to himself.

"But why is nopony getting me out of this contraption?" A small degree of panic began to creep over him as he considered what to do. Confined as he was he hit at the door heavily but it merely resulted in the clanging of metal on metal. After wearying of this he tried to calm himself. In his frustration he checked the suits weapon status, bringing up a load-out list which read:

Launcher 1: 6 Creeper Bypass Projectiles.

Launcher 2: M.I.C.: 10 S. Compaction Casings.

Weapon 1: SMG: 200 Standard. 200 AP. 200 Incendiary.

Weapon 2: AutDefGun: 30 standard defense. 30 E.M.P.

The suit itself & the two launchers he secretly commissioned the creation of himself and knew they would be of no use in this situation, any of the others if fired in this space could ricochet back. Firing the smaller guns would be useless and using either of the launchers would probably result in killing himself.

"I have to think..I will not let a tin can hold a beautiful fellow like myself, what should I do?" He shut his eyes tightly a moment then called up the suits diagnostics. The pod connector was still attached and should give him any info it had.

"This cannot be working right." He spoke to himself more to steady his nerves than anything else.

The display indicated the surrounding structure was under attack, but only showed one threat in a direction that should be impossible. He could only think that maybe some sort of Zebra attack was underway. He needed out. The suit did have a physical strength burst mode, but using it would drain the power reserves a further 5%. He might be unable to recharge it for some time if battle was joined. It should have been drawing power from the connector. A connection must have been severed somewhere in the center. He realized inside the door were two hinges which he might be able to pry off, which turned out to be slow tedious work. He chipped and pulled at the hefty hinges which took well over an hour.

Finally the heavy hinges gave way with a satisfying ping, the door falling off in the dark sending puffs of dust flying.

"Dust?" Surely the technicians would never have let it become so dirty in here. Now he knew something was very off. Feeling warmer just being able to move, he pulled off the connector. Stepping out of the pod slow and aching he panned the headlamp around to be startled at what he saw. Three unusually well-preserved technicians corpses lay amidst strewn debris, one lay back against a frizzing terminal clutching a large pipe wrench to him, occasionally twitching from the sparks. Floating gauges indicated the air outside the pod to be toxic with some unknown element.

Fortunately, he'd needed his helmet on before opening the door. The bodies looked nearly mummified. How long could they have possibly been here?, he wondered. The other two seemed to have been fighting each other, were those bite marks on one? The skull of the other seemed to be crushed, probably with the wrench. What could have driven ponies to perform such brutality on one another? Though it looked like a fight took place, all three seemed starved. The one with the wrench he recognized, he really had not dreamed that. The poor fellow was at some point thrown back to be impaled on a jagged edge of the sparking terminal, probably bucked right in the chest from the look of him.

It was sheer happenstance he still held the wrench to him. Magnificent pulled the body from the terminal so that it might finally lay still. He felt nausea at the effort. He could tell he'd been in the pod longer than expected, but just how long passed? He looked to the rooms door. The automatic systems sealed it for whatever reason and some great force acted on it, warping it inwards. Pressing the open switch it ground but would not budge. The center still displayed some power, but it should have plenty. The research center held at its core one of the most advanced prototypes of the spark reactor line. Red emergency lighting flickered off and on lending a further sense of urgency to his predicament.

He opened a manual plate to the side and magically started cranking a spinner bar around. He found it was very slow going as it forced the door open along its track, eventually just enough for him to pass into the hallway. Fortunately it warped in the middle and not along the edges or it may never have opened. As thick as the centers doors were, even the launchers would never have blown through it. The scene was much the same in the hall. The building's great reinforced construction warped at various points from some impossibly tremendous impact above. Occasional emergency lights still flickered dimly here and there. Whatever powered the lights was either damaged or close to out of power itself.

His next thought was that he should try to get to surface level as quick as possible, but the elevator here fell to the bottom for some reason. This left only the stairwells, which could be dangerous not only due to the damage but could be difficult to maneuver on and leave him exposed each time he turned a corner. The suit listed no friendlies at all, only the same far-off single threat as before. It must be a mistake. The direction of its position placed it where it just could not be. He trotted down the hall passing other jammed doors. He found himself wondering if similar incidents to the pod room occurred or if any ponies were trapped in the other rooms, but brushed such a horrible thought aside for now.

Even in a low-power state the suit should be able to tell if even a single friendly pony was around, or alive. He made his way to the first set of stairs. It seemed clear, so he made his way upwards cautiously. There was still no sign of any other pony. The scale of the damage shocked him. Two floors up he could not continue further, as a great pile of debris blocked his progress. He went back to the unexplored floor hoping another stairwell or undamaged elevator would be open somewhere. The suit was not designed for stealth. Each hoof-step echoed dully in the long corridors. If anything was around -- friend or foe -- it would surely have heard him coming. As before, all doors were sealed.

He found himself more curious now, but thought better of wasting time prying doors open. This situation felt worse the more time went by while he looked for a way up. Seeking another set of stairs was taking far longer than he expected. Didn't anypony ever put signs up or anything? The suit's nav system was not much use in here. Inside a building it could only give a general direction out. In this instance it was locked on the broken main elevator, making it less than useless. Advanced as it was there were still problematic issues. Turning at a junction, he caught sight of another stairwell, a fallen steel support partially blocking the way.

With some effort it shifted out of his way allowing him to continue up 4 more floors, where the stairs just ended at this level. Who made the layout of this place? It was absolutely confusing and not marked at all. How did anypony ever find their way around? He found himself thinking such things as the shimmering emergency lights continued to fade off and on along his path. Without the suit's headlamp, it would have been a much slower and surely more terrifying journey in the dark, as he never did get the hang of the light spell. Whenever he tried it he only blinded himself more than lit anything up. Finding a way out was taking far longer than he imagined.

This fact began to play on his mind as he aimlessly searched the seemingly endless halls and corridors. The damage seemed to be worse on this floor, impeding his progress even further. Though intact the walls here looked charred like some great fire roared through the floor. Again all the doors were sealed, giving no clue what happened. At some point he realized he was very hungry. Some food storage lockers were located throughout the facility, but he'd been in such a hurry he didn't notice the sensation beginning to burn in his gut. He would have to eat something soon. The suit did carry a small supply of water in an internal lining he could pull from a straw that connected up through the helmet.

Taking just a few sips did wonders. It tasted stale, but the suit filters kept it palatable. Working his way through the floor was tedious. Steel and rubble laid everywhere, forcing every step to be taken cautiously. The armor was so heavy each step through debris necessitated being carefully chosen to avoid toppling over. Finding a clear path was becoming more time consuming with every effort. There was no normal way to ascend to the next floor. Finally, he decided there was no choice but to try forcing open some of the side doors. Due to the same warping each door required to be forcibly cranked open, the strain of using so much magic just to slide the doors this way was taking a toll.

He never exerted so much magical effort in his whole life. The first two doors he opened were impassable. Structural supports and wiring hung down completely blocking both rooms. The third was no better thanks to some strange liquid pouring from two stories above that ate away through the ceiling and several floors below, leaving no floor at all. He could not go up or down through here. Pointing the headlamp up he could make out nothing above. Another three doors nearly exhausted him from the effort. One lead to an entirely empty room meaning his effort there was utterly wasted. Mounting frustration began to torment his thoughts.

Ponies could be in need of his help, yet here he was being held up by some metal and a chemical waterfall. What happened anyway, was some kind of bomb set off in the building? It would have been a huge blast to warp the very frame of a building, especially one mostly underground. He could only imagine the carnage that might await him above. Why had nopony awakened him?, and why had the three in the room with him seemingly gone insane? Why did the bodies seem so old? What was that strange toxic element in the air down there? Answers to these questions would have to wait. His only priority right now was to get outside and assist if possible. That was if he could even find a way outside.

This infernal maze of steel was getting on his nerves. Again and again doors lead absolutely nowhere or were blocked behind by structural damage, a feeling of hopeless futility settling in on him. His wanderings through the barren place had still not yielded an encounter with another pony, where did they all go? This place positively bustled with the comings and goings of scientific and engineering inclined alike. His next thought was that should the emergency lights fail he would have only the suit to rely on. Even in less dire circumstances this would be far from ideal, as it was he dare not remove the helmet.

The suit's power was unlikely to run out if he was cautious, but the very idea of it being the sole reliable thing was a frightening prospect. He engaged a still functional terminal in the hallway, bringing up a floor list. Two floors below was the reactor level.

"Perhaps if I go there I can get some of the main lights on at least, I can hardly see my glorious reflection." He muttered. Having been through here already, it was not so troublesome to find a way back to the open stairs. He headed back down into the depths of the stairwell.

Slowly he approached the level 6 door to find it already slightly ajar, a sign above read: Caution at all times, Spark Reactor containment room panels must not be circumvented. Pulling open the door revealed more of the same dark hallways. Arrows engraved in the walls actually gave directions for once.

"Control Room sounds promising." He spoke again to reassure himself. He took a moment to lean against the wall. His muscles still hurt some despite the drugs. He felt jittery, probably a side effect of the powerful painkiller. Once rested he continued on towards the control room.

This door was at the very end of a long hall at the very outside edge of the structure, and required clearance to open. Fortunately his rank gave such access. The button panel accepted his personal code, for once a door opened without trouble. As the door opened the suit registered a small but tolerable magical radiation signature, what greeted him further inside was horror. Red streaks lined the walls and ceiling, two pony skeletons charred nearly beyond recognition lay in unnatural positions over the control panels. A second threat indicator popped up on the display too late for him to react as a sudden impact from the side sent the armored unicorn splaying atop a broken monitor, he scrambled to his hooves only to turn and find some green abomination howling at him.

Was that a pony?, giving no time to think it made an odd gesture as it loosed some sort of energy blast directly at his front, enough to knock him over, as it hit the rad counter spiked for an instant. Going to get up again it leapt atop his back striking at him like some wild beast, hitting so hard he thought it might actually break through. Without the suits protection his spine would surely have been shattered by the assault. He pushed backwards slamming the violent creature into some type of machinery against the wall multiple times, then ran for the door as it let go. It was not about to let him do so. The terrible creature ran after him, but this time the suit's experimental close quarters automatic defense gun finally got an angle, firing a round backwards directly into its skull which set loose a vile spray. The horrid thing was still coming.

Magnificent leveled a wild buck at, sending the awful thing onto its back. It lay still, the threat indicator subsided from his vision.

"What in the princesses names!?" His heart pounding, he slowly moved closer to inspect the hideous thing, keeping weapons trained on it in case it was somehow still alive. Was it even a living thing at all? This was surely what happened to the two ponies in this room, but where did it come from? What was it? It looked like a pony. One thing was certain, this awful thing was not natural. Some Zebra trickery? That seemed unlikely.

Finally able to think a moment his eyes widened in shocked recognition, portions of a ruined Stable-Tec uniform still clung to its hindquarters. This monster was at one time a pony, the feeling of dread this discovery instilled was overwhelming. Did he just kill a fellow pony, or save him from a fate worse than death? Some time passed before he could bring himself to move again. On the opposite side of the room was an unusual door , partially open. The position of the door was against the outer wall, making little sense. A marking indicated: Emergency Access Platform.

"Maybe a way out?, oh thank my well-toned haunches." Had to pep talk himself after all.

He went to step through, then halted. The threat indicator which made no sense before now did. The direction lined up precisely in front of him as a strangely solid bar. He glared at the door, then pulled it open. A long wide corridor stretched out before him, at the end a separate access elevator. In the dark ahead six more of the things that were once ponies turned towards him, one stood in the elevator itself.

"Not again.." He said as he locked the SMG on target. Never having used the internal S.A.T.S system before, he found engaging it was awkward for him.

Time seemed to slow as he executed a short burst from the automatic, tearing through the first of the hideous caricatures of living things in front. It fell back with a dull thud. The burst ended, leaving him in serious trouble. Normally he would have fired the special second launcher at a group of targets such as this, except for the fact his spell compaction launcher was yet to be field tested. In this confined space it would also back-blast potentially destroying the elevator, possibly his only way out. All five remaining of the strange transmogrified green ponies were screeching. Running towards him down the hall, they moved with unnatural speed. Just seeing them approach made him feel weak in the legs.

Panic setting in he began backing up while firing between targets. The things simply did not care, did they have no feelings at all? Each was taking multiple shots, none even slowing down. Finally the second fell dead. This left four of the crazed foul things heading straight for him. Flashing bullets continued to fly in the dark, tearing through flesh and bone.

"No, stay away from me. I'm too handsome to die!" He yelled while continuing to spray bullets down the corridor, some ricocheting wildly. One of the creatures started to make that gesture like the first before. Recognizing the motion he unloaded a full 25 rounds at it in an effort to stop more clearly magical radioactive energy being hurled at him.

Spent shell casings clattered onto the floor. The noise of firing was nearly deafening. At last it seemed to engulf itself in flames while collapsing. Another of the creatures threw itself at him just as he stepped back through the door, slamming it mostly shut just as the thing jumped at him. He was shoved backwards. These former ponies were possessed of incredible physical strength. Having only an instant to react he rammed the door back into its head several times until it crumpled, the body now jammed in the doorway. S.A.T.S. was taking forever to reset, at least it felt like it was in this situation. The last two were rapidly approaching. Now there was something more substantial between the unicorn and his oncoming attackers.

He knew they would jump at him given the least chance. To avoid this he would have to act quickly. He ran out the other door just as the two maniacal things slammed their way into the room. It would be safe enough to use the second launcher here. He had the suit chamber a spell compaction round, they were supposed to have a 2 second delay. He fired the launcher, quickly trying to shut the door. A dull roaring sound engulfed the area behind it, he had not quite been fast enough. Slightly open as it was the blast knocked the heavy door straight off its hinges into him sending the unicorn reeling. The concussive force was such that he blacked out.

Magnificent lay there groaning. Slowly his eyes fluttered open. His armor was intact but charred in places. A new indicator marked: Minor Concussion was displayed. Several minutes passed while he was out. All hostile indicators had subsided. Getting to his hooves was a terrific effort. Finally getting back up he glanced towards the control room. Several strange small purple fires were dancing scattered amongst the wreckage of terminals and equipment. In the room one of the creatures actually incinerated into a pile of ashes, the other lay smoldering beside it. The blast was much larger than he expected. Making his way past the mess, he slowly limped down the corridor to the elevator.

This was a separate shaft from the rest of the building entirely, it must have been built in case the main entrances were unavailable. Now it was likely his only possibility of escape. The elevator appeared to have a spark battery attached to the side panel, meaning it was independent of the failing reactor. He was wary of this, what awaited on the surface? Hopefully no more of those monstrosities.

"I really need a soothing cup of chamomile tea. My exquisitely cared for mane is probably a mess too." He spoke despondently as he hit the button, the elevator doors shuddered closed.

It was clear the elevator was not used in a very long time from the sound of far off machinery, as grinding seized metal grated while it rose. So much so he was beginning to fear it would fall, making his entire misadventure pointless. Fortunately it simply continued to rise. Eventually it rose to surface level. The surface doors slid open with a great hiss, sparks shooting from the tracks. Magnificent stepped out to survey his surroundings.

"Ohh, no...."

---

What awaits our hero on the surface? Will he ever get a cup of chamomile tea? Is he a hero at all? More questions await as we now turn our eyes to, a series of insignificant events.

The Wind

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The ancient robotic looking pony shaped constructs stood in their cubicles inactive and uncalled for. A great many years having passed since their construction. Each had been placed in its station within the great and vast underground complex awaiting orders that had for whatever reason never come in endless decades, left to dust and darkness. Nothing ever happened here save for a single green light atop a nearby terminal that seemed to pointlessly flicker off and on for an incalculable eternity. The closest heavily armored auton stood at attention as it always had, eyes cold and dark as the pitch around it, lifeless. Were one to venture into this forgotten depth it would be revealed to be utterly massive.

Practically an entire world unto itself hidden beneath, wreathed in steel and stone. All this once had a purpose. A Sheer twenty stories beneath the mountains surface it waited in the cold silence, unlamented and long out of any living memory. The builders had gone far beyond the original intention at their leaders request. There it stood towering above all else. Something great and tall and shiny, once gleaming in quiet testament to its builders craftsmanship. The great glistening hull and bulk of its entirety covered in all manner of golden runes amidst crisscrossing patterns of intricate detail so fine even at such scale none could ever hope to take it all in. It stood there on its huge pedestal, silent as the empty night.

It awaited a call now likely to never come. The enormous mechanisms anchoring it lay dormant as all else in this vast and quiet metal tomb. The years piled one on into another as the seeming statues stared silently into the abyssal darkness around them, never a single sound to be heard or motion to be detected nor hinted at. One might imagine nothing living had ever trod here, utterly dead as it was with only the mere ghosts of that which was long past to keep it company. In silence stood these sentinels eternal. It could be envisioned they too had never moved from their posts, rigid and lifeless husks forever poised to react at a moments notice to some unseen menace.

Empty halls echoed only the eternity of silence and dust inflicted upon the great subterranean depths where no light had shone in countless ages. Quietly awaiting the day when someone, anyone, would dare entreat the long darkened halls to give up their long-held secrets. All the stables were intended to last but not for the purposes originally set out. The grim dark eternity that had settled on this place far from sight and mind brought on by the end of the war had left it neglected, barren of life and forgotten. Like so many other things it lay empty and ill against the destruction of the outside world. A mere backdrop of misfortune and pain. Just another drop in an ocean of sadness.

All the good intentions in the world had lead to strife, upheaval and a nearly inevitable outcome. The world itself had ended long ago with what few survivors left clinging to life by ragged tatters. That anything at all had survived was testament to the will to live, to flourish and push back against the all-enveloping darkness. Nothing living walked these dreary halls. The austere living quarters and kitchen sat empty. Nary a pony seemed to have ever so much as touched a single thing in this quandary of a place. Far above, in the shattered world beyond the main door, a gentle breeze stirred many hundreds of miles away. It picked up to a slow pace as it stirred, springing to life in whatever way such things begin.

It rolled across the endless wastes as aimless as wind may be. None envision or imagine where something so small begins its journey, the landscapes and monuments and things long buried it may pass on its way. Slowly the wind set out across the wastes of what had once been a bright and happy world, a world that slowly spiraled ever more out of control towards its doom. Somewhere there was a small desolate farm. A little filly just coming of age looked on in horror as her parents fell defending her against a mob of raiders. The wind passed by this scene of terror and pain uncaring. The wind does not care, it can bring sadness and cold, or warmth and happy feelings.

On it went, spanning the empty miles of devastation on no particular path. Many more miles onwards in its sluggish travels the wind blew by a sobbing unicorn sitting in charred power armor. The wind just is. It has no feelings, no attitude whether it brings hurt or not. It simply goes on. The great main doors of this particular stable were covered by rubble and debris, designed to look as part of the mountain itself. None would simply guess there to be any entrances to it at all. Should any living thing ever happen to look upon it only rocks would be seen. The wind continued its long randomly winding journey across the suffering landscape, the hills and mountains, dales and valleys of a once beautiful country.

Something kept it going, but what, who could say? At one time the pegasus race had heralded all patterns of weather. The rain, the snow and wind had been their domain alone. No more. The slow bitter wind rolled across the mountains surface, softly crossing in the same random way it had begun. As it passed the gentle breeze dislodged the smallest of pebbles from its perch above the slope, it rolled down the mountainside gaining momentum to land squarely against a small hidden door. It hissed open ominously. The wind has no feelings, it does not care what it heralds in its random journeys, of the joy, pain or suffering it brings.

The soft breeze blew into the now open door and ended as subtly as it began.

---

A chill wind bearing ill, mayhaps.

A Series of Irrelevant Events

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Dear journal,

War. Year..11 I think. I watch the skies for friendlies, and there she is! Her and her elite Shadowbolt squadron. She does not show up on the battlefield lightly. This battle is over, just seeing her with them above means it is or must soon be. She moves so fast even wearing all that strange equipment they come up with, nothing on the ground stands a chance when she is in the fray. The best flier in Equestria indeed, and probably the entire world. Such speed and agility in the air go unmatched and unrivaled. She is a war hero, and I am nopony whatever.

Does she even know grunts like me exist, getting torn to shreds down here on the ground? Her world is probably much too fast to notice us small fry. Yet we all love her. Why?, because when she arrives above the battlefield she is a glorious storm of colorful fiery retribution. Unlike all other times we know we are safe once again, all too briefly. Rainbow is for lack of a more fitting word, awesome. She is truly the real deal. Her only goal seems to be to protect ponies, while being cool as possible. I met her once for a short moment during a mission briefing. Mentioned something about trying out some new gizmo they were calling a radio. Whatever it was she probably took it just because it had the word rad in the name.

At least she genuinely seems to care about the suffering and carnage, even if she is inflicting just as much in return. Stripes do not stand any chance when shes around. I'm surprised they will not surrender. Wishful thinking, we haven't been able to take even a single prisoner as long as I can remember. Fighting them in close is deadly. Even the dead ones are just as dangerous, we dare not get anywhere near them for fear of the traps they set on themselves. I was told she had a stripe friend once, that does not even seem possible. The Zebra war doctrine seems to solely consist of one unrelenting assault after another. There is no chance at negotiation, they will not even speak to us. They excel at fighting dirty.

Casualties are getting higher on both sides of this struggle. How many of them are there, surely they are hurting as much as we are? Somehow they just keep on coming. We beat them back in one place, bloody their noses and they just attack somewhere else. Despite our air superiority Zebra forces are highly mobile. Both sides of this endless carnage seem to be slowly obtaining more and more powerful weapons. Almost 12 years ago I barely knew what a weapon even was. I thought the ceremonial spears of the royal guard looked sharp and dangerous. Now they seem a quaint notion of sentimentality far removed from our bleak lives.

My dear sister.. I am so sorry. Ten years ago I joined the newly forming army out of anger. A blind feeling of rage prompted me to do it. A feeling so foreign to me I almost did not know what it was. I joined to make them all pay for what they did to you. Ever since then I have done ever more terrible things to survive, to take as many of them out as I can. I have felt my heart grow colder, more pained ever since. The day they took you from me festers, burned into my memory like an agonizing coal. Nothing with a heart deserves to die like that. The stripes do not seem to have hearts. Our home is gone with you. I was so young when it happened. I thought I was the bravest pony in the world.

Remember when I almost went into the Everfree just to prove it?, you barely talked me out of it. I never could say no to you. It feels like several lifetimes have passed since then. I thought maybe if I just got one of those responsible for ruining our lives I might feel better. I killed my first Zebra only two weeks out of basic, it felt nothing like that at all. I only got lucky I was not killed as well. I was also afraid. Just like that day, when I cowered in the bushes watching them cut you down. You must have been one of the very first to be hurt in this war. I was so brave, why couldn't I move? I should have done something, anything. I did nothing. Instead you died while I cried helplessly, hoping the horrible monsters would go away.

It would have been better if I died with you. No more cowardice. The anger and guilt that has built in my soul since then is unbearable. I killed a Zebra, but my hatred only deepened as I realized she was just one of the many responsible for your absence. I have killed in your name. Forgive me dear sister, they must know my pain. Oh journal, these pages are all I have left. I almost had no chance to write today. Dash showing up shot down whatever the stripes plan was this time. Glad to have the breather, we do not get many. It has been so many years, and I have helped gun down so many yet with every one I only seem to feel more desire for vengeance.

It seems for every one of them at least two or three of our brethren, our kindred and friends are wiped out alongside them. It never ends. There are more notches on my weapon than I care to count. It will never be enough because you are gone. This blasted war has likely orphaned so many by now it is absolutely horrifying. Why can't we stop them?, we should have the advantage by now. It is whispered that long ago Celestia of all ponies simply left the throne one day and gave all responsibility to her sister, what is going on? Can things really be this bad? One year there was supposed to be this great diplomatic solution to all our troubles, it just turned into another battle.

Nothing we do ever seems to make a dent in their resolve to keep hurling themselves at us. No matter how much firepower we bring to bear on them they just bring in more as well. Surely this cannot go on forever?, it feels like it already has gone on forever. I still feel no better, it seems my bitterness and pain only increase by the day as I watch even more of us fall in ever more brutal combat. Each of my fellow soldiers joined for much the same or similar reasons to my own, maybe a few out of patriotism here and there. Some probably joined out of a misguided desire for glory, hah. There is nothing glorious in this. Only pain.

We will likely be moving out soon, probably to reinforce yet another section of the front lines. In the beginning, there weren't a whole lot of opportunities to actually engage our enemies. It almost felt like a bad joke knowing they had hurt us so badly and nothing to shoot at. Now, there are positively too many targets to choose from. We have learned the hard way that they have snipers which never seem to miss. For some odd reason the stripes tend to favor close-in fighting, getting anywhere near one is a death sentence. Many of them seem to be trained in some weird hoof-to-hoof fighting style that defies description.

Without full combat armor being up close is tantamount to committing suicide unless luck just happens to favor you. Most of the time it does not play favorites. There is simply no way to gauge our enemies strengths or weaknesses, we cannot even get at them in their own territory. We hardly even know what their territory is let alone the best way to hit them there. Even the Shadowbolts dare not venture directly into that domain. We know nothing of the defenses or where the capital is, do they even have a capital? We know so little of them. Only that they have resources we dearly lack. They look so much like us yet so alien at the same time, I cannot fathom their lives.

Do they miss their fallen as we do ours?, are they at all similar? It does not seem so, I only know my hatred for stripes intensifies with every friendly that falls before them. It took me a year to build up enough courage and enough rage to go enlist. I was just old enough by then, barely grown up enough to carry a saddle pack. You should see me now sis, I can lift the heaviest of weapons with ease. That took a while. Would you even recognize me? I stayed with our uncle, the one everybody called Oaf behind his back. You know why. My stay with him was not a pleasant experience in any way. Nearly unbearable.

I am only writing these things down now because I have an increasingly uneasy feeling about the war as it only seems to escalate further. I thought my time under his roof was rough, in comparison to all I have seen and done since then it was practically a vacation. Should anypony ever happen to find this journal on my lifeless body, there is no one to give it to. Read it if you want. I probably will not mind. I have fought hard since joining the army and I only regret it ever had to happen in the first place. There is no end in sight to this suffering, I want them all dead but no matter how many I kill there are always more. It almost feels like some unnatural presence accompanies those striped horrors in the unending battles.

Have they no remorse, no fear? They are every bit as monstrous as I viewed them back then. Every time I finish another one off there is this strange electric thrill in me, I think I actually enjoy this. I only feel a shudder of happiness when they fall, then it is gone and I must seek it again. It is infuriating. The other day I saw something that made me feel even more enveloped by this need to hurt the stripes. One of them threw..something that looked like a grenade but it did not explode. It broke open and melted, spewing this horrible black smoke. I thought it was just a dud explosive then about half of the ponies that were caught in it went absolutely berserk. We could hardly hold them down, what could we do?

One of them bit me. I could not shoot our own. During the confusion one of the buggers strode right in and took out no less than ten of us before we could react. I got that one in the back. If only I had been faster. It felt so good to see another one drop. As far as I am concerned all those deaths mean I owe it back to them ten times over. Maybe more because the ponies that inhaled the smoke had to be sent off someplace for help. Some treatment facility for mental problems in the mountains or something. They just wouldn't stop screaming. I haven't felt so well since that day. The seething disgust I have for all of Zebra kind fuels me to fight on until somehow I find a way to shatter them, grind every last one of them under my hooves into dust.

If it costs my life to do it then so be it. I will have justice whatever it takes. During our next engagement I think I will look for a chance to slip away with all the equipment and ammo I can carry. Somewhere far to the south there must be a town, a city.. something feeding them supplies and troops. I will take the fight to them and break them. Even if only once they will be hit on their own ground, maybe just experiencing one of us reaching that far into their territory will teach them the fear they deserve. Dear sis, I will surely die in the attempt. Will I see you soon in whatever lays beyond the curtain of this life? We are heading out now, my chance must come.

---

Caesar, mighty Caesar in Roam this day does sit, and feels his tasks upon the world begin to slip.

The Legend of Queen Whiskey

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The wizened ancient zebra looked out towards the horizon of the once devastated landscape. Over a hundred years before it had all been one terrible blasted place. In many areas it still was, not without dangers and secrets even now. Not one but three major conflicts had all destroyed the world, and partially restored it again. She churned her bubbling cauldron with a makeshift pole then called the others together. It was time for the weekly story by the fire, for which both young and old huddled around eagerly. This night she decided it was finally time to relate a very special tale, one she had not told in a very long time. As the little band settled she began to speak:

Come little children. I'll tell you a tale about woe, of wild ole Queen Whiskey and the seeds she did sow.

A torrid tale of suffering, of pain. A tale of learning, of grief and of gain.

She left her home to slake a desire, to justly shield those held dear amidst strife and fire.

Right out the door to return nevermore, rushing towards a far distant moor.

One takes care of their home no matter the cost, no care for how dire the loss.

Within a clean stable she lived in seclusion, beneath the world not safe from confusion.

From afar came a thundering knock, to force apart already broken lock.

In through the door came death and derision, it took not long to make her decision.

A machine barely understood upon a leg sending her across to beg, for knowledge she had little.

Into her mind the question did while and whittle, burning a hole she could only ponder and riddle.

Fighting their way out, an unknown dread to stop them in the middle.

Little could she fathom the idea of jumping from one hot plate out onto a griddle.

Her journey started with blood on her hooves, now onto planning out her next moves.

The first place she tread was saved then from dread, and thus it did greatly swell up her head.

On then toward a song full of power, nary a place to find a good shower.

The swelling was popped when a pony head dropped, for from the owner it was quite cleanly lopped.

The old zebra took a deep breath and looked to her cauldron. It bubbled and sloshed with a pop. The soup would not be ready for quite some time yet but still needed tending to. She took a moment to pour in some arcane ingredient which gave it a slight green tinge. The soup had to be the perfect temperature for cooking or it would not come out right at all. For her age she was still quite spry, as zebras are wont to be thanks to a lifetime regimen of agility exercises. Though the others would scold her for doing it, she was still capable of balancing on her head atop a hoop. Using a wooden ladle that had clearly seen better days, she took a sip of the softly glowing concoction. She then turned her attention back upon the waiting crowd, it had grown larger:

A friend in dire need of care, how far might she now dare?

A time into the abyss now to stare and ponder the quirks of fate and despair.

Time waits for no pony, hurting or not. Her story unfolds in a quite special spot.

To find a way through and again save the day, when all that is wanted a bed soft as hay.

Over the land an ocean of fright in which she then finds her delight.

One evil down she could smite, to unleash only yet worsening plight.

A sight quite enough, she had enough stuff. Now to wind inwards in bluff.

One out of three, a threatening plea, then onwards for an illusory sea.

Listen now children quite well. There is much much more of this tale to tell.

Tarnished, her journey just started and almost departed.

To pick from a list of terrible louts. Enough to make one wish to shout.

Decisions done and payments to be made, into the austere halls of a hospital strayed.

Tasked to go throw them out, some ghosts of the past are real no doubt.

Laughter did echo through dim blistered hall, cries of young foals and fillies calling to all.

Come now ye hither, we just want to play. Forever and ever you are to stay.

Through quite painful choice she silenced the voice of past sins left in her sway.

The zebras in the clan listened intently with hushed breath, hanging on the elders every word. This story had never been passed on to any of them before. They had heard every tale she ever told before numerous times. All of them were good, but none were like this. This was something new. As she spoke more and more of the clan gathered to hear this epic regaling of the past. Why had she never told it before, and how did she know it? Curiosity drew nearly the entire clan together while she related a saga in rhyme. She stood behind her cauldron, paying it special care as she poured carefully chosen grated herbs into it. The soup seemed to be gaining more potency. The smell of it drifted through the conclave almost tauntingly as it simmered. The aroma was most enticing. Her carefully crafted tale continued:

Already carrying a great pain in her heart. Forced from her home and not very smart.

Ole Queen Whiskey one day she would be, for the moment only wishing to flee.

Slow to learn and needing to see, how to fill a life with glee.

Coming to face a painful past whilst burdens mount to torture so fast.

Once so uncouth as deluded in youth. In pain she did now pine for sooth.

Like a chipped tooth needs some care. She played out her passions with far too much flair.

Somewhere in there a lesson to learn. Her hearts yearning desire to set things afire.

Blazing forth to another campaign. One and another strain upon her poor aching brain.

She pondered her life so full of strife which left her feeling it vain.

Into her mind was planted the idea that much later would lose all she gained.

In her heart a poisoned feeling did grow to gnaw at all she might know.

On the road once again which slowly did spend much of her will to comprehend.

A pain in the tail and under the pale her journey begun to feel quite stale.

So much pain felt under the endless rain near a city of steel, mayhaps to take a ride on the rail.

The sun not free by any a pony eye yet to see, the will to do so in lee.

The wastes so deadly and terror filled veil, now you must wait for more of the tale.

A murmur went through the gathered crowd at the sudden end. The old zebra leaned over her cauldron, having decided it was finally ready to be served.

"Like fine wine a story this sublime must be savored and taken in sips over time." She would say no more. They would have to come back for the next story session. Not a one would miss it. The dispersing crowd chattered amongst themselves with a slight air of disappointment but also excitedly at the prospect of hearing more. The old zebra smiled to herself. She walked back into her ramshackle little hut and gazed at a photo faded with age.

---

The past ever weaving into the future we can but guess what lines it shall draw.

Zemblanity

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The farm was a large desolate place, remote and sprawling. At one time it was a self-sustaining wonder solely dedicated to feeding a small town that once existed off to the southwest. All this, it was. It now again fulfilled this role on a much less grand scale, owing to the fact that very little could actually be made to grow on the tortured infertile land. At one time it had stood lush to overflowing with potential. Now it could barely sustain its own more recent inhabitants. The farmhouse proper stood two stories and a fair length. It had seen far better days long ago, back when the world was bright and full of promise. Now, the fields lay ill and difficult to farm.

A blossoming, yellow-coated young earth pony filly just nearing adulthood looked up from her storybook at the poor place. She and her father had shortly before finished the immense task of readying a new field to be planted next season, something all three of them had been at for several weeks in addition to their normal work. The small sparse fields now numbered three, the other two fields having just been harvested left it quite bereft. Harvesting was a serious problem in and of itself, requiring a whole lot of hard work and effort. They had only makeshift tools and equipment scrounged from wherever her parents had found them, really having no idea where they came from.

She was a very strong pony for her age, stemming from long hours helping her parents mend and work the ancient rundown farm. Long tedious days drifted by one after another blending into a dreary endless boredom. Before supper was the time of day she took to relax and look over her one prized possession once again: a keepsake of days gone by when the world was not so bleak. At least, that is how the book made it look. Could the world truly ever have been so filled with light? Its worn cover and pages were once brightly colored. That any color at all remained visible showed some things at least did endure. She flipped through the pages, the faded stories within firing her imagination.

The book contained her favorite story. A story about six friends who together through countless adventures came to rely upon each other, to know their strengths and weaknesses while facing many obstacles along the way. Friends which together went through pain and terror, joy and hope. The young filly had no friends herself thanks to the only town she knew of being nearly a full weeks travel to the south. Not that it mattered anyway, the town itself seemed sparsely populated only by fairly old ponies. Having no one to be friends with and no ponies around her own age fed her loneliness by the day. Her parents were good and kind, but could not replace that which a young heart needs.

Hardly knowing what friendship meant, the book was her only real window into its meaning. She knew nothing of friendship aside from the depictions in her beloved book, what did having a friend mean? How exactly would you make friends with somepony anyway? Her mother and father did not seem to have any friends either. Was it just their lot to have wound up in these long doldrums of existence? Her life was so boring. Nothing truly exciting ever happened, not here. Nothing exciting would ever happen here. There did not seem the slightest possibility of anything out of the ordinary occurring in this place. It was as dull and bland as she could imagine.

She shuddered at the mere thought of there being a place even less interesting. Her parents said this was a pretty safe area compared to much of the world. Perhaps they were right but she could not help feeling this seemed an arbitrary thing to say, you could still die or be hurt here with a misstep or bad decision. Even without any wildlife to speak of there was danger. The stifling heated winds that occasionally blew in were sometimes nearly unbearable. They eked out the semblance of a living here so far from any settlement. Rarely, they ventured to a town with crops in tow. Far in the back, within the shadow of the crystalline mountain ridge under which the farm stood was a partially buried hunk of metal and wire.

She looked off to it wistfully. On the side letters that were hardly legible appeared to read as VER. The rest was burnt beyond recognition. Whatever it was had long been left to endure the ravages of time and the outdoors. She had been warned not to play around with strange machines or devices found in the wastes. Her parents were clear about this point. The moment she was old enough to understand, it had been engrained in her that the past held many dangerous and unique secrets of its own. Secrets that could easily prove harmful or fatal if not approached with an abundance of caution. Such stories piqued her young minds curiosity, but they would never tell her how they knew these things.

She had never really felt endangered in her entire life so far, was the world really so bad and filled with it? Her parents seemed to feel this was the case. It was time for dinner. Before heading inside she tromped over to the ancient barn, her father had mistakenly left the door open again. A large tattered sign covered in years worth of dirt and neglect read 'Sadview Farms'. The name was fitting as the view of the mountains did indeed seem more sad than majestic. Had it always been this way? Farms seemed to indicate there had been others but this appeared to be the only other building for who knew how many miles. The dilapidated barn seemed to predate the war, leaving only portions updated to the common industrial grates and steel of the time. They dared not tread on the upper floor.

The stairs up the side were rickety and swayed seemingly continually, actually stepping onto them would likely invite them and possibly more to come crashing down atop anyone unlucky enough to be in the way. There was simply no material to repair or replace them with. A few wooden stands and bric-à-brac lay strewn about. Some broken curios were a grim reminder that the world had once known better times. She stepped inside to check that her father had not forgotten anything else. The one thing about this barn which puzzled her was a flat heavy steel door in the center of the floor with a number pad.

She had asked if her parents knew anything about it but as usual had shown little interest in it, saying that it was just another remnant of a time when ponies were powerful masters of the world around them. She was also told they left behind many dark secrets which should be paid great respect. A few times she had played with the pad, imagining somehow coming across the correct combination. What dark secret could a barn possibly hold? Surely it was just some ponies attempt at a bomb shelter or maybe it was a wine cellar or something. If there was something like that hidden in there it would be worth finding wouldn't it? She imagined so many things could be hiding within.

Everything looked fine. Shutting the door securely behind, she headed for the house. She marched into the dingy and dimly lit farmhouse, candles flickering here and there. A building of moderate size, it had once been unusually posh inside. Its grand wooden timbers badly warped with age. Long ago the beams had sagged under the oppressive years in such a harsh environment, how it even remained together a mystery. Perhaps the wood had been magically treated or some other unknown means used upon them ages before. On this floor a few broken terminals dotted the six largely empty rooms, two bedrooms sitting off the side in a sort of hidden alcove.

All the strange machines had long been rendered useless save for one in a dismal dank corner, its eerie green flicker a constant reminder of a past long since lost. The lonely terminal forever beckoned for a password that would likely never be entered. None of the three could figure what it had been and any clue to its nature likely crumbled to dust almost two centuries ago, possibly along with the buildings former occupants. Every third failed attempt locked it for 24 hours before allowing further guesses. Sometimes the young filly tried for amusement. Regardless they had little time to dwell on such things, as simple daily living required most of their energy and attention.

She did find it curious the terminal continually displayed the words 'Connection severed'. Connection to what? There was nothing around here at all to connect to. The devastation wrought upon the land so long ago had ruined almost everything. Imagining the purpose of the terminal stumped her. This was a farm, so why did it even have such things in it? Her musings on the reasons for the terminals existence were cut short as she approached the kitchen. The film of fine dust which covered basically everything had been over time cleared away as best they could manage. Cleaning supplies were non-existent and if they were found would be far more valuable to sell than use.

This had meant only tedious effort had slowly afforded an honest-to-goodness clean area in the house. In contrast to the rest of the the farm and indeed the world, it actually felt cozy. Sometimes she would let herself imagine when the house had been bright and new. Glorious. Sitting on the mantle above what was left of a once ornately decorated fireplace was a book they all held in high reverence. Although it was damaged and missing many sections it was the reason they could manage a farm at all. A large tome titled 'Farmers Almanac' lay there. Its tattered fraying pages contained a wealth of information on farming techniques, procedures and minutiae.

Unfortunately many of the more important pages were unreadable. They managed to glean just enough from its ancient pages to run the most basic of operations. It held the promise of so much more, if only intact copies of it could be found. This was an impossible dream, of course; ponies had long lost the bulk of knowledge attained over ages. These days they were more apt to fight each other over the scraps of what was left than go looking for old books. After all, what good would a book do you when you were starving, thirsty or hurt? This family knew better, and taught her how to read the few scraps and books that were available.

Her hooves clattered on the creaky flooring as she approached her parents sitting at an oval kitchen table, a paltry meal laid out before them much the same as every other night. Usually they had barely enough to sustain themselves and some left to barter with in the far away town. The new field was a sign of hope. She gazed at her protectors, her whole world. The ones who had told her bedtime stories, the ones who played with her when they needed to be working, laughing together at what little could be and teaching her what modicum they were able with so very little to offer. Even so, looking at them she felt something was missing from her life. In her heart was some indescribable sadness.

She looked to her father with that slightly sad and quizzical expression only those merely approaching adulthood could manage, pausing a moment to listen to their conversation before saying anything.

"Now Silver Quick, I know we need to sell more in town but we'd be leaving her all alone here for almost two weeks!" such a pretty painted and mottled petite looking unicorn was saying to her father. Her mother's mane was a disheveled blonde mess. He sat opposite her, a large heavy looking figure in the dim light, almost hulking. He made for a grandiose nearly monstrous sight of a powder-blue pegasus -- or would if his wings were not strapped tightly to his sides under a heavy, leathery looking cloak which covered his mark.

So well-hidden were the straps that not knowing they were there would mean missing them entirely. Small brown and silvery streaked wisps of his mane protruded slightly from beneath the cloaks hood, something he never seemed to be without. Due to their secretiveness she had never seen either of their marks.

"My dear Night Bloom, she is old enough to take care of the place for a few days aren't you sweetheart?" His adoring gaze shifted to his beloved daughter. He always seemed to beam with pride every time he looked at her. She nearly felt embarrassed by it, but the gleam in his eyes also somehow felt invigorating to her. He was usually so grim and serious.

Moments such as these were wonderful. They were giving her a huge responsibility, she quickly forgot whatever was on her mind for the moment.

"I, yes dad." She gasped excitedly and gave them both a nuzzle on the cheek.

"Both of you are going?" the young filly asked of her parents.

"Of course, usually only one of us would go but your mother cannot pull two full carts that far by herself. It is a long trip and our harvest is exceptionally good this time considering. Goodness knows we could use the extra caps for trade." Her father explained.

The young pony had always wondered why her parents had chosen to live in such a desolate place far from other ponies or why her father never just flew things to the town. It would be so much faster. Asking these questions always resulted in the same response of quietly insisting she not ever speak about her daddy being a pegasus or ask about either of their cutie marks, telling her it would all be explained one day. She had no idea what her parents marks even were, they were very cautious about not letting them be seen. How long would she have to wait to know what they were keeping from her? It bothered her. She had only been to the town of Far Side a few times. It was just as harsh and bereft as the farm, dirty and old. The residents all seemed fairly elderly with no foals to speak of, at least she'd never met any.

It made for a long and lonely existence without a single pony even remotely her age to play with. Her parents tried hard to help her have fun when they could. Unfortunately they had to dedicate so much time and effort to working the farm there was little time left over for her. She did like some of the old ponies in the town, they could be funny, a few she even knew by name. The small town itself nestled in a sort of ring against the bottom of another tall mountain range she never asked about. It looked scary and felt dangerous to her somehow. She felt an odd sensation just looking at it, as if just seeing it was wrong somehow and generally kept her gaze away from it.

It simply had a bad vibe, despite this oddity she liked it there. If only the small settlement was not so far away. The towns-ponies we not particularly outgoing or unfriendly but were not truly good candidates to make friends with either, mostly they just seemed to want to be left alone. They did however very much like the food crops the small family brought into town to trade with. If she felt a connection with anypony other than her parents it was with the proprietor of the apothecary named Grizzled Lily. Out of the few times she had accompanied her father on the long trip she had found herself wandering into the shop to hear the old mares tales of far off places she had visited in her younger years as a guard for a traveling trade caravan.

It sounded so exciting, almost glamorous compared to the drab dull living they carved out with the farm. The old mare was not without injury from her youth. A great scar across most of the left side of her face and crossing her eye confirmed that life outside the confines of what she knew was indeed dangerous. Before she was ever allowed to visit the town she had been told there were some things she must promise never to speak of or about in earshot of the local ponies, like the one machine hidden deep in the farmhouse that still worked. A slow pre-war water producing marvel, it did not make much or quickly, it was still an invaluable prize.

She knew her parents loved her very much, but why the secrecy over so many things? She did not understand, but she kept her promise not to talk of it. It had over the years worked into her mind that her parents must be keeping some horrible thing from her. She was by now desperate to know but knew how they would react if she asked, she could see it as it played out before. You're too young, you don't need to know those things yet. Bleh. They would have to tell her soon wouldn't they? She had imagined all sorts of scenarios about their reasons. None of them seemed like anything her parents would actually have done.

"Wait Dad, I thought you promised I'd get to go with you next time you went to town." She muttered. Her fathers deep gruff voice was always surprising even now.

"My dear daughter, I will make no excuses. I did promise you that, but I am going to have to alter it a bit. I keep my promises, but I am going to have to ask you to be patient. In comparison to what we usually get out of this blasted farm we can get a lot of caps." He paused a moment, looking at her deep in thought. "In the long run it will make things a bit easier on us, and I will have a surprise for you when we get back. Alright, sweetheart?" He seemed to be smiling ever more widely at her.

"A surprise?" She had never heard him say anything like that in her entire life.

"Really?" Excitedly she gave him an enthusiastic hug.

"So, can you do this for me? Take care of this place for two weeks?" Her reply was just as vigorous.

"Yes!" What could it be? Now this was exciting. The next morning the three gathered outside the barn and loaded the carts. The two carts were rickety things which strained under the unusually heavy load being placed on them, but which were just sturdy enough to make the lengthy trip to town and back.

"You know what to do?" Her mother asked yet again.

"Yes mother, I'll be fine." She told her in a reproaching tone.

"I'm sorry dear one, it is just we have never left you alone like this before.." Her mother seemed so frail, yet she knew this was not the case. Both her parents were physically strong from the efforts put into their farm, the work itself had kept them going. It had been no trivial task making anything grow with their limited knowledge, lack of tools or proper farm implements.

Without anypony to tell them how and lacking experience her parents had said it took a couple of years to make the first field workable. It was with great excitement they had greeted that first sprouting plant. Finally, all the years of hard work were truly about to pay off. She gave both of her parents a hug then watched them walk off into the distance, waving as they stepped out of sight. Walking back inside for her meager breakfast it slowly dawned on her just how alone she was here, and how empty a place felt without other ponies. Without other living things the old creaky farmhouse seemed to take on a haunted ethereal quality.

The town was nearly 60 miles off to the south which meant there was no way to get help if something should go awry in her parents absence. Finishing her food and setting to the days work her father had left for her she noticed the work felt harder alone. Having never truly been absolutely alone the thought of something bad happening quickly began to trouble her thoughts.

"Calm down, nothing bad will happen. This is the most boring place anywhere." She said to herself. The work truly was boring, really only amounting to the very basic things needed.

That night she was more fatigued than ever, taking care of things alone was hard. Walking into her threadbare bedroom she practically fell onto the rickety old bed. Her parents had somehow scrounged up enough pieces of softer material here and there to almost mimic the old style beds in books. It was still far less comfortable then they looked, but it served. She relaxed, glancing about her room. A few cobbled together things that her father had put together to serve as toys lay strewn about. In her younger years she had played with them a lot. Even now she would sometimes amuse herself with them, she was not an adult quite yet. The thought struck her that she did not know what being an adult meant either.

Did growing up mean she would stop having fun? She liked having fun, but it was hard having fun by herself. She still liked having fun, scooping her toys up she played with them a while.

"No, I will never stop having fun." Slowly her fatigue won out and she slept. When she awoke she found herself very thirsty. The ancient water producing device in the basement made all the difference here. It had obviously served to provide water to the fields at one time. By some process unknown to them the bulky machine produced just enough for their small family with enough left over to irrigate the two fields.

The only clue to it was an engraved tag reading 'Ponyworks Hydroconcentrator' It had once been connected to the formerly numerous fields by pipes but most of those had long ceased functioning. The reservoir container seemed to indicate it once created far larger amounts. Not knowing anything of how its mechanisms worked and desperately afraid of breaking anything they simply left it alone. What she found truly odd about it was that it did not seem to require a power source to function. Knowing little of the sciences practiced by the old world they were very cautious. She greatly disliked going in the basement, it was very dark. It was musty, but it was also cool and sometimes the best place to be.

Very rarely, a colder wind would blow down from the glimmering crystal mountains off in the distance to the north. When this happened it would hit the much warmer air and actually cause rain. In all her young life she had only seen it three times, it did not look like the rain in her book, it was a dirty wet affair when it happened. It was sickly, even dangerous. She'd been told that once the pegasus weather ponies used to gather great masses of fluffy beautiful clouds together whenever rain was needed. She wished she could see clear rain fall from such beautiful white clouds. Instead they had this, why had the world become so dreary? She knew of the war and its terrible end, her father had told the stories about it.

Didn't the ponies know what a beautiful world they had? How could they let it be destroyed like this? These questions made her feel a bit angry, but there was nopony to be angry at. Anypony involved in the end of that fabled happy time had surely fallen to dust by now. One week later she was beginning to regret accepting this responsibility. Most of the tasks she had been left were completed by now, leaving her little to actually do. Finding herself wandering about the empty place more than usual she began to feel nervous again. She knew what feeling lonely was but had never actually been entirely alone for such a long period of time before.

She thought about going after her parents, but they would likely be in town by now. Realizing she was also afraid of trying to reach the town by herself was disheartening. The big farmhouse upper floor had numerous rooms they never really used, for amusement and sanity's sake she decided to explore them thoroughly. She had of course been in them all before but never truly pried into every nook and cranny, this room was a bust. It had nothing more than a busted out window to the outside and lots of dust. Closing the door on its rusty hinges she moved on to the next. This had been some sort of sewing room at one time. An old, nonfunctional Tapony sewing machine sat in the corner covered in dust.

Even a skilled pony could not have fixed the useless wreck. How the pieces of the mechanism went together or worked was beyond anything her family knew, at least she thought it was. Her father did seem fairly knowledgeable about technology, if very cautious. This room had nothing further to offer. As interesting as the old machinery might be, it was useless. Dejectedly she trotted back into the hall and into the next room down. In here was an old filing cabinet, she rifled through the drawers looking for anything that might prove distracting, but anything of interest had disintegrated before she was even born.

Still, she did find it curious the old farmhouse her family called home had once housed so many disparate machines. For a farm it had a strangely high number of old dysfunctional terminals and other now essentially useless equipment. Again she had found nothing interesting, time for the third room. This door stuck a lot as she shoved it open, scraping against the floor noisily. So far there was nothing to show for her efforts, hoping to fare better this time she scrutinized the room from top to bottom. It seemed as bereft as the other rooms. There was really nothing of interest here either. With a growing sense of dissatisfaction she took one last look around the empty room and stepped back into the hall while yanking the sticking door closed.

This was so disappointing, surely there was something somewhere in this place that could amuse a young mind? It was rapidly becoming apparent there may be nothing at all. There were only three more rooms to explore. Hoping against hope she headed for the fourth. The door here was unusable, hanging off its hinges as it was. Her prospects of finding something amusing were a little better here, a few odds and ends lay about. She didn't hope that much though. This had obviously been a playroom at some point in the distant past, dull patterns that hinted at color adorned the walls. A carriage had been dragged into the room, probably just to store it.

The owners as all others likely had no idea what was coming when they put it in here for the last time. Imagining a happy couple raising a foal while expecting to enjoy the happiness that might bring and having those dreams cut short was a poor thought she pushed from her mind. Despite their quirkiness she loved mom and dad, and could not imagine how she would feel if they were gone or how it would feel for them to lose her. The only items in this room were less amusing and more creepy, something that looked like it was once a toy now appeared more like a deformed mass of tattered cloth than anything else. Not something she wanted to touch.

Looking through the once colorful playroom had a desperate feeling to it. Nothing more in here. Only two rooms left, would she ever find anything around here to alleviate her boredom? She could read her cherished book again but even that would become boring after repeated readings. The floor in here was a total mess and curved down slightly, meaning it was above the worst of the sagged beams below. The building had withstood the test of time and the elements rather admirably before her family claimed it as their home. She wandered into a large L-shaped room that could have been an office. She had heard the word before, but what was an office?

Her father said an office was a place where ponies did paperwork. She also did not know what that meant, in addition it wasn't clear he knew what it actually entailed either. Ponies worked with paper? Was the paper they worked with enchanted or alive? It was terribly dusty to a degree that soon drove her out of the room coughing. Well, that room would probably never be clean again. Only one more to search. Bored. Bored. Bored.

"Please let there be something interesting in here." At first glance it did not seem very promising either. An old rickety chair that somehow still held together sat in the center of the room.

Dirty shelves lined the walls dotted here and there with glass jars and tin cans the contents of which nopony would likely want to know. A pile of ancient magazines might have been of value, but time had let them meld together so badly the pages could not be separated without tearing them apart. Useless. The bored filly looked across the dusty shelves looking for anything of any interest at all. How was she supposed to amuse herself? Did her parents ever feel bored like this? This was going nowhere. Taking one last look around she went to turn and leave. Wait, a tiny dot of color.

"Huh, what is that?" In the far corner she leaned down to take a closer look at something jammed in between a shelf and wall that was barely visible. No wonder it had been missed.

"It's stuck," she mumbled while trying to gently tug out the strange rolled up papers with her hooves. It was so jammed she was afraid it would rip. More leverage could be placed on it with her mouth, but there was so much dust she did not want to try. Ever so slowly it started to move forward as she prized it from its hiding place.

"Come out, dumb paper!" She toppled over backwards as it suddenly slid out to land in a heap.

"Unh. Well, that's just great." Rising to her hooves and dusting herself off her eyes caught sight of where the mystery papers had landed. Carefully she started to wipe off the cover. Her jaw dropped. It was so colorful it was mesmerizing.

So. Much. Color. She finished clearing it off to reveal a marvelous picture of a handsome unicorn standing in front of a shattered fiery mirror. Above him a title read 'Adventures of Magnificent Vol. 4. This weeks stunning adventure, "Hark, A Mirror". She blinked incredulously. This had been here the whole time? Hurrying downstairs she placed it on the table to look over more closely. Underneath all of the dirt it had somehow retained its colors. The bright hues were a complete marvel to her eyes. This was a treasure. Something of the old world utterly untouched. It looked like new. How had it remained so clear and clean? She gazed at the title page in wide-eyed wonder.

Practically panting with excitement she leafed through the pages. Having never seen an illustrated comic before or how truly bright the colors could be she hardly believed her eyes. The imagery contained within was amazing. She read through it over and over. The images on the pages had such clarity they almost seemed to move. Eventually looking up with a start she realized it had been several hours since finding the comic pages. Had she ever felt this excited? The novelty finally wearing off she closed the newfound comic and gently placed it in on the mantle beside the almanac. Wandering into her bedroom wearily she slipped into bed. Falling asleep rapidly, grand colorful dreams came to her.

Halfway through the night she woke up in a haze.

"Huh, what was that sound?" Looking around she imagined there was a low scratching sound coming from under the floor in the basement, but dismissed it as simple grogginess. There couldn't be sound coming from under there anyway. That wouldn't make any sense. Slowly she drifted back into sleep. She had no way of knowing that by some miracle of coincidental timing, around 200 miles away the very inspiration behind the comic she had found was engaged in a frantic fight for his life. Her dreams were untroubled the rest of the night.

When she awoke it was with a slightly happier outlook on things. Something as simple as finding a little color in the world was enough to re-energize and invigorate. It was still boring, but at least she had a new thing to look at.

"Well, if I can find something like that around here perhaps there might be other stuff." She did not really expect this to be so, but finding something so special had given her a bit of hope it was possible.

"I know there is nothing else on this floor but I've never looked around t-the basement much." She picked up one of the few candles that were left. Mom would be picking up more on her trip to town for sure.

Walking down the creaky walkway she pulled open the heavy door to the basement. It squealed on its hinges terribly. She hated going down here even for water from the old machines tap and was usually quick about it. Steeling her nerves she set off down the stairs. It was cold down here, the air was nearly frigid in comparison. She had asked why it was so cold down here but her parents did not seem to know the answer. Maybe it was something to do with the water device was all they could say. The basement layout was somewhat different than the rest of the house. Pipes from the machine seemed to run all over the place above, but where did they actually go?

There seemed to be no end to them as if they simply ran into the ground off to the sides except for two that ran upwards from the huge device. Those two could be some kind of intakes. Since her parents were so overly cautious they made sure to hide the odd outside holes behind some ancient useless wood. Best to keep them out of sight they said. To her, this lifelong secrecy was becoming overwhelming. Giving her head a shake, she began to rummage around the main room. Only a portion of the floor down here was covered in what appeared to be rusted steel grates upon which the water machine sat. The rest was simply dirt. It was as if the builders had done that much then lost interest after it was placed.

She did not want to miss anything more that may have been overlooked while also wanting to hurry. She looked around the machine itself first. It did appear to have some kind of controls off to the side. A square box with dials and buttons sat there taunting with the promise of changing what the machine did. It was filthy and none of the levers or switches could be moved. It looked damaged, like it had been burned from the inside.

"I suppose it's amazing that thing, whatever it is, still works at all." Glancing around nothing particular caught her attention in the dimness.

The basement was subdivided into several smaller sections all of which appeared to have been simple storage areas. Storage for what was another matter entirely, no clue remained of what was once contained within them.

"What was that?" She tilted her head off to one side.

"Now cut that out, there is nothing down here but me and the dust. I must be imagining things." She moved on to the room at the end of the hall first. It was so musty and dark down here she nor her parents had ever thoroughly explored it. A quick check of this tiny room immediately revealed it held nothing at all. Turning she headed over to the one opposite.

It was only a slight bit larger and held only an empty shelf hanging off the wall at an angle. It had long ago detached at the other end. If anything had been atop it must have dumped onto the ground and rotted away. Nothing here either.

"Wait a minute, there's that sound again." Trotting back into the hall she looked around quizzically. Nothing.

"Alright, I must be letting my imagination get away on me." She shook her head and looked into a third room. This seemed more promising. There was an old barrel in the corner and what looked like a small rusty desk against the other wall. It had only a single drawer.

"Oh darn, it has a lock." She pulled at the drawer, but it would not budge.

"I don't suppose the key would still be here anywhere.." She did not expect to be that lucky. This room had an actual floor. The aesthetics of any pre-war building still standing all seemed to revolve around a very industrial look. The layout of many seemed to have been poorly thought out and simply constructed more to withstand damage than any other consideration. Few architectural examples remained to compare with though. Anything that was not able to endure was utterly destroyed in the vast sweeping destruction inflicted upon the land.

Her father said some portions of grand large cities withstood the blasts by either the circumstance of position or simple numbers, but how did he know that? Enough buildings had simply been in front of others to stave off some of the brunt. Her book had a few depictions of old-style buildings before the war, they looked cozy. A far cry from the near total industrialization of buildings that had been necessitated by the endless conflict. While thinking these things she spotted the upper half of the handle of a shovel. Useless. The candle holder in which she carried the candle was slowly filling with the melted wax. This candle was one that had been recycled and melted back together out of other used wax and salvaged wick pieces, this had the end effect of a faster burning candle. It was nearly halfway down already.

With the light growing dimmer she decided to leave the basement, she would hate to wind up down here with no light at all. As she turned to head back out the hallway to the stairs she halted.

"There it is again.." Beginning to get the feeling of being watched her heart started to pound. Something was very wrong here. A feeling of dread began to take hold as she carefully stepped forward down the hall towards the stairs. Each step stirred up the untouched dust of decades and her hoofsteps seemed extra loud.

"What..." She headed for the main room with the stairs and slid to a halt as the ground erupted around her.

Her eyes widening in shock she let loose a horrified shriek of terror as a shower of dirt sprayed over her while walking backwards hurriedly. Some horrible abomination was climbing up out of the ground in front. It was at least twice her size and moved with a strange lumping motion. The disgusting thing had a star shape on its face which writhed, twisting and snorting at the air. Somewhere in her mind she noted it had huge clawlike digits. She had to go this way to reach the stairs but it was right in front.

"This can't be!" At this the horrid thing turned its head towards her and swung an enormous claw which just missed slicing her.

She yowled as it swung again just missing by inches as she dodged backwards. Suddenly the monstrous thing dove back under the ground. The dirt heaped upwards as it came at her from beneath. It burst up throwing her sideways against the wall. Steadily she backed down the hallway as it snorted and reached around. It seemed to be blind. Barely having realized it was reacting to sounds she tried to be quiet, fighting tears and against screaming. Slipping into the room with the floor and the shovel end she set the candle she realized she was still holding on the desk and grabbed the end. It wasn't much but better than nothing.

The monstrosity had dove under the ground, again she felt a thud under the flooring which cracked slightly.

"No!" Another thud and the floor cracked again. She panted around the flimsy shovel piece in her mouth. The thing popped up outside the door just enough to show its distorted face, snorting some more, searching. Without thinking she jammed the ancient shovel end straight down into it. A horrendous squealing noise could be heard as it writhed in pain, rolling around like some mad bowling ball ending up shattering the opposing wall. If it kept that up the whole building might come down.

Thinking quickly while it shuffled about she dumped the hot wax on its face which elicited further pained squealing. The shovel end had been knocked flying further back down the hall when the abomination had been struck with it. She bolted to pick up the end again and spun around barely missing a wild swing of its claws once more. She picked up the now even more broken end and rammed it into the things gnashing teeth and mouth, she shoved as hard as she could until a horrendous snapping sound was heard. The huge thing groaned and rolled against the wall with a thud then lay still. Until now the filly had been unable to feel fear or think too much and had reacted instinctively.

Now that she had a moment to take it in, tears flowed down her face. She ran for the stairs, the light above a welcoming sight. She slammed the door behind and ran to her bedroom where she lay in bed shivering. Sobbing she gathered her few possessions to her and shook, crying. She wheezed and panted in a most pitiful manner

"Mommy...Daddy....mom...dad...they'll be back soon...they will....then it'll all be fine...all of it will be fine..mom..dad...soon.." Hardly able to catch a breath she sobbed and buried herself against the bed. The shock of it all settled in and she fainted.

Falling unconscious her thoughts were tormented by images of the behemoth that had attacked her, all gnashing teeth and claws. Rolling about the bed in the grips of a bad dream she twisted and moaned. Her tormented thoughts were brought on by shock. She awoke many hours later in a hushed daze.

"What a horrible nightmare.." All at once she noticed the things blood on her hooves which had spattered there when she shoved the shovel end down its throat.

"AAAH!" Her high-pitched scream echoed throughout the house.

Eventually the tears subsided as she calmed and decided to use what was left of the glass of water she had retrieved earlier to scrub the blood off of her face and hooves. It was slow and difficult to rub off. Surely her parents would return within a day or two and everything would be well again. In the meantime she did not dare return to the basement for any reason. As one day and then two ever so slowly passed by she became more and more thirsty. In unabated fear she remained huddled in her room most of the time trembling. Finally she heard her parents voices calling.

"Sweetheart, we're home!" Her father called.

At the sound she jolted upright and ran into the kitchen nearly tackling her father, crying and babbling near incoherently about monsters and being eaten.

"Whoa, whoa dear me. Hey, hey.." He hugged her tight and she lay against him like a lump.

"Alright, what happened here?" He asked. In a tizzy she rapidly tried to explain what had happened which came out as nothing more than a jumble.

"You poor dear, calm down and explain slowly. What could possibly be so terrible young one, did you have a bad dream?" Mothers sweet tremulous voice was soothing.

The poor rattled young filly told the story more calmly this time through watering eyes as her mother listened in increasing horror.

"It cannot..it can't be." Mom's expression was becoming ever more horrified. When she finished a hushed silence fell over them for a few moments as they took in what they had been told.

"Mom, Dad..I was really scared..I thought.." Father gently pushed them into a group hug for a long moment.

"Alright now, are you hurt?" He questioned.

"No, I'm just..really..thirsty..." She squeaked.

"I haven't had a drink in almost 3 days, I didn't want to go back down there!" She was shaking a little. Her parents looked at her in wide-eyed concern. Her mother was crying and pulled her close, holding almost too tightly.

"I will go check it out. Stay up here." He told them. Night Bloom lit a candle for him. Taking it he vanished down the basement stairs with a flourish of his cloak. A few moments later he returned and nodded slowly at them both.

"Here, drink this darling." He had retrieved some water for her, it tasted so good. As she drank he spoke.

"The creature, whatever it is, is dead..my brave girl killed it. I am so glad, and impressed." He scruffed his daughters mane gently and smiled reassuringly down at her. Some small feeling of embarrassment settled over her at this. His expression then turned more serious.

"There are some things we must do and discuss now, Night Bloom." He motioned at her mother. "It is finally time.' tears streaked down from her eyes as she slowly shook her head. "You know we have to now dearest. There is no choice." Her mother continued to slowly shake her head.

"Look, dear..we have to, she deserves to know everything. She could have died here without ever knowing the truth, and that would be wrong." He looked at them solemnly.

"Come in the kitchen, both of you." She had never seen this stern look on her fathers face before, what was he talking about? She followed her parents into the familiar room and all three sat at the table.

"I am so very sorry something like this happened to you. That thing must have come from somewhere across the mountains I suppose." Her father rambled on for a bit about the thing in the basement, but it seemed to her that it was just leading up to something else.

Finally, after discussing what to do with the corpse he took a deep breath and looked pointedly at her mother.

"Who should go first, my love?" Her mother sobbed and spoke brokenly.

"Why did this ever have to happen!?..I only wanted her to be my little pony..just for a while longer.." What did her mother mean?

"Mom?" Saying this made her sob some more. Night Bloom looked down at the table not meeting her daughters gaze for a few moments, finally with a deep mournful sigh she began to speak.

"I..both of us, that is we..are not your parents." She felt her heart sink as her mother spoke those words.

"What?" She could feel her heart starting to pound and struggled to understand what was being said. How could they not be her parents, they had always been mommy and daddy.

"I can't breathe." She huffed and panted trying to remain calm. Dads gruff voice came in. No, not dad was saying.

"Take it easy, take deep breaths." She did so while quivering with sweat rolling down her brow.

"But, you're mom and dad!" Tears welled in her eyes again.

"How can this be, how?" She demanded of them, how could they hurt her so?

"We are so very sorry about this. We will tell you everything sweetheart." The ponies she had known all her life as her parents looked down ashamed for a short while. Her adoptive father broke the silence.
"I hide who I am for your sake. I originally come from the Pegasus Enclave." She had been told to steer clear of any other pegasus if she ever saw any, but was never told anything other than it was very dangerous to meet or confront them. Mother looked pale and utterly dejected as he spoke.

"Every once in a long while, one of the bigwigs gets the bright idea to go looking for some old piece of technology on the ground. Due to my disobeying an order once or twice I found myself assigned to an E.S.I.R. team to be disciplined." Silver Quick took a deep breath and sighed mournfully.

"I had enough. I watched for my chance so long. I never wanted anypony to get hurt. I only wanted to be free of them. You were much too young to remember, but during my attempt to escape your parents got caught in the crossfire." He looked away for a moment. He rambled and sat there shaking as if in some terrible pain while he explained.

It was obvious now he had been dreading this day coming.

"With his dying breath your father begged me to take care of you, give you a good life. He was a good pony." In all her years she had never seen father cry. Now, as if a dam had broken a great well of sadness and pain burst forth from him. He had always seemed so strong, now he looked like some pitiful and lifeless thing. Sitting there moaning he seemed so weak and frail. She could never have prepared herself for this or what was being revealed to her now.

"Dad.." She went to say but this made him sob uncontrollably.

"I do not have the right to be called that.." He sort of gurgled out. Night Bloom had moved over to give him a tight hug.

"Dear husband, it is my turn to speak. Go collect yourself." She shuffled him off to their bedroom and returned.

"He managed to elude his pursuers with you in tow. Although he had survival training he was then alone, with very little supplies and a young filly he had promised to take care of." She had always liked mothers eyes. They seemed to shine with joy and love for her, but now seeing them felt tainted, spoiled. Would she ever be able to look in them again knowing she was not her mother?

"He hid his wings under a cloak and straps, then roamed from place to place to evade bringing trouble down on you. Eventually we met. Of course I did not know he was a pegasus at first, just that he was handsome, strong and mysterious, and for somepony like me at the time.." She trailed off then continued.

"He has tried so hard to keep his promise, to give you something. A safe life away from pain and suffering. Please understand, these are not even our real names. We did not want to keep any of this from you but not knowing who we really were meant protecting you." She closed her eyes tightly for a few seconds.

"Now it is clear that even here there is no real safety. He had such hope for this place and for you. He only wants to protect you, and now that we almost lost you both he and I are hurting so badly. For him, losing you would have meant failing to do the one thing he ever promised to do." Shuddering she stood.

"I know this is painful, and for some reason I thought this day would never come. I am so sorry. This is a lot to take in, you should rest." Even now she showed the same concern for her well-being that had always been freely given, it just did not feel the same.

"I..yes, rest." The young filly was not quite an adult yet and to have this weight placed on her shoulders was nearly too overwhelming. Slowly she just slipped into her room and hung her head. It was all too much. Her real parents, dead? She felt dizzy and collapsed into bed. A swirl of color came to her in a fitful dream of shadowy figures forever just out of sight. The next morning she crawled out of bed. Sleep really did help, but now what? These two she had loved as her parents were a fraud, worse still the one she called dad her whole life had in reality brought about her parents deaths. Even if it was not entirely his fault and he was truly sorry for it, where did that leave her now?

"Oh why, why did this have to happen now? I almost wish they didn't tell me the truth." She gave her head a shake.

"No, that's not true. I'm just angry, but they had no choice right?" Forlornly she walked into the kitchen.

"Huh?" There was a small ornately decorated wooden box on the table.

"What is this?" She asked father..no not father but that is what he had been her whole life, did that not make him her father?

"I feel so confused." She trotted up to the table.

"I said I would have a surprise for you, lift the lid." He instructed. She did so and a wonderful ethereal tune began to play. Her eyes widened in delight.

"It's called a music box. I hope you like it." He watched hopefully.

"It's beautiful." She found herself saying. The haunting melody felt calming, almost magical in itself.

"Some treasures from the old world are truly beautiful works of art. Before the war many such wonders existed, how many are left I do not know. The Enclave is not interested in them at all. Only in that which has to do with war, pain, suffering, and power. I had always wanted to find and save things like this more than anything." He had never told her this before either, just how much had they actually kept from her? Could she ever truly trust them again?

"I only wanted my freedom from them. What happened to your parents because of me has haunted me every day of my life. When we finally found this place far from others and vacant I had hoped I could start to bring life back to the land, for you and in honor of them." Sighing he looked to her.

"I will not ask for your forgiveness. I haven't forgiven myself for what happened." He coughed.

"Instead I have come to the realization that I have been wrong. I have been keeping you from the very freedom I myself craved in a very similar way to what I hated. I thought I could shield you from the world, but I cannot. Now I must give you the means to see the world on your own, and to protect yourself." He glanced at her half-cautiously.

"If you will let an old fool continue to act as your father, I will teach you self-defense. Do you agree?" Perhaps it was just the trailing off music from the box affecting her thoughts.

The dawning realization was that he had always done his best for her. Both her parents did truly love her, she had always known that. They had made it clear every day of her life, how could she truly distrust them now?

"Alright, but I don't think I can call you that, for a while..okay?" She looked at him and gave the slightest hint of a smile.

"We understand, let us earn your trust back the right way." Night Bloom interjected.

"I believe that thing that attacked you was once known as a mole, but this one was so much bigger than anything in the enclave cloud databases." He was saying.

"Cloud what?" The young filly asked.

"Oh, sorry. I guess I better get to teaching you a few other things too." He smiled. She had always thought her caregivers were so boring. This was all so new. Never having imagined either of them being this different to whom she thought they were it was very confusing.

"Before I got myself in hot water I was actually training to be a combat instructor." This was certainly a revelation she was not expecting. She decided to ask a few things of him before committing to whatever he had planned for her.

"Why did you leave the enclave? it sounds like you had food and safety and..friends." He startled her by laughing wildly in response.

"My only 'friends' in the enclave betrayed me and got me sent down here in the first place." He practically choked on the words.

"I'm sorry.." She went to say but he waved a hoof at her.

"No, in truth it was the best thing that ever happened to me..and so are you." That was still very embarrassing feeling to hear which elicited a soft blush from her.

"Umm, what are we going to do?" She changed the topic quickly.

"Come with me." He twirled in his cloak and headed out the door. Following in a hurry she trailed him straight to the barn.

"What are we doing in here?" Her inquiry was answered by him walking over to the strange door in the floor they had always ignored. Much to her surprise he entered a string of numbers which started a small clicking sound. She stared in awed amazement as the thick door cracked open and swung upward to the left, pushed out by telescoping steel rods.

A short set of steps was revealed which he promptly went down. Excitedly she walked down to find herself in a single room with buzzing overhead lights on tracks. The ceiling had what looked like spidery metal arms on rails, but it was what was sitting in the center of the room that held her attention. Was that a black metal unicorn? No, it was a hefty sort of steel looking suit. Despite this it appeared a bit frail.

"What, is it?" She managed to gasp.

"It is what my team was sent to locate and retrieve, and it was what let me escape." He pet it.

"Hello, old friend." Friend? what was he talking about?

"What are you doing?" But as she asked its visor flicked to eerie red life. Stepping back in fear she bumped into the wall.

"It was a research project started in the latter years of the war, an experimental stealth suit. That was all we were really told about it, but it is a whole lot more." Waving her over he spoke to the strange suit.

"Authorize new user: earth pony mode." A throbbing electronic sound was heard from within followed by a frighteningly deep voice growling.

"Mode change confirmed." At the same time the back opened outward pushed by bars, practically making her jump out of her skin. "Relax, it is just a machine. One which I do not know everything about. I have learned a few things over the years though. I am going to teach you how to use it." She had craved excitement, this was scary though. Taking a good look around the room she realized there were all sorts of electronic parts on permanently attached shelves lining the walls. Most looked fried. In truth only a few tools and some wire scraps were in any good condition.

"Why is this room here?" He chuckled at the question.

"I don't rightly know. It seems to be some kind of machine shop. I was quite surprised to find it here really. It is obvious this farm was once very advanced, perhaps they relied on robotics or something. There are no records of it that I know of." He smiled.

"It has proven most useful for hiding this." He noticed her looking up at the creepy rail-mounted arms.

"There is a connector for a spark battery over there, but we do not have a full one so I have never been able to see what those can do. Getting one would be very difficult and costly." If they could ever get their hooves on one she knew the first thing she would do.

"But first, I am going to teach you about fighting, tactics and strategy. Self-defense as well." He was going to teach her to use this thing and all that too? She closed her eyes for a moment, was this really happening? Her life up to now had been so boring she had started to hate it. Suddenly it was almost too exciting. They headed back topside.

"When I think you are ready I will give you the code to this door. Understand this is not going to be easy, and I am going to have to be very hard on you. Know that no matter what happens I believe you can take it, understand?" What was she getting herself into? This was the sort of excitement she had always desired wasn't it?

"Yes." Was all she could manage to reply with. "Good. I have set up a spot for training and exercises." She had the distinct feeling it was going to be a long day. A few hours later she was battered, sore, and aching everywhere. He really meant it.

"Now, what have we learned?" He stood by a makeshift dummy he had her practice defensive and offensive moves against for hours on end. Panting heavily her reply was ragged.

"Defenders always have the advantage. Never lose forward momentum. Never fight with your back to a wall. Uhh.." Staggering she continued.

"Avoid a fight whenever possible. Move at angles to enemies. If a fight must be joined do not second-guess or hesitate. Make your enemies defeat themselves. The first choice is usually the correct one. If it's worth shooting once, shoot it again." Her tongue lolled out.

"Can we stop now?" He looked over her with that same stern look she had never seen until recently then relaxed.

"Yes, I think that's enough for today." She had never felt so tired before. Thinking about the fact this was only just the beginning made her feel even more fatigued.

Over the next few months he drilled into her all there was to be known about survival. A long blur of rigorous endless training seemed to go on for ages. During all of this he had proven far more agile than she had ever imagined him to be. Every few days he would have her spar against him. Finally one morning he turned to her and simply said

"It's time." With that he moved over to where she stood.

"Time, time for what?" She questioned. Walking straight up to her he took a defensive stance.

"I have taught you everything I know. Put it all together to knock me down." She went to strike at him to immediately find herself on the ground. Ouch, this was new.

"What have I been teaching you all this time? Now come at me with all you've got." She stood and went to kick only to find the ground again.

"Stop holding back now. If you cannot knock me down I can never believe you can protect yourself, and I need to know." He admonished.

"I don't want to hurt you!" She cried out. At this she was on her back. Oww.

"This is not about what you want, or what I want. This is about what you have to do, so do it." He was never like this before.

She had always known him as the sweet caring pony that was her father until that awful day the truth was revealed. Had things really changed much? Sometimes she wished things hadn't changed at all. Was that true, did she really wish that? No, it was just the reality of it all finally sinking in. She still loved these two as her parents, it was who they had always been and always would be.

"Alright." Getting to her hooves again she promptly launched into a furious barrage of jabs and kicks at him. Everything he said, give it everything.

He was fending off every blow in a near mirror image of her movements stalling or deflecting every strike. Everything. At one of his counter jabs she sidestepped just barely knocking off his punch with a shot of her own. Everything. She rolled underneath him to jab him in the stomach and tripped him with a sweep of her legs. He fell off to the side.

"Oof!" He landed flatly with the wind knocked out of him. Much to her surprise he broke into laughter.

"Oh my, that was good. I think we are done with this portion of your training." This portion? It did not take him very long to recover. He was back on his hooves in nearly an instant and helping her up.

"You're so fast and strong.." She observed. He chuckled and motioned towards the barn.

"Hardly. I was never even all that great of a flier either." She nearly forgot about his wings, they were always hidden under that worn dark cloak.

"I think you are ready to start learning to use this. The code for this door is 1337." She keyed it in prompting the door to swing upwards on its hydraulic tracks.

"That's an awfully short code isn't it?" Her query was met with a smile.

"One of the cloud computing division officers once told me it had some meaning to the elite, or it meant being elite..or was that being discrete?" He was rambling.

"At any rate it used to be 1234." He explained.

"1234?, who would use a code like that?" He got the strangest look on his face.

"You'd be surprised." Now what did that mean? They stood facing the steel suit.

"Years ago this thing saved my life and gave me my chance at freedom. I call him Moonlight." He pressed a panel which made it sort of hiss and split down the middle.

"Him?" This got a laugh from her adoptive father.

"I suppose it is rather silly of me to think of it that way, but I got the strangest feeling of benevolence when I wore it. I call it Moonlight because of its nature. As a stealth suit it is meant for recon and support, not combat." Upon closer inspection she noticed it had a few dents in the metal here and there where hits had been taken. It was obviously ancient but was still operational.

"This thing is something like 186 years old or around there. Truly a masterwork of the time for it to still be functioning now." It was that old?

"Where did you find this thing?" His mood seemed to shift at the question.

"I'd rather not think about that time young one." He looked sad saying it.

"Whoever built this thing sure packed a lot of technology into it. I don't think there was anything else like it. That apparatus that looks like a horn there will let you use a very limited amount of magic." She blinked.

"You mean, just like a unicorn?" she asked excitedly. He couldn't help but grin at her enthusiasm.

"Well, no..it takes a heap of concentration to perform the simplest spell, but don't be disappointed since it does have its uses. Slip on in between the bars there, don't be surprised when it seals once you're in." She did as instructed.

Though she had been warned about it closing, apprehensive feelings still made themselves known. The suit clamped in around her, it was a bit frightening suddenly being encased in metal. A beeping sound was heard as floating gauges rolled up in her vision seeming to float in front and all around. A list momentarily popped up reading:

USCA AI-v28

Spell Matrix: Fully Functional

User Mode: Earth

M.R.A.P. 0% corrupt

K.S.T. 1%

A.E.G.I.S. Operating

Autonomous Actions: None Set!

All Systems Nominal

Some disturbingly red indicators then flashed across her vision as well reading:

Integrity: 63.2%"

Weak integrity: 32%"

Plating integrity:72.8%

Armor Compromised: 78% protection

Weak: Left Hind Joint

Some of that did not sound so good, what was all this? She looked around finding it a little harder and slower to do so than normal.

"Try moving around a bit, slowly." Going to stand she lurched forward.

"Whoa." She yelped, almost falling flat on her face she regained her balance just in time. Moving inside this thing was trickier than expected. Her motions were either too fast and exaggerated or too slow. It felt like the suit responded with too much force or far too little.

"A bit finicky isn't it?" Was that a joke?

"Ha Ha very funny, I must look ridiculous." Stumbling around she walked straight into a wall with a clang at which the suits guttural mechanical voice intoned 'Impact.' No kidding. Getting used to this was going to take a while.

"Keep practicing, once you can make it up the stairs with that on we can continue." He turned and left.

"Hey, wait." Going towards the stairs she suddenly moved laterally into the opposite wall.

"Oh, come on." She groaned.

An hour passed with much consternation and flailing. At first Moonlight seemed to move erratically in response to her actions but this was a misjudgement. She was finally beginning to appreciate that being a stealth suit it required finesse to operate. Its intended role was to move quickly and quietly, or very slowly and hidden in the shadows. Taking this into account seemed to make things smoother. Within another half hour she had it down. Nearly silently walking up the steps she practically glided. How did something like this move so quietly? There was unfortunately a flaw in this, the left hind leg joint sometimes squeaked ever so slightly from whatever damage had previously been inflicted upon it.

That could be an issue which they currently had no means of correcting. After exiting the room she found her father had set up some pieces of broken glass atop some wooden posts.

"What's this for?" She looked it over. He motioned her to where he was standing.

"Uh, dad?" She was finding it easier to call him that again. Her voice sounded a bit odd coming through the suits amp, almost like it wasn't her own.

"Yes?" She needed to ask him a question, now was as good a time as any.

"This has been great and all, and you have taught me so much..just..." She sort of trailed off for a moment.

"Well, out with it." That gruff voice of his always surprised.

"What good is this really? I mean, what am I supposed to do with it? We're farmers.." He nodded, grimacing.

"I knew this would come up, and I do have an idea. Before I explain, let's get you right up to speed with ole Moonlight here." He looked at the suits non-reflective surfaces.

"Always wondered what it was like facing this thing. You look downright intimidating sweetheart." She did, really?

"Let's start with the fun bit shall we?" Fun, that was always good.

"It's time for you to learn some magic." Right. Wha?

"But, I'm an earth pony.." Shushing her he began.

"That slick sharp looking metal horn thing there isn't for stabbing ponies ya know." She giggled a little at his words. It was not really funny and that sounded painful but she couldn't help it.

"Ahem. Focus on one of those pieces of glass there. Will it to come to you." Slowly a soft yellow glow formed around the apparatus as she struggled to make something happen.

Straining heavily she could just barely make out the faintest response in the glass. It vibrated softly but did not move. Panting, her concentration wavered and the glow faded.

"Oh, that didn't work at all." She accidentally kicked at the ground digging a large groove.

"Oops." It was a good thing her father could not see her face and how embarrassed she was to have done that.

"Not bad for a first try. Don't try to force it so much. You just have to visualize what you want to happen and let it work." He advised.

"Try again. Use your mind, not your muscles." This was about the only advice he could give about it. Taking a deep breath she imagined lifting the piece of glass. It took tremendous focus. Slowly the yellow aura began to form again around the apparatus and the glass more strongly. This was so hard. Finally the piece of glass rose up a couple of inches then fell to the ground.

"Ugh. How do you use this?" She Huffed as the aura faded. Each attempt felt very draining.

"You're doing great. That was good. Remember, the machine is only focusing your will, but you are providing the effort. It gets a bit easier with practice. Neither of us could ever hope to match a natural unicorn like your mother in magic though." Trotting over to the post he carefully set the glass atop it again.

"Practice for a while longer, then we'll call it quits for the day." Another 20 minutes of this and she was more tired than she had ever felt before. Having finally managed to float a piece over to herself she was very pleased. Her brain actually felt like it hurt. She noticed the indicator that read K.S.T now indicated 2%.

"By the way, it can also turn invisible for 2 minutes every hour." He said and moved beside her. Huh?

"What does all this gibberish I'm seeing mean anyway?" Speaking even felt difficult after all that.

"I can only tell you a bit. I'm not one of them there sciency type ponies." He brought them down into the room.

"To get out of there just tap a hoof on the ground three times quickly. Any of'em" Doing so prompted the back to separate once more. It was more difficult to slip back up past the separator bars than it was to get in. Silver Quick helped pull her out.

"Is there an easier way out of that thing?" She queried.

"Afraid not. I only know it wasn't even finished when the war ended." The bars pulled back together with a hiss and a click closing the suit once more.

"K.S.T. refers to a miniaturized talisman embedded in there somewhere. Seems they were looking for a way to let us non-magical sorts protect ourselves better along with that magic concentrator. It deflects bullets." Ooh.

"The better you are at using it the higher that percentage goes." Neat.

"Never rely on that. Never." He was emphatic, better remember that.

"That wrap thing or whatever it's called is supposed to protect completely against radiation of any sort by absorbing it, at least until the plate is full. I never felt like testing that myself." He took a moment to rub some dirt off the suit.

"I only got away with two of the plates since one was installed already, and another was strapped to the side for shipping I guess. I doubt there are more in existence." Contemplating the suit he looked almost sad.

"Is something wrong?" Rarely she had noticed that look in his eyes even when he seemed happy.

"Oh, nothing serious. You're still with us, unharmed and healthy. That is all that matters to us you know." He pulled her into a warm hug. Blushing ever so slightly, it was returned. He really was father after all.

"Daddy..dad..Why hasn't this enclave you spoke of come after you if they wanted this suit so bad?" She'd been wondering about that.

"The Enclave never really stops. They just never wanted the suit, it doesn't fly. They only wanted the technology in it, and only to help themselves. Frankly, I am glad to deny it to them." Shaking a hoof in the air while saying this he was a bit livid.

"What good is that? it only helps the obedient slaves that follow them, which is what I was. Almost 200 years and nothing has changed. We should be on the ground, helping. We could, but they love control so much it may never happen." Laughing dryly his only other comment was quiet.

"Let's go eat." Heading into the farmhouse she felt rather accomplished with what she had managed to do today. Entering the hall way she ran up to her mother.

"Mom, mom, I used magic!" She couldn't help herself.

"That is a surprise dear. Your father there never could do anything like that." Silver Quick looked positively shamed at her mothers words.

"Hey, I thought you said.." He hugged them.

"I love you both very much." That kept them quiet for a few minutes. A week passed by as she learned to use to the magic apparatus to the best of her ability. Managing to bring the percentage gauge up to 7% was very confidence boosting. Night Bloom had given her a few pointers on the basics of simple magic which helped considerably. It was nonetheless always a tremendous strain. She figured non-unicorns just weren't meant to cast spells, but her concentration definitely improved.

"Dad, I don't think I can get any better with this stuff." They sat around the table enjoying some well-earned relaxation.

"You are right I think. Next planting season is almost here anyway. It is time I told you my idea." Surprisingly, he spoke gravely.

"We have worked this farm for a long time, and have only barely managed. Without that book up there we never could have done even this. I want to do better." How could they possibly do better?

"What we need is to find a fully intact copy of the Farmers Almanac or a way to recover the missing information." He was serious. Was that even possible?

"For years I have dreamed of finding a method to restore life to the wastes. A way to grow vast fields of crops sounds like a worthwhile endeavor towards that end. What do you think?" He motioned at them both. Night Bloom looked apprehensive.

"It would be dangerous to go looking won't it? I don't want her to get hurt." Looking at her daughter sadly, she seemed resigned that it would happen anyway.

"But, where would we look? Where would we go? What if there are no other copies left? How.." He put his hoof over her mouth.

"I'll tell you tomorrow. Right now we need to get rested up. There will be a lot of work to do." Go on a real adventure? Could this be true? Did he really want her to go looking for something that might not even exist? Having never known excitement like this or the nervous anticipation the unknown would bring was a bit nerve wracking. Heading off to bed she wound up tossing and turning for a good while before slowly drifting into dreams. In the early morning before that dim light ever filtered through to the endlessly dull wastes a terrific bang was heard, causing her to fall out of bed. Groaning, she gently rubbed her head and got up to investigate.

Heading towards the kitchen an unfamiliar voice drifted to her ears prompting her to stop dead in her tracks. Who could it be? Nopony other than her family had ever come out here. A horrible cackling laugh was heard as she slipped up to the kitchen entrance quietly as she could manage.

"Gauh!, where is he!? Where is Fluffy!? I know Fluffy was here!" A heavy-set horrible looking pony with his mane up in spikes and wearing strange blood-streaked barding had a hoof against her fathers throat. He slammed Silver Quick up against the wall repeatedly.

"I don't know what yer talking about." he gurgled.

"Got out of his cage he did. So long to track him. I can almost smell his foul odor! Oh how we miss him, his disgusting face. His eviscerating claws. His filthy fur. Where is Fluffy!?" With that he smashed Silver Quick into the wall again. Noticing she was standing in something warm and sticky she glanced down to see her mothers still form lay on the floor.

"No!" She yelled without thinking. The crazy pony turned his head, this gave her father the necessary distraction he needed to hoof his assailant in the groin with a crunch. Screaming maniacally the raider fell on his back.

Flailing wildly in pain the crazed intruder threw a knife from a holster attached to the side of his barding which hit Silver Quick just above the heart. Snorting in agony he bashed the raider in the muzzle with a great crack leaving him to roll and rush off in pain, bowling her out of the way and yelling.

"Boss will get you for this!" Once gone, he fell to the floor.

"Daddy.." She bolted over to him in tears.

"Grab that cloth, hurry." He ordered. She did so quick as she could.

"Pull this out, pull hard and apply pressure with the cloth after." He huffed and yelped as she did.

"D-dad..mom..mommy...she.." Night Bloom lay off to the side, dead. She had been stabbed multiple times, leaving her skirt covered in blood. Gritting his teeth he spoke.

"You have to get out of here." He spat some blood out. What?

"But.." No no no no.

"Listen..darling...he said we..he will bring them here. You must go, now." This was crazy, it could not be.

Things had been getting better, why?

"D-d-daddy..what about you?" She shook and sobbed. Tears streamed from his eyes.

"I'm already dead, I'm sorry sweetheart..we won't be going on any adventures together..please, go.." He was wheezing badly.

"Go where? I don't know!" She cried. Coughing up blood he shuddered violently. Oh no no.

"East..about 320 miles, towards the coast..find griffon Captain Theach, he owes me a big favor..." His breathing became ragged as his heart slowed from blood loss.

"No, daddy! Please, you can't die. You just can't!" Moaning, he strained to speak. He looked at her softly.

"We loved you with all our hearts. Take the suit, caps, all the food and water you can carry." A fiery determination still was held in his eyes.

"You have been the light of our lives. Don't let that light have been meaningless. Help bring life back to the world.." He was slipping away.

"I will, I promise..daddy..." Smiling at her and finally letting his eyes close, her parents were both gone.

Frantically she raced about gathering together what food and water they had stored up, taking it out and throwing it into the back of the smaller cart along with the cap box. All the while a torrent of tears poured down her face relentlessly. She was only just getting over finding out she had been adopted in terrible circumstances and now her caregivers were gone. This was all happening too fast. Could she even manage to get so far away alone? Daddy knew a griffon? It was still half-dark outside, have to get away. In a confused daze she hurriedly finished packing the cart then headed for the barn. Slipping into the stealthy armor she felt slightly safer.

As the suits systems became operational far-off threat indicators worried her. They were coming from the direction of the crystal mountains, she had thought them to be impassable. Somehow in her confusion she still remembered to close the door to the room and piled some junk atop it in hopes it wouldn't be discovered. Slipping into the carts harness bars she rushed off into the darkness, following the suits bearing indicator due east.

"Oh Moonlight, what am I going to do?" She bawled as she trudged off into the wastes. Back at the farmhouse a small band of what appeared to be raiders had gathered inside.

Off in the shadows a large figure appearing almost a part of them looked on.

"You let these weaklings do this to you?" Its low reverberating voice grated on the senses in some indescribable and dark manner. The injured raider hobbled over to the bodies.

"Boss, this stupid filly distracted me. I want her bad. If I ever see her again she will pay for this!" The figure in the dark merely pointed, at which they all scattered.

"I only want one thing, find my beloved pet." Eventually they discovered the far away mound where the occupants had dragged and buried the mole creatures body.

The thing in the shadows became enraged when informed, letting loose a hissing growl. A moment later it regained its composure.

"Plans have changed. We will need these bodies." His eyes seemed to glint in the dark.

---

Is she beginning a reluctant adventuring career or is she just another soul about to be swallowed whole by the uncaring wastes?

Rote Rememorisation

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36 hours to war end: Inside an outlying Canterlot mail sorting hub.

"I brought you a letter!" A grey pegasus with a bubble cutie mark and a seemingly permanently happy expression was mumbling around the grip of a huge mail bag.

"That's not a letter. That is a whole bag of letters." The Postmaster General went to say as she dropped the hefty bag on his hoof causing him to dance about in pain.

"Oopsy." Was her only reaction to it as she turned around to pick up a huge letter almost as big as herself.

"I meant this letter." Her eyes crisscrossed looking down at the enormous envelope.

"What in Equestria is that?" He queried.

"I don't know, it has postage paid. The address only says Mail though. I'll just put it over here." She went to step forward.

"No, wait!" Tumbling over the bag she had just dropped sent her crashing into a sorting rack which toppled over, knocking into other shelves like a gigantic set of dominoes until the entire facility was engulfed in a torrent of mail. The Postmaster hung his head as the last letter fluttered to the pile. Looking around he could barely hear from under the mess.

"I just don't know what went wrong." Sighing in response, he managed to say:

"I think I do.." Her head popped up as he said it.

"Really?" She mumbled. He covered his face with a hoof.

After straightening up a bit he met her in the office section. She was not a regular worker but an additional hire brought in to help with the high volume of mail.

"Are you sure you want this weeks pay in nothing but..muffins?" He asked looking at her quizzically.

"I'm throwing a muffin party." The grey mare told him. A what?

"Are you really sure? that is a lot of muffins." He pointed at a large stack of trays full of assorted muffins in all shapes and sizes.

"Yep, it's everything I ever dreamed of." He was distracted by her randomly crossing eyes.

"Wait, your dream was to throw a muffin party?" He asked incredulously.

"Mmm muffins.." She said absently. What was she talking about?

"They are yummy in my tummy!" She seemed almost to be elsewhere.

"Well uh, okay then. You can carry them in one of the mail sacks." He pointed her to a rack of large empty mailbags. She set about dumping the trays into the bag then backed into a desk which promptly fell over dumping its entire contents.

"Why me?" He moaned.

"You want some muffins?" She mumbled around the bag. He grit his teeth.

Shooing her out the door he set about rallying the staff back to work. The work today was sure to take a long while. He considered activating one of the Mister Handy bots to assist, what pony gave them that strange name anyway? Those things made him slightly nervous no matter how friendly they seemed. The particular bot in its cubicle had for some reason been named A.I.D.E. Everypony called it Aidee which was fairly ironic considering how very male the voice unit sounded. A day later and they were still going at it very late.

The dedicated staffers had done an excellent job catching up the backlog of sorting but were also being overwhelmed by an unusually high volume of letters coming and going, something big was going on. The Postmaster had barely been able to keep things on track for weeks. The loyal staff was overworked and tired leaving them absolutely needing a break. He had taken great pride in his mark which symbolized the very values of leadership and organization. These skills had lent themselves well to the job, but even he was having trouble keeping up with this. Not knowing what was soon to befall them he had made the difficult decision to grant the entire staff a much needed two day break.

Assembling them he made the announcement.

"You sure about this, Posty?" One of the more elderly and dour looking mares piped up. Being longtime chums with everypony working there the nickname had stuck.

"I have ordered all priority mail rerouted elsewhere. We are all worn out, go home and see your families. Just as much work will be here when you return. In the meantime I will finish up overnight here along with Aidee. I need the time off too, I'm getting married the day after tomorrow." This announcement was followed by a flurry of congratulations.

"If any of you wish to attend you are most welcome. There will be plenty of cake." One of the junior mail carriers chimed in.

"Shouldn't you get more time off for that sort of thing?" The question was true enough.

"There is far too much work lately. We will just have to go on our honeymoon when things die down." He waved them out. The group went out the door as he headed over to the corner robotics terminal by the window. It had been used rarely, and usually only for routine janitorial duties.

Far off in the distance he could just make out the great bascule bridge which fronted Canterlot, for the last long while it had mostly remained drawn closed. It had become a routine sight for it to be shut.

"They must be on high alert again." he muttered. Before the war started it was mostly considered a decorative touch to the capitals great main gate. However one looked at it, it still remained a defensive ground structure which when closed completely cut off ground access, aside from the rail station entrance which no enemy force could possibly break through thanks to clever internal defenses.

Some time after the war began the new mail sorting facility had been built outside of the capital for purely logistical and security reasons. Wouldn't want to carry a bomb or something straight into the city. There were after all some ponies just crazy enough to be enemy sympathizers. An air of distrust and despair had quietly settled over the once shining city. Closing the windows metallic shutters he set about getting the odd spherical bot to help him finish up. It still gave him the shivers to see it hover about with the many arms it possessed, like some floating spider. The bots cubicle door slid open behind him. Hovering out to begin its assigned tasks it gave a customarily cheerful:

"Good evening sir, working late I see. The office has been left in disarray as usual. Really, what would you do without me?" It floated to a supply closet where it grabbed a broom with a mechanical pincer and began clearing up clutter while collecting any dirt and garbage it ran across.

"Will you be needing me the entire night sir?" He had forgotten it was actually capable of asking a couple of standard questions.

"Yes Aidee, I'm afraid so. Gotta get all finished up so I can rest tomorrow before my wedding." He did not know how much of that the bobbing machine could actually understand.

"Oh, a wedding. Congratulations sir! You will want to be in tip-top shape for the, I presume, beautiful bride-to-be." It really did sound cheerful. Apparently it at least could respond to some form of conversation. It was likely programmed to respond to key words or combinations thereof. Still, it was better than spending the remainder of the night alone.

"I need a drink." He said absently.

"Allow me, sir." Aidee hovered off while humming and singing a trailing patriotic sounding tune, as it left the room he could just hear:

"Blessed bodies of the heavens, sun and moon of greatest light.." It returned with a hot cup of tea a few moments later. He took a sip and set it on a desk. A few hours later and both had nearly finished their respective work. He was just about to call it quits when the bot slipped past accidentally knocking the empty cup on the floor.

"We are done Aidee, back into your closet." He ordered as he bent down to pick up the cup. At this instant a terrible thud was heard along with seeing a flash of pink and a sudden warm sensation ran over him. "What was that?, oh well." He picked the cup up and set it on the desk.

He sets the cup up, the cup falls down.

"Good morning sir! Still at it I see. Your work ethic is impeccable I must say." Morning? A strong feeling of Déjà vu struck him as the robot set off on whatever task it deemed necessary. Good thing he'd be done soon. This seemed so strangely familiar. He did not notice the cracks in the walls, the dust that had settled around him.

"As usual the office is in disarray, I will perform my daily routines." He picks up the cup, the cup falls down.

"Good morning sir! If only all employees would strive for excellence in attendance as you do. I will perform my daily routines." He picks up the cup, the cup falls down. Good morning? A strong feeling of Déjà vu struck him as the bot whisked past to attend some chore or other. He puts the cup on the desk, the cup falls down.

"Good morning sir! Haven't gone off to be married yet? You are going to be late. Don't worry, I'm sure it is just pre-wedding jitters! I will perform my daily routines." Late for his wedding? Good thing he'd be finished soon. This seemed so familiar.

---

Surely you can see where this is going. Some fates perhaps truly are worse than death.

Stable Dwellers Ragtime Downbeat (Promo Reel)

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A white-coated unicorn wearing fancy business attire displaying the Stable-Tec logo and looking entirely professional is setting up an 8mm mint reel-to-reel projector in the projectionists booth at the back of the theater. A sign outside says 'Free entertainment today. Provided by Stable-Tec. Your conscientious public safety provider. Additional promotional consideration provided by Krastos Glue Manufactories Inc.' As the projector clicks and flashes to life the grainy picture begins to flicker on the white backing screen, scratchy sounding music starts to rise.

"Alright folks, in return for your upcoming free viewing of the new hit film Lollipops and Rainbows, Frolicking Unicorn United theaters presents this Stable-Tec public pony service message." He fiddled with a knob on the projector to bring it into focus.

"Hello, and welcome to this Stable-Tec promotional reel, prospective apocalypse survivors! We regret that our director of P.R. Miss Sweetie Bell will not be joining us for this promotion, saying quote:

"I won't have anything to do with this. Why are you doing it anyway? I never asked for this, and I didn't sign off on it either."

"The frowny face now displayed on the screen shows how much this saddens us, but on with the show." A band comprised of two pianists, a violinist and various backing players appears on the screen.

"We have a real treat for you today, pony and other folk. A genuine ragtime band. Also, some random green unicorn with a lyra that we pulled in off the street whom nopony seems to be able to recall the name of suddenly or even remember is in this film except when looking directly at it, but trust me the music is great! Here we go, now put your hooves together for Well Tuned and the Sharp Notes." Some pony with a heart shaped microphone as a cutie mark began to sing as the band piped up a sad yet upbeat tempo:

Will it be safe out here? Well you should think twice again oh my dear. Now you don't want to live in fear, so why don't you live down inside of here? You may think this is sort of weird, but it sure beats staying out and getting seared. It's a question we ask. We are up to the task. Come live right on down inside here. Our walls are four hooves thick, you can bet that you just won't get sick. Better a house of brick, than one made of useless old stick. You should decide real quick, come on make your pick, just listen to all of our schtick. What will come on down could almost flatten the town, knocking you round, pounding you right into the ground.

This may not all seem sound, but trust me it's best all round. Come on down right inside of here. You'll love what all we have, it is not so bad. You should try not to look so very sad. It will be tot'ly rad, there is so much to be had, come on down inside here. Even those with crowns should try not to wear frowns. Why we even have merry-go-rounds. So pick up your tail and then we'll all set sail to a bright day way on down the line. We know that you'll have fun when all is said and done. So come on down inside of here. Then we'll lock you in where you'll be safe within without a care in the entirety of the world. You will dance and spin and then you'll twirl and grin and say we love it way down in here.

'3 Bar Instrumental Break' Was displayed on the screen.

"I knew we grabbed that unicorn for some reason." The projectionist whispered to himself. The audience looked on, mesmerized by the melody she played. As the sad and very forlorn looking unicorn with the heavy instrument strummed she closed her eyes, losing herself in the magical sounding music. The slightest of smiles graced her face as she played, finally taking a bow. After her brief interlude everypony watching soon forgot she had ever been there. The song continued into its ending notes:

Now we know just what it is you'll say. That there simply is not any way. For those big bombs to rocket off. Causing aftershocks and blowing off all your socks. To leave nothing but the ever glowing rocks and destroy all of the docks. Preparing is best. No matter the test. So easy you'll rest down inside here. (END) Displayed as the pianos struck their final notes while the picture faded to a great Stable-Tec door then died down.

The pianos trailed off as the pony wearing the polished business attire stepped up in front of the screen.

"Thank you for your attention everypony. Should any of you wish to try and attain a slot in a Stable-Tec wartime safety stable just head on in to a registry office in your area. Space is limited, so the sooner you apply the more likely you will receive a position. We are looking for everything from plumbers to technicians and artists. Ponies from any walk of life may apply." An earth pony mare walked in from the side and whispered in his ear then trotted off as quickly as she came in.

"I have just been informed a sky-cart parked behind the theater seems to have a malfunctioning spark battery which is spewing smoke. Would the pegasi that handle this cart please tend to it immediately." A couple of pegasi sitting in the back row hurriedly ran out the door followed by an immaculately dressed pearl colored unicorn wearing a monocle and top hat.

"Sorry about that interruption folks. One last thing before we play your free film. Any pony interested please remain in your seats after the show for an encore presentation of the short hit film Ultra Fast Ponies Going Very Fast. Nopony knows who filmed it or why, but I hear it is mighty fast. The theater will now present the film you have all been waiting for." The title credits for the movie by famed director I. Ron Butter Fly scrolled up onto the screen.

------

Wasn't that just a barrel'o'fun folks?

The Grim Velvet Monster of Silent Lake

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It sat by the edge of the quiet unmoving lake, forever staring at some fixed point in the distance. Its hide chewed and rotted, torn and broken. How it came to be here in this place was an unknown. Any that ever saw the hideous thing ran for their lives as if the great walls between goodness and evil had simply fallen asunder. One eye hung askew, set back as it was on its strangely sloped head. It had at one time been a source of mirth. Now it sat as a harbinger of dread, instilling fear in any unlucky enough to chance upon it. As with many things in the world what passed before had become near-about meaningless.

The storied histories of ages full of prosperity and happiness ended in one quick swing of fates fickle sword, leaving the world to its decline into decay and obscurity. Its rounded back sagged, its twisted feet lay splayed to the sides, discolored patches across it gave to it the look of something tormented by long exposure in the unforgiving wastelands. No pony dared approach the small forever placid lake at the base of the mountains. The rumors of a vile monstrous apparition were enough to deter even the hardiest of wanderers from the effort. The calm water, a most valuable commodity in a land destroyed was not a big enough draw to entice an adventurous soul to come near.

Stories of a cruel, forever smiling monstrosity spread across the region. The edge and outlying areas of the lake were immediately abandoned after the war ended so suddenly and with such great violence. Though far removed from any major blast or other disaster the water had proven undrinkable. Time enough passed for it to look clear and inviting once more. None would try. If anything held true in the wastes it was that rumors of monsters could turn out to be very real. This clearly present fact was enough in itself to prevent taking advantage of this valuable oasis of potentially potable water. This is also what led to the crude reward posters looking for anyone brave enough to clear the area.

"I can't believe I let you talk me into this, Tisket. You and your need for 'entertainment' have almost gotten us killed three times in the last two months alone, I almost wound up with two heads and you almost lost yours! Next time, I pick the mission and that is final." A lilac unicorn mare with a # for a cutie mark was berating a hefty teal-coated earth pony. He wore unusual color banded barding that looked like it would fall apart at any moment which inexplicably remained in place.

"Oh come now, Tasket. We both know you would've enjoyed the chance to talk to yourself. You do it enough already. Besides, it doesn't matter anyway." Tasket harrumphed as they looked at the poster pinned to the edge of the disused crossroads.

It was written atop an old paper already on something that seemed like it was a signpost at one time. An ancient advertisement under the writing heralded a very faded 'Buy a Cheval Corsega LS, twice the cart for twice the pony.'

"That is a very strange sign, Tisket." Her tone was a little apprehensive.

"Do you really want to go there? They say that a disgusting creature guards the lake, but I suppose that sort of thing is right up your alley." He just grunted in response. His eyes were transfixed on the amount of caps being offered if anypony could prove it safe to approach the far off lake.

She could almost imagine seeing a pile of caps reflected in his gaze. Tasket waved a hoof in front of his face. At first he didn't even notice.

"Hey Tisket look..free money!" He snapped out of his reverie.

"I can almost hear the clinking of all those caps already." The most sly expression graced his face. She poked him in the ribs.

"Hey, what was that for?" He was now frowning at her in quite a display of emotion.

"Oh, just to remind you the last time you said something like that the repairs cost more than what you got." She was snickering under her breath.

"Just you wait, we are going to hit it big one of these times out." He looked dreamy again.

"Something will probably get hit alright..again." She snorted.

"You know it won't matter.." she shook her head before he could finish.

"Let's go, Sis." They marched on.

"This doesn't even sound like one of our normal missions, Tisket. It wasn't on the list at base camp." They were walking towards what had been the edge of a forest. Off in the distance stood the small shimmering lake. The shadows of a far off mountain range could just be made out. Distances in this type of terrain were terrifically deceiving. It took an entire days marching just to come within sight of it.

"We'll camp here tonight before getting any closer. I don't think wandering around in the dark is a good idea." Tasket pointed a hoof at a potential campsite. Previous experiences wandering taught them not to make campfires too visible.

Drawing attention was often a big mistake when dealing with the denizens of the wastes.

"Why did we have to take a mission so far away to begin with anyhow? It was almost 200 miles from camp.." She sounded perturbed.

"The reward for locating an old military weapons cache would have been enormous. At least we got this." He held up an odd looking greebled shoulder mountable rifle.

"Yeah, with no ammo..maybe you can sell it to cover our expenses." She teased. He frowned.

"I don't wanna." He stuck out his tongue. Tasket rolled her eyes and looked off towards the lake.

"I just hope this isn't another long haul for nothing, that old pony talking about the reward seemed a bit addled if you ask me." The promise of a large pile of caps erased any reservations Tisket might have had about checking it out. In light of their previous mission having been nearly fruitless save for finding the ancient magitech rifle, getting a pile of caps would be heavenly.

"We don't even know what that rifle fires. Why keep it?" Tisket made a point of carefully cleaning it each night before sleeping, by now it looked positively shiny.

"You may have got all the brawn in the family Tisket, but I got all the brains as you well know. Would it hurt you to listen to me a bit more often?" She sighed.

"Did you say something? I wasn't listening." Tasket groaned at the reply. He was eying the bulky rifle dreamily.

"Tisket, we don't even know what that thing does. Just consider selling it, will you?" A nod was all she got. He looked over a terribly drawn map they were given back in the areas only small settlement. They were now a long way northwest of what was once Fillydelphia. They nor any other pony would try to approach the city proper, dark things were known to be happening there, and terrible rumors flew.

Although not impossible to obtain, fresh water was still a valuable commodity. One of the few residents in this outlying region even gave them a small enticement of fifty caps to help secure their services.

"Look over there, Tisket." She'd spotted a small structure, really nothing more than a tiny ancient shed. Carefully they peeped inside.

"Seems empty, we can sleep in here." There was just enough room for them both to squeeze in with their saddlebags and equipment.

The shed if it contained anything was picked clean by some soul either brave or desperate enough to come out this far.

"Not much, but better than sleeping outside I suppose." She commented.

"I can't wait to get back to my quarters at base camp. I haven't slept on a real bed in weeks!" She pulled a small ragged sheet out of a bag, spreading it out on the floor.

"Your quarters aren't much bigger than this shed." Tisket was laying out his weapons to check them over.

"Yes, but I don't have to share it." They filled in some time before settling in for the night discussing where to start searching around the lake.

"We should start at the southwest end, the lake is thinner towards that area so it should go faster and be easier to finish scouting out." She pointed at a section of the map.

"Alright, we have one slight problem. Our previous endeavor has left us low on ammo for both my pistols and for your sniper, better carry a grenade each and carry a shotgun instead." She pulled two scatterguns off their straps. One was scuffed and had a wide stock to it, on the other the name Pepper was engraved on the barrel.

"Aww, I hate using those things Tasket. I'm no good with either of them." He mumbled.

"Oh quit your bellyaching. You're the one that missed eight times with those expensive sniper rounds." She was glaring.

"That wasn't my fault and you know it, we were practically in a tornado." Tisket tucked the odd rifle away with his other gear.

"Yeah, a tornado you caused by messing with things you know nothing about." She looked pretty smug.

"How was I supposed to know that big red button with a skull on it would do that?" She rolled her eyes in exasperation.

"Next time you see anything..or want to touch anything at all, just think to yourself what would Tasket do? Then, don't do it anyway." It was his turn to sigh.

"You think you just know everything don't you, Sis?" He got comfortable on the sheet beside her.

"No, which is why I don't go rushing headlong into every possible situation. You managed to make getting a wrench dangerous before." He yawned.

"I remember like it was yesterday." She glared at him once more. "What?" He asked.

"Tisket, It was yesterday!" He was a bit embarrassed at that.

"Oh. Let's just get some sleep now." he said and they drifted off. The days and nights in the Equestrian wastes share a similar hue, it is merely far more dull and dark. Next mornings slow, ever so slight lightening of the sky above shed no real new light on the ruined land.

"Weapons check out. Ready to go, brother of mine?" She asked chipperly.

"You seem awfully enthusiastic today, Sis." He gently rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and stretched with a crack.

"Oww oww." She was chuckling at his misfortune.

"Hey, that hurt ya know.." They gathered up their gear and prepared to head out.

"Whats the matter, getting old?" She snorted.

"We're the same age!" His indignant reply just made her laugh some more.

"Could have fooled me, creaky." He slipped into his dimly multicolored barding, mumbling to himself.

"Hey Sis, how come you won't wear any barding? We have run into a fair amount of dangerous things in our travels." He was genuinely curious as she never wore any kind of protective gear.

"I'm not a fighter. I am a tactician, a strategist. It works best when we're utilizing your sniper, but I have good instincts and can analyze a situation quickly. Why do you think I always let you go first?" She smiled while finishing attaching her saddlebags and gear.

"I would be no good at all in a straight up fight if it weren't for Pepper here." The two shotguns were equipped with bit-catch firing mechanisms allowing an earth pony to fire either with ease. Peppers stock was custom, made to carry many extra shells pointing outwards at an angle for fast reloading. A unicorn such as herself could fully reload the heavy scattergun with frightening speed.

"Why not use a sniper as well then?" He asked while she connected Pepper to a quick-release carrying belt across her back.

"This weapon is best for me personally and great for backing you up when anything manages to get close-in. Peppers spread is exceedingly wide so I don't have to aim much." She gave him the generic shotgun.

"We have quite a surplus of shells built up, if we do get in a scrape just blast away." She paused momentarily and decided to add:

"Away from me."

"Remember neither of these have a whole lot of range. I don't like it, but if there is anything to shoot at we have to work our way in closer first." They headed towards the lake in the distance. It was likely the lake was fed by mountain runoff. If it proved safe to drink it would be a valuable resource for travelers, and for those seeking to provide more drinking water for further off destinations. Tasket always carried an ancient pair of binoculars that she procured during a previous adventure.

"Ya know, the Captain is gonna be worried we are so late returning." He mentioned.

Peering through them, she could not detect any movement as the area was carefully surveyed.

"Oh that old blowhard can wait. there are more than enough mercs around besides us." Tisket took the lead.

"Yeah, half of whom get killed or are all talk. Just trying to take advantage. We complete the missions we accept." She took great pride in this simple fact. They were good at what they did. They garnered a fair reputation for themselves this way.

Travel was generally slow across the wastes, avoided whenever possible by all but the most stout. This state of affairs meant news spread equally as slowly, especially far away from the few still functional transmitters. Interference from magical radiation permeated much of the landscape. Even short range broadcasts were subject to fits and starts of functionality. Nonetheless sometimes signals did reach far off places away from beaten paths. Nopony dared think it possible to rise once more to the magitechnical heights their civilization once enjoyed. At one time though struggling with a ceaseless war they enjoyed creature comforts never imagined possible before.

The rich attained ever loftier amounts for their coffers on the backs of others. In every possible way the war was taken advantage of in the shadows. Resource trading even continued under hushed guard. Nowadays this meant sometimes things were found in ever such odd places. The two siblings marched towards the edge of the lake with Tisket some distance in front. The rest of the lake was ringed by forest presenting a more hazardous trek they would have to undertake, for now they cautiously searched the open area.

"This seems safe enough Sis, there isn't a single thing here." Tasket magicked out an empty container to take a water sample then tucked it back in.

"Sure it looks safe, everywhere looks safe at first glance. We have to prove it actually is, so keep your guard up. Something feels funny to me around here, like we're being watched." Moving on, neither of them noticed the small ripple in the otherwise unmoving water. After thoroughly checking around the waters edge they set off towards the dense forest ringing the rest of the lake.

"There used to be some kind of town called Hollow Shades off to the west through there I think, but nopony goes trekking through the forest. I don't know if its still there." She wiped some sweat from her brow.

"And before you ask, we are not going to go looking. It could be dangerous and it's way further out of the way." She made plain they were not going to do that.

"We only need to make sure it is safe around the general vicinity of the lake proper, anything else is not our problem." Tasket pointed at the treeline.

"This is gonna be tough. Looks like we're in for another long slog. Thanks a whole lot, Tisket." Her frown was decidedly unpleasant.

"Cheer up Sis, we are getting paid for this after all. Where is your sense of adventure?" He gave his sister a gentle hug.

"Like you said, we're the best." That did seem to lift her spirits a bit.

"Alright alright, just don't go getting overconfident. We better keep it quiet from here out until this area is secure." She turned off a small receiver she always carried on the off chance of hearing stray signals, also doubling as a sort of makeshift radiation detector as static levels severely rose when close to sources. It was not a reliable means of detecting it, but most of the ancient technology long ceased functioning or was pillaged by whomever could get their hooves on it.

The unique magitech rifle could potentially fetch a very high price from the right buyer. Here and there ancient pieces of what had been railway ties could be seen, a line ran straight into Hollow Shades before the war. Now who knew what might lurk in that unknown place far off through the dense forest. Dead or not, the trek would be nearly impossible through the seemingly serene region. She knew Tisket held even more of a desire for frenetic action than herself, and that was saying a whole lot. She could just envision him trying to undertake such a journey, and constantly worried what her brother might do if he should ever find himself without her guidance.

She did not think him to be an idiot despite his idiosyncrasies, but he was impulsive and rash to the extreme. Through their years of travel together they faced down many foes, some of which might even have been deemed mighty. This was actually part of the problem. They always came out ahead, but ever just barely and only due to them working together. He really was too confident. She tried to talk to him about it, but it was one subject he always brushed off as being unimportant.

"How long have we been away from camp anyway, Tasket?" He asked of his sister. His ability to keep track of time was rather a bit lacking.

"A good month and a couple weeks now. A couple extra days isn't gonna change much. There will almost certainly be new missions on the board by now, but first thing I'm doing when we get back is sleeping on a real bed for a few days. They better not have tried to rent out my quarters again either, I paid for those up front. When we do get back do you think you can avoid getting into trouble for just a few days, please Tiskey, please?" He could tell she was really worn from this extra long excursion.

"Alright alright, I get it. You're grumpy and worn out, I could use some downtime myself anyway. Once we are done with this, we will take a break." She looked relieved.

The hours wearily dragged on as they found their way through the dense treeline. Many of the trees were dead which presented more of a problem than an entirely living forest would thanks to some nearly exploding upon being touched. That so many of the trees did still live was either testament to them being quite hardy or perhaps the mountain ridges that ringed them far off to both sides provided some modicum of protection. Altogether this made traversing the area far louder than would have been preferred.

"Wouldn't all this have brought anything or anypony out if they were here?" Tisket asked as yet another fallen branch popped under hoof.

"Probably, but we need to finish circling the entire lake to be sure. I won't do something we took on halfway. We need to find a campsite, at this rate it will take us at least another day to finish up." They headed on for an hour before finding a small clearing.

"Will this do, Sis? It looks safe enough, and we haven't heard or seen anything but ourselves. I am starting to think this whole thing was just some rumor that got seriously out of control." Settling in for the night, Tasket still felt like eyes were upon them.

"Tasket, when we were sort of near Manehatten a while ago, well.. you saw that saw that black armored figure go running off in the distance too, right?" She nodded slowly.

"At first I thought it was just a trick of the light that far away. I hope it wasn't one of those technology obsessed crazies, they do hang out around there. It looked weird somehow. I thought it looked like a unicorn but they can't wear that stuff, can they? It was so far away though. Probably just the light.." Panning around her binoculars she decided to put them away.

"Too many trees. I can't see ahead of us at all in here. Well, here we go again." Picking their way through the forest was a time consuming and tedious effort.

The lake came right up to the edge of some trees. Their steps were chosen cautiously to avoid sinking as well, delaying them further. Many hours passed as they excruciatingly worked their way northwards. The trees simply were not thinning out in this area.

"Better tack on another whole day to this, Tiskey.." She moaned.

"Oh relax Sis, its not really hard work. Let's use that clearing off to the west a bit to camp tonight." Was his response. The next morning they continued the painfully slow journey until finally passing mostly out of the forest near the base of the mountains.

"I know I said this would be a cakewalk, but this seems almost too easy Sis." Tisket wanted at least a little adventure in their adventure. They quickly became wearied of carrying weapons at the ready, but both knew better than to put them away in such circumstances. Often the moment one feels safest can prove the most dangerous. This however was proving to be the least exciting mission ever undertaken by either of them.

"This will be the easiest 500 caps we have ever..." Tasket walked into her brother who suddenly stopped moving.

"Oof, what are you doing?" She grunted and turned towards the waters edge where he was looking.

"You have got to be kidding." They both burst into fits of laughter for a long moment.

"Really, really? hah hah ahaha. Oh that is rich. Seriously, this is what got them all scared?" Light was glinting off its button eyes hanging askew. She pulled hard to remove it from the mud nearly ripping it in half.

"This is just some old toy somepony dropped who knows how long ago." As she shook the ancient toy it was practically disintegrating while the mud flaked off. It looked like a turtle assembled together from random bits of cloth and stuffing, old springs and wire. Slipping it into one of her saddlebags Tasket sighed.

"This could be a problem. Will anypony even believe this is what it was?" Tisket placed a hoof over his face.

"Who knows, but that seems awful small to get all worried over. Don't ya think?" She shrugged in a most nonchalant way.

"We have almost circled the entire lake anyway, the easiest route back is to just keep going. I don't want to climb back through all that." She rolled out the crude map to point out her proposed route.

"Yeah, since we're going that way anyway we should pass near the base of that mountain." Tisket looked off in the distance, it would not take them more than an hour to get that far.

His estimate was thrown off once again by the deceiving terrain. It instead took them a good three hours to reach the mountains base.

"This has been the most boring mission ever, Sis. I'm so bored my boredom is getting boring." Tasket was looking through her binoculars again.

"I am almost starting to agree with you. So I have some good news for you. There is a cave entrance over there. If we were really lucky it could be an old hidden weapons cache or something. Want to check it out?" Tisket was practically frothing at the mouth upon hearing the news.

"I'll take that as a yes." She reached out and closed his mouth.

"Remember, caution." He nodded back as they both set down any unnecessary gear for the moment.

"I will look in slowly with a dim light spell, we don't have any of those old flares left unfortunately. That leaves me going ahead. Stagger position." They headed for the wide cave entrance. It was obscured from further away by brush and lots of dead brambles, that she'd seen it hidden in the distance at all was sheer luck even with her keenness of vision and perception.

Tisket took a position off to her right and behind slightly where there was open ground if they needed to move back quickly.

"I am only doing this because places like this actually can hold something of real value." She prepared her spell, keeping it dim as possible. Holding Pepper where she could fire safely if need be. She peered into the darkness within, ever so slowly moving forward. Suddenly she started moving backwards at a high rate with an alarmed expression on her face. He knew to move back as she did. She was whispering even as she unhooked her grenade.

"I should have known, Bloodwings!" She seethed through gritted teeth as she telekinetically hurled the grenade inside the cave mouth. Even as it was being thrown a hissing growling was heard, just as it landed one of the huge mutant bats flung out of the cave with another two directly behind. Right as the old grenade exploded the one in the rear was half crushed under the falling rubble. One was pinned down, but the other two were circling wildly overhead.

"Fire fire!" Tasket pointed Pepper straight up but was holding back due to the shorter range. Tisket's shotgun was a little better but he was unused to handling it, especially for aiming at something strafing above.

It took him a moment to be sure of a shot just as one dived out of its circle straight at her. She fired Pepper's super wide spread nearly point blank into the beasts face leaving it to screech and scream as she jumped backwards landing on her back heavily with it just missing raking her while Tisket finally got a bead on it and fired, blowing off its wing. The massive creature twirled and smashed into the ground with a heavy thump, letting out a final shrill screech. It lay still. Panting, the pair quickly moved away from the thing. A quick glance to the former cave entrance made it obvious the other quickly perished after being pinned by the falling rocks.

If there were more in the cave beyond the rubble they thankfully could not get out. There was still one high overhead to deal with. It was coming. The remaining bloodwing swooped out of its circle while Tisket unloaded several blasts that only struck glancingly. It was extremely agile and fast. It tilted downward further into a straight dive past Tasket's head, causing her to perform a combat roll out of the way at the very last instant. It dove and twisted in an almost figure eight pattern while they both fired at it, the shots crossing hit it from both angles at the same time, cutting it in half and into several pieces. The dead body flung off in two separate directions with a wet thump. Its head landed directly in front of Tasket splattering her front with blood. She gave out the slightest hint of a fearful sound.

"Oh yuck, gah. Disgusting. Eww eww eww." She tried to shake some off. Tisket came running over from where he wound up during the scuffle. Seeing the blood on her he went a bit wide-eyed. Breathing heavily he reached her position.

"Tasket, Tasket! You okay?" He was generally a nonchalant sort of fellow and rarely serious, but his expression was grave. Even a single scratch from a Bloodwing could prove poisonous on its own. She was not bitten which would have been even worse.

"I think so, they didn't hit me or touch me. Close one though." She huffed.

"That was a bit more than we bargained for. It at least explains why this area has such a bad reputation aside from the toy thing. We will definitely get paid now, since we have two explanations." She rubbed the back of her head where she landed quite hard on the firm ground.

"We should get away from here, that racket could have been heard for miles and we don't need any more surprises. I've got to get this off me before it stains, or seeps into my skin or something." They headed back to pick up the gear and trotted off at a fast pace towards the water where she could wash off.

Even during the run to the lake they knew to fully reload their weapons. Ten minutes of rinsing was wearing. It was finally coming out. It was taking some serious scrubbing to get the blood off Tasket's coat.

"Uhg, finally. That was disgusting. I can't believe that even happened. Why, oh why did it have to land like that?" She complained. Tasket was standing watch a meter away. What he did not realize was he was looking in the wrong direction. They'd let themselves fall into a false sense of security. Tasket firing Pepper into the lake repeatedly caused him to spin around.

"What are you doing, Task..' He was cut off by a large tooth-filled snout popping out of the water where she was firing.

"What.." Tasket screamed and unloaded shell after shell into the things rocky armored hide, not deterring it very much. Tisket began pumping out shots as well, it was just enough to keep the slimy creature at bay.

"Tiskey, incendiary!" She screeched while diving away just as the ghastly things snout swung past her, a jagged tooth slicing her left foreleg painfully. Tisket finished popping in an incendiary shell, firing into its mouth when it went to snap. The huge armored reptile thrashed wildly with smoke coming out of its nostrils, looking like some demonic entity.

It smashed around seeking relief only to be fueled by rage at the unceasing burning in its gullet. Tasket half circled then ran in, jamming the barrel of his gun straight through its eye, pulling the trigger as he did so which made the head explode outwards in a rain of brains and gore that splattered on them both. Its heavy body twitched and slumped against the ground to finally lay still.

"AAAH!" Tasket was laying off to the side, wincing and moaning in serious pain from the gash across her leg.

"Tasket, hang on!" He unfurled the cover of one of the saddlebags which contained some medical supplies.

He splashed a little water across her leg to clean it as best he could, causing her even more discomfort then wrapped her injury with thick gauze.

"The wound is not too deep Sis, I think it'll be okay." He tried to comfort her. She gurgled a little and looked a bit pale, probably more from surprise than anything.

"Now I have to get cleaned off somehow..again." She bemoaned her misfortune. They were both completely coated in blood and pieces of who knew what.

"Hey, do you know how hard it is to clean barding?" He was closest, his barding was now a singular rust color.

"Gotta get this stuff off it, and our weapons." This proved an even more difficult task for Tasket than before. Painkillers of any sort were not cheap or easy to come by. She popped the very last of their supply. If this did not warrant medication she could not imagine what would. Even with the drug she was hurting badly.

"Ohh, why does medicine make you feel worse and better at the same time?" She complained. The drug made her feel sick and lightheaded. She could not complain about the reduction in pain.

Several hours later they finally completed their circuit of the lake.

"We can't possibly get back to that little settlement before dark with my injury. We can use that old shed again I guess." They slowly marched back towards it, reaching it just before nightfall. Even with her wound their pace was far faster than it was back in the thick forest.

"Unh." Tasket groaned heavily.

"This is going to hurt for days." She limped along carefully to avoid reopening the wide gash, but the gauze still looked pretty pathetic with the drying blood that seeped through it.

Ever so gently she removed the used gauze to inspect the wound. Tisket softly wrapped a fresh piece around it. The used piece was soaked right through with her life's essence.

"Ah, better. I need to immobilize this leg for the night so I don't accidentally yank it the wrong way while sleeping or something." Tisket bounded off, shortly returning with some solid sticks which they tied around the leg with a strap off one of the saddlebags.

"That was too exciting. Never seen one of those flying things or whatever that rockodile thing was either, especially up that close." Tasket gingerly put down the sheet again, favoring her injured leg.

"Yeah, I kept a small piece of the wing I blew off, and a scale as evidence of our troubles." They were both tired and a bit dirty from their efforts.

"We have once again made the wastes a slightly safer place. At least we'll break even on this one. Just wish I didn't have to use up a grenade during that, those things are rare and expensive ya know." She gazed forlornly at the wall.

"Aww cheer up, we're only hurt a little and not dead, right? We even have a couple of legit bragging rights. This piece is going in my trophy collection." Tasket groaned.

"Thanks for reminding me of that weird collection of yours. Do you really need to keep a souvenir of everything we do?" Tisket's collection was probably one of a kind, containing all sorts of things picked up during their outings from an empty energy shell casing to rocks he once threw at a radroach nest.

"You keep the strangest things Tisket. You have a veritable museum of curiosities by now. You could retire and charge admission." Tasket knew neither of them would likely live long enough to consider old age ever being a factor, but it was nice to dream. Besides, adventure was in their blood.

"Retire, Sis? Ha Ha. Nopony retires in the wasteland. No Pony. Anyway, I couldn't stand it. So boring. I'd climb the walls." He did not know in that moment how close he sounded to a particular mare that once said something similar.

"Besides, who can afford that? Not that many places I would like to spend the rest of my life anyway. How about you?" A very far away and very unexpected explosion lit the night sky outside for a half moment before fading, interrupting their conversation.

"What in pony hell was that, Sis?" She blinked in confusion.

"Manehatten, that blast came from its general direction. Must have been quite a pop, whatever it was. Guess somepony else is having some fun tonight. Too far away to matter to us." She shook her head.

"Aww, and here we are missing out." Tisket grumbled.

"Really, nearly being crushed and torn apart by bloodwings, not to mention almost being eaten by an overgrown lizard wasn't fun enough for you?" Though he put on a brave front, such firepower as was employed was something even they would hesitate to face.

"Like I was saying, I need a break for a few days. We'll pick up our reward in the morning and make a beeline for camp at as much pace as I can manage, we can be there in three days or less, agreed?" She gave him a little nuzzle.

"Yeah, sure. I know we have been going for a long while now. Umm, Tasket?" The way he was looking at her made it clear he had a serious question to ask.

"What is it, Tiskey?" She gazed at him.

"You and I both know how our lives will end, right?" It was a serious question. Tasket gave a slow shallow bob of her head.

"I try not to think about it, but we are mercenaries after all. Guns for hire. Live fast, maybe make a bundle in the middle and die hard. You know, I'm actually okay with that." Tiskets eyes glinted slightly in the dim light.

"So, you really do want to go out like our parents did then?" She looked off dreamily.

"I'm fine with it. They were trying to accomplish something much bigger. I don't know who or what set them on that course but I agree with the idea. If we can make a big enough impact on the world in the right way then I am all for it." Tasket closed her eyes a moment.

"Tiskey, you know it will likely amount to nothing. Even if nopony knows it but us, our parents were heroes for what they were trying to do. Just remember, no one gets to be a hero just by wanting to be one. That said, I do like the idea of being real heroes. Just like them." She rubbed her face. Getting teary-eyed was not usual for her.

"Time for sleep, I'm pretty tired after that. If you are on the same page, we will talk more about this back at camp, okay?" She said while stifling a yawn.

"I am, Sis. I truly am. I really really needed to hear what you thought." Neither of them could know the explosion that night signified something that would come to directly affect their fates.

"You gonna be alright for the night, Sis?" He looked concerned.

"I'll be fine, it just stings now. I hate that so much. Why couldn't I have been shot cleanly through instead.." She grumbled.

"Never thought I would hear you complaining about not being shot." Tisket giggled.

"Oh, shut up and get some rest." They turned in for the night. Tasket now suffered particular difficulty actually falling asleep thanks to her aching leg. The minutes dragged by slowly, leading up to no passing hours.

Her occasionally twinging leg kept rousing her from near-sleep. Quietly, she moaned in frustration. After a long time of this cycle of sleep and wakefulness, exhaustion took over to grant her the sweet release of dreams and freedom from pain. It was not the most restful sleep, but a far cry from the drawdown of endurance inflicted on those unlucky enough to suffer through the slow healing of such a serious injury during wakefulness. What they for decades came to call dawn broke. Tasket struggled to remain asleep a while longer, it was useless. It did not hurt quite as much now that some time passed, allowing for her leg to heal some. It would still be slow going. A wrong move or slip could easily reopen the wound.

Grindingly the two worked their way back towards the tiny settlement. It was not really close to where Fillydelphia once lay, but near enough to possibly be considered within the reach of the once bustling city. The huge city once held an enormous population of ponies. Now as with everything else it sat wasted and torn to ruin. In the distance crumbling shells of buildings once full of life lay tilted and somehow sickly to see. Few would dare brave heading into the central region for fear of who, or what may now reside there. An unexpected chance encounter was often enough to end those who were unwary.

"So, by my count that is no less than three separate threats we took out. I doubt the residents have more to spare than the caps already on offer so I am going to insist they owe us some other way. Never hurts to have a favor on call, does it Tiskey?" Tasket would be hobbling along for at least a another two or three days, which would mean not reaching base camp for half a week or more.

"Oh yeah, someone owing us a favor for a change sounds sweet!" Tisket could hardly stand the slow pace of travel, but even he was wise enough not to separate unless absolutely necessary.

Splitting up would mean halving their remaining firepower and lower their chances of survival should anything else come up.

"Who did that old wreck of a pony tell us to see if we were successful? Wasn't his name really weird, like Doormat or Faso, or something?" Tisket nodded. They approached a rundown building as nondescript as every other building in the area.

"That sure is an odd name. Oh well, it takes all sorts." Tasket was talking to herself to keep her mind off the nagging throbbing in her leg.

Tisket knocked on the thick wooden door. The door itself almost looked out of place. It was made of fairly solid wood and did not seem rotted or old as it should be. The knocking was answered by somepony calling out.

"One moment, please." Followed by a clattering din from within like hundreds of plates fell over all at once.

"Uh Tiskey, I think we better be careful." He voiced his agreement, then the heavy door swung inwards making a terrible squeal on the ancient hinges that barely held it to the frame, a hideous cacophony that could barely be called music drifted out from inside. Tasket would have covered her ears if she were not still hurting too much to make such a move.

"Oh my aching head." She finished saying, just as a tall blue unicorn stepped into the light from within. He wore a huge wide-brimmed purple hat with a feather atop it, it was adorned with all manner of glinting shiny bits and baubles. He wore a ridiculously oversize pair of slotted shades which covered half his face.

"Who seeks the great Doremifasolatido, master of all things music?" He spoke with pomp and flair. They noticed he was trailed by a long faded purple cape with what must have once been white trim.

"Uhh, we're here about the reward for the lake that we just cleared." Tasket generally did most of the speaking when dealing with others. Tisket used his vocabulary in the same way he used his weapons.

"The lake, so many have come before..me, and claimed..to have done that impossible mission, seeking reward ill-deserved!....wait, did you say you cleared it!?" His manner of speaking kept going in and out of a halting, irritating manner.

"You dare come to me and claim the impossible! Off with..." Tisket pulled open a saddlebag to bring out the piece of wing they procured along with the large scale and toy. Tasket also pointed to her injury.

"You've..done it...you've done it! Oh...joy of joy..such joyous rapture, the lake is safe?" He still seemed incredulous, but beginning to accept the fact.

"We can only say the area seems safe. You will have to find somepony who can tell you if this water sample is drinkable." Tasket set the bottle down.

"Say, have you seen anything suspicious around here lately?" It could not hurt to ask.

"Not..a thing. They say...strange things..are happening way over in Fillydelphia itself. Not my..business." Tisket and Tasket shot each other a questioning glance. There seemed no point pressing further. Tisket chimed in.

"Anything else we can do for you?" Tasket sighed.

"Let me..go...check." He slipped back inside for a long moment before returning.

"There might be something at a later date. You have proven..yourselves...most skillful." He seemed to be gazing past them rather than at them.

"Uh, sir?" He blinked.

"Oh, oh yes." He mumbled.

"You have done us a great service..and...well deserve....these caps long set aside...for..somepony such as yourselves." His speech pattern left them both rather annoyed feeling. He brought out a box containing the promised 500 caps.

"Whilst we are quite grateful for the reward, I must point out we were informed there was only one threat." She pointed at her leg again.

"I will..tell the..local residents and...inform the few merchants in the area that you are indeed friends of..us all and should be given...the fairest of treatment." Tasket was becoming ever more annoyed looking. She would not ruin a chance to build up and spread their reputation.

"Now I, Doremifasolatido must return to my creative works! Your success has inspired me to reach new heights." With that he turned and went to trot inside, tripping over his cape and tumbling in through the door.

"Umm, oh ah yes..uh good day." He hurriedly closed the door.

"By my mane, Tasket! what the hay was up with him?" She shook her head at his question.

"I don't wanna know Tiskey. I just don't want to know." She huffed.

"Now that is out of the way, let's head for camp. I'm gonna be laid up for a while once we do get there." She sighed. Though she hated to admit it, even she couldn't remain still for too long before climbing the walls. Tasket supposed they got it from their parents. They never seemed able to stay still for long either.

They managed to remain close to them, love them, teach them and keep them safe just long enough for both to grow up before heading out on what they both now assumed was their final foray into the unknown of the furthest wastes. The day they realized their parents would likely never return was a harsh blow. Even knowing what could await one outside the confines of the old merc camp, it stung. Their parents somehow managed to be exemplary role models despite living in the harsh reality that now comprised the wastelands. Having some set of values to aspire to, any truly good set was rare. The pair felt some sense of pride in this. Though any values here were most definitely skewed, Tasket reasoned as long as they tried to do the right thing it would have to suffice.

They walked past the scattered remains of a skycart that likely crashed over a century ago. The thought that two living ponies were knocked out of the sky was one they tried not to consider too closely. They also tried not to consider how many ponies actually died during the war and after. The number was a thing of legend and mind-numbing to contemplate. Though obtaining their reward raised Tasket's spirit considerably, she was still in a great deal of pain. Tisket underestimated how deep the cut was. It would likely take her a full week or more to recover properly. Still, she realized how lucky she was not to have been hurt worse or lost a leg.

Because of this she arrived at the decision to obtain some form of appropriate leg protection from the armor crafter back at camp. A haggard old griffon that went by the name of Blite. As far as she knew he was the only armorer around. She looked off, lost in thought. They would be sleeping outside for the next few days. Limping along, she really could not decide precisely what would be an appropriate design for leg armor. The thought struck her that perhaps she could have the armorer devise something that draped off from the center of her back, only covering the outsides of her legs. Perhaps ending with some kind of place holding attachment just before her hooves.

She truly hated confining and restrictive clothing. Full armor would be worse than the time her mother made her try on an old dress. She despised the things. Why ponies ever wore clothes at all, she simply could not fathom. Somepony once told her that ponies used to hold large gatherings where all the ponies would wear immaculate, ornate clothes of such fanciful richness and decadence that it boggled the mind to see it. She could barely stand wearing one layer of clothing, let alone two or even more. Tasket shuddered at the thought of being so constrained. The pair took great pains to ensure nopony saw the direction in which they headed. They were consummate professionals, always cautious.

For 500 caps some ponies might delude themselves into thinking they could take it from them by force. Killing the innocent was not in their purview. They were not however above defending themselves. Innocence being a highly subjective thing in the wastelands, they would do what was necessary. Both Tisket and Tasket realized they thus far in life were far more fortunate than many of the other inhabitants. They were also blessed with parents that actually cared enough to give them as decent an upbringing as was possible in such a world. Their parents told them all the old stories, the wondrous things ponies and to a lesser degree, griffons, created long ago.

The evidence these stories were based in fact lay all around them in the ancient structures and occasional technology that was found. Some of it even still functioned. This alone made the wastes a more dangerous place to explore and live in. Her injury would not allow Tasket to reach more than a slow trot, anything more would risk opening it again. Nonetheless they were making good time back towards camp. She could hardly wait to reach the safety of its walls, and her bed waiting within. The small base itself was established far to the north of Manehatten. It finished construction halfway through the war as a griffon mustering and offloading point. During that time it doubled as a supply and maintenance center.

Griffon design weapons, armor and the like were generally unavailable, which led them to adapt pony weaponry for their use. Now the small base housed only a few descendants of the griffons stationed there. Once the war ended they chose not to attempt returning to their homeland. At that time, travel of such distance would have proven only suicidal. The trip might be feasible now, but those here never went to the griffon lands. This was home.

"Tisket, when we get back I'm gonna look into some leg protection. Before you pipe up about how I said I don't wear barding, I said leg protection. Nothing else. I don't even want to wear that, but this incident made me feel a bit more vulnerable than usual." Tisket set about making camp for the night.

It was much safer in this area being within the general vicinity of the merc camp, but still a good idea to exercise care in ones decisions. Many a careless sort found themselves in dire straights. Wildlife over time became twisted distorted things through exposure to the seemingly random effects of leftover balefire radiation, amongst other things and wandered far.

"Another night in the wild, Tisket. I so need my bed." Tisket nodded.

"I do happen to like my bed as well, Tasket." She snerked.

"Could never tell. You don't ever seem to relax." He set down his bags and weapons.

"Oh, I just get bored easily. You kinda do as well. I know." There was no choice but to agree. Near dark on the fourth day they were finally approaching the old base. It was mostly intact thanks to having been so far from any significant blast, balefire or otherwise. It also did not suffer being targeted by raiders, steel rangers or any of the other assorted and still warring factions by this same virtue of distance. It was largely left forgotten until once again becoming a mercenary station. The defensive walls and a few mounted blaster cannons were refitted and re-energized over time. Spare parts were acquired and brought in occasionally.

Actually attacking it now would prove an expensive and deadly endeavor for anything short of a large well equipped army. No force of that size still existed as far as most ponies knew. Two missions both offering a grand reward for completion of either perpetually remained on the posting board. One asked for a fusing relay or compatible technology to bring the main cannon up to power. When they tried powering it up five years ago the huge cannon simply spun around on its enormous mounting ring, grinding to a halt as the ancient relay blew out. Griffons never did anything halfway. During the war they were mercenaries and were so still. Even a mere supply base was completely outfitted.

The oversized coastal defense cannon was never fired during or after the war. The base was just large enough to house a full wing of 11 griffons which now lived within the base confines, plus a few boarders here and there. Tisket and Tasket earned just enough of a reputation to rent quarters on a continual basis. The other ever-present mission should be easier to fulfill. As yet nopony could manage to find a way to unjam the main gates hefty mechanism. This left the gate wide open and the base far more vulnerable than it should be. It was jammed open this way since the war ended. Though the bases heavy defensive turrets were formidable in and of themselves, these two serious deficiencies were something the resident griffons were always complaining about.

An unusually buff griffon stood guard at the gate. His feathers were black as night itself, his hindquarters as well, lending to his imposing stature. He recognized the pair immediately, waving them past.

"I'll get ta tellin cap yaor back. Ya've been gone a good while. Ye look pretty beat up too." He intoned gruffly. The heavily muscled griffon pressed an intercom button recessed into the side of the gate. The familiar walls were a most welcome sight. The base itself consisted only of a few scattered buildings inside. A barracks and a command structure under the cannon, plus a small solar power collector were the only things of any importance. All looked extremely worn.

A couple utility and ammo storage sheds were the only other things of note. The armorer was off at a work table fiddling with an energy rifle, his personal weapon. For the most part the independent griffons here were well armed, if nothing else. This group desired no direct connection to other talons operating in the wastes, relying mostly on themselves. The base seemed to have been designed with expansion in mind, but nothing was added to it. As Tasket looked about she stopped in her tracks. Tisket shot her a sidelong glance and stared at a sight never seen here: she caught sight of the tail end of an armored pony wearing strange completely blackened power armor as he walked off into the barracks.

"Who in Equestria was that, and whats a fricken steel ranger doing here, why wasn't he vaporized on sight?" Tasket asked the guard.

"Dunnae. Ee said his name be Down Range or somesuch. Just shawd up one day wit' a bunch'o'caps begging for lodging. We gav'im ol' Gretchen's room, bless her poor dead heart. Never shows his face, keeps to himself. Pays 'is rent. Good'n'uff." He shrugged and flicked his tail.

"Even detached 'is weapons ta store as part'o'the deal. Oh, ah'n welcome back." The welcome seemed cold.

"Yeah right, Arascain. We all know you griffs just care for the caps we pay for our rooms." Tasket made a duck face.
"Ahck, off wit' ye." With that the the guard turned away. The duo made their way into the barracks, wearily heading to their rooms. The main room was just racks of steel bunk beds. Griffons were used to sleeping stacked up like this. Ponies tended to avoid upper bunks for obvious reasons of practicality. They were fortunate enough to secure two of the four side rooms for their own use.

"Tisket, I am heading to the showers. I need a good soak after all this time." The base housed a mini water talisman obtained during a serious confrontation many years ago.

Normally this object would have made the base a target, but it was damaged in the fight over it. It really only provided enough clean water from the makeshift oceanic intakes for those living here. It was damaged further over those years by the strain of purifying heavily contaminated ocean water. Locating a replacement was unlikely. It ran only on borrowed time. If it did fail, the small water tower would only have enough remaining for a few days at most.

"Alright, Sis. I'll go buy our usual ammo loadouts?" Tasket looked back and nodded, heading off into the showers. The showers did not have temperature controls. It was always lukewarm.

The spraying water felt wonderfully refreshing and invigorating. Each denizen would only get a ten minute allotment per week to save wear on the talisman. Nonetheless this was heavenly. She did not plan on doing anything strenuous for most of the week anyway, using up all ten. Feeling so much better she headed for her room and sprawled out on the compact bed. They were not mattresses so much as thick pads of some spongy material. So much more comfortable than she felt in weeks she quickly fell into a deep and dreamless slumber. Awaking the next day feeling much better she slowly walked out the door and across the open area to the command room. The captain would probably want to see her.

She was simply too tired the day before. One of the few other pony boarders was in the room with the captain. Tasket could not help but overhear as she approached.

"Cap, I tell you it's him!" The captain was an unusually small griffon. His stature was terrifically deceiving. The jagged scar across his chest where no feathers grew out was testament to this. Any that ever tangled with him found themselves facing a whirling ball of slashing explosive rage.

"You and your obsessions are amusing, but it cannot be him." The captain responded.

A very average-sized red-coated earth pony shook his head vigorously.

"It's him, it is I swear. I saw his face when he went in the lavatory!" The captain pointed at him.

"Are you telling me you watch ponies relieving themselves, Tanner?" The ponies face somehow seemed to turn even more red.

"N..no!" The small white and yellow feathered griffon twitched his tail. The ponies eyes having gone wide with embarrassment decided to leave it be, quickly exiting.

Tasket's leg was beginning to itch, though this was a very good sign, it was annoying her to no end.

"Haya cap, what was that all about?" The captain looked at her crossly.

"You." Tasket knew this game, he was only toying with her. She decided to play along.

"All about me? Why, I am so very flattered you would keep me so near and dear to your heart. You old blackguard." The captain burst into a deep rumble of a laugh.

"You can read me like a book, can't you Tasket?" She smiled at him.

He was a more friendly sort than many of the griffons she ever met, but knew better than to get on his bad side.

"You and your brother are some of the only truly serious pony mercs I have ever seen. We'll make griffons of you yet." He motioned for her to come closer.

"I would rather you didn't, cap..it sounds kind of unpleasant, and painful." She moved up in front of the desk he was sitting behind.

"Hah! I see you have a new battle scar. Wear it with pride" He gazed at her leg.

"Yeah, about that.. I would like your permission to request a special from the armorer." Her injury would be hurting for days.

"You, armor? That's a new one. Didn't you say you would never wear any?" His gaze upon her was very attentive.

"It's not like that cap, just something light for the legs. Our last excursion proved a little more than our usual fare." He nodded.

"Alright, you have my permission to make the request. Now, I do have another matter to discuss with you." This was unusual.

"Don't suppose you know Gunnar?" It was difficult not to know all of the griffons by name here, but she did not really know him in any way.

"Not really. What's up, cap?" This got her quite curious.

"I know you two have been looking for a big payoff for a long while. Interested in taking on a serious job?" His gaze became very intense, almost glaring.

"How serious, sir?" Was all she could think to say.

"Normally I wouldn't do this, Tasket. I have a request to make of you." She blinked at this.

"The reason Gunnar has always kept to himself is because the talon company he was formerly part of got themselves completely wiped out during the execution of their last contract. He was the sole survivor. On either side." His eyes betrayed a look of sadness she never saw before.

"That company followed a tradition. I do not necessarily agree with it, but it is his decision." The captain almost seemed to be on the verge of tears. This could not be good, but she sensed opportunity.

"I wish to commission you and your brother to escort him to the Badlands." Her heart skipped a beat.

"Wait..but that is..." he was already nodding.

"Cap, that's fifteen hundred miles from here. One way, if you could go in a straight line!" He chuckled at her response. It was always hard to read his mood.

"Yes, it is. Gunnar is getting older. The tradition was, if any of them managed to live long enough to start falling into decline he or she would try to head out into the Badlands. Their final mission and honor." He looked upset saying this.

She'd never heard of such a thing, it sounded crazy. Weren't there already enough ways to die, why head out on some ludicrous suicide mission? She held her tongue.

"As a matter of honoring his fallen company members, and as the last of them he feels it his duty to follow this tradition. It was all I could do to convince him to stay until I could find someone to escort him." She was hesitant, this was a huge undertaking he was asking of them.

"Why doesn't he just fly straight for it, cap? It sounds important to him." He stretched his own wings one at a time.

"Aside from the danger, he can barely fly. His wings were badly torn up in that fight. Lucky he still has them at all. He has been with our outfit almost fifteen years since. I will sorely miss him." He waited for an answer.

"Let me talk this over with Tisket before accepting. I also need a few days to heal up. Okay, cap?" She felt a little nervous about this.

"I think I can keep Gunnar from going off on his own for a while yet. Don't take too long to decide. I don't like it, but I do want to help him fulfill his mission. We would do it, but we are all tied to contracts ourselves currently." He paused.

"Isn't he tied to a contract then?" Perhaps she shouldn't have asked. Why would he be the only exception? The griffons here did not follow precisely the same rules as the rest, but still.

"Ever since then he has only assisted us or other griffons in carrying out or obtaining contracts for themselves. I can understand him not wanting to take one. The damage to his wings also makes him less of a deal on his own." That seemed to make sense.

"He is also very good at spotting a bad contract. After the mess their commander got them into he has tried very hard to steer us towards good deals." He took a deep breath.

"Even when we thought he was wrong. We quickly found out he is never wrong when it comes to a bad one. To be clear, he is only the third in that talon to live this long. If it were not for these things I wouldn't allow it." Reaching under the desk he pulled out a bottle of alcohol. It was very rare.

"To ease your pain." He poured a quarter glass, shoving it over to her.

"Cap, you don't have.." Shushing her he slid it over.

"Consider it a promise of reward." She rarely got anything this good. It was worth the burning sensation.

"Thanks, cap" She finished it off.

"Speaking of contracts, some of them are new or up for renewal and renegotiation. I better have Gunnar check them over before he really does go. Now, out." Tasket knew better than to hang around. Going back towards her quarters she noticed a pony trying to peek into one of the side rooms as the door closed. It was the red one from earlier.

"Hi!" He nearly jumped straight in the air at the sound of her voice.

"Don't sneak up on ponies like that! I almost bucked you right in the face." He said. She snorted.

"Ya look more like you almost wet yourself." His face once again seemed to take on an even redder sheen.

"Ahem. I am trying to convince somepony, anypony, I know who that mysterious armor wearing stallion is. No one will listen to me!" He looked like he was quivering.

"Calm down. Tanner, was it?" A quick nod and she continued.

"We already know his name, so what are you going on about?" Shaking his head so hard the rest of him was shaking, he turned.

"Come with me." He motioned her to follow. Curiosity got the better of her. Following into his room she saw him opening a small locker.

"I saw his face for a second. He does take off that armor when he thinks nopony is around." Tanner produced an ancient comic from within the locker. Setting it on the small bed he gingerly opened the pages to reveal 'Adventures of Magnificent Vol. 7. The Reins of Castamare'. He pointed a hoof at the face.

"Him, him!" Tasket frowned at this odd insistence.

"Let me get this straight. You're trying to tell me some fictional pony from who knows how long ago is somehow walking around here. You hit your head really hard recently or somethin?" Tanner gave an exasperated sigh.

"I adore this comic. I have a collection of things like it and know this one by heart. I know that face I tell you." Hmm.

"Tanner, why don't you just ask him?" Delicately he put the comic back in the locker and nudged it closed.

"He won't talk to anypony. I know how this sounds. Go on, just call me nuts like everyone else." He really was serious.

"No worse than another." Tasket was already regretting following.

"Alright, look. Even if it isn't him, he is not a steel ranger." He meant it. She tossed him a questioning glance.

"Don't tell anyone about this. I saw him once before, a few weeks before he got here. Over near Manehatten." Tasket was truly beginning to question this ponies sanity.

"He did something I thought suicidal. From a distance I saw him approached by two rangers. You know how they are about their stuff.." She just bobbed her head.

"They asked him to identify himself. I could not make out what he said. Then things got all wild." This was not sounding good. Was he a rogue ranger or something even more dangerous?

"They ordered him to remove his armor, but..." Tasket tapped the floor impatiently with a good hoof.

"He ordered them to walk away backwards or face Tragedy. He also said something about them not wanting to learn what true pain is." How odd was all that?

"Well, what then?" This was actually getting a bit interesting.

"They DID, both of them just walked away...backwards." This pony could be real trouble.

"All I can do is wish you good luck with that. I have stuff to do." Tanner looked particularly dejected.

"Uhg. Come on, don't look like that. Tell ya what, I'll look into it right now." His eyes went wide.

"No, wait." He said, too late to stop her as she went out across to the mystery ponies door and knocked heavily. A thudding heavy stepping sound was heard as he cracked open the door to reveal his helmeted head. She couldn't help but notice the horn-shaped protrusion atop it.

"I am terribly sorry to bother you, but are you Magnificent?" A wailing horrified sounding wail was heard from within the helmet as the door slammed in her face.

"Well, that did not go as expected." Tanner was just standing there staring.

"Are you crazy?" Tanner looked horrified. Tasket shrugged, walking off to find her brother. The stunned red pony stood there with his eyes wide for a long moment before shuffling off to his room once more. A few moments later she located Tisket outside under a lean-to looking over the most expensive weapons for sale here.

Sabine, a continually shocked looking and absolutely average female griffon behind the display would normally just glare at them, but through long association became so used to their perusing she paid little mind.

"Always imagining buying things we can't afford, Tisket?" He frowned at her question.

"Can't you let me dream, Sis?" She smiled at him widely.

"Want a real dream, Tisket?" Turning to face her directly he was very surprised to see her smile. She was not usually so happy seeming.

"Are you alright, Tasket?" Poking him in the ribs like she sometimes did got his full attention. She motioned for him to follow her over to a weathered table where they could talk.

"I have something to tell you. I know you'll be excited, but we need to think long and hard about it." Now that got his attention.

"The captain has offered us an enormous one-time contract. Do stop drooling, Tisket. It is a very dangerous, very difficult mission." She looked him in the eyes.

Tasket explained the specifics, letting the real scope of the request sink in a bit.

"Oh, wow oh wow oh wow." Tisket's eyes were practically popping out of his head.

"Focus. This is serious. Probably the most serious thing we have ever been asked to do. The question is, do we really want to take it on? Especially since..." She trailed off. He shut his eyes tightly, obviously thinking very deeply about it.

"This could be our one big chance to shine, Sis. Let's do it." Tasket knew this was his likely reply.

"It could also be our ticket to being very very dead." It really may be the one chance they would ever get.

Neither of them ever made such an obviously life threatening decision before.

"If we are agreed I will tell cap we can set out in three days." She waited. Tisket was enthusiastic, but clearly considering this one.

"Tasket, we both know what will happen if we don't do something soon..." His voice trembled slightly.

"Shh. Don't talk about it. We will go." She left the table. The next morning they informed the captain. He was ecstatic hearing of their agreement.

He would actually be able to keep Gunnar from leaving for a few days with the promised escort.

"This is a great relief for me, you two." He usually did not speak so informally, especially to non-griffons.

"You seem to be healing up quickly, but are you certain you will be up to setting out in three days?" Tasket nodded.

"Good. I could not stand the thought of Gunnar trying to make it all by himself. I know how tough he is, but I want him to have a real chance of completing his mission. Do not disappoint me." The pair made their way back to the barracks common room. Griffons called the bunks an aery, having no qualms about the arrangement. Ponies were slightly more solitary.

"Get as much sleep as possible, Tisket. We have such a long lonesome road ahead." For once he simply agreed with his sister. The following two days were nearly agonizingly slow. Tisket was having an especially hard time containing his enthusiasm. Only once in that time did either see the armored pony anywhere, did he simply never come out of his room? Tanner seemed to be nowhere around either. Eventually the morning of their departure arrived. They were waiting in the command room for Gunnar to come in. Tisket was speaking to the captain.

"Cap, in the excitement of the moment I forgot to mention something." His harsh gaze betrayed his mood.

"It better not be something that will affect your ability to carry this out." She quickly continued as he said this.

"Oh, no cap. Just we cleared around that lake way off to the southwest of here. Don't know if the water is any good, but I figured you should know. I forgot with my injury and all." Hard to read as ever.

"That is a welcome tidbit. Which is a good reason for me to give you these." He opened a case. "500 caps for expenses."
He set a box down heavily. This was a welcome surprise.

"Get this right, both of you." Gunnar stepped into the room right after this was said.

Immediately a tense sense of meeting and parting settled. He was a fairly large griffon, a couple feathers protruded atop his head like antennae. His once golden coloring seemed faded, but still striking. His wings hung at odd opposing angles. Each foot was colored black. His very presence carried an air of power and quiet authority almost overwhelming the captain's own.

"These two?" His voice was deep. One could almost describe it as thunderous. This was not a griffon to be trifled with. He looked them over, his gaze felt like it penetrated straight through them.

"They will have to do." The captain stood and offered a farewell to his longtime second.

"I would wish you good luck, but you won't be needing it..will you?" Gunnar gave a respectful final salute, the captain reciprocated.

"Goodbye, captain." Anything else these two already said to each other years ago. He would say nothing more, slipping towards the exit.

"Whatever it takes, get him there, though it means his life. Complete this mission and return." They both gave a quick salute as well before turning to leave.

"Well..we're in it now, Tiskey." They looked the part on the outside. Tough. Focused. Inside they were both happy as could be for a chance to well and truly prove their mettle. Meeting Gunnar at the main gate they found all the currently present griffons alighted atop the walls in salute to their brother in arms, each wearing impressive full battle gear. It was a tremendously rare and imposing sight. Taking only one good look around he returned the salute, then turned to march out. From a myriad of weapons each of them fired a single shot straight into the air. A loud celebratory cheer went up as they joined him, setting out on their journey.

---

A steely shadow in the dark very far away gave rise to enabling a twisted desire's fruition.

Darkness

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A very long time ago:

"Just kill me already." The stallion was chained to a wall in some dim place. His body was bruised, battered and worn. After somehow managing to harass zebra forces for an entire month on his own from the hills he was finally cornered by some cackling example of their kind.

"It is what you and your kind do, isn't it?" He groaned. His request was met with a kick to the stomach just strong enough to knock the wind out of him. He was almost too exhausted to even grunt in response. He expected a quick death, especially after all the damage he'd managed to inflict on his lonesome.

The zebra tormentor never lowered their cloak, never speaking at all. Instead he simply performed all manner of hideous experiments upon his prisoner.

"You will get nothing out of me, you twisted stripe!" The cloaked zebra merely pulled out a syringe full of some strange vile black liquid, promptly jamming it into his chest and pressing the plunger. He moaned through the pain.

"Why are you doing this? What are you pumping into me!?" It was the third time in as many days. The size of the injections were increasing over time. There was no real sense of the passing of time in here. How long was he in here?

Perhaps it was time to take a different approach.

"Why? Just tell me why.." The cloaked figure turned towards a table covered in all sorts of tubes, vials, beakers and mixers. A large tome sat there. The zebra occasionally turned a page within. He dumped one bowl into another causing a puff of acrid smoke to pour forth. The stallion choked on it. His captor did not even seem to notice. The silent figure picked up a pestle, beginning to grind more unknown things which smelled terrible in a mortar. Finally the choking subsided as the smoke cleared. Each day the torment was different.

Some seemingly random thing was done to him every waking moment, even when he was not awake. Fainting from lack of food and water was becoming common. Sometimes he would dream, more often he would have nightmares. He once was told one of the princesses could sometimes sense when a pony suffered them. Where was she now then, surely this was enough to notice? His dreams were becoming absolutely horrific. The chains which bound the stallion cut into his legs, his neck and midriff. Every moment was becoming pure agony. Why didn't he die?

"Princess..princess..please help me..please hear me..help me..." He found himself mumbling under his breath sometimes.

The words drew a wicked snicker from the horrible zebra holding him here. This place felt wrong. He felt wrong. The world came into focus and receded again. Each time it faded he hoped would be the last. It never was. Occasionally the zebra would force the smallest bits of food down his throat or water completely without prompting. It was just enough to keep him alive. He did not have the strength left to resist. Sometimes a flicker of will would ignite itself in his tortured mind.

"Let me die, let me die you sick freak!" This only elicited echoing laughter that came from everywhere at once.

"Huh?" What was happening? The dark place swam and swirled, only to drop to empty silence once more.

The zebra scrawled something in the book. His eyes flew open and he twitched. Where was he? The whole world was pain. No other thought passed as he languished in this cold void of a place. Streaming lights flashed in his vision as he writhed. It felt as if a red hot poker was shoved into his gut. Desperately he tried to force himself to faint, to die, anything to escape the burning pain. It would not end. He screamed, yanking the chains for uncountable moments until it finally subsided. Coughing once more he was let the sweet release of sleep. He was not aware of the amount of time passing in the haze of misery. It must have been days. Weeks?

Barely able to remember a world of love and light long lost, his awareness slowly returned yet again.

"No.." He sputtered. Awaking only to this endless torture was breaking not only his body, but his mind as well. He was cognizant of this and fighting bitterly inside to retain some semblance of sanity. He could barely see in the dim light. He could tell he was becoming seriously dehydrated and malnourished. Along with the injuries from the cutting manacles he was in truly critical condition. Surely he would slip from life soon? In fits of recognition of his predicament he was both impressed he lasted this long, and yet wishing it would finally end.

In one of his more lucid moments he spoke to the source of his agony.

"You, stripe..what do you have to gain from this? You must know by now I have nothing I can even tell you." The sinister laughter it drew was even more dark than before. The sound was cold, devoid of reason or real emotion. What was this zebra? He seemed more like one of the bedtime stories of horrors sent to Tartarus. Surely he could not be something used to scare little foals into being good come to life. His presence certainly felt like no living thing. A far off clanging alarm was raised.

Yelling outside this prison of pain in some language he did not know brought his attention to focus for the briefest of moments. For once the zebra spoke.

"It would seem our time is at an end." The voice was like listening to something being dragged across a chalkboard: horrible, vile and enthralling at the same time. He opened a lock box covered in subtly glowing black runes. The chained stallion's eyes went wide. A humming crystal rose from it, streams of purple and black energy held it above the box. He watched in morbid fascination as it floated there.

The air took on a disgusting tinged hue. He could feel the wickedness and power this impossible thing contained. It hovered there as a white hot beam of light shot out of it, stabbing into the stallion's chest.

"No!" The screams of horror and pain which followed dwarfed any which had come before.

---

What hovers in that lonely pitch betwixt the walls of the world?

Plinth

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.

The young zebra was hungry and cold. She was always hungry and cold. All of them were. This place was secluded and easily overlooked which is exactly why they stayed here. The community was small, but thriving. Her mother desperately tried to teach her what she needed to survive, perhaps even to replace her someday. Her leadership saved them time after time. The young one really wanted no part of it. All she really desired was food. She wished she could run away run away from this painful world so full of cruelty and mistrust. If only there was anywhere she could run away to. There just wasn't. A zebra was not particularly trusted in the wastes. No one really was.

Perhaps griffons could be trusted to follow their exacting contracts, but a pegasus or zebra finding themselves alone out here was in an entirely different kind of trouble. No help would just happen to materialize.

"Darling dear I hate to say, there simply is no other way. Our food is not growing. Our water soon will not be flowing. We must find some other place to be going." Her mother and a ragtag band of their kin eked out a living in this desolate area far from ponies and their ilk. Their little hidden settlement sat near the edge of a huge inland swamp.

"There once was a trail heading northwest to a river we will now search for in stress. If its still there is anybody's guess." Hidden as they were there was no contact with the outside world. Fear of being discovered ruled the day, keeping them from venturing too far. Reluctantly they packed their meager belongings. A trip such as this was a frightening proposition to the young zebra and most of the others. There was no choice as the deep wellspring they relied on was now only barely providing water anyway. Water which was now turning a sickly pale yellow as it dwindled. The taste was becoming ever less palatable. Soon it would be impossible to drink or use in any way. The cause was completely unknown.

As much as she wished for things to change, this tiny village was the only home she knew. Having to leave here hurt in some way she could not quite describe. Before their supplies started to dwindle her mother was teaching her their tribes traditional fighting methods. For her young age she was nearly the same size as an adult. It was a strict discipline requiring sheer focus and timing. All of them would be having an easier time if there was only more food and water to go around. Keeping up the drills was tiring to the point of exhaustion without it. Her mother insisted anyway. She might have need of it soon. The group gathered around with their belongings. They loaded up on everything.

Wooden water flasks and whatever else seemed like it might be useful. All took a last lingering reluctant look back at their home. Far off to the east above the treetops a structure could just be made out. Ominous and foreboding. It was much farther away than it looked. No one here ever went far enough to reach it. Mountains to the south hemmed in their little encampment against the forest. It was as safe here as anywhere else. None ever left this place. For the last twenty years this forested mini paradise kept them secure from prying eyes, slavers or any of the endless list of dangers outside. Now there was absolutely no choice but to move on.

There were almost no weapons to speak of thanks to their long seclusion from the rest of the world, save for the odd sharpened wooden stick they kept prepared to ward off any wandering animal that might come across them. Even that did not happen very often. Their leader raised her voice.

"A town once built upon the road is where we must get, where ponies may live their lives out yet. If so, our passing may make them quite upset." Her words were fraught with distress and worry. Would ponies really be there? Would they let them pass? A fight was the last thing this little tribe wanted.

Slowly one by one they all turned away from their home. Tears welled in many of their eyes as they set out to face an unknown world, a world each fully expected to cause them even more suffering. Old tales told them ponies did not trust or treat their kind well, possibly with good reason. They could not really know. It was so long since any of them left this place. The only other option would be to try heading for the old zebra lands, but to pass that way would mean braving what looked to be an endless expanse which they may never find the end of. If there even was an end. For all they knew the zebra homeland could be entirely gone, wiped from the face of existence in retaliation over a war barely now within memory.

Almost everyone knew a vast war was why the world was now mired in all sorts of misery, but not the how or why. Even knowing these things would make little difference to most. This was the reality. The world ended in fire. Somehow life did not. Knowing only they must find a source of water, as well as a place to live was a disheartening prospect. They now numbered only around 20. Thirteen of their kin succumbed to various ailments as the water began to turn. Even their expert knowledge of plants and potions was useless. Fighting anyone would be a last resort they could not really afford. From here some travel to the west would be required before they could head northwards in earnest upon the ancient trail.

Now was the time to go, before there were no supplies left for the journey. It really was the only reasonable decision. Staying here would only lead to all of them dying. Straying farther from home than ever before instilled a cold fear of what lay ahead.

"I'm scared." She shook slightly. Her mother looked at her as they took a step beyond the long-time boundary.

"Be not afraid. Death may be inevitable, but it can be delayed." Forming a quiet line they walked off into the haze.

---

The pieces slowly taking the board to sing their song. Which moves will be right, and which will be wrong?

Crisis Dynamic

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.

Once upon a time, it was formidable. Powerful. Peaceful. A glorious haven of light and love. All this, Equestria supposedly was. No longer. The once fantastically unimaginable array of small arms and heavy weapons, armor, tanks and flying vehicles, even robots never before envisioned until a massive war was thrust upon them had slowly become familiar, commonplace. The conflict driving ponies to research things they never needed before. Unicorns knowledgeable of battle magic were rare before the war, by the end there were many. Ceaselessly, perhaps carelessly, each side drew up ever more powerful combat units until a single encounter was potentially enough to cause massive casualties on either side, and still it did not end.

One division fared so badly during the latter stages of the war it would never have seen full strength again. This single tragedy played out against a catastrophic background of lesser tragedies. The scale would be almost comedic were it not for the sheer loss of life. As with many tragic things it started small, but like an avalanche started by a tiny snowball rolling downhill, these immeasurably insignificant things combined inexorably. For when the light falters, dark must fall. On the surface of things all was as it ever was. Ponies lived, played, danced, laughed..threw parties. They were joyless. All real happiness was slowly draining away under the constant pressure.

For some it was a great time to be alive, amassing their huge fortunes from the sidelines. Others did not fare nearly so well. Certain things were only spoken of in hushed whispers for fear of what might result if a single errant bit of information might be overheard by the wrong ears. Everypony knew something was wrong when the princess stopped sending out gala invitations. It only got worse from there. The downhill spiral into this unreasoned insanity was unstoppable. The quiet pall which hung over every conversation was taking its toll. What would happen next? Who else might silently go missing one day? These questions were the very sort of thing nopony dare ask lest one risk being the next poor soul to slip off to some unknown end, never to be heard from again.

Fear weighed down the populace. Those who knew nothing felt very secure. Ignorance is bliss. Know nothing and say nothing. It was once okay to know things. Now knowing those very same things could be a potential threat to your freedom or life. Equestria did have everything going for it. In the beginning it was merely a small squabble over coal. Nothing at all really. It'll be fine. This was a fabrication. A lie to sooth the masses. Soon enough it turned to a bloody fight over ideology and belief pushed to the forefront by some hidden agenda. Ponies were found willing to risk life and limb, ostensibly for the greater good. At what point does simple caution become paranoia? How does one look up one day only to find the sky tumbling down upon them?

The army which formed as hostilities escalated was by the end mostly hardened veterans able to take on all-comers. This war was finally ending. The unskilled and unlucky were long since gone. Many mowed down in their prime just because they were there. War once begun has a nasty habit of dragging on and on. It lays low both sides, depriving them of hope or security. The zebra war machine was inevitably faltering. Just as expected, but in a world slowly losing connection to sanity or reason only madness can follow. In the end leaders must find a way forward. Luna did not want to compromise or lose. Celestia could not bear to act and the opposing army refused any further attempt at negotiation, rebuffing all requests to talk.

Instead, they chose the flames rather than face defeat. Maybe it was cowardice. Maybe they just did not want to lose either. On this final day did the roots of evil somehow reach forth from that terrible intangible pit wherein it dwells to hold the world in iron grasp, only to find it could not hold on? Did it in finding such machinations already slipping away deem to unleash terror out of spite against all that is good? Or was it just that all power of good was finally sapped away by two decades of unyielding conflict? Whatever the case, the armies on the ground found themselves utterly alone. All would suffer. The pegasi lost their greatest city in an instant.

The princesses grand Canterlot shields which all thought impenetrable were raised against incoming showers of bombs and missiles only for the inhabitants to find themselves attacked by a hidden menace within them. Wicked bilious clouds of acidic pink smoke based in necromantic magic billowed forth across the capital. Because of this the shields were used as containment and held up as long as possible. To do otherwise would have meant flooding the countryside below with it. This day of endless tears could herald only further emptiness and pain. Unbeknownst to those who already closed off stable 1, this set off one plan of several which Scootaloo long ago enacted. Plans forged as a sort of revenge for the various ministries betrayal of public trust.

Today, ponies would look to their beautiful skies and see the final result of their folly. Seeing their long-awaited victory stolen from them. A great many wicked schemes were about to be undone at the same time as more would ultimately be born of this conflagration. Alarms having been raised one too many times in the past did not receive the quick attention they deserved, causing even more casualties. Confusion and chaos ruled the day. The fading light would soon lead only towards a grim and dark future. Having already made every possible mistake that could be made, how did it come to this? The very world itself torn from under their hooves in retribution for what looked to amount to nothing.

Few were prepared to meet their end. The war was by now so long-running there was practically a whole new generation of ponies being thrown into the meat grinder that is battle. Surely they would achieve victory soon. It could never come to something so horrific. They never entertained the possibility of defeat. Now their end was raining down upon them with swift finality. Failure to understand their enemies was a fault deeply engrained in them by nearly a thousand years of mostly uninterrupted peace. The golden age ended. In truth only about four of the great Stable-Tec stables were built entirely according to the original vision behind them. A result of yet more ministry interference.

Their legacy of social experimentation, manipulation and tragedy. Some of these experiments held great promise. Many more could have been deemed insanity in a gentler time. Seeking answers to questions should have been a good thing, but the ceaseless cycle of war forced all cards to be placed upon the table. By this time most ponies just wanted it to end, an end which was now upon them. Not as victory for either side. All warning about the sheer power of the weapons being developed fell on ears unwilling to listen. Through it all daily living also benefited, though improved greatly by the continuous research it felt hollow under the ever-present possibility of being drawn into the conflict.

On ministry walk two good friends were saying their final, tearful farewell. She could only muster enough power to teleport one of them to safety. Outside on a bench along the road a unicorn was sitting in a most peculiar way. She tried very hard before winding up here. She'd had enough, and waited. How she got there is a tale never told. Elsewhere a particularly pink pony was looking out at the incoming destruction. She almost saved the city. Almost does not count when the world is ending. She chose a faster way out. Some battles are forgotten. Fought on the sidelines or overshadowed by the greater conflict at large. How many fell to be remembered by no one, their names and deeds long lost to memory? Just unidentifiable hoofprints left in passing.

Near the beginning of this war names quickly became little more than statistics. Numbers on scroll to be perused then filed away in a neat little package. Little else. Such numbers make no hint of the families torn apart, their sadness and pain relegated to nothing more than scratches upon the parchment. It is just easier that way. All nice and tidy. During the conflict these list counts only grew ever larger. The litany of casualty reports rose until they were unending. If they did make mention of the true toll being taken it would surely have driven those reading them insane. These facts coupled with the quadrupled progress of industry slowly and surely forced the initiation of a secretive doctrine aimed solely at finding solutions to the social problems this presented.

Life was becoming hectic, fast, and far too short. Stress was something ponies barely knew before. Because of all this the need for psychological studies grew at a pace unrivaled. Just more little nudges in the wrong direction. All the lies, half-truths, secret projects and an altogether collapsing order led to a society which let itself be driven to the precipice by the horrors of war. Conflict did exist in Equestria before it all started. Nothing that warranted a standing army. The royal guard were generally sufficient barring certain extraordinary cases. During the course of the war most royal guard members were given the task of training up all the new recruits. Though some remained within Canterlot proper, many were shifted into the quickly evolving military.

Perhaps this was what brought about and allowed for the confusing string of orders that eventually resulted in the construction of the command stable labeled only as Infinity. No record of the construction was kept. The location hidden. The real purpose behind it buried under stacks upon stacks of paperwork. Even the construction crews were brought in blind. Just follow the plan. Everything is good. It would be a great bastion of hope secreted away, but literally hiding something under a mountain is no easy task. What it took to keep it a secret was on a scale defying believability. It was done anyway. They thought it entirely kept from prying eyes and ears. Not quite. On ran the tragedy train.

Amongst other things the Auton Initiative was given over to this place, only another project. Nothing special or so they said. The ultimate purpose of all these ongoing operations was a jumble even the figureheads of the ministries were often unaware of. It was very much the case the ministry mares were treated not as the leaders they were appointed to be but necessary burdens on their respective organizations, public faces to be kept out of the loop. Sometimes this was noticed. Sometimes it was ignored. The few times it was not ignored meant big trouble was coming down on anypony unlucky enough to be caught out. This particular project however was such a well-kept secret not one ministry pony was aware of it.

If the royalty knew they said nothing, leaving the military to its own devices. The royals often said little. The army though battle-hardened by this time was not very experienced in other matters. As the new army was built up the sole purpose in mind at the outset was defense, survival. Using them as an offensive force was far from any thought on the matter until much later. All told, letting them operate in this manner was another in the string of mistakes made and decisions poorly handled. One result: The Infinity stable. A secret military complex built under contract to Stable-Tec. They were good at keeping quiet. It was set deep into the north side of a mountain.

Here, another in this long line of tragedies was about to take place. Outside, nopony yet knew what was coming. To the sleepy little town all was normal. As it should be. Asleep in their beds. Secure in the knowledge the dawn would break as it always had. It was so quiet here, far from the front lines. Apart from anything that is war. The great war that must end soon. This place would not be necessary after all. The perfect place to offload all the unwanted leftovers when all was said and done. Some felt apprehensive about the idea behind this place, but we can all go home soon. It will be great when we can just bury it all here and forget about it.

Little did those saying such things realize how close to the truth this would soon become. Not in any way they imagined. Unlike some of the other stables built by Stable-Tec this place was to serve only the military. It would house and store everything nopony else wanted anymore. Supposedly that was one reason it was so large, and so secret. Under the major's strict direction it was built smoothly in record time. Not even any fatalities this time. The build crews learned quickly not to even try avoiding any scrutiny coming from him. The crews were pushed hard every day to the point some could not continue. The pace was backbreaking. Even the unicorns were burning out. The major drove each crew relentlessly.

Breaks were short and far between. Things that would normally have taken a full year were cut down to a mere 6 months. On this site nopony could really complain. He was given leave to do whatever was necessary to finish it as soon as possible. Nothing should be left to chance. Any conceivable shortcut was denied without hesitation. If he was going to oversee this job it would be done right. The very few times any of the crews attempted to skirt his orders regarding this quickly found themselves off the site permanently. No allowance would be made for anything outside of exacting. This drew both some criticism and some respect.

Due to the nature of the construction those working here were forced to agree never to speak of it after leaving or face serious repercussions. In this climate of information repression they could hardly argue. This also resulted in them demanding higher pay than was the norm. That was something that was conceded. Anything to get it done right. Alone inside the facility the major was just getting ready to finish up for the day. He was by himself in the command room as he alone was to enter the security codes for the new control systems. Sitting at the newly finished console within, the rather bored green-coated unicorn stallion bolted upright as it lit up and klaxons sounded.

"What in the world?" Right as he said this the intercom crackled.

"Major Bright Step, they've gone mad. Missiles are flying!" One of the guards reported. No. This could not be happening. Wake up. He could feel the adrenaline rushing at the words.

"Get everypony from town up in here, we can house 150." He quickly ordered. This complex was not intended as a shelter for general personnel, but what did it matter now? A few moments passed as he viewed the projected missile tracks. Most of them were heading straight for the capital, almost none of which were being intercepted successfully.

The spellfire counter-missiles some pinned their hopes on in case of such a situation were proving ludicrously inaccurate. The intercom gave off a burst of static. The communication system was a bit wonky still. The speaker came back in.

"We can't open any of the stable doors!" He whirled to the console instantly. The outer door lock lights were all lit. Hitting the intercom again he called for the door guards on the first floor. No answer.

"Door guard." Nothing.

"Anypony anywhere respond, open the doors!" Static. Surely more ponies were in here somewhere. No time. The Stable-Tec crew only finished with the final construction phase of this place two weeks prior. A maintenance and detailing team which should have been through already to iron out equipment issues was delayed in being dispatched for one reason or another. The other three consoles in this room covered various systems. Security robotics, maintenance, and life support consoles were set up in a ring around the command console.

If normal operations were underway other ponies would have been here with him. Not many were really assigned here yet. Most were not even inside.

"Why now of all times?" He poked at several controls on the maintenance console. A small army of maintenance bots should make quick work of getting the doors open again. The controls were unresponsive. An apprehensive feeling stole over him as tried to make anything at all do something. Everything was frozen.

"Oh my Celestia, give me strength." He found himself saying. He was losing valuable time with every fruitless action.

On a hunch he tried to activate the security bots. Nothing.

"Ahh." All this only took a moment. It felt like an eternity. Moving back he frantically jammed buttons on the main console. The override controls refused to disengage.

"Open, you piece of junk!" Nothing worked. Slamming it he turned. Tears streaming he ran from the command room into the elevator. Mashing the top floor button, it rose interminably slowly.

"Move, move. Why is everything in here working so badly?" The elevator never took this long before. Even when it was first constructed he was certain it was much faster than this.

He pounded his head on the elevator wall in frustration.

"Faster. Go faster, please..." He was already sweating from the building adrenaline and need to move. The shuddering elevator should have been at the top already.

"I'll get there in time, I'll get there in time." Go. Go. Go. This was intolerable. The elevator lurched upward at full speed only to slow down again. Something was very wrong, there was no way everything just stopped working right at the same time. Although the final team was not yet through to give everything a green light he'd been involved from the start since Stable-Tec did have a bit of a reputation for being slipshod in their work. Each individual system up until this very moment worked well enough.

Finally, the elevator doors swished open. Knowing something was so wrong he should have been more cautious. Time for those outside was ticking by. His hooves clacked off the flooring as he rushed down the hall at a gallop. The main door was in sight. Something brought him skidding to a halt. A bad feeling, an instinct. Then he noticed it. The faintest flickering shimmer off to the side caught his attention. Immediately he dove into a janitorial room as the hall lit up with a hail of bullets. A zebra spy that somehow escaped detection must be in here, now firing upon him. Did they have something to do with the controls malfunctioning?

There was no choice, he must get to the door right now or he would save no one. The very real increasing threat of spies meant every military member was ordered to keep their sidearms with them at all times. With no choice he floated his heavy caliber pistol out to the corner of the door, firing wildly in the general direction where the zebra was standing as he ran for the controls. A stray shot from the zebra automatic sliced through his right shoulder rendering his foreleg useless. It caused him to tumble into the door area, dropping his pistol back in the hall. If he could just get the main door open he would have help.

Striking an emergency panel plate caused two heavy prototype spark incinerator turrets to drop down out of the ceiling which tracked the I.D. badge hanging from his neck, then swiveled to point down the hall. These new turrets drew power directly from a conduit running straight down to the small reactor far below, and should prove more than a match should his assailant try to come after him. Hopefully the rest of the facility would also be locked down, giving the zebra almost nowhere to go. Were there more? Time is ticking. Now he could focus on getting the door open. Looking towards the door he saw the two guards necks were snapped.

No time to consider that as he fumbled at the main door manual controls. It made a deep rumbling sound, but did not budge.

"Why won't it open!?" He screamed in frustration. Looking up he could see everything appeared to be in order. The spy must have done something to the controls or mechanism, but what? Desperately he searched the gigantic screw-like drive that would push the door open. The small side-door controls were obviously rigged by the infiltrator in such a way it could not be opened, maybe even trapped. There was simply no time. Where could it be?

Every second passing was another that could not be spared. Once the base detectors began reading outside radiation of any sort not one of the four entrance doors timer locks could be bypassed. The idea struck that he could ask what the zebra did to them, but it was laughable. He knew by the time he could get a zebra spy to talk, if at all, it would be too late. There was nothing more he could do. The weight and reality of what was happening sank in upon him, and he cried in earnest despair. Reluctantly, quivering he reached for the external intercom button.

"Sergeant." It crackled for a moment. Finally a reply.

"Sir, why aren't the doors open?" A voice buzzed in. There was not much time left.

"A spy has disabled all the doors, possibly even the central elevation platform. I am seriously injured, and cannot open them. I am sorry, son." His voice strained with pain and sadness. The sputtering intercom went dead for a few seconds.

"I'm sure you did your best, sir. It has been an honor serving with you." The reply only made him choke up further.

"Good luck, sergeant." With that he hoisted a medical kit off the far wall. After bandaging himself up as best he was able he paused a moment to take a deep breath.

Hobbling over to the two poor souls laying there he gathered up both of their pistols. In a whisper he spoke under his breath.

"I am truly sorry, boys. You're probably better off. You won't be needing these anymore." Though bandaged, the pain was beginning to cut through as the adrenaline rush wore off. The zebra was suicidal anyway to have come here with balefire bombs, missiles and who knew what else now in the air flying back and forth. He or she would definitely prove a dangerous opponent. There might even be more than one. He knew the stories of their close-quarters fighting style.

Did this zebra even know what was happening outside, or care? Surely their leader must be insane to have ordered the certain destruction of the world. Were they all completely out of their minds? As he pondered this he readied the pistols. He would prefer his personal sidearm. Using the dead guards guns to take down their murderer would be suitably poetic. He knew his wound was serious, and would prove fatal. There were robots of a sort, but no medical bot provisioned here yet and no doctor. Without one to treat it, there could only be one outcome. Knowing they both were effectively dead already there was no real point in confronting the zebra, but having just ensured almost two hundred more would die he felt something in his heart. He wanted this zebra to suffer.

He was on the verge of promotion before this, and this facility was his expected command. He would take vengeance upon this intruder that helped end so many lives. Feeling an unfamiliar cold fury welling up inside him, he stepped into the hall. Nowhere to be seen. Naturally. Any zebra infiltrator would be an absolute master of stealth. Hovering both pistols in front aimed slightly to the sides he limped down the hall cautiously. Watching for any hint of the shimmering telltale sign his quarry was near. Peering into the supply closet as he passed, nothing. This made no sense. Where could the zebra have gone? He looked around to realize in his haste earlier he broke procedure, the elevator was not closed securely behind him.

This would make things much more difficult. The mechanical dial above stopped at floor 16. "Oh, no." He muttered as he strode into the elevator. There were turrets on every level that should hinder his opponents ability to move around freely, but he felt a sinking sensation in his gut. Why that floor? It held something rather important. How would any zebra know what was contained there? He must stop them before even more damage could be done. Slowly sidling up to the elevator door to look around as it opened he could see the turrets on this level were indeed activated. It looked as though they already fired on something, but there was no trace. Did the zebra find a way around the defenses somehow?

This one might be even more skilled than anticipated. Bright Step's thoughts drifted to the sheer size of the stable. This stable was smaller than average, but even being able to support a hundred or so ponies meant the scope of the place was vast. His enemy was doubtlessly going to take advantage of this to elude pursuit. There was one thing going for him, the zebra likely did not know the place was empty which should slow them down. Sheer serendipity is all that allowed them to get in here. It would not take too long before catching on though.

"Alright, stripey.. so you can avoid the turrets somehow. They still fire at you. I have the advantage here." The security badge he wore was magically attuned to match the wearer, it would do them no good to take it from him. Searching the immediate area he could not help but notice the enormous elevation shaft central to the facility. It would never see use now. After all, the world outside was at an end wasn't it? A depressive feeling set in upon the realization that he was utterly alone. He would never see another friendly face again. This emotion only combined with his anger.

"Calm down." He spoke to himself.

"Deal with that later. If there is a later." He limped down the halls towards the place he knew the zebra was trying to reach. One final time he quickly tried an intercom panel.

"Anypony respond?" Static. Far more static than there should be. It would be very difficult to surprise this most dangerous prey. Facing an opponent of unquestionable skill gave him pause. How was he going to stop them? The controls he knew the zebra must be after were protected by their own set of turrets. They were important enough to warrant extra defenses. Judging by how fast he was moving they must be fairly close to each other.

Spotting a wheeled work cart gave him an idea. Hopping on top of it he heaved it down the hallway at a high pace with the pistols in front, speeding towards the swinging doors into the room with the turrets. Through the doors windows, he could see a glimmering shadow dodging around the room as the incinerator turrets fired off. So that was how they were being avoided. Each shot was a wide burst of reactor powered flames, but they were sluggish in aiming and slow to fire. Just enough for a nimble zebra to avoid. No one left to tell about this shortcoming. Slamming into the doors sent them wide as he added his firepower to the turrets.

In either the greatest acrobatics show of all time or simply the best stroke of luck ever, the spy went cartwheeling off behind a reel-to-reel computing device as a strange little metal box was flung directly at the controls. Rolling to a hard stop against the opposite wall he turned to look out upon the auton gallery. Six of the unusual constructs were stored here, and something enormous. The outside of the box that was hurled must have been magnetic as it clamped itself against the controls with a resounding clang. A dull thud echoed throughout the gallery as an odd faint flicker passed through the stark mechanical eyes of each.

"What have you done!?" He yelled and fired several rounds past the machinery where the zebra was now taking cover. The spy was carrying an automatic, in his haste to get here there was no time to stop in at the armory to pick up something heavier for himself. This meant he must keep them pinned down somehow or he would be facing a barrage of bullets. Deftly dodging across to take cover behind another machine the brazen spy barely managed to get off a wild round which ricocheted past his head. Too close. The turrets were just throwing them off enough. Whatever they were after was already done. Jumping on the cart he hurled himself back out the door firing a few rounds behind for cover.

He would go for the armory and come seeking them again with heavier guns if the turrets didn't get them. The cart was proving useful to let him get around easier, but he needed a better solution. Heading straight back to elevator he realized how exhausted he was becoming. The exertion of the fight caused him to bleed quite profusely. He moaned in agony as he undid and re-tightened the bandaging, it worked itself loose during the fight. Floor 4 contained the armory. Agonizingly slowly it rose, finally coming to a stop. This time he locked the staff elevator in place. It would not move without him. This should leave the zebra trapped on floor 16 for a while at least.

Pushing himself along on the cart as he was made him feel pretty pathetic. He entered the code to the armory door. There was a very special medical kit in here.

"This should keep me going a little longer." He was gasping a little. His wound was far too serious for a healing potion alone to do much good. Surgery would have been needed to correct this. Within the box were various drugs and potions not intended to be used lightly. He was dying anyway, this might at least give him enough time.

"So, this is the one." Taking out a particularly nasty looking needle filled with some deep red liquid he popped the cap off and injected the entire contents into himself. The pain let up immediately. His vision also went blurry.

"Now for it, before I drop." Huffing he turned to the various weapons lockers. He didn't want what was in them. Opening a door further in he found what he was after.

"Okay, ya murderous freak. You've killed hundreds of ponies and yourself. Let's see how you deal with this." Pulling a cover off revealed a small armored two-wheeled Mini-Gaitling MK-IV. It was a very uncommon weapon. During the entire war it was deployed very sparingly. Although the firing speed was unrivaled it did have problems. The speed itself caused some of them. It was also very heavy. The recoil was barely held in check by heavy springs which dispersed some of it along with the wheel locks.

"The world is gone. Might as well go out with a bang myself." Painfully he slipped on an armor vest, a grenade belt which held 5 across his back and picked up a PAR-47 assault rifle. Slowly pushing the heavy gun down the hall and into the elevator was time-consuming. Surely it would be worth it. Normally a two-pony team would be required to operate the weapon. He knew the potent drug mixture he injected himself with was really a failed experiment. A last resort intended to keep soldiers fighting if they found themselves injured and cut off from aid. The few times it was tested proved only that using such powerful drugs comes with serious consequences. He probably wouldn't have to worry about that. Time for the show.

"I'm gunning for you, stripey." Bright Step psyched himself up as the elevator went down. Time felt like it stopped until finally the doors opened. His enemy would have found another place to lay in wait by now. Still, this time he was armed to the teeth and a potent mixture of drugs was giving him a false strength. Ordinarily he would never have used it. He was going to get at least this one zebra for their crimes against life. Having ensured so many more would die seemed little more than a ridiculous pointless cruelty only the most black-hearted soul could possibly commit. The elevator doors hissed open.

"Alright, round three. I am going to put an end to you." Pushing the hefty gun out he once more stepped forth from the elevator. He was afforded some protection by the gun itself and two armor plates that stuck up from the sides.

It was by no means a perfect defense. A large gap between the plates allowed the gun to be aimed. It was set quite low to the ground between the wheels. It was after all more of a static emplacement weapon. The strain on his leg was plain to see, even the fresh bandages he only put on moments ago were soaked through with blood. He wouldn't live much longer at this rate. The hunt was on once again. What trickery might be waiting for him now? Only one way to find out. This time he was not trying to be quiet at all, he wanted the zebra to come at him. There was no way the spy would be expecting this. Amped on drugs as he was made him certain it was possible to take them out if only he could catch the slightest glimpse. It would not be as easy to locate them now.

The only reason he could see them before was due to the turrets forcing them to move around so much. The shimmering was very subdued, but a dead giveaway when the intruder was moving fast. He was no stranger to pain and danger, having fought in two of the most prolonged and heated battles of the entire war. The mixture of sadness and anger drove him on. Wishing would not bring back the many who died this day. This small act of retribution was nothing in comparison to the sheer magnitude of it all. Now it was just something he must do, whatever it took. He looked about this empty tomb. The unused offices, working spaces and common areas. In only a week it would have been provisioned, full of life. As it stood the construction crews left only a few days prior.

This was a place meant to protect senior military staff and provide hope for the future. Now it would save nopony. He strapped what was left of the experimentals to the back of his good foreleg. It held one final useful thing. He prayed to whatever good may be left he would not need it. The turrets above were still operating, swiveling to and fro seeking a target. Good. Shoving the heavy weapon would likely have been beyond him at this point if not for the drugs coursing through his veins. With time running out he made as much noise as possible. He wanted a confrontation now. Any outcome would end with his death anyway. Feeling his heart stutter gave renewed determination to end this quickly.

"I gotta focus." If he was able he would of activated the auton contingent housed within the facility. He thought about it. There was no knowing what that strange flash was in their eyes or what the box did to their controls, especially one in particular. Something about that one made him nervous, their big secret. They would have made short work of this. It was not a risk he was willing to take now. The autons were something different, unusual in some way he was not entirely aware of. He only knew the very first was destroyed somehow, and explicitly told never to activate them except under a very specific set of circumstances or outright emergency. Then there was that one.

His orders said never allow that one to be activated without the entire design team present. Shivering he moved on. If there was time to think earlier he would have made several different decisions. It was far too late to do anything about those choices now. No. The surprise and confusion was too much, too fast. He could not have acted any differently. Catching him by surprise and keeping him off-balance were tactics he knew well, tactics which he'd fallen for far too easily. He was still furious with himself. He was probably going to be given command of this base and let it come to this. His thoughts were racing.

"It is not my fault. There should have been more guards. There should have been...These thoughts are stupid. They waltzed right through a whole military camp outside without getting caught." The camp outside for all intents and purposes really was a small town. Another facade should any of the public happen to wander by. Even being supplied by a privately held farm just off to the north to reduce the amount of supplies being shipped in. All in effort to keep this place a secret.

"All the little loose ends of projects nopony cared about anymore wound up stored here. How did they even find out about this place?" It didn't matter now. Nothing truly mattered now.

Surely multitudes of ponies outside were dead or dying by this time.

"Time to step up my game!" Realizing he yelled that out loud made him feel a bit foalish. He let loose a despairing laugh at the insanity of it all which suddenly ceased.

"Oh, these drugs are really doing a number on me. Stop wasting time, move." Goading himself he pushed onwards. Locking down each door as he went along this time was a calculated move. At some point the spy would have to act or be forever trapped in a single room, but he could not use them for cover either.

Not feeling any sort of pain let him move at full speed, but doing so meant he was exacerbating his wound further. His body would not stand up to this abuse for long. Hopefully he would encounter the enemy soon. This was already taking far too long. Perhaps wheeling this heavy weapon along was a mistake after all. Soon enough he might have to abandon it, losing the serious edge it would give him. Deciding it best to keep shoving it forward he stuck with the decision. There were only about six more rooms left. The zebra must be present here somewhere close. The drug was only designed to last about half an hour. His heart felt shuddery and off beat from all the blood loss.

No drug, no matter how potent could sustain this for long. Finally, down to the last three rooms of this floor they met. The entire area lit up with gunfire from both directions, rounds bouncing off the walls and armor plates. Two ricocheting shots struck him directly across the armor vest, breaking a few of his ribs. He did not feel it, yet. The zebra was using the doorway on the right as cover, only firing around it at an angle. At least this left them at a disadvantage. While this exchange went on he was still wheeling the hefty gun forward. At the same time pulling all 5 pins and levitating off the grenade belt, throwing it down the hall. Catching sight of this the spy backpedaled into the corner room.

The grenades were set to detonate on contact. When they hit the floor a massive explosion sent debris everywhere. Being in a confined space the blast smashed into the gun, knocking him down. Immediately getting up again he pressed what was strapped to the back of his leg, emptying a final needle into himself. The world turned red. Screaming he began running forward through the haze and smoke, firing the assault rifle randomly. He'd thrown the grenades a bit too far, the blast would have missed his target. Much of the end of the hallway was just a mess of steel and wiring. The room the zebra ducked into was a lab for this floor. Suddenly a flaming cloak flew past him in the haze.

The zebra must have backed into a gas burner ignited by the explosion. Turning to fire he found his rifle knocked away and a resounding kick across his head. He fell to the floor. Ordinarily this would have knocked him unconscious. The zebra moved in for a final blow.

"Nope." Springing straight up as he smacked a hoof across their head sent them flying into the rear wall, falling onto their face in a heap. Lifting the rifle he moved in. Without thinking he stepped in towards them as a shot rang out cutting through his left hind leg causing him to fire a spray as he dropped, hitting her several times across the body.

He forgot the spy took his pistol which she shot him with. His own pistol, well this was embarrassing. Groaning he fell, slamming into the floor once more. His head landed right beside hers. Barely able to lift his head he looked at her. So it was a female. The drugs were wearing off. His pain would soon be at an end. Gazing at her he could not really imagine they were all that different. She wasn't quite dead yet either. The pistol clicked on an empty chamber as she dropped it. The very last round. He felt it was fitting.

"Good fight, stripey." He huffed. In that accent all zebra speak with she mumbled raggedly.

"Not so bad yourself." If only she knew what she'd put him through.

"Maybe it's just the blood loss speaking or the fact we've killed each other..you are really cute." She blushed softly as they both fell into sleep eternal. The major died here, alone. If he knew some ponies did hear his initial request for response over the intercom he may not have. There were still seven other ponies within the complex, two were guards. For no reason they knew he did not get their reply. The intercom system was garbled, useless. They desperately tried to find him. The place was simply so huge. For so few ponies it could take days to locate him on their own.

They were the final machining crew assigned to building the armor plates for the outsized auton standing on the elevation platform. It was under construction ever since the main platform was finished. How it shined standing there. Awaiting possible use in war. A war that was ending. Each pony was only assigned a specific piece to construct to precise specifications. Specialized spells were cast on every piece, some of the spells even the unicorns casting them did not know the exact purpose of. It would all come together in the end. None knew the real secret behind this construct. To them it was just another albeit rather large robot. It was not like the rest. They felt odd being around it. Something felt cold and off about it somehow, but each auton felt somewhat that way to ponies. Just how it was. No problem. That is normal.

Despite their insistence they felt different than other robots, it was ignored. Nopony heard it, a dull clanking sound coming down the halls. It roamed the empty dim corridors methodically, searching. It was not a thing that should be active. Few were left to hear the slight mechanical sound of its limbs lifting then contacting the flooring to reverberate throughout the stillness. Slowly panning its head left to right the dull ivory auton located the major and the spy through the dusty haze. For a moment it halted, looking at them lying there as if frozen. Its eyes occasionally flickering in and out from the faintest red to a cold steeled blue colour. It reached forward and touched the lifeless form of the major almost gently, stopping for a long time before carefully lifting him. The flicker returned to its eyes as it violently threw his body onto its back.

Doing the same with her corpse, it then proceeded to the elevator where it clicked and clattered staring at the floor buttons. The doors closed. The crew could not know what was happening. They were trying to reach the command room several floors below. The base lockdown was proving a problem for them as well. The staff elevator would not come when called. Some doors they did not have authorization to open, forcing them to find longer paths around. This crew was not really supposed to be here any longer. They were on break between assignments. One of those things easily overlooked, their work finished. They would have been ordered somewhere else eventually. Two weeks passed already.

They'd spent the time resting and recuperating in the 9th floor quarters area. Rest they desperately needed anyway. They couldn't be reprimanded for not receiving orders, so took advantage. The group consisted of two reddish-brown unicorn brothers, a trio of earth pony engineers and the two patrol guards who got them when the alarms went off.

"Can we go up this way?" The colorful yellow mare brushed her auburn mane out of her eyes as she asked the guard. She was the only female amongst them, for all intents and purposes she was one of the guys.

"I think it will take us up to hydroponics. There is a service elevator at the opposite end we can take to floor 6. It will take a while to reach it." The guard was gruff and looked very out of sorts.

They had no idea what was happening and no orders. The frantic crackling call from the major for anypony to respond lent considerable urgency to finding him.

"You're the engineers, why won't the intercoms work right all of a sudden?" He was wearing a full vest and helmet with a visor they managed to get out of a riot locker. The other guard was not so protected.

"We don't know what is causing it, but there seems to be two kinds of magnetic and one tremendous magic field coming from somewhere inside causing problems with the facility systems." The guard grunted as they exited the stairwell onto the hydroponics level. Plants were everywhere in large long planters under venting and recycling shafts.

The air was extremely fresh here, as was the water which was filtered from pipes through various types of plant for near complete recyclability. This place would not rely on a water talisman.

"Is there anything we can do about it? The major might be in trouble somewhere. We cannot possibly search this whole place for him. We can't even open all the doors." The engineers shook their heads forlornly in unison. She went on.

"The complex is hardened against E.M.P. from the outside and has some anti-magic infused plating around key sections, but this is coming from inside continuously and its very intense. We need to get away from it. Constant exposure to this level of unknown magnetism and magic fields together could be dangerous." It took them much too long already to reach this floor.

The dark blue engineer with a gear and crossed wrench as a cutie mark spoke up.

"We don't really know that. We need to get to the command room and find some information about what is happening first." He took a slow breath.

"I have an idea for when we get there." A diminutive white and mottled brown engineer chimed in. He was a bit small for a stallion, very friendly and easygoing. His mark was difficult to guess the meaning of, looking for all the world like a thick balled up mass of wires.

"We can see which of the emergency panels was used to tell where this started and go from there." The group agreed that was a good idea and walked on through this floor they were not familiar with. The guards knew it well enough, but never did they have to find a way through it during lockdown before. If the base were fully staffed there would be personnel on every floor with necessary clearances at any given time. Now it was a frustrating maze with many dead ends and barred doors blocking their way.

"This is impossible! Why didn't they give the guards clearance to move about freely if lockdown was initiated, wouldn't that make more sense?" The guards could only shrug. It would probably have been fixed later.

Their progress was slow. Finding a way to the elevator was confusing.

"We've been here before. All we've done is go in a big complicated circle somehow." One of the brothers mentioned.

"How long has it been since we heard that call, half an hour?" He sighed. The quiet dull orange engineer who never seemed to speak surprised them by doing so. His mark was clear enough, a trigonometry symbol.

"This time, scratch marks into the wall so we know where we've been already." It was a good idea. The directional signs were useless when doors could not be opened. Working their way through like this was tedious.

"Are we the only ponies in this whole place?" The unarmored guard nodded.

"Supposed to be fully provisioned next week, but why isn't this place swarming with the town soldiers? There are plenty of them outside." The situation must be serious. The lighting was very dull.

"Why are the lights so dim?" One of the two brothers was asking more to make conversation than actual curiosity. He just wanted to get out of here.

"Might be a result of those fields. We really need to get to command level. This is so annoying. We need to go up to go back down again because of the stupid lockdown." The mare was usually solid and logical.

She was talking very quickly which was unlike her. Their current plight was making her fidgety. Her nervousness was not helping.

"Hey, relax. We'll just get where we need to go and everything will be fine, alright?" The other brother noticed her rapid speech.

"Take a deep breath, okay?" She did so as they continued to wind their way through the floor. Finally, the elevator.

"Oh, it feels good to finally be making some headway." She appeared calmer as they piled into the service elevator.

It was tight inside, and felt sluggish as it went up three floors.

"Did anypony else.." She was cut off by the others saying yes.

"That sure felt strange. Never did that before." Now they only needed to reach the other end of floor 5. The elevator doors opened oddly slowly as well.

"Say, if this is a lockdown why aren't some of them Protectathingies roaming around?" The diminutive engineer asked.

"There should be, as far as I know. Something is really wrong with all of this. No worries though, your badges will keep you safe if there are." The guards were doing their best to keep the group calm.

It was mostly succeeding since it was only the stress of not knowing what was happening elsewhere that was bothering them.

"Now, if we can just get to the other elevator we can go straight down to command." Things were looking up. This floor was mostly storage areas. It was not taking nearly as long to find their way around. Ten more minutes passed in silence until at last they found a path to the secondary elevator. Weary of the winding route they were forced to take, a direct way would be nice for a change.

"It's about time. Hey wait a sec, look." The eldest of the two unicorns pointed a hoof up at the floor dial.

"I didn't press the button." The doors opened to reveal a dark grey mechanical pony.

"Speaking of robots. My, does this one look a little odd to you?" It spoke in a lifeless deep monotone.

"Present badge." He held up the pass hanging from his neck. It stared at the pass, motionless.

"Guys, what is this thing doing?" He looked back over his shoulder at the rest. They did not know what to say.

"Present badge." Somehow it sounded more insistent, if that were possible.

"This is my badge, ya metal moron." It lowered and raised its head.

"Present badge." This was not getting them anywhere.

"Look robot, the badge is right here." He held it up closer.

"Present badge." Raising and lowering its head in between it kept repeating.

"Present badge. Present badge." His brother was moving up closer beside him.

"Uh, guys?" The auton took a step closer.

"Okay, that is it. This is an emergency. Move aside, robot." For a second none of them could quite comprehend what happened. A very faint white glow enveloped it as the auton swung a leg across his neck sending his still blinking head flying backwards to land in front of the mare while blood sprayed across his brother. She screamed as they all recoiled in horror. The guards were yelling.

"Fall back, fall back!" She just stood there. All of them were so stunned they were not moving. The guard wearing armor shook her.

"What are you doing? Run!" It finally kicked in that they needed to be moving away from this mechanical monstrosity. The other guard took a shot at the crazed auton, hitting it squarely in the left eye which caused its head to turn. The group was finally getting away from it as it slowly turned its head back. Two small plates rotated out of its shoulders and slid back as dual automatics of some sort ejected and opened up. The guard wearing the armor was struck by several rounds as they leapt into the other hallway.

"You alive?" Being struck with a single bullet even wearing a vest hurts considerably. He was struck by five. He moaned in pain from cracked ribs and bruises.

"Good. No time to feel pain. Now, move!" The other guard pulled him to his hooves and moved to help him walk. The auton was coming. The rest of their group was scattered in every direction.

"It's too fast." Unnaturally fast. It swayed side to side as it trampled over the dead unicorns body and galloped down the hall.

"Why is it doing this!?" Somepony yelled as it sprinted down the halls at a pace they could not hope to match. It went right past the guards for some reason, charging straight at the remaining twin.

He looked up to see it heading towards him. There was nowhere to go. Tears streamed as he shut his eyes.

"I'm coming, brother." With that it's head slammed into him with such tremendous power a sickening cracking sound was heard as his body flew into the ceiling to come slamming down against the floor in a heap. The whirring terror turned its head left and right, seeking. It bolted down another hall to find two of the engineers trying to force one of the hall doors closed on it. Too late. A spray of projectiles struck the one in front. He slumped over as the other engineer dropped to the floor. He looked up to see the auton towering over him.

"No, please.." It smashed a metal hoof down through his skull, crushing their bodies as it walked over them. It turned its attention to the remaining guards. They could only go back the way they'd come. He yelled.

"Head for the service lift!" There was no way to tell if anypony was left to hear him. The guard sneered at the insane thing approaching him as he set down his wounded companion.

"Go." He turned back. His pistol would be useless. Earth ponies are known for their sheer physical strength in any line of business which is why at least one was present in every army unit.

He weighed his options and chose the only real one available. As the maniacal machine bore down on him at full speed he braced himself, timing his move as he reared to throw his front hooves up, hitting it directly in what would have been a live ponies chest, denting the armor plating. It was almost enough to slow it down. As it hit he was shoved backwards, he strained against it while sparks were actually flying off his rear hooves against the metal flooring. For a second it appeared he may have a chance. His luck quickly ran out. The impact was proving too much as his legs buckled against the heavy autons relentless onslaught. The other guard jumped atop it.

"I told you to go!" He could barely move after that impact.

"Forget it. We die together." He grunted while the wild machine twisted and turned violently as he grappled with it. Even their strength was rapidly dwindling fighting something with no will to break. The unarmored guard rammed a hoof against the damaged left eye, shattering it. They were not doing enough damage. It sidestepped into the wall with ridiculous force, then again, breaking the armored guards legs. He screamed then fell silent as it threw him off. He was probably dead, if not he soon would be.

"Luna send you to the pits!" He turned and bucked it hard to the face with all his remaining strength. Its head tilted far back to make it look as if contemplating the ceiling. A clacking noise was heard as its head slowly ratcheted back down. He was turning to aim another kick. It was too late. The auton spun with a speed no machine could possibly possess and performed the same move. Its legs struck him mid center, flinging him into the wall as his spine snapped. The final breath of air hissed out of his lungs as he crumpled. The seemingly insane auton stood over him. It remained there tilting its head about, looking at the bodies as if studying a piece of art.

It began gathering up their corpses, taking them to be piled in the elevator. Stepping in on top of them it circled to face the floor now virtually covered in blood. The doors wouldn't close, opening several times. One of their limbs was hanging out. It looked down and casually tore off the leg. She sobbed, crying as she ran. The other engineers told her to run while they tried to rig a door to crush it. She heard gunshots behind her, then somepony yelling about the service lift. It was followed shortly thereafter by a horrible pained yowl and a terrible thud. They must have failed. The guards, their only real hope were nowhere to be seen. Were they all dead? Why?

Practically bounding she nearly flew through the winding halls back to the lift.

"No." Her eyes went wide as she approached the opening doors, setting another of the monsters loose.

"Present badge." She backed away only to stop as she heard heavy steps off to each side. She stopped walking and sat down hard as her mind gave way to what was happening. The world seemed to close in around her. Twitching she looked around. Multicolored eyes moved towards her from the dark. Five of the horrible things were surrounding her. They were all speaking in that awful deep tone.

"Present badge." There were no ponies left to hear her final pained, hopeless scream.

___

Some ponies somewhere along the line really made a huge mistake, huh?

Get Your Corrugated Imitation Tombstone Today

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Ponies loved the light. After a time they learned to appreciate the night. There was nothing scary or frightening out in the black, not really. Not once did a single pony ever envision any of the horror to come. One of their princesses represented this very thing. Nothing terrible resides within it, how could there? Though known to be a bit eccentric she would never steer them wrong. Way back in the depth of time something did happen. Something which most ponies long forgot, when she took a step into the black herself. Only one really remembered that horrible affair, when her beloved sister allowed herself a moments weakness.

A moment too much, resulting in much of the great castle at the time being reduced to rubble in the ensuing fracas. Luna falling victim to such a desire was witnessed by relatively few despite the destruction wrought. Her rapid ascent to power and even faster removal from it left her very much out of the public eye, and easily lost to memory. Far fewer than expected even asked. Her later reintroduction to society was calculated, simple. Forgiveness is easily given when only one truly remembers. When it finally became overwhelming, she found giving over the reins of power to her was easy. Too easy. Nothing comes without a price. The princess of the night was given over to ruling without much fanfare.

Grumbles from the court, to be expected. It took a whole decade for Celestia to be ground down, and only a single not so stray bullet to end any hope for peace. With the final nail all but driven into the coffin, descent into a conflict with only one end was assured. Even vague memories hold their power. Her brief misstep into the dark did not go entirely unnoticed. The zebra nation fractured at that time. Thus the very foundations of the Zebra Empire began to form and solidify around that single incident. Unlike the ponies of Equestria who developed a holiday from the fragmented recollection of the past, beliefs in the form of superstition took hold instead. They blamed her for the nation collapsing.

About halfway through the war when zebra society learned just who was now leading Equestria, the seeds of dissent were sown. Before, Caesar found balancing the need for gems and associated expansion difficult. Now against the outcry it was an impossible task. In truth there was no chance for continued peace to begin with. Layer after layer of those little incidents that happen, happened. The kind that don't seem like they should mean anything to anyone piled on until they forced Celestia herself to desperately attempt brokering a peace deal. In doing so all she really managed was to open herself to attack, resulting in the loss of one of their greatest heroes.

As he fell the whole world fell with him into untempered warfare. 187 years after this war ended, a little rock fell.

"I do not like the feeling I get in here. Try the audio logs, maybe they'll have something on this place." He used the strange interface to do so. There was an odd warble to the sound coming from the tinny ancient speakers.

"It might not be very good or work. This stuff is so old." It scratched and crackled then began to play.

"Has you decided to use? Far been? Why I’ve been further more even decided to use go need to do look more like as anypony can. Can you really be far as even decided half as much to use wish go for that? I guess that one when really been far even as once decided to use even go want, it is then that he has really been far as even decided to use go want to do look more like. It’s just common sense." The group of four stared incredulously at the playing audio.

"Wh..what?" They all said in unison.

"Maybe try a different one." He played with the strange interface again. After a horrible click it started again.

A high-pitched nasally voice which snorted out a laugh, spoke.

"Are your cupcakes saggy, sloppy, messy, slippy? Nothing's more thrilling than cupcakes with filling, and you'll thrill anyone with our magic cupcake oven! For the perfect cupcake every time. Just put anything in there!" All four of them blinked in silence as it fuzzed out.

"Didn't that wacko pegasus say this was a secret military base? What is this? Try again." Hesitantly he engaged the next log in the list which only displayed 'Hardware adjunct failure.' That one was out.

After scrolling through numerous corrupted entries he finally found another accessible file.

"Uncomfortable in clothes no matter what you wear? Try decontouring magical fashion wear. Soft, comfortable. It's like wearing a cloud, because you are." All they could do was wonder why an old army base would have these recordings.

"These logs make no sense. They are surprisingly amusing, but what are they?" Their leader was just as confused as the rest.

"Well, he told us to find and bring back anything we can from here. Maybe they are some kind of code or something. Keep going." Sighing heavily he continued down the list. Many of the log files were inaccessible.

A while later he found another amongst the huge list. A heavy buzzing sounded over the speaker. Hearing it felt strange. As it slowly began to play a deep sense of foreboding settled over the group.

"Major, we're down here!" A loud skip in the audio made them jump a little bit.

"Major, major can you hear us?, we're coming!" The log trailed off into noise. They looked around uncomfortably.

"That..didn't sound like the others." A chill seemed to fall across them as they ventured further inside.

___

Now we're cooking. At least, somepony was. Was it with gas or fire? One wonders. One might also wonder if it might have been poisoned. Like so many things here, even the light casts dark.

Coats of Many Colors

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Books are written for a great variety of reasons. Some are written as a record of history. Some to rewrite it. It is all in the eyes of those beholding the words contained within. It is said history is written by the victors, but what is written when no one is victorious? In post-war Equestria, exactly nothing. The very existence of books is a rare thing. Rarer still, those who would seek them. Very few ponies remain who know the knowledge they may contain is sometimes more valuable than all the caps in the wastes. Especially now that knowledge truly is power. What you know may be the difference between the fine divide between life and death, and remaining on the side of the living.

In a time when everypony struggles just to survive only might makes right. Before the war some unicorns may have felt themselves above the common crowd. Now their lives meant just as little as another. Most unicorns kept at least a few books. In a dim forgotten corner of an ancient book depository one particular book lay, the unicorn who owned it never knowing how valuable it would one day become. She knew only that the subjects it touched on were greatly detailed. Something which must have taken an entire lifetime to write. When she lived she was not a well-to-do unicorn. Her life was meager and bereft.

A sad little pony who toiled her life away trying to ensure future generations would have the knowledge their ancestors possessed. Her sadness only tempered by the stories she would read, her one escape from her goal. To a point only dragons were thought to know with their great hoards, she was obsessed. For years she obtained and hid all manner of books. Anything she deemed those to follow may need. The slightest shred of knowledge, the most obscure spell. Anything that might someday be needed she filed away from sight. She began this quest to safeguard knowledge almost before the ministries came into being. Back when it was not considered so dangerous to know certain things.

She was thought to be eccentric, and certainly questioned when she went looking for donations to help build the depository. Why build it out there? She chose a spot where she imagined it might stand the test of time. She found it difficult to raise funds or to get workers to come this far out, but dealing with these things were necessary pains. Her explanations behind its location were quite clever. Nopony would suspect the true intent. No mere library once stood here. Every bit, every minute of her spare time was spent here. When workers were scarce she would do anything she could alone.

Long days of heavy labor made her look withered far beyond her age, her once bright blue coat tattered and unkempt. Her cutie mark of a glimmering gilded scroll frazzled. Her friends concerns over her appearance were carefully brushed aside with well-reasoned explanations. Not able to find fault with her logic they could only watch in sadness as this pony seemed to teeter on the edge of life before them. She knew, and was happy knowing her friends cared so much for her. They would leave her before the end, as would what was left of her family. She knew this too. It was okay. They would leave because they must. It was better that way.

She did not want them to see her decline any further or involve them in something which could ruin their lives. The better part of a decade passed in this fashion, until at last the depository was fully constructed and very full of books. Slightly uncommon books. Books that would otherwise arouse no suspicion. Her last bit gone, the work finally completed. It opened to a surprising amount of fanfare and many more visited the place than she ever expected. At last able to rest, her health recovered somewhat. Over the next ten years it played its public role as a library, garnering a reputation for carrying material not often found outside of Canterlot itself. This alone drew visitors who did not wish to travel so far as the capital.

During that time she continued to gather and hide away any book of note she could get her hooves on. With the ministries in place this was becoming more difficult to do without being caught. Places to hide these books were at a premium as well, but built into the grand library using very clever means. Small secret rooms and side pockets not in the construction plans were added subtly. To an untrained eye it was no different from the plans. What pony would ever expect a public library to hold any secrets? She played her role well, none would ever suspect the quiet shady deals she would seek out under cover of acquiring material for the depository.

It was a perfect front, flawless and far enough away from anywhere important to warrant a second look. Though her physical health improved, the stress exacted its price. She could never save all the knowledge in the world no matter how many books she obtained. Doing without many of the comforts of life she built the grand depository in hope for the future. The building did indeed hold up fairly well over the years, but the wastes are harsh on everything. The crumbling ancient walls and timber could barely hold up what was left. The first floor lay open to the world. The second floor cracked and filled with holes. Little remained.

Should no pony happen across this place soon, her efforts would be proven entirely in vain. Much of her life was spent in loneliness, to spare any around her the risk. Having been orphaned early in life through an industrial accident, and her mother succumbing to an uncommon illness, she resolved then that someday she would bring as much of the worlds knowledge together in one place as she could. She came as close to this impossible goal as could be. A mere two months before the wars climactic end ministry investigators began finding evidence of her dealings that would be used to close and search the depository. They would never get the chance.

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There are many types of sacrifice, was hers worth it?

Adventurer

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She ran through the day. The horrible sight she'd witnessed behind her driving her onwards. It played at her mind. What could she have done? Should she have turned and fought? Never having had any experience in a real fight she probably would have lost. Lost against the awful ponies that ruined her life. Running and running. Don't look back. She thought that horrible monster thing before was the most terrible thing ever, but these first few terrifying hours running were the worst thing she ever experienced. Fleeing from her home by herself. Hoping never to see the crazed murderous pony again who so coldly ended her parents lives. For what? Why were her parents dead? Alone she ran and ran. Eventually fatigue overtook her.

That night in her dread she did not even remove herself from Moonlight. She felt secure in here. This confining space she was so afraid of when she first saw it was now her haven. It would keep her safe. Safe from the horror. Safe from the terrifying evil inflicted on her family. Safe from the pain. She fell asleep leaning against the remains of an ancient dead tree in the middle of this nothingness. She was so tired. The suit would protect her. The only sure thing in a world that betrayed her young heart and left her with nothing but fear. A night passed.

"I never did anything wrong. It's not fair. It's just not fair!" She kicked the ground with an armored hoof, nearly tripping herself in the process.

"Agh! Stupid horrible ponies. My dad didn't deserve that. Mom Didn't. They both made mistakes sure, but why did they have to kill anypony!?" This time she ran forward to work off pent up frustration with the cart rolling behind, its contents her only possessions. The thought the terrible ponies that attacked them might follow her tracks occurred to her so did her best to obscure them for a day or two just in case. After the rapid departure from home her only thought was escape. After those two days full of fear it did not at all seem possible for them to follow.

"Mom, dad.. what do I do!?" She moaned as she ran, slowing.

Returning to a normal pace she found her heart pumping too hard. "Just walk. Just walk that way. He said to do that. Just do that." On the third day into her unexpected trip she was already feeling desperately alone and dejected. There was nothing out here. Nothing at all. Certainly no other ponies. Time passed and days slipped by one after another.

"There's nothing out here, nothing! Did ponies really let this happen to everything everywhere? What happened?" The empty parched landscape seemed to roll out forever in front of her. For an eternity of loneliness and anguish she wandered through this emptiness, her thoughts tortured by the images of her father dying right in front of her.

Her mother she did not even get to say goodbye to. Minutes passed one by one, then hours which turned to day after lonely day. Not a hint of life could be seen here. She always thought the farm felt empty and lifeless compared to the tiny town she barely knew. That thought had been so wrong. Compared to this horrible loneliness the farm was positively bustling.

"Maybe I should have went to Far Side instead? I had to leave in such a hurry. Dad told me to go this way though." On she marched, passing mile after empty mile of absolutely nothing. The sheer hollowness of it all tore at her mind.

On the barren land rolled.

"How long have I been out here? I feel so lost. I feel so small." The mountain ranges far off to the north looked imposing, intimidating, and altogether lonely as she felt.

"This is surprisingly boring. Where are the all bad things, the danger mom and dad told me of in the world?" There was only emptiness. Once or twice she tried using the suits magic apparatus. It was still just as taxing and hurt her head badly to use it. She stopped counting the days as they passed. Moonlight kept track of time and distance anyway.

Another day passed, and another. In a blind haze she continued pressing on, always eastward. Days dragged, the hours, the minutes, the seconds. Time seemed to stand still as she trudged on, her only hope of reaching the distant destination to relentlessly do so as long as could be stood at a time. Could she possibly make it? Her thoughts were consumed with the fact her escape may have been pointless if she wound up dead out here anyway. Visions of her parents lifeless forms haunted every step.

"I can't do this, I can't. No, don't think about it. Just walk." Another day, another. Walking on and on.

It was so wearing on the mind doing the same thing all day, every day. Surviving this trek seemed impossible even with the supplies she dragged behind her in the small rickety cart.

"I'm not even halfway there yet. Maybe this was a bad idea, but I have to go somewhere right? Dad said it was there." It was so much further than she had ever been in her entire life. Where was everything? She knew the great cities of old were very far away, but was there truly nothing out this way at all? If at some time there was, not a single trace remained. As each day passed her spirits fell ever further. The sheer depressiveness of it all was devastating.

The world was so dreary. She did not realize just yet how much she was mumbling under her breath as she walked. If anypony were around to hear they would surely think she was crazed.

"I wish..I wish..." She did not finish this particular thought. Even wishing felt too hopeful at the moment. There was just so much distance to cover. Her father said she was in very good condition for the trip he had planned, but he was expecting to be with her. This was probably not the route he would have taken either. Knowing this was the case did not help now. In the sudden rush to escape there was no time to think and consider.

She'd simply done what her fathers last words to her said to do. The terrain here was mostly flat which let her keep a decent pace without much effort or planning. Here and there the slightest pile of dirt stirred up by the occasional wind lay scattered. It did little to break up the monotonously dull trip. After one week passed she was feeling pretty low and ragged. For a few days she'd been hopeful due to the apparently speedy progress she was making towards her goal, but this was drilling at her willpower. As yet another day passed she was growing very concerned. By the time nearly two weeks passed she was in a far more terrible state. Her parents were brutally murdered right in front of her for no reason she could fathom.

Since that moment she walked and did so some more. Thanks to this suit dubbed Moonlight she could continue to walk even in the dark without worry of stumbling into an unseen pitfall or unnoticed obstacle. Everything was highlighted in such a unique way. The visual of the world from within the suit was a welcome distraction. The length of her trek so far was interminable beyond compare. In the bottom right of her vision a constant 'no broadcast' flashed. For much of the time she simply went forward, east, trying not to think or feel. Forward to some distant unknown place her father bid her go with the last of his strength.

For much of her life she wanted adventure and excitement, but not like this. Not all alone. All that was really wanted right now were her parents whom she would never see or speak to again. She understood they were not her true parents, but never having known them could only hope they would have cared for her as much as her adoptive father and mother. For all she knew, her life may have been terrible with them. Her real father sounded like he was sincere when he begged the poor fleeing pegasus to take care of her, but he was a pony of the wastes. It may have been he merely wanted to make some act of his life worthwhile or have meaning. She never knew her parents names at all, not even her adoptive parents.

These facts began to dig at her. The suit made light work of pulling her cartful of supplies. A lot of food, less and less water. In comparison to the food, the water she was chugging through at a dangerous rate. Despite the armor having built-in protections against letting a pony inside overheat it was still hot. She would not abandon the suit as it was really her only possession now, and may be needed later. Sometimes she imagined it actually responding to things she said. It really did not and would only react as it was designed to, but in her current state of mind she needed something, anything to listen to her addled rantings about unfairness and any wild thing she would think to say.

When she spoke of where she was heading the suit displayed an arrow and distance. Huh? How did it know that? She could swear it was listening, even sympathetic, but that was surely impossible. She walked so far already and was beginning to fear her father gave wrong directions as he lay dying. It would not be his fault if he did, but she was becoming so very frightened of never seeing another living thing.

"I gotta be brave. I have to be tough. I always wanted to have an adventure. Daddy was brave and tough, mom was....I wanted...I want.. I want mom and dad!" She yelled, stopping to sob uncontrollably.

She truly let herself cry for the first time about what happened. She sat, clumsily slipping out of the suit as it opened and for what felt like forever, tears fell like searing rain as she rocked back and forth.

"How could you leave me all alone!? Dad, mom!...What am I doing?" She shuddered. She didn't know how much time passed. She didn't care. Until now she'd focused on the mundane. The normal. Walking, eating and sleeping to the exclusion of any other thought. The horrible reality suddenly settled in full force. She was after all not quite an adult yet, and utterly alone in the middle of nowhere. She imagined this was the real reason her father was preparing to take her on some impossible quest to find a book nopony could possibly have.

To help her learn how to make her way in the world on her own. He taught her so much in the short span they spent preparing, but some things cannot simply be taught. She could fight and strategize, she could shoot. Her father questioned her on the right solution to many scenarios. What she really did not know was how to interact with other ponies aside from the few in the town she barely knew, much less a griffon or anything else that might be out there. What would they be like? Would they like her? Would this favor he was owed be enough to make them help her? Was he really owed that much? If she ever reached wherever it was. If this griffon was still alive was another matter.

If they were dead or could not be located, then what? She didn't know what to do even if she did find them, much less what to do if she did not. If only they set out sooner at least one of her parents would still be alive. Now, she must try to learn quickly by herself. She looked up as her tears finally subsided and panted, not really feeling any better while awkwardly climbing back into the suit as a slow beeping she never heard before caught her ear.

"Huh?" Her attention was drawn to one of the floating display markers which appeared as the back closed. She'd become used to the floating dials and messages surprisingly quickly. This was different.

The marker twirling as she walked ahead, changing to an arrow pointing to the left along with a glowing 'Investigate' hovering beside it. No, not left. North, with a distance of 200 meters displayed.

"What is this?" As she turned northwards the arrow centered at the top of her vision, changing to gold. It slowly disappeared upward then appeared repeatedly, urging her to go in that direction.

"Moonlight, if only you could really talk to me." She jerked her head back slightly as the display flicked out of her vision and back on for a second.

"Whoa. I hope this thing is alright." Curiosity getting the better of her she headed towards the spot shown. Everything looked the same out here, dull, boring and most of all empty. A place devoid of anything resembling life. Barren. Without the suit direction indicator she would now be hopelessly lost. There were no distinct landmarks. Realizing without the bearing indicator she would really stand no chance of finding anywhere now made her feel terribly small and vulnerable. There was nothing to be seen, why was the suit pointing her this way? Eventually reaching 0 meters the arrow turned into an X. She unhooked herself from the cart bars.

"But, there's nothing here." She looked around in confusion. It was just more empty land, nothing. The blinking X insisted otherwise.

"What?" Far off mountains to the north were the only real feature here. The rest of the landscape was just as tormented as everywhere else.

"Maybe..under the ground?" She jolted as the display flickered out again for a few seconds. "Oh, that worries me." If something happened to the suit she would be in serious trouble.

Not possessing a shovel or any kind of digging tool made it a little tedious using the suit to dig into the dirt, but fairly effective thanks to the amplified force it could deliver. It would still take her far longer than if there were anything to dig with. Hooves are not meant for digging large holes, perhaps a trench. A long time passed as she dug deeper, which took longer the more she did. The X blinked insistently. There must be something here. Becoming very tired of this activity she nearly gave up when upon deciding to dig just a little further she heard a clang as her armored hooves struck home against something metallic. Definitely metal.

"Oh! There is something here after all." She felt accomplished. What could it be? Anything to alleviate the tedium of this torturous journey was welcome. It would still take quite some effort to free the metal box from the ground. Knowing this effort had not been in vain helped a great deal to spur her on. Thinking about it as she went about finishing teasing the box from the ground she realized this would have been an ideal spot for a building. Something probably stood here once. The only clue to it was this buried steel box. If there was anything worthwhile within she did not want to damage it, carefully prying at the decayed hinges. They popped off easily, allowing the lid to slide off with a thunk.

"What the?" What looked like a shiny metal ball with a seam and a blue button on top sat inside. It was so well kept within it appeared brand new. Gently tapping the button did not get a reaction.

"Aww, maybe its broken? Well it did sit here for a long time I guess. Maybe it's worth something." She put it in the cart in a spot where it wouldn't roll off by mistake.

"Well, thanks for pointing me to this Moonlight. Wait, why am I thanking a machine?" She was jarred again by the display flickering off and on.

"Ohh, please be alright. I can't fix you. You're all I have." The display blinked back into existence.

"Whew." That was very concerning. She really did not need to be worried about the suit breaking down now as well. She already walked well over 150 miles, keeping up a grueling pace driven by fear and wanting to put as much distance between herself and the menacing ponies who invaded her home as possible. With her water supplies running lower she really needed to slow down now. She kept herself to any shadow she could find as she traveled onward, favoring night to move. It was ever so slightly cooler at night. An occasional lifeless tree or bit of ragged plant life was the sum total of everything out here anyway.

There were still at least 150 more miles to go. What if father made a mistake in his pain?

"I'm so tired, Moonlight. It feels like I've been walking forever. I could really use a break..huh?" In the top left of her vision the autonomous actions indicator she only saw once before was marked. Why did that show up now?

"Aut..automouse...autonomoose..autonomous actions?" As she spoke it correctly the tag enlarged, shifting in to the center of her vision with a list. Other smaller tags underneath stated combat, defense, and travel options. She was fairly confused by this.

"How come dad never said anything about this stuff?" What did these things even do? She was desperately afraid of breaking the already oddly acting suit. Moonlight seemed to be showing her this on purpose.

"That can't be. This is just a silly coincidence. Must be." She stared at the list for a moment.

"Um, travel?" Immediately the tag enlarged, showing another list of options. Set direction. Set distance. Set speed. Each of these was currently followed by a zero.

"I don't know what this does, better be careful. Set direction?" N-S-E-W? Appeared beside it.

"East?" E locked itself in the box. "Set distance?" Maximum 1609.33 Meters/10 miles? Was displayed beside it. "1 mile?" A floating 1 showed. She was feeling a little apprehensive about this. "Set speed." Walk/Trot/Canter/Gallop/OverBoost? Hovered beside the tag. Without thinking she just blurted it out.

"What the hay is OverBoost?" Which locked into the final box. The tags disappeared as the suit started to move on its own.

"Hey, hey! Whoa!" It started at a walk which felt very uncomfortable as her legs were forced to move with the suit.

It quickly increased in pace until she was moving at a furious gallop.

"Moonlight, stop! Moonlight!" The pace increased further until she was practically flying above the ground barely striking home with each forward leap. Moving faster than she ever thought possible she found it best just to try to relax and allow it to happen. A velocity gauge stated 65 MPH as the suit bounded along with a mind of its own, the cart bouncing behind.

"Moonliiight!" She futilely intoned, her voice practically vibrating from the motion. Less than 20 seconds later the suit whirred and hissed, slowing to a quiet halt exactly one mile from where it started.

She huffed and moaned standing there motionless, her muscles feeling like rubber.

"I think I better be more careful what I say in this thing." She panted and felt pain everywhere. This could be very useful, but she did not want to use that setting again anytime soon.

"Ahh, my legs feel like they're on fire!" She held still for a long while until she felt comfortable lifting her limbs again.

"I guess this suit can move like that for a quick escape or something maybe?" She blinked and very slowly moved on. Though the suit provided the strength and speed she was nearly exhausted from the strain.

It could be set for ten miles? Had anypony ever even tried that? Just from this every part of her felt sore, terribly overtaxed and aching. What condition would doing that for ten miles leave a pony in? She decided to look for a good spot to sleep and recover. While she knew from experience it was possible to sleep wearing the suit, it was not comfortable. As her supplies dwindled she took to sleeping in the back of the cart. It provided at least a little security. She noticed a defense option tag in the list earlier but was too shook up to try anything else yet. A ways away she spotted the very sparse remnants of an ancient wall that was probably part of a building forever ago, just the corner in a sort of triangle really.

She did not imagine anything or anypony at all was out here, but her adoptive father did tell her to stay out of sight whenever possible and only announce her presence if she wanted to be seen. This sounded a little silly to her when she first heard it. When she surprised the pony that ended her parents lives she saw up close just how effective a surprise can be, it nearly saved her father and definitely saved her life. After the unexpected run she hurt so badly everywhere. It was a good kind of hurt she thought to herself. It actually felt sort of nice to have some interesting things happen that were positive after walking so long through the vast barren landscape. She sighed as she hid the cart behind the piece of wall.

There really was nothing out here. The suit threat indicators hadn't shown a single thing since that awful night. They showed nothing now, friendly or not. This land, at least here was totally dead. The remnants of any kind of civilization were so few and far between they might as well not have existed at all. She got comfortable in the cart for another lonely night in the wastes. The morning, such as the dim gray morning could be called in such desolation dawned in that subtle lighter hue as always to reveal absolutely nothing new. Except for the growling. Wait. Growling!? Groggily she opened her eyes.

"Huh!?" A deep growl seemed to be coming from the..cart.

"What?" Then she noticed the strange metal ball she picked up earlier rolling around willy-nilly.

"Grr. grr..uhh oh yeah grr!" She stared incredulously at the metal ball rolling around growling.

"I must be seeing things. That ball is talking." The multifaceted button which would not work before was now glowing a very faint blue. It startled her by rolling straight at her.

"Boo!" She yelped as she fell out of the cart.

"Oof!" The wind was knocked out of her as she hit the ground hard, making her wince in pain.

Her muscles had not yet fully recovered from being pushed too far the previous day. Clutching her chest she picked herself up. Taking a deep breath she cautiously peered over the edge of the cart. The ball was still rolling around at random.

"Hey, hey you! Are you my new owner?" The voice was warped and sluggish sounding like it lacked power to continue.

"Owner, me?" She was still half asleep despite the painful tumble.

"Well you're here, I'm here, so you must be my new owner! YAAAY." It bounced, twirled and rolled about the cart.

"Huh, what are you talking about, uh, ball?" She was beginning to think she was perhaps rationing her water a little too strictly.

"Conglaturations..on your....purchase..of a Happytime Super Happy Funball!!...we hope....you.....willlll......." It sped up ludicrously to sound at a very high pitch then trailed off disturbingly slowly.

"I will what, what? Funball? Hello?" The dim blue light faded from the button.

"Umm.." She blinked several times.

"What..just happened?" She set about having a very small breakfast and even less water. She was not doing too badly on food for the moment but it was still going down. The water would not last too much longer. She had to be careful. The containers looked ever emptier, frighteningly so. She must be getting closer at least by now she figured.

"Ohh..I've been out here so long. Am I ever gonna see anypony again?" A few tears tried to well in her eyes.

"No, don't cry anymore now. Gotta save it." She rubbed her eyes and slipped back into the suit. She was becoming more deft getting into it alone with practice. It still looked awkward from the outside, but was just a routine to her now.

She knew exactly how to position herself and sort of step hop up and slip into it. Not quite with ease. A few times she forgot to tuck her tail down inside, but the suit would not close until she was in properly. It was also a bit harder with sore muscles. It would require another whole day before she would be fully recovered. This slowed her progress a great deal. A distance traveled counter continually displayed in the upper right of her vision counted off the miles. It proved she must be getting close to somewhere. She paced herself the entire time, stopping to take breaks every fifteen miles or so to take a break and split up the monotony of her journey. It was taking a heavy toll on her mental state. There was so little to see.

Moonlight did occasionally state something factual in that disturbingly deep intonation, but it was not like having anypony to talk to.

"The world is so big and empty, Moonlight. It seemed so hard before. I never thought I could be so lonely." Again she somehow felt like the suit was actually listening to her, but chalked it up to desperate imaginings. It was at least a slightly good feeling to imagine something cared about her, alone as she was out here. There was so little variety to the landscape. If anything was ever here there was no evidence of it.

The endless miles passed as they do when one walks. Finally, things began to look different. It was subtle at first, then far more obvious. There were old dilapidated buildings in bits and pieces. Just looking at it she got a strangely familiar feeling. This was a farm once. These were farm fields. If she could tell anything, it was that. She could easily see there were at least four large fields here once, perhaps 5. Like everything else they were barren, lifeless and ruined. She knew the look well enough. The long hard days helping her parents around the rundown and distant farm now felt like nothing more than a dim memory of a time she thought she would never care to remember.

"I'd give anything if this never happened. That awful pony, what did they even want anyway? What did any of us ever do to deserve this?" She bemoaned her situation as she resumed her endless trek eastwards. She even ventured to try using the suits travel option again, this time setting it to a regular walk. It was much smoother this time. The regular speed was so gentle she could almost fall asleep while walking. This thought struck her as possibly dangerous. What if she did happen to fall asleep while the suit continued forward without her attention? Would it stop if obstacles were in the way, a wall or a hole? She would have to test these things before relying upon it.

She set it to walk only as far as she could see forward, repeating when necessary. This also gave her something to do occasionally. It was at least better than doing nothing but walking. Having already walked nearly 300 miles all alone had taxed her will to the limits. There was still nothing living. Two more days passed in this fashion.

"How long have I been out here? Please, please let there be somepony around here, anypony at all. I can't stand it anymore!" Her loneliness and frustration were taking a terrible toll. When she thought of adventure she imagined excitement. This was the exact opposite of exciting, and becoming more frightening as her water ran lower.

"I don't want to be alone anymore." She looked up to the gray sky. Her dad told many stories. Some were about the sun and moon. Neither of these things she had ever seen. He said plants grew much better when the sun could freely shine upon the soil. Her old story book did contain stylized depictions of them, but what did they really look like? He said it felt so good and warm to be in the suns light. How could you feel the sun? She thought it was a silly joke. He also said the moon was cold and distant but beautiful, and shined its own kind of light in the dark. What did he mean?

"Will I ever get to see any of the good things he talked about?" She sighed and moved on.

The difference in the land here was jarring. While it was not life it at least held the look of something other than the absolute desolation she trudged through for weeks now. An occasional piece of old useless machinery and wrecked and abandoned buildings here and there were becoming more common.

"Surely somepony must be around here somewhere?" Her hopes were rising.

"Just a little further. Just a little further." The occasional light squeal from the damaged leg joint increasingly bothered her as it got worse over hundreds of miles. It did not seem like it would fail, but what if it did?

It could probably still limp along if so, but it would be something she simply could not fix on her own. If anypony even could fix it.

"Does anypony even know how to fix things like this anymore?" She'd caught herself talking to herself more and more during her long empty walk. Her thirst was becoming a problem.

"I know I need to drink, but it's almost all gone. Wherever I'm going has to be here somewhere, it has to." Her father did not have time to tell her precisely where to look or even what the griffon she was to find looked like.

She'd never even seen an actual griffon, only knowing they were birdlike mercenaries. According to what he said anyway. She was also told never to sign a contract of any kind with them unless she could pay the agreed price.

"What if this griffon dad knew wants me to sign for his help? I only have this cap box. I don't think that's very much. I don't even know what anything is worth!" She could not help but wish her parents were still alive. She barely knew how to run their farm, and vaguely what the food they grew might be worth. Because it was fresh food it held more value than the awful tasting packages from almost two hundred years ago.

Sure they kept well enough, but they tasted like a powdered brick despite their labels. This made fresh food of any sort highly sought after by most. The sky was beginning its slow dimming into what was called nighttime. Again she'd found nopony at all, just more shattered farm buildings. This area must have been rife with them at some point.

"Guess I'm camping again. Better find a place to sleep." It did not take long to locate a safe looking area inside one of the mostly collapsed buildings. Judging by what remained it was probably a barn once. Stepping inside once again recalled memories of home.

Memories that were far happier than she would ever have guessed before being thrown from her life into this cruel world.

"This reminds me of home, but is that home anymore? Do I ever want to go there again?" Her sleep was troubled. She was so thirsty when she awoke she could not help it anymore and finished off what little remained.

"My head is killing me. Everything hurts, ohh. This is bad. There's not a single drop left. If I don't find this place soon I'm gonna drop dead.." As another mile passed by and another, her heart sank.

"There has got to be something around here somewhere doesn't there? Isn't there anything left anywhere Moonlight?" Just as she was about to give up and wait to die she thought there was some distant sound.

"I'm just imagining things, I must be dying already." The suits distance traveled counter indicated 323 miles from origin. Once more she engaged the automatic travel options.

"Dad said 327 miles. I'm almost there. Come on, move. Set direction." The terrible thought struck her that it was possible the suit could continue walking until it reached the destination with her dead body inside of it.

"Wouldn't that give everypony a horrible fright..hee." She found the idea highly amusing, if a bit creepy. She was also feeling a bit delirious.

"Better keep moving." The long trek was surely almost over, it had to be. Otherwise her long torment and effort to reach this horribly far off place would've been for nothing. Mile after dreary mile passed. She was really only letting the suit actions do the walking for her now. A few times she found herself choking abysmally. The thirst itself was painful. As she walked her muscles began to hurt and her limbs feel heavier. An occasional spasm of pain told her she was in a very bad state.

Her blurring and occasionally doubling vision was an even greater cause for concern.

"It hurts!" She moaned pathetically. She recalled something her father said.

"What did he say? When you need to get something done and you're hurt, get it done first. If you can't ignore the pain, pretend like you can and deal with it later." That sounded so silly to her when she first heard it. Now it was sage advice. She had to keep walking despite the pain wracking her body. What if her destination was just over the next hill? She would never know if she didn't keep going. One more step, and another.

Although the suit was mostly doing the walking for her, each one felt like it took all the might in the world to take. Her breaths were ragged and slow. She was finding it very difficult to keep her breathing even.

"Gotta focus." Her blurred vision made that hilarious somehow. Finding herself laughing and choking she knew this was not good. Over the time she'd spent using the suit travel options she realized it was possible to make it stop just by saying disengage which blinked in the opposite corner of her vision, if only she'd noticed it before. Even now the soreness from that run remained, making this even worse. Her thoughts turned to the long miles behind her.

"Would our farm even be home now? Could I live there knowing what happened? I don't think I'd feel good, maybe?" She pondered as she continued along. Gunshots in the distance drew her attention.

"Huh? Oh!" Gunshots meant other living things. Good or bad she didn't care at the moment. She would've run towards the sound but did not really have any stamina left to do so.

"I know I heard shooting, and even the air smelled different around here somehow." She could see the walls of something looming in the distance, and behind it a flat expanse of emptiness so vast she could not comprehend.

This area even felt populated. Tracks here and there confirmed it. As she approached she could see perched atop a squarish structure were griffons, even further above stood an enormous cannon. What looked to be three figures were just stepping out of view way off to the south. Her sheer joy at finally seeing something alive turned to dismay for a moment as a resounding order.

"HALT! Not a step closer." Caught her attention from above. Several of them were pointing dangerous looking weapons her way.

Uh-oh.

"Ranger, you better not be here to cause trouble or get in a fight with that other one!" Ranger? Other one? Fight? What was this griffon talking about?

"Who are you, and what do you want?" The one directly above asked. Her thoughts raced, searching for a response.

"Uh, I'm looking for Captain Theach?" She forgot how very deep her voice was coming through the old suit speaker, not sounding like her at all. Her voice was also ragged now from the lack of water.

"Your name?" What should she tell them? Should she be honest? Her dad warned her not to trust anypony in the wastes without being absolutely sure. What to say?

"My name's.. Traveler." Slipped out. A name from her book. That seemed to be enough for them.

"You stay right there, pony. Do not move." These griffons did not appear too friendly. To herself she could only hope this would be alright. She couldn't help but feel awed at seeing them though, never having met one before. They looked regal and powerful, if a bit grizzled. This was taking an awfully long time, what were they doing?

"Oh dad, I hope you were right about me coming here.." She whispered to herself. A new one alighted atop the wall. He seemed authoritative. Much like her father was.

"Well, what is it?" Oh boy. Looking at the small crowd of them she felt intimidated.

"Could I talk to you alone?" He looked at her incredulously. Oh no oh no. Her heart raced.

"Well isn't this interesting? The rest of you stay here. If he does anything stupid hit him with everything you've got." Did she hear that right?

"He? They must think I'm a stallion!" she mumbled to herself.

"You say something?" Suddenly the griffon flew the distance over to her, landing to the side. Must be to keep a line of sight open to his friends she thought, so they could shoot her. Oh dear. She spoke much quieter.

"I uh, mister Theach?" He appeared a little perplexed.

"Mister? hahahahahaha. I needed a good laugh. Listen pony, get to the point." He was very direct.

"You knew my father." His gaze almost felt like it went right through the suit.

"Yeah, so? I know every pony and griffon in these parts." She decided just to keep going.

"His name was Silver Quick." The captains expression turned dark immediately, turning he waved off the other griffons who mostly vanished off the walls instantly. Only one remained at the open gate.

"What do you mean, was? You better start explaining, he only had a daughter." He thought she was a stallion too, hee. Did they think she was a unicorn as well? Being a bit young still, she thought this was hilarious.

"Oh, there is a bit of a misunderstanding here. I am his daughter. It's just this old suit speaker.." He rubbed his head.

"You don't say? Tell me what happened." He bid her explain. A short while and a few stifled sobs later she finished explaining her situation, the strange reason behind her parents murder, the long lonely trip through the wastes.

"You survived coming straight here from there? You really are your father's daughter. There are things out there that could've torn even that walking tin can to shreds." There were? She didn't tell him she'd encountered nothing the whole time. Did she just get really lucky? Or really unlucky? She felt terribly weak now that her heart stopped racing.

"Sir?, I could use some water. I'm really really thirsty.." She looked back towards the now mostly empty cart.

"Of course, of course. Follow me." He marched ahead of her as she trailed behind. The griffons inside looked a bit shocked to see a second armored pony being allowed through to the command room with the captain in as many weeks. Things were certainly active around here lately. He bid her leave the cart just outside, no one would touch it. She was glad none of them could see how nervous she was inside the tough looking armor. The captain closed and locked the door behind. She didn't know what to expect. "You can climb out of that thing now, I know how it is, Traveler you called yourself?" She nodded.

"Keep it, kid. It's a good name, I like it." He finished. She liked the sound of his voice. He set about getting her a whole lot of water and returned. Traveler sat down as she tapped out the open command and it hissed apart at the back, clambering out of the suit. She was definitely getting better at climbing in and out, but it was still awkward without assistance.

"Don't drink it all at once or you'll just get sick, slowly." She walked over and found it hard not to gulp, almost gagging. After four large mugs full to the brim she finally started to feel better.

"I met you once when you were very little. Now let's get a good look at you." His gaze was piercing, she felt like he was looking at the wall behind her, taking in every inch, analyzing, gauging.

"Not bad, Silver." Huh?

"What?" He smiled, what she thought passed for smiling anyway.

"You're father did me a tremendous service once. He refused payment. In place of it he asked that if you ever needed help with anything I try to assist you in any way I reasonably can." She could feel her thoughts becoming more clear while he spoke. The water tasted like it'd been drawn from heaven as the last drops went down.

"So, what do you need? Also, why not leave the rest thinking you're a stallion for a while? Keep things interesting." Was he serious? Did he have some reason for that thought other than amusement?

"I..my dad had an idea.." Was all she could think of. He looked intensely interested.

"We were going to try to find a book." The captain took a shot of something she did not get a clear look at from an old looking bottle, promptly sliding it back under the desk. She might have been imagining it but thought the brief flash of the bottle label she caught said Maremark Whiskey Blend.

"A book? That's a strange thing to be looking for. You won't find too many books around here, or anywhere else I imagine." She was ever so glad just to be talking to anyone again. Her belly hadn't felt so full in a long time.

She coughed heavily.

"It's called the Farmers Almanac. We had pieces of it, but some of the important parts were missing. We were gonna try to find the parts or a whole copy of it if possible, but I don't even know where to start! I don't even know if dad really did either. Can you help me, Mister Theach?" He made a slight sighing sound like he was holding back laughter.

"Just call me cap or captain, or sir." She nodded.

"As for your request, I don't know. We've never been asked to look for or retrieve a book before. Give me a day to look into it." It was something.

"Thank you, sir." She said weakly.

"As a matter of practicality, you smell awful." Traveler felt rather embarrassed, she hadn't thought about the fact a few weeks passed since she last got cleaned up at all.

"You may use one of the showers here once, after that you''ll have to pay up like everyone else if you want to use them again." That sounded great.

"Hop back in that thing and come with me. I'll show you to a little-used room in the barracks." Deftly she climbed back into the now very familiar stealth suit.

"What about my cart?" She did not want to lose the few possessions she had.

"Don't worry about your stuff. We are mercenaries, not thieves. Not one of my group will touch it." That was good to know.

"I didn't mean.." He shushed her.

"I know you've had it tough, Traveler. I will pay my debt to your father by helping you where I may. It can't be too much though, understand?" She wasn't quite used to being called that yet.

"I understand." The griffons outside once again watched sidelong as they strolled towards the barracks. She could not tell if it was how they normally all looked or if they were disturbed by this. Once inside he showed her into a seemingly unused section of the barracks.

"No one comes back here. Don't know what this room was used for either and it's quite a mess, but you can have it for tonight. Shower is there, use it." She felt better already.

"Thank you, sir." She slipped into the room.

The heavy door could be locked from the inside which she did. Picking a spot to slip out of the suit she turned to take a better look. He wasn't kidding about this room being a mess, didn't anypony ever clean up in here at all? There were old metal boxes strewn about, most looking terrible. Moldy bits of ancient paper and various bits of things stuck to the walls and floor. It must have been fairly nice once. Now it was a nearly total mess. There was an old mattress on rails against the far wall but it looked black on top. She didn't really want to touch it but it would be nice to have something soft to lay on for a change. Deciding to flip it over before using the shower she found it was not so bad, just a little dusty.

Patting it off took a while, causing her to choke a bit on the dust. Eventually it was clean enough to lay on.

"Oh, I can't believe I'm alive. I really am here right, I'm not dreaming am I?" She poked herself.

"Oww. Yeah, this is real. I made it, dad." Realizing she was crying again she stepped into the shower. The slightly warm water felt wonderful, she'd never used a shower like this before. It was amazing what the old world once had in abundance. She let it wash away what felt like gallons of tears as she cleaned herself up. Finally they subsided and she turned it off, heading to bed.

For the first time in a long while Traveler slept soundly. She fell into a deep and dreamless sleep, safe and comfortable. When she finally awoke again she felt energized and ready to face the world once more. There was also the heavy knocking on the door. "Huh?" Without thinking she opened it to find the captain standing there with a small box.

"Captain?" He stepped in and closed the door which barely missed his tail. She thought to herself that could have been really painful.

"Are you alright, Traveler?" What?

"Why wouldn't I be alright?" This was a bit confusing.

"You haven't come out in three days." Three days!? How?

"I, what?" Did she really sleep that long?

"I slept for three days?" Around this time she realized it must be true as her stomach growled terribly.

"I figured you'd need something by now, here. Also, you look and smell a whole lot better." He nodded his approval. She felt her cheeks flush. He set the box on a small dusty corner table with a bowl.

"No one here eats this stuff and no one will buy this or the other 9 boxes of it either so it's all yours. I hear they taste like rotten apples or something, enjoy." Rotten apples, what?

"And if you do decide to keep the fact your actually a mare a secret do be more careful. Come see me when you're ready." He slipped out the door, it just missed his tail again.

"Guess he was serious about that suggestion, should I keep pretending to be a stallion? Why would I? But he seems to think it's a good idea. I better think about this. He must have a good reason to keep suggesting it, right?" She couldn't understand why he might want her to keep pretending. Her stomach growled deeply again.

"I feel pretty hungry. I've never slept for three days before. I hope this stuff is edible, whatever it is." She poured some into the bowl. She noticed he'd also set a bottle of water on the little table. Looking at the box she couldn't really make out the ancient lettering. Lower on the box she could just see 'Full of applelike goodness!' Applelike? Each piece looked like a small o with little holes in them. She ventured to take a bite.

"Eeugh. These don't taste like apples, these don't taste like apples at all." Her parents farm had only a single stunted apple tree, there weren't many and didn't taste that great but these things were ancient and terrible, just sickly sweet enough she could manage to eat them.

She did not feel particularly good to her stomach afterwards for a while, but at least she wasn't hungry anymore. She was not quite sure if it was because of being full or because she feared eating more.

"Wait, did he say 9 more boxes?" The thought made her tremble a bit. She sipped the water from the bottle. It tasted so much better after that.

"Right, guess I better go talk to him. I feel like I owe him so much already though." She felt stiff, but so much better now. Traveler looked over the armored suit.

"You've seen better days too, Moonlight. We're both a bit worse for wear. Let's go, friend." She slipped into the suit once more. As she left the barracks the griffons that were present once again watched intently as she passed. She was glad to be out the door and on her way to the command room. The left hind joint still occasionally let loose a low dangerous sounding squeal.

"Don't give out on me now, Moonlight. I need you." She knew it was silly to talk to a machine, but somehow still felt like it was listening. Upon entering she found the captain sitting behind his desk.

"There you are, I have good news and bad news. Which one do you want first?" Okay, well, bad news is tempered by good news right? So, bad news first.

"The bad news?" He pointed at a very old looking map.

"Here are a few possible locations you might go looking for your book." This was bad news?

"The closest one even remotely likely to have it is 600 miles from here." Oh no.

"That is pretty bad. What's the good news?" He pointed at the door which was now opening.

"Him." She turned to look and gasped quietly.

An armored pony stepped in.

"Say hello to Down Range." The strangely black armor he wore looked vaguely similar to her own, but it seemed built to withstand far more punishment.

"Umm, hi." She almost felt intimidated even inside Moonlight, standing next to this behemoth.

"I don't know why, but he has expressed an interest in you after seeing you arrive the other day." She did not even see him then, but she was very out of it when she got here, almost to the point of not believing this was even real.

"I have managed to convince him to assist in your search. It's up to you, but you can't do much better than having more heavy armor along. You should appreciate it." Traveler was a little nervous once again.

"I do, sir. Very much." She looked at the heavy suit, imagining that Moonlight would last a while, but not long if pitted against such a thing.

"The old maps are almost useless, but they do tell what used to be in certain areas at least." The captain explained. While she looked the suit display was showing overlay lines on the map and calculating distances.

The final message displayed stated mission parameters set. How did it know what they were going to do? Moonlight was even more amazing than she thought. She noticed Down Range hadn't actually said anything yet.

"Now, there are a couple more matters to discuss." What now?

"Just before your arrival we sent off a group on a mission. The route they decided to take would pass very close to one of your potential search sites. Your choice, but if you follow the same route you might catch up with them and get their help checking it out. They have a couple days head start on you. If you head out now, judging by how fast you seem to be able to travel you should be able to catch up inside three to seven days." The captain was doing so much for her she was surprised.

How much did he actually owe her father? She decided it would not be the best time to ask with another pony around.

"I will give you a token that proves I sent you. Also, your cart has those boxes of food, such as it is, in it. However, I can only provide you with water if you pay from here on." Traveler was not entirely sure how many caps were in her box and didn't want to part with them without being certain it was worth it.

"I will pay." The armored pony finally spoke. She wasn't really sure through the muffle of his armor but his voice sounded slightly effeminate to her, it almost seemed familiar somehow, though it might just be her imagination.

It seemed unusually nice of somepony she just met to pay for something for her. They didn't even know what each other looked like. The captain accompanied them outside. After refilling her water containers and adding a few more the cart looked decently full of supplies once again. A far cry from her arrival when it was practically empty. She was not at all fond of the foodstuff, but it was free and filling, if barely tolerable. Traveler also realized the other pony probably did not pay for the water just for the sake of being nice. They would be sharing the supplies after all. Why was he at all interested in what she was doing anyway? She could only think to herself maybe he found her suit interesting.

No, that didn't seem to make any sense. He was wearing something much better as far as she could tell. She thought if she had a suit like his back at the farm she would've marched straight back with it and destroyed the horrible pony that attacked her parents. At this moment she also realized she wasn't really sad anymore but angry. So very very angry at that awful pony. This felt so strange to her she had to take a deep breath. She never truly hated anything in her entire life, except perhaps the fact that life didn't seem that good. If she'd known how horrible things could become she would never have felt that way at all.

Her terrifying trip through just one section of the wastes was enough to teach her how daunting and lonely the world could be.

"You take good care of that pony or you will answer to me." The captain pointed at Down Range. Traveler slipped under the harness bars once more.

"Great, more walking." She absently said as they set out. This was going to be an even longer trip than she just endured and probably even more dangerous, but at least she would have company this time she thought to herself.

Feeling much better after her long rest she found it all rather exciting. This was more like it. Not the adventure she wanted, but she couldn't think of anything else to do for the moment. Other thoughts swirled in her head as she thanked the captain and headed out the gate with the other armored pony. She could only hope she was making the right decision taking him along. She knew nothing about him. The captain didn't seem to know him either. Maybe he was just bored too? What did it matter? They would probably never find what she was looking for. If by some miracle pieces or a copy of the book was located could she even make use of it? Did she even want to ever return to the farm that had been her home? Could she?

Running that place alone would be very hard. These thoughts were painful. What if the horrible ponies were still there?

"They were after something." She muttered. The other pony tilted his head towards her inquisitively.

"Nothing. Guess we should get as far as we can today." He'd obtained his weapons from storage, looking even more dangerous. He still barely spoke, only nodding. As she looked at him the suit display was showing the weapon types attached to his armor. One displayed only as a question mark. That was strange, or was it? She didn't actually know if it was or not. What did he look like under there anyway? Then again he didn't know what she looked like either.

This bothered her a bit as they only knew each others name thus far, not even her real one. At this moment she realized how ironic this was considering she never knew her own parents real names either. Did he also think she was a stallion? Maybe this could be fun for a while after all. How long could she keep it a secret anyway? Maybe a day or two at most if she could come up with excuses to eat and drink alone? It would still be amusing to see their reaction. Traveler knew this was incredibly silly. She needed silly right now. Her whole life was suddenly uprooted in a single night as she was thrown out into the world alone and very unprepared. The idea that anypony would think she was a stallion was as silly as she could imagine.

Her attention shifted to the suit display which now showed several new things such as distance to mission zones. She really could not understand how it knew. She was also very reluctant to tell her new companion how unfamiliar she was with her armors full capabilities. So far things actually went better than expected. For some reason he insisted on following instead of walking along beside. Even with him marching along behind it felt a bit lonely.

"This certainly isn't conducive to becoming friends is it? I guess I have to start somewhere." Traveler thought to herself as the day passed. At least she wasn't in pain or thirsty anymore.

Until she was given the water and a chance to recover she hadn't quite realized just how close she was to actually dying. Another day or two without would surely have been too much.

"I nearly died. I hope I'm doing the right thing going after this book dad wanted." But did he really want it? Did he even expect they would ever have found it? Not having another plan left this as her only idea.

"At least it is a plan, and I've got nothing better to do, right?" It was easier to think now. Her thoughts when she was running out of water were noticeably slower and jumbled.

"Why didn't I just die with them? It would have been easier. No, that's just stupid. They would have wanted me to try to have a life at least." Still feeling angry about it all she kept up a very fast pace that day. A couple times it looked as though Down Range was trailing further behind, but he kept within visual distance. She'd noticed earlier anything friendly the display indicated with a deeper blue mark. How did it know that either?

"As long as it works." Eventually she tired and halted. Her anger finally subsided for now.

"I think this is far enough for today, don't you?" She queried her companion as he caught up.

He actually responded for a change.

"Yes. I was beginning to think you'd never stop." That was a surprising statement. Had she really pushed that far today? Looking at the suit distance traveled indicator startled her. They'd covered over 40 miles in one day. No wonder she felt so fatigued, hungry and thirsty now. That would have closed a significant amount of space between them and the group the captain mentioned. They might even catch up with them by tomorrow, much sooner than expected. The token the captain gave them as identification was a pre-war bit. She'd only seen one of them before.

Caps were generally used though these still held some value. This one was engraved on the back with a small symbol in the shape of a griffon eye with little marks around it. The stamping along the bottom edge read 'Commemorative Issue'. The rest of the text was illegible. The bits once shined a golden hue. Now they were quite dull and tarnished with age. The wastes were kind to nothing.

"Would you mind if we camped a bit apart for tonight? I kinda just lost everything and need some time alone. I'll get you when I'm ready to go." He nodded, taking some water with him.

His suit had two hefty saddlebags which probably contained his own food. There was plenty of food now.

"Yeah, so much to eat." She looked at one of the boxes forlornly.

"I'm going to become intimately familiar with this stuff aren't I?" She settled herself and the cart behind a small rise.

"I can't believe we got this far already. I better slow down a little tomorrow. No need to wear myself out." They were warned to skirt Fillydelphia as much as possible. They would pass just within view of the ancient city.

"I've never seen a real city before. I wonder what it looks like? Probably like everywhere else." She said.

The route chosen by the group they were chasing would not come near the potential site for at least a couple of weeks giving more than enough leeway to catch up. The other group would not be pushing as fast anyway. For now, this left no real leeway in their route. Unless the other group deviated from their chosen path they would definitely find them sooner or later. There should be no reason for that to happen. She braced herself and ate some of the bland crunchy food, at least it would be crunchy if it was new, she thought. It kept as well as other packaged food from long ago with their promising labels of something known as flavor.

"This is kind of like eating something that used to be hard, but now it's soft and gritty. Maybe it would be better if I made it wet?" Sprinkling a few drops of water on it only had the effect of making it less dry. The taste remained terrible.

"I always thought we ate badly on the farm. I was so wrong." She forced down what she could stand.

"I might as well get used to it. I have..lots. Which is better than not having anything." She thought. Full as it was the cart would not afford her a place to sleep. Instead she could only find as comfortable a position as possible. She was relaxed but rest would not come easy.

"Uhg. Well, I did just sleep for three days straight." She tossed and fidgeted for a great deal of time before finally falling into a dreamless slumber. When she finally slept it was with great relief. Awaking slowly in the morning she dusted herself off and sighed.

"There is no getting around it. I have nopony at all. Can I even trust the one I'm traveling with? At least the captain seemed kinda friendly?" She felt very energetic. This was really happening. They were going looking for something that may not even exist. It was exciting and scary and worrying all at the same time.

Gazing at the food boxes her choice was to skip breakfast.

"I'm not hungry anyway." After her last experience with water she decided to ration hers from the outset. Never again did she want to feel that terrible thirst and dryness in her throat. Deciding to play around with the strange silver ball for a while was amusing but pressing the indented button did not yield any further reaction. She could not get it to open or respond.

"Does this thing need power or what? Can't make it open." She tugged and pulled at the seem which wouldn't budge. It was more interesting when it did something anyway.

Tucking it back in safely she slipped back into her armor and headed over to find her traveling companion.

"Now where did he get off too?" She wondered. Unlike the other friendly markers the display showed his location marked with an additional 'A' for some reason. It did not take long to find him. He was already up as well.

"Oh, there you are. I'm ready to go if you are." He was looking out to the east.

"Something interesting?" Traveler thought perhaps if she could get him into some kind of conversation it might help.

"You can just see the outskirts of what's left of Manehattan. I used to live there..a long time ago." Far away she could just see the vague outlines of some jagged buildings.

Crumbling as they were, compared to what she was used to they looked imposing and immense.

"Ponies used to build things like that!?" She thought she heard a very slight chuckle from him but could have been mistaken.

"We should go." With that he turned and began walking.

"So much for conversation." She thought to herself. He quickly fell in behind again as they walked.

"Why won't he at least walk alongside me? I have no idea what to say. Oh forget it." Her mood was not very good.

Dreary hour after hour passed in this fashion. Aside from buildings in the distance there was nothing much to see. She stopped when they ran across a piece of a strange criss-crossed metal track in the ground, letting Down Range catch up with her.

"What's that?" This actually got a laugh out of him. Huh?

"You don't know what a train track is?" A what?

"Big steel travel machines that run on steam or even spark battery banks use them to carry passengers. If they broke down earth pony teams would even just pull them. They run all over Eques..." That was a strange pause.

"There used to be tracks all over Equestria." Was there a hint of sadness in his words? It was so hard to tell through the muffle. While he spoke she noticed there was a small square outline on the front of his armor. Seeing the armor up closer like this she got the distinct impression it should be a different color. Should she ask about it?

"Wow. Ponies used to have such neat stuff." He didn't say anything to that as they resumed their trek.

"At least he actually said something that time. That's good, right?" Having very little experience with other ponies she was quite unsure what was acceptable or expected. Was this kind of reaction normal?

Interaction with only her family and the few ponies in the small town simply did not prepare her for this or tell her what she could expect of others.

"I wonder what a train looked like?" She imagined an immense steel wheeled juggernaut belching steam and fire rolling along the ancient tracks.

"Whoa. That's awesome." She giggled to herself. At least it was to her.

"I hope this group we're trying to meet up with is more talkative." She absently said to herself. Would they be though? Would they even actually want to help?

"Why is he so quiet anyway? Always walking behind like that is kinda creepy. Why does he seem kinda familiar anyway? I know I've never met him before." The walking was still more bearable with company, quiet as he was. He was told to protect her, he would do that wouldn't he?

"Well he is my escort, but what does he really get out of this? Did the captain give him anything to come with me? Dad said not to trust anypony but myself. He trusted that griffon so he must know what to do, right?" Traveler spoke only to herself as Down Range hung almost too far behind as usual.

"This is still better than being alone. I hated that so so much. I wonder if we can be friends? I've never had a real friend." She did have to make friends somehow, but truly did not have any idea how to go about it.

"How do you do this? How long do you have to know somepony before you can call them a friend? How do you know when you're friends? This is hopeless. My story book was about friends, not how to get them." For a few hours she trudged along at a normal pace, watching the scenery slowly pass by. Looking up she saw the tattered remains of a sign laying off to the side stating 'Filly..' Fillydelphia was that way. Moonlight was still very stealthy, she felt well hidden despite the rare squeal from the worsening joint.

"You can't be friends with a machine, can you? I don't understand it, but somehow this suit has felt friendly ever since I got it. How can a machine feel friendly?" This did feel nice if disconcerting from time to time.

"I must be out of my mind with desperation. Am I going crazy?" She worried very deeply about how to befriend somepony as they wandered down the route. The way they traveled did not have any particular trail or road. Ancient pieces of posts or destroyed pavement were here and there. Never having seen a proper road left her very impressed when they did come across a wide intact chunk of one.

"Ponies used to make such amazing things, how could they have let it all be destroyed like this?" She didn't see her escort catching up as she mused.

"Because they didn't think it was possible to lose." She jumped slightly.

"I didn't hear you coming." Now she felt a little embarrassed. Her father would have admonished to pay attention to her surroundings.

"No pony or zebra won the war. All of this is the result. We lost so much." Her father did tell her about the huge war between them so many years ago, but he didn't really know that much about it.

"You say that like you were there." She said absently.

"I..no, no just thinking." Huh? That was an odd response.

"We are approaching a small settlement. One of the ponies there may have seen the other group." He pointed ahead. There were several small shacks and what passed for shelter built of just about anything.

"This is a settlement? This place is even smaller than Far Side." It looked abandoned.

"Is anypony even here?" Looking around she saw a pony duck out of sight behind one of the tiny shacks.

"Hello? We aren't going to hurt anypony. You can come out." A dirty pony with a dull yellow coat cautiously peered over a piece of debris.

"Uh, I know we look a bit intimidating. Please come out?" Slowly other sullen and absolutely ragged looking ponies peeked and seemed to appear out of the woodwork.

"What do you want?" They did look scared.

"We were just wondering if you saw two ponies and a griffon come by here in the last few days?" Traveler asked, trying to be quiet. These ponies looked spooked and wary.

"Yes, they went by here just about fourteen hours ago. They went to see Doremi." The yellow-coated mare spoke while looking down. They were close. Were these ponies really so scared of just two ponies in armor?

"You can find him that way, the big shack." She pointed off to the southwest.

"Well, thank you." She thought it best to politely thank them. They walked on as the ponies slipped out of sight once more.

"Was it just me or were they awfully scared?" She looked to Down Range.

"Ponies have good reasons to be scared these days." He really did say very little. She decided to push a little more.

"You don't say much do you?" Of course she couldn't see his face under that armor to read his expression, maybe this was the wrong time to ask?

"Not anymore." What did he mean by that? With this he simply continued walking.

"Did I make a mistake? Maybe I shouldn't have asked so soon, or maybe that didn't mean anything to him at all?" She fretted to herself as they approached the large shack. Compared to the others this shack almost seemed colorful.

Knocking on the strangely thick door did not yield an immediate response.

"Maybe their not in?" She knocked again. A moment later a sound from inside like scraping and a thousand pieces of wood breaking at the same time was heard.

"Did you hear that?" A few seconds later the door squeaked terribly as it opened on the ancient hinges. A pony she could barely see wearing what looked like a ripped, faded and worn business suit from one of the few old depictions in her story book eyed them suspiciously.

"Who comes seekiagauhgh.." He stepped forward and tripped out the door onto the ground. They both looked down at him, a brimmed hat adorned with very frail looking feathers floated down onto his head.

"Oh my, are you alright?" She asked. He got up and straightened his hat to reveal a gigantic pair of glasses that seemed to wrap around his entire head. Dusting himself off he continued,

"Of course I'm alright. I am the great Doremifasolatido." The what did he say? He gaped a moment upon seeing them properly.

"You look tough. You want the job too?" He looked back and forth between them.

"What job?" She was curious. He backed inside a moment, fumbling around in some box off to the side of the entrance.

"I have heard there once were some amazing pony music performers and composers in the old days. I either want to find some of their music or their written scores. Any will do, but these in particular I will pay more for. Interested?" It couldn't really hurt to know what he was looking for.

"Sure, I guess." At this he read off of a very old and overused piece of parchment.

"Find me any ancient data discs, memory crystals, or even scrolls with the musical notes or performances of any of these ponies and you will be well-rewarded when you return. Their names are Neightoven, Balk, Tchaiclopsky, Marezart, and Frenetic Marecury." The last name sounded funny.

"Sure. Why not?" Traveler didn't know what some of that stuff even was but agreed anyway. A small box marked 'Tertiary' showed up in the bottom left of her vision. Huh?

"I have asked a few other ponies to look as well. Anything like that will not be easy to find." He closed the box.

"By the way, have you seen two ponies and a griffon go by here?" She quickly added.

"Those two adventure seekers? Yes they passed by here just some time ago with a sour looking griffon. Said they were going somewhere very far away. I told them about the job too." Adventure seekers?

"Do you know which way they went?" His nod was vigorous.

"One of them was wearing the oddest thing. They headed into the great territories beyond." His motion affirmed they were still keeping to the chosen route and should be relatively easy to catch up with now.

"They should serve as an inspiration to us all. Their success in completing that most difficult task I gave them is what prompted me to look for these once more." Once more?

"I return to my own musical endeavors now." He closed the door on his other foreleg.

"Aaah!" The door popped back open slightly.

"Are you okay?" Traveler asked.

"Of course I'm okay! I am the great.." Down Range interrupted him.

"We know." the door slipped closed with a squealing bang.

"Well that was..interesting." She couldn't help but say. He said little else as they pressed on. She knew by now it was common for him not to respond to much. Was something wrong with him, or was he just always like this?

"I don't know how to talk to anypony. Was any of that normal? I don't know." She was beginning to feel at least more comfortable out in the world. She was doing well so far, right?

"I could be doing worse, couldn't I? I reached that base all by myself, and now I am off on an adventure. This is an adventure isn't it? I don't know, this would feel better if I was with dad wouldn't it?" For the moment she was glad her escort could not see her face or how sad she was.

She was finally letting herself truly grieve for her parents as they traveled. It was good to let it out. He wouldn't hear her crying back there.

"Am I doing okay daddy?" Traveler thought she was doing well, considering what happened.

"I think I am. So far anyway, dad." She could just imagine his imposing cloaked form standing there, telling her how proud he was of her.

"Silly. I'm never going to see mom or dad again." Eventually the tears subsided.

In their place a grim determination to succeed in fulfilling her fathers dreams of helping make the world a better place took hold. She stopped, waiting for her escort to catch up.

"Down Range." He stopped beside her.

"Yes?" This had to stop. She needed to know more about him.

"We should camp here. We will surely catch up with them sometime tomorrow anyway." He nodded.

"Also, I need to talk to you about something." She intoned as calmly as could be mustered.

He stood there quiet as always while she unhooked herself from the cart. How should she go about this? Nothing for it.

"Alright, look. I am just going to be perfectly honest." Sitting Moonlight down she tapped out the exit command and climbed out. Seeing her he practically stumbled backwards.

"You're an earth pony!? You're a mare!? You're..you're gorgeous!" What? Traveler felt her cheeks flush and her heart flutter. Nopony had ever called her a mare before. Was she really getting that grown up? She definitely wasn't expecting that.

"I, umm.." She stuttered for a second. She finally managed to continue.

"Ahem. My parents were killed and I'm all alone now, and I don't know anypony or anything about anything and I'm scared and alone and and..." She was yammering and almost crying. He seemed to just stand there listening until he reached up to his helmet and pressed a latch under the neck making it give off a slight hiss then tugged gently to the left making it hiss and release.

"Huh?" As he slipped it off his head she couldn't believe what she was seeing.

"It can't be. You look like the pony in that book. You must be hundreds of years old!" He was stunning.

"Something like that." He said dully. Noticing that small square on the front of his armor again she reached out and slowly rubbed off the black to reveal 'Magnificent'.

"It really is you! How can you be you!?" She felt slightly lightheaded from the revelation.

"I am sorry a beautiful young filly like you lost your family." She blushed quite hard.

"I lost the entire world." Magnificent stared at the ground.

"But, how are you here? I thought you were just a character in an old book I found a long time ago." As he stripped off his armor the awkward explanations back and forth followed.

He really was for lack of a better word, magnificent. The book she saw was good, but had not done him justice. Removing his armor took a significant amount of slow effort. Traveler carefully watched how he did it. It looked easier to take that stuff off and put back on, but more tedious than just climbing in and out of Moonlight.

"So, you were being punished? It doesn't sound like you even did anything that bad.." He smiled. That smile was so alluring. He's really cute. Wait, what was she thinking?

"I suppose compared to what happened to everypony else I was let off kind of easy." His smile faded quickly.

"I guess we are sort of in the same boat then." Sighing he looked up at the endlessly clouded sky.

"I also suppose I can't blame the pegasi for blocking off the world below them. They must have suffered terribly as well." It never really occurred to her that they must be suffering too. Her father didn't seem very happy with his own kind. Magnificent rubbed some black dirt over the nameplate on his armor.

"They actually did make the comic with me in it? Did they get my good side? Of course that's every side..Was it good?" She certainly thought it was.

"I think so." She was still reeling a bit from this.

"Why were you hiding who you are?" He sighed as she asked this question.

"Why are you?" Oh. Traveler felt a tad silly now. Wait, how did he know? Was he truly that perceptive?

"Why are you interested in me?" He did not respond for a moment.

"I have no one, and nowhere to be. You have a very unusual suit of armor there. I thought mine was the only unique one. Yours might also be dangerous." Dangerous? Also? How could Moonlight be dangerous? It saved her life, she never could have made it this far without it. He sat there with his head down, looking like nothing more than a lump.

"One day I was a General in the equestrian army. The next I woke up alone, surrounded by monsters. The princesses I served, my world, my hopes and dreams..all of it gone. Not two days after awaking to this horror the first actual ponies I ran across ambushed and tried to kill me. They made me..." As he trailed off this pony did not sound like the Magnificent depicted in the old comic she happened across. He sounded whipped, broken. Much like she had felt only a few days prior and still did to a degree. An idea started forming in her head.

"You." He looked at her curiously. She thought about the comic and how it portrayed him, his slightly arrogant but fiery attitude and demeanor. Was any of it true, and could she use that somehow? Only one way to find out.

"Aren't you Magnificent? One of the bravest, most handsome and powerful ponies in all of Equestria? You say your world is gone. So is mine. Why don't you help me rebuild it?" This might be working.

"Rebuild it, how? It's all gone!" He did sound beaten. She did not know what the old world was really like. What she did know is that she needed to do something, start somewhere. Following what her father wanted to do still seemed like a good idea. Looking for the book was a good place to start at least. Having a pony like this wholeheartedly on her side would be very helpful. She just had to convince him it was worthwhile and possible.

In her story book friends found common interests and goals to share, dreams to strive towards achieving even if they seemed impossible and far away. Maybe this could be her first chance to make a real friend? She didn't know or not, but she could not think of the captain as a friend. Maybe he only helped because he owed something to her father?

"But it's not all gone. You're here, aren't you?" Traveler truly wanted to have friends, and hoped this would be enough to begin with. It was so hard to tell. She spoke carefully.

"My dad had an idea. Maybe it isn't the best idea, but it would be a start. I can't do it alone. I need help. Help from ponies like you, if you're interested?" He appeared less depressed already.

"What was this idea, and how do you think it'll help rebuild the world?" Traveler relayed what they would be searching for while his interest seemed to be piquing.

"It's so simple. I never realized how important something so mundane as growing food could be. In my time there was so much of everything." His eyes seemed to have just a bit more light in them. Those beautiful eyes. There she went again. She shook her head. He was obviously still distraught and depressed. They both knew pain.

"Will you help me, Magnificent?" She asked. He looked lost in thought for a couple moments. Slowly he gave a nod as he sighed.

"I suppose the pony known as Magnificent is no more. I know almost nopony would recognize me like you and that other one did, but let's keep who I really am between us for the moment, okay?" This poor pony had lost even more than she had. Despite her own this left her feeling a great sadness for him.

"Thank you, thank you!" Unexpectedly she gave him a warm hug leaving him very surprised. Ever so slowly he returned it for a long moment. As they slipped apart he spoke.

"No, thank you for showing me I can have a purpose here. In the army I swore an oath to protect and help the innocent, ponies or not. Maybe I can still do this." She beamed a smile at him.

"I'm sorry the first ponies you met were..bad. We're not all like that. I think." She found herself smiling, doing so felt unfamiliar. After this they spent a great deal of time telling each other what they knew about the world and how different it was to each others. Of course he could not tell her everything in a single night. It would take many such stories to tell all he knew. Traveling together as they were would hopefully give ample opportunity for that.

"Wow! Dad told me some stories he knew, but you were really there. He even told mom and me what the sun looks like because he saw it, but..." Tears welled up in her eyes. He looked at her in concern.

"Daddy..mom.." This time she could just let it all out. This adventure they were setting out on was supposed to be with her father. Something they would have shared. Memories they would have held together. She felt embarrassed letting Magnificent see this, but just couldn't hold it back at all anymore. Traveler thought she was done with crying. She rubbed her eyes.

"Sorry you have to see this." She stammered to him.

"Go ahead, it's fine. You'll feel better." He did work his way up through the army, and knew when somepony just couldn't hold back anymore.

She sobbed and moaned for a long time, burying her face in her hooves. Finally raising her head she felt so drained, but definitely a little better.

"Does it ever stop hurting?" Her voice was weak. He sighed deeply.

"No. It will get easier I promise, but it will never stop hurting." She could tell he was being honest and knew.

"We should get rested. From here on out things will probably get a lot more dangerous. We should set a watch. One of us must always be awake, alert and armed at all times." He started putting his armor back on.

"I will take the first watch. I'll wake you for yours in 5 hours. Try to get some sleep." He slipped the helmet down over his head and horn. A small hiss could be heard as it latched.

"Call me Down Range from now on. At least for the moment." He looked truly intimidating in that blackened armor. She found herself wondering what it looked like when it wasn't covered in char. Maybe she would see sometime. Traveler ate a bit and settled in. Just this one time she drank more water than she planned on. She needed it.

"Just this once. We have such a long way to go. This probably isn't even enough to get there and back. What if it's not there? Then we have to go even further." She shuddered at the thought.

Something he'd said during their conversation came to mind, giving her an idea.

"We shouldn't go near Fillydelphia he said, but what about Baltimare? I know I saw it on the map. It was a great city too and would have had libraries, at least one right?" She really should have asked why the griffons did not suggest there as a search site. Knowing there was a pony like this standing guard she slept very soundly. At the sound of him trudging closer she awoke before he even said he was there.

"My watch already?" She stretched and rubbed the sleep from her eyes, realizing it wasn't him through the blur but some vaguely red-coated pony standing over her she let out a high-pitched scream.

"Aaaaaaa!" At which he let out a shrill shriek as well.

"Aaaaaa!" She screamed again and he did too, then took off running out of sight in the dim light. A moment later Down Range appeared from behind a small incline.

"What's going on?" After explaining the strange incident they sat together for a moment. Why hadn't his armor picked them up?

"Did you get a good look at their face?" Voicing she had not through the haziness of sleep they could only wonder who it was.

"How strange. Probably just one of the locals happened across us. Just in case we should move away from here to another site before I rest." She wouldn't have been able to go back to sleep anyway after that shock. Slipping into the stealth suit once more they quickly moved a fair distance to locate a place less likely to be discovered.

"Should I wake you up?" Shaking his head he took off his armor once more. She felt an odd thrill seeing him do this for some reason, feeling quite glad he could not see her blushing.

"What am I thinking? Get a grip. He's like 200 years old." This time they chose to camp under the edge of the remains of a little bridge that once spanned a short section between a gulley. They should not be discovered here.

This time they were totally out of sight. She supposed it best not to stray too far and stayed within hearing distance just in case. Quickly realizing just how boring this was she amused herself by looking around the old steel bridge pieces. They were made of some sort of metal much like Moonlight, though not as dark and seemed much more brittle. That may have been from the sheer ages of exposure to the outside. Her sudden startle from sleep earlier left her feeling a bit off for a while, a sort of sickly feeling inside.

"I've had enough surprises. I just want to find the book and..and...even if we can find it, then what? Really, what will I do? I need to think about this." She stared at the ground, lost in thoughts of home and running the big, empty farm all by herself.

It would be so much work. She would also have to live with the memories of what happened there.

"Why does everything have to be so hard!?" She scuffed the ground and felt the suit give off a strange subtle shudder.

"Huh? that felt kinda weird." Her worries from before about the suit breaking down returned, leaving her feeling a bit paranoid about pushing it very hard.

"There has got to be somepony out there that can check this thing out and fix whatever is wrong with it, right?" She poked about the rubble. Just old metal pieces from a time long gone by.

She'd never spent so long just thinking about things before. She hadn't realized before just how much she relied on her parents or that all her life they had done everything in an effort to give her a fair shot at carving out a better living. Their lives had literally been for her. It was easier to cry now. It didn't hurt like it had when she was running away in a blind panic, or like it did when she thought she might die. Now it was just letting it out. She looked out at the quiet desperately depressing feeling lands forever hidden away from the sun.

"Mom. Dad. I don't know if I can do it. I don't know how far I can go. I will try to do my best." She huffed and turned to see her companion beginning to stir. Five hours had passed. It was time to set out once more.

Approaching him as he was donning his armor she asked about Baltimare.

"I know it's a bit out of our way and would lead us a ways away from the group we're trying to catch up with but if there is any chance of finding it closer and a lot sooner, shouldn't we take the chance?" Her argument did sound convincing and had the ring of truth to it.

"We know they are sticking to the route they chose. I suppose we can just catch up with them a few days later than we thought. We will have to circle around Fillydelphia a fair ways to avoid trouble." The captains warning to stay clear of that city was dire.

How bad could it be? Traveler caught herself in the middle of that thought as she realized it could actually be quite horrible. No one knew for certain what was happening there, and what business was it of hers anyway? She had only been out in the world a little over a month and nearly died already. Although her father would never see it, she wanted to prove to herself she was strong enough to survive, and to carry out his dream of the land being slowly restored. She could not save the whole of the wastes, they were much too vast for that, but perhaps even just one farm doing what it was meant to do could be the start of something big.

This time Down Range walked closer behind, but still fairly far apart.

"Why do you walk way back there anyway?" She said over her shoulder through that deep rumbling amp.

"You can use your suit radio." The suit did have such a thing. Never having had occasion to use it she completely forgot about it until now. She switched it on and found the no broadcast which had floated in her vision all that time replaced by a pair of lines which twitched and bobbed up and down as he talked. Below the lines two other tags showed as 'dropoff' She didn't bother with them right now. It was odd hearing him so clearly despite being so far away.

"Habit. The army learned after a while it's best not to travel too close together in case of a bomb going off or something." Bomb? She never considered that. It took her some playing with the controls to set the volume at a comfortable level. He continued.

"There are other good reasons for not standing close together. One of us is less of a target than both of us." He explained. Target? She gulped nervously. There may be actual fighting to be done at some point. How would she react? Would she do the right thing if fighting was the only choice? She could only hope she was prepared.

Their travel was slowed a little as unlike his armor the stealth suit did not have a means of carrying any water internally. Whenever she needed to drink they had to stop. It was not a large delay, but every moment not spent walking was another they would lose to the group they were to meet up with. If this detour to look for old libraries did not pan out they might need them to help search the next possible location.

"Have you ever been to Baltimare?" She queried.

"I have been all over Equestria. It doesn't matter now. Almost nothing is the same." Was his terse response to the question.

"This is probably a silly question too then, but do we know where any libraries actually were?" He sighed. Their respective armors were marvelous feats of engineering and magical research, but each ones shortcomings were fairly apparent. The suits mapping and navigation systems were impressive but suffered from several serious limitations.

"Sort of. Also, most libraries weren't exactly a high priority for being protected back then. Let's just hope some survived." It did not come to mind as they traveled along before so she asked.

"I guess we should've looked around Manehattan for a library." He slowed down a bit at that. What?

"I won't go back there." Even through the crackle of the radio the sound of his voice made it clear he wouldn't speak further of it. This left Traveler feeling like she'd said something wrong somehow. Had she? Or was she just imagining things?

"I'm still so unsure about everything. Relax. Relax." During her desperate struggle to cross the open wastes she picked up a habit of whispering such things to herself. Sometimes she noticed it was happening. She never did so before having to flee. Constantly she worried if she was acting the way other ponies did. She knew so few of them at home. What if she did or said something others would think was terrible by mistake?

Finding herself thinking of home as they walked a memory came to mind. When she was still quite young she was trying to help do something she did not really recall what and tripped in front of her father, hitting her head off the unyielding floor of the farmhouse. Flailing about moaning in pain and crying she heard his voice.

"Look up." Huh? Through the tears she saw his smiling face looking down at her, reaching out a hoof to help her up. Simply seeing it somehow made her feel better as she got back up and the tears subsided.

"When we fall, we pick ourselves up and try again. Even when you're down, never stop trying." Why did that memory cross her mind now?

Down Range offered to the pull the cart once in a while which she took him up on. This allowed her more freedom of movement. They were losing at least a few days if not more on the other group by heading towards Baltimare, but it might be worth the effort and maybe even save them going after them anyway. Overall it would not lose them too much time to look. Possibly a week and a half at most. The suit maps only indicated one library somewhere near the outskirts of the city. If any others were there they would need to get directions somehow.

"I'll finally get to see a real city up close." She could hardly contain her excitement.

Having bypassed what was left of two old cities already she felt a mix of building excitement and a little fear as well. Would it be dangerous? Even the captain could only tell them so much. Mostly that though some ponies still lived in the cities they were scattered, disorganized and destitute. Also that many sections of the cities were very dangerous, infested with radroaches, bloodwings and possibly other creatures whose descriptions made her skin crawl. More dangerous still, some parts of Manehattan and perhaps other cities were utterly inaccessible due to magical radiation. Though her suit was equipped with a device that might actually let her head into such heavily contaminated areas safely it would carry great risk to do so.

This was all so exciting and frightening at the same time as they approached the city. They were not in sight of anything yet. This was just more walking. It felt nothing the same. The frightening days and nights meandering through the emptiness greatly impressed upon her how terribly vast the world really is. Her entire life was the farm and the tiny town. Why did only old ponies live there anyway? She only visited the town a dozen or so times due to the distance and her young age, leaving her little chance to interact much with the inhabitants. It occurred to her now that every pony in what was essentially the only town she ever knew were all very aged. Why would that be? There were no foals there which did not seem all that out of the ordinary, it was a harsh place but there weren't even any younger or middle-aged ponies around.

Shouldn't there have been at least a few? Perhaps she should bring this up to Down Range and ask what he thought of it. At least having his company made the world feel much more bearable even if he said little. He did endure a great trauma just as herself. In the end if he turned out to be anything at all like his comic counterpart she was in good hooves indeed. Wait a minute.

"I was so surprised I never actually noticed what his cutie mark was!" When he took off his armor she was so enamored of his face she hadn't noticed at all. The comic, at least the one she'd seen hadn't divulged what it was either.

Having somepony to talk to while traveling made such a huge contrast to her lonely escape through the wastes she determined she never wanted to be all alone again. This made her wonder again, were they becoming friends? Was she doing this right? Should she try harder? Or would that push him away? How could you even tell what to do? Never having had any real friends before she was a nervous wreck over every word she spoke. With every slow, carefully crafted sentence she could only hope she didn't sound silly. He did not seem to notice or say anything about it though. Often she thought about it.

"Are we friends? I hope we are. What if we're not? I don't know." Traveler didn't know how much of a toll all this anxiety was really taking on her. Once or twice as they trekked across the broken landscape for a few seconds the suit displayed a dim 'High Blood Pressure' tag that flickered and faded which she barely took notice of. So lost in thought regarding him she didn't notice the slight tremor from under the ground at first. As it became pronounced they halted. Down Range looked to her from several meters behind as some cracks began to form in the ground.

"Earthquake!" Both said in unison.

Neither of them could find sure footing as more and more cracks expanded around them. Soon both were dodging back and forth trying to avoid falling into one of the ever deepening divides. Through terrible timing they were standing on very soft and malleable ground. The quakes intensity was increasing rapidly. Twice through jumping she avoided falling but her position made it just short of inevitable. Back where he was the ground was not splitting apart nearly as much, letting him save himself and the cart. At some point very soon she was going to be consumed by one of the fissures. Was this really it? Was she going to die not by the hooves of some crazed marauder or during some valiant attempt to obtain the almanac, but by the simple misfortune of standing at the wrong place at the wrong time?

"It can't end like this!" Traveler cursed as she dodged across yet another widening crack to land splayed out hard. Not after having come this far. Not right when things were starting to look up. Please not like this. Diving past another opening crack her survival was becoming less and less of a possibility. The stealth suit was far more agile than the heavy armor he wore, but it was not meant for this. Inevitably she was losing to the sheer overwhelming force of nature. One missed step would spell her end. Unable to avoid the edge of one upheaval the ground beneath her dropped away, trying to hop and missing she landed hanging over the edge.

"Help me!" She could not find purchase while the shaking continued, unable to crawl back up as she scrambled futilely, slowly slipping further over. The armor suit was light, but not that light. The shaking was subsiding while she struggled. He was safe but still could not approach as she hung suspended over a drop surely no pony could live through. So close to slipping. Running for her the instant it stopped he almost reached her right as the edge suddenly gave way. Watching in horror from above she slipped off to tumble and bounce several times off the now steep embankment until smashing into the bottom upside down and rolling over.

As her vision went red the last thing she heard was a sharp beeping sound and the suits familiar deep harsh mechanical voice through the ringing in her ears.

"Severe Impact. User death imminent. Automatic medical systems engaged." Hear head rolled to the side as the world went dark. It would take him some time to work his way down to where she lay. It was a fairly localized quake but had caused a great deal of damage in several small areas. The occasional light tremor still went on, making him take even more time to reach where she fell.

She was in an open field full of lush grass strewn with all manner of flowers. It was so bright, warm and sunny. Blink. Flowers? Grass? Sunny? Night Bloom was waving at her.

"M..Mommy?" This couldn't be.

"You've got to wake up now sweetheart." Why would she have to wake up? It was so nice here.

"I don't want to go. I want to stay with you!" Her smile was warm and kind.

"I'm sorry sweetheart, it's not time yet." Time for what?

Everything crumbled away as a sight like a long hallway stretched out in front of her. Down Range was waving at her through the suits visor.

"Traveler. Wake up! Traveler, you've got to wake up! Are you alright? Can you hear me?" She set into a wild fit of coughing and hacking. Her very insides felt hurt. At least this showed him she was alive. Extremely weakly she managed to stammer.

"Mag..nificent....I don't think I can move.." A horrible sense of utter helplessness wrapped around her. Was she paralyzed? What if she could never move again?

"Easy. Easy now, Traveler. Look at your display. Does it say anything's broken?" He sounded so genuinely concerned for her the dread vanished for a moment. She smiled. On the right through pained tears she could just make out a combat log tag never seen before. Taking a deep breath she activated it. When it showed the only entry for that day stated 'Traumatic impact sustained. Heart function ceased. Shock Administered. Painkiller administered.'

"My armor says it shocked me." He tilted his head.

"Never heard of power armor doing anything like that. If it doesn't say anything is broken the shock probably just stunned you. You should be okay." He was encouraging sounding. That was so good to hear.

It still took a full hour before any feeling returned to her body. For that time she simply lay there. There was no way to get her out of the suit if she couldn't move. Twitching in her legs eventually showed she could actually move. Getting up after being prone for so long like this was very painful leaving her standing on what felt like pins and needles. Her ribs felt rigid and bruised.

"Can you walk?" She was wobbly and lightheaded. It was such a relief just to know she wasn't paralyzed.

"Thank goodness. There aren't exactly any hospitals to take you to. I think." She knew what the term meant from her father, but there probably hadn't been a place like that in almost two centuries.

She was going to be hurting for a while. Her suits internal stocks of drugs were already very low of any sort. Now they were even lower. Somehow they remained potent over the years. Most likely some kind of spell was applied to the drugs when they were made. Motioning her to sit down he removed his helmet after extricating himself from the cart. Fortunately none of the supplies were lost. Now able to extract herself from the suit it was plain she was hurt badly. A large lump on the right side of her head was bleeding fairly profusely. Her ribs were not broken but obviously bruised on the right side. The sheer force of the impact at the end of the tumble had jarred hard enough to stop her heart.

Were it not for the armor she would certainly be dead. From his kit he retrieved some gauze, wrapping it around her head softly.

"I feel so tired. Maybe I should lay down.." He shook his head before she finished.

"No!" Traveler was slightly taken aback at sudden rebuke.

"Never go to sleep right after taking a knock to the head like that ever." Why was he so vehement about that?

"It's a bad idea. For now stay awake and keep moving." He was very insistent. This concern felt unnaturally deep to her. If he was that worried about it, maybe she better listen.

"Sorry I said your name out loud like that." She hadn't meant to.

"It's fine. That was really serious. It still is." Now she was really curious why this was so disconcerting to him.

"Why are you so worried? We barely know each other, and my heart stopped. That's worse than this. Isn't it?" Traveler asked.

"Let me tell you a different kind of story." A story? He finished tightening the gauze softly, leaving her looking like she was wearing a white bonnet or something equally out of place partially covering her right eye.

The serious look on his face told her to listen.

"I didn't just start out as a General. I worked my way up with a clear will and purpose. I didn't really want to fight either, who did? You can die. Eventually our purpose shifted to meaning nothing more than..winning. Somewhere we forgot there are other things, but that's not what this story is about. I'm going to tell you what my first bitter taste of war was really like." She'd never heard anypony talk like this before. His expression was more grim than she could have imagined.

"I wanted it, but I probably didn't deserve the rank. They needed officers and promotions to fill positions were a little too quick." Trailing off for a moment it looked like he was having trouble continuing.

"My friend Chance Wrenchswing joined up before I did." She had to stifle a snort. What an unusual name.

"I'm going to tell you what happened during my first battle. Naturally he wound up in the engineering corps. We met during a very large assault against one of our most distant outposts." Though hurting she was listening raptly to this.

"We thought the forest area was secure. It wasn't heavily defended. Zebras know..or knew how to take advantage of terrain very well. When the outpost was hit we were confident we could take them. That didn't last too long. They took their time, picking us off one by one. Didn't even know the first one of us was gone." Traveler could already tell this was a story with a bad ending.

"By the time we realized what was happening six of us were already down. I was only active seven months." He took a deep breath.

"I never watched anypony die before. We fought for a long time. Hours I guess. Until he took a shot across the helmet. One of the others jumped the zebra that did it while I dragged him off into the forest. I don't know what happened to him." This was a dark and terrible story so far and getting worse. She did not know what to feel about it.

"They all died. All of them. I am the only one who survived that fight." Though Travelers head was killing her, this demanded her attention.

"But, what about your friend?" She asked. He nodded in a forlorn way.

"He couldn't walk. I made a makeshift sled out of branches and straps to drag him on. I didn't know. I never should have let him sleep, but It took two days to find another unit. They were hit as well. Not as bad. The medic..couldn't wake him up." A few tears welled in his eyes.

"He never woke up." He wiped his eyes. Oh dear. That was frightening. Seeing her horrified look he quickly added:

"I don't mean to scare you. Just stay awake until we're sure you're really alright. Poor Chance, as far as I know he was still in a coma when it all ended. Maybe that was better anyway." This was such a sad story.

The particular comic she'd seen never said he'd been through such terrible things.

"I'm sorry about your friend." Was all she could think to say.

"I'm sorry about all of them. Do you think you can manage to walk? We can go slow." After hearing that she was more than willing to stay up for now and gingerly slipped back into Moonlight. It would be very slow going. The rest of the day passed uneventfully. He was unusually chatty. Just off in the distance the vague outlines of buildings could be seen in the dim gloom that was day. Her earlier excitement was tempered by the pain in her ribs and head.

As night fell they stopped just short of being within sight of the buildings. Her head wasn't ringing as much by now. Her ribs felt like they were hurting even more than earlier.

"I have to stop. Do you think it would be okay for me to sleep now?" He was still a bit concerned, but she did seem to be in full possession of her faculties.

"Alright. Don't you slip away on me now." No way she was going to die now. There were things to do. Even on the hard ground it felt so good to rest.

It also hurt a whole lot to wake up.

"Ohh." Traveler panted. Her head was pounding terribly and it felt like it took everything she had just to get to her hooves. Once up she coughed a few times. She was feeling so very hungry she opened one of the boxes of miserable foodstuff once more and just dumped some in her mouth. The same vaguely crunchy gritty cardboard-like flavor as always. She was starting to become so desensitized to it she didn't even notice. The ancient cereal whatever it was certainly was filling. She was only finishing the first box now, and would stick to drinking only the amount of water she planned on.

Where was Down Range anyway? Gingerly slipping into the suit the display showed him moving towards her. He stepped into view.

"Good. You're up. I was worried." Those words made her feel very warm.

"I'm fine. Well, I'm not fine, but I think I'm alright." She was kind of stumbling over her words.

"It's my watch." He asked if she was feeling up to it.

"I can take it." At least she hoped. She would not be able to move around as much so chose to do slow circles.

Each time she looked east the outlines of wrecked and shattered buildings could be made out. They would definitely reach the first in the morning. Hopefully the library they were looking for wasn't totally destroyed. Her excitement was beginning to return. A real city. Something she'd never been to before. The prospect was fraught with mixed feelings. It could be a treasure trove or a death trap. The squeaking from the suits damaged leg joint happened more often since her terrible tumble. As if there wasn't enough to worry about already.

"It can't be helped. Just gotta keep..huh?" The faintest flicker of another friendly bar appeared on the display and vanished.

"Must be imagining things. I guess I did hit my head pretty hard." Losing herself in thought the time passed quickly. When he asked her via the radio if she was ready to go it startled her.

"Oh my head. Yeah, can't wait to see it." If there was anything left to see. She'd been so intent on the city ahead that once again she'd missed what his cutie mark was.

"Next time." She told herself. The terrain here was very flat. A portion of an old road they were following which happened to survive showed as Mareshal Lane on her display. How did the suit know these things?

Further on just across two more roads was the library. If they could go in a straight line it would only take a few hours to reach. They were making good time once again. An occasional soft aftershock still shook the ground setting off alarm bells in her head. They proved to be unwarranted. Most of the upheaval was confined to a relatively small region. Down Range insisted on pulling the cart for now. The gesture was nice if a bit pointless aside from maneuverability. Their suits provided more than enough power to pull it regardless. It did put less stress on the leg joint she supposed. They were finally approaching buildings. For her it was quite a sight, and quite a mess. She didn't know what she expected really.

Many buildings did still stand. Cracked, withered with age and neglect or otherwise damaged with some missing entire sections, but impressive to her nonetheless.

"Ponies built all this? They're so..big." Some of them looked like they reached to the very sky itself. They were not so lucky for a clear path. One building was a real problem. When it fell the structure twisted sheering the building in half to land on its side across the road toppling another building across the way blocking the entire way.

"Do we go around?" Traveler was intently surveying all this. It was all so grand and huge to her.

"It would take hours more. We go through. Stay spaced apart." ?? He walked straight up to one of the sideways windows and straight in. She followed. It was difficult navigating in this space and disorienting. Some warped doors still in their frames hung above. Most rotted away. She could look up and see the assorted destruction wrought on tubs, tables and whatever else the building once housed before it fell so violently. A more saddening and mute reminder of the horror the end gave to all was the presence of the occasional bit of pony bone here and there. Living ponies were in here when it happened. How many ponies were struck down idly, never suspecting anything was coming?

Accidentally stepping on the still partially intact skull of one poor soul amidst the wreckage gave her pause. She gulped.

"I'm sorry." She slid it softly off to the side and moved on. His armor was equipped with a small side lamp enabling them to see well enough. Moonlight did not have any such feature thanks to the vision enhancement it already provided. This enabled her to determine the night vision mode though helpful was no replacement for real light. Several shortcomings were noticeable now. It was not possible to look too closely towards a light source with it on, and it was much harder to make out fine details. It was easy enough to imagine this being a problem.

Her father said the suit wasn't fully tested when the war ended. It may have other problems she was not yet aware of. Their steps echoed hollowly through this once mundane structure. It must have been wonderful to live in such a place. Her imagination ran wild with things that might have gone on here. So much so she could almost hear voices. The walk through this mangled mess was depressing. So many dreams must have been cut short in this one place alone. What of the whole of Equestria? Were all the great cities as torn up and devastated? To her even this simple building was a marvel of engineering deserving of a far better end than this. Some climbing was necessary once in a while. Fortunately their path was mostly clear.

Emerging on the far side presented a view down the road of many other destroyed buildings.

"That's not promising." Half an hour later they stood in front of the library. Not promising at all. A quarter of the right side was shorn clean off leaving the entire insides of the lobby exposed. A once grand staircase still stood to the left spiraling up to a second rickety floor. Any books out here were beyond salvage. A friendly bar flickered across her display again.

"Did you see?.." He looked at her.

"Never mind." Picking their way in through the rubble did lead to a few jammed doors.

Ramming the first two at full strength still would not move them.

"Must have caved in behind." He said. This was looking less and less likely to have been a good idea. The third door opened with ease. There might be something in there. Down the messy hallway there was a sudden echoing voice.

"Help! Help!" They looked to each other. Running down the hallway they passed a door where another call for help drifted from. Backing up they could see a disheveled blue mare whose soft pink mane and tail were streaked with dirt. She was pinned on her back by a beam sitting across one of her hooves.

An open book with illegible lettering surrounded by wide empty spaces for a cutie mark was just visible. She spotted them. Some decayed bones lay about the room.

"Thank goodness! Can you get this off of me? I'm stuck." The beam was very heavy taking some effort to slide off enough to set her free.

"Who are you, and how did you get stuck like that?" They asked. Standing up and shaking herself off she looked rather pale.

"I'm Margin. I promised to visit her so I was trying to find my friend Delimiter when everything got all bright and shaky. Then this beam fell down. I've been stuck here for hours. No, days? I don't know." Bright? She seemed very confused.

"What are you doing here?" Couldn't hurt to ask.

"We are looking for a book called the Farmer's Almanac." She smiled.

"I know exactly where a copy of that is. I'll help you find it if you help me find my friend." That sounded good.

"Follow me." Margin darted out into the hallway. Didn't her hoof hurt?

Back at the staircase she started upwards, seemingly oblivious to her surroundings or how unsafe it all was.

"Isn't that dangerous?" She giggled when Traveler asked.

"Dangerous? Nonsense. What could be dangerous about climbing some stairs? Come along." Margin walked up to the top then straight across the drooping ledge without a care in the world. As she went to step into a gap Traveler gasped, but somehow she walked straight across to the far door and out of sight.

"Down Range, something feels strange about this." He agreed.

"You're lighter than me. think you're up to crossing that?" The other mare did it. Surely she could manage. It would mean leaving Moonlight here with him.

"Be careful. Something really does feel off about this, but I can't put my hoof on it." She headed up to the ledge. It was even more rickety up close. How did Margin cross this so easily? Inching her way along unsteadily she put her left rear hoof right through the ledge. It would be very painful to fall from here. The promise of the book won out as she steadily crossed inch by inch. Finally entering the door on the far side let her breathe a sigh of relief.

Margin was just turning a corner at the end of the hall.

"Come on slowpony." Out of sight again. Traveler went to turn the corner and almost fell a story down onto ragged sharp pieces below where the floor collapsed. Margin was on the other side of the large gap.

"It's right in here." She waved.

"Wait, Margin, how did you get over there so fast?" She stopped waving.

"I walked. What's the trouble with you young ponies today?" She stepped into the room on the far side of the gap out of sight once again.

"What is going on here?" If there was any chance a copy was here she needed to reach it. Backing up to take a running start she leapt across, her rear hooves just connected with the edge as she almost slipped off.

"Whew. Don't want to wind up down there." There were plenty of books in the room, most of which were absolutely ruined by the ravages of time and exposure. The ceiling had given way here leaving the room open to air and the elements.

"Here you are. The Farmer's Almanac: Everything there is to know about farming, past and present." It was a hefty tome, and nearly utterly destroyed. Maybe something could be salvaged out of it.

She'd let her hopes get too high, now feeling miserable at seeing it. The panging in her head and body from the exertion wasn't helping her mood.

"Can we look for my friend now? She should be around here somewhere." Right. That. Traveler left the book in here for now. She would get it on the way back out.

"Where would this friend of yours be?" She asked as they traversed several dingy hallways lined by multiple rooms. The library would have been well appointed in its time.

The cracked and peeling walls, destroyed reading tables and chairs, and the desiccated husk of a building now only served as a reminder that life must have been a great deal better once.

"Why are you looking for them anyway?" Margin smiled.

"We promised to meet each other and go out for a nice picnic." Traveler did a double take. A what? Did she hear that right? Brushing it off she also decided to ask.

"How did you know right where that book was anyway?" Margin was calling her friends name.

"I'm the head librarian here." What? She was beginning to think she'd hit her head even harder the other day than she thought. A low muffled wheezing was heard behind a slightly tilted door. It took some banging to force it open. Bursting through the dilapidated door revealed a crying pale pink unicorn with a soft blue and white streaked mane. A mark that resembled a comma punctuated her flank. Her crying echoed in the small room. More alarmingly a filing cabinet had fallen across her back. Another shelf fell straight across right in front, apparently cracking her horn jaggedly. The bones of a pony skeleton lay crushed beside her.

"Delimiter!" Margin ran over to her.

"Margin, you're finally here. I waited for you so long. I thought I'd be stuck in here forever." There was some kind of mild echo to her voice in this room. Traveler heaved the cabinet off of her stirring up great deals of dust. She appeared to glimmer in the dim light afforded by the gaps in the ceiling. Despite freeing her this still felt very wrong.

"That was quite a shake, huh?" Delimiter stood up and the two friends hugged one another happily. Wasn't she hurt? She had to be hurting between her back being hit and her horn being broken.

"It's time." Delimiter told her. A horrified look crossed Margins face as something dawned on her. Traveler looked to her questioningly. Rivulets of tears began streaming down her face.

"It can't be..I...I don't want to go!" Delimiter held her friend close.

"I just realized it too. I Guess I just couldn't leave without my best friend." She gave her a gentle squeeze.

"We've been here much too long already. We have to go. It's okay. We're together again thanks to this nice pony." This was feeling stranger and stranger. Margin was shaking her head side to side as tears flowed.

"Come now. It was a long time ago. We can go together." Traveler was feeling very confused. What were they talking about?

"Are you ready?" Margin ever so slowly said yes. Delimiter looked to Traveler.

"Good luck, and thank you." With a wavering shimmer they disappeared from sight. A moment later Traveler found herself sitting in an empty room beside a pile of pony bones as her vision flickered. No one was around.

"Huh? What happened to me? Where did they go? Margin? Delimiter?" There was no answer within the dusty confines of this ruined library. Only the undisturbed silence of ages abandonment.

"Wait a minute." Looking down she was dumbstruck by the fact there was only one set of hoofprints in the dust. A chill ran along her spine.

"What did I just?.." Getting up she walked back through the lonely library. There were no other hoofprints in the halls aside from her own.

"Was I dreaming? That can't be." The damaged remnants of the book were exactly where she left it. It was most definitely real.

"Was that some kind of magic? I better get out of here." Heading back hurriedly she retrieved the book and tossed it across the gap to land squarely. From this side the angle of the jump looked easier to make. After making the dangerous leap back she carried it out to the ledge and tossed it down for Down Range to catch. She did not have to go back across the ledge again after finding a relatively safe spot to jump down from. The exertion of it all exacerbated the pounding in her head and the ache in her ribs.

"Where is Margin?" He asked.

"Let's get out of here. I'll tell you on the way." As they exited what was left of the library she explained.

"That can't be right." Now he was worried about her mental state.

"They were there and then they were just, gone." They might as well get back on track. Slipping back through the ruins she was uncertain of her feelings. Did she just help something really good happen? It did feel like it was good even if It was hard to understand.

"You are talking about ghosts. How can there be ghosts?" He was still rather incredulous about what happened.

"I don't know. I just feel like something good happened." Could they really have been ghosts, or something else? Some kind of echo of the past? Whatever they were, they had been waiting for somepony to bring them to their senses and set things to rights for a very long time. Deciding it would probably be fruitless to look for another library around here they followed the same route back to their last campsite. He took off his helmet and sat using a spell to ever so gently prize apart the damaged books pages. She got some rest while he worked. Most pages were unreadable with only an intact sentence or word which without context were probably useless, he cut them out and saved them anyway just in case.

He worked at it for several hours before flipping the last page. Only one page from a chapter apparently about wheat was relatively intact. Carefully he slipped it into the relative safety of a storage compartment on his armor. Their detour wasn't a complete loss.

"Better than nothing. I hope we have better luck next time." He would take the first watch tonight. She really needed the rest. Her head and ribs were still aching. The strange incident at the library left her wondering what else they might run into. Had the two ponies friendship really been so strong in life that a mere promise bound them here until they were together again? Was that even possible?

It was hard for her to sleep that night. Hearing some shuffling she opened her eyes to see the faint outline of a red-furred pony standing over her.

"AAAHH!" Startled she started screaming, as she did so he echoed with an "aaah!" of his own. This was strangely familiar.

"Aah!" She yelped again. Down Range had come running from somewhere and in his hefty armor slid down a small ridge. Why hadn't his suit picked them up? They continued screaming back and forth.

"Stop, stop screaming!" He boomed over his suit amp.

"Who are you!? What do you want!?" She demanded.

"What's going on here? You!?" Down Range also sounded confused. The red-coated pony responded with a surprised sound to his voice.

"You!" Traveler blinked in confusion.

"Hold it, hold it!" What in the world? Now that she'd shaken off the grogginess of sleep she could see him clearly.

"Is that you, Tanner? What are you doing, are you following us?" Down Range questioned. This was all so confusing.

What did this pony want? Was he following them? This thought made her feel a bit disturbed.

"Yes, I mean no. I mean..sorry to startle you like that. I didn't intend to, really. Sorry." Once she managed to catch her breath she stood up. Down Range stepped in close as Tanner spoke.

"Wait, you know my name?" Tanner seemed to calm.

"Of course I know your name, Tanner. You only followed me everywhere at the camp. Think I didn't notice?" Tanner was a bit pale.

"Tanner? Are you alright?" He fell over onto his side unconscious, smacking his head off the ground.

"Good heavens. Traveler, check him." She leaned over him.

"Are ya..Are you dead?" His eyes shot open making her jump back.

"Ohh.. What happened?" He looked up and seeing the heavily armored pony standing over him his head hit the dirt again.

"This is going to be a long day isn't it?" Down Range held an armored hoof up to his helmet and sighed.

"It's about time for your watch anyway. I have no idea why he's here or how he found us. Probably harmless, just keep an eye on him. I need some sleep." Traveler found she did not ache quite as badly. While she always wanted excitement, this was not at all the sort she had in mind. Doing her little routine to get into her armor she couldn't help but ponder her experiences so far. Not even two months time passed since she left the farm. She went through so much. Now she'd nearly died twice. She hoped this was not becoming a trend. Through sheer luck of timing she'd met a pony who was technically over two centuries old, and now what could this Tanner fellow be doing here anyway?

"I wonder what will happen next?" She gazed off into the distance.

- - -

Is it fate? Are they merely lucky to still be alive or is that which hangs always just a hairs breadth outside of notice gently pulling at the strings?

Deseret

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The war consumed all. Nothing and no one was spared the terror and pain. Not even a small, long since forgotten realm. After all the world is a very large place. Who could be tasked to remember such an insignificant little thing? The ponies of Equestria were facing much larger problems to deal with. Whilst no ponies remembered them, they certainly remembered the ponies. They were in fact required for their very survival when outside of this place. Nearly 200 years ago the minuscule breezies were forced to wall themselves off from Equestria when they emerged to engage in a traditional right of passage only to find it seemingly devoid of life or help, and much too dangerous for them.

The portals to this land were very few and far between, having been created even more ages ago via some unknown and unremembered means. Their own access to magic was nearly nonexistent. Lacking power as they were it had taken a concerted effort by every living breezie at that time to manage closing them and prevent a disaster. The very sort of disaster that was happening now. The dimensional dams that held the portals closed for so long had for some unknown reason and without warning begun to falter and break down.This was allowing contamination to seep in at ever faster rates, overtaking many of them before they even knew what was happening. There was no slowing it.

Some seeking escape found only a painful lonely death in another location.

"Mom, we have to help them!" She spoke in their highly nuanced common language. Their small packs dangled at their sides. They had thought to grab them just before fleeing. Her mother's magnificent wings glittered in the ever dimming light. The seemingly magical light was in truth provided by very luminescent exotic plants, plants which were quickly dying taking the light with them.

"There's nothing we can do, it's spreading too fast. We have to get out there or we're next. The only remaining safe portal will close very soon." They started heading for the only one that was still available as soon as they heard it was safe to exit through to the strange world beyond.

"But, all our friends.." Tears fell from their saddened faces as they drifted along.

"I'm sorry, Deseret." It was horrible, what they'd seen when passing a little too close to the already affected areas. The rapidly withering plants and destroyed homes.

Falling and dying breezies limping along they could not approach, calling, begging for help they could not give. They must leave now or be trapped to die as well in this once placid and peaceful place. Very soon this beautiful land, their once safe haven against the ills of the world would forever be lost to them, dead as their fallen brethren. Against protest their Queen opted to remain and use what little power she still possessed to hold open the portal as long as possible and usher out as many as could be saved.

"What about dad?" Deseret questioned. Her mother shook her head.

"Let's just hope he made it to the portal." With that she tugged her daughter along.

There was little time left to reach the far-off portal. Being so diminutive news of the safe portal reached them slowly despite the best efforts of their swiftest couriers to pass the news as far as possible before it closed. There would just barely be enough time for them to reach it and pass through. The couriers were also slowed by not quite knowing where was still safe to go. Some of the couriers entered what appeared to still be safe areas only to fall sick or worse themselves. What would await them across it's threshold? No breezie had looked beyond one since they were closed.

Where this portal even crossed to was a mystery. Only old stories remained. Stories of how alien a place it was to them, how vast and dangerous even before whatever great disaster befell it. A disaster they knew nothing of. How could they? Their own realm was more than big enough for them, secure until now. Now they may only be scurrying to their doom, but what other choice was there? Their insular world would soon be completely flooded with deadly contamination there was no way of halting. What great disjunction found its way into their safe haven? Were the portals forced open on purpose? If so, what sinister aim could possibly be accomplished by destroying them?

Compared to the ponies and creatures of Equestria the breezies are so small, so insignificant in stature some even began to think of themselves that way. Their success in closing the portals girded their confidence in themselves. Enough for them to live on in the seclusion entirely cut off, alone. This confidence would now be put to the most severe test. Whatever awaited beyond the portal would surely push them to their limits. A few small ragtag groups of surviving breezies met here and there as they headed for their only possible salvation. Their path to the goal was winding and cautious, draining their already limited time. There was no choice, heading straight there was not possible.

Crossing already withering areas carried far too much risk. The medicinal herbs and life giving plants were found to be poisonous if showing any sign of the withering at all. Some in a few of the groups crossing their path were obviously dying and given a wide berth. Coming too close to those affected had proven deadly already. This had the unfortunate side-effect of also turning away the generally infirm or unwell on the off-chance it was something more.

"This isn't right.." Deseret could only cry as her mother hurried them along. When they finally approached the portal it was with both great relief and great reluctance to enter. There were so few of them here.

"I'm scared." Trembling they looked towards the entrance. Some of the queen's servants were ushering what scattered remnants made it here through to the other side.

"My Queen, you are here. Why haven't you left yet?" Her mother asked. The Queen seemed oblivious to her question.

"I hope we can find some ponies in that place. We will need their help." Her mother stared at the portal with apprehension. What happened to Equestria all those decades ago? Were they about to find salvation or would their efforts be in vain? With no way of knowing they might as well assume all the ponies were dead.

Surely whatever was killing them now had killed the residents of that long unvisited land. Standard equestrian tongue had still been taught, passed down to any breezie wishing to learn it for whatever reason. This might prove of value if they were somehow fortunate enough to find any alive. Provided it was even possible for them to survive long enough to find any.

"Are you ready, Deseret?" She hugged her daughter tightly. Father was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he was waiting for them on the other side? All of the breezies heading towards the portal looked scared out of their wits, fueling their fear.

They turned to take one last forlorn look at their dying realm. A sight that would soon and for all eternity be denied to them. There would be no coming back. The servants were being forced more and more to keep well away from the portal any approaching breezie that looked to be under the effects of the contamination. The horror of watching some begin writhing in agony, slowly dying from afar was proving to be an unbearable torture.

"My Queen, you cannot possibly hold it open much longer. You must go." She was regal and stern as the rocks. One of the servants was insisting she enter.

"Steady old friend. I will not abandon any of my subjects that can be saved. Not to this scourge. If I enter it will close. You however, must go now. All of you here, quickly. I will follow later if I can." There was a distinct feeling that was not going to happen.

"My Queen, I cannot..." Barely able she rose up. What tiny spark of magic they all managed to muster for her was fading fast.

"I order you to go!" She did not often issue orders.

"You are wasting time. Get moving." Sadly the few remaining breezies departed their home for the last time. Passing through the portal was not an experience any had a recollection of, or a way of knowing what to expect. It was too long ago. Upon entering the glimmering light of it they felt a slight shudder pass across them. Looking back to the fading light of the portal they waited in hope for their Queen. A few more every once in a while exited. All hope of her following was extinguished when the final glimmering light of the portal faded from existence. Their attention soon turned to tears and then to immediate concerns.

"Where, are we?" Was stated in unison.

- - -

Such small and delicate silvery wings upon such dainty little things. What twist of cruel fate so fair, may lie waiting to spring upon them there?

Wicked

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In the dark it sits and waits. Wallowing in its blinding hate. It wants all and nothing at the same time. It has waited forever for the time. It wants to reach forth and claim its prize. Locked safely away by those who were wise. It looks such a wonderful, useful thing. Inside pure evil waits to take wing. Those who would claim such awful power find in its presence even they must cower. The pressure of its dominance bared leaves those with good hearts trembling, scared. Be forever wary of its scathing might for few can withstand the slightest sight. The glitter of blinding white is not always reflecting light. Tread not in the shadow there, or be forever lost within its snare.

Hiding in that darkened place it starts a quite revolting race. Its time is nearing. Its coming for you. Whatever is it you shall do? You think that you know the answer? It spreads itself as like a cancer. A most grotesque and curious dancer. It wishes to wind within its web any who would dare to tread. The dark is what it calls home. It needs no one, sitting there so very alone. It leaves all quivering and prone. Its one weakness none will ever share. Sharp and wicked inside its lair. Soon to be a most significant player. It toys with fates strings for amusements sake. Leaving naught but destruction in its wake. What lies at stake now is the world laid bare. What is justice? What is fair? Does it have even a single care?

I warn you now to run, to hide. You don't want to know what is held inside. It will not spare you nor I. It can only make things die. It will do no good to scream nor cry. It exists because of one single devastating lie. Never may we know the reason why. We can but shake our heads and sigh. Oh me oh my, there is no way to now deny that things are nearly so cut and dry. It has such power it cannot use, enough to finally make it blow a fuse. Seething anger will soon burst out to not one single warning shout. All who knew lay dead and rotten. All warning of its power long forgotten. What is it, this horrid thing? What horrors with it does it bring? Few know the pain of its terrible sting.

It shrieks and screams and pries at the prison walls. Unheard caterwauling does not echo down the halls. In its silent despair there is nothing which it can share. Where is it? Where? None can hear it. None know it is there. The walls are breaking, wearing thin. The slightest misstep might well let it in. Does it wait for some unwary traveler? Perhaps some unknowing dabbler. To free it from that final lock. The clock is ticking, time is sticking. Have you ever seen the world slow down? It sees only crimson brown. Life does not like what is about to be shown, something like this should never have grown. To be so strong and play at will with whatever gives to it a silent thrill. Unnoticed a terrible chill, like ice it runs through the land as forth it reaches still.

It contrives to win a freedom that must never begin. It waits to cackle and grin, to what is it akin? Where it sits so far none can hear. Does it even want anything near? Its patience now is nearing an end. To its will the world must soon bend. To give heed to this call will mean to lose it all. Wither then even mighty armies fall. What is coming? Better start running. Who will we turn to? All we knew and all that is. How can things be so terribly amiss? Waiting in its dark abyss. How could we have been oh so remiss? To forget its there, even in our darkest nightmare. Will we stand in awe as it devours us whole? Can none stand forth and fulfill the role? A hero to bring us lights reprieve, and give to all the greatest relief.

What at this moment makes it struggle to lift its head, to turn life to dust and leave all to rust? Is there no one in whom we may trust? To disperse the enclosing gloom, and let flowers spring forth to once again bloom. It swept away yesteryear, laying them low and filling all with fear. Hope is such a simple fleeting thing, it can come and go as easily as when voices set forth to sing. The land in countless decades has not felt the joy of spring, when forth used to come every living thing. It sits there biding in its plight, waiting for the time to be just right. Its ploys are falling into place, leaving not a single trace. No way to see it. No way to hear it. No way to come anywhere near. To it the world stopped long ago. For their efforts it set all aglow.

Is there a reason it lies in wait? What exactly is its stake? It does not care what we may do. It may not even care if we were to win through. It slowly summons all its strength. The length and breadth of all the land, is what it covets as it starts to stand. Its burdens greater than any other. It wants only us to smother. Its singular task is murder through and through. More dangerous than anything we have ever knew. The threads are coming undone upon the loom. It will be upon us quite soon. The roots it casts are vast and deep. Don't let it take you in your sleep. Those who knew it were left to weep. It is coming, bar your door, or maybe it will come up through the floor? To make a mockery forevermore, and maybe reach a distant shore. Should it win all daylight ends, the sun will never shine again.

- - -

Something wicked this way comes.

Damnatio Memoriae

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Half an hour to to war end:

The circle of zebras stared towards the center where one lone member stood in chains. All wore cloaks emblazoned with a small circular golden crest of two snakes crossing each others path. Their yellowed eyes glinted in the dark. Their leader stood forth and spoke grimly in a harsh sounding dialect thought entirely lost to the nation and to time. If any were to overhear it would do them no good.

"You stand accused of treason and heresy. Worse yet, you have gone too far in your mad bid for power. Not only have you failed us, Abraxi. If they but knew, you would have earned the enmity of all your kind. Did you think Caesar would continue to cast a blind eye? To look kindly upon these transgressions?" The circles and patterns inscribed in the ground around him were beginning to fill with a glowing blue liquid pouring in from two upturned cauldrons. He did not speak, merely returning a cold gaze which gave pause even to these members of the secret council.

"You shall be stricken from our hearts and memories. None shall herald your name nor suffer to recall your failure. Unlike you however, we are not merciless to our own. It pains us all to offer you anything. Have you any last request?" The words were practically spat at him. Slowly his icy gaze met each causing a shiver to pass between them. His voice was low and sharp.

"My fate was sealed long ago. You offer one last request even to me? You are WEAKLINGS." He yanked at the chains suddenly, causing every member to take a step back.

This was insufferable. How could one lone captive in chains instill such fear in them?

"You have disobeyed time and again. Made a mockery of our order. Now you dare insult our strength?" He had only escaped punishment thus far because of his genius and knowledge. The agitated crowd murmured amongst themselves. He spoke again.

"The only madness here is blindly following in Caesar's insanity. Can you not see what is soon coming?" His words stung. It felt as though a heavy weight fell on each zebra present. It was true.

The orders they were being given were becoming increasingly desperate. Each foray into battle was less and less successful no matter how much was being thrown into it. They would lose the war soon. A war they must win. They were bound by tradition, honor and duty to succeed or die in carrying out this impossible task. Their leader hissed angrily, turning towards the others.

"Silence. We serve the empire and the empire is Caesar!" The murmurs ceased. He stomped at the ground rhythmically.

"Our lives for Caesar! All hail!" They all joined. He turned back to the prisoner as the stomping continued.

"You see, cretin? Our loyalties lie with the empire. Where do yours?" He pointed to the attendants to pour in the final ingredient. A vile thick smoke began to rise from the patterns, slowly circling towards the center. Soon he would be engulfed in it.

"Judgement is passed. For your misdeeds towards your kin the sentence is death." The prisoners expression showed nothing. No fear, no anger. Nothing. The crowd fell silent as the smoke covered him completely.

He should be coughing, choking on the concoction. Dying. Nothing was heard. Silently they looked to each other, perplexed. Minutes passed. The obscuring smoke would dissipate soon. The vague outline of the zebra could just be made out as it went.

"What?" Scattered gasps from the group voiced their disbelief. Something was not right with this. A terrible feeling of wrong overcame them.

"What is this?" One of them gasped. The chains lay empty on the ground. He stepped out from the haze.

They were all backing up.

"Stand fast! Weapons!" Their leader ordered. Each readied daggers, swords or even more exotic fighting tools.

"Abraxi, what have you done!?" He leered at the group. He looked different somehow, darker. Sinister. Some depressive feeling of dread fell over every one of them. His very voice hurt to hear.

"You are all so weak-minded. Zebra and pony alike, all their allies. It took you much too long to see through this guise. You have so readily earned what is come upon you." He raised a hoof and they all staggered backwards under some unseen assault.

"Sir, what is he?" One of the group asked. Some strange pressure pushed at them.

"That is not Abraxi. It never was." Was the response. Hollow echoed laughter surrounded them.

"How right you are. He died at the very outset of this game. A game which you have now lost, for I am become death." He laughed maniacally. A game? Death? Was this abomination standing before them one of their own at all? Was he even a zebra?

"It was all so easy. Taking his place. A few suggestive words given at just the right moment. An accident or two and suddenly you are all trying to kill one another. Isn't it glorious?" He was walking straight at them.

"Who is this fiend, sir?" One of the subordinates ran at him only to be deftly bashed away in a single precise movement to land sprawled unconscious. Their leader gravely took his stance.

"A servant of the lowland cult. Brace yourselves." At mention of the cult their hearts ran even colder.

"Give it your all. Anything less means our end. Fight well and true." They knew there was no escaping this.

He was nearing. What misfortune this was. To have uncovered such treachery here and now. Much too late to do any good.

"Far more than your end, quaestionarius. The empire topples, and we all fall..down." The clamor of battle rang out in the night.

- - -

Sometimes things are exactly what they seem to be.

Here We Gather

View Online

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Many dark and mysterious things roam the equestrian wastes. Some mistakenly made by the very hooves which once claimed to protect that which was innocent, pure and good. In the name of this very goodness and science they invariably sought to turn such progress towards making weapons of the most innocuous of things. Trust to nothing, to no pony or higher power. None are there to aid you in the dim light cast upon the land, strewing ill and shadows long cast over it by the past. The only thing you may trust to is yourself and hope in your decisions. Wither they may lead you in the stillness is entirely the happenstance of your choices.

From great underground stables few recall, to the vast unforgiving emptiness that blankets the land there is little hope for the world. Yet those dull embers of hope spring forth from time to time. Tiny sparks in this absolute darkness gleam brightly as a thousand watchfires lit all at once. By this same token such an ember attracts all sorts of attention. Blighted landscapes almost seem to cry out for justice, restitution for all the horror inflicted upon it by tortured ghosts of long ago. The barely surviving members of the once great and flourishing pony races look up only to a closed sky which offers no escape. In the dank stillness something stirs. Surely no greater horror could yet await?

Great and terrible are the powers that clashed time and time again. Their fight for supremacy over a withered world just another story held onto by the scarred and shattered remnants of what was. The battlefields full of pain and suffering lay eerily silent, forgotten. The misery of the distant past plaintively calls out for justice where there is none. No peace has settled anywhere, only an uneasy quiet which refuses to let go of the present. Nowhere is this made more clear than by simply seeing the grand marvels ponies once held as their greatest achievements. Those which still stand a mute monument to the countless lives wasted in a futile war with a pointless end.

Life still tenaciously goes on in any way it can despite the devastation wrought across the world. Life which is looked upon by envious eyes shrouded in dark and shadow. The silence is a heavy weight on top of all that still lives. How dare life defy the end and continue? On it goes oblivious to the fact it is over. There is no point, why won't it just give in? All things must come to an end. This is the natural order even if that end was brought about by unnatural means. Perhaps this is why life struggles on far past the time it should have quit. Defiantly ponies still face what is left. The tragic cost of continued existence a price that is far too steep. Some still accept paying this hefty sum.

Longing for some spark of hope and light the dull and injured expanses wait in silence for some grand recurrence, some push forth of civilization to reclaim control of the land and finally grant peace to the extinguished rays of yesteryear. When the grips of fear and terror took hold of the populace the groundwork of inevitability was laid. No greater law and power than that which is inevitable exists. The drumbeats of war echo throughout history to an endless tune of emptiness and sorrow. The world did not end so much as it wound down after the fact. Many ponies amongst other life survived as it always does.

The great megaspell versions of much simpler spells that never were intended to be used were hurled in retaliation against an enemy that chose to use them first, also in ways never intended. Despite their great power the destruction wrought was nowhere near total. Huge portions of the populations on all sides were incinerated instantly to join the background emanations of magic forever left to spill forth where the very fabric of reality itself was torn asunder. Those that were too close never felt a thing. For those unfortunate few not far enough away left blind and stumbling in the dark, the stark terror though short-lived was unbearable. Long after the darkness consumed them their mournful cries may yet carry, lonely in their solitude.

"Need more. I'm going to rip it open. Then it'll all come spilling out. Spilling, pouring out. Gonna tear it open, it'll be so warm when it all comes gushing out." It was heading straight for them, muttering incomprehensibly. An apparently insane silvery-coated earth pony was shuffling along behind on a nearly broken limb, pursuing relentlessly. He seemed to feel nothing. He was faster than he should be, but never tired. The crazed ponies face and coat was spattered with blood. Blood from one of the other poor souls that ran across him. He seemed to come out of nowhere, wheezing and speaking strangely. When he violently bit into their neck, killing them on the spot, she and her son ran. This was a mistake.

Spotting the motion he stumbled towards them. Now he was chasing them endlessly through the countryside. How long were they running? She didn't know, only that they must not stop. Something was even more wrong with this pony than simply being wild or crazy. At one point this very pale pink unicorn smashed him straight across the head with a rock she spotted, sending him sprawling out on his back. Despite nearly bashing his skull in, it barely slowed him down. He must not get near them. Something in his eyes screamed it. They must find somewhere to escape to. Somewhere they could hide, but they were tiring while somehow he was not. They couldn't keep this up.

Fear was the only thing still keeping them moving, Fear of being caught by this monster, and what he might do. All real strength was gone long ago. He had come from the direction of what many called the Haysead swamps, this odd mispronunciation persisted through the ages. It was a place no pony dared approach in uncounted years. Terrible stories circulated which told of an endless swamp, a vile place where nothing that would or should be called life existed, yet it was from the distant edge of this place out of myth and legend he emerged. Their companion of only two days now lay dead as they retreated. It was difficult to form bonds of trust with any wandering the blasted landscapes of what was once collectively known as Equestria.

She along with her son were enjoying the brief respite of friendly company when they were suddenly set upon. At first he seemed no threat, merely a mumbling eccentric of the wastes. Allowing him to approach soon proved deadly. At a distance the way he walked looked odd. As he approached it rapidly became apparent something was wrong. His movements were jerky, disconcerting, too fast. The instant he spotted them he jolted at them, tearing into their new friend. His very light barding proved useless against his assailant. They were just beginning to trust and like him after some tension filled days together. Now he was gone. There was no time for regret and grief right now.

The blood-streaked stallion that ended him was right on them.

"I can't. I Can't." The young colt was slathering at the mouth from near exhaustion.

"We have to keep moving or that thing will get us." His mother was huffing as she ran. They managed to gain a little distance earlier by running around some strewn debris which fell from an old building long ago, tripping him as he moved only straight at them. She would have used an ancient pistol she carried in a makeshift holster at her side, but ran out of ammo days ago. Even if she had ammo it would be frightening to try firing again.

The weapon jammed several times at inopportune moments due to the longtime lack of maintenance. Altogether it was lucky to still be usable at all, and that something worse hadn't happened when it jammed. For now, it was just a chunk of metal she carried. She could ill afford to be hauling it around at the moment but it was her only truly valuable possession. If she could just obtain some ammo for it. Any ammo. At least some means of slowing or stopping this pursuer. His senses were more acute than normal. Even at a great distance he always found his way straight towards, giving them almost no time to catch their breath.

"We have to stop mom! What are we gonna do!?" There were few places to hide around here, and simply hiding was not an option. They needed something impassable between them. A door, a wall, something, anything. Surely there must be somewhere? A ways ahead up a steep path was something she couldn't quite make out.

The minor incline was proving to be a serious issue as they were so nearly spent already. Willing themselves to keep climbing would not actually have worked if it were not for the very real possibility of dying if they stopped for the slightest instant. The path was steep enough in their present condition to feel more like mountain climbing than it actually was.

Short of breath and on the verge of panic, they were running ragged. They must find something right now or be lost. He would catch each in turn and they would die, unremembered victims in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was nothing around here to put between them and this approaching scourge. Why won't he stop? Her thoughts were scattered, dwelling on all the brutal ways he might kill them.

"Stop thinking about that, what do I do what do I do?" Nothing could be found to stop him, her frail gun would be no hindrance to him at all if she hit him with it. No, there was no time. If they let up at all now he would obliterate them.

His stamina was beyond belief, trying to fight him off hoof to hoof would be utterly impossible. Trying desperately to form some kind of plan, only one thing came to mind.

"You must go ahead." Telling her son this was difficult. At best, delaying the monster a moment or two was all that could be hoped for.

"We have to get in somewhere safe. I can't stop him. Keep running, look for somewhere we can hide, anything!" She was panting so hard it hurt.

"But.." She skidded to a halt.

"I'll try to slow him down. Run!" Turning to face the oncoming horror she braced herself and telekinetically held him in place, her horn aglow. Somehow he was thrashing, still moving forward despite it.

"How can it be!? He's so strong he can resist magic?" She strained as she poured more and more of her rather limited magic reserves into it. Being nowhere near the most powerful unicorn ever, at this rate rate of exertion she would knock herself unconscious any second. Something that must not happen or she would be finished.

Pooling the entirety of her power she picked him up and hurled him a great distance backwards through the air to slam into the ground heavily. This would give them some time if she could just remain conscious and moving. Once again he scrambled to his hooves showing no sign of anything but insanity and single-mindedness of purpose. Whatever this purpose was escaped her. Why was he always coming straight at them? It was as if nothing else whatsoever mattered to the crazy pony. Didn't he ever need to stop, to eat or drink? As she fled after her son it came to her attention he barely even seemed to breathe. There were indeed dangerous ponies and other things in the wastes, she'd met some of them.

This was something else, sinister and wrong. What was he? Could he be invincible, immortal? This could not be happening. It must be some nightmare brought on by long years wandering the despairing wastes. Nothing was easy, but his existence defied all reason. This oncoming monster shot down their hopes instantly, his appearance killed it all, eyes rolling forth and back in his head half-glazed and lifeless. They were a pale off-white color they'd never seen. Her son's coat was a very rare mix of white and black highlighting, something very few ponies ever sported. She thought it made him look handsome, this was the opposite.

His strangely bright white coat now a horror in itself splattered and streaked as it was with their friends very life essence. He continued mumbling a nonsensical rant of want and need for warmth, for it to all come spilling out. There was nothing like this. He was an impossibility loosed upon them by some unwholesome power. What could possibly have given rise to such a nightmarish apparition as this demented pony? Try as they might, he never stopped. They would wake up soon, right? Except this was no dream. Most certainly this was the waking world and everything was wrong, more so now. They stopped calling for help an hour ago, nopony lived around here. Their companion was a fellow traveler.

He'd linked up with them after some banter back and forth which successfully convinced them his company would be alright. He may even have had an eye towards romance. It was not to be. Despite their short acquaintance, she would miss him. Having no real chance to think of a destination they were randomly heading for what was once known as rambling rock ridge. Finding themselves on an unused dirt trail they'd been fleeing down it for nearly 2 full hours in their bid to escape this terror. Somewhere in the distance a small rocky, slightly mountainous region hovered into view. A very thick hefty wooden door on enormous ancient steel hinges hung wide over an entrance into the hill, obscured from view by many dead trees. Perhaps an old mine. Catching up with her son he yelled.

"Mom, in there!" It was their one chance to escape whatever madness consumed this pony.

"Get inside, hurry!" With whatever modicum of strength she still possessed she willed the door to move, to close. It was so old, so heavy and stuck fast.

"Move, move!" She screamed in panic as he closed in on them once again, still muttering a slew of vile sounding scrambled statements about warmth and ripping things open.

"Close, please close..." Just as her magic began to fade the door finally loosed to swing around for what felt like an eternity, the hinges screaming in protest. Closer, closer.

At the final instant she managed just enough to slam the immense door shut right as he smashed straight into it with a terrible thud which echoed down the tunnels within. With that she collapsed unconscious, leaving her son alone in this waking world of pain and suffering.

"M..mom, are you okay?" He was shaking, trembling in fear. The pony outside was hammering himself against the door futilely without pause, slamming into it again and again.

"Mom, please...I'm scared.." The blood-soaked pony outside just kept hurling his body against the door.

This was not the old cave entrance they'd once seen in passing. It was much further west and this was well hidden from the ground. Coughing, fatigued, her son shuddered. Hardly able to catch his breath after being forced to run so long, so far. His young body ached as his legs practically folded beneath him. Each bang against the door made his heart leap.

"Go away!..please, go away..." A whispered entreat to finally leave them alone. The murderous pony outside smashed against the door nonstop. The poor young colt stared transfixed upon the enormous old door, afraid to look away. His head bobbed as he sagged. His energy was all but spent. For long moments he sat like this, unable to move.

Slowly, inexorably, exhaustion was catching up with him. The only thing keeping him on his hooves for quite some time now was his mothers coaxing and encouragement that they would escape if they just kept going. Her words looked to be proving true. Maybe they were safe in here. Still unable to let go of his terror he sat for interminable moments. Moving to look away from the door his trembling worsened. The bad pony mustn't get them. He didn't really know of death yet and had just seen a pony that truly seemed to be a new and genuine friend murdered right in front of him. It hurt so terribly to see their new companion die. Finally, he took a step. He huddled close, laying against his mother.

He held to her tightly, crying.

"Mom, you have to wake up. Please wake up?" Exhaustion finally struck the young pony as his eyes closed despite himself, his head falling against her. Regardless of the constant dull banging outside he fell into sleep, perhaps in shock. It would not be until several hours later when his mother came to with a deep gasp. She awoke to still hear the dull thudding of their tormentor outside. It was no weaker than when she collapsed. Something was so terribly wrong with him. She knew there were dangerous things in the wastes and wilds of the land. This was something else.

What could drive a pony to act this way? Looking around she realized how dark it was inside. Daring to cast a very unpracticed and faint light spell her mother bothered to teach she quickly determined there were two tunnels here. Perhaps one might lead to another way out. Out and away from the source of their fear. Now there was time to think, in some way she felt pity for the poor pony outside. Surely no one would ever act that way of their own accord? He must be sick or something, but with what? She'd never heard of anything at all even remotely like this. It could not be simple insanity. It would not explain how he seemed to have endless strength and stamina to pursue them.

He didn't appear to feel pain either. This was beyond frightening. How could things be so wrong? He should be in serious pain, exhausted, maybe even dead. Instead he just kept on coming as if his only purpose was to hunt them down. Who was he, what happened to him? Once from a very far distance she'd seen a strange mix of pony and machine. A monstrous apparition to behold, all metal bits poking out in odd places and entirely frightening even from far away. It seemed pained. She was so glad it hadn't noticed her and went about whatever strange business such a thing might. Even that terrible image, that awful visage had looked alive and intelligent.

This pony only kept muttering terrible things, coming at them. The look in his eyes so cold, so devoid of reason, of life. How could one be so fixated on anything? The slamming outside continued. Thinking to herself that must surely hurt, she realized how much pain she was feeling herself. Overtaxing herself enough earlier to faint was not something she'd done before. Her head ached and she felt like she'd actually burned her horn slightly. It was definitely an experience she did not wish to repeat. Quietly a soft groan escaped her throat. The circulation in one of her legs was a bit impaired. With that pins and needles feeling she noticed her son fast asleep, clutching to her like fear itself had taken form and flight.

She would have to wake him, deciding to wait a moment. He may need whatever rest he was getting now. The dull banging against the thick wooden door was a near-constant rhythm almost inducing her to panic once more.

"Get hold of yourself. He can't get in, right?" She whispered to herself. She must wake her son. Reluctantly she readied herself to get moving. Somehow this pony was running along on what was clearly a broken limb without so much as flinching. Why was he so set on catching them? She'd never seen him before in her life. There were things she did that were nothing to be proud of, but not one thing that could incite another to revenge.

She moved from place to place as many wastelanders did, in search of water, food, shelter. A safe place to be. All of these things were in short supply, life was very unforgiving. A faded sign on the wall gave warning the mine was patrolled by Heavyhoof Security Services. Rather, it would if either of them could read. She always wanted to learn how, but for many this was a skill lost to time and the reality of the wastes. What she mostly learned over the years was to shoot first and ask questions later. Her parents were not much help, having abandoned her at a young age. She could not really blame them. It was either part ways or certainly die. The only other choice was to split ways and possibly live. It could not have hurt more.

In her travels she met a strapping stallion who stole her heart and made her feel secure for once. In the end he didn't measure up, leaving her alone with a young foal. She found out later he did not live long past their separation. Something somewhere snapped inside her then. She would do anything to somehow ensure her son a better life than she endured. To this end things felt to be looking up, and they were. Up until this surreal insanity intruded on her efforts. They better go. Now which way should they head? The tunnel to the right looked to be inclined slightly upwards, but could be a deception of the dim light. The one to the left went downhill just as gradually.

There were other signs on the walls but they were so faded and covered with grime they would not have been readable even if she could understand them.

"Ohh, my head." She held a hoof to her face.

"Guess I'm just lucky I didn't faint sooner." She truly overdid it earlier. It was difficult to decide which way to go. The dim light provided by her weak spell did not project very far, falling short almost unnaturally.

"Which way do we go?" There was no way to know which one might lead to a way out, if either did.

She nudged her son gently as he woke with a start, almost yelping.

"Shh.. it's okay. We're safe for now. There has to be another way out of here somewhere. Let's go." He followed her looking dazed.

"Mom, the horrible monster can't get through the door, right?" He squeaked out. She tried to sound reassuring.

"I don't think so." Surely the creature outside which resembled a pony would wind up dying before it could actually come crashing through such a large and heavy old door? She would not make that assumption, instead simply hoping.

"Let's not find out." The inclination of the tunnels in the dark made it much more difficult to tell if they actually continued going up or down. She choose to go down the tunnel to the left. With caution they wandered forward. Crazy ponies were one thing, there were other things in the wastes. She'd never lied to him about the fact that life in the wastes was hard and fraught with danger. This was an utter unknown, never having imagined such a horror. There were many strange things which happened, but not once did she ever hear of anything like whatever happened to that stallion. She would even have found him cute if he wasn't trying to kill them.

As they cautiously inched down the tunnel she brushed past several unseen switches knocking one into the on position. Glancing at it the shape E.T.S. Enable was in the center. It was not a symbol she'd seen before. Neither knew what these switches could be for anyway. A very far off clinking sound could just be faintly heard followed by a hum so slight it might not even be there, nothing happened. There was little she truly did know aside from survival. It was the only reason she was able to force them both to run so far and for so long from him. There was no desire to face such things. She only wanted to give her son a good life. Was that so wrong? Nearly having that faint hope taken away shook her to the core.

She wouldn't let him see how scared and shaken she truly was.

"Mom, did you hear something?" Tilting her head the only thing she could make out was the occasional thudding back where the maniacal pony was still throwing himself against the door. Did he never run out of energy or breath? His strength was so overwhelming it was ludicrous. Knowing he could push back against magic with that ridiculous strength alone was terrifying. Never in her life did she feel so helpless against anything. Were there more like him? She shuddered. His singular bloodlust was so very disturbing. He did not seem to enjoy it or anything. This thought felt hollow.

Something about the entire situation simply did not add up. He attacked whatever moved until it stopped moving, nothing more. Holding a hoof up to her ear she couldn't make out any further noises.

"I don't think I hear anything." A slight feeling of apprehension struck her as they trotted down this long-unused passage. Where did it actually go? She'd never been in such a place and having no idea of what they could expect was not a good feeling at all. Was this place itself dangerous? There were all manner of things present in the wastes, many of which were dangerous to encounter in the open where some chance of escape existed, in such a confined space as here they would be hard-pressed to win a fight against even the weaker of such a menace.

Why did life have to be like this, so full of danger and suffering? It felt wrong. Somewhere in her mind some dim racial memory of a happier time tugged at her emotions, almost making tears well up. No, she would not let this be their final day. No matter what it took she was going to get them out of here safely. She was going to give her son a true chance at a happy life free from sorrow, somehow. Nothing else mattered, not even herself. Whatever it cost didn't matter. She kept them moving. The further they were from that door the better.

"Mom, it smells bad in here..." There was some faintly foul odor emanating from somewhere.

It was sickly and slightly nauseating, just weak enough they could tolerate it. They both felt very pained after running for so long. They knew running well enough, it was often a quick escape that meant more than anything else in the dreadful expanses of the wastes. She'd chosen not to go near cities unless there was no other choice. It just was not safe. Nowhere truly was. Her experiences scavenging in the closest city ranged from easy pickings to nearly losing her life on too many occasions to one thing or another. As they made their way down the dark tunnel they came across a door. Above it a grime covered sign stated 'Office'. Not being able to read could prove to be a real problem here. She didn't know what it said.

Was it something dangerous or harmless to look around inside of? Being indecisive was always a bad thing in her experience. She tried to open the ancient door. The unused hinges squealed terribly at this unexpected use. It barely moved. Placing her forehooves against the door she shoved heavily. The swelled door jammed against the frame. She didn't want to make more noise, but it seemed safe enough. She turned around to buck it open. This did not have the intended effect, resulting in her legs going straight through the door with a resounding thud. Her son giggled heavily.

"Very funny. Help me out." He tugged one leg out, then the other.

"That's better." There were now two hoof shaped holes in the door. At least now it might be possible to open it. There was no point trying to be quiet now after that racket anyway. She pounded away on it until the remains of the door simply collapsed in protest at the treatment stirring up decades worth of dust causing both to cough uncontrollably for a moment.

"How pleasant." The foul odor was the slightest bit stronger here. The source of it was certainly not coming from within.

"Yuck, that smell really is bad, whatever it is." From the look of things nopony had been inside this place in ages.

Ruined papers lay strewn across the desk. They would be unreadable even if she did understand them. Whomever once ran this place left in a tremendous hurry. This was of course an action carried out by the vast majority of ponies everywhere when the war struck its final horrifying notes. The scene looked familiar because she'd seen it many times over. She did not know why or how it ended, but each time she saw this exact thing made her feel glad she was not there to experience whatever happened. It felt horrible to see at the same time. Some pony was doing something probably not so terribly important when..something really awful happened.

It gave her the same familiar chill those other occasions did. It was plainly obvious the pony that was in this room suddenly grabbed whatever was important to them and ran. It must have been dreadful. This thought struck her as ironic in some way, but couldn't put a hoof on exactly why. It wasn't a very large room, containing only the desk and what was once a water cooler. She could not know the function of this device, any water within long since evaporated. She rifled through the desk drawers for a moment. She gasped.

"Oooh!" Her son looked on quizzically.

"What?" She pulled out one of those horrible ancient ration packs that everypony appeared to have had tucked away, and which seemed to keep forever. This one displayed a picture of a delicious salad. It would surely not actually taste anything like that, but it was a great find nonetheless. Holding it aloft while bowing her head she exclaimed:

"Whatever pony created this awful stuff..thank you so so much." She'd made a habit of being thankful whenever finding something like this. It may taste bad, but finds like this were what let them live thus far.

"Now if we could just find a way out of here. Hold this." She passed it off to him.

In their haste to escape the sudden violence earlier they were not able to grab their makeshift stowaway packs. They would have to try and retrieve them later. The packs contained food, water and other things they could not do without.

"We get to eat more than usual later." She hugged him. This was such a rare event it warranted a little joy. Anything to give them a moment of it was terribly welcome. An air vent in the corner seemed to hint at the same foul odor. It was a concerning scent, but this was an abandoned mine or something after all. When the war ended any sort of industry ended with it. Who knew what really ever happened here? For all she knew it could have been very important, or absolutely nothing.

Any clue the scattered papers may have held to the purpose of this place was long erased by age and the seeping damp. Even if she could read, they would not tell any secrets of the past. Not really caring unless something here might aid them in their escape. One of her first priorities should they get out of this place would be to retrieve their packs. Then, she would set her sights on finding a pony who could teach them to read. Seeing the signs drove it home, it hurt. Throughout the years she'd been hiding caps in a very secret place discovered long ago. She would surely have enough secreted away to entice somepony to teach them.

Looking at the sign above the door and not knowing what it meant made her feel terrible. What if it was important?

"I know it's dark and scary, but we have to be brave and keep going, okay?" She ruffled his beautiful soft white mane as he nodded slowly. He would make such a handsome stallion when he grew up. They passed an ancient terminal set into the wall on their right. Any secrets it contained were lost to time even if she knew what it was. Lacking power the strange old machine was just another reminder that once long ago, ponies were masters of all manner of arcane technology. Mostly lost were the skills needed to utilize or even power them up.

Some machines still operated on their own separate power supplies. These were oft dangerous. Clearly their presence here went unnoticed by anything. Perhaps nothing was in here after all. Knowing better than to trust to possibly false security she continued down the long hall. This place was much larger than she imagined at first. There were many other branching side passages and places to potentially get turned around and lost in. She scraped thick marks into the wall to identify where they'd already passed. They walked past ancient elevator lifts, some with open shafts. They hung from steel cables weakened by time, likely unworkable, some broken with age. Only one remained on this level.

She knew what a lift could do from a previous misadventure and that it would be extremely dangerous to attempt using something so old and tattered, if they still functioned at all. The bulky rusted machinery stood as yet another silent reminder of days long gone by. These grim reminders that at one time ponies knew ever so much more about the world elicited some feeling of longing in her, for what she knew not. Her sole immediate concern was the safety of her son.

"This place is confusing. What did they even do here?" She wondered aloud as they continued their forced exploration. They could not go back out the way they came in.

It would be too dangerous to try and slip past the horror still pounding himself against the door. The realization this place was absolutely huge hung over her. Finding another way out of here may be more of a problem than hoped. That awful smell clung to everything in the entire place. The air vents which once constantly cycled fresh air in and out of the mine long lay dormant. The further away they wandered from the door where they started the worse it became. It was a disconcerting sickly smell, cloying and stale. The echo of their steps in the darkness gave an entire other dimension to their situation. It made them feel incredibly small.

The longer they stumbled about in here the more apprehension fell in on them. Something did not feel right about it, not in the same way as the dangerous stallion, but still it persisted that some unknown was present.

"I don't like it. Coming in here may have been a mistake. Be really careful, okay?" Her son was staying right beside, almost too close. Telling herself to remain calm she looked about. The dark stillness was not helping the feeling of entrapment and near-helplessness. Her light spell was vague, not very bright at all. Why was it so dim? She wished her mother taught her better, but she hadn't seen them in so many years, not knowing if they were even still alive.

The encroaching feeling of wrongness increased as they ventured farther within. Not having encountered anything dangerous in here actually made it feel more threatening. Something you can see is far easier to deal with than the unknown.

"Hold up." They stopped.

"My dear, I have to ask you something important. Answer the best you can." He blinked and nodded at her.

"How long have we been walking? Think carefully before answering." The young colt looked down with a tense expression on his face.

"A really really long time. I'm so tired mom..can we rest for a little?" He looked utterly exhausted, but there was no reason for it. Exactly like she was starting to think and feel.

"But it's really only been about twenty minutes. Why do we feel so tired? You can rest but don't go to sleep. I don't want to scare you, but I've got this terrible feeling. We have to get out of here as soon as possible." She could barely tell time either, guessing. He lay on the floor of the tunnel, panting. Her tiny light spell could not exhaust like this, and he was doing nothing but walking. This realization proved something was terribly amiss here.

Not wanting to admit it to herself before, the sickly sweet smell was masking another odor, one she did recognize. It was the unmistakable smell of death and decay. Something terrible happened here. Her heart sank as the beginnings of panic started to set in on her.

"No. I will not give up." She struggled through the strange fatigue, encouraging her son to get to his hooves once more. She was scared now, more frightened than ever. Even the monster outside she felt less fear of than this new unknown. She looked around the ancient unused tunnels.

Only now did she note this place felt more dead than anywhere she'd ever been. Her heart pounded as they inched their way forward through the blackness. Her weak light spell felt like the only thing keeping some unimagined terror away from them. Something horrible, something hidden, watching. Why did they have to wind up in here of all places? The hushed whispered clacks of their slow heavy hoofsteps their only companions in this miserable place. Life left here long ago, abandoning it to rot. Why did she feel like this? There's nothing there. The glimmer of faint light on long rusted steel took on some more frightening depth now.

The faint shadows cast flicked while they passed as if some wicked intelligence abode within them, aware of their presence.

"Mom..mommy..please? I can't keep going." He looked worse than before, swaying he almost fell over. She sat, taking the food package from him.

"Get on my back." He draped himself over her, very nearly unconscious. Forcing herself to stand again, she knew they must get out of here. If she fell asleep now, it felt like it might be for the last time.

"My dearest, most precious thing in the whole world. Talk to me. Talk loudly. Laugh, sing, keep me awake too." So hard to put one hoof in front of the other, each step a mountain of effort. Her eyes were half closing by themselves.

"Wake up!" He shuddered groggily. "Loudly now!" This was working, if only barely. They sang unintelligible lines at the top of their lungs just to keep awake.

"There once was a silly pony..she liked...uh..dirt!" This got a laugh out of him. Good. Anything to spur them onwards.

"What's that?" He wearily pointed a hoof at some glittering object on the floor.

It looked out of place, or at least like it didn't belong here. A very small somewhat rectangular-shaped object lay against a far wall. Several buttons protruded from it, marked with letters as indecipherable as anything else to her. Why she decided to pick it up was really the effect of this strange fatigue more than curiosity. At doing so it lit up and she dropped it, gasping. She didn't know what such a thing was. A mundane innovation developed during the war. It was speaking. It was such a surprising and novel thing they stood agape, listening.

"Audio log: Reveille. Great, stuck with guard duty in a mine. Fantastic. Why do they want guards here anyway? and why even have us make these? I doubt anypony will ever actually listen to them anyway. I suppose it's not much different than my journal, I guess." The ancient machine whirred and clicked a moment. Whatever powered it hadn't given out in all these years.

"Why did I ever agree to this assignment? It's better than that place Scootaloo had me guarding. It was in the middle of nowhere. Who gave a contractor clearance to give orders anyway? They were official. Really, what was that place? Did it need guards either? Surely even the stripes will never find it." The voice said that vehemently.

"It was a nice break from the front lines I suppose, but I'm ready to get back into the fight. At least I'm only here a week, then I can get back to kicking tail." It stopped to click some more. The disembodied voice began to speak only to stop and click again before continuing.

"Thank the princesses! The weeks almost over. With a bit of goading I managed to find out where those orders came from. Sounds like Colonel Bright Step's the one that gave the go ahead. I always liked him, he knows what's up. Why would he do that though? She's just a mare from Stable-Tec, but they're just a construction company, right? Whatever game he's playing, he better be careful is all I have to say." the voice died off leaving them standing in silence once more.

"Mom, was that a ghost!?" She stood in stunned silence a moment.

"I don't think so. Wouldn't ghosts be scary? That voice sounded kinda bored." Carefully she hovered it aside, deciding it was a worthwhile prize. She was able to just balance her light spell and bring it along beside them. Whatever it was might be very valuable. The novelty of the moment was rapidly wearing off as that terrible fatigue still pressed in upon them. If a guard was here once she reasoned it might be close to an exit.

"Keep talking. I know it's hard but we have to stay awake." Once more they meandered through the unfathomable pitch within. Again she felt like some unseen eyes sought them in the dark.

Trembling with fear and unnatural fatigue was making it difficult to keep going, but her focus on keeping the spell going and lifting the strange thing seemed to be helping. Between that and their silly songs back and forth her spirits were almost lifted. Still, carrying him as well was tiring. By coming in here they exchanged one horror for another. At least the pony could be fought off, there was nothing here to fight against except their rapidly waning strength. Every step was like dragging a lead weight forward. As they walked she spotted a small light source. Approaching it she found it to be a tiny vent to the outside. Outside was right there, so close and yet so inaccessible.

She could at least smell fresh air through it which made her feel better. Gently she held his muzzle up to the vent alongside hers. The air helped re-energize them slightly. It did not alleviate the fatigue much, but it did grant them a moments reprieve. Panting, she desperately sought an exit. There were no doors here. Only the scattered remnants of untended broken machinery. Ancient lifts promised only a deadly plunge to the depths of this crypt-like place. So much fear was placed upon them this day their very spirits felt deadened and worn. Tears welled in her eyes. There was no way out, only more darkness. It was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe.

Each lifeless breath felt as though it granted no actual air. On and on it went. She felt sick to her stomach. Keeping that tidbit to herself they continued their loud back and forth, making up nonsense jokes and sentences. She could not let him know how terrified she was. If she did it felt certain there would be no chance to come out alive. The laughter was so out of place here. She thought about how little there ever was to laugh about in her life, how joyless and futile it all felt. Then her son came into her life. At first she felt he was just a pointless burden. Taking care of him only a wearying chore. Slowly, she found herself coming to love her child selflessly. Her only joy. She'd never felt joy before.

His first shaky steps, his first words. She found these things meant something to her, each success of his easing some deep-seated need in her heart. Watching him grow filled her with pride. He was still so young, and smarter than she ever was. If his life were cut short she would never forgive herself. He was her world, nothing else mattered. Finding some strength left within she continued this deathly struggle to survive. Wading through this ocean of dread and fatigue was the toughest thing she'd ever done. Her only thought, he must live. Yet another junction of hallways stood before them. None looked more promising than the last. Opting to go in a straight line for now she felt her hooves clanging on the floor.

It looked less tarnished here. Most of the tunnels were more or less braced constructions with little else adorning them. They looked and felt very solid even after being neglected for so long. Whatever ponies once trod here did an excellent job on the construction. She was not thinking such things, not knowing anything about constructing such a place other than she could not imagine how it was done. The air felt the slightest bit less dense here. Finally, the tiniest bit of hope. It did little to lighten the sense of being dwarfed, but it did give some encouragement. Maybe they would make it after all. Her dim light spell wavered in the darkness. Their concern mounted as it slowly started to invert itself. The light it provided was turning dark itself.

"What's happening?" Concentrating on it made it flash, it stuttered in and almost out of existence. For the moment she dropped the ancient recording. This was very wrong. Each time the light faded what looked like little black bubbles scattered around them within its range. Her struggle to bring it under control was terrifying, draining. They must have light or be trapped in here forever. The poor young colt stared out into the empty black in mounting terror each time the light dipped, clinging to her exhausted and trembling. They were barely able to catch their breath. Something was in that blackness surely, stalking these intruders who dared trespass within these walls.

Both shivered as she waged a private battle of will to retain hope. Time and time again her spell threatened to fail completely.

"I have to.." Whatever force was trying to crush her light was relentless, unyielding. Feeling as though she was being squashed into the floor like some might knock away an errant insect caused her to shake heavily, all weight she ever carried before was as nothing. Sputtering and coughing, she forced the spell through sheer willpower to keep going. For ten unspeakably horrifying minutes she fought. Each passing minute was a torture all its own.

At times there was little more than a spark of her spell remaining that she must not let falter. To give in now would mean being set upon by..something vicious in that endless dark, without mercy. The spell sprang back to life as spinning single rays from her horn to finally settle as the same dim light as before. She didn't know what happened, merely that in some way she felt lucky to have survived. Struggling to remain upright she forced one leg to move after the other.

"Go, go." Was a steady train of thought as she took one tormenting step after another. Mustn't fall asleep, mustn't let the light go out. Get away, get away from here. Move. Huffing and panting she found herself growling.

A strange growing anger within made itself known. The light spell flickered in and out, threatening to die completely. She felt something tugging at her mind, battling against her will. Suddenly this became an entirely different kind of fight. She could only keep trying to walk. It was almost impossible to keep focus. Her eyes almost closed one too many times. At last relief was granted as it let go, she nearly fell into the nearest wall as the strange burden upon her dissipated. As rapidly as it began, it was over. The awful fatigue began to lessen as she pushed on. Whatever was behind them in the silent black no longer held them in its grip. Her son slipped off and stood yawning.

"Are you okay?" He looked less pale already.

"I feel better." She couldn't help but smile and hug him tightly for an uncomfortably long moment.

"Aw mom.." Their moment of levity was short-lived as keen awareness bit that they were still trapped in this unending darkness. Fearfully she dared glance back down the tunnel that lead here. Whatever took hold of them back that way was immensely powerful, dangerous beyond imagining. The very thought of encountering it again made them shudder uncontrollably. There must be an exit somewhere down one of these huge halls, there absolutely must.

If there was not, they would have no choice but to risk backtracking. She could not expect to win such a battle of will a second time, it was too strong. There were so many branching junctions it was taking forever to explore even a tiny fraction of them. Why was this place so enormous? From the outside its sheer size could never be guessed at. Carrying the food packet and device along now felt like nothing in comparison to the difficult challenge they recently endured. Exploring could almost have felt fun if it were not for the serious threats they faced. Another issue was looming. Many hours now passed. With each step stifling air in here sapped them of strength in and of itself, instilling a great thirst they could not quench.

"Mom, I'm thirsty." He croaked. So many things were going wrong with this day she could almost imagine they were being tortured by some higher power on purpose. No, they were too small, too insignificant to warrant that kind of attention. It was simple horrid luck. Losing their new friend and the packs was enough on its own to dampen their spirits. Having to flee in terror from two unknowns was simply too much. Being trapped in this mazelike prison of stone and steel was taking its toll. They'd encountered no other air vents to the outside either. That brief moment of being able to breathe easy once more just another taunt, exaggerating their plight. He burst into tears.

"We're never getting out of here, never never!" He sobbed and shook as she gently held him close while they fell.

"Wait.." She looked around in the darkness. Something was still wrong. Yet again some thought formed in her mind that this was not natural.

"Your voice didn't echo." This strange phenomenon sparked as primal a fear as can be imagined.

"Move, we have to move." She tugged him along quickly. This fear was so overwhelming it made proper thinking difficult. Were they actually being followed by something, or was this simple overtaxed imaginings?

It would be easy after all they'd been through to give into the mere wild creations of a mind seeking logic and reason in an illogical situation. The stress of these strange occurrences was putting a tremendous strain on their hearts as well as their spirits. Their will and determination to live through this was being sorely tested. She only knew if they stopped moving something may find them in this labyrinthine tomb. That is what she found herself thinking of it as. Ponies died here and something was seeping forth, woken from some interminable unbroken slumber by their intrusion. Everything in this place was suffused with the stench of death. It was all she could do not to slip into mindless panic and surely be lost.

"Be brave. Be brave and strong for mommy, okay? We will get out of here." She ruffled his mane, looking at him for a long moment. Anything after them would have to go through her first. Still more concern was piled on them as she realized they were legitimately tiring this time from the stumbling exploration. Her light still barely penetrated. Sleeping was the last thing either of them wanted to do. Sooner or later one or both of them would have to. How long had it been since they'd walked into these chambers of hideous torment? There was no real way to tell. If there were any signs of any sort they'd long since fallen, faded from decades of accumulating dust and grime.

Due to their increasing fatigue she decided to find as safe a spot as possible.

"I need to teach you something." She said.

"Teach me something?" He questioned as she lead him into one of the dead-end halls. She figured it best if they only needed to watch in one direction. Turning to him she spoke gravely.

"I need to teach you the light spell I've been using. You must be able to use it too. It isn't too difficult. I know you haven't got much chance to practice with spells yet but I'm certain you can handle this." For a while she explained how to focus, letting the method be fully understood.

Not knowing too much of magic herself didn't help matters but she'd been using this spell for a great deal of time now. Feeling confident of her ability to impart the knowledge she bid him try it. A few false starts were to be expected. Getting this to work was imperative and could possibly mean the difference between life and death for them. Finally after a half hour of sputtering and causing little flashes he managed to keep a faint light going. Her encouraging words that he would be able to do this made it far easier to keep trying. Now if he could just manage to brighten it up a little. In all this took around an hour. She could tell her level of fatigue was extreme.

She'd carried him so far, on top of floating the strange device along with them while holding the food packet in her mouth and keeping her spell going. Combined with fleeing earlier she was more tired than ever before. Eventually he got it right. Now would come a very difficult test.

"I truly hate to tell you this my boy. I need you to stand guard. I must sleep a while." His enthusiasm over his success was extinguished in an instant as his face took on a horrified look.

"But I can't..." Interrupting she pulled him close to hug him tightly once more.

"Dear, I can hardly stand. My eyes are half-closing themselves. I taught you this so you can do this." Tears streamed down his face, fearful of what was to come.

"Shh. Mommy loves and trusts you with her life. All you have to do is watch over me for a while and keep the light up. I have been going so long, and my head hurts so much. I can't stay awake anymore." She held him tightly against her, wishing to grant him some modicum of confidence.

"You can do this. I am so so sorry to make you. I know you can do it. Just watch that way." She pointed a now quite dirty hoof down the tunnel.

"If anything comes, wake me up. Try not to be scared little one. I'm right here with you. Can you do this for me?" She was afraid she'd faint before he even answered as her head nodded. He sniffled, squeezing back tightly.

"Mom, I..okay." He wanted to be brave for her. He loved his mother so very much.

"You're a good boy. Keep mommy safe." With that she settled on the cold floor, her head almost hitting it as she went out like her light. Shivering he stood over her. Close as he could, staring out into the creepy blackness. It was so hard to tell anything apart in that impenetrable emptiness. Shadows seemed to scatter and twitch back and forth.

Mommy was trusting him with an important responsibility now. He did not want to disappoint her. Keep the light going and watch that way, that's all there is to it. She didn't say for how long. He kept repeating to himself her words, he could do this. Time passed so slowly in this haze of worry. How long was it now? Not very long yet. She needs to sleep. A few times he felt his own head dip as he gazed into that scary darkness. Now he feared falling asleep himself.

"No, mom has worked so hard. I won't fall asleep." The fear settling over him of what may be forever lurking just outside the reach of his vision turned out to be enough to spur him into remaining awake.

He stood like a statue for what felt like forever. It was so difficult for him to keep his faint little light going, but it did provide an extra focus to stay awake. To him eternities passed waiting, hoping his mother would awaken soon. It was so painful to be alone like this. The sound of her breathing as she slept was a reassurance he desperately needed. It was taking so long. Must keep mommy safe. She said so. The ever-present sickly scent would not desist. Finally, finally his mother rose and restarted her light spell.

"Mom, mom I did it. I was so scared!" He clung to her as she smiled down at him, his own spell died out.

"You did, thank you. I knew you could do it." She nuzzled him softly and stretched. The floors in this place were hardly ideal for sleeping on.

"You're probably tired out now. Get on my back again, I'm okay now." Once more she picked up their small prizes and continued onward. She'd still had the wherewithal to keep marking halls and tunnels as they passed. If she did not they would surely have been hopelessly lost by now. If they had to they could even find the way back towards where they came in. A last resort only. A systematic search would surely reveal some other way out of this waking nightmare?

He fell asleep quickly after putting out so much effort. Something she never would have forced him to do if there was any other choice. His weight on her back now reassured her that he was okay. Leaving him alone like that in this place hurt her very much inside.

"At least my head doesn't hurt as bad now." It still ached but the long rest did help tremendously. Having a chance to recuperate also emboldened her somewhat. Being rested and feeling capable once more drove her on. Her iron determination and will that they would find a way out granted her renewed stamina to keep pushing.

It will be around the next corner, or the next. However many it took. The entirely disturbing thought came to her that perhaps they might indeed wind up having to risk trying to go up or down one of the lift shafts to find an exit. It would be incredibly dangerous. Who knew what other murky horrors might be below in this desolate and forgotten place? So far they encountered nothing physical and still felt like they could have died. Whatever entity may lay in wait here was incomprehensible, impossible to fathom or imagine. All she knew was this scent which pervaded everything told a story of nothing good. What awful thing happened here? She found herself longing for the outside, the open air of the wastes.

It was nothing so good itself, but compared to this a breath of it now would be heavenly. The only positive was for now they were still alive, for this they could be thankful. Though bad luck brought them here, luck also granted them this one reprieve. They hadn't encountered that awful unnatural fatigue again, to go back through where it happened was the most terrifying prospect yet. Somewhere in her heart she knew she could not possibly survive another such assault, not so soon. The first time may have been a simple fluke of willpower. To face it again would take such a stout soul she couldn't imagine anypony having that kind of courage. Their flight through this place long gone from memory was taking much too long.

By now a whole day must have surely passed. The mounting thirst and hunger was tempting her to open the large food packet found earlier. It would be best if they could avoid eating it, doing so would surely increase their thirst even further. At some point soon there would be no choice. If only there was time to pick up their packs. There was a several day supply of water in them. Thinking of refreshment now was not a good idea. It impressed just how far they'd been pushed. Feeling more pride in her son than herself was something she had no qualms about. He was better than her and deserved more than a futile end in this hole in the ground.

He slept soundly, draped atop her as she slowly strode through the maze of corridors and tunnels. How did anypony ever build such a place? She couldn't envision how many ponies it took or how long it must have taken to create anything this enormous. What was it for? It must span miles on this floor alone. How truly immense could it actually be? Whatever horror consumed this place she did not want to face. If ponies were capable of building something like this and were still unsafe, what chance would she and her son have? A creeping despair stole over her once more. They were so small, so insignificant compared to this. They shouldn't be here. No one should be here.

Though ponies once roamed these halls the echo of their distant lives no longer sounded here. It no more belonged to the world of the living than fallen spirits. The empty passages told the only story she needed to know about it, all life was sucked out of here long ago. This was no safe haven. Should they survive, it would make a chilling cautionary tale. Therein lay the rub, more and more they felt the hope of surviving diminish. With every dead end and hall or tunnel explored they could only be worn down. Despite the immensity of the halls they felt confined. This was not a spot one would choose as their final resting place. Something shifted in the very air.

Still as it was there was a definite new layer to the oppressive atmosphere. The dark itself fueling the feeling something utterly alien was happening. Something beyond the ken of young and old alike. Could anything ever deliver these tortured walls of old from this fate? It did not seem so. What good remained with power enough to cleanse it? Nothing in this world stood sacred and sacrosanct, untouched by pain. Eventually she would tire out again. Forcing her son to stand alone once was enough, to make him do so again was an idea she couldn't take. For the moment she was alright, but managing to live through another day in here did not seem at all possible. Some otherworldly predator awaited in the dark.

"This is ridiculous, we must have walked for miles by now." She mumbled to herself. It was still so difficult to catch a breath. The smell and other underlying odors were so pervasive. If it weren't for the scent lingering everywhere it might have been tolerable to traverse the mine. She really didn't know what a mine was for. She knew very little at all, but did admit and accept this of herself. It always made her extra cautious. If they hadn't been forced in here she would never have chosen to enter in the first place.

"My poor boy, my shining light. I must get you out of here, I must." This misadventure was very close to ending tragically for both of them. Muttering, His eyes opened.

"Oh, you're awake. Did you have a good rest dear?" Gently she set him down. He wasn't that heavy, but carrying him did require more effort than usual in this situation.

"Yeah, mom." He coughed heavily for a moment, almost choking before it subsided. This worried her very much. They would start becoming seriously dehydrated soon. The last time they drank anything was nearly two days ago already. They could perhaps last another day or two without but it would quickly become yet another serious problem added to their ever-growing list of serious problems.

She thought she knew misery before, but now the true meaning was becoming apparent. How far did these tunnels go? She never imagined anything this big in her wildest dreams. The remnants of old skyscrapers were large, this was ludicrous.

"It can't go much farther, it just cant." Was a thought repeating in her head. The vent they passed so long ago was such a horrendous tease with its promises of the outdoors. If only it was large enough to escape through. It was damp, dirty, filthy in this forgotten realm where living things once trod.

They could wind up with all manner of illness just by being here she reckoned. No time to worry about that, must find a way out. The only motivation left now were thoughts of reaching fresh air, such as it was, and light. No matter how dim it might become outside this entirely unnatural dark unnerved them to no end. She felt ill and weak, wearied from the strain. The only strength to be drawn now was from her absolute conviction to keep her son alive. Ponies built this place, they should feel at home here. There was no such feeling to be granted.

"Are you alright?" She coughed a bit herself. Weakly he gave a slight nod.

This was the worst situation they'd ever been in. Tight situations were something of a constant in the wastes. This was something so far removed from normality nothing made any sense. He rubbed his throat.

"Don't talk anymore if we don't have to." Was an imperative she gave him. It made their throats hurt now if they spoke. She kept her thoughts to herself.

"It's this air. We could go much longer without water if it weren't for that." Glancing at her boy she stopped, having noticed something of interest inset in the wall beside a door.

This was very promising being the first actual door they'd seen since finding the food package. He looked over where she was gazing intently. Some kind of multilevel marking or something was there, riddled with lines and circles. Below a sign indicating 'Security Station' was haphazardly hanging askew a spike driven deep into the stone. A few red arrows adorned the strange markings. She could comprehend this was some sort of map, seeing the mine represented visually would prove to be extremely valuable. Unable to understand the writing was concerning, but three exits were clearly visible. The one where they came in was depicted as being ridiculously close to another.

This made her heart feel heavy, if only they'd gone down the other tunnel first. No time for that now. The third exit was shown to be what she understood as a fair distance yet, it was reachable. She stared at the map for several moments, fixing the exact path they should take in her mind. No more mistakes, just one now could be it for them. She'd let them be forced in here and gone the wrong way, she couldn't bear taking another misstep. She peeped through the door. It was devoid of life as expected. Nothing in here should really be all that dangerous, yet it was. Nearly having the life snuffed out of her earlier made her very wary.

The wooden door crumbled away at the slightest press to give off a hideously echoing clack as she grimaced. Causing that kind of noise they could have done without. Full of fright at the possibility it might summon something from the depths they stood wide-eyed and staring for a couple minutes, straining to see anything that could indicate danger. Nothing happened. She took as deep a relieved breath as could be managed in this environment. Inching her way into the room she could see it was both partially carved out of the rock itself and some sort of metal to give it a more comfortable shape. A rotted cot was strung in halves against the far wall and some sort of ancient square machine with knobs and switches mounted into the wall on the left.

An ancient steel seat sat squarely in the center of the room on busted wheels. What immediately caught her eye was a cabinet on the right. She wiped it off, through the glass of the cabinet she could see it was a gun storage case. There was space for several weapons, one of which remained. A shiny heavy revolver hung there tauntingly, above an ammo box. If they could just get it out. The gun looked like new. She yanked the door. The case rattled, denying her access to the prize. Her current pistol was a toy in comparison to the one just out of reach. Grunting, she tugged again. It would not open Some sort of mechanism or lock was all that stood between them. Struggle as she might it would not disengage.

She tried to pry it open using magic but only succeeded in causing it to dent in a few places slightly. Frustrated, she bashed the glass noisily. It proved to be surprisingly thick. Hitting it caused a wide crack to run down the middle which to their stunned amazement knit itself back together. Something impressive from the old world she knew nothing about. Turning around to look about the room, nothing else seemed to be present. There must be a key, something to force it open, anything. This was an opportunity they could not let pass. Obtaining a weapon like the one in there may mean all the difference. There on the wall was a hanging hook with nothing on it.

Maybe it fell in the decades of accumulated dust and dirt? She scraped and dug around the area at great length, right as she was about to give up her hoof hit something. Brushing it off she found it to be an oddly shaped key. This must be it. The key looked frail and flimsy with age. She found it fit in a slot on the side of the case. Gingerly she turned it, afraid it would snap. Right as she felt the pressure would be too much for the aged key a light glow surrounded it as a click inside popped open the case door. The door hissed open softly of it's own accord. Sliding it out of the case she was awed by the weapons size. It was heavy, sporting an eight inch barrel.

The gun's only adornment was a snake engraved alongside of the firing mechanism. Taking great care she examined the gun. Before some pony placed it in this cabinet for the last time it was cleaned, and kept well within, protected against the creeping grime. Perhaps the cabinet itself had other properties they could not discern which may have helped the gun remain in such pristine condition. It was one of the later dual designs intended for use by combined forces. She could not know this of course, only that it was something the likes of which she'd never seen before. Carefully she played at the gun, never having loaded a revolver before.

It did not take long to determine how to undo the safety lock and roll the chambers to the left, the action of which was incredibly smooth. The mouth catch firing mechanism was not necessary for unicorns, but she tested it anyway. Each of the gun's actions was smoother than she imagined they could be. Her nearly ruined pistol was pathetic and dwarfed in comparison. Hanging in the cabinet was a body strap system for carrying both the gun and ammunition in quick reload containers. Opting to ditch the ancient pistol it took her a few moments to figure out how to put it all on right, and how to use the quick loaders properly, each of which held the gun's capacity of six rounds.

Finally clipping it all into place she felt safer already. In all there were sixty rounds. It may not be useful against whatever horror was lurking in this mine but it would surely prove to be later. Slinging the now loaded and safely locked weapon aside her it was time to head out of this place. There was still some distance to cover before they would find the exit. Having a firm idea where it was and obtaining this new weapon gave her renewed hope and invigorated her efforts. She waved her son to follow, trotting into the unknown once more. She'd been using the light spell for such a long time now it was easier and less taxing, even a bit brighter than before. Practice really did improve things.

This improved light gave a far more impressive view of their surroundings. This huge place was really built by ponies? Neither of them could truly imagine the effort that went into such an endeavor. Merely surviving was mostly what their lives consisted of. The ponies of times past had such great power and ability, how did they let the world become as it was? These thoughts were much too big for them as they journeyed through the desolate tunnels and halls. It was becoming easier to catch a breath, this must be a good sign. Nevertheless it was still a frightening path through darkness. She dared hope whatever waylaid them would not catch them in its terrifying grip again. It was strangely cold here.

Too cold. She abruptly stopped going forward as her son bumped into her.

"Huh?" The temperature drop ahead was far from normal. Taking a step forward proved it to be all that much colder. This was totally amiss as the rest of this place. At least that awful sickly sweet scent was less present here. The sound of some distant alien machinery caught their attention. Apprehensively they continued ahead. Along the wall in tattered red letters was the symbol 'Control Room' She only recognized one of the barely still visible arrows after it, pointing down the tunnel. It was the same style and shape of arrow on the wall where they found the gun.

It was so cold, barely tolerable. It did have the effect of slightly easing their sore throats and letting them catch their breath more readily. Fortunately it wasn't getting any colder. If it did this area would be impassable and all would be for naught. Where was it coming from? They'd never been this cold in their lives. It was an entirely new and altogether disconcerting phenomenon for both. In some way it was comforting to have it ease the thick air somewhat, in another it brought fresh fear with it of what lay ahead.

"Please let us reach the way out." She thought over and over.

Fighting against themselves to move forward felt worse than ever. So much worry and stress was almost physically hurting. She still felt terrible over finding out she'd lead them down the wrong tunnel to start with, exposing them to unnecessary danger. Despite knowing there was no way she could have known another exit existed so close to their entrance point it leadened her heart and steadily ate away at her resolve. It was her fault. Her only solace against this dissolution of her will was this gun. It was a hard-won prize, and not anything to scoff at. Guns while not entirely scarce in the remains of the world were mostly rickety old things like her discarded pistol.

The more reliable of them sometimes worked. This weapon looked as if it were just created by some expert craftspony of old. She could either keep it for their own use or trade it with one of the few trading assemblies of ponies which still existed. It would fetch a very high price. The clean ammo and quick loaders would garner a fair amount of caps by themselves. This was truly a good haul if they could just get out of this mysterious gloomy place. Her hope of doing so was nearly extinguished multiple times already. Perhaps finding something so rare was a sign their luck was finally improving. There was some sort of wash basin jutting out of the tunnel wall on the right with rusted pipes leading to it.

She did at least know these used to provide water somehow. Could she dare hope this would prove to still function? It was risky. Drinking water from an unverified source was an incredible gamble in the wastes. It could cause all manner of problems from minor illness to radiation sickness or worse. She also knew from the few who ever bothered to teach anything there were ways to tell, and even drugs able to flush ones system of such ills. They possessed none of these things. They were just two poor ponies who were now stuck in the middle of a ridiculously bad situation. She fiddled with the rusted taps. The right one simply tore completely off as the metal twisted and gave way. Nothing came out of the pipe.

Turning the knob on the left yielded no better result. She managed to whisper:

"I'm sorry dear, no water here." To her his squeaked out response was far too adult sounding.

"Not your fault." She nearly burst into tears as she lead them onwards. Her only thoughts were that he didn't deserve to suffer through this. Deciding right there, she determined when they got out of here she would buy up all the bottled water she could find and let him have his fill. She would make up for this unwanted adventure somehow. They could not linger here, the cold was only tolerable while moving. Standing still for this brief moment proved they must leave quickly.

Ahead on the left stood an enormous steel door with a strange wheel-like attachment. Something felt bitterly wrong here. The door was tightly sealed, somehow something was finding a way around the closed seems, pouring a steady stream of light smoky looking steam. It was the source of the cold. They could feel it emanating from within. Never having seen or heard of such a thing before they passed it by quickly. Some ancient machinery hummed behind there. As curious as they might be it was not worth taking another risk to satisfy. Life in the wastes taught one quickly it was far better to err on the side of caution. Those that failed to heed this one overriding lesson fared poorly.

She'd witnessed the results of carelessness from afar several times over the course of her wanderings. Up to this point her efforts to avoid such a fate for herself and her son were successful. None could be considered rich in this barren world so bereft of right and reason. By her own reckoning she'd scavenged just enough caps to live off of. She learned the approximate worth of things through watching others deal sidelong, listening to the way they bartered back and forth. Everything was negotiable to a degree, highly dependent on what you could offer in exchange be it caps, goods or services.

Traveling trade caravans were few and far between, but more trustworthy for the most part, probably due to the need of keeping their reputation as fair traders intact. Trade with any and all was still possible, if more risky. The reason many of the ancient machines which did survive were dangerous was the simple fact those were designed to do so. With war in mind many devices were hardened against all conceivable manner of attack. Many of these were meant for use in the very war which prevented their being used, none anticipating such a blow as to end the war could be landed. Not one would have been imagining many ages later that some unlucky pony or other with no knowledge of what they were or did would come across such creations. Knowledge truly did equate to power now.

Those who obtained such knowledge often flaunted the power this granted them. Instead of using it to better the world around them they generally chose to use their advantages to crippling effect, worsening the already sorry state of existence even further. Extending their reach and hold over the wastes as far as possible, the few to wield such power did find themselves learning a once well known lesson. Whoever is at the top is always the first target of the next most ambitious. Unbidden power plays would sometimes rage across the already violated landscape. Occasionally some scrap of technology would wind up in the hooves of ponies with no care for any but themselves.

In a way the war raged on in microcosm, only nowadays as mere free-for-alls. This wild misdirection they'd been forced down impressed upon her all the more their need to better themselves. Being able to read the signs hanging throughout the mine would have surely made escape from here much easier. It wouldn't have made surviving the strange force which nearly extinguished them any less draining, but they may not have encountered it at all if they knew the correct path to take. By her estimation their wandering around in the blackness took a good fourteen hours more than necessary. The only good to come from this so far was the revolver. As they drew further away from the door the cold became less prevalent.

Unfortunately as the air warmed they found themselves sucking in the same thick sickly sweet scent as before. Why was it everywhere? The cold in the area must have dampened it. Now it hit them full force again. They'd been breathing it in for so long she'd nearly forgotten just how bad it actually was. Re-exposure to it needled her to get them out of here as rapidly as possible. Judging from the image there should be a fork somewhere ahead where they must take the left passage. The right looked odd in the diagram as it ended like some buried cul-de-sac. Who chose where tunnels lead in this place?

They were strangely criss-crossed at odd angles and inclines. Every level followed this odd arrangement according to the image. They would finally be out soon. Their excitement built as the air began to smell less sickly, the disgusting sweet smell diminishing. the exit must be close-by. The eerily silent tunnels almost felt to beckon them to return within, their company a welcome change from the decades of disuse. The long, lonely empty tunnels recalling a time when ponies roamed within freely, a fond memory of life. It was an odd feeling as they finally came upon a heavy wooden door similar to the one they entered by. This one must have been closed when the war ended. They could just push it open.

It was heavy but between them the ancient rusted and unmoving pillar hinges finally gave up and ripped right off, sending the enormous door tilting out to crash with a tremendous thump, splintering into perhaps thousands of pieces. The noise was awful as it echoed back down the tunnels.

"Let's get out of here!" She managed to speak fairly loudly despite her throat. Both bolted and ran for a time, occasionally looking back over their shoulders at the receding entranceway. Finally they were free, free from the smell and the fear. The more distance they put between themselves and that lost place the better.

Yes, lost is how she would think of it. Life didn't seem to belong there. They must warn anypony willing to listen to stay well away from it, and what drove them in. None would wish to visit. Even the subdued natural light of the outside strained through the ever present cloud cover hurt their eyes after so long utilizing only their dim magical lighting. This would pass. After going around a rocky outcropping which also hid this door from sight they got their bearings. Far off in the distance could just be seen the very broken patchwork road they'd taken four days earlier to wind up near the swamps. Why any road lead near there in the first place was a matter long forgotten.

There was still a great deal of walking ahead of them to retrieve their packs and belongings. They should make it decently well. They could slow down and take it easy now. Anything was better than the confining walls of that place. They never realized before just how vast and open the land was. The adventure they just shared would be an experience neither would ever forget. The pain and terror of it would be ingrained in them for the rest of their lives. By the same token they now knew what true fear was, and could take great pride in having survived their encounter. They'd endured a hardship no pony should ever be subjected to and come out of it nearly unscathed save for a few scratches, and perhaps an enduring fear of the dark.

It might be the pair may never quite feel safe again. Whether this was for good or ill they could never truly tell. By the time their packs were reattained they would have to use all the water currently stored in them. It didn't matter, they were alive and away from that hole in the ground which may as well have been a taste of Tartarus itself. Whatever creeping things lurked in the bowels of the mine were welcome to confine themselves there. They must bring warning to others of the many wrongs going on. As terrible as other ponies could be, they were certainly worse. First they needed water. The thick rivers which once forked and spread through this area were long since mostly emptied.

Clean water was still attainable in some places, not often, not easily and not without cost. Absolutely everything held some value, even those which may at one time have been worthless. So little remained that a few pieces of ancient tin could bring a small price from the right buyer. Water being the commodity it now was commanded a premium. She'd done all in her power to locate sources of it. These efforts mostly did not pay off. Many fruitless searches confirmed that fresh water was at best incredibly difficult to find. Always there was barely enough to go around. Some did find supplies of it once in a long while. A few bottles here, a hidden supply cache there.

It never amounted to much, really only sufficient to keep small groups alive. An entire town was nearly impossible to supply. Somehow a few managed, thanks to barely functioning technology few understood. A dreary thought occurred. It might be dangerous returning for the packs. What if there were more like that horrible pony from before? If it was some kind of sickness she dreaded exposing them to it. The packs were necessary, of that there could be no doubt. Inside each was bottled water and other supplies accumulated from long years of hard effort, abandoning them was not an option. She was well equipped now anyway, not much could stand up to the withering fire her new gun could throw.

Judging from the look and feel the repeat fire rate of this would be excellent, this was a guess as firing ammo to test felt like a waste. She'd seen one in action before, owned by her own father. A pitiful looking barely functional revolver which nearly killed himself as often as anything else. It still packed an impressive punch even in such a terrible state, when it worked. In comparison this gun was a beast an entire order of magnitude above. Bracing themselves they once more walked the same path towards the swamps. There was nothing to like about anything which happened recently. Three, perhaps even four times they nearly died. Still, they were alive.

Stumbling around in the dark for so long gave an entirely new perspective on just how small they really were. They found themselves wondering what other treasures they may have been forced to bypass in those unfathomable depths. Taking a moment she noted only one of the quick loaders held a different color of bullet, it came to her attention they were also marked with the symbol H.E. in gold relief. What did this mean? Something else to make her wary and regret not having found a way to learn what such things meant. Ponies roaming the wastes rarely made any sort of lasting bonds with others. It was too easy to lose another, and less painful that way.

This was why she felt so burdened by her son after his father abandoned them. For her whole life it was made clear she was worthless. Her parents barely tried, never missing an opportunity to berate her for failure. She was too young back then to realize they felt burdened by her in exactly the same way. They didn't love her at all, seeing her as only a disappointing and pointless investment of time and energy. Not being very smart didn't help any. Figuring this out eventually was part of why she finally started to truly care for her child. Recognizing the emptiness in her heart she poured all her soul into raising him and caring for him properly.

It was hard work and a terrible strain at times trying to survive and bring up a child. For filling that gap inside he was worth every moment. She vowed then to give her own life if it meant keeping him safe. Unlike many false vows given by false hearts trying to gain some advantage over others, she meant every word. It was so wonderful to be outside once more. Just being able to move freely was a joy. As they walked she could not shake an eerie feeling of eyes upon them from somewhere. Shaking her head she shoved the feeling aside, there was nothing out here. The stumbling about in the dark was over. The vile pony was probably still bashing himself against the far off door.

Whatever drove him a frightening example of how dangerous encounters in the wastes could truly be. She did not want her son to see their friends corpse later when they arrived. He had seen and felt more horror in the past couple of days than many ponies would in an entire lifetime. Nearly having forgotten about the unnaturally strong pony for the moment she gazed off in the direction of their packs. Perhaps nearly a whole day of walking lay ahead of them to reach the location. Very worried for the young ponies well-being she brought herself to ask if he wanted to be carried once more. A parched response of yes please was all the motivation she required.

Helping him up to settle atop her, it was easy to tell how exhausted he was.

"You can rest easy now dear, mommy's got you. You're safe." His eyes closed quickly. Her own strength was nearly at an end after this ordeal, but would carry him to the ends of the world if need be. Taking gentle steps so as not to wake him, she walked off into the wastes.

---

The game has begun, the first die cast. I'd offer you some popcorn, but tainted as it is you would probably die. A fresh veggie dog is right out of the question. Enjoy the show.

Deathwatch

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In forgotten times during the great war when fighting and the carnage it leaves behind were commonplace, the recently formed equestrian military found itself on the receiving end of countless skirmishes and battles. Taking the brunt of this wave of increasingly brutal combat was quickly taking a heavy toll on the inexperienced combatants. Both sides were taking increasingly heavy casualties, as the body count mounted so did the ponies desperation to find an endgame to this barbarity. Few thought this could carry on for more than a year or two at most. On it went, two years, four years, each year dragged into another and this hope faded. A means to counter the zebra war machine was not proving so easy to find.

Both sides reached the conclusion they needed new weapons and tactics. On the pony side special research groups were formed. Some of these groups were given far too much freedom to engage in any manner of experimentation. What the zebras did is anyone's guess. This lead to many grand developments, a few of which held the promise of stopping the enemy in their tracks. Dead in their tracks. Anything and any price to overwhelm the aggressors, and enforce pony dominance once more. With every loss, and every zebra sent packing the ponies pride in their new army grew ever deeper. It is said such pride goeth before destruction.

The battle raged for three terrible days. Clash after clash for three ragged, violent days. Some of those participating in this battle would suffer mental issues for the rest of their lives, still fighting in some way. Those who survived just another kind of casualty. The embattled third battalion barely held the line as pony and zebra alike hurled themselves into this nearly mindless slaughter. Why the zebra forces were fighting with such renewed intensity this time around was a complete mystery. What gave them such strength? It was almost unnatural how hard they fought. It was quickly becoming apparent they may actually punch a hole in the already tattered defenses.

All manner of shattered equipment, and the formerly living ponies which carried it lay scattered across the battlefield. The commander and captains overseeing this, on the verge of collapse themselves, some injured and even dying still gave orders to the beleaguered defenders.

"Scout! Where is that support?" The commander was seriously injured himself, having been attacked by two zebras that somehow slipped through the line. Through sheer luck he and an alert second lieutenant took them out, but not without cost. The bedraggled scout, covered in mud and shaking almost didn't make it back to deliver a report.

"Sir, fourth platoon has been mired in a prolonged firefight to the west. Air support has been drawn off due to unexpectedly heavy resistance, and the terrain is making it difficult for command to coordinate troop movements. Some ground support is heading our way though." He huffed heavily. The sound of gunfire amidst smoke that drifted across the whole area was ceaseless. Looking through binoculars almost nothing distinct could be discerned. The cries of injured and fallen could occasionally be made out. While the intense fighting wore on they could not be reached. This was by far the worst fight the army ever engaged in to date. From within the din of battle a strange new sound could be made out.

An earth pony wearing full heavy armor strode directly into the battle. This action would normally be considered insane. He was walking straight up a zebra held rise that was lost to them hours ago. Was he crazy? The commander managed to spot this and watched in rapt horror as the pony casually marched right into them. All four armored hooves seemed to be sparking.

"What is he doing!?" His death was certain, but as all the zebras gathered and fell upon him he struck the closest, causing a short intense flash as it sent six of them flying, sparks shooting off in all directions.

The commander cursed, stunned at this sight.

"Who is he, and what is that pony using?" He looked to the visibly shaken scout. He'd endured a great deal to get back here. Stepping closer to use the high distance binoculars he pulled himself together enough to answer.

"One of the elites from second division. I think they were calling those power hooves or something. He must have got ahead of his unit somehow, sir." They could only stare as he waded through opposition, knocking opponents aside. His armor was taking some glancing hits, but being so close to the enemy made him less of a target.

By himself he was practically turning the tide of battle in their favor. Attention on both sides was turning towards the hill where this was taking place. More and more zebras were converging on this lone fighter as he knocked away their spears and swords, sparks showering with each hit. Pony forces that saw this were desperately trying to provide cover fire for this lone combatant, they were too far away, many still engaged even as zebra units fell back in droves. He was driving a wedge straight through their ranks that they must take advantage of. All eyes fixated on this scene as an unusually large, lightly armored zebra wielding an energy sword attached to a thick cable strode forth, the power pack strapped to his right foreleg.

Stepping into the fray out of the haze the large zebra hurled the electricity encircled sword at him, catching it as he knocked it back. All the other zebras stepped far back to hunker down and watch. This zebra spun the weapon, throwing it once more to bounce off his armor leaving a jagged tear down the left side. This was no ordinary combatant. The sizzling sword was pulled by the cable to land in their grip again. The pony ran at his opponent, over and over he slashed the sparking weapons at the zebra only to barely miss and come away with yet another tear across his armor. Soon he would be in serious trouble. Other fighting practically ceased by this time.

The ponies could not approach and offer support while the rest of the zebras held this position. They did take advantage of this time to pull wounded out of harms way at last. The two fighters spun and twisted, trying to find any gap in the others defense. Armored as he was made him slower. So closely and intensely they were fighting that no clear shot could be taken. At such great range it would risk hitting this champion of pony kind. Another rake across his armor proved this was by no means an even match. Both knocked the other away to bolt against yet again, striking weapons throwing off showering sparks everywhere. These two locked in mortal combat seemed to notice little else.

This titanic clash came to a sudden end in a most horrifying way. Time itself felt as if it slowed when the pony desperately threw himself towards the zebra, directly striking the swords power pack at nearly the same instant the sword was swung in wide to slice through his armor and pierce his own. The zebra was blasted away as the pack exploded from the charge to roll and land slumped, obviously dead. The pony took two lurching steps forward and stopped. The stunned silence was broken as a terrible thud came from within the armor, flames shot forth from the many slices in the sides and out from the cracked visor.

For a moment this horrific sight stood, his head tilted to the left before the whole suit went crumpling forward and to the side as it crashed into the ground. This momentary hero fell, and with that the battle was over. In almost the blink of an eye all the zebras withdrew into the dust. Whatever pushed them to fight this hard dwindled as one of their best fell. Both sides had enough for now. The carnage for the moment was finally at an end, but this could hardly be called a victory. At best it would allow only a brief respite before a new fight would be taken up elsewhere. Gathering the fallen was a grim task sure to sicken even the hardiest souls. The bloodied army would tend their wounds and fight another time.

Many proud heroes met their end this day, he was merely another. Somewhere out of sight a zebra buried a small box before slipping into the shadows with the rest.

- - -

That just had to hurt, probably a lot.

Beneath A Colorless Sky

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Roving under the once clear and beautiful skies now blanketed in endless gray, the ponies who once were absolute masters of their world struggle just to carry on. Survival is the only order of the day. The one time gorgeous landscapes from forests to lakes and lush valleys now lay blasted, dead. Any glimpse of beauty a pale and sickly mirror of what was. Looking to the forever hazy horizon there is no trace of the former glory the land enjoyed. Everything ends, even the infinite which must inevitably circle back to wherever it started from. The end of the shining age of Equestria was instigated by jaded hearts driven by even more jaded souls.

The trackless, open wilderness which once stood an uninviting place is infinitely worse now, only able to engender fearful feelings. Nothing left to stir the hearts and minds of those just brave enough to take a fleeting look. The many in and around the great gilded capital city suffered most when it fell. Ages later, atop the crumbling remains of grand towers, a single tattered flag, once flowing proudly in announcement of the city's glory to an adoring populace, still somehow hangs, frayed strands of fabric left static in mute monument to the distant past. From afar the bold city, once the truest emblem of hope sits silent and still. Only an embittered memory of a ruin as even it succumbs to age and decay. Hope itself died here.

The leaden heavy weight of this creeping decay rises upon the battlements of this bastion. Glancing at it sidelong, this bejeweled spectacle of a city could almost be imagined to still stand proud and defiant. The quiet city just sleeping, almost. Reality soon reasserts itself. Even the light fled this place, keenly aware of what was being lost. The very heart of their society left to crumble. Some might dream of looking down from the lofty heights afforded the city. Only a dream, one which cannot be. The sun nor moon can never again look upon this affront to the light, if they could indeed look at all. No peace can be granted to the slumbering city, stark and dim it remains.

One of the glamorous palace rooms still decorated as if awaiting to host the next party, one which was to play host to a wedding. The table is set with all manner of exquisite adornment, fitting for the grandeur the city enjoyed. The kitchens, once a lively place full of banter stand ready for the master chef and the myriad cooks under their expert direction to prepare a fine meal for their guests. No guests will set hoof here anymore. The city, long an anchor, a central stronghold against the storm of conflict ever spiraling out of control became a victim of its own success. The very central target of all whose hearts turned to hatred, a prize so far beyond claim it had to be destroyed.

The bustling daughter town of Ponyville many miles away yet still barely within sight of the enormous glimmering capital fell to its own ruination. Many a hapless citizen fell victim here, both during and after war came straight to them. The Golden Oaks library which once served as a beacon in the darkest night turned to a twisted shell of its former self, a place of misery and death. The few remaining buildings torn and weary of bothering to remain upright in this oppressive atmosphere full of pain sit idle, waiting for the first dim rays of dawn which never come. The land sits in gloom, empty and waiting. The quiet whispers of happy times now even less than a distant forgotten memory.

There was hope here too, a hope that dwindled to a dying ember until the light finally gave out. This dying light gave way to an unending mockery of life. The great war brought fear which could only be followed by defeat. Nowhere could the sting of this defeat be felt more strongly than in looking upon these two hapless, once joyful places of old. Approaching either now could only be considered the thought of a suicidal mind. There are quite a few now, left wandering aimlessly through the wastes with no reason, no feeling and no greater goals. Aspiration to loftier heights is a thing left to the past. Nowhere fared well, that which is great does not discriminate between what it strikes down.

War was thought to be a trivial nuisance, albeit horrible. Nothing that would ever touch the very hearts of the ponies great works, their cities and towns for a time thought immune to the ravages of war. On the very edge of final victory one fell, then another at the end of this sickening game of dominoes. All they could do was run in terror as their proud army, the great defenders of the common good were swept away along with everything else to leave only suffering in place of pride. Suffering is the name of that day, that day when life stopped, and all days after. The tumbledown patches of civilization barely clinging to existence rapidly dispersed.

Any hint of true leadership vanished with the howling wind of destruction. How it came to be this way ceased to matter. The very instant the first megaspell was initiated the world itself almost seemed to tremble in fear. It took a ridiculously short span to reduce life to this cycle of constant misery. Taken for granted, the luxuries of the old world were reduced to rubble, the playthings of the past sometimes hanging on just long enough to cause some new terror to arise. On that day when hope met its end, somewhere one of great burden finally emerged from a very dusty cave to find his world gone. Shattered like so much glass, his heart and soul grew cold.

Just another embittered spirit left reeling in the aftermath. Choosing a new path he wandered forth into the dark and misery, his own suffering just begun.

- - -

Some choices hurt much more than others, how painful will this one be?

Tides

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One would think when the world ends, hatred would end along with it. This is an illusion, an unfulfillable dream that will never come to pass until all existence itself ceases to be. War is simply the most obvious play of unchecked hatred. It takes many forms, sometimes even masquerading as truth. It never is. Justice and right failed the ponies of Equestria. The only real truth of such hatred is that it feeds and grows on more hatred in an endless, nigh-unbreakable cycle of bitter tears. The great war that ravaged the land and consumed everywhere else during the course of nearly two decades ended in the very fires of hatred itself, yet even this terrible conflagration could not put a final end to this bitterness.

It simply took on new forms, continuing as it ever does. How dark and terrible can one's own suffering be to desire only its infliction on others? Some embittered souls such as these survived the end of everything. In their misery, instead of learning from this mistake they chose to pass this hatred on once more and continue the cycle. Even now, blinded by the allure and ease which hatred offers, some ponies still fail to realize the awful truth staring them in the face. Their very hearts grow ever more poisoned by this insidious hatred. The truth is obvious, something which should be plain for all to see. There is only one thing in all the world capable of breaking such hatred's icy grip.

The vast dullness of the wastes kills hope for the end of hatred even as it arises. It has done so for all the long days through the empty decades since the end. No champions have arisen to take up this dulled cup, left to tarnish. The fear and terror is too great, too formidable. Yet, even in this life of sheer hopelessness pure hearts still exist and wish for more. Despite constant pain and sorrow the want for justice and right is deep-seated. For some it is simple as wanting a fair deal, for others it is a matter of keeping the playing field level for all. Sadly, this ingrained need has often destroyed as much as was saved, sometimes more.

The echoing cries of war rang out for uncounted empty days in the very name of justice, and in Equestria even seeking such justice became just another twisted effort corrupted by this futility. On the surface all seemed as it ever was, even as the framework of justifiable law fell apart. Had the war ended in victory would true justice ever have been restored? In swapping justice for perceived victory the great pony races found they also removed from themselves the ability to pursue happiness, letting only misery fall in upon them from all quarters. The royals took little or no action to rectify this state of affairs, seeking only their victory, many times turning a blind eye to their subjects suffering.

Perhaps wallowing in their own misery and seeing their land being engulfed in the same, the decision was to let justice fall by the wayside. Success in war is a difficult measure. What does victory actually mean when the very values one is sworn to uphold are left in so many tatters? Many of the ponies in the combined Equestrian army were just as blinded in their pursuit of justice, piling blame even on the innocent. Much like the ponies, not every zebra wished to fight either or become embroiled in the vagaries of war. Seeking asylum put them in just as much danger. Their culture, mannerisms and laws so dissimilar to the ponies own invited deep mistrust. They too could only wish for the impossible.

Simply wishing has never been enough, actions have always spoken louder. Today, seeking an end to the suffering the land and all else has endured is no simple task to be undertaken. Horrors once confined to the realm only of nightmares roam nearly unchecked, when encountered they pose a threat to even the most hardened souls. Sadly such things are hardly the only threat to life and limb. Ponies themselves pose as much and sometimes an even greater threat. Among the pony races once relatively unknown traits of greed, tyranny and the imposition of fear rise in their hearts, along with the hatred which nurtures them. It festers and grows ever more, posing its challenge to any who would dare fight back.

This hatred goes uncontrolled and unhampered by justice. Just another silly thing long forgot from the past. Heroes so often fail they may no longer exist. Thus far any that would dare speak of justice have quickly found themselves overmatched and dispatched by far darker hearts. Cold and still embittered at the loss of their world the shadows of pain and suffering spread, seeking only to cause more of the same. Sometimes justice itself must take the darkened path. Many times its unleashed fury has laid waste to more than it was worth. How much fury must be building when justice has been unable to act for so long? It has been said justice is kept blind because of this very thing, to serve all in equality.

What happens when the blinders are off? There are countless sad, empty and lonely ways to to die in the wastes. Should the pursuit of justice add yet more? Somewhere, forgotten in the desolate emptiness of the wastes a statue of the personification of justice stands alone, once surrounded by a beautiful quiet grove where ponies could reflect and enjoy the day under her eternal watch. Those that truly upheld the law have ever served her first, their leaders second. One could imagine perhaps she is saddened by the carnage all have endured since that happy time. Upon her outstretched hoof she holds aloft in gilded promise the golden scales of justice, its unerring blade still strapped to her back, ready to strike true if called upon once more.

Her weary visage has long withstood the test of time since far before the war. Her sculptor was a pony from yesteryear who absolutely loved life, one who understood the real value of freedom and the necessity of law to protect that freedom. He would have been very proud to know she would stand through it all, but if he knew what awaited her in the distant future he would have wept for her, his finest work. Pointing towards the horizon she has continued this lonely vigil against such insurmountable hatred in hope. Inscribed upon the statues base etched in unyielding stone is her promise of equality for all.

The heavy stone blinders once seeming so permanent have slowly crumbled away to reveal this distant horizon and the sad truth to her angered eyes. Her ideals should never have been abandoned, for along with them went all reason and all hope for a bright future. A future that for many would never come. The burden justice carries is the heaviest of all. As the pain that has befallen the world is revealed to her you can almost hear her anguished cry, calling for a return to reason. The great statue almost seeming to weep in pain and sorrow for all those lost to such a malediction, all this an intolerable insult to that which stands for good. Justice is unyielding as it must be, always standing alone in front of all others.

She may only act on behalf of those who already possess the will to step forth with the courage to denounce wrong, regardless of what pain it means they must face in doing so, and bolster their strength to endure with her own. This unparalleled strength has been held in check ever since that vaguely remembered time when kindness, compassion and empathy were held dear to ponies hearts, now drawn astray by the misleading promises of hate. The ponies once true to her fallen for the lie, she must be very angry. The strength of true justice once felt solidly throughout the land has languished and been forgotten, tossed aside like so much trash and trod upon in callousness.

Is it possible even now for her to still stand true to the ponies of Equestria? Who can know such things? She is but a concept, a creation of like minds. Some might say little more than an illusion crafted in an effort to help make sense of the world. Her strength, however, has always stood undeniable, illusion or not.

- - -

Somewhere those flickering eyes once more seeking, but what?

Dance of Distant Waters

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The science vessel 'A Priori' was the most well-equipped research ship ever conceived by combined pony intellect, an idea put forth oddly enough by the ministry of arcane sciences. Constructed in secret, it was a calculated gamble. It was a standout asset from the outset. From the very moment it was launched it proved itself to be of enormous scientific value. A small army of scientists, combat engineers, biologists and magic specialists practically lived on this powerhouse, if not always harmoniously. It held little in the way of conventional armaments, despite this it was considered to be a match for even their largest battleship.

Experiments on everything from powerful repulsion field generators to magitech disruptors were tested from aboard this floating platform. No expense was spared. Where the funding came from, who knows? Somepony was paying, and no one really cared otherwise. It plied the waves for many years. A prestigious -- and dangerous -- post for the ambitious, those that knew about it anyway. At her heart she was powered by a colossal twin engine bank. Some sort of reactor was aboard, but almost nopony knew what fueled it and none would say anything on the matter. Well-built by any standard her one mission was simple enough.

Seek any and all means by which they might overcome their adversaries or protect themselves. A rather broad scope, some might say perhaps too broad. Mishaps and pursuant damage to the ship itself were commonplace. Aside from the near-constant repairs it held up well. During one of her continual forays she seemingly went out of control for a full hour, then actually disappeared without a trace for an entire day without any explanation. When contact was reestablished not one of the crew could remember anything about what happened. None appeared worse for wear and were right back on the job. The incident cemented her reputation in inner circles.

On the very final day of the war she was heading for a small hidden port somewhere to the southwest end of Horseshoe Bay for minor repairs yet again. This time a shielding experiment had gone terribly awry blowing a small section of deck plating right off, resulting in a small fire which raged through an auxiliary lab and wounded several of the crew. She would never reach the port. As she was already damaged, even she proved no match for the incoming blast, despite her protection. It spread across the water amplifying itself into an enormous wave, then engulfed the ship and shoved her far off course. The instruments told them what was coming. At that moment, the great hulk was tossed about like a toy.

Everypony aboard died despite their best efforts to stave off the blast using a combined magic dispersion and kinetic energy diffusion device. The crew did their very best to save her and themselves, but pooling the combined power of all the unicorns and ships power shunts was still not enough. The captain whose last received order was to keep the ship as far away from shore as possible could not lock her course or engage the self-destruct mechanism before he too succumbed. Somehow, be it by divine providence or who knows what, with no living crew and her throttles left open full-bore she was cast adrift for nearly 160 years.

As it eventually took to ground a terrible scream echoed from the twisting hull like some agonized spirit abode within her, wailing in sadness. After slamming through a reef and somehow still afloat the immense hull -- abused for so long -- gave way and shattered almost in half. Finally, after all the decades randomly meandering across the sea aimlessly like some great lost ghost she had unceremoniously smashed into the shoreline where she dug an enormous groove and was ripped nearly in twain, spilling untold contents as it slowed to a halt and settling ironically close to her intended destination.

The uniquely well-crafted and tuned Parsley and Company engines still powered the broken propeller cranks for a full half-hour before completely destroying themselves, hurling the last huge propeller nearly a hundred meters from the remains of the ship. The bulk of the once mighty ship is now eerily quiet and still. Sitting in her watery grave half-submersed, the once proud vessel itself just another hapless victim of war. There it lay forgotten like so many other things. The whole purpose of her existence was to find ways to save lives, but in the end she could not even save her own crew or herself. A support vessel named 'Aurora' was escorting her to port and fared even less well.

The ships themselves were an experiment in automation, requiring only a skeleton crew for normal seafaring operations. This was one of those times for the escort. The initial shockwave caused the comparably tiny craft to careen into the side of the much larger ship sending it to the bottom of the sea mere seconds later. With little warning and no chance the smaller of the two exploded on impact with the heavily armored hull to sink beneath the waves in so many pieces, taking her crew along with her as they were pushed apart. Incredibly, the larger ship took almost no damage from this collision, likely owing to the activation of the diffusion units.

To the very end the massive research vessel continued collecting data. The instrument banks performed dutifully until the last minuscule spark of energy reached them, fulfilling at least that much of her purpose to the last second. There were few official records of either ships existence. If anything, they were phantom vessels from the moment construction began. Their history gone, none recall the tale of the poor lost ships, and they were hardly the only vessels lost at sea during that great conflagration. It was a miserable end for any. Quiet enveloped the vessel when the engines finally spun down for the last time. Who knows what the fine ship may have seen in her unguided wanderings? Perhaps her story is not yet over.

---

Or, maybe she was just out of her depth.

Rumble in the Broncs

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Much of the great cities of old were laid waste. In stark remembrance some structures by some quirk of positioning or fate were left standing. Some useful. Some dangerous. Some simply ponderous and utilized in some way nopony remembers. Memorials to lost souls and long forgotten heroes also remain. Standing in silent protest of their poor treatment they give and receive little. Not a mention or a thought still given to the countless lives destroyed by a war recalled almost as legend itself. If no one is left to mourn their passing do they still hold any importance? Was their suffering all for nothing? A monument to such things feels no pain, no regrets.

With none left to give it meaning and weight it is only a signpost pointing backwards. A reminder of what should never have been. The warnings it gives heeded by none in the given world. They died by scores in unintelligible number and in their passing could tell none to come after why they were left with a barren core instead of the bright and prosperous world they were promised by those now gone. Ponies found themselves wandering in the dark, alone and without aid. Their only inheritance a world shorn of reason, logic and hope. As much as one might think it so, civilization did not simply cease to function.

There was just no one powerful enough left to keep the remnants together and so they all parted to seek whatever fortunes were left to them in this miserable place. Hardly the only time such a thing has happened, but never on this scale. History is replete with turning points, but usually someone is left to remember them. No one in Equestria remembers much of anything save perhaps that they were cheated in the most miserable way possible. This dim flame of a memory is held in odd reverence. Surely the blame lays solely on zebra kind. All their fault the world was left teetering on the edge of utter collapse. This one tiny sliver of hatred is very much held in ponies hearts even now.

Ponies were cheated out of their victory, and their society. But where really were the ponies in all of this? Did they take some part in the massive destruction that laid waste their own villages, towns, and cities? Their successors may never know the real truth of such matters. Even if they did, would it make even the slightest difference in an effectively dead world? Almost all out for their own sake means little solidarity to be found, much less trustworthy companions and the sort of friendships that could lead to a better future. No thought of a government. No thought of a real town, a real city where once more the power of true good might come to settle.

In this world the powerful very seldom take note of the needs others have. Should any now attain the sort of power that could be used towards the betterment of all it is generally twisted into some perversion of their own desires instead. Some still feel that tiny tug within. That barely noticeable desire for peace and stability. So unknown they barely know what the feeling is. Even unknowing, it is a feeling felt by any who still let themselves start to care. Some wisp of fragmented memories somewhere inside just clinging to existence. Feelings of what should be. What was lost to them. How horrible things truly are. The tiniest hint trying to push their hearts towards what is right. What they deserve.

Occasionally a wandering griffon or pony, or perhaps even something else finds a little thing which helps them remember, and hits them harder than any bullet ever could. A solid gut check to remind at least one or two what is actually missing in life. What has always been denied them. A hit so much harder than anything else could possibly give to them. Sometimes the contrast of their past given so clear only a heart made of solid stone could ignore what it means. The all-encompassing loss and sadness such a discovery stirs cuts impossibly deep and torments its discoverer to no end. Pain is well known in the wastes, but some pains are indescribable, unbearable.

The weighty pain of knowing the truth is sometimes worse than all other things. The ponies lost their world, and somehow even more than that. In that great war which brought absolutely everything to a screeching halt they lost so much more. Some lost their lives. Sometimes they even lost themselves. In a great war that brought everything to this screeching halt, sometimes they lost so very much more. Rarely is there no forgiveness at all. In the face of this, what was there really to forgive? Those responsible already paid a hefty price long ago. A price which was so great it stands beyond compare. A steep sum given to leave even this much behind.

That ponies still alive today even were allowed this much was owed to predecessors who gave up everything and more to leave something, anything, for them. With so much time gone by the silence grows ever more deafening. In the end those with ears to hear and eyes to see must listen and look intensely or miss the oncoming storm and be taken unaware as they all were. It was always there to be stopped. A single pony stating a resounding 'no' and a call to action might have been enough to stop it in its tracks. The serpentine lies that spread and confounded society were left to fly unhampered and unimpeded by those who should have listened and acted. Fear is the easiest thing to spread in the whole world.

All it needs is a single seed left unchecked to grow roots as deep as the tallest mountains. It is just as easy to stop if anyone notices. It only takes the courage to face it. No one did. Ponies held like frightened foals onto the lies and the fear they muster. Lies really are easier, more comforting than confronting and facing off against the truth. The truth is painful. It hurts as much as any wound ever has. It cuts deep. Sometimes the truth destroys everything around it. The absolute worst thing to ever happen during the war was not the war itself. The worst thing to come from the war was an endless web of deceptions presented as those very truths.

If the majority on either side had realized what they were truly doing to one another and to themselves they would certainly have let the truth stand for all to see and things would surely have turned out differently. The long shadows cast by the ending they let swallow them stretched out over the length and breadth of all the land like a cold and bitter wind, carrying only death and sorrow with it. There is no limit placed upon the depths of sadness or pain if none will step up. The dim light left to filter in through the hurriedly closed skies ensured what little was left could only know of finality. In the dark and stilled lands the all-consuming quiet stands heavy upon it ever after.

Once upon a time ringing bells calling out to the glory of the beautiful joyous days fell silent. The true warmth of the sun dimming to leave only a fading, forbidding memory. The celebration of all that was life left only a barren shell of itself. A pitiable emptiness for all that was and is. Little comes out of such an ending save pain. A nearly bottomless pit of grief for those perhaps unlucky enough to have survived. Their hearts and souls shattered, their will broken. Who could blame them? Their world ripped from them on the cusp of their long-awaited victory. The quiet land gives forth the faintest whispers of a prosperous and storied past. No one hears it calling. Every day is the same, filled with the same emptiness.

When Equestria was brightly lit by the golden hues once raining from on high only a terribly greedy soul could be left feeling wanting. All the delicate beauty of their world turned to darkness. The sun wanting to shine across the land as it always did finds no way to break through. It holds out merely the faintest light for those below. If it could scream in despair would they hear it? Its dim hidden rays now only just enough to keep the world below alive. Only just. The sun is very strong, but in the face of this even it pales. Little quirks of fate left the ponies and all others almost nothing but solitude. Not even the sun with all its great strength could stop this from happening.

What keeps pushing these empty days ever adding to the total of despair and loneliness? Even now however, the faintest flickering sparks of hope remain. Almost gone, when ignited they still fight back with conflagrate fury against the darkness. Longing and yearning inside for something they cannot describe or understand anymore, ponies are left clinging only to a desperate life starved of all the little things that make life worth living in the first place. It breeds even more pain. The fires of passion and truth once brightly burning in their hearts now not even a faint memory. The cold and dark of their anger growing deeper with every passing moment, every day, every year. Every second hurts.

Once a triumphant march towards the future is now a slow crawl for simple survivals sake. Why not take advantage of others? Why not bend them to your own will? What does it matter now? The world already died. If you can do it, why stop there? Already pushed to the brink and left gazing into the abyssal depths there are many who try to do precisely that. Claim it all for yourself. If you push, sometimes there really are none who can stop you. They once died defending one another from this very sort of thing. Sometimes ponies themselves become the monsters now. Should they not be stopped? Why bother?

Live a quiet life and hide cowering in terror for all your days, at least you live, or choose to be one of them. What other choice can there be? But wait a moment, what about those little things called feelings? Almost forgotten, they still exist. Most of those that still live try to deny them, they will never succeed. Feelings are a thing of the mind, the heart, the very soul of ponies. Feelings once meant everything to them. Even stripped from them by the ills of the world it still tries to work its way to the surface. How much it takes is entirely up to each in turn. Many now imagine it would just be better without them. If you don't feel anything nothing can hurt you, but is that really the case?

In this dim future where the light touches nothing and hope fails every dead minute, surely feeling nothing at all would be better? Some think this is so, and would do just about anything to achieve it. Anything to make it all better, or perhaps only to make their own suffering end. Walking through one of the twisted but still accessible sections of Manehattan a grim-faced earth pony whose powder blue coat was dulled with dirt and grime slipped nearly silently through the mangled streets. So covered in dirt was he that his mark could not be seen. Creeping up behind a thug wearing a spiked hoof-band he silently cracked him at a very specific point on the back of his neck, killing him instantly to be dragged off into the shadows.

The rest wouldn't notice him missing for some time. He'd been hurt, beaten by his captors that he was now taking out one by one. He was only after a few very specific ponies. Only a few of which he intended on killing. The rest were just in the way. Seething with hatred for them after what they'd done earlier left him hardly thinking about anything other than completing this violent task. It was a grim and dangerous thing being done now. In any other situation he would never have set out to kill another, let alone more than one. They brought this on themselves, and they were going to pay. These vile thugs were out in force.

He did not look in any of their eyes as he picked off his targets, they deserved no respect or mercy and would not receive any from him. His heart was not truly in this, it simply needed to be done. Pay. Make them pay. These were the only things on his mind as he used all his skill to maneuver unseen between each in turn. Watching them fall dead left no feelings at all right now aside from the terrible satisfaction of success. Knowing he should not be doing this didn't slow or stop him from exacting swift vengeance upon them. Every kill hurt. Doing this was against himself, leaving him feeling a strange twinge in his heart each time. Never in his life did he want to kill anypony, not really.

This situation was something new and strange, frightening. Not feelings he knew. Another would not have been successful in taking out these murderers. Now, there was going to be trouble.

"Forgive me, master." Wiping a tear from his eye he continued on his quiet spree. Four more fell before him in short order, the ones who caused him so much pain. At last he'd got all of them. Each time, tears flowed heavily. Standing above them in a pile, shaking as he looked over what he'd wrought and done to them. This was all so painful. His mind reeled at the realization he'd taken out all his targets. That he'd gone on a nearly mad killing spree really felt so bad.

There would be almost no time to consider this further at the moment. The worst of them now lay dead, but there were a great deal of other thugs still searching as he was forced to flit from one dark corner to another. He could not possibly elude them all this way. Finally, forced into a dead end, he found himself cornered in a wide alleyway by a large group. They were very angry now, almost crazed. There would be no avoiding a fight with them now, also something he did not really want to do. This would be an impossibly tough fight for any other pony, even for him this was about to test his skill to the very limits.

"Lookit what we've got here! Get that prissy escapee, Boss wants his head!" The one standing in front pointed, yelling out to charge him. The blue pony lowered his head as they approached. The group seemed strangely wild, he would daresay almost feral but organized. He couldn't help but notice they all looked unusually similar to one another, brushing it off as simple coincidence. No avoiding it. None.

"You give me no choice." He whispered, tensing more and more as the group of twenty approached, each with a maniacal gleam in their eyes. As they approached he simply stood there, watching.

He was actually expecting a lot more than this. There definitely were many more around, why weren't they here, too? About to do something dangerous he almost shook with building adrenaline. This might even work. As the first reached him he said only one thing more.

"Supīdo." With incredible agility and speed, the tense ball of a pony launched himself at these thugs arranged in scattered array against him as they swung chains, bats and other assorted weapons in nearly futile effort. Practically dancing around them in turn a quarter of the group were already out cold.

Spinning and flipping to the side, a nailboard missing him by mere inches as he practically bounced off the wall of the alley to ram a hoof into the thugs skull sending him flying into two others unconscious as he quickly sidled past four more, causing them to run into each other in a tangle. Rapidly smashing their heads into the alley wall to quickly be knocked out as well.

"Why can't I hit you!?" The heaviest and largest of the group growled, swatting at him again and again to strike nothing but air while he backed up, suddenly repositioning himself forward, almost in the thugs face.

As he backflipped, both hind legs connected, hooves solidly striking the heavy bruiser in the chin sending him prone and landing the whirling wrecking ball of a pony rolling backwards to fall in between a group of five. Dropping to the ground on his back he spun with his legs out wide, smacking all of them away painfully. Springing upright immediately afterwards, his hooves cracked four of them across the head in one spin. Deftly dodging everything being thrown at him to cartwheel off another into a leap atop one of his attackers. The remainder all swung their weapons at him only to miss as he jumped off, all their weapons brutally striking the hapless thug at the same instant and rendering one more unconscious.

This blurry ball of pain kicked another in the head before even hitting the ground. As he landed his forehooves struck both sides of ones knee, shattering it, sending him falling back screaming. The three still standing looked between one another, dropped their weapons and fled. He let out a heavy breath. These kind of moves took a lot out of him. He should not let that be seen. Always keep your weaknesses to yourself. If there were any more he might not have been able to take them.

"You. We are going to have a conversation about Boss. Who is he? A slaver? What does he want? Why did he have my master killed?" The still-conscious thug with the broken knee backed into the ancient alley wall, whimpering in pain as he approached.

The thug stood there shivering, shaking his head from side to side vigorously. He looked positively pathetic, less a pony and more a mass of fear. Something about this entire mess felt seriously amiss. Just looking at the quivering thug he could tell this fear was not of him at all.

"No, no no no no no! I don't know anything. None of us do. He'll do such horrible things to us if we don't obey. Please, just go away!" He whimpered and just looked down as the blue pony stared incredulously. This band of thugs surprised and captured them both, dragging them in ropes before a mysterious pony they called Boss.

He could barely see him in the dark when he ordered his master beheaded right in front of him. Boss seemed to derive a perverse pleasure from seeing his horrified reaction. The blue pony was unsure why he hadn't been killed right then as well, instead being tied up. A great deal of time later he managed to work free of his binds, did they simply forget he was there? Using the secrets his master taught him, and the great stealth he'd honed over the years let him pass undetected out of the dim place. These underlings were sent after him the moment it was noticed he was gone. Even as they hunted him, he hunted them. Now, this one was begging him to go away? All of this made little sense. None at all.

His master never harmed any that did not deserve it, and never killed. He'd taught him a rare fighting discipline after taking him in that was never to be used offensively, but now he'd used it in that forbidden way. Why would anypony want his master dead? This was ludicrous, and now this horrible pony was crying?

"Why should I leave you alone? You and your little band brought us to him. Now my master, the one good thing in my whole life is gone. I am going to stop him, whoever he is." He huffed in anger, making the thug burst into wild laughter. What in the world?

"Hahahahahhhh..stop him!? Stop Boss? You can't stop him, nopony can stop him. Compared to him we are weak, pitiful little foals. He's invulnerable, even to somepony like you. Run run away, little pony. Run as fast and as far away as you can and never look to cross his path again." That was creepy. Was this pony completely insane? Leaving him sitting against the wall cackling like a madpony he strode out of the alley, bewildered at what he was hearing. What would he do now, without his master? He was never without him before, at least as long as he could remember. The thought never crossed his mind that a pony who always seemed so strong and wise could be taken so unaware, or that he could ever die.

A lonely bitterness filled his heart as tears flowed. His master always taught him to try and do right, be better so that others could see and become better themselves. What did it matter now? They were just empty words. Meaningless.

"No, no.. he meant the things he said with all his heart, even to his last breath. How could I think that of him?" He held a hoof to his head, panting heavily for a moment and moved on. This Boss pony whoever he really was, presented a clearly dangerous and vicious threat. Somehow he'd instilled such fear in these ponies they thought he was invincible. Who could he be? Why was he gathering these ragtag misfits together anyway? They weren't very bright.

Oddly, there wasn't a single unicorn amongst them. Still, there were many more than the group he took out in the alley. He'd let most of those after him live except for the few directly involved in his masters death. Where he'd escaped from seemed like it was just full of them. Where did Boss even find them all?

"I'm going to need help with this, but who could possibly help me take him out?" Dejectedly he cautiously walked through the remains of one of the northeasternmost sections of Manehattan. Once, long ago, it was a bright cultural melting pot.

This city was now just another dead husk of a place, all real makings of life drained from it by the end of the war. As with everywhere else it fared little better than most major population centers. In sadness he trotted towards one of the many broken and unused little buildings he and his master called home, perhaps no longer. It would take a while to get back there. Instinctively stopping at the strange feeling of being observed just as a heavy blast of something green rocketed past his head tearing out a chunk of the nearby corner wall. Never having seen or heard of such a thing left him taken aback by the massive power of whatever weapon was now being used against him.

Diving backwards, another shot added more damage to the already tortured street. This was insane. What was going on here? Multiple shots streamed towards him as he dove again for cover. Not good. Terrible in fact. He was in no condition to deal with this.

"What the.." He was interrupted by a further few blasts melting and destroying the whole wall he just hid behind, forcing him to dodge and try to circle away from wherever it was coming from. Such power was being employed against him. Surely he wasn't worth this?

Having managed to cross into another short alleyway he was at least out of sight of whatever was firing at him. Trying desperately to slip away he turned multiple corners and criss-crossed amongst the many ruined and destroyed streets and the skeletal remains of buildings he knew well from years of scavenging. Hopefully in doing so he'd managed to elude his pursuer. Sheer luck only. Really not good.

"What was all that craziness about?" Leaning against a chunk of wall he took a moment to catch his breath before moving on. To use such force against him seemed ridiculous.

It was likely best he not try to go towards what was called home at the moment. There was something terrifically strange going on here. In all his roaming, he'd never encountered anything even remotely like that. He would have to find somewhere else to rest and recover. The technique he used on the large group was one his master taught him to use sparingly as a last resort. True, it was nearly unbeatable, but performing it left him near-exhausted. As it was he could not take on another opponent and hope to win. He absolutely must find a safe place to rest quickly. It hurt. It hurt a lot.

"I'm so tired. Got to keep moving. Oww. That kind of hurts. Much more than I remembered." It always did, and always had.

Learning such moves was painful enough in itself. Actually employing them in a real fight was far worse. One leg was twinging badly from the exertion and running. It was even difficult to feel like he was getting enough air, leaving him sucking in deep breaths heavily with each step. Every labored breath burned a little, making it a struggle just to keep walking. Feeling greater pain than he'd endured in quite a long time was hardly an enviable position to be in. The pain of each breath making him wheeze a little too loudly. That could easily give away his position to a determined pursuer. Each step was leaden, slow, laborious. It was hurting worse, and worse.

"I have to stop. I have to stop somewhere. That little spot. It's close. Got to get there." Quiet whispers to himself that he could not faint out in the open were the only thing keeping his hooves moving right now and his eyes from closing.

"I haven't needed to do that in so long. I nearly forgot how tiring and painful it is." Huffing deeply he carefully peered around each corner, trying to remain undetected. He would not be able to keep dodging in this state, and was already severely wracked with pain. Fortunately, his effort to escape seemed to have paid off. At last able to move about undeterred he found an empty shell of a building, hiding himself in a dark corner within to rest.

It would not be comfortable, but it would have to serve. His eyes closed quickly. When he awoke only about an hour had passed. The true toll of the fight was evident. The little rest helped. It still left him trembling, sweating profusely, shaky and aching all over. The extra exertion of escaping on top of the strain from the fight pushed him a little too far over the edge, something his master warned was very dangerous. It was definitely true. His heart hurt. It would take a whole day before he was truly recovered. Another matter impressed itself upon him. A lot of food and water was badly needed now, something there was a decent amount of if he could just get home unimpeded. Those kind of moves burned energy.

A lot of it. There wasn't much at home, but represented the sum total of their constant scavenging. It would definitely be enough to keep the two of them going for a while. Now those supplies would last a great deal longer on his own. Daring to sneak a peek outside revealed nothing unexpected.

"Master...I am so sorry. Through your death I could not uphold your ideals. You taught me not to kill in anger and never for revenge. I just couldn't help myself. I felt so much rage. I have failed you." Sniffling he set out for home, this time keeping out of sight wherever possible. His master was the only thing in life he cared about.

Having found him wandering as a young colt either abandoned or his parents perhaps dead, he'd taken him in. He'd taught him of honor and the concept of right from wrong, and of justice, almost speaking of each as if in sad reverence of them. Where he'd learned of these things was never spoken except to say they once held great importance to ponies. Rarely they would encounter other ponies wandering the safer remaining portions of this section within the once grand city. They never traveled outside of it. There was no need to. They never even left this region of the city. It was familiar. Home. A home now being encroached upon, invaded.

These very rare meetings were usually brief, sometimes a bit hostile, but not once in all the years did it end in bloodshed. Even his coat seemed to droop. It felt so terribly hurtful inside now. A pain never experienced before. The kind of pain that no mere medicine could cure. Not that medicine was all that common in the wastes either. A highly prized commodity, it could just as easily harm as help anything. That sort of knowledge like most other things was uncommon at best, contorted and harmful in its use at worst. Especially the right way to use it. There was none for this, good or bad. Only a painful ache within that felt like an endless flurry of punches. So much pain. So much.

"We did everything right. Stayed out of sight. Never messed with anypony. Just like you wanted. How did they get the drop on us? On you? Why did they do it?" Head hanging low and almost shuffling along at the slowest pace he'd ever walked almost felt a bit embarrassing after so thoroughly trashing the thugs. It was all they could be described as. They certainly did not seem very intelligent. At least not as a whole. It was a good thing they weren't. In an up close and personal fight he absolutely held the advantage. He'd been trained for it. Never having imagined it would ever actually be necessary to do such a thing, to push or be pushed so hard. The danger in doing so was real.

Little twinging pains like before were settling across his entire body, lending urgency to reaching a truly safe spot. There was a bit of something for this sort of thing at home. Not much. Just enough to help his current condition. While making his weary way towards Buckner Park road and their well-hidden home in between two other tilted structures, a feeling of apprehension and foreboding fell upon him. He tried to shake this feeling as he carefully tested jogging along a little faster, but it would not leave him. Knowing to trust such a powerful instinctual feeling he stopped by a large pile of junk which tumbled from a smashed building long ago. Peeking to take a good look around, nothing obvious could seen.

It seemed as dead and empty as it ever did. Searching amongst the debris and stark portions of buildings and structures long left to rust and decay was not an easy matter. Puzzled, he stood looking around. Still drained from before was making for incredibly slow going anyway. A slight glint was just noticed in the distance above one of the larger structures as something hurtled towards him. They were blazing and fast approaching. Very fast.

"Not again!" He yelped, stepping back as a heavy green blast like before shot by, barely missing his left foreleg. It passed by so close he could feel heat emanating from it as a small hole melted in the ground.

There was no time to care about this as several more bursts were already heading straight for him from somewhere. Darting to the opposite side of where the blasts were coming from was his only chance, only just managing to jump right over one as it flew by he could tell he was in serious trouble once more. Rolling forward to land against an ancient wall gave him only an instant to recover as it too was melted away by the barrage. Where was it coming from? Their origin seemed to shift positions. A heavy piece of shattering brick hit just behind his right ear, making him stagger about on his hooves. Having only enough wherewithal to do so he ducked around the next corner.

He'd been left standing with a hoof to his head as blood trickled down his neck. The jagged cut was fairly deep. Dangerously so. No time to deal with that right now. Just more pain for later.

"Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Showing your head in the open like that. This is not good. I haven't really recovered yet. How did they find me again so soon?" An admonishment to himself. This could be deadly and it was his own fault he'd been seen.

"Great. What do I do?" There were only a couple sparse buildings standing on this side of what used to be a street.

Going out there would mean crossing all that empty space with no cover at all. Here they were mostly in total ruins, but at least it provided some little bits of cover. This tattered shell was being blown to shreds by the strange green orbs which melted through everything they hit. They were either incredibly hot or caused damage in some other way he did not understand. A couple of them almost seemed to explode on contact with something. It was a good thing the one that landed under him had not reacted that way. Was there some difference? Did it matter what they struck which determined if it resulted in an explosion?

Never having actually seen a real explosion before was probably not helping his understanding of this either. Soon the entire remaining front wall would be gone. Where were these guys? Several buildings stood on the opposite side. One looked relatively more intact than the rest. Probably up there, but there was no way to be certain without going out to be shot at. The choice would soon be made for him. The old brick shuddered as more of it was torn away. It would start collapsing soon. Whatever he did was going to hurt. There was no avoiding it right now. He would have to move soon or be crushed by the swaying structure as it began to give way. Why would they expend so much power against him?

Were they seeking revenge for the dead thugs? They did not seem the sort to have friends, at least none that would have cared enough to bother. Most in the wastes didn't care. Why would they? He shut his eyes for the brief time left and took several very deep breaths. The thugs were the kind of ponies he'd once seen those with power over order to their deaths and in their insanity would gladly do it. Life mattered little anyway. He himself mostly didn't care either, and probably never would have at all if it weren't for... His eyes opened as he groaned, trying to think of what to do. In another moment or two the strange green orbs would tear down the entire remains of the small building he ducked behind.

He was perhaps the fastest earth pony alive, maybe ever. His master said so. It was time to find out if this was actually true. If it wasn't at least it would be over quickly.

"Focus, find the timing. I am lightning. I am speed. I can do this. I must do this. I AM speed." He let go of his head and turned to step out from behind what remained of the wall, jumping forward past one of the flickering green orbs as he practically flew across the ancient street. The steady stream of raining death turned towards him. Dodging between them he found there really was a slight delay between each.

Any seeing this would have marveled at this rocketing ponies momentum. He looked like little more than a streaking ball.

"3 seconds at most, generally 2." He thought as he jolted and dove around each almost as a blur. Where could they be? It was at this moment he realized it. There were two points of origin. The best thing to be done was go after what seemed to be the closest.

"Oh that's great. Fine, that one." He spoke while running and dodging.

Somewhere above on one of the crumbling rooftops was one of them. The other must be at ground level. There were at least two of them, possibly more. Weaving between the crossing orbs of death he was finally approaching the base of the building. Once inside the firing ceased. That run hurt. It would soon hurt much more.

"Why did it stop?" There was no time to wonder. Ignoring that, he began rapidly sneaking up the jagged flights of stairs. This particular building was very sturdy, but still damaged by neglect and disuse. It was six stories to the roof. He was uncertain how to approach this. Whatever he did it must be fast.

The one above surely knew he was coming, and the other was certainly going to move to a better vantage point while he was dealing with this. Altogether it was nothing but a bad situation he'd found himself trapped in.

"Now for it." Steadying himself he faced a door that contained almost certain death behind it. He stared a brief moment then bashed it open, immediately dropping to the floor as another blast flew overhead, knocking bricks loose. Now. Darting forward to avoid it he could now see a pony standing at the roof edge.

He was wearing some kind of hefty metal armor, holding aloft by a connected bar that ran behind the neck was some kind of weapon with green bits along the barrel and what looked like smoke pouring off the width of it. The weapon emitted an eerie hum as it discharged yet another blast. The fastest earth pony ever ran straight at this armored mountain of a pony before him, dodging each successive shot in turn. 2 seconds between each shot. Left. Right. Jump. Duck. Roll. Attack.

"This cannot be." A muffled voice came from within the helmet as the bolting pony whirled past a sixth shot.

"Hurricane kick!" The blue streaking sight of the pony was reflected in the armors visor as he leapt, spinning past yet another blast. His left rear hoof connected against the top of the helmet which caused a terrible ringing thud as it was forced to turn some by the impact, then the other hoof smashed straight into the visor with such force it shattered. It went straight through, striking square on the occupants eye with such tremendous impact it caused the heavy armored pony to scream from within as he tumbled over the edge of the roof. The quick earth pony fell on his back wheezing in pain, muscles cramping. It was almost too much to bear. No. He could not stop yet. Not yet.

"Darn it all! I didn't want to kill him... Move!" He ordered himself and painfully stood, peering over the edge as he wheezed.

"What? He's gone!" It was not possible. Surely a fall six stories straight down would have killed even the toughest pony. Despite the armor, if he did not die there was no way he could still move after that. Everything was wrong with this situation and it was only getting worse. Pain. Pain. Pain. Lungs hurting and burning so badly he could barely breathe made it so hard to think or move.

"Calm down. Think about it later, there's another one to deal with still. Oh, this hurts so much!" Grunting through labored breaths he forced himself to move back towards the door, being near the edge of the roof was too exposed. Wheezing in pain from the exertion and needing to move immediately like this was rapidly taking a serious toll on his body. It was far too soon to be doing anything even remotely like this. Fighting through the pain he slipped back down the stairs. Somewhere the other one was waiting to fire at him. He just knew it. Judging by how far away it was when he ran in here the other one could not have reached the building yet. This gave only a moment or two to work out some kind of plan.

The pain was so intense and getting worse with every movement. Being found like this was truly terrible luck.

"Have to think fast. What's my next move?" There was nothing really useful around here. The area was known well enough, but there were many semi-destroyed buildings around here yet to be explored thanks to an abundance of caution even his master heeded. Hiding behind things was only a good way to slow whoever these guys were down. Literally any cover would quickly be melted away.

"I cannot do that again, it would kill me. I have to get out of he.. aaah!" As if in reaction to his statement he was sent almost doubling and nearly falling downstairs clutching at his heart for a second with his left foreleg folded up against him at a serious stabbing pain radiating out from it. Trying to ignore this he moved down to the bottom floor. There was absolutely no time to wait or else wind up pinned in here. Slipping outside through the door the injured pony darted around the corner as quickly as he could just as another blast flung by. That one was much too close. So close in fact the end of one of his fetlocks caught on fire which was hurriedly put out. Any closer and it would have struck directly.

How far away could these guys fire from? Was there any limit? Did they ever run out?

"I knew it." He huffed. Almost stumbling he looked across to find more cover. A pile of old jagged pipes and broken bricks lay strewn around the area. Not much to hide behind there. A remaining piece of an ancient skycart lay across the other street. He didn't actually know what it was. It was the most substantial thing within reach in this condition. Knowing he could only move in short bursts or risk killing himself for them left no choice. His attackers would not be aware of this though, something he definitely did not want them to realize.

"Move. Move, hurt later." Willing himself to rush across at a sprint. No shots, they must be repositioning again. Why did they keep doing that? This might give the barest moment to plan the next move. He could not fight now. The only option was to get away from this onslaught against him. Why were they so bent on killing him anyway? Could they really be more of Boss' group? They seemed nothing similar to the thugs from before. These ponies were brutal but efficient, coldly calculating in their actions. It was necessary to do the same if there was to be any chance of surviving this. He must survive this or never find out what it was all about. That fact was driving. Painfully so.

"Blast it, why are they doing this?" A painful twinge as another mild bolt of pain shot from his heart. Unable to wait longer he ran towards an old half-destroyed goods warehouse which no longer held anything of value, but should provide ample opportunity to find cover. Here they come. More of the constant stream of green sizzling orbs shooting from somewhere. He'd seen guns before, and knew that they needed to be loaded. Where did they get so much ammo for something like this? Whoever they were, they excelled at obscuring their position. Much like himself. Not quite as good. At this range he was able to avoid them more easily as he made his way into the dilapidated structure.

It was a relatively large building in the past. Now, as many things it was just another large pile of sharp metal pieces and debris. Whatever was housed within was reduced to dust by whatever portion of a withering blast had swept through, causing much of the roof to collapse and the rear-facing wall to totally disintegrate. If anypony were in here they would have been atomized in an instant back then. He knew nothing of these things, only that he must keep moving away from the crazy ponies trying to end his life. Finding himself slowing down he realized he must do something to draw their attention away from him and gain some time to flee.

There must be something, anything here that could be used as a distraction. Nothing obvious. These ponies were taking potshots at him from as much distance as they could. They were out there, somewhere. At least judging from the one he'd seen covered in armor they looked like ponies.

"Gosh, they learn fast. Better come up with something. Think. I Have to think." He pushed himself hard to come up with anything. For now, all that could be done was to keep moving so that they also would have to keep repositioning to shoot at him. A dangerous thought came to mind. Moving to a window frame he poked his head up and yelled as loudly as possible.

It was time to play a dangerous game.

"Is that all you've got!? Quit boring me!" This could easily backfire, but there was little time or choice. A desperate action, trying to goad them into making some kind of mistake. Another shot flung past his head through the window, they really were good shots. Too good. The only thing which really saved him so far was his sheer speed and luck in finding cover. He could not possibly keep this up for much longer, it already hurt so incredibly badly. His leadenly pounding heart could not take much more of this. The firing stopped and things fell silent for an instant. Now what?

A far off clicking sound barely caught his ears followed by a whooshing noise. Almost not registering his own action he bolted behind the partial remains of a still standing thick pillar just as a strange long projectile shot through the empty window to smash into what was left of the opposing side to stick there. A quiet rapid beeping noise was heard coming from it. This could not be good. He did not know what this thing did but it was certainly a weapon of some sort. The only action to take was to get away from it. Leaping once more away from the pillar the device exploded sending chunks of cement and smoke everywhere.

Lucky once again to have found something to land behind he'd nevertheless been struck by numerous small sharp pieces, each cutting deep. Bleeding and panting heavily from the pain and exertion he knew this would be his only chance. Summoning all his will through the pain he ran off in the smoke. These ponies were utterly ruthless, he must get away now or die. Slipping as quickly through the smoke as he dared it seemed this gamble may be paying off, though at some cost to himself. Hurting was better than dead. Once clear of the smoke he quickly headed down another familiar street once more. This familiarity was likely all which saved him now. He managed to elude them again for the moment.

Now he was twitching in pain so intense it panged and jolted to move. Only once before in his entire life had he ever experienced pain anywhere near this bad.

"What do these guys want with me? Why are they trying so hard? Ahh..the pain is so much, master." His heart was hurting again and fluttering agonizingly off and on. If it was not possible to stop running and find safe shelter once more very soon he would die anyway. It seemed safe for the moment at least. Having to push so hard was nearly killing him. Now, he was injured in multiple places, one hit on his left flank just above his mark was bleeding more than the rest and even his neck.

This particular injury was by far the most serious. At least externally. Despite the knock to his head, that was only a glancing blow. If he kept rushing about like this with such a serious wound it would surely be exacerbated dangerously. Huffing terribly now the pain throughout his body was nearly overwhelming, the shock of it all almost resulting in losing consciousness. Vision starting to cloud he shook his head. Got to keep moving. Just a little more. Just a little.

"No, no. I Can't rest here." Fortunately luck seemed to be favoring today as he finally reached a hiding spot he'd picked out long ago in a little hole in the ground behind what was once a convenience store.

He did not know what it was, only that it was a small underground room beneath the collapsed structure. Most of it was inaccessible but he could easily hide undetected down here for a very long time if necessary. He would have to wait at least until nightfall to try moving again. Food and water would have to wait. It was far more important to rest now. Without stopping to rest his heart would surely give out. At last, at long last, no more running. Now he was a ball of agony.

"That was too close. One more push might have killed me. Master, what should I do?" Laying on his uninjured side he quickly succumbed to the sweet surrender of sleep.

A shadowy figure peered out at him, eyes glinting somewhere in the dark. Three hours later as his eyes fluttered open a hefty groan left his throat. Was that an odd dream? It felt wrong for a dream. It still hurt all over, everywhere. Everything ached, leaving him aquiver. Overexerted beyond critically. Surely there was no more painful a state to be in than this?

"This is not good. I still have not recovered from all that. It was too much." At least the bleeding seemed to be a little less. Utmost caution would be required to make it home now. No more mistakes. It could not be afforded, nor to lead them there. Any action taken now must be with complete confidence there was no following or being seen.

Somehow earlier they'd come after him a second time, finding him with ease. There could be no repeat of that or it would easily result in being finished off. Home, such a deep need to reach home soon. These injuries demanded proper attention and care. There was nopony to rely on now but himself. That realization hurt.

"So, a game of hide and seek is it? Well, we shall see about that. Bet I'm better at it." He mumbled. Unsteadily rising to his hooves the pain was found to be still quite sharp. He steadied himself. Some risk would have to be taken to move about. It was necessary to minimize exposure to open ground or streets.

Stepping up into the street once more to take a cautious look around revealed nothing just as before, and could be just as misleading. It was darker outside now, making it less likely for him to be spotted. Still, whoever these ponies were, they were no amateurs. Somehow one survived a solid blow, and what should surely have been a fatal fall from a great height. The other was extremely cautious. They both wielded strange weapons of devastating power with seemingly callous abandon. How did they obtain so much firepower? Right now he could not hope to face it again and survive. Keeping to the deep shadows that night granted was the only way to remain undetected.

It was slow going slipping from one dark corner to the next, always thoroughly looking at all possible angles before daring to move again. They did not seem to be around. Could they finally have given up on him? It did not seem likely, they'd invested a whole lot into attacking him so far. It would be much too nice if they did. One might at least hope. Trusting to hope in this situation would be naive and invite further disaster to come knocking. No more mistakes.

"No, they are out there somewhere. Waiting for me to make a mistake. They are both too deep into this to simply give up. I will not make it so easy for them. You want me? Come and get me, if you can." He spoke bravely.

One thing his master taught was that fear should never overtake you. It was to be your ally, not your enemy. Something which should keep you from making mistakes, not from making decisions and taking action. Truly believing in his masters teachings gave great confidence. This time the darkness was his friend, allowing him to move about unimpeded. On the slightest chance he was being followed he took a winding route towards home. It might be slower, but it was well worth eluding the two hunting him. Badly in need of food and water was making this even more difficult and wearing. Going slow was not just a choice, but a necessity.

Moving quickly would likely reopen his wounds, some of which were close to being truly grievous. Two hours later the night granted his reprieve for now. Slipping between the two toppled buildings surrounding his home let him sigh in relief. They had not found him this time. Entering the humble abode deep within the old ruins brought memories to mind. Time spent training with his master in this courtyard, the things he taught, the thoughts he conveyed. Bringing tears to his eyes he entered the rundown abode. Water was the first priority. He wasn't sure exactly how long he was a prisoner, but by now at least a couple of days passed since he last drank anything. The rack of ancient water bottles was fairly filled with them.

Oftentimes it was not as his master would give them out to defuse tense situations when rarely meeting others, saying it was the right thing to do even if it left them without. He drank plenty. Time to rest. Food was a much different matter. One does not need nearly as much food as water, but it is still a necessity of life. There is very little to go around in the wastes. It drives living things to the madness of starvation and desperate action. A burning empty stomach leaves little room to think. Fortunately his master was as adept at scavenging as he was at fighting. Things most others would simply discard found real use in his capable hooves. With nothing whatsoever wasted, they were not left wanting.

It was not a good feeling eating what was contained in those horrible packages from long ago, but you did not starve. When you did find one you knew it could keep you going for a week, if not more. They were very filling, cleverly packed with all sorts of nutrients, minerals, and vitamins which somehow kept. The taste was always awful. He knew nothing of this either, only that they were edible and for whatever reason would keep one going for a long time. Ponies from before the war knew so much. There were plenty of these varied packages here, even more so than the water. They were never appetizing. So weary he could hardly remain standing he strode into a very familiar room.

He nibbled at a partially emptied packet forlornly and did what could be done for his wounds before climbing into a comfortable cot his master procured from somewhere during one of their jaunts into the surrounding ruins. At last he could rest properly a while. He'd spent much of his youth here, listening to his masters teachings. Finally able to take some time to think he found himself crying. He was truly alone now. Rubbing the area of his heart the extremes of exhaustion quickly left him asleep. When he awoke many hours later his heart still ached dully.

He would have to be extra cautious for some time not to overexert himself, though he was in unusually good condition there were still limits to what his body could endure. With no choice he'd been pushed much too far and would be paying the price of this overexertion for a while. No one should be able to find him here at least. The entrance was nearly invisible. He did not imagine there was a more well-hidden spot in the whole of the Manehattan ruins. Far off from this location there was a small settlement, but they had little to do with them. Other ponies were generally untrustworthy or simply very badly off.

Groups of them usually meant they were either family, had known each other for a long time and merely stayed together through familiarity, or raiders. Raiders and slavers did not usually venture into the city and were relatively unknown here, there were easier places to capture the unwary. Dealing with Boss and his minions would have to wait. Boss seemed nearly psychotic from what little he'd seen of him. Why would so many ponies follow his orders? He was only one pony, could he really be so threatening and powerful? Whatever the case, fighting against him without help would be impossible. There were just too many of them to take on alone.

If the two he encountered earlier were any indication they were also willing to go to unimaginable extremes for some reason. Employing extremely powerful weapons without care like the two from earlier seemed like terrific overkill. There was also the matter of why they wanted him dead badly enough to use such things. Why did they bother attacking him or his master at all? It defied reason. An excess of caution would be needed. He never did have any companions, both chose to live solitary lives away from other ponies. Sometimes it was lonely, but his master meant the world to him and his company was enough. It was just easier that way. They were free to do as they pleased and owed nothing to anyone.

Perhaps this choice was a mistake, as much as he liked this self-imposed solitude it now meant there was no one for him to turn to for help. He knew there were griffons and even the occasional pony that could be hired to fight, but that would be very costly. All he truly cared about at this moment was finding a way to strike at Boss for what he'd done to them. Something struck him then, he'd seen some of the thugs several weeks before from a distance. They seemed to be looking intensely for something at the time. After a few hours they left, not having found whatever they were after. At the time it did not seem important. Just an oddity.

If only he'd recalled that earlier he could have questioned the injured thug about it, he'd been too exhausted and disturbed at his masters death. It was too late now, they would surely have long since reported back to Boss and having seen what he was capable of it would be surprising if they weren't severely punished for failing. He thought about trying to pick one of them off once more to gather information, but they would likely be on guard now that they knew something about how well he could fight and elude them. There were also those two possibly still out looking for him, they were a dangerous duo that were clearly very used to working together. After all, they nearly managed to kill him by themselves.

More than that there was absolutely no doubt the one who fell should have died, how did he survive such a tumble?

"The pain..no, it's nothing. This is nothing." He rubbed his chest gently, it was barely possible to move without hurting. There was not much to be done for now, he could only manage to move enough to get a drink and slip back into his cot. It rocked gently side to side as he stared at the ancient cracked ceiling. A broken window to his left let in what little light there was. All that took far more out of him than he thought. At this rate it would take days to recover. There was nothing for it. His master taught him all that he knew about speeding healing along, but he was not here to help anymore.

There was one healing potion they'd discovered and kept in case of an emergency, it was so tempting to take it now. No, it was not the time. It was something he should only take if there was truly dire need. He'd been injured much worse once before and managed without it. He would be okay this time as well. He thought back to all the time spent under his masters watchful eye in training. When he first started learning how to fight, how to scavenge, how to survive. It was a rough time. It was always a rough time. It didn't matter, because his master was always there to guide and encourage. Now he was gone forever for no apparent reason. Now that there was time to think, tears welled in his eyes.

Many ponies over the years felt the empty despair and pain of living in the remains of the world. Now it was his turn to feel that burning pain inside, something he'd never truly felt before. He didn't remember his parents or anything else from before the life he was now accustomed to. The only thing he remembered from the time was being so very alone and scared, and then his master was there. He'd saved his life then, and for all his skill he could do nothing to save him in return when it mattered most. It hurt so much. Far more than anything else he'd ever felt. Still crying while falling into a fitful sleep once more left him quivering in the cot.

His dreams were a random haze of bad feelings and fear, almost happy memories painfully tinged now. His master looked on as he trained.

"I can't do it!" He moaned as he failed once again to perform the most intense maneuver he was yet taught. Soaked in sweat and huffing he spun into a whirling kick only to miss the wooden target post and fall flat on his side painfully yet again, he groaned. It hurt. And again. It hurt worse every time. Why couldn't he do this? Over and over he tried only to fail time and time again. Pained and frustrated he continued to try over and over, he did not want to fail his master.

Finally, tears flowed as he looked over. He felt so disappointed in himself, he'd been so sure he could do this by now. He'd been so confident he could finally manage it. Today was supposed to be the day.

"I'm sorry..I...I can't. Why can't I do it? I've watched you do this move a hundred times..I..." He huffed and felt terribly embarrassed. He kicked the ground in frustration. His master ruffled his mane and smiled broadly at him. What? He spoke in a gentle soothing tone.

"Of course you can't." His tears stung, why would his master say something so hurtful? He spoke again.

"You are young and strong. You learn everything I teach so quickly. The reason you cannot do this is because you are trying to do as well as me, instead of as well as you." What was that supposed to mean? He left him standing there, puzzling over what was said for more than an hour before suddenly calling his master back outside. There he stood in the old somewhat slanted doorway looking out at his student with a gleam of expectation in his eyes. As he watched, his student launched himself at incredible speed towards the wooden post and into a spinning kick which made it shatter into halves as it connected, going straight through to land in a cartwheel and slid to a stop on all fours.

He was always rather fast, but it was at this moment he realized just how much he really loved moving that way.

"One more thing." His master was smiling widely and pointing at his flank. What? He looked back to see he'd earned his mark. Two crossed lightning bolts now adorned both flanks. They were perfect for him. A symbol of his passion, of his soul. Lightning was a rare thing, like himself. It was one of best moments of his life. In a world where joyful moments were rare, it stood out. A moment he'd got to share. After heading inside he found himself being congratulated on having learned nearly everything about close quarters fighting there was to know. There was only one more thing to learn, but that was for later.

For some reason after this his master chose to have a much different and very much unexpected sort of conversation with him. Of all things he chose to tell him a few things about mares, and even a few about stallions if he should ever find himself having leanings towards a relationship with either, or with both perhaps. Why did he choose this time to have such a talk? Such things were mentioned quite briefly before a few times while he was growing up, but never with real gravity or the sincerity which comes with a serious conversation. Perhaps he just couldn't think of a better time to bring it up? Maybe he simply thought it best to get it out of the way now.

Whatever the case, it was a heartfelt and warm conversation about love and romance, and the different things it could mean. It was an awkward feeling conversing with him about these things. The things being explained. The difference between the sort of love he felt for his master and he for him, and what it meant for a relationship with another if he should ever choose to pursue something of that nature. Having been told one could be smitten with such a thing at any time was a little concerning. There was also the fact that it could be a false thing as well, leading to a different sort of pain. He'd never thought about it much before that moment, but he was glad they'd talked like this.

Since that time he'd never encountered anypony that he felt like trying to strike up such a thing with. The dream took on a wavy appearance as something formless seeming to take strides out of the very shadows reached around his master and pulled him into them, away from him, gone forever. This thief was taking him away. Bring him back. Come back.

"No, come back. You can't have him!" He yelled and jumped at the thing as they both disappeared into the dark. He pounded on the wall futilely until his hooves hurt. They were gone. Helpless to do anything about it the formerly happy feeling dream now somehow made him turn towards some faceless horror in the dark like he was being pulled towards it by some invisible grip, hauling him into the shadows.

His eyes popped open as he found himself breathing quite hard and covered in sweat. What was with that dream? Everything still hurt dully and would for quite some time yet. Every so often he needed to stretch his limbs and move about a little bit to prevent his muscles from seizing and cramping, it was painful. At least he was still alive. If he'd been pushed even the slightest bit further his body would have surely given out. His thoughts bounced between sadness , anger, and loss. Who was the one they called Boss, what did he want and why was he so terribly cruel? His imaginings flitting between these things made it very difficult to rest properly. Hurting as he was the time felt to be passing very slowly. So slowly.

Waiting to heal properly felt like an eternity. It was necessary. It was so slow.

"This is unbearable. I need to go after Boss, make him talk and.." Really, then what? He'd already killed the ones that murdered his master when they were ordered to. Was he really ready to go kill another one? He felt so badly already. Maybe it would be a mistake to go after him as well. What if they were really just following orders because they had no choice like that other one said?

"No, the ponies I took out clearly enjoyed killing." He muttered and twitched in the cot, sending it rocking softly.

The cot itself was a gift his master generously gave him when it was discovered. Whoever made it must have been incredibly skilled as it still nearly felt like something new. That it did not crumble to dust like so many other things spoke to their capability. The old ponies really did know things.

"Whoever you were, you did fine work. Thank you." He once again cautiously stepped off to get a drink. Normally he would not need so much water, but being injured this badly was taking a lot out of him and tough to get through. Days passed in this fashion and felt like they were going so horribly slowly until he was finally able to move about without feeling like he was endangering himself. It still hurt a bit.

"I have to be patient. I will have to wait to go after Boss, just a little longer." He looked at the old crumbling building he called home. It did not feel like home any longer. His master was gone forever. Now, this was just another ruin amongst many. It felt so empty now. Lifeless.

"A few more days, then I'm coming after you. Do you feel my anger?" Grumbling, he decided to pack up most of the food and water. He also packed what caps and bits they'd collected over the years. This was not truly home any longer. It would likely take some time to find a way to reach this dangerous pony.

Boss clearly held great sway over some powerful ponies. Why did they follow him? He did not seem the sort one would readily associate with. There was no hurry as he packed what he could into a pair of saddle packs they scrounged up together what felt like ages ago. They were quite worn, but sturdy enough. It would only be a little heavy for him. The warmth his master brought to this simple ruin was gone. It was just another hollow and empty place now. He really could not stay here much longer, it just added to his pain. As the time passed he could not help but think of all the things they'd done together. Scavenging for supplies was just how things were.

They shared everything, and he was always being encouraged. He knew many other ponies were not so lucky as he'd been. Many were on their own or forced to rely upon shaky alliances with those just as likely to honor such alliances as to turn upon one another. Actual friendships were a rare thing in the wastes. This was abundantly clear. Even the few trade caravans they ever dealt with never truly felt friendly, just more tolerable. As he thought about these things he realized that none of the traders had passed by since Boss' minions started looking for whatever it was they were seeking. If only he'd remembered seeing them before and to question that thug about it, but he was in such pain then and so angry.

It would not be possible to do what he was planning alone. He'd heard of mercenaries operating far off outside the city that could be hired, but they would be very expensive. Hiring them should be a last resort. He did know a few ponies here and there, but they were not to be trusted fully either. It was a sad state of affairs, but this was the tattered world they'd been left. Like most, he'd heard of the great war that culminated in the destruction of nearly everything. How did they ever let it come to that? Gazing out into the hidden courtyard he could only imagine what it must have been like when it was new. He would likely not be returning here once he left. Perhaps. It hurt. Everything hurt. Why did life have to be this way?

What would it have been like if the war never happened? Would all this still be standing, safe, happy and bright? A place where one would be proud to live, surrounded by familiar friendly faces? He could not really imagine what that would be like. That was something he would never experience. The idea was nice, but it was impossible. All that was left were damaged slowly falling ruins succumbing more and more to age. That anything was left standing at all was a marvel in itself. The structures in the city were built to last. He didn't know this sturdy construction was a byproduct of the war itself, and almost the sole reason anything was left standing at all. How did ponies live back then?

All he knew was scavenging, and he was very good at it. What did they do? There was so much stuff laying around he didn't know the use of, what it was for or anything else about. Some things were obvious, the intended purpose of a mattress or a cupboard was clear, but there were so many other things. Objects related to fun and games were very uncommon and the purpose was easily lost or twisted. He had no idea of the purpose of a bowling ball happened across once, or what an iron was used for or a golf club, he didn't even know the names of those things. Some of it left him quite baffled.

An industrial park in one section of the area always held his interest, all those old ruined machines sitting there in silence. What were they for? The sheer size of some of the remaining rusted machines was impressive. There were not many that could tell him what they did or how they worked. Clearly the ponies of the past knew a great deal, yet they still fell. They were so powerful and knew so much, how could they have let the world become like this? For the most part life now was just bland, weary and joyless. Was it ever better than this? He'd been happy enough just to have somepony nice to live with, and a place to call home at all.

He did wonder sometimes what his parents were like or what happened to them that left him alone. He imagined that perhaps not being able to remember them at all was a good thing. He could not truly miss what he could not remember in any way. The few days before he left the only home he'd ever known passed by quietly and sluggishly. It would be too dangerous to keep returning here once he left, it was just a little too close to where he'd been held captive. He would have to find someplace else far away from here, but where could he call home now? It all felt so surreal. He did not know this word, only the feeling. It was just a bad dream, he would wake up soon right? It did not happen. It was true.

Finally, it was time to go. He slipped the heavy packs over his back and walked out into the night. It would be best to move around in the dark on the off chance the ponies with the excessive firepower could still be somewhere out there. It was quiet and dim as it always was at night. Having to leave these surroundings he was so accustomed to hurt in its own way. Almost all of the busted up streets in this area, back alleys and walkways he knew at least a little. Places to avoid, places where things could still be found. This was more jarring than expected. This region was all he knew, now he would have to leave it. His master told him of radiation and how dangerous it could be.

Neither knew what it really was, but the lethality of it and the threat it could pose was obvious enough. They even at some point found an old magically charged radiation detection badge which began to change color if you were getting too close to a source. It still worked. With it they'd determined all the most dangerous spots in the immediate and surrounding area. He'd made sure to bring that, as he was heading towards places he did not know well or at all it would certainly prove useful. The last thing packed was the one healing potion they possessed. It still looked potent. Trudging quietly through the darkness amongst the empty ruins was a lonely endeavor.

Once sufficiently far enough away to feel at ease he picked up the pace somewhat. Boss and his underlings did not seem intent on leaving this area anytime soon. He hoped whatever they were looking for would keep them busy long enough for him to figure out his next move.

"Whatever it is must be fairly important to him to have so many looking for it, but what could possibly be so valuable around here? There's nothing special." He wondered. There was so little. The rad detector badge was worn by a strap around a foreleg and very prominent against his blue coat. A pre-war pony might have mistaken him for a medic.

It was going to be a very long walk to the nearest point where any pony he barely knew was, would it be of any use to go to them? Maybe they could at least give him some information. He would be passing by there anyway if he decided to head towards the merc camp so he might as well ask. He'd been careful not to make much sound as he weaved his way out of the furthest north section. He passed by an ancient faded metal sign attached to the remnants of a wall along one street saying 'Try Whickers candy bars, the most nuts ever!' He almost found himself laughing at the strange sign. What did that even mean? His master also taught him to read, but never revealed who taught him how to do so.

About that sort of thing he always seemed rather secretive. Did he even have parents? It didn't really matter. It wasn't worth prying. Forlornly walking for the next numb hours before taking a break he just sort of got into the rhythm of his own hooves clacking on the ground and what pavement there was. Almost without realizing it he'd slowly traveled onwards for almost the entire day. As it began to grow darker once more he found himself reveling in all the good memories he'd shared with his master. His life with him was far from easy, but it was good. He would have to find an out of the way spot to rest for the night. This was nearly beyond as far as he'd ever dared travel before.

Another day would take him outside of anywhere he knew. This city was truly immense in its day. The ruins were certainly strung out over very long areas. Even back then motorized ground vehicles were not all that common. Usually relying on pegasi or trains to move goods or other ponies over very long distances. Highly automated machines both for ground and air use were only just beginning to gain some public trust a short time before the war ended. He didn't know any of this, only the sheer scale of the rest of the city now before him. To him the city was gigantic. He found a little nook to rest in out of sight. He was still a little sore, but just couldn't have stayed where he was any longer.

Everywhere he looked there only served to remind of what was now gone. Maybe this long jaunt would ease his mind, there was a necessity of thinking clearly for this. At the very least he desired to confront Boss and demand an answer to why he did it. He was unable to stop feeling both sad and angry alternately.

"I am not a violent pony. I'm not. I can't believe I even did what I did, but was it really a mistake? They were terrible, and enjoyed it. Surely it cannot have been wrong to stop them from doing that to anypony else ever again?" He did not feel very good since that moment. Why did it feel like this? He knew killing was not something to relish.

He'd taken others lives, even if they were murderers. That is what was bothering him. Five ponies were dead because of his own blind anger in retaliation. They may have been truly evil, maybe they even deserved it. Did he have the right to finish them off as he had? He'd tried not not to think about it for all this time, but now it weighed heavily on his heart. He was a little shaky as he sat, taking little nibbles from a small packet and small sips from one of the water bottles.

"I don't think I regret it. They killed him. They were ordered to do it and didn't even question it, they just did it. They deserved to die, didn't they?" This conflicted himself so much he was left crying profusely.

This was not something he ever imagined himself doing before, taking other ponies lives. He wound up choking on his food. After this he spent a good deal of time trying to get himself together. It wasn't right and it was not fair. Few things in the world now were, but they did something so terribly wrong and he'd made them suffer for it. This was just balance wasn't it? What was truly right here? He was so drained and tired of it all he just lay there limply until sleep finally took him. Thankfully there were no dreams of anything that night. At the first sight of the sky beginning that ever so slight transition into what was still called daytime he awoke. He wore a blank expression as he awoke.

Although he'd cried in pain before he'd never really experienced such terrible emptiness and sadness over loss. It just kept hurting inside and it wouldn't go away. Why, why did they have to take his kind of alright life away from him? It wasn't much, but it was enough. Getting up to stretch and take a drink he allowed himself a moment before heading on. He did not know the rest of the region very well and it stretched on for a very long way. Although he was one to explore it was always with caution, and never too far without his master. This spot was barely known, soon he would be venturing beyond anywhere he'd ever been. It was a bit exciting in some way. It also incited nervousness.

Past this point would require paying careful attention to the badge upon his leg. Familiar surroundings were now behind. At the slightest hint of it changing color he would have to back off and change directions. Dropping dead from something invisible was not a way he desired to go. Although he'd never seen it the description of dying that way was beyond horrifying to him. While thinking of these things he'd come to the realization that he really was not afraid of dying, only of it happening in some manner he couldn't see coming. At the very least he wanted to face that directly whenever it did someday happen to him.

It was a slight solace to him that his master at least saw what was coming as he felt the same way. Still, the sheer unfairness of it was burned into his mind. This was a kind of pain he could never have been prepared for. The sadness washed over him in waves at random times and it bothered him so much that he could not control this. For a while he would feel alright and then it would hit him again like running into a solid wall. Tears came and went. Would they ever stop? It did not feel like they would no matter what. Were tears endless?

"I just want him back, but that can never be." Gulping down water he decided it was time to get going.

This would be a very long trip. Thinking it should be safe enough to travel freely now he still took the time to survey his surroundings before continuing. Some ways away was what once was a river. There was hardly any water in it, it did not flow any longer and was probably unsafe to drink from. Fortunately he brought plenty. For some reason he still felt somewhat unsafe. It was a senseless feeling really, there couldn't possibly be any danger here at the moment. Something still felt wrong. Though the city was mostly abandoned, there were generally ponies somewhere to run across, especially in this direction. He'd found none in his slow trek so far. This was not really that odd and didn't warrant this feeling.

Reluctantly he left the packs hidden in the nook nestled between some small ruins for the moment and headed nearer the river. How could it be dangerous here? His senses were telling him it was. His ears pricked and swiveled. There was nothing. A terrible sense of foreboding settled over him. Sneaking a peak over a small rise revealed nothing other than an ancient bent street sign indicating he was near some road which used to be called 'Fetlock Avenue'. The river to the side was just barely still full enough to cover a pony he thought. It was stagnant, dirty. He gazed into the dark water, and something underneath gazed back with enormous alien eyes.

"What!?" He yelped, rolling to the side as a figure he could not really see underneath leapt out of the water at him. It was huge. He knew what it was, but couldn't believe it. A frog, but it was of such size it defied description. He jumped behind a small rock along the bank which barely offered any cover just as the creatures large tongue shot out, shattering it on impact and reducing it to powder. He absolutely could not get struck by that or be killed instantly. No wonder there were no ponies at all in this immediate area, this thing had likely ambushed any that were. At this distance running was out of the question, it would only serve to get him hit.

The only choice here was to get in close and hammer on it with everything he had. He sprinted past the thing and knocked it on side of the head in passing. If he made even the slightest mistake right now its sheer weight would be enough to finish him. He danced around behind it as it turned, smashing his forehooves into the back of the neck or what he thought would be a close approximation. This did nearly nothing. Bad. Very bad. It was squishy and far softer than expected, making it difficult to inflict real damage. The enormous frog was practically absorbing all the kicks and jabs at it. This was not good, though it was beginning to bleed in places. At least it kind of looked like blood.

Knowing nothing of this sort of thing he could only keep bouncing about trying to stay behind it and hitting it over and over. This was taking forever, but he did not want to resort to anything more powerful. Attacking it from in front would be too risky. He prevented it from jumping away once or twice by following its movements as fast as he could and dashing to where it landed, continuing to pummel it. Anything more might be too much so soon after recovering from last time. He could probably make short work of it, but those sort of moves always carried some amount of risk. Only if he needed to. He managed to smash one of the creatures hind legs right at the base, rendering it useless. Then the other.

Finally, after bashing it about the head for several more minutes it finally fell forward and lay there twitching. Panting heavily he moved a short distance away and sat back against an underpass, staring at the gigantic thing. Where did it come from? There was never anything like this around here he knew of, and nopony they'd ever spoken to mentioned such a thing. He only knew it was a frog because knowledge of such things existence was not entirely forgotten. This was vastly larger than his master ever spoke of. What was going on around here? Could this thing have anything to do with Boss? That didn't seem likely, but he could rule nothing out for the moment.

"Wait, what's that sound?" There was a slow beeping emanating from the body of the creature which sounded somehow familiar.

"No!" Flinging himself into the underpass just in time as the body was enveloped in a strange greenish glow and exploded sending chunks of glowing flesh everywhere. One large piece landed just beside him and melted away. What happened?

"Uck. Was that the same weapon from before? It might have been something similar. I have to keep my guard up." All the pieces were incinerating. This was crazy.

This was not the end of his problems though as he heard a strange wheezing sound approaching from somewhere else.

"Oh, what now?" At first he thought perhaps one of the few locals actually did escape the strangely large creature and was coming to investigate the commotion. This thought quickly evaporated as a mumbling purple-coated mare approached his position. She hadn't spotted him yet in the dim light. He watched in concern from behind the edge of the underpass remains that just barely concealed him.

Where her cutie mark should be were deep gouged scratch wounds that looked like they should have healed long ago. What was more concerning was that a quarter of her skull and one eye seemed to have been replaced with a steel plate which held several wires and tubes hanging off which went running into the base of her neck, the eye glowed a strange orange color. Even more disturbing than this was what she was saying as she examined the remains of the frog. What was she saying?

"Signal lost. Subject deceased. Terminate area residents..help me. Seek and destroy all living entities in vicinity..no stop it. Movement order confirmed." Her movements were weirdly erratic like her balance was impaired somehow.

She walked about the area continuing to speak and act strangely. The wheezing was disconcerting him so much. She would see him any second now. Not another fight.

"Search concluded. Eliminate target..make it stop." She lurched towards him. What should he do now? He stepped into the open, preparing to fight this odd apparition of a pony. She halted and quivered heavily. What? Her eyes twitched about oddly and disturbingly. For a moment it seemed as if she might not attack him, but just as this thought crossed his mind she launched herself at him surprisingly fast.

"Run away. Run away!" Her voice was warbling and distorted sounding. Run away? What in the world? She stumbled towards him and he deflected a blow from her forehooves as she reared and stamped down hard, causing him to stumble back some. As an earth pony he was very strong, but she was so fast and ridiculously strong even compared to that, at least twice as strong as he was judging by that attack. If he was not in as good condition as he was that single move could easily have caused serious injury or worse. This was terribly dangerous.

"Lady, what is going on here!?" He questioned as he dodged her leaping straight at him.

Something was even more odd about this. Her moves were fluid and unusually skilled, but just kept barely missing their mark almost like she was trying not to hit him. She was also..crying? She threw herself at him repeatedly. The fight was dragging on forever and going nowhere. Why wouldn't she stop? This time as he dodged she rammed into a jagged hard ledge of the underpass, cutting a large groove diagonally across her chest. Despite this she continued to fight as if the deep gash inflicted no pain at all. She struck at him violently again and again.

"I don't know who you are, but I do not want to fight you like this. Stop. You're hurt! Please, stop?" He yelled as they crossed glancing blows over and again. This ceaseless exchange of blows was not getting them anywhere whatsoever. He did detect a slight change in her speed, was she slowing down almost imperceptibly? She continued to hammer at him in almost a rhythm. He finally found a real opening as she really was beginning to slow. There was no desire to hurt whoever this was, but she was clearly trying to kill him, or was she? He needed to take her down now if he was going to at all.

He ran at the wall of the underpass to leap and bounce off it onto her back as she approached where he leveled a wicked kick directly into the back of her head, smashing her face into the wall heavily with a clang. She collapsed onto her side with a heavy dull thud. Now he'd fought two opponents and was very near exhausted once more, leaving him gasping for breath. The fight with her went on far longer than he thought. He'd never faced an opponent with as much endurance as himself save for his master. She twitched and turned her head towards him. She should be out cold. It cannot be. She was still mumbling odd things. Her movements were jerky. Just seeing this made him feel weird.

Why was she getting up again? How could be still be conscious?

"Target must be terminated.. kill me. Destroy target..KILL ME." What? Did he hear that right? He didn't want to kill anypony at all, except perhaps Boss. He'd already had his fair share of doing that. She was already rising to her hooves unsteadily. How could she still be awake and moving? That kick shoved her head into the wall so hard it should be impossible for her to be awake, let alone getting up for more. She was injured very badly, he could tell that hard landing also cracked several ribs making her wheeze even worse. Didn't it hurt? He truly did not want to do this.

Why was this happening? Blood was trickling out of her muzzle and nostrils. It was certain he'd nearly killed her.

"Re-engaging target.. kill me. Terminate target..PLEASE?" She was begging him to kill her? What the hay was this insanity? She was preparing to attack him once more. Again they batted at each other. Wounded so seriously she shouldn't even be standing she was still giving him quite a fight. How was this possible? Blow after relentless blow was exchanged once more. No choice. Never any choice.

"Miss, please don't make me do this!?" Tears were trying to well up once more.

She clocked him across the face with a hoof. That hurt horribly badly, but it gave him the opportunity to retaliate with a heavy jab directly into her throat which finally sent her to the ground, rolling to land hard upside down. He heard a crunch as her neck snapped on landing at such an odd angle, she twitched all over disconcertingly. The orange light was fading from that eye. He wasn't given a choice in the matter. Again.

"Thank you." She wheezed as her head drooped and sparks shot off the metal plate. She lay still. She was smiling? For a moment he could not even think. It was too horrifying. He just stared.

What he just went through was awful in some indescribable way. It felt nothing like when he'd taken out the ponies who helped murder his master. He stepped up against the crumbling wall of the underpass and closed his eyes, pressing his forehead against the wall where he proceeded to bang his own head against it several times. Nearly in shock and leaning against the wall shaking, he truly could not process what just occurred. It wasn't right. It just wasn't. For several minutes he just stood there shivering, staring at everything and nothing. If anything else attacked him at this moment he would have done nothing and died for certain. This did not happen. The eerie silence that took the area was all there was.

It took ten minutes for all that just happened to truly register within his mind. There was so much death around here. He never wanted to kill, never. Especially not anypony he didn't have any real reason to. His heart was beginning to race. This place was dangerous, he should be leaving. Unsteadily he turned his head towards where she'd finally landed. It finally sunk in. It struck with tremendous force. It couldn't be real. It just couldn't.

"It's not real. It can't be real. You're not real. This isn't real, it can't be!' Tears slowly started flooding out of his eyes as he shook. Was he going insane? Nothing made any sense.

Finding himself laying on his side on the ground he stared at the poor mare for several minutes before sobbing uncontrollably. Something burst. He just couldn't help it. It felt like he couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't move. He was shuddering so much it was almost hurting. He let out a loud guttural scream. Time felt like it was standing still. Everything was just getting worse and worse. Why, why did he have to do this to her...why? It hurt in a way he could not stand. It was unbearable.

"Why!? Why..why..?" He yelled at the uncaring sky and fell to constant crying. This felt so wrong, all of this.

She was dead, whoever she was. He'd been forced to kill her. Who was she, what happened to her? Why did this have to happen? Did he just murder somepony? He felt so terribly conflicted. She asked him to kill her even while she seemed to be trying to kill him, even thanked him for it in the end. It was insane. Everything was insane, ever since Boss and his lackeys showed up. Go away. Go away. GO AWAY.

"Its all gotta be a bad dream, Its just gotta. I'm gonna wake up..I'm gonna wake up!...wake up!" His tears gushed down his face as he panted and choked up so much his heart twinged painfully. Except it was not a dream.

Everything that just happened was there telling him as much. Swallowing hard he finally caught his breath and began to calm down. His racing heart slowed to a more normal pace as he finally got hold of himself. He looked over his opponent. She'd put up an awesome fight, deserving of respect. He wiped his face and panted.

"Lady, I am sorry for whatever horrible thing happened to you. I am so sorry I had to end your life. I know you asked me to do it, but it is not fair I was forced to take it from you, I know. Please, forgive me." He couldn't just leave her like this. Did she have any friends, family?

Such things might be rare in the wastes but even as dispersed as they were ponies usually knew someone else. He could not do much, but dragged her body a little closer to the shoreline where he scrounged up enough rocks to give her a shallow grave at least. He did not get the feeling she deserved to have met her end this way. When this quest of his was over he would try to find out who she was. He owed her that.

"I won't forget you, miss. I'll try to find somepony that knew you later, I promise." Solemnly he left the shallow grave with a heavy heart. After picking up his packs he prepared to resume his long trek.

He wanted to rest after all that, but it might still not be safe here. After that he'd decided he would actually head out of the city region and seek the assistance of the griffon mercenaries far to the north. He knew they were there thanks to the trade caravans they'd occasionally dealt with, often they were the only source of information or news. It would likely cost most or all of the caps he could offer, but it was clear he was dealing with something so strange here that it was necessary. There was still such a long way to go even to leave the city limits or even just this area. After these encounters nowhere felt safe. Over and over he caught himself feeling unsure of his own actions. Somehow he'd become involved in a real mess.

Sighing deeply he began walking once more. He did not really know the safest way to go. He knew the entire city spanned a very large area. The northern section he'd lived in all his life certainly held just enough scavengable goods to last a lifetime if one was diligent and knew what to look for. Ever leaving what he knew never crossed his mind before. It would never feel like home again. As decayed and destroyed as it was, it was truly all he knew. It was familiar. It would not be very long now before passing beyond the farthest point he ever dared wander before. Hopefully the few other ponies that still lived around here did not suffer a similar fate to the rest that lived close by.

Even if they were not really friendly, they were still ponies and did not deserve such a fate. He barely knew one of them. He'd seemed tolerable at the time. Perhaps he could at least get some directions from him. One thing he did not want to do was run right into the most dangerous places in the ruins. The unexpected combat took a bit of a toll. He did not expect to go at it again so soon. It left his heart gently aching as he walked, his hooves clicking strangely dully as they contacted the ancient cracked pavement. Probably just imagination. He meandered across the old road and to the west. There was a long way to go this way first, this much he knew.

Occasionally he found himself wondering how ponies built things like some of the formerly majestic buildings which still somehow stood. An hour passed in this manner before spotting something in the distance that looked somehow off to him, causing him to halt. What could this be? He found a spot to hide away his packs once more and carefully approached the object shimmering in the distance. Keeping himself hidden from sight was something he knew well enough. The remains of some sort of battle were plain to see here. Laying on their side was a steel ranger, an unusual crest was emblazoned across the armors front. Much like the ancient machinery, he found the suit fascinating.

How did it work, what did it do? The suit itself was completely shattered. Smoke still spread into the air from a gaping hole which went right through the front on the left side of the chest and out the right side on the other. What could possibly have done something like this? What could have had this much force behind it and done such a thing? Even the strange glowing green shots fired at him over a week ago could not have punched through something so solid this easily. Could the occupant still be alive? He left the safety of cover for a brief moment to find out. The bulky suit proved to be incredibly brittle. His hoof barely touched the suit which sent it and anything within crumbling to dust.

How? This did not make sense to him. It looked so heavy and dense, yet it utterly destroyed itself when touched. Almost no trace was left as it fell to dust. That can't be good. More weird things that needed answers. They were piling up rather quickly.

"Oh, no." Furtively glancing around he could not detect any threat. This fight seemed to have ended some time ago. Whatever pony wore the armor did not stand a chance against whatever went hurtling at him. Incredible force was used against this hapless wanderer.

"Why was a steel ranger here anyway? They never bothered coming around here before." He vaguely knew what they were and to avoid them, never actually having seen one. Not here. He'd been told there was nothing interesting to them anywhere near. This was very puzzling. Everything was. It was an unpleasant puzzle.

"This makes no sense. Nothing about any of this does. What is happening around here?" He wished they'd never encountered Boss' minions. If only they never ran across them. In all the world why did they have to come here? His mind could not fathom the significance of any of this.

All it seemed to him was that pointless random violence was being committed. In the wastes this was not exactly unheard of, but why so much and to this degree? You can make nothing but enemies if you kill everypony you come across. Too much was wrong.

"There is so much dreadfully wrong here, master. I wish you were alive. I wish you were here." Wiping his eyes he quietly slipped back for his packs yet again. Whatever happened in this place, it was much too late to help anypony. A rare slight breeze blew past him. The stirring of the air in this situation felt ominous.

Caution lead to moving at a slow and steady pace ahead. At last he could see the few pieces which still existed of Freepony street. A slight curve in the road lay beside yet another ancient building. More of a ramshackle assemblage of old useless pieces of metal and whatever could be thrown together in the vague shape of a building. This was his first destination. Hopefully the pony he was looking for would be around. The thing which resembled a door looked to be rather weak. He dared knock upon it delicately a few times. There was no response. This was quite far from where he'd found the fallen ranger. Was he dead as well?

He was beginning to feel spooked and very alone in the world, more than he ever felt before. Though bereft of much goodness the world never entirely felt empty or lonely to him. He did have his master to thank for much of that. This was different.

"Hello, anypony here?" He called out meekly, feeling desperate for a response. There was no one here, just more empty silence. He realized this is what bothered him most. He'd barely heard a single sound since he set out. The world was always quiet, but it was not this quiet. Were there no ponies left alive anywhere around here? This was very worrying.

He banged on the door once more to find it slip open of its own accord. Should he venture inside? He did not want to invite more trouble, but something very bad was going on.

"Hello? If you are in there, please come out?" He waited a moment. Again there was nothing. Fearing the worst he set his packs aside the oddly shaped entranceway and stepped inside. The large single room of the place was a disaster. A shattered plate lay on the floor amidst several spent shell casings. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom he realized why.

A dead earth pony whose pale spotted coat and underside was caked with dried blood dripping from the corners of his mouth lay draped on his back against the rear wall. His muzzle was still wrapped around the firing mechanism of a small gun. Something threw him there with such terrible force his spine snapped. He did see it coming, whatever it was. A look of abject terror was fixed upon his face. This must of happened days ago. Fortunately, this was not the pony he was looking for. The horrendous sight before him triggered some terrible feeling of foreboding. At this range the shots could not possibly have missed even if the poor fellow was in a total panic when they were fired.

There was no blood aside from his own. Whatever got him must have been barring his way to the door. This was genuinely creepy. Never having seen such a sight he was once again shocked. Something just picked up a pony and threw them this hard? It would likely be best not to linger here. Such sheer wrongness hurt his head. Hastily he backed out the door. Looking around the shack revealed another shock. A decapitated mare lay strewn in several places and numerous pieces behind it. This sight made him feel terribly sick. Her head was not cleanly removed but strangely hacked off at an angle like it was removed by blunt force alone. Blood had sprayed all over the rear wall.

The head itself was entirely missing. This place was full of death. With his packs safely on once more he wandered westward. It would be a while before he would reach another road. When he finally did, it would be time to head south towards the other remnants of Manehattan. Truly realizing this was going to be a very long trip was a bit of a sting. Why was everypony around here being slaughtered in one way or another? It made as little sense as anything else lately. It was all so frightening and illogical in any way he could see. This proved some kind of threat to life could be lurking anywhere.

"This is horrifying. Could Boss really be behind all of this? I suppose he might be. He is definitely sick and twisted, but what possible purpose could any of this serve? They had nothing worth taking." He was talking out loud to himself to brace his nerves. The strange quiet still seemed to surround on all sides. Even his own hooves did not quite seem to make the audible volume they should while trotting along. How could all this not be a dream? The horror was just not ending. What happened to the pony he was looking for? That was his haphazard shack, but two other ponies he'd never seen before were brutally murdered there. Was he laying somewhere in the surrounding area as well, hurt, dead?

Feeling extra disturbed he kept walking until well out of sight of the shack. Ponies were being slaughtered left and right apparently, it left him feeling so cold. There were very bad things in the world, but something about this was just plain wrong. Off.

"I can't take it. This whole thing hurts my head. Think about something happy for a while, yeah." All that came to mind were tinged memories of time spent with his master. While they were happy memories they were always interrupted by a flash of what happened to him not so long ago.

"All the ponies in Manehattan cannot be dead, can they?" That would be ludicrous. Not even all of those thugs and whatever else could possibly have killed them all. There were not many of them, but they still equaled a fair amount in total. A few of them were very heavily armed. There were also other things in the city that should make that utterly impossible. He only needed to keep moving until breaking away from all of this, but how far did that mean? Could it mean wandering for days or longer before finding another living thing? This entire trip so far was turning out to be much more dangerous than imagined. A few hours later he finally found something to indicate where he was.

A barely recognizable sign at a sparse intersection reading only 'Treemount'. His understanding was that it should be a simple run almost straight south from here. It was still a worry though. There was no clue to what was happening, and it could not simply be assumed he would find another pony or even another living thing anytime soon. He'd traveled a fair distance today. It was time to find a safe place to rest. At least he wasn't attacked again since the craziness in the morning. Whatever destroyed the ranger wasn't around either. An ancient marred and toppled street marker further down indicated 'Freemane Street'.

There was a small squat and somehow still solid looking building with a large sign across the front stating 'MHPD Police Precinct' in tall white lettering. It was situated in front of a small hill which ringed and obscured it from view. It seemed like it might once have been important in some way. Whatever it meant was lost on him. Out the front several destroyed carts once painted solid black and equipped with solid bars across the back lay rotting in many pieces. A slight outline of something like a star could just be made out on one of the wrecks. It looked safe enough, but after previous experience he was going to take it very slowly before deciding this was a spot to rest.

Gently pushing the heavy door open he found it was made of some type of metal. Inside a desk and several broken terminals were found. One in a corner room still spilled an eery green glow across the main room. Stepping further in were found several prison cells. One contained an ancient pony skeleton. He didn't like the idea of staying near that, but needed rest badly. The interior of the building was very sparse and a little bit cooler than outside. One section of a back wall to the locked cell where the skeleton lay appeared to have been broken out of from the inside with the door still locked securely. The lock on that cell was also strangely fused along the connecting portion, there was no way to unlock it.

That was something of a concern. What could have gone right through such a solid wall, and why was it in there with them to begin with? The walls looked built to withstand serious punishment. The building itself was definitely abandoned a very long time ago. Why nopony took up residence here likely related to the fact there was really nothing else left standing for a good distance in any direction. With nowhere nearby to scavenge it would not be a good place to stay. Aside from the broken wall it was certainly secure here. Carrying large amounts back here would be too time and strength consuming.

The damage was not obvious from the outside which was probably the reason the skeleton lay undisturbed in the corner, other ponies must have come across this place at some time or another or could he really be the first to come across this? Discarding his packs behind a desk in the opposite corner he decided to return outside and head around the back to see if there might be some way into the broken cell. A heavy steel beam had fallen crossways covering the hole after whatever it was busted loose. After much wriggling and trying to find a way to slide in through the mess he just barely managed to make it within. Now it was possible to get a very close look at the skeleton.

The ponies right foreleg was clearly crushed and several of the ancient bones looked to have been broken off more than succumbed to age, were they chewed on? Close inspection in the dust revealed a small partially opened package of 9mm rounds to the side which the poor fellow must have been fumbling with, was he trying to reload some kind of weapon? There was no gun here. Perhaps it was buried in the rubble or landed outside the cell to be taken away. Scouring the area revealed nothing more. Gently prizing the pack off the ground it was chucked into the main room. It took as much effort to climb back out through the small hole as it did to get in.

Just as it was cleared a chunk of steel debris caved in absolutely sealing the hole completely, and sending dust flying which set off a coughing fit for a moment. Too close.

"Whoa, that was a little too careless of me. I could have been trapped in there. Get yourself together." He mumbled while heading back to the main door. Before returning inside one more quick look around verified there was nothing and no one here. A safe place to rest easy within. One of the cell doors hung off its hinges and finding one of the folding wall-mounted beds to still have a serviceable mattress afforded a place to sleep.

His gaze wandered to the glowing terminal across the room. He did not know what such things were for, but technology always fascinated him just like the silent machines back at the industrial park. It beckoned for a password under the statement 'We serve Lady Justice. To keep the world safe'. Lady Justice? He knew the concepts of justice, but his master never mentioned her. Who was she?

"Well, guess you couldn't do that could you?" He realized this was likely a shameful thing to say. That screen likely stayed the same way since the great war so many years ago.

A war which ended in such widespread devastation it was still recalled with fear and told of in hushed whispers if spoken of at all. No pony could ever have wanted this to happen to the world? No one could have stood up to that, it was too big. His thoughts drifted while laying on this somewhat uncomfortable bed. It was becoming difficult to relax enough for sleep.

"It is perfectly safe in here. The last pony to walk in or out of here must have done so ages ago." Trying to assure himself it was safe to close his eyes it was a harsh struggle to finally fall asleep. Eventually it took him at last.

Thankfully there were no dreams. Too much happened lately so the simple blankness of a dreamless sleep was a welcome darkness. As dawn broke he awoke feeling much better. The wall mattress things were clearly not designed with comfort in mind. This was obviously a place intended to keep prisoners so this made sense. It did leave him feeling rather stiff. Almost to the point of wondering if sleeping on the floor would have been a better choice. Likely not. Real beds were not exactly a common thing in the wastes. Even amongst the city ruins most things decayed to the point of being useless. The environment everywhere was harsh.

A few pieces of unworkable machinery and crushed rubble were generally the sum total of what was left. Where buildings still stood they were often rickety dangerous wrecks, begging to be explored before utterly collapsing. Some unexplainable feeling of sadness rose when gazing at the old ruins. This small prison withstood the tests of time admirably. Loathe to expose himself to more trauma the consideration arose to maybe spend a day just resting here. It was safe and did provide the opportunity for a good rest. After thinking about it for a while the decision was made to stay. It was necessary.

His master always told him to get the rest needed for the road ahead so you could push harder when it truly counted. Did he set out on this journey too soon? It was necessary.

"No. I waited long enough. Do what I need to do when I need to do it." He really could use the downtime. The weird frog monster, the fight with the mysterious mare, and the ponies found murdered left a feeling inside so poor it would be best not to wander further just yet. He was still a bit bruised and achy from the rough battle with her. Spending the day poking about the little building for amusement was alright, but it provided little. Nothing else was really here.

Likely some wandering pony or ponies desperate for supplies took whatever may have been left within a very long time ago. He tapped at the large keys on the terminal, they seemed designed so one could press them with hoof or muzzle easily. These flickering terminals appeared to exist all over the wastes in various styles and places. Most were broken or dead, but something still powered many of them. The ponies of the past had such great knowledge, and left just as many mysteries behind. Thinking about it he realized at some point it would be necessary to try and find out what they did with his masters body. The thought they likely just dumped it along with his head somewhere was painful.

It was not something he desired to see, but his master deserved so much better. It felt like every action taken and indeed everything which happened since encountering Boss was in a dreamlike haze. Sleep helped a little. Whatever was going on extended far beyond just him. This much was clear after the crazy things he'd been through just trying to leave the region. There was still a very long way to go. Ancient rail systems which spread throughout some areas of Manehattan in its prime would once have made such a trip relatively short work, perhaps less than a couple of hours. Walking and carrying full packs through the decrepit ruins now took far longer.

Mere happenstance allowed a few streets and buildings here and there to survive. Just more indications society and civilization was once far more advanced. Once ordered and straight, they now often ended in impassable dead ends or lead absolutely nowhere. Making ones way through the tangled mess of the city even within a confined area like this was a tough journey. The pace was slowed down a great deal by the fighting as well. Bruises and welts from the encounter still ached a little. The choice to remain here for the night was for the best. Finding it difficult to simply lay still the whole time he occasionally prodded at the old terminals keys. None of the seven letter words he could think of resulted in it unlocking.

Not really knowing, but being fascinated by such technology he could only imagine what it was supposed to do. At least imagining was a good distraction from otherwise racing thoughts.

"I wonder what these were for? They look creepy. All green and glowing like this. They're all over the place. Must have been important I guess." He mused. The building was nice inside and oddly cozy. Rarely enjoying such comfort left him dozing off a number of times. The day passed in a welcome slowness. Finally, he went back to sleep proper. There might not be a chance to relax like this again for quite some time.

During the night some distant rumbling roused him fitfully for a moment. Thinking it perhaps a simple imagining brought on by all that was going on around him lead to falling back asleep quickly. Awaking in this manner left dazed and confused dreams of the mare he'd been forced to kill. Her face contorted in pain throughout as they fought. His eyes flew open as he relived seeing her grateful smile at the end, it looked so content. So peaceful. So, happy. He was breathing very rapidly. Such a painful memory to be carried from now on, and forever. Would it always be haunting like this? The rest of his life? A lifetime is a long span to carry such a burden.

"Ohh. Miss, I am so sorry." He truly was sorry for her. Panting from it he climbed out of bed. It was morning, such as morning was now called. The same endless gloomy dark skies he'd always known. Retrieving one of the water bottles from the pack he got ready to leave the safety of the building. It already took much too long to get this far. At most it should have taken a day or two to at least reach the next section of Manehattan. As it was this was the third day out and not even half the distance was covered yet. The lay of the land was also forcing a route more towards the northwest than southwards. Fortunately, it should be a straight shot from here south. He slipped the packs on once more and started out.

Within an hour of leaving all such hopes were dashed thoroughly. It became wildly apparent he would have to find another route. Something tremendous and terrible was going on here. Across the way barring the path was an immense wall of flames erupting straight from the ground itself. It didn't seem to touch it or be fed by any kind of fuel. What was burning? The tremendous waves of heat could be felt from several meters away. It smelled strange. Burning, but not like fire burns and smells. Almost sickly somehow. The fiery wall looked like it went on for so long in both directions it blocked the entirety of what was once the Grand Pony Concourse and several other remaining roads.

The erupting flames spread out for miles upon miles in either direction. There was no way through or around it. Digging under it was not an option either, the heat was too intense to approach. It could not be seen through. Ears swiveling about trying to hear something. Anything. Somehow it did not make any sound as fire does. Not so much as a single slight note to it.

"It..how can this be?" His jaw went slack for a few moments while trying to comprehend and take in this sight. How could this not be some terrible dream? Dumbfounded he sat in silence.

Shutting and opening his eyes several times did not make it go away. Groaning in resignation he turned towards the northwest. He could only hope there was some other far off way around remaining. A long trip indeed. This would double or even triple the length of time it would take to reach the rest of Manehattan. Forlorn and dejected the trek was resumed with a heavy heart and a serious worry there may be no way through anywhere. What could have sanctioned the use of such awesome power? Was something beyond comprehension acting against him? No bad fear. Fear saves you. Use it. Do not let it use you.

"Has death come here just for me? I am just a little pony. I mean no harm to the good. Nothing above should care one whit about me or what I do. I am not worth it. This must be for someone else." Somewhat sad words escaped his mouth. He couldn't help it. This wasn't fair. Why would anything want to stop just him from wandering? It absolutely must be for some other reason. He was so small. It was too big and too grand for him. The rest of the one time lively city beckoned beyond the towering pillars of flame. The flames very presence felt like despair given form. Nothing would be getting in or out through there. Nothing. Was anypony still alive beyond the other side of that wall?

Backtracking like this was not at all expected. Provided there even was a way to reach the rest of Manehattan it would add many miles to the journey. Some buildings dotted the horizon far off in the distance. Approaching revealed them to be mostly skeletal structures barely clinging to existence. One was slightly less decayed. Out front a very faded and smudged sign lay on the ground. Barely legible the lettering could just be made out to read 'Hippogriff Theater'. Daring to peek in through the remains of long ago shattered glass revealed only a large destroyed lobby. The rest was much too dark to bother searching within. It appeared like it was palatial and decorated to excess at one time.

Like all things now it was just another dreary reminder of a wonderful past few if any even remembered. A great chandelier once hung over the lobby. When the end came pieces of it were sent crashing down everywhere. Some pieces were thrown about with such force they were embedded in the walls and flooring. What was left of the building was a sad quiet collection of what amounted to nothing more than another ruin. Such a place could be worth exploring within if he had the time and inclination. Perhaps he would return here some other time. For the moment he already carried what was necessary. An instinctive feeling to scavenge was ignored for now. It was interesting, but would have to wait.

Far more important things were going on. Exploring at the current time might also result in unnecessary danger. Everything being so weird thus far left him feeling apprehensive and a bit spooked. Ponies were dying around here. Until this was all straightened out he would have to push against his own curiosity. Normally he would not have bypassed such a potential scavenging site. It simply was not worth it at the moment. Pressing on was the only option at present. Wearily he trudged to what he judged was northwest.

"I wonder if that other pony escaped? I hope there are at least others alive around here somewhere. What if they're really all dead?" Looking about furtively as he traveled along the distant edge of the strange wall of fire could still be made out. How far in both directions could it possibly stretch? Did it reach all the way across the entire region? It couldn't, could it? Where was it even coming from? There was nothing really burning within it that he could see. The ground itself was not even scorched beneath, but being anywhere near it the terrible heat could be felt. Except near the flames there was that creepy silence enveloping everything, everywhere. What if he never got out of here? What if he died on his way?

It was frightening. More and more fear was building inside. He should turn back. Hide somewhere until it all stopped. Almost feeling himself succumbing to this paralyzing fear he bopped himself hard across the muzzle painfully. Ouch.

"Oww. No! Whatever this is. Whatever is out there. I will not give up or give in." Rubbing the spot gently for a moment before moving on he actually felt a little better after that. His master said sometimes to get going a good whack was all one needed. This appeared to be true. The slight pain brought back focus on walking. It was not something to do without caution no matter how safe it might feel or appear now.

If he ever wanted to know what was going on or find anything out at all there was no choice but to find help. What if there was none?

"Am I really so focused on revenge? Maybe not. I think I really just want to know why, and then decide." He did indeed kill other ponies already, but they murdered his lifelong friend right in front of him and he was not thinking clearly then. Effectively he had been a father to him. Never having really thought about it before he realized this was so. He'd never called him that or anything, but it didn't matter. It was the case. He owed him everything and now he was gone forever.

He'd been a truly good pony in a world with almost none that were.

"I just want this to be over. He wasn't going to be around forever.." That may be true, but his life was cut short. He truly wanted to do whatever was necessary to make the one most responsible for this to at least explain his actions, and to pay for them. That mystery pony hidden in the dark. It almost felt like that dark figure was still laughing at his suffering from somewhere. This was not possible, but the feeling persisted. Why were there no other ponies around anywhere? This was really beginning to bother him.

After wandering this far it was almost a certainty to come across at least a few even at random. They often avoided one another, but this was getting ridiculous. Where could they all be? He'd almost traveled 20 miles in total as it was. There were very few, not that few. Not even one? What happened?

"Where is everypony? There has to be someone left alive around here doesn't there?" What if they were really all dead, leaving him the only one left? The world felt empty and lonely most of the time, but this thought left a terrible cold feeling in the gut. Trying to shake it off he ran onwards for a bit.

The muffled weak sound of his hooves did nothing to improve his nervous state. The strange deadening of sound which had gotten worse as he neared the wall of flames was keeping him on edge. Everything seemed weaker, duller somehow.

"I'm still alive. That must mean there are others as well. I cannot possibly be the only one." A reassurance to himself. Taking a deep breath helped. This gray world was always dull. How it could be even more so eluded the mind. Were the senses lying in some way?

"But why do I always feel like I'm being watched around here!?" This did bother him slightly. Not like before when he was attacked. This feeling just made him a bit jittery and nervous. Like something was just waiting to pounce from nowhere. That feeling he could not get rid of.

"I don't feel safe here. No matter where I go it's like there eyes watching me from somewhere, following my every move." In some way this felt much worse than things that could be confronted and fought directly. At least they were solid, and definitely real. You cannot simply fight a feeling to be rid of it. Something was watching, following. He just knew it.

Why wasn't it attacking him? Feeling like he was being surrounded left him trembling. This was grating and wearing on the nerves beyond belief. It was angering and annoying to extremes.

"I know you're there! Come out and lets get it over with, shall we!?" He yelled loudly. Normally he would never have done such a thing, but this feeling was getting worse and worse. No response. Was he just imagining things? His voice did not carry nearly as far as it should have. Another concerning thing. So much was piling up. Would this insane nightmare he'd been drawn into never end?

"Calm down. Keep a clear head you foal. What am I doing? That was completely idiotic. What would he say?" He was even talking rapidly. Almost feeling embarrassed he'd done such a thing was also annoying. It was exactly the sort of thing his master would have admonished him not to do. He would have to try to remain calm from now on. Monsters right in front of you were one thing. Imaginary monsters were another altogether. It was just his imagination running away on him, it was certain. It had to be. What else could it be?

"That wall of fire is no imaginary thing. I can't let myself think I'm safe just because things have been too quiet." Some time was taken to lean against a steel post sticking out of the remains of a street corner. He really needed to stop and eat a little before going further. He'd been neglecting eating a bit too long. Finding a little square structure that only had a roof held up by posts and was a semi-circle he decided to sit within the remains. It was better than no shelter at all and gave a good view of the surroundings. There were a good few buildings still standing around here. As usual they were very much battered and worn things. Lifeless. Uninviting and ugly. Dangerous. Yet, they still were marvels to admire.

One stood a full fifteen stories above. It looked like it would fall over at any moment. Much of the pitted front wall had fallen away over the years. The idea of climbing within such a wobbly looking structure to such a great height was chilling to think about. It would be dangerous in all sorts of ways. The stairs could break. A single missed step and a floor could give way beneath one, leading to a terrific view. At least for the brief instant before hitting the ground at a rate of speed even he would be envious of. There was at least one fear he'd never let on. It was almost a problem a few times in the past. A fear his master knew nothing of. One very deep fear never spoken of. Always hidden.

"I should have told you. You probably would have helped me do something about it. I'm sure you would. Though you are absent, I tell you now. I.. am afraid of being up high. I just felt so embarrassed, master. Silly, isn't it?" A deep sigh was given finishing up. It was true. If ever he needed to climb something higher than a couple stories it was nerve wracking. Any situation that may have required it was carefully avoided. Carefully explained away as simple caution. It was too late now. Any conversation which should have been shared long ago could never be now. It really was a silly fear. One that should not strike him so.

It should have been dealt with while the chance existed to do so, but they'd both expected to lead a long quiet life. There would be time. That time was stolen. Perhaps it was naive. Too hopeful. Too good. Nearby there was a large cement structure which looked like it lead straight underground. Half of the entranceway was collapsed leaving steep uninviting stairs just barely accessible. Going within could mean never returning to the surface. The lettering which once stood above was so faded with age it was illegible. Underground rail lines did exist. He explored a small remaining portion of one once. Could he possibly get past the huge wall of fire that way?

It would be a very dangerous gamble to go exploring underground in such a place. He knew there were a rare few other such entrances spaced far apart throughout the city. They were quite unsafe. Ponies don't belong underground.

"This feeling of being watched, it won't go away." The persistent feeling was annoying in one way, dangerous in others. If something really was watching his every move why couldn't he determine from where? It felt like it was coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. It made relaxing even a moment feel like he was putting himself in mortal danger.

Shaking his head heavily he finished off the awful tasting packet he'd been nibbling on occasionally, only sipping at some water to down it. Knowing he would use far more water than food on a long trip like this lead to being quite cautious. The twin packs were positively full of scavenged water bottles. It made for a very heavy burden to carry. If he did encounter other ponies he would have to try and keep it a secret just how much water he was hauling around. It could easily make him a target for the more desperate or violent types out there, provided there were actually any left alive for it to matter.

"I can't stand this. Give me a straight up fight anytime." Bemoaning the situation wasn't helping.

Gathering up the packs yet again he set off. Looking down into the dark of the destroyed subway entrance revealed only a pitch darkness that for some reason made the blood run cold. Not being one to fear the dark made this a very curious sensation for him. What could be causing it? Ignoring it he bypassed the entrance to walk uphill and along a small rise. Cresting it did not show or really put anything new in view aside from the usual distant ruins.

"Something isn't right. I'm saying that a lot lately." This all felt like some ridiculous illogical puzzle was being presented which did not have any real solution. The weird silence in the area, the wall of fire, all the things attacking.

Altogether they simply did not add up in any reasonable way. Boss could not be responsible for all of this could he? At most he seemed like some sort of crazed and demented murderer. How did a simple murderer command so much fear or manage to order others about without being killed himself?

"I am assuming too much. He could very well be the reason behind all of this. I don't really know. This silence feels dangerous, but how does silence feel dangerous?" The question posed to himself did not leave a very good feeling as he walked on. Where was everypony?

By now he should have encountered quite a few of them no matter what was happening. They were not here, or anywhere. Where did they go?

"If there are no bodies then they might not be dead. I've only seen four ponies since I left." This did not prove to be a particularly comforting thought. Those four ponies were dead. One by his own hooves. Any number of things might have happened to the rest. A further 45 minutes of walking lead to some more standing ruins. Another subway entrance not nearly as damaged as the last stood here. On a whim he decided to take a look.

There did not seem to be any really good decision to make here so looking was as useful as anything else. Maybe some of the ponies in the area took shelter down there? It was a possibility. Knowing better than to simply walk right down he trotted up to the entrance and squinted, looking within. It was difficult to see anything in the pitch darkness below. Detecting something was amiss he sniffed at the air coming from within to find it strangely warm. Much too warm. Dangerously so. Oh no.

"Warm air?" That was just as puzzling as anything else. A dim glow seemed to flow down the hallway beneath.

He hit the ground hard as a veritable tongue of flames shot up the stairs and forth from the entranceway roaring like some fell creature loosed upon the world. The flames just missed and flashed by so close it ignited the top flap of his left saddle pack which was quickly kicked off. Frantically he retrieved a water bottle from the other pack and popped the top to pour over the flames. The pack was just singed. Grabbing the strap in his mouth he dragged them away from the entrance off to the side. He was lucky not to have been set ablaze along with it. That was too close. Small sprays of flames still burst from within occasionally. Suddenly what was left of it crumpled inwards, extinguishing the shooting flames.

At the same moment a strange rumbling was heard and the entire area shook slightly. What was that trembling noise?

"Was that, an earthquake?" The word was not commonly heard even before or during the war. They were a rare and highly unusual thing in Equestria at any time. Fortunately the pack only sustained minor damage. It would be a difficult thing to replace if destroyed. Wiping some sweat from his brow he once more donned the packs and returned to walking. That was entirely too close. He'd almost been killed again. This thought weighed heavily as he walked. Over and over he almost died. This was ludicrous. Again something with no answer. That was the most frustrating thing.

Not one answer since setting out. Not even one. Frowning he stumbled slightly and stopped to notice the heat. Heat? Why was it so hot here? It was getting hotter and hotter. Everything was. Especially the street underneath his hooves.

"Oww oww!" He danced around as the ground was becoming warmer and warmer. It was getting so hot his hooves were starting to hurt being in contact with it. There was no choice but to run onwards over the increasingly heated street and ground. Yelping while running he was making a terrible amount of noise while galloping in a mad dash for somewhere, anywhere, that was not burning his hooves. If the heat increased much further he would be in serious trouble.

As fast as he was the heavy packs were still slowing him down. He may even have to ditch them any second if he wanted to get out of here. This was a horrible moment. There was really no time to think, only run. As the heat emanating from the ground rose it hurt worse. Each time his hooves hit the ground the pain was incredible, forcing him to run flat out. Each time they contacted the unbearably hot street might be the last step he would ever take. Run. Run. Run.

"Aah!" With a final burst of energy he scrambled ahead to fly around a corner where the ground seemed to be cooler to the touch. At last the pain was lessening. A few more short leaps and it was bearable once more.

He stood there panting heavily. If not for his great speed and stamina he would surely have suffered a most terrible fate. Looking back he could see several of the tall ancient buildings now on fire. If there were anything to scavenge within them it was gone now. It felt bad to see them burn. A sad funeral pyre for days gone by.

"What is going on around here!?" He couldn't help himself. He had to yell. This was too much. If there was anypony else in the area the heat and him yelling would surely have brought them out. There was nothing. The odd rumbling was subsiding to leave in its place the same suppressive silence as before. There was no one here.

They either left already or were dead. He was completely alone.

"Grr." He bashed a nearby metal signpost in frustration which snapped the old steel in half. Noting the dilapidated sign read 'Cowbell Area' was not of any use. What even was that? Now there was little choice but to head northeast for the moment. While not exactly opposite of the way he wanted to go it was going to force him very much farther off-track in a bad way. More time wasted.

"Why is any of this happening?" He hung his head and cried heavily. There was no holding it back now.

For the first time ever he was truly afraid. This would scare almost anypony. Sniffling and sobbing terribly a few times he slowly came back around to keen stinging awareness. It took a while to catch some breath. He'd been crying an awful lot lately. Were tears drawn from a bottomless well?

"I guess I needed that. I feel like such a foal, getting all scared like this. I'm okay. I'm okay. Knock it off. I need to move." Brushing the tears away as he muttered at himself he did find it possible to focus again. A few more gasps and he was ready to go on. Sore muscles were aching from the strain of rushing like that while carrying so much weight.

It would require finding a place to stop and rest yet again, but staying anywhere near here did not seem like it would be safe. The need to put a great deal of distance between here and himself spurred to keep going for another hour. At least the feeling of being watched was gone, if it was ever really there to begin with. Finding himself near a little building with an odd hinged retractable door that still seemed workable he went inside cautiously. It was empty and strange. A flickering terminal set atop a long counter that occasionally sent sparks flying at random still displayed a partial message across the screen. 'Champion Skycart Repair' was prominent. The door was highly unusual to him.

It was a tracked multi-hinged affair that slid up the tracks on either side and across the ceiling. It was quite a curious thing to see. A metal chain hung from one side. Not able to resist he pulled on it which sent the door rumbling down along the tracks to slam closed with a tremendous banging crash and bending the extremely old metal slightly. So much for being quiet. It should be alright. The need to be more attentive rang true.

"Oh. Gosh darn it. I have to be more careful." It did not result in anything though. After a time he was able to try and get comfortable once more. It was not a really comfortable place, but it at least served to keep out of sight.

The slightly cool cement that made up the floor of this strange square building was a welcome change from the blistering heat just narrowly escaped from. Like anywhere else everything within was rusted and pitted. The sheer age of what buildings somehow managed to remain upright was showing more and more. The poor blasted remains of the ruins echoing only the faintest hope for a real future. Ever rebuilding the world seemed an absolutely impossible idea which none would entertain. The very thought was laughably absurd. Rebuild from this? Most ponies did not even know how such a simple structure as this tiny square was made to begin with, neither did he.

The ponies of the past were knowledgeable, powerful, they were considered legendary, almost thought of as gods for all they achieved and left behind. Left behind? They left nothing.

"Heh. All those gods left for us is a giant graveyard." He was repeatedly mumbling while thinking about these things. Was he going mad? This was an unusually angry and pessimistic thing to say or feel. He deserved to feel angry. He had every right. He thought to himself that it was allowed, to be mad about all this. Allowed to be horribly terribly angry. Once finally relaxed the slightest bit he caught himself staring at the cracked walls.

This miserable thing called existence seemed to be full of nothing but pain now. He'd been hurt over and over again in such a short time in so many ways. Life was not supposed to be like this. Somewhere inside it felt like this was the truth. Life felt like it was supposed to be happy and exuberant. A thing to be celebrated. The very world was wrong. It always was. Something always said so about this for all his life, but it was not something to be thought about. There was no option but to ignore it. Being pushed like this was giving rise to these feelings. It was wrong. There was just something about the state of the world in general which absolutely did not have the ring of truth to it. Why was it this way?

Not able to shove these thoughts and feelings aside he focused on trying to sleep on the uncomfortable floor. The little jail bed thing was almost missed. How far he'd fallen. How hard.

"Wish I'd brought my cot." There just wasn't any room to lug such luxuries around with him. It would be waiting for him to retrieve at a later date. If he ever went back, or was still alive to go back. That was becoming less and less certain. Never having really thought about the possibility of dying left uncertainty how to feel about it. His master was not afraid of it or anything else, and called it only a natural end that must come to all things in their time.

At the present time this was not a very comforting thought. Being killed did not at all seem right or natural. Feeling cold and miserable the brief relief of sleep welcomed at last. For the most part it was a deep and dreamless slumber. Perhaps brought on by the events of the previous days an unwanted stuttering dream intruded. Before him stood a fiery shadowed specter of a pony. Dark and menacing in the dim and dull light. Its legs were streaked with fire that turned to black fur which looked more like shadow itself halfway up. The fire wreathing around its waist like a belt. Fire streaming from its eyes to the sides seemed to give off little to no light of its own. Instead consuming it.

Everything was dimming, becoming darker. Dull and pale as color was torn from the world.

"Run, little pony." It intoned in some deep low hissing way that felt deadly in itself. It took a long slow stride towards him on thick almost spidery legs, smoke arose where its hooves contacted the ground making it melt, and those consuming eyes were coming closer.

"Ach!" He awoke with a start. What the hay was that? The last few days were the most miserable of his entire life. It must have just been something new his mind threw together out of all the misery and pain.

Soaked in sweat and moaning through the ache of his tensed muscles he found it difficult to muster the will to even stand up. Something about that dream felt very off. Weird and wrong. It was not the sort of thing he'd ever dreamt before. Muscles actually felt more tense now than before sleeping. He shook himself hard and stretched.

"I have to relax. That's a funny thing to say right now, but I do." Chugging a bit of water from one of the bottles made for feeling the slightest bit better. One whole bottle was wasted putting out the flames, but on the whole it was far better than losing the saddle packs. They were one of the few material possessions he ever had or cared to have. Avoiding the need for weapons meant they never spent much out of the caps they scrounged up either.

He was far more comfortable using his body and hooves to fight up close and personal, and was very good at it. To him the idea of using a weapon against another felt cowardly and fearful. Having seen how devastatingly powerful the weapons of old could truly be left thoughts of wondering if this was a good thing. Even at his fastest he could easily be hit by a stray bullet.

"No. I never needed one before and I don't need one now." If he could not survive on his own merit was he truly worthy of living at all?

"My master.. My father taught me everything I need to know and to live. Stop doubting. He believed in me. Trust." He was thinking about his master far too much. The point of the journey may be about him, but it was to the point of distraction and being distracted now could be deadly. The dream left a dreadful feeling deep in the gut that was proving difficult to shake off. Everything was just wrong.

"I still ache from that run. What even happened there?" It appeared safe enough to venture outside and continue the dangerous trip. A trip that was becoming dangerous on a scale he'd never imagined before.

It was hard to imagine even while actually experiencing it. With apprehensive feelings mounting and grandly discouraged by everything it was a chore just to work up the will to get moving again. Something beyond the absurd was encompassing this place. Every action feeling like it could lead to getting killed was taking a hefty toll on his mental fortitude. The scope and sheer size of things happening made for appreciating just how small he truly was when compared to them. It was only luck so far. Counting on that kind of luck to hold would be a poor gamble. Why was everypony gone, and where? Did they too head off in this direction or somewhere else?

Were they encountering things as powerful and dangerous as he was? Current thoughts were a haze of misgivings regarding the current course of action. Should he keep going? What else could be done but try to get out of here and find help? Was anybody even capable of helping put a stop to something like this? Constantly being on edge like this was so wearing. It was still far better to be wary than make some terrible misjudgement that could easily lead to an abrupt death. The thought about possibly making wrong decisions regarding what to do were another added weight not needed.

He would have to walk even more gently and gingerly for a while, standing on his hooves still stung a bit from the pain inflicted upon them. He'd been extremely fortunate to get out of there before winding up unable to keep running and melting to the ground with none to know of his passing. By his own judgement it was mere seconds that meant the difference between that and still being alive now. If he'd been forced to abandon the heavy packs he would have nothing now, not even the caps or few bits. That thought hurt. Aside from the food and water those might be needed. Heading back the other way would be impossible now. Was that street still on fire?

Any buildings over there would likely have been reduced to cinders by this time if so. Wild dreams and unfathomable things going on all around left only a wanting for his simple uncomplicated life back. A life which for the most part had been comfortable, if a little difficult at times. Was this the payment for leading a life filled mostly with ease?

"No choice but to go north for now." Totally in the wrong direction. He was beginning to wonder if he'd ever even reach the other sections of Manehattan. He'd always known the city was sprawling and very large. Never in his wildest imagining did he think it was actually this big. Whatever direction one was heading it seemed to fan out and go on forever.

At one time ponies were able to build all this? It left an ill feeling in the stomach. If they were capable of doing so much how could they possibly have fallen? Would the ponies of the old world have understood what was going on now? Would even they have known what it meant? Why it was happening? It was incredible how much they built, only to have it all come tumbling down around them. That any of it still stood at all proclaimed they certainly knew how to make things which endured. Such thoughts were making feelings of deep sadness known once more. It was pitiful.

"Beh. They're all gone anyway. If even they could die then they couldn't have been all that powerful, could they?" Momentarily it dawned on him this could be false reasoning. Even those with great power were often arrogant or prideful of accomplishments that did not really mean that much or could be lead astray with promises of even more. He never understood stories about ponies like that. If they already had so much power what could they possibly have needed with more, were they that insecure and so unsure of themselves? If he had that much power, confidence would not be an issue.

His master did tell stories about how too much power held by one can be abused or lead to a rapid downfall and never to be drawn in by false promises of such. There he went, thinking about him again. Would it always hurt? This was a pain unknown. It could never be made right. It could only be paid for.

"I will always remember all that you told me, but I must do this thing. I have to know." He bowed his head solemnly. Even if going after Boss resulted in being killed in the end, he just had to do it. That was not a choice. It must happen. Even if it was to the death he must know why. It was probably stupid. Suicidal. It didn't matter.

Whatever it took he was going to find out why even if finding out why resulted in his own death. It was a debt owed. One that must be paid in full. It wasn't about honor. It was simply about the truth. It must be known.

"I know, master. Don't do it. It's not worth it. Except, it is worth it, because it was you. Are you watching me from somewhere, seeing me act like such an idiot? I know it's dumb. Probably just going to get myself killed. I need to know. I hope you understand." In life he would never have had occasion to say something like that to him. In death he was being driven like never before. It burned inside like its own kind of fire. The truth. No matter how painful.

Even if it also turned out to be caused by a stupid reason. At least it would be an answer. It really likely wasn't worth it. Knowing would not stop the pain inside. The feelings of loss and horror over it.

"I guess I'm not all that bright after all. I can't even imagine what is going on around me right now. I just want to know why, before I die." At this moment it was the only thing. If it were not for that desire it would be so easy to give up. Too easy. To just wait for something in the dark to step forth once more and finish the job would be the laziest thing ever considered by him.

"Not yet. I'm not done yet. Once I know. Then we'll see what happens. This is so hard. Were you ever pushed this far, master?" Questioning the air was pointless. Futile. Wasting time. It took willpower to move. So much of it. After taking a few deep breaths he headed outside. It was time to get going again. No matter what it took he was going to get the help that was required. Forced far off-track and feeling discouraged was not going to be enough to stop this driven pony. Definitely not now. Not after having come this far. Some terrifically wild and strange things were going on that may or may not be related in any way to whatever Boss was after, but it didn't matter. Today was going much better as he traveled.

No monsters, no deathtraps, no nothing as he ventured forward. In the distance to the west he could still just make out the telltale glow of the gigantic wall of flames. How far could it actually extend? He hoped not to encounter anything else untowards today. So far it was going nicely. Just being able to walk slowly along was a welcome change compared to the last few days. The glow seemed to be receding from view finally. Perhaps now he might be able to turn westwards and finally make some actual progress towards his destination. The entire trip was going to be nearly twice as long thanks to this huge detour. The day passed uneventfully for once.

Eventually passing by someplace titled 'Mareipola Golf Course' according to a charred looking sign made him come to a stop. Whatever golf was. His hooves still hurt some and he needed to find a good spot to sleep a while.

"I'm lucky I didn't get hurt a lot worse. Everything going on around here is insane. " He complained to the air. It really was insane. What could set the very ground and air on fire? There were many strange stories of things in the wastes, but he'd never heard of anything even remotely similar to any of this. Stories of killer machines, apparitions, crazed ponies and all sorts of otherworldly things just did not seem comparable.

Pushing hard to make up for lost time was not possible at the moment as much as it was desired. Fatigue from walking all day was setting in. Having had the chance to actually relax for a while was just what he'd been needing. Being on edge for days now due to all the odd things happening was really putting a damper on his willpower and spirits. The downtime was proving just as useful as making progress on this trip. Several times now he'd been hurt. If this sort of problematic luck kept up he'd wind up dead for certain. Feeling a chill inside at the thought of the odd circumstances surrounding left one with only discouragement. Was going on like this a good idea? With no idea?

"My hooves still sting. Am I ever going to get out of here or find anypony else?" Wondering such things aloud was becoming commonplace. It felt for all the world like there was no end to these illogical events. Spending even another minute in this area was not appealing in any way. Ahead to the right was a big jumble of wrecked buildings. Pieces of a shattered sign had fallen years ago and shattered. What remained only left 'tr lub'. Once part of a country club adjoining the golf course it told him little. It might have drew a laugh if he knew ponies were once able to partake in such a silly activity and actually enjoy it. It would also have seemed ludicrous that ponies were ever so secure and relaxed.

Things like sports were essentially nonexistent now. There were no obvious doors remaining on any of the toppled structures. Most of the ruins were slanted pieces of brick and other materials left at odd angles. Materials once well known to ponies. Never having encountered the scientifically or engineering inclined he did not know what any of it really was or what they were called. Such ponies were not often to be found. In the crippled world left to them those who did possess knowledge tended to use it for their own ends, keeping it to themselves, and those ends were often not in others best interests. Sighing heavily he began searching for an out of sight spot in which to hide for the night.

An unbearable journey was not what he'd been expecting when he set out. At most it was thought he might have to slip by some of Boss' minions and then be on his way unimpeded to find assistance. Perhaps this had been poor reasoning on his part, but he did not have any reason to think otherwise when preparing to leave. While they obviously possessed serious firepower he'd not imagined them to have any other advantage. None of them may even have anything to do with the weird things going on around here. For now, all that could be assumed was they were probably still around and needed to be avoided. Were they trapped by the flaming wall as well? Thinking this was less comforting.

They wielded tremendously powerful weaponry. If they were trapped too, was there any chance of escaping this? After what happened with the erupting street the day before he would not risk any further effort to go underground if it could be at all avoided. He'd also found himself almost afraid to step forward from time to time. It was difficult to shake, but having been in danger so often was leaving him so nervous. Thinking he detected some odd scent far off in the air it was dismissed as simple imagination brought on by it all. Right now he just needed to pull himself together. A little time with nothing weird happening was ever so pleasant. The stress and strain of the last few days nearly brought him to the breaking point.

He found it difficult not to think up new horrors awaiting as he moved forward. Feeling like something was after him for the entire other day did not help either. He was quite often randomly finding himself taking really deep breaths when he did not actually need them. He took this to be bad for him but just couldn't seem to stop it from happening, and shook his head hard. Locating an out of the way spot behind a crumpled pile of bricks and a formerly opposing wall he dropped his packs and lay his head on one as a hard sort of pillow, wrapping his forehooves around as if hugging it. He did not realize this was a way of comforting himself. The pain and loss he was feeling was overwhelming.

There was no one else to give any comfort so without realizing it he'd been doing little things like that from time to time as a method of coping. If a pony trained in psychology had seen him they would know he was in a truly bad place, and that it was very unhealthy. Such a diagnosis of wasteland residents might be relatively common if there were any around to make it. Pain and suffering were hardly an unknown in this stricken world. Most experienced it in some way or another. It was merely his turn to know it in his own way. He was also finding himself unusually angered by everything he'd been put through so far. Stopped short of leaving this section of the city and forced in the wrong direction was really getting to him.

The enormity of it was grating for him to think about. Did all good in its entirety finally flee the world completely? Was it all about to end? Didn't it already end? What did it matter? He was not realizing or catching himself acting at all oddly. It wasn't even on his mind. Things were so strange and frustrating lately he was not noticing that he was thinking either depressively or so angrily about it all. He would never have thought this way before and was slowly being driven into it. Once again he thought there was some hint at a faintly foul odd odor very far away, but brushed it off as simple fatigue. At least he hadn't lost his packs. While they were nothing special, they were something he and his master found together.

Having them be destroyed would have hurt terribly atop all the terrible hurt that was already being felt lately. There was just so much.

"Is there nothing really good left in the world? Is it truly all gone? Why are you gone? Father." He mumbled sadly. Only a little over a week and a half ago he'd never have imagined things could ever become this bad. The word rolled off his tongue naturally. Realizing he'd actually been saying that was an odd sensation. It was true though, it always had been. It was very hard to find a position he could sleep in.

Though life was hard, he'd never truly felt wanting before these last few days. Would it ever feel alright again? Feeling like all the world was set against him now was a very depressing thing. Was it ever going to end? Was he going to find his death out here facing off against some unknown? Some horror waiting in the dark for the unwary? He was not afraid to die. That was never a thought. What was needling him most now was the fact something faceless almost killed him twice now. He truly wanted to know what all this was about before meeting his end. Perhaps find a way to stop it all, but at least knowing what it was would let him die more at ease. It would be something.

"Stop it. I am not going to die yet. He..wouldn't have wanted me to think this way." It was hard not to. He had to force himself to think straight. Yes things were weird and possibly deadly, but they failed to kill him so far. Feeling sorry for himself was not something he was used to, so much that he wasn't even really sure about what he was feeling. Others would have stood much less chance than he did. Somehow he was sure of that. It wasn't overconfidence, just the simple fact he seemed to be surviving where no one else appeared to be.

"There have to be other ponies alive somewhere, there just have to be." He was finding it very hard to slow down his racing thoughts and sleep. Somewhere out there something menacing and fearsome was waiting for him to make a mistake, some terrible misstep and wind up dead. Such a mistake he was determined not to make. Unable to shake the feeling something was wrong also made it difficult to rest. There was nothing around the immediate vicinity that should leave such an impression on him. The tension of this undertaking was playing havoc on him in many ways. Sleep was important. Especially now, and as much as possible might be needed.

Tossing and turning while trying to rest with his mind racing was simply not good. A couple hours later he found himself still struggling to really sleep, staring up at the blank sky vacantly. It should be an easy thing to fall asleep when pushed so far, but his thoughts kept meandering in strange circles. At last his eyes fell heavy and closed entirely to the welcome embrace of quiet darkness, and with it the inevitable bad dreams brought on by his current plight. He walked past one of the common wrecks of a building and stopped to take notice of a strangely pretty mare standing in the darkness of an overhang, gazing out at him with a look of utter sadness.

As he approached her a quiet weeping and sniffling could be heard. She was crying profusely.

"Miss, what's the matter?" He questioned her cautiously. At this, however, her face began to melt away as the tears burst into flames, making him stumble backwards. Soon her entire body began to collapse into streams of water until nothing was left but a steaming pool of the deepest and clearest crystal color he had ever seen. It shimmered and sparkled where the pretty mare formerly stood. What happened? Against better judgement he moved closer step by step, inching along until it could be gazed into it. He froze in his tracks as he was transfixed by a vision in the pool.

He looked over a town. It was silent, empty. Doors hung open and ponies belongings lay strewn about everywhere. Whatever happened here was sudden and violent. All the buildings were a deep black color. Were there any color all of them would be beautiful works of architecture. In place of color some pitch seemed to make them all dull, somehow looking even more lifeless than the ruins he'd called home his whole life, like their very essence was sucked away. He didn't want to see this, it felt wrong to see. Apprehension and alarm bells ringing in his head could not seem to pull him away from staring at the unfolding scene.

Some distance away something he just knew was terrible beyond anything he could imagine was happening. He felt glad he could not see it, whatever it was. The vision popped over to show an immense ponylike shadow rising from the depths, taking shape. First a somehow hideous blank head solidified out of blackness. There were no eyes, no mouth adorning its muzzle. It formed slowly, inexorably rising quietly ever higher towards the night sky. A ring of fire ignited around it into a weird symbol. The sight of it was disgusting in some intangible way. The wrongness of it, the shape of it as it became visible, nothing about it was quite right.

His view of it was from a vast distance and even this far away it looked like its wispy mane writhed and wriggled in some absolutely disgusting manner. A sick feeling was overpowering as its misshapen chest slipped into view. Desperately he wanted to look away from this abysmal thing. It drew itself upwards until it stood on tremendous huge shafts of shadows for legs. The sheer height of the shadowy pony let it stand far above a tower with a huge bell inside. This was something a pony should not see. Never. Wake up. Please. Something would not let him look away from it.

Laboriously lifting an impossibly immense hoofed limb the huge beastly thing reached out and struck the bell within, loosing a resounding noise so loud he thought surely his ears would pop. As it rang out across the land little flickering shadows rose all around. The disturbing sight left him feeling ill for some reason. At last he was backing away from the horrible image in the pool as something struck from the side and whooshed past. As he turned to see what it was he saw himself being surrounded by the very shadows streaming out from the pool. Somehow he could feel their presence. It was vile and ominous. He wanted to move away from them but found himself curiously unable to move a hoof.

The shadow things were forming up out of the water, the ground, everything. They in no way felt alive. A horrid awful power which dwarfed everything else was about to come crashing down. He could feel it building to something terrible. Why wasn't he leaving?

"What are you!? Get away from me! No!" There was nowhere to go as they circled about, bobbing up and down sickeningly. Their motions were jerky, wavy, sick. Something was telling him to move, to run, to do anything but stand here. He could not. There was no fear greater than this. His limbs trembled against such inaction in the face of these horrors.

He should run. He should run and never ever stop. I have to move. I have to move. Why can't I move? I can't let them touch me. They mustn't. No matter what he thought, no matter how much he willed his legs to start moving they did not respond. It was unbearable. Some great pressure felt like it was rooting him to the spot. Being dwarfed like this was like nothing ever felt before. A strange feeling of sad loneliness funneled into him to bring forth gushing tears which burned as they fell. Streaking fire started to roll off the tears as they ran down his face, carving their way downward. He could not make them stop. Was this what happened to the pretty mare only a few moments ago? Was he going to die?

It would not stop. Try as he might more and more tears flowed to erupt in fire as they scarred him, engulfing his head. He could not even seem to fall over, only stand there as he was torn to shreds. There would be nothing left of him. No trace of his existence. Nothing to warn others of his fate, of this doom.

"I can't move! Somepony help me! Help me, please!?" He yelled in vain. Nopony would be coming to save him, he would burn and be consumed in fire and shadow. As he quivered the awful things were coming closer and closer. All he could do was shudder violently in fear. A fear he'd never known. This wasn't like him at all. What's wrong with me? Move!

It was no use, and the pain so incredible. The amorphous bloblike shadows looking for all the world like some sickening caricatures of ponies stretched themselves out and flowed about him, holding him, swallowing him up in their darkness and incomprehensible sadness. He could feel their despair seeping into his soul. Awaking with a start he banged his head against his pack. Fortunately he hadn't slammed his head harder.

"No! Oof. Oh, it was just a dream? Oh, thank goodness." Nightmares seemed to be coming to him rather a lot recently. What was wrong with him? He'd never felt fear like that before, or anything like that really. Certainly nothing like that.

He panted very heavily.

"It was just a dream. I have to calm down." Rubbing his head gently with a hoof he decided against trying to get more sleep at the moment. His head ached much more from the terrible dream than from knocking it against the pack. The same awkward feeling of being watched from somewhere was upon him again strongly. Why did that keep happening? It must be his imagination, what else could it be?

"Found you." Some dark and deep intonation from around the corner stated.

He was on his hooves in an instant to dodge as a large metal bolt struck the ground where he was laying. It would surely have been fatal if he'd kept still. He'd barely caught a glimpse of it coming down. It dug unusually far into where it hit. The shadowed figure stepped forth from the corner into view. A pony wearing a black cloak with red trim all around it whose eyes were equally red took strangely deliberate steps into view. Both its eyes were huge, glowing a deep red that echoed the hue of blood. There was a tiny dot of yellow in their centers. They seemed to have no pupils and constantly quivered.

Hanging from the cloak by folds were countless wicked knives made out of some metal material he'd never seen before. The knives were clearly designed to be easily thrown and accessed by hoof or mouth. They were all rusty looking and covered in gore which stuck to them all over like they'd never been cleaned. Who, what could this lunatic be? It mostly looked like a pony. It was difficult to look at, all shimmery in the dim light.

"Who are you, why are you attacking me?" Maybe he would finally get an answer of some kind. As the pony revealed himself it was a disturbing sight.

Even clearly in view he could not truly be seen and looked almost wavery somehow like he was constantly shaking rapidly, almost vibrating visibly. Having shaken off sleep almost instantly was a bit of a shock in itself. This pony thing looked terribly dangerous.

"Perhaps a better question might be what. What am I?" That dark voice stated in a questioning hiss. What was he saying? The voice grated and in itself almost seemed to make him angry. Why was he feeling so angry at a voice? It was the pony right in front of him he should be worrying about. Was it actually asking him what it was? Why would it?

Could it really be asking such a thing?

"I do so hope you stop me." It intoned. What? He was the one being attacked. What could this clearly cruel thing be talking about? Some of his or its many knives and other sharp objects were positively dripping with fresh blood. It wasn't from either of them, not yet. Did it belong to the other ponies around here? At the current moment it didn't matter. There was no more time to think about that. Whoever he was he'd already made the first move towards ending his life and would have to be cautious in fighting him.

Taking another of those strangely deliberate steps towards him the shimmery dark form of a pony flicked a blade in his direction with its mouth that somehow deeply tore through his shoulder even as he moved out of the way. How did that happen? He'd seen it coming. It happened again.

"Oww. What? I know I dodged those. What's going on?" He moaned in pain and panic as it took another odd deliberate step towards him once more and sent another blade flying through the air right at his face. He moved far to the side and yet a slim slice went up the side of his muzzle. Little drops of blood were starting to hit the ground each time he dodged.

This was hopeless. He couldn't stop them.

"Aah. What is this guy? How is he doing this?" It was so hard to figure him out. Each time he dodged its head twitched. His knives were almost too obvious, easy to avoid for somepony as fast as himself. Yet, somehow they were still striking even as he moved out of the way. This couldn't possibly be a pony could it? Not really. This must be some kind of monster. Whatever it was it clearly was enjoying gauging his reaction to being puzzled like this.

It threw another jagged blade and just as before although he rolled far to the side and it went sailing past it sliced downwards across his opposing flank just deeply enough to hurt. Wait. It sliced down the opposite side? How could it be? The blade had flashed by on his left. Moving much further than should be necessary did seem to lessen their strength greatly.

"This can't be a pony can it? Ohh. I know that was on my right. I know it was. It's attacks always connect somehow, but they feel wrong. What is it about them?" As he tried to determine a course of action the thing continued to launch individual daggers and terrible well-used sharp objects at him causing him to weave and dodge constantly in a deadly and soon to be fatal dance of desperation.

Each throw was accompanied by some odd tinging noise. How many could possibly be hanging off that strange cloak? Its weapons practically made a suit of armor in themselves. Only the face was uncovered. It was strangely quiet aside from that slight sound. So far only the close cut against his shoulder did any real damage. The rest of the nicks and gashes were oddly thin like he was being cut with paper. This thing was giving no time to consider, no time to react or do much other than dodge. Attacking was completely out of the question if some clue to it could not be gleaned. Trying to step clear of another deathly projectile he almost tripped and nearly got struck by a rapidly thrown second.

"What was that? There is nothing here to trip over." He groaned to himself and sidestepped quickly. This was becoming more deadly. There was certainly no doubt this thing intended to kill him. There was probably no point trying to reason with it. A slight idea was slowly taking shape. This thing was watching his every move intensely. If that hideous dream hadn't awakened him he'd of died instantly. Ting. Another shallow groove creased through his coat. Its aim was perfect. Speed alone was the single thing keeping him alive right now. Must keep moving wildly. From above another of those hefty huge bolts came from somewhere to slam into the ground. Almost too close.

If any of those even remotely connected that would be the end of it. Why was it so hard to see those coming? They were as big as his head and should be obvious. Were they part of some strange trap? This insane thing did not belong here. It looked like it was dredged up out of some terrible dream no one would even try to remember. The wavery apparition continued to throw its deathly sharp instruments at him, it clearly intended to deprive him of his life. Trying to move towards it without knowing how this was being done was impossible. Again and again small nicks and slashes cut against and sometimes through his coat. He could take it for now, but it would soon begin to cost dearly.

None of them had truly struck home yet, but he could not possibly keep this up forever. As fast as he was there was little room to maneuver in this decrepit place. The alley was just wide enough to evade in. All that could be done right now was to size up his opponent. It said little, revealed nothing. It was truly an adept fighter, using some technique he'd never imagined before. Not a single move was wasted. It was too skilled. Every thrown weapon somehow at least lightly hit their mark no matter how hard the effort was to evade them. Desperately he seized one of the knives already on the ground and threw back at the thing. He'd never used a weapon before.

The creature looked surprised, but instead of dodging it took another of those strangely deliberate steps forward. The knife zipped through the air to hit its target and passed straight through. What? It didn't strike anything and banged off the opposite wall. Wasn't it even there? Was he truly fighting a shadow? Something intangible, untouchable? How could he possibly face this? This thing was death given shape and form. Was it just playing with him? Surely it could have taken him out at any time if it was invulnerable. A strange and dreadful feeling of terrible heat was emanating from the monster before him. Heat? It felt like the warm air that shot past him before at the subway entrance.

There was a definite warmth flowing forth from the horror slowly approaching. Was he just imagining this? At this point anything might be possible. Again a jagged instrument flung past to somehow cut across his left foreleg. Each cut stung. He didn't want to leave them there but he could not grab his packs and get out of this. Did this thing want his belongings? Did it want anything other than his life? Running and weaving his way out of the alley only to be struck lightly yet again on the side. It did not cut but he felt the cold touch of metal swish by against his coat. How was it doing this? Perhaps out in the open he would stand more of a chance. While he ran he noticed some sickly odor coming from somewhere.

Was it coming from that thing? It walked down the alley slowly as if it did not care at all that he was moving rapidly away from it. There wasn't enough room in this alleyway. It was all too easy for this thing to keep whipping knives at him straight on. If this kept up he'd be killed for certain. There was no choice but to retreat now.

"How did it even find me anyway? I know nothing saw me go in there. I myself would have had trouble finding me in that spot." He moaned at the pain from the series of minor cuts he'd taken so far. Ting. Thump. Again a heavy bolt landed heavily in the ground aside him, throwing up dirt. Where did that even come from?

If the murderous thing behind didn't kill him the deadly bolts from above certainly could. This was crazy. Now out in the open and turning to face this thing which seemed to have come straight out of his nightmares left him cold. The thing continued to shimmer and shift in a sight only vaguely resembling a pony. What could this thing possibly be? It was nearing.

"What do you want? I do not want to fight you." By this point he wasn't really expecting an answer to that and did not get one. Instead another knife flashed past. It was not even aimed at him, or was it? What? He jolted to the side as he felt the knife lightly scrape his face across a previous cut. Again it didn't hit him. He knew it didn't. It couldn't have.

There was something terrifically strange about the knives and the way they flew, something off. Every time he dodged they definitely missed but was nicked yet again. This was not working.

"I've finally figured you out, monster." He stated calmly. Hearing this the terrible thing continued to flicker in view and lowered itself as if to charge straight at him. Its strangely adorned cloak almost seemed to float along behind it as it went to step out of the alley. He could not let it do that. There would only be one shot at this. What would it do? The knives appeared to be floating and quivering of their own accord and all seemed to be launched up and down at him as he ran straight towards this otherworldly opponent.

A veritable barrage of jagged wicked blades rained about him as he zipped towards this creature about to emerge into the open. They weren't really hitting him now. Ducking and diving with all his speed was just barely letting him work his way in closer and closer to finally land a tremendous blow with both forehooves straight into the face of this dark thing which sent it twirling backwards awkwardly along with its myriad bloody knives and tools to roll to a heavy stop. There was a sickening crack and thud. The knives all hit the ground. He could see it now. All of them were attached to the cloak by nearly invisible strings of some type that were impossibly thin. Somehow it was manipulating them the entire time as they flew.

No wonder he wasn't able to avoid them earlier. The only reason this thing hadn't easily killed him in the alley was due to the surrounding walls which made it difficult for it to land a direct hit. If he'd realized what was happening even an instant later it would have been too late. Having nearly been skewered by this crazy thing left his heart pounding and him looking about wildly. He could also see now the bolts were attached to the same strange razor sharp threads, their size and weight would have made them more difficult to control which is the only reason he wasn't dead by the first blow. The pony thing lay there trembling in its cloak.

He neared it from an angle he thought would be safest should it prove able to attack again. It still looked shimmery and dull. Its face was still just as hard to see as before.

"Good...boy. I knew you could do it." That awful angering voice hissed. Its head hit the ground. It heaved and its cloak ruffled while its body slowly sank, disappearing into the ground as all its knives and weapons were dragged under with it. Was it taunting him?

"Wait! What are you? Why did you attack me?" Too late. It was gone. Not a trace remained.

It was infuriatingly frustrating. He stomped on the ground despite his shoulder. It hurt a lot. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. STOP IT.

"Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes any sense!" He huffed and tried to regain his composure. This was fraying the nerves. Now he'd just fought with some thing that simply disappeared after defeating it. He was positively covered in little nicks and some longer cuts. His fur actually saved him from a few wounds. He did not entirely avoid them all, that would have been impossible.

Instead, he'd chosen to let some cut across him on purpose as he ran forwards so they would deflect others. A calculated gamble. A slower pony than he would have been slaughtered with ease and stood no chance whatsoever. The fight was definitely real. The scars of it would be with him for quite some time. He wandered back to his packs groaning in pain. The right shoulder had taken the deepest cut. He was once again hurt badly enough to be slowed down by such an injury and that would hamper even his great speed if it was needed. He would have to find another location to rest. The pain made it difficult to want to move at all, but staying here could be inviting more trouble.

He'd been beaten up so badly several times now. All he wanted to do was confront Boss, nothing more. Did any of this have something to do with that original encounter? Was it to be his fate to endure torture after torture? Shaking his head he set about locating a secure building further to the northwest. Somewhere he could actually hide inside of. He just realized he'd only been found outside each time something happened. Was there something to that? It was only a wild guess, but it was more than there was to go on before. It was worth a minor gamble. There was no evidence at all left of the fight here. Would anypony believe it if he told them? It felt to him as if all reality itself were collapsing about his head.

Maybe he'd been driven insane? It certainly happened to other wastelanders. Insanity wasn't hard to come by.

"No. No. I did not dream this. The pain is too real." He muttered while walking. It hurt to carry the packs now. Never having felt this absolutely angry or frustrated ever before he found himself having great difficulty reining it in. Like a pathetic lump he limped along for a good while until happening across a strangely intact old road. As with anything it was cracked and marred by endless disuse. By some miracle of simple location a few buildings here took almost no damage except that inflicted by the passage of time. even one of the windows was still in the frame unbroken.

It must have been very sturdy. He might even have marveled at it if he wasn't in such pain. Even the ancient sign across the top though damaged had somehow not fallen off its steel hangers. It read 'East North Neighings Botanical Facility and Forest River Park'. If there was ever a river of some sort here it was not apparent. Many things no longer were.

"East North?" He muttered. That was a strange title. He might have laughed at the odd sign in other circumstances. As it was he was aching and hurting from stinging cuts in various place. He was only lucky he'd figured out his opponent was not only controlling his weapons after they were thrown, but that where it stood was actually in a slightly different location than he could see.

If he hadn't realized both these things just in time he would have went sailing right past his attacker and been torn to pieces. Even knowing this he was lucky to have been able to land such a blow and end it so decisively. Letting it into open space would have been disastrous for him. A mere split second was all that spared him this time around. How many times was he going to run into weird things bent on putting an end to him?

"This is ridiculous. Why does it seem like everything in the whole world is trying to kill me?" He was certainly allowed to complain now, wasn't he? He was tired, hurting and starting to feel entirely alone in the world.

Was he truly all by himself? The last living pony anywhere perhaps? Was that even possible?

"These wounds sting. I've got to clean them out just in case. Gonna have to waste some water doing it." As per usual the building proved to be empty of anything useful. He did manage to find some cloth material in a drawer that seemed clean enough to use. The deep cut on his shoulder was the worst of the lot. After gently sprinkling water as sparingly as possible and cleaning each stinging gash to the best of his ability he took to tearing the remainder of it into long strips he managed to wrap about himself and tie off.

Figuring a unicorn could have done this much easier than him left just a little feeling of pride he was able to do so without such aid. He'd seen unicorns manipulate objects before with their horns. They called it magic and it was fascinating, but he was not envious of the ability. He'd always made do before and was happy enough until this engulfing insanity erupted about his life. All he could do for now was wait and heal up again. This journey was truly not going well at all. It was fortunate he'd brought so much water along with him. As it was he was going through it at a pace he could not have anticipated. It was not like he'd set out unprepared, just not prepared for all of this. Whatever this was.

No one could have been. It was too strange and unknown. There were still many miles to head off towards the northwest before he could finally turn back towards the south and hopefully find a way out of the area. There must be other ponies somewhere? The world was proving to be quite huge after all. It was simply not a possibility he could be the only one left alive in it, was it? How far would he be pushed? Not only was he being pushed in the wrong direction, but pushed in many other ways. Conflicting feelings were rising inside, maybe clouding his judgement and he knew it. Lifting a foreleg he pressed it against his forehead and closed his eyes tightly.

Thinking too much right now was really not good for him. Being forced into a fight after sleeping so poorly did no wonders for his demeanor. There was another feeling amidst all this nagging at him. Never having felt it before he didn't quite know what it was. He wanted, to go home. He was homesick. It was so bad it almost caused choking. He'd never felt it before because he'd never really left home before. Not like this. Not without his master, and never so far away. He'd done everything for him, tried to ensure his life was as happy as could be. There was no helping it this time. Pouring tears burst forth with a guttural howl of pent up rage and sadness mixed together. It all hurt so badly. When would this be over?

"Why did you do so much for me? For everypony you ever met? You didn't have to care about me or them. I was just a little lost colt. No one else would have helped me. You didn't owe me anything. Why couldn't I save you!? I'm sorry...." Trailing off sobbing and shaking, his face was being soaked by the torrent welling up from within. Crying this much burned the eyes. It was impossible to stop. Long moments passed as such great anger and sadness finally subsided a little. No matter what he did it would always hurt. Even if he found out why. Even if he killed Boss. He just knew it wouldn't. Never ever. He was panting heavily, his head and tail drooped so low. Ears flattened. A great deal of time must have passed.

He wound up staring at the floor of this building from the old days. It took a few moments to realize he'd sort of fallen asleep standing up. This was not highly unusual for a pony, and it never felt like true sleep but he'd rarely done it. It was more a defensive thing. It must have been done instinctively. A few hours definitely passed. Had he been crying all that time even as he stood there half out of connection with reality? Knowing he'd been acting weird lately and somewhat not himself worked up worrying about this, but it was natural wasn't it? Still feeling very tired he leaned against a heavy solid steel desk in utter weariness. One of the only things left in here from times past.

"Stop feeling sorry for yourself. What if one of those things already killed Boss? What then? I'll never know why. It doesn't matter. If he is dead then good riddance. Even if I knew why it won't bring him back." Perhaps these things or something else had killed them, and all the thugs too. After all he hadn't seen one of them since over a week and a half ago. It was still something that could not be assumed. A deep sigh and a moment later he was curled up against his packs. All he needed to do was keep going. Going until he found other ponies. Help. Something. Anything. They must be out there somewhere. Real sleep overcame him this time. For once a happy dream was granted. His master giving him a warm hug.

Lots of warm hugs. Lots and lots. So many of them. Uncountable. They were always so warm. As he was growing up he'd always given them freely and so kindly to him. They felt like something he'd never had before. Did his real parents ever do that? Did he even have real parents before? There were no memories, nothing of them. Such warm hugs. He'd been so generous. Giving a poor colt that would have quickly starved a home and at least a chance at some sort of life. If another had found him they probably would have killed him or sold him into slavery and called it being generous. It might even have been the truth.

Offspring were often considered a burden on their parents, something to be used as soon as they were able. Even sold to others will. It was just how things were. He always smiled so happily at him. He even seemed proud to have him there. Proud of the things he did and learned. Always smiling. That feeling of warmth he gave. How could anypony be so good to another in this world? How did he deserve all those warm comforting hugs? He was just another in a long line of lost souls left wandering this vast and lonely world. He'd made him feel so happy and safe. There was never a feeling of want or emptiness living with him. A flicker in the dream woke him. Finding himself smiling stupidly he got up.

He'd needed that reminder of good moments very badly. It hurt in some way, but the vile and violent ending of their life could not diminish how much those memories truly meant. How good they were in a not so good world.

"Still encouraging me even now, aren't you?" It was just a dream, but it helped so much. Stretching gently and brushing a couple errant tears away he turned to look out the window. It was quite dirty, almost impossible to see out of. That did mean nothing should be able to see him through it either. Although assuming being indoors was preventing things from finding him was the merest fraction of a guess there was at least a tiny possibility it was true.

It would be the first time on this entire trip so far even the slightest thing could potentially be understood. It was not something to be trusted, but each time he'd slept inside somewhere nothing had come across him. Sniffing at the air he thought there was a hint of that same strange scent he'd noticed before. What could it be? It was still far away but it seemed like he was getting closer to the source. Was he unwittingly moving towards yet another awful encounter with something terrifying? Having been pushed to the brink over exhaustion and being hurt repeatedly left worries about his resolve and ability to continue.

No longer bleeding from any of the wide array of small cuts he'd received was good, but the deep slash through his shoulder ached very badly. It would be far too easy to reopen if care was not taken. There was no choice to be made here. He could not possibly stay hidden in a strange place for as long as it would take to fully heal from his injuries this time. His supplies would dwindle and having no idea where to obtain more at the moment would lead to being even more vulnerable. He would have to try and sneak forward, creeping if he must. It could only be hoped he was still in capable enough shape to reach his destination.

The packs were not quite as weighted down compared to when he'd launched himself into this agonizing venture. A venture never imagined to contain a seemingly infinite variety of nightmares. No, at least some of these things were no dream. More like a terrible dream stepping into reality. What was that horrid thing that nearly carved him to pieces? The slightest mistake would have resulted in a quick bloody death. An end with no answers at all. That thought hurt. At least an answer regarding Boss was desired before he died. Somewhere out there must be one. It would be okay to die then. That time was not yet upon him.

Even breathing today was pained, laborious thanks to the extreme exertion put upon his poor aching muscles. All he really wanted was to be at home, with his master. There was nothing else in all the world wanted right now. A yearning want that would never be fulfilled again. All thanks to what was probably nothing more than a demented power mad pony. He'd donned his packs. Before this trip they'd only received light use. Now they were looking a bit ragged. The singed strap was concerning. They no longer fit quite as comfortably as before and sagged on the one side a little bit. This small annoyance was also angering. It grated and chaffed against his midriff from time to time due to the way it now hung.

"I keep feeling so angry about everything. I have to stop this. I know that isn't me. It has never been me. All I want now is answers and maybe the reason for my suffering to suffer for it as well." Spitting on the ground was satisfying. Trying to stay out of sight as he traveled was a bit of an issue here. The land in the immediate vicinity was quite bare. There were a few far off buildings to the north which could barely be made out. One of them must be extremely tall to be seen from this distance. Although he'd seen tall buildings before they never appeared safe enough to venture inside or up to their dizzying heights. They might contain some valuables, but the risk would be heavy.

Many of them were rickety, barely able to remain standing as the ones which toppled over what he'd called home for all these years attested. There was definitely one positive thing from all this. It was certainly driving his thirst for exploration, and fulfilling it some. There were so many things he knew nothing about. If nothing else this dangerous adventure was allowing him to see pieces of the world he'd never known about before, he'd never imagined the city was truly this gigantic. How did ponies ever build all this? Just one of the old skyscrapers as he'd been told they were once called felt like it stood over and above their entire race, something they didn't deserve to be able to create.

Their very name felt like a sense of pride was attached to them. With all their greatness they'd still let the world be destroyed. As he pondered these things an odd feeling of want pushed up inside. It was hard to tell what it was for. Just a little feeling inside saying something was missing. Something good. Something far better than the world was able to give since that nearly forgotten time when ponies came together to craft these great works, something in which they once could take pride for accomplishing. That pride was long ago stripped from them all. There was none to be taken after failing to protect themselves and their legacy like that.

The world was and had been falling apart piece by piece ever since that failure. Whatever was happening right now could possibly just be another step in that. Was the inevitable end simply approaching? There was no way to be certain of anything right now. The only thoughts and feelings consisting of loneliness and a burning need for answers. Something creeping and hidden was definitely spreading at least around here, fanning out dangerously. So far it was incomprehensible. What if there were no answers to be found, no way out? A bad thought. It was enough to worry about simply heading towards the goal for the time being. It would take days more at this pace.

He should have been out of here already.

"What is that disgusting smell?" There it was again. Something sickening, nauseating. Still very far away but definitely a hint of it once in a while. What could it be? It was not at all familiar. It was getting worse as he headed north. With no other direction to go for now, he would have to approach the source with great care. Another mystery on top of everything else was the last thing he needed right now. The exact direction it was coming from seemed to be more towards the northeast. Perhaps it could be entirely avoided.

After crossing something which might have been a shallow riverbed once he'd found himself following the general path of a roadway apparently called 'Plain White Palomino Road' according to a smashed and almost unreadable sign uncovered by accident as he practically tripped over it buried in the dirt. This didn't really tell him anything. Occasionally glancing at the badge to be sure it was safe to continue he noticed it was a little worse for wear. Fortunately it was not damaged in the fights he'd so far been unable to avoid. Protecting it could be of paramount importance if he was to find his way through such unfamiliar territory. Radiation did exist, that much he was well aware of.

Whatever caused it and why was also something beyond his understanding. It just was. A fact of existing. Most of those who still struggled to live were at least dimly aware of it. They knew as little about it as he did. It was just another leftover from a war that should never have been allowed to conclude as it did. A grim reminder that sometimes curiosity is not rewarded. They must have been ever so proud of what they achieved before it all came crashing down. Were the weird things happening here just more of this? A product of the same foalish thought that the world could be taken for granted? The smell was more lingering here. Heavy. Disturbing. Something rotten and vile. This felt wrong.

The smell just couldn't be identified. The further north and more he traveled amidst the slowly decaying and collapsing ruins the more sadness rose within. All that power and they'd chosen to let it all be destroyed, what nonsense could possibly have driven its way into ponies hearts so deeply that could have lead to the ruination of everything everywhere? He could have been proud of this city too. Wasn't it his right, his inheritance as much as it was theirs? Instead, wandering about what must surely have once been grand and beautiful was now nothing more than a scenic view of what might have been. How much more could they have accomplished if it wasn't all toppled?

Even the earth ponies were allowed to touch and nearly live in the very sky once long ago. A few wobbly and aging buildings here and there were all that could be claimed. There was no one with the knowledge to do so. As they got older and older they would all eventually succumb and fall to the ground to join the rubble already laying there. These empty shells once held life. They'd come only to symbolize death and failure. In far more ways than he would ever realize they were the very epitome of vice and avarice of a sort he'd never imagined. They may have been built with pride, but they were built with the intention to line some ponies coffers with untold wealth.

Wealth which was useless to them now, they were dead and gone. Little more than a vague memory passed down in recognition that somepony, somewhere, did something very bad once. Something so bad it left only a crushed and ever more pitiful world to its inheritors. He'd always known there were only ruins left, but he'd never had to face the fact by himself before. He'd always had the support necessary to deal with living here in a life with almost nothing to be happy about. He'd also never thought about it at length. What would life be like if this gleaming city still stood strong as it clearly once did? A truly happy place? The thought made him feel shuddery deep within.

Something so appealing, but it could never be. All that was left for him was pain.

"Do I not deserve happiness? Did I do something wrong? What am I saying... Nothing good is listening." Something good? What could possibly be good anymore? He shook his head. These thoughts were not going to help anything. The days when ponies held sway over the very land itself were long since gone. It was past. Right now he needed to keep focus on the immediate problems facing him. Letting his thoughts drift off of remaining out of sight could prove his undoing. In this area a few times he'd been forced to backtrack and find another way forward, going far around due to the badge slightly changing hue, warning against treading into an invisible danger. Dying in such a way would be deplorable.

It was slow and tedious, but at least it was something which operated on some kind of logic. If it were not such a deadly proposition it would almost be an amusing game to determine a safe route. At least tedium felt normal. A dose of something common. Having been driven so far towards the northeast he was hoping to finally find an easier path towards the west proper. This was not proving to be so accessible here. Not only the land, but derelict ruins in piles made crossing some areas difficult if not impossible. Taken all together some parts of the city were twisted into a huge heaping maze by whatever power leveled a good half of it or more so many years ago.

How anything remained standing at all was its own mystery. Most things took at least some damage from whatever slammed into the city. How any of them remained standing was something he could not even imagine a guess at. If something was powerful enough to reduce a city of this size to mere chunks of itself how did anything survive? That scent was heavy around here. It would occasionally assault his nostrils. It almost burned when it was noticed. Pungent and wrong in yet another way he could not fathom. This was taking forever.

"Every time I try to find a way through here this thing says its not safe. This is bad. What is radiation, magical or otherwise anyway? Where does it come from? Oh. Now I'm gonna have to go even further north first." Grunting at a slight twinge of pain from his shoulder he decided to just accept it. It was just something else he would have to deal with. Knowing ponies died or sometimes even worse things happened to them when they encountered this stuff and ignored it or were taken unaware. Sometimes it was the lure of hidden riches just out of reach, food or other commodities tricked some into trying and it never ended well for any of them. Those who did not know about it were simply unlucky.

Either way he was not about to join their sad fate by choice. Until now he'd been lucky about avoiding radiation. None of it was encountered during the whole trip so far, but then he'd started out on a known route and mostly kept to directions he'd been aware of before being forced to abandon going that way. Just more frustration and testing of patience added into an already mounting pile of the same.

"He always said someday he would take me to some kind of big caravan trading post to the south or something. I wish we'd got to go together. I wish you were here." It would have been nice. A trip with the only pony he'd cared about.

Something to share.

"I would have liked that." Swallowing hard he stepped northwards once more. The radiation spots in this area were numerous. Large. Avoiding them was taking up even more time. Almost the whole day passed by the time another building was located. He could not stop outside. He'd apparently reached a section of crossroad where a path once titled 'Oilville Avenue' Stood. An utterly dilapidated small building with a tilted sign reading 'Hard Buck Cafe Outlet' was off to the right of it. Something about that title seemed like it could be taken in several ways, but he wasn't up to thinking about it too much.

One side of the building was just in good enough condition he could consider sleeping within. There was a line of stools with what would once have been nice looking padded seats. Each was shaped so that a pony could comfortably sit at a circular bar. Almost everything inside otherwise was completely wrecked. The badge did not change color. It was as safe a spot as he could find at present. It would have to do for the night. Another couple days and it would already have been two weeks since this madness started.

"Has it really been so long already? How does time have the cruelty to go on when it should stop?" Sighing very heavily he slipped the packs off. His shoulder would be aching for days. He'd also been careful not to let the wrapping heal into the cut. He tore it off and discarded it. There was no point continuing to wear it now, the cut itself was healing properly. The ache would remain for some time. It was the only blow he'd taken that was not entirely glancing. If he'd taken multiple hits like that even surviving the fight could have proven futile. He was still concerned about getting an infection. He'd been warned repeatedly how dangerous that could be.

Although the things weapons were rusty and covered in who knows what, the razor lines were clean looking. Probably to help prevent them being seen. A truly direct hit from even one of those things might have spelled his end in itself. Real medicine was a rare and expensive thing. The one healing potion he still held might have helped in that case, but he didn't know how it really worked. Would it stop an infection, poison? These were things he was not told. Probably because his master did not really know either. That sort of knowledge was itself a rare thing. He was told not to use the healing potion for broken bones, but not why. It was the sort of thing that sounded like it might once have been well known.

A faded threadbare portrait hung askew from a wire along the back wall. There were probably more, but they'd fallen and pretty much been disintegrated by the falling walls. The bottom of the frame still contained an etched tag reading 'Stud Muffin: Prize Winning Stallion'. Staring at the tag for a moment he could only imagine what that was supposed to mean. What this place was or what it was used for escaped understanding. This side was still sturdy enough to afford what might be assumed was a safe place to rest. Assumptions in recent memory were not a good idea. To be sure the now very bedraggled and pained pony sought to cover any way to see in. It was a very long day.

Boredom was not something he should be feeling. Perhaps it was something else. A desire for some kind of normalcy maybe. Whilst shifting a table to use as a block against a window opening he caught sight of a very odd looking little bottle. What could it be? Heaving the table out of the way revealed a metal canister with a spiral tube sticking out of it. There were two large shattered glass containers and what looked like it was a spout of some kind at one time. The bottle was tall and full of some of the clearest looking liquid he'd ever seen. Was it water? Twisting off the cap proved to be more difficult than expected. It was sealed extremely well.

The heavy table must have protected the bottle against other falling debris all those years ago. So far out of sight even if a pony had been right on top of it they would never have seen it without moving all the junk first as he was doing, and likely would never have done so. No wonder it was still here. What could be within? Grunting around the cap in his mouth and pulling hard was not working.

"Come on, you" Mumbling over it as he strained and yanked hard it finally gave way so unexpectedly it almost went slipping out of his hooves and flying off as he almost fell over.

"Whoa. Whoa. Don't do that now. Whew. Now, what is in here?" Managing to hang onto it was just lucky. Sniffing at it questioningly it did not have much of a scent. Checking his badge up against it did not change color. It was at least not giving out radiation. It should be safe to taste. Wrapping his lips around the bottle to take a little sip he tilted it back cautiously. If there slightest hint of it being bad or like it might be dangerous he would stop and spit it out. Holding it in his mouth the flavor was sweet, smoky and almost earthy, but in some pleasant way he'd never tasted before. It was good. Swallowing it was not as much fun. It was rough and felt like it burned on the way down. It didn't really hurt though.

He then felt like a warmth was spreading within. What was this stuff?

"Oh! What is this? It makes me feel so warm inside. I think I like you." Unable to help himself he took another sip. It still burned each time, but it was not an unpleasant sensation for him. After finishing up covering any possible way for something to see within here he found some of the cushioning from the seats was still in good condition. It detached from them easily. There were so many stools it was actually possible to fashion a little bed out of them. Not the most comfortable thing ever, but it was nicer than the way he'd been spending his nights so far.

Once in a while taking another sip from the bottle. Many hours later without realizing it almost the entire bottle was nearly drained. It was just so warm. Giggling and rolling about, waggling his legs was for some reason the most hilarious thing he'd ever seen. He felt so loose and giddy. He was being so silly. Something only a foal might do. Even his shoulder stopped hurting. How nice.

"Lookhh..looksth at thot..I haaavee hooooves! Whee." Rolling over towards the bottle and tipping it up fully it was now completely emptied. Where did it all go? So tasty.

"Awrrt thush goody. Githt me your secresst." The last drops of the lovely drink went down. It was so good. Shaking it and finding no more left him mumbling. He was really in no condition to realize much of anything. Trying to stand up he sort of wobbled and fell against what was left of the bar. That hurt. Bad thing. How dare it?

"Whust gring. ? Huip we cin drpim. Why you, take thisth!" With that he started jabbing at the solid bar.

"Oww! I gawn getchya." All wobbly and really angry feeling the world went red and hazy. A short while later he was asleep. His snores were very deep. His head ached so very much when he finally woke up.

His eyes fluttered open to see the ever gray skies above.

"Aaaaah... What..happened? Ohh my head. Everything's so fuzzy. Wait a minute, where am I?" As he looked around the extremely shocking realization that he was outside struck. Wait. No, not outside, but the entire building was completely flattened around him. This was impossible. He wasn't outside. The building was just gone. There wasn't even really a ruin left.

"What? How? Why do my legs and my hooves hurt so much? Actually, everything hurts." He thought the ache in his shoulder was bad before.

Right now everything ached everywhere just as badly. What could have happened? It looked like an explosion went off.

"I don't remember." Huffing and achy he practically dragged himself along the ground to his packs. Even the floor was gone. Luckily they were fine. He was so thirsty. Downing an entire bottle almost at once seemed to help his head a little. Drinking stirred a slight memory of the unusual bottle and its contents. Why were the packs the only things still alright? The building was utterly demolished completely.

"Where did the building go? Where did everything go?" Only little bits and pieces of it were strewn around him a great distance. How could it be? There was still some warm feeling inside.

"Now I remember. I found a bottle and...everything went dark." Gently rubbing his pounding head he finally found enough will to stand up. The effort almost resulted in smashing his face straight into the ground. So unsteady.

"Slowly. Slowly. I need to get moving." Whatever happened here would just be another odd mystery.

"At least it tasted good. I feel slow." A very odd feeling for him. He'd been lucky he wasn't killed while he was so out of it. Very lucky. Moving steadily northwards at a much slower pace than he was used to and nursing his aching head and body was certainly like nothing he'd ever experienced before.

An occasional feeling of being off balance and unsteady was quite disconcerting for one so generally in control of themself. He was still able to see the far off glow of the incredibly massive wall of flames. In the distance it still burned as high and brightly as before. Did it never end or go out? What was feeding it? Fire needed fuel to burn, but it seemed to consume none.

"It can't extend all the way around the whole of the region, can it?" As impossible a thing as it was in itself, that seemed much more so. At least there didn't seem to be any radiation barring the way in this direction.

Occasional buildings dotted the landscape as they always did. How any of them survived or ever held up this long was a true testament to the skill of their builders. The terrible headache and general achiness subsided as he traveled, only leaving that dull pain in his shoulder. It almost felt worse than before. Did he exert himself in some way he couldn't remember at all? That idea didn't feel very good at all. Blanking out was a terrifying prospect. Worse than sleep. What if he did something which would never be considered while awake? It could be dangerous. Never having heard of such a condition made for nervous moments. It never happened before.

Although his muscles did still ache, they almost felt somehow looser than before, more relaxed. It was an exceedingly strange feeling. He'd been getting that a lot lately. Strange, unknown feelings and thoughts never even the slightest bit considered before or heeded. A piece of remaining road junction and another tilted signpost indicated he was crossing something once oddly titled 'Everybody Run Hill'. Everybody run? Some of the streets and roads of old were given odd names. Why were they even named anyway? Did the ponies think they were alive or something? They weren't, were they? That thought left him shivery.

"Don't be ridiculous. Of course they're not alive. Right? That is just silly, what am I thinking?" It was likely just wild imagination getting away from him. Still, the idea persisted. Thinking the very ground might somehow come to life was an embarrassing thing to feel afraid of even for a moment. It was nonsense. This entire trip made no sense though. Perhaps nothing could be ruled out now? Even his own dreams seemed intent on causing further pain. Everything was so unfair. No. He would not start slipping into thinking that way. Perhaps it was unfair, but life never truly had been. What was really so different now? Other than being entirely on his own and perhaps the only one left.

At last able to start heading northwest again was a better feeling, but there was that vague hint of a disgusting scent again. Every time it was noticed his stomach turned, almost resulting in choking. Where was it coming from? It was definitely something to avoid approaching if at all possible. Considering how things were going thus far it was a good bet something very dangerous was likely wherever it was. Sometimes the direction he thought it was coming from changed. It was difficult to pin down an exact direction. Coming and going with greater frequency than in past days. Not another pony was to be found.

The only living thing even remotely pony-like he'd even seen on his entire trip was the poor mare he'd been forced to deprive of her life. That one still hurt badly and weighed heavily on his thoughts. Stopping some murderers was one thing, killing a pony that didn't seem entirely in control of their own actions was another. She really hadn't seemed like she wanted to attack him. Life once almost comfortable for him had been turned upside down and left nothing but nonsense in its wake. That dark creature and its flickering blades was something that could not be pushed out of mind easily either. It too almost seemed like it hadn't wanted to fight. A large chunk of spiked iron fence came into view.

Behind it were stones with names engraved in them. His master told him there was such a place around here. A cemetary. Once a place to put the dead. A respectful place. How had he known all these things? He'd never revealed who taught him anything. The cemetery was not used anymore. Why bother dragging a body all the way here when you could just take whatever they might have had and leave them where they lay? Respect for anything wasn't really on offer in this life. One was lucky if they were even buried after the fact or given the slightest bit of remembrance. He'd traveled so far in the past two weeks. How much longer was it going to take before finding somepony?

Having come so far southwest before being forced to turn back and then be forced this far north had taken an excessive amount of time. The food and water was dwindling. He'd carried all that was possible to stuff into the old packs, but that would not last forever. He'd never expected to see the graveyard. Looking upon the toppled stones within and an odd little stone building lead to building apprehension. A feeling that was trusted now. Pieces of the iron fence still stood here and there. Some fallen, some at odd angles. Surprising anything still stood really. Lining the tops of the fence pieces were sharp-looking bulb-like affairs. Just how big was the true size of Manehattan?

If only this one part of it was this big then the scale was beyond his ability to comprehend. Of course parts of it were now clearly inaccessible and reduced this size somewhat. It was still an area beyond the scope of anything he'd ever imagined before. There was enough scattered things to scavenge where they'd lived to possibly last an entire lifetime. There must be a way around or through the huge fire wall somewhere, there just had to be, didn't there? The further traveled the less likely it appeared there actually was. This trip was taking much too long. What should have taken maybe a couple of days at most already consumed an entire week. Was there any way out of here? It would be easy to go home.

Hide for a really long time. What if there really was no way into southern Manehattan proper? Would the apparently endless wall of fire die out if he just waited? There was still food and water there. It might have to be considered at some point. It would mean going all the way back. Maybe it could just be waited out. Maybe it could not. Would it have been safe to remain at home? Would it be safe now? There was no way to know. It was probably better to be away from there. At least being on the move it seemed less likely for him to be discovered. A few odd encounters didn't change that fact. The lack of answers about what to do was concerning. He was still alive. He was, wasn't he?

What if he'd actually died somewhere along the line and this was all that awaited him? Could it be? Did death already take him? Surely things would be quite different if that was the case? Death should be much different.

"No, I think that would be a little more obvious. I can't be dead. I wouldn't be in this much pain would I? I still bleed and hurt. Also, I suppose I wouldn't be alone then... right?" Muttering was becoming quite common. Anything might be better than this bitter wandering through a lonely landscape with nopony else in it so filled with anger and sadness. The sheer emptiness of it all was bearing down. Surely if he was dead things would not be like this? It was never considered before.

Did a fine reunion await then? Did anything await for then other than the same blankness of sleep? It would be a little late to start worrying about it now. There would be no point. He would find out when it finally happened anyway. Not yet. Maybe soon, but not yet. Boss first. Whatever it might take. However long. The cemetary ahead held an off feeling all its own. It was chalked up to being so weary of wandering and so many other things. This was once a place of respect and reflection on lives past. Now, it served little purpose. Perhaps not a single grave was added to this place since the war ended. Not many would even bother. Life held so little meaning to so few these days.

To warrant the effort of being buried meant somepony actually respected you enough to do so before moving on. That respect was nearly nonexistent amongst those just scrounging out the meagerest of livings. It would take effort and energy ill affordable to most. Very sparse vegetation still managed to grow here. Nothing edible. Plant life was as scarce as anything else. It was indeed some kind of life. How it clung on in the misery a question for another time. He'd found a lonely patch of grass once. It was growing in a secluded spot where no one ever went. It was stunted and brown looking, but the little patch was tough and held onto life. He showed it and his master said to bite off some of it.

A little confused he bit into it. It was bitter and odd tasting, old, and yet it was still somehow so good it left sad feelings when it was gone. The most amazing thing he'd ever tried. It stirred some feeling of longing not understood. The rest was left. He'd even started taking it a little bit of water now and then. The patch deserved it for the wonderful treat it had given. Over time it looked the slightest bit greener. A sign of appreciation perhaps. Was it still there, waiting for another drink he may never be able to bring it again? It survived without assistance before. It would probably continue to do so without him. Just a tiny thing, but it meant so much. A good memory. One of few granted here.

It was difficult to recall good moments when on all sides one is surrounded by pain and the unknown. A truly good memory. If only there were more. Something wasn't right here. This feeling was far too common now. A feeling that was starting to be trusted implicitly. As usual nothing wrong was readily apparent to the eyes or other senses. Just that same feeling of wrongness that had been enclosing around him ever since stepping out of the courtyard what already felt like an entire lifetime ago. It seemed that was a wholly different world. A world so far removed from the now it could almost have been a dream in itself. Was it ever really like that before?

Was there anything good in this life now full of nothing but misery? There had to have been, didn't there? It never used to hurt like this. Yes, it did hurt, but not like this. It was never entirely unbearable before. Pain was known as it is to all who live in the wastes. Did any know it like this? This pain was a miserable unending facade of life. When would it be over at last? What if it was just starting? It was already far too much. If it could in some way become worse than it already was then there really would be no hope. All that was left to drive forward was a burning desire for the truth and a good dream. Anything less and giving up would have been easy. The fastest route to a quick death is to give in.

Giving up invites it to step forth and swallow one whole. So easy. It would be so easy to just quit. It wasn't enough. Not yet. The desire to know was its own flame inside. Sure it hadn't been easy in any way, but he was still breathing, still alive. Somewhere out there the answers must lay waiting. They just had to be. Everything happens for some reason no matter how big or small. If the reason for initiating this journey turned out to be little more than the simple whim of a crazed sick pony then so be it. It would still be the truth. It might be something far larger. The insanity apparently encompassing the whole north of the city must have something behind it. There is always some reason. It may not make sense.

The cemetery was quite large and wide, bypassing it would take a long time. Going straight through would be much shorter. That feeling of wrong said leave it be. Stay away, go around. Sick of being deterred by random things he decided to try and slip through anyway. Far off on the opposite side etched into the strange stone building was the statement 'Woodhorse Cemetery' in large relief lettering. The name was a little odd in itself. Oh well. Staying out of sight was something he was very good at despite earlier mistakes. Hopefully it would be enough to avoid trouble here. There were many grave markers of all sorts and styles. Many were toppled, shattered. Most were unreadable.

Only a barely legible portion of a name here or there to give any remembrance to those whose rest here was surely an uneasy one anymore. Ponies seemed to have been given entirely too happy sounding names a long time ago. Too upbeat. Too hopeful. Too proud. Did they all take an easy life for granted? Judging by all they built they must all have been living in the lap of luxury, right? It couldn't be known. Perhaps they'd known pain and sorrow too, if only of a different sort. It was probably dangerous to ignore this warning to turn away. Nothing ever appeared life-threatening at first. If it did he would be having a much easier time of it lately. Instead, dying was assumed to be the eventual outcome of it all.

Was that really the only end there could be? Reaching Boss might mean dying for sure.

"Just let me survive long enough to find out why Boss did it at least, please?" A halfhearted whispered prayer to something, anything that might be listening. There was probably nothing. What good could possibly be left? If there really was anything, it was not here. Not in this darkness and silence. Only pain and death seemed to be calling here anymore. Unwanted and unwelcome visitors to be sure. What dread thing might be standing in the way now? Something as dark and sinister as before? Worse? What could be worse than that? Best not to think about it, don't invite trouble.

Just put one hoof in front of the other. Perhaps they could hide in shadows, but so could he. He was no stranger to slipping between shadows. Whatever was about here though might actually be a shadow itself. There was no cowardice in using stealth if it meant nothing less than living to see another day, such as those days were. Avoiding an unnecessary fight was always the right choice. Nothing encountered during this trip so far at all seemed natural anyway. Strange unearthly opponents were not something he'd ever imagined fighting against. For the most part he'd never really wanted for anything.

Having the provider of that almost okay existence taken away so unfairly hurt incredibly much and likely always would. All of this other stuff really meant little unless it related in some way to that. None of it readily seemed to be relatable to each other. Was every terrible thing experienced so far really just some random string of terrible luck? Was luck a real thing? Did it have some bearing on the miserable things now happening in his life?

"If that's all it has been then I am probably the most unlucky pony in the whole world." Thoughts like this weren't helping anything, but it was hard not to think them. It could not be known if this was true.

Was there somepony else somewhere having even worse luck? If there was he would truly feel sorry for them. With luck any worse than this by even just the slightest amount would have meant dying already. That feeling was rapidly intensifying. Oh great. Now what? He'd not even stepped hoof in the cemetery yet and something was coming.

"Here we go again." Gritting his teeth and sliding off the packs and badge in preparation for whatever was coming. Might as well be ready this time. There was clearly going to be trouble soon. How did it know he was here? It stepped out from the stone building.

"I have you." How? Almost the same grating angering voice. It was the same thing as before. No, wait. It isn't. It looked the same, but those terrifying eyes colors were reversed. All sickly yellow with red piercing dots in the centers, moving just as disgustingly as the previous one to-and-fro. This one looked like a unicorn whose color was emptied out from it leaving only a dark shade of itself, an empty shadow of nothing but the deepest grey hues across all its being. What could these things possibly be? This was going to get bad. As striking and terrible as this visage were the deep blood colored weapons attached to its hooves, horn, and tail, drawing even more attention. Things which looked like axe blades adorned each.

Was that actual blood or just color? It contrasted to this shadowed thing so much it looked out of place even more. The one attached to the horn was just a simple straight on heavy curved axe blade, the others were affairs which would clearly make it difficult to get anywhere close enough to strike without risking a fatal cut. The edges faced outwards only to the sides and slightly forward. If this thing was able to move at any great rate it was going to be a serious issue. Here it comes. Closer and closer. Why were these things here? What could possibly have called up such terrors? Would there be an answer?

"Who are you? What do you want?" It wasn't going to answer, but might as well ask anyway. Surprisingly there was actually a slight response given in that horrendous voice. So angering. No, stay calm. No matter what. That effect must be on purpose somehow.

"I am Aissenfelle, and you are meat." If anything the voice was even worse, more grating. Was that all it would say? Meat? That didn't sound good. Were these things cannibals as well? How could anything this horrible exist? The entire time spent speaking it was taking those same strangely deliberate steps forward as the last one.

Trying to avoid a fight here was likely impossible now. They always seemed to know where he was no matter how careful. Aissenfelle? At least this proved they had names. Names as strange as they were. Not very useful information. All those blades looked supremely sharp. This was a very much different opponent to the last one. Almost unnoticed there was some sharp looking object attached to the very end of its tail. A pointed silvery hook connected to something resembling an upturned cup. Whatever these things were they all appeared to use odd weapons. They looked like ponies, but they really couldn't be. Did it just get a lot darker all of a sudden? That couldn't be, could it?

There was no way to readily size up an opponent using weapons and techniques never imagined or seen before. The thing steadily approaching was just as difficult to look at as the last. Its motions, movements all presenting some sickening wrongness that just should not be. It moved like a pony, but nothing about it looked right at all. If it was as skilled as the previous this was going to be a serious problem. He'd been taught it best to always overestimate an opponent rather than the opposite. Overwhelm before you are. Get in fast and take them out before they can gauge you. Would that work here? Maybe not. Could these things even be overestimated? This disgusting thing was going to try and kill him anyway.

It might be a mistake to make the first move here. Who knows how it might use all those nasty-looking blades? They seemed to glow red ever so slightly in the dim light. Could they be magical? Be ready for anything. Positioning to take some advantage offered by the many destroyed grave markers was the only thought coming to mind right now. They might at least offer some defense against this inexplicable horror somehow walking amongst the living. What summoned these nightmarish things forth into the realm of the waking world? Surely no one would have done so on purpose? Why would they? These apparitions belonged more to unrecalled dreams. Why are they here?

What purpose could they possibly serve in bringing only death with them? This was wrong.

"I know you are not going to listen, but I have to say it anyway. I do not want to fight you." It was a necessary statement, of course it wasn't going to make a difference, but if unsaid it would be against himself. As expected there was no outward response to this. Did these things even think? Did they operate on some set of principles as yet unknown? Were they following some system, orders? Did they even have feelings? Was it possible they acted solely on instinct? At any rate they never gave anything useful away. Standing behind one of the markers would hopefully force it to come around.

Instead it lowered its head and charged straight at it. Was it crazy? Jumping aside as it crashed into the marker the blade went straight through the stone sending chunks flying everywhere. Those axes must be special in some not understood way. It cleaved through it almost like it wasn't even there. The ponylike thing wasn't even moving that fast when it struck. Must not be hit by those directly, even risking a glancing blow could be devastating. It was clearly holding back and certainly much faster than this. Why would it do that? It turned about on only its rear hooves quickly and aimed for him again. This made its turn very rapid to land pointed right at him. A simple straight charge ahead again.

It was easy enough to leap aside. Was it playing with him? Just giving some false sense of hope where there was none? Could it really be that cruel? The only thing to do for now was observe its actions and try to come up with some plan of attack. Every technique has some weakness, some flaw no matter how well hidden. There must be more to it than this, some strategy he might already be falling for. Charging straight on once again as he moved behind another stone, at least hitting them slowed it down ever so slightly. Not that this was helping all that much. Did it never try anything else? This was quite odd. So strange. Straight on again. This couldn't possibly be this easy, could it?

There was no way this thing intended to just keep charging straight towards him when it would never be able to connect. Was it doing something else? Keeping his attention on it while maneuvering into some kind of trap? Whatever it was doing must have some hidden purpose. This was simply too easy. This thing did seem to be possessed of endless stamina. If that was the case it really could just run him down eventually. Would it have the patience for such a thing? It would be a ridiculously simple strategy if so. Just keep charging until he was exhausted and it was not. It could not be allowed to lead into a trap. Something must be done before that happened. Risking a frontal attack was too dangerous.

At its next charge there would be just an instant where it might be vulnerable to a quick jab against an exposed side. Here it comes again. The same measured straight on run towards. Moving just slightly aside as it was about to hit, the speedy pony bashed a hoof into its side to roll away just as those wicked blades sliced through the air past his flank. The jab drew a faint growl. It was faster than imagined. A slower pony would surely have been cut in two. Now it would be on guard against that sort of thing. Better think of something else fast. So it did feel pain of a sort. Not much. Something about that jab felt off somehow. What was it? The hit was solid if quick. It was not something verifiable.

The same move just wasn't going to work here. Again. It was charging straight on again to force more dodging. If anything this was becoming truly annoying. This couldn't possibly be its plan. Did it intend to just annoy him so much he made a mistake? At this rate it might actually be a good plan on its part. No, it must have a reason behind it. What this reason was however was eluding at present. It was oddly silent as it charged. Where did it get all this strength? Shattered stone markers were positively littering what was left of the old cemetery by now. Over and over, the same move. It must know more. It was too skilled not to. As odd as it was, it was not wasting any energy.

None of these head-on attacks were pointless. Each could easily have killed with the slightest wrong move to avoid them. Those eyes always darting about apparently randomly as if unfocused were not helping. In themselves they were almost causing nausea. Its vision was obviously perfectly fine. Risk would have to be taken. This time at its charge the quick pony charged ahead himself to slide under at the last second and smash and pummel the thing in what would probably be its stomach and roll wide out of the way just as it went to stomp down with those terrible blades. Too close again. This was problematic. Nothing was inflicting much real injury on this thing. If anything it looked amused he was still alive.

Was it actually enjoying this? It was hard to tell. Those gigantic eyes certainly betrayed nothing. They rolled about in its head disturbingly constantly. Every single facet of these things was disgusting from appearance to motion. So vile. They just should not be. The pummeling did slow it down almost imperceptibly. Was it hurting? If it was that was not really apparent either. Those were solid blows as well, they also felt just as weird and off as before. Why was something about that so odd? They connected, that is all that mattered. It must feel something in some way, any way. Would it do the same thing yet again? Nothing would work twice on this thing. That much was obvious from the start.

Who or what taught these things to fight and wield such unusual weapons? If there was some strategy to this things constant charging it was alien enough not to be understood. There would be no answers here. Only a painful death if he couldn't figure it out soon. Aissenfelle as it called itself seemed to harbor no care for itself or anything else. Practically a mindless beast in a way it would seem. Its very name set some feeling of unease off. Could it ever really have been a pony, changed in some way? So far removed in form from them it did not seem possible. It might appear crazed from the outside. It did think in some manner. Always with those deliberate exaggerated steps even when it ran.

It was not displaying its full speed. During this entire dust-up it hadn't once pushed for that. It definitely could. How long was this going on? So far it was relying entirely on its weapons to do all of the work. Insofar as that was a conscious choice it was effective. There must be a way to take it out. If this kept up his own speed would become less and less effective until easily run over by this relentless slicing destruction. There was always that one move. No. That was an even more desperate move than the one based on sheer speed. A move that should never find use unless all hope was lost. Using it would be even more tiring than that. A condition that should be avoided at all costs right now.

If it failed, death would be the only outcome. There was so little time to think between each calculated charge. A way to hit this thing more often would be quite useful. So far very few opportunities to even do so were presented. This thing charging about like this presented as much of a defense as an offense. Was that its game? Being equally protected while attacking was certainly a good strategy. The blades must be made out of some very light material, but if they were that light why didn't they break when slicing through solid stone? Did that have something to do with the odd sensation when landing a blow?

He'd considered trying to grapple with this thing up close to prevent it using its hooves, but that was too dangerous. Every bit of this thing was protected by sharp edges. Where was this things weakness? It must have one somewhere. Perhaps it would be wise to focus on trying to take its weapons out of play somehow. He'd observed them enough by now. The arc within which it could swing each, their range, how fast they could be manipulated. There were very few openings. It was going to take every bit of speed and strength to finish this before running out. This fight was already going to leave him exhausted afterwards. It was time to take the fight to it. It must think in very two-dimensional terms.

Skilled though it was this constant sameness was leading to it taking identical actions over and over. It was not stupid by any means, merely unimaginative in the application of the great force it wielded. This could mean the slightest opportunity may arise to force an error on its part. It might very well be thinking the same about him. He'd been dodging and little else for some time now. Perfect. It did not appear aware of the trap it was being lead into. With each charge it was getting closer to the large stone building. So far this battle had been waged across a good half of the cemetary. It may imagine him to be inferior. Insignificant. It did call him meat.

If it held no respect beyond that, it may also think him less of a threat than in reality. Just keep playing the part of prey. Closer. Closer. Right in front of the stone building now. The inevitable charge. It might not care what was in front of it, but it would be a mistake this time. Leaping aside it smashed into the building as expected. Hurry now. Before it could extricate itself from against the wall he jolted behind and started a wild flurry of bucking against its hindquarters, smashing it further into the wall. Don't give it a chance. The blades which cut so readily and deeply were still half-embedded in the remains of the wall and being dug even further in as it was being drilled into it.

Chunks of the wall were falling on the things head as it struggled to pull back. 5, 15, 28, 35 kicks. What was it going to take before it stopped struggling? Again and again. It wheezed and lay still in the rubble. 64 hits. 64 to break this thing, to shatter its spine.

"Ohh. I can't..." Vision going blurry he blacked out for a moment. Awaking with a start on his side and seeing the thing sinking into the ground out of sight as the last one did was not all that great of a feeling. This was no victory. It was just a vicious battle against an unknown. Its weapons sank out of sight along with it. Not quite what was envisioned.

He'd wanted to trap it in the wall, disarm it, make it talk. So much for that idea. It was too strong to hold. There was no choice but to kill it. It actually was dead, wasn't it? There was naught to do but find a spot to rest. There was no way to walk on right now. Shuddering from adrenaline his body was all aquiver. His pounding heart in his ears was practically all that could be heard right now. It was gone. It was safe for at least a moment. Calm down. His heart did not want to stop pounding. Finally, it did. Almost blacking out a second time was not good. Snap out of it. It's dead. Gone. Get up. All he could do was shake.

"Again. I learned nothing again! Grr." Unable to even move left the poor pony laying there for a few moments. It was not wise to stay here. If nothing heard all that commotion it would be most surprising. Limbs feeling like rubber from all the exertion made it very difficult to stand up again. Finally to his hooves and sprinting across the cemetery to retrieve the packs as his mind raced, going over the fight. Everything would be aching for a good while after that. How much was it going to take to get out of here? Another unwanted fight. How many times was this going to happen? Were there no actual ponies left alive anywhere? That distant horrible smell was not so distant now. It wasn't here.

Somewhere close though, too close. It was like no scent he'd ever taken note of before. Cloying and ill, heavy, thick. It made the back of his neck bristle just to catch the faintest hint of it. Something to avoid at any cost. Get moving. Get away from here. Go. Go.

"So tired. Got to move. Nothing else around at least." Not yet anyway. Did these things have friends? Subordinates? They did not seem like the sort of thing that would. If they did then killing two of their number already might bring along more trouble. Nothing but darkness and mystery surrounding them. Encountering two was already more than enough.

This was not why he'd set out to begin with. They were nothing to do with the goal of confrontation. Living through another painful battle was just adding to the misery already being felt in his heart and mind. What did these things want? Did they even want anything at all? Two times now and all they seemed to desire was killing.

"These guys are murderous and violent, whatever they are. A murderer is a murderer, pony or not." After refitting the packs over his aching back he took to a light trot across the cemetery. Practically none of the markers survived the onslaught. It wasn't right. Faded as they were some still showed partial names in memory. Almost none were left standing.

It was disrespectful of that behemoth to do this.

"I apologize. I tried and could do no better, please forgive my weakness." A solemn request to any spirit that may yet linger here, hoping to be remembered. That would be impossible now. Certainly he could be forgiven for being unable to stop something so powerful in any other way? There was no shame in this. His opponent was truly powerful. This was unlike any fight he'd ever heard of. The strewn shattered stones now paid memory to nothing. So many of them lay broken that a chalk-like dust permeated the air in the immediate vicinity.

It went unnoticed before, but was causing little coughing fits now. Getting out of it helped a great deal. This did not feel like he'd succeeded at anything. If anything it felt more like failure. It was not a good feeling. Were there more of these terrible apparitions waiting in the dark somewhere?

"I just want to go..home..." Where was that now? The little ruin wasn't home anymore and would never be again. There really wasn't a home to go back to. It was just a place that held a few nice memories, but the warmth was gone from it. Many ponies in the wastes may never know such kindness as he'd been given.

If the pain now was the price to be paid, that was okay, it was well worth it. More misery surely lay ahead before this was over. Something inside tugged and said this was just the beginning. How much was it going to hurt before he'd paid his due? How much pain could he endure before giving out? His mind already wanted to just shut down. Not yet. Keep going.

"Let me get the answer I'm after. Just that much and you can take all you want from me. Deal?" Spoken aloud. What did it matter right now? If anything was coming it would be here by now. All that was entirely too noisy. If there were any ponies around to hear there was no way they would have ignored such a din.

Ignoring something like that would quickly get you killed in the wastes. It seemed he was bound to die regardless. Just getting his answer was literally the only idea still moving his hooves forward. The pace was slow once again. There must be a building around somewhere to hide himself away in and rest. It was still such a long way to go. According to a large long since fallen sign ahead was someplace called 'Lilcolt Park'. In what was once a cart lot a building with the titles 'Lilcolt Motel and Coffee Shop' still stood. Coffee? Motel? What were those? These words meant nothing to him. It was dilapidated as many buildings were anymore. It would have to serve. He was in no condition to keep traveling today.

A little counter greeted inside. A till still containing a few bits was toppled onto the floor. Nopony had been in here in a very long time. There were, however, some radroaches to dispatch before it would be safe to rest. One of the few things to survive the war they were wretched little things. A minor nuisance at best. An actual danger at most if found in very large numbers and best avoided wherever possible. Killing one tended to excite the others into a bit of a frenzy. Their bite was just hard enough to make a single one hurt. Many at once could actually pose a serious threat. There were only a few here. There must not be enough food of any sort around to sustain more.

What else they may feed on aside from flesh and each other was not a question he wanted answers to. The scurrying things presence was always unwelcome. It could not really be made safer inside the little building. A quick look throughout both floors did not reveal anything else useful. The few bits were a nice addition. Almost too tired to even move anymore the packs were set behind the counter. The building was located on a bit of a slope and the floors slanted over the years somewhat. He lay on his side out of sight. It wasn't comfortable. Nothing ever did seem like it was. If only his cot was here. Falling asleep like this lead to a dream about sleeping in it.

A dream in which he was more comfortable than he actually was proved to be quite interesting. The rest was well needed. Many hours passed. Some crashing noise brought wakeful awareness intruding into the pleasant dream. Something was outside. A loud voice? A regular pony voice! Could it be? There was somepony left after all?

"Ahh hah haaah. Smell ponneee inside!" What!? A rather large hoof smashed through the wall. What was this? Not good.

"I do good job. Take pony to pit!" Pit?

There was no time to move as another hoof smashed through what was left of the wall flinging him backwards against the counter so hard his head smacked off the top of it with such force the world went dark once more.

"Uhhh. What?" Something wasn't right. His head hurt very badly. As his eyes tried to open and adjust he nearly screamed. He must be dead. The world was upside down. No. Wait. Not the world. Just him. He was hanging a little too high over an impossibly huge deep pile of pony corpses in an impossibly large crater. Before the war they'd been excavating here for some reason. Digging deep. He did not know this.

His right hind leg was wrapped in a chain hanging down from an ancient crane, holding him aloft. He didn't know the name of the machine. Any other time it would have held interest. Right now he was noticing the dead ponies all looked like they'd been chewed on in various places. That smell. This was what it was coming from. This pile of rotting bits of flesh and fur. This could possibly be what was left of all the ponies in the north end of the city. What happened? No wonder he hadn't found any others during his wandering. They might very well all be dead. What could have done all this? The scent was horrifying, causing fits of gagging. Not just the scent, but the sight of it.

"Ponnee awake hahhaa?" A deep drawn out voice said. Trying to look around was difficult like this. It made him twirl in the chain and feel even more ill. Over there by the edge of this pit of bodies. A tremendously strong looking, huge deformed and unshapely pony stood there. It was more a big lumpy walking egg on pony legs than an actual pony. One eye was tiny and indented in. Its muzzle angled disturbingly to the side. The other eye was enormous. It was a sickly white color. No fur adorned it. Only the slightest line of a mane down its back. It appeared to have no tail. What twisted creature was this now? It was not like the other things. It did look like a pony as misshapen as it was.

It spoke loudly and deep, almost rumbling when it talked. It sounded slow, sluggish. This could not be good.

"Who are you?" He called down to this sickly looking thing. It was almost twice his size. So very bad.

"Me am The Butcher. Who you?" That loud and deep rumble called back. The Butcher? That didn't sound good. Was it really asking who he was? What is going on here? This thing looked so bizarre. So disproportioned. Maybe he'd hit his head harder than he thought?

"I'm...Bolt. What do you want?" It couldn't hurt to answer that now.

"Ais..I iss..sizzzelenn.. Uhh Dark ponnnee late. Get lonely. Find funny pony. Not be lonely!" It sounded entirely too happy about this.

"How old are you?" Keep it talking for now. Ask it anything. It felt like he'd been dragged on his back a good distance before being hung up and left swinging. Was it talking about Aissenfelle? It really appeared quite old.

"Me two...two hundred days old!" Days? It looked ancient. Did he mean to say he was two hundred years old? Could it be? It can't. Was it possible? Could this twisted thing really be a pony from back then? No way.

This was certainly not how he'd imagined one of them.

"What happened to these ponies?" Bolt pointed an accusing hoof at the pile of bodies. Being upside down like this was making so much blood rush to his head it was hurting even worse and making it hard to think. That knock to the head was really bad.

"Stupid Ponies no help Butch. Hungry. Long time. No share food. Think, ponies eat food. Food inside ponies. Butch eat ponies, get food!" Oh no. It ate them? There did seem to be a subtle red stain across its disturbingly sloped muzzle.

Don't panic. Don't panic.

"Where did you come from?" Anything to keep it talking. Buy some time. It seemed happy enough to talk.

"Come from before. When stupid ponies make fun of Butch. Speak funny. Look funny. Call monster. Always..make fun of..." It looked sad? Before? Before what? Who would make fun of this thing? Could it have been more normal before whatever happened to it?

"Before what?" Must keep coming up with questions. Keep it amused. Figure a way out of this.

As they were talking he'd been trying to slip loose from the chain. It wasn't working so far. There must be a way to get out of this. He also didn't want to fall at a bad angle. It would be easy enough to break a leg or his neck at this height above the pile of bodies. Still choking and coughing occasionally wasn't helping.

"Before war come. War end. Stupid ponies die, but Butch no am stupid pony. Smart. Hide underneath. Not die. Get more bigger." It happily bantered away, smiling with yellowish fang-like teeth. What was it so darned happy about? Underneath? Underneath what? Get bigger? It was truly a behemoth now. How big was it before?

If that wasn't a lie it really was that old. By some twist of fate it lived this long.

"Why did you bring me here?" Right now this odd creature was quite content to talk. Hopefully it wouldn't get hungry anytime soon.

"Boss say eat. Throw stupid ponies in pit. The Butcher do good job. Boss say good job. Butcher happy. Butcher never happy before." Its responses were almost cheerful. Wait. Boss? Did it really say that?

"Boss! You know Boss!?" Did it? Why would it?

"Boss come. No make fun of Butch. Say name The Butcher. Give special job. Make feel important. Friend." It sounded so happy. Friend? Why? How could this be? This thing worked for Boss?

"Why would you work for Boss? What does he have to offer you?" Maybe he would get an answer about Boss of some kind finally?

"Ponies always laugh when see Butch. Hate laughing ponies! Butch make go away." Uh-oh. It was starting to sound angry now. Careful. It was still speaking.

"Boss say The Butcher do good job, give reward. No want reward. Like have job! Never have job before." Again it sounded happy. What was with this guy? The tallest building he'd ever seen was just over a ridge a little out of view. How far was he dragged? Hopefully the packs were still alright, safely hidden in their little spot behind the counter. The skyscraper lived up to the name. He'd known some were very tall, but this must reach 44 stories into the air or more. It was immense to him. A gigantic monument to pony folly. They really must have been prideful to build something like that. It was hard to think of the thing below as a pony. It was some kind of monster. It must be. It ate other ponies.

There was one thing he could do. Might be a bit risky.

"Do you want to know where Aissenfelle is?" Bolt asked of this oddly immense rounded lumpy pony thing.

"Him late. Where at?" So he did know that thing.

"In the cemetery. He's waiting there for you. He needs help." This really was a gamble. Something to make Butch go away for a while.

"Darkness ponnee need help? Butch him help!" It lumbered off, sort of almost hopping and bobbing along. How odd.

While it was off trying to find Aissenfelle it was time to get loose. As it galloped away he began swinging back and forth, having almost worked loose from the chain wrapped around his leg. Now it was just a matter of timing to land on the side of the pit without injury.

"One..two..three!" Twisting loose of it just as it hit the top of the arc sent him dropping hard against the edge, trying to scramble up and not slip into the deep hole so full of the poor souls devoured by this Butcher as it had taken to calling itself. Able to stand upright at last took a few moments to get used to.

The leg which was wrapped in chain was now totally numb. How long was he up there? It must have been a good long while. The cemetery couldn't be too far away from here. The packs should still be in the little building not too far off.

"Well, I know which direction he went in anyway, but now what do I do?" That thing would not be gone for very long. It would probably be angry when it returned. What did it matter? It was probably going to try and eat him anyway.

"Ah, my leg. I can hardly move it." It was taking a long time to get the feeling back in it. The only way down from here was to walk carefully under the edge of the precariously situated machine to the other side where a slope would allow a safe stroll down.

The huge steel crane still sat ready to do some job or other. Whatever it was doing when the world stopped escaped him. Now, it was just another object from the distant past. Something to wonder about in passing, but of little value otherwise. The old metal looked strained, almost ready to snap from age and neglect. Better get out of here. It was dangerous and slow, trying to walk past the bulk of the old machinery without slipping. Finally, he managed to get up behind it. The leg was feeling better, but that awful pins and needles feeling was taking a long time to get rid of. So hard to walk like this. There was a crunching sound somewhere down the hill. Oh no. It can't be back already?

If it was then it was much faster than it looked. There, at the bottom the creature loomed into view. The large eye bloodshot hideously. It looked very upset and snorted, yelling.

"You think smart pony! Trick The Butcher! You am no smarty pony. The Butcher am smart pony. You am stupid pony! Make The Butcher angry! The Butcher smash stupid pony!" Growling and blomping along in that weird way as it hopped up the rise.

"How you loose? Oooh. Boss not like. The Butcher fix! Fix good! Do good job!" Uh-oh.

There was no time and nowhere to go. It was barreling straight at him up the hill. The only thing between it and him was the crane. Growling and getting closer and closer. It was so huge.

"No, wait, don't!" This disturbing but somehow pitiful thing wasn't listening and heading straight at the crane.

"Hate stupid laughing ponies! Stop laughing!" No one was laughing. Its insane. Was it always? This poor tormented thing. Was it treated badly even before the war? Probably. Now, it was just being used in some vulgar game or something equally as disturbing thought up by Boss, it must be. Easily manipulated. What else could it be?

Nopony would be this things friend. Not really. In some way it deserved respect, and pity. These things are not given lightly or freely in the wastes, and never to something like this. It was not like the dark creatures he'd fought. It really was a pony once. Was it like him? Left all alone, abandoned maybe? Except it was never given a chance. Nopony saved it from loneliness and pain. There was no time to ask. Stop. Please, stop.

"Stop! You've got to stop!" It was no use. Darting behind the crane and leaping as far as possible at the last instant, its great bulk smashed into the already unbalanced machine which sent it toppling, twisting in a circular motion as the ancient steel couldn't take it anymore.

The support across which the remaining guidewires hung for so long snapped with a terrible twang. The body of the crane swung around with an awful groan given out by the bending metal. Everything came crashing down sending dust and metal pieces landing all over the place, half burying the pile of ponies in dirt. A sad mass grave for them. It took a while for the cloud of debris to settle, and an even longer time to stop choking on it.

"Am I still alive? Guess I must be." Somehow, Bolt was alright. Not even a cut or a bruise from all that. Where was... It was half crushed under the edge of the huge steel support, and still alive. It can't be? It couldn't move.

Twitching, and crying? It sounded like a foal. It was simpering and sniveling like a little baby. This incredibly powerful thing doing something like that was not something he'd expected. It sounded so weak, miserable. This feels wrong. Why does this of all things feel wrong? It should die. Hurry up and die already.

"No! no! no! Butch lose job! Butch was happy! Happy! hhaaw blubfbluuu." It was making weird noises and sniffling. What now? It was dying, but what was up with this? It looked upwards with such sad, pleading eyes.

"Butch am..scared. No want die. You save Butch?" It was asking to be saved? It was impossible.

The thing was nearly cut in half by the falling machinery. Freeing it from beneath all the metal would just make it die faster.

"I'm..sorry? I cannot save you." Why did this feel so bad? So wrong? This thing alone murdered, killed and ate so many ponies. Why did it hurt so much to see it suffer in turn? It must deserve this. It must. If anything deserved to suffer it was this miserable thing.

"It okay. Maybe..see....mommy now?" Mommy? What? It was difficult to think of this thing ever having parents. Did it at one time?

"I, I don't know." Why was he crying? Stop crying for this thing. Stop crying. Stop it. Stop it.

"Butch love mommy...make feel...safe....not...laugh...." A final wheeze and its head hit the ground.

"Buck it all! Stop crying! Stop crying! I can't feel like this for this monster! I can't! Stop! STOP!" Why wouldn't the tears stop? It doesn't deserve them. Angrily he kicked up dust and trotted in circles, trying to work it off. Why won't they stop?

"AAAAH!" Was anything ever going to be right again? Ever? Screaming at the top of his lungs was a needed release. Finally, they stopped. So much misery. So much pain. Was there no end to it?

Was death the only way to make it stop hurting? Boss caused all of this, somehow. He must be the most horrible pony in all the world to have been behind this. The pit full of ponies was evidence enough.

"Boss! I am going to find you, and then I'm going to kill you if it takes the rest of my life." He'd never felt so angry before. Not at anything. Not one thing was ever worth it before. Boss must be made to pay for this. How did he do it? What could possibly have prompted him to set something like this in motion? There was no logic to it. How did it help him any? This would make an enemy out of every pony there was. Boss was no pony either, surely, just another kind of monster.

One that must pay a heavy price.

"Forgive me for calling on you one last time, master. I have a final favor to ask of you." Could his spirit be out there somewhere, listening, watching? He hoped so. Even if not, there was something he needed to do before continuing, and headed towards that huge building in the distance. From here it only took about ten minutes to reach it. He shook himself off vigorously as much to help steel his nerves as get the dust off, leaving him a bit puffy looking. Gazing up at this old rickety tower climbing high into the sky and taking deep breaths before stepping inside.

There was something to face before once more trying to find a way into the south of the city.

"Help me do this. I should have asked you a long time ago." This building was once called the Grand Celestial Hotel. A name lost to time and memory. Long since worn from the entranceway into the one time posh lobby. Now, just another dangerous swaying tower awaiting its own miserable end. It held up surprisingly well. The first floor elevator door still flicked open and shut slowly, sparks occasionally shooting off the call panel. Some slim spark of power still reaching it from somewhere. Technology still held his interest. Not right now. Climb one set of stairs at a time.

On various sides of the building some pieces of outer walls, floors and other things had fallen away. Don't look out there, not yet. Just climb. Go up. It felt weirder and weirder in his gut as he climbed. Don't think about it. Climb. No fear. There is nothing to be afraid of. Each step up felt heavy and hard to take. How many steps would it take to reach the very top? He could just run up them. No. This was one thing to take slowly. One story at a time. It got harder after the fourth. Much harder after the seventh. Still such a long way to go. Inside there was a building uneasiness. Be calm. Just imagine hes right behind you, encouraging as always. He won't let you down. Watch your steps and keep going up.

That is all you have to do. The building felt like it might be swaying a little at this altitude. Perhaps just imagination. In a way it was relaxing. Nothing to think about but inching upwards inexorably. Just breathe. No hurry. No rush. Nothing trying to kill you. Nopony likely climbed this swaying tower since time immemorial. There were safer places to scavenge and explore. Did ponies die in here, too? It has stood up this long. It will wait for you. Step by step. Each floor welcoming his presence after such a long dearth of anything living treading this way. Interesting things lay strewn about everywhere. What were they all for? Did anypony in here expect what was coming for them?

Did they survive to leave this place, or were they swallowed up by whatever fell upon them? They built this and trusted it to stand, holding them up in the very sky. So confident. Was that their downfall? How many floors am I up now? No, don't think about it. By floor thirty it almost felt difficult to breathe. Only an imagining brought on in worry.

"I have to do this. If I am to be fearless in the face of fear itself I must rid myself of this one weakness. Help me do this." Only a little further. If the ponies of old could believe in their safety atop this mountain they built out of stone and steel then he could do it too. It may be damaged and old, but it still stood. Still, be cautious.

Careful steps over missing stairs or pieces of flooring. It would be all too easy to slip and fall much too far. It would also be a fast way out. Out of this existence now solely consistent of pain and suffering.

"Why is this so hard? I'm not scared of this. I am not. I'm not scared of pain. I just don't like it very much." He'd been muttering to himself nearly the entire way up. Maybe ten more floors. Numerous times he'd needed to stop and just hold still for a few moments, clinging to the stairs. It was grueling. It was fear. A fear that needed to be discarded. A weakness that could hold him back. The building definitely felt a little wobbly at this height.

Something anyone that ever strode atop such a thing would have gotten used to over time.

"Not much further. I'm doing alright. This is alright." He was actually shaking quite heavily despite this brave statement. Ponies weren't meant for this. No, they made this. Maybe it wasn't out of pride. Maybe they'd actually been too brave, too inconsiderate of the consequences. The great ponies of times past built straight towards the heavens to hold themselves up like gods and been punished for their arrogance and hubris. Could that be it? Is that why the world was like this now? What did it matter? They were gone, and this is all that was left.

A bunch of ruined buildings long left to decay and fall, taking their memories with them. How many lived here? It just kept going up and up. There were a lot of missing steps this far up. Chunks of wall long ago fallen away. Very exposed. A few jumps were necessary.

"Don't think. Climb." It was the only way. It must be done. Get rid of it. A little over an hour after beginning this torturous flight of fancy he took a wobbly step out onto what was left of the very pinnacle and lay flat against what was left of the roof.

"Get up. Get up." Taking deep breaths and forcing himself to move against his shuddering body to finally take a peek over the one edge still intact atop the massive building. The sight was breathtaking. It looked as if all Manehattan was within view. How many ponies ever got to see the world like this? The fear almost seemed to drop away of its own accord. It was almost beautiful. What did the city look like from up here when it was new? It must have been glorious. So much so that it brought tears to his eyes once again. Was this why they built so high? Maybe they weren't so prideful after all. Wait, what is that? Something else could be seen from so far up here. Something awful.

"By all that is pony!" He gasped loudly. What could be seen from so far above was a humongous bloody-looking symbol carved out in the ground about the entire northern section of the city, ringing it for miles. It cannot be.

- - - -

True suffering. We all know of it, but what pain could be worth all this?

Dissonance

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The pain. The searing incredible pain. Why won't it stop? I can't. I just can't. Help me. Somepony, please help me? I cannot see the light. I only feel pain. I do not have the strength to stop it. It is overwhelming me, taking me to a dark place. Please? Make it stop. It hurts. Where am I? There is only shadowed fog and a dim sense of failure. M y v e r y t h o u g h t s h u r r r t. What is happening? Why am I all alone? Help. HELP! Who am I? What is this anger boiling, working deep inside my heart and soul? It is so hard to think. Why do I feel like I want to hurt everypony? I am not a bad pony. I'm not. I am sure I am not, but somehow I still want them all to suffer. This is not me, is it? It cannot be me. Make them feel my pain.

Hurt them. Make them see. What's going on? It's so dark. Torch it. Light it all ablaze. Make the light come to you. Make it yours. No. Stop. I don't want to do this. It hurts so much. Everything is pain. What did I do to deserve this? Strike it all down. Tear it asunder. Put an end to everyone and every thing. I must not. I mustn't. You want to. No. No. Go away. Make it go away. So much pain. It's too heavy. I cannot bear the weight. Please, let me go? Never. Never. Give it to them. Like a gift of sweet surrender granted to them. Open the door. Yes. Open the door and let it all spill out. I've been waiting such a long time. Why does it hurt so much? Why is it so dark? My eyes are open but there is nothing to see. This is wrong.

Why is there no feeling except pain and hatred? This cannot be me. Where is everyone? Save me. Before I do something. Save me. Save me. Save me. There is no one. There is only suffering. So cold, even in the fire. Why is there no warmth? What is wrong with me? Why is it so empty? I can't think. Just take it. Take it all away. Engulf it all in the shrouds. Too much pain. I think I'm moving. Where am I going? What am I doing? Stop. STOP. I don't want to do this. Yes, you do. No. No. It's so cold. So much cold. Why can't I feel warmth? I have to stop. I can't stop. I can't. Somepony, anypony, please stop me!

There are none. No one is around. I still cannot see. I cannot feel. I know I am moving my legs, but I can't feel them. I can't feel anything but anger. Burning. They let this happen to me. What? What happened? What am I doing? I can't want this. Stop me. Who can stop me? They have to stop me. It is unbearable. I feel only agony and torment. I did not do anything, I think. Nothing to deserve this. Hurt them. Bring them suffering. An end to this injustice. Pathetic. Useless. Worthless. All of them. No. They fought for the light. THE LIGHT IS FOREVER GONE. All is pain. All is torment. All is pointless and futile. Tear the veil. Bring them what they deserve. I can't. I mustn't. You will. I won't. You will because you want to.

I don't? Lying to yourself won't change anything. I'm not. Of course you are, and always have been. I can't do it. You're already doing it. No. Stop. Pathetic. Being ignorant to the truth will not save them. It didn't save you. I am a good pony. I am. No, you aren't. I am. I am. Fight it all you want. Save yourself the trouble and just do it. I won't. I don't want to. I can't. Yet, you still are. NO. Keep lying to yourself. It will only make it that much sweeter in the end. How can I do this? It is not me. Why is it so cold!? It keeps getting colder. Darker. I can't see. I can't feel. Only the pain. Where am I going? I have to stop. I have to turn away. I can't. You can, and you will. Take all the time you need. You have plenty. Stop this. Stop it now. Before..

Before what? The light is dead. She is dead. They all are. They all died. All of them. They are gone. Added to the sum total of nothing. I have got to stop. Stop walking. Stop. Stop moving. Why can't I stop? I want to stop. You really don't, you know. Keep struggling if you want. It will make no difference. It is time for them to learn. Learn what? There is nothing to learn from this. Nothing. Then they will learn about nothing. What? Destroy. Rend. Collapse it all. Enjoy it. Feel the warmth. Stop it. I must stop it. You do not want to. Just imagine how warm it will be. My legs are moving, why are they moving? It's even colder. Like ice inside of me. I can't stop.

Why not do this? It will make it warm. No. No. NO. NO! It's all so dim, so foggy. It is only getting darker. Duller. Dimmer. It's all fading away. Why is it so dark? I still can't stop. It's been so long since I saw light. Where is it? I need to feel warmth again. I must. I need it. It is so cold.

Somepony, stop me, please? I am too weak to stop myself.

- - -

Well, isn't this interesting? The intersection of the past and present is always such a mess. Now, we turn our gaze to some rather odd happenings out and about in this decaying world fraught with danger, panic, and ever present strife. The game continues.

Only What You Earn

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"Is it here, scientist?" He was asked. That voice. At the sound he dropped the pry bar he was attempting to use on an air-sealed door. It hit the ground with a heavy clank. An unusually dark orange-coated unicorn stallion wearing a lab coat and thick-rimmed glasses looked to where it was coming from. His expression betrayed being spooked and wary at this voice and its question. He hardly knew what he even looked like, always he showed up unexpectedly and hidden in the dark. Just being near to this presence made the unicorns blood run cold. It always felt dangerous.

"No, but.." He began, but with this he found himself slammed into the unyielding steel wall behind him, just hard enough to hurt very much all over.

It was not the worst he'd ever received. Standing up and readjusting his glasses he retrieved the bar and continued working at the sealed door. He knew better than to stop just because of that. This was not a pony to anger or displease in any way.

"I do wish you would call me by my name. I have been working for you ever so long." He mumbled around the bar while trying to get it to catch between the doors seems. A dark and raspy response was given as he continued to pry at the ancient rusted airlock.

"You forget your place. You are scientist and nothing more. I know your depravity. It is by my will alone you have all those pathetic toys you are so fond of, and can take them away. You continue to live at my discretion. Find it. Fail and I will strip you of them and much more. Now, stand aside." The unicorn jumped out of the way as the heavy door was somehow simply ripped from its frame and slammed into the ground letting a tremendous burst of air blast out, stirring up a cloud of dust. The door just barely missed landing on him. He knew the pony did not care. He choked on it violently for a moment. The inner chambers of this small unlisted stable were now accessible. It smelled burnt inside.

"How did y.." He was cut off.

"Get back to work." The voice was already trailing off into the distance down the old hallway. The scientist panted and dusted himself off shakily as his heartbeat slowed to normal. He stared at it, stunned at the violence and power displayed. He'd known from the start this pony was powerful, but not like this. The thick steel door weighed at least a ton and been torn from its moorings like it was made of paper. He didn't know how this pony knew this place was here. It should contain a piece of what he was told to look for. Like every other time they spoke he felt like it was simple luck just to have survived.

For a moment he considered if continuing to work for this pony was worth it before coming to the conclusion that for him, it was. Over the course of his tenuous employment with this figure to accomplish his work he'd been given access to all sorts of intact scientific equipment that simply could not be found in the wastes. Where any of it came from was never revealed. As much a mystery as the dark pony himself. Everything from simple beakers that seemed nearly indestructible to things which he could not even dream of before. Before.. He shook his head. It was best not to think of then. He'd been given all he could ever want and more, and would continue to be given more so long as he did what he was told.

When not actively performing research or other jobs like this for the pony hidden in the dark he was allowed to do whatever he wished with the equipment. The presence of the pony could still be dimly felt even at this distance. It seemed able to hide that feeling whenever it wanted to approach unheard or seen. Now he had so many wonderful playthings. He'd even been given test subjects. Lovely, lovely test subjects. He didn't know where they came from either, but it didn't matter. He could do whatever he wanted with most of them. A time or two he was given oddly specific things to figure out how to do to one or two.

What he was told to do with them was even more intriguing than some of the things he'd thought up himself. It was a true thrill to do what was asked then. Maybe that was even more of the reason he stayed. The hidden laboratory he was furnished with would have been the envy of any pre-war pony. How some of them screamed as they writhed, tied to the operating table. What a delight to his ears. He nearly drooled just thinking of returning to it. Oh yes. It was most definitely worth continuing. He would never have been able to do these things before. A little pain now and then was a price he was perfectly willing to keep paying. The rewards outweighed it by far. Sometimes he might have enjoyed it a little bit.

He pulled a folded map out of his pocket. It showed the layout of the entire facility he was about to enter. What amazing treasures surely lay inside? Too bad he was told only to look for that one thing and ignore anything else. He would just have to come back another time on his own. He would get back to his lab soon enough. Just do what he was told and he would get even more toys to play with. There was so much knowledge to be gained. So many things to try. So very many. His thirst for knowledge knew no bounds. The dark pony hurt him, but also taught a great deal about things he'd never imagined.

"For science." He walked inside.

- - -

He certainly seems happy enough, don't you think?

The Fifteenth Squadron

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What small sparks it takes to ignite a raging fire. All that's necessary is the right fuel to start a blaze that sweeps onward like an ever-spreading wave. The ponies of Equestria thought themselves finally able to contain whatever gave rise to the stoked angered passions that lead to all-out war and begin the long transition to peace once more. The war was over. It must be. The soldiers still fighting, some still falling in the endless battles, may have held a different view. Pain was the order of the day. Pain they were finally inflicting on the enemy. Were they even the enemy anymore? What would they shortly become once total victory was achieved?

Ponies were indeed winning, at the cost of losing themselves and the very things they imagined themselves to be fighting for. Slaughtering the enemy is just how wars are won, isn't it? How much more would it cost? If they'd known the true price they would pay in the fullness of time, they would surely have all packed up and gone home. Instead, anger and the fighting it breeds would rage on until the very last instant. About to lose their world and none the wiser for all they already endured. Perhaps it simply could not be helped. Some still fought for the right reasons. Many did not. Sometimes it is difficult to know where right and truth lie.

Zebra forces were taxed well beyond their limits and about to fall completely apart. On both sides a growing apprehension was filling their hearts and minds. In some way they may have known what was coming. One cornered meek animal can turn brutally vicious. An entire race was about to be cornered. In war, some care only for victory. For those, defeat is an unbearable thought too humiliating to contemplate or consider, pushing it far from their thoughts. It would mean all they stood for did not have the strength to endure. Peace is an ideal which can only stand when all parties are given a fair chance to have it.

Too often, those standing victorious in the end finally feel the weight of what their victory cost. Victory this day, was going to cost far too much. Like it had since the beginning, things were only getting worse. Perhaps for once fearful and desperate, zebra forces were doing everything possible to harass and damage. They were very good at it. Too good. Now, on the verge of collapse they fought ever harder, not even paralleled by any previous actions. To imagine this is difficult. Day by day, hour by hour, second by second their intensity increased. Though dwindling in number their resolve to fight never truly wavered. As their formerly nearly invincible army crumbled, the desperation to hold onto this resolve grew.

This much hopelessness can only give way to hurriedly executed plans only vaguely considered in their entirety and scope. Fate is a fickle companion whose whims change directions as randomly as a hurricanes winds. The pegasi took pride in their heritage. Their very roots as warriors still held in highest regard. For the duration of this war it served them well. Air superiority wins battles. Countering flight is no simple matter. Plans to do so were drawn up ever since the beginning. There are few greater threats than a pegasus popping up from cover only to drop and disappear an instant later with no chance of shooting them down.

If they knew the extent of the enemies respect for this threat they would have taken even more pride. Dragon mercenaries, called on to fight this very threat were more common in the mix earlier, now few and far between. Taken down at a very high cost. One or two occasionally still dared to make an appearance, but were relegated to harrying and intimidation runs more than anything. Head-on encounters were by now nonexistent. The fact they were no longer a real threat was attributed solely to pegasi tactics and bravery in the face of truly daunting opponents. Those battles were by no means forgotten.

Losses that heavy do not go unremembered and these memories pushed flight teams to fight with even more vigor as the war was clearly drawing to a close. Their losses might go unpunished and that was unacceptable. Now was the last chance to hit them across the board, forcing their remnants in one region into the badlands and a more submissive stance should peace finally be broached. One last great offensive to break them. What was forgotten in all this is that deeply held hatreds only call for more of the same, and on it would go until the very last second before life could take no more and be stilled.

49 hours to war end:

"Command! Twelfth squadron actual.. We need immediate..." The radio operator jumped at the sudden burst from the secondary radio. It was only for monitoring generally unused frequencies in case enemy forces decided to risk employing such a thing, it was usually just dead air. He hurriedly summoned a flag officer over to listen. Something was wrong about this broadcast. For one, it was on an open frequency unused by the equestrian military, which immediately drew a red flag. Radio equipment was not exactly new by this late period of the long war, but it still suffered from occasional serious deficiencies.

Lack of transmission range was sometimes one of them. Whatever was being sent was seriously garbled and hard to filter through the static. There should be no urgent transmissions now anyway, the war was surely almost over, and especially not on open air. Victory was a certainty. There was nothing else to hear for a moment besides strangely worrying static. The wording of the transmission was perplexing and not in proper order either. It was possible the one sending it just made a mistake, but this possibility made it even more concerning. Why would they be using an open frequency? The operator fiddled with knobs and dials, trying to clear up the signal with little success.

The interference was the worst he'd ever heard. It could not possibly be random noise. The radio static burst again. It was almost impossible to hear what was being repeated until it at last cleared for a few seconds once more.

"Fifteenth squadron actual, radio .... all going down! Hit us with... 43 b...." The radio operator turned to his superior who was staring wide-eyed at the now silent radio. It took a moment for either of them to get thinking again. This was unexpected and very serious indeed.

"Sir? What should we do?" They were both in a slight state of shock.

If the radio message was to be believed something terrible just happened to no less than 48 pegasi. Maybe more.

"We do nothing." The officer stated coolly. Before this could be questioned he continued.

"The fifteenth are some of our best fliers and fighters. They are surpassed only by the Shadowbolts and.." They did not like to talk about what happened to some of their best. They all knew who he meant.

"If anypony has a chance of getting them out of whatever mess they're in, it is their captain. Keep trying to raise them at half-hour intervals. Inform the closest tactical group north of their last known position to post a watch for any of them and monitor radio traffic. Keep it quiet." Were his only orders.

"Yes..sir." The operator performed his duty, but was clearly distraught they were not doing more.

"One of your relatives is in the fifteenth, right?" The operator was caught off-guard at being asked.

"Uh, yes. My cousin. I hope he's okay." He was rather worried about them now.

The pegasus officer placed a hoof over his shoulder. This was surprising. He looked back to see him smiling.

"My son is with that squadron, and I know he will do everything possible to help them come back alive. Barring that, I know he will give our enemies the worst bloody nose they have ever been graced with. Trust your cousin to do the same, he would not be in that outfit if he wasn't one of the very best." With that the officer returned to his usual rigid demeanor and went back to whatever other business was in need of his attention. The reassurance was strange, but it was nice to know how highly regarded the squadron truly was. The squadron was indeed amongst the best, now just short of being deemed elite and they all knew it. They'd worked very hard to get that recognition.

This also meant taking on one tough mission after another, always just slightly overshadowed. In the field, things were not going according to plan today. Somewhere behind enemy lines they were on the ground. This is not a place a pegasus should be during a war.

"Sparks! Tell me what happened to us, where we are, and what happened to twelfth spec ops attachment?" Their captain and the two with him were alright, some were not so lucky and landed very hard.

"I don't entirely know sir. Those of us with the advanced flak suits got attacked and downed by our own self-defense systems. They all shorted out partway I think. At the same time a kind of biological contact agent was spread via some type of air dispersal bombs and locked our wings in whatever position they were in at the time. It didn't fully work is the only reason any of us managed to glide at all. I'm guessing. No sign of the twelfth. We are around 43 miles behind the lines from glide lock. Obscure B3." Sparks took a deep breath. This was very bad. They were not really equipped for ground warfare and could not fly out of here. Their wings were finally retracted, but hurting very badly.

"Can any of you move your wings or fly?" He asked of the small group standing around. There were only four of them together, more must be somewhere close by. They all shook their heads in resignation. It was just too painful to extend them now.

"Why do I feel embarrassed? Ahem, and the radios? Anypony get a message off?" The captain looked a little shaken, they'd never seen him that way before.

"Sorry sir. Helmet radios and the big one are still working fine, their shielding held. There has to be a kind of severe radio interference coming from somewhere. Tried all channels, even open. I can't tell if command got it." Sparks looked pretty worried too. He was a fine technician, but support was usually their only role. The captain hesitated for a second, looking at the mic on the hefty piece of equipment before depressing the clip.

"Fifteenth squadron actual. Code free. 5 through 24, sound off status and obscured position immediately. Hurry." The static was extreme but a moment later there was definitely some barely audible chatter.

Nothing from members 5 and 6. Bad news.

"7 through 9 together, alright. South 40 1R from stage." Two miles north, not bad. More silence from 10 and 11. That was not so good.

"12 through 14 here. Pretty banged up, but still kicking! South 35 L2 from stage." A lot further away.

"15 and 17. Hurt pretty bad. Don't know what happened to 16. We cannot find them, sir. South 28 L6 from stage." They were scattered over a very wide area and miles apart.

Regrouping would not normally be so difficult for those able to soar the skies.

"18 through 24, sound off now, or I'll kick your flanks all the way to Tartarus myself!" The captain making a threat like that would always get them moving, because he meant it and would find a way to do it, too. Only an eerie silence punctuated by static was heard for a moment. A meek sounding voice finally popped on, that was not like how any of them usually acted.

"19.. I.. I... Th...think they're all dead, sir. I.. help me.." Was that a bang? It went silent.

There was nothing more from them.

"19, your position? 19? Respond!" The captain was tough and sometimes abrupt, but this was clearly an unusual position to be in. Holding a hoof to his head where he took a bit of a bump on landing, he took a deep breath. 18 through 24 simply weren't answering anymore. Could they really all be gone? Not good. He pressed the send clip again.

"Listen up all. If any teams can hear me, but cannot respond. Your orders are to destroy all damaged flak suits. They're useless on the ground without their defense systems, ditch them. Take any functional small weapons and beeline towards our original staging area as fast as you reasonably can. We will form up as we move. Do not stop. Avoid the enemy at all costs. If you cannot move, assume a defensive position and hunker down. I think we are the farthest south and should come across your beacons. Hold tight." It was time to get moving. Staying in any one position was dangerous. The fate of 16, and 19 through 24 was of great concern. All the rest seemed to have landed alright.

It was easy enough to destroy the suits, there were means of doing so built right into them. This was going to be hard slog through enemy territory. They were almost bound to run into them somewhere. Most pegasi only ever saw how the war looked from above.

"We are a long way behind enemy lines. You all know this is clearly a trap. They absolutely know we are here somewhere, so spread out and keep pace. Cloud Reaper, guess who just joined the ground-pounders? Point. Hard Charger, rear guard." The captain knew every one of them well, and usually referred to each by a well-earned nickname instead.

If there ever was a time to be a little closer and more assuring, this was it.

"Yes, sir." They both replied as Reaper took lead up ahead. He was perhaps the most rough and tumble of them all, and carried a few too many scars from being a bit too daring. He wore them well though. By earth pony standards he would be on the large side, by pegasus standards he was nearly colossal. The rest fell in and took to a fast walk. A faster pace would only serve to needlessly fatigue them. Still, they needed to move quickly. They all possessed a few small guns, the heavier ones were simply too large to detach and carry, so were destroyed along with the suits.

Giving up anything to the enemy was unthinkable. The suits themselves might be useless to the stripes, but the weapons were certainly a commodity. In general the ponies did have superior firepower to some degree. If nothing else, weapons of pony make were somewhat more reliable than those of zebra manufacture. It was not as pronounced of a difference now, but it still gave them an advantage.

"Sparks, switch to private channel 1 for a moment." The captain would not normally have bothered to keep anything private, so this was a bit odd. After doing so he continued and spoke quietly.

"I know you are aware, we're in trouble. Don't let it slip. They may not realize it, but there is no way we can just walk out of this. Without being able to call for rescue we are in deep." This was pretty blunt of him to state, but it was true. 43 miles behind enemy lines is a very very long walk. Even if they were all together it would be all but impossible to survive this trek.

"Captain, we all swore the same oaths, and knew there were risks. We have all lost somepony we cared about. Let's show the enemy what we're really made of and make it very hard for them to swallow what they've bitten off." Sparks reply was heartfelt.

"And here I was getting worried. I always liked a challenge. Alright." The captain sounded more confident already. He was always a solid individual before, and could be forgiven a shaky moment after being downed like this. All of them were pretty rattled. 45 minutes passed in quiet. They'd made about four miles already. A good pace, maybe they did have a chance after all. Ahead, Reaper cautiously peered over a small rise and motioned for all to get down. Pegasi hearing and sight range are tremendously good, as they must be. Even unassisted they can catch the slightest movement. The captain slipped up to the rise to be informed that a zebra patrol was just out in front of them, they'd nearly walked right into them.

If not for the little rise they would now be under fire. All they could do was wait and hope they passed by. The feeling of waiting when a threat to survival is right around the corner is a wearing experience. Few of the squadrons number ever needed to deal with this in reality. They were trained well and battle-hardened, but that was all in a standup fight. Waiting like this was interminable and felt like forever. In truth it was a mere few moments. It felt like hours. Eventually the patrol passed far enough out of sight for them to get moving again. A couple more miles down and still nothing from their beacon locators. All wore one strapped to a leg. The range was very limited, but they should have some indication of others by now.

It was perhaps not too unusual given the interference, and that the rest should be moving as well. To their right in the distance they were passing by a large towering column of rock. Such a thing would be an impressive sight to most, but merely a ground feature to them. Mere height is not something which impresses a pegasus very much. What was perhaps more impressing were the odd markings on the base of the tower. Just looking at them gave an odd sensation of foreboding. It was a bad feeling shared by all. The locators did not have a great range to begin with. It was almost certainly being cut further by whatever was sending up so much interference across all channels.

Once again they were signaled to stop. Something was odd ahead. As the captain approached he was puzzled at not really seeing anything.

"What is.." He went to ask as Reaper pointed over around the bend. Peering around the corner of the huge stone column very slowly gave a view of what appeared to be one of the flak suits. As still as a statue. A sixteen was emblazoned across the flank. It seemed to be just standing there motionless against an outcropping. Somehow he'd ended up here all alone, but why wasn't he moving at all? How did he even get here?

The damaged suits were dead weight and useless, not capable of standing on their own. Something was truly wrong about this. None of his subordinates would disobey orders. There was no time to wonder about this, a decision must be made immediately. He decided to step out and confront the pegasus inside.

"Comet Trail.. Hey, Comet.. you alright buddy?" He tried to keep his voice down. It could easily echo here. As he moved closer he could see there was blood running down from a puncture in the suit. Had he been shot? If so why hadn't they taken his suit and weapons?

"Comet? Comet, come on. We have to go." Comet was a friend to most in the squadron and well-liked. This was not like him at all.

"Stay back!" Comet practically growled as he began smashing his helmeted head into the rock repeatedly, causing more blood to gush forth from the suit.

"Comet! What the hay!? You're killing yourself! Stop!" The captain hissed, but it was having no effect as he continued to ram and smash his head into the rock harder and harder repeatedly.

Before the captain could reach him he placed a gun pointed into the punctured suit and pressed it up against the outcropping, ready to fire.

"Comet, no!" The captain went to dash at him, but it was too late.

"I'm sorry, sir. I can't stop it." With that Comet placed a hoof against the mouth trigger and flicked it. The other three came running around the corner at the shot, but the captain put a hoof straight out out to stop them going farther and shook his head. The look on his face told them not to push past. Comet slumped forward and slid to the ground hard.

He was surely dead. Why. Why did he do it?

"We have to move, now. That shot could easily have been overheard. Get moving. Move! I'll be there in a moment." The rest continued on, somewhat shocked at this and the order. The captain moved towards his fallen subordinate. Never in a million years could he have imagined this pony doing such a thing to himself. Tears fell as he gathered up the small weapons and his tags, setting the fallen suit to destroy itself along with Comet. There was no time to do anything else. He huffed, and nearly choked.

"I know you didn't want to do this to yourself, Comet. I don't know what happened to you. I will tell them you fought hard. Somehow, I think that is the truth." At least, he would if they got out of here. He sniffled and brushed the tears away before catching up to the others.

"Captain, what..." Reaper went to ask, but the stony look on his superiors face told him not to. Another hour of hard walking passed in silence, and another. Finally one of the beacons registered on Sparks locator. Still 33 miles from safety. At least they might have more support now. 7, 8, and 9. They managed to catch their attention before moving in.

Accidentally shooting each other would make this mess very complete. The three were moving very slowly. They'd clearly landed hard at too steep of an angle much too fast, and were bleeding from numerous cuts. Each was bruised in several places. At least they'd finally picked up some of the missing members. This seemed to raise the captains spirit.

"Captain, are we ever glad to see you guys. We have a bit of a problem. Spectrum Bustle cannot walk at any good pace or fight. His right foreleg is pretty twisted, and his right hind leg is even worse. He slammed down pretty hard, sir." Straight Arrow informed them.

"That's just great. Couldn't you have landed on your head instead, Bustle? We all know how hard it is." The captain said, drawing light laughter from the group, and a bit of a blush on the targets muzzle. A bit of levity in a situation like this was probably a good thing.

"Okay, keep it down. We have a long way to go, and if I'm not mistaken, only a few hours before Celestia sets the sun. I don't really want to try camping out here and be set upon by the stripes in the dark. Pair up, we will take turns helping carry him along. You know the drill, fifteen minutes each." The pace was grueling, but there wasn't much choice.

Keeping the stripes off them for an entire night would likely prove to be impossible without support. As it stood, they were short enough on ammo for the small snub pistols they carried. The weapons were only intended to give a downed pegasi a quick and reliable secondary means of defense until rescue could move in. This situation was certainly never thought of. There was no way to tell if their radio messages were reaching anypony but themselves. Sparks could not assist carrying the injured due to the hefty dual antenna radio he lugged along, strapped to his back. The square bulky radios transmission strength was tremendous, surely at least a little got back to friendly lines?

If it did, they were not receiving any responses even as they closed the gap.

"Arrow, did any of you get a radio message off before going down, or see what happened to 19 through 24?" The captain asked.

"I think we all tried, but no answers. It happened so fast. I think I saw 23 going down short and west of here at a steep glide, but nothing so bad as us. Should've run into her by now, sir." Was his unhappy reply.

"We are spread out over way too much area. We could be trotting right past each other and never even see one another in this place. How do the stripes maneuver so easily around here? Anyway, we can only hope to pick up more as we move." The captain was definitely worried about this. The closer they got to what could loosely be deemed the front lines these days, the more likely they would run into more trouble. He was doing his best not to let whatever happened to drive Comet into committing suicide without so much as a word of explanation be the foremost thing on his mind. Lack of clarity here would definitely prove deadly. Still, the entire incident made his blood run cold, and left him on edge.

The worry was simple enough. Whatever happened to the poor flier could happen to another. If it did, what would happen, what would they do? Just what he needed. The possibility of more of them acting crazy. Hopefully, that would not come to be. Losing any of their number was painful. Each was a valued companion and an excellent fighter or they wouldn't be here. Losing even one that miserable way just did not sit right. Going out fighting was one thing. In some instances it could almost be celebrated, as painful as it was. Taking yourself out was an entirely different matter.

"Captain." Their superior jolted out of his thoughts at being spoken to. Sparks was asking him a question.

He really was on edge.

"Sorry, captain. Are you alright? You've looked a little pale ever since.. and, we all landed very hard. You sure you're not hurt? I know it's your job to be all tough and everything, sir." Sparks really was a good sort. They'd been through a lot together.

"I'm alright. I just never thought.. Never mind. Just keep at your radio and locator. We need help. Help from anywhere. The closest ground unit I'm aware of was several miles west of stage, so they're even further away." It was a heavy burden, leading these pegasi to fight and die, but it was never like this.

Each of them was a trusted stalwart, more than worthy of fighting alongside the best. Most of those in the fifteenth were true veterans of the long and bitter struggle. Only a couple were really young now, but all still saw enough action to merit deep respect. They looked aged far beyond their years. The rest served even longer. He'd lost others before, it was true, but it never felt anything like this. There were stories of the wicked and twisted things enemy forces threw at them before, but a pegasus fights from above. Away from it all, detached from the carnage on the ground. The sky is where they are truly most comfortable. Being forced onto the ground like this was a painful blow in itself, humiliating.

It would not be said aloud, but they all felt that way. How dare the stripes inflict such embarrassment on them? For the captain, going down having been shot out of the sky while fighting, would easily have been considered a far better fate than this. This was wrong. An affront to their honor and pride. This was eating at each of them. About two miles east of their position a terrifically green flare went sailing into the sky and burst. It could only have been fired off by 12, 13, or 14. On the particular mission they were engaged in before being knocked out of the sky, that particular color meant under fire. This was terrible. Worse, there was nothing they could do but evade and leave them to face their end alone.

"Captain, shouldn't we go help them?" They'd all halted at the sight. This was not going to be easy in any way.

"No. Keep moving, and before any of you get the wrong idea, that flare is not them calling for help. They're just saying goodbye and good luck, we'll keep them busy. See ya later, boys. Now, salute them and move on. You know that's what they want." The captain was clearly holding back years worth of tears. Each turned a smart salute in their direction and forlornly went on with the knowledge their longtime friends were giving them all they were worth and then some. May their enemies choke on it.

"I hope you take a whole battalion worth with you. Knowing you three, you might even manage that." The captain mumbled to himself inaudibly. He'd considered asking about resigning before. His time was already served twice over and he'd just about had enough. Maybe he should've got out while his luck still held? The thought felt empty. This was what he knew. What would he do when the war was over? Just go back to the quiet and fairly unremarkable existence that was his lot before all this? He'd never been very ambitious before joining up. Seeing ponies he knew personally being killed in droves is what pushed him to do better, fight harder to protect others until he was deemed an ace.

This designation certainly raised up his own pride in himself. He was just old enough to sign on when it started. Seeing so many dear friends leave and never return was a burning pain inside that practically guaranteed he would. The first time he joined actual combat was the most exciting, and most fearful moment of his entire life. He proved to quickly master the tactics necessary for survival during the brutal sortie. Some did not come back that time, just some added fuel to his anger and pain. Fear is a necessity. Without it one could easily make terrible mistakes. Those who claim to have absolutely none are either out of their minds or lying to themselves.

None of those within the ranks of the fifteenth were the sort to delude themselves. They were here to fight to the end. This intense drive to fight and protect others is what inevitably steered him into leading the squadron. Few would consider themselves peers to their celebrated captain in battle. This situation was wearing and intolerable. What would his life have been like if the war never happened? He would certainly not be who he was now. Formerly a slightly shy but still outgoing individual back then, he imagined it could have been a happy enough existence. At least, his friends would still be around. Instead, many of them lay strewn wherever they may have fallen. Some were known to be dead, but never found.

The destruction of battle forever obscuring their final fate. For some reason, those losses hurt the most. 27 miles to go. Things were certainly going to get more interesting as they got closer to the front. Just ahead another beacon finally showed up, they'd finally run across 7, 8, and 9. They weren't moving very fast either.

"Whistle Stop, report." The captain ordered. As per usual they caught their attention carefully first.

"Everything was going fine. We were sweeping probable enemy positions and then something went off and hurt our wings and we all did our best to land and we lost sight of everypony else because we went down too fast and we all got dinged up when we hit the ground and Gust Gale hit his head pretty hard and Twister Breaker hurt his hoof and we all thought were going to die on impact and that would have sucked. Do you know what happened to us? It hurts so much to move our wings and.." She stopped her almost impossible to follow fast chattering at seeing the captain hold up a hoof.

"Whistle Stop, I said report, not give us your life history." That drew a good laugh. They needed it.

Now they were at least a decent sized force and might be able to punch through whatever might be in their way if they were judicious about their use of ammo.

"Sorry. We are all able to move, but we all took a pretty hard tumble as you can see. I think I saw 15 and 17 ditch about half a mile on from right about here. They shouldn't be too hard to catch up with. You look a bit banged up yourself, sir." Whistle Stop might talk incomprehensibly fast sometimes, but she could also fly like the wind itself. An admirable trait to have and very applicable to warfare. There were a few better, but not many. She knew it, and they knew it.

Every single pegasus here felt they deserved to feel as prideful as they did. Each and every one suffered greatly through many battles. It was hard earned. They were making good time for the condition they were all in, but it was not fast enough. At the pace they were able to keep it would still be dark before they made it to relative safety. It would only be possible to make a few more miles at this rate. Ahead to the west a little was a tremendously high and wide column of rock with a vague spiral to the shape in places. All this walking was wearing. Even when near the ground pegasi would prefer to hover a bit above as they moved along. All this walking was nearly unbearable.

Of course they were in shape for it, hard training and endless years of deployments ensured they were. This was just not fair. Gazing through a pair of binoculars somepony managed to hang onto, the captain spotted 10, 15 and 17 huddled up against the edge of this gigantically tall rock formation. No sign of 11. Using a little signal mirror to bounce what little light was left of the day at them got their attention. After getting close enough to see them properly it was obvious they'd landed the hardest out of any survivors thus far. They must have practically crawled to get here.

"Are we ever glad to see you guys. We're in really rough shape, sir." Wild Eyes, a demolitions expert, gave a quick summary of their injuries. Both suffered several cracked ribs and torn muscles in various places. Not quite bad enough to stop them from moving, but they were very slow. That either of them were able to move at all showed just how willful and determined an injured pegasus can be. This was more bad news. They were already moving much too slowly. There was no possible way to cover another 25 miles with all three of the injured ponies before the sun dropped below the horizon, and where in the world did 23 wind up? There was no sign of her.

Even a dead body would be something, there was not so much as a hoofprint. Without any indication where the rest landed at all, they might never be found in this disorienting desert of a place. There was no choice but to try and find a defensible spot where they might escape detection for the night.

"There's a little cave entrance or something just around the other side about two hundred meters from here. We both saw it before we slammed down. Almost crashed right into it before we went sailing past. We umm, didn't quite feel like trying to go back and check it out, sir." The pair of injured pegasi informed them. A hidden cave?

It might be just what they needed, but it seemed unlikely they would just happen to find a safe haven so readily. With the radio still giving no reply but heavy static they could only hope it was undiscovered and unoccupied.

"I trust anything in this place about as far as I can spit. Alright, we'll check it out. I see you've still got a couple smoke grenades. Hoof'em over. You three injured sit tight." The captain was all business now. They knew this side of him rather well. The rest would go.

"You all better remember your close ground assault training. I will not die just because one of you forgets to check a corner, got it? Get in position. Go, go, go." He would be taking up his own position as they moved in on the entrance. Moving in around the sides of the little entrance proved there would be just enough for two ponies to enter side by side. They would only enter single file to fan out. Moving in together would be something they'd been drilled never to do. One must take the risk of entering first and calling in the next. The captain pointed Reaper to sweep left and Arrow to take right as they formed up quietly alongside the rocky entrance. It was dark inside.

After throwing one of the few marker flares in their kits deep inside to see. Reaper moved in checking left and right, and motioned the rest in one after another to rapidly move forward and check out the entire space. It proved to be a much larger cavern than expected with several unused looking passageways riddling the place, all going downwards at various angles.

"All clear!" Was finally called out by Whistle Stop after every nook and cranny of the large space was thoroughly examined for traps or hidden enemies. The passages proved to be a different matter.

They were dim, too small to stand side by side in and scattered off in multiple directions. Most were dusty and appeared very unused. One showed what might be signs of more recent use, but it was very difficult to tell. In all there were six. Another passage looked to have collapsed in on itself at some point. In all it appeared to be a very well hidden and defensible place. They might be able to spend the night here in relative safety.

"Something about this place doesn't sit right with me. I don't like it, sir. It is really hot in here." Sparks said in a matter of fact fashion to the captain after they'd helped move the injured inside the surprisingly large cavern.

The six dark passages lining the walls at odd intervals made for an eerie feeling by themselves.

"Forgive me, let me just ask Her Highness if she could kindly turn down the sun. What's to like, Sparks? Excepting the wounded we will take three hour watches covering the entrance and the passages. Nopony is to go wandering off. Stay in teams of at least three at all times, is that clear?" The captain was very intent on at least dying out in open air if it must come to that.

"Who would want to go wandering around what is very likely some old forgotten zebra haunt anyway? I agree though. Don't you feel it? This place definitely has a weird vibe about it. Won't they be sending rescue by now, sir?" Bustle chimed in. They'd done their best to make them all as comfortable as possible, but there was not very much they could do. Real medical attention was back at stage. Normally they would have airlifted the wounded off for attention. A practice they'd become very accustomed to. It saved a lot of lives over time, not only those of downed fliers. They'd perhaps become too used to being able to almost move freely as enemy resistance everywhere began to dwindle in number.

"All this place needs to complete the wonderful ambience and atmosphere is a mirror and someone chanting 'Bloody Mare!'" Wild Eyes quipped.

"Can it, Wild Eyes. Like anypony ever believed that nonsense anyway." The captain was obviously poking fun a little. Now, there was going to be a bit of a problem. In their pain, none of the squadron members they picked up on the way here asked about 16 or the others yet. They were bound to do so quite soon. What was he going to tell them?

He might get away with informing Comet's family and others that he went down fighting, but these fine companions he'd come to rely on would know better and see right through any lie about it. It was going to be a tense night. Providing they even survived it. Zebra patrols absolutely would be sweeping the area intensely for now. By only sheer luck and a little skill did they all avoid getting mowed down thus far.

"All of you, listen up." the captain clapped his hooves together to emphasize this was rather important and stood looking over the exhausted ponies under his command.

He could not have asked or hoped for better friends to live, and perhaps die alongside. Now was as good a time as any.

"I know most of you are wondering what happened to the rest. First, think about it, Bustle. A whole squadron went missing and they have no idea why, air support will not be coming, and a ground column cannot risk looking for us. We're on our own. I don't want to add to your burdens, but we may have another serious problem. I will tell you all what I know. Nothing from the twelfth. 12 through 14 are dead. They saved all our lives just a couple hours ago. 18 through 24 are either completely out of action or gone. All we got was a broken message from 19 that cut off. 23 might still be around here somewhere, but we cannot find her, and it gets worse." He hadn't mentioned 16 yet. This was so hard to tell them.

As Whistle Stop went to ask he held up his hoof and looked down.

"I want all of you to consider not telling this to anypony else why out of respect for all their time served with us but, Comet Trail is also dead. He said something strange, and shot himself before I could stop him." Saying this aloud hurt the captain to the core. The three with him were maybe a little surprised he chose to share this so openly. The rest looked on in stunned silence. How could one of their most confident and skillful have done such a thing? Whistle Stop looked the most shaken.

"Captain, it can't be. He wouldn't have..He wouldn't." She was trembling and tears were welling up. They all knew those two may have been striking up a relationship that might have been heading towards marriage. It wasn't a good idea to have such thoughts during the vast war, but it was so very nearly over. Why would he choose to hurt her like this? The captain spoke carefully.

"Whistle Stop..Whistler, look at me. Look. Listen." She looked up and peered at him through heavy tears. It was hard to see her this way.

"I do not believe for the slightest instant he wanted to do it. Something is really wrong with all of this, and we all need to be extremely cautious. Keep an eye out for each other. Do not start getting paranoid out here, but watch each others behavior, alright? Stick together. I mean it." He didn't want to discourage or cause them to turn on one another for no reason, but he simply couldn't choose not to warn them. Not a single one of them deserved to be taken unaware of what might be coming.

"Thank you for telling us, sir. I can see in your face all that must have been hard to say. We understand." Gust ventured to salute the captain, and the rest did the same.

"If only 23 were with us. Her knowledge of chemistry might prove useful right about now." Sparks stated lightly. Unusually for a pegasus, she was an expert on magically enhanced chemical warfare, and that was all they could imagine caused whatever happened. Where could she be? The sun finally went down below the horizon. The one duty that Celestia seemed to have kept after her sudden departure from the throne so long ago. She didn't have to do that either, others could very well have taken over in her place. Perhaps she took solace in seeing that much-celebrated orb still bring some measure of confidence and hope to her beloved ponies. At least one thing that could still be trusted.

She might even return to the throne after the war ended. That would truly signal that hostilities were over. That could not be hoped for, not quite yet. That would be something later, a great and happy moment. For now, the enemy was still defiant, practically to the point of insanity. Their very motivations to this point still mostly a mystery.

"Three hour rotations. Keep it sharp and your wits about you." The captain himself desperately needed some rest. He'd been hustling most of them along for almost half a day now and it was showing. The single dim flare they'd tossed would last for several hours at least. It would only provide a modicum of light.

Leaving flickering shadows and minds to jump at nothing. There were only three of them left, just enough to last the night. Even if command had some idea where they were, help would not be coming from the air. Not without knowing what brought them down. Perhaps by tomorrow enough ground force might be pulled together to push a column this deep into enemy territory to assist. That was a possibility that could not be counted on.

"Captain, before you get some rest, do you really think 18 through 24 are gone?" Reaper asked quietly. It was uncharacteristic of him to even bother asking such questions. The captain took a deep breath and sighed heavily.

"What 19 said... I could hear it in his voice. Something really terrible happened to those guys. Whatever it was, I don't want it happening to us." The tinge of sadness to the captains voice lately was not something any of them were used to hearing. The war had already taken more lives than any would care to count. In a way the horror of it all was about to end. Not knowing how close they were to witnessing the very end of Equestria along with it, both sides were still losing valued friends and members of their respective societies. The pain of losing so many kindred to what felt like no real reason at all is what hurt the most.

From above the captain watched many of them fall from the very sky which was their home, and saw those on the ground taking on even more brutal losses. He never let another see it, but sometimes he shook when nopony was looking. In his most private moments he trembled terribly, remembering it all. If his superiors ever saw it they would have removed him from duty immediately. He really should have quit, but that burning desire to protect others was still there. It was the one defining trait he ever truly felt anything about. If he could no longer do that one thing, what good was he? He quickly fell into a deep and dreamless slumber.

As the first watch shifted positions a few hours later, they let the captain continue to sleep instead of waking him. In that time all seemed well enough. As the first flare stuttered and began to fade another was about to be lit by Whistle Stop. At this instant a sharp scream rang out followed by a heavy thud. As she struck the end against a rock to light it, the just lit flare went flying out of her muzzle as she was dragged into one of the passages. The rest went to shoot at whatever it was, but it was already too late. She was gone. At the same time as her echoing scream faded into the deep, Reaper was struck in the back of the head by something and fell, possibly dead.

The sound of gunfire echoed terribly in the cavern as they shot into the passageways blindly. Being picked off in the dark was causing them to panic.

"Sparks, I can't see anything in here. Cease fire! Celestia damn it. Cease fire!" The captain was yelling from the ground of this dimly lit cave. It finally got through. They'd wasted far too many rounds aimlessly in the dark.

"Well this is a fine mess. Each of you check how many rounds you have left and stop firing at shadows! You know better. No target, no shot. We do not have enough ammo for suppressing fire. Somepony check Reaper." There was no point being angry at them. Something unseen picked off two of their number in the dark. Seeing the lifeless form of Reaper laying there sent chills down his spine. Breaker knelt in close to place an ear against his chest, then hammered about the area around his heart with a hoof. A moment later he stood and shook his head slowly. Whatever struck Reaper was not apparent.

"He's gone, sir." Was all he could barely manage to say. Sparks spoke up.

"What do we do about Whistle Stop? She was definitely not dead." This drew the same question from the others.

"We will put it to a vote. Consider carefully for a moment. If we go down there, it might well be the end of us all." The captain did not want to blindly lead them to their deaths, at least not one in some dark pit in the ground. After a brief pause he asked.

"All for?" Everyone raised a hoof.

"We never leave anypony behind. Not the fifteenth, sir. After we rescue Whistler, we'll go find the others, too." Charger made it sound like there was nothing else to consider. They were all very likely going to die here anyway. Might as well go out hard.

"Well, there's no arguing with that, is there? Can't say I ever fancied going spelunking. Alright, form up. Sparks, you, Arrow, Breaker and Rooks will stay here with the injured. Remain in the center of the cave and well away from the passages. We will take the last flare. If we are not back before this flare dies out, get them out of here. Drag them all the way home if you have to. No arguments." The captain knew this was something they must do.

Whistler might well still be alive, lost in the dark. Leaving her to face the enemy by herself was not an option. What happened to 12, 13, and 14 came to mind, but they went down fighting and knowing they were not alone or abandoned. This was something altogether different.

"Marbles, point. Pin Strike, Rear guard. Get that cannon of yours ready. Spectre, with me. All of you watch your steps, and do not lose that flare under any circumstances. Without it we could be lost forever." An admonishment they likely did not need, but it was better to reinforce how important it was. Marbles was just a little crazy, in a good way.

Pin Strike had the best eyes, and was the most precise shooter the captain ever saw. He'd proven to be a superb shot on many occasions. The ever-present lightweight mini-PSS close-combat sniper rifle strapped to his back was a familiar sight as he unslung it and popped in the 20 round cartridge, then pulled back the mouth charger slide. It was a very advanced weapon, few of which were in service yet. Designed to be as easy to use as possible and made of odd materials, he was so good that he'd been one of the rare ponies chosen to receive one for field testing. For two years now, it proved to be an amazing rifle. Anything within 300 meters would be an easy hit for him.

He was the only one that did not waste any rounds in the short scuffle. This left him with the most bullets. These specific armor piercing rounds were not common yet either, packing an extremely heavy punch into a very small package. Spectre might as well have been a ghost for all he spoke.

"Solid targets only. Most of us have about half a clip or less, that's not so good. Move out." They set off into the darkness of the path where Whistler was taken. There was clear indication someone was being dragged.

About ten minutes along in their awkward trek into the dark the passage opened out slightly into a smaller cavern with a couple of branching hallways chiseled into the rock. They looked ancient and unused as the rest of the place. It took a few minutes to spot a few drops of blood looking to be leading into the leftmost hall.

"Scrape a mark into the edge there. Getting lost in here on top of everything else is not my idea of a good time." The captain ordered. How he yearned for the open skies above. He knew they all held similar feelings, but he felt so confined in here it was getting on his nerves. At least none of them were claustrophobic.

All they could do was follow the trail and hope Whistle Stop wasn't hurt too badly. Partway along the trail Marbles looked at a little indent along the rock wall.

"Hey, what's this?" He said as he pushed on what could possibly be a little button.

"No, don't!" They all said in unison. Too late as a large chunk of the wall swung around, swallowing Marbles whole.

"Marbles! Can you hear us!?" It was no use. The false wall, looking exactly like the rock was simply too thick. There did not appear to be any sort of mechanism on this side to open it again.

"Damn yer hide, Marbles! Keep moving, maybe we can go around and link back up with him down further somewhere. Sky Skimmer, take point. Spectre Flight, in front of me." This was already not going well. Now, there were only four of them. Out of all of them Spectre was probably most used to being on the ground, having served with second battalion as close support during some of the worst fighting of the entire war.

"Nopony touch nothin!" The captain was pretty irritated Marbles did this. Sometimes he was just a little too reckless. More often than not it was more of a facade, but sometimes it got him in real trouble. Nothing this bad before, though.

Distressed, they walked on down the narrow winding corridors. What was this place? Everything about it was strange and felt off somehow, in a way none of them could quite fathom. The very angles of the thin corridors felt a bit strange in some way. The entire place almost seemed designed to be disorienting, but who would build something that way on purpose? It was probably just their imaginations getting carried away in a terrible situation. The passageway always going downwards finally widened gradually until two ponies could stand side by side, continuing to do so until they stepped out into an immense room. It was an actual room.

Covered top to bottom in cobwebs and dust were a couple huge tables that must have once sat at least a hundred. A few ancient oil lanterns left unlit for decades or longer were arranged about the tables. At one time this room must have served some kind of royalty, perhaps. If they were new it would be an impressive sight. Disused and apparently undisturbed for ages rot and grime settled on everything.

"Check those lanterns. Be careful, I said check them. The last thing we need is something blowing up in our faces." The captain knew this was a bit risky. Lighting something so old could prove very dangerous. Two turned out to be serviceable.

Between the two there was enough oil remaining to fill one to capacity, with just a little left over for the other. It should last several hours. More than enough. They all carried a packet of matches in their small kits. It was standard issue. You never know when you might need to set something ablaze. Using them was not the easiest thing in the world to do, after a few misfires the lantern burst to life in fits and starts for a moment. A good hour and a half must have passed since Marbles went missing. With the lantern casting far more light, the sheer size of this old room impressed itself. It was at least three stories high. At one time it must have been truly spectacular.

Why would a place this grand have been abandoned to dust and decay? The great meetings once held in this grandiose hall by firelight could almost be imagined. Grand feasts consisting of all manner of delicacies were surely served here long ago.

"Captain. Call me crazy, but I think these long serving trays under all the cobwebs might be made of pure platinum. Just one of these is probably worth thirty thousand bits, sir. Why would they just leave this stuff here for the spiders?" Sky remarked. As he looked up, he found out why.

The captain was pointing to the other end of the room they could now see with the improved light from the old lantern.

"Because they never left either." He said gravely, gazing at a pile of zebra skeletons thrown everywhere in a tangle.

"Oh dear Luna, what happened here?" Pin Strike didn't look so good.

"This place is a tomb, and I don't want to know what happened. Some kind of weapon or experiment, or worse, got out of control here. Forget the trays. You know the rules. We do not loot. Besides, we need to find Marbles and Whistler real quick and get out of here, now. Let's move." The captain didn't really look too good himself. There was only about two more hours before Sparks and the others left without them. Sky looked at the buried trays wistfully, and turned to follow.

"Oh well. I didn't join up to get rich anyway. I'm just here to fight." Sky mumbled a little halfheartedly. Fighting was something they'd all known for a very long time. Something they might be doing again very shortly.

Some unknown killed every zebra here. No wonder it was abandoned. Every corner and turn felt dangerous before seeing all this. Now, they felt positively menacing. Quite logically they'd assumed whoever dragged off Whistler was just another zebra. If there was something else in here, perhaps even more dangerous, they could very well all be in extreme peril.

"You've been awfully quiet, Charger." Sky inquired of him. He hadn't said so much as a single word since they were forced to land.

"Like Sky said, we're here to fight. I want to be fighting, not hiding or running away. " His voice was very deep, and held an almost forlorn quality, perhaps echoing all the hard years of service they'd endured. Several other chiseled tunnels branched off from this enormous room, leading to the assumption there must be many more miles of tunnels beneath the place. Clearly intended to be a hidden meeting place, perhaps it was created by zebra outlaws at some point in the past. Did they even have outlaws or some equivalent? It might never be known. Turning to follow another path that looked like it might head towards where Whistle Stop was continued downwards. How deep was this place?

A few drops of blood here and there were not reassuring, but did gave a clue to the right path. Stepping downwards ever further into the dark, the oppressive atmosphere did nothing to lighten their spirits. After finding their way down to what appeared to be some kind of ancient storage room coated in dust, there was little muffled sound which caused Sky to halt and point ahead to another opening. After quickly positioning themselves they rushed into the room to find Whistle Stop laying on the floor in a pool of blood, gurgling, choking and gagging. There was a slightly deep cut on her throat too.

"Whistler!" Sky knelt beside her and tried to staunch the bleeding from a large gash across her midsection.

The others fanned out in a defensive circle, staring intently off into the flickering shadows for any sign of her kidnapper.

"Give me the flare, quick." Sky told Spectre who passed it over.

"Whistle Stop. Listen to me, keep your eyes open. Can you hear me? You are going into shock. Stay with me now. Eyes up flier! I have to cause you more pain, understand? Do you understand me?" Sky kept asking until she shook her head in understanding. With that Sky torched her wound closed as her muffled agonizing scream caused them all to wince.

It took several moments for her to stop sobbing. Tears welled in both their eyes.

"I'm so sorry Whistler. I'm sorry, there was no choice. You were bleeding out." Sky was shivering over what he'd just done.

She rubbed his foreleg gently. She understood. The cut on her throat was making it difficult for her to speak and tell what happened. The captain stepped in.

"I hate to break this to you, but we need to move. This is going to keep hurting, Whistle Stop. We cannot remain here. Charger, carry her." He ordered. After helping lift her onto Charger's back as she groaned in pain, they began walking back the way they'd come down. It was even slower than before. Each light but jarring step was clearly agony for her, draped as she was over him. From behind there was a sudden bang as Pin Strike fired off a round which ricocheted back down the tunnel.

"Pin Strike, Report!" The Captain whirled as he said it, just in time to see something duck down some previous unseen side passage. He never missed before. It was difficult to make out and fast.

"Something is stalking us. Couldn't hit it. Sorry, sir." He looked terribly annoyed at missing.

"Sharp eye you've got there, Pins. Keep it up and we might even make it out of here." Was all the captain said as he noticed Whistle Stop' terrified expression. Cautiously they crept back towards the large room. Once in it, there was still the matter of locating Marbles.

The decision was made to follow another path that looked like it may lead to where he might have wound up. Marbles did not have any light at all, and could not have moved. Hopefully he'd kept quiet after they were separated and knew to stay still. Carrying Whistler like this was making every step slow and tiring. By this time there was only an hour or so left before the others tried to make a run for home. Home, the word sounded distant and nearly forgotten down here. The sound of their hoof-steps echoing on the rock was not helping matters any. It gave a menacing feeling of giving them away with every strike. Hearts pounding every time they turned a corner was a terrible strain.

The dark ever pressing in and hiding who knows what in its cloak, easily gives rise to apprehension and fear. Here, this fear was justified. Some terrible thing was loosed in these dim halls long ago. Was it because of some act of zebra audacity and impudence? Did they think themselves able to do absolutely anything they felt like with impunity? In this case they clearly paid dearly for their arrogance. Unfortunately the lesson was lost on them. Whatever happened here was certainly long forgotten by zebra kind, buried. Instead of owning up to their error in judgement it was simply pushed out of the collective consciousness. This forgotten pit probably no longer even a passing memory.

Why did they ever have to wind up in this awful place? On into the dark they marched, sidelong glances around confirming all they needed to know. This place was dead, as was everything and everyone which ever strode within it. The very dark felt dangerous, almost a living thing unto itself. Finally, ahead they could see Marbles. Slumped back against the wall, dead. All manner of scrapes and bruises covered his body at every which angle, an empty clip lay on the ground. He was trying to reload. The bit-catch firing mechanism still hanging awkwardly from the side of his shattered muzzle. One of his eyes slightly hung askew from his head. Whatever did that was immensely strong.

Blood which did not seem to be entirely his own was spread everywhere. The captain could not help but let slip a few tears.

"Oh, Marbles. I see you gave them a terrible thrashing. A good fight. You sure earned your rest. May we all go down so hard. See you later, buddy." He brushed the tears away and gave a smart salute, they all did as they walked past. There was no time for more. Grieving was a thing of luxury on the battlefield. It would have to wait for later. If that later would ever come was another matter.

Pin Strike truly did have the best vision of them all. This is saying a lot for a pegasus. If he could barely catch sight of whatever was hunting them down here, the rest would stand little chance without him. Each step into uncertainty another which may be bringing them ever closer to their doom. If they continued to lose ponies at this rate, there would be nothing left of the squadron, to report back on this or anything else. With every furtive glace, this place looked and felt for lack of better terms, evil and dead. The quiet desperate march to escape these depths hopefully went unnoticed. Perhaps Marbles heroic stand against the hunter harmed it seriously enough to stop it coming after them? It might be wishful thinking.

A thought which crossed all their minds as they sought upward paths, paths which were beginning to thin once more. This was going to be a serious problem. The other unspoken problem which plagued them, there may be more than one. Inching their way forward along the terribly thin tunnels finally let them exit out into the cavern once more. Their sighs of relief were short-lived as they announced their return to find only silence and the dying embers of the flare on the ground. The injured were still here. Each with a bullet to their head.

"What in the.." The captain stopped short at seeing Sparks, draped over his radio and torn up badly.

Evidently, he was the one which fired on them. What could have happened here? Sparks wings were definitely being used defensively. It wouldn't have done much good. Only a desperate pegasus would even think to try shielding themselves with their wings. Two of the wounded appeared to have been crawling towards him. The other fell where he'd been shot. Each held a strangely glossy expression. Their guns were dry. Every bullet spent. Where were the other three? Lifting Sparks head up slightly, he surprisingly proved to still be alive despite massive blood-loss. He would bleed out soon. It was already too late to save him.

"Sparks. Sparks, what happened!?" The captain could see in his eyes that something was more wrong than just this. As he sputtered and coughed up blood, he was clearly dying, struggling to speak slowly. The light in his eyes was fading away as he coughed and sputtered. He was barely clinging to life. Blood from multiple parties was here, making it difficult to tell if it was just from these four.

"Captain, you made it. Kind of figured you would, you're just like that. Arrow went crazy out of nowhere. He got this funny look and just snapped. Started...started shooting at everything. Breaker tried to hold him down. They fought. He was crazed, broke loose. Breaker and the rookie went out after him. He didn't care, sir." Sparks was fading away quickly. "As soon as they left, something jumped me. I couldn't get it off. It hurts so much, sir." He heaved and shook violently.

"Sparks! Sparks, come on. Just hold on a little longer. What about the rest? Why did you shoot them?" The captain was badly torn about all this.

His squadron, his friends that depended on him to see them through the war, were dying all around him.

"When I woke up a while ago it was gone. Guess they got it off me, or thought it killed me. I tried to call for help. What I got was..them. They all were acting strange, like they couldn't understand me. They bit me. I was hurt. I had to. I didn't wa.." Gagging, he spat blood on the ground and shivered heavily.

"Easy. It's alright, Sparks. We all understand. You did just fine. Why don't you have yourself a good rest? You're..dismissed." The captain was trying not to let even more tears flow.

Sparks actually smiled and very shakily went to salute as his eyes closed, a final twitch left him still. The captain looked at his longtime second for a brief moment. The others were staring blankly. This was wrong. Everything about it was.

"Spectre, check Wild Eyes kit, see if there are any explosives left." Was the only order he felt like giving anymore. Spectre did as he was told, rifling through the kit for a moment.

"Whoa. How did he get clearance for this!? I mean I knew he was a little crazy but, there is uh, one Octanite cap and timer detonator, sir. Why did he have this? How did he even get it? Was he planning on taking out the entire stripe army by himself? This thing is enough to blow up a whole mountain. There's nothing else." Spectre was not generally a talkative sort, but friendly enough. Like the rest, he was a superb flier who put his life on the line more than once. The rest were just as shocked at finding out Wild Eyes was lugging around a type of experimental explosive. The tiny cap was twenty times more powerful than anything else in the military arsenal.

"It doesn't matter and I don't care how he got it. We need to get gone. The sun will be up in just a few minutes, and we need to report back about this insanity. Everypony outside, now. I will set the cap on a five minute timer and knock this place on top of that..thing, or things. Letting them get out of here would be a real bad idea. Sorry Whistler, we have to move fast." He knew this would hurt her side more. She groaned in response, but knew there was no choice.

"Strap on that radio and clip, Spectre. Signal red distress every ten minutes on all channels. You know what that means. We must get a message back to command." The captain was looking very angry.

This was a look few ponies ever actually saw on his face. Usually it was carried inside. Once all outside he placed the advanced cap and attached the detonator with two unusual looking wires to two clips on either side. There was one more order to give. There was nothing to do for these four. At least, he could give them a truly spectacular burial. He looked at their lifeless forms, taking in all they'd been through together. A moment later he turned to the others.

"This may turn out to be my final order. Once I hit this switch it cannot be stopped, everypony go for home. There are about twenty-three miles between us and safety, and each and every stripe for fifty miles in every direction is probably going to see this. Breaker and the kid will see it too, hopefully they can catch up. No matter what happens or what we encounter, keep moving. Try to stay together. If any of us takes a hit at any point, do not assist. Do not turn back. I have lost enough friends today, but this is more important than any of us, they need to know what downed the squadron and what we found in there." He reached up to tap the enable switch. Once armed they left at as rapid a pace as could be managed.

Five minutes later a rumbling was more felt than heard before a huge concussive wave swept outwards in a circle from the mountainous column of rock. They weren't kidding about how powerful an explosive it was. Even at this distance they felt it push them as they turned to look. The one entire side of the column was collapsing straight downwards as the rest tumbled in atop uncountable tons of rock. Whatever horrible thing was in there would surely have no means of escape now. If the falling rubble did not kill it, it would contain it.

"Pin Strike, keep your eyes glued forward. Charger, Whistler, give me your magazines. I will provide cover if needed." He emptied both and combined them into a full one. All that was left, plus one each for... The ground defense pistols held a surprising 19 rounds when full. Most of the ammo was wasted in the dark. As dawn finally broke the horizon on that final day unknowing, as happy as and welcome as it ever was, this little band ventured forward. Mile after mile they marched at a hard pace. Whistle Stop needed proper medical attention soon. Cresting a gentle hill Pin Strike stopped. So many hours march brought them within six miles of home only to find a horrific sight. The remains of 19 and his flak suit.

"What? It looks like he was split in half by one of our own suit guns, sir." He gasped as he looked around and took in the true scope of this. All but 23 were here, all having crashed practically straight down beside a tall, but not nearly as impressive pile of rock as the last. The attachment from 12th spec ops was not with them. Something was off about this. An odd sound was heard.

"Get down!" Hard Charger yelled and shoved him aside only to have a round pass straight through him, resulting in a fine spray splashing across the others.

As they all hit the ground a damaged flak suit marked 23 could be seen standing and firing the dual guns from above on a ledge with reckless abandon.

"No, Charger! Armor Heart, not you too. It's us, stop shooting! Stop it!" All of them yelling was not doing any good. If this wasn't attracting other attention they would be lucky. They were only able to keep from being hit by squeezing against the bottom of the rock. The suit guns could not be trained downwards any further, having been designed to be used in a slight dive from above.

"Armor Heart, snap out of it!" They kept pleading, but she must be out of her mind.

"Well this is just great. Charger, can you hear me? Say something." Pin Strike called out. Charger wasn't moving. He could not get a bead on the crazed pony above. All the sporadic firing was keeping them pinned. The suit was unlikely to run out of ammo anytime soon. The guns suddenly fell silent as a strange bang rang out. A few seconds later the suit and the pony inside came tumbling down off the ledge to land against the rocks, shattered. A bullet hole was straight through the back of the neck. Looking up, they could just make out the form of Breaker.

"Sorry I'm late, sir." Breaker hobbled down the other side. He looked beaten and battered. Nopony else was with him.

"Where are.." They all went to ask as he shook his head. Great. They'd all been marching for almost twelve hours without any sign of the enemy, only to run across this horror. Where were they all? This area should be crawling with enemy forces. They could not possibly have simply given up? Whistle Stop was in even worse shape, having been tossed aside when they were fired upon.

"Oh for.. Isn't there anything on that radio yet?" The captain looked to Spectre who'd banged into the rocks with the radio when they all dove for cover. It was just dented a little. The radio looked like it'd been through a war by itself. The worn dual whip antennas almost seemed to have a forlorn look of their own. A look that spoke of giving up. The same dense static as before for a moment as he fiddled with settings and tuners. Finally, a dull message punctuated by an odd beep once in a while. A concerning note.

"No. no. We are right there. It's right there! It was all for nothing. All of it." The captain was shaking and threw his gun on the ground.

"Captain? What is it?" The few of them remaining asked.

"Just look up at the sky, and listen. Just listen." Was all he said. The sky did look odd. The radio sometimes cut in with a nearly dead sounding voice repeating and then the odd creepy tone once more. Some missiles could occasionally be seen passing back and forth, leaving trails. They might be out of range here. They might not.

It would be an impressive sight if it didn't mean it was all over.

"C A1 C2 M A L. All pony forces, seek nearest base, shelter or stable immediately. Multiple warhead exchange confirmed. Message repeats..." The captain dropped on his side and started crying and sobbing.

"What have they done!? I couldn't protect them. I couldn't protect anypony. They're all dead. All of them. My squadron, everypony else. Home is gone. Everything is. Forgive me." He shook and moaned. The shock of it was too much to bear. Whistle Stop managed to speak in a wheeze.

"It's not your fault, sir. You did your best. It is too big. There is nothing to forgive, and with all due respect, sir. We are more than happy to die with somepony like you, here at the end." They looked on as the world burned.

- - -

Sometimes you just can't win for trying. Do you think the bombs or something else got them?

Sanity's Gate

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Where does it come from, that feeling which fleets?, when one has suffered far too many defeats. When all your strength is not enough, and your road is much too rough, when you have finally had enough. You pick yourself up one last time, with no real reason or rhyme. Now running out of time, grasping onto one final line. Will you make it, do you dare, to pull yourself out of your despair? Calling on that which just is not there.

What adds up to no passing hour? What tears asunder once beauteous wildwood flower?
What is it that saps ones power? Be it in rain or thundershower.
What is it that towers so tall?
What is it that makes good things fall?
What is it that spurns ones soul? What is needed to fill that hole?
What is it that makes the cold winds blow? When they shriek and howl ever so low?

What is it hiding in the dark? Be it monster or be it lark?
What is it that takes your treasures away? Who is to say?
What is it that makes such a horrible sound? Echoing across all the ground.
What is it that makes your eyes tear? What is it that fills all with fear?
What is it that makes you feel like you've drowned? Brow knitted into a permanent frown.
What is it that brings us grief? What is it that denies relief?

What is it that makes one pray? In doing so, what is it that makes one pay?
What is it that screams and cries? What is it that dims your eyes?
What is it that makes life's song? What is it that pushes you when you can't go on?
What is it that locks you in? What is it that has stolen away your grin?
What is it that strains your smile? What is it that makes you walk so many a mile?
Finally, perhaps, the end of your trial.

Stars at night, once so bright for me. They have lost their luster, they do not shine. What is it, what crime? Have I portrayed to deserve such unbridled hatred and undying glare of eyes from behind the walls? Voices now echo throughout the halls, within my head, filling me with dread. Despair unneeded, pain no longer heeded. Cursed longing in my heart, I should have listened from the very start. I lost my chance to have spirits needs and find myself begging, cut down just to see. Soon further down now shall I fall, my strength has finally faltered and failed all.

By flickering firelight shadows meet, with their sinewy twining figures treat. All eyes fall upon the ground, at the terrible cracking sound, terror now raining all around. Quiet now, do your ears deceive? They are lying, but you must believe. Wishing now, but it's too short a reprieve. Hope now fleeting and safety torn asunder. Was it your fault, a miserable blunder? You realize what is your task, now you have only but to ask. Reason left far behind, moving forward as though you're blind. A storm arising to meet your stance, now it is your final chance. Will you call life's heroes to your aid? Will your mission be over, your duties paid?

Your heart notwithstanding heavens drums, pain along with pleasure comes. Doth one dare to speak the truth, though ridiculed by those uncouth? Stairways will not take you there, only to dim lighting and despair, pulling forth just one mere ray of hope. Whilst others take bounty, stare and gloat.

Oh magnificent wanderings, once standing in front of placid stream. Seeing things that should only come forth from a pleasant dream, or is it a nightmare hidden inside? To force one to ponder upon their pride. Into horror now taking a slide, all failing strength now set aside. Is it that ones spirit has died? Facing a deal for which another has lied, now time to choose on which side. Will you stand and fight once more, or simply let events occur, without gentle coercion or forceful tact? Only one chance and it is now to act, but a secret pact holding one back, few others can take up the slack. In this void and needing new track, only one is left to react.

Taking up call from shadowed hill, shuddering and it gives no thrill, and from the air now a pounding trill. A horrible shrieking shrill, a thunderous noise unlike any other, turning friend to foe and brother against brother. What hope against this awesome force, is there even any final recourse? The one who all thought vanquished, as if from darkness now recalled. Out from the darkened walls it calls, causing stir in the shattered halls. I watch over something deadly in state, where others would only dare to stare and debate. Oblivious and blinded by hate. What is it, what terrible state? What sets me on this saddening path, bad memories from the past? Events are unfolding much too fast.

Making one feel as though outcast, by some throng of stranded crowd, screaming oh so terribly loud? Their futile screams echoing down through time, they were so proud, their voices echo loud. Pounded on by thundercloud, the mysteries hidden in veiled shroud. Now I fall to bended knee, strength fleeting and leaving me, my eyes so dim I can barely see. Why did I throw myself to such a fate? Had I felt myself to be so great? To be unmoved as mountain stones in my resolve? Some questions left unsolved. I felt the universe around me revolved, but then shattered came my immortal soul. I know not what caused this crippling hole.

Driven to reverse my role, and try to destroy that which I swore could never be stole. I know not what is growing in my heart, something deep inside now tearing me apart. I do not know even where to start. To try and regain that which I’ve lost, that purity of spirit which was the cost. My station and duty here, hidden by silent yearnings for so many an unbending and unrelenting year. Ever driving me onward, I gave into fear. I do not know how long I can last, it is finally time to reclaim my past. Onward I am beckoned, I must go. Comfort away to the wind, I must know. I shall resume my stewardship by Sanity's Gate, for the hour I have let grow far too late.

- - -

Curiouser and curiouser.

Echoing Laughter

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"Boss, why?" The whimpering dull brown-coated earth pony quivering before him asked. He'd been thrown a couple meters aside with a single blow. He lay there in such pain. To others he might have seemed strong. Amongst the band of raiders, one of their weakest. The rarely heard voice of their leader grated so terribly, in some fashion defying description. It made him feel itchy all over, his fur almost rippling in response.

"You ask why? Then I shall tell you." His voice sounded..louder? More menacing than ever before.

"Our dead world cries out in pain. The rubble, the rock, and the stone. It all lies broken. The fallen ghosts are calling. A call which still goes unanswered. Courage and reason lost their course. None step forth to answer this call. Everything left to ruins. Faded and torn. I shall correct this." Hearing this sent chills along the injured raiders spine as that terrible voice rang in his head.

"The end came, taking the mighty armies of old with it. The scalded ground tortured, tormented for endless quiet moments ever since. Their hoofprints once spread across all of Equestria. The marks of their supremacy lay all but forgotten. Even from on high they fell, their pride torn from them. Great achievements they once crafted. All for naught." It hurt so much to listen to this deathly voice. Boss was a violent terror and strict leader, but this was something new. He'd never spoken or acted this way this before as far as he knew.

"Blistered, surviving rent and cracked pavement might give you the impression that long ago, so long ago, they had knowledge and the power to use it. A scorpions sting would have been far more pleasant. Mere poison you have some chance to survive. This dead world of ours is far worse. Those with so much knowledge and power did not have the foresight to gird themselves against their end." What was he talking about? Why was his voice so much stronger, more dangerous sounding than before?

"In their vanity they stood with heads held high until the very last second. How surprised they must have been to find themselves so powerless in the face of the inevitable. Perhaps they were cowards at heart, unwilling to do what was necessary. Did you know the ponies actually won the great war? In victory, they lost." The war? Everypony heard something of it, but what was this about? This was creeping out the raider. His heavy barding was cracked from that one blow. He knew Boss was very strong, raiders would not follow him otherwise, but was he truly this powerful? How would he know this stuff?

"Boss, I don't understand." It was all he could do to answer as he quivered, laying there.

"How weak could they possibly have been? Some dragged the very stars and planets across the heavens every day and still they fell. Where are the mighty now? They do not even have a grave to mark their passing. That is how worthless they all proved to be. You want to know why I stand angered?" The raiders ears laid back against his head as he stared up at their leader, he couldn't help it. Something just felt wrong about this.

"Stand." Boss ordered. It hurt so badly, but there was no choice or he would surely die right now.

Groaning he got to his hooves, shaking.

"Was that difficult for you? Does it hurt? Are you angry? Do not lie." Boss was surely tormenting him. He really was angered by it, he'd done nothing against their leader.

"Yes. Yes." He panted through the pain and gritted teeth.

"Yet you are standing. Well done. Make the pain your ally. Let this anger consume your mind and enrage you. Feel it coursing through you in all its intensity." Boss was speaking so strangely. What did he mean?

Why would he want him to do this?

"Now, strike me." Boss ordered. What? Strike him? Did he want to die? What was happening here?

"Boss, what.." He found himself laying on his side, having had his legs swept out from under him, smacking his head off the ground. He lay there groaning, holding a hoof to his head where it hit. So much pain.

"I gave you an order. Obey it. Stand." Boss told him again. The searing pain in his head was so bad as a little blood trickled from his mouth. Shaking even more than before he stood up. He felt like he was dying.

Was he really going to kill him? Why tell him anything at all if that was so?

"Angry? Hurting? Does it sear your insides? Feel all that hatred rising up within. Strike. Ball all that misery up and hit me as hard as you are able." That terrifically dark voice was making his head hurt even worse. Boss was right behind him. If he was going to die anyway he might as well do what he was told. If Boss wanted to die, then fine. Gathering all his strength he bucked Boss directly in the chest and.. Boss didn't move an inch, or at all. It was like landing from too far above onto a solid surface. The impact of his hooves did nothing except send pain back into himself. It made him yelp and fall on his stomach.

It wasn't possible. Boss should be dead. A shot like that should have killed anypony. Broken a bone, something. He didn't move, or even flinch. It just could not be.

"How does it feel? Knowing how powerless you are? How futile your anger and rage?" Boss tone sounded even darker than it already did. He was hurting so horribly now. That voice seemed to be making him angrier and angrier. So angry the pain seemed to be subsiding. He stood again without being told.

"I see you begin to understand. This lesson is over." With that Boss turned and left. A deep, dark and hollow sounding laugh seemed to follow him.

---

What did we learn exactly?

A Traveler's Tail or Two

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It hurts, those moments pondering, lost in the dark. What do we do? The grim world around offering no comfort, no relief. The quiet darkness which settled over the land nearly a mocking joke in itself against the sanctity of life. It has been this way for several eternities already. Those struggling just to remain alive feel no joy, no happiness. There is none to share, no revelry. Carve out your path or fall to the wayside, beaten and broken like tides upon the unyielding rocks. There are no tides now, and little else. What other way forward can there be? Take what you want, or have it taken from you. This is how things are. How it seems to have always been. Where is the light?

Not even a dim spark has been offered since quiet darkness covered the land in empty eternal silence. Those possessed of the darkest hearts still know loss. Is this truly what they sought? Could it be they too made a mistake? A serious miscalculation beyond the scope of of what was sought? Both the dark and the light make mistakes. This blanketing quiet may be an epic blunder wrought by both sides. There is nothing to gain when everypony is dead, and they are still dying to this day. Everything is. Every number of them, slowly. The world itself lay worn and faltering. Not a single cadre of any size could hold onto life for long. Not like this. Who will remember after the last pathetic spark of life goes out?

It is a shrill and screaming silence. Everything dies sometime. Fast or slow, but not like this. Will the dim shadow cast by what little of their great civilization still remains standing be around long enough for something, anything, to see it? It was once said there is always hope. What hope could possibly be here, in this? You live a short span in this place, and if truly fortunate, you die quickly. The ever dimming light grows weaker by the day. With every dull second it loses more and more ground. Soon, there will be no hoofprints left in the sand. What grim shadow reaches out now, how could things possibly be worse than this? They say you should never ask such questions.

Doing so invites pain and misery to come crashing down from on high. Does some invisible entity sanction this act? Perhaps it is just another aspect of that intangible force that grants ones mark, whatever it might be. Time still moves, albeit slowly. Still struggling? You should give up and in. Be crushed, and finally let it end. Equestria lays in heaps of little more than monumental ruins full of dust and ash. A world devoid of hope. Hope, dreams, and life itself. These things are and were always fleeting. At one time, some may even have attained such dreams for an all too brief moment, but the tears of the broken fall in all times and all places.

The great pony races dreams were an ever higher aspiration towards peace, happiness, and prosperity for all. These dreams lay shattered in the briefest instant, the result of simple misunderstanding to be mired in growing hatred. The past is still calling to their hearts even now in some twisted way. Where their world could be now if this did not happen is anyponies guess. Few dare to dream anymore. Look what it got them. The slightest light of hope dimming, still flickers in the darkness. One ember, one spark remaining is sometimes enough to rekindle that blazing fire. The rising hope of one may embolden others to step forward into the quiet night in search of that spark.

One little light, holding out against all the darkness the whole world can muster. Dying candles often burn brightest just before going out. A light strong enough to find a path ahead must be bright. Is there such a thing? Could a reprieve from the empty silence blanketing all things truly exist? How can anyone uplift a whole world torn entirely asunder? Life struggles just to keep some grip on existence in this heartless drudgery. Hope is a concept few still conceive of. What point is there of hoping in this place? Who cares? Violence is the usual response. Help each other? Who would be stupid enough to do such a thing? Working together for the common good is a nearly foreign concept here. Alien in the very thought.

The light stands right on the very edge of going out completely. It would be incredibly easy to finally abandon this miserable place to meet its end, but what's this? A few ponies actually trying to right things, can it be so? Why would they even try? It is impossible. It cannot be done. They should just give up like everypony, and everything else. After all, they stand no chance whatsoever, their time is already up. Come and gone. Why won't they give up? Time always passes. It never stops. No matter how powerful one may be, there is no holding it at bay. Each tormented moment since the end falling dead as the last, filled with pain. The suffering and torment of those lost to the ages ignored. It must be.

To listen to those voices from long ago can bring only despair and pained longing. Trying to make sense of a destroyed world is futile. Enforcing your will upon it is another matter entirely. The dust never truly settled. The faltering strength of the ponies is barely able to hold up any light within these dull and endless years. Those above, still know the sun and moon. Their lives are little better for it. They might as well be shrouded in darkness as well. Those below, are left to their own devices. The grand mission of the pegasi, once to protect. They serve only themselves now. A young filly just reaching adulthood has decided to accept her fate and throw herself wholeheartedly into her task.

Given by her father, a tarnished golden chalice to fill, taken up without choice. A task begun in sheer desperation. The waterworks come and gone, she now takes it upon herself to bring life where there is none. Traveler quickly found the longest road to tread is one with no friends. She may have gained one, perhaps another. After a brief delay and a quick acquaintance with true pain, she returns to her mission, her quest. In the wasted lands of their once great world lie many terrifying encounters waiting to spring upon the unwary. So far she and her lone companion have been just fortunate enough not to die or run across the worst of them. How long this sort of luck may last, who can know? Seeking a book writ down long in yesteryear may be nothing more than a pipe dream.

An impossible mad gamble for a light in her darkened world. Their hopes of finding this gloried object dashed once against the rocks already. They trudge along steadily now, the miles passing as they seek to catch up with a surprisingly fast-moving team far ahead of them. Their first shaky decisions now stand behind. In addition it seems there may be a somewhat unusual follower. Both of their armor suits look strangely unblemished and bright in this endless dullness. That blaze of golden-white armor was such a high-intensity white color it made him look extremely out of place in this morass of destruction. The once gleaming hidden gilded name tag spoke only to past failures.

For a time they'd ventured through the ruins of buildings and broken, wasting technology. Sitting in the vastness of a world so long fallen silent. Leaving the outskirts of the city had felt poignant to Traveler. Most was ruined and useless, few treasures waiting to be found. This was not to say there were none left buried to find. You might not want to find them though. Without the support of a large group It was just too dangerous remaining in one place for very long. A long yearning glance over the shoulder and they'd set off once again. What did she hope to see? There was nothing there. Just another quiet tomb where the fabled ponies of times past fell where they stood, trembling in fear.

Most, unknowing the horror to come down atop them. What must it have been like to hear that subtle rumbling as it closed in on all sides? A soft sound growing louder until the deafening cacophony spilled past, rending all in its path and leaving nothing behind for those unlucky enough to remain standing? What of those that survived? The sting of losing all they ever created must have spurred deep. An insult to all that lived. Some watched it happen. Her thoughts wandered over these things as their journey continued for some days. Down Range told her their world was once bright and beautiful to behold, filled with so many things that fired her imagination. His descriptions of how it once was were grand and too few.

She could get very little of it out of him despite her curiosity. It must have been wonderful. Yet, his words about it felt and sounded cautious, guarded. Like something was wrong even then. It perplexed and bothered her. Something was indeed wrong then of course, the state of the world now showed just how far that truly reached. The few times Traveler asked he nearly cringed before wearily granting some insight. She felt bad about it. It was just so interesting. It sounded so colorful and glorious back then. What could possibly have gone so wrong in a world filled with such wondrous things? Nothing looked so bright now.

All of it drained away by the harsh encompassing reality that was now the wastes and collapsing ruins. The roaring end of the war was heard and felt everywhere, and then..nothing except deafening silence. The world long ago gave up on anything resembling color. Down Range admitted the grand armor he wore was a self-indulgence he never expected to actually take into combat. Upon attaining his rank of General it effectively precluded ever returning to the front lines during the war. He'd been through enough by then anyway, and seen too many good ponies die in horrible ways. Including friends of his. The real reason he ordered the suit in secret was due to the war being over.

He assumed just like every other pony the end of the war was near. If he held any idea what the real end would result in, he would certainly have done things differently and saved as many as possible. Nearly a hundred fifty miles, and even more thanks to their other effort already lay behind them. The distance to their next objective measured almost four hundred more. Longer than her original trip to escape. It would be a long, slow, and wearying road. It already was. They'd wasted some time heading to another city before setting out proper. That was perhaps not the best decision Traveler made so far.

It was indeed a mistake, but the experience gained in doing so gave her a far better understanding of just how bad things out in the crumbling world might be. Knowledge she intended to put to good use. The gamble in going there did not pay off in what she could deem a tangible way, but it imparted a different sense of hope. There might still be some power of good out amongst the ruined vistas of the past. The silent rocks hide much, far too many secrets lost to time and memory. As much as Traveler hated to admit it, there was a certain air of freedom and adventure now that she was no longer all alone. Down Range was right though, the pain of loss did feel like it would never truly go away.

On more than one occasion she found herself entertaining the idea that dying alongside her parents would have been preferable. Why did she feel guilty? There was nothing she could have done to save either of them, and would certainly have died as well if she hadn't ran. It was a nagging sensation that refused to let go of her thoughts.

"No!" She jolted awake and panted heavily while looking around. The image of her parents lifeless bodies once more awakened her to find only the desolate wastes awaiting. They would never comfort her again. She knew this, and as another night passed, another awful mirage of her parents lying there in a heap.

Their group would move on again shortly. She slipped into the greatest gift her father could ever have given her, the armored stealth suit Moonlight. What was now known as day passed much too quietly, like it always did.

"Down Range, how is it these suits never seem to get very dirty?" Traveler questioned via the radio as they walked on. The strange fellow by the name of Tanner followed uncomfortably closely behind him despite being warned of the potential danger of doing such a thing. Traveler, at least, was more than happy enough to have him along. She said it was only fair to let him tag along if he wanted, considering she'd effectively done the same with Down Range.

"Simple enough. The outer shell is partially composed of something new they were calling untaintable or unstainable steel I believe. Something like that. I didn't really look into the details very deeply before.. Everything about them was state-of-the-art when they were built. My armor has a few special modifications I requested." Down Range sounded a bit forlorn. He did live through the end of the world after all. In his every word and action there felt as if some great heaviness weighed them down. That was easily forgivable. What pony would not be left shaken and sad at having lost everything and everyone they held dear? He'd lost far more than only those things.

The entire world as it was, torn from under him in what for him felt only to be a short amount of time. In all fairness, he was coping surprisingly well now. Traveler still worried over things she might say to him. Sadness was not what she wanted to bring to others. Her own sadness still stung terribly. Like a poison in her heart which would never cease hurting. A hurt she was still struggling to hold at bay and come to terms with. At least she didn't cry at the slightest thing anymore, feeling that it was at least better. Tanner listened to anything that was said openly between them as if hanging on every word for some reason. Their endless marching did not seem to bother him very much at all. Traveler was left in charge.

This was her mission, and her decisions were what they would follow. Despite his past, Down Range usually declined to take the lead. She wondered if it was out of simple respect or something else. There was such a long way to go. Could they even make it there and back? For now, they were following the sparse remnants of what at one time was a rail track to the west, once surrounded by a dense lush forest to the south, and a mountain to the north. The mountain was still a long way ahead, the track followed the bottom of it uncomfortably closely, within its shadow. If it could cast one. Had anypony ever climbed it, even before the world stopped? The forest long lay a dead and uninviting place.

The intervening years did little to make this better. It may be faster to head down south through the huge and unfriendly seeming place and turn west, but it would also mean coming near to the Haysead Swamps. Down Range remembered them as the Hayseed Swamps, just an immense bog of no particular note bordering Horseshoe Bay and far down the coast. Once, a draw for adventurous souls looking to get away from it all. Now, a place marked by the griffons as an unknown and potentially very unsafe area left unscouted since the war leveled much of the world. Many places were similar, but what little they could learn of the place from the few ponies encountered thus far was not encouraging.

Old half-remembered stories of terror and pain told by a frightened face or two here and there. Altogether it painted only a bleak picture of yet another danger to be avoided if possible. Traveler asked what a coast was, that drew a laugh from him. She liked hearing him laugh so much it didn't even matter it was at her questions. He did his best to explain. She then asked what the ocean was. Explaining all that took a while. They had nothing but time to spare as they roamed. Though she'd seen it back at the small firebase, she did not truly know what it was she was seeing. She had no prior idea as to the extent of it. It also sounded like it was much more interesting when it was lively.

The tainted water was so flat and still, dead. When they camped that night, Down Range approached her before she went to sleep as she was slipping out of Moonlight in that required awkward way. She looked up curiously at him.

"I want you to have this." He opened and levitated something strange looking out of his heavy kit. It looked curved and smooth, like a fan. It was very pretty. Both the inside and outer portion almost seemed to glint and capture the slightest light.

"What is it?" Her eyes widened at the sight of the pretty thing. She'd never seen anything like it before.

"It is a seashell. It once belonged to a living creature from the sea. Don't worry, it was empty long before I got it. For me it has been a good luck charm. They say if you hold one up to your ear just right you can hear the sounds of the ocean. Be careful though, they are very brittle." He was giving it to her? Surely she didn't deserve this gift.

"But, this is yours. I can't take it." She told him, but he insisted. Curiously she gently held it up to her ear to be surprised at the hissing and whooshing sounds it seemed to make.

"Oh!" She gasped as Down Range chuckled at her reaction.

Even just a little away from her ear it did not make any sound at all. How did that work? Tanner looked on curiously as well. He'd clearly never heard of such a thing either. She reached out to hold it up to one of his his ears as well.

"I don't hear any..oh!" They would over the next few days spend quite a bit of time listening to it when resting. A simple trick of how sound and air works, it seemed like something magical from a time none recalled.

"How long do you think before we catch up with those guys?" Traveler asked as they camped in a little hidden spot they'd come across. It was a good place to make a fire as it would be very difficult for anything to see it.

A previous fire was already set here. The group they were after probably found the same spot. It also proved they were probably close to catching up with them. After their failure to find an intact Farmer's Almanac in Baltimare they were not feeling too hopeful, but a strange experience there did keep these hopes up somewhat.

"We were delayed by our little side trip. From now on, I think we should trust the griffon intel implicitly. Unless we have very good reason to go off track again it is probably not a good idea. From what we know, Tasket's group is very fast and skilled. They must be moving at a pace almost matching our own. I'm impressed." Down Range certainly looked surprised.

It was nice to see him without that helmet on all the time. He sat there in his gleaming armor. He still kept his gilded nameplate obscured. Did it really matter so much? It was sheer happenstance she or Tanner recognized him from some ancient comics. Few if any other should even have a clue as to who he was.

"Okay, but who is Intel?" Traveler asked. This drew a snort and a smirk from both him and Tanner. After taking a moment to explain what that actually meant, he continued.

"I am kind of surprised to find this firepit here. Due to our little misadventure in the outskirts of Baltimare and their apparent speed, I expected we would be traveling parallel to them on the opposite tracks and meet up where they used to join. They ran alongside both faces of the mountain. Come to think of it, why would any of them be in such a hurry anyway, and why did they switch to this route? You told me they are going a very long way indeed. Why wear themselves down like this? They certainly do not have suits like ours. This worries me. There should have been no good reason for them to change plans." He frowned. Something did seem wrong about that.

All she knew is that they were going a tremendous distance, and anticipated them keeping to the shortest route. Instead, a couple wasteland ponies they'd encountered and convinced to talk with some gentle coaxing, and some of their fresh water, said they'd seen them and set out down this path. The ragged pair were taken aback that she insisted they take an extra bottle with them. Keeping up enough of a pace to still be ahead of where they were now was strange. They'd been going as flat out as they dared for a week, and only now did it seem they were catching up at all. Something about it seemed desperate or wrong. At least they appeared to finally be closing in on them.

If they did not catch up within another two weeks, they would run the risk of not having their assistance searching the next possible site that may hold a copy of the Almanac. Traveler still did not know what she would actually do if it were located. Should she even bother returning home? It felt like a different life and a lifetime ago even though it was really only a short while which passed.

"Down Range?" There was something she wanted to ask privately. He looked over to her curiously.

"What is it?" The timbre of his voice was nearly melodic as usual. She enjoyed hearing it.

There was something comforting in those saddened notes. She wished hard to hear it without the heaviness it carried. Tanner looked on as usual. He'd set down his own unwieldy pack. It looked to be stuffed to overflowing with who knows what. That thing must be heavy. She'd offered to haul it in her cart, but he declined, saying he would carry his own weight. It was probably just as well, the cart saw better days long ago. It would require some sort of repairs sooner or later. She was not certain they could even make them. It was holding up surprisingly well, but the condition was definitely deteriorating. They would all hate to lose the cart.

It was not only useful, but her only other tenuous connection to home aside from the powerful machine she'd inherited. A machine Down Range still insisted could be dangerous in some unspecified manner, though he seemed more relaxed around it by now. She could not bring herself to believe that. If Moonlight was really so dangerous, why wouldn't he tell her what could be so wrong with it? So far it proved extremely reliable and saved her life at least twice already. In some way just its presence nearby made her feel better, more secure in unfamiliar environs. In some way she found herself considering it a friend.

"I Know you said you think finding the book is a good idea. It's just... I..I don't know if I really want to go home. I saw my parents die there. I watched my dad get killed and I couldn't do anything." She huffed. It was clearly very hard for her to speak about this.

"Hey, take it easy. From what you told me you did do something, something very brave. You stayed alive, and you've kept trying like they would have wanted you to." He smiled at her reassuringly. Hearing this was very comforting. Her heart still fluttered sometimes when he looked at her. What was she thinking?

"Stop that." she whispered to herself.

"What was that?" He asked.

"Uh, nothing. Thanks. I suppose I really should go home after everything is said and done. I don't exactly have anywhere else to live anyway. Will you go with me?" Traveler didn't mean to, it just slipped out. She sighed and took her nightly ration of water. She'd tried to strike a strict balance with Down Range of consuming it at a pace that would last for the most possible time. It still would certainly not last the entire trip if the next location did not pan out.

They might be chasing nothing more than the notion of a shadow of a dream, but it could be worthwhile. If the book could be found in good condition, it would help at least partially fulfill the dying wish of her father. They were really only just setting out on this journey despite the distance covered already. He remained silent about that question. Maybe he didn't catch it? He went over towards Tanner.

"I will take first watch tonight. You know how we do things now, Tanner. You get the next. I still can't say I understand why you're willing to travel with us so far, but I'm not complaining about having another set of eyes. I do hope that rickety looking .44 of yours is at least functional. We will soon be walking beyond any territory the base griffons have any information about at all, aside from this just about useless map." He hovered the scrunched up map back into the armor storage container on the side. The kit resembled the shape of a saddle-pack more for aesthetics than usefulness. A familiar looking piece of an entirely alien looking thing.

"I don't like it. Things have been too quiet since we left Baltimare proper. I'm not complaining about having an easy time of it, but something about this strikes me as very odd. The group we should have met up with a week ago is moving at a tremendous pace for some reason, almost as if they are trying to catch somepony or get away from them, but we've seen no evidence of either. Very puzzling." Down Range frowned before refitting his helmet on his head. He had to put it on slowly to get it down correctly over his horn.

He'd explained that the heaviest power armor built during the war was intended for use by earth ponies only, and that they were almost not built at all due to bad blood between some factions that worked on creating the originals. When the finished prototype was finally revealed it was so impressive that a great deal more resources were poured into them. His suit was specially crafted just for him by his own secret order. It was special. He left that part out. His suit was indeed special, one of only two or perhaps three intended for unicorns to wear. Unicorns mostly tried to avoid up close brawls and fighting. As the war progressed that proved a reliable and outright necessary tactic. He glanced towards Tanner.

He seemed and acted friendly enough. Definitely no threat to either of them, but remained strangely silent so far about why he'd followed. Their first meeting was quite a shock to Traveler, and proved something amiss with their suits which both missed picking him up for some reason. It was not a good feeling knowing something may be wrong with both of them. Otherwise they were as solid as always. Once was a fluke, twice certainly gave the feeling there was a potentially serious problem. Both were as advanced as anything produced during the war. Each did have some specific flaws inherent to their designs, but nothing that felt like it might inadvertently endanger either of their lives.

It was puzzling how they did not detect him. Ever since he'd shown up as one of the friendly blue indicators. They'd kept careful watch since, but it remained the entire time. Perhaps it was just some unexplainable anomaly. This made several unexpected things encountered on their journey so far. The first was an earthquake that almost wound up being the death of Traveler. It was a strange occurrence. Almost unheard of. That was odd in itself. The second was something they simply could not explain. Down Range didn't think Tanner was dangerous, but his presence was a little unusual. It was about time to get a clear answer from this fellow.

He did know Tanner was interested in him from the start for whatever reason. The little group took to rotating watches each night. All got an equal amount of time to rest. The difference each night helped ensure none of this unlikely trio would become too accustomed to a routine or complacent about the fact they were in potentially hazardous territory. Nothing life threatening was encountered since before the stopover in the ancient city. It proved to be a a near-total bust and little was gained for their efforts. Since then they'd simply been endlessly trudging forward. Traveler still found this so much more pleasant than when she was all alone and desperately seeking help.

By some instance of sheer luck she'd found herself setting out again with a pony whose age was difficult to comprehend. Tanner offered little explanation why he'd come so far after them. He did seem to have quite an interest in a pony from the distant past. A past so long out of memory little of it was recalled except a horrible war that leveled nearly everything at its end. Such an ending could hardly be forgotten, leaving the world so still as it did. So lifeless. What constituted life now might hardly be called such. It was mere existence with nothing to look forward to, except perhaps a bad end somewhere out in the dead of the wastes amidst deathly silence.

Nothing could be claimed to be solid or enduring. Down Range barely spoke of the past. When he did it was usually of some memory or some fact they were not aware of, it was never really happy. Traveler truly wanted him to be happy, as impossible a thing as that seemed. If any pony deserved happiness it must be him, she thought. He'd lost so much more she could barely conceive of what it meant. His family, his friends, his world. A bright and thriving world which reached heights she would never know and could only distantly dream of. Everything he ever knew from a world filled with happiness and light, until it took such a sudden and drastic turn for the worse there was no stopping it.

She was certainly interested in seeing more of a city than the brief glimpses she'd got, and wanted to return to one at least once with him when time was not so pressing a matter. At least with companions, it didn't feel as lonely out here. The feeling never really left. There was little life or movement in the world. When there was it was more often dangerous than not. They were gaining some ground on the other group. It could still be as many as five days before catching up. It would be close if they really wanted their help. If failing to join up where the ancient rail connection once met there would be no choice but to go it alone and hope they didn't run into anything too difficult to deal with without their support.

"Alright Tanner, You've been with us ever since we left the city and still haven't told us why you really want to come along." Magnificent insisted Tanner also call him Down Range. Perhaps the past simply hurt too much still, or maybe it was something else. He'd endured a sort of pain no pony, or indeed anything that has feelings for another should ever have had to. Losing a whole world must hurt so unbearably badly.

"We may be going a very long distance. Hundreds and hundreds, even more miles perhaps. From what little the griffons could tell us we might be in for a very rough ride along the way. Before you go to sleep, I want you to understand that first and foremost I am here to protect her, and if it comes down to it I expect you to do the same with your life if you insist on following." He looked over to Traveler and back to Tanner. In the dim firelight he didn't seem to notice her eyes were not really closed yet as she slightly coyly looked away, or her slight blush either.

"It's nothing personal, but if you get in trouble you may find yourself on your own out here. Do you understand?" It was clear he was not trying to sound mean, only truthful.

"I understand. I can take care of myself in a jam. Anypony that can't doesn't tend to live too long, in case you hadn't noticed." Was he being snarky? It was difficult to tell. He seemed like a strangely happy and upbeat sort, most of the time. How he stayed this way was hard to understand. He did obviously harbor some deep respect towards Down Range for some still undisclosed reason.

"Okay, Tanner. Now that we've got that out of the way. If we are going to be together for possibly such a very long time, may I suggest we get to know each other a little better? We can both start by being brutally honest with each other about things. So why, are, you insisting on tagging along with us?" He stood there in his brilliant gleaming armor awaiting this new companions response. Tanner sort of shuffled around nervously a little before opening a flap on one side of his strange makeshift pack. There were many such pockets on it. How could he possibly remember what was in each? Yet he always seemed to pull out whatever it was he was after with unerring accuracy. It was a bit of a marvel.

From within the pocket he produced one of the ancient comics he'd scraped together. It must have taken him years to find just a few intact. The cover of this one displayed a sketched likeness of Magnificent, shouldering some terribly heavy weapon, looking stoic as he stared down some unseen horror lurking just out of frame. It was clearly drawn by a truly talented, if demented pony artist of old. The title read 'This weeks exciting adventure: The Left Hoof of Darkness.' On the very bottom left at an angle was a little strip saying 'Free Maregan oil sample. Tips on keeping your mane looking its best while adventuring in back!'

"What the?.." Down Range went to ask as Tanner flipped to a specific page within. He held up a page within for him to see, containing some dialogue near the end of whatever grand adventure happened inside of the worn pages.

"Magnificent, the day is won thanks to you!" A bunch of ponies of various builds and colors were all standing about cheering, smiling and altogether looking far too happy. Almost disturbingly so. Magnificent was holding up a hoof for them to quiet down.

"Neigh, good ponies. I could never have done it alone. Without my friends I would have stood no chance against that bizarre menace to decency. My dear friends are what truly made the difference here. Remember kids, true friendship is the real magic." Down Range stared at it for a long moment, unmoving. Tanner looked down tensely before closing the comic and slipping it back into its pocket.

"Tanner. I'm not him, that version of me is just something that was made up to cater to my own ego..I never even saw those anyway...I'm not him.." His voice seemed to waver a little bit, but it was hard to tell through the suit amp.

"I know, and yet you are. Whether you believe it or not, the way you speak and carry yourself is uncanny. They really got you right. The you in these is a hero to me, and the reason I'm still alive." Tanner spoke quietly. Down Range tilted his head a little to one side curiously. What was Tanner getting at? What did this have to do with wanting to come along? If anything, some of the panels in the comic made it look like being anywhere near him was an extremely dangerous proposition. Tanner seemed to be, crying? Crying a lot as he looked up.

"I want to come with you because... because.." He seemed to be stammering a little. Was he okay?

"My entire family is dead. First my brother, then mom and dad. At least they taught me to read before... They all died a really long time ago, and I never had any friends. No one does, not really. Not here, not now. When they died I was left all alone with nothing. Nothing..all by myself. No one was around to help. No one ever helps anyway. I was dying, thirsty and starving when I found this. I read it because I was just a colt, and I was going to die anyway." His tears were streaming heavily as he went on. Traveler was listening to all this with her eyes closed, but neither of them would notice right now. Down Range was completely silent.

"On an earlier page you speak to those around you to, tell them go on trying no matter what is in front. No matter how much it hurts. That just giving up is pointless. Try, and keep trying no matter what you face. Pain has no meaning if you just quit over some hardship." Tanner gulped before going on. This was very obviously cathartic for him.

"It did hurt so much, but I took that advice and kept going. The very next morning I finally found some food and water. You saved my life. I want to go with you because I owe it to you. I also..want to know what it's like to have friends. Will you have me?" He sobbed a bit before quieting down. It was a quiet and touching moment as he sniffled.

"Tanner, you don't owe me a thing. I didn't save you. You saved yourself, and obviously learned how to stay alive since. You're a strong fellow. You are welcome to tag along if you want, but you should be careful who you choose as heroes..my friends tend to die." With that the pony once known as Magnificent slowly turned and began his patrol around the area.

"I don't care. You are something new here. Maybe it will turn out to be something big, maybe it won't. You're still my hero." Tanner whispered to himself, wiping his eyes. As was becoming usual the night seemed quiet and uneventful. For a change, Tanner fell asleep quickly. Traveler did not know what to think of this. He'd lost his family as well?

That meant all three of them knew a similar pain. She'd noticed during the brief time they'd been together that Tanner did not seem to get to sleep very easily. Now, it made sense. Why did he say nothing until now? Was it just hard for him to think of as well? Should she say something about it, now that she knew? Tanner did not yet know she'd lost her family in such a gruesome way. She hadn't felt like talking about it. What happened to his? For the moment she dare not ask. He was, perhaps, a kindred spirit who suffered in much the same way she was now. Worse, he'd lost a brother in addition. Was everyone still clinging to life in this world destined only to suffering and misery? Her thoughts were troubled this night.

Eventually, she drifted off to an uneasy sleep. Some hours later it was with great shock she was awoken to find Down Range tapping her gently with an armored hoof. Her eyes popped open.

"Traveler, shh. Quickly, slip into your armor and prepare for battle." His tone was dire. What!? He furtively looked around. Something was very wrong.

"Hurry now. Somehow we have been surrounded. Just remain calm and get ready." He turned and stood guard as she she got into her suit. As the dials and gauges popped into her vision they confirmed he was correct.

No less than a dozen threat signatures entirely ringing them. What was happening here? This could be bad. Now feeling a little more protected she asked if he knew what they were.

"I do not know. They seemed to come out of nowhere. Might be why Tasket's group is moving so fast. Spread out a little and stand back to back so we can see in all directions." He'd already informed Tanner who was facing the other way with his .44 off safety. Something felt really wrong here. What were they? Some strange fear felt like it was creeping over her. Traveler panted and nervously looked side to side.

"Down Range, I..I don't like this." She was almost trembling as Tanner said almost exactly the same thing at the same time, then placed the bit-catch firmly in his muzzle, ready to fire. The presence of the heavily armed and armored pony was the only thing preventing Traveler from running off wildly.

"Traveler, listen to me. Whatever they might be, we are carrying tremendous firepower. I know you're scared, and that's perfectly fine. Do not let it overwhelm you. Think straight, and act. We are facing a problem. What do you want to do?" Hearing his voice was very reassuring. Think and act. Alright. Think, think.

Traveler engaged the suit speaker amp at a high level.

"Identify yourselves or we will fire." She spoke as calmly and deeply as she could. A response was awaited with baited breath. Nothing was forthcoming. The threat indicators continued to slowly circle at a distance. Down Range spoke once more.

"Looks like it's no good, Traveler. If any of them step within firing distance fire a single warning shot first. We don't want to engage in a fight if we don't have to. Pointless battles are nothing but a waste of ammo and effort." His words sounded reasonable.

If she'd been facing something like this alone she would likely have run off already only to get killed. Was she really such a scared filly? So much for being grown up. This was embarrassing feeling and not a good thought. What could they be? Why were they doing this? More importantly, this was the third time his armor did not pick something up on approach. Could there be a problem with their suits? Better worry about that later. Time crawled. Whatever it was certainly seemed threatening. Having given warning they still did not respond. The passing minutes dragged on interminably. What did they want? How long was it? Only five minutes passed so far.

The dim and dull light of what she knew as dawn was still two hours off. Ten minutes. Twenty. What were they waiting for? This was frightening beyond compare. Though her suits night vision provided a fair view, it was still not that great at this distance. Some images were fuzzy or grainy and difficult to identify in the green tinge it gave to everything. Suddenly a shot rang out making her jump. It was Tanner firing past something which stepped closer. One warning shot. At least he'd listened. Was he shaking? The figure was nearly impossible to make out and immediately darted back. It looked twisted. Like some distorted nightmarish thing just outside their field of view. Don't panic. Don't run.

Traveler kept telling herself she was safe here with her two companions. It was barely enough. that creeping fear taking hold of her heart refused to let up or let go. Half an hour. An hour. Why won't they go away? Go away! She was trembling heavily now too. Occasionally they found themselves having to fire off another warning shot. Every time her nerves were rattled so horribly. Was she honestly so scared? Surely she was braver than this. This seemed unnatural. Muttering to herself, she was just hanging on against this incredible fear. She took an unsteady step out of nervousness, prompting Down Range to speak in that soothing voice of his.

"Do not run." His tone was measured and so calm. How could he or Tanner stand this? How did he know she was so close to running? By now she was practically shaking visibly. By this time though, Tanner was obviously shivering as well. What was going on?

"Both of you, you must listen closely. They are using some kind of spell, I am certain. I couldn't tell at first, but I can sense it now. This is a trick. Neither of you are so easily scared as this. I do not know a counterspell to whatever it is. We just have to endure it for the moment. Hang on and we will be fine, I promise. They must be trying to separate us, do not let them." He positioned himself a little differently. Down Range chambered something in one of his launchers.

This horrible increasing fear was some kind of trick? What a horrible thing to do to somepony. It felt so real.

"Tanner, I am going to fire a light flare into their midst. It is magically enhanced and will be terribly bright. I hope to blind them. Shield your eyes." He did as he was told and held a hoof up to his face, closing his eyes tightly. The launcher crackled as it launched the magnified flare. As it landed in the middle of the closest threats a terrific glare lit up the area. It was the brightest, shiniest thing Traveler could ever have imagined seeing. The stealth suits automatic systems instantly darkened the visor to protect her eyes. Even with the suit responding that way it almost hurt.

In the distance the shadowy figures almost seemed to be screaming. It appeared to her like they were simply melting out of view. What in the world? The other figures continued to circle like nothing happened. The flare slowly died down. Another half hour, and another. This was wearing on all three of them. What was driving these things? Did they want something? It was maddening. Since the magic flare landed the figures hadn't taken a single step closer. Ever circling. Finally, the sky began the slight transition towards what might be called daytime. As it did, the figures simply retreated into nothingness. The threat indicators faded and they all gave a sigh of relief. Two full hours passed during this odd encounter.

The incredibly and almost debilitating fear faded like it was never there to begin with. Traveler was glad they couldn't see her face right now. Tears forced their way out despite herself. Tanner was beginning to tremble less.

"What were they!? I feel like I've been through the worst fight of my life and we never even got into it. What happened? I can hardly breathe I'm shaking so much." He looked totally whipped. Did it take as much for him to hold his ground as it did her? When she finally felt better she slipped out of Moonlight and much to the surprise of Tanner gave him a warm hug. He eventually stopped shivering as she held him close.

"I..thanks." Was all he said in response. She let go and turned to Down Range. He was the only reason they managed not to do something stupid. If he hadn't been with them, things would have turned out much differently.

"Thank you so much. You saved us. I couldn't..I would have ran. I'm sorry..I would have ran away." She was stammering as he took off his helmet and looked at her intensely. It was only obvious now that he was just as worn from the experience. It was not what she was expecting to see. He was in the same condition?

"Relax. Relax. You both did just fine. I suggest we just rest a bit and move on. We should try to put as much distance between us and here as possible." That lovely voice of his. It might just be her imagination, but was he trembling too? It was difficult to tell. Was he saying that to himself as well? He always seemed so strong to her. To see even him spooked was unnerving in the worst possible way. She might just be imagining things though. He'd already been through so much, it seemed impossible he could be easily frightened. After a much-needed rest they set off once more on their long journey. Was this sort of thing a normal happening around here? The whole experience felt entirely unnatural, almost ghostly.

What could those things have been? None of them were caught in sight of the light. Hopefully they would not run across them again.

"Say guys, was it just me or did those things seem to avoid your suit lamp, and like..melt when you fired that flare off?" She asked. To Traveler it did look like they simply evaporated into thin air when the light struck them, leaving some hideous momentary fragmented image in the wake of the light. An entirely unwanted sort of sight.

"It did look that way to me, but I could hardly see." Tanner took to walking in between them.

The strange things clearly left him nervous and feeling vulnerable. She felt pretty bad for him. He'd come with them hoping for a positive experience and one of the first things that happened could easily have resulted in his death. He looked very forlorn. Down Range walked slowly behind, deciding to say something.

"Tanner, wait.. Don't come with us just because you feel like you owe it to me. Come with us because you want to try and make the world a better place for yourself and everypony else. If you truly feel that in your heart, then, and only then should you continue on with us. Think hard about it. I refuse to get another pony killed without a good reason." He said in a friendly way and gave Tanner his space.

For a while they all continued their weary trudging in silence. What happened was so unpleasant. Tanner was obviously conflicted about this idea now. Some miles passed in this fashion before he finally said something once more. He'd been thinking about it in silence for hours. Once or twice it seemed he might simply turn and leave. This must be extremely difficult for him. Looking between them he stopped and they did the same.

"Look, I have only been truly scared once in my whole life. When I was first left alone with nopony else at all. The first time I was ever truly alone. When there was no one else I got so scared. That comic I showed you, those words that saved me. I read those words every day for a month, and very often after. It was all I had. Yes, I feel like I owe you for what little good feeling I've ever felt in life, but you're right. I have made my decision. I do want to come with you, for the right reasons. Whatever it may bring. If we can do something, anything to make this world better, happier, I will do it. Even if it costs my life." He sounded and looked better, more confident. He was almost in tears again.

"I'll hold you to that, friend. We both will." Down Range assured. Tanner smiled at being called their friend. Traveler knew too well what it was like having never really had any herself. She decided that sooner or later she would tell him all about herself and what she'd gone through. Maybe knowing she understood his pain would be a good idea. She felt pretty bad he'd endured such a harsh life all by himself even though her own was pained. Were these two really her friends? It was difficult to believe she really did have some now, after being alone so long. Being tired out from the previous night meant their pace wavered over the duration of this day.

They did seem to be having a more relaxed time speaking to each other about things. Traveler was still afraid to say the wrong thing, or perhaps hurt either of their feelings inadvertently. Having really just gotten to know both of them she did not want to drive either of them away, still holding so little experience dealing with others. It was not as rattling as it was at first. It still bugged her. These two strong stallions were potentially putting themselves in harms way, just for her and what might be nothing more than a daring gamble for something better. It was a bit much to accept. Tanner may be doing it more for other reasons, but now he'd made the promise. It was flattering and a bit disconcerting.

She couldn't quite figure out her own feelings towards Mag..Down Range. She almost forgot sometimes he did not want to be named such in front of others, at least for the moment. It was a bit of an odd thing to want. Why did he care so much about that? She found him so handsome and alluring, but it might just be because he was her first companion. Somepony she latched onto because he was there and willing to go with her. In truth she'd only known either of them a very short time. How they would react in different situations was not something she could yet truly gauge. What if neither turned out to be who she thought they were?

Sighing to herself she just figured on being cautious until there was a little more certainty. Traveler didn't think either of them was lying or anything like that. She just knew so little and the lack of experience was not helping. It was a truly frightening and disturbing thought to imagine winding up on her own again. Would her father have trusted either of these two? What if one or both of them died? What if she found herself with no one again? What if.. she shook her head vigorously. Better not to think about things like that. The familiar positional pings of her two companions upon her display was becoming a comforting sight to her. They were always there.

It felt good knowing they were always right behind, ready to back her up. This trip into the unknown could be turning out to have serious consequences for all of them. She knew she had to accept this was a fact, it was difficult. Any of them, including herself could very well die out here and none would really care to know what happened to those three mysterious ponies that passed by one time. Caring for yourself first was just the order of the day. Was how the world found itself now really any particular ponies fault? Traveler found herself wanting to ask Down Range so many more questions than she already did, but continually held it back. It was rather frustrating.

She wanted to ask about so many things, but he just always seemed so sad about almost anything from his time. Maybe she could talk to him about that instead? Perhaps ask if there was anything she could do to truly ease his suffering. This last experience left her feeling more frightened than ever before. Even facing off against that monster some time ago was nothing like that was. It was a fake fear forced upon them, but it engendered in her an understanding of how much fear could drive her own actions. She didn't like how weak it made her feel or know what to do about that feeling inside. Another bitter experience to temper her decisions. Did they actually kill some of those things back there? It was difficult to know. It was too dark, and then too bright. When the sky lightened up the things all seemed to simply be gone.

They'd just danced around them the entire time. What did they want? Would they be back? Was holding them at bay really the only thing they could have done? This was not a thing to like either. Something far ahead glinted dully. What could it be? The terrain in the area was slightly hilly, and in places they might be following the old tracks or not. There were quite a few dead trees blocking sight ahead. The mountain to the north loomed like some distant sleeping giant of yore as they passed beneath its nearly nonexistent shadow. Did that also look more beautiful and majestic in times past? Would it ever again? She announced to her companions about the soft gleam off in the distance.

They could not make it out from this far away.

"I don't know about you two, but I don't feel like any more surprises right now. Should we try to avoid it and head south some?" Tanner looked less nervous than earlier. More confident than before, but that would be easy to do considering what happened.

"I wouldn't, and I know this might be a risk, but going around would be a real pain. Just look how thick the trees are surrounding us here. We would be slogging through them for hours just to make a little headway. Let me take the lead. You two stay well behind me, just in case." He sounded so commanding and confident. Traveler supposed that made sense.

Down Range did know this area better than them so it made sense for him to go ahead when things looked questionable like this. As quietly as possible they approached the slight glinting. From afar it was impossible to identify. As they got closer the armor display tagged four living creatures. One listed as hostile. How did it know this stuff anyway? They could not really go around them anyway. Nearing, they kept themselves hidden from view as much as could be done. They could just make out a large and strangely gaunt pony. His coat was a multitude of grey as dull as could be imagined.

Attached to him were eight heavy chains as he walked forth, dragging a griffon and two ponies in small wheeled cages, almost too small for their captives. Weapons were strapped to the tops out of their reach. Also being dragged along was a strangely tall and large rotting looking crate on weird looking wheels with a little slot at eye level in back. There were many other smaller, thinner chains trailing from him as well, attached to other smaller wheeled boxlike things. Could that be the group they were trying to find? Why would they be prisoners? If this was them, then who was it that got spotted going along the other tracks matching the same descriptions?

"Down Range, is that?..." Traveler went to ask but he held up a hoof.

"Yes, I know. They match the description. We have to get them out of there. I know you two might not be ready for another fight yet, but we can't lose them. Alright?" He looked at her for a moment. She knew what his expression must be under there, concern.

"I'm..I'm okay, really. Let's just do what we need to do. They need our help. We try to do everything peacefully first, right? Tanner?" She took a deep breath. He and Tanner nodded in unison as she looked between them.

They ditched the cart and Tanner's pack well out of sight for the moment. Moonlight marked their location. How did it know to do this stuff? They didn't even have to tell it to do so.

"Alright, here's the plan. Traveler, you and Tanner take position off to the sides. Tanner, up that slope. You, down over that way. Try to stay out of sight while I see if I can find out what's happening here and get them free. If things go really wrong, give me covering fire so I can take them out. Do not risk your lives, and don't fire towards the prisoners whatever you do. We need allies, not enemies. Go, quickly now." Down Range walked straight on along what was presumably a part of the old tracks.

They were either not visible, buried or totally destroyed here. He would certainly be seen by anypony ahead quite rapidly if they so much as looked back. Traveler and Tanner quickly moved themselves where they'd been told. They both quickly snuck off to the positions they'd been given. Nothing lately felt quite right to Traveler. Neither did this. Was it just her nerves or something more? She did still have trouble admitting to herself she was truly scared out here. It was not an easy thing to come to grips with. Her introduction to the wider world of the wastes beyond the old farm was a hasty and harsh one. Perhaps more harsh than some. Down Range trotted confidently forward towards the strange pony ahead.

He must be so very strong to pull so much along behind him. Was that really the group they were looking for being held prisoner, what for, and where could he be taking them? After giving them a moment to get into place Down Range called out.

"Pony ahead, please halt. I wish to speak with you." He stopped where he was at, definitely within his firing distance. The large pony stopped walking as his ears pricked up and swiveled as if considering this. It reached a hoof up towards the chains connecting it to the trailing wheeled cages then put its hoof back down with hard thump.

Did she actually hear that at this distance? That couldn't be, could it? A mare in one of the cages started yelling. "Help us! He's a monster!" A monster? What was she yelling? At this instant a terrible deep voice sounded off but it was strangely high in pitch at the same time. It made Traveler feel queasy just to hear it dully in the distance.

"Silence. I thought that Repulse secured that passage already. How did you get past the Fear Mongers!? AIEeeeE." It screeched horribly. It almost hurt. What could this be? Repulse? Passage? Fear Mongers? Was that what those things were earlier? This was already not going as hoped.

The strange pony stopped and then continued ranting as if nothing unusual just happened.

"No matter. Repulse shall end it all for you. Give them peace, Pommel Horse! Destroy this pathetic pawn and meet me at the rendezvous point." After saying this the gaunt pony began walking forward once more at a slow pace. From within the odd wheeled crate through the slot could be made out strange flickering blue bars in the shape of eyes. What did he say, Pawn? Repulse? Peace? Pommel Horse? What now? A booming response came from within. It sounded vaguely similar to her suits strange mechanical voice, but the similarities ended there. Her blood ran cold upon hearing its echoing tones.

The volume was so loud she could easily hear it from where she stood.

"ORDERS RECEIVED. OPERATION: CLEAR AREA. ELIMINATE ENEMY COMBATANT." Oh no. This was bad. She could just feel it. It was so deep and loud. A slow rhythmic rumble could be heard rising. What could it be? The large crate door fell open to reveal a large hulking metallic thing in a shape vaguely resembling a pony. It was twice as large as any of them. The bottom did not have legs but wide solid metal skirts all the way down to the ground as it rolled forward out of the ironclad box. A thick rust-covered heavy plate in front looked substantially strong.

Strange treads could be made out rolling just beneath. On one side was a large round protuberance along with a smaller one her suit systems were jumping between identifying. On the other was at least three guns of varying caliber in a stacked arrangement from the bottom, largest to smallest. Moonlight issued an urgent tactical warning advising against engaging this target. Down Range was already backing away and firing occasional shots. This was not what they expected to deal with at all. What should she do? This unexpected things eyes consisted of three shorter and longer bars which swiveled and turned independently of each other in odd offset counter-rotating circles.

The blue glowing color would almost be pretty if it hadn't just been ordered to kill her friend. It raised and lowered its head which then quickly swung towards Down Range as it turned. She'd been told about robots, but this thing was huge. What was it doing here? How could he be in control of it? Down Range said the battle robots being fielded during the war were incredibly dangerous.

"PRIORITY: HEAVY ARMOR DETECTED. ENGAGING." It bellowed. This cannot be happening. As he was backing away Down Range let off a full burst from his automatic which did little but bounce off. The machine seemed to be glimmering.

What could that be? A strange glow was slowly forming inside the smaller ring on the odd heavy robot which coalesced and shot outward in a tight sweeping beam from left to right which he bent forward just in time to duck. It sparked off the back of his armor. Some kind of beam weapon, but still not identified by her suit. As it fired her suit tagged it as a Focused Maser Emitter. A what? The strange pony was already getting farther away with the group yelling for help. There was nothing they could do about that right now. Tanner and Traveler opened up on the thing at the same time. Their rounds would do little but distract it, but it was better than nothing.

It rapidly panned its head from side to side at them for a few seconds but immediately disregarded them and continued to fire at the pony it probably deemed to be the most threatening. Down Range sidestepped just as the seemingly crazed thing fired a large burst of dangerous explosive rounds to land behind a small pile of rock. It was nothing very much and would do little to deter this thing. He could not retreat and hope to get away. This thing had to be destroyed before it tore him to pieces. He radioed Traveler.

"Get back so I can use my launchers. Run, hurry!" He ordered. She motioned Tanner and they immediately withdrew.

The vile machine was pressing forward. Action must be taken now. Having only nine spell compaction casings left, Down Range did not want to risk using them too soon into their journey. Fortunately he did have numerous E.M.P. rounds. They could not inflict physical damage on their own, but might slow it down. When he thought her far enough away not to affect Moonlight he chambered a round and fired. A perfect hit to the central plate as the blast pulsed outward. The robot fritzed and turned about a little exposing one of its slightly less armored sides. Perfect time to fire an armor piercing round. He fired and the bullet connected, or so he thought. Something was wrong. It did not do any damage at all. How? It hit.

It must have. The robot was already recovering from the magnetic blast and reoriented itself towards him. There should be a gaping hole in its side. What happened? There was that soft glimmer around the machine again. He quickly stood and tried again. The E.M.P. worked as before, and again the piercing round hit it with no visible result. What was going on? From a distance Traveler could just make out what was happening. She quickly called him and told what she was seeing. The bullets were not even contacting with the robot but deflecting away before even hitting it for some reason.

"It has a kinetic deflection shield!?" Was his response. A what? She'd never heard the word before.

"Anything moving too fast towards it will just bounce away or explode before hitting it." He anticipated her question. How did he know what that was? This was crazy. It is too powerful. What could they possibly do now? Throw rocks at it? There must be some way of stopping this thing. There was no choice. Down Range stood up and aimed the spell compaction launcher straight at it. What was he doing? He was too close. No no no. He'd told her all about his weapons as they'd walked amongst the cracked buildings and ever more worn technology strewn about Baltimare. At one point afterward he'd gone exploring through the ruins on his own for a little while. He did not tell them why.

Over the rattle of heavy bullets ricocheting off his armor was just heard:

"Goodbye." Did he really say that? No! A terrific blue glow was forming in the large ring on the side of this vile robot. As it appeared, her suit finally identified it as a particle cannon. What was a particle cannon? That sounded bad. Down Range fired a spell compaction round of some sort that seemed to have what looked like lightning trailing behind it. Just as he fired the large blue orb launched forward from within the weird steel ring. As it was lobbed towards him they connected midway between.

A tremendous clash of energies burst outwards in every direction like streamers of lightning and engulfed them both. Tanner reached her position just as it happened. Nothing could be seen except smoke and dirt. A grinding noise brought their attention back to where the robot was. It was smoking and sparking in places, but it still clanked and ground as it moved about. Where was he? He seemed to be gone. He wasn't vaporized was he? The terrible and dangerous machine was still speaking.

"TARGET: DESTROYED. CRITICAL DAMAGE TO PRIMARY ACTUATORS. SECONDARY WEAPONS DISABLED. BATTLE PARAMETERS WITHIN TOLERANCE. CONTINUE SWEEP. SECONDARY TARGETS IN IMMEDIATE VICINITY." Target destroyed? It's impossible.

"Magnificent, no!" Traveler yelled as she went to run down. Tanner blocked her way.

"Stop. We have to get away from here right now." He said direly. She tried to go past him, but despite the suit he remained directly in her way.

"He's not dead. He's not!" She was panicking. Tanner dug in and pushed back against her suit with both hooves.

"He's not!" Traveler was crying yet again.

"Alright! I believe you, but we have to go, NOW!" He looked straight into her visor as he spoke. That was enough to snap her out of it. The damaged robot might still be a serious threat and not something she could likely deal with on her own. Any second now it could be coming for them. She did not have any experience dealing with real enemies, let alone some huge demented robot. Right now it did not have their current location fixed. It may be their only chance to escape.

They fled in an opposite direction through and behind dead stands of ancient trees. Fifteen minutes later they stopped running and after a few tense moments deemed it was not following them further. It must have determined the area to be clear and turned around to do whatever it would do. Traveler sat there in her armor, quivering and crying. Horror. So much.

"We left him! We just left him..He can't be gone. He can't." She was practically mewling and sobbing. Tanner was looking down at the ground. Both were incredibly distraught over this. It was horrible and impossible. Her first friend, dead? Gone already? It hurt so much. She barely just met him. It has to be another bad dream.

She might even have...It must be another bad dream. It has to be. Please, wake up. Tanner was walking in circles in the little grove they'd found themselves in amidst the old decayed logs and somehow still standing trees. Most were long dead. Mostly empty, lifeless things to echo their hearts. As he marched around Tanner suddenly cried out, knocking Traveler out of her misery.

"What. What is it?" She asked and slowly wandered over to where he stopped moving. She gasped audibly. There were three little pony skeletons in ancient tattered decaying clothes laying about.

These poor ponies must have been traveling when the war ended long ago. They looked almost jovial. One wore a broad-br